Solitude and “co-being”: connecting Russian and Rilke in becoming a scholar

In the fourth year of doing a PhD, different people come up into, and against, different feelings. Some become more invigorated, generating an ever-so-slight fullness of smile, a growing sense of purpose, of voice. Others seem bogged down, sagging under the weight of hours staring at one’s silly words, uncertain that anything will ever come of all of this fuss and pennilessness. Still others — many of us, myself included — traverse the space between these two poles, sometimes full up with both feelings and plenty more besides (like loneliness, acid reflux, 3rd-grader-ish pride, shoulder pain, delight at being in limbo and relatively unaccountable, unresolved desire for unspoken engagements, and so on). It’s an ambiguous, profound, alien time, much like childhood, in that no one can really track where you’re headed, as you stumble and clamor and climb up trees and over hills.

I attended a student working group with my advisor and several other of her advisees tonight. One of the group members presented his work, terrific research on social workers and the tension between their values and the structural and political realities that constrain and delimit ethical engagement with their practice. During the talk, the presenter offered the Russian word sobytie, which he translated to mean “event,” and connected it to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, philosopher of language and literary critic. Our advisor, who is from the former Soviet Union, offered more information about the word, stating that its literal meaning is “event,” yet it can be broken down into the elements so, meaning “co-,” and bytie, meaning “being,” and that “co-being” in Russian means that one’s existence is a shared ongoing experience. She explained that there are many Russian words like this, which begin with the prefix so, thus embedding the idea that communalism is a fundamental part of being human. An illuminating example of the fact that language can contain so much history, so much social vision, in a single word.

As a PhD student, it often feels that our “co-being” is diminished, as we tell our friends and family (and ourselves) that we’ll have to talk later because this paper is due or a presentation is impending. We are lonely, but we know it’s a loneliness that is relatively temporary (only 5-8 years or so) and in fact is required to discover the trees and hills we want to climb. I also think, though, that there is something transformative about this solitary life. It is a life of learning, and one where the companionship that bubbles up along the way features sharing of brilliant, thrilling dialogues and the hardest questions you’ve ever faced. Bohemian-Austrian Romantic Rainer Maria Rilke encapsulates this beautifully:

I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.


By Unknown – http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/Rilke,+Rainer+Maria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7279454

This is a comforting notion. It’s a bit extreme, I’ll admit — there are people I care very much about who are not on a quest to chart unseen worlds or pen unwritten words — but I like the idea of companionship in the tender, sometime darkly-lit explorations we do as doctoral students. It makes the mental calluses, the hiccuping sleep, the yawning uncertainty of the future, seem a bit more tolerable. It reminds us that exploring is a good way to make a life.


Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2007/10/rilkes-ninth-elegy.html (artist unknown)

 

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The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.

Immigrants can be funny

Weird post title, right? I’ll explain. It’s not typical to think of immigrants as funny, indeed, it’s rare to think of immigrants as individuals in general. They are a group of (usually) poorer, (usually) browner, (usually) slightly strange people who come to this country to live. They are people we see in the news being deported, protagonizing a human interest story, barely surviving the crossing of the Mediterranean from northern Africa, or representing a small yet economically valuable statistical minority in Silicon Valley. They are folks hard at work all around us in the local bodega, grocery store, corporate office, mostly invisible and mostly silent.

Well, Chinese immigrant Joe Wong is not silent. I found this video a couple of months ago and laughed my head off at Wong’s classic timing and word play, delivered with sharp political commentary on U.S. monolingualism, xenophobia, racism, and ignorance about people from other places that make the audience wriggle and chuckle. “Am I in on something?” they seem to be thinking. “And should I be laughing?” when Wong offers up lines like the following:

I’m an immigrant to this country and I used to drive a used car with a lot of bumper stickers that are impossible to peel off. And one of them said, “If you don’t speak English, go home.” And I didn’t know this for two years.

The question always remains: who is he making fun of? Offering himself up as the guy who isn’t sure if the audience can understand him when he speaks or the guy who naturalized to the U.S. because he couldn’t do the thing he did best in China (e.g., “being ethnic”), threading through Wong’s stand-up is the constant reference to the absurd, both in human existence as a whole as well as U.S. assumptions about the immigrant experience. The point? It always depends, and varies just as much as those stories and personalities we all treasure as distinctly our own. We can be brilliant, or dull, or oddballs, or politically incorrect and yet still funny people. So can immigrants.

One more excerpt from Wong (I’m chuckling as I transcribe):

In order for me to become a U.S. citizen, I had to take these American history lessons, where they asked us questions like, “Who’s Benjamin Franklin?” We’re like “uuuhhhh…the reason our convenience store gets robbed?”

“What’s the Second Amendment?” We’re like “uuuhhhhhh…the reason our convenience store gets robbed?”

“What is Roe v. Wade?” We’re like “uuhhhhhh…two ways of coming into the United States?”

Yep, nothing PC about Wong. He helps us to see that as far as immigrants are concerned, there’s a lot more than pity than we can experience, including discomfort, offense, and/or hilarity. For starters.

Captain America: belonging and fear in Prospect Park

I was walking through Prospect Park near where I’m staying this month in Brooklyn. As I turned a corner, I spotted several small tents with American flag patterns:

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I thought to myself, oh god, it’s a Trump rally. I’d just volunteered for Hilary Clinton the night before…would that show on my face? With the news about Donald Trump’s comment that “the Second Amendment people” could do something about Clinton should she appoint a pro-gun control judge to the Supreme Court, concerns about nationalistic demonstrations hung clearly in my mind. New York is blue, New York City is bluer, and Brooklyn is nearly indigo, but with money moving into the boroughs, you never know.

I kept moving and saw crowds of people standing in a small clearing, with police officers nearby. I spoke to two of them, asking what was going on. “Captain America. It’s his 75th anniversary.” I moved closer to the milling group and saw young college students in platform heels and pigtails tied with the stars and stripes, little boys with shields and masks, and dads whose well-worn t-shirts could, at least on this day, be worn publicly without a rolled eye from their spouses.

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Nearly everyone was looking in the same direction, and I followed their gaze, to see this:

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SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.COMICBOOKRESOURCES.COM/ARTICLE/BRROKLYNITES-ARENT-THRILLED-WITH-INCOMING-CAPTAIN-AMERICA-STATUE

Evidently, some Brooklynites are unhappy with this installation (yes, it’s a real statue). Yet I was hugely relieved…and then saddened. How is it possible that over the years, the sight of the American flag plus congregants in open spaces has become menacing? It speaks to our times, our public discourse, our sense of belonging and fear intermingled in the same national identity. Am I American? Yes. Am I the American that people like Donald Trump and his followers say I should be, fighting to make our country “great” again and accepting the currency of intimidation and incitement of violence? I certainly hope not.