Thursday, February 21, 2013

Social Allergies

"Stripes" Jessica Parker, 2011


According to the Mayo Clinic Staff

"Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance such as pollen, bee venom or pet dander.

Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. Some of these antibodies protect you from unwanted invaders that could make you sick or cause an infection. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as something harmful, even though it isn't. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system's reaction can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways or digestive system.

The severity of allergies varies from person to person and can range from minor irritation to... life-threatening emergency. While most allergies can't be cured, a number of treatments can help relieve your allergy symptoms."



"Night's more comforting to me than day. Quieter, cooler, seemin smaller & more intimate. What day rejects, night extends" I tweet from my phone on February 8th, 2013.

The signal from my phone relays to a server that posts it on Twitter, which relays to Facebook where it posts as a status. Later that morning I get a reply on Facebook:

"Must second that. More serene, more personal."

This relays into a text conversation about night. I admit how I like how much quieter & emptier it makes the world feel. This closing down allows for me to open up (literally, through my breathing passages, my eyes, ears and neurons).

"It's not that I don't like things or people, but during the day, when the streets are flooded with bodies and the sunlight makes mold, pollen, and other tiny things rise on hot air and invade my body; I become overwhelmed and undone. I like this in theory, but in practice it knocks me down and leaves me incapacitated with anxiety and sinus attacks so extreme I move between icing my face and vomiting."

I like a lot of things, I can even like people, but I can like them better in certain doses and certain numbers. You can call it anxiety, but that sounds so abstract --so mental -- this is physical, biological, a material limit that my body sets on how much I can engage with the world. I have a real social allergy.


"Train Performance" Jessica Parker, 2011


Laying sideways in the backseat of my mom's van, I close my eyes to try to make the world stop spinning. I am six.

For a minute the pounding under and behind my eyes lets up and I think that I can try sitting up again. I really want to read my book; or draw; anything to make time go quicker until my sister's little-league game go faster. Pulling myself up, however, sends a lurch through my stomach and I want to throw up.

Taking deep breaths I close my eyes tighter. I rub them with my mitt. I wish they'd pop out, they feel too big for my skull. I wish I could just unscrew my whole head and put it somewhere until I was able to handle it again.

The side door slides open. I am back on my back, my arm over my brow, another hand pinching my nose to try to stop the pain at its source. My mother peeks in.

"Sorry to bother you. Your allergies still hurt? Here is some Ibuprofen and some water, sit up, take them, and you'll feel better soon. Come out if you get lonely."

That was here answer for everything, I thought, as the door closes, causing the car to rock back and forth. Taking my medicine I look through the tinted windows at the baseball diamond. The girls vanish in clouds of dust made of sand, grass, and probably a zillion kinds of pollen.

My mom left me the car keys, so I turn the engine on and start the AC. The sound of the air blowing through the filters give me the calming impression of existing in a clean little bubble, but my face is still aching.

"I hate nature." I flop down on my stomach this time, holding my breath to try to stop the pain at the source.


"Taped to Wall" Jessica Parker, 2011


From the rafters I can see every body, every thing going on down below. Tied onto the bars which run the stage lights some several stories above the auditorium seats, I lean up against a concrete structural support. All the noise and bustling around down below sounds like a clean murmur from where I sit.

We are putting in the gels tonight, to make the row of 30 odd some lights glow with different kinds of whiteness: warm, cool, and my favorite, "natural white" which is created when red, blue, and green are mixed perfectly. Right now though, they need the stage to finish up rehearsals for our high-school musical, the Wiz; so I am told over the inter-comm slung around my neck that I can just sit tight.

It's just me up in the rafters, but I can hear the murmur and the chatter over the inter-comm; I can see and hear it all, connected to it, but am separate from it, invulnerable, invisible. I make little doodles in the dust that lines the metal bars that support me.

"Okay, they are about ready to finish," I faintly hear over the head-phones, so I move them from my neck back to my ears. "Get ready to check the blues." Extending one leg out from the concrete, I find my footing on the cross-bar and with my arms pull the rest of my body over. Grabbing hold of the light on the far right (stage left), my fingers tingle as it turns on, brightly illuminating a square of the stage.

Moving sent up a cloud of dust into the air, causing me to sneeze and making the metal bars I am perching on sway slightly. I wait for the boat-like rocking to stop and then listening to instructions over the headphones, adjust the lights so the different colored squares match up on the front of the stage.

This will take many hours and I will be up in the rafters until around 11 PM, just me, the technology, the dust, my mentor on the radio, and a few friends building set pieces down-below. Down-below, where somewhere far away my dad is unpacking in his new house and my mom is trying to figure out what condos she can afford now. Down-bellow I feel like I'd be eaten alive, but from here, on my perch, I can be present but at my own distance and in my own time.


"Fishing Line" Jessica Parker, 2010


Perching on a chair in a corner of the class-room, balancing on my 6-inch heels, I am listening to my colleagues in our Environ Body Object Veer seminar ( talk about their physical engagement with the space and how it forms their world. We had been walking in circles and wandering for some time, before my feet started to hurt and I found my perch.

The room is dark (we turned off the lights) and it gets quiet. After a moment, my voice wanders out from my corner:

"I usually sit up front of class-rooms, when possible, because I feel more comfortable when I can see as little as possible. If what is in front of me is just a few people, a dry-erase board and a few books, I can relax better. It makes my world smaller. It's not that I don't know or like that the rest of you are there, but when I look at a crowd, I can't help by observe all of it, in minute detail and begin to analyse all of it. I get overwhelmed and will just shut down. Voices on the air or turning to look at the speaker I can deal with, but a whole room of people is just too much for me; too much."


For more artwork on Anxiety & other topics visit


I shuffle a handful of lined papers in my hand, covered in hand-written letters, as I stand in front of my third-grade class. My teacher, one of my all-time favorites, was a regular reader of my short-stories (mostly mysteries with some fantasy mixed in; right now I was mostly reading the "Clue" books based on the best-selling board-game). An actress and an artist, she encouraged us to share our work. Her excitement became my excitement, and I kept on going.

This story, she said, was particularly good, and asked me if I wanted to share it with the rest of the class. I said okay. It was weird reading my writing out-loud, but once I got going I found it to be very easy. Something about the class being there, listening, and me being here, reading what I wrote, made them less frightening. Even afterwards, when they were there speaking, and I was here listening, I found this to nice too. There was a logic to this and roles to play. Far from being overwhelmed, I felt I could suddenly connect with my peers in a new way.

I liked my peers better after that day and I think they liked me too, because we could better understand and relate to each other. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by my social-allergies, this format of writing and public speaking opened up a world to me. In a sense, by being a kind of bubble that emphasized my smallness and particularity in a big daunting room, I no longer felt that I had to interact with everything all at once. I could just play my role, read my lines, perform my part, and in turn the end they would get more from me and I could get more from them.

There is a kind of magic to writing and performance, as a prosthesis. The paradox of engaging us as broken and particular, limited in some senses, allows us to open up, wander, share, relate and expand our lives in so many other ways. Social allergies blind me to certain ways of the world and in turn open up other ways of knowing and existing.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Queer Objects: Bra-Straps {::} Answering Back



Orienting / the Round-table

The following was presented at the George Washington University on February 15th, as part of a round-table on "Attitudes, Affects & Alliances in Scholarship" sponsored by M.A.T.C.H. (Mobilizing an Active Theory Community in the Humanities) a Theory Working Group. (Listen to Podcast!)

This round-table on attitudes, affects and alliances is doomed to feel wrong; because this isn’t the space where we are accustomed to have these conversations. It’s also doomed to feel too short, because once we move from talking about our professions to talking about our lives, things are bound to explode across life-times and life-lines.

Perhaps we are not infinite, as the Perks of a Wallflower tell us, but life is hardly finite, life seems to defy limits at every turn. And so since we can’t do justice to the bigness of life, we in MATCH (and today everyone present is a part of MATCH) are trying to do justice to the smallness, the intimacy, the particularity of life by sharing stories told by objects that orient us. So: radical, small, doomed, personal. Here we go!


I. Phantoms in the Chest 

“If orientation is about making the strange familiar 
through the extension of bodies into space, 
then disorientation occurs when that extension fails. 
Or we could say some spaces allow for certain bodies 
and simply does not leave room for others.” 
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology 11

I am a partial body. The broken fragments in my brain and in my chest tell me that I have breasts of substantial weight and size. When I close my eyes I see them. When I move around, I know they are there. I am a large-breasted woman; that much is fixed in my nervous system. 

I am a partial body. The broken fragments of my eyes and in my finger tips retreat when they run across my naked chest. This is not my body they say, I am not flat-chested. Closing my eyes and moving my hands in front of me, at a certain point I feel warmness and pressure in my chest (6 inches or so in front of me). 

Some trans people say that they hate their body, they look at it and feel violated by their naked-form. I rarely feel disgust at myself when the clothes come off, but I do feel an ethereal detachment. It's like looking at yourself in a Halloween mask or done up in stage-make-up, you don’t mind if you are ugly or silly or whatever, because what you see is not you. 

There is a kind of invulnerability in that state, a sense that anything could be endured in that naked state, humiliation, exposure, abuse, because it would be happening to someone else. Not me. Not me. 

I sometimes wonder if that is why so many trans people commit suicide after puberty, when the transformations of different parts of their bodies (genitals, chests, hips, brains) move in such drastically different directions, that the threat of self-violence is not a threat as such. The attack is not on the self, but on another, on a body that has your phantom body imprisoned. 

I don’t mean disembodied spirits in the slightest, I mean: phantoms-in-the-brain, phantoms-in-the-body's-self-mapping, phantoms-in-the-flesh; for me, phantoms-in-the-chest.



II. Un-Claspings 

“Some boys take a beautiful girl & 
they hide her away from the rest of the world; 
well not me, I want to be the one in the sun.”
Robert Hazard, Girls Just Want to Have Fun

One of the earliest moments I ever felt some of the suffocating pressure of this dysphoria partiality release was when I first had my chest bound. Around the age of fourteen, some of my girl friends and I were at one of their houses. In one of those little double-deceits I practiced, I was letting them do something that no other “boy” had them do before: make them into a “girl.” 

The deceit came not in becoming a girl, but in letting them believe that what they were seeing the result was the lie; that what they were doing was obscuring more than it was revealing. It was a lie about a lie. As they put on my make-up, shadowing my eyes and lining my lips, I tried not to rejoice to much at the un-masking that they were participating in. 

Don’t get me wrong, the feigned displeasure, was not wholly to shield my identity as a boy, but to shield myself as a woman from the immense vulnerability that I was experiencing. Slowly I was becoming visible to them in a way that no one, hardly ever I, got to see myself. Then suddenly I couldn’t hide anymore, because they did something I did not expect. Putting a blind-fold on me, trying not to ruin my eye-make-up, I felt my arms guided up, a snap on my shoulders and a sudden tightness on my chest.

They removed the blindfold, and I looked down and saw the bra and my body. In a moment of panic I bolted up from the chair and ran to the bathroom. The two of them giggled from the other room, misunderstanding my reaction. They thought I ran away because I was embarrassed by the incongruity of the bra on my boyish chest.

Standing alone in the bathroom mirror, my reaction was rather the other way around. I felt too good at this moment. I felt to exposed. I felt too naked. They had seen me. This, this was what my brain had been waiting for and expected. This weight, this lift, these contours. It was like the deadness, the phantoms in my chest had suddenly and wildly come alive. 

I had to be alone in this moment because you couldn't kill a phantom, but this — this you could hurt; this has blood.



III. Straps that Bind 

“The idea of wholeness in partition caught on…matter’s partibility became key to its efficacy…Although the pieces are gathered by various framing devices into a whole, the visual presentation also stresses parts as parts” 
Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality 193-196

Anyone that has gone from blurry vision to glasses, from limited motion to flying down the street in a car or chair, from straining under labored breathing to being able to take in full fresh breaths... and then suddenly having you new vision, mobility, and breath taken away from you again, knows how much darker the darkness is once you look into the sun (not necessarily worse, but deeper & darker). 

For someone that is often so much in her own head, or maybe everyone feels this way, real action comes as a result of desperation. It's not that the dangers and difficulties are not there, but at a certain point, they become besides the point, to stay put or to go back is too intolerable. It's do or die, to stay in a certain place will surely mean a death of some-kind, an unlife, a haunting. 

It's better to hit the ground running, then to simply and stiffly plunge into the ground. It matters how a person falls, we are told by the Lion in Winter, especially when the fall is all that is left. 

For me, being thrown into the world comes along very particular trajectories, as I am pulled towards particular objects along particular lines; what Sara Ahmed calls "life-lines" or Butler calls "livable-lives." These objects are my bra-straps, my tan-lines, my Victoria-Secret shopping bags, my sisters, my lovers, my friends; they make me feel at home in this world, in this body. 

 My bra-straps, my breasts that go on the outside of the flesh, my object-oriented, crip-focused, queer-infused, ecologically-minded, medievaly-scripted pursuit of transformation gives me attitudes, affects, and alliances that help me hold on to something and to think through experiences -- so I can find the words to tell to myself when I lose my grip and the dissonance between brain and world get too much; so I can find the words to tell to others, because I used to think 50% of trans people commit suicide by the time they get to my age but as studies get better at surveying, we are now finding its closer to 60%. 

Frankly, more times than not, I don't know what to say to them to help them make sense of things; to give them a life-line or to help them share in mine. These kids, these people, they are smart and often their reason against things and reasons not to try are better than what I can offer. But I am still going to try. The questions are hard, but I'm not done thinking yet. This is my life, this is why I study and do what I do, the way that I do it; this is personal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Queer Objects: Some Brief Notes


Guest Post by D Gilson


So I’ve been thinking about underwear since seventh grade. Since the days when Mark K. was the star pitcher of the Nixa Junior High Eagles. When my days went something like this:

  • Second period — Ms. Matlock, our pre-algebra teacher, is the object of lust for Mark and all the boys in our class. Mark sits in front of me and when he constantly calls her to his desk, Ms. Matlock leans down and Mark leans forward to look down the front of her neon cardigan sets. When Mark leans forward, I can see the waistband of his underwear—usually a gray elasticity printed Hanes again and again—and I slouch down to hide my excitement. 
  • Sixth period — In Coach Creed’s gym class my locker is next to Mark’s and as we change into our Umbro shorts, I get to see what he wears that is connected to the waistband I spied earlier. It is the excitement of a secret revealed. Are they briefs? Or boxers? Or boxerbriefs, my favorite then? It is a daily surprise, an obsession I begin tallying in my journal, a weird cultural material in and of itself: a hardback notebook with a cover of the St. Louis Cardinals and inside, pages plastered with magazine cutouts of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Hillary Clinton. And now, of course, a daily tally of Mark’s underwear. 
  • Baseball practice — We’re always in close proximity, Mark and I, he our school’s pitcher and I the team’s catcher (haha). The lockerroom for baseball practice is decidedly different than that of gym class, a space literally transformed. It is marked by, in my revisions of memory at least, jockstraps and cups. Jockstraps being like picture frames for art that does not need such adornment. I have never cared for them, though many men do, it seems. Mark snaps the band that bisects my ass, as a joke, and I burn in shame. I don’t know why. 

So yes, in short: 

I’ve been thinking about underwear for some time now, and in some detail. And now I’m thinking about the public nature of our underwear, its transformative and representative powers. Cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum explains, “Underwear used to be one’s own business. Now it is a defining (hence public) element of a masculine wardrobe.”


The transformation of my own undergarments: 

In childhood I wear briefs in primary colors with white piping from OshKosh B'gosh; in middle school, caught by the visual culture of Eminem and Boyz II Men, I demand to wear boxers, though wear briefs underneath to conceal a constant pubescent arousal; in high school I wear boxer-briefs, boring and plain & a different type of concealment; in college I return to briefs and in graduate school, American Apparel briefs almost exclusively, the queer object I am trying to think about now.

My current research focuses on hipsters—those people who are easy to pick on and self-righteous, often, in their adherence to strange codes of aesthetics and politics, or pseudo politics, many would have us believe. 

If the ‘80s & ‘90s gave us fashion obsessed with the outward label that announces itself as a brand—the flag of Tommy Hilfiger or the polo horse of Ralph Lauren, to name only two—then the millennium and time since, the age of the hipster and his fashion, gives us the unbranded fashion identity. At the center of this may well be American Apparel and for queer hipsters, I’d argue, their briefs specifically. 


As seen in the image above, these briefs are unmarked, seemingly un-braded, though they also seem to denote membership in a certain hipster club. The largest clothier that continues to manufacture clothing solely in the United States under fair wage practices—though this is arguable, certainly — American Apparel may represent the hipster’s conflicted relationship with mass consumerism, aligning the group writ large with theories of post-Marxism. 

Underneath the skinny jeans of many a hipster—a group, I argue, that is largely fucking with gendered fashion in their everyday choices—lies a pair of these briefs, plain brightly colored things which harken back to a strange conglomerate of Americana: ‘70s gay porn, the underwear of childhood, and athletic gear, par exemple.

What I hope to do in my research, which I’ve only begun to briefly examine here in some probably nonsensical notes, is to both probelamtize and explore the possibility of hipster fashion as denoting a queer body of protest, a body that might resign itself (problematically) to live in the high capitalist mindset of neoliberalism, but also a body that protests that in small, perhaps queer ways, a protest which opens up possibilities not seriously considered by the academy yet. These briefs may do many a thing for the individual who wears them: blur the lines between boy and girl, between consumer and Marxist, between hipster and yuppie. Are they a queer object in this way? Perhaps.


D Gilson is a doctoral student of English
at the George Washington University,
in the American Literature concentration;
w/a focus on Queer & Hipster Culture