Vis a Vis: Staring Down, Shaking Up, and Moving On

“Vis a Vis”
 by Rachel Walerstein

Brick red is not red.
It is not the fluorescent death of trees;
not the transformation of blood
breathing; nor is it stable.

Brick red is a wall telling you
“Keep going- but not this way.”
Circumvent, imagine the geography
of a red that says, “go.”
Find the soft places, the broken,
the willing to try again.

Instability does not have to be a
mark of solubility.
Not every wall crumbles always either.
Red does not need to mean, “stop.”
Rather, the question now is:
if you can’t go this or that way,
where might possibility lie?

(Do not get hung up on lies;
they are simply permission
to come up with something close to truth.)

Brick red is resemblances
pastiched in a wall facing you.

Can you face it too?

          I wrote that poem sitting in my office last semester- my first semester as a graduate student actually- while trying to not deconstruct in the process of writing a response to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (I was only half successful). I’m beginning with this poem not because I think it’s any good, but because I’m trying to practice an intergenre method that reintroduces me into my work. “Ah, but Rachel, you’re the one writing this post! Doesn’t that mean you’re always already in it?” Well, not exactly random disembodied voice, and Derrida might back me up on that. This poem, for the “me” at the moment I wrote it, as well as now, is a meditation on the terror of imposter syndrome which imposes itself during moments of creative blockage.

          Blockage is an important word, one of many in fact, that came out of this weekend’s symposium. What is it that blocks our thinking we are actually scholars (or whatever you feel like you’re an imposter at)? How in turn does that block our capacity to produce scholarship that excites us? What blocks our scholarship from being exciting? Why, in other words, isn’t our work seductive and sexy in the way only a nerdy bibliophile might imagine possible?

           I turn now to Jasbir Puar’s talk, “Conviviality: New Methods for No Future” in the hopes of explaining why I think my research should be sexy. Her talk explored the confluence between affect theory and disability studies, and the potential induced in placing the two in dialogue with one another. I won’t pretend I have any awesome quotes to duplicate here, because that would assume an ability that I, as someone who is partially deaf, just do not have. Which was one of the major points of her talk: that the structure of the academy- physical, logistical, monetary, and its overall atmosphere- are debilitating for those who find themselves within it. But I found what she had to offer by way of rethinking  how we approach the problem of making academia accessible resonated with the problem of unsexy scholarship. Which is weird. Bear with me, unbearable though it might seem. I promise I have a point.

           Which is this: that for many of us, scholarship is the sex we want to want to have, as Lauren Berlant put it. We want to seduce the problems we came into our respective programs with into an articulate form, one which resembles a product of this labor of the mind. In a different sense, we want to enjoy the process of tangling and untangling the critical “why” questions which never seem to go away. And we want to do so in order to (hopefully) make the world a better  place. What Puar points out is that the understanding of the body as never really coherent that comes from disability studies can be used to think about the ways in which the affective environment of academia debilitates our bodies, splitting the body from the minds, splitting us from the vitality that would allow our ability to engage in the process of scholarship to flow. In short, we are blocked.
My group's creative reimagining of academia's blockage's during Saturday morning's intergenre workshop.

My group’s creative reimagining of academia’s blockages during Saturday morning’s intergenre workshop.

          Thus, Puar has been working to develop a theory of “conviviality”: of experimenting with being in the event of a debilitating encounter and using the affects generated to dismantle, complicate, and reimagine the blockage in politically productive ways. This, at least, is how I understood her to be deploying the term. If not, well, I apologize: but only insofar as in doing so I practice the kind of re-navigation I describe in the above poem, and that I sense Puar to also be suggesting we do. In some ways, I don’t know that it’s all that important I get things exactly right. Affect theory, Puar’s talk, and my own philosophical disposition seem to enjoy the messiness of imprecision- it’s what leaves channels open for further questioning and modification. Precision, like a brick red wall, is halting. And I know: I’ve walked into many a brick wall while deep in thought.

            Precision is also a turn off. If you’ll forgive my generalizing a moment: Just like you wouldn’t be turned on by most of Cosmopolitan’s weird sex tips (the donut one still confuses me), the transformation of the academy into a machine of precise knowledge production is also a major turn off. It shifts us into a “cog” mentality that alienates us from the work we love in a distinctly Marxian way. We are the cognitariat, and in being forced to be on all the time, are subsequently turned off in ways that matter beyond what it means for the work we produce; it matters for the kinds of people we end up becoming.

So what’s the take away from all of this?

1) You don’t need to avoid brick walls, you just need to think of new ways to hang out with and around them.
2) Jasbir Puar has radically shaken up critical theory in ways that, I think, are for the better.
3) I am a poet.
4) Somehow sex and scholarship are the same thing, if only because after writing and researching all day you really just want to raid the fridge for some cake and then do it all over again (This may be just me).
5) I ramble.

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