So a new, improved, and gif’d up version of my multimedia essay “Encomium on the Overlord” was published by the online magazine Harlot today. Hurray!
There’s more of me in this piece that I’m strictly comfortable with–way more–but that said: I kind of love it anyway. It ain’t perfect, but I can live with that. And I’m sending it out to several would-be employers as a writing sample, believe it or not.
Here’s the project, in a nutshell:
As a new fan of the CW’s paranormal series Supernatural, I paid little attention to actor Misha Collins outside the omnipresent trenchcoat of his character, Castiel—until a kairotic question from a fellow conference panelist pointed me in the direction of Collins’ Twitter feed. I was struck by Collins’ 140-character shots of performative trolling, Tweets that sang to me in shades, gleeful rhetorical waves, of the sophists, particularly because of the actor’s interest in, and unique definition of, social change.
Building on that sophistic seed, I argue here that Collins’ construction of a megalomaniacal Twitter persona known as the Overlord has afforded him a particular kind of disruptive ethos, one he’s used to persuade his fans to regard both “normalcy” as a social problem and acts of art and public performance as effective means of addressing that ill. Ultimately, I suggest that listening carefully to how Collins’ fan community defines, enacts, and understands “social change”—rather than measuring their rhetoric against a fixed understanding of what such change can and should look like—may allow those of us outside of this community, and others like it, to add to our understand of the “new ways of thinking about citizenship and collaboration” at work within the many, varied, and beautiful spaces of fandom (Jenkins 257).
There’s something about the idea of performativity, about the capacity to reenact different versions of one’s self depending upon the demands (and opportunities) presented by a given situation, that freaks people out sometimes, because–
That is, I think many people believe that they possess a “true” self, an inner rock of being that is distinctly, unequivocally their own.
But to me, the notion of a One True Anything–much less a One True Self–is frankly terrifying.
Maybe it’s the Gorgias lover in me [yes], or the postmodernist [yup], or the wanderlust, but for me, everything is situational.
It’s like Zora Neale Hurston says in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, see it from its own angle” (45).
The cynical version of this would be it’s all relative, but that’s not quite what I mean.
I’d say: it’s all kairotic.
Toss these questions online, these musings over identity and performance, and whoa.
Who am I online? Given that there are different versions of me running around on tumblr, on twitter, on AO3, here on this blog: what control do I have over the answer to that question?
As a writer, as a rhetorician, I’m always more interested in what writing does than in engaging in a long, fruitless search for a single, concretized meaning.
But the recent unraveling of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” via its appearance on the radio show This American Life [TAL] has challenged that notion for me.
In its most recent episode, “Retraction,” TAL takes a very public mulligan for its “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” episode which aired earlier this year. Daisey is a long-form monologuist, self-constructed in the image of [the amazing, the haunted, the shattering] Spaulding Gray, and the TAL episode featured an extended excerpt from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he recounts his 2010 trip to visit some Apple factories in China.
The problem, from TAL’s perspective, is this: Daisey made a lot of shit up. He added, embellished, and flat-out fabricated sequences, details, and people that he presents in his show–and on TAL—as “real.” True, and all that.
The truth, as it always is, is muddier. Much of the material that Daisey stitched into his show is “real” in the sense that it did happen–but to other people. Essentially, he took elements of other people’s experiences and reporting and integrated them into his own trip to China, to some of the Apple factories there, so seamlessly–with such careful rhetorical stitches–that those pieces became part of his whole.
This was conscious, deliberate plagiarism, in my opinion.
Daisey, to his limited credit, did come back to TAL to try and explain his behavior to a [very calmly] peeved Ira Glass. He tried not speaking, he tried denial, he tried self-delusion: there wasn’t a kid-whose-been-caught trick that he didn’t reach for. To me, Daisey came out looking like a skeez, one who hid behind the mechanics of the theater. In theater, he seemed to say again and again, the truth doesn’t matter, details don’t matter. It’s what the work does that makes it worthwhile.
Glass asked him why he didn’t come clean during the fact-checking process that TAL ran before the episode originally aired. Daisey’s response:
I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything. [emphasis added]
So. I wonder. The rhetorician in me, wonders.
Is the problem here really one of genre, as Daisey repeatedly suggested? That in the theater, it’s ok–even expected?–that what’s on stage is heightened, exaggerated, narratively fluffed, even. That the truth must be embellished in order to be theatrical?
For what he regretted, Daisey said, was not the way in which he made his show, the detailed quiliting that shaded memory, truth, and someone else’s stories into a seamless whole. No. It was that he had allowed Glass and co. to bring his piece of theater onto public radio, into the world of journalism, of reporting.
Is it one of rhetoric? Does it matter more what the work does than if the content–which is ostensibly presented as memoir and political agit-prop [Brecht with a side of pathos]–is factual, or not? And by whose standards should the facts be judged? Is meaning truly subjugate to what the text does with, to, for, and through the audience?
Or is it one of integrity overthrown in the zeal of the moment, as this article suggests? Was Daisey so invested in doing with his text that he tossed the truth aside in order to make people feel for these mistreated workers? To care so much that they would do whatever it took to make it stop?
Shades of Brecht here, I think. Except Brecht, if memory serves, did not present his works as “truth,” as an accurate representation of any one person’s lived experience. Of what one person had seen or done.
So it makes me wonder, this strange little controversy, this eruption between truth, theater, and journalism. Can my ideals still hold in the face of it, this real-world example of the consequences of embracing what words do over what they mean?
To put a finer point on it: it’s not quite as simple, as straightforward as it feels in the classroom, in an academic text, within the boundaries of this blog, is it?
Words have consequences, both because of what they do and because of what they can mean.
A lesson I need to take on for myself as a writer, I think. It seems. A timely reminder.
I’m working on a paper for school in which I’m tangling with two scholars’ notions of “good” writing, or what elements or actions or characteristics of writing should be valued, and why.
Tripping through their definitions, their contradictions, their idealism has gotten me wondering, again, about how writing–good or otherwise–can be taught.
Indeed, the more experience that I have in teaching writing, the more I am convinced that writing can’t be taught. Not in a single course, or semester, or even a school year. Rather, I think writing is an accumulation, a collection of ideas or imprints or gestures that build up in the mind over time like shells on the shore that get honed by the waves and bleached by the sun and experience, uncovered and buried and swept away as needed. Refashioned, again and again, piece by piece, instructor by instructor, book by book, blog post by blog post.
Writing defies testing, defies concretization. Deconstruction teaches us that meaning is not fixed; that the world is text; that the writer cannot hope to master language and its infinities of meanings, only to tangle, to temporarily tame, the words with which we are surrounded. So why do we pretend that writing is an act, a series of performative moves, even, that can be “taught” as if they were a universal constant? As if there were agreement over the unstickiness of language and meaning? As if we can even agree over what we mean by “writing.”
People ask me: how did you learn how to write? And I say: I read. Which some writers think is a total fucking copout, a justification for NOT writing. An excuse for why you haven’t written. Okay, I can see that. Maybe it is, sometimes.
I can speak only for myself, then: reading taught me how to write. But it was up to me to actually, you know, write. To do something with that knowledge. Intellectually understanding how words can fit together, what they can do in certain combinations, is all well and good, was all well and good, for me. Even got me to a point where I could “teach” other people how to write. Like painting a wall, or something; where to put the masking tape, how to position the ladder, what kind of brush to use and when.
But it wasn’t until I started writing regularly, for myself and not simply in response to [or in order to resist] an academic assignment or prompt that I started to do writing rather than just talk about it, teach it, dissect it.
So maybe it’s not fair to say that it’s the experience of teaching writing that’s made me question if and how “writing” can be taught. Maybe it’s being a writer. And I don’t ascribe to the romantic Platonic notion of writing being some super-secret gift from the Almighty or something.
But writing isn’t math. It can’t be boiled down to formulas or prescriptions or balanced equations, no matter how often I tell my students that one can figure out what makes a piece work or what undermines its effectiveness. There’s no magic bullet for writing, period. Probably for a lot of other shit, too, but writing’s the only thing I know anything about.
So I don’t acribe any mystical powers to myself, ok? But still, I’m a “good” writer. A distinct one. One with a distinctive voice, anyway, in a couple of different genres. But how did that happen? Where did it come from? And not all of my readers dig the way that I write, the way that my characters–including my academic self–sound; but, by now, I’ve had positive responses from a wide enough variety of readers to buy into my own hype, a little. Temporarily, at least.
My composition theory professor once asked us–aspiring composition teachers all–if we thought that one had to be a “good” writer in order to effectively teach writing. Though she did not say it then–let us argue it out amongst ourselves instead–her answer? Is yes. It was part of the reason that she encouraged me to teach composition: because she thought I was a “good” writer.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand, yet, how that is supposed to translate into the classroom. For the most part, I don’t introduce my students to my writing; this piece, this term, being the rare exception. The only writing of mine to which they are regularly exposed are my comments on their own work. And especially given what I do write, both as a scholar and as a fan, I’m reluctant to even talk about my own writing too much to my kids. If they ask, I’ll tell; otherwise, I’m still squidgy about talking about slash fic with freshmen who are an awesome combination of world-weary and wide-eyed innocents, sometimes.
And yet, as a new-old friend said to me recently: I read your writing because otherwise, how will I know you? Which, exactly. I would agree. So since my students don’t read my writing–nor am I arguing that they should, I don’t think–how does me as a writer get translated into me as an instructor?
Whatever sustained joy I find in writing is newly grown; barely nine months old, yet. And I know, as I ask my students to write multiple drafts, to revise, to talk with others about their writing, that, for many of them–like me–these are motions to be gone through, rhetorical moves to be performed, but, for the moment, they find no value in them, other than they must be done. I’ve been in school–even just graduate school–for a loooong time. I’ve written a lot of shit. Some of it good, some meh, some of it I even liked. But I didn’t have a “writing process”–revise: I didn’t have a stack of writing processes from which to choose–until I started writing for myself. Until I started writing fan fic.
Some would argue, I think, that I am able to craft said processes because I’ve been “trained” in the Writing As A Process model. That the instruction I offer my kids might not be useful to them now, but it will be “in the future.” At some point. Maybe.
But I would say: that’s not good enough. I want to teach them something they can take pleasure in now, that they can have fun with now, that they can re-make for their own purposes now, not in some distant pretend future which may or may not come to pass. Why can’t writing be good to them, for them, in the moment? Because if Godot ain’t coming today, who’s to say that he’ll come on any other tomorrow?
Writing, now, brings me so much joy that I get a little stupid about it, sometimes. As evidenced by this post, perhaps, if given the chance, I will go on and on about my processes, the different ways in which my stories came to be, how I fought them, how they seduced me back to the keyboard, etc. Because, to me, it’s a freaking miracle. It’s like the baby Jesus springing to life on the screen sometimes; that is, when I look up after an hour and there’s a little fic there, done, completed by me, apparently, it’s like, wow. Where in the hell did that come from?
I used to be really weird about reading my own writing. As in, I wouldn’t, once it was turned in. I’d read any comments that I received, but I’d never look back over the piece as a whole. But now? I read all my stuff multiple times, once it’s “done.” The fic especially, but even my academic pieces. Ok, my papers, I still don’t really read carefully until after I’ve gotten them back from the prof, but my presentations? My research? Hell yeah, I read that stuff. Because I’m good with it, I’m ok with what’s on the page. I take some pleasure in seeing how it works, what didn’t, and why. I genuinely like writing, damn it.
So I want to find a way to bring that into my classroom, that love of practice. But I practice writing, for the most part, on my own terms. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it. My kids, however, aren’t in the same boat, so it’s not as simple, I don’t think, as bringing my practices themselves into the classroom.
Still, I have to acknowledge that, as Della Pollock suggests in her essay “Performing Writing,” “performance, as practice…is never fully in control of its effects” (80). And what is teaching, ultimately, if not a performance? So no matter how much energy I devote to puzzling my way out of this rhetorical paper bag, I cannot claim full control over the effects of my teaching, of my time in the classroom. And that’s ok. I’ve accepted that.
But still. I want my kids–if not all, at least some–to one day [stupid future!] find the love and joy and pleasure in writing that I have, finally, after all these years. I don’t want to create clones of myself–I’m a goddamn mess!–but I do want to open as many door as I can for them, give them as many chances to monkey around in my classroom while they can. And as wishing cannot make it so, I’ve no choice but to keep playing around, to keep testing, rearranging, revising, rewriting in my classes as I do on the page, on the screen.
So for all that angst about “how can we teach writing?,” I end up writing myself back into this job, this calling, into those awesome five hours a week I get to spend in the classroom with my students. There are some traps, I suppose, from which we do not wish to escape.
So I got a tattoo last night and got schooled in gender normativity, all at the same time.
I get settled in the chair and I’m calm, like really fucking calm, and I think of my therapist saying: “Yeah, Wellbutrin helps with that.” Which, definitely, but it was more than that; it felt right, like I was doing something I was supposed to do. That I wanted to do. So I was cool.
The artist moved around, gathering needles and guns and vaseline, his wife moving through the room, too, breaking down, straightening up. And we’re bullshitting about this dude who’d just left, a random undergraduate looking for a full shirt tattoo–a fairly regular occurance, the artist tells me–and the design he’d described sounded like it’d come to him in a joint-fueled dream, or something.
And then the artist asks me: “Don’t you have any questions about the pain? About how much it hurts?”
I said, “Not really. I figured that it’s going to hurt.”
The artist’s wife laughs. “And that’s the difference between men and women,” she says, chuckling. “Men come in asking ‘but how much will it hurt?’ and women go, eh, ok, it’ll hurt.”
Uh huh. I want to take this as a sign of awesome, but the damn gender scholar in me is like: quoi?
A few minutes later, we’ve wound up to the pregame chat and the artist is telling me about a Virginia state trooper–big dude, he assures me, like 250 pounds–who was super concerned about the pain involved in getting a tattoo. “He asked me five times in like ten minutes,” the artist clucks, running disinfectant over my arm again. And then, the real crime: “And this was in front of his girlfriend! She was standing right over there,” he nods towards the wall racks of tattoo images. “So I tell him, no, I’m not tattooing you. And he starts whining, asking me why, telling me he really wants a tattoo.”
He pauses, positioning the stencil on my forearm. “Just about there? Ok.” He presses it into my skin, just like one of those fake tattoos you get out of a Cracker Jacks box, leaving a purple brand behind.
“So,” he continues, reaching for the stencil pen, “he says, ‘It’s natural for somebody to wonder how much it hurts,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it is, but you’ve asked me five times already, and that’s not normal.’ And I told him, ‘I mean, little girls of like, 17 and 18, get these everyday. So it can’t be that bad, right?'”
And I look at the artist as he leans over my arm, delicately winding an ivy vine around the stencil with his pen, and I think: yeah, I can see him sassing a cop. Not belligerently, but in a I know what the fuck I’m doing so let me do my job kinda way.
“And then–” he pauses, setting up the kicker. “Then, his girlfriend turns around and she says to me: ‘Oh ignore him. He’s a big baby.'” The artist sat back, his eyebrows arching. “I couldn’t believe it! I mean, if my wife”–who was safely in the next room–“if she said that about me, I’d be so embarrassed. And,” he added quickly, “not that I’ve ever given her reason to say that, but still. Still.”
So for the artist, the crime here was twofold: first, the cop was acting like a wuss–unmanly in the face of “little” girls who can stand up to the pain; and second, the girlfriend basically cut the dude’s balls off in public. Not that he hadn’t started to make a go of it himself, but still.
A performance that defied gender normative behavior, playing out in a tattoo shop. A performance in which all the actors were Iago, except the artist, fair Cassio.
Then the needles come out, and I look away and put my game face on and try to stay in my body enough so that I don’t twitch or jump or fucking breathe too hard and risk the needle straying from outside the lines that the artist had so carefully sketched on my skin.
And dude, it hurt, it fucking hurt, but not quite in the way that I thought it would. It wasn’t like a dagger leaping in and out of my skin, or like getting a shot–it was more the insistence of the needles as they flew, a feeling of momentum underscored by the buzz and hum and push of the machine that powered the gun. Like once it got going, the damn thing wasn’t going to stop until it got what it came for, until it had scored enough blood and flesh to rest easy for the night.
But I, damn it, was not going to be a wuss. I was not going to live down to the cop’s anti-example. And, all things considered, the pain wasn’t that bad, but I think my determination to be stoic about it amped up the pressure. I need my pain, damn it. I chose it, and I can take it.
So we go for awhile and he gets like 95% of the outlining done– “This is the worst part,” he assures me, “the coloring and shading hurts a lot less”–and he stops, turning my arm in his gloved hand so he can get a better look, and then he asks me if I want him to put numbing gel over the damn thing.
“I’m fine,” I said, and that was easier to believe now that the needle was still, the machine purring only to itself.
“No, really,” he said, “it’s ok.”
“No, really,” I said, setting my teeth. “I’m fine.”
He turned my arm again and sat back, stretching. Smiled.
“Well,” he said. “It does make it easier for me. See, you have a perfect circle, right? And those are the hardest tattoos to do. That and straight lines. So the gel will like, wipe away the stencil completely, and that’ll make it easier for me to see. To get it right.”
I considered this.
“I’m trying to be butch about this,” I said, and he laughed.
“You don’t have to be. Really, it’ll make it easier for me to see.”
“Ok,” I said finally. “But only as long as it’s all about you and has nothing to do with me being a wuss.”
He laughed again, shook his head. Reached back for the gel. Smoothed it over the tattoo.
“Ok,” he said. “It’ll take a few minutes to kick in. Let’s take a break.”
In ST III: The Search for Spock, there’s an interesting battle between absence and presence, especially where Spock/Nimoy is concerned. Nimoy himself is pointedly absent from the film until the last ten minutes or so; though as the film’s director, he’s a constant, unseen presence who is guiding the audience’s gaze.
By contrast, “Spock” is present in much of the film in the form of his tortured boy-selves. The foregrounding of the Spock-lings underscores the absence of”our” Spock; that is, none of these actors are Nimoy, so none of these characters are Spock. As a reader, it feels to me that Nimoy is making a very deliberate choice here–as a director, he’s very conscious of the absence of his body in the film, and of the power that this deliberate withholding gives him over his audience.
When he does give us his body (so to speak), it’s done in a teasing way: having re-minded Spock walk past James and his other crewmmates at first (though the perspective of the camera tells us that it’s his snubbing of James that’s significant); then that pause on the stairs with his back to James and to us, surrounded by men in similar robes, of similar build; then a slow turn and a very careful removing of his hood–only then do we see “our” Spock again, only then do we (and James) possess his body once more. It’s a lovely, very carefully designed and well–executed sequence. It’s Spock’s body, and Nimoy knows how to use it.