Listening to the Ghosts of 1991– Part 2 of 3

That uneasiness breaking into alarm that I felt this January: I have felt it before. The arguments about whether a “fringe” candidacy could go far, perhaps even into office: I have heard them before. The arguments about puritan posturing on whether one could vote for some loathed other candidate: I’ve had them all before.

But many of you haven’t. So I want to let you know what this is like the second time, on a national stage, with far more at stake. In this post, I’ll reflect on “Expatriate” from my current perspective. In a follow-up post, I will more specifically address the present danger.

It has been years since I reread that essay-recast-as-monologue, “Expatriate.” In last month’s rereading, three aspects of it stood out, one still strongly in memory, one dimly so, and one a surprise.

It was prescient. I griped about the media trope of crazy-Louisiana. Even then, the data about the geography and demographics of Duke’s support gave the lie, or perhaps the willful refusal to see, to that narrative isolating the white nationalist racism to my home state. It was everywhere. The ‘91 Louisiana gubernatorial race could have prompted national reflection and critique. It did not. Instead, it only prompted bemused mocking of Louisiana and its people. At the easy mockery instead of hard self-examination, I was furious — still am. Not that I intended to predict anything; it would have been great to have been wrong.

Thus the first aspect, strong in memory. We make the same mistake now by isolating or disabling discourses of “those people,” “crazy,” and “stupid.”

Stupid brings me to the second feature that struck me. I see my own internalized stigma, that belief that Louisiana voters were simply stupid. 1991-me wanted to protect herself from its contamination. This embarrasses me now. Younger self showed no awareness of social contexts that might lead to the measurable aspects of the claim, e.g. educational levels among the lowest in the nation. I failed to interrogate sheer intelligence as the definitive index of value. This is what embarrasses me now.

Feeling that embarrassment sprung on me the new insight, the surprise: I have never regretted voting for Edwin Edwards.

Not for a fucking nanosecond. So deeply that I didn’t even notice my lack of regret until a few weeks ago.

Not-regretting comes in two varieties. One is the post-decision self-check: “I didn’t like doing this, but I did it. Do I regret it now? Nah.” The other kind is when one doesn’t even do a self-check, doesn’t even notice the lack of a self-check. Not only did I not regret voting for Edwards, but it was this second kind of not-regretting — and I only noticed these twenty-five years later, when a similar situation arose on the national stage.

Let me underline something about that old essay-monologue: when Duke cast his hat in the gubernatorial ring, I was not registered to vote in Louisiana. I was a grad student in Chicago, living there at least nine months a year. Which state I voted in was entirely up to me. So it’s not that I was already registered in Louisiana and faced an unpleasant choice: I chose to register in my home state, when I had never done so before, precisely to do what bit I could to prevent a Duke victory.

Yeah, it was only one vote. But it was mine. It was what I could do.

To complicate things a bit: one can say that my little bit helped bring Edwards to a fourth term. The main upshot of that term was the legalization and expansion of casino gambling in Louisiana — something I abhor. It came with Edwards’ usual cronyism and possible mob ties. Louisiana’s poorest continued to fare poorly, and the educational sector continued to slide, as they both have continued to do under Democratic and Republican governors and legislatures. This was not good.

But what would a Duke governorship have done? It would have put overt white supremacy and anti-Semitism in power. It would have legitimized overt white supremacies in Louisiana and elsewhere. It would have increased their power, and not just in one state. It would have aided in the creation of a future in which overt racism and anti-Semitism had more power, more public attention, and more ability to continue building its power. Had I written this post just five years ago, I would have added: it would have hastened the devolution of the Republican Party from a protect-wealth party to a foster-hate party. But, well.

So I registered and voted, once in the primary for Buddy Roemer — a wonky center-right guy, then recently crossed over to the GOP and thus not my preferred party, but without Edwards-level corruption — and once in the runoff for Edwin Edwards, the epitome of Louisiana faux-populism serving crony capitalism. The first vote was not painful for me, but the second was. I did it to stop a former Klan pooh-bah from becoming governor.

Just one little vote. It was what I could do. I have never regretted it.

 

 

The Political Ghosts of 1991– Part 1 of 3

Since last fall, the rise of Drumpf and the discussion surrounding it have recalled to me the scene in Louisiana in 1991. I wrote the piece below circa 1993 and, at a friend’s request, revised it as a dramatic monologue in 1997. I don’t know if it was ever used in the staged reading for which it took this form. The only change I have made in 1997 version is naming the coffee shop in the basement of Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. I want to let that ’90s voice speak for itself, and undertake comment on our current situation in a follow-up post.

_____________________

Expatriate

            A woman in her early twenties is sitting on the porch of her grandmother’s shotgun double in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. She is dressed like a student, but is wearing clothes that are too warm for the deep south. The time is late December, after Christmas, in 1991.

I remember the first time I saw them. Last year, I happened to be home on St. Patrick’s Day. Dad was in that parade, the one that goes by Parasol’s. Grandma was catching vegetables, and I tried to count the little blue Duke stickers in that sea of green shirts, the stickers on the float guys, in the crowd, in the bar, at the Dixie truck. In the green beer line with me. When did this happen?

So I went digging in Grandma’s bag, behind her back. She’d caught lots of little red potatoes, and I picked out a few of those to throw at the blue stickers on the float guys. Target practice, disguised as part of the game. You can throw things back at floats, right? Then she turned around and saw me with both hands full of potatoes.

“Where you goin’ with those potatoes?”

“I’m going to throw them at the floats.”

“No you not. I’m going to cook those. Put them back, and you catch your own potatoes.”

All I caught was a green onion. I needed a better way of dealing with this.

 

I left New Orleans when I was 18, and I vowed then that I would never vote in a Louisiana election. “So you moved to Chicago?” people say. Yes. And voted there, once. Chicago politics is as hard to learn as our own. If you don’t know who was doing what to whom thirty years ago, you’ll be lost in the present. For an outsider, it does offer a certain innocence of the evil you inevitably choose. On the other hand, in Louisiana, the blue stickers multiplied like mosquitoes in August. I had just moved from one campus to another, and since Chicago erases you from the rolls if you move and don’t send notice, I wasn’t registered to vote anywhere. The race back home was everything I had hoped to avoid with that vow, kept six years now. I made up my mind before I got on the train.

On the day when I intended to break the vow, Mom asked me to pick up this new bed frame at the Maison Blanche on the West Bank.

“I don’t know where that place is,” I tell her.

“Go get Grandma. She’ll tell you where it is. But you drive.”

So I go by Grandma’s, tell her that I’m going to register to vote in Jefferson Parish, and then we’re going to pick up this bed frame at the Maison Blanche on the West Bank.

“You drive,” she says. Yes, I’ll drive.

It didn’t seem like much when I did it, breaking the vow. The hardest part was political affiliation, picking one out of four little boxes: Democrat, Republican, Other, and None. I couldn’t decide between Other and None, and now I don’t even remember which one I picked. I cast an absentee ballot for the primary, got back in the car, and headed for the Mississippi River bridge and the bed frame while Grandma told me about the latest car accident one of my cousins had had. “I’m a Louisiana voter, I’m a Louisiana voter,” I kept saying to myself, and waiting for my IQ to drop 60 points. Then I would slap myself and say, “You’ve been in the north too long.”

 

Soon I was back in Chicago, reading what the national newspapers had to say about Those People in Louisiana. Answering that question students inevitable ask each other, “Where are you from?” I would wake up in the morning with those lines playing in my head, “Oh, mothers tell your babies not to do what I have done . . . “ But what have I done? Then I’d get out of bed, drink that thin northern coffee, snap out of it, and study ancient history.

On the night of the primary, I went to the basement to find an open TV. Some guys were playing pool & drinking beer. I asked if they’d mind if I changed the channel to CNN. They didn’t, but one of them gave me this long strange look. He was thinking, the Gulf War’s over, what’s this chick doing watching CNN at 1 o’clock on Saturday night?

“I’m from Louisiana. There’s a gubernatorial primary . . .”

The guy squints at me and swirls his beer.

“It’s the one with the former Klan grand wizard running . . .”

“Oh, yeah.” Now he leans back to his shot, sights it, and looks back up at me.

“Isn’t Jimmy Swaggart also from Louisiana?”

“Yes!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

 

The Monday after the runoff, I sat in Swift Kick, drinking thin coffee and reading a copy of the New York Times that someone had left on the table. Pages and pages about Us. Them. It. Him. They had two pages of statistical analyses and pie charts: Louisiana voters broken down by sex, age, race, income, education, religion, parish, and political party affiliation (they had Other but not None). Before I thought much about it, I was looking for my own socioeconomic profile. Why? I knew how I voted, didn’t I? Or was I looking for the People Like Me, to see if they did what I did?

I didn’t ship back out here until Christmas. That’s when I started looking at people I had known all my life, and wondering. Some talk about it. Most don’t.

There was the uncle, sitting at our bar with his belly hanging out, as he has for decades of Christmases. But this time he’s saying to his wife, “Did you vote for who I told you to?” And she’s being coy, “Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.” “You better have. Because They’re taking over.” I want to yell: “Which one? Which They? Who’s taking over what from whom? And are we We or Them?” Did he vote for Duke, and if he did, do I want to pour him another beer for the rest of my life? I said nothing.

Or there’s Grandma, who told me that she voted for Edwards, for the first time in her life, and she has hated him for twenty years. She tells me that she was worried that Duke would win, because all of her friends were voting for him. “Grandma,” I said (consulting the New York Times pie charts burned into my mind’s retina), “your friends are all old white people. That’s Duke’s demographic.” “But I told them not to!”

And then there was my brother, who didn’t vote for Duke, but still looked at me and said, “You’re not from here anymore because you won’t come back.”

Six out of ten white Louisiana voters, voted for Duke, according to the New York Times pie charts. But which ones, the oracle does not say.

 

That’s what it’s been about along, who We are, who gets to decide who counts as We. But in the national press, We, Louisiana, were a Them: Those People in Louisiana, I read over and over again, in the economic and social etiologies of our collective disease, with its symptom named David Duke. But Duke’s money was coming in from New York to California. No one mentioned that little symptom, or ventured to diagnose a national disease. Was it too small a clue, too easily hidden by an illusion that the disease was confined to the borders of one stray state? One day, the rest of you will see. You will have some symptom thrust upon you, something you can’t look away from, and can’t explain away by one state’s shady swamp of a history. Then you will look at your neighbors and wonder who’s their Us, and who’s their Them.

See, I thought I could leave Louisiana, but it’s everywhere. We’re all in this. And me, I know I’m one.

 

So Uh Muses

This long, cruel April ends an academic year of despond. I’ve been lost: I feel, most of the time, that my time and attention feeds a black hole. Could be cultural changes in academe, or middle age, or everything.

This morning, I sketched an ideal day: two hours of writing, four hours of reading, one hour of piano practice, and one hour of exercise. Then I committed addition. That’s eight hours. That’s a working day. And I have an actual job, too.

(Note: I do spend about four hours a day, often more, reading. It’s just not what I mean by reading. We need a new, variegated vocabulary of reading. Add that to the to-write list.)

With this pressing need to give my time a kick in the pants, to set it back on course, I applied to the Tupelo 30/30 project. It’s a writing challenge cum fund-raiser: poets commit to composing a poem a day, and these poems are posted to the project site; and we ask people to sponsor us. Like a 10K run for leukemia research, only it’s 30 poems in 30 days for an indie press.

So yes, please sponsor me.

Joining the Tupelo 30/30 project for May 2016 is, for me, part of a course correction. It’s a commitment to writing poems, with public accountability — and response. Yeah, you can talk back to my poems.

This May isn’t ideal for such a project, but no month would be. Here’s what else I have on my plate: academic projects on which I am unforgivably behind, so let writing beget writing; a visit to my first home, New Orleans, and my soul’s home, Chicago; and, above all, cochlear implant surgery. I’m going bilateral. (Should I have mentioned that in the project bio? But I’m terrible at bios.)

A bumpy ride. But I don’t have to teach anybody anything until June.

So uh, Muses . . .?

One Photo, One Poem, One Song (Katrina Mind)

Katrina was when I stopped listening to NPR. During the weeks following the storm, the station seemed to feature readings by every well-educated, reflective person who could sort of turn a phrase and was not a New Orleanian. They wrote about how they felt about the images they saw on television.

I could not write at all for a week, or about Katrina until months later.

Today, I want to say something, yell something, weep something. If I reconstructed that time, I would say far too much, to no good end but turning the trauma back on. If I wrote about my current thoughts on the matter — how Katrina has moved from diagnostic to prophecy, and keeps moving — I couldn’t be heard above the din of today’s NPR-oids.

So I will limit myself.

One photo, taken in late October 2005: my grandmother’s china cabinet.

ChinaCab

(Nothing of my other grandmother’s house survived the tidal wave in Waveland to be photographed. Multiply by a million or so. Special love to the Lower Ninth.)

One poem, published in The Lyric, Vol. 88 no. 3 (Summer 2008).

Raphael-DistanceVision

 

And one song, Fats Domino’s “Valley of Tears.” It wasn’t the only song I listened to obsessively in those months, but last night I noticed that it’s at the top of my iTunes Most Played List. And I didn’t start using iTunes until ’08.

Finally a non-titular piece of advice: stop reading the Nproids. Read the natives, or at least outsiders who are raising native voices.

P.S. I bought Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke as soon as it became available on DVD. I still can’t watch it. One day.

 

Spock and the Private Canon: RIP Leonard Nimoy

I have a routine for the deaths of famous actors whose work I appreciated: a toast, a selected re-viewing, maybe a short chat with a friend who was also a fan. But this is different. At Leonard Nimoy’s passing on February 27, I must do and say more – some of it loudly and in public. Bear with me.

Nimoy gave us Spock, and that gift has meant more to me than anything else in our pop culture. I’ve been reading the tributes in the media, and they always characterize Spock as unemotional, as if he was defined by the absence of something. I don’t doubt that Roddenberry and the early writers started with that idea, but Nimoy gave him positive traits and, yes, an emotional core.

I first encountered Star Trek in its earliest syndication, circa 1974. (Young ‘uns: There was no cable back then, but there were things called independent channels. They reran cancelled series and had fabulously bad local commercials.) I fixed immediately upon Spock: I wanted to be his friend; I wanted to be him. In the imaginal worlds of our neighborhood, I did get to be Spock. In my own fantasies, I played scientist at recess. And in daydreams, I would rescue Spock from capture and humiliation. That last part is autobiographically telling – on the show, he was in no more or less danger than others, but in my imagination, there were special threats to what Spock represented. (I was not wrong about this.) This recollection may seem childish, but I mention it because it latched on to one of the character’s real virtues, and one that would inform my life: intellectual curiosity.

Spock was exceptionally smart. He seemed to know everything, yet so egolessly – things themselves were fascinating. One never stopped, never rested with “enough” knowledge and understanding. To stop learning would be illogical. I suppose this seemed simple and damned obvious, but I am trying to represent my earliest reception of Spock in terms faithful to it. Spock mattered because I had no other model: there were no adults, no other kids, certainly nothing else in pop culture, that modeled intellectual life and insatiable curiosity. Thus my first bit of public mourning:

SpockTweet

And this was true for a long time. I was fifteen before I met anyone who was even in the ballpark of a life devoted to knowledge. Without Spock, I don’t know how I would have made it through those years with no image of a person driven by intellectual curiosity. In other words, I don’t know how I would have become myself. Yes, there were other, richer models – canonical names – but I did not find them until my early teens. I had to get that far on Spock alone.

(For a beautiful post on finding intellectual life from a working class background, see LD Burnett’s recent post.)

My childhood interest at ages 6-8 waned, but a personal Trek renaissance came with cable TV when I was about 13. This time, it came with a crush, a strong attraction to this figure who was both the sort of person I wanted, and the sort I wanted to be. I won’t dwell on this. Suffice to say that it took over a decade for me to realize that smart, geeky guys were not interested in the likes of me, and Spock’s solitary nature became another aspect of his model. (I can’t do better than Laurie Penny, and no, I am not yet capable of discussing this article.) By this time, liking Star Trek singled one out as a nerd and object of ridicule. As if I needed help with that. But I protected the Spock within.

Anyway, the pre-teen attachment waned, and for a while, I thought I was over Trek and Spock. Then the Nineties came it, and with it, a Trek culture such as I had never know. I was in grad school then, and what I’m about to say began to emerge in that adult choice to be Trekkie. Rock out with your Spock out, as people would say in the next century.

It’s a mistake to center Spock on non-emotionality. It’s also a mistake to see him as repressed emotionality. I’ve been called unemotional my whole life, when my subjectivity is quite passionate. There’s such a thing as emotional normativity, and people viciously enforce it. So let me describe Spock by what he is centered on: intellectual curiosity, love of friends, honesty by default, deep loyalty, and openness to new experiences. In contrast to how fan fiction would have it, canonical Spock is just not sexual, or not very much. Here is a personality driven by traits and emotions that our culture devalues – finds nearly inconceivable, wants to pretend are a cover for or way of getting other things. Nimoy’s performance as Spock gives no quarter to those interpretations. Spock is living integrity, all of a piece. Here is a character centered on qualities that our culture treats as peripheral at best. Even his intellectual life is exceptional in its egolessness. There is not a whiff of “Look at me, how smart I am,” in Spock. It’s always, “Look at this. Fascinating.”

(Addendum: Please see also Robert Greene II’s memorial and discussion in terms of U.S. pop cultural history. He and I exchanged tweets on the following point: Spock’s differences were, specifically, high intelligence, non-normative emotionality, and bi-raciality. For those of us who share one or more of those traits, the specifics matter a great deal. Calling Spock merely an “outsider,” as if that category can be filled up with just anything, erases the significance of these traits.)

And Leonard Nimoy gave us Spock. He did much more, I know. Fictional heroes have advantages over real ones; they can do without the blemishes of real lives. I’m glad we don’t know more about Homer or Shakespeare. What biography would we want in the minds who created Achilles and Odysseus, Lear and Hamlet? Usually, I want the work, not the artist. I wonder what it is like for living actors to carry the projections of millions, knowing always the difference between the character and themselves. For all that, Nimoy sustains appreciation: by all accounts, he was personable, thoughtful, and ethical, and funny. He practiced many arts, including directing and photography, and has an acting curriculum vitae a light-year long. He struggled with the Spock persona, privately and in public. I never read his bios (work over artist), but I was never the type of fan to be offended at a statement like “I am not Spock” (of course not), or to see the later “I am Spock” as a change of opinion. Both are true.

George Steiner, in Real Presences, makes a distinction between public and private canons. The pubic canon is that collectively generated body of powerful works, the ones that can deeply inform individuals and civilizations. If we engage with these deeply, we each have a distinctive version of the pubic canon. The private canon, Steiner defines as those works to which we have given a deep welcome in our lives, whatever those things may be. Some of them may be embarrassing. (Quick: what music did you love at age 12?) I’m grateful to have lived a life in dialogue with real, publicly canonical literature, art, and science. But first, I had to get there, and to get there, I needed Spock. That character is an indelible part of my private canon, and I say that without embarrassment. Leonard Nimoy made him, and for that, I am forever grateful.

May Nimoy’s memory be a blessing to his family, friends, and for all of us geeks.

Baffle Me This

To the Editors, The Baffler

I write to express my disappointment at the choice to run June Thunderstorm’s “Abled-Bodied Till it Kills Us” in Baffler No. 26. The argument of this article is that a few people in one workplace a decade ago believed that they had disabilities, that Thunderstorm does not think they had, and that therefore the concept of “ableism” is merely a means by which the rich perpetuate their power. Even the last part of the article that makes a slight concession to the concept of “disability” shows no awareness of the significant role that class analysis has always played in the disability rights movement and in scholarship. As a whole, however, the article’s main rhetorical effect is to mock disability, ableism, and those who experience them. Evidently, to the author and the editors, reinforcing anti-disabled bias was acceptable for the sake of ridiculing some former co-workers.

With some trepidation – because I have so often experienced bias on this issue, even from people who view themselves as otherwise free of biases – I shall try to explain the basics of disability critique, why I expected better from The Baffler, and what The Baffler might have done on this topic.

“Ableism” is a clunky term, and I wish we had a better one. However, our society does allocate economic value and power based on physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. Rosemarie Garland Thomson proposed the term “normate” for the ideologically constructed non-disabled body. This is the body for which the social world is built, the one it assumes, and the one whose absence it punishes with exclusions. Disability itself isn’t simply a property of bodies. It’s a bodily difference on which social practices them impose additional and unnecessary exclusions.

Some examples. Decades ago, many people who use wheelchairs could not get jobs because few buildings had ramps and accessible toilets. Ability to use steps was, in effect, a job qualification, for no good reason in most cases. Thus a difference in physical ability became a difference in employability, when there was no relevance.  A person who is colorblind has a physical impairment, but our society doesn’t rely on color perception for many social goods. Color blindness is mildly disabling, at most, at least under the conditions of 21st Century America. It’s never just about the body per se, but also about the assumptions about bodies that we build into the parts of the environment we control.

Access and accommodation mean adapting the environment or social practices to differences in ability. The widespread perception that this is somehow “special” treatment is incorrect. For instance, I am sighted; I need lights to do my job. My sightedness and need for lights is already accommodated by light fixtures and the expectation that an electric bill must be paid. I have never had to ask my employer to provide me with light so that I can do my job. When a disabled person asks for an accommodation, it’s not different. Only ideology makes it appear different.

Abled privilege, infelicitous term that it is, is living in an environment that is already build to accommodate you. If you don’t believe me, let me know when you need to enter a building with doors 25 feet off the ground because the designers assumed bodies that could flap their wings and fly in.

I use these examples because I think they’re easy to understand. But let me mention the context to which the article refers – higher ed. It’s my context too. I first discovered The Baffler as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. My first Baffler was No. 5, which I discovered in 57th Street Books and quickly devoured. I rounded up every back issue I could lay hands on – all but the first – and bought every new edition as long as I lived in Hyde Park. That issue and subsequent ones from that period resonated with my disaffection with literary theory and with the generational rhetoric surrounding my cohort, Gen X. I have assigned Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” essay from No. 6 to students into the current decade. That’s The Baffler I remembered and loved.

I was profoundly deaf by that time, too. Born with “normal” hearing, I began to lose it slowly in early adolescence. At the time, many universities didn’t have disability services for students. In college, I had several classes where I could not hear the professor at all, and where other students refused my request to share their notes with me. By grad school, I had learned not to ask for any kind of – accommodation, but I didn’t know that sense of the word at the time. Let’s say, any variation in practice that would have let me obtain the same information that my fellow-students had by means of their functional ears. Thus, I had at best fragmentary comprehension of what was said in my classes. That means every damn one. For eight years. And I went out on the notorious academic job market in my naturally late-deafened state.

I’m going to skimp on details here, because I keep imagining the editors taking the snide tone of this article. Suffice to say that I discovered disability criticism, including its class analysis; undertook a bodily alteration; and through a highly unlikely chain of events, managed to remain in academe. Now I regularly have disabled students who will not ask for accommodations they really need, because they don’t want to be stigmatized for having “special” extras – and in the process, they get less out of their educations than they might. There are not rick kids, so let’s think a little before slamming all of higher ed for being too accommodating, and thus feeding the attitudes that make things even harder for these students.

So please listen up.

Yes, there is such a thing as abled privilege.

People get enormous social power just because they can hear – and enormous social detriment when they can’t. Going to college and teaching in colleges is radically different for those of us who lack a major sense, or have major neurological differences, or major differences in mobility. The details of the experiences differ, depending on the physical-mental differences, but the exclusionary structures operate pretty much the same way. Here’s how they operate: nobody is aware of how the environment and practices already accommodate their normate bodies; disabled bodies are blamed for the detriments that are actually socially imposed; and whether or not we even have a disability is questioned. Meanwhile, our numbers in the student body and professoriate remain very low. And the non-disabled think this is fine and the natural order of things.

There is such a thing as fucking abled privilege.

It’s as real as white privilege and male gender privilege. And The Baffler saw fit to snark at that. I can’t imagine this magazine publishing an article that took a comparable tone to sexism and racism. Then again, I’ve missed recent issues, so maybe this is your thing now.

Here’s what I imagine instead. One of the things I loved about The Baffler of the early ‘90s was its analysis of how post-modern theory enabled the image-driven culture of late capitalism. The rejection of ontological realism in much theory leaves us only with a discourse body, something entirely a fabrication of images and speech. By suppressing the reality of our actual bodies, theory abets late capitalism’s manufactured desires. It rigs curtains so that we don’t see that all of our bodies are commodified fuel for the economic machine. If we have bodies that won’t serve as this fuel, we are disabled and excluded from what most people experience as their main source of value, their ability to produce profit. (For whom?) If we start with “normal” fuel-bodies, when we became disabled by the machine, it spits us out as waste product. Our bodily needs are then seen as “costs” and “burdens,” while other bodies somehow don’t have “costs” or aren’t “burdens.” Maybe the difference between a body that isn’t a “cost” and “burden” and one that is, is whether it’s currently function as fuel. Or not. What or whom does it serve to embed this ideology in so many people? Cui bono?

Disability critique can be, in some ways, more traditional than the faux radicalism of theory, and far more radical than even Marxism, in its potential to undo the human being as seller of his/her labor. That’s where The Baffler could have gone with disability.

But no, you had to punch down. You had to mock the terms that generations of activists have created to construct a language for expressing our lives.

I’m sorry this is so long.  I have never written such a long letter to a periodical. In fact, I have never before used profanity in correspondence with a periodical. But dammit, you’re not Fox News, you’re The Baffler.

Or you used to be.

The Unasked Question

Where were you when. Everybody asks that.

I was about to start a class. Some of the students had heard and told the rest of us.

Later that day, a colleague asked me to be on a panel discussion the next evening. Why? Because I’m the religious studies prof. The only one. Not tenure-track, nor any hope of same.

One of my major memories of that September has been on my mind lately. It’s the question no one ever asks: How do you feel about being a scholar of religion – now?

What’s it like to have your field treated as fluff, and then suddenly one day, everyone is interested?

What’s it like to have to school everyone in the asking of questions? To stammer at answering questions because the concepts in which they are posed are flimsy?

(“Does religion make people violent?” Is “religion” a single monolithic thing that can be summed over human experience? Does it make sense to speak of it as somehow outside of “people,” such that it could make people something they aren’t already? Violent – how much, when, where?)

Do events like these change your connection to what you study?

That’s the big one, the one I’m aware of not being asked. Generally, people assume that scholars of religion are religious in the terms that make sense for the supposer’s thought balloon. Often, people assume that I agree with their own religiosity, but just know more about it. Or at least, they assume that until I open my mouth.

Yes. In the weeks following 9/11/01, I couldn’t stand my subject, or anybody’s assumptions about what I do, or the terms in which questions were posed to me, or the sheer lack of any place to stand – that is, any discursive footholds in which to speak in a different mode about religions and those who make them. Those who make them, meaning, us.

Popular discourse about religion is dominantly configured as unispace – a continuous ground of things or events, with only affirmation or denial recognized as options. Religious people believe. Scholars believe. With the verb “believe” effacing numerous and disparate actions and relations. No second or third dimensions available in which the objects of unispace might be framed, or non-unispace acts performed.

I’ll have to explain more later what I mean by unispace. Not today.

I don’t hate-study things. Very few scholars do. Given the demands of academic life, it would be strange to spend so much of one’s energy studying something that you hate. Not impossible, but strange, and rare.

Sometimes students infer that I hate the Bible, which just means that I don’t view it as they do. Look at those available settings: agree with me, or hate. They’re wrong in the inference, and even more wrong in the underlying structure. It saddens me that a few write that at the end of a semester, by which time, they should know just a tiny bit better.

Or there’s this: “Oh, but you don’t have to read it this way. True religion is . . .”

Nope. Everything that people have constructed as religion goes into the pot of stuff with which we work. Suppose I were a meteorologist and, before doing the grunt work, I threw out of the pot all the weather I don’t like? That’s not true weather! Just focus on true weather, and you’ll understand.

No. I’ll be doing something – deceiving myself, among other things – but I won’t be understanding anything much.

Whether I like something or not, whether I find it compatible with my values, has no bearing on whether it rightly goes in the pot of what’s “religion.”

So: by temperament, I don’t hate-study things; but some events so disturb me that I wish I were not a scholar of religion. I could stop being one. That’s always an option. But so far, I haven’t taken it.

I don’t know if the usual 9/11 memorials are really different this year, or if it’s only me. Probably the latter: I am, once again, troubled by what I study. And not just by religions, but by the way people talk about them, by the questions people ask that can’t be answered because they’re ill-formed. I get irritated at all questions, and wish I had just gone into classics.

My current mood has nothing to do with this anniversary. But no, not ready to write about it yet.

Summer Solstice Daydream

This June, when I am overextended far beyond my usual overextension – summer term, two articles and two conference papers to write, preparing to leave the country for six weeks, and packing up my office for a departmental move – my thoughts turn to daydreams.

It’s an old daydream, with new embellishments every time: quit the academy and found a monastery devoted to preserving humane learning through the coming dark ages. And rescue cats.

By monastery, I don’t mean a religious community. I mean that monastic form can be a viable structure for once again storing knowledge and its practice in human beings. Not work and pray, but work and study.

People can pray if they want to. But the daily hours are readings, small seminars, labs, and tutorials. Dialogues. Musical recitals or plays to mark the months.

The humane learning to be practiced includes both what we now call the humanities and the sciences. I am not assuming a western-only canon; a flexible, global canon would be better. The point is to keep the light of knowledge from going out entirely, to preserve something, maybe even build a little, so that humans or a descendent species don’t have to reinvent the wheel (literally) on the other end of the darkness.

Study and work. Work includes the labor necessary to sustain the community: some basic agriculture, cooking, crafts, medicine. And we’ll need vets for the cats. Ideally, everyone will have both an area of study and practical skills – all of which are understood as practices of knowledge and paths to understanding the world and the self.

The monastery will not grant any kind of credential. It will have both a permanent community and students who live under the communal rule for a short term. Once the monastery is a going concern, students are novices of a sort – possible postulants for permanent membership, but those who do not remain are charged with returning to whatever is left of civilization and encouraging there a love for knowledge. Itinerant teachers of a sort, whatever else they might do. I, of course, plan to stay.

The monastery will be a combination of Hogwarts, the Citadel, Lorien, and Granger’s Exiles. With cats.

In floating this daydream to others, I have been advised not to require a vow of celibacy. As long as celibacy is permitted along with the variety of gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship arrangements, there is no need for vows. But study comes before sex.

No compulsory celibacy, but poverty seems unavoidable. I hope we can live simply and well. But it won’t be easy as the climate changes and civilization crashes.

I’ve had some version of this daydream for a long time. I had it before I saw it in print in Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, which I read in 2001. Berman warned of civilizational collapse and suggested a “monastic option” as a possible response.

But one little thing about the book bugs me. In his litany of American ignorance, he refers to a telephone survey in which people were asked who “the wife of the biblical Noah was” and 12% said Joan of Arc. Arc, ark. Facepalm.

Not that I expect better of survey respondents. The question itself bothers me: in the biblical text, Noah’s wife doesn’t have a name, unless you want to say “’Eeshet Noach,” which just means “Wife of Noah” or, less strictly, “Mrs. Noah.” Later Jewish and Christian traditions give her different names, but the biblical text does not.

So why was a phone surveyor asking Americans to name Noah’s wife? To see if people would spot the trick question? To prompt the predicable Joan on purpose, the better to deplore our cultural ignorance? Or does its inclusion indicate the report is a joke? Does this unanswerable question make the whole book a joke, and is this Berman’s tiny clue?

Be that as it may. On my bad days, I want to ditch the academy, all the riptides of credentialism, managerial encroachment, and consumerism that surround (I still believe) quiet attempts to cultivate minds. And do – what? Something else.

On really bad days, it seems pointless even to try to sustain humane leaning through a Dark Age. I mean, why? So future peoples can trash different environments, until the sun goes nova and fries the inner planets? If there comes a day when I break with academe, maybe it should be a much cleaner, deeper break – a vow never to teach again. So far, I have only sworn, temporarily, not to teach specific subjects again. This break would be total. Just take care of cats. Often I’m not sure what else we can do, except care for another living being who is before us now. No abstractions, no “humanity,” no “ideals,” just a cat that wants to be fed and cuddled. Often that seems enough, and more peaceful than what I usually spend my time doing.

Last summer, I aired these daydreams in a Twitter with @jenebbler and @Exhaust_Fumes. They too had had some variations on these daydreams. Jen’s cat daydream was more embellished than mine: she wanted a tabby ranch, here in Texas, a place that would provide a home for tabby cats. Other cats would be welcome too, but tabbies featured. Might we combine the cat ranch with the monastic option? Thus was born Tabby Ranch Monastery.

Its rule has not been written yet, but its purpose is clear. Preserve cats, preserve knowledge. One could do worse.

Academic Mix Tape (Mixed Again and Again)

Leaving academe as a breakup song – I remember it well. Last weekend, @kelly_j_baker started a Twitter hashtag on this premise. I tossed in one or two, but felt out of place. Or out of time: my academic soundtrack, including breakups, spans nearly two decades. I’m also tenured now, and thus perhaps an unwanted interloper in conversations among academics who have not found a place in academe and must leave. I never expected to have the place I now hold – the time I spent unemployed, on part-time contracts, and on full-time annual contracts still exceeds my time on tenure track and tenured.

I stopped for a few minutes there, running through the unpacking those last two sentences need. But I get choked up thinking about it. Literally, literally. My throat constricts. Maybe the #academicmixtape concept will let me string together the key moments and moods, if not the full narrative. Every track is a song that I listened to at its moment, repetitively, craving the meaning it might yield if I squeezed hard enough. Yeah, I know many of these are sappy sentimental. Tough shit.

Track 1: John Lennon, “Watching the Wheels” – 1997

With no job for the coming year, I move back to New Orleans to live with the parental units. I’m burnt out on academe and eager to focus on the literary writing I had neglected while finishing my dissertation. Academe’s a game. Real writing comes from watching shadows on the wall.

Wheels within wheels. Whiff of Ezekiel, whacked by God into either muteness or a speech that no one could hear properly.

Track 2: Elaine Page, “Memory” – 1998

Still unemployed, a year after leaving Chicago. I have a little musical Renaissance – start piano lessons, take a music theory course at UNO, and try a little community ed singing class. The singing teacher assigned “Memory.” I had never heard it before. Actually, we could debate whether I hear it now, since I was quite deaf at the time. Still, it sticks in my Chicago-besotted head. There I am, walking through the parking lot by UNO’s Performing Arts Center, looking up at the stars and missing another lifetime.

Note: The song’s blend of standard Broadway sentiment with the language of T. S. Eliot gives me whiplash. Then again, my brain is filled with such strange bedfellows.

Also, I can’t sing.

Track 3: Neil Diamond, “Love on the Rocks” – 1999-2000

In 1999, I start a half-time, semester-contract job, and keep looking for tenure-track jobs. Or at least full-time academic jobs. But in my first week of teaching, I cannot hear well enough to respond to students. This changes everything. The question is no longer, can I find a real gig, but can I teach at all? Not really. So what else could I do – bearing in mind that I would be doing whatever it was as my deaf self, which preceded my barely socialized academic self, and would follow it too? Of course, I’m not listening to the song so much as to my auditory memory of it. Memory can be louder and clearer than reality.

(I have an I’m-quitting letter that I wrote to both of my Doktorväter around this time. A recent Twitter discussion stirred that memory, but I couldn’t bear to look at it. The Twitter discussion assumed this would be a conversation, an assumption that puzzled me. Were all those people still in the same cities as their grad schools, that they could drop in on their advisors? Or – what, phone calls? I couldn’t use phones. Seriously, people, you had these conversations face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice? Does no one write letters anymore?)

Anyway, I didn’t quote “Love on the Rocks” in the letter, but I listened to it often as an academic break up song. No apologies here for the sappy side of my taste: listen to that chorus. There’s real wisdom for leaving academe. When you know there’s nothing you can say, you stop trying to say anything, and just go.

Track 4: Frank Sinatra, “Send in the Clowns” – 2002

May 2001: cochlear implant surgery. I did not do this to save my academic career. I did it so that I could move on, leave the limbo of half-time contracts and the fruitless annual cycle of academic job searches. In the months that follow, I glut on music – old music I can now hear again and far better than before, new music that I could never have parsed on my powerful hearing aids. This is the Year of Sinatra for me, and also a year of love songs. Sheer infatuation with sound.

Of all the new songs that year, this is the only one I connect with academe: the out-of-sync partners, will-they-or-won’t-they, can anyone tell where this is going if anyone even wants to? And is it just too late? I try to get back in the game, but no one was there. I’m now on a full-time contract, after two and a half years half-time, but this is still limbo. I dig into publication, teaching, and applications for tenure-track jobs. It was several more years before it really sunk in: at the point when I could hear again, I was stale, past the expiration date. There was no way, was never any way, that I could go on the job market as a fresh PhD who could also hear.

Certain consonant sounds occur in the higher frequencies. In a progressive hearing loss, they’re the first to go. For me, they were the longest gone, the sounds I had not heard in 20 years: v, f, s. On my recording, Sinatra really drags out the lines.

Don’t you llllovvve ffffarccce? Enter clowns.

Track 5: Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed” – 2006

The department tried repeatedly to get my position converted to tenure-track. I tried continuously to land other jobs. Pointless all. After the destruction of New Orleans in August 2005, academe was chaff to me. Even my own bitterness at it was chaff.

In that year that started with a grief so large that it’s off the scale of the standard Life-Stress Inventory, I am told in February that the provost’s previous Nos to the conversion of my position didn’t just mean Not Now, they meant Not Ever. Word comes down in the clearest possible terms not to ask again. My job search was then in its eleventh year.

I used to care.

Track 6: James Darren, “Here’s to the Losers” – 2010

In 2006, I began looking for support positions in universities – what’s now called alt-ac, but we didn’t have a name for it then. Applied for over two years, had many phone or video-chat interviews, even one campus visit. No offers.

Summer ’07. I’m at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, with a manuscript of poems about New Orleans, my troubled relationship to it and its imago, pre-K and post-K stuff. Day 2 or something, and I’m checking email at the library. From my chair: admin converted me to tenure-track. I think he’s joking. That was my reply: “Are you joking?”

I know a few of the details leading up to the decision, but these don’t amount to an explanation. If anyone does know why, she or he has not told me. I was sure of one thing: my merit, whatever that means, was not the reason. Yes, I believe I deserved it; I just don’t think that my deserving it is the reason why it happened. Nor was my lack of merit the reason why it didn’t happen for so long. This should not be true, but it is.

I first heard “Here’s to the Losers” on Deep Space Nine – one of my grad school shows, my favorite Trek – sung by James Darren. During my post-CI music glut, I found a CD Darren had made in ’99, with all of his Vic Fontaine songs. This was my favorite, and I revisited it often over these years. In most of those listenings, I imagined it as an anthem for those academe spat out, who lurked on the margins, who were never in the right place at the right time. Who did the work but were never wanted. In other words, me.

I don’t consciously associate the song with tenure. However, when I compiled this list a few days ago, I looked on my iPod for my seasonal playlist the year I was tenured. There it was.

Just to be clear: I do not hear this as an affirmation that academic things will work out academically. Often they don’t. Or if they do in a superficial sense, the reality that lies beneath may be quite strange and incommensurable with standard scripts. Since I left Chicago in ’97, the greatest joys and the greatest griefs of my life have had nothing to do with academe, or with any reaction against it.

Bless them all.

Tacenda, or Speaking the Unhearable

How do I say the unhearable? One of the few essential informants of my deepest, dailiest life is a relationship to hearing and deafness that very few people share.

How few? Fewer than you mean when you say “few people.” Fewer than I mean when I’m talking about anything else. I was a hearing child, a hard-of-hearing adolescent, a late-deafened adult, and am now a cochlear implant user. I’ve done some time guinea-pigging for scientists, and they tell me that my CI results fall in the top 2% of CI users – that is, with a CI processor on, I hear damn well.

The figure of total CI recipients, world-wide, is about 325,000 now. Results, as they say, vary. Two percent 325,000 is 6,500. I don’t know how many of these people have my history of “normal” hearing, hearing loss, and late-deafness, before high-end CI results. About 11 years for each phase, rounded. So in terms of direct sensory experience of the major sense that defines one’s social existence, across this whole range of deafness and hearing, I share that experience with – let’s round it up to – 7,000 people in human history. Using this estimate of the number of people who have ever been born, that’s .0000065% of human beings.

That few. I know a few of them. There is much in life that one cannot discuss intelligibly without a common frame of reference. And in certain respects, my typical experience isn’t in anybody else’s frame. I could talk about it, but nobody knows how to hear it. Usually, I don’t want to put myself through the emotional wringer of others who mistake their misunderstanding for knowledge.

So I’m stepping out on the limb here, a little bit. I’m doing it because this past week stirred up several media swirls that directly touch on this part of my being.

Last weekend, the hashtag #academicableism emerged on Twitter, initiated by @zaranosaur. Most of the contributors seemed to be current students, who were speaking to the exclusions they routinely encounter in academic life. Readings these, participating in the discussion, was a heartening agony.

When I was a student, I didn’t talk about any of this. I don’t mean that I suppressed a desire to speak, and felt silenced. It never occurred to me to talk about this stuff. If it had, there wasn’t anyone to speak to. I mean that last part literally, in the proper old sense of “literally”: my college and grad school had no disability services when I was a student. I recall some conversations with university staff in which I brought up my deafness, but these episodes either didn’t take the form of accommodating me as a student, or they occurred with someone who lacked the power to effect accommodation.

In college, my hearing loss was in the severe range, and it crossed a jagged line into profound about half way through grad school. I used hearing aids and FM devices (big clunky things back in the late ‘80s & early ‘90s). As I write this, I’m still feeling extreme reluctance to say much publicly, so I’m going to use the unfortunate short-hand of grades: I can point to places on my undergraduate transcript where my grade represent what I didn’t hear, not what I learned. Yes, I asked professors for what I didn’t even know at the time to call access. Didn’t get it in college. So in grad school, I never asked. The only dip on my graduate transcript came in a term when a dear friend died. Here the gap between grades and lived experience opens wide and deep: through eight years of grad school, I “heard” class discussions only in fragments, and responded only when I thought I understood well enough. I missed almost all of the social life of graduate students, nor did I realize then how much connections with one’s peers, or the lack thereof, forms later professional experience. Again, I’m going short on detail here because my throat clamps up as I write this. There’s too much to say, and I’m not sure I want to risk it.

I was deaf before I became an academic. As an academic with a CI, I’m still deaf. Yes, I have substantial hearing function from the implant, for which I am amazed and grateful. But my CI doesn’t make me un-deaf now, and it certainly doesn’t change the past. Nor can a CI do anything to change systemic injustice against deaf people, inside or outside academe. My experience of academe, from grad school till today, is a deaf person’s. When I bring this to the attention of others, that fact is sometimes trivialized, but it is not trivial. Sometimes I prefer invisibility to undergoing trivialization.

Every discussion I’m part of, as an academic, is intimately conditioned by this fact, whether my colleagues and students realize it or not. Usually, not. For instance, I grimace at discussions of the academic market that assume, usually tacitly, that systemic injustice in academe sprang fully formed from the head of 2008. But that’s not today’s ball of wax.

In #AcademicAbleism, I saw common experience as I never had it in my student years. Yet the very ability to speak about it – in public, even with the sometimes-necessary cloak of anonymity – seemed like a great boon. Who were these kids (yes, you all look young to me) who just assumed the right to speak in a public forum? Who supposed that redress was possible and just? Amazing. Painful. As my complex and difficult emotional response to the hashtag was still formulating itself for a post, another media wave crashed over my head: the viral video of Joanne Milne’s hookup and the ensuing critique on the interwebs, with posts by Lilit Marcus and philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke. So I foolishly posted these to my Facebook timeline, thus prompting a discussion thread I later deleted. It was just too – so let me try again.

Read Blankmeyer Burke’s post for an excellent discussion of why these videos are problematic in how they represent deafness. She also digs into the gender tropes, an important piece of intersectionality.

I’m taking a different tack here: this video genre is also problematic in how it represents CI-hearing. The whole trope of “deaf person hears” invites the hearing person (the implied audience, and the vast majority of the actual audience) to equate the CI user’s experience with hearing as hearing people know it. And it’s not.

My hearing isn’t your hearing. No one can ever perceive the qualia of another’s sensory experience. But some of us have more sensory experience in common than others. When I see those videos, I remember my own hookup and the first sounds. It’s a bleeping bubbling delightful mess. Sometimes, it’s speech discrimination too. Point is, the CI, especially at hookup, is a distinctive sensation, neither hearing nor deafness. I have never seen a hookup video that attempted to do justice to this basic fact.

I’m not talking about the acoustic performance of the implant – which is damned impressive these days. Here was the pitfall that I found too painful on Facebook: we can’t reduce all discussion of the implant to the question of the device works. It works, and there is also much more to say. Acknowledging the complexity of experience, or expressing frustration when this complexity is silenced, is not an attack on the CI itself.

So what’s missing? I mean something simpler, just what it sounds like, especially at first. I also mean something that acknowledges the temporal nature of our being: what does the CI sound like, at first, to someone who has been profoundly deaf for let’s-say ten years. Acoustically, emotionally, it’s not a restoration to a status quo ante surditatem. It’s a new thing, another phase, an alternate universe of sensation. Also, how it sounds at first isn’t how it’s going to sound in a few weeks, much less years, later. Natural hearing doesn’t change like this over time. It changes, but not like this. Others have pointed out the absence of narrative from these videos, and I agree with that point. Sensory experience integrated with time would be one facet of such a narrative. But we won’t find it here. We won’t even find its absence acknowledged.

You want to know how I feel, right? It varies. Sometimes I tear up at these videos, although I did not get weepy at my own hookup. (Cue gender tropes.) I notice how the deaf person is situated in space, vis-à-vis the hearing people: does she have good sight lines, or are backs turned, and if so, whose? Sometimes I’m paying more attention to the hearing people than to the deaf one: what emotions are on their faces, how are they narrating this event to themselves, and what is the gap (but I know) between their own narration and the deaf person’s internal narration? Sometimes I’m distracted by camera jolts or the audiologist’s hair-do. Over a year ago, my cousin posted his own hookup video, at which he said to the audiologist, “What, I’m supposed to make sense of this shit?” – Hilarious and very him. Since then, hookup videos always remind me of this line, precisely because I know what it sounds like, but I had a very different emotional response to it. In short, my attention isn’t structured by the deaf-person-hears narrative.

Just a disclaimer: I don’t think the blog discussion of these films is about the CI itself. The device really does work, if we define that as “provide better speech discrimination than someone would have otherwise.” That’s an amazing feat of bioengineering, and it should not be distorted or sniffed at. However.

I resist the over-simplification of deafness that occurs when it is coded as brokenness that needs fixing by corporate medicine. I resist the over-simplification of hearing as merely a sense, with no attention to Hearing as ideology (see Teresa on this). I resist the over-simplification of CI use as “hearing,” in either sensory or ideological terms. Functionally, it is, and that’s great – but there is so much more to talk about that should not be passed over as not worth discussing.

Finally, I’m all too aware that these videos serve up a deaf person’s experience for the consumption of a hearing audience that will, in all probability, never have, and can’t really imagine the sensory experience represented. Yes, I know about those  clips you can find online that purport to show how a CI sounds. (Start at 3:15 for the CI simulations.) I know some of the scientists who made the clips. (Hi, Michael.) But I’ve listened to these, and they don’t sound like how I hear, either now or when I was first turned on.

The functional quality of a device and lived experience of its users, from the physical sensations and demands, to our subjectivities over time, to how we ascribe meaning to our implants – these are not the same things, and the latter cannot and should not be reduced to the former. Yeah, it works damn well for me. I love this machine. But it’s not the hearing I lost, and it’s not your hearing. It’s something else that has not been named, much less adequately articulated.

Even if I could describe it well, how would anyone who doesn’t hear what I hear know what I’m talking about? There is way too much to say, and it is all unhearable.