Life as an Extreme Sport

one augmented human

Laurie is my goddess. She overnighted me both my copy of Microsoft Office, and my backup discs of writing. I now have a large chunk of my life back on my computer, that has been missing since the hard drive was wiped in December.

I’m in the process of reorganizing how I store my documents, and organize the data in those folders. And in that process of reorganizing, I came across this paper, written several years ago for a cultural communication/technology class taught by the guy who went on to become my adviser. It’s interesting to read it again, going on three years after writing it, and see how much and how little my writing has changed.

Allopoietic Orientalism and Excluded Autopoietics

An old paper added, just in case I’m called out to prove the paper behind the excessive title exists, in a conversation over on Crooked Timber…

Allopoietic Orientalism and Excluded Autopoietics

Said’s conception of Orientalism is one of “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing the relative upper hand” (7). He sees the dominant discourse of the Occident creating the identity of the Orient, with the Orient (for a series of reasons that would please Jared Diamond) unable to escape from this hegemonic form of identity creation. Chakrabarty belongs to the “postcolonial project of subaltern studies” (1). This group of scholars is primarily focused on rethinking and rewriting Indian history, removing the Orient from the shadow of the Occident. In fact, these scholars pull a maneuver similar to what Stephen Greenblatt, in Marvelous Possessions, highlights Mandeville as doing. Mandeville shifted his history from the Dome of the Rock, the center of the world, to the outer edges of the sphere. Likewise, Chakrabarty, Spivak, and others shift from the “elite” center of Orientalism to the margins of the subaltern.

The problem with this subaltern take is that it is a reaction to the Orientalism Said describes, and in being a reaction ends up simply trying to co-opt the same Cartesian binary model of the power/knowledge dichotomy Orientalism and colonialism operates under. The focus on flipping who has the power in this dichotomous relationship ignores the inherent flaw in the concept of the relationship itself, which is that in any situation where you set up a Self and an Other, you are automatically excluding all that does not fall into either definition. I believe that Chakrabarty, et all, would attempt to argue that the focus of subaltern studies is the space between Self and Other, but that narrow space between the two is still excluding everything that falls outside. What is this outside, this excluded? In terms of Orientalism vs. Occidentalism, it can be those Muslims who live outside the immediate area defined as the Orient by Said (the Levant, Persia and India), such as the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africans who are Muslim and face the same prejudices of exoticism. It can be those in China who were also under the British colonial power, the pirates of the Barbary Coast, or the Barbary Coast itself. The point being, as excluded, it is something that can and often has an effect on the scenario being described, but is not itself being described.

It becomes useful to think of what both Said and Chakrabarty are talking about in terms of allopoetic systems, an other-made system that imposes form on it from the outside. Orientalism is allopoietic; it is a system of describing and interacting with the Orient created and imposed by the Occident. Likewise, the field of subaltern studies is an effort to co-opt and reframe this allopoetic system in a manner that, while rejecting a Western-dominated history, is still defined by it. (After all, they are opting to specifically reject something for another.) The problem with Said, Chakrabarty and allopoietic systems is that it’s a process; there is a beginning and an end. To take it from the abstract, it’s like an easy-bake oven; raw dough goes in, cookies come out. This allopoietic model doesn’t allow for a system of feedback, or anything except the raw dough and the oven.

If we switch instead to an autopoietic system, we break out of the model of Cartesian dualism and can begin to embrace a feedback system that allows for inclusion of the excluded third. Autopoietic systems are self-creating systems; crudely put, they are interactive systems that continually produce and maintain themselves and the bits and pieces that form their relationships. If we then reframe Orientalism and Occidentalism into an autopoietic system, they are two systems in a dynamic together that, while feedbacking to one another to continue their relationship, are also open to the feedback and input of unacknowledged forces. These forces can be the weather that determines the tea production, the demand for batik in the Caribbean, or the very language used to describe and translate the news. Autopoietic systems allow for temporary binary situations to exist, often nested within one another, while still allowing for an inclusive, non-binary system to encompass the whole.

Both Said and Chakrabarty are operating within the Foucaudian power/knowledge dichotomy and ignoring everything that falls outside the realm of the (British, French, and to a lesser degree German) Occident and the (Levant, Persia and Indian) Orient. Ignoring the excluded third of everything else is a way of seeing the world in terms of clashing allopoietic processes, rather than nested autopoietic systems that allow for temporary binary situations to exist while still creating an inclusive system that encompasses the whole. Which is, perhaps, simply a fancy way of saying that it’s turtles, all the way down.

Citations and References
Said, Edward. “Introduction” to Orientalism
Chakrabarty, Dipesh.
Maturana, Humberto R. and Francisco J. Varela

An End – 390, Presentations, Jessica

This is the closing section of my 390 presentation paper, finally handed in Friday afternoon. I felt like sharing, largely because there are a few interesting insights in the paper. Interesting to me, anyhow. Just as a warning: this contains thoughtson and my remembrances of Jessica’s death.

There’s always a conclusion to these reflections, although my reflection on the class as a whole has already wrapped up. But this paper became more than just those two hours. It has become two years of avoidance, and for a reason.

I got home the night of August 3rd to Jessica still missing. I had a friend who lived in the same building she did, and I convinced him to let me into the building, to knock at her door. I knocked for a while. We discussed breaking in — we knew how; he’d been locked out of his apartment often enough that we’d perfected the technique. We ended up deciding not to, that it wasn’t our place to make that decision, and besides, she was just off studying somewhere, and forgetting to check in with us.

Her body was found a day later, in the bathtub. August was hot that year, and the body was badly decomposed. When the medical examiner finally released the cause of death he was also able to give us a time of death — August 1st. I didn’t know any of that at the time, though. All I knew was several people contacting me at once, and my world crashing down around me, and reacting the only way I knew how: I shut down. Jessica, my grounding point, my sanity, my support and my rock, was gone, and suddenly I had to be to everyone what she had been to me.

Beloved was the last book we were to read for 390, and I couldn’t. There was no way. I tried, I read it, I went to class, and I had to walk out. I couldn’t handle talking about death and ghosts and memory, rememory. And within that grief and shutting down and doing my best to maintain control and composure, my papers for 390 ended up wrapped up in the emotional mess of the time.

When I convinced myself I would finish it later, and focus for the time on Jessica’s possessions and funeral, I was able to cage the grief and lock it away. But several weeks later, trying my first of many attempts to write about this presentation, the grief roared up and ate me, and I staggered away from the project. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t process the grief.

Several more times, I tried to tackle this paper, and every time it was the same. I found some way to wrap myself around the paper, some novel hook and line into it. I would talk about it as a reflection of my confidence as a PF, and the differences between PFing and presenting for a single day, and why I felt the two experiences to be so differentFor the record, I think it’s a matter of support. At least for me, I received an amazing amount of support the first time I PFed. I was told what to expect, common problems that come up, given advice on how to handle an unruly class, and so on and forth. None of this was made available to be as a presenter — I really felt like I was walking into the situation blind and unknowing. More prep and support would have really benefited me; as is, I left the experience convinced I could never PF or teach, because I so badly sucked at the entire thing.. I would look at it in a collage format, piecing together one class woven with the experience of the presentation. I would find some manner to engage the text that would remove the grief. I would, except that I never did, I never managed.

I discovered some time last summer that you have to deal with grief in the order you lock it into your heart. The older griefs have to be dealt with before you can deal with the younger, newer ones, and I had several things that had happened before Jessica’s death that I had to process before I could handle this. I also discovered that it seems like you have to be experiencing a new grief in order to pass through the old. Perhaps new grief gives the old perspective?

Any which way, as I experience the grief of moving and leaving, I find myself finally experiencing the pain of Jessica’s death. And as I explore and experience that grief and pain, I find myself finally able to write the paper that should have been finished several years ago.

Since first presenting in 390, I’ve had the chance to PF many times, and I’ve seen my mistakes repeated in other people. Too eager to please, too worried about what the instructor is thinking, trying too hard to involve everyone, never letting silence sit in the room as an invitation. But I stand by the belief that the presentation my partner and I chose to give was the right presentation for that time in the class. And another pattern I’ve noticed is that the 2nd to last group to present? That’s always the group that takes the chance, sticks their neck out on the line, and tries something a little different.

Woman as a Weapon – Beloved

Woman as a Weapon

Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down. Sword and shield. 1

A woman is a biological weapon.2 A weapon in a war fought against other men, other people. An oozing, leaking, contaminated zone of infection, of a porous body that bleeds into the environment3 as much as the environment, and the men in it, are taken up. And the black woman becomes the ultimate weapon, simultaneously orientalised4 and reviled. Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved illustrates two separate aspects of woman as a weapon, seen in the main characters Sethe and Beloved herself. While both deserve equal consideration, the limitations of space demand that this essay only address Sethe.

The weaponisation of Sethe begins when she is turned into a commodity, sold, at the beginning of her tender teenage years. But the contamination of Sethe begins much, much earlier than this. Originally, she was separated from her mother and raised by a wet nurse; this was done at such a young age that she could not recognize her own mother, even in death.5 Her mother, a slave from Africa, nursed the babe Sethe for only 2-3 weeks before the babe was removed and she was sent back to work. Sethe then nursed at the breast of Nan, another transported slave. This breaking of the bond of mother and child can be seen as the first step in Sethe’s contamination; instead of being fed from the natural source for a child, her mother, Sethe is given the fluids of another. While this might not appear to be a significant step in the contamination and eventual weaponisation of Sethe, it is important to consider this in light of Elizabeth Grosz’s understanding of Mary Douglas’s notions of the dirty body. “Dirt, for her, is that which is not in its proper place, that which upsets or befuddles order.”6 There is nothing much more upsetting of the natural order than a child being breastfed the fluids of another woman.

We then jump to the contaminated Sethe, already unable to participate in a normal familial relationship, being sold to the Garner farm. Here she becomes the object of desire7 for the black men, who resort to the “taking of cattle” and dreaming of rape to quench their lust of the thirteen-year old girl. After a year of contaminating the thoughts of these men, Sethe makes her choice in Halle, and they lay together amongst the corn; Halle is now no longer merely mentally but also physically contaminated with Sethe, and he has contaminated her for other men.8 The other men of Sweet Home acknowledge her choice and from that point treat her with respect, distance, and brotherly affection.

Sethe bears Halle three children, and is pregnant with her fourth when the small family makes the decision to remain a family, and to run to join Halleâ’s mother. And at this point, Sethe becomes a weapon. Her children packed up and sent ahead, the youngest born still suckling, she remains behind to search for Halle, and is accosted in the barn by the nephews (or perhaps sons) of the schoolteacher.9 They sexually assault her, one boy with “mossy teeth” holding her down while the other physically takes her milk by sucking it from her breast. While this attack takes place, the schoolteacher watches and records everything–as does Halle, trapped in the loft above Sethe and the boys. Like many biological weapons, when she is set off, Sethe harms more than just the immediate target, although in this case, the full damage of the weapon will not be immediately seen. In fact, the immediate damage only comes to Sethe herself, who in telling Mrs. Garner of her violation finds herself beaten until her back opens up, for the disobedience of telling. But the invisible victim is Halle, who witnesses the assault on his wife and goes mad. She is used as a weapon, a means of hurting and ultimately destroying him; he knows that he will never be able to look at her again, both because the violation of his possession10 and his inaction towards it, and goes so mad as to simply sit, smearing butter on his face and obsessing over the stolen milk.11

Milk stolen, body broken, believing her husband to have abandoned her pregnant body and their children, Sethe still sets out to follow the caravan to Cincinnati, motivated by the knowledge that her youngest born child needed her milk, and her unborn child needed her life. At this point, the division between Sethe’s inside and outside has collapsed; her body has become visibly permeable and porous;12 her breast milk is flowing freely, seeping into the environment around her. And as it flows, it attracts the outside environment to her body, in the form of small insects and grasshoppers, and it announces her presence, in the form of a strong smell and visible marking on her dress, to the world at large.13

Sethe eventually makes it to her destination, House 124, along with Denver, the child born from the trauma en route. And for a short while, it appears that the weapon of Sethe has been spent, and she will be able to live the remainder of her life with her children, in happiness. But in quick succession, Sethe’s presence contaminates life at House 124. The first sign of this comes three weeks after Sethe’s arrival, with Baby Suggs happy enough at the freedom of her daughter-in-law and newest granddaughter. With the enabling of juicy berries picked by Stamp Paid, a feast is had, shared with all in the neighborhood, ninety people who woke up resenting the bounty and generosity of excess given in thanks for Sethe and Denver’s presence.14 But this poisoning of relations merely masked the darker threat coming, that of the schoolteacher, a mossy-toothed boy, the sheriff, and the slave-catcher. And at this point, the weapon of Sethe, unleashed on her assault at the hands of those nephews, finishes itself in the murder of Beloved.

The knives of regret, of misery and defense, of ways of being and coping with a world out to get you for being you–these things Sethe is urged to lay down, put aside, let go. Let go and move on. But how do you move on in a world that isn’t out to get just you, but is out to get everyone equally,15 and is comfortable using you in its battle against everyone else? When you are not only a participant in the war, but a weapon?

Lay down your sword. This ain’t a battle, it’s a rout.Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Penguin Press, New York; 1987. pp 144.