Friday, October 16, 2015
A long-ago encounter: A fragmented, shifting self still in unsettled pieces from earlier impacts. More proximally, deep blue fingers with a tight grip. And in the midst of that, a wonderful stream of words that gets through, above, around, that twists into your deep-down molecular being and pulls you towards a new place. The words flow from a life radically unlike your own, but still they seep through your walls, still they seize you and move you and prod you forward.
The words describe a path, radical life made radical theory. They begin from experience in a profound way and knit self seamlessly into social such that the transformations they describe and hope to catalyze are powerfully personal but generously overflow the neoliberal self, political but deeper than we usually allow that word to go, in essence material but woven together with symbols and images that in places embrace a mysticism that would normally make you wary but that here somehow don't. The path begins from trauma, a shattering of illusions of cohesive self and narratives both comforting and confining. Then six more stages – unsettled in-between possibility; deep and despairing hopelessness; the call to new direction, binary categories overflowed, and reengagement with the social; renarration of self and the world; facing the bumps and barriers of the real; and enacting the spiritual activism of interconnected, engaged self-in-the-social.
The stream of words is an essay with the name "now let us shift ... the path of conocimiento ... inner work, public acts," penned by Gloria Anzaldúa – queer Chicana activist writer feminist, and both occupant and willfull transcender of those labels and many more.
The same text, re-encountered today after a reminder of its existence by its heavy citation in a book recently read: Not the same experience, of course. Hard work and time have produced a shift. You are less fragmented, and the fingers are less tight, less blue. Your need is less urgent and qualitatively different. Plus, because of all you have learned and because of new projects and goals, you read differently – even back then, you were drawn by its remarkable craft and approach to knowing the world, but now its potential to guide your journey takes a back seat to seeking ways for it to inform your work.
And it can. It does not use the language of "encounter" which you have begun to favour, but central to the process of shifting consciousness it describes is the presence and pull of seemingly incommensurable perspectives, and developing the capacity to reject these binaries and learn from both as you walk the less-regulated hazy space between. It does not talk of learning about the world through relationships, exactly, but that is because relationality is pervasive rather than identifiably discrete -- the low points are low because of isolation, and the broadened and strengthened interconnectivity of outlook and stance and practice are the very essence of the return to the high.
Perhaps its biggest lesson for the work you contemplate today is that knowing is a fleshy, messy, painful thing. Who and what and where you are made you see knowing as cerebral, and however long ago you began trying to leave that misapprehension behind, it still creeps into how you think and act, and how you write about the world. You learn once more from the streatm of words that knowing is not only embodied, but that embodiment is no abstraction. You cannot write about knowing apart from the painful joyful journey, from embodiment as blood-and-guts, even from ensoulment, which you're not sure it is even possible to translate into the languages of your everyday.
Yet while the pull is perhaps not as strong, the personal resonance remains. Interconnectivity, pushing past constricting and hurtful norms, thinking across scales, self-in-the-social, the centering of listening, writing as a tool for re-creation of self – yes, all of these still compel you. Less urgency, though, means more space to reflect on what it means that she wrote from where she wrote, while you read from where you read. It would violate the very spirit of the words to think of it in a way that seeks an X that is permitted and a Y that is forbidden, and the shallow-left impulse to treat "privilege" as a quantitative metaphor is countered by the imperative in the piece itself to see past that hasty indicator to the complex relationality it indicates.
The circumstance of today's encounter: Distant from destabilizations past, yes. But not two months from a major death and a major move, and you do not feel like you are on quite the journey she describes. Are you heartless? In denial? More likely, you are who you are: Less fundamentally structurally in-between than Anzaldúa – not none at all, but much less – and therefore the grip of the known and the normative and the dominant yields more reluctantly, feels more like home even when it chafes, and is perhaps changed less often by the dramatic punctuated equilibrium of her path than the mostly slow, mostly steady, only occasionally dramatic trajectory away that your last two decades have enacted. Which is not to exoticize in-betweenness, nor to downplay the harms that transformative turmoil brings along with its benefits. Rather, it is to see this beautiful grounded theory-making as input and inspiration for making theory that begins from your ground, and that hopefully reaches beyond that beginning even a tenth as successfully as her words do.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Friday, October 16, 2015