Please consider this large post as a sort of zine: a series of mini-posts and excerpts from recent private discussions that build into a bigger concluding essay.
- Introductory Triptych
- Culture and the Arbitrary Threshold
- Sensitivity reading and cultural advisory in big-budget media
- Purchasing Empathy with Trauma Bux
- On being X enough
- Richard Rodriguez and the equation of loss
1. Introductory Triptych
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
I don't know what I ate, but I felt immensely better after the first mouthful. It occurred to me that my vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to earth might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach.
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Briar: Well, come on, let's go get a sandwich or something.
—Dialogue from the ending of Anodyne
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
—Mark 11:12-25 (New International Version)
2. Culture and the Arbitrary Threshold
In a previous post, I defined the Arbitrary Threshold as "the amount of perceived arbitrariness one can accept in one's decision-making process before it feels too chaotic to proceed. Put another way, it's harder to have executive function while doing tasks that feel arbitrary." I think that the arbitrary threshold has a lot to do with artistic "motivation" as well as with life decisions in general.
One thing that I've been thinking about lately is like how cultural practices play into this all. Like in any given culture, there will be certain rituals or like styles of dress, ways of communicating, ways of celebrating. The feelings and needs that those specifics are fulfilling are more general (hunger, warmth, community, etc), but the exact details are kind of weirdly specific. So it gives some structure to work off of—even if it's arbitrary in an abstract sense it's still like "oh this is my culture so I'll do it this way". But then in like the modern world (or for other reasons in a person's life) there may be a lot of estrangement from broadly shared culture. So there's a bit of a void there as far as like what would even be a default thing to do or even to respond against
but yeah I think there's definitely like a need for something more than "trans girl culture" or "trans culture" because such a thing could like only be incomplete by nature? It's just.. a little too broad. it would be kinda fucked up if it existed actually
I definitely feel like i relied on twitter and like "independent games" or "queer" or something to like be a de facto culture for me and more recently i've been realizing more and more like "ohhh.. that wasn't really doing it at all.. i've never really felt a part of these vague large groups. and actually my interests and like personality or beliefs are probably a lot more specific than this"
—Me, adapted from a private convo
I don't want to overstate the arbitrariness of culture. Like, of course style of dress, ritual objects, etc are all related to climate, geography, migration patterns, etc etc. Even still, it's not hard to picture that the same "ingredients" might have been jumbled together in any number of alternate ways in alternate universe versions of any given culture. That very quality—the patchwork sparks of semi-random ingenuity being accentuated over time is perhaps a big part of what we find so fascinating and appealing about reflecting on past or foreign cultures. Still, I think it's important not to fetishize this stable consumable image of cultures too much. The modern world is very strangely interconnected and prone to inducing "arbitrariness shock", perhaps in ways it wasn't before. But we're still a part of the continuous evolution of culture.
3. Sensitivity reading and cultural advisory in big-budget media
With big budget media, I think it's both important but also totally limited to use sensitivity readers. Important because big budget media is an authoritative voice that sets the tone for how entire groups of people are perceived. Limited, because the way big media is structured is inherently oppressive. Like, it's good if some Disney movie avoids the worst stereotypes about a given culture. But it's still bad because the only way to authentically express "culture" is through diverse, decentralized stories, which Disney works to destroy. We're so used to deciding if individual characters are "tokens" but within the context of the broader industry an entire movie (even a good one) can function as a token.
—Me, adapted from a private convo
4. Purchasing Empathy with Trauma Bux
Melos and I were talking recently about how a lot of tropey media uses past trauma as shorthand for emotional intimacy or as a way to create empathy for characters who do bad things. By employing a tragic backstory, an artist can ensure that otherwise complex characters will remain appealing and forgivable to broader audiences. This kind of "empathy shortcut" is undeniably effective but comes with long-term consquences.
By making trauma the Reason to accept people's "faults" it implicitly solidifies the idea that all the things that make you uncomfortable about other people are in fact objectively wrong and can be pathologized as trauma responses. In the Christian mystery thriller Hangman's Curse, the goth teens (initially the prime suspects in a spate of mysterious poisonings) are revealed to be sympathetic, bullied characters who aren't fully morally or practically at fault. Immediately after being befriended by the wholesome main characters, they drop all of their goth style (It's really funny). This is a sort of empathy that doesn't require any decentering of one's own personal comfort, feelings, or beliefs.
The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild (who coined the term "emotional labor" back in 1983) examines the roles and training of flight attendants. Trainees were instructed to imagine an underlying reason for an irate passenger's behavior: perhaps they have a deep fear of flying, perhaps their son has just died. They were told to treat drunk passengers as if they were children—not really responsible for their actions.
This form of empathy is extremely useful to capitalists, as it can be instrumentalized to create smiling, marketable flight attendants, or emotionally comfortable characters in mass media. But if we try to apply it to ongoing real life relationships, we may find that the initial ease of connection gives way to a wall, because it doesn't account for morally neutral social diffference and discomfort. It also glosses over the fact that some poor treatment should not be accepted, regardless of whether it has some sort of cause (why should a flight attendant have to suffer abuse for the marketability of an airline?).
5. On Being X Enough
...with both race and queerness so many peoiple have sorts of cultural awakenings and then they worry about "not being X enough". You hear that phrase over and over... where people feel that if they were X enough that they would be let into some sort of club and feel community...
But like, my increasing feeling is that community comes from specific people who you build relationships with over time. Not by sharing some sort of category with people. That does basically nothing in terms of automatically making you feel like "right" in the world
—Me, adapted from a private convo
Basically I'm just back on my pet soapbox that smallness and specificity is good—there's a lot of overlap here with the discussion of culture above. Large categories can be beneficial for solidarity and shouldn't be unnecessarily exclusionary, but I wouldn't really call them "communities". People can be your friends in a way that concepts simply cannot. Sure, concepts can be a springboard for concrete experiences: dropped into a random location, my parents would seek out the Christians, and I would seek out the queers. But I think it's helpful to separate short term beneficial experiences from long term sharing of space with people who have shared specificity and mutuality.
Perhaps the "X enough" worry is related to the equation of "taking up space" weighed against "privilege". These concerns have merit, but at times I think they can be a bit of a false dichotomy. By valuing queer people in friendship, I simultaneously give and take. It's not a resource I am consuming, the giving and taking are linked. Of course there are situations where marginalized communities might be forced to fight over scraps of meaningful resources. But then that is a system of oppression, and why should that be the arbiter of our personal identities? I think a lot of identity angst is tied to capitalists depriving the world of art and leisure time so that they can profit from the resultant alienation and sell our identities back to us.
6. Richard Rodriguez and the equation of loss
This is the final and most developed section of the post, centered around the 1982 autobiographical essay collection Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.
I have come to think of myself as engaged in writing graffiti. Encouraged by physical isolation to reveal what is most personal; determined at the same time to have my words seen by strangers. I have come to understand better why works of literature—while never intimate, never individually addressed to the reader—are so often among the most personal statements we hear in our lives. Writing, I have come to value written words as never before. One can use spoken words to reveal one’s personal self to strangers. But written words heighten the feeling of privacy. They permit the most thorough and careful exploration. (In the silent room, I prey upon that which is most private. Behind the closed door, I am least reticent about giving those memories expression.) The writer is freed from the obligation of finding an auditor in public. (As I use words that someone far from home can understand, I create my listener. I imagine her listening.)
My teachers gave me a great deal more than I knew when they taught me to write public English. I was unable then to use the skill for deeply personal purposes. I insisted upon writing impersonal essays. And I wrote always with a specific reader in mind. Nevertheless, the skill of public writing was gradually developed by the many classroom papers I had to compose. Today I can address an anonymous reader. And this seems to me important to say. Somehow the inclination to write about my private life in public is related to the ability to do so. It is not enough to say that my mother and father do not want to write their autobiographies. It needs also to be said that they are unable to write to a public reader. They lack the skill. Though both of them can write in Spanish and English, they write in a hesitant manner. Their syntax is uncertain. Their vocabulary limited. They write well enough to communicate ‘news’ to relatives in letters. And they can handle written transactions in institutional America. But the man who sits in his chair so many hours, and the woman at the ironing board—‘keeping busy because I don’t want to get old’—will never be able to believe that any description of their personal lives could be understood by a stranger far from home.
—Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, highlighting mine
Richard Rodriguez is an eminently unsettling writer. Where Audre Lorde states "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house", Rodriguez claims that "Real revolution in language is taking the stranger’s tongue and using it better than he." Hunger of Memory is an autobiographical essay collection that provides personal context for Rodriguez's much maligned (and lauded) stances against affirmative action and bilingual education. He argues that his capacity to have a public voice required a painful loss of connection with his Mexican immigrant family and the Spanish language. He recursively toys with what it means to bring honor or shame, mulling over whether his elegaic view of childhood is a pastoral fantasy. He ends the prologue with a refusal to be tokenized as a representative: "But I write of one life only. My own. If my story is true, I trust it will resonate with significance for other lives. Finally, my history deserves public notice as no more than this: a parable for the life of its reader. Here is the life of a middle-class man."
I read Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory in college back in 2012ish. It actually did resonate deeply with me then, and skimming it today it still does. The core demographic of my school was rich white liberals, and I could feel the classroom swelling up around me in shared condemnation of this book. Despite discomfort with some of Rodriguez's conclusions, I also felt a certain indignation on his behalf, like my classmates were shooting the messenger. The purity of their anger and offense seemed to be directed not just at his policy positions, but more deeply at the idea that one might ever have to choose.
"If I was educated in middle class America to be a public intellectual, I would simply not experience alienation from my family and culture. rip to Richard Rodriguez but I'm different"
The essence of cultural change is rarely entirely legible from the time and place in which it occurs. There is a mystery to it, an absurdity to the act of mathematically measuring what has been lost against what has been gained. My biggest issue with Rodriguez is not that he made a bad trade (or believes that he had to) but rather that Hunger of Memory's preoccupation with exorcising guilt shackles the potential of its radical imagination. Many of Rodriguez's points are lucid and compelling: I would rephrase his critique of affirmative action as an observation that, in practice, it is non-intersectional and tokenizing. Students of racial minorities who succeed in higher education were generally already socially advantaged, while students with disadvantaged academic backgrounds struggled and blamed themselves with little institutional support. Richard Rodriguez the well-educated, middle class man felt lavished with unneeded benefits because institutions could romanticize their support of him based on the existence of a totally separate group of working class Mexican Americans who were excluded from the public intellectual sphere.
To this day, these are complex and troubling questions. Rodriguez's skepticism is well-founded and insightful, his personal observations generous and intentional. Why then let the legacy of this incredible power, the public voice, be limited to a reactive, guilty criticism of affirmative action? If affirmative action is non-intersectional, then could it be made intersectional? If the traditional public forum of the USA is fundamentally incapable of representing the interests of the majority of people, then should it be decentered as a political entity? Conversely, if we cannot use the power of public language to disrupt unjust systems, then why idealize it? Why hammer home that the benefit of its attainment has objectively outweighed the pain of cultural alienation? In my experience, self-flagellation can be a way for a mind to rationalize its own judgemental qualities. "Sure I'm hard on everyone around me, but I'm the worst of all, so at least I'm not a hypocrite." This is why I think that self-compassion practice is important to radical politics. In appreciating our own incompleteness, we can better appreciate the incompleteness of others.
As much as my classmates wanted to dismiss Rodriguez's choice as unnecessary, I couldn't help but notice that there were layers and layers of ways that I related to him. Who among us is not haunted by forgotten cultures? The wheels were set in motion for Rodriguez's loss of Spanish when he was only a child. Still other forms of cultural loss are even further out of one's control. Japanese American presence in the Chicago Metropolitan Area can largely be traced back to post-concentration camp resettlement plans by the federal government. "In keeping with its assimilationist goals, the [War Relocation Authority] also counseled those leaving camp to maintain a low profile, speak only in English, and stay away from other Japanese Americans" (Densho Encyclopedia). As far as I can tell, the Issei and Nissei (first and second generation immigrants) who lived through incarceration did not really follow this advice—Melos's Japanese American grandmother was friends with my own in the Chicagoland area! Nevertheless, the Sansei (my parents' generation), particularly outside the West Coast, inevitably grew up in spaces where they were a distinct numeric minority. The prominence of explicitly Japanese cultural elements tended to gradually fade. In some ways, the dispersal plan "worked".
I think it's possible to A) recognize cultural loss and/or acts of injustice and B) appreciate what one has gained in one's life without trying to definitively measure B) against A). Even if one makes that measure, I can't help but think that it would be an extremely personal calculation that could hardly be extrapolated to a mass policy decision. I felt resentful back in that classroom and throughout my childhood of the implication that I as a racialized entity was uniquely severed from a culture that I had never known to begin with. Lately, I settle mostly into paradox. Something was taken from me, but what that something is is unknowable, because it would have changed by the time it got to me anyway. At the same time, what I have and am now is also culture, continuous with ancestors of blood, of word, and of spirit. The ingredients of my existence matter, not because they dispense pleasant artifacts of a pre-globalized world, but just because I'm a person with particular experiences and a particular perspective.
The 1991 Taiwanese/American film Pushing Hands (Ang Lee's feature directorial debut) centers on Chu, an eldery Chinese Tai chi teacher who recently moved to the US to live with his son Alex's family. Alex's white wife Martha and Chu have no shared language, and Martha becomes increasingly perturbed with the degree of Chu's presence in their home and lives. Despite Alex's attempt to please everyone by secretly setting up his father with the cooking teacher Mrs. Chen, the elders catch on and decide to move out for the sake of their childrens' new American lives and their own pride. It's a bittersweet story that neither condemns Alex for marrying Martha nor smooths things over into an instructive liberal Netflix fantasy. Aren't we all choosing all the time, or having choices forced on us, or simply moving forward in time, travelling along the branches of a fig tree as forked paths fade into the distance? Let's reflect on it, eat a sandwich, and keep walking.