dispatches from blue mountain

by dean spade

I'm writing this from Blue Mountain Center also known to me as 'paradise.' I'm here on a writing residency for a month. Got here yesterday. Yes, its officially the best thing that has ever happened in my life. Canoes, woods, a room of hir own, delicious food from the garden, and most importantly TIME and QUIET. Its shocking and undescribable how this already feels, and its only been 20 hours. I can't imagine the things that will happen to my brain and heart with 28 days straight of this.

Anyway, in procrastinating the article Craig and I have due on Monday (really due July 31, yikes!) I was reading Robin Kelley's pieces excerpted in the Cultrual Resistance Reader that I just found on the bookshelf here. I was reading this piece he wrote about the resistance he and his co-workers at a McDonalds in Pasadena in 1978 engaged in at their jobs: stealing food, pacing their work, punching each others' time cards, and, more importantly, resistantly articulating their cultural performances: fighting against the choice of the easy listening radio station, refusing to wear hair nets, using a spatula as a microphone, picking on the customers and each other, and accessorizing their uniforms. "We tried to turn work into pleasure, to turn our bodies into instruments of pleasure. Generational and cultural specificity had a good deal to do with our unique forms of resistance, but a lot of our actions were linked directly to the labor process, gender confentions, and our class status."

The piece is excerpted in a section of the book that seems (from my admitted skimming) to be about what constitutes political resistance, and focuses somewhat on a question of whether these day-to-day acts of resistance, or organization and movement-based resistance, is the 'higher' political form. Some writers in the section argue that the day-to-day versions do not lead to social justice and if anything just difuse the righteous rage people should be articulating through organized action. Others argue that these spontaneous battles with authority and institutions are an essential component of resistance. Not surprisingly, I'm interested in us moving beyond a question of which side of a binary to value, and toward thinking about these things together. I mean, on a gut level, its not like we can get by without both-we need to be able to constantly be winning mini-battles for our humanity against bullshit rules at work and in public, but also we need to be sharing a broader analysis with each other and thinking beyond our own individual experiences of oppression in order to shape the world we want to live in.

But, thinking about that Kelley piece made me think about how the increased consolidation of jobs into franchise-type work, and the increasingly efficient streamlining and automation of that kind of work is part of what makes it so dehumanizing-the difference between working at a single restaurant or store or one that is part of a chain-at least in my experience was in many ways about adding a clothing uniform but also a uniformity of how you can accomplish your tasks, what you can say. When I went through 24 hours of training to deliver "the Starbucks Experience" in 1996, it was a vastly different experience than being trained by the owner of a small coffee shop about how to do the same job. I guess I'm just thinking that the dignity of working and getting to make small decisions about how to get something done, and getting to do it differently, is part of why we might be wanting to resist those franchises.

Reading that account also made me think about the ways in which trans resistance has too often been limited only to the day-to-day, and how trans politics is continually cast in a framework of the personal, the individual. I was teaching last week from the new edition of Hunter and Eskridge's Sexuality Gender and the Law textbook, and in the "transgender" chapter they had excerpted mostly the personal narrative section of my article Resisting Medicine/Remodelling Gender in the section discussing medicalization. I was sad about it-not sad that I'd written that experience, but sad that the only critique of the medical model of transsexuality they had included written by a trans person was, of course, personal narrative. I believe in the power of personal narrative to make complex ideas accessible and to examine politics, but I also hate that the only visible trans politics often seems to be an individualized/personalized account of resistance. I'm interested in how we can all share broader notions of trans justice and develop multiple frameworks, especially those that move us away from victimhood and apologizing for ourselves.

Those are my ramblings from the woods. The trees are turning colors that I forgot occurred in nature. It's scandalous. I'm having all these sudden physical memories of my rural upbringing. And I drew a picture of a leaf with colored pencils for the first time in at least 16 years. I recommend it.

October 3, 2004

I walked to an old airplane hangar and sat on a dock by myself for hours like I was dawson or something. I read a book by Susan Sontag with the genius title "Regarding the Pain of Others." I wish I could write titles like that. I want to write about the book, but first revisit what I was discussing above about Kelley's piece.

On the way to Blue Mountain, Bridge and I went to visit prisoners who are my clients in Clinton Correctional Facility. One client, who I've been working with for about two years, who is incarcerated because of a probation violation on a very old robbery charge, having violated his probation by doing drugs, is up for parole this month. As he was talking to me, telling me the changes that have occurred for him in the last two years of incarceration, he kept emphasizing that what he had learned was "obedience." He was saying it as a positive thing---that to be happy and get by he needed to learn this, needed to be locked up, and he felt he'd learned it and could go back outside and live better (for him, for who?). I have these kinds of conversations frequently with incarcerated clients and others who are being subjected to "rehabilitation" or "compliance" focused regulatory environments. When clients restate to me these buzz words they've been hearing over and over in the facilities where coercive control in enforced through violence, I'm hesitant to question them. Learning to regurgitate this logic, for many, is a question of survival, and although I'm focused on continually reiterating the message that they do not deserve the treatment they have endured and that they should feel entitled to safety, employment, housing, etc., I don't feel its my role to challenge them if they've adopted that narrative, especially if they are still in the institution which requires it. Nonetheless, it was overwhelming to think about this concept of "obedience" that he was attesting to, and to see a framework where his failures (all of which are punished not in relation to your acts but instead your social position in terms of race, gender, income, sexuality) to obey were the cause of his incarceration. And reading Kelley's articulation of the radical act of finding pleasure when obedience is required-of daring to have fun and to suggest that you are entitled to fun-struck me strongly. It made me think about not just the most violently coercive systems, but also the social programs that I'm always engaging with (job training, internships, etc) where young people especially, but lots of kind of poor people, are helped to learn the norms of professionalism and are kicked out for expressing outside of those norms. Frequently, my work involves people kicked out because their gender expression violates the rules, but also its frequently inclusive of fighting, horsing around, talking back, refusing not to wear a walkman, dressing too sexy, and a bunch of other factors that make me think about Kelley's words. These ideas aren't new, there is lots of writing about the ways that education prepares us for the rigor of work (punctuality, following orders, self-policing, time management) and the ways that welfare, shelter, and other programs are designed to socialize poor people through those systems and uphold a notion that the failures of an economy that requires an underclass are really the individual moral failures of poor people. But somehow, the poingnancy of being at the prison on Friday hearing my client attest proudly that he had learned 'obedience', and then sitting in here in paradise where I can do whatever I want for 29 days, reading about daring to experience pleasure and resisting oppression through fun, required recording.

October 6, 2004

Things are still overwhelmingly wonderful here at Blue Mountain. That is not to say that I don’t feel completely weird most of the time—its quite a shock to go from my normal life to this, to have time to think, to make decisions about what I want to do with my time, to be alone. But all the discomfort and awkwardness is wonderful, just what I wanted. Between stints of writing, I’ve been doing what I love most these days: undertaking things I know I’ll be bad at. Yesterday I attempted to draw leaves with colored pencils and played tennis for the first time in my life. I’m thinking of trying to write some dirty stories, and I’m spending time learning Spanish. Speaking of dirty, I was recently given a wonderful book called "hide this Spanish book" which tries to teach all the phrases you’ll need to know to flirt, have sex, be queer, watch sports, shop, and go on-line in Spanish. It is wonderfully entertaining, especially the literal translations of the colloquial dirty phrases. "El es un vagabundo" means "he’s a player" not "un tipo zanahorio" which means "a gentleman" but is literally "a carrot guy." My favorite way to say that you screwed someone is "Paso lo que sabemos," literally, "we know ‘it’ happened" or "Se puso carinoso" meaning "he became more and more affectionate." If he dumped his boyfriend, you might say "El lo mando a freir esparragos" which literally translates to "He sent him to fry asparagus." And best of all, if someone’s cute, say "El es un tremendo bizcocho" literally "he is a termendous cupcake." I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you are trying to write postcards in Spanish.

Anyway, that is all an aside. I was actually sitting down to write about the Sontag book I mentioned a few days ago. It is short and beautifully written, and asks the question "What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?" She begins with a discussion of Virginia Woolfe’s 1938 "Three Guineas," her reflection on the question of preventing war. In that piece, written as a letter, she refers to photographs of war in Spain, asserting the images as evidence of the barbarianism of war. Sontag goes on to discuss the history of war photography, and instances of people attempting to use photographs documenting the brutalities of WWI to oppose war, particularly WWII. She talks about how, despite the hope of many that photographs of the brutalities of war, the disfigurations, the destruction of human bodies and buildings will demonstrate that war should be avoided, in fact these images have no fixed meaning. Images of brutally murdered Muslims and destroyed Muslim homes were passed around Serb rallies during the war in Bosnia, just at the same images were used to decry the injustice of this war in other camps. Similarly, "in the current political mood, the friendliest to the military in decades, the pictures of wretched hollow-eyed GIs that once seemed subversive of militarism and imperialism may seem inspirational. Their revised subject: ordinary American young men doing their unpleasant, ennobling duty." Beyond this critique that any image, it seems, can be used for virtually any argument, she also talks about the emergence of war photography as a replacement for painted and drawn representations of the evils of war. These depictions, which were frequently a single piece with many figures representing a variety of the brutal acts the artist had witnessed or heard reported from the war and which served as a compilation of war experience, were replaced with single photographs that stood as "fact" or "evidence" rather than interpretation. However, war photographs, while they still often end up being treated as a summary or compilation of an entire war experience (thinking back, you might be able to imagine only one or two emblematic photo images from each war you have knowledge of), are still framed by the photographer, and importantly include or exclude only what that photographer decided to document. Sontag traces the history of staging war photographs, and discusses the factual inaccuracies of several very famous war photographs, but argues that even those that are not staged (which is far less common now) will only represent a fraction of the broader story of the war, but will often be used as representatative of the entire war.

The most important parts of her analysis, to me, focus on the ways in which using war photographs for shock value, or to stand in for historical memory and perspective, undermines a project of generating deeper analysis about war and the political and social contexts surrounding human suffering. She talks about how shock is not the same as thinking. I was reminded of the ways that photographs are used in US schools to teach children about the Civil Rights Movement. Photographs of lynchings, of police using firehoses on protestors, and of white people dumping food on lunchcounter protestors come immediately to mind. In my experience, these images were used, in part, to underscore an idea that those were the "bad old days" and that those practices constitute racism, undermining a deeper analysis of the ongoing institutional and systemic racism that went unexamined (and denied) in the schools I attended. Looking at these photographs in that context, the message was, ‘this is nolonger happening, feel comfortable judging and disidentifying with those racists, and feel sympathy for the people who underwent that treatment’ (implied: long ago).

Sontag also focuses on how the use of images of human suffering to help people remember, and the insistence on the importance of memory, is problematic. "What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel "bad"; that is to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horros lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we the better for seein these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or what we want to know)?" She suggests that the remembering through photographs eclipses other methods of remembering and understanding. "The problem is not that people remember through photographs but that they remember only through photographs." Images of the most gruesome an violent manifestations of war or conditions of oppression are captured and circulated through photographs, but they fail to build in an understanding of all the other manifestations of war and oppression that co-existed with, enabled, and resulted from the violence that is most visually shocking. In some ways I think, we become less and less able to appreciate the other manifestations of those systems and to build analysis of those because we are conditioned only to appreciate the shock value of gory photos. What comes to mind are images from Palestine—images of Palestinian children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks used to demonstrate the violence of Palestinians, or images of bloody people escaping suicide-bombings. These photographs are poised to help viewers to a simplistic idea of Palestinians as violent and Israelis as victims, and so many of the elements of the aparteid practices of Israel, like roadblocks and people dying because they can’t get medicine, are not capturable with the same shock value. Understanding the conflict requires more than gruesome photos.

The last point that really stuck with me is about how the process of eliciting sympathy through photographs of other people’s suffering is the way it helps the viewer to create a distance from the suffering such that they do not feel implicated in it. She writes, "And it is not necessarily better to be moved. Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse. (Recall the canonical example of the Auschwitz commandant returning home in the evening, embracing his wife and children, and sitting at the piano to play some Schubert before dinner.) People don’t become inured to what hey are shown—if that’s the right way to describe what happens—because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling. The states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration. But if we consider what emotions would be desireable, it seems too simple to elect sympathy. The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between t0he faraway sufferers—seen close-up on the television screen—and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocense as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politices for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in many ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some my imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark."

Sontag also spends time talking about how the bodies of US soldiers are displayed in photos (usually without showing faces) as compared with the bodies of non-US dead. She talks about the value that war photography and television footage had in building opposition to the war in Viet Nam, and makes no simplistic conclusions about war photography being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Reading the book was immensely helpful in sorting through my thoughts and responses to the overwhelming amount of imagery from Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere in the world that we each have to sort through. It also made me think a lot about the graphic novel "Gorzade" I recently read, which I would recommend, especially when thinking about war imagery, memory, and narrative. With the inundation of images of suffering that people with access to television and the internet experience these days, and the valorization of looking at and distributing such images as an act of opposition to war and murderous politics, I think we could all use a critical read on those practices. I recommend this book for getting the wheels turning.

Click here to see the next entry.

Click here to see a letter I wrote to the other residents about food, eating, body image and policing.

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