after Jackson

Jackson, a dilute orange tabby, looking to the right

Jackson in motion

Some short time after 24 Feb 2011: some short time after I looked at Jackson and decided that I could not ask him to live through the weekend to the following Monday as he crouched hunched up and obviously uncomfortable anywhere but in my lap with a puppy piddle pad to catch the constant urine leak which now went everywhere he did. Some short time after I brought him to the clinic that evening and talked to the attending vet and she and I came to the decision to end his life then rather than wait for doctor who had known him a long time but would not be in until Monday.

Afterward. Immediately afterward, after his head dropped in my hand and I laid it down on the towel and looked into his eyes and they did not look back: only nowhere, seemingly focused upon whatever distance a completely relaxed eye will focus but not focused upon that distance at all for all signals had ceased so that light fell without disturbing anyone or anything: it occurred to me for the first time: I just killed my cat!

There is no getting around it. Agonizing as the decision is every single time for everyone who has ever to make it, the essence of the decision is to take the life of an animal after having accompanied it for some significant portion of both of our lives. To save them suffering, yes. To relieve them of pain, yes. To give them the gentlest exit still possible at whatever time it needs to be done. Yes.

All of that is true. And it is also true that we take responsibility for their lives upon ourselves and ask for them to be put to death.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I found the weight of that responsibility so heavy as to be impossible for me, myself, to pick up. There was no way I could take it on, and yet, there I had just done so. It was immediately unbearable but I could not shrug it off, for his death was quite literally in my hands already. Ours was an inescapable quandary, his and mine, and it had been both necessary and impossible for me to assume control of his mortality.

Yes. I think it is time. That was what I had said while feeling so uncertain of the right time that even now I repeat to myself the veterinarian’s response: I support your decision. Not because I found reassurance in it–rather I saw that we were equally helpless, trying to attend to this cat in obvious pain, but we without means to relieve him of either his pain nor his obligation to die because of it–or of some other pain. At this or some other time.

So we did the best we could. And it was as inadequate as it was unavoidable.

Outside the clinic life went on normally as it always does which is to say that all things and all persons animal vegetable and mineral kept moving almost without deviating even a moment. And inside? Inside was no different from outside except that the routine there is familiar with its own disruption and deals with it methodically but not mechanically or without feeling: death is routine, or it shadows routine so closely that routine is routinely imperiled, suspended, and consulted for directions as to how to return to it while holding casualties to a minimum.

Shortly afterward, I wrote this:

The first anthropomorphic gods as adjudicators between the other and the self? That is, I cannot assume the responsibility of Jackson’s or anyone else’s life and yet I cannot protect them from death. To leave all matters in “god’s hands” is to ask god to forgive on the behalf of the other, with or without the permission of that other. If instead the divine is the relationship I have with the other or that the other has with me then I must face what I cannot face and what tears me apart in the face of the other: responsibility for an other’s vulnerability. Its absolute, irreparable, mind-blowing vulnerability. Perhaps this is where personal guilt emerges from original sin: our inability to keep the other safe from death–which is not the same as being unable to protect oneself from death–is where we perceive our fatal insufficiency, the one that will do us in before we can begin to do anything at all. The loose thread. The gap in the circle.

Fundamentalist Christianity reacts to this insufficiency by seeking to protect the self from death and disavowing responsibility toward the other by resigning all questions about death to a god who not only should be able to tame those questions well enough to protect his elect ones from their uncertainties, but who also is supposed to stand in for the other and forgive on the other’s behalf when the elect pronounce and/or enact that other’s damnation to separation and torment. But no mere god can do that. What is divine in our bonds to others cannot be abrogated by a mythical figure who somehow straightens everything out so that death does not in fact ever take its share. In seeking relief from our own mortality we also seek relief from responsibility for the mortality of the other, but there is no relief from either except to the extent that both destroy the self, leaving it unable to assume anything like responsibility. The death of the other destroys me–shows me my profound inadequacy–and calls into question then my ability to take responsibility for that death.

At that point whatever remains of me takes its place in death beside the other. My inability to save the other from death results in the disruption of my own being and lays me out beside that other in an adjoining grave. It is not that I die of guilt or responsibility but rather that I die of not being able to be relieved of that responsibility, which does not measure itself in guilt except when my ego insists on finding redemption for itself. Asking to be spared in the face of the death of the other is the beginnings of totalitarianism: an ego that dares to think itself immune from destruction, or deserving of such immunity. Death is not punishment but life’s radical vulnerability, and disavowing that vulnerability may be one early step closer to cynicism and egotistical fascism.

To face it, to face the impossibility of protecting the other from death and the subsequent disruption of egotistical mastery [I look into Jackson’s eyes as though to assure him one last time that suffering has come to an end but they no longer respond and I cannot reassure him or myself that this was the necessary action at the necessary time. My response does not arrive in time], is to lose the self in a kind of remorseless compassion: one that does not relieve us of responsibility for the other’s death but relieves us of ourselves and our demand for grace from some figure that could step onto the scene of mortality and usurp the other’s place there in order to restore ourselves to ourselves.

Instead we are left with our own disfigurement at the disappearance of the other, our own dissolution at the point at which we cannot assume this responsibility even under its inexhaustible insistence. It is a paradoxical moment in that what commands me also destroys me and renders me incapable of responding to it: thus irresponsible perhaps but also bereft of myself. One cannot have it both ways: the subject cannot persist after the other has perished no matter how long it denies that its only response is both necessary and impossible. The subject can only respond by relinquishing its perceived capacity to respond as an integrated, intact individual.

I found this in an odd spot for this sort of writing. It took me a moment to recognize it as something I wrote myself, as I do not recall writing this down, although I recall the thought process very well. Because I also remember very well how shocked I was to understand what I had done–or rather, to understand that there would be no simple way of understanding this or of reconciling myself–my self–to the deed of ordering Jackson to be killed. I had help. I had a witness; I even had a willing agent and assistants. I had been an assistant many times before. I can say with some accuracy that I have seen at least hundreds of animals euthanized, if not upwards of one or two thousand. All of them presenting as choices to be made where no adequate choice can be made out even while it must be determined. We are bound to answer even while the call itself is impossible to fulfill without overstepping our bounds.

The English language, at least in my opinion, does not offer an adequate word for that friend with whom we share absolute trust. What is worse, it does not offer a particularly easy way to name the relations we have and are with the life around us. All of it. Not just humans, not just primates, not just mammals, not just vertebrates, not just animals, and possibly not just those entities we recognize as alive: we are bound together in such a way that we are not even distinct from each other, but the language I know is somehow so clumsy it cannot bridge even the mythological gaps between mythological individuals.

Familial terms do not work for me at all but the explanation for that is already 500 pages long and counting. Worse, “brother/sister” only makes room for the two genders our particular culture chooses to assign on the basis of questionable criteria. Neither would even include me in the relation I would try to use it to describe. “Friend” does not do it for me. I do not know why, or that is I might consider why some other time. Losing a friend sounds no more or less serious to me than losing a dog or cat or bird or bunny or rat or goat or.. but none of them imply the rending sensation they try to name even if they are able to acknowledge that loss does not obey any hierarchical chain of being, great or otherwise. Is it shameful that I feel Jackson’s death as acutely as my Grandmother’s death? It is true that they took place within a year of each other and within another year two more people on the same side of the family had died so yeah it’s been a rough few years but Jackson’s departure is still very much Jackson’s departure and nobody else’s. I can line up their effigies and while loss includes every one of them they are each the mnemonic of a very specific moment within the procession of mortality as I am apparently bound to experience it.

What I can never find the right word for is the nature and extent of that bond. It is, to me, every alibi for passion that there is, and extends to so many relations it seems odd to me to try to line them up on some linear gradient, as though watching, say, capital’s daily assault on every form of exploitable embodiment within reach were not every bit as wrenching as leaving Jackson’s body behind when I walked home that night.

Unbearable, all of it.

He wrote, sitting as upright as he could. Which was not very. But still a bearing of sorts.


killing you softly

What defense against the apprehension of loss is at work in the blithe way in which we accept deaths caused by military means with a shrug or with self-righteousness or with clear vindictiveness? To what extent have Arab peoples, predominantly practitioners of Islam, fallen outside the “human” as it has been naturalized in its “Western” mold by the contemporary workings of humanism? … After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?
… If violence is done to those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated. But they have a strange way of remaining animated and so must be negated again (and again). …Violence renews itself in the face of the apparent inexhaustibility of its object.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life 32-33

Today being the day it is I decided that rather than participate in the public spectacle we seem intent on creating out of our inability to mourn whatever it was that we in the US think we lost ten years ago–although we may well have never had it to begin with –rather than go along with the ruse of our fallen, long-mythologized invulnerability to attack or even decay, that I was going to re-read Judith’s Precarious Life, since in it she addresses violence and mourning in direct response to the war that we imagine only began in 2001. I wanted to try to understand what it was exactly in our fetishization of the images of destruction that I find so frustrating to deal with, beyond even practical and political concerns over the extent to which we seem to be willing to give up every last shred of dignity and “freedom” (were we “free” before?), if it will help us to reestablish our illusion of security and safety from political violence.

I am also thinking a bit about death and the multiple, complex relations between life and death–not only in the realm of the human, but even in whatever cycle it is with which the forces of the whole universe are engaged: materialization out of potential, animation out of elementary energy, and any and all inevitable returns to entropy that we might also be undertaking as moments of complexity and approximate coherence in a system characterized by violent destruction in creation, and creation in destruction.

As is usual, I managed to get about thirty pages into my chosen reading before I felt compelled to begin writing. The questions that arise upon reading anything with nuance or subtlety are irresistible to me, and so I remain in interminable study, never able to finish much of anything but always starting again to reformulate this process in which I have, for most of my life, been chasing after ways to express the inexpressible and to narrate that which defies language. To put it all too neatly.

It is not a simple coincidence that the refusal to integrate our national experience into a humane course of action causes me to pause over this question of what it is to live in close proximity with death–even here in the US where death is sequestered and hidden away beneath neatly manicured lawns and behind antiseptic curtains. And it is not simple coincidence that this question occurs to me at the same time as does my perennial questions concerning the limits of language and sense, for death is one name for an ultimately senseless way of going along: it is the primary way in which I myself have been and will be related to all that is for all but the tiniest sliver of time that I claim as my uncertain lifespan. I do not mean by this that ultimately I will be dead, but rather that my being dead, or my not being, or something inexpressible that has to do with never having come to be to begin with despite my apparent sensible existence at the moment, constitutes the primary and primordial relations that ground this current state in which, for now, I seem to be here.

To put it in a Zen Buddhist sort of way, I am already dead and always have been. There are infinite other ways of putting it, for it will not be put, or it will not stay put, or in other words there are no other words and so there will always be an ongoing stream of other words. What we in the US seem unable to comprehend is that our ideal of individualism and consequence-free domination of whatever it is we damned well feel pleased to dominate has been bound from the time of its conception to meet, eventually, its limiting case, its moment of mortality realized, its susceptibility to destructive forces and its vulnerability to the violence that it so easily calculates as acceptable expenses for a political economy that will admit no peer. That is, empires are destined to fall. Are we falling now? Have we not already fallen?

To the degree that we must recognize the unrecognizable–that is, our “primary vulnerability” to that upon which our very being falters, even disastrously, in its attempt to circumscribe itself as independent and individualistic –in order to be able to mourn whatever is lost in a violent encounter, in a disaster, then to that degree, one who suffers loss might attempt to disavow one’s own vulnerability to loss by virtue of the fact that injury is instigated by an unrecognizable force. Thus is rendered impossible the question of any sort of narration of loss or resolution in sensible language of the insensibile moment of trauma. But rather than pausing to consider what might be the consequence of our all being exposed in this way, by virtue of our primary vulnerability, if we decline even to pause in the face of what undoes us in violence, if we attempt to master our vulnerability, we only manage to deny the very conditions of our existence and are immediately closed off from the possibility of our own future. With the unrecognizable other, we also die, or are discarded, or are disavowed, or are visited in the continuing cycles of violence that serve the interests of this denial of vulnerability, which is a denial of life itself.

We are thrown here on a sort of paradoxical demand: that the unrecognizable not be consigned to illegibility or, worse, to unreality, because we are not prepared to acknowledge that we might not be able to conceptualize, chart, categorize, or comprehend the nature of our own being exposed to an other. That is, this would be the ethical demand of living itself: not to deny the fact of our helplessness, not to foreclose the possibility of incursions from unpredictable sources–incursions which may cause us pain or pleasure or both, which may occasion the possibility of our being able to live in a more lively way, or which may frustrate our desire to keep our lives in order. One cannot predict which it will be, or whether all of these moments might be bound up together in such a way that pain is the precondition of pleasure and vice versa, or, more precisely, in such a way that the distinction between pleasure and pain is lost in the very potential of coming to life as terrestrial creatures.

Relegating to the unreal that which threatens the security of the self, denying conceptual meaning to that which breaks the bounds of conceptualization, is a form of impotence in the face of the other. This impotence is realized as the impossibility of negating that which, conceptually, one has already negated–as well as the impossibility of negating that which is not subject to the workings of negation! But although the workings of negation or exclusivity or ideation cannot bring this other into any sort of domesticated, enforced “peace”, this other remains naked and vulnerable in relation to the subject of the act of negation. Our impotence, or inability to erase what is not, to begin with, legible, visits upon the other a violence without end, a real violence that incurs real atrocities precisely because its mission is impossible, and thus must be repeated indefinitely, so long as the subject inflicting that violence seeks to immunize itself against what is crucial to the being of that very subject: its other, against which it attempts to define itself. And fails.

This is how, or one of the reasons why, totalitarian violence is in the last analysis suicidal: an attempt to destroy the other which faces me and makes my utterance of “self” possible in that primordial encounter, the effort to sever relations with that in which we are already entangled and always were, from a time prior to memory and thus prior to time, is, in a very real way, the destruction of ourselves. It is not only that the balance of an interconnected ecosystem can be fatally disrupted by exploitation to the point that exploiter and exploited both perish, although to conceive of the relations between living things in the universe in this way makes our fragility in the faceless face of our own exploitative appetites quite clear. But it is also that without those relations we are, quite simply, not. Or rather, not simply at all: those relations’ being the anteroom of history and discourse renders them both foreign to and constitutive of our ability to try to name them as such.

I have no idea how to end this, but it seems as though it might be worthwhile to pause at the point of our own suicidality as it emerges from militaristic efforts to secure our place in eternity. There is no such place to be had, of course, and we only hasten our own demise in struggling to erect for ourselves a line of defense against every possible enemy. Again, this is not only because we are happy to relinquish our ideals for the illusion of safety, but it is at least that and also our current relation to that which has, in the “West”, so long been designated as inadmissible: vulnerability itself, subjection itself, fallibility itself, interdependence and the possibility that our ideals themselves are inadequate and provisional.

Why we have ethical questions but not answers

As so many do, this post started as a reply to another post elsenet where a writer was quoted about something like the impossibility of an ethics of narrative or what is commonly thought of as postmodernity’s most glaring problem: that of the relativism of its moral arguments, when it has any.

Usually when I read the phrase “post-modern ‘anything goes'” it is being written by someone in a field in which postmodern theory does not figure very large–often a science-y type or sometimes a social science-y type; I suspect that in the social sciences postmodernism does get airplay but it is something like an AM radio broadcast of what needs to be auditioned live and in person.

Yes, the author is a fiction in most postmodern theory, and yes, it is difficult to make any claims to objective reality from within a postmodern critique of metaphysics. We do live in a discursively constituted, culturally mediated environment as postmodern Westerners and narrative does tend to be where one looks when one is trying to discern the grounds of classical Western metaphysics.

But “narrative” does not equal “not real” or “not binding” or even “voluntary” or “at somebody’s whim.”
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an ontological category of one's own

I have tried writing about this twice already and it is not working well. The moment I am trying to describe is elusive precisely because it is a moment in which I realized that in the reams of cultural histories that have been written, at least in any language that I can currently understand, the universe is assumed to rest upon eternal principles that almost everyone can participate in by virtue of their full assent to the gender to which they were assigned when born–an assent that I have withheld for most of my life and thus which has placed me in the position of one for whom there is no cosmological correspondent.

It is all well and good that I understand that human mythopoesis is always a very human construction and that whatever principles we assign to the cosmos are thoroughly anthropomorphic and in such a way as to reflect only what a limited group of people felt was true about themselves in a limited time and place and so it is not that I think that literally there is no place in some cosmic order for someone like me who cannot sign on to being a case of either male or female humanity. The positing of eternal male and female principles is always a positing and nothing that reflects anything that is actually timeless and universal.

And yet.

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the beginning of something

I started something today. I do not know where I am going with it but it was time to set out.

Here’s what happened:

I did decide I have decided I am deciding it has been decided for me that somewhere in the long unwritten and long undead history that is always called prehistory even as it is written proxy-like as the inhabitants of a given tell cannot speak and so someone it seems must step in and find their voice for the tell for the telling in order to tell a story of some sort and this has become an obstacle to finding whatever it was it had decided that I should be looking for but for now I will put it this way: somewhere on the Eurasian continent something like an enigmatic originary mark has been made and I must find it.

No that is not it at all. I risk oversimplifying when I say that not only do I not really know what I am looking for but I have a fairly specific idea where I might find it either in the passage into agriculture of Anatolia and then bit by bit bits of Europe and then more of Europe and then most of Europe and or the imperial expansion of Rome into the Northern Mediterranean and its subsequently opening the killing floor to the bleeding hands of Christianity but I have not yet gotten through the question I have to put to what I am calling the Neolithic Revolution in Europe that is I have not formulated the question well enough yet to consider my work in those millennia as finished well it will never be finished and that is part of the reason behind my taking it on and as such there will never be a time that I can put the last book back on the shelf or the last scrap of pottery back into whatever cubby it has been relegated to as empirical evidence that the Earth is very old and that we are very young in relation although our relatives taken together are also very old but not as old as the Earth itself but in any case.

This was not how it was supposed to start but let me try something. Europeans are fucked up. There is no question of that. Also, Americans are fucked up and by large part because we are heirs of Europe and whatever happened to Europe over the many tens of thousands of years that our particular species and possibly even before that but we inherit every bit of it most of it unspeakably distant even to the extent of making of the animal that writes its own black hole of signification resting on nothing but more figures of speech structured as they are like the plastered walls at Çatalhöyük or Beidha that is not to say anything so much as to create a division in space at first remarkably simple for what could be simpler than a square plaster house but the designation of “inside” and “outside” was to have ramifications far beyond what makers of sun-baked clay bricks could possibly have been thinking as they erected their walls solemnly nonetheless as though they did know after all what happens when arbitrary walls divide into two a space formerly a vast composite of light and texture of varying qualities duration sound and the tapping of the feet of carrion left to bacteria and ravens.

Living was done upon the dead of the dead and bones and skins may have been tools may have been divine intercessors may have been art commenting on the ubiquity of death in life and so foreign to our understanding the closeness of ancestors and prey to those who lived on the benevolence of animated proteins who gave everything they had so that life would continue. Europe at least knew this then. America has completely forgotten it and this is part of the point the question of what we forgot and when and how and why and chances are good there is no comprehensive comprehensible answer other than the feet and hands spine and ribcages curled as though not yet born and interred for ten thousand years what is it that is left behind in calcium and carbon on their way to becoming stone and what gesture is it that leaves them behind and where does it go an event that no one has been able to step into but for so long none of us even knew it in advance like we do now.

An animal dies completely overtaken by surprise and resignation to wait out whatever calamity has befallen them this time. An animal that writes takes note of the death of others and makes of it a question with varying degrees of elaboration in its answers none of them sufficient. Walls divided the living but the dead were integrated into the floors and intimately with feet and hands and knees or full prone bodies sleeping the waking sleep.

Writing had not yet been invented but writing had always been of the essence of structured domains of thought to the degree that making a mark or drawing a foundation in the dirt was already to decide what sort of utterance would mark any action taken on one side of it as opposed to the other.
Woops. That is my European inheritance showing the naming of opposition the casual dropping of the dialectic into conversation as though it were always there underneath anything said by anyone anywhere but its history is in fact strictly localized and something about this will come up again. And again.

But in Europe, with Europeans, if one is European or studies us enough to begin to take on our features the sort of writing that came out of Europe finally and from the first was from a certain standpoint a disavowal of the gesture of erecting walls and the attempt to naturalize and universalize them instead of noting that one had built for oneself a wall. There are years of study behind this statement: in European were it a language all to itself one can only say the same thing again and again and it is something like this at the site of trauma we erect a wall that keeps us from realizing that we are mortal and subject to suffering.

It may be that I should move this statement across the Atlantic and set it square in the Puritan history of the United States and probably had I not had a firehose placed in my mouth the very moment I opened it to speak I would look at Europe through a lens that is not American but given the gushing in my cranium there is little else that I can see with.

But what I am getting at here is that behind the Euroamerican divorce from nature and its objectification of all that is not Ego it seems to me that there must be something like a traumatic event unsurpassable. All traumatic events are unsurpassable and I do not claim for Europe extraordinary suffering but more of something like a refusal to suffer and a refusal to recognize suffering anyplace it might be happening even to the organism caught in refusal of something that lies at some point possibly irretrievably lost in the blood that forms the dirt upon which we still build new walls and look for old ones that help us to justify ourselves in continuing to build.

I could be completely wrong and in fact I suspect that what I am doing has more to do with the most difficult thing I have been asked of life to do and that is to write as though there were in me a tell or an originary site of trauma which there both is and is not because simply saying “as though there were in me” is to assume a multi-volume saga’s-worth of presupposed truths about what it is to carry on as an instance of a writing animal in a very specific time and place and ultimately it seems to me insofar as I can say such a thing it seems to me that the presuppositions behind that clause are all I have time in my time left on Earth to work out in their relation to the instance of the writing animal that calls itself “I” in my stead.

This is how I came to archaeology: not as an archaeologist of anything except language and even that as a poet rather than a scientist but I do still think that poetry is the key to understanding language and that until you can get a computer to free associate you will never be able to call it “intelligent” nor will you have figured out how to make binary code express even a hundredth of what human language already expresses which is not even a billionth of whatever may happen to be expressed in the very long time we are given which is to say a small slice of infinity that we are unable then to keep hold of because there is no keeping hold of infinity. A writing animal is what the universe has come to express, among other expressions. One among others. Among countless others. Among countless, endless, timeless others. Among others.

Among others. If we could get used to this manner of occurrence and I say this as an heir of European thought if we could make sense of “among others” that is a sense that realizes the among every bit as much as it realizes the others we would have ourselves half cured.

But we don’t. So we aren’t.

When I arrived at archaeology’s door I must admit to thinking once again that I had my hand on the only partition between me and something of some certainty: what it is that had happened to the animal that would eventually write before it wrote. To briefly ruin the ending, it turns out that archaeology is a set of just-so stories told by the Euroamerican to justify the Euroamerican’s dominance over most others.

This is not to say that archaeology is not useful or is not legitimate or is necessarily and I say that with some emphasis: not necessarily an attempt to reduce “among others” to an objective science. It has tried to do so to be sure but it seems to be beginning to understand its own role in the formation of its own founding narratives which themselves are based on hearsay and cultural conditioning and have very little to do with uncovering anything like a truth about a very distant past for at this point in its own history archaeology has not found enough evidence for what it sometimes ventures to say but rather reads like a Freudian tale of What Motivates the Unconscious in this or that situation so sure of itself it once was and so convinced of its own inevitability because someone believes it simply must have had to go this way because everything points to it.

When nothing points.

I am not writing in order to ruin or even attack archaeology although there are ethical questions that it should probably face a little more squarely even than it has begun to do. I am writing in order to make some sort of use of what I have read of what has been written under the aegis of archaeology concerning a relatively specific frame of time in a relatively specific place but not because and this was where I was naive as I was at nearly six nearly in school where I knew that the key to something lay well I am still looking I admit it. I am still looking although I no longer believe either in the key or the certainty it is supposed to unlock. It may be that what I am looking for is no longer a key or anything objective at all but a manner of speaking in a manner of speaking. And so I have found archaeology’s manner of speaking about certain times and places to be at once immeasurably valuable and laughably contrived but is it not that this describes the culture I sit smack dab in the middle of anyway and is it not a kind of truth that we not only make this up as we go along but if we are Euroamerican we mistake what we say for the final word even as we continue on writing and even as we begin ourselves to suspect that the final word is not coming and so we bend to write again and again.

Rootlessness and restlessness in white America

I’ve been thinking for a long time about my own sense of almost complete alienation from the white Protestant suburbanism I myself came from and that is often thought of as the neutral American identity against which all others are measured. For some time I’ve been thinking and sometimes acting on the question of how it is that I can figure my own deeply-felt need to find a time and place in which I might belong without engaging in the sort of cultural appropriation that makes the Other a source of commodified artifacts. Those artifacts are problematic for about a million reasons, and not least because they seem to signify “authenticity” but actually were ganked–sometimes with lethal force–out of context and stripped of the layers of interpretation that would surround them in their home cultures. It is that interpretation that makes them human, makes them “real” in the sense of having a kind of mass or gravitational pull of their own, and makes them appropriate only to the time and place and people who have done the work of interpretation and mythologizing that invests a sacred object with power. In other words, commodified cultural artifacts can never actually “be” what alienated white Americans need them to be, because they have already been made into replicas of themselves once introduced into the circuit of commerce and consumption.

This is not to posit an essential “authenticity” that is out of the reach of outsiders to a given culture, but rather to say that the very cultures which produce culture produce it in a way that is deeply discursive and therefore incapable of being understood deeply through mere consumption. Mythopoiesis is itself a nearly infinite layering of interpretation that never finds its origin in a particular sign, much less a particular object, but which creates a sort of palimpsest to which there is not a single key that can be printed on a cardboard insert that fits inside of shrinkwrap packaging. Thus the question I would put to cultural appropriation is whose interpretive work are you paying for, and–for not only is it troubling to figure out who gets the money–why do we think we can buy it at all? The question is complicated further when indigenous groups protest that their cultures simply are not for sale, and that anyone trying to sell it to you is not selling you the “real thing”–for “real thing” does not refer to an original object or even a single experience so much as it refers to the state of having been articulated out of a multifaceted, multilayered, and yet particularly localized experience that cannot be transferred to someone else no matter how much money is spent or how many pilgrimages to [insert your exotic location here] a person with the privilege to spend that kind of money might make.

In Alas, a Blog, Julie writes, of the search for authenticity that white America has made an obsession, that “[r]eally, at the core, it’s all about justice. I can’t go to a march and then celebrate holidays by buying things. That’s not justice – not for all the people these systems oppress, not for all the people whose histories are erased.” It is a complex and nuanced blog piece, worth reading apart from anything I have to say about it, but I want to address this idea of erased history in regard both to Euro-American conquest and colonization of, well, Everything–or the attempt to do so–and the way that history is taught in America, especially in white America, although I suspect that the way history is taught in white America is not much different from the way it is taught to Americans who don’t happen to be coded as “white,” either. I have not, however, had a great deal of experience with history as it is taught in primary and secondary American public schools today; my own experience with the teaching of American history to children ended some thirtymumble years ago.

But I get the distinct impression that not much has changed: from all reports, American history in public schools still reifies an ideal American mythology that stands in for what should be a nearly indigestible chunk of experiential data from voices long-silenced. And critical thinking is still suspended until one gets to college, and then is only instigated there if one is lucky enough to take a course that actually asks one to question one’s assumptions about something quite basic, like what literature is for, or what Christianity is, or why there are gendered restrooms everywhere you go. Unfortunately–and this I do have more recent experience with–the production of business-ready, employable labor units has for the most part replaced any sort of conversation about ideas in the academy; the latter is “reserved” for those who find business boring, uncompelling, or otherwise not worth pursuing. Although some universities give at least lip service to teaching critical thought, and require core courses that supposedly instill critical thinking skills, the fact is that it is impossible to teach, in one semester, the imperative to question even one’s most cherished assumptions, when those cherished assumptions have been swaddled and bathed and carefully tended for a good seventeen years by the time a student arrives in a classroom where they might be examined. What’s worse, what passes for “critical thinking” in many university classes has devolved into a kind of academic reactionary response–which although it may be understandable, given the generally hostile atmosphere towards intellectual life in the US, still does not do justice to the process of critical thinking–wherein one simply substitutes a so-called postmodern nihilism for actual criticism. Critical thought is not, contrary to popular belief, a simple refutation of Everything We Hold Dear. What it should be, though, is a minute examination of the limits of public discourse and, especially for Americans, the limits of the public mythologizing of history.

Before I start laying out what would be a proposal for a thesis-length paper, let me just stop for a moment to say a couple of things about mythology and history. Some talking heads would have us believe that when history is exposed as mythology it is simultaneously dismissed as necessarily “untrue,” but that reflects only the most simplistic understanding of what mythology actually might be. “Myth” has come to be opposed to “truth” in our popular, hyper-scientific rationality (to the degree that we actually understand science, which we usually don’t, but that’s another topic altogether), but this denies the power of language and discourse in creating truth as truth. Here I will just say to see Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” and then Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions before getting back to me about the constructed nature of truth in every human discipline. For to say that truth is constructed is not simply to refute it as “untrue”; in fact, taken to its (il)logical (non)conclusion, such a view of truth ultimately questions the very ground upon which we base the distinction between truth and falsity. But I do not have room to explain this any further here. Let’s just say that myth is powerful, quite aside from questions as to whether it is true, and that power ultimately renders questions of truth moot, with mythology filling in for what we know as Real at almost every turn. Oh and I suppose that I should warn you that what I am saying is heresy.

History, then, is also a type of myth. This is not to question its verity, although I do intend fully to place into question the type of history most Americans are taught in elementary and secondary public schools–but not because it is mythical. The question to ask of history is whose experience is represented in any given narrative. This is why I quote Julie at Alas: justice can only begin to be served when the variety of experiences presented to us as the substance of American History is multiplied dramatically from its current rate of representation. I do not know how history is taught in K-12 education today, but I know that I learned basically the Disney version of American history: on Thanksgiving, we dressed as “Pilgrims” and “Indians,” as though that “First Thanksgiving” actually happened. In Georgia, where I was taught in one of the best public school systems of the Deep South, almost no mention was made of the people who lived in our region before the English and French got there; it was not until I was an adult that I even realized that the Trail of Tears started in the Deep South.

Much has been written on the lack of representation of indigenous experience in American history, and I’m not going to expand greatly on that topic here. The above Thanksgiving link leads to, where you can read opinions on this topic that are better informed than mine are. If you are a white American and not from an area of the US where indigenous people are recognized as still existing (even though they do continue to do so–everywhere), at the very least pick up a copy of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and read it, like, tomorrow. And by tomorrow, I mean Monday April 20, 2009, not “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

What I would actually like to talk about is what Julie at Alas talks about: the experience of white people whose ancestors are not uniformly composed of the original European colonists of North America. Well, actually I’d like to talk about anyone of Euro-American descent, and what it means to say that America has no culture, or a shallow culture, or nothing for people to hold onto as their own tradition, nothing that is rooted any more deeply than in the cartoons we were taught to believe in in our History classrooms. Because something quite profound is going on underneath this culture–or rather is not going on, but it seems that many white Americans would like it to, or need it to, or something. My sense is that if you are a white American who has been taught that our culture is neutral, natural, and without historical complication or narrative interruption but instead represents the unbroken line of all of human progress, that there is something deeply unsatisfying in that “tradition,” and that it is so because it lacks the mythological underpinnings of an actual diversity of experience, and replaces that thick mythos with a thin, idealized, ultimately unbelievable tale of exceptionalism and righteousness.

When I hear indigenous voices saying that white Americans need to rediscover their own traditions–and I have heard this from so many corners that I cannot begin to remember where all I have heard it, other than most recently during the Native American protest mounted at the famed (around here) attempted Burner’s “Go Native” party, where an unidentified Hopi woman is quoted as saying, “If you want to be spiritual–go be a Druid or something”–when I hear this, I ask myself exactly where in my own tradition I should look. The Christianity I was brought up with only left me with a raging case of Complex PTSD (and I do not hyperbolize here–it’s a real diagnosis in my long list of psychiatric maladies), my ancestors homesteaded on recently stolen Lakota land, and on one side of my family sexual abuse of children runs so rampant that no one knows of anyone in at least the last three generations who has gone through childhood untouched. No one.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I look to “white” traditions, all I see is brutality, intolerance, and rationalized child abuse; thievery and a puritanical zeal that left many of my own family members to seek relief in suicide. Where do I come from? And why would I want to go back there?

I do not have an answer for any of this yet and in fact am somewhat frantically casting about for at least a few possible ways out. I think, though, that there has been, in both European and American historiography, a massive erasure of experience that does not uphold hyper-rationalized consumption and production at all costs, and of that which contravenes the perception that we are the chosen people and must lead the entire world towards the only logically possible future–when in fact our own excess and greed has impoverished millions and has led to unprecedented environmental degradation. But I think that other experiences do exist, somewhere, signs of them, within the European tradition itself. Lately I have been studying the Neolithic Revolution in Europe, which happened around 9000 years ago, and it seems that no one yet can tell whether Europe was conquered by farmers from Western Asia or whether indigenous Europeans adopted farming themselves. Genetic studies have been construed to support either argument, but few have put forth anything more complex than these two alternatives. I do not know exactly what I am looking for, but it seems to me that sometime from the Neolithic revolution to the conversion of the continent to Christianity, European tradition lost, or purposely forgot or was driven to forget, its affiliation with the rest of what is, or what appears–and I make that distinction as a distinction between “being” as a noun and “appearing” as a verb. Monotheistic traditions are unique in placing humanity apart from nature, and Western philosophy and science in particular have treated our surroundings, apart from which we could not survive, as a manipulable, saleable, disposable object to which we ourselves bear no relation.

This, I think, is our greatest error, and has produced an alienation so deep that during the era of colonization Europe was prepared to sacrifice the entire globe to find a place to call home–this willingness to violence seems to have been passed on to the US and takes as its fuel our continued alienation from nearly everything and everyone, ultimately embodied in a vague but widespread belief that as Christians, we are not of this world. No, I am not Christian anymore. Why would I be? I want to live my life now, rather than in some static heaven where nothing ever changes, develops, grows, matures, deepens or otherwise becomes more beautiful.

The objectification of “nature” has also led to some of our greatest innovations, but would it have been possible to produce the kind of technology we enjoy without abstracting ourselves out of the landscape upon which we operate? What would a technological society look like if it recognized its relationship with the Earth especially, but also with the vast, heterogeneous, unpredictable universe as it is, as we are, not simply products of that universe but one small stream of consciousness that is, at least partially, the universe observing itself? Life is the consequence of a great melée, an orderly, chaotic riot of elemental forces that themselves are orderly and chaotic. In severing our connection with what we cannot remember but which nonetheless holds us in proximity to the phenomenal–that which appears to be–we have actually amputated our own divinity. Which may be why, at a popular level, monotheism projects god as a person from whom we have been divorced through our own imperfections. Because this god is not divinity; divinity is precisely the vulnerability of matter and energy to imperfection, entropy, and decay. It is not only our own ability to suffer, but that of all that surrounds us as well. Somewhere, during one overturning of worldview and belief or another, what turned out to be Christian Europe forgot this.

And so where does that leave the dislocated, alienated, spiritually thirsty, postmodern WASPish American? Well, maybe we need to do some archaeological work and uncover our own forgotten past, which was local, particular, and made of experiences that number near infinity–because that is what experience always does. It is a multidisciplinary sort of work, because the texts that exist to be read as encoded experience in anyone’s tradition are of a multitude of genres, objects, traces, and sometimes even documents–although rarely, as it turns out. I do not mean by any of this that romanticization of some Golden Age is going to save us, for nothing is going to save us, and that is precisely the point. We are not here to save anyone; nor are we here to be saved. If we gave that up, our own Messiah complex, and started reading those texts which have been cast aside, forgotten, suppressed even here in the land of supposed complete freedom where each of us gets to sort of choose how it is we will scramble to pay the rent, I think that maybe we could begin to understand what cutural complexity is, what it means to belong to an imperfect world rather than to have been cast out of paradise in a cosmic game of one-upmanship, and actually to begin to figure different ways of being, of doing, of acting, that do not require the sacrifice of so many lives.

Maybe. It is not that I am afraid of commitment–although I am but it is beside the point–but rather that the world we inhabit is made out of maybe: potential, the promise of something probably unexpected.