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Let’s just call him Steeltown or… Neverland… no, let’s call him Steeltown. He’s an older, white, male, married, and procreated professor. He is not American and– I think– educated “abroad.” And I knew I was making a mistake by taking his class. But maybe, I thought, it could be one of those: know thy enemy mistakes. (Now that I’m in div school I think it’s best if we use more Biblical pronouns whenever possible, thank you.) The course, EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY, is hugely popular at my school. And Steeltown has a massive, enthusiastic following. As far as I can tell this following is largely semi-Buddhist, rich, white, faux-hippie, philosophy men. But there are others… I wouldn’t want to exclude the others.
The stated premise of the course: existentialism is crazy theoretical and doesn’t deal with real people but it’s also SO RIGHT!!! So, Steeltown swears, we’re gonna deal with real people an how right existentialism is.
The presented syllabus consisted of lots of Theory from Steeltown and Arendt and lots of anthropology from various sources.
My initial hesitation about the course: It turned out that by “real people” Steeltown meant that we were going to be looking at the indigenous and the abject. Perhaps this is predictable because he seems to be one of those old-school relic anthropologists who is doing anthropology in a wicked scary way.
The situation was further complicated because of the content of the theory produced. In the best Cartesian way, Steeltown presented a kind-of-scary perspective on agency that insisted that the individual is/was transparent to itself. This means that having agency means: we accomplish the thing we want to accomplish. There is no room for not knowing what one wants because there is, conveniently, no pesky psyche.
And the slippery slope-y downfall of all this is: Steeltown et al.’s insistence on the primacy of “lived experience” seemed all progressive and shit but really reduced actual, material, difference between experience to mere fantasy. In one article by the professor he actually described this problem by citing two examples. The first was of three unequally educated Mexican men who “felt like” they didn’t have the same advantages in life. The other was an anecdote about how, despite the fact that his Wife had given each of their two children an equal amount of candy, the younger one still felt that the older had been favored. So you see: no matter what the world looks like… we all feel like we’re getting slighted. Who cares, I guess, that the difference between candy and education isn’t just about feelings but is also about survival.
Slippery Slope-y: So, you see, although feelings are real/legitimate/and-in-fact-all-we-have, they actually bear no consistent or meaningful relationship with reality.
So. I was going to class, like a good Grad Student, when we managed to slip down the slope in a scary, racist, way that I thought we would never have entered.
We are talking about violence and how it’s just a different register upon which experienced injustice manifests. Steeltown is rehashing Mauss’ reciprocity model in which all interactions are repayment for historical debt and all repayments produce new debt which, then, begs repayment. Steeltown’s argument is that violence spurs more violence– violent debt can never be settled… etc.
Classmate: So what about forgiveness? Does forgiveness actually break the cycle? If someone forgives someone else– is the debt forgiven? Or does the forgiven person now just owe the other person for forgiving him?
Steeltown: Forgiveness is a really interesting case because it only happens in really particular circumstances. That is– it only happens when you have someone who is really powerless. For example, I once saw an indigent farmer forgive a hawk for stealing one of his hens. He could have been angry but instead he realized he couldn’t do anything and he moved on— to take care of the remaining hens.
Steeltown continues: What is interesting here is that forgiveness is associated with the moralistic. So what looks like the moral choice is really just the product of extreme powerlessness. Whereas, if you have someone with more power, you might have revenge instead.
AND THEN HE SAYS:… Which makes you rethink people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
Really? I mean, REALLY!?!? Does it? So, according to Steeltown, MLK and G acted out of powerlessness. We only now understand them to be heroic and moral because their actions happen to be associated with Goodness?!?!?!1?1!1?!?!
This is when my new mental health plan (adapted from dearfriendGrover) became: WTF, don’t go to that class anymore… what the hell are you doing to yourself!?
FORTUNATELY! there was still a weekly section to attend. Mostly section was better/less subtly evil than class was. It wasn’t totally full of Steeltown-afficianados. And since, I guess, I can be a pretty … intimidating… classmate, they didn’t totally dominate.
One choice moment from section though. The section leader for the day had decided to tackle to the topic of the “real world.” That is… the mysterious and cruel place that lies in wait outside of the university and how scared we are to get there. There is a lot of talk about how people are prolonging their education because they know that this is actually the Real World where we get to talk about Real things. And jobs, everyone knows, are totally boring. This seems to be the biggest stated hesitation about joining the real world: fear of boredom. Maybe this was a really productive conversation for a lot of people in the class. We were a good ten minutes into an earnest conversation about how people are so nervous to join the realworld when I decided to ask a question.
Femmephane: Um… Are you guys serious? I get that we’re having a conversation about a really specific upper-middle class trajectory here but… Really? When people treat me in belittling ways about what’s going to happen when I get to the real world (especially professors who are “in it” etc) I get kind of insulted. Just because we’re in this program doesn’t mean that we all have had the same trajectory that people assumingly retroject for us. And some of us have very different realities outside this place…. on on blah blah blah
People have a really good conversation, mostly, about how this is actually a weird conversation that is only relevant to a particular class of people. It strikes me that way more of them belong to that class that I had initially estimated. The section is primarily white (maybe 17/20) and many of them came straight from undergraduate and attended expensive private universities and Ivies.
Classmate: Question, when do we start feeling like adults? Does that just happen at some point.
TeachingAssistant: As the oldest person in this room, I can say definitively “never.” Adult is just an arbitrary state of mind.
[I silently disagree]
Latino Classmate: I disagree. I felt like an adult as soon as I realized I could be tried as an adult for a crime.
Intense Silence. Uncertainly about whether L.C. is joking or not. The answer is: yes.
Section tries to recover with talk about how the concept of “taking time off” to do things like Habitat for Hum is totally weird because really the Habitat part of their lives is the REAL part.
Section leader very gracefully wraps up conversation, including my comment in his analysis in a very productive way.
Latino classmate: It’s weird. No one has ever asked me what I’M gonna do when I join the real world or talked to me about what a shock it’s going to be.
Femmephane: Have you noticed that you’re not white?
Latino Classmate: WTF?! I AM NOT?! NO way!
Abiding Discomfort Presides. LC and I celebrate final section with drinks and friendship.
I tried to explain what Mezzanine meant but was thwarted because we weren’t on one. We were on a poetically renamed second floor. It’s hard to explain what Mezzanine means when architects lie.
Mezzanine: Writing postcards has helped me commit to saying goodbye, briefly. They were beginning to sprawl into double spaced “regards” ladders, separated by commas.
Alone the first two seem crass and the third, trite. I suppose the best I can hope for is a poignant triumvirate. But they look more like prompts for short answers, little texts boxes built to enclose handwritten signatures. I am sorry they cannot be.
Cannot be: A gaggle of tanned, blond, high school students passes me on the UT quad. They are in orientation for their summer college prep program. They are, “totally overwhelmed by all the people they don’t know.” I overhear tidbits between 17 year olds who only met last night. Their hobbies are swimming and also, sometimes, reading books. Presumably they are walking together instead of alone because they happened to meet last night.
Reorientation: I met Jeff on the second day of summer school. We went for a walk where he tried and failed to right a fallen newspaper dispenser somewhere along the Charles River. We met through the people we had met on the first night. Our hobbies were running and gymnastics and reading books. Sometimes.
I have learned to hold it at a distance because I’m convinced that that’s where it lives: in my hold. I think my arms are growing longer out of sheer terror. It does not work like a magnet but I’m afraid it will– that if it gets just a little closer then it will be pulled hard against my heart. And when it gets here-
when it gets there.
The way they say “anxiety” makes it sound like something tempermental, female, Jewish. It is the thing we must take more seriously or it will kill us. But by that they mean: drink less coffee and stop trying to overachieve and put down your cell phone. By that they mean: be a healthier upper middle class person. Deal with your shit and prioritize. That is the end of anxiety.
The way they say “panic attack” makes it sound like it is violent but then it passes. It seizes you or wounds you. It is acute but only as long as a seizure or a wound.
The way they say stress management makes it sound like if you just took care of your panic attacks and then your anxiety would go away….like you’re being irresponsible.
Or lazy. Like You. Like Them.
What they feel like is this:
A microphone that swings too close and then you hear that noise. It’s the high-pitched feedback squeal.
The air in the back of my throat is warm. It stops moving in and out. My heart flutters– because this is the last time it will be able to beat and my heart never tries to pace itself, its more of the hoarding kind. I feel my tongue widen in the back and the walls of my throat are nearly touching. I try to breath in through my nose but as soon as I try, I am unable to. Look around: what is the likelihood that someone in this room, this restaurant, this airplane, this apartment is carrying an Epi-pen. Even when I haven’t eaten anything for hours. I try to locate the irritant and at once every bump is a bite, every itch is a rash. I call you to say I love you. And goodbye. Except that I can’t talk because my throat is too swollen and hosting even one word would be the end of me.
What they feel like is this:
Feedback is when the speaker and microphone are too close and so there can be no intercession of voice. There is only the sound of the speaker into the microphone into the speaker. Feedback is a noise so loud that it is no longer a noise and you can’t hear anything human below it.
My throat hurts. The walls of my neck have grown, somehow, weak. I don’t know if it’s the tendons or the muscles or what. All of a sudden I am a genius of neck-anatomy. Maybe this is going to be when my vertebrae finally collapse. Breathing, speaking, moving will make it happen faster. The whole system is weakening. All the parts start breaking loose, they no longer support each other but dance wildly and erratically. The bones are melting and there’ll be nothing left to keep me open. I look around. I wonder who in this room, restaurant, airplane, apartment is a secret trauma doctor, ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy, ready to prop my throat open with tooth pick tent poles until I can get to the OR. I can’t call to say I love you. And goodbye. I’ve learned better by now.
What they feel like is this:
Audio feedback is a problem for amplifiers and oscillators.
A lightening pain in my head. Partial blindness. Dizziness. Some nausea. The memory of watching a girl have an aneurism in my seventh grade language arts class. Her face turned green before she threw up. Is my face green. This will be irreparable.
What they feel like is this:
A stabbing, aching chest pain that takes my breath away. I cannot catch my breath. My hands are numb and then, sometimes, my feet. I hold all the aching parts of my body, chew on an aspirin. I casually call you to tell you I love you and goodbye. It is foolish for me to believe that I am having a heart attack unless I actually am. And in that case I’ll just die so it’s not worth making a fuss. By this point I am ready to die. I am so exhausted that I want it. At least then I wouldn’t have been crazy.
I am yelling against the tone but I can’t even hear my own voice. I’m dying. I say. But it doesn’t sound as dire as it feels.
If I could just figure out what the problem was. I have hours a day– two, five, sometimes ten, to look it in the face and act normal instead or totallys succumb or cry and beg. Once, in a philosophy class, a classmate of mine suggested that science, religion, and philosophy were all primarily interested in getting to “truth.” Of course he was wrong. But– something is getting caught and recycle and I can’t figured out how to stop it without breaking the circuit.