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Berkeley English - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Berkeley English
Today's "brown bag lunch" with our speaker Viet Nguyen was strangely emotional. Somehow talking informally about historical trauma led directly to broader inquiries into the nature of "pain," "guilt," "resentment," "shame," and "respect."

I add the quotation marks because, as I pointed out at one juncture, the words themselves are abstractions that level a host of distinctions.

Is the pain of having a kidney stone the same as the pain of giving birth?

I'm not speaking about quantity here but quality.

Anyway, I always enjoy making the Wittgenstein point that we can't really feel the pain of others: the only one who knows you're in pain is you.

The brown bag lunch was a really productive experience. I think Viet profited from it. Our graduate students, though largely silent, surely did. And I benefited enormously, in part because Viet talked about the difference between writing for a scholars and writing "accessibly" -- another trouble term, as he emphasized -- for a broader audience.

From his perspective, succeeding in graduate school and going on to get a good job and tenure required mastering a language, discourse that he never felt fully comfortable within.

I suspect that I feel a lot more comfortable in that space of theory. It's this sort of forum that makes me anxious, that I've had to learn to inhabit through trial and error. Unlike Viet, though, I've spent much of my graduate school and junior faculty energy trying to write my way out the space in which I'm most comfortable.

My reasons are political and personal. There is considerable overlap, though, because my interest in reaching people who aren't just like me -- masters of a discourse few can master -- derives from deeply held convictions and my vanity.

It's very nice to be read. And nicer still to get a sense of how you are being "read" by the people who read you.

Hearing Viet talk about shame and dishonor, I remembered the extent to which the reception of Bad Subjects on the third floor of Wheeler Hall, in "my" Department was conditioned by the resentment other graduate students -- and possibly faculty as well -- felt at our "getting away with something," writing the way we wanted to write before we had fully paid our dues.

They frequently seemed ashamed at our performance. But I wonder to what extent their shame derived from the desire to be in our place on the margins of the Department's institutional life.

Appropriately, I returned home to find that both Kim and I had been tracked down by the UC Berkeley English Department. We got matching copies of the Department's brand-new newsletter, full of information about the department and an implicit request for donations.

I'd give some money if I had it, I suppose. But the memory of being marked as "one of them" -- those who brought shame on the Department -- when an issue of Bad Subjects appeared on the table outside 322 Wheeler Hall is still fresh enough to produce some resistance to that fantasy.

As much as I defend UC Berkeley, as much as I defend its English Ph.D. Program, I never felt like I was completely integrated into the life of the Department.

I was happy, but largely because I was happy not to belong, to be an exception to the rule, to be a problem.

In the face of the "disciplining" -- used in a double sense here -- that graduate school was trying to give me, I valorized the marginal, excessive, undisciplined -- like Joe S, Annalee, Steven -- as both a locus and sign of resistance to the forces conspiring to make smart people meek.

I have SO much respect, though, for those people like Laura and Viet who have managed to get to a point of security in their professional lives without forgetting that they wanted to do something other than what they were supposed to do.

In a way, it's almost more courageous to hold that desire inside without letting it turn sour than it is to indulge it from the beginning.

And I have as much -- maybe even more -- respect for people like cpratt, who refused even as an undergrad to do the easy, accepted thing and opted out of academia without losing the esoteric interests and focused intellectual energy that define all good scholarship.

Or kdotdammit, whose life trajectory made the dream of academia inaccessible, yet still pursued higher education on her own, despite the cost in time, money, and stress. Her story of reading Foucault and company on the stairmaster at work while taking Carolyn Dinshaw's English 250 graduate seminar on "Queer Theory" has probably been my greatest inspiration for staying the course as a reluctant scholar.

It's so hard to hold on to the dream of knowledge, to keep learning new things at the expense of your sense of self.

I wish I knew what the best path was.

We make our own choices, but not under circumstances of our choosing, right?

Maybe I should have done what Viet or Eric did. Maybe I should have done what Chris did.

I've spent my entire adult intellectual life bouncing back and forth between those two extremes.

It's a good place. But is it the best place?

Tags: , , ,
Mode: beaten, well
Muse: Jenny & The Ess-Dog - Stephen Malkmus - Jenny & The Ess-Dog

4 comments or Leave a comment
masoo From: masoo Date: January 24th, 2004 06:35 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
FWIW, I think of your intellectual life as inspiring.

Definition of marginal, if not excessive and undisciplined: I had no idea Bad Subjects was so obsessed over by others. Well, to be honest, I had no idea anyone even read it ... when Sad Objects came out, I was v.pissed, because I wondered why anyone bothered to pick on a publication no one read.

Well, there was that time when I was in the English office and the staff person behind the counter said to me, "hey, you're the guy who wrote that linguica article!"

My academic life in a nutshell: I am more famous for writing about greasy Portuguese sausage than I am for anything else I've ever done.

Well, I guess I got a little famous when I made Fred Crews lose his cool at that pre-strike department meeting ...
tommix From: tommix Date: January 24th, 2004 08:45 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I guess I have a problem with Wittgenstein's notion that pain is entirely personal -- it just doesn't resonate with me. I mean, I understand that pain is ineffable in some important sense. However, the fact that pain can't be articulated in a way that's communicable doesn't imply that pain can't be shared. To restrict pain to the personal removes the de-centered or communal aspects of pain. To make a comparison, I think that we could agree that enjoyment is often displaced or decentered. In fact, some of our most intense, passive moments are actually experienced through others -- hired weepers at funerals, prayer wheels, the basic problem of transitivism, etc,. -- and to assume that pain is more opaque than jouissance seems to actually reinforce the notions of interiority and privacy that post-structuralism has sought to undo. I guess I'm wary of overemphasizing the uniqueness, or intense privacy, of pain. Pain works both ways -- it differentiates while providing points of commonality. Each pain is unique, yet gestures toward something common and shared.
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: January 24th, 2004 04:13 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I feel like I want to say something in response to this, but not quite enough to articuate it. Basically, I agree with Sean. Hence, my third viewing last night of 21 Grams. I realized last night that I keep going back to this film because I want to keep reliving Naomi Watts' pain. It's a great film. The acting, editing, cinematography are great. But what keeps drawing me into it is Naomi Watts. Yes partly because I relate to her character, but mostly because I feel therapeutically penetrated by her pain. Hmm. I don't know what I'm saying. I'm going to go drink coffee.
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 25th, 2004 10:09 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

should have / did

We make our own choices, but not under circumstances of our choosing, right?

Well yes, not circumstances of our choosing but not entirely not that. It’s only our implication in our own histories--that is, our choices and how we approach the apparent limits of our choices--that makes change (progress, writing, anything) possible. I mean, I have to own an implication in or a relation to even what I want most not to be of me or of my will--because if I don’t stake out that relational line how can the positions as positions (for, against, etc) ever come toward being known...

Or, for the sake of irony: To reference Bad Subjects, paraphrase your deeply held convictions back to you, and feed the attendant vanity implied:

To lose sight of how the circumstances that constrain our choices are themselves made not found seems remarkable. Implication being: We do this too much and we’ve given in to some sort of determinism, resigned ourselves to inaction.

Well you were writing of fictions of identity, but in some ways that’s to say a constellation of our choices, right?

It seems entirely possible that "what should I have done" only seems to be a harder question than "what have I done." I mean if I could turn the list that tries to answer "what I did" into a question asking of me a relation to what I'm doing now, how I am historically becoming...
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