Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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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: academy, autobiography, berkeley, everyday

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