On my return from Madison, Wisconsin, where I attended WisCon, I was forced to contemplate the resourcefulness of administrative language as it was used to slot & manage me. Northwest Airlines designated me a “distressed passenger” when I found myself stranded following the failure of the hydraulics system in one of its planes. Personnel at the airport motel I was assigned to repeated the phrase, as did various other employees of the travel industry, interpellating me with a certain knowing sympathy that had the function of slotting me securely in place. Distressed? It’s a characterization hinting at a psychological problem rather than a person at the mercy of logisitical inadequacies. Used as an impersonal & instrumental categorization, it implies that any passenger’s state of being “distressed” could prove inconvenient or uncomfortable for others if not handled carefully. Certainly I felt stressed. But negotiating the ordeal that air travel has over the years become always has that effect on me. If the travel industry had chosen to use the term “stressed passenger” rather than “distressed passenger,” the emphasis would have shifted to the stressfulness of the conditions of travel rather than the state of mind of the traveler. But that would hardly have suited the corps, would it: administrative language seeks always to render potential subjects into objects that can be managed.
As if being designated a “distressed passenger” weren’t sufficiently pacifying, on arrival in Seattle I found that my home had been broken into. I prefer that clumsy verb phrase to the more efficient “burgled” because the break-in ruptured the privacy of my most personal spaces—evident in certain traces, such as open filing drawers, letters of thirty years past scattered over the floor of my office, the bed sheets and duvet cover thrown back and rumpled, drawers ajar with their contents incompletely jammed back into them… The characterization rendering me passive in this instance is “victim,” the word used on the police report. No thank you, officer. I decline the role.
See, it’s a never-ending battle against administrative language: law enforcement as well as the medical, insurance, and travel industries, all of them can’t function if those whom they administer aren’t basically acquiescent. Those who don’t accept the role of object, those who don’t acquiesce, are troublemakers. (& no doubt there are procedures & another set of labels for managing them.) Language, insidious language. Think Foucault, not Sapir-Whorf. Resistance isn’t futile, but unintelligible.
WisCon, though. Some of the conversation of Now What resonates with some of the conversation I engaged in (or listened to) at WisCon. For the uninitiated, WisCon is a feminist science fiction convention. Its attitude is inclusive, which means that conflicts spring up & are never resolved, just endlessly deferred over papered over. (Tribal identification at WisCon is as loose as it gets.) This year, a thousand people attended, among them Samuel R. Delany, Carol Emshwiller, Andrea Hairston, Ursula K. Le Guin, Wendy Walker, Kelly Link, Alan DeNiro, Nalo Hopkinson.
Caught up in my preparations for WisCon, WisCon itself, and the considerable aftermath following the event, I’ve slipped out of the loop of the conversation here that’s moving so fast. Blonde’s inciting us to Virilian speed, and reading all the posts in one go, the words go racing past. For a moment I’m the animated figure surrounded by sentences whizzing past in every direction, my head spinning around like a top as my eyeballs extrude on eyestalks chasing after them. Back when my body was young and could take the stress, I’d eat speed to write brilliant seminar papers. That was around the time I learned to think, to consciously make connections, which I’d do by putting words on an unlined page and drawing lines and arrows and circles, something I don’t think I’ve done even once in the last twenty-five years. Maybe because I think now in sentences, sentences with lots of subordinate clauses denoting relations. Thirty years ago, thinking was painful, effortful—but exhilarating. For a long time, engaging in the activity of thinking felt exactly like taking speed.
Thinking is an altered state of consciousness. Some people live in that state almost all the time. Do they ever watch television? Which activities are compatible with the altered state of consciousness that is thinking? And when people think & write about what they’ve watched on television, do they slip out of that state while they are watching television, or are they able to watch television without slipping out of that state? What is it that happens when we watch television? I ask because I’m starting to wonder if television has something fundamental to do with the numbed quiescence of the administered classes of the United States, passive spectators to the destruction of their future.
If I had hours & hours of time, I’d write pages & pages in response to the many contributions made to Now What since my first post. Instead, I’m just going to pluck a few fragments out of context & comment.
Kass: you ask how we respond as intellectuals and artists (or artists and intellectuals) to the fact that the public has gone to sleep. It may be that that’s the Big Question of the Moment (portentous capitalizations & all). It’s not a question I’ve ever seriously asked myself as an artist & intellectual (or an intellectual & artist), though for most of my life as an artist & intellectual, political consciousness has informed my work. It strikes me that this question is one for artists & intellectuals (or intellectuals & artists) to address collectively—but never individually. How, after all, can the artist (& the intellectual) do their imaginative work if that particular Big Question informs the work? Not so with the collective approach. Part of the reason of forming an intentional community or tribe is to create & expand the discourse in which the artist & intellectual lives, breathes, works. (& yeah, I hope we can talk more about this.)
Another thing about this Big Question you pose, Kass: it might help if we broke down “public” into something made of distinct parts rather than taking it for a blob that amounts to “the masses” etc. There are so many different publics. & it seems to me that there are different problems with different publics (though yeah, the effect of all those publics falling into inattentiveness or indifference or comatose absence feels near-Total).
“the masses slumber as we jack off, i guess”
That’s the late capitalist system at work, Kass, making us think that work is masturbation. (If it’s not validated by the usual criterion of success—the almighty dollar—then it’s got to be just wanking. Meaning, you’re doing it for yourself. Meaning, artists who don’t make a living off their work are just self-indulgent sluts contributing nothing to the culture.)
Kass: you ask, “In Opposition To What?” Sometimes “existing in opposition” is what’s needed, in which case no one has to ask about what the “What” actually is. Sometimes, though, that kind of reactive focus isn’t what’s needed. In which case, it’s not opposition that’s needed, but an alternative. Consider: we can be in opposition to the Iraq war. But that won’t solve the larger problem we’re talking about on this blog, will it? Or we can be in opposition to the US’s use of & rationalization of torture. Or we can be in opposition to the US’s determination to eradicate all reproductive freedom for women and effective AIDS education programs. But these are all issues (or clusters of issues). For me, the imaginative construction of alternative narratives, alternative ethics, alternative worldviews, alternative aesthetics, is key. It’s harder to talk about the alternative than it is to talk about the oppositional, sure. But the point is, refusing both the status quo & the oppositional to embrace an alternative is a refusal to get trapped within the parameters of the mind-numbing nonsense that’s constantly shrinking the imaginative possibilities available to public discourses. We need fresh directions, fresh paths for our imaginations to take. We’re being killed by the narrowness of our culture’s notion of “reality.”
You also raise the more general question, Kass, of the relation between art & politics. Adrienne Rich recently addressed that issue in an essay titled “Permeable Membrane” in the Virginia Quarterly Review at http://www.vqroline.org/articles/2006/spring/rich-permeable-membrane/
I suggest reading it alongside Lyn Hejinian’s “Who Is Speaking?”(which can be found in her collection, The Language of Inquiry. Together, these might give us some ideas about that tribal thing we don't know how to talk about.