the exclusions always matter.

It’s the anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule, thus also the kairotic moment prompting me to finally collect my thoughts around a range of social media content appearing on my feeds lately, primarily around tourism and programs of study in Sri Lanka. I’m used to seeing ads encouraging tourism in Sri Lanka, and tourism is often deployed to boost a postwar economy, especially in countries whose “beauty” is extolled. In these ads and travelogues, I find a fairly consistent discourse of (ancient) exoticism, the (ancient) beauty of nature, an (ancient, mystic) spiritualism that leans Buddhist and New Age/self-help, attended by a rhetoric of healing. And all of this discourse is harmful, exclusionary, reinforcing and benefiting victors’ nationalist narratives and revised histories, of who the country really belongs to and how “Sri Lanka” as a country should be defined: as west, south, and center, neatly cutting out the Tamil-dominated north and east. I find abstract violence in this, but it’s one thing to see it in tourism ads, or the Twitter feeds of a couple of obliviously vacationing non-local (usually white) friends, colleagues, or distant acquaintances. It’s another thing to see it embedded and produced in/around study abroad programs whose aims and destinations don’t take “Sri Lanka” as a whole, and whose promotional and instructional materials seem to gloss over Sri Lanka’s grim post-conflict realities in favor of flowers, sunsets, energy, healing, celebration, and (especially) the importance of contemplating and recognizing beauty.

As a graduate student/newly minted FT faculty member, it still feels risky to publicize my reactions to established programs, instructors, directors, but. The idea that students become implicated or trained in this way of seeing, and that scholars I admire or teach respond positively to this way of seeing. That feels like actual violence. That’s what the educator-activist in me can’t let go.

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biohacking II: my life in magnetic vision

After writing that last post on biohacking, I’ve been thinking more about the body as a (media) system, or a system of language, with internal mechanisms keyed to its survival. As a friend put it, “food is a medium through which we communicate with the body,” and to add to that, food may be a way for the body to speak back to us as well.

Is everything we do to the body communication?

I’ve lurked sites like BME for decades, long before I got my first tattoo, while I was figuring out what parts of my ears to pierce, when I was working up to scarification. It was on BME that I first read about magnetic implants, when I was still in college and afraid to relinquish control long enough to allow an artist to exact permanence on my skin. The procedure involved inserting a magnet deep into a finger (or other body part), after which the magnet would move in response to electromagnetic fields and transfer that sensation to the surrounding nerves. The result: an anatomically internal sense of the electromagnetic spectrum as an extension of touch.

I had zero diagnoses at the time but I felt disabled enough that I wanted this, badly.

The procedure wasn’t perfect when I first read about it. Dip-coated silicone coatings could easily degrade, exposing the body to dangerous rare-earth metals and compromising the magnet. Shatter the magnet and you risk the same toxicity, migration, rupture, nerve death. I remember reading about Shannon Larratt compromising his magnets and having them removed. I’d seen more gruesome images than those photos, and his removal went without a hitch, but I could imagine a foreign body corroding under my skin, killing my fingertip sensation utterly, because I’ve never been so lucky.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia a few years after I read about magnetic vision. I started modifying myself that same year. Everything on my body doubles as a commemoration and a teaching tool, and certain modifications—piercings and scarifications in particular—offer new ways of interacting with and experiencing the world. After all that, plus living with a condition that already complicates my sensory experience of myself, others, and the world, implanting a tiny magnet into my finger didn’t seem so terrifying.

Exactly three weeks after I had the procedure done, the magnet is no longer a foreign body vibrating alongside my finger pad. It is my finger itself. It is my nerves, jangling, when I run my microwave, shouting an interruption when I walk through security gates, humming in C major to accompany my electric toothbrush, reminding me that there is so much more to the world than can be seen or felt by the body as we are born.

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i’ve sewn you up, i’ve set your bones, but I won’t bury you.

Within hours of receiving the breaking news alert that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I commented to my sister that I wasn’t surprised, that I had sensed before I explicitly knew that he was depressed. I was at a loss to explain myself when she asked me why. A day later I spoke with a friend who has bipolar disorder and she immediately grasped where I was going with this. For her, the signal was that manic energy. For me, it was the freely associative quality of his genius. For both of us, these signals were intensely personal, because they were personal to us. It made terrifyingly perfect sense to simultaneously wish he hadn’t done it and forgive the impulse. I say “impulse” but the language is wrong; suicidal ideation, like depression, isn’t a fleeting sadness but a chronic, gnawing desire, a void in the gut that whispers and speaks by turns. The verbiage should be less about “battle” than Sisyphean endurance in the face of being slowly hollowed out. As others have stated, depression is the absence of feeling, the beast on your back sapping the meaning from everything, visible only to those who are similarly weighed down.

I’ve been mourning Robin Williams along with the rest of the world. I don’t want to rehash any of the pieces I’ve read, which alternately touch on suicide contagion; the Academy’s problematic tweet; the romantic notion of Pagliacci; the comforting narrative of depression (along with terminal illness) as something that can be “fought” or “battled”; the slow emptying-out of the word “depressed” itself, which is used interchangeably and wrongly with being sad. Instead, I’d like to address something I haven’t seen yet, which is the other comforting narrative that (re)productivity and accomplishment are enough to “defeat” depression, the implication being that if a (re)productive, accomplished individual is unable to pull themselves up from the dark place, they were too fragile for this world anyway, or else they were afflicted with some other disorder preventing them from recognizing that the answer to “What’s the point?” lay in their spouses, offspring, curriculum vitae. It’s a false narrative, linked to capitalism or social control or the biopolitical regulation of bodies, but ultimately it’s meaningless to the ones at which it’s aimed.

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“we were never making sense.”

If I am always thinking about dismantling our binding webs of signification. Do we begin here, in the moment of crisis, by realizing that kill is kiss, sample a color, understanding the pillar on which power rests its laurels, understanding that we were never making sense the key to disturbing power itself?

quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I offer this disclaimer: I acknowledge that I have a reputation for being a bit of a purist, and mildly inclined to hate almost everything; however, I did my best to dispel my preformed assumptions and, two weeks after Minutemen #1 was released, I began purchasing and perusing with an open mind. I just finished Ozymandias #1. And I find myself as angry as I was 2009. I may have been unable to argue with Snyder’s (albeit ineptly executed) passion for Watchmen and his adaptation of it, but—as was anticipated by a community of fans—Before Watchmen indeed reeks of the attempt to capitalize on the success of Moore’s graphic novel and the (questionable) success of Snyder’s 2009 film.

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the secret censors of the mpaa.

I’ve recently been obsessing over the 1997 film Event Horizon, a sci-fi/horror flick described by its director as “The Shining in space.” For those who haven’t seen it, the basic premise is that the Event Horizon, a spaceship capable of “jumping” through space simply vanished and then reappeared seven years later; thus, a salvage crew, led by Laurence Fishburne and aided by engineer Sam Neill, are sent to rescue any surviving crew members as well as the Event Horizon. The ship, however, has come back unspeakably alive. The film unfolds slowly and then blossoms into a veritable Hellraiser homage, replete with a chaotic entity, extremely fleeting sadomasochistic imagery, and notions of pain, nothingness, and hell.

I often work best to the soothing sounds of tortured screaming, so I looped this film in the background while revising final papers and conference presentations last month. After the semester ended, I idly checked YouTube for extra footage and discovered that whole sequences had been deleted. Paul Andersen removed segments that actually helped the narrative make sense and restricted the gore to frames lasting 1-2 seconds each, in addition to radically trimming the orgiastic distress call video that motivates the salvage mission.

So then I looked at the original script. The changes made from script to screen were fairly radical. Images such as a son cannibalizing his still-breathing mother and violent, cannibalistic sex were omitted or heavily, heavily modified. A sex scene between the hallucinating Dr. Weir (Neill) and his dead wife Claire, during which he overcomes his loneliness and she tears out his eyes at climax, is also omitted. These scenes did not seem overly long or gratuitous, instead contributing to the development of a character on the brink of madness. Similar scenes made the cut in 1970s and 1980s horror films. So why this film, and why these scenes?

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when we were (never) treated fairly.

“As I got to know my adjunct colleagues better, I began to see these largely invisible, voiceless laborers as a hugely diverse group of amazing teachers.  Some are employed at full-time jobs in education or elsewhere, some are retired or supported by wealthier others, but far too many are just barely surviving.  While instances of dumpster diving are rare, adjunct shopping is typically limited to thrift stores, and decades-old cars sometimes serve as improvised offices when these “roads scholars” are not driving from campus to campus, all in a frantic attempt to cobble together a livable income.  Some adjuncts rely on food stamps or selling blood to supplement their poverty-level wages, which have been declining in real terms for decades.”

Brown, “Confessions of a Tenured Professor”

I’d read “Confessions of a Tenured Professor” in Inside Higher Ed a while back, but it left me too incensed to coherently think—not because of Prof. Brown’s views on the situation (which I think is commendable, as there’s so little published on the subject in widely-viewed forums, let alone in such a nuanced manner)—but because the subject itself is one that fills me with rage and despair. Today my friend C. forwarded me this article in The Atlantic, which compounded my rage by asking the impossible-to-answer question: “Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?” After frothing at the mouth for a moment, I thought that maybe I should attempt to think about the issue beyond just “fuck this.” So here I go, take one, from the top.

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the glass isn’t bulletproof.

Last Wednesday, there was a shoot-out at our site. A few coworkers, kids, and I had entered the center. I was starting to help a 9th grader with her resume. The fan was whirring in my ear. Then came the popping sound. One of my coworkers dove down immediately, sprawling, followed by another, who grabbed and shielded a kid as he fell, taking the impact on his shoulder. I dropped next to a man whose name I didn’t know. We were shouting for the kids to get down as they kept spinning on their swivel chairs, checking their email, working on homework. I heard 5 shots; some people, who were still in the foyer when the shooting began, heard up to 8. We phoned parents and asked them to come pick up their kids. We asked them to bring ID. In retrospect I wonder if this might have been in case a gang member came to pick up someone in a mostly gang-affiliated family, since some of the kids spoke very loudly that day about having brothers who’d shot someone, or been shot, in gang shoot-outs before. I helped a usually bubbly 12th grader arrange a ride home with a friend’s parents. I overheard kids muttering, “Man, they buggin’, I gotta go home, I can go myself, this shit happens all the time here.” I helped a 9th grader print his homework. I lent my phone to a 10th grader I’d helped the previous day; after I’d edited his essay, he exclaimed, “Oh man, I’m so happy!” and hugged me. He lived in a decent neighborhood and had never heard gunshots before. He asked me if I was scared: a loaded question. Other kids were listening. I hedged, “No, but it will probably seem more real to me later.” He seemed to respect that. He told me he was scared. That he didn’t quite understand what had been happening, and that to keep his mind off the fact that we were in danger he’d kept doing his homework. Then there was a strange moment of disjuncture where we both looked at his computer screen, which was left on the YouTube video he’d been watching when the shots began: a gameplay demo of an unreleased Xbox shooter game.

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when broken glass floats

“We are like the dust of history being blown away.”

Him, When Broken Glass Floats, p. 330

When I start thinking about war or genocide, I go to the images first.  Maybe this is so I can feel as though I’ve survived something.  Reading the narratives puts it into perspective, or assuages (or feeds) the guilt, that I feel this way when I’ve never experienced it for myself.  Call it whinging, posturing, or vicarious trauma.  I don’t know that the impulse goes by a name.

Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats is, to date, the most emotionally difficult survivor account I’ve ever encountered.  She describes her experience living under the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which instated a policy of social engineering that resulted in genocide.  Agricultural “reform” measures and the insistence on total self-sufficiency in the matters of food, water, and medicine led to widespread famine and disease.  By forcing the entire Cambodian population to work as farm laborers, the Khmer Rouge hoped to institute a classless society under a totalitarian government.  Intellectuals, as well as those who only appeared to be educated, were executed; books were destroyed; money and symbols of Westernization, including Western medicine, were looked down on.

This system led to the deaths of approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million people.  Half those deaths were likely by execution, the rest by starvation and disease, such as amoebic dysentery, edema, and cholera.  The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.  The phrase “Year Zero,” which we use to mean “building from the ground up,” was coined in relation to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, as it immediately set about destroying all previous evidence of Cambodian culture and substituting new revolutionary ideals in its stead.

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