Fragmented Conversations


Roland Barthes liked fragments. Last week I read some 40 or so pages of a collection of his interviews, The Grain of the Voice, and amid the zillion or so fascinating things I learned there was this: Roland Barthes liked fragments.

He says the “fragment breaks up what I would call the smooth finish, the composition, discourse constructed to give a final meaning to what one says” (209). He was talking about writing articles and discrete paragraphs instead of book-length works, but that idea of breaking up the smooth finish caught me. And while Barthes might have been horrified to be invoked as blog-philosopher (probably not, he seems pretty cool) this exchange of the fragment for the finished product struck a note with me.

I go through long periods of time with my blog—and with other forms of writing, but primarily the blog—when I’m sick of my own voice. But more, as it’s not really my voice—I generally feel like my word choice mirrors the patterns of my brain and I’ve expressed what I meant to say— I get sick of my blog voice, which attempts to be authentic but (like all narratives that attempt to be single) is just as much of a creation as any twitterbot. It’s because of my perspective—I cast all projects and ideas and thoughts in the past; I generally don’t talk about a problem until it’s sterilized by its solution, neatly tied up in a “and this is what I learned from this” candy coating.

But sometimes there isn’t a point. Sometimes there isn’t even a problem and a solution—sometimes it’s just a passing image that impressed me for some indeterminate reason. And I think that’s ok. Because that’s life.

Today, I’m exhausted. I spent half the weekend watching really stupid TV and the other half frantically trying to catch up on homework. This was not a good idea, just in case anyone is wondering. But yesterday, rounding my sixth straight hour reading Michel Foucault, I had a thought. This guy that I’m reading—Foucault and then a little Barthes—academics have been reading him for decades. I mean, this guy is one of the big guns. Other theorists and academics that I study—pretty much anybody coming after—has studied him, just as I am now. It’s a little like (religious reference ahead: warning!) what I imagine the first Protestants felt—after years of being read to and explained to (which is great, don’t get me wrong [in an undergrad, not religious, sense]), finally reading it for yourself. It’s like becoming your own priest.

[So that’s my conclusion, eh? Grad school is like becoming your own priest? Now that’s brilliant.]

It’s intoxicating. And then I thought about the other things I’ve read [rushed through at the speed of light] over the past few weeks: Plato and Lucretius, a little Shakespeare, Balzac, Stendhal, and really, how amazing is it to read someone like Plato or Lucretius and recognize all of the brilliant people before you who have read him?

Once I had a teacher describe what I was trying to do with an academic paper as “entering the conversation.” And I love that– I think about it all the time. She meant that in writing a paper, I’m not responding to something that happened in class, or something (perhaps) that happened to me—I’m responding to an argument. Like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was a move in a long and fascinating game, and I can respond to that—adding to it, changing perspective—and if (if!) my play is good enough, it might become part of the dialogue about that article. Or about my article.

And then I realized that all of this reading and thinking and gnawing over ideas is still being part of the conversation. Right now, I’m the kid in the back of the class who doesn’t have anything to say just yet. Because in the front of the classroom are Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and I’m not quite there yet. But I’m in the classroom and I’m in the conversation.

[I’m deeply uncomfortable with how vain that sounds—sitting in the same classroom with the gods of academia—but I think I am. Not because of my brain, but because of my focus (as in what I’m focused on, not my dedication). I think. Note the fragmented thoughts. Thanks, Barthes.]

I set alarms for study breaks, but they almost always come too soon, pulling me out of conversation with the people others quote. And I realize I have just as much “authority” over the text as Foucault, as Halberstam or Butler. As I read Plato, Shakespeare read him too. He’s in the desk next to me. And seriously, how cool is that?

Thinking about stress as an identity marker

Michel Foucault tells us that the end of the Victorian era marked a shift in how we view sexuality. Our sexual choice (same sex or opposite sex) became an identity marker (homosexual, heterosexual). Engaging in sex with another of your own gender became a marker of your entire being–your childhood, your present beliefs, everything–where as before it would have been viewed as a singular action. Sexuality became an identity marker.

A note on the difference between identity marker and individual action: an action is an action is an action–I read a book, I ate too much. An identity marker takes an action–possibly a habitual action–and turns that into a characteristic of the entire person. I am a nerd. I am a glutton.

Why is this important? Well, identity markers get imbued with all sorts of stereotypes that aren’t heaped on individual actions. The statement “I read a book” only informs you that I’m fortunate enough to be literate. It could be Dr. Seuss, it could be Michel Foucault, it could be Oprah’s latest favorite. The statement “she’s a nerd” or “she’s a bookworm” asserts that that action (reading of book) is not only habitual but it affects more than just that action. What does a nerd wear? What does a bookworm listen to? You might not be able to answer those questions correctly, but you have an image in your mind– a stereotype that is implicit in the identity marker but not in the individual action.

Take it one step further, if I say “I’m a nerd” or “I”m a bookworm,” I’m accepting that identity marker. I’m saying yes! this action (of reading a book) is really one that defines me.

Ok, back to Foucault. He says 

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature…. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (The History of Sexuality, Foucault, p. 43)

Basically, he’s just articulating the idea that we haven’t always assumed a person’s choice of sexual partner is a way to categorize them. The action (gay sex) was changed to an identity characteristic (lesbian/gay) which then was thought to explain or clarify that individual’s entire life.

I think the same move has been made to feelings of stress. Instead of experiencing moments of tension, or times when we have to “buckle down and get to it”, the  assertion of “being stressed” has become a characteristic of identity. 

I am stressed. You are stressed. He, she and it are stressed. We and they–yep, also feelin’ it.

Feeling it always. All the time. I go to bed stressed and I wake up stressed. I think about my to-do list while I’m making the bed, filling up my car and scratching  my dog’s belly. It’s always there–insistently reminding me of what I need to be doing.

But that’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it? Am I–are any of us– actually going to be working the entirety of our waking hours? I know–ideally: yes! otherwise I’ll never get it all done! Ohmygod (cue hyperventilation)–but honestly. Can you–can I–actually be researching while making coffee and feeding the pets? What about while driving to school? Or walking from the car to the library? Or from the library to class? Or any of the other five million little things that I’ll get done today that aren’t intrinsically linked to the projects that are pending? Not really.

So right there, I have at least two hours (likely quite a bit more) in my day that I can determine. I can be impotently stressed and tense, feel my stomach twist and kink the entire day, completely focused on getting to the library as quickly as possible (hurry-hurry-hurry-can’t get it all done)… or I can let it go, refuse to let stress be my primary identity marker this week, acknowledge that I’ll be spending a good 8 hours in the library today, during which I’ll have to focus…but that’s later and not right now. There’s no reason to allow stress to engulf my world in burning acid.

At least, that’s how I see it.