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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.


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.

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.


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.


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

James Baldwin on the Nature of Dreams

In Creative Writing, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 2, 2013 at 5:15 PM

Today, on the anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth, I felt a need to say something about a man who is indisputably one of Amerika’s most influential writers. Although he was a queer black Amerikan who was so disaffected with Amerika that he expatriated france, his writings have had mass global appeal–a fact that speaks to his incredible finesse at capturing the struggles and hopes of black lives. For better or for worse, his writings still resonate with the racialized Amerika of today.

Since he’s one of my favorite fiction writers, I don’t think I can do any justice speaking for or about him. His novels, and his life more generally, encompass too many themes to adequately address here. But as someone who’s recently reflected a lot on the meaning of dreams, the necessity of dreams, I was particularly moved by an excerpt from one of his novels. As always, his wisdom diffuses past the page and into your soul, revealing the this ineluctable, blurry wall between fantasy and reality, hope and unease.

The world he describes is almost too real to bear. But that’s just how it is.

“The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters. He encounters, because he must encounter, those people who see his secrecy before they see anything else, and who drag these secrets out of him; sometimes with the intention of using them against him, sometimes with more benevolent intent; but, whatever the intent, the moment is awful and the accumulating revelation is an unspeakable anguish. The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world. But the aims of life are antithetical to those of the dreamer, and the teeth of the world are sharp.”
– from Another Country (1960)

Surviving Chronic Pain In the Age of Global Apocalypse

In Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on June 24, 2013 at 1:26 AM


As you read this, our world is under siege. Unmanned drones kill Third World civilians, industrial pollutants threaten cataclysmic super-storms, government-corporate coalitions displace the indigenous and disenfranchised from their homes. And powerful war-profiteering corporations join forces with the hegemonic surveillance state, creating a totalitarian regime that dominates through greed, terror, and ever-present instability.

If only we had opened our eyes wide enough, listened closely to the sounds of our whimpering Earth, we may have noticed the undeniable: Our world is poisoned. And by poison, I don’t just mean the stab wounds of our ozone layer or the rape of our terrestrial biodiversity. Our terrifying poison is an all-consuming, all-pervasive drug that has intoxicated even our most innocuous fantasies. It has the power to rend entire villages and centuries of tradition. And its seductive, ambrosial qualities infect the highest reaches of corporate-state bureaucracies, building a thirst for power that co-opts, distorts, and desecrates entire histories and labors of love. The imperial capitalism of which I speak, harkening back to the euphemistically dubbed ‘Age of Exploration’ and extending to the present-day global neoliberal order, has never been so mercurial, so efficacious, so omnipotent.

To succumb to hopeless resignation, however, is to feed ourselves into the fangs of the Establishment elite. For those of us who wage battle on the street, in the office, in the home—we are survivors of this centuries-old war, first waged against our ancestors to now become our most unwanted inheritance. And contrary to the actions and beliefs of many left-wing ideologues, this is not merely a war of ideas and abstractions. It is also a war against our livelihood, our spirits, even our bodies.

As we wage battles along multiple fronts (e.g. injustices in the realm of recognition politics, military violence and occupation, poverty and health care inequities, to name a few), a new form of bodily sickness has emerged and proliferated. These are the chronic diseases that are product of our industrialized age, an “externality” in the endless tampering and manufacture of synthetic compounds and the steady onslaught of contamination of air, soil, water, and lungs. As the drive for profit and power slowly destroy us all, chronic diseases are but the most prolonged, penultimate manifestations of this impending dissolution of our species. Chronic diseases are mockingly defiant of conventional medical interventions, are largely incurable and difficult to treat. They challenge our binaristic healthy-sick conceptions of embodiment and produce immeasurable suffering and morbidity. The naturalization of high prevalences for chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and a whole host of autoimmune conditions, can reasonably be attributed to a deliberate neglect by the corporatist state. Such diseases, after all, are the leading cause of mortality in the world, disproportionately afflict the poor and communities of color, and contribute to untold numbers of death, even in the global North. (In Amerikka, chronic illnesses reportedly cause about 70% of its deaths)


Chronic pain: a source of corporeal suffering, or a motive for spiritual enlightenment?

Salient among them are the syndromes of chronic pain. Accustomed to the day-to-day scrapes and bruises ubiquitous within the landscape of mortality, pain is often misconceived as being an exclusively acute, short-term experience that can be treated or resolved, organically through the self-healing body or through an artificial intrusion of medical technologies. But there is another reality to pain that has been with us throughout the history of our species, captured in our various literatures and languages and most ominous nightmares. It is the reality of chronic pain—a pain that is, by its very nature, so deeply personal that it eludes the empirical technologies of established modern biomedical institutions. As more and more people around the world can attest to, pain can most definitely be a persistent, long-lasting experience that can cripple you psychically, emotionally, spiritually. Chronic pain can rupture lives and long-lasting relationships. Chronic pain can challenge deep-seated notions of self and prompt a spiritual, existential quest for meaning. Chronic pain can render you helpless and hopeless. Chronic pain can render you formidable and wise.

As far as its underlying pathophysiology is concerned, chronic pain is, for all intents and purposes, an insurmountable enigma. Having perused medical and neuroscience textbooks, overly self-assured self-help books, and numerous philosophical and spiritual texts, I have realized that no amount of knowledge of the neuromechanics of pain will truly afford us access to the deeper phenomenology of this overpowering, individualized and individualizing experience. The very meanings of family and community are altered as a bodily self-alienation takes hold. In isolation and virtual silence, you must take up arms in an epic, life-long battle that pits “you” against the pain-ridden body. And the disruptions are as evident as the heat of the sun. Chronic pain syndromes profoundly limit your engagement in social life, posing yet another obstacle in your struggle for liberation. Such a sinister impediment can even preclude your participation in the resistance movements against hegemonic regimes and the macro-violence(s) of the state, multinational corporations, bio-medical industrial complexes, and the various interlocking systems of oppression—all of which, in their totality, were the likely manufacturers of your disease to begin with.

Surviving chronic pain today is, in the midst of global apocalypse1, a profoundly psychological and corporeal odyssey. If anything truly dismantles the viability of Cartesian mind-body duality in the legacies of the “West,” it is most certainly the phenomenon of pain. A truly distinctive, subjective experience, pain defies compartmentalization. When it comes to pain, there is no one structure that the Foucauldian “medical gaze” can isolate, analyze, classify, and pathologize. (At least, not with our current devices.) Yet for those who are revolution-prone, the aggravating dialectic between the personal and political becomes disproportionately magnified before the tortures of pain. Between one’s phenomenological experience of pain on the one hand, and the disturbances to freedom and harmony induced by myopic capitalist self-interests on the other, personal resources and the will to live take preeminence and are often exhausted without a source of replenishment. An ideological debate around the importance of entrepreneurialism or the relevance of historical materialism simply disintegrate in the face of this most real, most compromising, of embodied experiences.

There is something almost mystical about pain, something that surrenders no secrets in its apparent simplicity. Wherever it emerges, pain is pain, simple and true. It is a distinctively organic experience that many of us believe precedes the evolution of our species. It is linked to the vastly intricate webbings of a poorly-understood nervous system. And in its ever-primordial phenomenology, it even transcends the constructed histories of imperial civilizations and the blood-stained conquests of the oppressor. That pain has been a salient motif in the literatures of disparate civilizations, across different epochs and generations, makes it seem—if anything accomplishes this in the postmodern zeitgeist—universal to the human experience. This is made all the more remarkable given that, among those it tortures, pain bears an indescribably individualized, unshareable and unknowable quality that strangely complements its power to unite and annihilate at once. Even in the absence of conscious access to the phenomenology of another’s pain, we’ve still managed to produce an intersubjective consensus on its existence.

To live with chronic pain is to be a survivor among war-weary heroes. Although I vehemently disagree with Nietzsche’s oft-quoted assertion, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” I nevertheless agree with the notion of honoring the integrity of our freedom fighters. And in our Age of Apocalypse, chronic pain may just be the vehicle of “disclosure” our world needs in the fight for the liberation—a fight that is encapsulated, in more spiritual terms, by the concept of moksha (“liberation” in Sanskrit, as in the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). In my more optimistic moods, I hold out hope that the chronic pain that currently holds me back from the battle lines of revolutionary resistance will, in the end, provide me with a moral and spiritual guidance that brings me to that coveted goal of freedom. After all, isn’t liberation from mortal suffering a mutual goal of radicals and spiritualists alike?2 And can pain, in its alpha-and-omega Vishnu form, with roots in both the body and mind, dissolve this oppressively deceptive and imprisoning binary? What better way to transcend the superficialities of our constructed socialities than to “accept” (put link to other post) the unavoidable, not-easily-distractible realities of pain and concomitant suffering?

So while our world seems to be going to shit, with all aspects of life being infected and polluted by the products of our hubris, it makes a lot of damn sense that many of us would fall victims to the world’s growing pains. Quite literally. And this is not, of course, to imply that the material suffering of people the world over is an inevitable, cosmic tragedy of which we’re simply pawns. However often it leads us astray, our agency is a core component of our humanity—the very humanity we have to embrace if we are to reclaim our freedom.  We created this mess. And now Apocalypse rains heaviest on the most oppressed, the most marginalized, and the least responsible.

Those of us with chronic pain must somehow survive amid the chaos and destruction that is fundamentally unjust. And while we’re forced into surviving against difficult odds, why not embrace a Hope that is, in Freirean terms, our “ontological necessity”? After all, if we’re to survive, we need to embrace an optimism about a life under siege. What better way to do this than to hope that, one day, our knowledge as the oppressed will become the beacon to a new, freer, and more humane society? Our knowledge will unveil the hollow promises that poorly disguise the glorified ethos of the self-interested consumer. Our knowledge will unveil the enormity of the violence wielded at the hands of imperial, expansionist capital in the service of a tiny, global elite. Our knowledge will unveil what is truly behind those hegemonic fantasies of the fetishized Commodity: the blood-stained walls of our prison cells. And it is our embodied knowledge that will break those walls.

So, yes, we have a lot of pain in this world. But if, or when, we must recollect the pieces of a humbled humanity, it is us, the survivors, who will need to educate ourselves about a better way.


Such an apocalypse need not necessarily denote “the end of the world,” as is often implied in casual conversations. Etymologically speaking, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek apokályptein, to “uncover.” As such, “apocalypse” can be re-interpreted as signifying a “revelation,” “disclosure,” or “uncovering” that develops at a critical juncture in human history—such as the climate catastrophe currently unfolding from the persistent onslaught of industrial pollutants and human-made distortions of the natural environment.

This is quite arguable, but nevertheless a parallel I felt necessary to make. I suppose some could disagree and say that, rather than running away from suffering, we should be embracing what is possibly a necessary, perhaps noble, experience. Even so, if you accept this sort of spiritual reasoning, the ultimate telos of the suffering experience itself is freedom and bliss in the after-world.

Additional worthwhile articles exploring the linkages between chronic pain and capitalism:

Living with Chronic Pain ‘In the Kingdom Of The Sick 

Sick of capitalism: the chronically ill body as a site of resistance

Capitalism Makes Me Sick

And just for general clarification from the mainstream medical community: WebMD’s Info on Chronic Pain

David A. Shirk

Associate Professor, Political Science, University of San Diego

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Caroline's HSCT stem cell transplant for MS 2017

A month at Clinica Ruiz in Mexico to stop MS

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Todd will no longer be posting on this site. Please visit

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