Friday, November 21, 2008

On the importance of stories

My contemporary literature class (despite its status as a 200-level course) has revolved around postmodern theories of literature and culture. I have asked students in small groups to present on one essay or excerpt on postmodern literary/cultural studies, and then following their presentation, I take the ball and run with it. We've read Barth, Lyotard, McHale, Jameson, Hutcheon, Hayden White, bell hooks, and Baudrillard. They've done remarkably well.

They've been paired with readings from Borges, Calvino, Stoppard, Winterson, Angela Carter, Sexton, Baraka, George Saunders, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, Kundera and Spiegelman. It's been an extraordinarily fun course, and the students are thinking. hard. It's always nice to see the tiny explosions of 27 minds (my own included) being blown at the same moment. (The student who used the electoral projection maps in late October in response to Baudrillard was a nice moment).

One of the conundrums we've been running up against, though, is on the one hand, the necessary fictionality of all discourse, running up against the imperative to tell stories, fictional and historical as vital to human survival. Maus and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting make this crucially clear, but even If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or Rushdie's "children's" novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, give us variations on this theme. Telling stories in a fictional world will save our lives in the real world.

Not incidentally, then, I began thinking about returning to the blog right around the time I was teaching Kundera and Spiegelman. Kundera has some pithy quotes about the need to write about ourselves...I don't have the text handy, but it's something like that we write about ourselves precisely because we have nothing to say. He calls it graphomania, and Googling the term will get you a few summaries of the idea. Essentially, we feel invisible, and therefore seek to impose our presence on the world (via readers) through writing our lives.

Blogging certainly runs up against these ideas: the struggle to find ourselves heard (read) amidst a sea of writing. We tell these stories over and over again, of classes, of writing travails, of forays onto the job market. They are conventional, often, though some do distinguish themselves, and yet despite their conventionality they remain crucial; these narrative exchanges serve as connections in an anonymous world.

If stories shape our sense of the world, and our identity in those worlds, then the stories we tell about ourselves become essential, even as they run up against the impossibility of reference. And so we tell these stories in this impossible space, Lyotardian micronarratives set within the hyperreal of Baudrillard. We are at once hopelessly postmodern and at the same time, so simple, so straitforward. We are the stories we tell about ourselves, and so we tell these stories as if our lives depended on them. And our lives, in some symbolic way, do.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Theorists of performativity, notably Judith Butler, have always had trouble bending the logical extension of the theory around the idea of pain. We are generally in agreement about the performativity of gender, and we have come around to the idea of the performativity of sex. Sadiya Hartman has convinced me eloquently of the performativity of race, and there are a host of other ways that we might then use performativity to theorize the ways that we discusively stylize the body, how we write identity onto ourselves with gesture, language, costume, and contact.

But pain resists this theory. In every theory I've come across, it remains the ineffable. We can talk about the performativity even of disability, but the pain doesn't disappear. Look at the work of Bob Flanagan, or of Susan Miller, or of a host of other performers of illness and pain and these performances often become testimony to the ultimate reassurance of existence. Trent Reznor famously puts it: "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain /the only thing that's real."

I've been teaching Angels in America this semester, and the contexts of two of my classes, political drama and postmodern literature, have brought me to look at this play in a slightly new way. The play's stylistic approach is often (though not always) what we might call Brechtian camp. The heightened, parodic excess of camp defines the aesthetics of the play's dream, hallucination, and supernatural sequences, but does so in a more pointedly politicized way than typical queer camp tends to do (the difference is in the "pointedly" not the "politicized"). What remains though, are several scenes that are actually staged quite realistically, scenes that tend at their most brutal to deal with both the physical and psychic pain caused by AIDS specifically, and the epidemic more broadly. The scene in which Prior Walter first must be taken to the hospital is a brutal one, with bleeding and shitting and sweating and falling down all happening onstage.

In my postmodern class, we might look at this stylistic shift specifically within the framework of, say, magical realism, and note the apparent ontological, non-metaphorical blending of the real and fantastic, note its consistency with the anti-bureucratic impulses of Rushdie, Carpentier, Fuentes, Allende (See Wendy Faris's article, "Scheherezade's Children"), and talk about the hetero-cosmic worldview in light of Brian McHale's notion of the Ontological Fiction. Done.

But in the political theatre class, which is home to several openly queer students, the focus came to settle on what this representational style has to do with AIDS, and why this play had to be theatre. And what arose from this was that the camp sensibility of the play serves to underscore the arbitrariness of all identity categories, the performativity of them, and at the same time affirms the ineffable nataure of pain, of suffering. of course, unlike the bodied performances of Bob Flanagan, this ineffable pain is in fact performed by an actor, an epistemological hitch for what seems like an ontological assertion.

And so in my thinking, I have turned instead not to performed pain, but felt pain. Because Kushner's dilemma of the political of theatrical representation and the thearical aesthetics of politics transforms so terribly into a personal, embodied, nightmarish existence for others. What few will deny is ontologically real.

The dilemma: that which resists performativity cannot be performed. That which resists writing cannot be written. We can write about pain, and perform the gestures of pain, but pain itself cannot be written or performed. It can barely be measured. It is so extraordinarily experiential, embodied, and pre-linguistic that doctors have little way of reliably gauging it, and no way at all of reliably verifying it.

My mother has been diagnosed alternatively with Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Scleroderma, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Colitis, IBS, IBD, and Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. Who knows what else is in there. She feels pain all over, and frequently. There is the shoulder pain and the hand pain and the stiffness walking. But most acutely is this strange, searing pain in her middle abdomen, to the left side, that has resisted diagnosis, detection, even verification. There is no evidence of this particular pain in action (there are scars from ailments), even as she squirms under its grasp. Somatosis has been mentioned more than once, as has medication seeking (and be sure that pain management has been done poorly and with consequences that extend beyond the physical). But so much has been verified--in retrospect, in tiny glimpses and patches, pieces of puzzle with no clear sense of the other pieces--that it is hard to doubt the ontological real of this pain.

After probably two-plus months of the last 18 spent in hospital with tests galore and specialists and consultations and theories and hopes and disappointments, she's at a stable but not remotely pain free place. This is a piece of her experience I cannot know, and for a relationship that was once built on our affinities and common modes of relating to the world, it is a piece that drives us apart. I can't help but feeling a little like Louis from Angels, self-flagellating over my response to her illness (some 15 or 20, or maybe 35 years on), doing little in the process to actually help her.

This election promises a tiny piece of hope in the discussions of health care being bandied about. But this is just paying for treatment, not a new treatment itself, and there is, with the present options, little hope of improvement, let alone actual healing. Just managing a pain that cannot be detected, measured, or named. In that light, this work I do seems small and weightless, flitting about in the tissue of culture that swirls around that hard excruciating core of pain, the real that resists camp, simulacrum, performativity, discourse.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The sign that a hiatus is ending...

is often that I post about the continuing hiatus. It means I've been thinking about the blog again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

As Long Dark National Nightmares Go...

I've been teaching Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting this semester, remarkably, at the same time as the election. Reading about the kinds of state abuses of power that Kundera describes, and the controlling of the national history, the national narrative, and the minute details of citizens' lives, I have to say that our own last eight years kind of come into a different perspective.

Indeed, the United States has presided over some atrocities, most specifically related to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, and other names for torture. And admittedly, the domestic wiretapping certainly echoes of the sorts of abuses that Kundera describes in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia (isn't it funny how the name of that once-nation sounds strange again?).

But reading of exiles, executed traitors of the state, excommunicated writers, poets and historians, I can't help but think that eight years followed by the promise of major change without the threat of tanks rolling into town one day to dismantle the government certainly feels different than the kind of rolling into town that the inauguration in January will be.

And more subtly, but as importantly, I'm thinking about the sexuality in Kundera's book. Everywhere affairs, orgies, threesomes, random gropings in mechanic's shops. It's not that I have a problem with sexual variety (that'd be hypocritical at least), but it's the kind of nihilism that Kundera's sex scenes exhibit. And they're there in virtually every episode. The one prospect of amorous coition is thwarted in the novel, and what is left is often described as rape, castration, or at best, ridiculous contortions of the body.

I'm not in a position to take our national temperature in the bedroom (although my impulse is to say that it's fairly tepid right now), but to read the absence of desire in Kundera's sex scenes is to discover what a kind of national hopelessness feels like, and after eight years where the political scene verged on hopelessness, I realized how much hope I was able to maintain all along.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Explaining the hiatus

I write this with the illusion that people still occasionally check this site, which seems unlikely given the glut of other excellent things to be reading. Anyway, I'm taking a bit of hiatus (as if you haven't noticed), that will continue on into mid-December, and maybe onto the first of the year, or even until Inauguration ( a nice significant date to return to online writing). There's a lot going on here, much of it good, but not really ready for the world as such. I'll continue to comment online occasionally, and may even be at MLA for a day or so since we'll already be in the Bay Area for the holidays. So see you around the blogosphere and what not...