Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sunday, December 11, 2005

ENGL567: Theory and Practice of Composition Portfolio

In a fit of HTML, I decided to put onlinethe short paper assignments that I wrote for my ENGL567: Theory and Practice of Composition class this past quarter at UW. I figure they show a little bit about what the class was about (which is similar to a pedagogy class I took years back at the University of Maryland called ENGL611) and what I was thinking about in my own teaching practice. Plus, I think it'll make my professor happy! Enjoy!


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Baldwin's /Another Country/: Queering the Surface (a work in progress), Part III

Continued from: http://queerviewmirror.blogspot.com/2005/12/baldwins-another-country-queering_07.html...


Another Country is all about skins and full of touches from the very first page, from a destitute and half-asleep Rufus in a movie theatre feeling "caterpillar fingers between his thighs" (3) to the idyllic, tremulous moment when Yves touches Eric "lightly on the elbo, as a very young child might do" (185); from Eric's musing on ostensibly closeted men and their need for somewhere to love "them enough to caress them...in the light, with joy" (212) to the description of New York City with its "rough, gregarious surface" where the multitudes were "continually being jostled, yet longed, at the same time, for the sense of others, for a human touch" (230); from Vivaldo memories of a boy and "wanting to touch the boy, to make the boy laugh, to slap him across his behind" (315) to the very end of the novel, to Yves's arrival in America and the endorsement of his body, his love for Eric, his place for "his passport was eventually stamped and handed back to him" (435), a final touch between nation and subject.

Perhaps the queerest of touches (and the one most focused on) is between Vivaldo and Eric. The consummation of their lust, their love, and most importantly their desire functions as central axis in the novel; it materializes and navigates the terrain of physical, erotic, and identificatory possibilities for the characters as well as the readers and opens a space, a fold where desire can complicate and radicalize social categories. On the surface, the sex, the confessions, the touches between Vivaldo and Eric promise some sort of human and humane truth, liberation, and revelation. The three-page long paragraph sex scene told from Vivaldo's point of view is a many-stroked mix of internal and external confusion, connection, contradictions, and realizations: "This was in honor of Vivaldo, of Vivaldo's body and Vivaldo's need, and Vivaldo trembled as he had never trembled before. And this caress was not entirely pleasant. Vivaldo felt terribly ill at ease, not knowing what was expected of him, or what he could expect from Eric. He pulled Eric up and kissed him on the mouth, kneading Eric's buttocks and stroking his sex. How strange it felt, this violent muscle, stretching and throbbing, so like his own, but belonging to another!" (384). It is a moment of interface, of intersection, of "fluidity between bodies" that does not "take the boundary line of skin for granted" (Ahmed and Stacey 11).

Vivaldo is confronted not only by himself, his skin, his sex but the self, skin, and sex of Eric, of Ida, of Rufus, and of other partners, past and imagined, real and yet to come. As Cohen carefully explains, "Baldwin envisions this sexual climax as a coming-into-consciousness for Vivaldo" (10). Cohen continues, "This consciousness entails a crossing of more than the hetero/homo line, for in having sex with Eric, Vivaldo collapses a whole series of identifications...This sexual connection generates an orgasmic concatenation of identities, whereby Vivaldo conceives of himself as simultaneously gay and straight, male and female, white and black" (11). It is through sex, which for Baldwin is the fullest expression of desire, through erotic touch that Vivaldo finally understands his intercorporeality, his interconnectedness to the world around him; he has learned to "enter himself" (319), to realize the impossibility of giving up his skin, his color, and to finally understand what it might be like to live in another skin, another color--in Baldwin's sense, another country.

Cohen says, "[T]aking 'love' as the revolutionary act, this disordering sexual experience enables Vivaldo provisionally to escape limiting categories...Sex with another man does not function to categorize Vivaldo as 'gay' because such a sexual taxonomy, for Baldwin, is always limiting. Instead, as 'a great revelation,' this sexual act raises his consciousness in an ostensibly universal and 'human' way, emancipating him from the constraints of social classifications" (12). However, rather than read Vivaldo as shuttling between points of binaries or edges of categories, a less reductive reading imagines Vivaldo and the other characters of the novel traversing a web, a landscape, a skinscape of unfolding possibilities. Desire becomes the revolutionary act. Queer sex becomes the revolutionary act. Queer touch becomes the revolutionary act.

But Baldwin's desiring vision is not without risk, without warning. To be unable to recognize one's skin, to be unable to touch another, to be unable to queer sex, love, desire is to disavow interconnection, intercorporeality, and to disrupt the circuits of humanity. Another Country reveals the risk of turning away from desire, from touch through the down and out figure of Rufus. At the start of the novel, Rufus is all too aware of his embodiment, of his skin, of his disconnection from the world around him. He has turned inward, he has removed himself from the chain of desire, and he has been reduced to corporeal meanness, which manifests in both psychic and physical violence to himself and others. Rufus only knows pain:

Yet he was aware, perhaps for the first time in his life, that nothing would stop it, nothing: this was himself. Rufus was aware of every inch of Rufus. He was flesh: flesh, bone, muscle, fluid, orifices, hair, and skin. His body was controlled by laws he did not understand. Nor did he understand what force within his body had driven him into such a desolate place (54).

For Rufus, the city has become a prison, his body a cell, and his skin a boundary. Whatever "laws" or "force" pummeled and pressed him into such a state, Rufus has lost the ability to render complexity in himself and in his relationships; he has settled and sedimented into hard, edged, impenetrable categories, be it "black," "poor," "rapist," or "abject." When desperate with hunger, both for physical nourishment and emotional sustenance, and confronted by a would-be, white, same-sex john, Rufus retreats further into solitary saying, "I'm not the boy you want, mister...I don't have a thing to give you. I don't have nothing to give nobody" (44). Even though the moment prompts his memory to think of Eric, whom he did have something to give in the past, Rufus can only move away, hide in silence, and refuse any chance for exchange, warmth, rejuvenation. In fact, shortly before he commits suicide, Rufus recognizes the possibility for change, for return: "The most impenetrable of mysteries moved in this darkness for less than a second, hinting of reconciliation" (54). It would take less than a second to reach out, to be reached, to touch, to be touched.

Unfortunately, Rufus cannot make the leap of faith, the leap of desire in order to return to the circuit, to reconnect. It is this very reconciliation that Vivaldo realizes too late that might have rescued Rufus. In his very moving confession to Eric, Vivaldo recounts his last moments with Rufus:

I loved Rufus. I loved him, I didn't want him to die. But when he was dead, I thought about it, thought about it -- isn't it funny? I didn't know I'd thought about it as much as I have -- and I wondered, I guess I still wonder, what would have happened if I'd taken him into my arms, if I'd held him, if I hadn't been -- afraid. I was afraid that he wouldn't understand that it was -- only love. Only love. But, oh, Lord, when he died, I thought that maybe I could have saved him if I'd just reached out that quarter of an inch between us on that bed, and held him (342-343).

Touch is reconciliation. Touch is the key to reciprocity, to interface. Rufus's inability to touch or be touched, Vivaldo's confession, and his eventual consummation with Eric all point up the lesson in Another Country not of liberal, mythical, mystifying love but of open, tactile, transforming, transgressive desire. Touch and desire, skin and surface, bodies and identities can only be negotiated through contact, exploration, and reconstitution. In other words, as Probyn reminds us that we must "constantly place ourselves within relations of proximity of different forms of belonging. And at the edge of ourselves we mutate; we become other" (34).

The figure of Rufus is the fly in the ointment for many Baldwin scholars. The angst and decline and disturbing suicide of the novel's queer, black male character has been read as Baldwin's failure to fully embrace a disidentificatory project, a failure to imagine a fulfilled, individuated queer, black, male protagonist. Instead, the transgressive power and potential of the novel is displaced (some would argue misplaced) on a more palatable, bourgeois, white character, Eric. For Cohen, "Baldwin's fantasy of racial mixing and equality...was everywhere deflected onto sexual dynamics. To explore racial conflict as sexual was to bring it to the most private, individual terms Baldwin could imagine; it was to fantasize a relation between people nowhere impeded by an imbalance of power or inequality" (17). Critics of Baldwin recognize the limits placed on the narrative and the subject matter of Another Country by the social, cultural, and historical imperatives and ideologies of the time -- post-War anxiety, shifting gender roles, increased industrialization and capitalization, desegregation and civil rights, and black nationalism -- but offer little forgiveness for the killing off of Rufus. Cohen continues, "[T]he impossibility of representing a person simultaneously gay and black signals the crises of this structure: To be both, like Baldwin himself, was to find oneself impelled contradictorily by both individual volition and social forces. That Another Country cannot sustain a gay black subject...bespeaks the liability of remaining within a liberal humanist ideology" (17).

However, there is a more positive, more forgiving reading of the figure of Rufus. Rather than see lack or absence or failure in Baldwin's imagination, we can read the circumstances and collapse and denial of Rufus as a commentary on the sexual, social, and erotic economy of the novel and the world at large. And though Rufus dies early on in the novel, his skin, his sex, his ghost remains, lingers, touches everything and everyone. He and others participate in what Cohen describes as the "metonymic nature of desire in this text, which flows by transpositions and displacements through one character into another" (13). This metonymic chain of desire, from Rufus to Leona to Vivaldo to Ida to Cass to Richard to Eric to Yves, is webby and recursive allowing each of the characters to complicate and contrain one another in terms of their identities, sexualities, and embodiements. Though Rufus is not given the opportunity to play out in this exchange, as James Dievler says, "[H]is presence remains through the novel, reminding and offering hints to the other characters about the cost of socially constructed identity categories" (170).


It is through these unsettled interpolations that Vivaldo matures, gains wisdom, and finally learns to love himself and love others. More importantly

Though Vivaldo muses on what it must be like for those who must be "condemned to women" or those "condemned to men" (585), it can be argued that the passage argues for a broader stroke and that Baldwin argues people must come to some terms of multiplicity, of those "condemned to another" or "others."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Baldwin's /Another Country/: Queering the Surface (a work in progress), Part II

Continued from: http://queerviewmirror.blogspot.com/2005/12/baldwins-another-country-queering.html...


Thinking through Another Country's character's skins -- through the skins of Rufus, Vivaldo, Ida, Cass, Eric, or Yves -- is a way to make queer desire and a queering body, subject, and identity legible. It also makes legible the way the touches in the novel queers the skins, the bodies, the identities, and the social categories that Baldwin imagines and touches with his words. For Ahmed and Stacey, thinking through the skin begins with Didier Anzieu's The Skin Ego, which is a rearticulation of Freud's notion of the bodily ego (which appears in The Id and the Ego), and with Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological notion of inter-corporeality or inter-embodiment.

First, Anzieu's skin ego refers to the "mental image of which the Ego of the child makes use during the early phases of its development to represent itself as an Ego containing psychic contents, on the basis of its experience of the surface of the body" (as qtd. in Ahmed and Stacey 7). William Cohen, in his essay "Deep Skin," explains that Anzieu's skin ego "develops the psychical topography Freud outlined in The Ego and the Id (1923), at whose center is the proposition that the ego is 'first and foremoest a bodily ego'--which is to say, precisely mapped onto the surface of the body" (73). Anzieu's skin ego possesses three functions: "as a containing, unifying envelope for the Self; as a protective barrier for the psyche; and as a filter of exchanges and a surface of inscription for the first traces, a function which makes representation possible" (as qtd. in Cohen 73). It is through the skin ego that theories of skin seek to conceptualize, problematize, and articulate bodily and identificatory differences and embodiments.

Second, Merleau-Ponty's inter-corporeality emphasizes "embodiment, not only as fleshy and material but also as 'worldly', as being in an intimate and living relationship to the world, which is a world made up of other bodies' (Ahmed and Stacey 5). Merleau-Ponty's model is all about experiences, about interconnected experiences. In othe words, as theorist Gail Weiss explains, "[T]o describe embodiment as intercorporeality is to emphasize that the experience of being embodied is never a private affair, but is always already mediated by our continual interactions with other human and non-human bodies" (as qtd. in Ahmed and Stacey 5). Here is the natural pick-up for theories of thinking through the skin and thinking through surfaces since the skin and body and world are mediated and made knowable through touch. Merleau-Ponty's inter-corporeality is predicated on the reversibility of touch, the skin-on-skinness of bodies: "The handshake too is reversible; I can feel myself touched as well and at the same time as touching" (as qtd. in Ahmed and Stacey 5).

Anzieu, Merleau-Ponty, and Probyn's points of view can be seen as allied, collaborative, and coalitional. They offer the lenses, the archaeological tools, and the curiosity to examine, excavate, and exfoliate the matter of skin, the surface of skin in knowing ourselves and knowing others. Jay Prosser, in his essay "Skin Memories," catches on Anzieu's expression that the surface of the body, the skin, is a sheet or interface saying, "The skin ego is the interface between psyche and body, self and others" (65). At the risk of collapsing Anzieu, Merleau-Ponty, and Probyn, the skin ego and inter-corporeality and surface come together, touch, and (possibly) explode at this notion of interface. A productive reading of Baldwin then would be to see the novel as all about the skin and most importantly about touch as inter-corporeal, as intervening, as queering. Another Country is all about the skin of its characters, all about the touches (or lack thereof) between characters.

Baldwin's /Another Country/: Queering the Surface (a work in progress)

Ah, cyberspace! In the spirit of my past attempt to use the strange and oftimes "less rigorous" space of the internet as a way to work through a paper idea (see my livejournal posts on the cyberqueer -- http://www.livejournal.com/users/writerpunk/13220.html -- I will use this forum similarly. I am working on a short essay for my first grad seminar at the University of Washington called "Sexuality and National Belonging." I have decided (albeit foolishly since my professor cum graduate director is writing on the very same subject) to work on James Baldwin's novel /Another Country/ and to employ a smattering of theory from Elspeth Probyn and Ahmed & Stacey and Michael Warner to the novel's skins, touches, and relationships. What follows will be a mishmash of ideas and ramblings, but I hope to get a paper out of it. Enjoy.


A reading of Baldwin's Another Country must be complex and complicated. Much of the body of Baldwin scholarship, particularly on his third novel, has attempted to read and parse the conflicts, disruptions, ambiguities, reflections, and differences in the text, particularly in terms of sex, race, gender, sexuality, class, national belonging, love, and violence. Much of the work on Another Country strive for "deep" readings and analyses and theorize the novel as a means to understand and articulate (or a failure to do so) social, political, and psychological categories. Other work, more recently, see these "deep" readings as counter to Baldwin's insistence on complicating and exploding categories and struggle rather to critique Another Country in terms of intersections, interweavings, interpolations of categories, histories, and contexts. For example, William Cohen's analysis focuses on the novel's "unfolding series of crises" that stages "conflicts among characters in terms of structural and power relations, principally along axes of gender, race, and sexuality" (1); more importantly, he says, "Another Country not only maps its characters against these social indices but, more remarkably, also explores the ways in which vectors of power relations themselves interact--crosscutting, supporting, contradiction, and displacing one another" (1). It is this idea of intersection and complication that needs to be further teased, further fleshed, and further embraced. It is this twisting and fraying, this pressing and pulling that Roderick Ferguson recognizes in Baldwin's work borrowing Zygmunt Bauman's notion of the "parvenu"--the understanding that meaning, categories, and "identity is always in flux, and that naming is a contradictory process emerging out of the interaction between the definitions that are imposed upon us and the identities that we make" (258).

In a move away from "deep" readings of Baldwin, which oftentimes are undercut by their desire to stabilise categories, to focus identities, to resolve contradictions even as they critique them, an alternative approach to Another Country embraces the fluxes and flotsam and frustrations of the text and engages the "surfaces," the sketches the novel creates and presents; it is a move to a methodology that Elspeth Probyn deploys to explore identities, relations, desires, and belongings saying, "[T]he attraction to the surface moves us away from 'depth accounts of social life, where more fundamental levels of social reality...are called upon to explain less fundamental ones'" (quoting Chris Philo, 34). A Probynian critique of Baldwin, then, recognizes, "[T]he surface is not another metaphor nor yet another fad within intellectual circles: it is a profound reordering of how we conceive of the social" (34). Probyn declares, "I am arguing against marking identities within a hierarchical mode" (34). In other words, a "surface" reading of Another Country offers an opportunity to step away from more negative critiques of Baldwin and to imagine, to render the play of identities, alliances, and antagonisms as overlapping slippages, temporary inhabitations, and criss-crossed chains of desires.

Probyn is a fitting lens because she recognizies the potential and critical richness of the everyday, the quotidian, the banal. She explains her life experiences are entrances into "[h]ow individuals make sense of their lives" and "how desires to become are played out in everyday circumstances" (5). Her project is about attending to the commonplace, the exploration of the surfaces of the world around her, and about attending to the value of rendering the banal remarkable. In a sense, Baldwin's novel is very much about the banal; its setting is recognizable, its plot plottable, and its characters go about daily life walking, talking, hungering, working, having sex, playing, doing dishes, drinking, dying. In another sense, the novel itself as a physical object is banal--its size and shape, its black and blue paperback cover, its pages yellowing, used, its Times Roman typeface, anonymous comments in the margins. Yet the text is remarkable in the very way its surface, ink on paper, interpolates experiences, evokes emotions, and creates meanings. The story is remarkable because its everydayness is figured and reconfigured in the juxtaposition of very different surfaces, very different bodies, very different lives. A surface read provides a way to interact and intercept specificities such race, sexuality, gender, class, or country without fixing and falling into hard-walled categories. Probyn agrees, "[T]he surface is not to be posed as ineluctable but rather a way of configuring lines of force that compose the social, lines of force that are by their very nature deeply material and historical" (12). In this way, reading Another Country or a photo montage or a cityscape can attend to differences and disparities, to "enumerate singularities in such a way that they may overpower any generalization, any simple adding up to a general statement of identity" (21); it is about a critique, in the words of Homi Bhabha, "that 'adds' without 'adding up'" (as qtd. in Probyn 21).

A surface reading of Another Country offers an opportunity for play, for temporary fixing rather than affixing, for conversational and coalitional analyses. A surface reading, as Probyn argues, is not a "shallow" one. Rather it is this playfulness, this attention to a constellation of specificities that do not reduce Baldwin's novel to a text just about race relations in the US or pre-Stonewall sexual and gender identity politics or heteronormative black nationalism or writing and writer as social critique. A surface reading acknowledges but does not fixate on negative critique, on the potential racism, heterosexism, or homophobia of the text, on trauma, repression, or vicitimization of its characters, or on Baldwin's failure to imagine same-sex female relations or a black, gay, partnered, living protagonist. Baldwin certainly could imagine and articulate these lacks, absences, and problems. Surface reading is not about seeing endpoints but rather pivots, intersections, and simultaneities. What is at stake here is the rendering of what is imagined in relation to what might be imagined, a positive service to self, author, and text. What is important here is how these surfaces, these webs of thought, heart and matter join, reflect, refract, and distract understandings of identities, belongings, and desires.

Probyn articulates, "Surface belongings and desiring identities refuse to stand still...they compel connections, producing themselves as other...[their] sheer perplexity and yearning bypasses the meanness of individualized identities...they rub up against each other" (35). One way to materialize surfaces in Another Country is through looking at, tracing along skins and touches in the text. The skin, in its taken-for-grantedness and its all-too-scopic significance, embodies Probyn's theories of surfaces; the skin of the page and the skin of Baldwin's characters, the touch of the paper and the touch between characters become the rub in the generation of relationships, subjectivities, belongings, and longings.

In Baldwin, the importance of the skin cannot be reduced to just a signifier of race or gender even sexuality or nationality. The skin and by extension the touch become vehicles for complexity and intersectionality in identities. The skins and touches of Another Country evoke the work of Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey's edited collection Thinking Through the Skin that calls for "a skin-tight politics, a politics that takes at its orientation not the body as such, but the fleshy interface between bodies and worlds. 'Thinking through the skin' is a thinking that reflects not on the body as the lost object of thought, but on inter-embodiement, on the mode of being-with and being-for, where one touches and is touched by others" (1). In other words, theories of the skin, like theories of the surface, look for connections across textures and topographies of being, for transformations and transportations among temporary sites of identity, and for a means to see desire, as Probyn argues, "not as an individual possession but rather as a relational force among individuals" (25). Ahmed and Stacey ask how skin can become meaningful and how the largest bodily organ, which is always apparent for scrutiny, can be read, mapped, and marked. Theories of skin strive to take all skin in its many manifestations--whole, scarred, baby soft, wrinkled, pierced, tattooed, sewn, dark, light--and discover how skin is "lived, read, written, narrated, seen, touched, managed, worked, cut, remembered, produced, and known" (2), how it is made intelligible or mystified, and how it is politicized, commodified, and desired.