Tet @ the Coffee Shop by Tini Ngatini

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Viet Nam has changed my relationship with coffee shops. They used to be a space where I worked and entertained my friends. Then, recently, they became a sort of anthropological space where I encountered a religious event which brought me to another level of appreciation and respect for local culture.

That local culture is called Tet. The Coffee shop where I encountered is called ABC.

The ABC coffee shop in Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a fusion of Asian and Western atmosphere. It has some Western characteristics like those found in Starbucks and some that might only be found in Viet Nam. By the former I mean comfy-soft seats, satisfying internet connection, people sitting by themselves with eyes fixated on a laptop or book with earphones on, casual outfits of course. Meanwhile, the latter characteristics are that the majority customers [mostly female] are wearing nice clothes, nice shoes and makeup on. Also, 90% of the Vietnamese customers are in a group with friends or family. The activity they engage in the coffee shop itself ranges from chatting, playing board games, holding a meeting, chilling with their lovers, napping, or eating sunflower seeds, or even just playing with their phones and smoking.

Such contrasting coffee shop features exist side by side at the ABC coffee shop. From my usual seat in the corner I can see a few European-looking customers in casual outfits. They sit quietly by themselves with eyes glued on their laptop or book and earphones on. And on the left side, just a few steps away, there are groups of three to six Vietnamese customers in lovely outfits gathered around a rather large table, lavishly chatting and laughing, or watching something on YouTube without earphones attached. You are most likely familiar with the kind of scene on the right. But, the one on left could elicit a glance or two out of curiosity. Or, it could be out of slight irritation that makes the glance more a “can you please tone it down” gesture. But, if you have been living in Viet Nam long enough, you might just be okay with it.

At lunchtimes, the whole of Viet Nam goes quiet. Between 12 and 2 pm, it’s nap time for the Vietnamese in general. Vietnamese customers who come during these hours are often by themselves, popping in to take a rest on the comfy sofa areas; or, if they don’t fancy a nap, they take a moment to rest, munching on sunflower seeds, eating food they brought or ordered from outside.

Such are the common views to be found at the ABC Coffee.  These scenes have been on my mind a lot recently, and have made me see coffee shops in a completely different light. Indeed, it all changed on the second day of Tet when, coincidently, I was at the ABC. That day not only upgraded my relationship with cafes to another level; it also helped me see the beauty inherent in the local tradition called Tet.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Da, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival.  It is usually celebrated either in January or February, depending on when the first day of New Year in Lunar Calendar arrives. During Tet, all businesses are closed for seven to ten days, which makes it near impossible to hunt down open restaurants and coffee shops. My landlord even advised me to ‘stock up’’ on supplies before the festival began, such is the extremity of the situation!  Here in Ha Noi, People get busy preparing for Tet about a week before the actual holiday. At this time, found ubiquitously across the city are ‘new year gates’. These are banners exclaiming  the new year greeting “Chuc mung Nam Moi,” reminding locals and visitors alike that Tet is just around the corner.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Inside the cities, pavements are transformed into temporary marketplaces, selling flowers and plants associated with Tet celebration such as Cherry Blossom, Apricots, and oranges.  Shopping malls are flooded with people hunting for new clothes to be worn on the new year, ornaments to decorate their houses, and foods for Tet. It is also one of the best times for shopping, as every store offers discounts of up to 70%. With all these activities going on, the traffic becomes even more chaotic than usual. Vehicles move at a snail’s pace, Tet plants and decorations balancing precariously atop wobbling motorbikes. Take a gander around the streets during Tet and, you will spot houses, offices and other public spaces decorated with red and yellow ornaments such as lampion, flower, plants, small flags and, of course, the Viet Nam flag.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

Meanwhile, inside people’s houses, families become preoccupied with cleaning the house and ancestor altars, and preparing continual offerings for the ancestors’ spirits from the last day of the year to the third day of the new year. The offerings they prepare during these times of the year are more special than the usual type of offerings people do twice a month. The offering during Tet has more flowers and fresh food every day. The women of the house are expert at preparing both these offerings and the special Tet dishes such as Bánh chưng.  Most often, the whole family also go on visits to the family members’ and ancestor’s graveyards before Tet. They go to clean the graveyard, to pour some water over it, to spread flower petals over the graveyard, or leave flowers at the feet of the tomb. And, of course they pray for them.

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Image by: Bryan MacNeill, friend of author

On the first day of the New Year itself, people gather with their family to exchange “lucky envelopes (money?)”—a Tet themed envelope with paper money in it, starting from 10,000 dong to any number you want to put.  This exchange is viewed as the most important Tet ritual because the lucky envelope represents the wish for a prosperous and lucky year ahead . A native Hanoian told me about it at length:

“That envelope represent for lucky money means you will have more money, Successful, basically it’s the same as wealth. It based on unreal story from China. Like Chinese they have a story about it, mainly to put a ring of coin to the children during new year so evil may not touch them. If you tell this original story from Chinese to any Vietnamese, they will refuse, and say that they never heard of it. And not many Vietnamese ever heard of it. [It’s] Vietnamese culture but not many people thinking as it was in Chinese in the past. We turned into our own way long time ago Vietnamese understanding. They [Vietnamese] give envelope, not because of reasons as they did in china. They [Vietnamese] give envelope to all age Not only children….”

“…. But in the past [in Viet Nam], it supposed to be coin, not paper money like nowadays Envelope. We switched to paper money 100 years ago. may be. Since I was small we did not use coin. Until I was 13, 2003 or 2004. But, they switched back to coin again. They did 1 time, but it last 2 years, people don’t like to keep it cause it heavy and not convenient. So they switch back to paper. May be 14 years ago. They produce coins for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, but it lasted for 1-2 years. [because] at the same time we still had 1000, 2000 paper money. People rarely use coin. So, 2 years after, government took coins back and never used them again.   The main thing about [lucky] envelope is the way Vietnamese use it is different from Chinese one [that Vietnamese give envelope not only to children]. Even now, Chinese also give envelope to all age.”

She explained that older members of the family give lucky envelopes to younger members. For instance, “my grandpa will give lucky envelopes to my mom and me and my brother. Then my mom will also give envelopes to my grandpa.” The exchange moves downward: her mom then will give lucky envelopes to their children. Similarly, older siblings in the family often the same to their young ones. This ritual also extends toward children in their neighborhood who may visit during this period.

Another important ritual people engage in the first day of Tet is buying salt. It symbolizes a hope for prosperous year ahead. “Why salt?”, I asked a Vietnamese friend of mine.

“…You know in Viet Nam we have this saying đu năm mua mui, cui năm mua vôi meaning buy salt in the beginning of the year, buy lime at the end. Vôi is lime. Like cacao, they usually use to paint the wall..it will help to erase bad things, bad spirit they believe, that’s why usually bought at the end of the year, aiming to let go all the bad things. Buying salt at the beginning of the year will bring luck to the house and help family members to be more connected, to live in harmony. and we also use it in rituals in Pagoda, salt is something you can never live without.”

On the second and third days, people put on their new clothes and go to the Pagodas to pray for a lucky year. Another Vietnamese friend of mine says, “people start going to the Pagodas to pray on the New Year Eve, usually after watching the firework displays.”   During these days people also visit friends, usually already having met their relatives at the grandparents’ house on the first day., So if you happen to be in Viet Nam on these Tet days, you would see many people in their nice clothes on the streets,  or you would see houses widely opened, showing scenes of  families chatting and enjoying the delicious Tet delicacies.

It was on the second day of Tet, at the ABC coffee shop, that I accidentally participated in such a special moment. I came there with my usual intention to grab a coffee and get some work done. As it was still Tet celebration, they opened only the first floor.

I sat at the very end of the room. There was not much going on in the coffee shop; a few customers sat at the other end of the room, playing with their phones. After a while, the owner of the ABC came in with two men. They sat at the table two chairs away from me. I saw them talk with one another; I didn’t take too much notice.  Then my eyes stumbled upon the cookies and cakes on their table. Wait a minute, I thought to myself; they are not customers. I took my eyes off my book and subtly threw intermittent glances at their direction.  The two guests spoke to the ABC owner respectfully, making a slightly bowing head movements as they talked. Finally, they shook his hands, stood up, and left. They must be either friends or relatives of the ABC owner, I concluded. And those cakes, cookies, and beverages on the table are amongst Tet food I have read online.  It then clicked in my head: This place, after all, is also where the ABC owner and his family live. And today is the second day of Tet. People are supposed to visit their relatives or friends.

As I held my gaze, observing this interaction, a palpable and yet unnamable feeling seeped in. I am participating in Tet ritual, I thought to myself. I somehow did not feel like a customer at that very moment. The fact that ABC is also the residential place for its owner suddenly became interesting to me. I think it was the familiar living room format of the coffee shop which facilitated me to have such an insider experience of that Tet’s ritual: the living room has no partition whatsoever. It put me in the same space with the guests. The proximity made the experience intimate, as if in some way I was part of the family.

Later that day, on my way home, I had a similar feeling when I saw a father and a son in their suits riding bicycles (presumably to visit their relatives or friends).  There was a certain kind of beauty that emanates from the two men in suits on their bicycles; it was a precious moment to witness I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time just by seeing their dedication to their cultures. In the past, I’ve personally done anything I can to escape participating in similar social conventions involving family visits. I was leaning toward some of my Vietnamese friends who see Tet rituals as unpractical considering the money you spent on flowers and food, especially for offerings, that will end up at the dumpster next day.

But in this moment, I could see the social power and functions of local culture such as Tet for people who hold on to it.  In the case of Tet, its significance lies in its religious element. The religious aspect of Tet is encapsulated in the activities of praying and giving donations to the temple some people engage in, in the offerings to the ancestors’ spirits in the house, in the visits to the ancestors’ graves, and in other forms of reverence one pays to the elderly.  These are religious activities as far as they centered around the idea of Divine other in the form of spirit and its celestial virtues. One may argue that these religious gestures are what Pure Land Buddhist Shinran and Honen referred to as the ‘miscellaneous acts’. Majority Buddhists in Viet Nam are Pure Land Buddhist, after all. Within this view, the religious gestures themselves are meant to evoke good karma. They are activities which are believed to bring one closer to and/or to enter divine realm [the Pure Land]. Yet, not the one which result in the rebirth in the Pure Land.

The offerings, the flowers, foods, and money sacrifices and other forms of reverence appear to be a simple way to pray to god. It is so simple that it often deceives us into thinking of it as unintelligible, superstitious, or even devoid of reason. So, it is no surprise if some people may suggest an abandonment of traditional religious practices on this basis. This simple way to salvation seems similar to the bhakti yoga [devotion]. It exists presumably to accommodate to followers who, for one reason or another, have no access to the other two means to salvation which are claimed to be more sophisticated. The first is what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as jnana yoga, the way to know God through knowledge [philosophy in Platonic sense]. And the other is karma yoga, the knowing god through work.

I think it is safe to say that local cultures such as Tet have a certain degree of intelligibility and practicality. They may be simple and repetitive, and yet they are not devoid of reason. On the contrary, local cultures can be important assets for countries which are on the journey to become “modern”:  they can offer something that might complement modern values and other forms of progress they wish to adopt. That is so, especially because modernity may come with unexpected results such as social or spiritual alienation. It is these possible alienations which the continuing practice of local cultures might be able to answer. Last but not least, their simplicities fit modern people who have limited time for more sophisticated and intellective practices, such as meditation and philosophy related practices.

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Meaning-making in Literature and Life: an Introduction to Existentialism by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro

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Image by Ashley Goldberg

In literature, it is the reader who gives meaning to a text.

The process of creating this meaning is in the dialogue between the reader and the text itself. Giving it meaning is their way of understanding it. We should recognize that the text, once birthed, becomes a separate entity apart from its writer, much like a newborn from their mother. The writer’s significance should remain unquestioned, as it is they who has created the text, but they do not hold the power to set a standard meaning for their work. The text speaks for itself; it is no longer the writer’s words, but rather of its own. Should the writer attempt to put meaning on the text, they become a reader. We can assume that the text would encounter several readers, and consequently, have dialogues with several minds; therefore, a plurality of meanings would be created. Some of these meanings may be deemed as the common interpretation of the text, but none could claim to be the right meaning. In fact, there is no right meaning, as it would always be a variation of interpretations created by different people with different experiences.

What we can say, however, is that, without these interpretations and the readers that created them, the text is meaningless. It is but a compilation of words that follow the basic rules of grammar, but it has no essence. Nevertheless, a reader can give meaning to a text without fully acknowledging that the text is meaningless without them.

This is almost similar to finding the meaning of life in spite of its apparent meaninglessness.

The famous poet Francois Rabelais mentioned, in his last words, a “great perhaps” he shall go seek. In my opinion, most of us, if not all, go to seek a great perhaps, for our own set of reasons. This is why we find or create our own meanings of life. Humans seek for meaning because we want so badly to make sense of all things around us.

This desire to understand even encompasses things that are beyond our intellectual capacities. We obsess over reason, which result to numerous theories that remain hypothetical because, in actuality, there are things that we cannot provide definite answers to. Immanuel Kant’s concept of mind-independent external world, which he defines to comprise things that we cannot know, must be deemed relevant. Kant claimed that humans “cannot make a cognition of things in themselves, but only as they appear to us.” Rene Descartes agreed by saying that “the mind-independent external world is mediated only through the ideas of it” and thus, we can only ever know it indirectly. John Locke further suggested that human beings only understand things as how we perceive them to be, and never as they are. Therefore, we can only hypothesize about things that fall under the mind-independent external world, but we can never be able to pin an exact definition to such. An example of which is the origin of everything. How the world came to be has been a lingering question in the fields of science, philosophy, and religion. We understand that, no matter how many theories we propose, we can never truly verify whether or not it is right, and yet, the curiosity among us remains, though we are aware that knowing more about it would not be beneficial in our personal lives. This obsession with finding explanation is less of an effect of innate curiosity than a product of fear to fully embrace the reality that everything is in fact meaningless. This fear may be something we experience either consciously or unconsciously. We fill the void of meaninglessness by interpreting life as such in relation to our existence.

Using the lens of existentialism, we can view life as having no inherent meaning, just as human beings have no inherent purpose. It is us that give life essence; further, it is us that set our purpose as beings. How we create this meaning depends on the dialogue between us and life itself, in the form of our experiences. Jean-Paul Sartre abridged this thought when he coined the statement “existence precedes essence”, the central idea of existentialism. The statement suggests that the mere existence of an individual is more fundamental than his essence, and that his essence is dependent on his existence. Man is not born with a purpose nor value; it is something he creates for himself, whether or not he is aware of the process.

Richard Taylor’s interpretation of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus gave two ways in approaching the problem of discontent in life: The first one is finding meaning “from the outside,” or in the significance of the product of what one is doing with his life. The second, and the more favored, is finding meaning “from within oneself,” or simply conditioning oneself to enjoy whatever he currently has in life. By giving meaning in life as such in relation to one’s existence, we subscribe to Taylor’s latter suggestion. Taylor even wrote: “The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.”

In essence, to give life definition is not solely to absolve one’s self of its meaninglessness, but rather, also a way of making life matter, which R.M. Hare defined as a word that “isn’t intended to describe something that things do, but to express our concern about what they do.” It is a way to show that life as such is our concern.

However, coming to grips with life’s meaninglessness is not a requisite for an individual in order for him to give meaning to his life. The fear that drives us to find reason can either be a conscious thought or something wired within our unconscious. In most cases, the latter is the more realistic scenario. Furthermore, very few would even entertain the thought of life’s meaninglessness; it is not an idea suited for everyone. Just as a reader does not have to acknowledge the fact that a text’s meaning is entirely up to him and, without his interpretation, the book is meaningless, people can give meaning to their lives even without recognizing life’s apparent meaninglessness.

 

*Previously published in The Cerurove, October 2017 under the title: “On finding what never was”

Elizabeth Ruth Deyro is the founding editor-in-chief and creative director of The Brown Orient; prose editor at |tap|, Rag Queen Periodical, and The Ceruroveand tweets at @notjanedeyro.

Arsenic Hour: my middle aged women troubles by Elisabeth Horan

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gif by Nancy Liang

This is the debut of Elisabeth Horan’s column, Arsenic Hour. Here is its namesake poem.

 

 

Here comes a bad one. Pearled teeth, gnarled hands, knife fingers, bomb breasts, snake limbs, tortoise pelvis, wolf anus, pronghorn genitals. Here comes the malfeasance. Ivory ban, fingernail grind, tusked cheeks, flat bill palette, five toes times five legs, monstrously amphibious, heat seeking whore platypus. Squat and jealous. Here comes the lady in red. Competitive. Hormone pinch hitter, estrogen wane, progesterone filler, wants things of testosterone nearby her; a dildo toy killer. Hypothyroid gets her best, statin spies through this fat girl’s dress. Here comes young queen bee, she’s queen till tomorrow’s sorrows. Hippocampus dehydrated, frontal lobe sliced mango, cortex, correct me, umm, sliding unstable, emotions hostage, child for ransom. Speaking of gloves, here’s the kid, here’s the mother. More immature this ovary banter, this Questcomm demeanor; Elvira thong, Judge Judy pants, this earth-bitch wishes for a pod like Mrs. Jetson’s. Dishes, cuticle crack, thumb condom, mustache wax. Pajamas, pantiliner, low slung breasts, boring penis, always Mr. Right: flaccid. Middle age mayhem: anemic theater. Of war and love, no date is cheaper than this female, dullard woman; dial up trauma-hype and penitence; frugal.

Footnotes: On St. Ives, Education, and Death by Andrew Woods

St. Ives?

Too many books are printed in St. Ives. I came to this conclusion as I harvested publication details for the bibliography of my latest paper. Students and scholars alike dread the tedious duty of transcribing this information—from the name of publishers to the year of publication—into the footnotes and reference lists of their essays. And, according to academic procedures, one must mention where the book was printed. That’s how I noticed that my paperback editions of Nietzsche, Weil, Foucault, Burke, and others all seem to originate from St. Ives. I wonder why publishers seem so keen to print their books in this small Cornish resort. I remember that the band Another Sunny Day recorded a B-side called “A Boy from St. Ives,” but that’s all I know about this seaside town.

Once I completed my bibliography, I took to Google to learn how St. Ives had become a printing hub. The results embarrassed me. St. Ives was not the geographical location of the printers, but, rather, the name of the printing company. For several years, I have written “Printed in St. Ives” in countless bibliographies for college assignments. As misunderstandings go, it is minor. In the aftermath of this discovery, I wonder why including the location of the printers is necessary. Surely, the name of the publisher and the year of publication suffices. I doubt any professor feels the need to call up printing companies—whether they operate in St. Ives or not—to check that they printed a certain book in a certain year.

There are a few theories about why books declare where they were printed. An expert on book dealing suggests that mentioning the location of the printers was intended to prove the authenticity of a book to customs officials. Geographical discrepancies between the publishers’ headquarters and the printers’ offices would raise an eyebrow of suspicion and justify seizure of the contraband. Yet, the image of a customs officer inspecting one’s books seems to belong to a quaint and bygone era. I say, spare oneself the stress and download the PDF. Additionally, the joys and woes of global trade mean that a publisher and a printer can strike a deal despite national barriers. For instance, my copy of Eva Illouz’s illuminating and invigorating Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism was published by Polity Press—based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Malden, Massachusetts—typeset in Hong Kong, and printed and bound in Malaysia.

Despite these changes, the spirit of the inquisitive customs officer still pervades the task of writing a bibliography:

“What are you reading? Who wrote it? Where’s it from? What year was it written?”

Listing citations is like answering a swift stream of questions in an interrogation room.

St. Ives?

The tedious and persnickety ordeal of writing footnotes is one of the humbler tasks of critical thought, because it pushes you to reconsider whether you trust your chosen sources. Not only should you judge the veracity and trustworthiness of your own references, you should take the effort to examine the references of your references. Carefully reading the footnotes of other authors tests your trust in the written word. Not everything printed on a page is an authentic expression of a writer’s thoughts. They might cite a study and contort the interpretations of the findings to suit their argument. Theory can precede data, rather than the other (and right) way around. We live in a time when everyone is urged to check the facts of everything they see and read. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves and others, we might admit that we are not always as attentive and skeptical as we should be. Sometimes, we can be eagerly credulous when someone says something that suits our sensibility and convictions. Writing footnotes forces one to check the basic facts—who wrote this, who published it, when was it published, etc.—and start to build a case for why a source should be trusted or doubted.

Taking the credibility or dishonesty of a source seriously is the sign of a sincere scholar. Questioning the smallest fact—Why are all these books printed in St. Ives?—and seeking an answer—St. Ives is just the name of the company—are two of those intellectual chores that help to cultivate a tidy and meticulous mind. Scrutinizing the words of others teaches you to look at your own work in a more critical light. As soon as one completes a paragraph, one should re-read it and ask oneself, “is this what I honestly think and believe?” I know that struggling to meet one’s deadlines at the end of the semester means that most students do not have the time for this type of intellectual sincerity. Conclusions are often reached for the sake of expedience. Maybe we should train ourselves to think about the task of writing as a more significant endeavor than merely finishing a paper by a certain date. Truly, reading and writing admits you into a long conversation that started before you even learnt to pick up a pen.

In an interview with The Atlantic, the linguist N. J. Enfield attempts to explain why we make small oral sounds—from “ummm” to “mmhmm”—to fill gaps in conversations. Most of these noises are social cues that we are paying attention to the speaker and agreeing with what they are saying. They are the unspoken substance of most human conversation. Enfield talks to the interviewer about transcribing interviews from the recording to the page, and ponders why all these seemingly inconsequential noises are edited out as the conversation is converted into an article. Enfield observes that “conversation is all draft;” books and articles are finished products.

 

St. Ives?

I disagree with that judgement. Final drafts and completed works rarely represent an ending. At the same time, a first draft is nothing like the real beginning of a work. No moment of education or stage of composition embodies a start or end. Properly speaking, I think that lessons and essays “come to fruition.” Nothing illustrates the joyful and intense undertakings of learning and writing more than the word “fruition.” Nowadays, the word refers to the realization of a plan or project, or the period when a tree or vine bears fruit. Etymologically, fruition comes from the Late Latin fruitionem, which means “enjoyment.” The fruition of a letter or poem or treatise represents a cadence—perfect or imperfect—in the long, lustful tune of life. Writing is the act of taking pleasure in something beyond your comprehension, in a language that precedes and outlasts us all.

My former professor Anne-Marie Oliver once observed that chalk is the perfect metaphor for the enterprise of education and the transmission of knowledge. She remarks that “true chalk is something marked by an extreme fragility, friability, dustability, temporality . . . These attributes signified that it was once alive and that it possessed still the power of thingness, that is, something susceptible to damage, destruction, death, and accordingly, something human or humanlike. And this stuff was used to form words, dead things that live on and are constantly reanimated in the brains of other beings.” Chalk is formed of prehistoric and fossilized matter that leaves dust all over your fingers and makes marks—equations, illustrations, and quotations—on the blackboard. Coincidentally, the contents of books are printed onto the pulped remains of dead trees. Every page serves as a reminder of death.

St. Ives?

Education and death are more intimately linked than most people think. I thumb through my copy of Vilem Flusser’s Writings (published by University of Minnesota Press in 2002, printed in the United States of America—somewhere—on acid-free paper) in search of his moving definition of human communication. According to this idiosyncratic philosopher and polygot, “human communication is an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death.” Writing is the art of making meaning out of meaninglessness. Death—that final moment of becoming nothingness—fuels our desperate need to leave something behind. Oddly enough, there is a striking resemblance between the format of footnotes and inscriptions on gravestones: the name of the author, the title of the work, the year of publication, etc.

Another former professor of mine encouraged me to always conclude with the “thinking answer,” rather than the absolute one. To be honest and ironic, it seems that the only truly absolute answer is death. You cannot argue or disagree with that inevitability. So, what are answers? There are exact answers (printed in Great Britain by the St. Ives Group), elusive answers (“well, it depends on what you mean by ‘advance’…”), and honest answers (“I don’t know yet”). What exactly is the “thinking answer”? Answering a question thoughtfully means that one’s work comes to fruition, rather than to an end. Thinking answers should show the enjoyment of thought, just as writing should convey the enjoyment of words. Although typing up references is the least enjoyable part of the writing process, it is a mark of gratitude. Taking the time to write footnotes represents humility and honesty. Footnotes reveal that you are indebted to those who came before you, and express the hope that you might be able to serve future scholars in a similar way. The old and witty philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that Western Philosophy is just a bunch of footnotes to Plato. I disagree and claim that philosophy—and thought in general—is just a long line of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. The history of thought is more like the Talmud than the Bible, more like a first draft than a final copy. The footnote protects us from forgetting the origin of originality, and reminds us that no one ever comes up with the absolute answer. More importantly, the footnote is invitation to think with others—from our predecessors to our descendants—and enjoy every thought as it unfolds.

 

Frank is Not a Man: A Reading of the Sam Mendes Film ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Tini Ngatini

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Have you seen Sam Mendes’ 2008 film ‘Revolutionary Road’?

What does “Revolutionary Road” actually mean?

And what happens if you do decide on going down that road?

Where will it lead you?

 

Revolutionary Road explores these questions through following the journey of a young couple, April and Frank Wheeler. The “Revolutionary Road” is simply a road to being a “Man” which supposedly leads to a meaningful and happy life.  In the film, being that Man means living up to an anthropocentric view of mankind defined as “…the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world….[a being] who is somehow very special and superior to the whole thing [to other sentient beings].” This implies that the film understands Man as that which mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called a “hero.”

It is: “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond normal range of achievement and experience; someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” Man, to the film, is “a big deal,” or as other character Bart Pollock says, “not the second rate…not your average.”

This whole idea is Heideggerian in nature, as it originates from the Heideggerian notion of dasein which refers to human beings as the “there being.” It means, as Levinas explained in his essay “Time and The Other,” that humans achieved their existence / identity by putting themselves out in the world among other sentient beings, exploring their possibilities to do/to be this or that. “Human existence is always in-the-world and not enclosed within a subject ‘in here’ [in himself or in solitude].”  In this sense,  being a Man is thus reserved not only for men, but for humankind in general.

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Accordingly, to be a Man must be done by putting oneself out in the world among other sentient beings; to be a Man is to show up or to make yourself seen in a public and/or political space. In this sense, the putting oneself out there in the world is equal to going down that “Revolutionary Road.” What we are essentially doing on this Road is working on our interest. As revealed through the remark April later made to her husband Frank, “When I first met you, there was nothing in the world you couldn’t do or be,” the film understands interest in the Heideggerian sense as “one’s possibilities to do this or that; the ability [power] ‘to do [to be] this or that.'” This very ability/possibility to be or to do constitutes our subjectivity.

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This form of interest is, to follow Levinas, “desire for the object that I do not yet possess; desire to be/to do this or that.” We could imagine desire/ interest as that of sunlight of which orients plants movement. Just like plant, we consciously and unconsciously move toward something such as warm sunrays which invokes feeling of aliveness and we are often not afraid to make sacrifice for it.  Otherwise, we might feel unhappy in one way or another. At this point, it’s safe to say that inherently we all have interest as desire to do/to be this or that. What differentiate us eventually is the attempt/ work we do to manifest that desire/interest.

By working I simply mean doing any action to overcome whatever stands between our desire and its possible fulfillment. Working is moving toward what we desire. For those who already know what their interest is, working could mean: taking courses, doing internships, seeking advice. For those who are unsure about what their interest might be, working is likely about finding out that interest. Working, in short, is about taking chances or putting oneself outside of one’s comfort zone. It is about trying, failing, trying again.

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Working is the very principle of Revolutionary Road‘s “Man” essence, and it presents the case that the absence of this work precludes the ability to call oneself Man, as in the case of Frank whose wife sees him as not yet a Man. Viewers can find this idea in the last prologue scene, when  April and Frank are on their way back home from April’s unsatisfactory soap opera performance. Frank tries to console April and yet only upsets her more. They end up having a heated argument about their comfortable, yet jaded lives among people who are just not their kind.  The argument ends with April’s emasculating remark about Frank.

“…Listen, Goddamn it! It wasn’t my fault the play was bad…it’s certainly not my fault you did not turn out to be an actress …..the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera, the better off we’ll be……you know what you’re like when you are like this? You’re sick, I really mean that…” Frank yells in anger.

“…Oh, you don’t fool me, Frank. Not for a second. Now, you’ve got me safely in your little trap,” April yelled back.

“You’re in a trap! Oh, Jesus, don’t make me laugh!”

“Me! Me! Me! You pathetic, deluded little boy– look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch of imagination you can call yourself a man!”

Frank is not a Man in April’s view because of the absence of effort in pursuing his desires to “feel things” he revealed to April when they first met in a party in New York in 1947.

“So, what do you do?” Frank asks April.

“I am studying to be an actress. You?” she replies.

“I’m a Longshoreman……..Starting Monday though. I am starting something a little more glamorous. Night cashier at a cafeteria.”

April smiles and says, “I mean really……I do not mean how you make money. I mean what are you interested in?”

“Honey, if I had the answer to that one, I bet I’d bore us both to death in half an hour… All I know is that I want to feel things. Really feel them. How’s that for an ambition…?”

However, Frank does work hard. He is a salesman at the Knox Company and is able to support his family’s comfortable life in a nice neighborhood, such as Revolutionary Road, which is much nicer than Crawford Road. Crawford Road is, by comparison, the property agent character Mrs. Givings said, “…mostly these little cinder-block-y, pick up truck-y places plumbers, carpenters, little local people of that sort….Revolutionary Road is much nicer. Now, the place I want to show you, is a sweet little house and a sweet setting. Simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children.” Frank is a Man already from the perspective of society. He is not yet a man in April’s view.

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Such is the case because Frank does not work in the sense of putting himself out there; He does not move toward his goal “to feel things.” Moving toward light [something] that can make you visible to public eyes is seen as, at least in Levinas’ view, part of masculinity, in opposition to femininity which characterized by the moving away from being known [to hide oneself; to live a private life].  By not moving toward something that can make him be known and, subscribing to a form of private life which closely associated with labor work to meet bodily needs, Frank is considered as not yet a man.

This kind of life and job which centers around meeting bodily needs is an endless cycle that robs Man [Frank] the time and freedom “to find out what it is that you actually want to do, and the freedom to start doing it.” Within this kind of life, men’s responsibility is to provide for his family and, hence, makes it a standard of manhood. Meanwhile, women’s place is at home, not working outside. For this very reason, Frank has to “go on working like a dog year after year at a job he can’t stand, coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things.” Therefore, April calls this kind of life “trap” which has “denied and denied and denied “the essence of Man as thinking being. Within this kind of life with repetitive jobs as wife and salesman at Knox, Man do not need to think if only because there is a procedure/ rule/principle to follow already, both in workplace and society in general.

In this sense, Man becomes like automata, or at least Man who are jaded, who have eyes yet see not; ears that hear not and; hearts that neither feel nor understand,” as National Geographic host Jason Silva puts it. April sees that this kind of life with all material achievements holds them back to be  “a big deal” and “to live a life as if it matters.” Thus, she thinks the solution is to sell the house and to use their savings to move somewhere else “worth-living,” conducive for their goal to be a Man. In that place Frank will be reading and studying and April will work. Such a place, in their case, is Paris.

At this point, the realization on the part of April – and later Frank about their current life and the decision to move to Paris constitute the first of three phases that make up the heroic journey to be a Man [or the Revolutionary Road]. This first stage is known as the departure, the separation from, the breaking up with the present/current self, situation, habit, people, achievement and other things in it.  Great Man such as Buddha, Gautama and Muhammad also took this move. The Buddha, who was prince Siddharta, left his palace life, his wife, his son, his beloved parent to meditate in the forest. Muhammad left his beloved homeland Mecca and uncle to migrate to Medina. Or, if we look back at our lives, we can see this move as well. May be in the form of leaving old habit in order to develop the new one.  At this point, we can see that leaving is a form of sacrificing things and people dear to us.  And in all those leaving moves, pain is inevitable. It’s painful because it’s part of us that we leave behind and, it is more painful when it results in nothing.  It is for the very sudden break up with the past and things close to us which makes the road revolutionary. In addition, this leaving that we must continuously do, which often result in nothing which is what make the road is  also known as “the path of despair.”

One simple pain exemplified in the film is the contempt and mockery from Frank’s and April’s neighbors and co—worker when they told them the news about moving to Paris. “I’m moving to Paris.” said Frank. “Right. And I’m moving to Tangiers,” his co-worker Jack responded.  Meanwhile, their neighbors, a couple Milly and Sheeb discuss that news, “I think this whole plan sounds a little immature……I mean what kind of man is going to sit around in his bathrobe all day picking his nose while his wife goes out and works?” We are all familiar with it and have encountered it in one way or another. The courage to leave place, habit, person for another place or habit which potentially elevates us is a heroic act. Yet it is not the last heroic act one must perform in this Revolutionary Road. More heroic acts, and challenges are available in the next stage of heroic journey, that is in the liminal space.

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By giving up their stifling life, April and Frank are leaving the center of society and automatically enter into the next stage, that is the liminal space. A space which is often known as an underworld characterized by uncertainty, fear, the unknown and confusion and others. Liminal space is then synonymous with death event, the decisive moment in which philosopher Bataille claims, “Man is dying while watching themselves doing it”; it is when “everything seems to be effortlessly sinking into nothingness, crumbles and we catch ourselves sobbing and reaching out for help,” wrote Blanchot and Levinas.

This stage and all its difficulty is an inevitable result of the decision.  Campbell said in his talk with Bill Moyers, “if you are not eligible for this place into which you put yourself, it’s going to be…. a real mess. But, if you are eligible, it can be a glory that will give you a life that is yours, in your own way.” In other words, if we manage to survive the death event, we will come out as a better person and, sometimes we can even transform painful experience into “something tangible” which benefits other people.  This shapes the definition of what it means to live a fulfilling life.

This “something tangible” or being “a better person” is supposedly something that differentiates us from each other and, thus, orients us to which part of society [spot] within humanity we belong.  This being part of certain group within human world is equal to having social existence, whatever that group could be. In addition, if this “something tangible” or “better person” quality benefits people’s lives, it may allow us to be Man in the way the film understands as “being a big deal, not the second rate.”

The key to survive this liminal space is, to follow Hegel, by “looking at the negative [death event] in the face and tarrying with it,” which I understood as doing anything in our power to elevate ourselves from the situation, including asking for help from the Other. Be it the Other as God or other fellow human being, such help is likely to be around if only because in liminal space we will likely meet people. People “who’ve been out there…who might be able to offer help,” Campbell explained.

The liminal stage is presented in the film when Frank found out that April is unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and he has job promotion to be part of special sales team. They see the pregnancy as a possible stumbling block to their Paris plan. April secretly bought a rubber syringe because she plans to self-abort the baby. Frank opposes that plan and starts to throw the job promotion on the table.

“What the hell are you going to do with this?” Frank asked as he holds up the rubber.

“Look, you really are being a little  melodramatic about the whole thing. I had a friend in school who did it twice. As long it’s done in the first twelve weeks. It’s fine….so tell me that we can have the baby in Paris, Frank.”

“We can’t have the baby in Paris…” Frank said.

At the end, the Paris plan was cancelled because Frank was afraid of not having enough money in Paris to raise the baby. “Suppose we just say that people anywhere aren’t very well advised to have babies unless they can afford them,” Frank answered the question as to why they cancelled the Paris plan. To see it from Campbell’s view, this financial insecurity is a form of economic temptation which was common in all heroic journeys in the past. Muslim prophet Muhammad, for instance, underwent years of embargo from his opponents. Fortunately, he survived it. But, Frank, in this case, yields to that temptation. People like  April and John see Frank’s decision as incapability to overcome comfort zone, as not having the backbone “to live the life you want,” as not showing up. He is seen as “hiding behind that maternity dress [in the sense that]….making babies [and being able to provide material support as ]… Big family man is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls [that he is a man].” It is because, to them, “money’s always a good reason…But it’s hardly ever the real reason..”

April couldn’t accept the decision and attempted to self-abort the baby and died in the attempt. Frank then moved to the city and just dedicated his life for work and his two children.

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At this point, we can say that the last stage of the journey, that is the return, a return from underworld/liminal space to world, is a sad one. A “real mess,” to use Campbell’s words. April died, and Frank isolated himself from people he knew.  And I guess, it is not so much about the question of incapacity to be a Man as that of readiness for what they want. As Campbell pointed out, “…the achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for… The adventure that he’s ready for is the one that he gets”. I think that Frank does have the Man quality that is, to Levinas, always glimpsing at one last chance; always finding one last chance.  He did show this characteristic when he tries to convince April that the cancellation is not the end of their plan to pursue the life they want. “.. [this new job] ..an option…that’s all..we could save some money and go in more style in a couple of years…it’s possible Parisians aren’t the only ones who know how to lead an interesting life..”

Finally, this film left me pondering on how much travel, either in the form of migration or short vacation, can help us with  finding our interest and journey to be a “Man”?

Should we  give up the boring job that satisfies our basic needs and move somewhere else that looks conducive for our mission to find this passion/interest? Or, should we go with Jack’s idea to remain within the situation we barely can stand on the grounds that if there is a such thing called true passion, why aren’t we likely to find it here as it is there in that new place? Does being a Man need to be either leaving the everyday life associated with pleasure and worldly achievement or, can actually be done without leaving this system?

 

References

Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other [and additional essays]. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.

Campbell, Joseph. Interview by Bill Moyers. The Hero’s Adventure. FIU Honors. Miami, Oct 9.2012. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hftbjHi820.

Keenan, Dennis King.  The Question of Sacrifice.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

 

Imagining Victims by Paul Michael Whitfield

1.

I’d like to discuss Diana Tietjens Meyers’ look at the edifying value of victims’ stories in her 2016 Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights in comparison to José Medina’s suggestion of ‘resistant imagination’ in his 2013 The Epistemology of Resistance. I suggest Medina’s concept has the potential to facilitate how victims’ stories can be morally motivating narratives.

2.

Meyers explores the importance of listening to and understanding victims’ stories, and explains this merits changes not just to theoretical accounts of what exactly such stories are and what they do morally, but also to their legal and political use. I’ll focus on the former, and Meyers’ proposed update to our concept of narrative structure.

In traditional accounts of such structure, narratives with moral urgency must begin with a “steady state” of morally neutral (or acceptable) circumstance that’s disrupted and then repaired. Meyers shows, with vivid examples, that the “very conditions that others regard as legitimate and ordinary are the cause of their victimization.” In distinction to those traditional accounts of structure, their stories ex vi termini begin and end morally fraught.

As Meyers points out, the change to our theoretical account of narrative structure must include a form of narrative closure that isn’t a resolution but “a moral void” and “a moral demand.” These stories are morally complete narratives, and the sort of moral completion they involve is a response of “moral self-examination,” where readers are lead by the all-around fraught narrative toward a “clarion moral appeal.”

 

3.

Medina explores the serious imperative of our “need to reimagine our categories . . . so that our reconceptualizations redirect our ordinary practices and our ways of relating to each other.” The personal and political effects of injustice and oppression merit more than merely working within the common and accepted practices of knowledge creation and production, but going further, so as to leave open the possibility of an effective and proactive response to the experiences of others who live (let alone work) within those practices that are not common or accepted.

Medina offers various concepts we might use to better understand this need from the point-of-view of someone who is outside those othered experiences, with the key concept being the imperative for resistant imagination.

If we are to critically examine and morally improve how we engage with others, if we’re to look closely at our daily practices and what we habitually recognize as permittable and unacceptable possibilities of social growth and melioration, one area that can be relevant to opening up latent conceptual space is our imaginative sensibilities. Medina directly positions his account of resistant imagination as direction for this potential.

Exploring the concept of imagination, he begins in the context of fiction, a common area for such exploration, and initially asks a question drawn out of the work of Tamar Szabo Gendler:

Why do we experience such resistance when invited to entertain fictional scenarios that violate our moral intuitions and values, and not when asked to imagine fictional worlds that violate our factual sense or the laws of physics? (Medina, 254)

We have a difficult time with the invitation to imagine a moral world different than ours, especially if that world conflicts with our own, or even causes us to imagine ourselves with more culpability than the ‘real’ moral world we feel comfortable and live in.

This causes us to develop what Medina calls imaginative resistance, where rather than the usual hypothetical reasons we use in other forms of reasoning (“cold counterfactuals”), we’re presented with scenarios where our affective and sociopolitical realities are put into serious question (“hot counterfactuals”).

Presented with a fictional scenario that implicates us in moral harm, our imagination itself becomes resistant, and places us further away from the possibility of that world to sustain our individual ‘real’ world stability.

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Steel Wool spinning, Ballarat East, 2012 by Peter Thurgood

4.

This sort of response is exactly what Medina suggests we switch out: imaginative resistance for resistant imagination. Instead of our allowing our imagination to control how we react to moral scenarios that are uncommon or harmful to our sense of stability within our real “positionality and relationality,” we can instead use these fictive differences to instigate what he calls “epistemic counterpoints,” where the difference we experience itself becomes a cause for moral education and the possibility of better understanding what we have yet to experience ourselves.

The resistance of our imagination not to the transgression of its limits but, inversely, to the limits of our transgression where “what is to be avoided is letting one particular imaginative horizon or frame rule the day and become hegemonic . . . and making the subjects who grow under their influence become insensitive to the blind spots of the frame.”

Medina suggests this sort of resistance can move beyond our engagement with fictional worlds, and expand into our engagement with the real experiences of others who live lives we can only imagine, so as to be vigilant towards and repair “the circulation of ways of imagining collective subjectivities (e.g., racial or sexual identities) that demean them and prevent their inclusion in the community or their equal standing within it.”

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“communication” by Chris Garcia

5.

Medina’s concept of resistant imagination, then, seems relevant to and useful for Meyers’ account of how we might better approach and engage with victims’ stories.

To reimagine our categories, as Medina suggests, in order to include those different than us, one (admittedly rather small) part of this is to reimagine our category of narrative structure.

Victims’ stories can be both complete narratives and morally motivating accounts. An explanation of how to imaginatively resist the thought that narratives must begin and end with morally positive (or neutral) circumstances, the idea that motivation can come from a story’s ending morally fraught rather than morally resolved, is located within a combination of Meyers’ and Medina’s insightful books.

If the victim’s story ends with implicating the reader themselves, even, that reader can realize this as a chance they have to imagine what it’s like ‘on the other side’, to realize sometimes it doesn’t get better, that it still hasn’t, and that there’s a need for their work towards a real world that matches up morally both with their own experiences and those of others, even and imperatively when such a possibility seems unimaginable.

 

References

Diana Tietjens Meyers. Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights. Oxford UP. 2016.

José Medina. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford UP. 2013.

Found: A Letter for the Art of Love and Colors by Paul Michael Whitfield

Dear,

In Safe and Sound,

 

I write as the crow flies—ashore, on the hard. Something’s happened, my friend. I’m aground, at liberty, and I think you must know. You’re on a run, of course, and a leg from the vanishing angle. There’s nothing so much to say, after all. A sliding pond across the pond, to think of it! And so, I write to you, the manifest all theirs.

I was leadsman and three sheets to the wind after a jump. The shifting tides felt like wild gleams, and yelling, “La mal du siècle est le fin de siècle!”

The quiet quite still and, the ocean conceiving itself a pond, so said staid:

“At times, there arrives a silence of such definitive conviction, only breathlessness awaits in reply. Before a heavy void, abrupt in infinitesimal place, broad-bosomed earth spawns light, deities, and creatures. And yet void stands, eerily genial in a forbidding concealedness it abides, exact—heavy-handed with the awesome settling of null. There are, of course, those remnants of Iapetus’ progeny: a thoughtful, doomed unconcealedness of the world.”

There were dripping sounds at this, I remember, and the wet of tell-tale and the atmosphere. Some of us had silently smoked, like xylological fumes. We were trees, my friend, and the pond was… always water and wet. The drink. Something was happening.

“The world is everything that is the case.”

And, said so, that pond in the middle of the forest talked with the batch of banked reeds about how little our Sol’s rays were involved in its ecosystem. The whole forest listened quietly, and over the following seasons many limbs slowly spread above the pond, until it sighed its happy content of a cool summer to the reeds. As autumn set, the brisk air began ossifying all these ponderous bodies, crisping icy plates on its blooming surface which melted each morning, inviting fauna and flora to sink themselves with stark refreshment.

Appreciating such communal spirit, the pond rippled a quiet return to the forest and limbs.

Later, in a womb of the icing winter, the pond lazily sludged along its floor shipping nutrient muds and clays below its breeding, frozen husk. Snuggled with the earth beneath, it glowed its reverent anticipation of the coming spring thaw. Then, it glimmered, it would banter its banks and banked reeds with freshwater biota and loudly call in laughter to the limbs just above, swinging:

“A no-sided, 4-sided figure is unfathomable—even confusingly so—to our so natural bodies, but what about that rule entails that there, in fact, is or is not a round square object, somewhere? All objects are possible objects?”

Like at some Jack a Jonah rippling the state, we’d listened poised—frozen by such cold.

“In such a proposition—and eo ipso statement, etc., etc.—is it not that its subject noun’s adjective is epistemically dissimilar, categorically, from the predicate noun’s adjective, such that render the proposition’s truth ambiguous without some formality of warrant?”

The arc of visibility the dead wake of a question. It was a wonder indeed, my friend. You would’ve imagined it admirable, as it were.

“Indeed, O Limbs, when contemplating this, prodigious, I think to remember ‘All’ as adjective, and the phrase ‘objects are possible objects’ metaphysical triviality—for, as we all well know, the convention of beginning such cosmic inferences with ‘All’ is merely convention only, useful in determining the universal from the particular formally, carrying no ontological information to the semantic table that isn’t there with the noun—and, in point of fact, serving, in this most serious of cases, that of our sea trial, to build common cloud over the way of inference. An ox-eye, O Limbs. Removing the adjective—using, instead, ‘Objects are possible objects’—might help the clear: to suggest the proposition ‘true’ is to want of warrant for why possibility is universality here. Would not there only then be unity?”

The doldrums becalmed, my friend! The forest spelled. I was forgotten, for the moment, I think.

“That we can’t conceive the experience of a round, square object has, at best, obscure bearing on the existence of such objects in such sense as said.”

Silence, some thought, hearing—already ready to stove in. Scud and iron wind. Sailors, you know.

“Though, such talk is, yes, suspect. As it should be, experience being what it is as the origin of this digression.”

The pond let lit by losing the forest among these trees, and the scat of conversants. All the talk of those aboard, that time, I remember, that cat and the devil to pay.

I won’t ask about the weather of being still at sea, my friend. There’s enough play to run with such paws.

“The map is make-able but never at all necessarily made,” rustled the limbs, “there’s just the effort of trying, ever unable to deduce whether what’s got is right, all, or some. Knowledge doesn’t exist outside knowing minds but its content is everything.”

I think here the pilot coughed, if memory serves. I mean, I’m not sure if any else of us heard, it is.

“It’s that, we understand or misunderstand the world, and the world is. For us, what the world is, what it will be, what it was, and what it can and can’t be, are common features of metaphysics, sought-for but unreached in the concepts of minds trying—some nihilism perhaps excluded. For the world, what it is, what it will be, what it was, and what it can and can’t be are logical categories which denote everything, from the geology of obsidian to this.”

It became a glacial wood soon to be warmed by the heat of summer, and all the many rays of bright shine that’s growth and substance. The master at arms with no room to swing a cat, I guess.

Taiga.

And so, at this, like some carpenter the pond replied in allegory, “The clear of an annulled sky.”

“‘I’ll participate in what you believe if you give me the attention’, came tumbling over the pearls and the bloodied beaver, Limbs.”

The limbs listened as a brush is swept, the forest petrified—fossilized fuels bearing the point, as it were. I remember it said it looked like a mirror. Something about… some hellenic and theophanic rope and yarn, I think. The pond had begun to speak of being a body of water.

“Jackal surveys the land,” the pond had sounded, “edifying Paintings’ touched and embalming the ideal. ‘Say that again?’ With concussion, Lettuce extrapolates. Those binary cartographers imbibe hilarity—albeit, Jackal’s cross and preempts her own ostensible fury by way of a barking cough.”

“Lettuce in chagrin—perplexed.”

Groves, it was by then. I could’ve heard such story, myself—stories like storied buildings.

I think of the fact that, it’s here I find myself found writing letters to you, my friend. Nothing short for lamplight, however much I should have to say, in the end. I’ve even written poems, but that of late and dire.

The pond kept up swinging the lamp like lead.

“All her pink, translucent schemata want of reality—of ossification. Painting mediates: what better than to supplant a foe by fouling foliage? The land fallow, Jackal honors the entreatment—one’s employer reigns this solar day. ‘Painting,’ Jackal claims, ‘we’re apt to mark off the upper ridge for agriculture, the mountain for The Captain’s roost, and the shoals for a defense buttress, leaving the basin for folks.’ Parched, the ink dries and the anxiety of the panorama sets with the star entombing the now elucidated police in time.”

At this, some of the limbs laughed and, in the way, taunted: “Jackal sighs at Lettuce’s prone attack, and revives facility?”

The pond waved isomorphic.

“Jackal spoke: ‘Lettuce… my beliefs are of liquid. I attend objects only, and them with a definite distance.’ Lettuce would gasp. ‘And, Lettuce, I’m a cartographer. Too narrow for your width.’ A fountain, Lettuce pontificates medium, naturalizing chaos. That the Jackal stares, cessation swiftly returning to Painting’s palette the bounty of a nearly aerial view of what—if for Painting only—is ideally incommensurable with identity. So much tranquil settling, as obviating Lettuce’s receding futility and path traversing below.”

“To Painting Jackal inscribes, ‘I am bulimic.’ A laugh, then jest in rebuke, ‘You are?’ They leave the sight.”

The limbs were silent still, having chanted the reflection that: “The beginning of the end is the end of the beginning. To begin the reason is the reason to begin the reason to have begun. The end of the beginning is the beginning of the end. The reason to begin is to begin the reason to have begun.”

I would’ve said something, then, my friend. I write you now, because that wasn’t what happened. The pond took what was a spell to mull and sludge, and was soon quite on, again, about it all.

“It’s that there’s a difference between. An oil portrait by Villers comes to mind.”


OTA-Villers-Young-1801

Marie-Denise Villers
Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes
, 1801


“An artist is painted by the painter drawing the painter—looking out at us, studying studying while they work. They paint the artist as drawing within a room, face away from a large window to their left. Through that window, we see the view out into painted open air, and, in the near distance, a painted couple walks close together alongside a painted building separated from that within which we see the artists sit, each working at their craft.”

At this submerged and aesthetic mise en abyme, even I was knocked down, my friend. It was as if liminality were sublimity.

“Villers depicts the artist as turned away from the couple without, from that life-style and choice to be one in a relationship, one outside, there walking and heavily clothed, as having chosen to remain within, at methodic vocation and a sole focus on us—the viewer, the painted. The subject.”

The pond pondered paint in prodigious profundity—paying, by and large by the board. Pelagic, at last it remarked:

“Kierkegaard was polite as ever to the King when at court, yet his journals characterize Christian VIII in language beneath a private subject of an enlightened sovereign! Logic leads, and I heckle and foray riotous! Nobody ever understands him, anyway, you know! The works!”

The limbs, like the Dormouse at tea and, perhaps, Aristotle, were quite asleep. As slumbering arms, indeed, there among the wood and water—the brightwork and deadwood of boatwrights. I’d said nothing—snagged and foul.

I write this all, my friend, because Heraclitus once said aloud that, that war and strife are the facts of life—that to think even of something like a Pax Romana is still yet that lit lamp of the sea state.

We’re at war, my friend. Extremis. This world of war. Sailing wind-over-tide, line astern without letter of marque. A rogue wave.

Be vigilant. Sail.

 

Your prize, In all regard,
And for the art of love and colors,

Fair winds and following seas,
Anon, Anon,

Away

Women and Space by Lay Sion Ng

Image by Frank Schott

Whether it is defined as a container for things or the relation between things, the nature of space is often limned with the body-matter of women. Ever since Plato first introduced the existence of space and claimed the nature of space as the figure of the mother, women have become the body-matter for man (Plato 65; Best 184, 187). This linking of space and woman leads to a conception that woman is seen as “the body, the earth, the springboard for man,” which, as Irigaray suggests, enables men to place themselves as a higher subject whose “only connection to the corporeal is his imprint left upon ‘his’ object – the body of woman” (Best emphasis 187).

This hierarchal thinking is parallel to the relation between man and space, in which men see their countries (motherland) and languages (mother tongue) as feminine. In fact, not only countries such as Britain and France are characterized as women—“Britannia stands for Britain, Marianne for Republican France”—cities such as New York, Los Angles, Paris and so forth have also been characterized as women (Best 181). In Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, Marina Warner calls Paris as a feminine city (36). She describes the public space of Paris as a feminine flesh and the buildings as having “bosomy and vaginal contours…pillowy roofs and open-mouthed entrances” (36-7; Best 182). Also, drawing on Scott Fitzgerald’s description of New York as an “essentially cynical and heartless” woman (143), Sue Best comes to see New York as “an active libido”—she has “a clitoris at the entrance to her harbour” (182). Furthermore, Los Angeles is also named by scholars such as Joan Baudrillard (1983) and Edward Soja (1989) as the representation of woman (Best 182).

If we change our scale into a domestic view, we also find that the representation of our home has been always a feminine one. In Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a house is a “maternal” feature: “a warm, co[z]y, sheltering, uterine home” (7; Best emphasis 182). It was as though our home serves as the womb of our mother, where we receive foods, waters, sense of security and comfort. This metaphor of home is parallel to the earth we are living, in which we gain foods, water, materials for shelter, and even natural cycles such as climate and nutrients from our Mother Earth. And yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world, the space that we are living, the womb that we come from. The rise of technology and industry has led us toward a modern and convenient life. However, under the influence of capitalism and the rising of consumerism, we come to “forget” about there is only one Mother Earth. As even it vanishes little by little, we still take everything in nature for granted and keep consuming. If our planet were a woman, we were all cannibals, as our lives are fed on the blood and sacrifice of a single living female body.

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre links the female body to the contemporary neo-capitalist space: “The ways in which space is thus carved up are reminiscent of the ways in which the body is cut into pieces in images (especially the female body, which is not only cut up but also deemed to be “without organs”!)” (355). Lefebvre’s description calls attention to the danger that lies underneath this shifting of space and female representation in the contemporary time: from the maternal body to the sexually available female body and now towards “the fragmented female body of postmodern industry” (Best 183).

Furthermore, the female body has been linked to the image of the cyberspace. The association between the female body and the cyberspace is derived from a stereotypical thought that women are technologically incapable, which, is derived from the separation of labor between men and women, whereby women participate mainly in cooking and childcare. Drawing on this, Judy Wajcman calls for a re-definition of technology because this thinking is indeed gender-biased (137). In fact, cyber-feminists claim that women and technology together are viewed as a double threat to the rational patriarchal order (Huyssen 71) and thus, a gender-biased idea in which men are technologically capable while women have always been re-emphasized. Alternatively, some feminists suggest that by embracing cyberspace as female space, women can actually change the “male-defined technological landscape” (Toffoletti 24). As Sadie Plant suggests, “Cyberspace is the matrix not as absence, void, the whole of the womb, but perhaps even the place of woman’s affirmation” (60). By embracing the cyberspace as feminine it becomes possible for women to liberate themselves from the structure of patriarchy.

Image by Frank Schott

References:

Best, Sue. “Sexualizing Space.” in Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. ed. Elizabeth Groz and Elspeth Probyn. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. pp. 181-194. Print.

Fitzgerald, S. F. “My Lost City.” in The City: American Experience. ed. A. Trachtenberg, P. Neill and P.C Bunnell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print.

Friedberg, A. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Plant, Sadie. “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics.” in Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. ed. Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows. London: Sage, 1995. Print.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. Print.

Toffoletti, Kim. Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and The Posthuman Body. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Cambridge and Oxford: Policy Press, 1991. Print.

Warner, M. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. London: Picador, 1985. Print

 

Braving the Days: The Seasons Are Changing by Jordannah Elizabeth

 

It’s only early August and there’s a briskness to the air on the East Coast. Last year, there was blistering heat, and I craved the cool, foggy days of San Francisco, but this season has changed, and so have I. I mean, on a fundamental level I have not. I was talking to my mother about love, and I told her ever since I was a little girl, I never felt the need to prioritize love. I didn’t have the capacity to put friends before a pet, or lovers before colleagues or acquaintances before old friends.

It took me 30 years to learn the term “non hierarchical” in terms of relationships until I was 30 years old, but I immediately connected to the idea, because I’d been living it my entire life. I have always loved people, I’ve always loved life and books, writing and traveling but have never been able to say that I loved something more than the other. I understand that there are times in my life when I may be more comfortable writing a book than a music album, or when I’d rather teach than perform. There are times when I’d like to be alone, and other times when I’d like to be very social, but the emphasis of my feelings towards the phases of my life was never anything that caused me anxiety. Outside of earning a living, and work to keep social and relational conflict to a minimal, I never felt like there was something I needed to be doing that I was not doing because something came first.

A large reason for this is because I have chosen to not have children yet. I think a child is the only human being that I absolutely know would not fit into a non hierarchical structure. With this said, in my teaching career, I believe I have been successful because I treat adults and children as if they are equal beings. No, I don’t use inappropriate language, but I do not value children’s thoughts, presence and even advice over adults. I think kids give the best life advice. I think they are observant, and wise and enjoy spending time with them.

The seasons are changing and maybe I am on some levels, or maybe I am just refining what I’ve always known about myself. The weather and the Earth don’t function by the construct of hierarchy. All things are equal. I believe life and love should be fluid.