Rhizomes and Assemblages

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Palin Resigns July 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 4:51 am
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I’ve been itching to return to writing after life threw a couple of unexpected curve balls. And what better way to begin than with Sarah Palin’s resignation?

I am not a Sarah Palin fan. Even settig aside my own far left of center views on public policy, I am not a fan. I wish I could admire her guts, her sheer audacity in taking on the VP nomination nearly a year ago. The feminist in me wants to applaud her nomination as a step forward for all women–and for all little girls who want to be president someday. But I think that Hillary’s run for the nomination and her appointment as Secretary of State do more to achieve those changes in society. And, seriously, it is not just about policy.

It’s about competence, purely and simply. Palin was used to court the conservative vote by a campaign that was suddenly, inexplicably foundering. (I still maintain that, somewhere, in his heart of hearts, McCain must not have really wanted the job. I don’t know how else a veteran campaigner could make such a freshman mistake). She wasn’t ready for the national stage; she wasn’t ready for the presidency. She can’t even parse a sentence correctly half the time. The fact that Tina Fey could quote Palin verbatim for laughs underscores Palin’s  lack of education.

In the end, Palin seemed to have been chosen as VP mainly for her good looks and her gender coupled with her solid membership in a conservative church. But she lacked the necessary depth to carry off the job. And her resignation speech today seems to be leading to the same old problems with her as a candidate.

She presented no plan for the future, gave only a strange excuse for leaving, and dumped the story into the start of the holiday news cycle to bury it as much as possible. Does this sound like the plan of a potential presidential candidate? It doesn’t to me. It sounds like someone avoiding a Spitzer/Blago/Sandford type of moment before the cameras.

If she’s moving on the bigger and better things, why not announce it now? Why not trumpet a triumphant switch to the national stage at the start of the news week? Why bury yourself? All of this points to problems lurking in background and will create rumor frenzies in the blogosphere (to which I am certainly not contributing, lol). Was the pressure too much? Was there an ethics problem? A sex scandal? Will we ever know?

What I fear most is that the pressure pushed out of office. If it did, this will have a negative impact on the ability of other women to ru for higher office, especially at the executive level. Because, let’s face it, there aren’t many women with five children, some of them young, in office. Her failure may undermine the faith in other female candidates with similar life situations. For that reason alone, I actually wish she had stayed in office. And I also hope that there is either some grand, unrevealed plan or a scandal. At least then she’d be like any other politician out there. And that could only be good for other women running for higher political office. But I can certainly say that I am glad I am not her political strategist.


Hysteria May 1, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 6:28 pm

In the nineteenth century, hysteria was the provenance of women, generally upper class, with too much time and little chance to develop their talents. Today, however, our mediated environment allows hysteria to blanket the culture.  Even in the midst of our economic woes, swine flu fever has taken deep hold over all of us. While there are some serious medical concerns with the appearance of new strains of influenza, hysteria reaching the heights of a vice-president telling us not to travel when even the worst case scenarios suggest a total infected population of only 1700 in the entire US  is a bit much. But this hysteria fits are overall obsession with medical conditions.  Remember the MRSA scare a couple of years ago?

Our privileged lives make it possible for us to become hysterical over diseases most of us are actually unlikely to encounter, while we live much more easily with the risks of diseases we are all much more likely to get: diabetes, heart disease, obesity. Focusing on superbugs, influenza strains, and flesh-eating bacteria creates dramatic news stories, and it profits pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs that might help fight the flu.  But this hysterical focus on the uncommon makes the common public health problems disappear. Indeed, the deaths of several “healthy,” middle-aged people in Mexico City may say more about the need to address widespread public health issues caused by serious pollution problems than the threat posed by this particular strain of influenza.

We need to rethink media coverage of public health issues. Hysteria gets us nowhere in addressing the problems that are really killing us all. So go ahead, wash your hands, but trade in your face mask for a bag of carrots and a new pair of running shoes. That’s more likely to keep you healthy in the long run.


Possession April 26, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 3:55 pm

I just finished reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Yes, I finally read something that was not Twilight. Of course, it still fed into my obsession with the romance.  The layered pairs of lovers in this book are meant, I think, to describe the multitudinous possibilities of romantic connections. And yet, underneath, it is not different from Twilight, except that only the minor characters get something approaching a traditional happy ending. But it startled me, in a way, that underneath the erudite use of language, of metaphor, of post-structuralist theories, the story of romance remains unaltered. You can dress it up, you cacn change the details, but the story is still mainly the same. A story of obsession, of desire, of the need for newness. In this book, only one relationship stands the test of time, and they remain almost outside of time, living the lives of English gentry of a century before.

I find myslf wanting a different story. I want something that isn’t about newness, but about growth and continuity. Yet I find it difficult to imagine that story. Our cultural obsession with newness leads us to privilege stories of falling in love, of newness, over the stories of being and staying in love. The breadth of the canon is constrained in ways I never saw before: the stories repeat, clothed in different fabrics, but with the same basic cut and style.

Romeo and Juliet die because we can’t imagine what could come next for them. We divorce one another because in part we can’t imagine what might come next in life. After the wedding, what does marriage look like? What does life look like? Is it so ordinary, so mundane, as to be impossible to write about?


Liberty and Taxes April 19, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 2:35 am
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While I’ll happily confess to not being behind their politics, I love to see the teabag movement. It speaks to so many of the fundamental purposes of democracy, in which the demos, the people, take political action in the midst of everyday life. It’s not a government sponsored political ritual, but a true reenactment of a potent American political ritual. The original Boston tea party marked the beginning of the end for British involvement in the American colonies, and was a direct response to taxation imposed without any true representation. It marked the birth of something new, a kind of political action that was about Arendtian natality, the kind of politics that creates possibilities of freedom rooted within responsibility. In fact, those original participants in the Boston tea party paid the ship owners for the cargoes they so unceremoniously disposed of.

The tea parties of today, though, do trouble me in several aspects. I’m against protesting taxation itself, which I believe is what many of the teabag protest participants desire. I certainly believe we must hold government accountable for the spending it engages in (hello, Iraq war and bridge to nowhere) but I believe that paying taxes is an act of true patriotism. I wish more Americans would see taxation in this light rather than as theft by government. To me, taxes represent our investment in our communal project. Government, for both good and ill, binds us together. In its best moments, it provides us with security for our rights, it protects the weak from the strong, and it takes care of the providing of the mundane but necessary social goods like roads. To be free requires responsible participation in the production of governance.

Machiavelli in The Discourses tells a wonderful story about this point. He’s illustrating his argument that the society which is the most free is the one with the most responsible citizenry. And he means citizenry in the classical Greek sense: a demos engaged in the praxis of ethical governance of itself. Machiavelli argues that one of the most free societies he knows of is a medieval German city-state in which citizens met, discussed their needs, and then left a strongbox in the church for the collection of taxes to meet those needs. Without an assessor, an IRS, or an enforcer, that strongbox always contained enough funds to meet the needs of the city. The citizens paid their fair share of taxes willingly, freely, and without any coercion. To me, as to Machiavelli, this is an ideal state to which a republic should aspire. That we give our fair share willingly to meet our responsibility within the state.

Try that now and the coffer would be mostly empty. While an argument can be made that the problem is sheer numbers: Modern mass democracy is too much mass and not enough democracy, and we can’t all meet and work out our difference of opinions as to what that money out to be spent on. But I don’t think those issues lie at the crux of the problem. Instead, I would argue, the problem is more basic than that: our culture of rights privileges our individual possession of rights over our obligation/responsibility qua citizens. Simply, we place a kind of Hobbesian understanding of rights over Cicero’s Greek-rooted insistence on obligation. We believe government owes us, we don’t owe the government.

We place ourselves in an individual heirarchical relationship with government, just as Hobbes wished. We struggle against for our rights, for what is ours. Today’s teabag protestors fall mainly into this camp. What I would prefer is for those protesters to reject the Hobbesian vertical relationship of the individual and the government in favor of the Machiavellian sense of responsibility, which emphasizes the potential for the horizontal ties between citizens to lie at the heart of self-governance.

I want the protesters to focus not on the paying of taxes, but more on the priorities of government. Spending on the part of government is not an a priori sin, it is a common good, and one we ought to struggle with communally. Surveys reveal quite clearly that most Americans don’t know what our money is really spent on; journalistic coverage skews our perceptions greatly. We bicker about aid to foreign countries continually, but nonmilitary foreign aid is less than 1% of the federal budget. We have to have a better understanding of what our government does, and we need to engage in a kind of political action that emphasizes our collective responsibility in our democratic project rather than our individual rights.


Love is… March 31, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 6:53 pm

So I have been thinking a great deal lately about what love is. (And not just because of my Twilight obsession. In fact, my obsession with Twilight is probably caused in part because of the frequency with which I had been thinking about love.) I had come to a point in my life where many of the woman I know who are single were either really determined to get married or coming o grips with the fact that they were unlikely to marry. And many of the married women I know were divorcing or seriously thinking about divorcing. And yet, the conversations I had with both sets of women were eerily similar.

The reason some women were still single was the same reason other women were considering divorce. It all seemed to me to be about Romeo and Juliet. These star-crossed lovers, unable to bear being apart, yet unable to create conditions in the world that allow them to be together, have become the iconic picture of love in our world. We want to believe, at least in theory, that the one we love is unable to bear our loss. We want to be the center of our lover’s universe. The craving, the spark, the desire should be absolute.

But real life isn’t like that. Life is still or solitary. Life has distractions, responsibilities, and other loves. Figuring out a healthy balance means putting Romeo and Juliet behind us. They were teenagers after all, and teenagers are at the mercy of their hormones, they lack the reponsibilities that tie the rest of us relentlessly to other parts of our lives.

Romeo and Juliet never had time to become familar with one another. They never had to clean the house, take the kids to school, go to work. As the saying goes, familarity breeds contempt. And in many of the divorces I’ve come to witness, that’s part of the problem. Our culture teaches us to crave excitement, to desire the new, to equate drama with love. However, life, real life, is distractingly routine. That routine can provide real growth for love, if we can move beyond the need for the kind of love embodied in the iconic adolescent love of Romeo and Juliet.

We have many novels about the finding of love, but very few about the maintenance of it. There aren’t many novels about marriage, except marriages that are disintegrating. The everydayness of love isn’t dramatic enough for novelization.  Yet with the high level of failure in marriage we need iconic figures of success, archetypes that lead us forward into new, stronger ways of imagining love.


Twilighting March 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 7:39 pm
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Confession: I’m a Twi-hard…or well, maybe I am. I can’t stop reading the books, and I even ordered the movie. Yet, unlike the tween Twi-hards across the virtual Twi-verse, I don’t think it’s a holy text. And I don’t want to marry Edward. But I can’t stop reading these books. I find it strange and disconcerting that I can’t go a day without reading a few pages. I haven’t read anything else for over two months. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. I can teach Plato’s Republic with the book tied behind my back. I know every line of ever Austen book there is. And I cannot stop reading these books. Not to be elitist (though I am, I’ll fully admit), but in technical terms, these books are awful. Sorry Stephanie, but you are no Bronte sister. Really, how many times should you be allowed to use the word smoldered in one book? Yet, somehow the compelling story eclipses (pun intended) the mediocre writing. I’m still pondering how that is possible.

(Look, there’s spoilers ahead. But by this point, if you haven’t read the books, chances are you won’t ever read them. So just keep reading).

Part of what brings me back through these texts over and over again is the nature of love in the story. Like Austen’s books, what brings me back in these texts is the relationship between Bella and Edward. Their obsessive love is quintessential teen behavior. She’s willing to accept, even desire, his controlling behavior. She enjoys the fact that he stalks her. He sees her as the stereotypical Victorian angel. He objectifies her as a kind of virgin Venus, alluring and tempting, but innocent of all sin. He acts like a desiring father, keeping her safe and contained for his pleasure alone. He physically dominates her, yet doesn’t take advantage of her (it’s Mormon porn after all). Overall, it’s the kind of relationship that if our friend or daughter were involved in, we’d beg them to break it off. As Jacob says in the book, Bella and Edward are addicted to each other. It is not healthy. Like Cathy and Heathcliff, there is a kind of dis/ease here. And yet…and yet…

And yet I can’t stop reading it. And neither can millions of other women and girls.  Why do these stories of unhealthy teenage relationships, like Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff (though they grow older in the text), Bella and Edward, become such cultural icons of love and romance? Even Elizabeth and Darcy harbor hints of problems. She knows he isn’t ready for her uncensored tongue. She has to play it safe, to teach him to laugh at himself. Great romances never seem all that healthy. Yet we compulsively consume these stories, these grand sweeping passions, these narratives of obsessive  relationships, as iconic representations of what we should desire. It seems reflective of our highly narcissistic culture that we can confuse love with obsession. Most of us want someone to put us in the center of their universe.

Is it any wonder that the divorce rate is so high? Who knows what a truly healthy love really looks like? Once you are past the first flush of desire, who is there for a role model? Stephanie doesn’t provide any answers, though most of the married pairs in her book are long past their golden anniversaries. Her vampires are frozen in their development. They never move past the first stage of love; everything remains new and fresh for them. But life isn’t like that…we grow, we change, we become familiar to one another. Where are the literary models for keeping love, not falling in love? Obsession can’t last forever. What comes next?

Now that I’m rambling too much about this, I’m going to go read some more Twilight. And maybe work some more on the sequel to it that I’ve been writing lately.


Voyaging March 20, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rhizomesandassemblages @ 1:10 am

I’ve always wished I could have been an academic before the scientific revolution took over the social sciences and honed in on the humanities. Back you when you could be a glorious essayist, who built on the works you read without needing to be obsessively citing all the newest, trendiest people. So, since I can’t go back to that world, I’m going to blog all the essays I want to write instead. I’ll be inspired by all that I read: from Deleuze and Guattari, whom I never came close to grasping, but whose writings have always inspired me to take risks and to look for the interconnections behind the facades (assemblages) and under the soil (rhizomes), to the intensely intellectual contents of the books of master chefs like Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller.

These are the stories that occur to me as I encounter the world. The stories I’m not sure any media outlet with gatekeepers would ever publish. But I can myself. And I am hoping this will help my voyage of discovery as I seek to become more of a writer. Even if it is for an audience of one!