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Halfway to Cute and Stupid

2004-09-09 - 9:01 p.m.

I'm back in the internet cafe, refusing to buy coffee, and listening to Norah Jones play on the loudspeaker. If it were anyone else, a cheesy romantic moment would happen. Since it's me, I look around and stare at this guy who looks to be about 134 years old, just because he's in my line of vision and kinda funky, meaning "cool" as opposed to "smelly."

I want to talk about feeling stupid.

In some ways, I'm kinda glad I feel stupid, just because I've been feeling deliriously happy for the last few days, and it was starting to trouble me. Happy is one of the most overrated emotions, I think. You can't share it with a lot of people, because a lot of them tend to respond with, "Well, that's fucking great for you, my pet cat exploded yesterday and one of the pieces hit me in the eye and blinded me, and did I mention my entire family has come down with radioactive headlice?" Well, okay, usually it's not that drastic, but I've felt this reluctance to talk about the fun I'm having, the cool people I'm getting to know, and the simple, wonderful realization that I've finally arrived in the place that I've longed to be in since I was seventeen, particularly when it's with people who aren't where they want to be or doing what they want to do, or who are having to deal with serious shit in their lives. I've found myself saying things like, "Well, um, well, there's no tea! You know the Lipton tea that I'm addicted to? Well, they only sell it in small jars! Yeah! And the small jars are like ridiculously expensive. I mean, you'd think they were importing that shit from Tibet! I mean, what the Hell? I don't know if I can stay here. What have I been drinking? Well, usually water, and I know I never used to drink water, but I've been drinking it here and eating organic food and doing yoga and taking long walks in the sunshihello? Hello?"

So now that I feel stupid, I feel like I can talk to people. "How am I? I've realized that I'm the stupidest person ever to find himself in grad school, THAT'S how the fuck I am!" And my friends and I both feel better.

Yeah, I don't know what to do. I don't understand half of what I'm reading, and then the other half gets shot into pieces when I try to go over things in class. The easiest class for me, the one where I feel like I might be able to make an actual contribution, is a class where the texts are in Middle English, which is a problem if you intend to be a scholar of 20th century and contemporary literature. Mind you, I still don't know half of what I'm reading in that class, either. It's hard to know what the phrase "Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye/ The bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez" means, and yes that was the Arabic numeral for three that you saw at the end of a couple of those words (it should be pronounced with a hard, phlegmy throat-clearing sound that can only come from a very old rabbi, or possibly a Klingon). But at least I have a better idea of what I've read after class than before.

Not so with a class in rhetoric, which I have every Thursday. Rhetoric is a special little department here at Berkeley. It's where all the hot-shit people live, people named Judith Butler and Kaja Silverman. These names are the lit-crit equivalent of Jagger and Springsteen, or Cruise and Travolta, or something like that. They are superstars, and they know it, and all the other professors who have anything to do with rhetoric get to have a little stardust shed onto them, like the soft caress of Naomi Campbell's Evian spritzer bottle that falls onto the skin of her make-up artist.

These people speak their own language: the language of gratuitous punctuation. These people speak almost entirely in air quotes, with the occassional parentheses and hyphens thrown into to mix things up:

Rhetoric Prof: Of course, when "I" am "talking" about "The Real" "I" am "(act)ually" "representing/re-presenting" the "Discursive" stand"point" "from" where "I" "emBody" "The Re-al."

It drives me crazy. I've been to exactly two classes, and already all the words that once had meaning for me have become meaningless. Once upon a time, I was able to discuss things like experience, discourse, performativity, representation, trauma, essentialism, and even structuralism. Now I don't know whether I even have the right to say "In the reading last night . . . " Am I talking about the text, or about my "experience" of the Text, which is informed not only by my identity (if such a thing exists), but my identity (if such a thing exists) within the historical moment, or am I talking about the "act" of reading, and if so, can this be described as an experience of/in the body, and is the primacy of this body primarily part of an essentialist view of the body, or is it a body as opposed to a consciousness, or both, and while we're on it is the "I" doing the reading the same as the "I" that's here in class talking, and what does the I DON'T KNOW!!! I DON'T KNOW, OKAY!!! I fold! I give! I am a complete idiot! Just give me back one of the words! Something! Anything! Performative, can I have performative back? It's meant so much . . . so much . . . please . . .

Did I mention this was day two of that class? Yeah.

The worst part of all this is that the class is interesting. It's absolutely fascinating. I read this one article about witnessing trauma that elucidated my entire life since the age of 16. The author (if one can be said to exiSHUTUP) says that when someone, particularly in a psychoanalytic environment, begins to discuss the experience of personal trauma for the first time, the listener becomes part of the experience of this trauma, and thus has the experience imprinted on him or her or hir, to a degree. Story of my LIFE. There were other articles on the authenticity of speech, and whether performing personal narrative is a path to liberation or merely a recapitulation of essentialism. So many of these questions are so resonant, but when I tried to talk about them, every word that came out of my mouth was called into question, not in a malicious way, but in a way that made finding an answer impossible. The only way I was able to get out of there with my sanity was to say to myself that anti-foundationalist academic thought is ultimately about problematizing thought, not giving easy answers, which is something I've tended to enjoy up until now.

I guess the problem is that so many of these ideas were about questioning such fundamental ideas as "the self" and "experience," both of which are, if you've spent your weekend reading Foucault, Derrida, Joan Scott, Barthes, Ong, and a bunch of other fuckers that every one of the essays you've read in the past few years have quoted, apparently deeply troubled terms. It's a terrifying thing, because I thought I'd already subjected myself to plenty of discursive analysis. I thought I had an idea of myself as being configured in a historical moment. If I believe what I think these peeps are telling me, I might never be able to, which brings every experience I've ever had, and the meaning I've derived from it, into question.

So it's not just that I feel stupid. I feel like I don't exist. That's fuckin' great.

The worst part was when I went to talk to the professor about it. I tried to start simply, by telling her that I'd come to this class with experience in performance and gender studies, and drew my definitions of essentialism and performativity from them, so if she could, maybe, take me the rest of the way, I'd be much obliged. No such luck. Within 20 seconds I could hear quotation marks and capital letters hovering around otherwise innocuous words like killer bees and my brain went off into a corner of the room and wept. However, I will grant her that she herself admitted that the problem with many of these writers is that they talk about complicating complex issues and yet frequently wind up reducing their intricate arguments to buzzwords and soundbytes, which is shoddy work at best, hypocritical and elitist at worst.

I think I'd be okay with this if I weren't the only one struggling, but everyone else in the class takes all these words in stride, and they manage to spin everything back to the professor with a few extra "post"s, an "anti" or two, and maybe even a few unnecessary hyphens. I realize that some of them may just be bringing up what they're comfortable with in order to let people know that they aren't totally ignorant, but I don't even feel strong enough in this subject matter to do that. I can't even ask intelligent questions. All I want to do is slam the Derrida article on the desk, pull out a grenade and say, "Someone's explaining auto-affection without using any words longer that 3 syllables or they'll be sorting us out by our dental records."

Which makes me feel stupid. And I really, really don't like feeling stupid. I especially don't like it because it puts me in a bad mood, and then everyone around me wants to know why I'm in a bad mood, and then I tell them and they tell me it's not so bad. I know it's not so bad. It's nothing compared to the tragedy in Russia or the devastation in Florida. But if I'm going to have a sucks-to-be-me day, I damn well want to enjoy it.

So this weekend I'm going to look into Structuralism for Dummies, and look up a couple of articles recommended to me by my professor, and maybe even go to a dictionary. I'm going to try to at least get to the point where I develop working definitions of these words that I can live with, and I'm going to meet with the professor again on Monday and, if necessary, bribe her with chocolate until she tells me that I can have my identity and experience back on alternate weekends.

And if all that falls to shit, I can become a medievalist, so that when people try to tell me I have had no experiences and have no identity, I can say, "Su3 my di3."

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The End - 2005-02-11
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The Curse, and This Bee's a Keeper - 2005-02-01
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