Saturday, December 31, 2016

Queer Dialectics of the Ark: Resolutions and Reflections of 2016


"I will blot out from the earth 
the human beings I have created"

Genesis 6:7
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The Flood

The end of 2016 has become a sad joke, a figure of a year that wouldn't die and made everyone miserable in its old age. In some ways, this is a variation on the classic trope of New Year's as the old man of the past knocking on the grave, like the wizened figure from the Pardoner's Tale, while the new year arrives freshly pampered like an infant. The eyes of the old are weary and regretting while the eyes of the young are bright and promising. Yet 2016 has the distinction of never being very childish or cheerful, even in its youth. The beginning of the year was marked for many by the death of David Bowie, the musical legend and queer icon. A series of high profile deaths and tragedies followed throughout the year. There began to be a sense that if we could all get through December 31st, we will have made it onto the ark. Of course, this is a false sentiment. The end of the year will not be the end of death. Nor, judging by the trend of politics and social tensions, will there be a future free of tragedy. January 1st is not so very different from the previous day. Yet every year we approach the new year like a new start. That intention and myth is not without worth and effect. There is a method to the continual starts and restarts, even as the old folds into the new. This method is how we match our collective will to the onward force of time and change. By this method we work entropy into progress. By this method we mourn the dead and hope for new life. There is value to that. Indeed, looking back at 2016, this method - which I will identify with dialectical models of writing - seems to pervade the whole year. If it is true that we can die many deaths before the end, this was a year that challenged the continuity of time with frequent breaks, tragedies and traumas that broke down our sense of life and meaning. Each time we face these cataclysms, we were forced to find a way to keep living anyway. Although few want to return to 2016, there is a lesson to learn from it. It is the lesson of in tragedy, a lesson in survival, a lesson in rhetoric.

I sincerely believe that literary criticism and composition can save lives and change the world. I recall sitting on the train to Washington DC to teach the first class of 2016 to a room full of new students. Taking my seat, I turned on my cell-phone and turned it off a minute later. All over social media was the news that on this day, January 10th, David Bowie had died. Almost a year later, I still have difficulty perceiving this as a world without this Star Child in it. On that first day, I was in shock and didn't know how to even begin processing the tragedy. Faced with an introductory class in a few hours, I threw my grief into the lesson by doing what I often do when I am grappling with such pain: searching for meaning within literature. The terrible irony hit me that the one I most wanted to help me get through Bowie's death is Bowie himself. In that spirit, I began this seminar on Transgender and Social Justice with a music video of Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure." This was a providential way to begin the course and the year as a whole. In this song, these trans and queer icons left us a lesson on how to live in the face of death and oppression. What do we do when we hear our friends crying "let me out?" Do we "turn away from it all" or "sit on the fence?" "It doesn't work," they inform us." This is a world without absolute security or places to hide. No matter where you go or how much you try to keep your head down and push on, you will have to recon with the hurt and the cries. You can wall yourself off but eventually the pressure will be too much and the flood will take you. The only way to face the pressure, say David Bowie and Freddy Mercury, is to face it head on with something that can out last tragedy and change the world: love. Yes, they admit, "Love is such an old fashioned word." The word and sentiment have been tried over and over again. The horrors keep on happening. Death keeps coming. But love is a dialectic, they say, "love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night and love dares you change our way of caring about ourselves." Love is not a way to fix death or stop suffering but is a way to face it, fight it, and live amidst it. Love will not silence our opposition but it will give us a counter argument. Love is what must come next.

My favorite method of writing to teach is dialectic argument, a style of writing, narrating, and living that is all about integrating what has happened, what is happening, and what comes next. The structure establishes an argument (thesis), introduces a counter-argument (antithesis), then arrives at a conclusion that continues the argument but takes the counter-argument into account (synthesis). I organize my lesson plans to follow this rhythm. One week will introduce an idea, grounded in one book or one part of a book. The next week we explore a competing idea from the same period, place, or text. The third week we conclude the section by considering how a third text or part of the text attempts to resolve the tension between these ideas. We consider how the synthesis works and how it fails, introducing a nascent thesis and antithesis which usually is the segue into the next section. The paper which comes at the end of the section or the next section likewise is supposed to follow a dialectic and engage in the texts we study. Usually the prompt is not so simple as to generate a rehash of the same thesis, antithesis, synthesis we explored in class but is tight enough to encourage them to use the various points and counter-points we discussed. By asking them to engage with a counter-argument, I hope to teach them compassion for topics they may dislike or an ability to criticize a topic they do enjoy. While books that make us very sad or angry often provoke the sharpest arguments, I try to steer them to critique subjects for which they have some love. Critiques tend to be the most useful and respectful when the critic approaches the text with the sensibility of a friend offering loving advice. When you see some good in the text but want it to be better, to fulfill missed opportunities, and live out its potential, then those who read the argument tend to be more open to the criticism. Also the argument tends to be more measured, nuanced, and specific. Afterwards, by offering our own synthesis of ideas, productive criticism that says "yes and..." or "yes however," we can appreciate how hard it is to resolve these conflicts while also pushing others to generate more goodness.

The last month of Spring classes saw the death of Prince, offering my students one more chance to consider the work of rhetoric before the final paper. Just as he had done in the first class, we watched a landmark performance of Prince: Let's Go Crazy. "Dearly beloved," coos the Artist, "we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life." A queer icon famous for playing with gender and sexuality in his art and life, Prince knew the great cost of living on through the tragedy of the everyday. Yet his was not a song of despair or stoic perseverance. Prince got through this thing called life by imagining something better than life as it was then bringing others together to share this vision. "Electric word life, it means forever and that's a mighty long time" continues Prince, marking the feeling of excitement and anxiety, purpose and weariness in our enduring existence. "But I'm here to tell you, there's something else," he adds, "the after world." For Prince, the after world is not the same as merely living on through life or death. The after world is "something else" of another kind. "The after world," is what comes next. Imagining such a world is critical in the work of moving from persisting to progressing. Dreaming of, looking for, and working towards "something else" is how we move on after monotony and trauma, beyond life and death. In the wake of Prince's death, we need the promise of "something else" for those of us still trying, "to get through this thing called life." From Bowie and Prince we receive songs and rhythms that progress us forward, a method, a dialectic.  Proceeding through Spring semester 2016 with my Transgender and Social Justice class was full of hardships and each time a new wave hit us I tried to get my students to put it into their reading and writing. Dialectical methodologies are all about introducing something new and different. Dialectics are all about conflicting ideas, persons, and movements. By taking such an approach to literature, we saw how all narrative is in some form of an argument where conflicting forces are attempting to resolve some tension. Taken in this way, our music and literature turns from a flat, self-enclosed object of study into an active agent that seeks to engage in the world. Our stories call us to engage with them with the promise that through them we might find a method to carry on.


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The Ark

The story of Noah's ark is a lesson in God's rhetoric. A study of the Bible, starting with Genesis, reveals a dialectic structure to the narrative of God's people. Beginning with God's Creation of humanity, readers can perceive humanity's fall from grace as a counter-argument, a statement of alterity, that will be synthesized again and again in the later books where God seeks to save and liberate humanity from its mutually-imposed bondage. Yet stories can also be begun from a human perspective. Humanity finds itself created and in a garden not of its own making, generations faced with oppression and tragedy that they did not chose. From a human perspective God can seem to be the antagonist, time and again breaking into our ways of life and interrupting it, causing us to reevaluate and rebuild. A exemplary instance comes in the story of the Flood and Noah's Ark. If we begin with the perspective of humanity, life has been continuing apace when seemingly all of a sudden God brings upon the world a deluge that will wipe out all life on Earth. Working together with God, Noah synthesizes a solution with God's terror, the old world will pass away but a part of it will be preserved on a massive Ark. First, there is a dialectic debate between Noah and God, argument meeting counter-argument, and the Ark is the synthesis. Second, from this argument arises the embodiment of this dialectic: the argument of the world will face the counter-argument of tragedy and death to synthesize a future where the world will continue in an altered form. The effectiveness of this synthesis (however horrific it may be) is that it also answers the dialectic from God's perspective as well. God ordered a just humanity and world, the world fell into injustice, the flood and Ark together will bring about a justified world. This structural overview of the Bible, and the story of Noah's Ark in particular, establishes scripture not only as a mythic dialog but a dialectical argument. Noah's Ark is not merely a prop in a story but an embodiment of rhetoric. If we learn the lesson of Noah's Ark, we can apply this dialectic to our own tragedies.

Many readers and illustrators of the Noah's can't help but focus on the animals. While the humans are our direct stand-ins, our mythic ancestors, the animals in and out of the ark tend to get the focus in medieval liturgical plays and manuscripts drawings. There is something more sympathetic about the animals. They did not cause or deserve the punishment of the Flood, yet their destruction or survival is decided on by divine and human forces not their own. While scripture focuses on humanity, it is difficult to read the animals as inconsequential. The decision to save some of them is one sign of their value. The decision to save more of some kinds of animals and less of others is a sign that the animals do not all have the same value. God instructs Noah, "Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals... and a pair of the animals that are not clean... and seven pairs of the birds of the air also" (Genesis 7:2-3). Despite illustrations and common understandings that the Ark contained two of every animal, it did not. The repetition of the phrase "two by two" perhaps contributed to this misunderstanding. Among the animals, there would be a total of fourteen members of "clean" species and only two members of "not clean" species. This distinction is generally understood as those animals that are good to eat, use in work, and sacrifice in contrast with those who are not. Again, not only do the animals have no word in the argument of who will die and who will be saved, they have no word in determining which groups will have a greater level of security and which will be abandoned. Many marginalized and oppressed people understand that the aid or disregard they possess is often determined by others and often distributed based on who will be most useful to those in power. By identifying as the animals, we enter into a larger debate: who among us are the "clean" ones who will be given a greater degree of life and who among us are considered the "unclean" ones whose existence will be minimally tolerated? Are we the sheep or the snakes?

In the wake of LGBTQI rights activism, more plays and illustrations of Noah's Ark have appeared imagining why there are no unicorns in the world. The unicorns, imagined as gay icons, were not allowed in the ark because when they arrived two by two they were in sets of men and men or woman and woman. Not fitting the compulsory statute for heterosexual breeders, the unicorns were left to die. Many of those who lived and died in the AIDS epidemic may identify with these unicorns, abandoned to perish in a natural tragedy while those in power condemned their deaths as the just vengeance of an angry God. Currently, the transgender community may feel they have missed the boat with suicide rates of near or beyond 50% and a steadily increasing rate of homicide. People of color may likewise understand what it means for those in gated communities to exclude and abandon them, allowing only "the good ones" to enter their safe zone if and when they are useful. In election seasons in the United States it is easy to feel like the Ark is being built for the next four to eight years and the politicians are choosing which groups will get a greater or lesser place in their respective futures with entrance contingent on the groups willingness to be helpful to them. When one of the two Arks (candidates/parties) fails, the other Ark may mock those who do not have a preferential place in their establishment. Indeed, the rhetoric that allows certain Arks to win is on the basis of what groups will be considered "clean" and what "unclean" groups will be left to die or culled then domesticated. Countless candidates have offered dominant groups a larger representation in the Ark while promising to drive marginalized groups (the queers, feminists, Muslim and Jewish populations, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities) into the flood waters. Every four years or so the dialectic of the Ark is performed on a national stage, incorporating many of the arguments and counter-arguments being lived out every day around sex, transgender, racism, religion, science, and animal rights. For this reason, many of us may have lost faith in the Ark and its promises for a brighter future for some, at the expense of the rest.

For those who survive, who make it onto the proverbial Ark, we may question the great cost and value of this survival. For us unicorns and snakes, we question the justice of living to see a new year when so many of our friends, family, and community members have perished. By the flood, the ruler of the world, "blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth" (Genesis 7:23). Whole communities, arguments, and ways of life have been blotted out. Voices and songs have been silenced as violence choked and drowned them. We have heard their fear, anger, and sadness. Now we hear only the faint echoes in our ears and hearts. What makes us one of those many or few who get to enter into this new future? Are there not those we admire who die? Have we not lost those who might have done more for the world than we? We may think of many who are cleaner, more useful, and deserving of life than us, yet they are among those we lose as we continue on living. The future is ours but it should have been theirs. Or at least a great portion of the future should have been theirs. Because theirs would have been a better future, a brighter future, a future needing fewer floods and with bigger more inclusive arks. Who are we that survive? What will we do with this unfair gift and debt? Who am I to stand here in the place of transgender siblings who died by the terror of suicide, abandonment, and murder? Who am I to walk away from my encounters with police when my black counter-parts are wheeled away to the morgue? Where is the justice in the Ark? Where is the goodness in the choice and choosers? Those who have passed will not live to account the value of their deaths or see justice in this world. Nor might we ever understand our own survival or see the end of the story. The fullness of time is not ours but we will live to see many different kinds futures. The dialectic will continue. New counter-arguments and new syntheses. We will not see the end of the argument but by being a part of the debate we can shape who the conversation carries forward the meaning of the past. We can teach the world to revalue those who were not chosen for any Ark. We can tell stories that revalue their deaths. We can enter their arguments back into discussion. By taking the Ark as a rhetoric lesson, we can learn how to live out the dialectic the future needs and our history demands.


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The Flag

On Christmas 2016, I received a model of Noah's Ark for my desk. Currently, it is in my office being steered by a little lego figure of me that my partner created. This is a bit of a joke, as she recognizes my office as a bit like my ark where I manage my stress about the world and work with others to get more us through the flood. Like those running around the ark plugging holes, I recall have to explain my simultaneous disappearance from an active public life and the look of barbed intensity when I would be spotted outside the home. During this time, it was all hands on deck in the transgender community. The Trans Lifeline reported an all time high of over 1,000 calls by the end of November. At this time, the usual method of Transliterature changed from meditative pieces on literature to a communications avenue just for getting resources from those who wanted to help and to those who could help.  Back in November, when the future of the United States became covered in the floods of hate and fear, I was utterly uncertain which of us would make it onto the boat. Too many didn't. The Transgender Lifeline is a service whereby the trans community and allies takes care of our most vulnerable. On election night, the lines were almost drowned as hundreds of calls inundated with tragedy. Their voices were among those pleading to Noah to be saved as tides of violence and antagonism were on the rise. Not everyone makes it onto the ark and not everyone survives the past the damage done by the counter-argument. We do what we can. We initiate contingency plans and open our doors to those in need of somewhere to weather the storm but we cannot change the world over night. For some time, we will continue try to stay afloat or swim. We have been in this boat before. In ways, we never left it. Many of us have lived through floods before. Yet this experience at seafaring is no assurance that we will make it through this deluge. Nor is there confidence that we will have a place in the world when the storm recedes. This is where symbols again become important. 

Beyond signs like arks that keep us going, flag are another way that we communicate to one another, assert our arguments, organize, and reclaim the world. My partner and I were standing in our closet-office, discussing the place white supremacy, Neo-Nazis, and the KKK would have in the new world. I see more of the town I live in while I go for jogs. Along the way I see confederate flags raised. There are those who try to reclaim these flags by saying that they represent "southern pride" not slavery or white supremacy.  But you can't reclaim the flag which flew in defense of slavery. You can't erase that. And white supremacy is all about pride for "our (white) people." This is hardly an argument or counter-argument. Arguments can be integrated into a dialectic, add some good. But this is too poisonous. This doesn't play fair. This lies and rewrites history, because history and morality is not behind it. This is how the flood of ignorance works. Ignorance is not only about a lack of knowledge but a willing refusal to acknowledge truth. Ignorance is about ignoring the truth. Hate steers with the gut and clouds the mind. Like a storm and flood it causes trauma, making it hard to determine what is up and what is down. Hate incites desperation when there is enough room on the ark or land for us to share. The confederate flag is not an argument, it is the breakdown of arguments. White supremacy is not a sign of strength but of weakness, the oppressor excusing their actions because they cast themselves as the oppressed. White supremacy is not an argument, it is an ignorant refusal to engage in the facts and reason that define arguments. All it has is storms and floods, flags and hate, gut feelings and swinging arms. In the midst of discussing our concerns in the office, my partner and I concluded, "no, not within these walls. In this home, we follow a better thesis." The decision was made to buy a transgender and gay pride flag, as well as a Black Lives Matter flag.  In the first case, they would be our way of saying to ourselves, this is who we are. In the second case, in this world no one can assume we are not racist, anti-transgender, anti-queer, anti-feminist, antisemitic, anti-Islam, or anti-immigrant. Quiet passivity is not going to make the world a better place.

The flags came out at different times and received different reactions. The first one to be pinned in our front room window was the transgender pride flag, boasting stripes of pink, blue, and white. Most people who drove by probably don't know what it is. That didn't matter right away. The flag was for us and for those who knew what it was. Next came the rainbow LGBTQI pride flag. This one people would recognize but would arouse too much fuss. The last addition to be put up in the flag room (newly named) was our Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag. Our support for the movement was nothing new and we deserve no attention for it. The message is the thing that will be read, not us. And when we do appear in the frame (or window) there is a value in a predominantly white town to see a white family speaking out against racism. More than the two flags that came before it, in this town a BLM flag gets a reaction. We have already been asked by our landlord to take down the flags. He says he refuses to help us or pay to fix his property if we are targeted and attacked. Indeed only a few weeks before we moved into house, there was a rash of swastikas drawn across the town. Others in the town have commented, "how could they [our family] bring that into a nice peaceful town like this?" Peaceful here means white supremacy that denies that it is racist. The Blue Lives Matter banners fly over the town center. Of course black lives and police lives can both matter, by such banners make it clear what side of the debate they are on (if there needs to be sides) and whose lives are more valued here. To say otherwise is to start a fight because the assumption is that white supremacy has won. The flags of white supremacy are all around us in different forms. I have little use for those I consider good people but with a dearth of courage. What good is your goodness if you don't flex it for others? As I have observed, often this unwillingness to be brave comes not from too much fear but too little. Those with the privilege of security have the capacity to go through life without much significant danger. Safety is not an evil itself. But too much safety is a crutch that trains us to unconsciously and compulsively defer to the violent systems that cage the submissive and destroy the defiant. This evil unjust peace is why we will not take down the flags. This turf is not securely colonized, it remains up for debate. The debate is underway. A rainbow rises above the flood and the dialectic continues.

On this new year, I feel like Noah in the Holkham Bible (c.1320), looking out of the ark at the end of the storm and with a bird in each hand. The raven will not return with good news (Genesis 8:6-8). The dove will come back with a sign of hope (Genesis 8:9-13). It is clear that Noah is more hopeful, as he gazes toward the dove in the illustration. But what can I see? What does my figure see from the Ark in my office? What word of hope can I share from this perch? There are times I turn up like Noah's dove, with an olive leaf in my mouth, prophesying a new world if only we can hold on and fight our way there. Other times I feel like Noah's raven, flying off into the dark without any good news to share. I must admit that there were times in 2016 that I did not have much hope to offer those in the Ark. Like the raven, I saw the many lives with their heads below water. The Holkham illustration makes clear the cost of such widespread wrath. More of those who were abandoned by the ark are visible in the image than the privileged few who were included. In the lower right hand corner, we see the raven sitting on the drowned corpse of a horse. It is hard to bring back news of a bright future when so much has been lost and will never return. Indeed, this year that began with the death of the Star Child (turned Black Star) David Bowie ends with the death of Star Wars General and Princess Leia. Our heroes have passed away just as the world ahead looks ever more dismal. Yet the nature of our work on transgender, disability, and medieval literature involves digesting a lot of death with the aspiration of biting onto a nugget of hope I try to function more like a dove than a raven. Where is our olive branch? How do we become like the dove in the bottom left corner, finding new life amidst the desolation?  Let us remember that the first dove Noah sends out finds no dry ground. The dove finds much the same as the raven. Yet the dove returns. Then Noah waits and tries again. The raven despairs. The raven rejects the logic of the ark. The dove keeps trying even when there is no hope in sight. The dove tries, fails, and tried again, like the movement of a dialectic argument. That stubborn persistence and loyalty to each other may be our hope. This is not hope for any particular future. This hope is a rejection of the world that is, an assertion that the flood of hate will not get the final word. Our hope is our flag, a sign that whatever the future holds, we remain and the dialectic continues.


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Read Part 2




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