Archive for poststructural

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.

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.

DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.

Collapsing Boundaries Among I’s; Collapsing Time

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , on December 11, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 10

I am re-reading my dissertation in preparation for the defense on Wednesday.


And I like it.

There. Now the gods will smack me down. Narcissus all over again.

My car will break down on the way to Columbia. My book bag will spring open, of its own will, and my single copy of my dissertation will fly out, page by individual page, and float down W. 12o St. like giant snowflakes getting run over and turned to grey slush by car tires.

I will arrive at the defense out of breath, sweaty, dissertation-less, discombobulated, and ready to write one of those Worst Case Scenario Survival handbooks.

But let me first ask you this: Is dementia an epic metaphor for post-structural notions of memory?

Smith and Watson tell us this:

Readers often conceive of autobiographical narrative as telling unified stories of their lives, as creating or discovering coherent selves. But both the unified story and the coherent self are myths of identity. For there is no coherent “self” that predates stories about identity, about “who” one is. Nor is there a unified, stable, immutable self that can remember everything that has happened in the past. We are always fragmented in time, taking a particular or provisional perspective on the moving target of our pasts, addressing multiple and disparate audiences.

We are always fragmented in time. Our selves, our subjectivities are decentered, unknowable, fragmented. Is dementia a loss of the ability to impose culturally acceptable narratives, to stay put in one time, to stay put in one narrative? To stay put as one’s present, in-the-moment I? It dementia a collapsing of the boundaries between all those momentarily-existing I’s?

Lurching, Fragmented Time

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 7

We are home, in Patchogue, safe and sound, and Honey and Scout celebrated by sniffing every single blade of grass, individually, and thus gathering the latest news of the canine population of Fair Harbor.

It’s good to be home, and I feel as though some of the anxiety I’ve been attributing to the dissertation defense has lifted, and was, maybe, due more to moving home (and carting all my stuff back to Patchogue) than I realized.

But now. Now I can concentrate on the defense.

All day, in the back of my mind, I’ve been trying to think of questions that the committee might ask me, and I can’t think of any. In fact, I can’t even think of what my dissertation is really about right now. This, I guess, is its own form of  jitters. So, I’m going to reread the damn thing for the millionth time and appease my anxiety by memorizing names of theorists which will virtually guarantee that no one asks me about a theorist–because that is how my attempts at studying usually go. I will plan speeches in my head, and recite them in my sleep, and no one will ask me questions to which those speeches will be appropriate responses. And the defense will be something completely other than my imaginings. But I will follow my process nonetheless.

One thing I do want to be prepared to talk about is where I want to go next with this research, what my plans are, where I see the ideas going, that sort of thing. I was asked this question during the defense of my MA thesis, and I said, rather inappropriately, that the only thing I planned to do with my thesis and all of the background research was to have a big bonfire. I suspect that this answer, genuine though it was at the time, will not fly in this go around.

The truth is I have only vague notions of where I want to go with this. I want this published. This dissertation. Exactly as it is, if possible, which of course it won’t be. But after that? After that I think I want to write about my dad. This project centers so much on my dad and his stories and family and memory; it seems logical, or necessary even, to write about my father’s memory as he loses it, to write about the peculiarities of what he loses and when, and what he remembers, and how his mind seems to be working, and to examine my own visceral, inchoate reactions to all of this, which, to be honest, are not always the most compassionate or helpful.

For example:

When my father thinks my mother is his sister, I want to let that situation play itself out. I want, somehow, a glimpse of my father’s relationship with his sister, as though I could see that through his confusion about my mother. When my father thinks we are in the house on E. 2nd, I want him to describe it to me, every detail–the sounds of the trolleys on MacDonald Avenue, the temperature of the room, my grandfather’s mood, the fabric on the sofa, the scent of the breeze moving the curtains on the front windows, his sisters’ voices in the background.

I am sick and twisted. And while my father’s brain may be lurching back and forth, unwillingly, through time, dementia is not a time machine.

But. But, but, but.

Time is a series of discourses that structure both self perception and perceptions of others. We never really go back or forward but use memory and prediction to write narratives that are self fulfilling, self justifying, self accusing, or self abusing. The past is never past and the future is always beyond our grasp.

What happens when we look at my father’s memory through this lens? When we look at dementia? Or any normal, healthy memory? What happens when we are using memory to write ourselves, and memory is failing, physically, beyond all of the ways in which I’ve already talked about memory failing in theory?

Time is a piece of wax falling on a termite who’s choking on a splinter: or, My friend B disrupts the space/time continuum

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 4

This posting every day thing is hard. I have a bunch of unfinished fragments of posts.

This is from my friend B, and I’ll write in response to it tomorrow. Meanwhile, talk amongst yourselves.

The construction of persona is a constant negotiation between biography and autobiography and so all writing/reading involves elements of reflection (autobio) and projection (bio). We write ourselves and read others but are written on and read by others too. We are simultaneously composing and decomposing past-present-future modes as rhetorical constructs through which our own personas adapt, change, accept, and resist. Time is a series of discourses that structure both self perception and perceptions of others. We never really go back or forward but use memory and prediction to write narratives that are self fulfilling, self justifying, self accusing, or self abusing. The past is never past and the future is always beyond our grasp.

Holy crap. Still digesting this. But I love, love, love it.

Question: When I say subjectivity is discursive, am I saying it is a rhetorical construct? I think I am. Is it sometimes not a rhetorical construct?

We Built This City (Or, the Happy Side of Deconstruction)

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 1

When I was little and my dad was putting me to bed, we’d kneel and pray. I’d pray for Jaci-Joni-Dave-Steve-Jay-Bobby-Carol-Tommy-Richie-Billy-and-KathyAnn–my cousins, all in one breath, and then my aunts and uncles and parents and brother, and Captain, our collie. (Adrienne was born later.)

Now, my dad has dementia. and reciting all my cousins’ names in order is how we help him remember who we’re talking about, or which cousin belongs to which of his sisters.

My dad has a story for every one of my cousins—the year Carol got an “Easter Bastard” from the Easter Bunny; the time Richie repeatedly spilled the bucket of soapy water my father was using to wash the car until my dad threw a wet soapy rag at him and it wrapped itself around his face; the time Grandpa Cone threatened to spank Jay, and Bobby, in turn, threatened, “I’m going to kill Grandpa,”; the day Jaci colored in Steve’s face with a magic marker as he lay in his crib, and said, “I thought it was paper”; all the times Joni was woken up and allowed to dance on the kitchen table late at night when she was a toddler; the time my dad gave 4-year-old Dave a cigarette on the back stoop of the house on E. 2nd in Brooklyn, because, as Dave said, “All working men smoke, right, Frank?”

In October, we had our first official grown up Cousins Weekend–Jaci-Joni-Carol-Adge and me. (Kathy Ann is in Florida.) I don’t know why it took us this long, but I have to thank Joni for getting us together, just for the sake of being together.

That weekend, we sat in my living room, and on the porch, and in restaurants, and remembered being little together, although we weren’t all, actually, little together, and talked about who spoiled who, and put together family secrets of which we each knew only parts.

I don’t know if it is this way for my cousins, but it is for me. We are family more because of our shared history, our shared stories, our communal narrative, than because of blood. We are our own community of practice, as we’d say in more professional contexts.

We share a memory; we share a discourse, a vocabulary. We have our own jargon.

Does it feel this way because I am a collector of stories? Am I a collector of stories–family stories–because I am adopted? (My brother would say yes.)

What would it mean to challenge our meant-to-be-a-family story emotionally, for me? I’m not sure I know how to do it.

Too many of us are adopted to say our family is “natural;” but our family has long been naturalized.  Our family is forged of things more ethereal than blood and bones and DNA.

We built this family, story upon story, lives and souls imbricated in narrative.