I Will Only Stay Friends with People Who Read The Argonauts

As I read The Argonauts, I thought again and again how influential it would have been for me to read this book when I was in college. Not that it wasn't influential now, but it summarized and went so far beyond everything I've learned and thought in the past six years that I couldn't help but wonder how incredible it would have been to view Johnston and society through the lens Maggie Nelson so intricately crafts.

When I reopened it to begin my notetaking for this review, I just wanted to start reading again – the book is so rich in thought, in intimacy, in creativity, pure beauty of words, that I continually want to tattoo it's most poignant sentences into my brain so I can utilize them as frameworks through which to view the world every hour of the day.

The Argonauts is a polemic on queer family making in the twisted society we live in, a reflection on how individuals fuse to make a life, a conversation with all the best theorists that have ever lived on the most pertinent questions of conformity, society and identity today. It quarrels with the questions and contradictions that ostensibly make up a partnership – the one at the core is what words can express, and what remains inexpressible, but there are hundreds more – how to pick what parts of this society are salvageable, and what must be destroyed, what can be lived with and what must be burned. Nelson interrogates what it means to live in and abide by the social construct, and blows it up in ways that even the most revolutionary minded of us may not have imagined. Paradox is at the heart of this incredible book, and how to live with the multitude of paradoxes that life presents. Nelson interrogates language itself, in relation to gender, thought, and pretty much anything you can imagine. To me, The Argonauts was about everything – everything that goes into making a thoughtful and artistic life within the galaxy of other people. 

Nelson's writing contains such crystalline, accurate turns of phrase such as 'feral with vulnerability,' 'in heart or in art,' as well as longer analyzations of the feelings that I know I and probably many people I interact with have inhabited at one time or another but never been able to put so eloquently into words: “In the face of such phallocentric gravitas I find myself drifting into a delinquent, anti-interpretive mood.”' “busting the avant garde's mythos of itself was, even then, my idea of a good time.”

At the heart of The Argonauts (other than paradox) is Nelson's partnership with artist Harry Dodge, who is genderfluid, and their journey into the beautiful terrain of queer familymaking, choosing which parts of the traditional family model to salvage while throwing others forcefully out the window. The book also goes deep into describing Dodge's revolutionary work, and the ability to see his artistic process alongside Nelson's writing process is an incredible gift. This loving portrait and Nelson's singular writing style meld to create the belief that life is a conversation, with theorists, with lovers, with friends, with family, with ideas and art and our surroundings.

Reading The Argonauts forces you to think in a way that questions everything that gives itself a name and rules, everything that abides by a definition – how structures are built and maintained, how language both controls and frees our abilities to move as individuals in relationships and in society. Nelson purports that we must be willing to hold all aspects of our lives and our culture up for critical examination. Just when you think you know what is coming next, Nelson flips the map and creates a new key – she interrogates the use of heteronormative as a buzzword, she attempts to vilify marriage as an institution by breaking it from the traditional set while acknowledging that the desire to get married is by virtue putting faith in it's system. She questions pretty much everything that self congratulatory radical people repeat on the internet, and our brains are richer for it.

Nelson's words blend seamlessly with the all star theorists she peppers throughout her pages, cementing her in my personal A team of contemporary and classical thinkers. She breathes interdisciplinarity onto the page, and gives an intimate, hard won portrait of a union of artists, which feels like a treasure to be let in on. This is a book for people who love thoughts and theory, words and how they can or, in some instances, cannot communicate the essential truths one finds in life. It is a book for people who care deeply about making art and making a family, whatever type of family that is. It should be required reading for all humans, but for now I'll settle for all the thinking humans that I know would love it as much as I did.  

Rachel Dolezal and the Phenomena of Self Marginalization

By now, you'd have to have forgotten to pay your internet bill or be on a remote ranch in Wyoming to not know the story of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal, a resident of Spokane, Washington, is a white woman who posed as black for at least nine years with a variety of public manifestations, from serving as president of the local NAACP, to claiming a black acquaintance in public photographs was her father, to posing as the biological mother of her parents black adopted son, to the most visually obvious: darkening her skin with makeup and mimicking hairstyles traditionally used by black women.

Once the allegations arose – Dolezal's white parents confirmed her biological background – the story quickly went viral, and voices from news sites to op ed pieces to random users on Twitter were quick to condemn Dolezal for her misrepresentation of identity. For good reason – Dolezal's deception represents a stark example of cultural theft, appropriation, and white privilege. She took positions of power in spaces that were created as safe for sufferers of discrimination. She accepted a full scholarship from a traditionally black university. She co-opted an underprivileged identity without suffering any of the discrimination or violence that many black men and women face from the day they are born.

The question is, why? Dolezal was a professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, but it's not rare for white professors to teach Africa-based subjects. There are many ways she could have worked as an advocate for civil rights without falsifying an identity. The fight against discrimination in America today has many roles for white allies, posing as black is not one of them. She clearly thought she was working on behalf of the black community – why couldn't she be an outspoken ally without engaging in cultural appropriation?

I believe that the answer lies in what I'll call 'self marginalization,' the tendency for people occupying positions of privilege or traditional roles to create or emphasize aspects of their identity that seem underprivileged, in order to gain perceived legitimacy. People are uncomfortable inhabiting their privilege, so they create an identity for themselves that gives them a narrative of oppression. It may stem from the tendency to discredit the opinions, stories, and emotions of people who come from traditionally privileged backgrounds. Hypothesizing about what's behind this strange phenomena does not, by any means, make it acceptable. A behavior pattern can be analyzed and explained without legitimizing it.

When the cultural climate is so focused on discrediting people with privilege, it's certainly tempting to downplay the privileges one holds, in upbringing, identity, or social status. Perhaps if Rachel Dolezal had been taken more seriously as a white ally, she wouldn't have felt the need to obscure her identity. That, however, does not in any way excuse her actions. If, as an ally to a marginalized group, you are bothered by the accusations that you don't understand the struggle, or any similar complaints, the answer isn't to marginalize yourself in ways that are inherently false. What to do instead is, of course, more complicated, but I believe that it begins with critical engagement and analytical discussions about the nature of privilege and being an ally. It begins with having gratitude for your privileges while doing your best to uplift those who haven't had the same ones. Making a consistent effort to learn about the struggles and oppression that others face, and not taking actions that further subjugate already disadvantaged groups. Even the media uproar surrounding this scandal contributes to the problem, because focusing so much attention on Dolezal's deception distracts from the truly horrific cases of violence currently facing the black community.

Instead of creating a false marginalized identity for herself, Rachel Dolezal could have been honest and admitted her privileges, and responded thoughtfully and respectfully to whatever accusations she faced as a white woman interested in and engaged with black history. Hiding and obscuring her privileges is what led to the eventual, and somewhat deserved, public shame.

Consumers, Climate Change, and Does it Make it Better that I Bought it Local?

As anyone who has spoken to me in the last month or every pays attention to my social media preference knows, Becca Schuh read a really depressing environment book this month.

Now to the casual observer, it might seem like I didn't know climate change was a thing until I read said book, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. This is, obviously, false. To not generally know about climate change in this day and age probably means you're either a climate change denier or have been living in a hut in the woods, which is actually probably a great place to live considering the upcoming disasters.

But it is definitely true to say that I did not at all realize the crazy extent to which climate change has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen throughout our lifetimes due to the nature of carbon emissions, which is that they take literally years to affect the environment. AKA, similarly to what happened when AIDS became a thing, we are all idiots because we have all the information we need but are not doing anything to stop a giant catastrophe.

However, I will get back to that when I am famous and people will actually listen to me. Not that it did AIDS any good when Elton fucking John wrote an entire book about how we have all the tools to solve it but aren't because of the man, but a girl can dream.

Sparing you the technical jargon (which I'm sure most of you are more fluent in than I am, don't get me wrong,) one of the largest things we would have to change to actually do anything about the environment (aside from The Big One, overthrowing the man) is to drastically reduce the ways in which we consume. Which is to say, we'd have to consume a whole lot less.

Sounds easy in theory. Eat less! Eat out less! Buy less things! Drive less! Buy local! Especially when you're your average local buying liberal, these things don't seem that hard to manifest. I already walk to work, and if dear old Desmond kicks the bucket (we actually can't talk about that though I might cry) I probably won't have to get a new car for quite a while, if ever. Even though I love food, I already pretty much snack for all my meals and when I eat out I save everything to create four meals out of one. I still buy a lot of things, but I do a good 80% of my shopping at local stores, except for things that can't be found locally like carriers for the ladies, aka the stupid giant bras I have to special order online.

These are all the things I told myself.

But then I came back to my regular vantage point: waitress at restaurant where the platters of food are the size of my torso, as a man once pointed out to me by literally touching my stomach. Person who likes new underwear and for the bookcase to be delivered to my door so I don't have to borrow someone's car to get it from the store. Person to whom a great day constitutes a trip (by car, no less) to the used bookstore and the local boutique and alas, the mall because they don't sell restaurant shoes at the bougie shoe shop in North Park. Person who is an academic with a brain who realizes, that despite all her efforts to the contrary, consumption is a habit, and consumption is consumption, no matter how it manifests.

Obviously, we have to consume on some level. And it's definitely true that the large scale shifts that Klein suggest in This Changes Everything could be brought on and helped if everyone, especially the rich and powerful white men, shifted their consumption from investing in oil companies to investing in local economies.

These things were on my mind as I walked to the coffee shop today. And then I got distracted because my shitty headphones fell out of my ears once again, and I thought to myself, I'm making money now, I can buy myself a nice pair of headphones. And then I stopped at the adorable Hillcrest newsstand shop that actually carries both art magazines and literary magazines, dying breeds that I treasure, and picked up one of each. I was thirsty slash hungover so I also got, alas, a bottled water. I told myself that I'd reuse this one and also invest my newfound capital in a nice water bottle that I won't lose the second I bring it to the gym. I should probably also invest in a nice pair of sunglasses while I'm at it, I thought to myself.

I got to the coffee shop, and got a coffee that I would end up only drinking half of because I know now that too much caffeine produces similar anxiety to having to speak to the same human for several weeks, which, those who have been around me recently know, is a lot. I also got a sandwich, which again, I only ate half of, reasoning that this was okay because eating when you aren't hungry is bad and my health is more important than eating the whole sandwich out of obligation, and I'll take the damn sandwich home and eat it for a snack later.

What I mean to say by all this is, of course, is that it's complicated.

I've never been that attached to money, but now I have some of it. And the thing that happens to people who aren't attached to money is that they want to spend it. In fact, people who don't have money also want to spend it. That's what our culture has done to us. But is it inherently bad to want things, when we need some things to survive?

I don't think it's inherently bad to want things. But I do think that the extreme to which we've taken things as a culture is worse than inherently bad, it's abominable, it's going to murder the planet before we have time to come to our senses.

And if I were a different person, I would say that we should just stop it all now. But I think we all know that although that could work, it won't happen, re: the patriarchy and the oil, but also re: the privilege that has been lurking around everything I've written in this essay.

Because you can't tell a lady who has three kids to not drive to work. You can't tell a developing nation to not build a factory, when they're also told the only way to progress is to emulate the nations who run on....factories. You can't tell the young black man to not buy a new fancy car because you're the society who told him that a fancy car is what would make him be taken seriously. You can't tell the poor teenager to stop shopping at the cheap stores at the mall when she's told by society that she has to dress a certain way to be considered a woman. You especially can't do that when it took you 23 years and waiting tables at the busiest brunch place in your city to stop shopping at the damn mall and start buying clothes from local stores and you just yesterday filled up literally a suitcase with the Forever 21 shirts you accumulated in college.

What that we buy do we need? What that we buy do we buy because we think that we need it because our culture has convinced us that status symbols are as important as food and water in order to imbed consumerist culture and the desire for growth at any cost so deep in our blood that we're drowning in it? Is it okay for me to buy fancy headphones because at the end of the day the desire to not hear other people talk after listening to strangers bark at you for eight hours feels like closer to a need than my actual need to put food in my mouth? If I'm using them to listen to female artists, and try to bring them more cultural voice, does that help?

The best gift I've ever been given was the privilege to attend my wonderful undergraduate institution, and among the array of gifts within that gift was the idea of intersectionality and the ability to live it in practice by creating my own degree.  I called it Navigating Craft, but if I had to explain it now I would say something along the lines of 'writing about ideas, social, political, cultural, writing to help me understand the world, writing to hopefully one day help other people understand it too, from a place of humility, thoughtfulness, and humor.  I write to shift the paradigm, whether it be my own or the societal paradigm that has gridlocked into, literally earth shattering consumption.'  

Because I don't know how to answer the questions I posed in the penultimate paragraph.  But I know that I should have said something when a male customer felt it was appropriate to touch my body in reference to commenting on the size of the plates my restaurant serves food on.  I know that it was okay to stop working on my writing to talk to my good friend about the state of internet writing and how we think that both style and content are indispensable when creating art.   I know that my greatest gift other than and alongside my education is my friends, who will agree when I say in a joking yet serious tone that just maybe we are the ones who can start the revolution.  Or, a revolution.  (You know the joke.)  But I know that it has to do with shifting the paradigm, and I know that all I can do now is take the next step, as Adam so eloquently said (by which I mean Jenni Konner/Lena Dunham so eloquently wrote) on the last episode of Girls, "to the next step in a series of random steps." 

And as long as with each and every step I'm fighting the patriarchy, fighting for women and people of color and whatever the politically correct acronym is these days for the sexuality spectrum, and for these voices to be heard, and when I have to consume things trying to consume things that empower women, people of color, and local economies, then maybe these random steps will lead me to a place where I can actually help the environment in ways grander than walking to work.