Friday, July 13, 2012

heartsickening irreality



On the flight here to Mexico City, I felt some small sense of unease. It was a weird feeling. As if I were missing something. Like when you leave the house for a trip and wonder if the stove is on.

I was sitting in an airport hotel lounge, about to pay some ridiculous amount of money for a shot of whiskey to put in my coffee. I really wanted that whiskey. I wanted to sit some place inviting, warm, with the familiar woody taste of brown sugar, whiskey and coffee. I wanted to feel like I was in the world, not in some vague simulation of a world. This hotel lounge was really not any better than the terminal. It was a Hilton or a Hyatt or some other chain. And it was in the DFW airport, only a few steps removed from the irreality of the terminal. But it was made of wood and stone and tile. So it somehow felt miles away from the the molded synthetic stucco, plate glass, laminates and terrasso of the terminal.

I don't know why this matters to me. I reject the nature-civilization binary out of hand. These are not opposing forces but locales on an artificial continuum. What in us and our creation is unnatural? What in a forest or an ocean is against civilization? But it does matter. And I think the reason has something to do with why I feel so at home in Mexico City.

I am not in any way from here. I was born here and I have distant roots here. But in every respect I am a foreigner – linguistically, culturally, politically. But somehow, I feel completely integrated into this place. I am mostly alone here, my few friends and close family have lives of their own, wholly separate from mine. I have not yet made a net of personal connections that tie me into this world and reflect me into the lives of others. And I feel very much alone, another voice in a wilderness of voices, the way I have always felt everywhere. And this place should feel threatening to me. I have almost been killed here a few times. Once I even died here, or at least my heart stopped, when I drowned as an infant. But the world I see from this perceived isolation, from the discomfort of remembered deaths and near deaths, reflects my inner life, reflects the way I feel. And that is comforting.

Anguish, violence and injury are the roots of civilization, consciousness. I have argued this in other posts over and over again. The highlight theory reel looks something this: self-consciousness is developmentally traumatic in the separation from the oceanic and in the recognition of death; language (and culture) is the result of the need to conceal and elevate violence; the objects of civilization are the results of a rational fear of nature; life, art, and civilization are responses to the encounter of temporality and discontinuity... everything and everyone ends.

I do think this is more or less the case. But if so, why then does our flight from the pain, sadness and fear that creates human life look the way that it does. The answer on the one hand seems entirely obvious. The only possible response to severe pain (for most of us) is to get away from it. But that isn't exactly what we do for ourselves and to each other. Instead we move violence around, stir it up, conceal it, and numb it - not so much in our bodies (but there too) but in our social organization. We don't want to do away with violence. We want to wield against ourselves and export it elsewhere onto another body(politic). If we wanted to live in a just and egalitarian world free of suffering, we would.

So then what do we accomplish through moving (political, economic, personal) violence from one site to another? From the interiors of “our' bodies to the interiors of other bodies. The answer is far more complicated than I can articulate now. To begin with it's not even clear what violence is in these constructs. But my sense is that Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain that I've been reading and writing about for a while now, sews an interesting possibility.

In her work on the structures of torture and war she suggests that their purpose (or one of their purposes) is to actualize and embody the stories of the regime or culture. That what happens is a series of reversals and transformations that code the injured body with the ephemeral ideas of the culture, or the inverse, that the ephemeral ideas are endowed with the embodied reality of injured and exposed interiors. In the chapter on war she talks a lot about how the memory of the body is not easily forgotten (it's impossible to forget how to ride a bike without significant intervention into the body, for instance) and that the memory of the narratives of war are carried in the lost limbs, faces, and lives of the injured. Their wounds give lasting reality to the narratives contested in war. Injury is substantiation according to Scarry.

She writes on page 137:
The lies, fictions, falsifications, within war … themselves together collectively objectify and extend the formal fact of what war is, the suspension of the reality of constructs, the systematic retraction of all benign forms of substance from the artifacts of civilization, and simultaneously [her emphasis], the mining of the ultimate substance, the ultimate source of substantiation, the extraction of the physical basis of reality from its dark hiding place in the body out into the light of day, the making available of the precious ore of confirmation, the interior content of human bodies, lungs arteries, blood, brains … that will eventually be reconnected to the winning issue, to which it will lend its radical substance, its compelling, heartsickening reality, until benign forms of substantiation come into being.
What we have here is a compelling explanation of the ends of torture and war, but also of the character of civilization itself. These ideas of Scarry's can be generalized to explain violence of many kinds [and in the second half of the book she looks at the way that making/ creating is a mirror image of unmaking/ destroying]: gated communities; abhorrent working conditions in the global south; a world where the vast majority of people live in fear, insecurity, and pain; and so on.The driving force of violence appears to be the need to give material reality, entelechy(?), to the ephemeral ideas of civilization, those creations that do not substantiate themselves. Or to put it colloquially, I only believe it if I feel it my guts.

This embodiment of abstractions is what I was looking at in this film, many years ago.


I have often argued and thought that the narratives of Terror Management Theory adequately explain our response to violence and the excess of life and death, that civilization is a way to manage our dread in the face of the tyranny of  temporality. And this is certainly part of it. But if we take Scarry's work into account, this dread is not so much a fear of death or material insecurity. It is a dread of the evanescing narratives that manage this fear. And this is exactly why I feel at home is Mexico City.
I can't imagine what it is like to believe in the narratives of your culture. I'm sure that some people do. Or they act as if they do and medicate the inconsistencies. I doubt that medication would help in my case. Perhaps a more invasive procedure would, a lobotomy maybe. But that isn't the point. The point is that I'm pretty sure that for most of us, the narratives fall apart at some point. And stay apart. And that the everyday trauma of being alive becomes an intimate part of our experience in the world. And for many of us, this is why we act so terribly, so cruely, even when we don't intend it, to give those insecure (falling, failing) constructions the reality of the suffering body.

But, at least in the United States, Europe, and in the enclaves of the indigenous elites in the global south, we organize our physical environments in such a way to conceal this rupture, and to append a new reality on to our environments and onto our bodies. I've written about this reality over and over. And what it looks like (and why) doesn't matter too much here. What matters is that the intimacies and messy interiors of the individual are not reflected in the spaces we inhabit. And this alienating experience is primarily an elevation and expansion of a single element of our consciousness – the experience of perpetually unsatisfied want (an essential element to endless growth economies), which is also the confrontation with loss, temporality, and death.

In her column A Living World, a good friend of mine looks at those architectural spaces left behind by the development ethos of her community. And what she beautifully writes about is exactly what makes Mexico livable, and humane.This city is by any metric a dysfunctional, violent, messy, corrupt place. But that is exactly what being human is like. In Mexico City I see a reflection of all that is terrible, beautiful and adaptable in my own inner life – peopled by characters and desires always at odds with one another, always in various states of satisfaction and want. My inner life is filled with beautiful old buildings that are falling apart and being rebuilt, with conflicts with no resolution, with a sometimes overpowering death drive. And just as I (and most of us) manage to live and survive in more or less ethical ways, Mexico City for all its problems is not tearing itself apart.  The strength of community is felt in even the most desperate parts of town.  For me, with no connection to the narratives that would integrate another into his or her culture, this apocalyptic, terrible, and tender tragi-comedy feels just like home.

 Let's hope that someday we build worlds that are humane in their reflection of us, that let us all live the way that we would want to live -  adapting, struggling, striving, imperfectly - with dignity and respect, and without the horrors (military, economic, architectural) we export around the world.


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