Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bourdieu and Nietsche

An Unlikely combo, surely!

but I've had both on my mind lately (among many other things... it's been a hectic few months)...

I guess it started with the cartwheels I was performing for my students trying to initiate them into the joys of Pierre- and particularly his notion of habitus as this great little sticky sociocultural phenomenological prosthesis between us and it/the other/stuff... what spewtown bohos used to call "aura" - the sticky mire that enables us to be socially mobile, or mired in our own socially deforming crust of......psychic fixity

….and that's where Nietsche came in - or at least Deleuze's take on his idea of ressentiment which is frogophile for Resentment - kinda.... oh and so much more....

Anyway - somewhere between the cartwheels and dodgy powerpoint lectures on habitus in 2 countries, and peripatetically slaving away at the tome, and moving house, and packing my studio into a box, and throwing away a heap of stuff, and falling in love.... I seem to have hurt my back.

My yoga teacher recommended AdhurVirasana - which I always want to call Adorno Virasana - which is such a lame wanky pun that only about 3 people in the universe would understand and they would all moan, so I won't attempt to translate my feeble grasp of sanskrit here - but, in any case, it's not eliminating the pain - and I haven't got the time to spend all day with my toes together, knees apart, buttocks resting close to my heels as I stretch my arms and hands forward, and take pressure off my back, coz I still have STUPID amounts of work to do- and that's not even touching the sides of my thesis.....

So - I'm left with a minute re-imagining of pain, the specificity of pain, how it shapes me, shapes my thoughts, my movements and being in the world......

I find migraine (the blinding headache bit at least) a kind of euphoric pain - it's SO INTENSE that I end up staggering around in a kind of haze - sort of blown away by the intensity - and forced to be vacant and calm, gliding around feeling detached and wafty....... It's excruciating - but harmless so I've learnt to relax into it and moan softly, and try and stay upright till it passes.

Whereas back pain - or this precise digging between my spine and shoulder blade is a stiffening, slowing, irritating pain -with about the same intensity and irritation of period cramps - so I can't concentrate on anything, and hunch my shoulders further, and dream of being at home alone with unguents and muscle relaxants......

this particular spot of physical torment has a very precise history. My year 2 teacher was a sadistic Nun who terrorised the whole class, and hit us on a weekly basis (this was in 1978). Generally she'd whack us with a ruler on the right hand , which would consequently turn red and swollen and throb too much to hold a pencil and would consequently get hit again. (It made me pretty glad to be left handed). I was never really sure why we got hit (we were 7!) and always too scared to ask. I was also too scared to ask to go to the bathroom, and used to spend the entire day trying to control my bladder. As my classmates unfailingly still remind me I failed twice.

There were worse things than getting the ruler on the hand though. One day we were going over the results of a spelling test in class, and she came behind me to ask me how I'd spelt some word, and discovered that I didn't have the sheet in front of me. (I'd missed the test because I'd been away with the mumps). THUMP! She struck her fist into my back, driving her ring into this precise point between my shoulder blade and spine and winding me in the process. All of us would try really hard not to cry - but that day - tears involuntarily sprung to my eyes, and I went red. The pain, powerlessness and humiliation were mixed into this one bruising sensation. I held my breath, and spent the next few minutes swallowing the lump in my throat, feeling ashamed that I couldn't demonstrate my ability to spell (my nerdiness started early), helpless that I'd missed the test, embarrassed that I was about to start crying in class, and physically weak and tired (I'd only just returned to school).

I'm not just trying to earn people's pity from blabbing sob stories about my own child abuse - because I'm more intrigued about how corporeal punishment actively shapes our subjectivities. Particularly when it is performed in public settings like schools, and becomes part of a collective social memory - such as among my classmates, and our families. Corporeal punishment didn't get phased out of catholic primary schools until the 1980's, and only recently has become acknowledged as a form of child abuse - and some of our parents admit that they didn't challenge the practice of one none terrifying, beating and abusing their seven year old children because many of them had also been physically and mentally abused by far worse teachers in their own childhood.

In terms of class, culture, society and habitus - the proliferation of child abuse within the catholic system actively worked to create docile humble bodies, that experienced systemic power as something external and uncontrollable. It happens much less so now - but I'd say that up until 20 years ago - you could almost smell the difference between recovering catholics and others - particularly in sites like universities - because this sense of powerlessness, being hard done by, and ressentiment - was so fixed in - not only to the psyche but the very physicality of our being. ressentiment - is not just resentment - (which is a feeling) - but according to Nietsche - it becomes something that is essential to the ontology of 'slaves' - or those intrinsically neurotic, powerless, subaltertan, reactive 'non-monadic' beings that incapable of confidence or change.

I go a bit queasy when I start reading or thinking of the essences of things - so rather than giving an ontological account of ressentiment and slavishness - I'd much rather consider it as habitus - a deeply encrusted mode of bodily becoming - often defined from without and within which our very mode of being in the world - our capacity to encounter, apprehend and challenge it - becomes fixed or limited. One of the reasons why I love the habitus , is that it makes those sneaky ephemeral bits of bodily becoming that contribute to essentialist ideas of selfhood and agency (things like charm, ease, confidence, charisma, aura etc) actually describable, traceable, articulated and changeable. Good old marxist that he was, Bourdieu cannily linked such material facets of social relationships to socio-economic analysis, and I still love him for it. the habitus can be articulated, and modes of being - can be isolated, altered and instructed. there are ways of appearing to be at ease in ones clothes, or one's room, or one's class, that can make a transition from being a shiteating scum of the earth to a schmic meister of monadic deterritorialisation a fairly transparent and accessible possibility for a lot of people.

I am on the very last leg of the transformation of subjectivity that is the completion of A TOME. Tomes are not just about writing a ninety thousand word essay - but involve an intense process of 'self-making' and negotiating our own formation as high-functioning subjects of the knowledge economy. It's not just about wearing a puffy hat and getting letters before your name instead of after it, but an enormous amount of complex psychic negotiation of upward social mobility conducted in the absence of financial and consumer reward.

In the real world - we get to negotiate our social mobility through the acquisition of consumer goods that convey our status. In PhD land - you stay fairly poor - and stuck in some weird adolescent limbo of university grants, and odd bits of teaching/research work proffered like delightful glinting carrots designed to egg us along towards a possible future as a tenured academic. So a lot of the appeal is in our heads. As is most of the work. It's the nature of the beast. A heady mix indeed.

I've reached that last little bit where the nice eternal sunshine of the spotty mind is coming to an end, the scholarship is over, and I'm having to undertake payable work in exchange for the cash I need to pay rent and eat. The end of my scholarship coincided with the end of my 9 years of VERY cheap rent and tenured housing. Extracting myself from the compound (where Abel still resides) was a hideous, drawn out and painful process that took 3 months and left me feeling persecuted, powerless and paranoid for most of the autumn. I put my head down, worked hard and hid myself away.

About 6 weeks ago - I started feeling REALLY OVERWHELMED and started to involuntarily hunch while I walked - clutching my cramping gut, which felt like it had been kicked in. I was going from my performing monkey act in front of students to my monastic setting of my flat, facing the tome, various books, lots of cockroaches and complete silence.... It was a pretty weird space to be in. My mobile phone was dying, and I have no landline or internet access at home so I felt completely alone there - mostly in a good way, but it was still uncanny... My mornings were always blissfully peaceful - but I was staying out teaching or writing until 10pm most nights, so home felt like a weird cave where I’d cower and hide, until I felt I could face the world again. Mind you, it’s a pretty cozy, fruit filled, book-lined cave with a backyard and nice but unobtrusive neighbours, so I’m not exactly slumming it.

But I’m intrigued by the gaps and contradictions within and between the various facets of my new adult life. Like being sent overseas and given a daily living allowance equivalent to my weekly living allowance here, and working out how to cover my patched underwear and homecut hair with enough clean second hand clothes so I could fit in as an authoritative member of the cashed up university community. And trying not to scream at tenured colleagues for delays and misestimates in my pay, while wincing at the extra interest accruing on my visa debt as I wait to be reimbursed for work I’ve already done, and look for more work, in order to earn more money to keep my overdraft fed, my bills payable, my fridge full.

It is at the tail end of my PhD, when I’ve been released from the security of a stipend, that I’m resenting my colleagues and my life the most. I’m resenting those admin and academic staff who have their own office, or who have a fixed position and who aren’t surviving semester to semester. I resent the vagueness of senior lecturers who haven’t worked out academic calendars or timetables, and I resent the Byzantine machinations of university administrators. I resent colleagues who aren’t studying as well, resent my students who aren’t studying enough, resent friends who work but don’t study and ask me When are we going to catch up? I want to scream at them NEVER!!!! This resentment is pretty much about me having a bit of a tanty, and feeling a bit tired and scared about everything, really, but it’s interesting what it does to my body.

Feeling precarious and persecuted in one area of my life, I started to hunch my shoulders and cower generally, and how this habit of hunching and cowering has strained my back... which leads to more hunching and cowering because I'm in pain, and stiff and sore. Bent back, hunched shoulders, cricked neck; I can’t see properly, can’t focus, can’t walk, can’t breathe. I stagger around lugging bags onto public transport, not knowing where I’m going or why. I jump to attention responding to things, I feel pressured, and tired. I feel I haven’t got enough time, and I feel like I waste the time I have; because I’m not writing, and I’m not painting, I’m not exercising enough and I’m not doing a lot of things that I wish I could.

Part of me wishes I was 12 months in the future, living with my squeeze (the summer romance has definitely blossomed) instead of squeezing study and work from my tired brain and exhausted body. A big part of me wishes I was in some imaginary fairy land – of those fleeting pure moments of writing – just writing, of feeling calm, and focused and inspired and capable. These times exist beyond the circumstances of material security or temporal pressure – but come and catch me in the strangest of places, and at the oddest times. Like most crazy nutters who study or create big things like Tomes, these fleeting moments of ecstatic absorption are why we give ourselves over to the impossible.

Universities are interesting because they allow space to imagine that such states could exist on a regular basis – even while doing everything possible to restrict and confound such intellectual creativity. I’m trying to find a form of paid work that gives me enough mental space to keep seeking those moments of bliss, but that won’t deaden me away from being reminded that they exist. Teaching is incredibly exhausting because it involves constantly working to convince students of the possibility and delight of learning – but those moments where they do make discoveries and challenges are almost as rewarding as when I make them in my own work. Academic work also gives me a bit of a boost to my imagined sense of cultural capital, even if I do have patches sewn into my socks. There are many places where I don’t even know how to move, because the habitus of entitlement, of prestige, of social aspiration and intellectual vacuity is so completely alien to the way I know how to make the world bearable. My habitus is linked to a form of ressentiment , and paranoia, but also to a naïveté and joy, in a delight in new people and new ideas, and a visceral disgust with the dead hand of competitive advantage, increased turnover, and coercing people to do something that they don’t want to do. It’s why I can’t work in retail or promotion, and why I’m scared of hairdressers and sales assistants.

Back to my back, and breathing into this sore point, trying to twist and turn and cursing my inability to pay for the 5 visits to a chiropractor that would probably solve the problem, I’m trying to discover different ways of sitting, standing, sleeping. Trying to find a different way to be in my body and in the world, trying to find the physical ways to negotiate an ever shrinking psychological space between what I need to do, what I should do and what I’d like to do. Bodily learning is slow, and I find myself mouthing incantations from yoga at the strangest of moments, where I surprise myself at my ability to discover a pose, to find the words in Sanskrit, and ever so fleetingly to find the prahna, the calm, balance and poise of being in my body and my mind. Discovering my limits and my capacities is exhausting, but exciting too, but letting go of old habits, moving out of my habitus into zones of discomfort and unfamiliarity is often just hard.

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