They Made Me Call It "Why, When, Where"
As a human being, struggling to become, I am in a constant state of mourning. I do not want what I haven’t got, yet my desire plays with me as if it were a maudlin game of extremes, a survival of wits, yet a battle with rationality. My passion is fueled by loss.Speak You Also.
By Paul Celan
Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.
Give it shade enough, give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.
look how it all leaps alive ––
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.
But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself glitter: on sand dunes
of wandering words.
How have I become a way in which yes and no are unsplit? There are plenty of things left behind which leave trails that tell my stories; things are always left behind. I have a memory that’s stayed with me for as long as I remember, the letter it refers to now long lost: I was at sleep-away camp when I was eleven and separated from the friend I had gone there with. I was scared and lonely and didn’t bond easily with the other girls in my cabin. They were mean-spirited and spoiled and I preferred to be by myself, which is not acceptable in a camp environment. I wrote home to my mother asking to be brought back. A letter arrived soon after. It started out by saying that I should go somewhere private to read it, so I went to a swingset that was off in a corner of the camp and sat on top of the slide. The letter was three pages long and made me cry uncontrollably; basically what it said was that the world was a cruel place and that people will often be what you don’t want them to be, and that I have to learn to accept this and not be effected – not allow my emotions to get in the way of my survival.
The impact of that letter stayed with me for years and years, slowly fading as I got older, but the complexity of its pragmatics mixed with the attitude towards me of my mother created a place in me which can be marked “How, part 3” perhaps: “How Gayle came to be what she is still becoming,” how I turned to introspection, art, film, and music as a way into and out of the world; how I had to become a deep thinker to balance my deep and frail emotional condition; how I found survival through the works, thoughts, and deeds of others; how my passion became fueled by loss, by others’ losses even more so than my own.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in a library, reading everything I could get my eyes on, looking at every picture possible, from the inside of a tree’s membrane to the snow-capped tops of mountains. Being a child who was always mired in sadness I found an odd solace in stories of the Holocaust and it didn’t take long for me to pass from the books aimed specifically at children, to the more adult ones, the more explicit ones: I wanted to know, I wanted to see, I wanted to understand what people were all about. It is a strange thing to say but my own despair was tempered and found company in the abject suffering of countless innocents, my fellow Jews, my fellow people.
The realization that absolutely anything is possible came from not turning away from the shocking truth for the safety of ignorance. I knew that to truly be expressive, one had to have deep experience to express. I read the poems of children waiting to go to the death chambers and I was both humbled and fascinated that they were left behind for me in this way. I knew that there was a powerful form of empowerment to be found in the act of creation and expression that superseded even the depths of their hopelessness. I don’t mean to romanticize suffering, rather to find in it a way to cope through it.
I went to a night art program at a museum in Montreal when I was nine that was for all ages. I painted alongside a sixty year old man. There were no grades and we worked in every medium. We drew with markers on film and ran it through the projector. We took walks in the woods and sketched the leaves we’d see. At home our basement playroom was full of old art catalogues that were part of estate sale findings my parents would collect; you could say that I was raised on images, as I think most of us are.
When I got to high school I didn’t take any art classes cause they seemed to be all about self-expression and macramé, in other words that version of art didn’t reach far enough into the broader political and social world for me. I educated myself and got heavily into the poetry of e.e. cummings and the writings of Albert Camus. I became a self-professed existentialist at the age of seventeen and my art had a definite Dadaesque leaning. My heroes were radicals from the 1960s and when John Lennon was killed something in me froze for good. I discovered love and sex and was almost completely estranged from my family, disappearing into the comfort and intimacy of long-term lovers. By the time college came around I was thoroughly under the control of my boyfriend who started becoming very violent. It took three years for me to pull away and off to New York I went, on my own, trying to leave behind anyone who could do me harm. It was there that I found more art in experimental filmmaking and was finally able to feel free enough to dance.
So how did all of this (I’m too old to keep going on the autobiographical stuff… it would take a book) create me, as I stand now? As I lay now, on the floor, inert and full of doubt, struggling with my demon lovers and my fear that my desire will die before I can complete this very writing? It all explains my attraction to the group of men and women philosophers/theorists who I have come to center my intellectual pursuits around, these eccentric European men and women who are how they are for surviving the abjection of otherness, as I have, as I continue to try to do. Their commitment, their production, their innovativeness, and their ability to find solace in their writing astounds me and I am ever grateful that they remain for me, here and now with their books and the power of their thoughts, to help me survive as well, to help me understand that there are always alternatives, that peoples’ actions are forever ambiguous, that desire is a constant force of propulsion, and that always there is a self becoming.
Where am I, an abject other whose psyche always has to interrupt, who is at the ready for critique? I am mired in uncertainty as I pass through forever questions and then again through places of lostness; I am often inundated with images of roads moving beneath me, dreams of trying to get off of the planet before the invasion begins. What good am I as a teacher in this place? What are the ethical implications? What tools have I created for myself that I can share without doing more damage, for damage is plenty in this space: how to live with the damage, how to keep alive the desire?
I have always wanted to be an art teacher. I do not come from a family of intellectuals, teachers, or scholars, except for my one uncle who has forever driven everybody else crazy with his mean-spirited rhetorical approach to conversation and has forever been resented for being “too smart” and therefore elitist in everyone else’s eyes. I never want to become nasty like him and this is something I work hard at; I don’t want my intelligence to become a tool for my own propping up when I feel so low. I have always told my students not to measure their failures by other peoples’ successes. This is the danger of unconscious desire, that one may not really be as ethical as one would like to think. I came up with a saying last night: “truth is what liars hide behind when they don’t want to look at themselves.” Don’t believe the truth.
Where as in a place is no where for me since I have been a perpetual refugee, a fragment of a diaspora that has both historical and personally-specific roots. I am not attached to any land, rather to water, wherever it may be, as it flows and evaporates into nothingness, just as it flows within me, and, like the wind, it is always there no matter where I be. So I rebel even against this refugee status, finding no community because of my blood, because of my location, or even because of my chosen profession or artistic passions: that is why I am no where for where is not a space outside of me.
I have surrounded myself with filmmaking and art and video and music and this is where I live, though I lack and refuse labels. As a “member of a cultural community” my most fervent and exciting time was a few years in Buffalo, New York where I found places and people to share my films with, where I found people interested in the irreverent and problematic artwork I was doing centered around the theme of damage and desire: “unsplit.” As a high school teacher I was blessed with being able to create my own media studies curriculum and to teach a multitude of courses that included traditional and new mediums. What got in the way were the adults, always the adults. My “orientation” as a person and as a member of the school community was always with my students, good or bad. It seemed no matter what I tried, the adults always regarded me from a distance, except for a select few whose curiousity got the best of them, who were in a position to have eyes open and not be threatened by otherness.
The where of my classroom became a space of safety and risk, for me and my students, and out of the difficult work that it took to create that space came the most amazing relationships I’ve ever had in all my life, relationships some which continue to this day and some which have left dense holes but good memories inside of me. My students wanted to talk about deep philosophical questions about what it means to be human; they wanted to talk about the war, about relationships, about their parents, about why rules are needed, about their nightmares and utopian dreams. With my background and ongoing readings in psychoanalytic, post-structuralist, and critical cultural theory I found eager learners and a common thirst for knowledge and, more importantly, discussion. I bridged troubled chaotic spaces between me and rebels, those kids in so much pain that they couldn’t trust me for a second, with honesty and humility, with my flaws and failings mixing with their own. Unfortunately, I eventually encountered a principle who despised me. My long-term plan was always to earn a PhD in order to teach future art teachers how to teach, to expose them to the philosophy/theory that had been so instrumental in my life and with my students, so the time had come.
Where am I now, having left behind another life? I cannot say.
I have always said that the ultimate question is “why?” with the ultimate answer being “because.” How simple it would be, yet it points to the unavoidable inability to address the question of “why” with any certainty, and it is this uncertainty that is at the crux of life and the living of it. So how do we settle on this uncertainty without falling into nihilism; how does this far-reaching uncertainty become transformative and productive? This is what I have found in psychoanalysis (as a general term), the tools to confront the uncertainty without paralysis, without it encouraging despair, and now with the addition to my philosophical interests including Gilles Deleuze, I find this “uncertainty” to be loaded with potentiality and lines of flight.
Thinking begins at the disruption and the goal is always to think anew. This is a creative act. Thinking can occur without words, in images and through time and space in film and video, in experience itself. To think a thought as yet unthought is a revolution. And it is a potential personal paradigm shift as well, which is what I have tried to convey to my students and have sometimes witnessed as occurring in them. In being somewhat of a Lacanian, in that I view experience as occurring within his three psychic registers of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic, my scholarly questions and research circulate around the lack of attention given to both the real and the imaginary within pedagogy – to affect and fantasy – , especially within the discipline of art education and media studies. I want to teach what I know, yes, and I want my desire to learn more to be contagious, like a good disease; to be uneasy for the new to instill itself.
In being somewhat of a post-structuralist I am devoted to investigating the prominent and crucial question of the ethics of the Other, both the others who are abjected from us, who are us, and the Other of the symbolic order, which has at its core a rejection and an omission of grand consequences, especially for young people in a late capitalist culture of conspicuous consumption. I think it unfair for me to have come to all of these concerns and commitments through certain thinkers and modes of thought without sharing them with my students. It seems most educators apply their research rather than teach it; it’s like eating the grass after the cow has already digested it by eating the cow instead of the original grass. I don’t need the cow, except as an other to respect and revere.
I have found that an incredible number of k-12 educators and administrators dumb down for their students because they don’t think them capable of contemplative thought, yet the same people will get glowy-eyed at the “wisdom of children.” Perhaps the unconscious desire is to avoid ones own ignorance. Perhaps the unconscious fear is losing authority and having ones identity shaken. To teach children the Deleuzian ideas of “becoming”, to teach the Lacanian ideas of the “split subject”, is to allow them an internal psychic space during their growth/their “education” in which they do not have to be fixed, where they can forever be full of potential, grace, and redemption. Even now, a PhD candidate colleague of mine literally balked at the idea of giving any “theory” to our undergraduate Advanced Placement students; it would be “too much” for them… too difficult she said. We need to model for people how to formulate questions.
On the surface I want a PhD so that I can teach future art teachers how to teach, so that I can try and change/save “art” in the schools by so doing. I want to bridge the gap that exists in so many universities between their art departments and their art education departments. I saw first-hand the damage that can be done, as far as producing weak and ineffective art teachers, because of this gap. I saw bachelor of fine art students wanting to teach, and I saw art education students wanting to learn more about contemporary art and media culture, neither of them having the right degree for what they wanted. And in my own high school classrooms, I saw success by being an artist-teacher, as opposed to a teacher who teaches art. It’s a big problem, a society-wide issue, but that has always been my impetus for the PhD.
Now that I’m immersed in the program – in an education department more fully than ever before – I see the problems are greater than those. Most especially, I see the problems within myself and the enormous difficulty I’m having in making the transformation from creative and affectively involved art departments to a more rigid academic environment bent on writing and research and official formats, etc. As an artist referencing others’ work I never had to worry so much about crediting sources in a specific institutionalized way; as a dilettante Marxist I always believed (something you can get away with in the art world) that “intellectual property is theft.” As an art teacher, college or high school, I was encouraged and rewarded for my tough questions, inquiries, and critiques. I find my fellow students here to be generally very conservative, though I have been so very pleasantly surprised at how thirsty some of them are for this new and risky knowledge/theory that, as an art and film student, I’ve been exposed to for over twenty years.
I have a core of “why” in what I’m doing. My doubts are demon lovers. I am on a mission and there is no guarantee of success. The darkness and the light dance together in my depths.
look how it all leaps alive ––
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.