Archive for the Small Epiphanies Category

Identities Like Bumper Cars

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 23

Even as I state, over and over, that I subscribe to poststructural thought, my poststructuralism is partial. It exists in tension with my loyalty, my can’t-let-go-ness to our adoption story, which has become, in our family, one of Barthes’ myths. I do not have a coherent identity as a poststructuralist–those words can’t even be in the same sentence, really, since poststructuralism decries the existence any sort of coherent identity. A poststructuralist with a coherent identity would be sort of like a cyclops with two eyes. Impossible. Defeats its own point.

Anyway. Coherent identity though I do not have, and poststructural ideas though I do, provisional, partial, local, contingent identities abound. And I find it quite easy to move, as Lyotard has said, “nimbly” among them, always and already acknowledging their very contradictoriness–and living with it.

I am both a member of the family created by our adoption story–completely. And the very same person who breaks that narrative, sees its holes, it contradictions, its silences. Acknowledges its fragmentedness, its position as a series of refractions of, and not reflections of, perspectives and interpretations of how we came to be.

(In 7th grade, I had to take a test as part of my Religious Education class. I had to pass the test in order to be Confirmed. I got one question wrong on the test. The question was multiple choice, and it said, “Jesus was: a. completely human; b. completely divine; c. half human and half divine; d. all human and all divine.” I knew the answer the teacher was looking for. I remembered the class discussion about this very thing. But I disagreed. I just couldn’t buy it that Jesus was all human and all divine. I knew I was going to be marked wrong and I didn’t care. But. Now. Now I want to argue that I am a meant-to-be-member of our family even as at the same time I acknowledge that that family–our family–was created not by fate or God or a miracle but by discourse (which I might argue, someday, is miraculous in and of itself, worshipping as I am presently at its altar).

At. The. Same. Time. Good God. The Catholics always get themselves in there, don’t they?)

And those two parts of my identity, those fragments, bump up against each other all the time, and work each other, and silence each other however temporarily. I daily enact, perform, mix, mingle, fuse and separate and play with both of these identities, and others, often at once. Janet Miller and Elizabeth Ellsworth, in “Working Difference in Education,” call this, “engaging with and responding to the fluidity and malleability of identities and difference, of refusing fixed and static categories of sameness or permanent otherness.”

And so let me repeat: Memory, story, identity, subjectivity: molten, fluid, protean, kaleidoscopic.

And like all writing, constantly under revision.

Go ahead. Revise yourself.

The Post(structural) Apocalypse Post: or, God is Dead; But She Doesn’t Have to Be.

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , on December 23, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 22

Part The First:

Just as I believe we are often constrained by language and by culturally enabled and reified narratives, I believe that our understanding of any sort of higher power is hopelessly hindered by our small human brains and by limited language we have with which to describe such a thing. I’ve railed before about our substitution of the words we use for royalty and other hierarchies to describe our religious experiences and institutions. We just don’t have the vocabulary to help us along toward any kind of real understanding of any higher power. (Before you say it, yes, this is about the Eskimos and their gazillion words for ice. But it’s also about much much more than that.) And so we endow it, him, her, with these human traits, because that’s all we’re capable of, and then we have stupid arguments over whether God is a man or a woman. And then we cover it all, dress it all up, with Advent purple velvet, jewels and jewel tones, cathedrals and other Monuments to Power. I mean, really.

The language that we do use to represent God or any kind of spiritual being is so lacking that our experience of such a being is stymied. And so our language reduces abstract concepts like the idea of a higher power to concrete things we can understand, and then we forget the reduction, and think we do, in fact, understand, and that our language does, in fact, represent.

From Edward Arlington Robinson: “The world is not a prison house, but a sort of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

Part The Second:

If you let them, poststructuralist thought, and postmodernism, will annihilate you. They will x you. You will have never existed. And most certainly, neither will God, nor anything absolute.

From A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle:

She stood beside him, looking at the brilliance of the stars. Then came a sound, a sound which was above sound, beyond sound, a violent, silent, electrical report, which made her press her hands against her ears. Across the sky, where the stars were clustered as thickly as in the Milky Way, a crack shivered, slivered, became a line of nothingness.

“Progo, what is it? What happened?”

“The Echthroi have Xed.”

“What?”

“Annihilated. Negated. Extinguished. Xed.”

Taken to their extremes, nothing exists. Certainly not Truth, and for a long time, I thought not truth, as well. Truth is just a bunch of metanarratives ordering the world for us. There is not one correct metanarrative, one grand narrative. The old dead white man no longer has supremacy. Postmodernism killed him, along with the universal and the general.

But. But, but, but. There is hope.

Gary Aylesworth define Postmodernism in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which you can read here, and tells us this: “The loss of a continuous meta-narrative therefore breaks the subject into heterogeneous moments of subjectivity that do not cohere into an identity. But as Lyotard points out, while the combinations we experience are not necessarily stable or communicable, we learn to move with a certain nimbleness among them.”

We have, instead of Truth, truths. Little t.

Part The Synthesis (We Hope):

So we have this language–failing as it does to accurately and precisely represent anything, signified and signifier separated by an abyss, even, sometimes–and yet it gives us a place to stand. A place to make meaning, however contingent, however partial, however unstable.

There’s a difference, there, between Truth, big T, and truth, little t. With the big T, we’re talking metanarratives; we’re talking ideologies; we’re talking Roland Barthes’ myths–values and beliefs we take for granted as natural and inevitable and universal (does this sound at all familiar? Have I used these words before?) that are in fact neither natural nor inevitable nor universal, that in fact vary from culture to culture, or even community to community.

Gone is a universal Truth, a universal morality, that we can run around the world imposing on everyone else for their own good.

But we do have truths. Local, fragmented, particular. We have truths that mean within communities, within ethnicities, within nations even. But not without. Not across borders. Not always, anyway.

We’re human beings and we need a place to stand. A place to be. A place from which to make meaning, however impermanent. Something to hold on to, maybe just for a little while, even as we challenge it. Just as the postmodern needs the modern to exist, just as they feed off each other, so we need structure and narrative even as we break them.

We are, and thus our God is, created and limited by discourse, by language.

Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/postmodernism/>.

Ten (Non)Principles for Teaching (Poststructural) (Auto)Biography: or, How to Avoid Malefic Generosity in the Classroom

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , on December 22, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies (Although this One is Rather Large): December 21

There is the infinity in which you keep going and going and going, adding on and adding on and adding on, like with numbers. And then there is the infinity between whole numbers. (I had to think about that a bit, but it’s there, and it’s rather intriguing, although alas not our subject today.) And then there is the infinity of the possible between breaking a narrative toward creating agency, and breaking a narrative and causing harm. Where could/should you stand? Here are a few spots, shaky ground though they may be on themselves:

  1.  Be aware of whether by breaking a narrative, you are about to help your students achieve agency, to change a story they tell about their lives for the better, or whether you are about to push a student toward an endeavor that might be ultimately harmful. There’s a thin line. You can determine on which side of that line you are standing by magic, perhaps, or even ESP. Either way, just like a physician, the teacher’s oath should begin with “First do no harm.”
  2. Do not begin by telling your students all about Roland Barthes and how he calls all of their basic values and beliefs “myths.” You WILL spend countless hours backtracking, explaining that you don’t, and Barthes didn’t, necessarily or exactly mean “myth” in the Zeus and Apollo, or even, my personal favorite, Poseidon, kind of way.  (Personally, though, I think the Norse Gods have better names: Odin and Njord and Saga. Much cooler.) You WILL cause a returning, adult student to write a letter to the Vice President for Academic Affairs at your school explaining that you are a Communist who is trying to indoctrinate the young, impressionable 18-year-old children in your writing class. It WILL be the semester that you are up for promotion to Full Professor;  when the VP for Academic Affairs passes this letter along to the Dean of Faculty to handle, this WILL be your very first introduction to said Dean of Faculty, who WILL be brand-new to your college. Beware: your Dean of Faculty MAY NOT handle this as well as mine did.
  3. Be aware that some students may not be emotionally/psychologically/intellectually ready to change the stories they are telling about their lives. They may be ready, only, to recognize these narratives. They may be ready, only, to recognize these narratives at work on other people in other situations. Decide early on what will count, for you, as success in this endeavor.
  4. Use this idea, perhaps, of varying stages of readiness/needing to change the stories we tell about our lives, to scaffold, slowly, gently, your introduction to this idea at all, should you choose to take this path. Be prepared for resistance, which may come in the form of name-calling (see #2 above), or in the form of an“I have nothing to write about” (see blog post, “My 18-Year-Old Self Writes Autobiography”) teacher-student conference, or any form that might exist in the infinite spaces between and around these two examples.
  5. Remember that you are the English teacher, and as such neither the parole officer, nor mother, not therapist of these students, and that as much as you might think they need to change the stories they are telling about their lives, from the ways they define themselves as developmental writers, or are defined, institutionally, as developmental students, all the way to their discourses about higher education as a means to make more money, from their Disney Princess narratives to their very real domestic abuse stories–you don’t get to choose who changes and what they change into, and if you think you do, you are right back there with Quintilian awarding grades of A to the “good man writing well.”
  6. Try not to engage in acts malefic generosity here. (Actually, this is true for any classroom activity, assignment sequence, or philosophy.) Who said “There are none so holy as the recently converted?” Just because you recently engaged in a project in which you changed, or broke, some of the narratives that were writing your life, in ways that sometimes opened up new ways of seeing for you, in ways that gave voice where voices were previously silenced, and you’re feeling pretty cool,  take as a lesson that you, ultimately, DID NOT break the metanarrative of Your Own Adoption Story, no matter how flawed, fragmented, gap-toothed, holey, contingent upon the discourses of its time, place, community, ideologically reifying (need I go on?) you realized it is. You are not in the business of creating mini-me’s.
  7. Do not create, of the words, “Breaking the Narrative,” a brand-new metanarrative for teaching/learning/living that simply replaces all the metanarratives and local narratives you are working to help students think about critically. Because then you’ll just have to break THAT narrative. Again.
  8. Walk carefully the tightrope (I know, another thin line) between teaching students to recognize and analyze and critique the ideologies, the narratives, that are writing their lives, that are inscribing their subjectivities, and teaching students the language of power, by which I mean  Lisa  Delpit, “Secret Basketball,” et al. “There are codes or rules for participating in power,” Delpit tells us in “The Silenced Dialogue;” “The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.” It occurs to me, as I struggle to make my dissertation conform within the narrow confines of the Teachers College Columbia University Office of Doctoral Studies General Instructions for Preparing Doctor of Education Dissertations: A Manual of Style, that I can break all the narratives I want, disrupt all the genres I want, play havoc with the dissertation structure itself, all to show the arbitrariness, the  constructedness, the ideological-ness, the myth of what counts as appropriately created and presented knowledge–
  9. But I still have to graduate.
  10. Damn the gatekeepers.

The Brick. The Wall. My Head.

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 21, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 20

I am writing an AWESOME double post for tomorrow. So, go to bed, get some rest, and come back ready to read, read, read.

The thing is, I hit the wall today. And I now I have first-hand knowledge of how that phrase came about. Because I feel as though I literally slammed my head into a wall when I got out of bed this morning and have spent the entire day just trying to maintain consciousness. My eyelids haven’t been this heavy since they made me sit through physics lectures in high school.

Must go to bed. Now.

Parties, and Catalysts

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 20, 2012 by chateaucone

This posting every day thing is killing me. Killing. Me.

I guess if I didn’t wait until nearly midnight every night to do it, it would be better.

Tonight I hosted the Writing Center Party here at my apartment, and it was great. The writing center staff did absolutely everything–all I did was buy a few plates and napkins. And I think they had fun. I had fun having them, and I have to thank them all for being such great guests, and such great conversationalists, and, as well, for being the catalysts behind me getting my stuff unpacked and my apartment put back together and decorated. I am happy to say that the apartment is in relatively good shape, and we had a good party.

And I am happy to report that Suffolk’s Writing Center has an amazing staff–so many fun and interesting people to talk to–and a fabulous coordinator. (I already knew about the coordinator.)

And I am exhausted, and going to bed.

Tomorrow: poststructuralism, annihilation, and truthiness. And a little L’Engle. Just because.

I am (not)

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 19, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 18

Back to the DNA for a just a moment:

I think the ways in which the discourses surrounding the idea of being of Native American descent have affected me in ways far more subtle than the idea of being Italian or German,because I wasn’t raised in any sort of Native American culture. This, at one and the same time, created in me, wrote on me, an awareness of being other–other than of some sort of Western European descent, like the rest of my family, other in the sense that we so often write Native Americans, culturally, ethnically, as other, and other in a third sense–other from very own my Native American descent, if that makes any sense at all.

I was Native American without ever really being Native American. And now I am not Native American at all.

But I think that doesn’t change the ways in which those discourses nudged and jostled and prodded my various subjectivities into certain shapes.

Happy Birthday, Adge!

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 18, 2012 by chateaucone

The other night I wrote about bringing my Native American headdress to kindergarten show and tell. The only other memory I have of kindergarten show and tell is a tell–telling the class about my new cousin Adrienne the day after she was born. That was thirty-nine years ago.  Adrienne is no longer a baby. I no longer participate in show and tell*, and I am no longer of Native  American descent.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Tomorrow, when I am less tired than I am now, we will talk about truth–small t, p/s, local, contingent truth.

*Who am I kidding?