legibility and viability

We have a blogging schedule here on saltwaterstories, but I’m afraid that in the busy-ness of administration and end of term, I’ve dropped my part of the ball (can you drop part of a ball?) And so, the timing is all off.

But here I am, in Chester, UK, where the tulips and cherry trees are in full bloom, at the biennial international Talking Bodies conference.

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I can say with full authority that there are no tulips in full bloom in St.John’s right now.

I’ve come to this conference three times – every time, in fact, since its inception in 2013. It’s a highlight on my conference schedule and I’m so very happy that the fantastic creator and organizer of the conference, the incredible and seemingly indefatigable Emma Rees, has seen fit to accept my proposals each time.

There is nothing I like more than thinking and talking about bodies (yes, you can quote me on this). Especially when such conversations happen in a beautiful place like Chester, accompanied by great vegetarian food, and in the company of students, activists, independent researchers, and faculty members from 25 countries.

Sounds like bliss, doesn’t it? I can assure you, it is.

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St. John’s has a cool and colourful downtown, but it doesn’t look at all like this one.

It’s also, as a colleague put it, an endurance test. Emma has us all on a tight and very full schedule! Days begin early and end late. Yesterday was a 12-hour day, with a plenary at 9 pm. The day before was even longer, with a feminist pub quiz to round things out. Tonight we ended just after 9. But earlier today, I played hooky for a couple of sessions to a) pick up a birthday present for my soon-to-be-12-year-old-who-thinks-he’s-a-teenager-already, b) respond to work emails (the curse of being department head), and c) catch up with long-lost blogging.

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One of the things my find-a-birthday-present walk allowed me to do was to really figure out how it was that the different papers I’ve heard fit together. And I think that the comments of one delegate, Emma Hutson, who presented a paper on essentialism and anti-essentialism in cis and trans contexts this morning, summed it up. In response to someone’s commentary about Judith Butler, Hutson replied that it was important to think about the possible tensions between legibility, on the one hand, and viability, on the other. In other words, it is one thing to talk about how one might be properly read and understood in the world – how one is legible enough to be, in Butler’s understandings, grievable) – but the viability of such legibility is something else altogether. That is, sometimes the work of making oneself legible within and against dominant paradigms is just too much.

And here I think that Emma Hutson landed on exactly what I see emerging as a larger theme in the conference (at least in the context of the 24 papers I’ve listened to thus far): the limitations of dominant language and thought systems to articulate the diversity of human experience.

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Hutson’s paper brought me to Delia Steverson’s work on the intersection of disability studies and Black literary studies. In her paper, she examined slave narratives by Moses Roper and William Grimes and observed, during the Q&A, that such slave narratives are always heavily mediated texts, constructed and created with the express purpose of supporting abolitionist causes. To what extent, then, were these texts about making the enslaved legible – as subjects – to a white audience, and what role did the articulation of pain and impairment serve in supporting that move towards legibility? There is, indeed, very little room to manoeuvre in slave narratives; there are accepted stories that can be told, and silences that must be maintained. But what did this mean for those who were not able to work within those parameters?

So, too, was the limitation of language a key element in a trio of papers by Jonathan Hay, Krystina Osborne, and Hanna Etholén that focused on autofiction, a genre that necessarily blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Even the term itself is contested. One could argue about the need for a term at all – why not just write and then publish the damn thing, after all? But if there’s anything that’s become clear in this conference (if it wasn’t clear before), it’s that we’ve been organized into needing categories in order to understand our world. There’s a fiction section. There’s an autobiography section. And things get messy in the spaces between. As readers, we tend to fret when we don’t know if something is true of false. We start to fuss about questions of authenticity. What’s real, and what’s not. And here again, the spectre of legibility rears its head: what we think and feel about authenticity lies at the heart of questions of legibility.

But as the author Chris Kraus, referenced by one panelist, indicated:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.” 

And while one could argue that this relationship between fact and fiction doesn’t matter so much because it’s fiction, or rather, autofiction, the tensions inherent in this terminology are actually symptomatic of much larger issues. What happens if the categories that exist aren’t enough? And what happens to those who do not fit into the categories? Or those who want to escape those categories? What do we do with their stories? What does it mean to be legible? And what kind of work is involved in that process?

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Chester Cathedral – only visible here because the leaves haven’t quite come out yet.

Garjan Sterk discussed the current status of race and racism in The Netherlands. A people that prides itself on being tolerant and open, the Dutch do not have a real word for ‘race.’ The closest approximation – ras – is thought to be too closely aligned with Nazi discourses. But the end result of not having a word is that the Dutch can very easily – and do very easily – argue that ‘We do not have any racism,’ which is patently untrue. Sterk took us through the various twists and turns of ever-shifting government policies and practices around the naming of various groups of ‘others’ through the also shifting parameters of the ‘allochtoon’ and how this shifting language has also affected political organizing among various social justice groups in The Netherlands. And it’s affected Sterk’s own work: as she has personally navigated the muddy waters of race and politics, she’s also started to discover that the traditional model for thesis writing, as she’s been taught it, may not be suitable for the work she’s trying to do, for the story she’s trying to tell. But are there alternatives available for her? How will she navigate that relationship between legibility – within the mainstream academic context – and viability?

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The limitations of current knowledge systems was also front and centre in Katie Myerscough’s paper on the (now infamous) case of Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who created a Black identity for herself. This is a tough topic to take on at a conference about talking bodies (actually, at any conference) but Katie’s approach, which located Dolezal and the furor surrounding the case within a much longer historical context, was probably one of the more nuanced reading of the situation that I’ve heard or read to date. What was abundantly clear in Myerscough’s argument was that the whole situation (for lack of better way of putting it) – Dolezal’s actions and the responses to it – are the result of centuries of racist policies.

If Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been productive at all, it is because they have shone a blinding light on the messy political, structural, and activist histories around the politics of naming. I don’t think she necessarily intended to do this; her most recent interview, in The Stranger, shows a remarkable level of narcissism and corresponding lack of awareness of the larger context in which her story plays itself out But here we are. As Myercough pointed out, “How we see race might be something we want to think about.” But do we actually have the language to have this conversation?

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And all of this also takes me to my own paper (an expansion and reworking of ideas I explored here). I, too, have hit walls along the way. Walls that point to the failure of the colonial imagination to articulate the humanity of the indentured and the enslaved. Methodological walls that make it challenging to read between, through, behind, and around the archival material that remains. And walls that limit the possible ways for me to tell these stories within the context of academic audiences.

I am increasingly convinced, as my paper for July’s Creative Histories conference  (yaye! Another trip across the pond!) will argue, that the work I have done in this particular research project cannot be adequately captured in a conventional academic format. To make these stories legible in this context, requires some contortions that I am not certain I am fully prepared to make.

I’ll produce some academic articles as a result of this project (I already have), but really, these stories should emerge in another venue. But academia, as it is currently constructed, doesn’t have the language necessary to tell these stories. And as someone trained in this space, I’m not entirely sure I fully have the language yet, either. And so, I muddle along, working it out as I go.

I write.
I rewrite.

I think.
I rethink.

I story.
I re-story.

And in the end, I hope I will find the language to allow the story to tell itself, to emerge the way it wants – and needs – to emerge.

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on the campus at University of Chester

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