Picture unrelated. But aren’t they precious? They hit their spring/summer growth spurt as I was in the middle of my comps. Nice of them to be my cheerleaders during this rough time.
My oral defense is on Monday, and because I’m terrified of revisiting my comps answers, I’m (productively?) doing nothing and letting my thoughts about each question settle. I’ve got a few irrelevant problems overwhelming my brain, and I thought I could clear my head by thinking through them here, which will hopefully enable me to face my own writing. First, my theoretical positioning; second, the body as a technical assemblage; third, what the hell am I doing with my life.
1: Theoretical positioning.
I’ve been trying to determine where to fly my flag at a crossroads of autonomism, rhetorical studies, cultural anthropology, media archaeology, affect theory, and a materialist hermeneutic. Put like that, they all seem frighteningly discrete, although I realize they overlap. I probably have a lot more reading to do before I can identify, concretely, how they intersect and, more significantly, the theoretical and applicative possibilities opened up by these intersections. In the past three years I think I’ve discovered that I do everything with an eye to possibilities for transgression, on a larger political scale and in everyday practice. I’m early enough in my Ph.D. career that in my job interviews so far no one’s insisted on an explanation of my dissertation plans, but they do gently ask, and I gently offer something vague about aligning myself with autonomist rhetoricians and seeking a materialist hermeneutic with an eye to disability aesthetics and quantum poetics. At some point I offered something like “bridging a perceived gap between rhetoric and media studies with Sophistic rhetoric, tricksterism, and Deleuzian nomadism,” acknowledging, of course, that until I write and defend my proposal it might as well be talking out my ass. But the more I talk about it, the more it feels like the beginning of something.
At the same time, I find myself pulled to the biological sciences, which obviously is not new to media studies as we’ve drawn on everything from basic organic functions to entomology. Given my own physical condition, I’m attracted to affect theory, the posthuman, the non-human, probably because I have to be so vigilant about my own affect management and I constantly want to escape my body. The concepts of metis, kairos, and metanoia speaks to me on a personal level, because somewhere I feel like it’s the temporal ontology of fibromyalgia: the awareness of the moment when it is possible to do something, pain-free; the cunning and practical knowledge of how to best exploit that moment; the lessons learned through the experience of bodily pain.
I don’t know why I’m including this here, but in reading something or the other for comps (Parikka, I’m thinking), I found myself remembering pre-college work I did on Drosophila and Bulla gouldiana eyes. We’re talking fruit flies and marine mollusks. Regarding the former, I think I was typing them; if I remember correctly, we bred various phenotypes, decapitated them, ground their eyes, and performed with a chromatography. Regarding the latter, under my father’s tutelage I removed the optic nerve from a B. gouldiana specimen; it was thin and red and contained its circadian rhythm, which is what my father was researching and what I, too, researched for a while. I used crickets and lighting for that study. I simulated different conditions and counted the chirps. I was in 8th grade so it wasn’t the most sophisticated of studies, but it took me to the national junior science fair competition that year.
Maybe I’m just recognizing that comps has made me strangely aware of a kind of synthesis happening with all the work I’ve done in my life. I was once on the cusp of a career path that would involve denaturalizing and deconstructing the body. My scientific focus was on temporal mechanisms (located in Bulla‘s optic nerve, in Drosophila‘s photoreceptors, and in the stridulations of crickets). Later I was interested in robots and artificial intelligence; I built one with an insectoid chassis. In college I was heavily courted by the Classics department given my interest in and aptitude for mythology and classical poetry. I majored in English. I became a creative writer, which up to now has been the single strand connecting these diverse experiences. And now I’m in a program where biology, temporality, mythology, and rhetorical studies have converged.
So, how to extract a theoretical position from this mess? Is it too dismissive to call myself a bricoleur? Too broad to call myself a “creative theorist” or “quantum poet” trying to bridge the theory-practice divide a la Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska or Jerome McGann? Is that too humanist? Is it better to call myself an autonomist rhetorician? Does that subsume trickster anthropology, a quantum approach, an emphasis on temporal ontology? Do I even have to note these extra interests or should I assume they are implicit?
All my life I’ve called myself a “genre whore.” I hate nomenclature with a passion.
I want to go back to the Greeks as a starting point not just because everyone else does it, but because to me their mythology marks the clearest Enlightenment shift in thinking. Where other mythologies retain or smoothly transition from embodied cunning to rationality, if they transitioned at all, metis vanished so abruptly from Greek thought that it’s as though it was never there. Replaced by Platonic rationalism, it was too closely linked to instinct to coexist with the advent of Reason.
Why say that here, or at all? Instinct. The kind of cunning intelligence and sense of kairos that tells me the idea is coming back.
2: The body as technical assemblage.
Maybe this boils down to the simple question: To what extent do you think your body?
I exited comps with a flare-up–which I think was inevitable given the stress and lengthy computer work–that manifested in my right side. I have fibromyalgia and myofascial pain, and I’d already been having trouble with a section around my mid-spine. On Saturday I lost the use of my right shoulder (and hence, the right side of my neck and my right arm). I got an emergency massage from my physical therapist and spent Sunday and Monday mostly in bed, attempting to sleep the pain away. My therapist gave me instructions on how to help it recover, which I’ll get into momentarily. First, to put this all in perspective, I’m used to living through pain on a daily basis. It hurts to touch and be touched. I have workarounds for days when the pain is overwhelming, ranging from breathing exercises to localizing intense feeling. My wardrobe consists of “normal” and “pain” clothes, where the former can be worn on good days and the latter comprises carefully vetted clothes that can be put on with minimal effort and that place minimal pressure on the body. (Incidentally, it’s amazing how hard it is to find clothes that fit these criteria, present the look I want, and are affordable on a TA salary.)
All these preparations notwithstanding, since Saturday I’ve had multiple stomach-sinking moments of “God help me, I’m going to have to call someone to come over because I can’t put my clothes on by myself.”
It took several heart-stopping minutes, but I managed it, in the end. I could only do so by recognizing each component at work in the right side of my body and slowly, methodically, willing them to stop.
Lately I’ve done a great deal of thinking and writing about technics, Bernard Stiegler’s theory of originary technicity being that humans are inseparable from technics, be it memory, time, or the human brain. Can I extend this theory to muscle and bone? I don’t know if I can call it technical evolution in the same sense, but muscles acquire and reflect the habits of our living (cf. carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress and strain injuries, computer-related eyestrain, etc.) and the rest of our bodies, imperceptibly and often unbeknownst to us, alter their shape to accommodate or overcompensate for these changes. If the body is an organization, its technical components are, let’s say, the musculoskeletal system and the neurological impulses controlling it, influenced by external social forces and processes. Bodily changes and habits result from the interactions between the two. (As a crude example, we could note the postural and strength differences between cultures that privilege sitting in chairs versus cultures that privilege squatting or kneeling.)
This is a troubled analogy, I know, and I want to get it out of my head. So bear with me a little longer. I keep wanting to say that biopower, the regulation of bodies and populations, relies on the invisibility of the results produced in the body by these interactions. The energy that we lose in bodily struggles we don’t even know about. I want to say it’s a kind of purposeful wearing-down of the proletariat to impede political organization, but I don’t have the brainpower right now to fully articulate how I got there. I mean, it ultimately produces disabled subjects for which capital has no use, but at the same time it seems to perpetuate the rotation of precarious labor, where veterans with a claim to permanence and better pay are replaced by new blood with zero claim, on and on, ad infinitum. (I’m specifically thinking of mobility in the comics industry, or even adjuncting.) Power drives us to this, and we are driven into the arms of Power-operated health care.
We’re too busy trying to pay the rent to rebel. I’m a New Yorker, and this city trains the body to suffer: we dash for trains and struggle to force the subway doors even when we’re early; we take short strides to walk faster when long, slower strides suit the body better. We waste so much energy on unnecessary movements that I wonder what would happen if we became conscious of our internal tools. 1) Power’s disciplinary techniques become a little more exposed? 2) A materialist hermeneutic becomes more appealing? 3) We would rely a little less on the pastoral power of the State with regards to health care?
I’m losing the thread. I feel like I’m groping towards the idea that consciousness of the body, body-thinking if you will, is the first site of some kind of resistance. It’s caring for the self, in the Foucauldian sense, but with a physical orientation. To complement Foucault’s articulation of candid truth-telling as an act of self-care, we must remember that physicality is a site of parrhesia as well. We’ve just, for the most part, forgotten how to read and express it. But maybe we can say that the truths of our lives and experiences are most frankly expressed in the invisible biological workings of our bodies.
Maybe my upshot is this. Living with chronic pain is a thinking-through of the body. It renders each (voluntary) component of the body visible and subject to conscious control.
As I type this I have to consciously will the group in my shoulder to remain relaxed and resting on my ribcage, which requires that I consciously keep my ribcage relaxed, that the muscles in my right side don’t clench and pull me sideways. Each component of the body has to be mentally singled out as a tool, a moving part in an assemblage of moving parts that for most people function invisibly. When I walk, I rethink my thighbones as tools, gliding into my hip sockets, and I know each metatarsal in my feet and the full range of motion in my (dislocated?) sternoclavicular joint. I’m practically versed in anatomy. I’m bodily versed in parrhesia. My traumatic experiences are inscribed in the habits of my shoulders, my lower back, the back of my neck and head, my temporomandibular joint. Myofascial pain means that pain in one place links to pain in seemingly unrelated places. It means I have to learn to make connections when, seemingly, there are none.
So. Should this be made part of an ethical obligation to care for the self? Does it provide a means of improving physical well-being and of habituating a way of thinking that insists on heightened awareness of invisible structures and the ability to draw connections?
Ultimately, I’m only left with words, arrows, and question marks: body-thinking?? –> cunning intelligence –> affect theory –> self-care, parrhesia, art & creative expression –> media archaeology??? as a material-temporal enterprise –> temporal mediations & kairos/metanoia?? –> transgression and resistance –> …what?
I’m so tired. If only I knew.
3. What the hell am I doing with my life.
If only I knew. Someone told me recently that all the endings and beginnings I’m experiencing right now is a large shock to absorb. (Is that my right shoulder’s parrhesic cry?) It’s the old, familiar dilemma, really. I’m not “officially” disabled, according to the State; I’m well enough to be a productive subject, a member of the human race. Every day, though, some more than others, I feel crippled by this pain. Either this system is not set up for people like me, or I’m not cut out for the pace of these exams, or maybe for the rigor of Ph.D. life. As a creative writer I’m used to short periods of consumption and long periods of production, to help guide what I’m learning though the fibro-fog so it actually stays with me. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to adequately express my fears about my memory. But when there’s pain, its capacity drops to zero. It’s at its worst when I can’t remember what I call myself. This is probably why the idea of an oral exam terrifies me beyond belief. But at the same time, I manage to teach; I manage to present and defend my work at conferences. So I’m probably being ridiculous, right?
This summer I will be teaching two courses, one online and brand-new to me, the other a course I taught last summer at Columbia. I miss teaching, but it’s going to be a serious amount of work. Simultaneously, I will be working on my proposal and my manuscript. I’m at Computers & Writing in June but things will be mostly quiet after May 15. Shit gets real starting in July. God help me if this is what the rest of my life will look like. Even if I wanted it, I don’t think I’m capable.
Fibromyalgia means living by instinct, even more so in a Ph.D. program, I think, where good days have to be seized and wrung dry in anticipation of bad days spent in bed, glazed over and wallowing in self-pity. I want to say something here to link embodied thinking–cunning intellect–metis–to disability aesthetics and the need to reinstate disqualified bodies, the attempts made to do so through transgressive art, and resistance to power. I want to try to make the picture relevant by saying something about the day I checked the rhizome of a plant that I thought was dying and found it small but white and robust. But I’m tired. I’m left with words, arrows, question marks, nomenclature. I’m in excruciating pain and I have to conclude this. I’m in the odd position of missing everything I’ve done before this moment, only to bump up against the realization that, in some fashion, everything I have done up to this moment I’m doing again, anew.
Everything that rises must converge.
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.