I could have been your woman of the road

12 08 2019

Allrighty, then: dmf asked in the comments if I differentiate between naming and defining. Good question! I don’t know!

I mean, I think I do: although the concepts are clearly linked, naming seems to be more about marking out the boundary lines and defining, filling in those lines? With the proviso that the filling can affect the lines? . . . maybe? To really make the case would require greater philosophical and linguistic chops than I possess; in any case, as I’m interested in the political dynamics of naming, I think I can fudge on this.

But I can’t ignore it completely. If I say, for example, that I am a woman (which I do, and I am), then I’m making a claim to at least of the qualities of “woman,” as well as claiming that some qualities that others might say are necessary, are not.

To bring this home: I am neither a wife nor a mother. I’ve been ambivalent about ever becoming the former, and pretty consistently set against the latter, but never have I felt that I am less of woman for lacking these qualities.

Why do I say I’m a woman? It’s a grab-bag: my body and its functions, my recognition of a continuity of female identity from childhood to adulthood, my willingness to answer to being called a girl, then a woman, my understanding that others view me as a woman, my irritation when others don’t recognize me as a woman, my clear sense that I am not a man, my insistence that my woman-ness makes me no less human.

There’s nothing particularly elegant in that identification: Some of the pieces are mostly relational and others, funneled through social categories; some are positive (I am this) and others, negative, (I am not that). I don’t say much about personality or temperament or affective attributes, mostly because I’m considering the social-political aspects, but, sure, there probably are additional qualities of my woman-ness which are psychological.

And I should point out something else: While I was a tomboy as a kid and have tended toward the androgynous as an adult, I’ve never questioned that I was a girl or a woman.

Okay, two something elses: The original is that I’ve had some difficulty coming to terms with what it means to be an adult. On the one hand, this is easy: I have more than enough years to qualify as an adult. I have jobs, I take on many of the usual tasks of adulthood, and, yeah, I more-or-less look my age, i.e., I and others recognize me as an adult.

On the other hand, I’m physically small, I live like a grad student, and those nonessential markers of womanhood? I’m neither wifed nor mothered, which are among the (nonessential, but pretty damned clear) markers of adulthood. I don’t own a home or a car and my work-life is cobbled-together, with only semi-regular hours. I still don’t know who I am.

The second else? Eh, I’ll save that for another post.

I’m straying from the original point—if there even was one—but I’m noting that while I am firm in my claim on womanhood, I’m kinda pro forma in claiming adulthood. I put myself inside of those lines, because, yeah, sure, I’m an adult, but I’m not sure I fill out the category all that well.

I don’t know how or that this helps me figure out political identity or political adversaries, but it might. Maybe there’s something about what is firm and what is uncertain, what I send out and what I protect, that will give me some sense of what others advance and defend.

Or maybe not. I claim no clear lines for any of this.

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Everything! Everything! Everything! Everything!

8 08 2019

I something is everything then it’s also nothing.

This is a problem when trying to sort out something basic: it’s basic because it’s a part of so much, and because it’s basic, it’s easy to find evidence of it everywhere.

Thus with naming-power: it’s basic, and it’s everywhere—which means it’s hard to get my analytical mitts around it.

I guess I could get into a discussion of the different dimensions and levels of power—hell, I once taught an entire course on this—but given that I see naming as a manifestation of power, that whole thing would just collapse in on itself.

(As an aside: it’s pretty clear I think of power as some kind of manifestation or expression, that is, that it exists in relation to or through something else; on its own, well, I guess it doesn’t exist, does it? Power has no being, no ontology; it is not a thing-in-itself. Okay.)

Anyway, one way to find naming-power’s edges is to put it in a particular context. Since I am—surprise!—interested in the cultural and political aspects, specifically, in the sharpening of the concept of “identity”, then that’s my mud-pit.

~~~

You can get some sense of how I learn to sort things: I have an idea, I run it out a few paces, see if it holds up, then decide to stretch it further. Of course, in the stretching I see the thin spots and irregularities and tears and Oh, look at this line, let’s see where it goes. . . .

And then at some point I stop and go, Wait, what was the question? And I have to retrace my steps or maybe I just find another way back and sometimes the point is still there and sometimes it’s. . . not.

That’s fine. I mean, that can be frustrating as all hell, but how can I know if an idea can fly unless I toss it out there?

(Oh, and welcome to the mixed-up metaphors of Ms. Messypants NewYorker. Whatever. It’s late.)

So that’s what I do: I fling ideas hither and yon and see which ones hold up enough to stitch into a thought-line, and, maybe, just maybe, to make some sense.





I’m afraid of the words

5 08 2019

So, there are a couple of different types of naming-power.

There’s the power to determine what it is to be a part of a group. This is so common a form of naming that we often don’t call it as such; instead, we call it ‘defining’ and defenses of such definitions, ‘boundary policing’.

Examples: Who is American? Who’s Christian or Muslim? Who’s a Democrat or Republican? Conservative, liberal, leftist, etc. Such defining is a basic part of any society, and any politics, and, really, any commentary on society or politics. We seek to make sense of a jumble, and so sort things into “this” (and “not-this”) and “that” (and “not-that”) and “the other thing.”

This matters in politics, not the least in determining whether something counts as political as all, and conflicts over such definitions can lead to great anger and, in the worst cases, violence. Who’s in and who’s out and who gets to decide is a foundational set of political questions.

There’s also the power to name oneself: I am this, and this, and this, and not that, or the other thing. This self-naming can set eyelids to twitching; asking or reminding or demanding that others recognize one as this, and this, and this can, yep, set others off.

Coupled with this is the shrugging off of what others have named you: You have said I am this, but, no, I am not-this. Not only are you claiming the power to name yourself, you are denying the power of others to name you. Ditto on the off-settings.

Now, what can also happen in the process of claiming a name for oneself is the unearthing of the history of names, and how what was assumed, should not be.

This last bit sounds abstract, but it’s not: Consider how “the race question” in the US was so often about [white people discussing and defining] black people. Then black people said, loud enough for white people to hear, No, we’ll define ourselves, thank you very much. Oh, and by the way, we have a thing or two to say about white people. And over time something known as “Critical race studies” emerged, and race was jostled out of its convenient eternal meanings and historicized, with one result that whiteness was no longer a timeless standard, but just another historical artifact.

This is an utterly incomplete and not-accurate account of the evolution of the study of race in the US, but you get the point, yes? Whiteness had been claimed as the default, worthy only of defense and otherwise off-limits to the commentary of those who were deemed not-white. To take whiteness out of the assumed and into the studied is to destabilize it. It’s not that whiteness has no power—christ, no—but that it is contingent means that it is not, strictly speaking, necessary.

~~~

I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, and I definitely want to hit on gender-identity issues, but this is enough for tonight.

~~~

Oh, and you absolutely should listen to this.





That’s not my name

2 08 2019

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1 John 1:1

The power to name is one of the most elemental powers: to name is to identity, and to identify is to place.

If I name you as X, I’m identifying you as belonging to a particular kind, a particular history, as having a particular potential, a particular worth.

I’m claiming a knowledge of you and over you; even if I’m not conscious of the power of the claim, the power remains, nonetheless.

This sounds portentous—I certainly write as if it is—and it can be: anyone who’s ever been the target of slur knows the sting of bad naming. But it can also be affectionate, silly, a form of play; it can divide, bind, clarify, obscure, demean, liberate, and on and on.

Any power worth its salt is a trickster.

~~~

All of this is a preamble; now let’s see if I follow up.





Don’t tell me what to do

29 11 2016

A few I-define-you examples (leftover from yesterday because I couldn’t pull it together, man, so quit bothering me, all right?!):

*Consider the reaction to fat women who are unashamed that they’re fat, who have the temerity to insist that they are human beings who don’t need your approval, thankyouverymuch: it is unbelievably nasty.

*Remember when Obama said that if he’d have had a son, he might have looked like Trayvon Martin? That seemed to me a simple, poignant, observation, but holy shit, the number of (white) people who lost their shit in response to that—I couldn’t understand it.

But now, I think that (some white) people were pissed that Obama identified with a young black man, and in doing so, reminded them that he himself was, in fact a black man. And, too, maybe his empathic imagination was just too much for (some white) people, serving as a rebuke to their own, narrow judgements.

*Oh, and this is one I remembered as I was getting in bed: Famed anti-Semite and Viennese mayor Karl Lueger responded to those who complained he was too friendly with Jews by saying “I decide who is a Jew.”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in his commentary on this (and other, similar, instances):

When I was young man, I studied history at Howard University. Much of my studies were focused on the black diaspora, and thus white racism. I wish I had understood that I was not, in fact, simply studying white racism, but the nature of power itself. I wish I had known that the rules that governed my world echoed out into the larger world. I wish I had known how unoriginal we really are.

~~~

What do we do with all of this? I don’t know. That you are bothered when I define myself does not mean that I shouldn’t define myself.

Is it enough to recognize that there will be bother, conflict, and so prepare for it? Is there a way through this conflict? I don’t know.

But as a matter of justice, as a matter of human being, each one of us gets to claim that humanness for ourselves.





Martin Luther King, Jr.: American political philosopher

16 01 2012

Every man must ultimately confront the question, “Who am I?” and seek to answer it honestly. One of the first principles of personal adjustment is the principle of self-acceptance. The Negro’s greatest dilemma is that in order to be healthy he must accept his ambivalence. The Negro is the child of two cultures—Africa and America. The problem is that in the search for wholeness all too many Negroes seek to embrace only one side of their natures. Some, seeking to reject their heritage, are ashamed of their color, ashamed of black arts and music, and determine what is beautiful and good by the standards of white society. They end up frustrated and without cultural roots. Others seek to reject everything American and to identify totally with Africa, even to the point of wearing African clothes. But this approach leads also to frustration because the American negro is not African. The old Hegelian synthesis still offers the best answer to many of life’s dilemmas. The American Negro is neither totally African nor totally Western. He is Afro-American, a true hybrid, a combination of two cultures.

Who are we? We are the descendants of slaves. We are teh offspring of noble men and women who wer kidnapped from thie native land and chained in ships like beasts. We are the heirs of a great and exploited continent known as Africa. We are the heirs of a past of rope, fire, and murder. I for one am not ashamed of this past. My shame is for those who became so inhuman that they could inflict this torture upon us.

But we are also Americans. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. In spite of the psychological appeals of identification with Africa, the Negro must face the fact that America is now is home, a home that he helped to build through blood, sweat, and tears. Since we are Americans the solution to our problem will not come through seeking to build a separate black nation within a nation, but by finding that creative minority of the concerned from the ofttimes apathetic majority, and together moving toward that colorless power that we need for security and justice.

In the first century B.C., Cicero said: “Freedom is participation in power.” Negroes should never want all power because they would deprive others of their freedom. By the same token, Negroes can never be content without participation in power. America must be a nation in which its multiracial people are partners in power. This is the essence of democracy towards which all Negro struggles have been directed since the distant past when he was transplanted here in chains.

Martin Luther King, responding to the Black Power movement, in Where Do We Go From Here?





Thousands are sailing

17 03 2011

I am many things (yeah, yeah!), among them, Irish.

And German and probably Swedish and French and possibly Polish and likely a smattering of other northern and western European tribes.

Nationality wasn’t much on my radar growing up, probably because the area in which I grew up was so dominated by Germans and, to a (much) lesser extent, Irish; the one group which stood out were the Dutch, who in their enclaves were (in)famously insular. I don’t know what it was like not to be a part of the ethnic majority—although, not being Catholic, my Irish bona fides were sometimes called into question. (But my grandfather was! I’d protest. Shees.)

Anyway, St. Patrick’s day wasn’t a big deal there. Sure, we wore green and when we old enough we used the day as an excuse to down a few, but, really, any celebration was a kind of sentimental feint toward history.

I’ve since lived in three Irish-saturated cities: Montreal, Bostonish (okay, Somerville), and New York. St. Paddy’s is done up in these joints.

Since I’m rather “eh” on parades and my heavy-drinking days are well in the past, the most I may do is wear green when I teach tonight, and really, probably not even that. Some of my ancestors may have  come from Eire, but any sense of Irishness I may have is constructed, not inborn; I’m an American, full stop.

And that’s fine: One of the delights of being an American is the ability to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct identities. If I want to follow a family line back to County Cork and bring that connection to the 20th or 21st century, then let’s raise a pint and drink to the Auld Sod.

I did in fact go through an Irish-intense period some years ago, laying claim to the 19th century immigrants (Hoy and Ducey and the lot) who left before or maybe were just born before (my recollections of my mom’s genealogical research are fuzzy) before the great calamity, the Famine. And I still get sniffy about the British in Ireland and am quick to note that food was exported from Ireland while people were dying in the streets and the fields.

Still, leave it to the Pogues to strip me of the romance:

We celebrate the land that made us refugees.

I don’t know if that line is original to the Pogues or they swiped it, but it’s a right proper astringent to the mythification of Irish history—although, given the hold of myth and mist on the Irish-American imagination, probably not enough.

Not even for me: Even my heart jumps at that kick of the drums.