Cure for Pain
The burden of history is that emotional labor gets handed to people who never asked for it. As priests say of Eve's children, doomed for disobedience, they must labor all the days of their lives: to say otherwise is to deny a reality acknowledged by most people for most of history. Traditionally, western intellectuals talked about the doom of labor in terms of sin, wickedness, and morality; by the seventeenth century, they had begun to speak of doom in terms of ploughing, production, and capital. We were doomed to work all the days of our lives. Quakers, Anabaptists, and enlightenment intellectuals challenged the doom of sin; Marxists and anarchists challenged the doom to capital. Everywhere, self-described moderns shuffled off their connection with the past in the hopes of freedom.
But by the dawn of the twentieth century, canny people began to describe their curse as something more broad still: the doom of living in history. History as nightmare was James Joyce's charge. History is nightmare wherever revolutions have been attempted and failed. In the 1970s, British historian Gareth Stedman Jones described the great lull of working-class revolution that Britain suffered after the death of Chartism in the 1840s, repression from above resulting in a failure to reimagine the nation even unto his writing. In his masterpiece on the riots of the 1960s, A Grin Without a Cat (1977), filmmaker Chris Marker tallied the international swell of people's movements against their unsuccessful attempt to stop the atrocities in Vietnam. It is painful, wrenching stuff: a candid acknowledgement that the ideals of an entire generation had ended in failure.
Memory can be paralyzing. In the memories of my last relationship, it was the treatment of our common past, the recitation of failure, that resonates still into the present. An awkward interchange with one of my friends, the way I brought up a difficult topic, would be recalled multiple times for months afterwards, my lover's growing, articulate list of reasons why I was an unfit mate. Everybody has such at-fault lists, maybe, as they're settling into a relationship and trying to decide whether to stay or go; but the appropriate thing is to stay or go: and then get on with forgiveness, not bludgeon the other human.
It's that list of failures that haunts me. I'm still dealing on a daily basis with the weight of those charges, shooting down the recording of his voice in my head that calls me selfish and says that I'll never be in a relationship again. It's pretty horrible. But at the end of the day, it's just pain. The memories enter at the level of the body, like a reflex: my throat remembering to contract because it's been prone to contracting out of fear for most of my life and my brain begins to spin. Reason isn't involved, and reasoning with myself isn't the whole of the cure: there's very little that's true or persuasive about the particular criticisms involved; I don't think I'm a horrible person, and even at the time, I took most of his analysis of me in terms of complicated reservations and jealousies that were the other side of a deep, abiding affection. It was not my duty to talk him out of the abusive parts, and I quit as soon as I realized how stuck he was. But I'm still trying to train my body out of the memories. Yoga and acupuncture seem to work better than story-telling: deprogramming the body from the memory of pain.
That memory is but another form of the burden of history. There have been plenty of naysayers -- parents, advisors, boyfriends, false friends -- who didn't know when to stop attacking, leaving my body riddled with memories of stopping, clutching, holding, bracing; saddling me with the long labor of process.
One would like to be free of such labor, to use one's labor for one's own ends. But we were none of us born into that kind of freedom, and those of us from Calvinist/depression-ridden families perhaps less so; one bad relationship begets frail expectations, and the patterns reinforce themselves. I would really like to be done with them, and it seems to take a long time, training the body to live without random contractions of the throat and gut. But it isn't just about me or my level of energy or commitment or discipline, no.
Beyond individual memory, at the core of this kind of paralysis, there is history again. Among the charges brought against me in that relationship was my identity -- too white, too middle-class, too academic -- as a reason why I would never understand my partner. The charges sunk in because they mirrored other charges brought up consistently by my activist friends and subaltern studies colleagues.
There are very important, historical, political, and moral reasons to take seriously such pleas for listening. Psychologists have documented the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in inhabitants of ethnic neighborhoods cleared to make way for eminent domain developments. Who could argue that any victim of oppression hasn't suffered the trauma they describe -- especially when the trauma in question was inherited from history? If my student, colleague, or partner lash out against me for reasons of history, what possible remedy could mere words offer?
When someone traumatized rebuffs the willing interlocutor, it's the fault of history, not of assholishness. Postcolonial historians, in the 1990s, debated whether anyone of nonindigenous background could speak with sympathy on behalf of the subaltern; in the 2000s, the same debates are rehearsed in queer studies: can straight people write histories of gay migration? For believers, the very rationale of subaltern studies is the transformation that happens to people who tell their own story for the first time. Let more subalterns speak, they explain, and expect the world to be transformed. The sign of that transformation is not only the shift to the subaltern: it manifests not only in the self-confidence of radicals who used to hurt, but also in the transformation of the attitude and the composition of the privileged. Yet as white, straight, male, privileged academics inherit prized positions at top universities, the subaltern proponents of subaltern studies object -- as they should; social justice will only be effective when the racial and gender balance of academic departments reflects that of the population at large.
And this is the politics of identity, the politics of exclusion: the necessary relic of historical oppression. It is the deaf ear turned on the student, friend, and colleague. Many versions of this conversation foreground not social justice but identity; the necessity of people telling their own story. So much so good for them: in therapy, in small groups, story-telling heals the subject.
In society, however, exclusive story-telling is dangerous. Modern identity politics has left a legacy of exclusion: maternalist feminists rejected the NAACP; SNC leaders and Black Panthers rejected the woman's movement forming in their midst; transexuals were disinvited from the Michigan Women's Music Festival. The former victims of exclusion shut out possible interlocutors.
If you're committed to a moral life -- to transcending identity in the name of good politics -- there is no way to escape these iterative exclusions. From the census and governing mechanisms of the nineteenth-century state, subalterns learned the nuances of ethnicity: to cleave, maddeningly, to distinctions of caste and ethnicity that had mattered rarely or at least less before. From the fissioning labor movements of the 1870s, radicals learned to enforce boundaries of belonging and identity: anarchosyndicalists against Trotskyites against Soviets; first- and second- and third-wave feminists who competed for academic funding against queer studies. There is a hierarchy at work: an enormous pyramid of positioning within the left to be at the wedge breaking into the academy, breaking politics, or capturing media attention. Enter any nonprofit, volunteer, organize, or attend a radical convention, and you will find yourself on a battlefield of this kind of positioning. If you want to stay in the conversation, sooner or later you will take on an epithet, a position, and an identity.
There are deeply structured, historical reasons why most people on the left operate out of a politics of exclusion. It is history's curse.
The problem is that not everyone can claim a moral identity in this game; some are excluded for good. Straight, white, educated male radicals can identify in support of Puerto-Rican independence; they can describe what they've inhabited for a long time, but they cannot claim to speak for the movement. They cannot claim, by birth or natural experience, any of the identities that would tell them where to stand: ethnicity, gender, queerness, or class. Some apprentice themselves to another movement, and speak for anti-gentrification after spending ten years working against gentrification. Some resuscitate an ancestor -- a steel-worker or immigrant farmer grandparent. All options entail labor. They are inherently unfriendly to beginners or learners. Some radicals like it that way: a high barrier to entry means fewer superficial participants, more true believers in the ranks.
A high barrier to entry makes the left exclusive. It also means shutting out the well-meaning colleague or naive student who'd like to help but has no experience. It means shrugging at or mocking parents, siblings, and acquaintances who don't get it. This kind of behavior is legion in activist circles: I've both received and replicated it. A beginner and a person of reasonable privilege, one is likely to receive the rebuff exclusion on a frequent basis. The way things go, being an activist means lecturing most of one's peers most of the time on how they don't get it.
No wonder there are so few straight, white men in these movements. So far as I can tell, they are liable to suffer the brunt of isolation. As a woman and a scholar, I can at least from time to time vent my isolation in the form of an emotional essay, a genre stretching back to Virginia Woolf. But imagine my idealistic scientist colleagues -- no wonder their energies are bound up with Kurzweil-style transhumanism and other fantasies with nothing to do with the current perils of the environment, of race and class. No wonder my white, male colleagues in the humanities decline to speak on any subject from a moral position, if they do so, hopelessly abstract it into libertarianism or theology or post-Marxism. They are excluded from all other conversations: they cannot speak as an expert, certainly; but the path of humility is also likely to be quite lonely in a world where the politics of exclusion rule. It is very, very hard to think of oneself as a moral subject in the absence of a community.
What a strange world, where being a person of privilege and power requires one to suppress the impulse for either community or a better world.
There are alternatives to shutting out people from conversation. I had enough of exclusion early: by birth and timing, I wasn't one of the individuals who profited from it. Shortly after college I stopped calling myself a feminist in most public contexts, having watched the reflex hostility of class-based or intellectual radicals with whom I allied myself in other contexts. Why throw up a wall when you're trying to forge a movement? Quieting -- not absolute silence, but forebearant quieting -- was the price of participation. I called myself a feminist in private, and continued hanging out with labor organizers, progressive Christians, and social-networking activists. I kept my lens, my information, but I spoke less about what I knew as a subject and more about what I was learning as a participant. I quieted down to listen; I let go of my own exclusion politics; I inherited community.
Community is the alternative to exclusion. Community, that overspent word of NPR, is a cliche in 2010; it helps to remember that in 1880, community was a term of high theory. Talking about "community" in 1880 meant challenging the rights of landlords and looking back to medieval communes for the inspiration of a city in which the poor could afford to participate. Advocates of community like Annie Besant became the first proponents of rent control and public housing. Beatrice Potter Webb and other privileged women took jobs as rent collectors and union organizers, seeping themselves in the world where the other class lived. They did not insist on their own identity politics: they took up the problem of forging social bridges.
Which brings us to why so many conversations, relationships, and ideas within the contemporary left are *not* about community. The significance of "community" was spatial: it was based on a commons. They looked to the ancient town commons as an ideal for the shape of the city, a place where people of different backgrounds met each other and interacted on a regular basis. Strangers drifted in and out of the medieval market, challenging the politics of the local with news from far-off cities and religions. Community is about meeting people different than you are. When, much later, politicians and journalists began speaking about the "black community", they misapplied the term, as many leftist activists do to this day. If everyone looks just like everyone else, what you're creating is not a community.
We seek out relationships informed by community because they offer the opportunity for changing history. Zapatistas have survived through their connections with politicians, academics, and elites. The nineteenth-century rent-control movement succeeded only where it united tenants and organizers from classes of privilege. When I let my own feminist identity politics go, I joined the food activists and social-networking activists who were creating real change: not because they, as individuals, were insightful, so much as because there, around those issues, a community had formed of diverse people with enough motivation to act. It was a community so poised as to transform the social structures around it: it was what, in the mid-twentieth-century, clever people who'd heard about the spontaneous migration of atoms called a "movement." It is the union of those powers from below and above that made such movements so powerful: such powers rarely appear in the life of the repressed when they work alone. The payoff of changing history is freedom: not the freedom from priests or capitalism, those battles of our ancestors; but freedom from the doom of history: freedom from the doom of exclusion. We want our children to be free to meet, converse, mingle, learn, work and play, without undergoing the impossible labor of processing history. We want participation for queer, black, Latin, female, and migrant children who face barriers everywhere in education, academia, and the professions. We also want the experience of participation for middle-class, white, male, straight children: because that experience makes for happier, freer, less afraid, more playful individuals. It makes for a world of imagination, exchange, and learning. I want my children free from the kinds of isolation and loneliness in which many radicals have lived for most of their (our) days.
For me, the renegotiation of identity has been crucial to receiving information from quarters previously invisible to me. Any alliance of working intellectuals and thinking workers demands the renegotiation of identity on all sides. Where I have found an opening, I've found myself participating in the making of a new history, a happier alternative to the curses of exclusion that we inherit from the past. But while I let my own walls down, the people around me did not: colleagues, friends, and potential partners still tell me how it is, frequently. A choice in favor of community is a choice to listen to people who are different from oneself.
If one takes up a moral commitment to the kinds of relationships that foster social change, one is going to encounter the vanguard of exclusion politics, and one will necessarily suffer abuse. If one is going to continue listening, bridging, moving, and living, one will probably have to make a myriad series of corrections: boundaries, blockages, and disengagements, throwing up walls against abuse. Where the abuse slides out of expectation, you're in for long, unasked-for months of pushing the noise out of one's head. The walls of exclusion shoot up, and the supplicant is left in the exile of history, with no community to save her. It is immoral. Exclusion stifles conversation; it inflicts the labor of history on future conversations, relationships, and generations. It makes us fearful; it makes white, privileged people of power less rather than more willing to engage the movements that afford an opportunity for transformation. Where, after so much naysaying, will we find the masses willing to participate in a broadcast revolution of social life in the name of justice or the environment? Exclusion kills off participation, creating artificially high barriers to community and thus prohibiting movements of scale. It is at the heart of the great lack of transformative movements like those of the nineteenth-century city; movements that were grounded in community, not exclusion or identity. Exclusion destroys life; it inhibits play; it stifles courage. It drains good things wherever it finds them. Say to the activist: YOU are the source of my pain.
Listing one apprentice's or friend's or partner's shortcomings only makes one into another of the perpetuators of exclusion. If one wants to stay in community, one will have to keep tearing those walls down. Even in a good relationship or a solid movement, this kind of renegotiation is necessary. Forgiveness, the theologians say, may be offered a thousand times a day. Purged, forgiving, listening, talking, flowing with change and new information, these are the techniques of being human that loose the exclusions of history. In them lies something that tastes vaguely sweet, as if there were a cure for pain.
But balm for the wounds of history never comes from one direction alone. There are no cure-alls in a game of multiple causation. I don't look to another relationship to stop my stomach hurting; I trust a long conflation of factors -- relationships including searching out kind colleagues and kinder friends, exercise, diet, dancing, distancing oneself from the dramatic and selfish; living the commitment to one's values, and connecting with some kind of spirit.
Indeed, some of those parts are easier than others. So with that (glances out window at the city pool a block away)...