fragment 01

This might not be finished. Or that is I know it is not finished or rather it goes in there somewhere in that thing I keep claiming to be writing but so I thought I’d post it here on my blog just to make sure that no one labors under the illusion that this place is for linear thought only.

Fragment:

the miraculous thing about language is that it always says something even when there is nothing to say. which also makes it sometimes despotic and sometimes seemingly quite helpless to do anything about anything at all for what is there to do but to talk about what happened.

I could say that I’ve spent my life in search of a diagnosis. today I would say that it would not matter what classification I was slipped into in the language that medicalizes what it does not know: the intricate switches that run the length of the spine and the femur and the tibia and out to tarsals and meta-tarsals so-named just as though they stood for something else but the heck of it is that no matter what one says about the charge that is borne along continuously arcing low-voltage sparks across intervals smaller than anything one can see and how all braided together like the metal grounding strap that used to sometimes hang off of the engine block like it was supposed to go somewhere but stopped short of its destination and you never knew if someone had yanked it away or if it had slowly corroded to powder at that point where the washer around the bolt was supposed to hold it close to the automobile body quietly thumping over the tar-pitched expansion seams in the concrete freeways running under a sun that prevailed over its black sticky elasticity until it ran in rivulets off into the grass holding nothing together anymore except your shoes to the ground.

there were no words for that and he knew it and it was not even a matter anymore of trying to work something out for himself in his head it was or was it that to enter polite society and not to ask for more than one’s due one had simply that is you had to talk to them. there was no other way. in all of the universe where both potential and the real took on the blazing insignia of infinity and wore it rushing against what was frequently referred to as heaven but which chafed too at its own bindings revolting even against the patterns it etched in archaic habits ever scratching the same number again and again until what was written there was no longer the same but something like a crowd unleashed with every intention of doing nothing other than turning itself inside out with the energy that crackled from ligament to bone.

but it was not like that. if there is anything I do not know, it is that I do not know what eventual significance might ensue upon taking flint to the skull and spreading its contents on the bare rock in the sun to be read as bird’s entrails might be read or offering the interior of passion itself out pounding the sidewalk or blindly sweeping the floor for spare change and pulling up dust mites and paper clips.

there was not really anything anyone could do or that is there was not really anything that anyone would do realistically one hears the question all the time if only there had been something we could have done and there probably was but it would have been against all good moral and economic principle to do it. as I said you could interminably question what precisely you deserved out of it all but it is not as though you do not ask to be shown every possibility and then be served up two: if whatever it is cannot retire itself to the contours of a negative dialectic then whatever it is is probably demonic and should not be encouraged lest a message be sent to the youth of this nation to do other than nod sleepily or rather gregariously mingle on the cutting floor of what I always thought of as the film that would be made if the script were written on the floorboards of the elementary school where I walked with my satchel and waited solemnly for someone besides the deities I was offered to bear me up on their wings and away.

I cannot tell a regular story. I cannot work a regular job. I cannot hold a regular conversation. I cannot keep a regular schedule. I do not follow the regulations requiring me to hold onto my financial information for however many years it is one is supposed to do that because it strikes me as patently absurd to do so.

I cannot tell you what I was going to tell you but it is not like there is something else that I cannot tell you but more that the eyes and skin of the universe sit waiting in each of us but not even waiting to squeeze through this bottleneck where superstition and belief are both indistinguishable and incomprehensible but more than likely to kill us off because apparently what the universe cannot do is believe in itself or it is not yet intelligent enough to do so dumb things whirling about and colliding and occasionally sparking that wildfire that spreads so far in such a short time that whole empires rise and fall without each other’s knowledge in this far corner or that and if out of all of this there is only good and evil if workhammers are pulled as often as guns and brandished at this or that one life without a nose for wealth in the colloquial sense but that everything we need presents itself literally makes of itself a gift and no other hand driving it or giving it only warm blood giving itself up for cold blood or viscosity for capillary expansion or any of so many more possible exchanges that naming them would run off of every page and continue doing so forever the myth that one must tug at the earth and crack it and otherwise batter it being the founding tale of one of our stonebroken clan among many brought up on the hard dried mud flats of petrified riverbeds in all bad luck but now in the middle of tall trees that drip their own rain on moss and teeming loam day and night since before anyone even had the sense to write it down then why not describe a dream less impoverished before turning over to sleep sated with the radical generosity of the dirt that is not ours but only itself only.

I may have said this but I used to count the rows of planks in the tall vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary surreptitiously looking up as though that were not the most appropriate place to look given the sermon but counting them made it clear the arbitrary nature of everything that unfolded underneath it and I knew it and I knew it but it was not something enough to hold onto me when they grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to the baptismal pool I had long hair then and come to remember it was not just the walk which kept me so long from walking but it was also the dunking I had been afraid of being submerged since breathing in that lung’s worth of chlorinated pool water and I opened my eyes underwater for the first time and recognized nothing but kicked harder to find the ladder we all were swimming towards and as soon as my hand found the rail and my head broke the surface I gulped in a mouthful of oxygenated relief and then began to cough and kept coughing and could not stop coughing and through nausea and chest cramp coughed and coughed and coughed and the teacher who had not noticed before taking us to the deep end that unlike the other kids I had not learned to turn my head up out of the water to breathe asked with a laugh did you swallow the whole pool.

so there was that too. underwater for even a second was too long. I started practicing in the bathtub when it became clear there was no escape.

I cannot tell you how many planks there were in the ceiling but I can tell you that I knew already that there would come a time like no time when my having sat there would be of no consequence even to the heavenly beings invoked on my behalf on a daily basis. what I did not know is that the church had no door out or rather that one church contained another church contained another and another and if there were anything at all to do it would have to be to dismantle every one of them piece by piece examining each component and setting it in random piles to be used not ever again for edifices but as recombinant DNA that might fly and take off without notice for parts unknown and find the rhythm of the time spent heading there itself granting that exuberant peace speeding not home but home speeding itself but although I have managed almost to disassemble one single church it appears to me that the next and the next and the next are each slightly bigger holding more territory more armaments and more crowds willing to die rather than see them taken down even when they know the buildings themselves obscure both sight and sound of the unbearable reach of interstellar space waiting with more patience than we may live to see for us to live to see it.

Responsibility without responsibility: the chapter on privilege

On Feministe Renee writes a post on privilege that is short and sweet, or at least to-the-point: that privilege is not something with which to lacerate oneself daily, not a source of never-ending guilt and shame, but rather something to own and to take up as a responsibility. A responsibility, I would add, for which “I” cannot assume responsibility. Which is to say, a responsibility that precludes personal wallowing in guilt and shame, but resolves as an imperative to Do Something.

I don’t know how many readers I actually have, and I don’t know how many I might come to have or if anyone at all will read this except for myself, but I’m going to try to explain this to each and every one of us. Every time I read an article about privilege and then start perusing the comments I am struck by the fact that so many are unable to conceive of privilege as a structural fact. And this is what I mean. Those who are any of the following: heterosexual, cis-gendered (that is, in harmony, mostly, with the gender they were assigned at birth on the basis of their anatomy), able-bodied and/or -minded, male, white, educated, youthful but not too youthful, living in the “western” world, middle-class or above, plus probably a number of other attributes that describe the ideal agent/individual in late global capitalism; those whose bodies and personal and/or familial histories place them in any of these categories will, within our current historical context, enjoy advantages over those who do not fall in these categories, no matter what they do.

And this is a structural phenomenon: as Renee puts it, certain bodies are coded in certain ways, regardless of how the body itself might see itself as wanting to be coded, and regardless of how the body itself actually feels about such issues as racism, classism, or heterosexism, to name only a few of the -isms that arise out of the litany of terms for privilege. And as a structural phenomenon, it won’t go away if those accorded privilege within it sit around and feel guilty; it won’t go away even if those accorded privilege within it apologize a whole lot to those who aren’t, although this might well be a good first step to take towards realizing one’s responsibility when one is not responsible for the way one’s body has been coded.

There’s not a damned thing I can do about being white. I didn’t ask to be born into a body that would be immediately encoded as white, I didn’t ask for the historical legacy that attends whiteness, and I didn’t ask for the inheritance of great wealth as a member of a dominant, white populace–I am by no means rich or even “middle-class” anymore, but I still enjoy the freedom of moving around in a fairly large territory that I could, if wished, claim as “my country.” There is a certain wealth of options that comes from being born in the US as a white-encoded body, options that bodies coded in different ways don’t have.

This is the way things are in the country I happen to live in. I cannot change history and I cannot change the color of my skin; I am not responsible for history and I am not responsible for the color of my skin. But what I am responsible for, and what I see the conversation about privilege as trying to get people of privilege to realize they are responsible for, is for what happens now. Where will history go from here? Will we wave our hands and say, “Oh, doing something about privilege is too much trouble”? Then at that point we become responsible; as actors in the present, what we do will inevitably have consequences in the future. My ancestors? Robbed indigenous people of their land. My fault? No. My responsibility? To work to balance the books, to right wrongs that currently benefit me through no fault or virtue of my own.

It’s not about “making white/rich/heterosexual people suffer,” as implies one commenter on Renee’s post. It is, in fact, a question of extending privilege to as many as possible, but only to the point that other beings don’t suffer from that extension of privilege. See, here is the rub, for many especially in the US, where we routinely consume five to ten times our share of planetary resources: no matter how much we talk of wanting to “raise the standard of living” for “everyone” by bringing the gospel of free-market capital to them, the fact is that the planet could not sustain this “standard of living” for all of the people living on it. Trying to bring our way of life to everyone would be suicide by mass extinction and environmental collapse: an exponential increase in suffering. It simply can’t happen! So yes, some of us need to give up some luxuries, but I fail to see how, by any stretch of the imagination, Americans would “suffer” by giving up their resource-intensive lifestyles, when compared with the amount of suffering that our lifestyle already causes others, and the amount that suffering would increase were we to intensify our exploitation of resources and labor. I mean, let’s be realistic about what it is to suffer. (And yes, there arises the big question of just where the labor would come from for the continued production of cheap goods for well-off people were we all suddenly to join the ranks of the well-off. But here is simply one of the most well-known contradictions of capitalism: the myth that all can prosper by it. No. Someone will always be working like a dog, with shit for wages.

But I digress. Sort of.) The thing that has helped me the most to understand how privilege works–and why it is that self-laceration is not an adequate or even desirable response to my own privilege–is to see it as a kind of cultural inscription that was written on my body long before “I” even knew I was one. The question that faces me is how I wish the bodies of others to be inscribed, both now and in the future. If I am content to let things continue as they are, then I am implicated in the suffering of others and am implicated in history as it continues to unfurl. It really is that simple.

The question of what to do: I think the most important thing for anyone sitting in a position of privilege of any kind is to educate themselves. A person of privilege will have resources by which to do so, one way or another. A person privileged in some areas but not in others might have to work harder at it, depending upon where their privilege (doesn’t) lie(s), but here again the responsibility for learning about one’s place in history, when that place is supported by the suffering of others, falls squarely upon the person in that place.

The way I see it, what I must never do is become complacent. Not because it is “wrong” or “sinful” or even “selfish”; but because my responsibility for the future simply disallows complacency. The ultimate result of this is that I keep a close watch on what I do, say, and even what I think: but not to “police” my thoughts or to keep them “pure,” but rather to consider what their consequences will be. Based on what I know, how will what I am doing now affect the future? I think that, especially for those of us with privilege–of whatever kind–a concern for unintended consequences is an apt companion to whatever we do, say, or think, because institutionalized prejudice is hardly ever “intended” by the people who, within the causal web of reality, actually generate and support it with unexamined actions.

It might sound easy, to keep an eye on what one is doing, but it does take a certain amount of care, a certain amount of mindfulness, one might say. Self-flagellation, though, is not required. In fact, it can get exasperatingly in the way, until the whole drama turns on how badly the person of privilege is being treated by their own conscience.

Which seems to me another good reason to kill the superego. Perhaps later I’ll write a bit explaining why this reason is one in a series.

Making the Sale

When I was a Girl Scout–about first through fifth grade I’d say, until I got bored out of my skull sitting in this one church basement doing hideously useless “crafts” using Elmer’s Glue and paper plates and construction paper and maybe if we were lucky colored pipecleaners when what I wanted to do was go hiking and camping and bicycling and actually building real things like the Boy Scouts got to do–the big event of the year was selling Girl Scout Cookies.

They always presented us with the cookies and gave us some pep talk on being the Girl Scout who sold the most cookies and how wonderful it would be to be that girl and how great it was to sell the cookies and get a sense of whatever it was that selling cookies was supposed to give you–I have to admit I never figured that part out, but I’d take home my carton of cookies and the pep talk and I’d resolve to sell as many cookies as I could.

And then I’d take my carton out into our subdivision. Neither Mom nor Dad would come with me: if you’re going to sell the cookies, you’d better learn to sell them yourself. OK but I really have no idea how to sell cookies but supposedly these things sell themselves all I have to do is ring the doorbell.

My subdivision was made up of three and a half square blocks of new-at-the-time houses, perched on the side of a wooded hill. Two of the blocks were downhill from our house on one side and the other was downhill on the other side as we lived on top of the hill which presented its own disadvantages when it came to things as disparate as bike rides and thunderstorms, but advantages in the occasional snowstorm that made it that far south.

On my street I sort of knew two families: our next door neighbors and the people that lived at the other end of the street. So I would take my carton of cookies and I would walk to the end of the street and start with the family we knew there. They would usually buy a box or two. Then between me and the other family I was familiar with were houses of all kinds, including the one belonging to the crazy lady who took pictures of children when they strayed onto her lawn. I wouldn’t go up to her door for all the cookie money in the world. (Like all neighborhoods’ crazy ladies or crazy old coots, there is no way in the world to know whether she really was crazy, really took pictures, or really shouted the things she was said to have shouted that one time. All I know is that back then she was scandalous to us kids and deserving of the greatest amount of scorn and ridicule we could manage. We might even have our parents call the cops on her.

Children are so innocent.)

In fact I barely made it to anyone’s door. I’d stand in the street looking at the outsides of the houses and all those doors with all those doorbells and I would practice my speech which consisted usually of “is your mother home” and/or “would you like to buy some Girl Scout Cookies” and after fifteen minutes of this I might decide that a particular door looked friendlier than some other door and so up I would go and ring the doorbell. Because Mom said I should wait a full minute before assuming no one was home, I would count to sixty as deliberately as I dared and if no one came to the door by “sixty” I would breath a sigh of relief while hurrying back to the safety of the street to start on my next project of choosing which door to approach.

If someone came to the door I would immediately dissociate and go into autopilot Girl-Scout-Cookie-selling mode, using whichever line was appropriate for whomever opened the door and then I would stand there somewhat doubtfully waiting for the answer.

“What kind have you got?” I’d list what I knew I had. If I had sold any yet sometimes it would be necessary to consult the carton to see what was left.

“Well I guess we can take a box of xxx”
or “you don’t have yyyy?”
Or simply “no thank you” or “not today!”

In whatever way the transaction stretched itself out I would stand there gamely offering my prerecorded response to any question or statement that resembled questions or statements I was expecting. If something unexpected came up, I’d try to make do and move things along as quickly as I could.

I didn’t care how it ended, as long as we could bring the exchange to a close as soon as possible and without my having to ad lib anything. Success came in varying quantities. In any case, whether or not I sold any cookies was completely immaterial. I’d managed to ring a doorbell. Nearly always, the experience of having someone actually answer the door was so exhausting that I would let myself skip two or three or more doors on my way back towards my house. It was simply too much to ask of myself to go through that, what, like fifteen times? The world was nuts. Why was I doing this??

When I got home mom would ask how many I had sold and I would say “three” or “four” or whatever meager count I had managed to unload and she’d ask whether I’d rung everyone’s doorbell. As I got older I became more and more adept at shrugging off questions like this, but generally I’d say something vague like “most of them” or “no one was home” or “I got tired so I came home” but whatever I said to justify my poor sales record was received with due scorn and suspicion and then dropped. The carton of cookies would go into my room and sit there, neglected. If I had enough allowance money I’d buy myself a box of the chocolate mint cookies and eat them as slowly as I could, one or two a day until long after the ordeal of the sale was itself over.

As the week or two or however long the sale lasted began to wind down, sometimes mom would pester me about the carton of unsold cookies. “You shouldn’t have taken so many if you couldn’t sell them.” Well pretty much everyone took the same amount of cookies unless a girl knew her parents would take the cookies to work–many would but my parents would not “do your selling for you”–or if Mom would sit with them at a table outside the grocery store, which my parents had no time for, but I knew my cookies were my sole responsibility so I took the single “unit” assortment, whatever it had been determined to be.

But so I might go out again but this time I felt I couldn’t ask the same people that had bought some before so I would go to even fewer houses because my first pass had filtered out the friendly-looking doors and if anyone at any of those houses had bought some and I made the mistake of showing up there again a few days later I’d usually get a “weren’t you just here on Monday?” And so repeat sales efforts were not positively reinforced so after one or two of those sorts of responses I would decide that trying to sell people too many Girl Scout Cookies was a socially unacceptable thing to do.

At the end of the sales period we’d bring back our unsold packages. It was difficult to tell at this point who had sold the most because some girls would have taken home multiple cartons full and brought back a number of the less popular cookies and others of us would have taken one carton and brought back most of it except for the three boxes we had sold to the neighbors and the one box we had sold to ourselves. One year it seemed like we stood in a circle and announced how many we had sold. Some of the numbers seemed outrageous to me. Impossible. Unreal. One hundred boxes of Girl Scout Cookies?? Who on Earth could sell that many cookies??

Oddly, I don’t recall feeling particularly ashamed for hardly selling any but I thought that the whole process was rigged in some way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

All I can really say about it now is that I hated selling those fucking cookies.