Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alcatraz, the Black Panthers, and the Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Alcatraz: a federal penitentiary-turned-tourist attraction in San Francisco. Panthers: a militant socialist cadre of revolutionaries I never learned enough about. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: a movie narrated by a paralyzed man with “locked-in syndrome,” who writes a memoir by blinking his left eye to a transcriber. (Loosely and problematically based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book “Le scaphandre et le papillon”)

Let me make some connections.

I marveled at how people manifest their survival instincts during the Alcatraz audio tour, when a former inmate offered his solution to the mind-destroying boredom of being in “The Hole,” a tiny, cement-floor cell with no windows, no light, no furniture, and only a slit in the door for food to come through. Under such inhumane circumstances, this inmate started a game with himself. He’d pop a button off his coat, flip it in the air, and then get down on all fours and search each inch of the Hole with his hands until he found it. Once he had the button, he’d do it again. Another inmate watched a “T.V.” he saw behind his eyelids. He said that everyone has one, if they are patient enough to wait for it to appear. Less than fifty yards away, the warden lived in a large home overlooking the Bay. I took a picture of its skeleton.

I watched "41st and Central," a new documentary about the LA Black Panthers at a theater near UCR with a sinking sense of ignorance. Why didn’t I know more about them? Why don’t I know more about any other revolutionary groups? One of the Panthers said “You can’t be a revolutionary without studying revolutions. You have to do your reading.” When Anthony asked the panel what they were reading in the 60s, they listed a number of texts that most college seniors haven’t even tackled these days—Marx, Engels, Mao, Che Guevara. The three Panthers on the panel were some of the most inspiring living texts I’ve ever encountered—in their 70s, grayed, disagreeing occasionally with us or with each other, they vehemently described the necessity of commitment to principles and a cause. This wasn’t the unhealthy dogmatic clinging to habit that pervades so much of our culture, this was a real sense of duty to social justice and Change that they had taken seriously, with continued awareness and integrity, for their lives.

The narrator of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is paralyzed completely by a stroke. I haven’t read the book so I’ll admit to some ignorance here too as I learned that there is a glaring inaccuracy in the movie’s depiction of Bauby’s fantasies and girlfriend. (Imprisonment in Hollywood tropes? Much more sexuality in the movie than book.) I was amazed by a point-of-view camera technique that placed us directly inside the face of Bauby, seeing through his one good eye, until the scene where he tells us that he has decided not to pity himself anymore. This is directly followed by his decision to write his book. It is at this point in the film that the point of view opens up, that we get to see memories from a sort of floating 3rd person, scenes with only other characters, even Bauby from the outside. We are no longer imprisoned, because he isn’t, even though his physical situation hasn’t changed.

So I have been aware recently of so many manifestations of imprisonment. At Alcatraz I learned that the idea of a prison, where incarceration is punishment in itself, was a “more humane” response to the tradition of torturing suspects and criminals. However, imprisonment itself became a torture, and especially at Alcatraz, where inmates were dehumanized deliberately and severely. If the stories of former inmates are any indication, physical imprisonment does actually free the mind in a way—to stay sane, inmates went a little crazy. I think this is true for anyone willing to see their daily life as unjustly oppressed by both outside forces and their own choices. The Panthers looked directly into the unblinking eye of the white, racist, sexist, capitalist power structure and knew that they could no longer live quietly in submission, and people thought they were crazy. Bauby was given one good eye through which he was able to see himself and the world more clearly than all the “functional” people around him—it took an extreme (crazy) state to offer him that insight.

What I see in many of my peers is a strange vacillation between claims to victimhood (especially with regards to work and love relationships) and an almost delusional claim to autonomy in their life choices. Some people are truly imprisoned by poverty, by oppressive forces like racism or sexism, disease or political terror. But those who are born with privilege of any kind are imprisoned by wholly other, quieter forces of capitalist traditions: habits of mind developed to maximize profit, imaginary separations between themselves and other cultures, a nearsightedness that keeps them docile when they could be demanding change. So I don’t believe those who tell me they are too busy to read good books, don’t have the money to travel, etc. It’s not their job or their boyfriend/girlfriend or even their physical exhaustion that imprisons them, it’s the underlying belief that they need more STUFF, or more approval, or more predictability, than they do. If they could make as much money working less hours, they would. If they could break up with the person they don’t love and be guaranteed enough companionship and love in their life overall, they would. I used to be this way too—and I justified my “busyness” with an even more insidious defense: my students. As it turned out, I was able to be a more effective teacher once I quit obsessively commenting on papers and made time to work on my own writing.

The point is that I think we are wrong as a culture, most of the time, in our perception of what imprisons us. We blame the wrong things for our feelings of frustration and don’t creatively discover deeper, more systemic causes. We live in a world of deceptively varied choice—we think we have infinite options laid bare before us, but then forget that only those with money are truly offered choices, and that the choices we see are only a fraction of what is possible. We feel compelled to make money, but are wrong about how much we need or what we should really use it for. We get obsessed with personalizing things that are fundamentally impersonal like bank cards or cars, and then don’t understand why we continue to feel quietly depersonalized.

This is why illness and prison, oppression and trauma, are such important forces for change. Real restrictions (a prison cell, police brutality, poverty, paralysis) cause either utter defeat or creative problem-solving. Imagined restrictions (obligation to work, staying in dysfunctional relationships) cause only numbed maintenance of status quo. The conundrum, of course, is that I will continue to avoid prison and paralysis as it’s feasible. What I strive for now is an honest discovery of where my thinking has been constrained, where my art has been circumscribed, where my actions have been less than radical—and that means a lot of conflict, stretching, exploding should happen, even without externally-inflicted trauma.

Bruce Springsteen’s blues tell us he made the mistake of keeping his good eye to the dark and his blind eye to the sun—he couldn’t see what was right in front of him, and it kept him trapped. For The Diving Bell, Bauby kept his good eye trained to his art. The Panthers kept their eye on ten principles that would have fixed our country. Inmates at Alcatraz kept their good eye trained inward, where they were free. I’d like to turn my good eye to the sun, and see imprisonment when it exists, and never when it does not.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Totem and Fetish

If I were pressed to estimate the number of Star Wars images in the home I share with Anthony and Lindsey Cristofani, I'd put it somewhere around 250. Star Wars characters and iconography grace posters, dishes, postcards, T-shirts, decals on helmets and computers, stickers, neckties, backpacks, pajamas, underwear, dogtags, hats, action figures, toys collected from MacDonald's, bottles of bubble bath, and recently, a 300-piece puzzle we plan to assemble on our kitchen table. Even in the face of that overwhelming (and probably non-exhaustive) list, I will here argue that our use of Star Wars images is not obsessive, not childish, and especially not fetishistic, but a manifestation of a kind of neo-totemism that is ultimately a revolutionary act against what bell hooks has called dominator culture: the capitalist amalgam of prejudices that reinforces us/them, good/bad, in/out dichotomies.

What the hell am I talking about? While these two words—fetish and totem—might connote similar processes of symbolic representation, I (and many other writers) am using them in opposition. I’m talking about the difference between brands, which are fetishes, and totems, which are symbols of unity and tools for transcending oppressive systems of thought and being. The basic difference between a fetish and a totem in this formulation is that a fetish reinforces an inflated and cultish individualism through the superstitious attachment to external symbols. Fetishes serve to construct the “I” while totems reinforce a “We.” Fetishizing something is the way to offer it undeserved and even destructive control over oneself, and oneself alone. Once something is a fetish, I must have it or I cannot: have an orgasm (in the psycho-sexual definition), “be myself” (in the identity-politics definition), feel powerful (in the feminist theoretical definition), etc. Totems, on the other hand, are symbols that carry a meaning shared by many. They recall agreed-upon principles and offer us codified points of meaning to share with others. A totem is never “mine” the way a fetish is.

In Freudian terminology, a totem was the symbol of a clan, used to reinforce an incest taboo. That is, in certain Australian aboriginal groups, your totem told you who you could marry (people with a different totem), and who you couldn’t (people with your same totem). Also according to Freud, a fetish is an object of disgust and desire, elevated to the level of phantasy and obsession. Fetishizing happens every time someone carries a Coach purse because it is Coach, and therefore participates in a system of demonstrating wealth without principled content, because they would feel worse about themselves without it. A neo-totemism involves using symbols as meaningful signs of group identity or adherence to certain beliefs—there has to be conscious content to the symbol.

The use of the totem in my life is three-fold. Firstly, totems prompt self-assessment and accountability. Obi-Wan Kenobi stares at me from the front windshield, light saber ready for battle, every time I get in my car. What does it mean to drive like a Jedi? A constant state of attentiveness. No road hypnosis, no unnecessary anxiety, no arrogance. Becoming an extension of the car, not a disembodied, dissociated controller of it. Am I great at this? No. But there is no shame in being a Padawan. It is a major act of humility to have images of heroes watching over my daily life. They serve as anchors of awareness, like a meditation bell ringing. There is nothing I do that does not contain the possibility of radicalization, and the totems urge me towards that beautiful expansiveness. They are the guardians of Project Limitless.

The second use of totems is, predictably, focused outward, on the world. It’s easy for strangers to strike up a conversation about a shirt or a piece of jewelry. When they say “What’s that on your backpack?” and I say, “It’s the symbol for the Rebel Alliance! Are you a member too?” we get a lighthearted entry to discuss what it means to oppose “The Empire” in its current forms in our own culture. The totem is a recognizable sign—and it is an invitation to moments of revolutionary speech with people who might have expected just to swap trivia.

The third purpose of the totem is most reminiscent of its earlier, Freudian/anthropological definition: it reinforces a group identity. What matters here is that a totem is not exclusionary—anyone can join the Rebel Alliance, if they believe in it, simply by participating. A fetish, on the other hand, excludes everyone, as it is created only to serve the self, to maintain a codified identity and soothe anxieties through reinforcement of difference. People feel simultaneously special and lonely in their fetishes. A totem forces you to quit privileging the self, and consider group processes and needs. In this way, it is an anti-capitalist act to use totems, even though you must participate to some degree in the capitalist system to get them. (Thankfully, you can use secondary markets like ebay!)

Our totems oppose the capitalist cult of individualism by honoring true individuals: people with different aptitudes and wisdoms all working together towards common goals. One of the differences between the Republic (the “good guys,” at least at that moment) and the Separatists in the Star Wars: Clone Wars series is that the leaders of the Republic recognize the individual abilities and offerings of each soldier (Yoda tells the clones, “You are all individuals in the Force”) while the Separatist army consists of thousands of interchangeable droids, none of whom are ever able to generate new or creative content. So having group identity, in the totemic sense, is not a devaluing of individuals, but rather an integration of each person’s worth into a whole. I’ve experienced this at Rowe Camp, where we joke about “This Edge”—a phrase from our mission statement that refers to the place where individual and group needs meet. I’ve experienced this with the Sacred Dice—once a band, now a Revolutionary Salon—where each person who participates offers highly personal, sometimes deliciously idiosyncratic contributions. I’ve experienced this in a historical sense reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as the leaders of the revolution in Indonesia used “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” as their totemic battle cry. They didn’t borrow a phrase from the French, they participated in the same basic project exemplified also by the French Revolution, and used a recognizable totem to unify themselves.

There is a problem inherent to using popular symbols like the Rebel Alliance: so many people use them as fetishes it can be difficult to clearly represent your intentions. This is why the totem has to be paired with interaction, whenever possible. I’ve met a lot of Star Wars “fans” who exhibit an intolerant, fetishistic attachment to a favorite character or film, and like to use these ideas as ways to identify themselves, instead of viewing the entire universe with curiosity, openness, and devotion to the principles of social justice so clearly demonstrated in the mythological structure of the story. (Anthony has valiantly defended the importance of the character Jar Jar Binks against that kind of cynical, trendy attitude.)

It can be incredibly difficult to discover fetishization in every day life. This is especially true when one fetishizes people or objects that seem inherently “good”—the process of our using them poorly becomes almost invisible in the light of their goodness. This is certainly a concern amongst those who see the “Obama-brand” as a quietly menacing cultural phenomenon (there are some great debates online about this!). It’s worth investigating your closet, your bumper stickers, your bookshelves, your refrigerator, your travel photos, your walls, your iTunes, to discover the places where you could replace fetish with totem, and habits of identity with awareness of principle. I’m still sorting, and I’d love to hear about your experiences.