Anti-hustling

It is gray and rainy as I type this, and just an hour ago I heard thunder–an exciting and rare sound in San Diego. I’m drinking black tea that tastes like lemon and flowers, and feeling the familiar drag of fatigue at the bottom of my eyes. While rain was happening on the other side of the window, I sat through an offensively boring lecture as a TA, after which I taught and then held office hours. Before that, I attended an AWP workshop while I (embarrassingly) tidied up an assignment I’ll be turning in later this week. All this internetting makes my face feel gooey and tired. Switching browser tabs at breakneck speed, scouting for citations, and multitasking during class also feels pretty bad for my health. (I’m sure someone has done research about the somatic experience of navigating the virtual world…and if you know who they are, please tell me!) 

Finding sustainable, self-nurturing habits in which I am more deliberate about my engagement with this computer, my work, and my ambition is feeling increasingly important since I wrote last. I’ve had more tired and foggy days. Sometimes I think, “Wow, this depth of exhaustion couldn’t possibly be caused by my multitasking habits, the demands I place on myself to be creatively productively, the hyper-exploitation of my academic labor, and the deficit of human contact!” and other times I think, “Um, yeah, it probably is.” 

Maybe fatigue is also ambient, collective–irreducible to personal habit. I also know for sure that ways I spend my hours and days take or give energy. How to give myself the most energy (and thus the most rest) is something I’ve been thinking about these days: not just taking care of myself in active ways, but creating margins for nothingness. This does not come easily for me; certainly my academic context, with its binges of productivity, doesn’t facilitate empty space. Though I am waiting to hear back from PhD programs, I’ve begun to question whether it’s even possible to have a healthy lifestyle and stay in academia. I’m still debating that one. Either way, I’m finding a lot of helpful practical (and even spiritual) guidance in the work of Dr. Kate Litterer, whose blog contains a bounty of resources about slowing down, prioritizing what’s most important, and making time for rest. I’ve made some progress in dismantling perfectionism as it manifests in my creative process over the years–see video link below for more on that!–but I’m also learning that there’s still so much to let go of, and so many ways that I’m still unable to listen to my physical limitations. So I’m asking myself big questions about what is viable and what is desirable for me. Is there a way for me to do creative work without depleting myself? What kinds of equations exist in my head between sacrificing my body and health and desired outcomes? What does it look like to practice solidarity with the others who are also in this depleting context, especially those who face it without the privilege of whiteness?

I’m mulling over these big questions. Here are some smaller, bite-sized pieces — possible leads into them…

Resources

  • Dr. Kate Litterer’s blog the Tending Year — so many tips about condensing work time down, setting priorities, and making time for rest! Also, Kate’s academic research about Lisa Ben is really cool, and she talks about it on this episode of the Queer Witch podcast.
  • Tricia Hersey’s project Nap Ministry, which intervenes in the wearing down effect of this context especially on Black and Brown bodies. I want to acknowledge the racist and patriarchal roots of hustle culture, and its false and dangerous promises that achievement is the remedy to inequity.
  • Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), a union for reflective creative practice — an interesting entity which focuses on the immaterial working conditions of art-making
  • “Context switching” is a term I learned from this article (read if you want, it’s not that important) to refer to the labor that goes into changing tasks–for example, checking email while you’re doing something else, and then switching back to it. I’m trying to do less of that these days, and to aggregate similar kinds of work on similar days in order to preserve my cognitive energy.

Listicle

Here’s a distillation of he hypothetical thesis I am proposing in my PhD applications, arguments which also inform the work I’m doing in my MFA thesis.

  1. Our conception of the body is always a historically contingent conception. When we talk about material things that affect our thoughts and emotions, part of what we negotiate with is the doubling effect of capitalist logic. Logic like–metaphysical transcendence being carried through physical substances. Feeling is a product of inputs–even circulating hormones and neurotransmitters are seen as static building blocks of emotions/thoughts. The sense that we should have an endless capacity for feeling better, and that the experience of pleasure is the ultimate indicator of accomplishment. 
  1. Part of what’s interesting about writing about health subcultures is their narrative approach to the body-mind connection and their often oblique negotiation with racial, ecological, geographic, architectural, and economic influences on embodied happiness.
  1. The literary and aesthetic genres which form around these health subcultures are capable of resisting this quantifiable logic and the colonial conquest which is its foundation, but also are often active perpetuate it.
  1. Sianne Ngai theorizes “minor aesthetic categories” as capitulating lived experiences in late capitalism; similarly, health genres capitulate something fundamental–though often unnamed–about the world we inhabit.
  1. Siegfried Kracauer: “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.” (The Mass Ornament, transl. Thomas Levin, 1995; page 75)
  1. In addition to a sense–real or imagined–of participating in tradition, herbalist subculture and similar health practices permit a hermeneutic approach to the body in the here and now: a reading-into the body which doesn’t reduce its functioning to biochemical (or even social) factors.
  1. This hermeneutic form isn’t just pseudo-scientific, it’s incompatible with the constraints of scientific objectivity. But the cultures which surround scientific medicine tends to weaponize objectivity such that narrative healing modalities can be seen as nothing except pseudo-scientific.
  1. And yet, even popular culture circulates domestic practice, daily habits, and even objects as remedies. These remedies tend to be couched in some small shred of scientific evidence–look at Women’s Health magazine–or are so fully aestheticized as to become a doubly-sanctified commodity: handcraft-as-remedy.
  1. It is also possible that the hermeneutic meaning-making of an ailment enabled by herbalism’s energetic diagnostic system reflects medical under-determination of how a human body can be acted upon by material substances. That the impact of substances on physical functioning–and the impact of physical functioning of thoughts–necessarily requires a framework more nuanced (and literary) than the one enabled by biochemistry or pharmacology.
  1. Further contextualization of health subcultures with psychiatry could potentially open rich, nuanced explorations of the drug war and the devastating, cross-sectional epidemics of addiction. The criminalization of certain botanical substances also puts into relief the oblique ways in which health genres negotiate with indigeneity, colonization, and the historical vilification of traditional medicine.
  1. More than particular remedies which might bring psychological solvency, I think some of the most compelling connections between health subcultures and the mental healthcare crisis are obscured by the minutiae scrutinized in the former: they both reflect contextually-specific physical and psychological needs disavowed by institutional medicine and care-taking. 
  1. These are questions which acknowledge that care-taking and medicine are at times distinct from each other.
  1. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that thinking about that also requires a negotiation with the forms that spirituality takes in this disenchanted, neoliberal context

To PhD or Not

“Do it!” Eirik and Miranda said unequivocally.

AJS asked, “What if there is another route towards being a public intellectual?”

Pepe said that PhD programs are not nearly as fun as MFA programs. That the writing you do is “boilerplate.” He told me that PhD students have a lot of dental issues resultant from stress, but said it still beats any job.

JR said universities aren’t so much sites of active learning as they are “scholarship factories.” (We talked about speed reading.)

Mustafa said the academe will always try to reinforce disciplinary boundaries, which isn’t separate from the ways that universities are historically colonial institutions.

Katherine said the question of whether to pursue my curiosities in a PhD was related to the questions I have about how to be in service to others.

Cathy said I first need to formulate questions that are academically intelligible.

Irene said she supported my journey.

Peter (via Ethan) cautioned against PhDs in departments which rely on graduate students to do all the “grunt labor,” and spit you out with a degree after five or six extractive years. And I was like, Yeah, I already know about that.

I talked to Nina about making a YouTube channel instead of going to school, as if those two were interchangeable: methods of actualizing an audience, some incentive to research and articulate that research. We also talked about how making a YouTube channel could be a part of whatever happens next.

In an email to Miranda, I wrote, I’m currently swarming in the mild chaos of drafting my personal statement and trying to pin down a working set of research questions that’s academically intelligible, but I think I’m getting there. Broadly speaking I hope to study the circulation of knowledge about the body and care practices outside of scientifically legitimated channels–especially how the connections between mind, body, and context might be differently understood on radically different terms than biomedicine. And in what ways that difference requires a negotiation with spirituality, or an attempt to identify the forms it takes in this neoliberal context. This would be my academic way of trying to think about why institutional medicine isn’t more medicinal, and also the potentialities and risks or losses in the separation of autonomous care-taking practices (like herbalism etc) and biomedicine (particularly psychiatry). 

Miranda wrote back, This is a great time to be embarked on these studies–anytime would be a great time–yet particularly now of course with this public health crisis the etiology of which is inextricably politically, socially, economically, ontologically, metaphysically, historically, culturally, and ecologically meshed. 

Ethan said the more he thinks about it the more sense it makes to go to school. He thinks I should apply, even though it’s geographically inconvenient (among other things).

I often go to bed thinking it all sounds like a great idea, and then wake up hung over from that confidence. But the more I think about it the more sense it makes, like I’ve been circling around these questions for years, and now that they’ve almost come into view as “academically intelligible” it feels wasteful not to go for it. Or like there’s something I could offer by doing so, which made me think about Katherine’s identification of the questions I have to ask myself: what does it mean to me to be in service? And what kind of service are we talking here?

Corona Virus, Precarity, + Embodied Labor: Week One

Monday

Monday morning, March 9th, an overheard conversation between two undergraduate students in a cafe: 

“Tonight is the deadline for the University to decide if they are going to do all classes online next quarter, because of the virus stuff.”

“Do you think they’ll do it?” 

“Nah, I don’t think so.”

Monday night, I got the email: All UC San Diego classes to be held remotely in spring quarter. Though drastic, the maneuver felt more precautionary than prescient or urgent. Friends speculated the move to remote instruction was a response to the wildcat graduate student strikes spreading through the UC system.

Tuesday

On Tuesday, the seed of disruption had been sown as the significance of next quarter’s solitude settled in. I went to the store with Ethan and we bought vegetables, peanut butter, and bags of plantain chips and lentil pasta. I imagined every surface as covered with deadly invisibilia, but later sat at a table within five inches of friends, unafraid of their breathing. I started to feel the frenetic hum and inner heat produced by thoughts moving so quickly they were made illegible. That night, before falling asleep, I wrote about the virus against Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor:

Whatever symbolic or poetic meaning projected upon the reality of the disease, or which the reality of this disease is wrapped up in, is as much about the world it exists within and travels through as it is about the illness itself. Talking about the virus is talking about a globalized world which moves at the rate of its high-tech apparatuses but cannot actually account for the physical bodies which it is populated with: our vulnerabilities and our reliance upon the material world even when the normative processes of production stall or are hampered. Talking about the virus is talking about overproduction of things suddenly made useless by a microscopic contagion.

Wednesday

By Wednesday, the poetry reading was canceled; class was canceled. While at home that afternoon I tried to remember what “Community Immunity” means and revisited an essay by Ed Cohen. So many unfilled needs exposed by the virus — that’s what I wanted to write about. 

Cohen’s essay is about the AIDS pandemic in South Africa and the problematic individuation (depoliticized, decontextualized) which biomedicine entails. Cohen contrasts this isolated approach with the collective permeability which something like a virus highlights. Because its problem is its transmissibility, the virus requires a social response. It requires tending to the social and material elements of being and staying well, which — for all their biological sophistication—the institutions of medicine aren’t positioned to contend with.

I imagined opening my essay about the virus by talking about how we experience the pandemic a mainly a problem of individual exposure when its peril exposes the deficit in the community’s immune system: its ability to mobilize defenses and response mechanisms. But isn’t that what everyone’s already talking about? And what immune system is prepared to deal with a novel exposure, beyond (perhaps) its familiarity with the form of a pandemic: the ability of an invisible new iteration of an ancient organism to wipe out its host?

So maybe our vulnerability to this particular corona virus is not the fault of industrial capitalism per se, or a paradigm which emphasizes the eradication of contagions rather than the cultivation of a healthy, resilient biosphere. But there are additional vulnerabilities industrial capitalism compounds because what is good for stopping the virus is bad for the economy. What is necessary for treating the virus and caring for the bodies (infected and otherwise) who continue to exist despite the economic slow-down requires a nimble response in the structures of medical care as well as material production and distribution. How do we decide, or who decides, what is important? What is essential? 

A lot of work seems unessential, and yet without the remuneration it enables, basic existence is periled. As my teacher (a philosopher of medicine and science) said, “It makes it pretty clear that biopower trumps capitalism.”

Also on Wednesday I received a crash-course on living with pandemics (from the internet, from my mom). I learned that my deliberation about whether or not to take a trip to Seattle the following week as planned shouldn’t be a deliberation about whether or not I would be well, but about my role in the perpetuation of this wave. A wave whose calculability I fixated on, watching the numbers rise as if to verify my paranoid response. I was infected with an urge to explain the rationale of social isolation to all my friends. I played this missionary role to my partner, who also slated to take this Seattle trip. Stretched on our bed, he said he wasn’t sure what the point would be in avoiding the airport because he works in retail, just another depot of human contagion.  

Thursday

On Thursday, I went to the grocery store to pick up a few more things and was greeted with the sight of panic-buying: lines trailing into the aisles, shelves ransacked of their packaged goods. The frozen section of Trader Joe’s was nearly cleared out—black basins covered with flecks and crumbs that were visible for the first time. Only a few less popular items remained: frozen kale and cauliflower pizza crust; some sauce-covered microwavable chicken lunch. Suddenly, my hypothetical musings about the corona virus became so much less abstract, about how the precarity brought about by the virus is more than the physical vulnerability of being sick but the existential trial on the structures we are held inside of. Our reliance on them for our safe-keeping, for the maintenance of basic needs, felt clearly incidental to their existence; as if we were hacking them for that purpose. What underpaid, essential labor was being performed by the grocery store clerks and stockers. Not all labor can or should be performed virtually—we need to eat, after all. So what about that?

By Thursday, we have both decided that taking an airplane anywhere is absurd. A trail-running race I’d signed up for in January is canceled. Dominos of duties fall one after another.

Friday

By Friday, exhaustion from thinking too much. I eat tuna salad at a cafe during an in-person meeting, which feels transgressive. (The in-person-ness, not the food.)

Saturday + Sunday

Saturday, Sunday — settling into a new normal. I’m no longer required to leave my house. My partner receives the news that his place of employment will be shut down for two weeks, but he will be paid. Celebration! Fear! This spaciousness is exhilarating and terrifying. I’m trying to structure my time, trying to figure out what of the seemingly infinite domestic tasks I could undertake to fit in alongside my obligations like grading student work. Am I to be idealistic about all the things I could accomplish? Can I embrace monasticism? I picture myself with thread and needle, suddenly gifted with the patience  to embroider wall-hangings. Unfortunately I’ve brought into this seclusion my long-standing sense of inner disorganization; it’s difficult to commit to non-essential projects. As was the case before the pandemic, it’s hard to self-actualize from the space of my house–both too much and too little time; hard to know whether I should be self-optimizing or relinquishing domestic ambitions. But I try to avoid letting the existential questions laid bare by the virus transfer to a similarly existential void around the activities of daily life, these small gestures of creative resilience and willingness to bring something new into the world. 

What does the subtraction of ordinary life expose? Before the corona virus, it seemed implicit that what is necessary for the world right now (ecologically, at least) requires halting over-production. But this necessity has been made impossible or unthinkable by the abstraction of the economy and its unvanquishable requirements for belligerent hyper-productivity. And then something unthinkable makes that pause possible. What will happen after this? is a silly question to ask but impossible not to think about.Will the ordinary ambivalence of the current economic system remain exposed as constructed and contingent in its cruelties? What would it take to center our labor around common needs and desires, something more impressionistically obvious about what kind of world we want to perpetuate? (Or more urgently, what is necessary for survival.)

A collective, social response to the pandemic is unfolding (albeit enacted through wide-spread acts of self-isolation). In this isolation, I feel like I’m a part of something. But I think about how the lesson of the pandemic shouldn’t be that the internet and the socializing it enables will save us, but the undeniable fact of our physical bodies as mutual vulnerabilities is enough to stop the world-as-it-is and its perilous disregard for the ecologies our bodies depend upon, even despite the impossible momentum of capital. (Is that what’s happening?)

Citations:

  • Ed Cohen. “Immune Communities, Common Immunities.” Social Text (2008) 26 (1 (94)): 95–114.
  • Susan Sontag. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978.

Resources:

  • Critical responses to the social and political elements assembled here as “Crisis Times” by the creator of A Fiery Flying Roule
  • An herbalist friend Stascha Stahl posted this “hesitant PSA” on Instagram, and my mom posted this blog entry about affordable holistic measures; individuals can take to avoid infection even if exposed to the virus. Another herbalist friend Kelly McCarthy has some resources on her website as well.
  • Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab has posted some helpful suggestions on her social media
  • While I’m not much of a reddit participant, this thread has some helpful information about the virus and responding to it.
  • State of California online portal to file disability and unemployment claims

This essay was published in The Crisis Times in March 2020 — available here as a PDF:

For more info on The Crisis Times, see https://twitter.com/misroule

Sundae Theory — “What Will the New Body Be?”

For Sundae Theory reading February 3rd 2016, a gathering hosted in West Olympia for which readers were given the prompt “What Will the New Body Be?”

Medicine

Like medicine, academic study is expensive and institutional, though it requires little in the way of equipment or a fixed physical location, as least to address the most surface-level maladies. We do occasionally permeate its membranes, though we are often left outside, looking elsewhere, while carrying small fragments of traditionalism.

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