The afterlife of words

Or on the abuse of language

The word anxiety appears a lot in ordinary language. It is a neat, Latinate word, and therefore sounds, somehow, more sophisticated than its Germanic near-synonym, angst. Yet, people’s fascination with the word anxiety is not related so much to its origins, obviously, as but the idea behind anxiety as a social practice, as legible information, and as affect. It can be, perhaps, attributed to the introduction of commercial psychopharmacology in the 1990s that conversations about mental health have become more common place in American life, words like “anxiety” and “depression” losing the clinical or philosophical power to which they have been traditionally ascribed and becoming, somehow, talking points in ordinary conversation. “I was so depressed after watching The Grave of the Fireflies.” “The sound of your chewing is driving me insane.” “You make me so anxious when you say things like that.”

On the most base level, these words are being inappropriately used in these contexts. English is a vast language, and thus we cannot blame the lack of stand-ins for these quotidian and seemingly harmless abuses of language. The Grave of the Fireflies is, indeed, a saddening movie, and the sound of another person’s mastication is indeed incensing, and hearing people say things glibly and without regard for the impact of their actions can indeed make individuals nervous, but the words used above speak to and are representative of things beyond the scope of annoyance, aggression and sadness, ordinary emotions which construct the landscape of the allegedly ‘sane’ mind. It is not so hard to use other words, to be more precise with language, even if it requires – get this – having a degree of forethought and political introspection which often seems to us, as postmodern neoliberal subjects, utterly draconian. It is easy to write off these suggestions as simple political correctness, a term which, ironically, has become almost inappropriate when it is deployed. We must be politically correct not only because of the potentiality for inflicting pain and suffering onto individuals already subject to the pain and suffering of existing with perpetual stigma (being discredited or discreditable; being other or having the potential to be exposed as other; self-outing or out-able;), but also because political correctness requests something of us whose shape and feeling we only understand because of its fundamental absence:  the knowledge that we are, at our very core, bigoted and uncaring.

I have talked already about affect and ideology, and thus I won’t bore you with the details of an unfinished and underfurnished theory. In short, ideology becomes affect in order to save us the work of constantly being of-the-world and present, of thinking always about the order of things and, most meaningfully, wrestling with the web of signifiers which both deprives us of power and imbues us with it all at once. Ideology is a kind of cloud computation – we allow the cloud of ideology and social belief to act on our behalf, to compute and analyze a sequence of events and thus yield a response. Because we do cannot know the logic of the ideology, we do not question it, nor understand it as fundamentally logical. It simply is, and we act upon it without understanding, for ideology and affect function outside of the mind, are part of the material of the body.

What does this have to do with political correctness? Well, we must first break apart this phrase. Political here has a significant meaning. It is not the variation of political which is related to civic politics, that’s to say, government, elections, mayoral campaigns, etc. It does, of course, figure in these kinds of institutions as a kind of vanguard of liberalism which seeks, it seems, to divest the American people of their freedom of speech. The political in political correctness is revealed therefore in this very idea. Political correctness attempts to rectify the power relations between the stigmatized (others) and the unstigmatized. (what Erving Goffman calls “normals”). It attempts to speak to people in the language which they feel comfortable using. The political in political correctness is the interpersonal power dynamics which structure everyday life, which distinguish stigmatized from normal, which mitigate the process of discreditation, or the divestment of someone of their humanity and thus rendering them an other.

Now for the other word: correctness. The term correctness is more or less related to the idea that individuals should be allowed to come to a consensus about how they wish to be addressed as a collective “different” (read: not other) from the norm. The term “Negro” is no longer correct because it had been decided at some point in the 1960s, it seems, that the term which the Black world preferred was “black,” a term which, at least in the Anglophone world, had been just as much as an insult as “Negro” is now. Yet, the word “Negro” is not time-bound in its significance. It does not necessarily mean “A person of African descent and/or with dark skin from before the 1960s,” for the term “Black” is retroactive. Phyllis Wheatley was Black, even if she may have rejected that term during her lifetime. Negro continues to mean “Black person” or “Person of African descent” or “dark-skinned person” in ordinary parlance, but it has become obsolete and dated primarily; it has fallen out of use, and has thus become incorrect.

The term correctness is thus troubling because it does not necessarily mean what we understand correctness to mean. The issue is not between right and wrong, for the word “Negro” and slurs like “nigger” and “tar baby” and “porch monkey” all semantically and semiotically mean more or less the same thing; a black person. The connotation of these terms are, of course, different, but none of them yield a fundamentally different signified image other than the black person. Because they all arrive at the same idea, they cannot be discredited as incorrect, so much as they are obsolete. Obsolescence is therefore a better idea because what is obsolete still functions and still yields results (these words still signify) but better, more appropriate and more reliable alternatives exists and should thus be used in its stead.

Let’s look elsewhere. The word “cripple” was once used as a term to denote individuals with impaired mobility. Folks who use canes or walkers, received mobility assistance from wheelchairs, or even people temporarily on crutches were called “cripples” in a language which was, in the early 20th century, not expressly derogatory. The word “handicap” did exist, but it was not necessarily a word which you were likely to hear in ordinary conversation; the word “cripple” was. The term is still used, although it has since become obsolete. Disability advocates shun the word primarily because it represents a time when individuals with impaired mobility were look upon with pity and fear. The dispossession of the self as an otherwise creditable person through the noun “cripple” divested individuals of their humanity, and thus its replacement sought to do away with the nominalization of identity markers all together. The same cannot be said of Black people, who are still often referred to as “Blacks” or as “the Blacks,” Asian people as “Asians,” although white people rarely figure as “Whites.”

Consequentially, gay men are rarely called “gays,” but the term “lesbian” is rarely attached to “women” as an adjective; lesbian is a fundamental ontological category. Gay men are, still, men, it seems. But to “refuse to yield” to the desire of men divests a woman of her essential “womanliness,” making her into a lesbian, a non-woman.

The advent of “queer” has helped to assuage this issue of language and sexual identity, although, like all new terms, it creates new spaces for ambiguity. Queer as a term is perhaps too broad, for it figures in that ever-expanding acronym as itself a separate category, despite it at least in theory attempting to encompass all non-standard, discreditable sexual identities. The very idea of queerness was reappropriated from the slur which the word queer was in the early 20th century, used primarily to label sexually aberrant men. The term meant “weird, bizarre, strange” but also physically/mentally unwell and these definitions ultimately coalesced into the pathology of homosexual behaviors as mental illnesses in clinical psychological discourse. Yet, the idea of unwellness was brought back and détourned in order to give rise to a new way of looking at these very kinds of ‘sick’ sexual practices. Yet, an interesting question in LGBTQIA discourse is the positionality of trans and intersex folks within the umbrella of queerness. Sexuality and gender identity are not the same, and some would argue that they are perhaps even unrelated. The term “queer” therefore represents an attempt to repurpose othering language while also in the process othering individuals whom its proponents and revitalizers have brought under their guise. It succeeds in weirdly counterintuitive ways at othering the very people it tries to save from othering. At the same time, the afterlife of the idea of sickness lives on in the word “queer,” primarily in the pathologizing behaviors to which we subject queered individuals, and the feeling of pity and disdain to which we subject them.

What do we do with the ghosts of words which refuse to fade, with these signifiers whose usage has been mostly banished to history-bound books we praise as classics of a national tradition, but which are nevertheless imbued with words and phrases which have not yet lost their significance, which are not lost to us, and whose cutting edge has not, it seems, dulled at all? Of course we cannot burn every book which ever contained the word “Negro,” nor can we avoid referring to others in identifying language. The omission of otherness, the refusal to acknowledge one’s own xenophobia, as we see in the case of metropolitan France, is itself odious, for it attempts to protect the seemingly just self from the revelation of our inherent and perhaps natural-feeling bigotry. To become suddenly aware of one’s powerfulness in a world which seems to prescribe you an unavoidable powerlessness is to be disenchanted, to lose sight of what it was that fueled your ambitions; the want of what you have been denied, at the expense of those you now deny. Yet, language changes, and so do human sentiments and social ideologies. Some words will be lost to us with time, and there may be a day when the noun “lesbian” does not yield any significant meaning to a reader or speaker. Yet, because it does now, we must strive to not only understand these words, but to interrogate the reasons why they are the causes of contemporary disdain. Political correctness is not about hurt feelings, which can easily be dismissed as the thin-skinnedness of millennials, but fundamentally attempts to democratize and destabilize power dynamics which everyday deprive the discredited of a power they were, unfortunately, never meant to have.

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where is Samori in We Were Eight Years In Power?

In the wake of the “great” scandal of Coates v. West, I made the decision to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book We Were Eight Years in Power. I had, as I’ve mentioned, read Between the World and Me, a book that makes me feel weird for reasons I have yet to understand. The agita  the two eminent intellectuals was fueled by the poignant albeit ill-advised comments of Jelani Cobb and a slew of thinkpieces either condemning West for his “envy” or making weird, seemingly unfitting historical analogies between Black men of yore vying for the single spot assigned by left-leaning public to Black men intellectuals. I must say that I found it difficult to silence the rhetoric about Coates when reading Eight Years, and I cannot say that I finished the text without my own reading being colored by some external ideology. Let this be a warning for what I am about to say.

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ideology, affect, race

“Talking about race is difficult.” A statement which is so easily and often repeated that it has lost its integral meaning, has become really just a slurry of syllables. Behind it, a person hides, suddenly unsure of how to broach a conversation which is in its nature unspeakable, the unfortunate coincidence of time, the advent of national tensions, of a gradual disillusionment we must all endure. How can we talk about an institution which is both incredibly visible and completely untraceable, which cannot be understood as a rational entity which can be empirically touched, understood, observed, experimented with – how do we talk about an idea, or a system of ideas?  “These things are hard to talk about.” And every brown person in the room rolls their eyes because it is not so difficult to think about race as superstructure, as idea-system, as ideology, as existence. For the Black person in the room, the weight of their race has forced them to think of racialization as their very ontology, as their bare life. Race becomes one’s ontology, the inescapable categorization in which the spirit is bound. And of course the Brown person, the Black person, is aware of the cage which shackles them, even if the non-raced, the White person, cannot see the cage, can only see the illusion which is superimposed over the brown body, cannot fathom that what lies beneath that shroud, the threadbare image the racialized are forced to adorn, is far more recognizable, far more familiar, than they could have ever imagined. Talking about race is not difficult if you are willing to listen to the testimonies of others, to not fall prey to the conspiratorial desire to disenfranchise and to disavow the marginalized for what is ostensibly an invisible institution.

Talking about race is not difficult once you realize that racism is inside of you.

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on kwanzaa

My family used to celebrate Kwanzaa. There’s no reason why we stopped, other than sheer laziness and a feeling of inappropriateness. Each day, we would light a candle and gather around the kinara, reading over a little pamphlet outlining the principles of the day, butchering the Swahili in the process (I pronounced Kujichagulia as Coochikajalia for the first ten years of my life, I shit you not) in ways which depicted our essential Americanness. We never bothered to celebrate Kwanzaa as a distinct holiday with its own composite traditions, did not do the individual activities which were called for for each corresponding day, and NEVER celebrate Kwanzaa in place of the good, wholesome day of our Lord and Savior’s birth. As the years went by, the kinara remained on the windowsill in the dining-room where it stood complicit while my mother killed pothos after pothos plant in its environs, gathering dust, the green and red candles losing their color with each year of neglect until everything was a sort of gray. One year it fell while we were cleaning, shattering on the ground, only to be replaced by a new one, its novelty sparking us to celebrate half-assedly once again. We haven’t celebrated Kwanzaa since.

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no future

On minstrelsy, Ta Nehisi Coates and cultural hopelessness

The word minstrel in English, coming to the shores of Dover by way of the Norman conquest, is a relative of another word in English, the high-born minister as in Prime Minister Theresa May, yet both were begotten by the same idea – servitude. The minister is the definition of a public servant; the ministerialis of yore were servants (serfs) elevated in status through kingly or courtly intervention. The term would go on to evolve, taking on specific ecclesiastical and, through there, governmental connotations until it became the word minister in English. Its dark-half, the minstrel from the Old French menestral (handyman, worker) never really left the bondages of enslavement and subjugation; even the medieval pre-American minstrels of Europe were bound to the whims of the crowds whose amusement they sought to rouse, public performers, but also servants to the crowd. In the United States, the singing, dancing, storytelling minstrel took on the dimensions which a history of antiblackness imbued with vicious ideas of the lowly, servile Negro. The minstrel’s exaggerated face is a specter of our history; it appears in our beloved children’s cartoons (You didn’t know that Tom’s owner in Tom & Jerry was a Mammy, a minstrel caricature?) in the reverse of our cultural icons (Don’t tell me you didn’t know Mickey Mouse was also a minstrel caricature? Or that the Jim Crows in Dumbo were supposed to be Black men?), in the lingering mist of your favorite amusement rides (You’re kidding me when you say that Splash Mountain, your favorite water slide in the entire world, is based on Song of the South, a film notoriously maligned for its racist depictions of a Black actor as a literal Uncle Remus). While its physical body fades from the American conscience due to a long and not-yet-won battle against the appropriation of Black skin (blackface), the image of the servile, sycophantic minstrel lingers in our cultural conscience, refusing to die.

How do you banish a cultural ghost?

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why read?

Because I am young and coming into myself, I have become aware of a series of events in my life which have been formative to my development as a person. I am both superstitious (in attributing certain things to God or to spirits or to circumstances outside of my knowledge or control, or as a teacher once said to me, “to people who have been looking over me and supporting me throughout my life, since my early childhood”) as well as rational (in attributing certain things to “feats of will” in myself, as well as strategic moments when my parents chose to act on my behalf for my greater good, even in situations I, in the moment, considered with scorn) in looking back at the timeline (or time-web, time-potato, maybe) of my life, attempting to tease out in a Freudian way the paths I have taken and how they have affected me for good or bad. Trying to better understand the reasons for my perpetual impatience, for my displeasure with the things I possess, with my amusement with the ideas behind pretention, with my preoccupation for the analysis of social structures and my disdain for my participation in the very structures I think should be utterly abolished. I think back on my life, from the beginning of the tape when, one day when I was 4 years old, after a nap, I woke up in my parent’s bedroom to see my family gathered downstairs for a barbeque and the reel, the story, begins, and try to piece together the elements which made me who I am, the highlighted, slowed-down, heavily-remastered details of the fraying wheel which stand out, which are all that is left of the masterpiece long-shot film of my life.

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why write?

I’m supposed to be doing readings right now, but I’ve been so distracted by my emotions and my thoughts (on topics I won’t discuss here) and have started writing to distract myself, hopefully with the intention of clearing my mind. Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to keep a diary, but was never able to write in one consistently. At the same time, being a 10 year old, I didn’t have much to say, since my day consisted mostly of going to school, seeing my friends, learning things, seeing my parents, etc, all of which were so quotidian they didn’t, in my mind, warrant being written down. They were as monotonous as breathing, or waking up, or blinking; activities which provided the background for my everyday life, the details which were often omitted from the manuscript because they added nothing of substance, because human beings themselves have come to take them for granted. When I got to college, I started journaling as a way of addressing a mounting issue in my life; my anxiety disorder. Unable to speak to anyone, feeling stupid for feeling so uncomfortable in public space, I turned inward, went inside, through writing in order to get to the central question: “Why are you anxious?”

“Why?” A question which has no true answer, which proves the existence of the small, interior realities in which we all live, isolated, distanced yet nevertheless influenced by the world around us. The “rooms” of headspace, unpopulated countries comprised of regions and provinces which are often frequented and avoided. Perhaps not unpopulated; peopled with memories, shades of loved and hated ones, shadows of ourselves. “Why?” A verbal question whose answer is never satisfactory, for we can never adequately fit ourselves into another person’s headspace and therefore understand the context or lack thereof which feeds its dissatisfying response. A question which when spoken aloud only furthers the rift between interlocutors in its affirmation of the notion that one’s thoughts are distinct, are unintelligible, are irrational, that one’s mind operates differently, that one’s reality functions differently than another’s. “Why?” A command of a question; it demands an answer, is imperative in its unanswered disbelief and distrust. A question which forces the mind to translate rabid thoughts, mental gibberish into language which cannot and never has been able to support it. Meaning is lost, details fall by the wayside, for language is not enough. A question whose answer is never enough.

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the black americans

About a year ago, I was invited to be on my sister’s show the Grapevine. They were filming an episode about the relationships and tensions between Africans and African-Americans, and, knowing that I research contemporary (West) African literature, my sister invited me on the show for what was, in my opinion, a nice and informative conversation about the complexities of life in the United States for people whose bodies are read as Black, yet who experience Blackness in different, nuanced ways particular to their ethnic and national identities. The episode I was on was never aired, mostly because my sister and the showrunner, Ashley Akunna, were worried that it would start a war in the comments, but a recent reshoot of this segment, split across three episodes in order to include West Indian experiences, incurred such great vitriol among Black people from all walks that Ashley turned off the comments on the videos. I will provide links below, but I wanted to take the time to reprise a post I wrote in April of last year which defined African-American as an socio-ethnic marker in order to explore some of the pitfalls of this classification, as well as the great necessity for increased conversation on the merits and complexities of ethnicity in discussions of race in the United States.

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shared space

I’m working on becoming a more selfish (autocentric) person, and it’s a long process with no end in sight.

I

I have been getting better at dealing with my image this summer. I suppose this has been the best summer I’ve had in a while, and this is mostly because I have felt almost entirely in control of how things pan out. There are no unaccounted-for variables, bugs in the code, missing semicolons, unbracketed while loops, to throw off the whole program, report only a blank, anxious screen. I had been for weeks haunted by the memories of previous summers, almost as if my body can tell that at this very time last year I was in great distress over things I could not understand until they happened, weird whispers in the allegedly empty corridors of my mind, telling me “things are not as they seem,” dismissed as irrational until things were indeed not how they seemed. Bumping into ghosts who refuse to materialize, who would rather stay shrouded by the memories which sustain them than realize that their ghostliness, their ghastliness, is itself an illusion. Looking up whether or not I can hypnotize myself into forgetting someone. Trying to distract myself from my thoughts, from the inquest of my memories, using other people’s voices, Black women podcasters, even when they are talking about things I don’t care about (celebrity gossip), liberal alarmist pundits, squawking like stir-crazy parrots, BBC reporters speaking in received pronunciation tinged with pity and notes of guilt about mudslides killing hundreds in Sierra Leone and a massacre in British India whose memory is only remembered by the very old, whose trauma wrote itself and writes itself, today, into a people’s genes. As I flip the pages of a book I’ll never read, turning its yellowing sheets, careful not to tear the tome as it sits in the German scanning machine in the moist room in the basement of a library that resembles and feels as dour as a church, I can’t help but think about the partition in my life which I have built, the constant tug-and-shove between the two versions of the self which struggle with one another to fit within a body which seems never to be enough – the self which exists for itself, and the self which exists in relation to, and for the satisfaction, approbation, of others.

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invisible infrastructures

On cyberfeminism, rhetoric and our social limitations

I recently subscribed to an educational Youtube channel because I’ve always been a fan of educational television but don’t have cable anymore. The channel, Second Thought, has a lot of content which is enlightening, but there’s this one video that led me to immediately unsubscribe. The video is titled “What the Hell Happened to Feminism?” and is a pretty tone-deaf overview of what the narrator described as Tumblr Feminism (fourth-wave / cyberfeminism), highlighting specific instances of feminists living and fighting for their survival as somehow invalidating the entirety of 4WF politics. I’m not about to rip Second Thought to pieces here because that channel is only one instance of a general issue which is happening all across American cultural politics, and is not simply limited to issues of gender, but to issues of identity itself – lack of compassion.

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