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Posts Tagged ‘the present moment’

The Overwhelming Present: On Having Too Much To Write About

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Creative Writing, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Intersectionality on May 26, 2014 at 12:55 PM
"It burns the thing inside it. And that thing screams." - "An Agony. As Now." by Amiri Baraka

“Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,
white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.
It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton
you recognize as words or simple feeling.”
– “An Agony. As Now.” by Amiri Baraka

 

Over the past year I’ve come to realize that my constant hesitation to write emanates not so much from anxiety or deep-seated insecurity, but from an overwhelming sense that there’s way too much shit to write about. If you’ve ever had to make a list of all the possible topics you could speak, write, or blog about, then you might have a sense of what I mean here.

Just the other day, heading back home from work in an hour-long trek from one part of Brooklyn (Bushwick) to another (Sunset Park), I was engaged in my most common activity: sitting, thinking, dwelling on issues that seem insurmountable. Even indescribable. Just the thought of putting these experiences and thoughts into writing was exhausting.

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For me, there’s an almost-insurmountable catatonia that comes with writing about the struggles of the everyday. Where to begin? After all, the elusive present is hard to understand without an acknowledgment of history. Do I cherry-pick old historical events, like the wave of destruction that swept over the Arawaks of the Bahamas when Columbus landed his avaricious gold-seeking feet? Do I speed through Manifest Destiny and slavery-fueled industrialization? Or the reproduction of urban savagery a lá Robert Moses and red-lining and… Or do I begin with what I’m seeing right now in 2014: the drastic efflux of white (with the ever-so-often black, brown, and yellow-hipster) faces walking past me at the subway stop near my job.

Goddamn. In a mere six years, the social landscape of this neighborhood has changed at a terrifying pace.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). Neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). The multi-story condo to the left was opened just a few years ago and already suggests near-full occupation. Indeed, neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

 

In a world with too many wars to fight, to many colonnades to dismantle, reality is jarring. And at the end of the day, here I am…sitting inside a train. Zig-zagging my way out of Brooklyn, then back again. Joining up again where the political meets the personal.

I still have to deal with soul-crushing limitations. Trying to live like a revolutionary in a neoliberal age, my mind slumped after a night of teaching in impossible circumstances. And as much as I wanted to scream, a bourgeois sentiment in me also wanted to make demands and compelling critiques. But the number of topics I could potentially write about (that were also personally embroiled) were staggering:

  • I can write about gentrification, urbanization, and settler-colonialism in the United States. Using the example of Bushwick or Sunset Park to demonstrate how gentrification—a term that has been popularized in the left and right to the point of losing considerable political valence—is really just another iteration of white supremacist, urban colonization. Even in cases where the gentrifiers and the gentrified come from similar ethnoracial backgrounds, a similar logic of invasion, plunder, and proselytization operates, often with indirect repercussions to communities of color.
  • I can write about the linkages between police brutality, mass incarceration, and the reciprocal relationship between carceral regimes and capitalist development (including criminalization and its association with gentrification in Brooklyn).
  • I can write about the struggles of adult education programs, or the constant struggles and physical and cultural violence experienced by my transnational, multi-status immigrant students. The unique, indescribable experience of being a teacher at the crossroads.
  • I can write about the insidiousness of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), its ableist romanticization of long hours, commitment, and passion. Its coercive management of dissent. The funneling of revolutionary momentum into the rat race of data-driven bureaucracy.
  • Then there’s the fact that I often feel like I’m being ping-ponged between the NPIC and the (bio)medical-industrial complex. As if I wasn’t already drowning in paperwork and numbers, I also have to keep track of my co-pays, premiums, medications, and insurance policies. I have to manage a deeply crippling, mysterious condition (chronic pain) layered upon another (multiple sclerosis). I have to deal with doctors’ racisms, insensitivities, and general misunderstanding. I have to deal with pharmacists and insurance reps and union reps and social workers and disability lawyers. More days than I can count, I am filled to the brim with sadness and fury and hopelessness.
  • I can write endlessly about what it’s like to live with pain, all forms of spiritual, existential, psychological, physical, collective, or intergenerational pain. And the wisdom that pain provides.
  • I can also join the graduate student-blogger bandwagon and write about my detachment from academia (here comes another industrial complex: the academic IC). I can write about my alienation as an economically precarious “millennial,” or write about intersectionality and identity through the lens of a crippled, queer cisgender working-class man of color.

For me, it feels like the possibilities are endless. I can write substantially about any and all of these things—not simply because they seem fascinating, but because they are integral to my everyday material experience. But unlike those who have the luxury of waging war in one or two battlefronts, I’m living in sheer and utter political cacophony, living with the threat of debt, hunger, and detonations of pain. I’m forced to deal with an amalgam of interrelated injustices, not simply an isolated cause or issue of the moment.

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Fact is, no one embodies single-issue politics; but for some, the layering of oppressions is too adamant, too imperious, to conveniently omit in any writing of personal experiences. For how have I become the sort of subject, the sort of human that I am today were it not for a constellation of experiences that is simply more than the sum of its parts? While disembodied scholarship coercively tempts us into partitioning our lives like specimens under a microscope, life teaches us how beautifully, sometimes agonizingly, complex and unpredictable the world must be.

Glancing back at this list, I am reminded of how overwhelming it all is. It is overwhelming to be alive today—and most of us ignore the telltale signs (sometimes out of necessity). Living through the tyrannies of a globalized capitalist order, sensing that the orderliness of modern civilization, urbanization, and economic development is actually more mythology than a worthwhile endeavor. Putting our bodies through cruel regimens of poorly cooked, chemical-ridden foods and substances while working until we literally drop. Or resorting to a jaw-dropping level of consumption of entertainment, drugs, and alcohol to deal with the pain of isolation. Or lest we forget the weight of ruptured, dismembered, or even annihilated communities and histories.

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Reflecting on the obstacles to produce through writing, I recognize how frighteningly obvious some of the “internal” ones are. With my eyes looking straight ahead to an impending life in grad school, I’m reminded of what Andrea Smith has written about with respect to the academic industrial complex:

“A phenomenon that results from academia’s myth of meritocracy is that scholars feel an undue burden to prove their brilliance. They can never take short cuts. They cannot publish anything unless it is perfect. Consequently, it takes many scholars an inordinate amount of time to finish their work because they suffer from excessive anxiety attacks as to whether or not their contributions are going to be sufficiently brilliant to warrant their publication.”

This resonates: I can be a perfectionist and hesitate to print or publish anything that doesn’t conform to a standard I’ve created for myself. I am also fearful of being “too public” with my thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and fear their resultant social repercussions. I fear being stigmatized, or analyzed, or romanticized and co-opted by well-meaning liberals. I also fear not articulating myself in a way that reflects how I truly think or feel—something that becomes particularly salient in my life with chronic fatigue. Even as I write this, I am constantly redacting my statements, cognizant of the critiques (feeling more surveilled than an object of the Panopticon state)….

Of course, the joint effect of these fears is to avoid writing altogether, with only an inkling that perhaps one day I can do so at a difficult convergence of free time, good health, good energy, and “feeling inspired.”

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So, to what extent are these barriers psychological/individual vs. systemic? And to what extent are these barriers that I have agency over? I don’t think I’ll ever develop a satisfying response to those questions, but I’m very much aware of how I’ve come full circle since my very first blog post on overcoming writing paralysis.

I still believe in the importance of writing, and speaking out against all forms of violence. I even see the importance of writing within political projects, even if those projects cannot be reduced solely to an ideological exercise.

But it’s fucking hard to put all the pieces together, to synthesize an amalgam of experiences that often feel too disjointed and irregular and incredibly messy. Sometimes it’s too much work to synthesize and create a story that fictionalizes a union of the world’s haphazard parts.

And while it’s generally hard for most people to find the time and space to write, the challenges are exponentially worse when you have to struggle with pain, fatigue, and brain fog.

Yet, none of that is to render invisible a more basic conundrum: There is too much shit going on in the world. There is too much shit going on in my life. There are too many fucking things to write about.

Yes, there is way too much shit. 

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.  What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.
What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

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