Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shells and Genres

“We talked at great length about the difference between deciding the contours of a genre beforehand, then slotting the texts into the scheme they had not created; and allowing a field of alliances to emerge from a grouping of texts that seem to be conversing with each other, as allies and queer families.”

J.J. Cohen, over at In The Middle, provided a summary today of a discussion in his Objects seminar at GWU about the genre of the Breton Lai and about the nature of genres on predetermining how a text is read. I admire his approach, especially with a genre that is terribly difficult to pin down, and I hope to keep this pedagogical perspective with me when I too am teaching university seminars (this, of course, is a reflection of my aspirations and is in no way a determined and inevitable future). He also brought up the question: “what if life (in the form of a life) is emergent rather than determined in advance?” What a fantastic vibrant materialism discussion starter!

Yet, as I was enjoying a steaming hot shower in this unending Ohio winter (wow, what an example of Timothy Morton’s ecomimesis), my mind kept returning to the beach (obviously I was associating the comfort of the shower water with the womb-like nurturing of the sights and sounds of a lapping sea-tide). Dr. Cohen’s perspective on genre reminded me of combing the beaches for seashells as a child. In my adolescent naiveté (distinct from my 20-something naiveté), on family vacations I would determinedly scour the beaches for seashells and sand dollars. And I would find seashells and sand dollars, or I wouldn’t. I consider this now to be fueled by a (proto)human gathering instinct as well as the desire to engage in an activity that is instantaneously gratifying, but that is neither here nor there.

Then came a day at some point along my undergraduate career in which I was on a mad hunt to experience the sublime. Watching the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico, I was still missing it. I still hadn’t grasped Burke’s Romantic notions of the sublime as distinct from the beautiful. I also didn’t see a sunrise as sublime or beautiful, nocturnal creature that I am. And I recall turning my attention to the beach again, only my perception has shifted slightly and instead of looking for shells as I had become programmed to do, I just looked at the sand. I saw the violent intensity of abhorrent morning sunlight reflecting like the Texas heat off that sand. I saw dried and sun-bleached seaweed, and as I moved about I found feathers and Coke cans, dead fish and condom wrappers, beach glass and a deflated beach ball, I heard the shrill screaming of children and watched self-indulgent vacationing parents choose to ignore their children to the dismay of misanthropes who thought they could beat the throngs of people crowding the beaches by arriving at the break of dawn. I then realized that the beach wasn’t just the place where shells were found, hell, sometimes there weren’t even shells there, but the beach really was everything and anything that the beach was. It was everything beautiful and everything repellent I could see/hear/smell/feel on the beach; each screaming child and each rusting soda can was a part of the assemblage*. Things I once ignored as trash and irritants were no longer imperfections but were simply a part of what was. Jane Bennett would probably say it was the first time I noticed the vibrancy of matter. She would probably be right.

Now when I go to a beach, I still find myself desiring to gather bits of debris, but instead of hunting for shells alone, I simply walk about and find whatever the hell I find! Because I no longer see the beach as “the place where shells are found,” because I no longer claim to understand the genre before I have read the material, I have a gorgeous collection of violet beach glass, awkwardly shaped feathers, fossils, and a piece of drift wood that resembles the liquid grace of a ballerina, torso to toe (I hate to anthropomorphize a piece of wood, but if one has EVER seen a ballerina, one would have a seriously difficult time denying the resemblance). Only after I’ve visited a beach can I know what is to be found there, and only after visiting many beaches with an open mind have I started to make conclusions about what truly belongs to the beach genre: litter, screaming children, overweight men in speedos, sharp feathers one regrets stepping on with bare feet, and yes, seashells.

*There is still too much ego in that sentiment, of course the beach was/is more than only what "I" could perceive, but of course, I was so much younger all those six years ago...

*I'm still suffering from a serious sinus infection, so I'll use that as my excuse for why (I'm almost certain) this thing shifts tense so much.

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