“Who runs the world?” I ask because I have complaints. The little man tells me the box for such things is down the hall. I stumble, clutching my manifestos. If only the masses would read these typed blueprints for utopia then the world would work, because I am a mechanic for reality!
I get to the box, but it is closed. The sign reads—
SEE WEBSITE FOR DETAILS.
So, I tweet.
and I yelp.
I set my phone to vibrate text alert so if anyone comments their digital voice will trip the invisible wire I have set.
Ding– 1 Comment,
Ding— 2 Comments,
YES! They can join—
Ding, Ding, Ding— 3 Comments
— MY REVOLUTION!
I open the comments like a child tearing at wrapping paper…
“Who voted for this asshole!!!,” one comment reads. “BITCH PLEASSSSSSSEEEEEE! Sit yo fucking-turtle-looking ass down somewhere!,” another retorts. “You is lame!!! #SuckIt MOTHER FUCKER!!!” another says.
I chase those comments with my words. Chase in futility the vulgarity of worldwide mass expression. The little man behind the desk laughs. “What’s so funny?!” I shout. “Nothing, our complaint box is just finally working.” I look. There I am, reduced to a wooden statue taking complaints and handing out smoke.
We made the world we live in,
And we have to make it over.
Baldwin says to me, over
Tea on couch across generations
Of whispers of learnings snuffled
Across ink and what confluence
Would have it that only this voice reaches,
It doesn’t lie, doesn’t exaggerate
Taking me up the throat, gargling its
We’re accomodating unknowingly
I mean all of it is not venom, and
All of me is not shaken
To the shaky wiggly mud patches
Of what I know and am sure to change
I’m sure of nothing.
These men in Prada suits talk of
Business deals and deforestation
Mr Sir Yours Respectfully,
Why do you have to take every fucking
Out of their house onto the street
And then call them poor
To build your goddamn dam
I’m a skeptic in front of the shopping mall
Glad I can buy creams and burgers
I don’t know of the degree of its wrong
Or if the world is becoming smaller
At all or
If I’ll ever know
If I should have to make everything about myself
Shaky wiggly mud patches watered with Starbucks
I don’t know Roy, I don’t know.
Oswald’s day out
It’s the day my sadness refused to work
And I had no choice but to smile at the balloon man,
Although he charged me three
Pennies for balloon worth two.
It’s the day my sadness walked out,
And I too left work early to sit by the frozen banana outlet
And even treated little Mona to her last ever double dip chocolate
So I refused to be sad today
Although I couldn’t be sad anyway,
I could feel it surfacing deep within
It’s the day my frustration refused to work, although
It still laughed at me from the deep mysterious insides
It’s the day my emptiness gave up
And jolted into anxious action,
And I smiled because it only slightly mattered to me anymore what I was doing,
And then little Mona was run over by the fool who could feel.
When my mother told me to listen,
Instead of shouting resentment with every bit of me
When I started to learn
To see myself as a resentor
To see it as a good thing
To shout out doubts
When quite really,
I was better off noting them down
I was better off weighing my options
I am better off sitting in a room:
Small one, dusty curtains
“To be a writer is to observe”
But I’m not a writer
More than she is a writer
More than he tweets
More than they shout
More than my unhappiness.
When we discuss in class the true tragedy
That silences Ghosh’s narrator:
Crippling, numbing, staring out the window
that we are basking ourselves in ill formed opinions
Half baked in ovens of our illusionary profiles:
It’s lost on us
Like Neruda wholly exclaimed
To sit down
Stare at the curtain (mud sprinkled like specks of sunshine you miss the little boy more than I miss the little boy yes it still haunts me I make tea my memory dissolves slowly the sugar cube swirling it’s just as real just as necessary),
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.
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.
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.
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.
The very first installment of “Braving the Days” was published on December 2, 2016. I must admit that I am none the wiser, but that doesn’t take me out of the running to have become a better woman. I believe I have become a better human being in many ways. I also believe that I am learning: in life, less can be more. I didn’t tour all over the world this year, but I’ve been to the local zoo. I didn’t play a big concert, but I played a house concert in front of 10 friends. I’ve held a three day old child in my arms, I’ve read a lot of books, I considered having surgery then decided to learn more about holistic health.
I didn’t end up in a profile in The New Yorker but I saw Ravi Coltrane play his mother’s music in New York City. I love a man who introduced me to a little Prince who adorns half his DNA. I didn’t do anything fancy, but I’ve eaten a bunch of ice cream, pushed swings at playgrounds, and had girls nights at jazz shows and museums.
It’s been a good year. Last year around this time, I had just turned 3o and I was confused and depressed, desperate to make a change, to slow down. So, I did.
My first post of the column was called:
Braving the days using a few words devoid of superfluity.
And I asked the questions:
“How would one do that or how would that sentence be acted out in real life? Yes, this is how my brain works. Between my thought journeys I write notes. I scribble thoughts and ideas and sew them together hoping to God they make sense. Who in God’s name would give me the opportunity to write free form? Should a messy thinker like me be permitted to write without direction from an editor or without a tightly fleshed out theme?”
I think I’ve gotten myself together since last year. I don’t think I’m a messy thinker or a writer without direction anymore. Since that post, I’ve written vigorously, taught many classes and workshops and read at least 51 books. I’ve calmed down, stopped being so down on myself and focused on my health and my family – and now here we are.
To the minute.
I’m alive and well. I still hope to use a few words devoid of superfluity. I don’t want to be superfluous, but it’s okay to be simple. It’s okay to grow and actually come out doing better than you were before. Being a good writer doesn’t mean you have to live a tragedy.
Being an honest writer doesn’t mean you have to ooze emotions every moment of the day and have climactic events more times than you have a good night sleep.
I guess it happened for Bukowski, but obviously I am not him. This is not to say that next year won’t be full of turmoil, but I doubt it.
Life is what you make it and being an adult can be about making a place for yourself that can last. I don’t own any running shoes…Happy New Year.
You’ve gotten to read me here for a year. Thank you. And thank you TERSE. For a providing a place for my journey.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I started this review at three in the morning. I woke up with a pain in my side; probably the result of poor cooking decisions on my part. I sat in a large chair, covered myself in blankets, and wrapped a heavy scarf around me for a shawl. The pains subsided with the writing, and the act carried them away.
A book that bears the subtitle (if only on the cover) “Why I Write” offers a starting point for interpretation before the work is even begun. There is a whole genre of writing given to the subject, ranging from musings and memoirs of the writing experience (The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard), to review collections as guides to identifying “good prose” (The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis), or the technical guides for usage (The Elements of Style by Strunk and White). Smith’s book is none of these things—not really. Smith has practiced devotion both as a writer and reader since adolescence. Reading her previous work—Just Kids and M Train in particular—informs me of her pilgrimages, her loves, her elemental respect for art that is capable of expressing the best humanity can offer. She has given her life to artists, even if they could not always give it back.
The world Patti Smith inhabits, as well as the world she crafts throughout her work, is one where the past is still resting on the ground around her. It is the same world we inhabit. Smith has the gift to bring this past into focus like a camera lens moving from background to foreground. Leaving a café is not just leaving—Smith passes a bust of Apollinaire crafted by Picasso—the same bust she saw in 1969 when she visited Paris with her sister. 1969 brings her memories of the existentialists and their cafés. Later, Smith will go to her French publisher and follow the trail of Albert Camus, the existentialist/absurdist whose early death at the height of his power added yet more hauntings to his work. Before leaving for Paris, Smith grabbed du Plessix Gray’s monograph on Simone Weil, the atheist mystic whose room Camus meditated in before he went to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the layers of memory we see Smith’s influences on her writing, and the influences on her influences, and the way connection spreads out between artists across decades, languages, continents.
Patti Smith Performing “Land” and “Gloria” in Paris, 2015
Writing begins with transcribing, interpreting; collecting. There is no blank space where ideas come from. Instead, Smith sifts through the worlds in front of her, building from the pieces that come together. This gives voice to the work as well as the ghosts that helped create it.
I have stacks around me as I write at five in the morning. Because of the stomach pain, I will forgo early morning coffee. Because of the stomach pain, I will ignore the fact that I started a sentence with “Because,” a fragmentary move I have always disliked. I have read du Plessix Gray on Weil at least four times in the last seven years—a life of self-denial was never so interesting or so genuine. There are texts next to me I should be working on—class readings, research materials, overdue library books. I scratch on with my black pencil, making notes on the paper, beginning a new sheet after filling both sides, making notes on the margin. Putting a finished sheet next to the new, I’m struck by the rate at which words turn into sentences, which turn to pages; which turn into a book. Smith’s notebook looks open-faced on the cover photograph. Is this a part of the first incarnation whose preserved product sits in my lap?
These connections between names, dates, works, and experience form a mystical way of engaging with the world for Smith.
At St. Pancras International I took yet another train to Ashford, the last length of my journey, to find Simone Weil’s grave. We passed row houses, a lifeless landscape. I noticed the date on my ticket was June 15, the birthday of my late brother Todd. His only child a daughter called Simone. I immediately brightened. Only good could happen today (24).
Smith’s notes become the trail that forms this book, the pieces of which have been built up before us. “Looking back on these fragments, I am struck with the thought that if Devotion was a crime, I had inadvertently produced evidence, annotating as I went along” (27). Samuel R. Delany once wrote in his critical study, The American Shore, about the material that builds and goes into a work
The preparation [of fictional creation] is only partially retrievable from an examination of the text; such retrieval may occur only through more or less informed supposition. (29)
The body of Devotion shifts on page 35, becoming the story Smith has been gathering material for throughout the first section. This represents Smith’s first sustained work of fiction. (She has, we are told in whispers, been writing a detective novel for some time.) A story of comings and goings, the attentive reader will see how the images—both those Smith singled out for us and those we find on our own—relate to the first section A skater viewed sleepily on television becomes the heroine—a skater whose sport becomes a perfected performance art piece, documented by the viewer—the voyeur—instead of the camera.
Stop-start. Begin again with toast. Making toast, I remember Smith’s descriptions of her life in and out of coffee shops in M Train, and the various meals of coffee and toast she describes. Bread is calming and filling, but not ultimately satisfying—man does not live by bread alone. Time passes. I take these notes with me to work in a folder, and slip the folder into the center of Devotion.
The brief story that makes up the center of Devotion reads like a fairy tale. It is dark, a love story between unbalanced partners—a young woman named Eugenia and an older man named Alexander. Eugenia, a skater, intrigues Alexander, who takes it upon himself to become her provider and controller. They begin a relationship in which each exerts a certain amount of control. Eugenia finds her interest primarily in skating. Their relationship twists like the four—then five—axles she performs on a private arena. The two are oddities who meet but never seem to come together, except in elliptical violence. The notes of the first section again help a reader determine the underlying themes—history, myth, Estonia, migration and refuge from that snip of Europe, the archaic, the poetic, the haunted, and the tragedy of spiritual self-sacrifice.
Patti Smith performs “My Blakean Year” at NYPL, 2010
The third section of the book finds Smith on a different pilgrimage, to the home of Camus this time, at the invitation of his daughter to view his final manuscript, incomplete and pulled from his suitcase after the car crash that ended his life. Like Weil, he is a thread through it all—the inspiration and connection that becomes material in the story of writing. Viewing the manuscript, Smith becomes distracted, wanting to create something of her own, to enter into the dialogue of artists.
That compulsion that prohibits me from completely surrendering to a work of art, drawing me from the halls of a favored museum to my own drafting table. Pressing me to close Songs of Innocence in order to experience, as Blake, a glimpse of the divine that may also become a poem. (93)
We see here pre-text and post-text—the creation and (brief) analysis, the scaffold and the unveiling. Recurrence allow details to stand out; specks of light to bleed through. Great work can often inspire others to response—affection and devotion. The ability to connect these things allows for an answer to the question that sent the muse running off at the start:
Why do we write? A chorus erupts.
Because we cannot simply live (94).
I come home late into the evening. There is little I can find to do—food doesn’t appeal but neither does rest. Internet images fill cheaper desires. A shower offers an open warmth different from the heat of my room. My wrists no longer hurt. Silence. Meditation hinging on deep sleep and the dream state. I reach out to my notebook and my pen. Living is not enough in itself—we must make something out of it. It is in this making that we find devotion enough to keep us for our days.
Most people do not place much faith in bus schedules. Congestion and traffic lights always conspire to delay buses by five minutes or more. When I moved to London, Ontario, I learnt quite swiftly that the arrival and departure of buses in this city do not follow any logical system. At least their randomness allows me to practice the art of waiting and thus cultivate the virtue of patience.
I do not have a car or a driver’s license, so the bus is the only mode of transportation that can take me from my neighborhood to the university campus. I expect that I will regret my decision not to take a driving test when I am shivering at a bus stop in the middle of the harsh Ontario winter. Then again, I am a dangerously incompetent driver. On my very last driving lesson, my instructor advised me never to get behind the wheel of a car ever again. He assured me that lives were at stake. Driving, like filing your taxes or installing your Wi-Fi router, is one of those things that needs to be done right or not at all. I suppose that waiting at a bus stop is the price one must pay for not committing any acts of manslaughter through clumsy driving.
While I look down the road in the hope of spotting the approaching bus, I think idly about the set text for today’s seminar: Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. The book’s editor, Ronald Beiner, compiled Arendt’s lecture notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgement to supply a surrogate for the book that Arendt never finished. According to Arendtian lore, a sheet of paper was found in her typewriter after her death that bore two epigraphs and the title Judging. It was the first page of the final part of her trilogy The Life of the Mind. So, what is judging?
Judgment has a bad reputation nowadays. Being judgmental is perceived as a vice and conjures up the image of an entitled prig who believes that his opinions are unquestionably superior and meritorious. Moreover, judgment is too closely related to prejudice (Latin. praeiudicium—“prior justice”) for anyone to think that there is anything redeemable about it.
Nevertheless, I believe that we can rescue the exercise of judgment from accusations of judgmental-ness and prejudice. After all, stubbornness of mind is not an inherent quality of judgment. In fact, Arendt quotes a letter that Kant wrote to his friend and pupil Marcus Herz in 1770: “You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with the intention of merely refuting them but that in thinking them over I always weave them into my judgments and afford them the opportunity of overturning all my cherished beliefs.” Judgment cannot take place without an open mind. Since we share the world with others, no one can make a claim or present an argument without encountering someone else’s opinions and objections. Furthermore, Arendt argues that this acknowledgment of the existence and intelligence of other people is already weaved into a judgment. She explains that imagination—the capacity to make present what is absent—enables us to anticipate the responses of others and imagine why they might agree or object to our opinions. In a sense, imagination enables us to host a roundtable discussion in our own minds.
It is apt that I am thinking about judgment on my way to a seminar. Whereas lectures present authoritative answers, seminars provoke curious discussions. Incidentally, the word seminar originates from the Latin seminarium— “breeding ground, plant nursery”— which, in turn, derives from seminarius— “of seed.” No one is expected to present a fully-grown tree of an idea in a roundtable discussion (Truthfully speaking, few scholars seek definitive answers unless they are consulting the O.E.D.). Every remark or question is a scattering of conceptual seeds that might grow into an offshoot that takes the conversation into an unforeseen direction. There is something playful and rewarding about seminars. Debates remind me of games of chess, in which two combatants must compete until one of them emerges as the victor. Seminars, on the other hand, evoke the image of several friends jogging together in the park on a Sunday afternoon. No one needs to win; there is no score. Just as jogs exercise body, seminars broaden and sharpen the mind.
Although scholars are usually caricatured as solitary and unsociable types, we crave and cherish the company of our peers. Even when we appear to spend too much time in silence and solitude, we are never completely alone. Whenever we quote a statistic or reshape an old idea, we enter a genuine relation with our predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Yet, I fear that this joyful and spirited play between history and the future is under threat.
Like many others, I have puzzled over the meaning and purpose of a scholarly life in the age of revitalized fascism. Times of crisis can inspire feelings of futility and fatalism. I worry that someone who is prepared to plow through a crowd of innocent people in a sports car may not be bothered about the fact that graduate students attend and participate in seminars. Nonetheless, something as simple as sitting in a room with others and discussing a topic respectfully is antithetical to fascism.
Fascism offers a simple explanation of the world for those who cannot confront the unpredictability and complexity of modern life. Different groups are cast in the roles of the good guys and the bad guys. Nothing is safe or sacred whenever fascists plait their ideology into the texture of life. Anyone who publishes an inconvenient fact is accused of spreading fake news; anyone who stands up for the rights of others is ridiculed as an “SJW.”
Fascism overpowers imagination with delusion. Whereas imagination requires the humility to admit that someone could rightfully disagree with you, delusion requires the staunch belief that anyone and anything that contradicts your worldview is objectively wrong. Everyone knows that it is easier to delude oneself than imagine the perspective of someone else. Novelists struggle for years to grasp the essence of what it means to live and act as a human being before they can craft fictional characters that “ring true.” In this light, one can understand the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels to right-wing libertarians. Her characters are nothing more than mediums for competing ideologies. No depth, ambiguity, or mystery is permitted in the system of Rand’s objectivism. Think about the rape scene in The Fountainhead. Under fascism, intimacy and tenderness can play no part in sexual intercourse; there is only abuse, aggression, and domination. That’s why contemporary fascism is so keen to defend our pernicious and pervasive rape culture. Fascism refuses to accept that people deserve dignity even when they are inconvenient. Women deserve respect even when they withhold consent. Protestors are not terrorists just because they disagree with you.
Riding on a bus teaches me a lot about living with others. As much as I would like everyone on this bus to be quiet enough for me to read Simone Weil in peace, I do not suffer from the requisite megalomania to think that I should force them into silence and submission. People cannot be manipulated like pixels on Photoshop.
Noise is just a part of public space.
I think about a counter-protest that I attended recently in opposition to the gathering of an anti-Islamic group that claimed to promote the right to free speech. While they yelled their hateful speeches into a megaphone, we banged on drums and blew on whistles to drown them out. Later, a member of that group approached me and asked why I wanted to deny his right to speak freely. I told him that our confrontation had nothing to do with free speech. Given the authority, their group would have ordered the police to arrest every single participant in the counter-protest. They did not want us to listen. They wanted us to be silent.
Fascism cannot tolerate the existence of seminars, because they prove that the alt-right’s conception of the right to free speech is just a pale facsimile of the real thing. Seminars reveal that coming closer to the truth requires conversation and collaboration. Broadening one’s mind means opening oneself up to the sacred inconsistency of the world. In a more mundane sense, it means waiting for a bus even when it is a few minutes late.
I am sitting in the seminar room now. People nod in recognition whenever someone new enters the room. There is casual chatter about the reading for the week. Someone scribbles a few prompts into their notebook to remind them of significant points to raise as soon as the discussion gets underway. Someone starts the seminar with a question and someone else offers a tentative answer, then someone refines the answer with stipulation, which, in turn, prompts someone else to pose another question. As I listen, I think: “Fascism has no home here.”
I’m literally sitting writing this reading list in a Hugo Boss jacket that’s a bit too large for my small feminine frame. I found it barely worn in freshly dry cleaned in a “giveaway” box in my neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood leaves books, clothes and appliances out to share and trade. Some neighbors are a bit more well off than others. It’s not uncommon to find a wealthy student’s small collection of hand-me-downs that are clean, expensive and barely a year old. I almost like men’s jackets more than I like books, but as the season begins to change, and Fall makes chills the air crisp and chill, I can enjoy both at the same time. No need to choose.
These books are a combination of favorites, like my friend China Martens epic zine anthology, Future Generation and the enthralling Womanist literary effort, Hope is in the Holler: A Womanist Theory and a collection of books I’ve compiled while preparing for my feminist lectures and writing workshops like “Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions.” I rummage through libraries and independent books stores like Red Emma’s Books to find just what I need for my never ending literary pursuits.
The fall season is perfect for learning new things and growing our minds and perspectives, especially since school is now in session.