Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Power, Form, and Tradition

Good people,

It has taken me far longer than I had expected to return to SWEATing. Since you heard from me last, I've been around the globe and back. (Literally. One of the places I went was Leeds, so I guess in a minute I'll have to return to SWEATing England all hard . . .) But for now . . .

I've been having conversations with friends about power and tradition(s). There are many points of entry here, and my writing for this entry is all over the place, but I'll start with writing in lowercase. For some time now, I've been writing poems in lowercase (flush left, bold title, two spaces from the margins) unless I'm doing something radically different with form.

A colleague made disparaging remarks about us writers-in-lowercase to me the other day. I argued that I feel more expressive in lowercase. I feel like speaking much more directly and freely when I'm not respecting the laws of capitalization. In lowercase I take charge over (my) language's reign over me.

[sidebar: It feels so strange writing this using capitalization. I'm going to continue using it, though, just to see what it feels like.]

His response to me was, "You may very well feel more expressive writing in lowercase, but then, so do people who like to creatively misspell words." This was a dig, as he knows my disdain for products that have as a selling point that they are "rite" and parties that happen at "nite". (I can't lie, though. I have, at times, been quite a Deee-Lite fan . . .) In any case, with this one point, my poem-writing aesthetic had been cast aside with the dreaded disco writing. I must admit, I found myself hushed.

This conversation came about during a critique and self-assessment of my recent keeping up appearances, a hypertextimonial. I was saying that I learned some things about form through making this piece. In my more recent work, I'm interrogating propriety and my own investments in ladyhood and other bourgeois behavior. Doing this project, I learned that the power of using forms which often signify lack of power comes with using them in concert with one another. Bombarding the viewer with white space, pink words, lowercase is the only way to get any one of these formal elements noticed. My colleague agreed with me on this point, but added, "Sometimes it seems as if you're trying to make your work small."

Again, I was hushed by this statement.

On the one hand, this idea is ridiculous, of course. I'm trying to communicate with as large an audience as possible. Yes. I want to be large. I say "Yes" to success with this work. I am not trying to be a suffering artist. I am trying to make work people can talk about, put up, deal with, remember.

On the other hand, he's right, of course. I am trying to work back into the smallness I might model in my day-to-day life. There's a ferocity I see in this, in trying to deal with the smallness of myself. (I'm trying to avoid saying there's a fierceness to it, not because it isn't what I want to say, but because that word should be used sparingly.) But it's hard to know when dealing with these forms is being fierce and when it is resigning oneself to insignificance.


Below is a long, somewhat circuitous digression in which I discuss the background against which I make work that deals with smallness:

A girlfriend with whom I communicate daily on the web (but not much in person) once mentioned to a mutual friend how quiet I am in person. When I write, I'm much more forthright. When on email, writing in lowercase, writing without concern for standard forms, I'm even more direct, witty, critical. In short, I'm LOUD. Even in lowercase.

In my day-to-day life, I'm much more tentative with the voice than I am with the fingers. (Part of this has to do with being an immigrant to the South from the West Coast. But that's another story.) Even as I write, though, certain strictures remind me of my place. In any part of my day-to-day life, I sometimes fall back into smallness when communicating. My tendency is to want to do big, loud work, then, when I am making art.

Right now, however, I am interested in thinking about desire and how oppressive structures play into desires. On the one hand, I am thinking about how certain ways of acting out being in one's place get rewarded. The clearest example of what I'm thinking about right now is the compliments given to those who can successfully "be (such) a (little) lady" or "be a man about" something that might otherwise hurt even a male person. But aside from that, or at least in conjunction with that, I am interested in the ways in which I relate positively to acting out being a lady or being recognized as a lady.

I'll never forget the time I was teaching a class called Black Women and the Victorian Ideal at Duke and my students taught me a thing or two about my investments. You will perhaps be interested to know that I had promoted the class with flyers that said "Don't you have any hometraining?" and "Are you a good girl?" (We were investigating the notion of hometraining agaist the Victorian ideal) I thought I would attract students who wanted to deconstruct the notion of the good girl, but I had attracted girls who wanted to be good! So, as I was lecturing one day about the ways in which the notion of a lady was problematic, one of my students interrupted me to say, "but you are a lady."


I looked around the room and saw nodding heads and smiling faces. I was heartbroken. What kind of model was I for these women who were already overly invested in becoming good girls? On the other hand, I learned a valuable lesson about the staying power of ideas like ladyhood. I began to attempt to be not a lady, and let me tell you, that was quite difficult.

It's not that I am all super ladylike in my day-to-day. It's just that all of my attempts to model something that could not be construed as ladylike for my students seemed silly or unprofessional. This is when I learned that the practical applications to my theories were a bit more elusive than I had imagined.

Aside from seeming somehow 'wrong' in my attempts to be unladylike, I also felt uncomfortable. I am wary of saying this, but it even felt unnatural. Because I don't believe that being unladylike is unnatural, I have had to ask myself "Why do I like the way it feels to be a lady?"

I have spent more time that I meant to spend on being a lady, because I am really thinking about a larger set of demands of which being a lady is only a part. I am thinking about all the ways in which it can be both oppressive and pleasurable to give in to the demands to be girly or feminine or ladylike. I am thinking about my own bourgeois privilege and the way I both run away from that and find myself soaking in its accoutremonts when at rest. I'm thinking about how these desires play out in my quest for a tradition, particularly a Black arts tradition (which is inclusive of, but not to be confused with a Black Arts tradition).


All of this is to say that interrogating my own desires in regards to oppressive structures has me focused on dealing with notions of smallness and softness and intimacy on a formal level. This is, for sure, coming out of a concern with woman things. (That 'for sure' is an homage to Venus and Serena Williams and their speak.) This is also a concern with Black things.

On the one hand, Blackness carries with it a sort of bigness that womanness does not carry. On the other hand, both Blackness and womanness are marginal in some of the arenas in which I find myself wanting to be central.

Another friend, in a conversation about what I am trying to deal with in SWEAT and the question of writing in lowercase, argued that writing in lowercase is a political choice. That making the choice to disrespect the formal demands of the written language is not just a means through which to feel expressive, but also, potentially, a symbol. An action. A saying in itself.

We began to think about the flow of power and recognition. Again we addressed the way I found it difficult to speak to Toi Derricotte about her work. I admitted my hesitation to excerpt actual pieces of her work here.

"Why?" my colleague wanted to know. I had to think a minute. It had something to do, I decided, with feeling grateful for her words and not wanting to do something wrong with them. I want to show respect for her work by treating it delicately. My colleague pointed out the way this attitude is paternalistic.

"It's published, for Christ's sake," my friend said. "Don't treat it like it's her diary." And she's right. This brought us back to my post script about Tender and my realization while writing my entry about it that Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination is also about his life (see the postscript to the October 4th entry).

About this realization, my colleague said, "This is what we never think about with art. Everybody is writing about their own lives." Only when it's a man, he is representative of men and women. When it's a white person, that person is representative of all people. When it's a white woman, she is representative of women. When it's a black man, he is representative of Black lives. Where do we (black women) fit in all of this?

On the one hand, it is easy to say that we're just left out of the mix. We only speak for ourselves (as individuals or as a group). But that isn't quite true. While we get sifted out of representing many groups, there are still issues of power and privilege that aren't covered in the above paradigm. On the one hand, there are things like class privilege and nationality privilege and language privilege which, while they don't cancel out the ways in which I am not privileged, do affect my status in relation to other people.

Let's take other Black women, for example. While I can say that I don't have access to the representative power for women that white women have or to Black people that Black men have, I certainly have the power to represent Black women in a way that, say, Black women who don't speak English or live in the United States or have middle class educations (formal or informal) don't. Ok, this is about power, but what does this have to do with form and tradition?

I've been wondering, lately, about largeness and the necessity of making claims to the Big when making art in hopes of being remembered. One of my questions is whether making claims to the Big is necessarily an abuse of power. Maybe my language here is too strong. I don't think that claiming the privilege(s) to which you have access is necessarily an abuse of power. I'm an advocate for privilege and for using privilege to cast light on the fact that our privileges are privileges--not simply normal. On the other hand, I am concerned about whether making moves to make Big work necessarily means trampling over someone else's experience or simply overshadowing it.

What tools do I have with which to speak Large things in a community? What does it mean to use these tools?

In my dissertation I'm writing about the novels of three authors, all of whom are women. At the moment, though, I'm not writing about them as women authors, or Black women authors, I'm writing about them as Black authors. I'm doing this mainly because the best examples of the points I am trying to make about the way Black writers treat some parts of Black culture are in their novels. I'm also doing this, however, because I want to treat ideas Black women have about Black culture as a significant part of the ideas Black people have about Black culture.

As I do this, though, I wonder what the costs are for backing up my ideas with the thinking of other Black women. I have a practical reason for what I'm doing and, most importantly, a political reason behind it. But making a claim to authority through the ideas of other people whose authority is often questioned (or simply devalued) makes one vulnerable, doesn't it?

I'm thinking of a couple of things that I won't discuss in depth here. Just think of them and discuss among yourselves, or hit me back with questions later:

*Toni Morrison, writing Song of Solomon in such a way that you can read Daedalus and Icarus or the story of the Flying Africans or the story of Solomon flying from the Qur'an. I have always admired her ability to take from these (and probably other) stories--I'm impressed, yes, by mastery. But I wonder if this performance of mastery over ALL (or at least a wide, wide range of) History is a move a Black woman has to make.

*Me, looking at the hundreds of Black women lined up who had decided to be educated by/alongside Black women at my graduation from Spelman College. I experienced this education as a privilege, but this choice is often met as 1) a risk, 2) a waste, 3) a choice for those who can't choose, or 4) community service.

*Ok. This is really all about me. (Even the Toni Morrison bullet. I'm so Morricentric, talking about Morrison is like talking about myself.) So my final bullet is about me, writing in the press release for keeping up appearances that I was creating "in the tradition of black feminist artists Faith Ringgold and Audre Lorde". Now, this wasn't an accident. I didn't choose those two women out of the blue. I was thinking about the ways in which Ringgold and Lorde have made Big things from their life stories. I was also thinking about claiming my work in net art as continuing on in a tradition of work by Black women. Black feminist women. And Ringgold and Lorde are no nobodies. They not only hold their own, they have also both broken down doors, torn down walls, and made paths for black women were there weren't paths before.

On the other hand, I wonder whether claiming to work in a Black feminist tradition in a genre in which there aren't many (people who care about) Black feminists of note isn't a way of making it more difficult to be heard and seen. I struggled with that last sentence because my first thought was something like "shutting the door on a wider audience" or "off-putting to a whiter audience". But I really do want to put the onus for whatever wall comes up when I say "Black feminist" to fall on the listener. There's no rule that white guys who like net art can't be into a Black feminist art tradition. If they shut down when I talk about my Black feminist elders, that's on them.

Nevertheless, I do have to wonder if it makes sense to only talk about my Black feminist traditions in my press release. I mean, might it give my work (and even my predecessors) more attention if I were to mention working in the American traditions of Laurie Anderson or John Cage? I am also largely influenced by them. Laurie Anderson also makes pieces of her life Large and talks about herself all the time as an American more than a woman. John Cage doesn't even appear to be talking about his life in much of his work, but he is, of course, talking about his life and his tastes and, he says, how he learns to unlearn them. I'm not working on unlearning my tastes, but my quest to deconstruct my own desire, my own taste for certain ways of being, and make art out of that is, in a way, working in the tradition of John Cage.

It's simply that I don't have a desire (or need) to big him up. John Cage has the whole art world bigging him up. Laurie Anderson has the market on popular avant garde art sewn up. If I get big enough, people will probably talk about my work in the context of theirs, anyway. But what about the influence of Audre Lorde and Faith Ringgold on the future of net art? Who is going to make that connection if I don't?

How can I both stake claim to the legacy of voices which echo loudest in an arena and give attention to voices that get absorbed into silence in that arena when what makes people silent is what they share with me?

I'm coming to the conclusion that the most important part of this process may be that of writing about what we are doing. Is Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread the character in Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World who keeps saying, "You need to write that down, stick it under a rock . . ." ?

Mendi Lewis Obadike

old comments:

Utterly fascinating if not wholly above and beyond my meagre level of literary and cultural education, which is presently steeped in pure, unadulterated Flaming Ignorance, With a Twist of Llama Juice.

Additional kudos for being unafraid of length. The modern attention span is dwarfed by that of the average fruit fly, so I tend to admire exhaustively long entries.

Posted 10/23/2001 at 9:57 PM by RabidSquirrel

Thanks. And nice to meet you.
Posted 10/25/2001 at 4:44 PM by mendi


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mendi,

My ideas about this subject are not fully formed yet, but I wanted to tell you that I too am thinking through bigness and smallness in my artwork in relation to my social position. Why can't I make more grand statements? Why do I keep being interested in the spaces in between the grand things? I've only once made loud work and it was quite satisfying. I am now making small work but the research and writing I do is so so much louder than the artwork I do. Mostly this makes me want to continue research and perhaps come back to being a practitioner later, if at all. Anyway, thank you for your post, I look forward to keeping up with you.

8:52 PM, February 01, 2006  
Blogger Mendi O. said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this. I'd love to hear more about your work and what you think motivates it.

10:50 AM, October 04, 2006  

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