A Convention In My Mind

It happens with surprising regularity that an essay crosses my path and boom! I am smitten. I want to drop everything and call up all my friends who read, stop the world and take time for all these carefully crafted thoughts. Usually the best I can do, however, is repeat my awe several times via Twitter and hope for the best. But that doesn’t account for the many ways specific essays continue to work on and in me after I have dared to close the tab.

We live in a time of accelerated transitoriness. We cannot, dare not, dwell upon a thing too long. No matter how poignant, how well crafted, how essential the message — it quickly becomes old news and is therefore to be put away; or archived for later reference. It may not remain at the top; the weight and volume of The New swamp it; render it nearly invisible. It is quickly forgotten. I regret this. Over and over again.

It’s part of the reason I continue to write: To slow things down for my racing mind, to revisit some moments of reading brilliance that can be rescued from the swamp of constant output. Beautiful essays also buoy me; they sustain and feed me. In the current political and economic climate, the deep value of ideas can offer a modest comfort that barbarism and fascism are not the only trends that will define our period.

In this spirit I want to present three essays of very different origins which provide me with sustenance for the longer haul, each in their own unique way. The first is A Rejected Travelogue of Singapore, The Philippines and Vietnam by Monique Truong which captures her impressions traveling alongside a delegation of curators for an international art exhibit. The second is a step-by-step dissection of criticism of neoliberal policies in higher education provided by Jana Bacevic while the third piece comes from Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who writes compellingly in favor of a grammar of animacy for the natural world.

Monique Truong’s essay reaches us as an artifact of controversy. The Vietnamese American author was invited by the Carnegie International to be an “armchair companion” to curators interested in “the colonial imprints of Spain and France on the contemporary culture” and commissioned to write a travelogue. The completed manuscript including a selection of photos was not, however, the travelogue the organization was prepared to receive.

This is how Monique Truong begins:

All journeys are composite acts of the imagination.
Our traveling companions are myths, fantasies, History as we have learned it, and other compelling fictions, such as the idea of the self.
We believe that we travel to see something truer, a glimpse of a rare bird. There it is! The blue tail feathers, the yellow body, a white orchid in its beak. We travel because we believe that there is truth to be seen. We are creatures of such faith, the rarest of birds.
All journeys do not end well.
Genocide, slavery, colonialism, and consumerism. These are also acts of the imagination.

I want to imagine the face on the first reader in the museum’s organization taking in these first lines and deciding to proceed. Is it surprise, shock, indignation? My own first reaction probably included elements of all of those, I am so accustomed to indirect approaches to articulating painful truths. This essay stunned me with its directness, in fact. The language is graceful and the message is very in your face. Truong takes the traveling curators to task. She questions their motives, their fundamental assumptions and links their artistic enterprise directly back to the waves of men — explorers, colonizers, priests — who came before them.

When we travel, we consume.
History, Culture, and Art, what better place to acquire these ideas, you may say, than a museum or a gallery.
This is not a question but a statement of fact because your dossier includes photographs taken at fifteen such spaces, five in the Philippines, three in Singapore, and seven in Vietnam.
From December 2–18, 2016, you visited the Museum of the Church of San Augustin, Lopez Museum and Library, Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Bellas Artes Project, Cultural Center of the Philippines, National Gallery Singapore, NUS (National University of Singapore) Museum, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Hỏa Lò Prison Museum, Women’s Museum, Nhà Sàn Collective, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, and Salon Saigon.
Perhaps, there were more?
What did the men who traveled there before us do, I wonder. You know, when they wanted to consume History, Culture, and Art?

A representative of the Museum in response to the manuscript received describes the travelogue as “hauntingly beautiful” and expresses thanks for the author’s “voice of post-colonial criticality, which is crucial to our project.” I wonder how that writer labored over finding the just right words to say ‘Thank you, but really, you shouldn’t have…’ Because Truong writes in dialogue with the curators and the photographs they have chosen, as readers we are bystanders to what could easily be experienced as a deeply uncomfortable situation.

I ask myself what precisely is uncomfortable? Watching someone’s privilege called out and unpacked, artfully and without irony? What is it about seeing others called to account in this way, perhaps unexpectedly, that could make us uncomfortable? I think it may have to do with power and where we go to feel safe. I think we fear being called out on our own privilege one way or another and we align with power through politeness. We watch our language, we soften our critique, we finish with “no hard feelings” and expect to remain well respected, liked, socially condoned. Part of me identifies with the blameless traveler, cloaked in innocence, masking ignorance.That’s uncomfortable to admit.

Jana Bacevic studies the critique of neoliberalism in higher education in the UK and in her essay “Universities, Neoliberalism and the (Im)possibility of Critique” she gets at the uneasy dynamics of voicing critique while simultaneously perpetuating a system designed to eat its young anyway. What’s refreshing is that she looks carefully at who may and may not engage in critique and to what effect. She names power and articulates how it tends to operate for different constituencies! There a several aspects to her argumentation and I cannot begin to do them all justice here but what stood out for me was the way she unloaded this, for some perhaps, difficult reality:

the critique of neoliberalism in the academia can become part and parcel of the very processes it sets out to criticise. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the content, act, or performance of critique itself that renders it automatically subversive or dangerous to ‘the system’.

But critique does sell (you know, in an academic sense), and it may get you published and provide you a platform for getting your name out in print. In the currency of appearances, critique of neoliberalism in higher education might be a means to put yourself on the map, so to speak. But what Bacevic also notes is how proximity to the largely white and male pillars of institutional power bolsters one’s sense of entitlement. She offers us the following set-up as an illustration:

Senior academics stay inside the system, and, if they are critical, believe to work against the system — for instance, by fighting for their discipline, or protecting junior colleagues, or aiming to make academia that little bit more diverse. In the longer run, however, their participation keeps the system going — the equivalent of carbon offsetting your business class flight;

The point is we can take aim at the misery caused by the corporatization of universities without ever taking any real steps towards dismantling the very systems we oppose. Truong reminds us that as travelers, we consume. Bacevic informs us that we continue to feed the machine we say that we want stopped. The joke of our supposed advancement is on us.

But how about this: let’s change. Let’s rethink our grammar, let’s reconsider our relationship to ingrained patterns of thought and take a chance on discovery. In “Speaking of Nature” Robin Wall Kimmerer presents us with a different possibility. She gives us an opportunity along with her students to experiment with adopting new pronouns drawn from the language of her Potawatomi heritage. Her essay of course does more than that though. Kimmerer draws us in to consider more carefully the impact of linguistic imperialism, the assertion of cultural power and how this plays out in the words we choose, the forms of language we enshrine.

Referring to the mission of the residential schools of the 19th and 20th centuries to root out native languages, culture and belief systems, she writes:

It’s no wonder that our language was forbidden. The language we speak is an affront to the ears of the colonist in every way, because it is a language that challenges the fundamental tenets of Western thinking — that humans alone are possessed of rights and all the rest of the living world exists for human use. Those whom my ancestors called relatives were renamed natural resources. In contrast to verb-based Potawatomi, the English language is made up primarily of nouns, somehow appropriate for a culture so obsessed with things.

English is my native language and “Speaking of Nature” gives me pause. Kimmerer challenges me to examine the ways this language I call my own has been used over centuries to subjugate, suppress whole other worlds of existence, including those of things — beings in and of nature. And because she makes this direct connection between the English language and the history of genocide and colonization, rather than tiptoe around it, I am jolted to attention, similar to the way Truong grabs me in the first lines of her travelogue.

In search of way to reconcile two very different ways of viewing the world Kimmerer shows us a sample of how these two ways coexist in her day-to-day:

…When I write as a scientist, I must say, “An 8 cm root was extracted from the soil,” as if the leafy beings were objects, and, for that matter, as if I were too. Scientific writing prefers passive voice to subject pronouns of any kind. And yet its technical language, which is designed to be highly accurate, obscures the greater truth.
Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say, “My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.” Instead of ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi. That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?

Can we? Can we create systems of knowledge production that do not feed on exploitation? Can we travel without consuming? Can we conceive of a language that does not denigrate?

These particular essays moved me. Monique Truong, Jana Bacevic and Robin Wall Kimmerer, each author speaks to me — of language, of power, of agency, of privilege. Each one tells me a truth I either hadn’t realized or considered or even fathomed. Truong reminds us

“All journeys are a culmination of prior ones taken.”

While Kimmerer gives us this insight:

Thankfully, human history is marked by an ever-expanding recognition of personhood, from the time when aboriginals were not seen as human, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and when a woman was worth less than a man. Language, personhood, and politics have always been linked to human rights. Will we have the wisdom to expand the circle yet again? Naming is the beginning of justice. (Emphasis mine)

We got here from somewhere and none of us lives separate from the history that brought us here. It helps me to think about where justice can begin. It helps me to witness the use of direct language. It helps me to have the curtains pulled back and see that my struggle is connected to a larger pattern of many other struggles. This is what reading and writing can do for us. In this space I convene a meeting of minds which supports my growth. For the opportunity to think and connect with these excellent thinkers, I am deeply grateful.

images all CC0 via Pixabay