Monday, April 8, 2013

Thinking the Inhuman

Driving home after the stimulating “Ecologies of the Inhuman” panel hosted by GW MEMSI, I was fortunate enough to have over 6.5 undisturbed hours to reflect, to worry, to chew over and to navigate the tumultuous waves of thought generated by the inspiring papers of my co-presenters and the invigorating Q&A session that followed (as well as the continuing conversations that manifested over dinner and drinks). As I looked out the window and embraced the contours and ecologies of Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, I let my mind wander over and touch the myriad sights in the hope that my material surroundings would agitate and affect my reveries and give focus to the swarm of thoughts buzzing inside my head.

I tried to stop thinking of time and distance, realizing, thanks to Valerie Allen, that these measurements of matter tell me nothing of the things in themselves, but are only human approximations of quotidian qualities better left un-pondered. I wondered instead about the space of a mountain to the mountain itself. How might a mountain perceive its own morphology (metaphorically, of course)? Does a peak sense its base, and how might we investigate that sensation? And how little does a mountain really care (if it would even give a damn) that its slow slouching and vast expanding informs humanity’s very ability to think the slowness of deep time and the vastness of geological heaving?

As we drove through the highways that slash right through these mountain’s peaks, I couldn’t help but wonder how the lithic, the arboreal and the organic beings that constitute such peaks resist and/or desire to being so hewn. What qualities of stone and soil lend themselves to being sliced, how do the curves and crevasses of cut stone, the textures and hardness of igneous and metamorphic rock, of basalt, marble and granite inform our willingness to engage these lithic beings in our ecological thinking? And what of the road, itself a lithic body whose shape is designed by human architects? When does stone stop being stone and become the for-human paved highway? Go ask Anne Harris.

Passing through the cuts in Negro Mountain (yes, that etymology of that nomenclature is as racially problematic as it sounds), I mused over Alfred Siewers presentation as we drove through a veritable graveyard of dead trees, its woodsy corpses still whispering of a once-thriving community of arboreal splendor. These sylvan skeletons communicate the introduction of the invasive Gypsy Moth from Europe, a ravenous insect whose defoliating of various trees and shrubs was likely responsible for this road-side necropolis. Is the Gypsy Moth a Nidhogg, devouring the life-giving and matter-structuring tree Yggdrasill? Humans are surely co-implicated in the spread of the Gyspy Moth, our tourism, industry and even wanderlust (forces responsible for the hewn mountains above) continuing to aggrandize the problem, yet how much more complex is the ecology which weighs down the world-tree?

Of course, so much of this tourism serves for the sake of human desires for recreation. Thanks to Lowell Duckert, I am now more aware of the postures of violence implicit in our modes of relaxation. To recreate is to re-create, to tear down and ravage untouched spaces in order to create (and copy and paste) human ideas of recreational space. As we stopped at a state park for a bit of lunch, parking in a lot in front of picnic tables and swing-sets, I thought about the clear cutting and construction required to create a space for recreation. Yet, is not our continued fascination with our forests what stimulates the compassion of those who work dedicatedly to preserve and repopulate these dying woodlands? Of course, this is a very human model of preservation, and we should avoid the ethical high-ground of always assuming our intervention is necessary; we weep over dead trees but barely bat an eye as we eagerly exterminate millions of moths.

Situated somewhere off the highway in Maryland or West Virginia sat a primitive steel structure simulating Noah’s Ark. An advertisement for a church and an admonition against Christian notions of “sin,” this terrestrial barge got me thinking about Steve Mentz’s shipwrecks and I wondered, at first, how different this planet might look if Noah had been a shit carpenter and if his ark had simply sank. Noah was always already in the midst of such a shipwreck, just as Sodom was always already doomed to its conflagration, just as we are already struggling to stay afloat in the polluted sea of our undoing. Yet, the ark itself would not likely perceive the rending and hewing of its disassembling as the cataclysmic overture we would surely fear it to be (of course, had the myth concluded this way there would be no “we” to ponder this alternative scenario), but merely a morphing and shifting of relations, a carnival game of dancing densities and displacement, and a repositioning of carbon and calcium, watery dissolving and decay.

One sees a great deal of decay and decomposition driving through the Appalachians, and I wondered whether Eileen Joy would find herself at home amidst such a jungle of abandoned post-industrial fissures and breaks being reclaimed by that capital “N” Nature. What kind of violence is this tumbling, crashing, rusting, shifting, breaking, colliding, devouring and entangling of spaces and structures abandoned by humans? Is this the sort of violence that would stimulate Eileen? Do we share in that same affinity? Is it possible to be inspired and enthralled by apocalyptic forces, to revel in the ways we bring about our own destruction, and still maintain an alignment with humanity? Faced with an impending ecological crisis, is it even responsible to preserve a human ethos?

And what of this flux, this interminable flow of material forces that engenders (imaginary) Biblical shipwrecks and the vicissitudes of time? Passing through communities built upon the shores of meandering waterways, I sorted through the debris of thoughts left behind by James Smith’s wonderful discussion of “Fluid,” and worried over the fluid networking of geography and human ingenuity that shaped these odd entanglements of plunging yards, narrow homes, erratic roads and broken piers. The flows of a river might offer fish to feed a population, then flood farms and residences, forcing migration. Do these river dwellers have a natural flexibility, an innate “go with the flow” mindset that enables them to risk residing along uncertain shores, or have the floods themselves fashioned more malleable humans?

Stopping for gas and listening to the whirring and clicking of the fans trying to cool the engine, I realized how little I actually thought about the car itself which was working so dedicatedly to traverse the highways and with which I was so thoroughly embroiled and engaged (I was the guilty Dasein). I know nothing of cars, of the intricacies and mechanics that assemble and relate beneath the hood, but I do know that cars need oil and gasoline, they hunger for petro-carbons, and that our shameful thirst for environmentally destructive fuels does not translate into an automobile-ethos. The parts and pistons that propel the car have an affinity for petroleum-based fluids that lubricate and catalyze their connections. How do we think ecology when the objects of the world do not share in our anthropocentric ethics, the same ethics that are requisite should we wish to continue our co-habitation with all the beings (organic, inorganic, bodied, incorporeal, impossibly vast, unmeasurably tiny) on this planet? I would like to thank Ian Bogost for bringing my mind back to this dilemma.

This gas station at which we had stopped seems to have engendered a small impoverished town, a community whose sole purpose is to facilitate travel and tourism. So that we might drive through the cuts we’ve made in mountains in order to ask the challenging questions of ethics and ecology, these fueling depots and rest stops must be staffed and served by folks as often unnoticed as the homeless ambler that incited Carolyn Dinshaw to think about our “shared vulnerability.” Although their mobile home communities remain hidden miles past the rest stops and gas stations themselves, these homesteads exist and it is our responsibility, even in the event of our recreations, or tourisms or even our shipwrecks, to attend to those who are so deeply entangled with the forces of materiality and often the first to suffer from our carelessness and lack of compassion/understanding of the non-hierarchical connectivity of being.

I hope I have not done a disservice to the brilliant presentations of the folks mentioned above by misrepresenting some of their arguments, but I merely mean to share the questions that manifested in my mind as I sat in the passenger seat of a silver Saturn Aura for almost 7 hours letting wonder happen. I must also express my most sincere gratitude to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for assembling this creative congregation of eco-critical inquiry and for being the ever-gracious host and a devilishly fun companion.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dysphoric Materials, Anxious Materiality;
Guest Post by M.W. Bychowski

Crip Materiality: Part 2

“The body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech, yet begets it” The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank

The genesis of this project, I feel, was a simultaneous approach between Alan and me. While I sent the message first, offering another collaboration after the success of September meditation on the Screams (Alan) and Whispers (myself) of Sugar, immediately I received a reply affirming that he had been pondering the same thing and wondering if I would be interested in doing something on disability and materiality. As with many stories told from the circulation of objects, there is no one origin story and I like that. This needs to be messy.

So if we are going to get messy, throw ourselves into the dirt, it’s at least nice to know that we will have company. Between a depressive self-management and a perhaps reckless, living out of my gender dysmorphia, I would rather throw myself under the bus in a life-ditch effort to come out somewhere else than get pushed. And as Alan’s generous post kicks at me, there seems to be at any given time, far more friends under the bus than riding in it (how many of those are hostages, I wonder?). Given all the dangers not only for queers and crips, but any young scholar right now, it seems all the more worthwhile to be candid, generous, and loving of each other. If we are going down (or wherever), let’s make a life and a living out of it, and let’s do it together.

The academic body (and I here, and will continue to include those outside of formal university structures as well in this) is itself a dirty, messy, collaborative, crip-tastic thing. There are reservoirs of experience, critical modes, and I would even say, a transformative physics or meta-physics to be better unleashed in crip(l)ing-materiality. Materiality can be pitched as an abstract counter-part to materials, as theory against activism, but in general and specifically in terms of cripness, I would rather posit materiality as the way that materials speak to each other, and to themselves. Crip Materiality is simultaneously a thing and a call towards ways of thinging.

In so many ways, Alan’s post could stand alone as a beautiful and artistic articulation of these points—without the need for such manifesto-like statements or anecdotes which I can offer. If only to provide a sounding board to echo and share in the resonance of his music, I will begin. In doing so, I will try to maintain a stance of unknowing about myself. While I orbit words like gender-dysphoria and anxious-depressive status, which I hold to as useful but dangerous institutional language on my body, it is critical to note that even in their own clinical context the materiality of bodies that “look-like-mine” change over time and include a wide variety of divergent threads which once or currently meet in the node called “transgender/transsexual:”

“Lothstein, in his study of ten ageing transsexuals found that psychological testing helped to determine the extent of the patients’ pathology [sic]…[he] concluded that [transsexuals as a class] were depressed, isolated, withdrawn, schizoid individuals with profound dependency conflicts. Furthermore, they were immature, narcissistic, egocentric and potentially explosive, while their attempts to obtain [professional assistance] were demanding, manipulative, controlling, coercive, and paranoid” (Walter and Ross’s Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment).

Thus, I hope that the murmurs of my materials will mess-up in the best possible ways and escape their own internal materiality. If there is music in it, may it be an invitation to join in on the dirt.

Disordered Materials

“Here the surface of the artifact is not just of the particular material… But of the materiality itself as it confronts the human imagination” Materials against Materiality, Tim Ingold

“Don’t you just think we think too much about gender?” our family doctor asked me, his pen mindlessly clicking his clipboard. I sat across the room from him on the edge of a metal table, covered over in butcher paper; as a piece of meat, I thought.

When my mother scheduled this check-up, just to get a few booster shots while I was still under her healthcare insurance, she warned me that our doctor told her that he had some opinions about gender disorder (now classified as a dysphoria). As our meeting stretched on, longer than was needed to cover the details I was there to address, I realized I was going to be subject to a lecture.

“Don’t you think we think too much about gender?” he asked again, after mulling on his philosophy of medical-minimalism (the word “reductive” appeared in my mind). This time, it sounded more like a statement than a question. Responding to the content and not the premise of what he said, I told him about my image of gender as a kind of material flow, a node where people and things form logics of their own, but where currents can cut in and pull you elsewhere. He asked about my plans for surgery.

“I don’t see the point in top surgery,” he responded. “Breasts are just bags of fat, after all.” Once again, I felt the twinge of minimalism and reductivism meeting. That’s what they are made of, I thought, not what they are. Like his other questions/statements about gender I wondered first, if he was not a straight white male if he would still feel like gender talk was an inconvenience, and second, if we were not coming to my body and my materiality from very different world-views.

Little did I need to reveal the materials of my body, he saw many of them: my padded bra folded on top of my dress, the meat and fat in my chest that yearned from transformation; as well as things he did not: the blood that surged with conflicting hormones and the nervous-neurological systems that give me the internal-mapping of a woman, trapped like a phantom in bits of flesh coded with masculinity. Other materials, like the silicone I left at home or the coming edge of a surgeon’s knife, were nonetheless a critical part of my body, and not invisible but at a distance.

Yet as his comments made clear, it was not my materials that he was wholly ignorant about, the things he called “just” things, or raw things, but he knew even less about my materiality. For him, as far as he shared, the materiality of my body was a code, a map of organs and tissues that he could name and order on a diagram in med-school. The word “just” told me how little he thought of breasts or gender as more than abstract colored shapes with names attached; data he needed to do his job and pass exams.

The Materials and Materiality of Dysphoria are not so easy to distinguish for me. When I close my eyes, and the body I see disappears (the empirical fact medical science privileges), I feel my body in space; I have breasts, wider hips, and a narrower pelvis. Moving my hands towards my chest, I can feel five or six inches from my ribs, a presence of this body: warmth and pressure.

My nervous system sees and reacts to a womanhood that cannot be so easily seen from the outside, yet. Laying in bed with my lovers, I see myself transformed in their eyes as their fingers outline a body coming-to-be, but already before them. Getting dress among my sisters, our bra-straps mark an alliance, as we start a day in a male world.

“Don’t you think we think too much about gender?” he repeated as I got ready to leave. My materials answered him as I got dressed; the object(ion)s of trans-carpentry answering medical materialism.

Anxious Materiality

“For fresisshly brought it to my remembraunce That stableness in this world is ther noon. There is nothing but change and variaunce” My Complainte, Thomas Hocclave

Blood smeared across my hand in flecks of red and brown. Feeling it between my fingers I looked down at the door-handle to my freshman dorm. Memory. Prediction. Panic. Time speeds ups with a multiplicity and rapidity that I cannot process everything that arrives at once:

Two days prior my room-mate had attempted suicide while I was down stairs trying to be social. On most nights I would have been there reading when he got home. Instead, I had taken an invitation from the guys on the first floor, so when my room-mate came home, full of various toxins (I never asked which) fresh from breaking up with his boyfriend, he was alone.

At the last, he panicked and opened the door, passing out in the hallway. I saw the ambulance lights from down-stairs and when I tried to get back to the room I was stopped. “Who are you?” asked a cop. “The room-mate.” They took my name and told me I had to find somewhere else to sleep that night. I got some information from those that found him, but it was over a week before I found out what happened in more detail, how his body responded, if he had lived.

Anxiety is related etymologically to death. Sometimes I can see the connection directly in experience. “Panic attacks feel like you are dying, but you’re not” I’ve often told in the midst of an attack; information I find more comforting when I am not experiencing it. Data helps anxiety, not panic. Panic feels so much worse than the thought of death, because it contains so many multiplicities that I cannot distinguish one story from another, one scenario from another, one life from another, one death from another. The materiality of panic is as a part without a whole.

Unmoored from the position of carpenter, I become a passive production within my own ontological sphere. Describing my materiality to myself does feel nice in a moment of heightened excitement or anxiety (my physiology cannot distinguish between high levels of “positive” or “negative” stress). Anxious senses and analytic thoughts process hotter than a normate body. Information floods my brain from the events around me, the proximity and demeanor of people, their clothes and level of manicure, routes in and out of a position.

This is followed by a rapid running of odds: What if X happens? What if he says Y? If I move here, what scenarios can I predict? That’s part of why I don’t like crowds: too many contingent factors, makes calculation difficult, the process of analysis which keeps me in the realm of anxiety and away from panic. In many ways it feels like I’m playing a game with death, full of enjoyment and fear. Too much data however and my processor overheats and systems reset.

For several days after my room-mate permanently moved out, I had a long quiet. No one asked me a question about it since the cop asked my name. During that time I read in the library. Come the weekend, my mum came up to see me with a care-package: sweets, a DVD and a sketchbook.

Drawing is a calming mechanism. While running odds and scenarios manages my anxiety, drawing does what sitting with a limited view of a crowd does, what writing does: focuses everything to a point. Rather than running multi-functions, I take on one. Over time my heart-rate slows. The danger here is the opposite extreme: depression, a mental and emotional singularity which holds on to me like a black-hole. Rather than seeing 3 steps ahead in multiple directions, I look further and further down this one line, 3 steps, 9 steps, 81 steps, more and more until I see a view which floods my vision.

After my mom leaves, distracting me with rhythmic conversation, I turn on the DVD: Happy Feet. It’s the first time I really give penguins (dancing or otherwise) any thought; or rather discover how they thwart my thought. No calculations, only interruptions. It is data without content, without futurity, without alternative. Anti-data. I watched this DVD many times over the next month. As the people came and left, the penguins & my books stayed up with me

Dysphoric Materials

“I don’t feel strange, more like haunted” the Forgotten, Green Day

$4,000 (or so, depending on the location, quality, and painlessness of the service) gets transferred out of my bank account; perhaps less if my insurance company changes their position on trans-healthcare. In that unlikely case, the money comes with the exchange of time: 1-2 years of clinical surveillance until a doctor tells the state &insurance company that I qualify for help.

Taking off my clothes in the doctor’s office, I put on a paper dress. I’m starving, my stomach emptied of food or water for at least twelve hours. The room is empty of my friends and family as I change. Then a nurse comes in and suggests I lay down on a rolling bed.

An anesthesiologist comes in and gives me two options: a gas mask or a needle. In the case of a mask: a machine that looks like a plastic propane tank attached to a bunch of tubes, dials, and making a clicking noise is brought over. As the clear plastic muzzle is strapped around my head, I feel the strange alien lung breath into me: pumping a mixture of air through the tank, a liquid reservoir of volatile desflurine, isoflurine, or sevoflourine is mixed with nitrous oxide. At first it feels like I’m breathing in steam, until the tingling in my chest becomes a sparkle in my spine and beyond my eyes, then my eyes become heavy.

Or in the case of a needle, a bladder hanging from a metal stand out of sight is brought behind me so I can’t see it. The nurse talks to me (a distraction) while a sterilized needle punctures the skin around my wrist, joining with a clip to hold it in place. Propofol (C12H18; called “milk of amnesia,” a molecule that looks like a bull’s head), Edomidate (C14H16N2O2 ; a molecule that looks like a log), Methohexital (C14H18N2O2; a molecule that looks like the big dipper) or one of a few other strange, haunting, forgotten fluids dance through the vein & into the blood stream.

Chemicals ripped from their homes in plants, rocks & pools in Israel, India, China to stay with me for a few hours to hold my hand through my material transition. Running through my circular system, the chemicals bond to proteins, particularly in my brain, and a quiet loss of feeling and care suggests that I close my eyes.

While I’m asleep, my bed is lowered into a flat position; any one of my loved ones that had ventured back into the room to stay with me through this moment of physical panic meeting chemical peace look on as I am wheeled into the room down the hall where men and women in blue masks and gowns are waiting for me. The blue garments are there to shield their clothes and skin for the blood that will escape from my chest. It is potentially dangerous for my (unfiltered) blood to mix with theirs: I contain enough dysphoric materials to unsettle their materiality.

The hands of the doctors, nurses and aids work mechanically, from years of rote training (part of what I am now paying for), and arrange my body amidst tables of shiny instruments. The anesthetic holds my consciousness down as the surgeon’s stainless chromium steel blade (formed by Swiss machines) cuts into my skin (under the arm, the breast, or nipple). The incision is slight but enough to allow the sanitized and covered finger of the surgeon to push into my body, pull at my skin like elastic, so the opening can be positioned to allow them to begin the insertion process.

A pocket of space is created either under the muscle in the chest (more stretching) or else above it and below the skin. Into that is placed a shell of silicone rubber (where the silicon and oxygen become long chains of Silicon-Oxygen-Silicon that will clump together or unravel, allowing for elasticity). Within the shell are either a sterilized saline solution (salt and water) or silicone gel (more fluid and mobile chains of silicon- oxygen, forming around a carbon-hydrogen chain).

Joining with my muscle, tissue, and blood, the silicon (one of the most common materials on earthy, after carbon, mostly found in sand, quartz and a rosy kind of geode; my breasts will literally be two beautiful squishy sand-bags and water balloons) all come together to form the basis of my transformed breast. A needle, thread, and bandages seals me up. I’m cleaned as I’m wheeled back into a room where others are waiting for the sleep to wear off. As I wake up, this dream ends and I’m in my bed at home, still a year (or so) away from this particular operation.

Depressed Materiality

“Thu schuldist not plesyn me so wel as thu dost whan thu art in silens And sufferyst me to speke in thy sowle.” The Book of Margery Kempe

“I don’t like answers” a priest friend told me once, “answers get people killed.” Answers bore me and when I get bored, I tend to get depressed. Logic can produce perfect circles, Chesterton reminds me, but incredibly small ones. Materiality which follows a single stance through to infinity (as my anxiety can sometimes push it towards) has the ability to shrink the circle until it becomes a loop of emotional bondage, a suffocating point. Elsewhere I’ve described it as a tense grey that has forgotten color and dimension in its perfection of shades, light, and dark.

When the weight of the whole universe is brought down on a single point, things seem to collapse into themselves. Same folds into same and the answer becomes a hollow deterministic end. Answers kill.

And yet on the borderlands of this event horizon is a brilliant, vibrant darkness. Absence dwells there and sings to us of things departed. Beings sit there in their solitude, watching the little becomings play and relate like stars in the distance. Old gods and humble daemons lean back on the relics of the universe, bringing materials and materiality so close that the distance between them hardly needs to exceed a whisper.

Walking alone at night with an iPod drained and useless, I feel a wave of melancholy wash over my body and for a moment I am quiet and still. Something has changed, something has died, and because there is no void, the beginnings of something else are creeping in to take its place. Without death, without depression, transformation would be impossible and without transition to mark a passing, without commas and periods to punctuate its murmuring, materials could not speak of the experience nor have the openness of mind to listen.

MW Bychowski is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the George Washington University, concentrating on non-modern theories of transformation; particularly those concerned with ecology, disability and gender. In addition to her research, she directs MATCH a working group for critical theory; maintains Transliterature, a blog on philosophy and cultural studies; as well as consults for campaigns in Maryland and DC on issues concerning healthcare, women’s rights and trans/queer politics.