Violence & Community: Notes & Findings
The symposium vomits its themes. To state the obvious, writing this in late December 2012, it would be a different symposium now. In the wake of the school and temple shootings—public violence of all kinds—the symposium as it was [is] risks the charge of banality.
My strong desire at the time, having proposed the title, was to co-create a space for our students and visitors to think about institutional or intellectual aggression, all the way from plagiarism to the ways in which a community receives the force of administrative decisions of different kinds. In May 2012, that was on our minds. Beyond the university, I was interested in what would happen if we invited writers to create thematic performances or installations in addition to the readings and panel talks. The temporary politics of the conference were designed to prompt a conversation about race, economics, and the generalized field of the body—how violence unfolds as a trope, a form, or wish that writing has. In the event, the conference unpacked itself in the sub-realms of anxiety, shame, and the feeling of being excluded: “what wasn’t said.” I should mention that my inspiration for wanting to work on the less visible and spoken about aspects of being a writer in community was the Small Press Traffic conference on Aggression in 2008. I will never forget Cynthia Sailer’s opening lecture on groups and aggression from the work of Wilfred Bion. She spoke to us about beta elements: the breakdown of speech and communication effects during rage, extreme duress, and so on. I wanted to keep thinking about language and violence on the level of something that wasn’t even a fragment. How do you then get those “fragments” to attract? Is the resulting composition then what might be described as a speech community? How might such a community come together and share its findings, when those findings themselves are or function as (Sailers-Bion): “inchoate elements.”
Still working on that one.
As a failed British novelist, I am interested in community boundaries—who lies beyond them and what happens (to bodies) in the zone where city and countryside meet: les banlieues. Perhaps this is related to the quieter questions of inclusion and hesitancy brought forward by Andrea Quaid, in another curated conversation on community (for Jacket2). There is something almost accidental, casual, fated about walking out of bounds. Suddenly, you can’t go back. Or continue. For two years, I have been examining the vector of a girl’s body as she walks into the opening minutes of what will become by nightfall the first race riot in the UK—one that will presage the riots of the 1980s. What becomes of bodies that have no place in domestic or binary spheres? What if you can’t go home nor consider another step into the known (never-known) world? In my novel, BAN: notes for a novel never written, the girl lies down on the sidewalk next to the ivy, and the space of the novel is an account of community sounds: the ambient or Doppler effects of broken glass, roars, slurs, and shouts. The girl is sacrificing herself, I sometimes think, which is a community action—a way of releasing light to others, for others: violently. But why? Her body has already begun to desiccate, to slough off into an orbital of dog shit, bitumen, and oily soot at a rate that exceeds my capacity to answer these questions, which are questions, I am slowly coming to understand, about citizenship and belonging. I account for her fibrotic gesture-posture, its voltage and moans, as the sun sets behind the Nestlé factory. Of course, to state the obvious, I am generating the most basic or perverse of immigrant narratives: a natural fiction of the industrial suburbs of London, where I am from. “Natural” in the sense that some parts of it don’t dissolve. Perhaps in the future repetition of the Violence and Community symposium, we could talk about assimilation, which is also, perhaps, a question about what it means to be an innovative writer of color. Tisa Bryant was also just here at Naropa, at the Jack Kerouac School’s Summer Writing Program, talking about this; Cathy Park Hong has a new essay up at the Boston Review, “Canon-Formations,” which also takes this up.
“There is no such thing as skin.” I wrote that sentence so long ago that I no longer recall what I understood when I wrote it. I know that I wrote it in London. I know that I wrote it after an assault—a simple shopkeeper’s assault, following a dispute over the price of photocopying a manuscript I had just completed, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, that I wanted to send to the U.S. The shopkeeper’s young son had calculated the price, but when it came time to pay, the shopkeeper—a Muslim in traditional dress; why does this matter?—asked for twice as much. I didn’t have the money. He pressed a button, and the metal window covering came clattering down. He pushed me against the beige metal shelves filled with assorted stationery products.
Each of the writers we invited to Naropa—chosen, in part, because of the uneasiness or challenging qualities of their own lives and personas as writers—spoke about or engaged the skin. I think of David Buuck with a tent over his head, live-texting Oakland’s May Day action; Melissa Buzzeo’s hypnosis ritual of dyad-quad groupings, proximal relation, and light touch; Kate Zambreno’s fuchsia silk pupae (sculptures of the female reproductive system, hooked and hung from the beams in front of Naropa’s administrative building); Gabrielle Civil’s chafed ankle—she tied herself to the library with a rough, hemp rope, and then, an indelible image, prostrated herself. Bodies turned inside out. Vulnerable bodies. Extended bodies. Bodies almost motionless within performance, twitching. Embarrassment of different kinds. Anger. Some of the events made students angry. Some of the statements made by participants made the other participants angry. These other valences were interesting to me, and perhaps they represented another part of the conference we didn’t get to: how, as communities, we can process the disequilibrium that violence brings. Perhaps, as I’ve been thinking lately, it’s better—for a very short duration, the duration of texts as well—to exaggerate aggression. To make it real. Conscious. I don’t know. How do communities heal? I always thought this was the most important question; since the conference, I am not so sure.
There is more to say on these subjects, but I hope that these notes can be part of the orientation to or record of these subjects. The symposium’s failures and affective states—to state the obvious for the last time in this essay, which is never an essay—are more interesting to me than the symposium itself. Wait. I have no idea if what I just wrote is true. It is hard to tell the truth about what happened and what resulted, I’ve noticed. Something that was also a failure, in retrospect, was our lack of connection to or conversation with others at Naropa, who are working intensely and innovatively on these subjects in other domains: Christine Caldwell, for example, in the Somatic Counseling Psychology program teaches and publishes on oppression and the body, the non-verbal elements of narrative. Why didn’t we think of inviting her?
It is difficult to write to social enactment and the inside of the body—its visceral conditions and knowing—at the same time. My hope is that the incoming MFA students at Naropa can take this up in their own critical and creative work and take our experiment further. Or make it their own.