this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Month: April, 2011

after that shot in Solaris

This poem explores two new(-ish) areas of writing for me–one, the prose-poem, and two, the occasional poem. It is occasional because I wrote this poem in response to a horrific video (which I warn is violent) of a transgender woman being attacked at a McDonald’s. I have a terribly hard time recognizing that things like this happen and that there are such people in the world as to be filled with such hatred and violence, and that furthermore I belong to their species. Suffice to say this poem is a sort of coming-to-grips with that. All relations involve a certain violence or hesitancy of the other as other, a desire to subject what is alien to what is familiar–particularly through the language we use and how language can cover up what is alien using similar language as well as distance. So hopefully this poem embodies/contributes-to such a discussion.

after that shot in Solaris

Sure, he said, emerged in piss, why not emerged in piss? Head cocked forward into knees, they said, to prevent the weight of the blows, because, when it comes down to it, the sheer force of the swinging hand or foot would rather be received in the shoulder than the head by anyone, wouldn’t it? Phobia is the formal term for when we shit ourselves to the very edge of ourselves.

Carrying that weight inside us it’s a wonder we can move sometimes. I couldn’t explain that scene to you, the one with the long shots in crisp black and white, no, something about its imperfection and your body beside mine and how they fucked until the self-pity oozed out made it too hard to explain. Death, rebirth, death, rebirth, death… you know the drill. Of course they laughed when they kicked her, they were afraid, or so I am led to believe, and the video confirmed it to be true—that’s what humor looks like: fetal and scared, a certain repetition to it. But when the father in the joke said it’s turtles all the way down I had to explain it to you twice before you laughed.

These are days we cannot ask another to look where we have scratched until the blood runs, god, get it away, get it fucking away from me. This is not boredom. This is just a sentence. A sentence—and a sort of optimism.

On the Empty Tomb: an Assemblage of Easter Thoughts

“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”—the (presumably original) ending of the Gospel of St. Mark

When people die we tend to have some sort of funeral service—some rite of passing into a beyond, other world, the ether, fire, or simply the earth. The funeral service is a radical reminder of our finitude I think—that even at death our bodies belong to this spherical mass floating about some star in some big globular of stars somewhere. This is juxtaposed of course with a sense of importance, about the person, about the human species, rites commemorating the body and such. The funeral is the place of settling, the place of final dwelling we could say, the place at which all things are finally rested, centered, and stabilized. The place we celebrate a singularity’s significance in spite of its ridiculous insignificance.

And I think this is why the empty tomb is such a terrifying thing. Sure, it stresses the beauty of conquering death (whatever that means), redemption, salvation, and what-have-you, but it also completely decenters the significance of death—or, rather, decenters significance. Significance exists in that there is a certain risk involved to the significance. For instance, I really love Walt Whitman precisely because I have invested so much time, interest, and passion into his work. I have invested all this time and interest against the background of other poets and books and things that I have chosen, risked if you will, to not invest so much of my time in. I only really care about Walt Whitman in that I risked my time, my being, my life, etc., to study his work over and above something else. Choosing Whitman (or anything) involves a radical rejection of other things.

This is true of people too—getting to know someone, befriending someone, loving someone, all involves this sort of risk. Risk only exists in that I am ultimately risking my life, my body, my being. There is no adventure, no journey, no hero’s quest (and therefore no hero) without this risk. Without risk I am open to all possibilities as possibilities without consequence, that is, possibilities without significance. Thus the funeral rite—it is a way of acknowledging the risk taken by all involved in the person’s life. A way of affirming the value of the risk—displaying of the body, remembering of the individual—and a way of mourning the ultimate loss the risk involved.

So—what does this really have to do with the Easter season? Well, in short, I have a hard time getting out of Lenten mode and into Easter mode. The resurrection is too ridiculous, too nonsensical, and far too mysterious to be a satisfying answer to the question of Lent (I think this is why there is a whole season of Easter, to allow the mystery to “settle in”). Christ as a singularity, as a finite creature, radically possessed by the creation he created, is obliterated in the resurrection. Resurrection destroys the significance of risk, of possibility, of choosing this to that. Although the empty tomb is hopeful and comforting in its infinitude, it is also terribly stifling and claustrophobic. Infinite possibility is rightly a way of saying no risk or significance to possibility. To take the Whitman example—if I knew I came back from the dead and lived forever, what then is the significance or risk to reading Whitman over and above say Shelley? I’m going to have an infinite amount of time, so, it’s really quite unfair to go around picking favorites. Significance emerges because, or at the very least in part, I face my death. My death is “mine” and in part defines this mineness—without “having” a death, who/what am I? How am I even singular?

Although I’m looking ahead in the church calendar, this is what is frightening about the ascension—this now non-singularity ascends out of the earth that he did not belong to, even in death, and into the non-place of “the right hand of the father.” I mean, come now, what the hell is that supposed to mean? Where is “the right hand”? How can a bodily Christ dwell at the non-bodily “hand” of a person, the father, who is the same nature as himself (especially when that “self” also possesses a human nature as well)? This just makes no sense.

And I don’t think it’s supposed to make sense. The resurrection is ridiculous—this is what is meant by a “mystery.” During the Easter season there is a reminder to Christians that Christ is risen, yes, but also that he is not here, the tomb is empty. No risen thing could be here. This is the land of risk, of significance, of finitude—here death sets the rules. We’ve done the funeral rite, we’ve put Christ in oils and perfumes and wrapped his body and we’ll be damned if he comes back and we have to go through it all over again. But we don’t have to—because he leaves us, he ascends. And although I get that the Church is the body of Christ, that it is the community of believers that is Christ, in one sense all that’s left of Christ is the empty tomb. His body is not here. His singularity is not here. Although his trace may be everywhere, he is not here.

To put it another way—the two Marys have traditionally represented the Church in two different aspects. Mary the mother of god represents our birthing of Christ into the world, the Church as the body of Christ, the Church as mother. Mary Magdalene however represents the Church as the lowliest of sinners, begging Christ for mercy, the Church as lover. In this way one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass, really encapsulates what I’m trying to say about the solemnity of the empty tomb,

“For Magdalene, of course, the resurrection didn’t mean

She’d got him back. It meant she’d lost him in another way.

It was the voice she loved, the body, not the god

Who, she had been told, ascended to his heaven,

There to dispense tenderness and pity on the earth.”

After the Winds

Untitled

Sometimes I have little to say–or rather want to say little–about my poems.

Untitled

This morning
the usual

perturbances:
headache,

old clothes,
the throb

and clutter
of waking

life. But
who knew

the scratches
on the porch—

scuff of
pigeon

brawling,
the possum’s

climb, two
late night

cats, sprawled,
made love.

Praise

I’ve been trying to edit this poem for some time now, but I sort of just seem stuck with it–voids are left where I trim and parts become weighty and clunky when added to. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t quite feel done. Oh well.

Sometimes I think all poetry is commentary upon other poems–this one in particular is a commentary on Ben Johnson’s 4th lyric piece in his celebration of Charis set: “Have you seen but the bright lily grow,/ before rude hands have touched it?/ Have you marked but the fall of the snow,/ before the soil hath smutched it? […] O so white! O so soft! O so sweet is she!” And, more obviously, a meditation on one of Issa’s haiku which presents itself in the poem itself. Hopefully this poem(-as-commentary) fits between the other two well, a liminal poem so to speak, which is, perhaps, what all poems are anyways.

 

Praise

 

To say I thought of your body this morning,

smirch of overcast, the faint cloud-glow of

Californian rainclouds, low, and full to the

very edge of themselves, thought of the moon

sheen along your belly and breast which, at

the time, was your belly and breast, was its

whiteness, representing purity or openness

or some such significance as used and hollowed

and filled in its day by Johnson, Marvell, Donne;

to say I thought of this body in the midst of

our mutual grievances, and the way our insides

slowly crept out in insidious and hurtful ways,

the way we dressed in them, half the shaman half

butcher, and wept for each other but mostly

for ourselves and how we called it empathy,

a shared space of condolences, a time for loss;

to say I thought of your body then, thought

of my body beside and our warmth and hair,

clothing crumpled away like used up packaging,

something discarded, is a way of saying there

was an impression, a sunken space in my body,

a mold where whatever lay there, whatever

came so close as to touch, I tried to melt down,

to melt and press and stamp, but never could;

and when the mold finally shattered and I

touched and could be touched, was opened

slowly and from top to bottom, I couldn’t help

but think this morning of that line from Issa,

the one about the lark caught midflight singing,

something about her groundlessness, her pure

detachment from all other things and therefore

her openness to all other things, and what to do

but sing, and the word praise came to mind, a

certain fullness, suspension, and the word praise.

Anthropocentrism, Darwin, & Christianity: A Jumble of Thoughts

I have been asked before, being a vegan against speciesism as well as a Nicene-creed-affirming-Christian, how I explain the gospel narrative. That is, isn’t the whole thing rather anthropocentric? Doesn’t the Christian narrative affirm a primacy of the human species above and beyond other species? Although I have no systematic approach to these questions as of yet and, unfortunately, have not found terribly many thinkers who explicitly deal with these questions, I am left with only a handful of thoughts.

For starters I think it’s important to realize that the Christian narrative, although about humans as a species, does not therefore de facto give them some metaphysical primacy. Darwinism too is “about” humans, but, obviously, this system isn’t anthropocentric, radically so, and we are still recognizing the radicalism of these claims. Also something important to note is that the Genesis creation myth need not be opposed not only to a Darwinist understanding of cosmology but of species in general. That is when we find a god-who-breathes into the human species we need not see this as speciel primacy. What follows this breath, that is, the sharing of “spirit,” breath, inhalation as life, exhalation as death, etc., is two “special” claims for the human species as those who breathe the breath-of-god, the imago dei.

One, as those who breathe the breath they are in commun-ication with god, not in an metaphysically primal way (the god of the genesis myth after all walks about the earth, enjoying being alongside his creation, in short, a kind of creature, a species hirself, s/he communes and dwells on hir earth), but in that they belong to speech and thus are commanded from within speech (“thou shalt not eat…” and all). The human species qua speciel-society is just as much alongside any other speciel-society, just as capable of transgressing against one another, breaking societal norms or givens, going against the herd-tribe, etc., but this is always already done from within and against the background of a language of law and transgression. Animals too have language and signification, I understand this, but the Genesis myth begins at the moment of the separation of law and transgression inherent in language as humans have used it—which isn’t to say humans are primary—it’s just to say the Genesis myth is a story told by humans about humans to humans. Its beginning is the beginning of the first commandment, the first law, from within human language.

Two, the so-called “dominion” of humans over creation also is a dominion of language—that is this dominion is strictly naming. Humans, as has been pointed out many a time, in the story are herbivores—the only kind of “dominance” they are allotted is in naming species and, perhaps, particular animals within the species—this extends to naming one another. It is important to note the only dominance they are given is the dominance granted to all other species—that of enjoying a creation and being able to commune in it (wherein communication is a vital part of communing/dwelling).

Thus the only separation we see[1] unique to humans is the tendency to speak the language of law and transgression. The subsequent curses on the species of humans after “the fall” are curses of language—men will subsequently find self worth and identity in the painful process of labor (ergo capitalist reification, racism, symbolic castration) and women will historically and psychically be wrapped up in the painful process of mothering (ergo sexism, tribal oppression, all of Freud’s so-called “Oedipal” problems). In other words, the curse is fucked up. The curse is essentially the beginning of all oppression. Inherent in this curse that, rightly speaking, is a curse of humans’ tendencies to delude themselves through power-systems and patriarchy, is the curse of speciesism. That is, humans are now carnivorous and lust for blood—it is no coincidence that the Cain and Abel myth follows suit (and this is how the Eucharist functions and, why in my opinion, Christ should be the only meat you eat–the only creatures those of bread and wine–but this is another post for another time). Rightly speaking, humans are the only ones who can be speciesist or racist or sexist. This is what a fall as law/transgression signifies. Humans are now engaged in trying to lord it over not just each other, but also every creature, always trying to suppress and appropriate the other. And it is a wicked and terrible system that only gets worse throughout the Torah text—thus the flood, the tower of Babel, etc. This is a story mostly centered on humans oppressing humans, granted, but it seems to me that the curse opens up the oppression of humans over all of creation as such.

From here on out the rest of the Christian narrative sort of follows suit. Why did god become human, assume the human species in particular? Why not a toad or marmot? Well—one, humans were the one’s who transgressed, who brought oppression upon themselves by themselves. The problem, from the standpoint of the text, is one that concerns the society/world of the human species—not as metaphysically dominant, but as plot. Two—who says god didn’t become a toad or marmot? Who says he didn’t in some way redeem broccoli? Once again, this isn’t the concern of the text—it would rightly be silly to be “in” the text—not because it’s a silly idea or even unnecessary, but it is not what the story is about. Questions like these are perhaps necessary—was creation redeemed through Christ? Did creation fall through Adam? Did god redeem ferns? These are important questions I think, but questions for a speculative theology, not essential questions for the narrative.

At the very least though, we know it was a verbal transgression made by humans against humans to the curse of humans, that god became a human to redeem this. In redemption is the obliteration of male, female, Jew, Greek, and therefore speciel thinking as such. That is just as the curse of the fall was oppression of assuming self-dominance so too the incarnation represents the obliteration of the very kind of thinking that permits speciel oppression (a la St. Paul—the Law). Christ took a hammer to patriarchy from within, by putting death to The Patriarch—himself. God as the ultimate dominant self assumed the ultimate other—the other who transgressed, the other who ostracized hirself—in order to redeem the divide. Perhaps god became a human because from the standpoint of the text humans are the most fucked up—perhaps this is why he became a male too—but this is all speculation. Suffice to say, god assumed the human species to redeem the human species from the human species.

Perhaps this becomes even more radical when one recognizes, along with Darwin, that every species is one tendentially and tentatively, every species is a missing-link. The redemption of a species (which is here as a species but a moment) from itself not as a primary species in regards to other species but as regards the inherent oppression within that species itself is the Christian narrative. It is a story about humans screwing up humans and god becoming a human and fixing it as a human. To assume that therefore humans are better or central metaphysically seems to negate the very cause for which god became a human, namely, oppressive speciel thinking.


[1] In that the myth is about humans told by humans to humans there is the possibility fungus and sea slugs had commandments too but this is irrelevant as regards the Genesis myth as a preamble to the Torah—it’s important to realize that this account not only is concerned with one species in particular but is part of a larger narrative which is concerned with the history of one people group within that species. In other words perhaps all species have an implicit law/transgression relationship to a god who appears alongside them, each according to its kind and ability, etc. The myth doesn’t tell us this because it’s not concerned with this—it is a myth, like I said, about a specific people group within a specific species—it doesn’t seem to follow that the text is racist, sexist, and speciesist simply because it’s mostly about Jewish men.

Life is a Cabaret: Carnival & Ideology

Recently I re-watched Cabaret and I was reminded of the function of the carnival in patriarchal societies. The classical depiction of the carnival is one where the normal state of affairs is inverted—everyone is masked, masquerading as equals, there is no more top, no more bottom. Usually some sort of inversion of hierarchy occurs—a peasant-fool is ironically declared Carnival-king, there is feasting (carnival occurs immediately before lent), there are fireworks (as mock bombs), love-making in public, etc. The carnival then is some sort of inversion of regular life.

In Cabaret this is precisely how the Kit Kat Klub functions. “Leave your troubles outside,” declares the master of ceremonies, “in here life is beautiful.” Everyone is an exaggerated inversion of the outside—here everyone wears excessive make-up, there is cross-dressing, the women dress as sailors and soldiers, and it is beautiful—“even the orchestra is beautiful.” Initially we wish to write off the cabaret-carnival function as coping, that is, as a means of coming to grips with the ugliness outside—thus we create an “inside,” an interior space that denies the outer world of violence. We create a space of non-sense, a place where everything is beautiful and possible. I think a musical “equivalent” in this way to Cabaret is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—a piece where there is no more top or bottom as regards music theory—a collection of songs where the macabre, Bach, cabaret, duet, jazz, may all dwell side-by-side. So too in the Kit Kat Klub, we see noblemen, peasants, cross dressers, Nazis, homosexuals, love-triangles, the sick, etc., all inhabit the same space, side-by-side, as “equals.”

What the film slowly comes to show though is that even the cabaret, a place of Wilkommen, is shot through with ideology. The cabaret reveals itself not so much to be a site of coping as a foil to the outside world—a place where prejudice and violence are reciprocated in ideological forms. This includes the reduction of the aristocrat to the cuckold inherent in Mein Herr, the anti-Semitism in Money, sexual domination of Two Ladies, and, most explicitly, the mockery of inter-racial relations in Through my Eyes. What we think of as non-sense is still speaking the language of sense in other words—although we nonsensically crown the fool as king, we are still crowning the fool as a king. So too although “Through my Eyes” is intended to mock the absurdity of true love, destroy any notion of loving someone despite their social position, familial relations, etc. (as embodied in Fritz and Natalie’s relationship), it ultimately breaks down into a mockery of the Arian being in love with a Jew. The song on the surface provides a coping, a site of humor to deal with relational stress or what-have-you, but it ultimately reveals itself as a negative image of the ideology of the outside world, in this case, the anti-Semitism of 30’s era German Nazism.

Further, the cabaret starts emerging as ideology in the lives of Sally and Brian, most notably in their love triangle with Maximilian. The “negative” image of ideology begins taking positive existence. The cabaret-carnival function then, in short, emerges contemporaneously with ideology—the cabaret appears alongside and at the same time as the ideologies it embodies (and vice versa). In a radical way the cabaret emerges into the ideological systems which birth it. Each is always already birthing and being birthed by each. The cabaret is ideology. Literally. Life is a cabaret.

doppelgangers

Thinking of people, memory, identity–what stories and things we tell ourselves to make-up ourselves. This poem is meant not to be didactic or moralizing but more of a space to inhabit and let these questions arise: not an answer, but a dwelling.

 

doppelgangers

 

I could swear from

behind it was you

 

or from the front

and from a distance,

 

you walked right

by and didn’t even

 

double-take as I

thought of all you

 

did and might have

done given the time

 

or whim and I decided

then and there to

 

forgive you, put it

all behind us, start

 

over, afresh, right

from the beginning,

 

and forgive myself

too, even for the things

 

undone and half

done, and, I must

 

admit, I felt a little

sorry as he reached

 

out and grabbed

your arm, slowly

 

and tightly pulling

inward, wrapping you

 

around himself,

kissing your lips.