I probably shouldn’t blog when I’m this angry but I am going to write and see if it is printable when I get to the end. Lately in the Mission District in San Francisco–which is to say, the last 18 months or so–police foot patrols have been increased in order to “increase neighborhood safety and awareness of crime.” Usually they harass homeless people out of doorways (thank heavens we’re saving the neighborhood from sleepiness!) and drag intoxicated individuals into the drunk tank (which may keep the intoxicated from stumbling into traffic so there may be some good in that I suppose, although I doubt that detention is the best place to sleep off a bender). Very occasionally they will bust up a drug deal and run all the dealers off into the four directions lickety split while they collar some poor junkie and his or her crack-addicted middle man to throw them into
treatment jail, where they are sure to experience withdrawal without medical intervention for however long it amuses the police to see them writhing on the floor. And then the officers put another notch in their Drug War belts so that… why is it so important again? Oh yes: so we all are imprisoned in someone else’s consensual reality. Well, except that alcohol, one of the most dangerous drugs known to man, never gets a bust. Huh. Can’t make sense of that one, but there you are. Not everything in our Great Society here in San Francisco can be explained.
Today they were on a street peddlers sting. That is, they were busting up anyone who dared put a few items out for sale on the sidewalk. See there’s this thing, if anyone isn’t aware of this facet of American Suburban Culture, there’s this thing called the “yard sale” where you gather up all the clothes that don’t fit you anymore and all the music that you’ve ripped onto your harddrive and anything else you no longer have a use for and you sell them to other people so that these things can clutter up their houses until they decide to have a yard sale.
In the city, “yard sales” happen on the sidewalk. Now, if you are lucky enough to live in a flat or a house with actual frontage on the sidewalk, you might be able to get by with a “garage sale,” where most of your stuff is actually three or four inches inside your garage, but if you don’t live in a place like that, your only choice is to sell on the sidewalk.
But apparently this is highly dangerous, offensive to tourists, and likely to become a scourge of street-level free enterprise if it were allowed to go on willy-nilly. So the street beat cops come up to me and give me the steely eye and stout, legs apart stance to show me they are not going to take any guff and ask “Do you have a peddler’s permit?” To which I should have replied “I’ll have my lawyer get back to you on that” but I stupidly just said “Nope!” And they told me I had to pack up all my stuff and scram in order to avoid a $300 ticket.
So I said, “OK.” And they walked away saying they’d be back. “OK.” I said. I packed up and left. I will say up front that had I not been a relatively cleanly-dressed white guy I would have been lucky if they had just walked away at that point, but they did, because I was not offering any protest or looking particularly guilty of anything, but gods know that does not offer one any protection against cops intoxicated on authority.
Imagine! Someone might make a hundred or so dollars selling their stuff on the sidewalk but we cannot let this happen in our fair city. Only those who have gone through the proper channels, secured the capital necessary for permits and leases and tax numbers and I’m sure a thousand other bureaucratic details that ensure that the city gets its fair share of the profits–which, you know? If they said “we need .x% of your profits for the city” I would have handed them the 25¢. But no. I had to skedaddle before some youngster caught a glimpse of me folding my tshirts neatly on my suitcase and tugged at her mothers sleeve to ask, “Mommy, what is that man doing?”
“He’s selling his possessions to pay the rent dear. Try not to stare.” I know this would have been traumatic for the child and for this I do apologize. But to the degree that it is mostly another tool to harass the homeless or desperately poor, who make up the lion’s share of “street peddlers,” it is a noxious exercise in authoritarian bullshit. People with yards don’t have to give any of their sales back to the city, unless they go so far as to declare the profits on their tax returns, which I am sure everyone does–then maybe some of the cash comes trickling back in the form of state and federal subsidies. One day. People without yards? SOL, I’m afraid.
I need to borrow someone’s yard. Even a stairway would do, as long as it opened onto the street. And I need it tomorrow. Otherwise I’ll be reduced to trying to have my sale in the alleyway to my building, which alleyway is lined with dumpsters and so is not very attractive to window shoppers and of course this weekend the landlord chose to shovel out the basement storage room and do some sort of minor sanding and painting here and there so it is not really feasible to try to sell stuff through the same doorway that the maintenance workers and trash haulers have to use. I do not know if they will be here over the weekend, but our landlord hires extremely cheap and desperate labor who will work at midnight on a Sunday if necessary. It’s happened.
The only thing I can think of is to shave my head, trim my beard, put on my other glasses and go back out there tomorrow and when they ask if they didn’t see me today look like I have no idea what they are talking about. I did get out quickly enough that they did not come back for a second look. I can lie to cops. I cannot really lie to anyone else but I don’t consider cops worthy of the truth. They are not your friends.
Ah, here is that video:
So I am not certain how to assert my right not to speak to a cop when he asks me if I have a peddler’s license and especially if they ask if they didn’t see me in the same place yesterday. Suggestions welcome.
I was trying to write a blurb to offer my services as an educator on gender and on transgendered experiences in general, and I came up with the following. It will have to be condensed considerably to fit on my brochure/web page/press kit. But:
I believe that one must approach questions of how our ideas about gender–or any other conceptual category for human experience–are woven from cultural and physiological circumstances with a very sensitive eye for complexity and subtlety. That certain biochemical realities are going to crop up to worry the social construction of gender is, I think, inevitable. But at the same time, one must be careful not to universalize the ways in which one experiences seemingly irresistible physical constraints. For those constraints not only manifest themselves differently in every person, due to both biochemical and psychosocial variations across individuals; but what seem to us like brute physical facts are always already interpreted “brute” facts, from the moment they emerge out of the indiscernable seam between experience and language into discourse itself. This has happened prior to the moment we even begin to speak of “the somatic” and before we can recognize bodily experience as experience.
I think that one can point to neuroplasticity as one manifestation of this almost prelinguistic coding; without appealing to knowledge that I do not have of neurological processes, I can say that even at a relatively popular level of understanding, it has become clear that the environment, or rather the events that make up an environment, leave physiological traces of varying permanence on our neurological structures. A cursory reading through non-specialists’ literature on the effects of trauma on child development, for example, will make clear that the neurological body is itself prone to physical alteration by what happens to it from its earliest development in the womb, and that environmental “inscriptions” upon our biochemical processes are so immediate that they begin long before we begin to call ourselves “I.”
Whether one begins analyzing the effects of “nurture” on “nature” at the level of neural plasticity or the level of conventional, learned naming of affect, a number of things seem clear to me from here. One is that somatic phenomena and their cultural interpretations are entangled at a level beneath conscious awareness, in ways that are unimaginably complex, and that this occurs not only before we first say a word about them, but before we consciously experience them. Another–and I cannot stress this enough–is that there is no quick leap from recognizing this entanglement to the idea that somehow we have unlimited agency to choose whether or not to “agree to” or “follow” cultural interpretations of the physical. For we receive the physical as already encoded once it reaches conscious awareness; thus its irresistibility is already a cultural irresistibility, but no less irresistible for being cultural. There is no hierarchy of compulsion when speaking of nature “versus” nurture; they are intertwined and cannot be separated out to an extent where any such hierarchy could be assigned.
Of equal importance is that in order to address the experiences of another, we must humble ourselves before their complexity and before our own. We might use what we know of our experiences to empathize with another, but it is imperative not to universalize those experiences, and not to disregard or try to dispose of those differences that will always exist between discrete ways of getting along in the world. This is something I think one must strive for whether one is working in relationship with another individual or with a group of people, and especially when we find ourselves dealing with a conceptual class that is supposed to refer to a specific type of person.
In this latter case, complexity is compounded by the realization that conceptual classes are also cultural productions involved with several–sometimes potentially infinite–bodies at once, and that rarely is a particular person given the choice of opting out of classes assigned to them. Thus a feedback loop develops in which being assigned to a class determines–but in a complicated way–certain environmental effects on the body; those effects then have extensive cognitive ramifications affecting how a person will react to their apparent belonging to a particular class, which will then have external consequences which will have somatic consequences, and the cycle repeats, repeats, and repeats. It is here that much cultural ethical work needs to be done to reduce the suffering that emerges at various eventful points in the cycle.
At a pedagogical level, I strive to encourage students to approach their experiences ethically in this way: to understand that they can use their own self-awareness to empathize compassionately with those whose experiences they do not explicitly share; but more importantly, that this empathy need not–and cannot–be an imperialistic, appropriating empathy which disregards differences in experience in order to function as empathy. To teach students to be aware that one cannot completely understand another’s experience, but that, nonetheless, compassionate empathy is still not only possible but necessary, is one of the most–if not the most–compelling aims of education in the humanities, in my opinion.
In practice, this means that my own lectures are often exercises in trying to ascertain what holds us in common to each other–rather than what we hold in common with each other–without demanding that we conceive ourselves as identical to one another in any way whatsoever. That we cannot ascertain, precisely, what holds us in common to each other is part of what I try to convey–and also that this is not an allowable excuse to disregard the ethical consequences of being so held.
Whether speaking about my own experiences with abstract ethical theory or the everyday concerns of living as a transsexual in the very particular places where I do my living, I strive to make connections between lives apparent without attempting to make every life completely cognizable by every other life. Thus, in that uncanny way in which every paper one writes from English 101 to one’s dissertation often ends up talking about the same thing, I find myself almost always lecturing on ethics, whether I am explicitly explaining Levinas’ thought or reading a poem about the perils of choosing which public restroom door to enter when presenting as vaguely gendered.
a link actually, to a piece about the slaughter in gaza by little light. think the Palestinians are the irrational violence-inciting party here? you might think again. whence the impulse towards violent overreaction based on past trauma? I don’t know. we might think about our own 3000 dead in 2001 compared to the tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths we’ve caused as a response since 2003. where did it begin? probably before memory begins. where will it end?
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