Apr 242015
 
 April 24, 2015

“The way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”

(Justice William J. Brennan)

Today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and classes have ended for Duke undergraduates; I’m reading over my notes on the death penalty.

Earlier this week, scholars and practitioners—both local and non—gathered for the last Conversation in Human Rights for this academic year, “The Death Penalty in N.C. and the U.S.” The panel consisted of two law professors, a political scientist-economist, a historian, and a practitioner. The discussion was lively and embodied; Corinna Lain and James Gibson, both from the University of Richmond School of Law, spoke animatedly about their co-authored paper, “Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace”; Seth Kotch, from UNC-CH’s Department of American Studies, rapidly talked us through his research on the case study of Alvin Mansel, an African-American man from Western North Carolina who sat on death row but was eventually commuted and given parole. Isaac Unah, from Political Science at UNC, and Gretchen Engel, who heads up the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, honed the local focus with an overview of recent death penalty cases in North Carolina.

On a general level, I was struck, as I am often in academic panels—or any panel for that matter—by the rapid-fire, real-time bringing together of different types and snippets of knowledge (each panelist was given a total of six minutes to present his or her thesis and ideas). Ideally, in such a scenario, each panelist brings to the table a distinct disciplinary perspective; also ideally, such perspectives can mesh together so that the panel becomes or at least feels to the audience like a conversation, rather than an abstract issuing-forth. And this Conversation indeed felt like a conversation; the panelists were engaging, they played well together, and they played well with the audience. All this despite, or perhaps in light of, the subject matter, which has felt unavoidable in the local and national news lately. And, probably, it should feel that way; comments were made more than once during the discussion that alluded to how little Americans know about the death penalty—we make up part of the remaining 18% of U.N. member countries that still allow it; we source drugs for lethal injections from European pharmaceutical companies, while the EU restricts the death penalty—regardless of whether they choose to support it or not.

To behold a somewhat cheery, dynamic conversation about these issues is disorienting, but moreso compelling, given the manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty are taken up in the national, public sphere: in conjunction with high-profile cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing—first, the facts, then reportage on the emotional response. There was something powerful in Monday’s conversation in the admission of this action happening, it’s inherent to our national and local landscape, and it can be approached in these various ways. Those who research and advocate for issues relating to the death penalty (and/or its abolition in the U.S.) know about things like the Innocence Project, about its mission to a) exonerate and b) reform the system—a proactive effort, and a public-facing and publicly inclusive one at that. Being privy to this week’s conversation made me wonder to what degree these multi-faceted, emphasis-on-knowledge-production-and-question-generation conversations are happening with regard to the issue of the death penalty, and to what extent they increase the accessibility of the issue in the first place. I’d err on the side of to a large extent—that is, when they happen in the first place.

—MD

Apr 172015
 
 April 17, 2015

The strongest feeling I feel regarding the ubiquity of inchworms is annoyance, but the second-strongest is wonder: at their incremental ways of moving, at their ability to canvass the canopy some-odd feet above our heads and some-odd feet below the tree branches. Their assertion of space jibes against mine: I deserve to walk home free from these small leech-like green bodies, to not-dip under their transparent web-threads dangling down from the trees.

And then the rain comes, and with the pollen they are gone—dead, perhaps, or otherwise invisible by the human eye. My body sighs in relief. I expand the radius of where I can comfortably maneuver myself. I don’t dodge the plunging stairwell that connects my downstairs office to the control center of Kenan, as I did yesterday when I saw a green worm floating in that negative space and chose to take the elevator instead.

As someone with a background in movement training, I’m partly fascinated by this choreography of avoidance and partly unnerved by it. It invokes a privileging of private, individual space—the same privileging I denounce when undergraduates cluster together with loud voices at Durham establishments, or extend their limbs farther than their limbs can reach on Duke buses.

It is the end of the semester and we are tired. It has been a long year. I found Duke senior (and Kenan student) Leena El-Sadek’s Chronicle column this week, “Counting down and looking back,” particularly apt. She uses the metaphor of a running a recent half-marathon to chart her own exhaustion and frustration with uneven (read: unequal) terrains:

“One month till the Duke finish line.

They fooled me. I waited for the final semester email, but it never came. Faculty and family begin cheering, and I realize I’m only a couple of weeks away from the finish line. I begin to pick up my pace, but certain powers step out in front of me. Some people step out in front of me. I realize that I know these people. The America I come from is not the America they come from. I ran the same race, I conquered every hill and I never stopped. On paper, though, it looks like they beat me. Life isn’t fair.”

And yet she keeps going, keeps running: “I want to conquer those hills. I want to finish those miles. And maybe just then, I’ll run and feel like a winner.” This work is duly enervating because it is necessary—the continuity, the keeping-on itself is necessary. And so, as the semester closes, we grasp more and more at the spaces, activities, and people that make us feel more comfortable—partly as a reaction to the exhaustion, be it physical, emotional, intellectual, political, cultural…you name it. I can’t speak for Leena’s exhaustion; she speaks it, and speaks it eloquently, herself. In terms of my own, I’m looking back at a post I wrote a year(-ish) ago, after Teju Cole’s visit to Duke. In that post I was looking back at a note I wrote for Recess at the end of my senior year as a Duke undergraduate. I feel now, as I did then, the anxiety of summing things up, of creating clean conclusions even, and especially, as the self has exhausted itself. I have recent Duke, local, and national events on my mind, and they hang heavy: the noose incident, the adhan debate, the murders in Chapel Hill, the lives of people of color lost to police violence. I think also about spaces where we have come together: in a lunch with Leslie Jamison, where a group of young women conversed with a writer about creative work and self-care; under the Chapel, where administrators and students tried to process and move forward: some by standing in solidarity, others by implicating Duke in the university’s own problems (Public Policy professor Fritz Mayer wrote an evocative piece about this gathering here).

I feel compelled to compose a conclusion where these uneven terrains coexist, as I think Leena does in her column. This impulse does not move to affirm immorality, inequality, or violence; rather, it acknowledges our culpability. “Dehumanization exists simply because a particular person or community has no place in the larger narrative,” Leena writes. “Inequality exists because we fail to recognize the long-standing effects of our socially constructed policies.” Our power to choreograph avoidance exists alongside our power to choreograph accountability. But choreography is one thing, and embodiment another.

—MD

Apr 102015
 
 April 10, 2015

A few months ago while applying makeup in front of a curved mirror in my family’s home, I noticed a cloudy spot on my right cornea. My usual hazel-green beneath had morphed to milky, and in my usual medical panic, I searched for answers: had I punctured it with my fingernail when wiping sleep from my eyes? Was it evidence of a more serious condition? Had it always been there, and I’d not noticed it until now? The scope of possibilities—of imaginative possibilities—loomed. I saw an opthamologist, who told me it was “benign as it could be,” even if it was evidence of early macular degeneration. Until then, I lived in the space of stories I’d spun for myself. Each narrative was self-controlled: I told them, and I listened in turn.

The cover image of anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar’s book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart is a photograph of a mural on Miami’s Calle Ocho. The image is perfect for the book, she explained earlier this week in a lecture at the Center for Documentary Studies. It is of a face, perhaps that of a woman, and half of it—the paint, but also the flesh—is peeling. The scrape ranges from the corner of the mouth to the eyeball above. It almost encroaches on the pupil.

Ruth Behar's The Vulnerable Observer. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer. Image courtesy of Amazon.

It made sense for Behar to reference her book—indeed, the talk (“Ruth Behar and The Vulnerable Observer: After Twenty Years, What Next?”) was specifically about her book, and its evolution in the cultural imaginary since its publication 20 years ago. How does her discourse in Vulnerable Observer—which blends personal essay and ethnography to advocate for a more humanistic anthropology—apply now, given the changing nature of the academy, of the media, of storytelling? Does ethnography still matter? What do we do with the ubiquity of documentation? What do we do with the archives we’re overproducing through our apps, our phones, our computers?

Behar did answer, or tilt toward answering, each of these questions. But perhaps, at one point, before she wrote this lecture, these questions bewildered her—as they bewilder me. Maybe these questions thrummed when her vision field became sprinkled with bright lights during a recent drive. This episode was woven into her lecture. The episode reminded her of her youth—of experiencing migraines vis-à-vis visual “auras.”

So she, like me, went to the doctor. Her current state of bright blinking was diagnosed as retina detachment. It made her anxious. She visited Florida, where she slept by the sea, and suddenly the vastness of the ocean terrified her. She visited an aunt with late-stage macular degeneration. Their ailments found and fondled each other. Behar’s aunt recognized Behar’s pain as she recognized her own—stories openly and evenly told, and received.

Stories—or the blanket concept of story—feels very much in vogue right now. Podcast popularity is suddenly reeling; live storytelling series, such as The Moth and The Monti, are well-attended; new multimedia templates unfold online each week, advertising their features as additive, even formative, bits for our brewing narratives. Just this week, the Franklin Humanities Institute unveiled Story Lab. Stories are sexy, or maybe the feeling they evoke is—in other words, it is now enough to shout “story!” and people will listen.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if people will truly listen. Listening is the ugly work: it feels invisible; it’s highly personal; it requires the investment of (deep) time and (deep) energy. As Leslie Jamison writes, It’s made of exertion—that dowdier cousin of impulse. Can we imagine a “Listening Lab” at Duke? Perhaps— though I think it would shroud itself in other language, dilute its visibility, become something else.

Ruth Behar at CDS this past week. The image onscreen was drawn by a friend in reference to Behar's ethnographic work in Mexico (Behar is pictured on the right).

Ruth Behar at CDS this past week. The image onscreen was drawn by a friend in reference to Behar’s ethnographic work in Mexico (Behar is pictured on the right).

And maybe this, too, is not a bad thing. But how do those “something elses” connect? How can we make listening, as empathetic stance, more visible? Can, and should, it be branded? Can its diverse models be celebrated without being prescribed?

In introducing Ruth Behar, Alex Harris—CDS co-founder, professor, and photographer—described Behar’s ethnographic stance as a paradigm for how to become someone we want to tell stories to. I scribbled this down in my notebook, and underneath it I wrote: How do we become.

When we adjourned to Behar’s reception, I fell in step with an older woman. We walked upstairs into the pre-storm humid breeze, and she remarked that she’d seen me nodding often during the lecture. “Yes,” I said. “I’m trying to become both a writer and a scholar. I haven’t read Behar’s work, but this talk was very affirming for me.”

I wish I had gone on to ask her what she thought of the lecture, but I was caught up in the warm buffer of Behar’s words and the promise of cheese cubes and cauliflower. I left that talk feeling like I could do anything and be anyone. I ate alone and walked off into the dark, conjuring my future story, imagining the permission I would give myself to live it.

When, in the practice of everyday living, these permissions—small, large, sometimes tentative, sometimes exuberant—are given regularly. They must be handled with care, for they are the giving and receiving of stories; they are acts of entrustment; they are, as Behar said, part of “a history of our shared mortality.”

How do we become someone others want to tell stories to? We demonstrate our capacity for listening. We sharpen our ability to see beyond our typical line of vision. We exercise presence even as the paint is peeling.

—MD

Apr 032015
 
 April 3, 2015

There is, in my haphazardly arranged wire desk organizer, a small sheet of paper that’s sat untouched since last October. It is untouched, but even worse, it is uncolored; this is a sheet that emerged from a coloring book, all thin black curved lines buffering a large peace sign, overlaid with the words “confidence,” “collaboration,” “creativity.” This sheet is my souvenir from my first volunteering gig with Girls Rock NC, a nonprofit organization that may best be described by its adherence to the three nouns listed above. Girls Rock NC—with sister orgs in several states—“empowers girls and women—through creative expression—to become confident and engaged members of our communities.” Its staff and volunteers, many of whom are local artists and musicians, facilitate summer camps, workshops, and other development opportunities for young women and women-identified community members.

I’m thinking about those three nouns this week, as I sat dumbstruck and disgusted by the news on campus this week, and as I came in to work on Thursday, noting in passing the Duke Chronicle’s front-page headline: “We are not afraid. We stand together.” It so happens that this week also marks the 20-year anniversary of Tejana musician Selena’s death. Reading about Selena—about whose work I am minimally familiar and limited to Spanish language-class curricula—led me to a 2009 video interview (conducted by Duke Press) with poet and performance scholar Deborah Paredez. Paredez is talking about her then-just-published text Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, and specifically about the creation of the term “Selenidad.” She explains how her use of the Spanish suffix -idad, which makes a non-noun word into a noun, “evoke[s] something that was of Selena but not just her.” Selenidad is at once specific and general, a holding pattern for the various types of emotional production surrounding Selena’s fame, music, and afterlife. Selenidad is different, but not separate from, other –idads: creatividad (creativity) and comunidad (community).

I don’t know much about Selena, but I want to—I want to know how her legacy speaks to Latin@ culture in the United States today, about how her status as a woman musician shaped women in music today. About how young women—Tejana, Latina, or otherwise—look to her for inspiration or affirmation. I want to draw a line between her work and that of Kathleen Hanna, and her band Bikini Hill, the subject of our final film (The Punk Singer) in this year’s Ethics Film Series. Hanna is another unapologetic frontwoman of a pioneering musical group—one about whom academic texts and non-academic texts alike could, and have, been written. Prior to Bikini Kill’s emergence as a band, the title was used for a “zine”—a self-published documentary compendium of texts, illustrations, and other materials celebrating and advocating for feminist art and music.

As it turns out, these zines included coloring books, with sheets perhaps not unlike the one that continues to sit at my desk. They circulated (and continue to circulate) in order to widen the circle of affirmation and community especially among women. Likewise, my decision to screen The Punk Singer is both curatorial and personal: it is a move to both further widen this circle and to contribute to its documentation—to see how ideas and emotions overlap, how identities take shape both on-screen and in the movie theater (and in the concert crowd, and so on). By deciding to engage with the cultural production of Selena, or of Kathleen Hanna, in the present-tense, we are bringing their work into a new space of existence—in other words, a space, like Selenidad, that is both them and not-them.

—MD

Mar 282015
 
 March 28, 2015

This week I’m thinking back to the Insider interview with Kari Barclay and Erin Leyson, two undergraduate students involved in last year’s multimedia art project #Migrations (led by Kenan’s first Graduate Arts Fellow, Caitlin Margaret Kelly). The piece they created brought together different live Twitter feeds clustered around terms—both ‘neutral’ and non—related to migration and immigration. I asked the two students to articulate their thinking about the relationship between art and policy in light of their work on #Migrations.

EL: I think the point with our project is that we weren’t really making a point. We’re giving everyone the tools they need to make their own point. That’s difficult for me, coming from a public policy background where everything is very pointed. We could easily push an agenda, [but] we don’t really want to do that. We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it…

KB: Some things exist outside the realm of the political or the realm of what policy can affect or change. The language that we use around migration is very much an everyday occurrence. It’s not something you really can legislate. Policy is more informal and it comes through experiences.

We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it. Last week, Kenan hosted author Leslie Jamison, who writes gymnastically about empathy. Two days ago I sat it on the final group meeting for the Humanities Writ Large/Bass Connections project “The Language of Genocide and Human Rights.” Nora Nunn, a first-year doctoral student in the English department, gave a presentation that situated trauma in post-genocide Rwandan cinema. Last night I screened the 2006 musical film Once, about an Irish singer-songwriter and Czech pianist who meet, make music, and fall in love in Dublin. My first thought when enumerating this series of events is, when will I next hold a position that enables me to come in contact with such a swath of people, materials, and ideas? My next thought, a two-pronged one, is, do, and how do, these different things connect? This is a question I imagine is on people’s minds when they ask me what I do in my position at Kenan, as they did as I bobbed between bar tables at the reception following Jamison’s public reading last week.

Much of Nora’s presentation revolved around the idea of “empathic unsettlement,” discussed by historian Dominick LaCapra in Writing History, Writing Trauma. Empathic unsettlement, LaCapra writes, “poses a barrier to closure in discourse…from which we attempt to derive reassurance or a benefit.” Nora applied empathic unsettlement to different examples of films about genocide, highlighting the dominance of ‘harmonizing narratives’—often Western-produced, unambiguously hopeful stories of spiritual uplift following a violent or traumatic event. In either smoothing over such events or focusing on singular stories of traditional ‘success’ or overcoming, these narratives exclude all else. They negate space for questions, confusion, and alternative stories. Nora’s research was more interested in works, such as the films Matiere Gris (Grey Matter) and Munyurangabothat compose narrative through conflicting narratives—flashbacks, fragmented dream-sequences, documentary realism—and thus give us, as viewers, something more complex to wrap our heads around.

Importantly, this complexity doesn’t come in policy-memo form, assuring us that genocide won’t happen again. This complexity—like the complexity of empathy—is taken instead, as Kari alludes, as everyday, as a natural occurrence, which we must in turn work to excavate.

I was faced with a challenge to perform such excavation on Tuesday, as I composed opening remarks for the screening of Once. I felt I needed to justify the film’s inclusion in a series related to music, ethics, and identity; since Once is a musical film, and a romance at that, it carries an air of immunity to critique or analysis. Yet its plot and style refuse easy categorization or unequivocal uplift; its two central characters, who meet and make art together, make difficult choices in order to honor their obligations to others. They are grounded in a realism, and a reality, of Ireland in the mid-aughts: one teetering between the demise of the Celtic Tiger and the imminent economic collapse that coincided with the global Great Recession. They are immigrants and nationals, and carry those complicated ties, and choose to make art—to make, in effect, an ethics of “making it” in the first place. This is the space they forge and the infrastructure for the points they make. This is the space which we enter, as viewers, singing along but asking our own questions along the way.

—MD

Mar 202015
 
 March 20, 2015
IMG_2765

The Leslie Jamison Do Lunch.

Author Leslie Jamison’s visit to Duke as the second Kenan-CDS Visiting Writer in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art was a two-day whirlwind that engaged undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and Triangle community members. Taken on face value, this description would suit just about any campus residency involving a high-profile practitioner, artist, or scholar. But this one felt singular, in a way; as a professor and mentor of mine said, Jamison’s visit, which centered on her much-awarded, lauded, and widely read essay collection The Empathy Exams, “touche[d] so many needs and nerves across campus.” I think this was due, in part, to the issue at the heart of her work—empathy—which prompts (and prompted) such wide-ranging micro and macro reverberations.

A Team Kenan Do Lunch on Wednesday brought Jamison and 20+ students together to explore questions surrounding the anxiety of expertise in storytelling, gender and writing, and the challenges of crafting a healthy relationship between creative work and everyday living. Staff book club, which convened on Thursday morning with Kenan and Center for Documentary Studies staff members, prompted a lively conversation about the metrics of empathy—When do we give? How do we position ourselves in terms of the needs of others?

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison’s panel discussion at the Forum for Scholars and Publics on Thursday, for which she was joined by Jehanne Gheith (Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and MSW), and Lauren Henschel (Duke senior and documentary photographer), was, in one audience member’s words, “awesome, moving, powerful, transformative.” The panel, entitled “Ghost Pain: Caregiving, Documentary, and Radical Empathy,” allowed the trio to share their experiences encountering pain and engendering empathy in their respective practices. Another audience member praised the discussion’s “grounded personal moments of vulnerability.” Their reflections on each others’ work felt electric and connective (and they said as much afterward).

At her public reading on Wednesday night, Jamison read “The Broken Heart of James Agee,” a short essay from a small collection of essays—”Pain Tours II”—within The Empathy Exams (a version of “Agee” was published in The Believer in 2012). About Agee’s infamous Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a 400+-page genre-bending, hulking textual thing that attempts to write about sharecroppers in the Deep South but instead writes about how hard it is to write about, and therefore document, anything, Jamison writes:

Empathy is contagion. Agee wants his words to stay in us as “deepest and most iron anguish and guilt.” They have stayed; they do stay; they catch as splinters, still, in the open, supplicating palms of this essay. If it were possible, Agee claims, he wouldn’t have used words at all: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” In this way, we are prepared for the four hundred pages of writing that follow. “A piece of the body torn out by the roots,” he continues, “might be more to the point.”

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison’s visit was about writing, but it was also, and fundamentally, about so much more. It was about presence: it was about different folks coming out to one or more of her events, and connecting with each other—I had no idea I’d see you here!—and connecting with Jamison in turn (she wrote personal notes in the books of attendees, and they signed her copy of The Empathy Exams). It created a space where global health students met English students; where scholarship became public and personal; where Triangle community members mingled in academic building, talking about what they do, where they work, and how they encountered Jamison’s work. This visit, much like Eula Biss’s in the fall, had a pulse, and that pulse had—has—indentations. Those indentations will live on in our shared conversation, in our shared air—the latter of which, as Jamison said, is as ubiquitous as instances of, and possibilities for, empathy.

—MD

Mar 142015
 
 March 14, 2015

I think sometimes about how the same eagerness with which we share “interesting” articles on the web also leads us to shame, destruct, and otherwise terrorize fellow humans on the internet. There is this shame spiral, and on one end is our pleasure in connectivity, in reading a think-piece that gels with our worldview, and on the other are our impulses (fully realized) toward alienation, i.e., look at what this horrible person has posted or tweeted and, come on, gang, let’s destroy him/her. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I wonder about what can be said, chemically speaking, of the uneven space between our uniting to uplift and our uniting to disparage and condemn. The pleasure spiral toes both lines.

In the spirit of “sharing” online, I wanted to highlight a recent article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” (I kind of love the headline, as it seems to riff on the cringeworthy clickbait parlayed so often nowadays). It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by author Jon Ronson called, fittingly, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In the essay, Ronson details the now-famous online shaming of former corporate communications maven Justine Sacco. On her way to visit family in South Africa, Sacco fired off a series of seemingly innocuous tweets, and then a not-so-innocuous one that sealed her internet fate as she flew, unknowing, across the continents. Ronson relays the series of events that mobilized the tweeting public into a sham[ing] spiral, as hashtags like “#HasJustineLandedYet” reveled in anticipatory destructive glee. And it was destructive: it seemed the entire world, or at least the contingent of active tweeters, rallied against her; news outlets proclaimed their disgust; Sacco was ultimately fired from her high-profile job. And then Ronson, as part of a larger-scale project in which he interviewed other victims of online shaming, eventually met Sacco and talked to her over the course of several months. He differentiates her earlier responses (defensive, corrective, apologetic, shocked) from later ones, when she refuses to disclose information about her current situation. In a conscientious move, she denies her casting as victim: “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative,” she says. 

Embedded in this story is the common knowledge that it’s easier to position someone or something as the enemy and then bludgeon him/her/it repeatedly, either in tweets or think-pieces, when you haven’t met him or her in person, or engaged on a personal level. Ronson affirms this; he writes that he made an effort to interview the shaming victims included in his book project in-person, whenever possible. These are the conversations, presumably, where nuance becomes possible. In a lot of ways, despite Twitter’s democratic reach, I think the medium is best at mass-mobilization—which, even if geared toward stretching visibility around a certain topic, cause, or campaign, can also shut out space for ambivalence. I can think of several times I took to Twitter or Facebook, dissatisfied with what I perceived to be an over-simplified channeling of an issue or viewpoint; I’d type, sometimes hit “send,” and then sit in full-body-pulsing fear of not saying it exactly right, not issuing enough eloquence in my challenge so as to make a mark. Because despite its 140-character limit, Twitter is hardly a flippant medium. As Ronson’s piece illustrates, the stakes feel higher and higher on both sides of that spiral: to pioneer a ‘new’ viewpoint around which the masses can congregate (religious imagery not intended here), either for ‘better’ or for ‘worse,’ becomes the objective. The ethics here get murkier and murkier: how do we speak out at all, and to what end? Who do we consider, and not consider, either in our line of fire or in our line of solidarity? Ronson’s piece doesn’t offer answers, necessarily, but it does speak out, in a way; it outlines these dilemmas and some of their consequences.

—MD

Mar 062015
 
 March 6, 2015

It’s no coincidence that the person who initially introduced me to the work of Leslie Jamison is now the one with whom I’ve conspired to bring the author to campus next week. About a year and a half ago, thanks to my former professor Duncan Murrell, who directs the writing program at the Center for Documentary Studies, I began seeing mentions of something called The Empathy ExamsI was curious, but wary; it felt as though there’d been a slew of mainstream media reportage of late that broached the topic of empathy, usually producing absolute conclusions—whether to say that “rich people just care less” or “reading literary fiction improves empathy.” The latter take was, and is, especially popular (and especially controversial, insofar as such a topic may be deemed controversial). Around this time, I was very kindly sent an article with a headline reaffirming literature’s empathy-inducing qualities. Next to it I annotated, with a healthy dose of snark, “breaking news!”—both to signal my agreement that, yes, I think reading literature can allow us to better visualize, understand, and therefore care about the lives of others; but also that the undercurrent of so many writings on empathy seemed to prefer, and promise, shortcuts over what we surely must understand by now as the messiness and nuance of human experience. The subjective spaces where we try, and fail, to empathize. The spaces where we promulgate the merits of empathy but cannot give our full attention to another.

The poster for Jamison's upcoming visit on March 18 and 19.

The poster for Jamison’s upcoming visit on March 18 and 19.

And then I read an excerpt, in The Believer, from this forthcoming something called The Empathy Exams, and immediately I knew I felt something different. Here was a writer writing against herself, against her minute actions and her macro-histories. The essay, also called “The Empathy Exams,” is about Jamison’s experience as a medical actor. She writes about getting paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose. She also writes about herself, as Leslie Jamison, about her pregnancy and subsequent abortion at age twenty-five, about her drinking, her boyfriend, her ailments, her loves. About her ability and inability to minister care, and about her expectations to receive it, and frustrations in not receiving it. She interweaves the instructions for her “standardized patient” with an imagined set, for “Leslie Jamison.” She concludes with the latter. An excerpt:

You wake up from another round of anesthesia and they tell you all their burning didn’t burn away the part of your heart that was broken. You come back and find you aren’t alone. You weren’t alone when you were cramping through the night and you’re not alone now. Dave spends every night in the hospital. You want to tell him how disgusting your body feels: your unwashed skin and greasy hair. You want him to listen, for hours if necessary, and feel everything exactly as you feel it—your pair of hearts in such synchronized rhythm any monitor would show it; your pair of hearts playing two crippled bunnies doing whatever they can. There is no end to this fantasy of closeness. Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow? You want him to break with you. You want him to hurt in a womb he doesn’t have; you want him to admit he can’t hurt that way.

I read these essays one by one in Dublin last summer, upon returning each night to my living space from long interviews with a lot of people I’d never met before. I would catch up on food I hadn’t had time to eat earlier, lie down, and open the book. The combination of these practices just fit. In one of her essays, Jamison visits Texas to attend a gathering of people claiming to suffer from an elusive condition called Morgellons Disease. In another, to support her runner sibling, she attends the Barkley Marathons, an almost unbelievable constellation of treacherous runs through the woods near Wartburg, Tennesse. She travels to Mexicali and consorts with radical poets; she gets punched in the face in Nicaragua; she slips into a “gang tour” in Los Angeles; she writes about stereotypes of “wounded women.” In these essays Jamison doesn’t prescribe or moralize; her voice undulates across the circumstances in which she both plants herself and finds herself. She creates space by exposing the connections between events, texts, relationships, assaults, proclamations of guilt and innocence. This is the writing of someone who moves through the motions by refusing to move forward until she works out why and how she enters these motions in the first place. In her own words:

Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.

Jamison visits Duke on March 18 and 19 (she will give a public reading on Wednesday, the 18). It’s funny—this post began as a mechanism to link to some samples of her work for those who might be interested (speaking of, you can find lots more here, here, and a nice interview here). It evolved into my own re-reading of some of her work, and an emotional weightiness, and charge, in feeling myself identify. And that feeling—or my moving through the motions of it—gave rise to more questions. This is, I think, the bare motion prompted by experiencing material—be it artistic, scientific, spiritual, or perhaps all three—that is powerful, worthwhile, and unique.

—MD

Feb 272015
 
 February 27, 2015

It is important, I think, in the crafting of a certain identity—be it national, regional, personal, et. al—to call upon the identity-crafting work of those who came before. So Chuck Reece, editor of the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, does in his attempt to explain the origins and purpose of the magazine. In his editor’s note (“We Are Bitter”), Reece quotes William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom, as Mississippi-bred Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate demands of his Southern friend: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Reece builds on this in his own writing: Why, and how, to live with so much historical baggage, so much collective guilt? To what degree is the guilt even collective?

Image courtesy of The Bitter Southerner.

Image courtesy of The Bitter Southerner.

The solution for some, it seems, is to refashion the South’s regional identity into something at once sweet, edgy, and newfangled (hence the ever-popular branding of the “New South”). I worry that this branding, in an effort to make amends, sidesteps the loaded history that our region has moved through, and that has placed us where we are now—it gets over without the work of having got over, so to speak. When he visited Duke and UNC a few weeks ago, Reece talked about the work his publication is trying to do in contrast to a quick and easy celebration of a “renewed” cosmopolitan South. Perhaps paradoxically, The Bitter Southerner offers beautifully designed multimedia stories about the South every Tuesday—stories so beautiful I might even call them sweet, edgy, and newfangled—while their content attempts to get at the confusing, bizarre, unique, and—dare I say—ugly aspects of the contemporary South.

The story published this week is called “Made in Durham,” and it’s an excerpt from a larger multimedia zine project by local photographer Justin Cook. I think it’s powerful and worthwhile for several reasons. It’s likely the first mainstream media photo essay consideration I’ve seen of the interplay between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Durham(s), with an attention to who, specifically is making said claims—and who’s reaping the benefits. (See the Fullsteam water gun shot, contrasted with nearly every other photo in the series). It brings the incessant talk about “urban renewal” into glaring contrast with what residents of Durham’s Southside neighborhood call urban “removal.” Perhaps most importantly, Cook’s photo essay doesn’t shy away from talking about urban violence and incarceration and how these things are bound up with race and civic responsibility. Cook’s individual note is especially potent in its grappling with questions of agency and empathy that should come up in any serious conversation about the claims we stake for the cities and regions that we live in. “We hope these images will celebrate Durham,” Cook writes, “but also challenge us to create the best Durham for everyone.”

—MD

Feb 202015
 
 February 20, 2015

I have a lot of love for my hometown, and a lot of that love originates, I think, in growing up attuned to the praises sung for it. The chorus of “it’s safe,” and “it’s lovely,” and “such good schools,” and “what a great place to grow up,” swells into a sweet song that compels me—dare I say evermore—back to it. Chapel Hill, like my home state’s prized dogwood, looks and feels benevolent; it is stately houses with sweeping porches that you pass en route downtown, but none so stately that you couldn’t ring the doorbell if lost. It is dewy grass cushioning bare feet in the springtime; it is progressive politics and well-educated folks, recuperating the South’s blemished history; it is a university that served, for me, as the paragon for what a university is, and how such an institution can live in its community.

The measures of my dissatisfaction from growing up in such a space don’t detract from its near-fictive qualities. The town’s praises that have buffered me are those that presume and promulgate its equal-footed geographies, its opportunities for all, its all-around good vibes.

Good vibes. “The sadness is inescapable,” a friend—a Duke student—recently wrote to me in an email. She and I were exchanging words about the murders in Chapel Hill last week. Writing “last week” reminds me that it was last week; the time since then has felt like a stalled short-circuit. The event feels more devastating with each new day, even as the tributes multiply in form and source: from the Triangle’s (and the nation’s, and the world’s) Muslim community, from the UNC School of Dentistry community, from local colleges and universities—and, importantly, from those unaffiliated with any of these spheres. As the stories of the “three winners” migrate, I imagine a supportive unaffiliated lot grows: a self-identified Christian from the Midwest contributes to Deah Barakat’s Syrian dental relief fund. Someone who identifies ambivalently as “from here”—from the piedmont, from North Carolina, from the South—says, “I’m here, with you.”

I’m having trouble placing myself. Last Tuesday evening, I was taking a nap less than five miles from the condominium complex where the murders took place. In conversation, I insist on this geography, on this shared space, but often the throughline stops there. I’m folded back into shock, alienated from my own grief, and in turn from the grief of others. My conversations about the tragedy differ markedly, even hostilely, from the official words issued about the origins of the violence: a turf war, a “dispute” over parking spaces. Such language could, in another context, be laughed away as an idiosyncracy of Chapel Hill’s peaceful neighborhoods, the sort of everyday messiness excused by the sense that we’re all buying into the same ethos of place.

But, now: to what extent are we willing to wage this peace, to claim this as idiosyncracy? What are the grounds on which a community constitutes itself? Can a community constitute itself through its own excavation?

The point of my writing this is not to remain at the level of think-piece mental gymnastics; it is not solely to amplify the discordance between a supposedly tolerant small town and an act of unfathomable violence that its residents initiated and continue to suffer from. This is a popular framing of this recent violence, as is its reaction of disbelief. Duke doctoral student Cynthia R. Greenlee—who, like me, has called the communities of both Chapel Hill and Durham home— wrote about this reaction last week in the American Prospect. What this tragedy requires us to do is wrest our own power and our own histories from the big-picture narrative swirl. It requires us to connect the dots, which means insisting on our shared geography. A dispute about space does not, and cannot, arise from the ether; its roots are in the asphalt, the air, the dewy grass we share. The towns—Chapel Hill, Durham, or elsewhere—in which we live and the communities we want to welcome us. As Greenlee writes,

Fights over space—whether in subways or suburban neighborhoods—are more often contests about privilege: Who gets to be in this space? Who dictates the use and control of the space? And what happens when people who aren’t like some pre-determined and overdetermined notion of what constitutes “us” gets in our space?

I ask again: Can a community constitute itself through its own excavation? Can the collective sorrow re-orient our relationship to the spaces we share, to the spaces claimed as home? Charlotte Fryar, a friend of mine and a doctoral student at UNC wrote, in charting a history of murder in Chapel Hill, that “placelessness can be an action.” Only, it seems, if we recognize the danger of placelessness—and the ways we’re complicit in its creation.

—MD