krys méndez ramírez

Archive for the ‘Identity Politics’ Category

The Alienation of Postmodern Geographies: Reflections on Southern Californian Suburbia

In Decolonization, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Latin@ Politics, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 31, 2015 at 12:10 AM

When I made the decision to leave New York, I wanted to test a hypothesis: does geography play a role in one’s happiness?

If I had to describe it in a few words, I’d say that the motivation to leave Gotham was based on a multi-layered amalgam of ambivalent feelings, much of which was deeply embedded in urban alienation.

Like many New Yorkers, I had a bipolar love-hate relationship with the place: it never felt like a unitary totality that could ever be home in a traditional sense. A city in constant metamorphosis, it can be home one day and someone else’s turf the next.

In my case, my impetus to leave Gotham was driven in large part by a need to un-jade myself—that is, to keep myself from falling further along this precipitous decline I felt myself on, one that felt like a free fall towards the inevitable end of the “jaded old queen.”

Another reason was existential. I developed my roots in Brooklyn, and as much as I came to love my cosmopolitan, working-class immigrant neighborhood, I also had a profound sense of what it meant to live in a truly fragmented and atomized neoliberal playground–one where the constant battle for space and time lent itself to a paradoxical sense of loneliness amid human congestion. My ties to family and home were both strange and estranged.

20140729_155235

Mural in Sunset Park, Brooklyn


I can’t think of my years of experience in New York now without recalling sociologist Georg Simmel’s classic essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), in which he links the overstimulation of the built environment with the “blasé attitude” of the metropolitan human.

Similarly, I conjure up the characterizations of heartache and existential turmoil that afflicted the black protagonists of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, both of whom wrote beautifully at length about structural oppression and alienation in the big city of late capitalism.

As the queer, bookish son of two, working-class immigrant parents, witnessing the enigmatic health complications of my brothers, and personally living through the nightmarish consequences of autoimmunity and the cold indifference of the biomedical industrial complex, the urban terrain acquired a distinct set of meanings for me.

While I had numerous positive coming-of-age experiences in Brooklyn, it almost feels redundant to say that painful memories became etched into the physical environment as well.

A multidimensional mental map of the city is littered as much with tokens of joyful, ecstatic and almost-sublime experiences as it is with recollections of the solitary long walks, the spells of disappointment and wistful yearnings.

A quarter century of existence is legible in landmarks and streets: The overshadowed, gray-and-yellow playground under the Gowanus Expressway; the sooty, humid 59th St Subway Station in south Brooklyn; the silver, razor-like currents of the Hudson from a Battery Park City bench; the giant, moveable black cube on Astor Place near an old workplace; the striking emptiness of the Christopher St. Pier on a very cold, winter morning.


Two memories jump out at me as I think of my motivations for considering leaving.

The first was seemingly rather innocuous: a date with a friend to “catch up.” My friend invited me to a fundraiser for an organization that we both had ties with, an organization with unique, well-articulated politics that engaged queer youth of color around issues like gentrification.

As it turned out, the fundraiser was directed at alumni (such as myself) and our social networks, and it was taking place at a rooftop bar in downtown Brooklyn I had never heard of.

Unexpectedly, this time with my friend ended up sparking unease as I found myself surrounded by a conspicuously, upwardly-mobile coterie of queer men of color and white “allies.” The surrealness of the experience was highlighted by the fact that I was at a rooftop bar—something unheard of during my many years in Brooklyn—and my sickliness that evening in the gay meat market showroom.

More alienating than that, however, was the larger environment that surrounded us: a 360° panoramic view of downtown Brooklyn.To be sure, all those years of living here had never given me this level of access–the opportunity to see my home turf from an eagle-eye vantage point.

All around me were reminders of the changing topography of an early twenty-first century neoliberal city—an ever-emergent, postmodern cityscape. An insidiously spatial warzone.

Having spent my freshman year of high school near downtown Brooklyn, the micro-level changes were all-too-dramatic: a spate of new high-rises (including the development of Brooklyn’s then-tallest building, the Brooklyner), the mammoth Barclay’s Center, countless ritzy restaurants and bars, and in the distance, the multi-million-dollar Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

The second memory is rooted in a more sweeping experience of the city at the ground level.

It was the archetypal overcast, gray, late fall day, and an unhappy line-up of medical, personal, and work-related appointments forced me to make pit stops in four boroughs (and Long Island) within a short time period.

Driving around the traffic-clogged Belt Parkway became stressful not because I was running late all day, but because sitting for hours in a mobile, metal capsule forced me to marinate in melancholic memories.

As I drove all around the city, I was bombarded with movie reel-like scenes for each passing landmark and place.

I tried to hold it in, to think positively of what was to come, but it jumped out from an invisible crevice inside of me: so many memories


Now that I’ve lived in “America’s Finest City” for a full year, I’ve been given a number of things to think about.

As one can guess, it is much more complicated than a “thumbs up, thumbs down” evaluation of San Diego. But my situation has forced me to pause and consider how multiple layers of alienation can operate socially and spatially.

There’s suburban alienation. Academic alienation. The geographic alienation of living far from community.

Being economically compelled to live in the cheap graduate housing that lies within the super-wealthy, super-white neighborhood in which UCSD is situated—La Jolla—my life is more than just physically situated in a borderlands space.

It is filled with stentorian, everyday reminders of where I am, a fact that was striking during my first month in which I felt I was experiencing in La Jolla a selectively orchestrated bundle of the worst, Hollywood-infused stereotypes of southern California: suburban cul-de-sacs with breathtaking ocean or canyon views; limitless, box-model shopping malls and plazas that house uniform chain stores, cafés, and restaurants; a hegemonic car culture that reproduces (sub)urban sprawl; and a prevailing cult of self-fixated bodily perfection centered around the “beach body.”

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

As I understand it, the concomitant, hyper-individualistic consumption ethos that is both cause and effect of this catastrophe is intimately intertwined with a long history of white supremacist dominion over colonized space—a fact that stands out more prominently in the U.S. Southwest in general, where a strong, spatially-segmented Red and Brown presence makes the artificiality of it all more ostensible.

I’m learning, through one of the most extreme examples possible, what it means to suffer through suburban alienation (something I see as linked to contemporary neoliberal gentrification for numerous reasons).

It is this notion of owning or occupying a private space of “your own,” the emphatic American ideal of home ownership, that marks what race scholar George Lipsitz calls the ‘possessive investment in whiteness.”

It is an investment that produces clear spatial consequences: gated communities on one end, criminalized black and brown communities on the other. As we see in cities around the world, these ‘othered’ urban spaces are increasingly targeted as domestic threats under national security policing.

The surrealness of having been transplanted from the Brooklyn barrio to this ultra-ritzy beachside suburbia is one that never escapes me, for I am constantly reminded of the ways in which I don’t belong.

For instance, my beat-up, used 2001 Honda Civic garners the attention of police in a neighborhood where new sports cars and militarized BMW’s are the norm. (To say nothing of my first six, car-less months, during which I experienced street harassment simply for waiting at a bus stop or walking on the sidewalk.)

In a similar vein, as a low-income graduate student paradoxically living in an affluent area, I frustratingly find that my nearest options for food and services (like haircuts) are incredibly overpriced.

The signs are both subtle and not-so-subtle. The environment makes it clear that I don’t belong here.


Whether we speak of suburban, academic, or neoliberal alienation, the same holds true with respect to geography: spaces can become alienating and confining, even carceral, in the absence of community and genuine social ties.

If there is something that my experience has foregrounded, it’s the nature of the way postmodern geographies can be alienating and surreal in numerous ways: whether it takes a cosmopolitan, suburban or exurban form, there are simply exponential ways in which one can feel excluded and distanced.

It is a reality that also brings me backs to my former ethical reflections on resistance vs. acceptance: Up to what point should we continue to fight to shape our local spaces, fight to build and sustain geographies of radical democracy and freedom (in a spirit similar to geographer Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the ‘right to the city’)?

On the other hand, at what point must the atomized self relinquish designs on radical reconstruction of space in order to seek out a path of radical acceptance? Or is the question of resisting/accepting alienating geographies merely reproducing a tautology of sorts?

Finally: Can one find home anywhere? If a homeland can’t be reclaimed in a physical geography, how useful and necessary is it to search for home internally (mentally, spiritually, psychically)?

To seek, in other words–in the tackiest of terms–a home at heart?

Reflections on Disability, Capitalism, and Time

In Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Philosophical Musings on March 23, 2015 at 9:00 AM

“Don’t worry, it’ll happen. Just give it some time.”

“But you’re so young. You’ve got plenty of time to try things out.”

“We’re young, though. We’ve got plenty of time before we have to deal with that.”

As a single young adult with an invisible, chronic degenerative condition, these are some of the most unnerving comments that I hear all the time, however banal and unordinary they seem. I hear them especially as a first-year graduate student, a time when the possibilities are supposedly vast and unpredictable, if not entirely “endless.” And as a twentysomething, I have these comments directed at me both from other young adults as well as those who are older, often with the assumption that age is inherently synonymous with a range of life opportunities that are only possible because of time.

To me, such comments are illustrative of how a certain normative standard of temporality is so consistently invoked, rendered so commonplace, that it is beyond noticeability or scrutiny. Unless we’re confronted with clear, visible instances of a bifurcated futurity in youth—say, someone with a terminable health condition—we generally go about our day with unquestioned and prefabricated assumptions about how human life should unfold across our linear version of time.

There are, of course, obvious exceptions and counterarguments, such as that neither youth nor old age are the same for everyone, across all geographical and cultural contexts. We see instances of how standardized periodizations of age are called into question, for example, when examining the culturally divergent definitions of ‘adulthood’—of what it constitutes and when it starts—or the social construction of adolescence. But the dominant time and age-related assumptions are nevertheless there, codified into our social institutions and reproduced in our colloquial expectations.

Although we are conditioned into thinking of it as an absolute and natural given, a mere backdrop against which social events unfold, I would agree with others that time, like space, is socially constructed. We’ve made decisions on how to read it–say, along axes of terrestrial movements using a sexagesimal system and a Gregorian calendar—and how such time is to be “spent” (an allusion to the naturalized connection between productivity, consumption, and time). Histories are made and remade, and our relationship to them shapes our sense of the future as well as our identities and experiences in the present.

And as with other facets of our social existence, the political economy has been instrumental to the ways we conceptualize time, humanity, and the trajectories of life. It’s worth remembering that the production of our first time-telling instruments was driven, in large part, by the needs of agricultural production. The advent of capitalism accelerated the changes as efficiency, productivity, and time became especially intertwined—a fact that was well noted by the so-called founders of sociology, particularly Marx, Weber, and Simmel.

I bring up this social history to highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of how we temporalize life into discrete parameters and periodizations that are far from “natural.” Capitalist time has performed an incredible feat in measuring virtually everything against time-based markers of efficiency, a fact seen most cruelly today in the way neoliberal logic uses quantifiable metrics to convert schools into test-taking factories, bodies into malleable overtime engines, and brains into calculating computers. Even in our dominant allopathic healthcare, the logic of capitalist time is used in the treatment of bodies as machines, with an increasing trend toward “specialization” turning organs or bodily systems into isolatable cogs and pinwheels.

For people with disabilities or chronic conditions, such parsing of time under this logic continually works against us as our bodies are said to “betray” us. We internalize the idea of failure when we can’t all measure up to the same standards of productivity and efficiency, and rather than devoting our limited energies to living life within a still-enriching range of possibilities, we are punished through de facto institutions of punishment and control: incarceration, hospitalization, or a regulatory “welfare” and its inordinate criteria of eligibility. (Those institutions, as it turns out, have their own alternate temporalities that involve “checking out” from the typical spatial and temporal conditions of the working masses.)

That said, when speaking of the ways in which time doesn’t “work in my favor,” I speak of the perverse ways in which social institutions and everyday expectations of normalized life trajectories make it difficult to live life with my particular set of abilities, skills, and interests. Being coerced into making decisions that align with certain pre-planned futurities, I find it difficult to peg any decisions around future-bounded notions of “climbing the ladder” or “starting the journey” of a career—not to mention those temporalized notions of partner-finding and family-making—when I can’t even be certain of my ability to wake up or pull myself out of bed the next morning. Living with a degenerative condition, I exist in a much different temporality marked by daily, sometimes hourly, unpredictabilities–a temporality that relates unevenly with the presumed “willing and able” logic of long-term work projects or social expectations. Given the nature of the condition, I’m unlikely to see the sort of “rewards,” like certain job opportunities or social accomplishments, that capitalist time tells us to wait for.

Sure, we can talk about how such “uncertainty” is true for all of us, that we can all get struck by a bus tomorrow. But with a disabling chronic condition, those questions of the future are always weighted against the very real possibilities of a changing body in an unaccommodating world. Although I have dreams for the future like everyone else, when I’m reminded of how my in-pained present was the future at one point, I’m also reminded that the future is far from being a limitless or delayable abstraction.

Indeed, it is this tendency toward ‘delay’ that permeates our social life that I see as pivotally hinged to the logic of capitalist time. We justify excessive and exploitative work conditions in the present using obscure promises based on ‘delayed’ rewards and ambiguous futures. (“Don’t worry, you continue working this hard, and you’ll get there.”) We ‘delay’ our attention to issues like climate change or death-promoting destruction in the global south, pointing to all the work that needs to be done before we get to those luxurious issues. If we only had all the time in the world, we would provide that helping hand.

All of which leads me to wonder: why are we so busy in the first place?

Oh, right. All that work.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time "running out" uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time “running out” uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

The Overwhelming Present: On Having Too Much To Write About

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Creative Writing, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Intersectionality on May 26, 2014 at 12:55 PM
"It burns the thing inside it. And that thing screams." - "An Agony. As Now." by Amiri Baraka

“Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,
white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.
It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton
you recognize as words or simple feeling.”
– “An Agony. As Now.” by Amiri Baraka

 

Over the past year I’ve come to realize that my constant hesitation to write emanates not so much from anxiety or deep-seated insecurity, but from an overwhelming sense that there’s way too much shit to write about. If you’ve ever had to make a list of all the possible topics you could speak, write, or blog about, then you might have a sense of what I mean here.

Just the other day, heading back home from work in an hour-long trek from one part of Brooklyn (Bushwick) to another (Sunset Park), I was engaged in my most common activity: sitting, thinking, dwelling on issues that seem insurmountable. Even indescribable. Just the thought of putting these experiences and thoughts into writing was exhausting.

******************

For me, there’s an almost-insurmountable catatonia that comes with writing about the struggles of the everyday. Where to begin? After all, the elusive present is hard to understand without an acknowledgment of history. Do I cherry-pick old historical events, like the wave of destruction that swept over the Arawaks of the Bahamas when Columbus landed his avaricious gold-seeking feet? Do I speed through Manifest Destiny and slavery-fueled industrialization? Or the reproduction of urban savagery a lá Robert Moses and red-lining and… Or do I begin with what I’m seeing right now in 2014: the drastic efflux of white (with the ever-so-often black, brown, and yellow-hipster) faces walking past me at the subway stop near my job.

Goddamn. In a mere six years, the social landscape of this neighborhood has changed at a terrifying pace.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). Neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

A view of Bushwick (foreground) and a violet-lit Empire State Building (background). The multi-story condo to the left was opened just a few years ago and already suggests near-full occupation. Indeed, neoliberal urban colonization (aka gentrification) has a surreality to it that is hard to capture solely with words.

 

In a world with too many wars to fight, to many colonnades to dismantle, reality is jarring. And at the end of the day, here I am…sitting inside a train. Zig-zagging my way out of Brooklyn, then back again. Joining up again where the political meets the personal.

I still have to deal with soul-crushing limitations. Trying to live like a revolutionary in a neoliberal age, my mind slumped after a night of teaching in impossible circumstances. And as much as I wanted to scream, a bourgeois sentiment in me also wanted to make demands and compelling critiques. But the number of topics I could potentially write about (that were also personally embroiled) were staggering:

  • I can write about gentrification, urbanization, and settler-colonialism in the United States. Using the example of Bushwick or Sunset Park to demonstrate how gentrification—a term that has been popularized in the left and right to the point of losing considerable political valence—is really just another iteration of white supremacist, urban colonization. Even in cases where the gentrifiers and the gentrified come from similar ethnoracial backgrounds, a similar logic of invasion, plunder, and proselytization operates, often with indirect repercussions to communities of color.
  • I can write about the linkages between police brutality, mass incarceration, and the reciprocal relationship between carceral regimes and capitalist development (including criminalization and its association with gentrification in Brooklyn).
  • I can write about the struggles of adult education programs, or the constant struggles and physical and cultural violence experienced by my transnational, multi-status immigrant students. The unique, indescribable experience of being a teacher at the crossroads.
  • I can write about the insidiousness of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), its ableist romanticization of long hours, commitment, and passion. Its coercive management of dissent. The funneling of revolutionary momentum into the rat race of data-driven bureaucracy.
  • Then there’s the fact that I often feel like I’m being ping-ponged between the NPIC and the (bio)medical-industrial complex. As if I wasn’t already drowning in paperwork and numbers, I also have to keep track of my co-pays, premiums, medications, and insurance policies. I have to manage a deeply crippling, mysterious condition (chronic pain) layered upon another (multiple sclerosis). I have to deal with doctors’ racisms, insensitivities, and general misunderstanding. I have to deal with pharmacists and insurance reps and union reps and social workers and disability lawyers. More days than I can count, I am filled to the brim with sadness and fury and hopelessness.
  • I can write endlessly about what it’s like to live with pain, all forms of spiritual, existential, psychological, physical, collective, or intergenerational pain. And the wisdom that pain provides.
  • I can also join the graduate student-blogger bandwagon and write about my detachment from academia (here comes another industrial complex: the academic IC). I can write about my alienation as an economically precarious “millennial,” or write about intersectionality and identity through the lens of a crippled, queer cisgender working-class man of color.

For me, it feels like the possibilities are endless. I can write substantially about any and all of these things—not simply because they seem fascinating, but because they are integral to my everyday material experience. But unlike those who have the luxury of waging war in one or two battlefronts, I’m living in sheer and utter political cacophony, living with the threat of debt, hunger, and detonations of pain. I’m forced to deal with an amalgam of interrelated injustices, not simply an isolated cause or issue of the moment.

******************

Fact is, no one embodies single-issue politics; but for some, the layering of oppressions is too adamant, too imperious, to conveniently omit in any writing of personal experiences. For how have I become the sort of subject, the sort of human that I am today were it not for a constellation of experiences that is simply more than the sum of its parts? While disembodied scholarship coercively tempts us into partitioning our lives like specimens under a microscope, life teaches us how beautifully, sometimes agonizingly, complex and unpredictable the world must be.

Glancing back at this list, I am reminded of how overwhelming it all is. It is overwhelming to be alive today—and most of us ignore the telltale signs (sometimes out of necessity). Living through the tyrannies of a globalized capitalist order, sensing that the orderliness of modern civilization, urbanization, and economic development is actually more mythology than a worthwhile endeavor. Putting our bodies through cruel regimens of poorly cooked, chemical-ridden foods and substances while working until we literally drop. Or resorting to a jaw-dropping level of consumption of entertainment, drugs, and alcohol to deal with the pain of isolation. Or lest we forget the weight of ruptured, dismembered, or even annihilated communities and histories.

******************

Reflecting on the obstacles to produce through writing, I recognize how frighteningly obvious some of the “internal” ones are. With my eyes looking straight ahead to an impending life in grad school, I’m reminded of what Andrea Smith has written about with respect to the academic industrial complex:

“A phenomenon that results from academia’s myth of meritocracy is that scholars feel an undue burden to prove their brilliance. They can never take short cuts. They cannot publish anything unless it is perfect. Consequently, it takes many scholars an inordinate amount of time to finish their work because they suffer from excessive anxiety attacks as to whether or not their contributions are going to be sufficiently brilliant to warrant their publication.”

This resonates: I can be a perfectionist and hesitate to print or publish anything that doesn’t conform to a standard I’ve created for myself. I am also fearful of being “too public” with my thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and fear their resultant social repercussions. I fear being stigmatized, or analyzed, or romanticized and co-opted by well-meaning liberals. I also fear not articulating myself in a way that reflects how I truly think or feel—something that becomes particularly salient in my life with chronic fatigue. Even as I write this, I am constantly redacting my statements, cognizant of the critiques (feeling more surveilled than an object of the Panopticon state)….

Of course, the joint effect of these fears is to avoid writing altogether, with only an inkling that perhaps one day I can do so at a difficult convergence of free time, good health, good energy, and “feeling inspired.”

******************

So, to what extent are these barriers psychological/individual vs. systemic? And to what extent are these barriers that I have agency over? I don’t think I’ll ever develop a satisfying response to those questions, but I’m very much aware of how I’ve come full circle since my very first blog post on overcoming writing paralysis.

I still believe in the importance of writing, and speaking out against all forms of violence. I even see the importance of writing within political projects, even if those projects cannot be reduced solely to an ideological exercise.

But it’s fucking hard to put all the pieces together, to synthesize an amalgam of experiences that often feel too disjointed and irregular and incredibly messy. Sometimes it’s too much work to synthesize and create a story that fictionalizes a union of the world’s haphazard parts.

And while it’s generally hard for most people to find the time and space to write, the challenges are exponentially worse when you have to struggle with pain, fatigue, and brain fog.

Yet, none of that is to render invisible a more basic conundrum: There is too much shit going on in the world. There is too much shit going on in my life. There are too many fucking things to write about.

Yes, there is way too much shit. 

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.  What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

View of Chinatown from the Manhattan Bridge.
What life in the city feels like to me, all at once: ever-moving, exciting, imprisoning, chaotic, indecipherable.

That Thing About May Day

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, Identity Politics, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on May 1, 2014 at 2:34 AM

Image           There’s something about May Day that still does it for me. Jaded as I am about many of the current leftist political formations in the U.S.—with its constant back-and-forth wrangling around sometimes tepid, sometimes fascist, routines around political correctedness and “privilege”–I still find myself drawn to the basic message of the big ol’ General Strike. As I re-examine the May Day poster circulated by Dignidad Rebelde two years ago at a peak of revolutionary revival, there is something very material, very real, very primal about its messaging: “TOMA LAS CALLES” and “Ni Trabajo, Ni Escuela, Ni Compras, Ni Actividades Bancarias” (“Take the Streets” and “No Work, No School, No Shopping, No Banking”).

I’m torn, however, by a confluence of different thoughts and feelings that have arisen from a decade of community organizing and nearly three years of chronic pain. In thinking about the post-Occupy landscape of New Left movements and their linkage to the radical origins of May Day, I feel a faint nostalgia and sense of loss. Behind me are the days of organizing against gentrification or police occupation or wage theft …and ahead? After all is said and done, where has my endless critique taken me?

Into this downward spiral, I wonder:

  • Where am I in this new swirl of discombobulated movement activity?
  • How did I survive a traumatic autoimmunological assault on my midbrain, the torture of endless head pounding, and a dragnet that nearly sucked me into a suicidal black hole?
  • How did I survive the soul-crushing loneliness wrought by my positionality as a sick and queer working-class second-generation immigrant with roots in the global south?

These questions have plagued me in such a way that they challenge my pursuit of an impermanence-appreciating dharmic temporality. I become lost in this haze of old wounds and a pessimism about the future. And as another May Day rolls along, I am made aware of the stark reality: I have become another one of those revolutionaries who receded into the shadows. The disaffected New York City leftist.

But maybe there’s room to hope. After all, May Day has something to it, something that captivates my often-schismatic and contradicatory personas and sensibilities.  Being a bit older and weighed down by a baggage of pain-induced awareness, I appreciate the simplicity of a call to take the streets and stop working. In a city like New York, it’s simple…yet complicated.

The geographer geek in me also realizes the importance of claiming public space in a city wrecked by incessant privatizations and realtor usurpations. In a time when political questions around space have commanded the public imagination, when neoliberal gentrification has turned neighborhoods into warzones, and when Facebook event invites have become poor substitutes for wheat pasting and door-knocking …there’s just something about an event that does the damn job of bringing workers, immigrants, students, and the unemployed together into the same physical space. In an alienated metropolis like New York, where “business as usual” foments multiplicative forms of postmodern isolation (I think of spiraling “intersectional” subject formations and cyber-addictive social withdrawal), there’s something powerful in simply standing our ground, together, in a space we can claim.

Image

Two Years ago at Union Square

After all, how often to the disparate groups of the New York Left—separated by ideologies, positionalities, boroughs and neighborhoods—physically congregate? For all its ugly shortcomings, I think my slight nostalgia for old labor politics stems from a basic appreciation of taking the streets. And although many rallies at Union Square are admittedly redundant and stale, I appreciate the importance of such convergence. Even if only temporarily, the centrifugal machine-logic of the city is arrested as otherwise far-flung people chant, commiserate, gossip, and bullshit.  Even when the chants become repetitive to the point of irrelevance, it is the very real, material gathering of people that sparks possibility. For who knows what will spark the next revolutionary moment?

I might have become disillusioned with many things, but I also understand that the ongoing capitalist wreckage won’t be stalemated by cynicism. Neither will it be arrested by an imprisoned imagination or a blasé mentality. And it most certainly won’t happen with business as usual.

Image

Pigs protecting the heart of the heart of capitalism: Wall Street.

How Chronic Pain Made Me a Misanthropist

In Chronic Pain, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Identity Politics, Life with Chronic Illness on August 14, 2013 at 8:59 PM

living with chronic head pain

When living with chronic pain, it’s funny how you can find joy in the most mundane things. Like being able to go out for a walk. Or waking up not wanting to squeeze your pillow in god-forsaken agony. Lately, I’ve been feeling even well enough to socialize. That’s a big one in my world.

Except that even socializing is fraught with obstacles. And I don’t mean those of the actual living-with-bodily-pain kind. I’m referring to the sort of inertia that needs to be overcome when you’ve been as socially reclusive for as long as I have. Having never been a social butterfly or a happy-go-lucky type, being struck with something like chronic pain makes the task of socializing all the more cumbersome. Here’s a list of obstacles that I need to overcome in a social encounter, many of which are quite common regardless of your current health status, and some of which many of you will never deal with if you’re lucky:

  • Explaining, in spite of your bourgeois academic credentials, that you’ve been unemployed for four months and (even worse) haven’t so much as attempted a job search.
  • Explaining that, yes, you still live in your parent’s basement in an area you actually despise. And that, in fact, you don’t get along with your parents and actually hardly ever talk to them.
  • Explaining why, while technically living in a large metropolis, you hardly ever go out—even on weekends.
  • Explaining that your last job was a complete shit show and that you lasted as long as you did because of health issues.
  • Explaining to certain people why you’ve lost as much weight as you have. Or, to certain other people, why you’ve gained weight. And aggravatingly trying to remember who saw you when.
  • Explaining the trajectory of your condition(s) to people you haven’t seen in years, sometimes even months.
  • Explaining why your “condition” does not conform to any conventional understanding of illness. Whether or not they completely get it, you need to ensure they at least understand that it’s invisible, hard-to-treat, and incredibly unpredictable. (This is the world of chronic pain, folks.)
  • Explaining that you’ve been too hopeless or nihilistic at times to dabble in dreams about “the future.”

All of these interactions, of course, pertain to dealing with people I have met previously and actually like. This is not to even mention the various ways in which you have to tread inexcusably naïve or insensitive questions like, “Have you tried [treatment of choice]?” or “What’s your plan now [that you’re unemployed]?” Needless to say, the interactions with people you don’t like, don’t know, or both, are even worse. (And chances are, I’ve likely fantasized about the hundreds of ways in which to cause these hateful, hateful people the utmost displeasures.)

None of this is to abnegate the incredible privileges I’ve had (e.g. a roof over my health, economically supportive and unquestioning parents, and yes, my bourgie college degree). But living with chronic pain and chronic fatigue really sucks. Really FUCKING SUCKS. Most especially the chronic pain. It makes the simplest, otherwise innocuous moments, like walking the dog, doing laundry, or making a trip to see a friend, incredibly difficult if not impossible. And if you have politics like mine, you start to see how incredibly loaded even the most basic interactions are.

[A quick disclaimer: I’m definitely not apologetic for not making an effort to stay in touch with people. I have enough on my plate to deal with.  And, I ask myself: if they cared so much, why didn’t they make the effort to come see me? Perhaps they don’t think something as innocent-sounding as “chronic pain” merits the sort of attention that a truly serious condition does.  If you have this mentality, well, then, I say: fuck you.]

Outrage aside, there’s a sad part to this equation, which is the gradual (perhaps not-so-gradual) process of reclusion that whittles down your number of friends. To understand how this works, just think about the sort of nuisances someone with chronic pain likely has to deal with. The fact that pain is “invisible” means people will absentmindedly demand or expect certain things of you, such as an expense report, a “light” conversation, or an ability to stand inside a bus. This can true even if you have other conditions that are visible. And although pain is typically thought of as being externally manifest when one makes classical signs of grimacing and such, even these gestures tend to be ignored by people (and most heartbreakingly by loved ones).

People with chronic pain typically need to work, commute, and buy groceries just like everyone else. They may even be very socially active. And you probably see or even know plenty of folks with chronic pain, even if you don’t know of their pain.

For me, “un-friendization” happened faster than I could have anticipated. It was partly facilitated by the fact that I live in a far-flung area of an already disconnected New York City, and partly by the fact that I fell sick during a transitional time in my life when I was still making friends (I was 23 at the time). If the above list of obstacles resonates at all, it’s probably worth emphasizing that it is only specific to social, not physical, hurdles and is not inclusive of other issues that might make the already difficult process of “staying in touch” awkward or difficult (such as my queerness or ever-evolving leftist politics). It’s not even a comprehensive list within these parameters.

Having given up on a pursuit of connecting with “new” people (including potential dates), there are still challenges to just maintaining friendships. For sure, there are the obvious physical limitations: when you have an intractable, unpredictable hammer-like pounding pain inside your head, you’re grateful if you can even leave your bed to take a piss. But even on those hard-to-predict good days, I’m likely not wanting to mess it up by having an intensely awkward and blood-boiling conversation with a “well-intentioned” friend who either 1) doesn’t know or 2) doesn’t get it.

All things considered, the whole friendship* thing seems hardly compatible with chronic pain. No doubt about it: it’s simply lonely as fuck. And unfortunately, this is a rather common predicament for people who have difficult-to-treat chronic pain. It doesn’t surprise me at all when I read that depression and suicidality are substantially higher for us pain-afflicted folks. (And as far as long-term outcomes are concerned, it definitely doesn’t help that our “advanced” western medicine hasn’t found a reliable treatment for it.)

And before you think of some suggestion of “seeking out a community that understands,” maybe you should do yourself a favor and actually read up on chronic pain first. It wouldn’t be crippling, chronic pain if you could easily get up and walk/drive/commute to places where such supposedly understanding people exist. It wouldn’t be crippling, chronic pain if it didn’t leave you feeling powerless and voiceless at least some of the time.

So, yeah, I’ll continue to “reconnect” with people. But it’s with a certain level of acceptance that most of them will never get it.

chronic-pain-graphic

*To be clear, although chronic pain might make it hard to socialize, it’s definitely not impossible (given that the pain is within tolerable limits). Also, chronic pain can also facilitate stronger ties to people you rely on and trust—even if it means losing those superfluous “friends” you only hung out with at the bar. This said, however, it could still end up making you hate everyone outside this inner circle of trust.

ChangeLab

Strategy, Research & Vision for Racial Justice

National Pain Report

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

andrea smith's blog

The 18 year plan to end global oppression

PhD(isabled)

What it's like doing a PhD with disability or chronic illness

Enero Zapatista

desde abajo y a la izquierda

Leila's blog

a blog on popular struggles, human rights and social justice from an anti-authoritarian perspective

Noticiero Agencia 3

Sin Censura Informativa

Prensa Comunitaria Km. 169

Comunicación desde los pueblos en Guatemala

Siglo de Lucha

Journal of Chicano National Liberation

Soconusco News Network

Periodismo de investigación y análisis

Al ritmo político

En sintonía con la realidad

Tropics of Meta

historiography for the masses