September 6, 2016

On Literature

Last year, my favorite poet Anne Boyer did an interview with Amy King of The Poetry Foundation entitled "‘Literature is against us’: In Conversation with Anne Boyer." Boyer writes from the perspective of a disabled body, one which had been unable to work after battling an aggressive stage of breast cancer.

I often think about this interview, Boyer in general, and the notion that literature is, in fact, against us. An excerpt from the interview: “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people—the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise. (via The Poetry Foundation)
I can't help but think about Boyer's wondrous claims in the context of being a writer, a reader, a student, a homosexual, a person with mental disabilities, a person with physical disabilities, a substance user, etcetera. This week, I started my last semester of university and a professor in a critical theory class asked us to describe what exactly literature is. I surprisingly had a difficult time with this question and needed to explore it. If, as Boyer argues, literature exists to subdue communities of people, what about literature gives it the agency to oppress? Who makes literature, and how are those devices privileged? Who wins and who loses when we talk about literature?

Historically, literature has often come from positions of oppression. But at the same time, an interesting dynamic exists between representation and the ability to be represented. What affordances does literature give, as Boyer argues, to poor people, people of color, enslaved people, working people, etcetera? If I cannot afford the basic necessities of life, how can I afford to make literature? And what does making literature look like?

One of the biggest problems I had in answering the question "what is literature" is the supposed binary between what is literature and what is not literature. Binaries are social constructs that always give benefit to one side of the paradigm.  That is to say, who has the right to regard if something is literature or not? When you consider the declaration that a piece of work is or is not literature, you quit the forces that create literature itself.

Literature is an experience. And perhaps that is the only classification that it needs.

August 15, 2016

Against Being Against The Romanticizing of Depression

Laurel Nakadate, "May 10, 2010," from 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears

Last year, Cosmopolitan published an opinion piece which quoted Kim Gordon discussing Lana Del Rey and her connected persona who has a solid relationship with depression:
Today we have someone like Lana Del Rey, who doesn't even know what feminism is, who believes women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts toward self-destruction, whether it's sleeping with gross old men or getting gang raped by bikers. Equal pay and equal rights would be nice. Naturally, it's just a persona. If she really truly believes it's beautiful when young musicians go out on a hot flame of drugs and depression, why doesn't she just off herself? (via Cosmopolitan).

Del Rey is no stranger to facing criticism like Gordon's—a quick Google search for "Lana Del Rey Romanticizing" brings up several hits for top-name news sources (among them: Rolling Stone, Billboard, etc.) I can't help but despise the criticism that Del Rey faces for her "romanticizing" of depression. If depression is, as I socially understand it, feelings of prolongated despair or unhappiness, then could a "romanticizing" of this condition be the solution in general? Shouldn't an individual's "coming to terms with" his or her depression by way of romanticization be his or her solution about which someone else should not criticize? And should we have criticism for an artist who can capitalize off of these feelings of depression when capitalism is usually the force that excites these feelings of despair in the first place?

In her incredibly moving and culturally important book of poetry entitled Garments Against Women, Kansas poet Anne Boyer reveals:
I thought I, too, would write about happiness if I were ever to write again. For who better to consider sleep than the insomniac? But as I became very ill, I thought less about happiness and had instead many thoughts like "I do not want to be ill" and "It is difficult to work with a high fever" and "I wish someone were here to take care of me" and "How will I pay to see a doctor?" (pp. 10-11).
Boyer's Garments Against Women is a testament to how the forces of industrial capitalism and hegemonic ideas about work affect classes of care and in turn quality of life for those unable to work. Boyer writes this after battling breast cancer and being too unwell to work for a period of time. The thoughts that Boyer recalls are mostly about this inability to work. Seen here, work, as an implication of capitalism, causes grief, despair, unhappiness, etc., especially for prolongated periods of time. That is, capitalism is one of the causes for her depression.

Del Rey takes a different approach to the ways she relates to depression. For Del Rey, depression is admission. I have yet to find a single valid argument about why this is problematic. ("She sets a bad example" is not valid in my mind because Del Rey is not responsible for how other people view her art). On the same hand, isn't art always emotional?

In 2011, one of my favorite artists Laurel Nakadate published a collection of photographs entitled 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears. The collection, as a performance, features 365 photographs each showcasing Nakadate in tears. While the collection explores her living quarters and outward—including her bathroom, windowpane, aircraft lavatories, boats on the ocean, woods, rivers, parking lots, and back to her New York City apartment’s window—we aren’t only familiar with where she spends most of her life, but also where her life takes her. Tears are intimate and Nakadate invites us to share these private moments with her. 

Capitalizing off of depression is radical and should not be shamed. An artist who wants to detail his or her sadness in any way should always be permitted to do so. Oftentimes hegemonic shame is an original cause of depression and the double standard to which we hold artists, especially women, when it comes to emotions exists to subdue their feelings and tell them that they are not allowed to feel like that. And who are we to tell someone that she doesn't have the right to feel sad?

August 12, 2016

Unhappiness as Identity (or, Unhappiness as Privilege) (or, Why Denying Chelsea Manning Her Unhappiness Has Drastic Social Consequences)

There's something comforting in the declaration I am unhappy. It is as if I have a right to claim that I am unhappy, insofar as to say that I have the privilege to claim unhappiness as identity. But does being "unhappy" grant me entry into a "community—" that is, an invisibly fenced-in group of people that share this unhappiness manifesto? How unhappy am I allowed to be—socially, institutionally, or imaginarily? And like anything subjective, is my unhappiness politicized?

Last week, I read an article about Chelsea Manning facing extreme consequences for attempting to kill herself while incarcerated in complete isolation for leaking classified war documents and subsequently violating the Espionage Act. Instead of getting her the psychiatric help she so obviously needs, the government has decided to increase her periods of solidarity and press further charges on her.

Manning has been in solitary confinement for a little over six years. That is, she has essentially zero communication with anything other than herself except for brief 20-minute "recreation periods" which Manning described in her article for The Guardian as "brief periods, every other day or so, I was escorted by a team of at least three guards to an empty basketball court-sized area. There, I was shackled and walked around in circles or figure-eights for 20 minutes. I was not allowed to stand still, otherwise they would take me back to my cell."

Manning is not permitted to admit her unhappiness despite the cruel and gruesome details her of detainment. Should she complain during her periods of "exercise," she is sent back to her cell. Should she refuse cooperation with prison guards when they try talking to her, she is punished. Should she attempt suicide, she is thrown more punishment of solitary confinement (the very thing that resulted in her suicide attempt). Manning is in a deep cycle of unhappiness but she is not allowed to claim the identity. The consequences of prohibiting her from claiming an identity—something the US military is no stranger to prohibiting—result in nothing other than a tortured woman living a life of no-touch, no-talk cyclical unhappiness.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, has claimed that "most of the scientific literature shows that, after 15 days, certain changes in brain functions occur and the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible." Despite the scientific evidence that suggests solitary confinement is psychological torture and has extreme irreversible mental health consequences, the US military continues to solitarily confine Manning and subsequently deny her emotions. What does denying someone's right to be unhappy do to his or her creativity? Should the government have the ability to deny an emotion and subsequently creativity in general? Where do the lines of governmental privilege end and what is at stake when we allow our emotions to be policed?

I can't help but to think about my own unhappiness and the ways I use it to craft an identity. For me, unhappiness itself grants me entry into a community of sufferers. I am able to encircle myself with unhappy friends, unhappy literature, and unhappy societies (e.g. the "Sad Girls Club"). Some of my favorite pieces of art have come out of some sort of unhappiness and I am grateful to have the privilege to access them. I realize that this is not the case for many people—Solitary Watch estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated persons are held in some form of isolated confinement every day.

Whether or not Manning hates herself, it's clear to me that the government explicitly hates her and projects its own feelings onto her while simultaneously denying her the right to have an emotion. We must advocate against the policing of emotions and we must acknowledge that solitary confinement is essentially stripping a person of any social communication which leads to the stripping away of emotion and identity.