I’ve been having a hard time these past few weeks. This is why I have fallen off my pledge to write a blog post every week. I am sorry for this, and sorry to anyone who has been in some way impacted by my manic behavior. I am unsure of the source of this malaise inside of me, this feeling of momentary dread. My IBS has flared up, and everything I eat accompanies discomfort and nausea. I don’t have much motivation to do anything, find my reading uncompelling, have been going to the gym sporadically. I have been very sensitive and prone to jealousy, have felt at times too isolated in a once-beloved solitude, yet suffocated by the presence of others. Everything seems to bring me a kind of disquiet, I cannot pay attention in class, my research has become a chore, and I’m slipping into the kind of “sensory” dressing that haunted me when I was younger. And none of this is new, but the inability to locate the source of the discomfort, the thing-which-is-not-right, is bothering me. I will likely not know what it is until the moment, however long it will be, has passed. And so I stumble around, still, in this momentary darkness, unsure of how momentary, as always, it will be.
The title of this post is a translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s definition of semiology as a science that studies “la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale.” The phrase itself is not very clear in the native French, let alone translated and disfigured into English; how do signs have life (vie) and why must we study them through the logical systems which found scientific study? How can we study the lives of signs within (au sein de) social life (vie sociale) and why must, according to Saussure, we study them this way? Does signs have meaning beyond the social realms/lives which they inhabit?
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.
Warning! Now that I’ve actually applied to, was accepted to and have committed to a graduate school, I am able to look back and realize the reality of the situation I have just thrown myself into. Do not, truthfully, apply to graduate school as a senior. I was told by so many people, and I ignored them because I thought I knew better, and I wouldn’t necessarily say I regret it, but I do understand the strain now that I have been through and am now out of it. I really don’t recommend it, although for reasons which are different from the ones that my friends told me a little over a year ago. It was a severe drain on my life and honestly not the way I would have wanted to spend my final semesters of undergrad. I was rarely at Swarthmore during the month of March because of all my visits, and I didn’t even go to all of them….
I have been asked more than once about my graduate school application process. I’m not sure why. Perhaps its because this stuff is visible through this blog and through my other social media platforms, or perhaps because people are intrigued by my journey. As I said in the blurb, I really don’t suggest undergraduate seniors apply to graduate school, even if you are as hard-pressed to continue your years of toil as I was. Nevertheless, for all of those who are interested in my detailed process, this post shall be a guide.
I graduated two weeks ago. It wasn’t that momentous an occasion. For one, I always feel weird about these “sad” situations. It makes me feel cold when I realize that I am not sad to say goodbye to people. It’s not like I’m happy to say goodbye; I find that I brace myself for these situations weeks in advance, and therefore don’t feel much at all. I don’t really say goodbyes, because I am doubtful I will never see my friends again. Those who I may never see in person I will see online, on Facebook or Instagram, cyber-agoras. It is unlikely that I will completely drop out of contact with those I care about, and so saying goodbye to someone’s physical form does not seem to move me much at all. And saying this may make me seem cold, but I can’t do much to change how you read me, or how you read the way I read myself.
I am in New Haven, staying with a graduate student in the comparative literature department. New Haven is a nice town; I can already tell I am going to like it a lot. I’m taking the Latin class I’ve talked about, and it’s not too bad. While I think it’s annoying I have to learn Latin, I have a knack for languages and in many ways consider myself an amateur linguist. Latin, as a classical language, has a lot of features I’ve only been able to study on Wikipedia pages, and learning it will definitely help me understand how French and Portuguese and other Romance languages function, even if the utility of Latin will not necessarily intersect (at least directly) with my research.
I am set to move into my apartment in about a week. While I have been enjoying my time with my host, I feel like a burden nevertheless and will appreciate having my own space and not being a squatter in hers. Only time will tell.
So I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, and I for some reason never posted it, so I’m gonna post it now, but I’m going to add a short preface explaining where I am now. I also added some comments to clarify developments since this was written during my first wave of visits to Yale and Stanford (3/5 – 3/10) and my trip to Berkeley (3/17-3/20).
3/31 – I’m in Pittsburgh, presenting a chapter of my thesis which is just about finished. I have a bit of work to do, and my conclusion to finish, but my thesis is essentially all but done. I have also committed to going to Yale University, after about a month of fretting and second-guessing and listening to people tell me what to do and give me copious amounts of unsolicited advice. Of course, it didn’t help that like, two days after I committed to Yale and declined my offers elsewhere that Stanford sent me a big fat fellowship offer, but I’ve stayed steadfast, realizing that even with that fellowship in addition to my abnormally large stipend at Stanford, the price of living in Palo Alto is so high that I’d likely not have much money left at the end of the day, fellowship or not.
I am ready to be done with the semester. I’m so close, but I still have a huge mountain (Honors exams, lol) to get over before I’m clear. Then, I have a week of downtime before I start taking this Latin class at Yale.
I am sooooo tired, but excited. I want to sleep for a month straight and wake up and it’s Senior Week, a full day after my Honors exam. I wish I could just go on autopilot for the next few weeks, but I need to be present, need to attend this stupid swimming class in order to pass and graduate, need to finalize my summer plans, need to find an apartment, need to….
Anyways, here’s the now anachronistic and probably confusing blogpost that I wrote and just got around to published. I haven’t even changed much, because I know it was super-angsty, and I didn’t want to adulterate any of that raw emotion, since this blog is essentially the only space I give myself to really be emotional. Continue reading “yale-bound”
It’s taken me eight semesters of college for me to realize that I don’t like the spring semester. My emotions are all over the place because of my seasonal affective disorder, and I have a hard time being focused. I described to my friend today that fall semester is usually imbued with this excitement, and charged by the prospect of new beginnings. New friends, new classes, new experiences, new adventures. Yet, the spring is more or less biding time – waiting things out until the weather gets warmer, or until I have concrete summer plans. I am less inclined to make new friends, and feel almost ambivalent about maintaining the relationships I’ve built. I have these light therapy lamps (they’re not; they’re LED lamps which I was told “are just like light therapy”), and I sit under them often, but it doesn’t help much.
Time for some updates.
I have not been writing as much I had hoped. Lol, New Year’s Resolutions. I wish I could tap into that fount of creative energy from junior fall, when I first started this blog, and posted something every other week. It’s not necessarily because I have a lot going on right now. This semester, as I said, has been a little odd emotionally, but it is what it is. Right now, I’m fine, which is why I am writing to you all, and not to myself, as I had done last week. The manuscript project(s) I’ve been working on have been put to the side, although I do occasionally glance over it/them when I have the time. I have been rereading old work in between studying and writing my thesis, which is productive, and my ability to read without trying to change everything has gotten much better. Nevertheless, I feel creatively stifled right now, and I’m not sure why. I have all these cool ideas for blog posts, like this one I’ve been mulling around for a year now on race as a visual culture, or other posts which would be a little less monumental like a piece about Marxism / Marxist cultural studies, a piece about cultural ideology, and more posts about doing research & being a student, but I haven’t sat down and said “Let’s write this thing.” Hopefully in the coming weeks, when I am not so busy working on my thesis, I’ll be able to focus more on this, but that’s what I was hoping for for this semester, since I was done with grad school apps. Hm, I’m sure the spark will come back.
I finished my senior fall about two weeks ago. It was by far the hardest semester I’ve experienced at Swarthmore, but at the same time, it has come the most easily to me. I’ve gone through most obstacles in a sort of half-sleep – I know the ins and outs of Swat like the back of my hand, so much so that I feel a heightened and therefore dangerous sense of importance. So much has happened in the past three months and I’m not sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just list it all out.
- I have grown far more emotionally independent since the beginning of the semester. Unlike my experiences in “quartered,” I have spent the end of this semester almost exclusively alone and have been quite fine with my self-sequestration. The things that I used to do to pass the time – playing video games, watching Netflix – no longer seem to capture my attention, but I’ve been reading NW in my downtime and I’m quite enjoying it. (Edit: I finished NW, it was good. Smith writes a lot like I do, which makes me feel more assured in my work.) I’ve been going to counseling at Worth all semester, as well as avoiding situations which frequently put me in unsavory positions. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid the “unsavory,” but I find that I am filled with far less regret and anguish than previous semesters. Part of it has been avoiding social situations where I feel “conscripted” to do certain things (e.g. get drunk, fraternize, be an approachable and sociable human), and finding solace in the fact that I am no less of a good person for not enjoying these situations. I occasionally go out to PubNite or a party and get a little too drunk (which means a 4/10, honestly), but I find that I don’t feel compelled to seek out certain kinds of social approval from others, therefore lessening the persistent tug-of-war between individual and society. I am learning to accept myself in small pieces, learning to find joy in my weirdness and to look less at myself in disdain. It’s a lengthy process, with ups and downs, but I’m getting there, at my own pace. I don’t need to know how quickly you’re getting to where you need to be. It has no influence on my own rhythm, shouldn’t.
- Do you ever say something over and over and over again until it loses its meaning and sounds kind of like gobbledygook? “He’s not cheating on me;” “She’s perfect for me;” “I am a good person.” That’s essentially how I feel about writing grad school applications. I’ve been applying to grad school this entire semester, and I’m so glad to say I’m done. The entire process has just been so clandestine and obscure, like bumping around in a giant room lit up only by a candle. I had this constant feeling of not knowing what I was doing, of being somehow misguided, but I would look around and see that I appeared to have a lot more of a sense of my bearings than anyone else. Of course, that could just be the blinders.
I started to entertain the idea of becoming a professor when I was in high school. I suppose it was a loosely figured dream at that time, just a vague “this could be cool” fantasy. I knew that I liked books once I spent a summer at Cornell after having taken a particularly enlightening English class. The Cornell program was only for three weeks, and I had no idea that I had actually signed up to take a specifically German literature class (in translation, of course), but it was at this point, in the beginning of both my intellectual and racial “awakening,” that I began to focus my attention on the fact that I was not like everyone else. When I read certain texts, I felt a deeper connection with them than did my classmates, and the depths of this connection demanded that I advocate for these works in ways that I did not understand in high school. I felt hailed – interpellated – to speak on behalf of these works, not because of their arbitrary literary merit, but because they represented the lives of the people with whom I shared a mutual, deprived condition. In works like A Lesson Before Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God and, to a certain degree, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to see myself, my image – the image of a collective other – etched into a description, into a mannerism, into stylized dialogue, and therefore felt the need to defend them to a class of students who nonetheless found these works obscure and difficult to understand, who could not see beyond a veil that I had to live within. It was at this point that I began to understand the vastness of our constellation of identities; the students in my classes were an array of bodies organized within according proximity to several political points, and while they all seemed to orbit the same bodies, some a little further out, some dangerously close to their parent star, I was somewhere else, having to scream across the void to make my experience known.
I have been trying to find the words to write this blog post for several months. It is bizarre and a little uncomfortable to write, mostly because it requires that I be frank with the reality of the world in which I am attempting to carve out a home. I have never been afraid of being a token, as I’ve already discussed in other posts. There is, of course, this pressure in occupying the token position, of being the other. The microaggressive comments which are lanced at you, the ways that your presence is hardly acknowledged, but your absence is always apparent; these are the realities of the persons of color in each history class, the transwoman in the woman’s studies class, the Native student in the American Studies course; the anomalies struggling to figure themselves into an epistemology, into an intellectual tradition. The understanding that you are in fact ahistorical – that you must fight to plug yourself into the collective chronology. This is the sort of pressure which exists for the others in school. They must endure not necessarily a bombardment of expletives designed to immediately wound, but death by one million small lacerations, a killing which you do not realize until you are too weak to move. Not everyone feels this way. Some people are okay with their tokenhood, see themselves, through the eyes of the dominant order, as images of progress. They look themselves in the mirror of identity and say “My cotton-picking, rubber-tapping, cocoa-farming, porch-sweeping, orange-yanking, tea-plucking, child-rearing, rice-winnowing, swamp-draining, cane-chopping ancestors would be so proud to see me among all these white folks, learning, being civilized.” And this is not wrong. Our ancestors are looking down on us with smiles on their faces because there has been some progress, because our lives are better than theirs were. But the burdens of tokenhood linger in the mind like a miasma; it sickens you, breaks you down, weakens your trauma immune system.
Part of applying to grad school has been looking for professors interested in the same research as me. In particular, I’m interested in postcolonial theory, which is, in a nutshell, making sense of “emancipation” as a historical truth and an ideological fallacy. A relatively sexy topic in literary and cultural studies, postcolonial studies allows the subaltern to understand their identities as produced by 18th and 19th century notions of personhood, citizenship and civilization. It centers the critical perspective on uncovering and examining their identities, although it still finds itself deeply rooted in a Western and therefore oppressive framework of thought. Nonetheless, this is what I want to do, at this point in my life. Whether that is subject to change is something for an older, wiser X to figure out. I bring this up because in looking for specialists in postcolonial thought, I’ve had to come to terms with a crushing reality in the discipline of comparative literature; there are very, very, very few Black people. And even fewer African-Americans. Now, I suppose that this doesn’t come as a surprise. Anyone aware of higher education will tell you that there is a dire dearth of minorities in the institution outside of a certain narrow set of niches; Chinese professors teaching Chinese language & literature, women teaching women’s studies, African-Americans teaching African-American studies, and all the intersections which occur at the intersections of disciplines (African-American women teaching Black feminist theory, for example). Comparative literature is not one of these niches. The study of comparative literature has its roots in European thought and it is still quite entrenched there. It is a way of understanding literature as a historical and sociological exchange of ideas across cultures, but these cultures are of course tightly figured around the latitudes of Western Europe. There are tens of comparatists comparing French and German cinema or Early Modern Spanish and Italian poetry or Old English and Norse legends, but when we bringing in “subaltern” literatures, the numbers grow thin. Where are the specialists in South East Asian and Melanesian literature? Where are the comparatists seeking to draw ties between Feudal Japan and Feudal Russia? Are these specialists destined to represent the communities who cherish these literatures? Is it possible to break free of one’s race and culture in academia, to become something other than the Asian Literature person in your department?
The answer seems to be no. There is a systemic issue at play. In the interpellation process through which token undergrads decide to become token graduate students, there seems to be a push to further the niche study of one’s identity, so as to better understand one’s self and one’s history as contributing to the interplay of the world. This is a valiant effort; without this process, we wouldn’t have any ethnic studies at all. But the process by which this happens is a problem, for it dictates subconsciously that these studies, and that these specialists, function to integrate a space which otherwise doesn’t give a shit about them or their histories. The notion that the token must make their space safe for their personal and intellectual development means that the institution shows no interest in doing so. The token carries with them an identity which the academic institution sees as a hostile *foreign* entity; its antibodies of ideology and history and objectivity are deployed so as to subdue this body, to place it in a niche in which it can be understood and studied from a distance. This is why ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and area studies are considered niche. They have their box, they have their tools, but they exist in their own institutional category, separate from all else, that which in its very nature is designed to curate objectivity, to take into consideration all of that which is of relevance to the academic institution, on which academe is founded.
Going into grad school, I am somewhat apprehensive of being the only Black person in my cohort, and this is the first time that I have ever had such feelings. As of right now, I am the only Black man in both of my classes, and likely the only one in the comparative literature program at Swarthmore, and this barely bothers me at all. Yet, the prospect of becoming the “postcolonial studies” guy, or the “African literature” guy, or the “black studies” guy or the “theory of colonialism and otherness” guy is deeply troubling, for it signifies the process of being rendered into a niche, the likes of which may relegate my work both in grad school and beyond nonconsequential to my immediate colleagues. I can imagine being a professor at __________ College or University, having to speak up as one of my colleagues in the department makes a questionable remark, or better yet, being eyed nervously, being called upon to validate their opinions on a subject matter which their grad program at Yale or Harvard or Brown believed was niche and apocryphal and therefore perfunctory to their development as a scholar. While I have to struggle through Molière and read copious amounts of Bourdieu, you can get your comparative literature PhD without having ever picked up the works of Albert Memmi or Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
This is why I am against canons, although it is impossible to really put up a fight against an institutional process so large as is canonization. Even the authors I have given as examples of “non-canonical” in literary studies, are canonical in their own small, othered niches. Nonetheless, the idea that there is a chronology of thought, an epistemological history, starting with Plato and ending with Derrida, excluding all of but a few women and POC, the likes of which were only accepted into the intellectual pantheon in order to diversify X and Y syllabi, ignoring all the other others who have constantly called for inclusivity, for qualification, for acceptance, is a problem that is far larger than myself, as the little black kid with his copy of Aimé Césaire in hand. It is a disheartening problem, and I feel as if I am being called on by the mass of the unheard and unseen to integrate a space which is perhaps more hostile to my presence than any other.
But I am doing so for my ancestors, to conjure their spirits back into the history books, to ground lofty theories in a world of experience. Some people have the privilege to live their lives as abstract notions, but my ancestors didn’t and neither do I. I wrote before that I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort, for my existence alone makes some shrink in their seats. I ruin the false image in their minds with my presence at their seminar table, and every time I say “let’s think about this in more concrete terms” I make them come to terms with the fact that their theories have real world ramifications, the likes of which are further away than they can imagine, but impact people’s lives in ways they wouldn’t believe. I have accepted this, not because I believe in nominal notions of diversity, but because it is important that I learn from the ignorance of the past so as to continue to develop a more progressive and inclusive future. I am not doing this for the students belonging to the dominant orders in my programs, for the future scholars of comparative French and Spanish drama or Prussian and Flemish poetry – I’m doing this for my Senegalese host mother and for my own mother, to figure them into the ways that we think about literature, and the ways we think about knowledge.
And so I must enter a niche and make a prison a home.
Featured Art: Juan Fuentes, Luis de Las Flores