Ida-Verné Stanfield

A Lullaby


ISSUE 25 | CONSERVATISM AND REACTION | FEB 2013

We oppress in a way we cannot pay for
in any direct or meaningful way. All is fake.

Why should we awake?

—Jennifer Moxley “The Price of Silence”

Why should I awake, when it is so undemanding to lie here planning my daily vanities, the broad strokes of reason and opinion I will make as I watch friends and acquaintances demonstrate the contradictions inherent in companionship, the flights of memory I will take in attempts to turn wan impressions into truly lovely poetries, all the time craving the swell of pride that comes every time a friend of mine sees the result and thus sees me rise to one of these “heights” of being? Why leave behind the amaranthine potential of this reality, where even knowledge of my body is of secondary importance as I dream myself to be the better world I can’t bring myself to fight for? Why wake, when waking promises confrontation with the forces of the present, actual world, and in it those whose disagreement with me as to the proper shape of this generation’s teleological outlook is a disagreement over who gets to be a human being in our nation’s future? Why should I wake, how can I wake when the conversation itself feels as if it is a mere pretext, that which gets us both in the room so that one of us may be erased? That is, how can I wake, just so that I may be reduced to Audience for the spectacle of an interlocutor’s self-actualization, that I may be reduced to a mere occasion for a performance which distracts the actor from the solipsism which necessitates it?

In general terms this is to be made Other and to have one’s self-determination frustrated. I experience it in my own life as having my silence frustrated and being made unwilling subject to a deeply pervasive and unwanted compassion for my oppressor, which, being unwanted, leads, in the labyrinths of my mind, to a kind of sadism. I’ve traced these frustrations to my earliest performances1, where I embodied idealistic conviction, rebellion, and mysticism.2 There, on the stage of my inexperience, was a loudness that drowned out my doubts, contradictions and weaknesses, those things that define a human being as human and therefore flawed, mortal and limited. It is the human task to let the volume fade and begin to hear and respond to these qualities, for it is through them that real connection is made—that is, we learn to find silence that we may listen and, in doing so, craft a more complex and able self, a self which has a real chance of getting past her solipsism.

To say that I am only beginning to begin is to flatter myself with imagined progress. The task of cultivating silence and facing one’s own humanity is arduous and often embarrassing even when one has generous friends whose own performances guide the way. Yet, this task is often made still harder when, sharing the stage with an oppressive interlocutor, confronting each other, performances confronting each other, they, apparently terrified of the possibility of co-mingling our respective quiets, raise their performance to the level of spectacle to drown out my silence as much as their own. For if I cannot introspect, all I can do is watch and my undivided attention is their sustenance. Not all interlocutors are like this, but of those that are there is a palatable loneliness to their oppression, a sense of I-am-not-until-someone-listens-but-no-one-has-ever-wanted-to-listen. They are lost in the contradiction of chasing rumors of intimacy in such a way as to continually lose sight of their partners in a fog of self-assertion. Despite myself, I can’t help but feel for them, and therein lies the rub, for to be aware that they are human, and thus broken yet still breakable, feels like a responsibility to help them where they cannot help themselves. This is deeply problematic, since I am already feeling oppressed by them and even more so, because I see them as human (flawed, mortal, limited) where they are unwilling to see themselves as such, a blindness which is the antecedent to their oppressive performance. Compassion here becomes the mechanism by which I internalize my own objectification. Thus sadism, the enjoyment that comes when they must from time to time cease performing in order to sob. The sweetness of those moments comes from their knowing, however briefly, that they are human and thus sparing me their spectacle. Theoretically, I should then return to parsing my own script in peace and satisfaction, but alas, again despite myself, I feel for this an even more intensified compassion, which is this time tinged with guilt. This compassion, like the other, again begets frustrated sadism. I therefore find myself in a loop, which I’d very much prefer to sleep through.

 


 

But what does it mean to sleep? As far as I have parsed, to sleep is simply to withdraw, though I do try to avoid the regression that ordinarily comes with this, regression that would in time make me not dissimilar to the spectacles I find myself too often subject to. Granted, I am being vague. Now, while any number of roommates and former friends appreciably come to mind, the most pregnant example I can offer is my relationship to activism and my country’s strange political discourse, which while increasingly liberal and politically generous, is also famously conservative. I know that when I, and those like me, attempt to perform the arias of our political realities, the spectacle we find ourselves confronted with is a brash conservatism, whose unhesitating exclusion sounds like a deafening, and for me, a soporific not-you.

Not-you? Not-me? Which not-me? There is the that of identity: being female, being gender-queer, being not exactly straight, being black, being an agnostic, being a lover of doubt, being a lover of rebellious, insightful intellectualism, being a lover. This is the not-me of current popular discourse and not-unjustified rage and reaction, and it is in every way a spectacle as I have here described. But it is not the only one, and it is not the cause of my current sleep. For that is rooted in the second not-me, that of existential guilt and grief, whence taking the stage together for a performance of our wills and ingenuity3, my conservative interlocutors and I improvise our lines within a single story. On that stage is an especially terrifying place to remember one’s human frailty, for doing so means facing the potential for failure, failure in which I will find my erasure reified in the law. However, even this is still not enough to sleep.

But facing it, facing failure is the first condition for hope and hope is desolation, for as it must “be like barbed wire to keep out despair, [it] must be a mine field.” That is, hope is a loudness, where no matter how introspective I was otherwise, this thing, hope, drowns out the possibility of connection. Furthermore, it remains so obnoxiously loud, despite my awareness of all this, and despite it no longer feeling like a defense against the consequences of failure, so much as a prison which keeps me from exploring the world on the other side of said failure. Surrounded as such by these “defenses,” my interlocutors seem less and less like flesh and blood humans. On this field they seem too distant to even be Audience. Instead, against the backdrop of this hopeful isolation, they are as mere ideas, rumors, and half-remembered but now neutered urgencies. In this isolation, even my allies don’t fare any better.4 And like that, I have tripped into becoming a sort of spectacle myself, regressing despite my best intentions. What other options do I have, but to fall asleep?

But, then again, why should this constriction be eternal? Why not abandon this hope for clear-eyed determination and thereby attempt to increase my proximity to the rest of my interlocutors, and return to them their realness and humanity? Perhaps, because on some level this prison is meant to restrain the sadism that I expect will arise at some point, if only in response to that other spectacle of exclusion concerning my identities. Or, perhaps, I experience this present separation as a loss, which therefore makes all of the people and things I am separated from, points of grief, guilt-ridden, self-inflicted grief. Whichever it is, the capacity for human suffering, much like the capacity for human cruelty, is indeed limited5 and, in regards to the former, my cup overfloweth, for it is too much to become a spectacle myself, despite understanding the mechanism that causes this. Thus I fall asleep, that I don’t have to grieve, because in my dreams I am not eternally alienated from my interlocutors (and therefore not from the world beyond them), for one must eventually come up against one’s stumbling stones, and even fall (though not fail) over them, for the “hero lives on; [and] even his downfall was merely a pretext for achieving his final rebirth.” That is, his downfall was merely a pretext for reconnection.

 


 

This has all been, of course, a lullaby, but one that I don’t presently know how to stop telling myself. If I were wise, I would here argue that one should objectify the spectacle itself and make it the Audience and occasion for a new mine and barbed-wire free field of connection. If I were wise, I would here argue for patience as the very gods would envy, and invite you dear reader to join me in becoming like the gatekeeper of Kafka’s “Before the Law,” as we outlast our stubborn, though inevitably cowardly personal failings. Unfortunately for both of us, I am not wise. I am, however, observant, curious and sometimes even playfully masochistic6, and, while I wait for someone else to benevolently wake me from this dream, these qualities have thus far been enough to craft old memories into artifacts of all the things I would have said, if I hadn’t somehow erased my conversation partner, and all the beautiful things I would have dreamt of and made, we would have dreamt of and made, just from struggling against each other. In this way, I at least keep myself occupied.


1 We all do, of course, perform as a function of figuring ourselves out. The difference between this performance and that which I have just demonized is one of degree, not kind. In the former we are trying to erase something of ourselves, while still accepting that the attention of whoever is watching is necessarily divided between our performance and their own. We here return this kindness by dividing our attention between them and ourselves. In the latter one is trying to erase something of the other, thinking that doing so will erase the problematic thing in themselves, and thus, because of this confused body schema, they crave undivided attention, which they cannot reciprocate. To put it another way and much more simply, a healthy performance still respects personal boundaries.

2 Had my upbringing and temperament leaned another way, I could have just as easily embodied responsibility, tough-mindedness, practicality, etc. The possible roles do seem endless sometimes as they encompass all of human activity.

3One that presumably will not devolve into a shouting contest.

4 However ironic this makes my position, as a result of this hopeful perversion, I had a visceral, not-me, or more honestly, please not-me, reaction to Occupy Wall Street, for though they ostensibly stand for my inclusion on both levels, the overwhelming hope I felt at their arrival served to intensify my feelings of desolation. Thus, I immediately felt alienated from them, which meant I started grieving for them before they even had a chance to fail. I continue to do so, often angrily, to this day.

5 As a real-world parallel, in the non-profit world, one must be careful of letting one’s solicitation campaigns induce compassion-fatigue. That is, if the giving public has already borne witness to (and opened their wallets for) a series of tragedies (e.g. an earthquake in one region, on the heels of two tsunamis in another), they will be increasingly less likely to give or give as much after additional tragedies (or shock-campaigns) occurring soon after.

6 Someone once theorized this to me as “sadism against the self.”


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