I Don’t Believe a Word of This and Explicitly and Aggressively Disavow and Denounce Every Syllable of It, by Seth Abramson

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, November 14th, 2014

Conversation is hard because it involves a lot of shutting up...

seth abramson essay nailed magazine
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Social media is the archetypal dialectical space. It’s oppositional, zero-sum, and deauthorizes any theory that holds a rising tide to be beneficial (if not always equally) to all boats.

On social media, as in poststructuralist dialectics, if you or a group you identify with is winning, someone else is losing. The poststructuralist metaphor of the “palimpsest” implicitly overhangs all poststructuralist discourse: if you layer realities atop one another, the ones on the “bottom” are obscured and therefore silenced. The “palimpsestic fallacy”—as the metamodernists call it—is so insidious because its core contention is counterfactual. Neither Trixie nor I believe that contending realities blur one another, and that we therefore can’t use reality (or realities) as discrete units of measure. To the poststructuralists, the syllable can be a unit of measure—but entire realities? No.

Well, I disagree.

I mean we do.

The problem with dialectics, say metamodernists, is that the lived experience of absolutely no one conforms to its particulars.

Consider: I once tried to popularize the word “fetch” with my high school friends as a shorthand for “fetching,” as in “attractive”; my friends admonished me to “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen”; I continued using the word, despite these admonitions; and twenty years later, at a high school reunion, I saw these same friends again for the first time since our five-year reunion and the first thing one of them says is, “See? ‘Fetch’ never caught on!” So I said, “Listen. I made you remember. For twenty years. A word. And you were so taken by it that you felt the need to shame me with it here. Believe me, Trixie, it caught on.” Obvious here is that I was fully experiencing two realities at once: my own, in which my motives (however eldritch) for using the word “fetch” were not only justified but eminently rewarded in the “long game”; and my one-time friend’s, in which my shameful insistence on an ineffectual verbal mark was now, twenty years on, an embarrassment.

And it is embarrassing. Also, co-equally, it isn’t.

And I’m so steeped in these simultaneous realities that I’m delirious with the disorientation of it.

Ever been broken up with? Metamodernism.

I mean, it’s at once your reality vis-à-vis the relationship—shitty—plus hers on the same subject—shitty—and then also this separate, anxious one (a synergy of yours and hers that honors rather than obliterates either) that’s even shittier.

Metamodernism.

It happens all the time. No: better said, it’s all that’s happening.

Poststructuralism assumes there’s a winner and loser in every exchange of language; so, in the above exchange, I was the loser—I’d been silenced. The interjection of my friend’s disapprobation caused a rupture in my reality, a fissure best seen through the lens of deconstructive critique.

Asinine.

It’s asinine because it makes me unhappy and makes me hate old friends blindly and categorically—also, my own way of being in the world, language, reunions, and even conversation itself.

It’s a shitty thing to hate conversation, but most poststructuralists do. When a poststructuralist says “conversation,” it means either a song sung to a choir or a diatribe patiently listened to by a sidekick.

As I learned when I worked in Namibia during the 1997 drought, only conversation is conversation. You shut up so the other fellow can talk; then he shuts up so that you can talk; then things continue in that way. For a long time. Conversation is hard because it involves a lot of shutting up on both sides, and interaction with ideas antithetical to your own. Conversation is hard as hell. It requires superhuman patience, and a disavowal of all zero-sum sociopolitical theories.

Saying you’re having a conversation is easy as apple pie.

Just ask Ethel Kennedy.

Anyway, what I learned during the second semester of my M.A. in Cultural Studies at Kansas State is that the metamodernist wants to return to you your realities—all idiosyncratic, all richly enacted. Post-identity? Hell no. Metamodernism offers a palimpsestic function in which all your realities— again, idiosyncratic and fully enacted—overlay the realities of others to the detriment of none of them.

In other words, Sheila, what you said at the reunion was exactly right in its way, and what I said was exactly right in its way, and by looking at the intersections of those rightnesses—rather than their deviations—we encounter a paradoxical truth-value that’s both new and deeply affirming. It’s not a naïve truth-value, inasmuch as it recognizes (cf. Epstein’s “metabole”) that its constituent parts could credibly be self-contained; but it’s also not a cynical truth-value, as it intends itself as actionable intelligence. It doesn’t sap your strength, as dialectics does, nor does it leave you capable of only blogging about the things you care about—just waiting to be flamed in the comments. Rather, it sends you off IRL to seek joinders of realities that are productive of real social change.

Does anyone remember what real-time social change looks like anymore?

Oh. Good point. More than thirty states now allow gay marriage.

Okay, were the activists who made that happen bloggers?

Good question! But I don’t have an answer for you, Dr. Rubenstein.

Consider, now, a Jewish student in a large social clique at a rural college in a Plains state. He’s the only Jew in his friend group, and he’s miserable. He’s miserable not because he’s the only Jew—for whatever reason that doesn’t bother him—but because he’s short and skinny. All his friends are tall and athletic. He feels unmanned, so it’s little surprise when, one day, he meets another short and skinny male and befriends him instantly. Somehow they just connect. That this new friend is an evangelical Christian who believes his Jewish classmate will suffer eternal hellfire after death is no obstacle. They’re happy together.

Then the same thing happens to this Jewish kid a second time, except this time it’s with an overweight woman whose peer-group is universally svelte.

He marries her; she gets a job at a Plains state university; he becomes a spousal hire.

Do I have that right?

All of this is to say that “intersectionality” is great in theory, but in practice we deny countless identities-cum-realities to live. Dialectics requires individuals to play zero-sum games of exchange with every personal or professional association they could conceivably hold dear; it’s exhausting, engaging in so many winner-takes-all tug-of-wars at once. Like simultaneously playing ninety games of chess.

And that’s why happy people tend to think metamodernistically rather than dialectically: they layer fully enabled realities atop one another and choose whichever synergy produces the most of what they need: happiness, a sense of safety, or the courage to engage in real-time political commitments.

Wait! says Dr. Rubenstein, the poststructuralist Associate Professor who’s sitting with me in the Berenstain faculty lounge as I write this. You’re critiquing (he’s saying to me) the erroneous use of poststructuralism as a guide for navigating interpersonal exchanges and/or entrenched self-identities, but isn’t deconstruction indisputably a better lens through which to analyze the operations of entire societies? And the answer is yes—I’m telling him this as I type it—but only because a society exhibiting a dialectical inclination as a normative feature is ordinarily composed of individuals who individually and collectively treat poststructuralism as a civic mandate. We have no idea what a society in which metamodernism is an implied civic mandate would look like. Poststructuralism wins the day because it already won a day, Dr. Rubenstein; it’s tautological. (Okay, he’s left the room—skinny as a mouse, per usual—but I’m going to continue. He can read this later.) It’s equally possible that the Jew and his evangelical friend will receive such an advantage of one another’s company (on the grounds of shared body image concerns) that their mutual goodwill will disentangle them from the entrenched dialectics—the evangelical’s faith, the Jew’s half-hidden agnosticism—that seem sure to divide them.

Jews do sometimes befriend people who have mentally consigned them to eternal damnation.

I should know: I’m an evangelical Christian with many Jewish friends. Saul Rubenstein is only one.

Many months ago, I read an article by a very “institutional” fellow—someone living off the dime of an institution—arguing that only African-Americans suffer police brutality. As a former public defender, I know this is empirically untrue; I also know that (a) it’s emotionally true for this author, and (b) his counterfactual submission is predicated upon the factual submission that persons of color are disproportionately likely to experience violence at the hands of police officers.

Very disproportionately, Trixie.

What I proposed to this author is that it might be possible to rally all persons—of any race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—for whom police brutality is a daily potentiality, and to use this mass of persons to more effectively advocate for administrative policies that reduce the risk of violent misconduct by law enforcement.

His response? “White people can’t talk to me for the next twenty-four hours.”

I’m not white, I’m Polish, but nevertheless I understood his point: albeit with good intentions, and with a similar (if only arguably co-extensive) vehemence about the cause he was writing about, I’d stepped violently on his emotional truth. I had, in his view, silenced him. Moreover, by making one true statement—that police brutality is rampant in many poor communities—I seemed to deny the truth-quotient of a second one (that African-Americans are disproportionately its victims). The end result: he and I are unable to work together on a cause we both believe in devoutly.

Also, I’m marginally less likely to ever again participate in a conversation about police brutality. The thinking goes—and I know many other alumni of the University of Iowa Law School who would say the same thing—that there are many good causes, and it’s easy enough to find another one in which my substantial training and experience in agribusiness is utilized rather than ignored. No hard feelings, but also no effective political commitments resulted from this fetishization of dialectics.

A lot of family farms are going to be lost over this, in other words.

Look, my point is this: I’m an overweight teenage girl fighting rampant fatphobia in a rural town in Nebraska, so there are a lot of causes I’m seeking allies for. But the question those prospective allies should be asking me is, “What are you actually doing IRL to reduce fatphobia?” If all I’m doing is jabbering angrily—if justifiably—on social media about how none but the fat understand the plight of the fat, I’m doing my part to instantiate poststructuralist dialectics in my community, sure, but what am I doing to build a network of normative-weight allies who can somehow locate a synergy between their own reality and mine? I suppose I could just wait for every thin person in America to start fighting fatphobia out of some native sense of justice, but OTOH, if people have such a native sense of justice that it can be so passively appealed to, why am I not out there right now protesting police brutality against African-Americans? Why am I not pushing for greater acceptance of Jewish faculty at predominantly evangelical Christian colleges or universities in my home state of Nebraska?

The answer: I’m dealing with my own shit. Using poststructuralist dialectics and the palimpsestic fallacy, you’re seeking allies for your thing even as I’m seeking allies for my thing, so we’re talking past one another. We can’t find any way to overlap our realities in a way that actualizes both fully, and the result is mutual political inefficacy. What loses? Both the fight against police brutality and the fight against the World Health Organization—a fight that began so dramatically in Seattle in 1996.

You remember.

The point is, we lose all hope of things getting better, so they don’t.

Am I white? Absolutely. But I also wanted to kill myself daily between 2010 and 2012, and I still see no point whatsoever in living. Which of these things do you think I’m focused on?

What I want is co-equally operative realities. I want discussions of the fifth and sixth dimensions—where discrete realities intertwine—to inform psychosocial and sociopolitical strata.

Rising tides definitionally lift all boats—maybe not equally, but Jesus, can we cross that bridge when we come to it?

(Dr. Rubenstein wrote that last bit. Is he coming around, or just mocking me?)

Look: I know you’re going to give Trixie and me a hard time for what we’ve written here. But I just want to say, WHAT PART OF THE TITLE OF THIS PIECE DIDN’T YOU UNDERSTAND?

+ + +

Header image courtesy of Agent X. To view a gallery of his art, go here.

+ + +

seth abramson writer nailed magazineSeth Abramson is the author of five collections of poetry, including Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. A regular contributor to Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press, 2015).

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.