Sunday, March 27, 2016


HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?  (Degradation Part 2 -- not Chapter 2)

Frontispiece photo is J.B. Higgins photograph “Andre"-

Okay, here’s a very intellectual and introspective way to look at degradation.  If you want the really basic experiential gruesome details, go look for something by Vollman, who experiments with how low people can go.  There ought to be a body of writing about/by Native Americans, not by people with the genetics but people who actually live on reservations, but I only see streaks here and there.  Publishers would resist.  (The gutter drunk version of “Indians” doesn’t sell unless it's funny and makes "Indians" look stupid.)  

If that’s what you want, look for Adrian C. Louis.  (He wrote the book on which “Skins” was based.)  His new book is “Random Exorcisms”.  “. . . these poems tackle a broad range of subjects, including Facebook, zombies, horror movies, petty grievances, real grief, and pure political outrage.”

I haven’t gotten Louis’ book yet.  The book I’m still trying to figure out, alongside my own degradation issues, is Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame.  Stockton says shame “has often been a meeting place for the signs “black” and “queer” and for black and queer people—overlapping groups who have been publicly marked as degraded and debased. But when and why have certain forms of shame been embraced by blacks and queers? How does debasement foster attractions? How is it used for aesthetic delight? What does it offer for projects of sorrow and ways of creative historical knowing? How and why is it central to camp?”

I'm not black, I'm not lesbian, and I don’t “get” camp.  I’m very hard to shame, but I carry a lot of guilt.  As Kenner used to say,  “What does it mean?”
Scene from the movie version of "Beloved."

“Stockton engages the domains of African American studies, queer theory, psychoanalysis, film theory, photography, semiotics, and gender studies. She brings together thinkers rarely, if ever, read together in a single study . . . Stockton asserts that there is no clear, mirrored relation between the terms “black” and “queer”; rather, seemingly definitive associations attached to each are often taken up or crossed through by the other. 
The results of flogging.

"Stockton explores dramatic switchpoints between these terms: the stigmatized “skin” of some queers’ clothes, the description of blacks as an “economic bottom,” the visual force of interracial homosexual rape, the complicated logic of so-called same-sex miscegenation, and the ways in which a famous depiction of slavery (namely, Morrison’s Beloved) seems bound up with depictions of AIDS. All of the thinkers Stockton considers scrutinize the social nature of shame as they examine the structures that make debasements possible, bearable, pleasurable, and creative, even in their darkness.”

Since I haven’t read all this stuff yet, and might not understand it when I do, I’m going to start with the small domestic end.  I notice that some people, usually women, when they are guests in my house, will choose the cracked cup, the bent spoon, the chair that wobbles — anything defective or even painful or a little risky.  I have a hanging candelabra that is never lit because my company protests, “Oh, no no no!  Don’t light it for me.  I’m not worth it.”  Neatly depriving me of a chance to show off by honoring them.  It’s not debasement so much as self-erasure.  Is there a connection?  Are they afraid of something?  Me?  Are they topping me by saying, “an honor from you means nothing to me.”

Indeed, there is often a faint tone of mock admiration — or am I imagining it? — because I went to college, twice, at fancy places  (NU and U of Chicago) and even managed to get ordained.  They say,  “You’re so smart,” and there’s an edge that says, “you betrayed us, you look down on us, you’re an outsider now.”  Native Americans would recognize this.  Probably Blacks as well.  

It’s not jealousy, it’s messing with the universe.  Achieving females don’t break the standing order as much as people of color, but they do.  If the standing order is broken, my female cousins’ husbands will no longer owe them (in the best sense, totally earned) their protection, the home they provide, even their love.  (True love, not invented.)  The whole equation that holds the family together will collapse, or so they feel.  When I left for college, one of my more world-wise high school friends said, “You’ll never be our friend again.  We won’t know you.”  It was almost as though I’d suddenly revealed I was gay — different but unimaginable by “normal” people.

Because of my jobs (mostly taken because it was the only choice on both sides) I know a lot of “degraded” people.  I mean, I’ve worked with them,  talked to them, thought about them, tried to figure them out, written tickets for court and gotten convictions.  I didn’t have them over for dinner.  (I never have ANYONE over for dinner.)  I’m not good at “doing good.”  That’s the source of some of my guilt.

One rez man had a nice life, a good wife, a house and all that.  He walked off from it to join the “street people,” those we used to call winos.  One day I saw him propped against an alley board fence in the sunshine and weeds and decided to go interview him.  Why had he made this choice?  He said it was for freedom, that the house was full of bossy people.  He did not mention that in the past he had caused the accidental death of a child.  

This is not to mention my life as a "dogcatcher" which my mother, totally embarrassed, called “a government job.”  Not elective.  It was a civil service job with a panel interview.  The deciding vote was from a Black man, partly out of solidarity with a minority (female) and partly because he really got off on my stories about Browning: bears and wolves, cowboys and Indians.  If filth is degrading, I know a lot about animal poop and hideyholes where drunks have been peeing and throwing up.  Sometimes I need the ego-defense of dissociation.

In fact, since I always took low-pay, low-prestige jobs (even in the ministry where success is defined as a big congregation in a very nice building), I discovered that one way to buy books instead of paying rent was to take on a really repulsive old wreck of a house, scrub it out, throw on some paint, and do without dishwashers and so on.  I drew the line at trailers.  NO trailers.  

The other line I draw is that the space must be MINE.  I will not share.  I don’t want things moved around.  I don’t want anyone breaking the protocol that keeps thing functioning.  It’s happened and the consequences are never good, though the intentions might have been.  It’s my biggest paranoia in Valier where people might want to come over and “improve” you.

I don’t know whether Stockton considers this freedom dimension.  I also think that she and her cohort do not experience degradation very much — just the idea.  I do hear stories about her fancy thinkers, the ones with French names, turning up at the San Francisco bath houses.

What I discovered about myself was that I can bear almost any degraded environment — unheated, rusted, filthy, even stinking.  (I don’t mind mice but bugs and rats are deal breakers.)  But I will not tolerate being degraded or confined or dominated socially.  I think that’s partly what I mean when I say it’s very hard to shame me.  

Most people around here are the other way around: if they have an nice house, good clothes, and esp. a new, clean car, they will accept an incredible amount of personal degradation.  In fact, they won’t even realize it, because it can be the norm for blacks, gays, women and drunks.  I dress in baggy old men’s work clothes, a “skin” that protects my disguise.  Stockton offers a whole chapter. 

There are a LOT of articles listed by Google that try to work out the relationship between guilt (usually defined as something you did that you knew you shouldn't do) and shame (something essential about yourself that is disgraceful, that can't be erased).  But I want to add a third factor that comes for me from aging:  frustration.  Something you want to do, have the ability to do, but are prevented from doing by circumstances outside your control.  The climate changes, the economy falls through, you catch a disease . . .you get old.

Jim Harrison

Now that I'm aging, I can't unscrew lids of containers, pull apart either the little blisters of meds or the plastic wraps on string cheese.  I can't hammer nails straight, see to thread a needle, and so on.  I'm often a little off balance, forget sequences like closing up the house at bedtime.  Jim Harrison has just died and I reflect that the one thing that I remember most vividly of his writing is a passage about him always forgetting how to take a bath and ending up sitting on his bed, still soaking, getting the bed wet.  He saw another world with that errant eye and went there.  In the end a friend (male) sat with him a little while and taught him a simple routine he has used ever since.

Did I forget what I was writing about?  Stockton's Chapter Two is entitled "Anal Economics in the History of Black Neighborhoods."  I need a couple of days to get the lid off it.

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