July 16, 2013

Visiting Hours

Distortion is an aspect of violence, right up there with coercion, infringement, deprivation, constraint. These terms can and do apply in sudden physical altercations, or in long-lasting situations that are physically harmful, but such terms are applicable as well to acts of violence where persons operate upon others in non-physical ways. Where violence is done to one's ethics, for example. Or where violence is done to one's free will, in the guise of benevolence. Or where violence is done to one's conscience. I've been thinking a lot on these last three lately, because of a recent trek -- down to North Carolina and back up to Pennsylvania -- and a specific museum stop we made on the way. And because the trip took place as the Zimmerman trial was unfolding, and swirling, and distorting.
The Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, NC is a celebration of its evangelical founder and his belief system; he had a mission to bring alphabets and the written word to what he saw as immature cultures -- "the alphabet-less peoples of the world" -- so that they could all know and read the Bible. The museum was designed to show all the countries in which the vast number of Bible translators/alphabet linguists, supported by his religious organization, have worked over the past 80 years, and all the ways in which their work has
transformed "savages" to "saints." The museum consists of dozens of dioramas that trace the entirety of evangelical-sanctioned human history -- from the Greeks to the "Semitics" to "Far Eastern areas" to Latin American "jungle peoples" -- and how each was shaped by the use of or introduction of an alphabet, and more importantly, by access to "God's word in their own language." The last display area in the museum, the one nearest to the front desk, contains examples of the wonder and the civilizing progress that the translators/Bible promoters have brought to the immature cultures they have encountered, turning peoples with no concepts of faith or forgiveness (or possibly even the ability to think) into peoples with the ability to pray and read the Bible and spread Christianity.

While we were there, the ladies at the front desk were visited by one of their own tribe -- a fellow white evangelical, who started and ended the encounter with blessings. He came to the museum to give the ladies some "artifacts" they might want to put in the other museum this organization runs, a museum of Mexican culture, also in Waxhaw. Mexican culture as acquired and interpreted by guys like him, who did missionary work in a small village somewhere in southern Mexico for a time.
What to make of this? The ladies at the front desk were enthused that we were visiting, and hopeful that we shared their worldview. They were both so gregarious They had such respect for the work of the founder of the organization which runs the museums, and a Bible translation business, and a summer language institute, among other things, and respect for the museum contents as well. I have no doubt they feel and think they do good works, and that they see the history on display all around them as the history of reality, the one reality, the God-driven reality. Because to them, savages will always need saving. Because anyone who does not have access to the Bible does not have access to culture, to improvement, to the essence of life itself. Because all those outside of Bible access are only waiting to be made whole.
So, this is not a museum about the alphabet or the Bible or some white guy from North Carolina's dream of saving the "jungle peoples," really. This is a museum of modern day epistemic closure -- or rather, an awesome resource for those who want to know how to shape an entirely closed thought system that is not impinged upon by change, evidence, history, cultural ethics, sociology, biology, secular linguistics, what have you. Feel free to add your own. Each diorama adheres rigidly to the rules of the closed system. Each description adheres to the acceptable language people of this faith use to describe everything in the world that has ever or will ever exist. I thought as well that this is not a museum, but actually just a map of the inside of the founder's fantastically narcissistic mind -- with a small room partitioned off inside for each of the needy and God-less cultures he helped to save. And nowhere on display is there any evidence that any of this work did violence of any kind to anyone; no cultures were harmed in the making of these Christian converts, apparently. Quite the opposite. It is a remarkable, deeply disturbing place.
A few days later we drove up near Antrim Township, PA, by the Virginia and Maryland borders, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, an area with multiple stops on the Underground Railroad, where a whole different kind of saving was going on at one point in our actual cultural history.
The weight of things, the energy it takes to sustain a closed system, and the energy it takes to break that system, who is allowed a voice, whose alphabet actually matters, which system wins -- all things on my mind as well this past weekend while we were at a family celebration in another sort of dioramic display of epistemic closure (wealth-as-the-religion style) in my girlhood hometown of Greenwich, CT, and the Zimmerman verdict came in. But this was a very familiar museum, one of extreme white privilege, the one that I was born into. And on display on this visit were values and ideas that do violence both to reason and to my own conscience and ethics, but expressed just as sweetly as those two ladies at the front desk of the Museum of the Alphabet expressed theirs.
I know I have failed to adequately and calmly steel myself to the requests I get, on every visit home, in ways obvious and subtle, to join with or at least affirm the ideals embodied in that manner of living, in that gated community of self-preserving and other-excluding power, the haven of hedge fund guys. It is so obvious to them that life is good this way, that the excesses and inequality embraced as normal have no distorting effects on anyone that matters, so, why wouldn't I affirm such things? Or, in the loving parlance of my family, why am I such an argumentative pain in the ass? Coercion, infringement, racism, status-seeking, prosthelytizing -- acquiring power over others demands violence, even invisible forms of the stuff. When it comes to a good conversation about opposing views, I am as game as the next gal, but I strive to not actually violate other human beings, or to support thinking that does, or to engage with folks who do so in the guise of benevolence, or religion, or charity, or even parenthood. I don't want to persuade, only to be unconstrained by others' need to persuade. But I don't think there is a museum for that.

May 30, 2013

Where You Come To

Working my way through the clutter of the last two years of grad school paperwork, I came across a favored quote (which I have noted before) from a book on how we see and how we create what we want to be seen. The author frames this around abstract artists who step away from the rules of convention that govern representational painting, but it's applicable to many forms of thought. He describes the process of stepping away from those rules and into abstraction as going down a ladder, letting go rung by rung, subtracting, until you find yourself in a place where you can be fully skeptical of the visible world. As he states it: "The ladder of disorder leaves conventional representation behind, in favor of images that explore inadequate representation." I love that sentence, and the notion that this sort of descent allows one to more freely act on what one favors -- because this sort of descent allows one to see beyond certain structures, and beyond the need for certain structures.

This is not a way of living, not some form of enlightenment or whatever. It is rather a forging of new connections in the brain, using vision as the tool do so...a sort of un-training while also rewiring. The author is addressing the mesmerizing idea of encountering abstraction or content of any kind that can't adequately be pictured. He positions you at the top of the ladder encountering something incomprehensible; do you climb down, subtracting as you go? And what does the world look like to you when you reach the last rung?

When one is fully skeptical of the visible world, skepticism about other things comes fairly naturally. For if you can see (without the aid of super-special They Live glasses) the difference between what the author James Elkins calls "the machinery of realism" and whatever else there is, you kind of train your brain to hear the difference too. Meaning you become better attuned not simply to hypocrisy but to how people actively construct ideas about and identities for themselves. And what becomes remarkable (at least to me, and I am maybe late to this game) is the sort of oddly beautiful, reliable, limited rhythms that people use to reify their identities. Like the beautiful, reliable, cirumscribed brush strokes representational artists use to show us the known and knowable. (Possibly this is also on my mind because of the imminent arrival of cicadas on the scene; listening to their sound is like listening to the earth thinking.)

This is something I realize is probably an after-effect of going back to graduate school at my age. I have emerged halfway through the process very far down the ladder, having let go of more rungs than I can count, but with a much better ability to assess constructions of any kind. This is especially true of theories, which are rampant in education -- theories of teacher motivation, student identity, knowledge acquisition, brain development, learning styles, affect in the classroom, etc. I see why they are rampant, see the comfort that comes from descriptions of the structures in the visible world, like the comfort we all find in our descriptions of ourselves. These are the rules of representation in my field; these are the familiar rhythms. Having now climbed well below the world of conventional representation that these generate, I am not aligning with or embracing any. Instead I am viewing them from below, as images of fascinating, incomplete, always inadequate representations. And this is yet another weirdly happy place I feel lucky to have come to.

January 10, 2013

And My Limousines Are Black

Watching Frontline's interview with/expose on Michelle Rhee, the former DC schools chancellor, education reformer, and "educator," helped me to see just how lucky I am to work with and research actual educators. Unlike them, Rhee did not study education in college, nor does she have any advanced degree in education. She was spawned by Teach for America, given the very brief training that organization provides, and then taught in the "worst" school in Baltimore. As is typical of TFA graduates, she spent only three years in the classroom, but used the experience to leverage something better for herself -- an educational consulting firm/Michelle Rhee professional networking organization. Which led to her job as chancellor. How 'bout them apples.

In the interview, Rhee refers to the 2nd grade students she taught, briefly, in Baltimore as "my kids," a sentiment that any actual educator who has spent some time in the field knows is usually a new teacher's mask for insecurity. She also became infamous for a classroom episode where she, in a straight up act of aggression, killed and ate an annoying bee in front of her class of seven-year-olds. She could not, after all, swat and swallow the annoying and unruly students in this urban elementary school.

Rhee presents herself as being compelling because she is a lonely warrior in a fight for student success. Of course the only thing compelling about this is that Rhee repeats the mantra so often you start to think she is simply hypnotizing herself into believing her motivations are good.  Or worse -- that she is trying, perhaps, to wrestle some deep anger into a positive sales slogan. Because again, its not like she could kill and eat those pesky "urban" kids.

But the thing I found most fascinating about her self-presentation is how removed it was from the actual experience of being an educator, particularly in an urban school. Setting aside what one thinks the core function of a school is for a moment, one thing most urban educators do share is the experience of having to be many selves in many situations to many people. And this is done in a manner entirely unlike the self-shifting one has to engage in in a corporate setting. This is done in a work environment where the actors are relatively powerless and not rewarded well, and where the subjects they have to respond to are not present by choice and range in age, developmental level, skills, etc.

And yet there these teachers are, morphing themselves on any given day into social workers, disciplinarians, narcs, protectors, legal counsel, sex educators, emergency workers, advisers and guides, resource managers, stand-in parents, what have you. The strength it takes to be that flexible and responsive is not easy to comprehend, and is not generally respected by leaders like Rhee who pin their personal success on having a very fixed self-identity.

The Rhee interview also made me think of another interview, one with a surviving first-grade teacher from Sandy Hook, who struggled after the fact with the professionalism of her decision to tell all the children she had hidden in the closet that she loved them all so much. She said, in the interview, that she knew this was maybe a violation of some kind, in terms of keeping a professional distance as an educator, but at that moment of total fear she could only think of this: if I were a six-year-old and very afraid, what would I want most to hear? And, she thought, what if the last words these children ever heard in their lives were whatever words I spoke? So she just told them, repeatedly, that she loved each one of them.

Aside from the amazing compassion and awareness she displayed (and the remarkable control of her own fear in that moment) what I appreciated about this teacher's story was that it conveyed so powerfully exactly what good educators can do. They can allow themselves to be in others, without risk to their own identities or their integrity.

That this teacher was concerned about how this ability would be perceived by those who assess the the profession in the manner that Rhee obviously does speaks to the patriarchal nature of education reform initiatives, on the one hand, and to the limited nature of how "reformers" like Rhee think about the self. It is likely this is something Rhee found out in her brief and contentious tenure as the leader of an urban school district -- that equating a static, immovable self with strength is both limiting and destructive.

When I watched Piers Morgan's recent interview with right-wing conspiracy theorist and gun fan Alex Jones, I could not help but think the same thing. Jones and his ilk speak of the traumatic consequences that will befall us all if we don't stick to "who we are," a static and unchanging notion of self that must be defended at all costs, against all imagined tyrants. I could not help but listen to his rant as a projection of his visceral fear of self-flexibility, as if his very sense of self was under threat, so much so that near the end of the interview his fear compelled him to mock the British accent "identifier" of Piers Morgan.

I really saw Jones' self-presentation in the same light at Rhee's. Both seem to be fighting for the definition of self to be inviolate, and both seem to make a living by aggressively projecting this need onto everyone around them.

Plus, I think Alex Jones would have happily swatted and swallowed Morgan if he had had the chance.

January 2, 2013

There and Back Again

Sure, it was probably not the best idea to see Django Unchained just before spending a few days with some gun fans in the south, but you can't really plan for everything, I suppose.

Circumstance, not choice, brought us together. On this trip I encountered a collection of what I can only describe as southern style misanthropes. One of the group brought his revolver with him; one was a prepper and a gun collector. Another had relocated from LA after the Rodney King riots because he apparently feared that "they" would infiltrate his neighborhood, and now he lives in a big house set back in the woods, where he can see you coming. And there was another, one who knows in their bones that there are no good people, anywhere, and you just have to keep to your kind, and to yourself.

Across town on this same weekend the Frist museum had two exhibitions up -- one on German Expressionism, and the other a retrospective of the work of Carrie Mae Weems. Both exhibitions were wonderfully done, but the Weems retrospective was also brain-changing, and deeply emotional. And aaaahhhh, the cognitive dissonance. Just writing the last three paragraphs recalled to me the almost paralyzing headache I had during this visit. Because this was real, not technicolor; I really had dinner with a racist prepper, and then the next morning cried in front of a brilliant artist's work about our collective history of race and pain. And meanwhile, on honky tonk row, the stage was going up for CNN's New Year's Eve celebration. Things just go on.

Regarding the actual movie, I don't think I am giving much away by noting that Quentin Tarantino's character accidentally blows himself to bits with dynamite near the end of the film, because that's what shit-stupid racist white men have always done when they are given a choice to make some coin. They blow themselves up. (See also: Republican party circa December 2012.)

In contrast, Jamie Foxx's Django survives intact every horror imaginable, and then blows the holy motherfucking crap out of a plantation, after simultaneously saving the love of his life from slavery and killing almost everyone there first. Except for the venal Uncle Tom character, whom Django leaves alive so he can get blown into a lot of tiny bits. In Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the whole German high command and their acolytes and lovers get blown to tiny bits too. It’s fantastic! The kind of gorgeous, outrageous, mythical vengeance, against the most vile of humans, that you can only dream about. Or, if you are a mythical hero like Django, the kind of gorgeous, outrageous vengeance you can actually extract on a grotesquerie of southern racist whites in a fantastic Tarantino piece.

Grappling with hatred, fear, destruction, the unfulfilled desire for vengeance: these are the things you work out in art. These are all present in Weems's unflinching photographs. And in Tarantino's over-the-top films. And one can even connect a line from these two back to the way the Expressionist movement dealt with emotion and interpersonal violence visually. But grappling with all this requires what can seem a strange and visceral combination -- a deep respect for a visual imagination which can be repellent, dark, and messy, combined with an unbreakable commitment to not actually hurt others in the expression of that imagination.

And this is not, as Tarantino shows through his depiction of gun lovers in the south in this film, a commitment that those gun lovers of the southern United States whom I just spent some time with will likely ever make.Or have ever made.Which is just one more reason why the gun lovers of the United States having collections of AR-15's at home should give us all pause.