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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 . . .?

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:


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.

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.

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.

View of Academe, From the Foot of Canal Street

A few days before our term started, one of my grandmothers died. I returned to New Orleans for her funeral and arrived back in Austin the evening before classes started. I didn’t even have syllabi ready, and the thought of telling my students why was redolent of cliché and karma. See, for all these years, I’ve been telling students that I don’t believe in dead grandmothers: mine were still alive. Sooner or later, that lousy joke was going to catch up with me. Grandma’s death was neither premature nor unexpected, but that doesn’t diminish the missing her.

So I went into the term much less prepared than I like to be. I quickly put together some mini-syllabi with the most basic information students usually want. At the same time, I had a looming deadline to deliver responses to edits on a book chapter. Got a short dispensation from the editor, only to get sick half way through the first week of term. An inauspicious start to the year.

That’s one way of looking it. I guess that’s the academic way of looking at it. For me, Grandma’s death and my ensuing bouts centered me differently than I’m accustomed to feeling centered in first week. Emotionally, existentially, I was and had to be her grand-daughter, not anybody’s professor or colleague. Oh, I went to work; I did get the syllabi slapped together eventually. I delivered the edits right under the wire. But I wasn’t invested in my usual way in these activities.

All this time, I dwelt in recollection. Sleeping over at Grandma’s when she had her Saturday night card games. Her presence at plays, music recitals, every small and large rite of childhood. Her voice. Her New Orleanian aptitude for digression. (Once, I picked her up and asked her how was lunch. She told me a man’s life story: not from here, fell in love with a New Orleans girl, took her to his home state, came back because he missed the city, lost the wife somehow, stayed for the city . . . He was the chef, at the place where she had lunch. And yeah, I just did it.) Her phrase for me, “the one who went away.” Her genuine fear, those first few years I lived in Chicago, that I would freeze to death. Her delight in being with people, so different from my own wariness. How hard she would hug me when I came home, or when I left again. My own life was the necessary concomitant of recollecting hers – so I have felt myself a small child, a ten-year-old, a brooding bookish teen, a university student in the far north. I tried to see my own life from her point of view, and hers from her own, rather than mine.

One of Grandma’s quirks was calling things by incorrect but lovely names. Pink penguins (flamingos). Blue robins (purple martins). Make a Novena. (A Hail Mary – in football, not the actual prayers.) All of this ran on the usual New Orleanian displacements: “by” meaning “at,” “pass” meaning “stay.” Listening to her always made me want to write. When I published my first poem, she simply said, “I always knew you could write.” Not as well or as much as I need to.

The funeral often floated in consciousness. St. Anthony’s Church. So many relatives, odd conversations. Giving one of the eulogies. Most of all, the burial in St. Patrick’s No. 2: cloudy sky, barely cold, my brother and his sons making up half of the pallbearers. (2009, the cultural vertigo of the SBL meeting here; I stand at the other end of Canal Street telling John Collins, “My Irish ancestors are buried that way,” and pointing toward the foot. He approved of knowing where your people are buried. Where you bury them. Where I stand now.) After the burial, I rode home with my sister, who played to me the John Boutte-Paul Sanchez song, “At the Foot of Canal Street,” as we drove once again past the same. I had never heard it before. Couldn’t catch all the lyrics. Knew I would buy it, because the music seemed to contain everything, and because Grandma spent most of that part of her life I knew in the Mid-City-est part of Lakeview, near the foot of Canal Street. It’s the knot at the heart of the city.

As an accident of timing, Grandma’s death sent me into the semester with my sense of self lodged elsewhere. I was in my little academic niche, but not of it. This is not the first time I have been thus displaced. Most of my experience of academe has been conditioned by an orientation outside of it. But I’ll have to unfold that slowly. In other posts. If I’m up to it. I’ve been teaching long enough that the start of term evokes certain emotional habits: rehearsing my first-day spiels, over-thinking the order of items on course schedules, the anxiety of meeting rooms full of people I don’t know, worry that an advanced course might not make, the need to subordinate all other projects to the first-week rush. I did my job, but I didn’t do it in this way, this time. The part of my attention that holds my self was somewhere else – and rightly so. From that place, my academic life looked different, even a bit absurd; but more than that specific view, I felt the opening of other ways, beyond the habitual or socially sanctioned ones, of attending to work. It must be put in its place, as I must live from mine.