Punctuation

Despite having to write, on command, a blistering set of formal explications to unanticipated dilemmas over the past three days—all in order to provide a material record that will allow me to be evaluated at this, my final point of contact with the undergraduate system—I find myself remarkably well disposed. Looking back on the last four years I have to say three things: it wasn’t so bad; I did quite well; and goddamn if I didn’t work it all out successfully into prospects for the future.

Not so bad for a late bloomer.

Fixed Borders

Yesterday Judith Butler was in town. A room bursting with bodies helped underscore the topic of her lecture, Public Assembly and Plural Action. And there we were, assembling: people were crowded on the mezzanine, crouched on the radiators by the windows, standing in an attentive throng at the back. The vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows did nothing to disguise that there were pressures within the confines of the hall. Spatial concerns; fire code violations; but also those pressures produced by psychic human concerns. There were tensions. There were individuals heavily invested in being there, and not everyone could be accommodated. Butler attracts a multitude. It is quite a feat, writing and being read across so many disciplinary boundaries, in and out of the academy. There were undoubtedly a number of unspoken agendas circulating and invisibly pressuring each other amongst the crowd; but we all surrendered to plural action. We all made nice, right up until the end.

My companion and I had secured some uncomfortable wooden chairs right in the center of the assembly. In spite of her protests of disbelief, I prevailed upon my friend and got us there 75 minutes early. For, despite harboring genuine anticipation, I was not excited enough to warrant standing at the back of a crowded room for hours just to hear the professor in person. I wanted to attend—not haunt—the event. In the end we were well situated, even if our chairs did inexorably deaden our backsides.

“We the people,” Butler intoned in the early phrases of her address, to frame the discourse of her paper; and these words, so freighted and resonant south of the border, have their own undeniable currency abroad. Their rallying premise, as a point of genesis rather than a jingoist mantra, undeniably has the capacity to stir something positive, especially in those who believe that individual people can coalesce around a core of collective well being. I certainly believe we have that capacity. I invest in that premise with all the devotion of a sweetheart. I would carve hearts around the letters of an ideal democracy on the boards of bridges, into the trunks of trees.

Butler’s “we the people” constitutes a performative, one that is enacted even when the gathering of individuals is not entirely physical, or not entirely or explicitly idealistically cognate. It happens through its very collectivity, in the identification of a larger body, with or without a clearly articulated agenda; simply as a fact, as a thing; and it is possible that that this thing has a sovereignty that presupposes the sovereignty of the state. Perhaps, in fact, it must.

I came away boiling with thoughts of plural action, articulating across the world, across temporal boundaries, in and out of spaces sanctioned for the purpose, in and out of public. How do these mobilizations happen? What are their boundaries? Where does inclusivity and exclusivity occur? How does a collective initiate the move from figurative to actual change? And in this age of intense visualization, how do we imagine the legitimizing forums that provide the stage for meaningful gatherings? Do they have a component of broadcast media, is that necessary to be taken seriously, or does collective action supersede these modern, virtual arenas?

Butler remains provocative, 25 years out of the gate.

Direct Modification

The burdens of this season are not melting yet. In fact, they’re settling in strata. There is a transient geology to be studied in the sediments (and sentiments) that layer and compound, as winter weighs this chapter of the almanac down. We’re compressed. We ossify a little between frozen ground and snow, but also between the sub-freezing temperatures and the cost of keeping warm. Each stratum that complicates movement or rest contributes to our fixity and our preservation. We need to last ’till spring.

This season is uncommonly heavy with anticipation. This time around I am particularly aware of the burden, waiting out the winter of 2014; it is the year that the conditions that define my environment will change. We just do not know what precisely they are changing to.

This afternoon I wrote a technical summary of Lamarck’s theory of adaptation, the ideological precursor to Darwin’s version of descent with modification. In the early 1800s Lamarck proposed an intimate relationship between any given organism and its environment. He was one of the first to suggest that it is what surrounds life, what composes its boundaries and limits, that determines the expression of that life, not just behaviourally but physically. Accordingly, we are not born with a purpose or function that is our own: we inherit these things from those ancestors that developed them, an intergenerational transaction that tracks so far back that the concept of origins dissolve in a nebulous region of pre-identity, of deep time. We are all tracing the intricacies of a continuum that begins simply, but complicate as creation marches forward.

The premise states that the structure of our life, as it functions in the present, is more complex than the life that prefigured it. By exercising what we need to exercise, by flexing those faculties available to us—to cope with the acute demands of our environment—we are strengthening not just ourselves, but our descendants. There is agency in our inheritance and in our evolution; although Lamarck never used the word “evolution.”

It is an appealing theory in the way that it mobilizes the feel of history. The components of a use/disuse effect upon our very nature rewards the effort we put into our dedications, and seems to suggest that we can imprint our accomplishments onto a nascent future. It is not quite like Darwin’s lottery, where dice composed of cosmic rays determine the pace of change; even if, in the case of this example, the dice are anachronistic.

I like to think of my own development as Lamarckian, within the boundaries of my own existence. I prefer to consider my intellectual life in terms of successive generations, less complex manifestations self-generating my next iteration in response to an environment that has bounded me, and creating better adapted individual to live in the next era, just a little more complicated and assured. (The complication is an unavoidable consequence: I don’t know if I work more efficiently, but I do know I work more.)

You can see how compelling it is to think in these terms. You might understand how the modern theory of evolution still becomes easily conflated with more antiquated designs of thought. I hope the pressures of these layers upon me right now preserve some of what I have been during this last period. It may not be an accurate way to describe what is going on within the ecosystem of my own boundaries, but I feel the beginnings of another self more complex and purposeful.

Unconscious Reading

It is worth noting that the books do not close after dark: not when the sun goes down, nor when the lights go out. My Kindle gives off a sallow, uneven glow that only serves to cut out its unnerving “stable text,” even after the rest of the apartment is shut down. I can read wrapped in the approximate gloom of the urban night. And even after I’ve deactivated my 21st century reader and put it aside, sometimes, I still go at it. There are periods of sleep where words will scribe themselves through the pages of my dreams. There are times when I read my unconscious.

I suppose this is the result of being so absorbed by the act. Reading is the constituent, cerebral material that composes the greater share of my commitments, my ambitions, and my pleasures. Yet I always feel behind. It doesn’t happen fast enough. The list is too long. My eyes, my brain, are too slow. These past four years I have been trying to catch up, to inscribe a state of knowing on a space of acute ignorance, but there abound more and more possible texts to assess and consume. Beyond reading lists, beyond recommended articles and current distractions, there is a paralytic superabundance of things written down that it would be useful to encounter; and there is only so much time.

This is a situation that I must make peace with. Reading and dreaming share a coterminous relationship for the academic in training: sleeping or waking they are activities that superimpose upon one another and share the same boundaries of experience. They expand as a fused, organic unit. I need both to continue forward; I am bound up by both as I plan and galvanize the trajectory of my future; and the spectre of improbability haunts both their enactments.

“Have you heard the speech?” asked a professor last fall after I had asked him for a letter of reference.

“Which speech?” I responded warily.

“The one where I tell you that there are no jobs, that the whole institution is in flux, that tenure may be a thing of the past—”

“Oh, that speech!” I said. “Yes, yes—I heard it when I first decided to come back to school.”

“Alright then. I just feel I have a moral obligation to warn you off.”

“And I respect that.”

Which is true. What I told him then, and what I’m affirming now, is that there is little else that I can envision myself doing besides this. It is not apathy that has driven me to this point—it is genuine ambition. I have tried other avenues, other prospects, and the result was not only underwhelming, but also depressing, and somewhat claustrophobic. The dream has always involved many books, and disseminating the texture and tenor of thought. Contributing to the sum total of human knowledge. There is no other professional arena for a humanities major. My only option is to think and write my way forward, and heed my unconscious as it discloses itself in phrases: words scribbling their way out in the dark.