13 June 2006

that tribal thing

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.


rev_justin said...

I have posted my own reaction to your bit on administrative language here, if you'd like to take a peek.

Lance Olsen said...

No, no, no: it's your post, Timmi, that's like eating speed. You just made my brain itch—always a good sign. I'd explain some of the ways how, but I've blogged far too much these last few days, and should shut up and let some others have a chance. Oceans of thanks, and welcome back to the conversation!

Lance Olsen said...

Oh, and for those interested, the URL to the essay by Adrienne Rich mentioned above is:


Anonymous said...

To namedrop a third relevant essay by a poet, there's June Jordan's 1982 "Problems of Language in a Democratic State":

"When I say that those particular white men sounded all alike, I am not exaggerating. All of them used the language of the state seeking to transcend accountability, as in: 'The Federal Reserve has been forced to raise interest rates' or 'It is widely believed' or 'While I can't comment on that I would like to emphasize that it has been said many, many times . . . ' . . . Is somebody really saying those words? Is any real life affected by those words? Should we really just relax into the literally non-descript, the irresponsible language of the passive voice? . . . I tell you about Polyphemus because we seem determined to warp ourselves into iddy-biddy imitations of his foolishness. To repeat: the other Cyclopes decided that if no one had done anything then nothing was to be done. What happened to him represented the will of the gods."

The attempt to interpellate the less powerful into sufferers of "psychological issues" even in such simple situations as that of the "distressed passenger" is the next step, innit? Couple of months ago, when I thought it likely that I would not be renewed in my job, a friend sent me a lenghty email attempting to boost my self-confidence, going on and on about the high quality of my writing. Wondering whether one will be making a living is really not a self-confidence issue, necessarily; but many people tend to take that Oprahfied approach.


blonde said...

hey--the rich and hejinian texts are swell--i might add carole maso to the list of good women making sense about language, politics, bodies and making...

and for what it's worth, i am as enlightened and excited by the questions raised HERE as i am the aforementioned authors/texts/discussions...


Kass Fleisher said...


all good stuff. thanks for raising the issue of the collective. i think that has been my aim here (as in *here*)---to problematize the ways we get divided from a more communal purpose, and divide/diffuse each other. (that's *diffuse*, not *defuse*. difference is good and even necessary. but unity is crucial---this last said with the usual caveat about exclusivity, boundaries, etc.)

your discussion of the alternative, while welcome, makes me some nervous. in the same way i fuss over the problem of "opposition" (to..?), i fuss over "alternative" (to..?) to turn to postcolonial studies for a moment...are we imagining ourselves as an alterity? you suggest abandoning both status quo *and* opposition, and suggesting turning toward...alterity? i think i am entirely "with" the spirit of your suggestion ("opposition" having something of a militaristic chime to it) but i would like to tease it out a bit if you wouldn't mind. how can an alterity "refuse to get trapped"? an alterity exists entirely in the context of the hegemonic. without hegemony, there is no alterity. of course i'd love to collapse this somehow, conceptually i mean. i have no idea how we should do this by way of imagining ourselves as a collective, which i'm, yes, yes, with you, with you, on.

"fresh" makes me suspicious too but let's save that for another day. :>

i love your story of being labeled "distressed." something that's distressing me is at the bottom of this comment box. "CHOOSE AN IDENTITY," it says. mmm, today i think i'll be a sumo wrestler. thanks for the opportunity to CHOOSE.

thanks for a great post.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Rev_Josh: Thanks for the link to your follow-up. In the course of reading it, I realized that I no longer draw a clear distinction between the government & its functionaries’ interpellation of its “citizens” & coprorations’ interpellation of consumers. (Is there any significant difference remaining between the two?) I think what worries me most is how swiftly & unconsciously such language gets integrated into ordinary discourse. Though William Gibson is often quoted approvingly as saying that the street has its own use for things, I’m not sure that it isn’t more aptly the case that the street is being used by its own penchant for adaptation. (Well, I read Gibson as a romantic.) I can easily imagine “distressed” becoming a new way of characterizing a variety of terrible situations. Has anyone but me noticed that the word “issues” has been fairly stripped of its non-personal sense?


Timmi Duchamp said...

Lance: Thanks for posting the link to the Rich essay. I haven't yet figured out how to post links myself.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Josh: Thanks for reminding me of that June Jordan essay. It’s been about eighteen years since I last read it, & it reads as powerfully today as it did then. I will note, though, that I found one word in my copy circled in red. Jordan writes: “We have a rather foggy mess and not much hope for a democratic state when the powerless agree to use a language that blames the victim for the deeds of the powerful” and I circled the word “agree” because to me that word implies knowing, conscious complicity rather than an unconscious lack of resistance, & I apparently believed 18 years ago that the latter was what Jordan was talking about. Now, the day after the Supreme Court ruled that the police may “lawfully” enter people’s homes without knocking or in any way announcing themselves… (this, of course, following on from the Court’s previous ruling that search warrants aren’t essential), unraveling yet one more thread in the ever-thinner fabric of democracy, I’m wondering whether Jordan might not have been right after all to have used the word “agree” in that way.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Lidia: I’ve read & I love most of Carole Maso’s fiction but know little about her nonfiction. Could you point me to something specific? (I have to admit I love to read beautifully written nonfiction as much as I love to read beautifully written fiction-- as well as everything [beautifully written] in between.)


Timmi Duchamp said...

Kass: Thanks for expressing nervousness anent my call for an alternative rather than oppositional attitude. You point out what should have been obvious to me, viz., that I’d abstracted my use of the idea (& word) out of one context (& a context likely unfamiliar to most of the people reading Now What) & unthinkingly generalized my use of it. You’re right, it can’t work that way. Most important is your comment: “an alterity exists entirely in the context of the hegemonic. without hegemony, there is no alterity.”-- & your wondering “are we imagining ourselves as an alterity?”

The original context for my use of “alternative” was my discussion of a short story by Karen Joy Fowler, “What I Didn’t See.” This story caused an uproar in the science fiction world when it first appeared in 2002 because, as I argue in an essay appearing in the just-published Daughters of Earth, ed. Justine Larbalestier, very few people were capable of reading the story in its full intertextual context, that of thirty years of feminist science fiction. & so they could not recognize it as a science fiction (& were also unable to read its feminist subtext). & this infuriated a lot of them. In my discussion I note that although 1970s feminist science fiction necessarily adopted an oppositional stance vis-à-vis science fiction at large, thirty years of feminist science fiction has seen the production of a body of texts that constitute the water in which current feminist sf writers now swim, which allows them to take an alternative rather than an oppositional approach in their work. Because of these texts (& the feminist sf community’s powerful collective memory & understanding of them), feminist sf authors share a vocabulary & set of texts & themes to work with, & most new pieces of feminist sf are written in conversation with those texts. The only problem is, science fiction readers who’ve got a sketchy background in feminist sf texts don’t comprehend these alternative texts because they can’t pick up on the conversation that’s in progress. They get oppositional texts just fine (& every now & then someone still writes something oppositional), because oppositional texts get right up in their faces. Which means that feminist sf writers constantly face the dilemma of intelligibility. The more interesting a piece of feminist sf is, the less likely it is that those who don’t swim in that water will be able to get it. (Of course, since most people cherish the belief that good fiction is universally transparent, authors take a lot of blame for a perceived lack of intelligibility.)

Having elaborated on the original context, it now occurs to me to wonder if part of the problem isn’t a lack of collective memory & a clear sense of conversational history…