Monday, October 27, 2008

Altered States at UC Berkeley

Over the weekend I attended an interdisciplinary conference at UC Berkeley called "Altered States: Metamorphosis, Epiphany, Revolution" put on by the Comparative Lit. department. Thanks to Anthony, who is in the Comp. Lit PhD program at UC Riverside and drove all day with me on Friday, I was able to hear several papers by graduate students and see Amy Hollywood of Harvard Divinity do a presentation she calls “Don’t Touch Me,” which is about 40% scholarship, 40% creative performance, and 20% feminist deconstruction of both scholarship and performance. My Dad came in from Alameda and spent the day in the front row with us. In the spirit of a post from the second week of camp this past summer, I’ve been noticing again that my concept of “fun,” and therefore how I describe what I enjoy doing, differs quite a bit from most people I meet.

For instance. We were at the conference on Saturday from 9:30 am until 5:30pm. We got three breaks, all of them truncated by panels that went long and Q&A sessions that spilled over. At the end, we nibbled brie and crackers and tried to clarify things with panelists, asked them questions, discussed the talks with each other. On the walk back to the car, I was animated, elated, excited! That was so FUN! I kept saying. Fun because Anth and Dad were there to talk with me. Fun because I think Amy Hollywood is doing a brilliant, layered, strange piece of scholarship with “Don’t Touch Me,” and it makes me hopeful about the state of the academy. Fun because Brook Henkel, from Columbia, who presented a paper called “The Mysticism of Film: Cinematic Visions in Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törleß” spent fifteen minutes telling me more about his project and engaging in some lively argumentation. I think the experience of learning, the physical moment of “Aha!” that occurs when new information, new categories, new connections are made, is fun. It’s pleasurable. It energizes me. Hence, eight hours of paper presentations later, I was bouncing down the streets of Berkeley like I’d just drank a pot of coffee. (I suppose I had come close to it, anyway, over the course of the day.)

Henkel’s paper was particularly interesting to me because of the confluence of issues I also think/read/write about: sexuality, adolescence, and what Musil calls the Other Condition, which is a type of consciousness reserved for visionary, or “altered” moments. Henkel reads Musil’s character of Törleß as someone obsessed with externally confirming his experience, who distrusts his own “visions” (which are written in such a was as to seem cinematic) unless he can somehow validate them in the experience of someone else. I asked Henkel, as we stood too close to the trash can and prevented everyone from casually dumping their paper plates in the pile without acknowledging us and our conversation, if he thought that was a condition of adolescence, a normal condition for everyone, or some kind of pathology. He thought about it. “I think everyone has this desire to some degree, likely beginning in adolescence,” he said, “but this character is obsessed.” So visionary, or “altered state” experiences are fundamentally frustrating (and ultimately, truly maddening for some) because by their nature they flout three basic desires: the desire to control when and where they happen, the desire to remember their wisdom perfectly, and the desire to articulate them adequately to others. How are we to use the wisdom gained from our time crossing into the “secret, unnoticed life of things” if we have trouble remembering and articulating it once we’ve crossed back over into normal life? Henkel seemed unperplexed by this question, but he liked my “irritation.” I told him I wasn’t irritated, I was caught in what seemed to me a very noble frustration. We agreed that the problem of bringing useful wisdom back from the Other Condition was likely only to be solved by those who cross over and back regularly. One must practice having visions, then.

This conversation dovetailed nicely with a question I asked of one of the conference coordinators: why no panels about drugs? What a long and rich artistic tradition we have of writers and filmmakers using psychotropics to create deeply affecting works. Seems that they belong at an Altered States conference, deserve to be critically read and viewed by people this skilled. “We got some papers on that,” she said, “but they just weren’t that good.” Wow. So the American phobia of DRUGS has not yet been destroyed by the bright light of rationality in the academy, and the myriad artifacts of human explorations into altered states induced by injesting substances both legal and illegal, synthetic and organic, culturally traditional and culturally taboo got lumped into a “that.” She defended the conference by reminding me that there was a paper on Dionysian cults. Yes, that’s true, I said. But I am still surprised that there wasn’t enough good scholarship submitted on the Beats, or writers of the psychedelic movement, or even the opium-smoking artists of Paris and Vienna in the 30s and 40s. It seems those kinds of altered states still, still, STILL, are considered second-rate next to an ecstatic vision from God, which most of these academics don’t even believe in. Strange, and disturbing, since that indicates even those who study the altered state, Other Condition, visionary “trope” in literature are cynics, not people deeply fascinated by the human potential for expansive, ecstatic experience. Or maybe they are, and there was just some little politics going on that I’m unaware of, where scholars of early Christianity and ancient mysticism don’t like the kids from the other side of the timeline, and it hurt them enough to invite Sarah Juliet Lauro, whose paper was titled “The Zombie Martyrs: The Contagious Spirit of Christian Conversion Narratives.”

Shifting gears: What I loved about Amy Hollywood’s work was that it simultaneously did the job of teaching me about things I didn’t know and derailing my models for “knowing.” Her piece did not explicitly address the idea of the altered state, rather, it put us all in one! Where we had been doing the receiving work of listening to formal arguments, we were suddenly being asked to do the active work of connection in the face of a poetic, fragmentary experience. Hollywood dealt with elements, not points or issues. Her elements were sometimes historical figures (such as John Edwards, and his oft-forgotten wife Sarah Pierpont Edwards), sometimes objects, sometimes texts (Howe’s Frame Structures), sometimes the strange convergence of object and text (crumpled pages, destroyed poems), and she framed this renegade work with a quote about the sublime, which takes place “where works touch.” I call it renegade because she can’t publish it in its current form due to having no permissions from the sources she quotes. Another surprise! I applauded her for bringing a maverick work-in-progress to us. I’ve been reading Stanley Aronowitz’s book The Knowledge Factory, which asserts mostly the death of learning and the stagnation of the humanities, so this crack in the decay, where Hollywood’s bright little weed poked through, thrilled me.

Hollywood reminded me of one of the reasons why I started writing on gorgeous curiosity lo these many months ago, and she called it “meditation on the infinitesimal detail.” This is the way I’m learning to watch films from Anthony via Margaret Waller at UCR. This is a Derridean activity of seeing Big Picture in Very Small Piece, of allowing for fluidity and connectivity between objects and experiences that seem to lend themselves to categorization and separation. Amy Hollywood expressed another of my work’s grand projects: how to tell a story and also disrupt the complacency a narrative can generate. “We should have suspicion of any history that is error-free,” she said. I think this is why she seemed so happy: if the anxiety of perfectionism is replaced by the careful consideration of the meaning of everything (misspelled word, missed appointment, missing link, wrong thought, wrong shirt) not in a Freudian, pathologizing way, but in a deeply curious, compassionate, and creative way, then our constant engagement, which for many is an “altered” state, becomes fabric, grain and weave, the embedded functioning of our lives. We achieve at least one of Musil’s concerns: the ability to move fluidly in and out of the Other Condition. And then comes the desire and mandate to articulate. I recognize that I didn’t discuss the papers on Political and Formal Transformation. I didn’t discuss the papers on Monstrosity and Divinity. There’s just so much, so much.


  1. Hi Vanessa -- I just chanced across your blog -- so engaging and full of intellectual joie de vie! -- because of the 'Altered States' keyword. I co-curated a huge exhibition of media arts entitled 'Altered States,' looking at the confluence of communications technology and psychotropics a few years back, so very much enjoyed your comments about institutional fear of engaging with drugs on almost any level.

    Loving your blog -- and will email you in my official capacity as editor of an academic journal, Second Nature' in the next couple of days. I'm hoping that you'll be interested in both contributing and being on the Editorial Board. Cheers
    (sorry about the strange user name -- it's one of my aliases for my own blog 'Museum of Dust'... >)

  2. Hi Shiralee!

    Thanks for your kind words and for the wonderful Museum of Dust! I'd love to hear more about Second Nature. Looking forward to hearing from you.


  3. Hi Vanessa -- sorry for the tardy reply -- your mail/reply went to my gmail account (which I didn't even remember having... dowh!) -- glad you enjoyed Museum of Dust -- which means you might also enjoy my big project -- the reason that I haven't posted on MoD for so long -- Curiosity Cabinet http://curiositycabi/net a 'social museum'. Please feel very welcome to join an upload your own collections-- we're not really public yet, but I'd appreciate any feedback or ideas you might have. Anyway, I'll send you an invitations to it -- and I'll mail you from work monday re 2nd nature