PROVINCIALIZING OXFORD: NOTES FROM THE BEAST’S BELLY

‘Where do you begin telling someone their world is not the only one?’

— Lee Maracle, Ravensong.

 

‘The teacher can try to rearrange desires noncoercively… through an attempt to develop in the student a habit of literary reading, even just ‘reading,’ suspending oneself into the text of the other – for which the first condition and effect is a suspension of the conviction that I am necessarily better, I am necessarily the end product for which history happened.’

— Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Righting Wrongs.’

  1. You will continue to insist that ‘education’ needs to be recalibrated as the project of building flourishing worlds for minoritarian life, a public culture of collaboration that isn’t tethered to the university as such, but instead to encounters where worlds are gambled in order to architect new ones, however small or makeshift. Tanya Lukin Linklater’s In Memoriam (2012) gestures to rifts in the present that don’t allow us to pretend that we are okay. Sometimes we have to fall apart. Let’s call this the ‘pedagogy of falling apart,’ where submitting to affect’s ability to make us non-sovereign is momentum for political transformation. There’s no turning back.
  1. The university, however, traffics in what we could call ‘everywhere epistemologies,’ where education is the practice of producing maps to everywhere and nowhere, a God-like and curatorial drive to amass ideas at the expense of the cultural contingencies that make all the difference. Oxford is constituted by this sort of philosophy of knowledge, obsessed with producing a narrowed version of the world that extends outward recklessly, swallowing everything in its path. The only objection you can muster is: there is an elsewhere, but you can’t go searching for it.
  1. You notice the regularity with which others avoid confrontation vis-à-vis racial oppression, making recourse to a fantasy that they are not entangled in the cruelties and forms of social violence that hold up the world. You wonder what it is like to be in a body without it feeling like a death trap. At your desk you watch a clip of a truck running over native protestors in Reno, Nevada. No one dies this time. ‘The West’ is nothing if not a string of murders incriminated by its attempted murders.
  1. How does it feel to be an object? You wear your favourite pair of ripped jeans, exposing your brown skin to the world. This exposure is interpreted as an invitation, compelling a stranger in a centuries-old building to walk up to you, rub your skin, laugh, and walk away. You laugh too, but only because your body needs to escape itself, to identify something of an ontological rupture. This is what it feels like to fall into the gap between subject and object. Epistemic injustice is a clever way of saying: when you speak only the ceiling will listen. This is what it feels like to almost not exist. You keep surviving anyways.
  1. Humility is an unevenly racialized resource. You attend a mandatory session on intellectual disagreement, where you are encouraged to open yourself up to speech. Immediately, Claudia Rankine interjects: ‘Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.’ You decide that the history of the colonial world is a history of natives being too present. Leanne Simpson chimes in too: ‘being vulnerable has never ended well for any of us, not even one single time.’ With each word, you thicken and thicken until you burst. These are moments when other worlds seem impossible.
  1. You are almost midway through an article on ideology critique when the author makes a reference to ‘primitives’ who pray for rain. This, he argues, is an example of an ideological defect whereby patterns of behavior serve ends that are cheaply related to those forces (here, social solidarity). You are troubled by the invocation of ‘primitives’ as if it were prior to ideology, as if it were an anthropological given. More immediately, you pause because this is the first native you encounter in the U.K. You are both empty signifiers. You are the boundary between reality and fiction. It is a ghost town. It hurts to be a story.

 

Love’s Pedagogy, or: My Kookum is a Philosophy Instructor

By Billy-Ray Belcourt*

“Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.”

– Judith Butler, “Doubting Love.”

My sister and I have a running joke about how my kookum** only phones her when she’s searching for me, because for whatever reason – usually when I’m in class or taking or nap or in a meeting – she couldn’t find me between the hundreds or thousands of kilometres that make the world too wide for her to be beside me anymore. Recently, I traveled to Honolulu for an international conference and before I departed she said something to the effect of: ‘don’t forget to call me, because I’ll go crazy if I don’t hear from you.’

What a sentence! If we think of love as a process of world-making that we can never adequately anticipate or manage, then it’s always-already prone to running amok or to shattering. Indeed: might love’s tendency to shatter – to weaken over time or to be lost in a split-second – partly animate its ability to anchor us in the present? Without it or its object, we might go crazy, if we describe ‘crazy’ as a state of being whereby one loses their bearings in the world. To say that without ‘you’ I could go crazy, is thus to admit that ‘you’ are one of my world’s conditions of possibility and that my world wouldn’t be the same without ‘you.’ In fact, I might not be able to adjust to your absence and what’s left of my world might become unlivable.[1] And, though disparate social worlds might have congealed in the wake of our distance or incompatible desires and patterns of thinking, there’s this geographic overlap – however small – that is worth attending to or even residing within. There is a struggle to determine how best to keep going without that locatability.

Differently, however: to speak of the possibility of losing you because you are not near me might also point to the ways that the world cannot bear all of us. It is as if she is saying, à la Warsan Shire, that “you are terrifying and strange and beautiful, someone not everyone knows how to love.”[2] It is as if she is warning that her house might be the only sanctuary for native boys like me who love too much, and that it is risky investing in love’s promises because they are haunted by the threat of being ripped away from you by someone else.

But, has anyone ever stopped loving because they calculated the risks of losing their love object and were deterred by the foretaste of injury? What work does this fantasy that love can be subject to statistical scrutiny do? Of course love is not merely about what might be lost when it inevitably falters or ends or is violently withheld; it is a process that makes us submit to incalculable forms of transformation, ones that make life bearable, if life is described as a collectivity sutured by good and bad affects. Might love be better put to use as an ethical imperative to be with others in ways that require your constitutive becoming?[3]

We have to learn from love’s endurant form, how it makes doubt workable in a world whose continuity is always in question. My kookum’s love has always been about nurturing forms of sociality that glean hope from the unhopeful. This is a common scene in my poetry. In June, a ten-point poem of mine called “we were never meant to break like this” was included in an exhibit at SFU’s Audain Gallery called “the fraud that goes under the name of love.” The seventh point read: “my kookum has survived oceans and yet still loves like trees do; you know, the way they feed themselves so that their leaves can live too.” And, in a chapbook I’m writing by the same name, there is a poem called “epilogue” and it reads:

“when I look

into the rubble

of him

I see my

Kookum

there

and I think

about the way

she made

carnage

feel livable

again

how things

that died

ages ago

never forget

what breathing

feels like.”

In Cruising Utopia, José Muñoz writes: “To accept the way in which one is lost is to be found and not found.”[4] Love is thus not a roadmap to an other who then becomes your compass, but a proposition to notice that you are lost like I am and that we can be lost together. For many, the present is not only not enough, but also lethal – love transports us to a future within which sadness doesn’t always nest in our breath, a future that isn’t neatly demarcated, but one that can house the hitherto unhoused.

My kookum’s love is one that gestates worlds – a form of love that zeroes in on the ways her life is messily bound up in mine, and vice versa. For Indigenous peoples, love has been a hornet’s nest of sorts, as we have died and died again defending it. Love like my kookum’s is telling: in a world saturated with mass death and crisis, love is the glimmer of patchwork futures that could and should be. My kookum’s is a sort of love that expects change, as our love objects never stay the same. In sum, her love was and is one that evinces ways of being in the world that proliferate Indigenous life. Love proliferates Indigenous life.

NOTES

*These remarks were presented as the keynote for the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Student Services Centre’s Annual Spring Gathering, June 17, 2016.

** I use ‘kookum’ here not because it is grammatically correct (because it isn’t), but because it is the spelling I was taught as a child.

[1] These thoughts are partly inspired by Judith Butler, “Speaking of Rage and Grief,” Critical Theory, June 5, 2014, accessed June 16, 2016, http://www.critical-theory.com/watch-judith-butler-on-rage-and-grief/.

[2] Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (London: flipped eye publishing limited, 2011).

 [3] Judith Butler’s work circa 2002 has been asking similar questions about how the life of the one is bound up in the life of the other, such that the former cannot persist without the latter.

[4] José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 73.

Makeshift Worldings in “Beira-Mar”

By Billy-Ray Belcourt

Recall Kathleen Stewart’s claim that worldings are accumulative; that they elbow into the ordinary with the precision and anonymity of enigmas and background noise. The senses acclimatize to the something’s assembly (we notice that something is happening or that we are becoming part of something), and living on feels workable again. The shape of the near-future might catch us unawares, but its buildup begins with the antecedent or affective prior of the something’s palpability.

Stewart points out that there is a kind of “laboured viscerality” to “being in whatever’s happening.” If you don’t pay close attention, worlds concrete vis-à-vis hard-won or laissez-faire attachments. [1] Worldings are thus about how a population adapts to even the smallest tailwinds. What is to be said, though, about the different magnitudes, durations, and intensities with which worlds become habitable and then sometimes not?

Felipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s Beira-Mar (2015), or Seashore, asks these questions, beginning in the throes of fraying social worlds, big and small. The film spans a weekend, as estranged friends Martin (Mateus Almada) and Tomaz (Marício Barcellos) travel to a coastal Brazilian town to sort out an inheritance. By way of bildungsroman-like affect, Beira-Mar gets at the weak resonances that make queer worlds feel livable, slip-sliding in and out of the clockwork-like rhythms of aggressive heteronormativity.

From the opening sequence, the film refuses to prop up dramatic narrative architectures, as if dropping the viewer in the thick of an everyday that’s been dragging on for quite some time now. Tomaz lays awake and still in a bed; his cell phone vibrates. Cut. Martin reads a book on a couch and a landline telephone’s ringing smothers the frame. The camera’s shaky movements trespass on the amateur documentary’s aesthetic form, working up a kind of ethnographic imperative to bear witness to something simultaneously in the making and stubbornly run-of-the-mill. As the film quickly migrates across unidentified geographies, the viewer is recruited not merely to study or to occupy the film’s diegesis; rather, the boys are cathected with uneven forms of affect, sometimes stalling what Patricia MacCormack calls spectatorship’s “desiring subjectivity.” [2]

Almost immediately, the viewer is drawn into the patchy social worlds of teenage life, as the near-horizon of adulthood forces intimacy to take on a kind of ersatz organizing power. It is here, where heterosexuality suffocates Beira-Mar’s narrative; it becomes like a score to a film you’ve watched over and over again. Sociality is gleaned from shared joints, cigarettes, and alcohol, and the word ‘fag’ repeatedly fails to interpellate any enduring subjects. Matzembacher and Reolon don’t pretend to have something they don’t; heterosexuality containerizes the film’s tempos and habits and sex becomes what’s keeping Martin attuned to life. For queer boys like Tomaz, this is the ordinary’s grater wounding us for wanting to be in the world.

The film repeatedly loiters on Tomaz and Martin’s glances, squints, and stares, marinating in the risky and brief moments when bodies meet in others and desire shape-shifts in seconds and then back again. The here and now, José Muñoz writes, is a prison house, and to “access queer visuality we may need to squint, to strain our vision and force it to see otherwise.” [3] Far from announcing the arrival of a new kind of social, Beira Mar stokes the small idiosyncrasies and ruts in the here’s prison house, capturing this sort of otherwise in the flesh.

In one scene, Tomaz’s queer looks catch Martin’s naked body in the bathroom, but the frame blurs the object and then quickly turns elsewhere. In another, Tomaz and Martin are dared to kiss, and the closet becomes not just a metaphorical incubator of queer life, but also a literal muster point for bodies whose sexualities are frustratingly imprecise and improvised. It is in this precarious and unsure mode of relaying queer happenings that Beira-Mar gets at the ways queerness slows down the present and fades in and out of it.

It would be reckless to read the characters’ hesitancies to commit to queerness’s telos as a form of internalized homophobia or sexual immaturity. Instead, Beira-Mar shows how queerness comes and goes, as its makeshift worlds are tenuously held together by shabby and sloppy affects. Worldings might presuppose a sort of permanency; once something becomes something we’re in, we stay there for a while. But, I am suggesting that queer worldings are characteristically short, that they quickly ratchet up patchwork geographies within which haste and experimentation are workable socialities.

Case in point: the film dovetails with a scene sparse in dialogue, as Martin kisses Tomaz in the wake of his coming-out. By this point, Martin is mourning the loss of his grandfather, letting grief give way to intimacy because both affects want bodies they need to know anew. At first, even the camera seems shocked, as it struggles to do anything about or to document this kind of queer closeness. Their bodies are jettisoned in and out of the camera’s frame, and we are only anchored in its affect by the familiar sounds of kissing and colliding skin. There is a sense that they are preparing for the sex’s end before it arrives. Here, the camera’s movements hurry the viewer’s gaze, urging us to try and encounter the everything of the happening. This is a hastily thrown together queer world, and the evidence of its occurrence are fingers pushing into skin and their short-lived residues. Matzembacher and Reolon refrain from imaging the whole of it, as if that would trick us into thinking this were bigger than a few minutes. The frame disappears into nothingness, and perhaps that is precisely the impermanency with which queer worlds unfold.

Beira-Mar is where Muñoz’s “ephemera” meets Foucault’s “heterotopias.” Processes of queer worlding occur in the underbelly of the normal. They are still a part of the World, but also aggregate formations that hang “in the air like a rumor,” to use Muñoz’s language. [4] Sometimes worldings only last about two or three seconds. Queerness is felt in the immediate now as a jerry-rigged feeling; not one that remains or holds onto time, but one that travels across temporal scales fugitively.

In queerness, there’s always the risk that this or that world will fall apart. Maybe Beira-Mar is about the sense of loss that tailgates queerness’s something. To be queer is to anticipate and resign oneself to the fact of queerness’s disappearing acts. Something buzzes, and then doesn’t. The film ends with Martin’s body disfigured by the camera’s rapid panning, and what we’re left with is a world beside itself. I therefore want to modify Muñoz’s seminal claim that “queerness is not yet here.” [5] Perhaps queerness is here and then not, a promiscuous sign under which worlds that are always disassembling cohere, such that being in life hangs in the balance. For queers, worldings are makeshift, ghosted by the hardened crusts of a World inhospitable to our points of contact and modes of feeling. It’s difficult to keep up with the titillation and tragedy of multiple worldings, but queer presents do exist, if only momentarily.

NOTES

[1] Kathleen Stewart, “Atmospheric Attunements,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 (2011): 445-448.

[2] Patricia MacCormack, Cinesexuality (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2008): 1.

[3] José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009): 21.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Ibid., 1.

 

DEAR MEDIA, I AM MORE THAN JUST VIOLENCE

By Billy-Ray Belcourt

In the aftermath of being appointed a 2016 Rhodes Scholar-elect and in the wake of something of a media storm, I found myself crying, out of anger, frustration, and sadness, in the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Student Council lounge. My story is indeed a spectacular one: the first-ever First Nations student in Canada to be awarded the world’s most prestigious academic scholarship. In a time of so-called reconciliation and in the face of ongoing dispossession – of lands, identities, and life – it is nice (to put it generously) to be able to turn to my story with open arms, so to speak. But, a staunchly violent present of settler colonialism doubles as the ideational context from which these stories emerge, and when the media wants to tell our stories some things and not others make them more palatable, readable, sensational.

In settler states like Canada – ones that repeatedly try to destroy those that point out their barely extant and unlawful forms of sovereignty – Indigenous peoples live in the spectre of violence. But, things get misinterpreted: Indigenous peoples are quickly collapsed into violence, as if that’s all we were, as if indigeneity were its own kind of death sentence. We know, however, that the state is the perpetrator, that colonialism is the perpetrator, and that Indigenous peoples are resisting and world-building as we speak. In fact, some of us are already on our way to the future; we’re conjuring an ethic needed to create a space-time in which violence against Indigenous peoples isn’t a survival tactic.

In a Metro Edmonton article titled “Edmonton student first-ever First Nations Rhodes scholar from Canada,” Andrea Ross wrote: “Belcourt is originally from the Driftpile First Nation, north of Edmonton. When he applied for the scholarship, he detailed his lived experience as an indigenous person who faced family violence.” When I first read the piece, I thought, hopefully and perhaps naively, that readers would interpret this differently. I was wrong. I was inundated with concerned messages from friends, with angered phone calls from family members wanting the story redacted because they knew it was false. I knew it was false. It was a mess. I wanted time to still. I never once spoke the phrase “family violence.” In fact, I had informed Ross that my personal statement was about my own lived experience with violence – racism, in particular – and that of my family’s, by which I meant my grandfather’s experience as a Residential School survivor. I immediately contacted her, and she referred me to her editor, who then paternalistically spoke at me and refused to make the corrections. The story has now been changed, but only after friends, including Indigenous activists, intervened and urged the writer to do so. This, however, is not an isolated incident: everyone wants me to talk about violence. It’s as if the story only makes sense if it’s about Indigenous suffering. I don’t want to talk about violence anymore.

If you’re a journalist and would like to speak to me, here are a few tips:

1. Violence should not be your lede. Indigenous suffering should not be your angle.

2. I have much more interesting things to talk about. For example, I was a 2015 Iris Marion Young Diversity Scholar; I am a founding member of the U of A-based Indigenous Feminist Collective; I like to binge-watch Gilmore Girls in my spare time.

3. There is so much at stake here. Please check with me before publishing anything potentially harmful, misleading, or stereotypical.

4. I did not succeed in spite of my Indigenousness; I succeeded because of my Indigenousness.

5. And, lastly: give the story to an Indigenous journalist. If you don’t have Indigenous journalists, hire more Indigenous journalists.

* I’ve decided to hold off on all media coverage at this time.

On ‘Moving Too Fast,’ or Decolonial Speed

This might be a familiar scene: you and a friend are going over the minutiae of a new relationship, the fleetingly spectacular resonances of your being-together, the emerging of a collective sensibility in the interstices between tangled selves, a tangling that leaves you in an emotional wreckage, as it were. It is as if you’ve known him [1] for much longer: the oddities that map his body into your own private elsewhere, the geography of unknowing you’ve willfully wrenched yourself into, clinging to a something whose potentiality is paradoxically both too much and not enough. Perhaps he takes your breath away, converting it into an almost-alien thing your body has to re-adjust itself to. He’s your momentary pause from the ordinary, an ordinary whose background noises are the sinister hummings of settler colonialism, a cacophony of structural attritions that force you to pick up the pieces, again and again. He is a lapse in time whose expressivity is marked by the teleological pull of an otherwise. You’ve attached yourself to an object that magnetizes an assemblage of disparate matterings and affects, ones that carry the prospect of a different temporality, of unabated continuity. On the other hand, you’re also precariously tending to a relationality that threatens to collapse into itself, to obliterate everything – a ‘we,’ a mode of being in the world, a future. Perhaps you’re ‘moving too fast.’

To be told you’re ‘moving too fast’ often has the effect of slowing you down, of stopping you in your tracks. This sort of speech act does its work quickly, chipping away at a relationship that’s trying to make a break for it right out of the gate, that attenuates the regular in its many emotive excesses. In short: one that muddies the rubric for being with properly romantic others. It could be a number of things: having sex too soon, saying ‘I love you’ too soon, spending too much time together too soon. Too soon. How does this ‘too soon’ become a discursive blockage, an ethical interdiction of sorts that stills time, that undoes materialities in the middle of things, that jettisons some intimacies to the space of risk and irrationality? You might be cautioned to gradually detach, to go on with your life, to slow down, to take your time. Go slow.

But butterflies are trying to tell us things. I suspect that this kind of logic – what I want to cheekily call ‘slow love’ – is tethered to a fundamentally racialized capitalist work ethic, one that assumes 1) the ongoingness of the loving subjects and 2) that investing more time and capital into a relationship will yield a more valuable product: a strong romantic bond. But some of us don’t have time to waste. I am suggesting that there is a radicality to loving fast in the battlefield of settler states, that it can be a form of worlding through which new pockets of consensual ethical intersubjectivity emerge. We know that the settler state is bloodthirsty: it hunts, maims, and, with a perverse legality, kills native people. It consigns us to a waning sociality such that we are continuously pushed closer and closer to death – this might manifest itself as obesity, as substance abuse, as mental illness, as incarceration etc. Settler colonialism is war, and native people are enemy forces that don’t have the option of forfeiting. This is a war that the settler state refuses to lose. It’ll apologize to us for wrongs wronged, launching itself into a present putatively bereft of guilt or grievous harm, but one that is nonetheless marked by death, by the aggressive extraction of resources from the land, by what Audra Simpson calls the “normalized crisis” of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. [2] Indigeneity is thus emptied of its symbolic weight vis-à-vis the genocidal teloses of containment, of assimilation, of dying out. Settler colonialism is an epistemic rupturing of everything, a steady bombardment whose intensity is felt unevenly across differently subjected native bodies. In a word: ours is a present that can only bear some of us, not all of us. Resistance doesn’t always feel like resistance, it sometimes feels lonely, it sometimes feels like bleeding out. [3]

Sara Ahmed writes: “Love is crucial to how individuals become aligned with collectives through their identification with an ideal, an alignment that relies on the existence of others who have failed that ideal.” [4] Where Ahmed is concerned with the transference of love from an object to a collective and its coterminous instantiation as an ideal (i.e, white supremacy, nationalism, multiculturalism), I am interested in the substance of ‘love’ as an ideal itself, how some bodies and not others fully enflesh love as such, how indigeneity – rendered through the biopolitical categories of ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Indian’ – becomes love’s necessary aberration, its antithesis, its failure. Indigeneity is meant to self-destruct, not to love or be loved. What kinds of worlds, then, are possible if we were to move fast, if we were to fall hard?

In sum: I want forms of love in which lifes quickly fold into each other – sometimes lopsidedly – but nonetheless gestating a something that could help us endure, together. And, even in the event of separation, we might know how to love, better, next time. Instead of waiting for something to happen, what if we experimented with others, testing out more capacious intimacies that don’t condense into a trained public sensorium we might call the social. If decolonization, according to Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang’s reading of Fanon, is “an unclean break from a colonial condition,” [5] perhaps we need more complex and messier forms of love, ones that can, in their otherworldliness, sustain native peoples’ attachments to themselves. Love might be our last hope.
___________________________________

[1] This post is thought from my position as a monogamous (i.e., I cannot speak to experiences of polyamory), queer native person.
[2] Audra Simpson, “Reconciliation and its Discontents,” (presentation at World of Matter: Extractive Ecologies and Unceded Terrains, Montreal, Quebec, February 19-20, 2015).
[3] Phraseology from Lauren Berlant, “Public Feelings Salon with Lauren Berlant,” Vimeo video, 1:33:06, posted by BCRW Videos, April 25, 2011, https://vimeo.com/22854077.
[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions, (New York: Routledge, 2004): 124.
[5] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 20, http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554.