My childhood imagination enhanced stories told to me by my elders of where we were from, and my history embraced the possibility of exciting seafarers, noble learned men and women, poor housekeepers, exiled princesses, wandering mystics, Marxists fighting the good fight, and revolutionaries standing up against the British. While some of this might very well be true, at age five or six, sitting in New Jersey, truth was a far fetched notion and irrelevant. As we do, I have carried these stories with me through my life and into my practice, and I revisit them now as I consider the topography of text. I am curious about what it means to write about others from a position of otherness as the cartography of elsewhere informs my writing from within, while positioned somewhere else.
Where are you from?
But, where are you really from?
Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.*
The chill of the 2016 US elections is still in my bones. Glued to any and all forms of media, I watched what Van Jones and Judith Butler have called, “whitelash” unfold in graphs, charts, and all forms of measurable outcomes. I watched as the states of my country turned red one by one. This was not the first time I had seen this, but there was something unique about this time. This time, it was not just me and people who looked like me, who felt precarious, but rather I watched as the whitelash was aimed at and betrayed the white Left/Center Left. I watched and felt the hush over the newscasters in the newsroom as they realized the precarity of the first amendment, particularly of free speech and thus, their very existence.
Without intending to, I consumed/embodied that hush. I could not respond or say anything about the election. My inbox was flooded with messages of coping, my social media was a manifest of betrayal, blame, violence, fear, and ultimately action. I was still silent. For me, as a Muslim woman of South Asian descent who has been working for decades on issues of social justice, sometimes through decolonizing anthropology, sometimes through collective action outside the academy, these results were not surprising. I wish they were more surprising. I wish I was surprised by white supremacy in America. I wish my idealism in the human spirit could have learned to forget or misplace that constant in my life. What I found myself wishing instead was that this outrage on my social media feed had coincided with the mapping of police violence, particularly on black bodies. Or the ways in which indigenous people are being arrested and violated for peacefully protesting the Dakota pipeline. Or the rising issue of domestic violence, or really anything, except the reiterating fact that the (white) Left was taken by absolute surprise, and that they did not win. As a person of color in the United States, I have never won. Obama was probably the closest thing to winning I came to, and even he ended up with drone issues (among others).
What makes something culturally relevant in a local context?
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between form, aesthetics, and belonging. In my own archaeological practice (Rizvi 2015), I have enmeshed the notion of resonance with new materialism, empathy as linked to aesthetics, and belonging. As I have argued, resonance emerges as an intangible affect that the material thing has beyond its formal boundaries within larger planes of perception creating dynamic relationships among humans/nonhumans and illustrating cultural decisions of material as vibrant matter (c.f. Bennett 2010). In so far as the material has vibrancy and frequency, it has then the capacity to evoke an emotional and affective response to a similarity of material, style and/or form. Such response can be coded as a sensory aesthetic empathy that links to constituting subjective belonging. This argument had been posited with the ancient world in mind, but I have recently been applying archaeological theory to the contemporary, particularly within art and design.
As my anthropological concerns have found themselves situated within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I have found myself working through contemporary things and assemblages in order to understand the past within this political geography. More often than not, working through such questions falls within the ways we understand critical heritage discourse – an intersection of perceived distance or lack there of, between the time of now and that of the past. As such, and not surprisingly, I have found contemporary art and design in the UAE deeply engaged with and within the constructions/discourses of heritage. Right now, my social media feed is full of reporting on Dubai Design Week. As a part of the thematic, there is a strong focus on using local materials that have local resonance, local meaning, local heritage, and local technique. Even the design of the space is being lauded as keeping a local environmental sensibility in mind. There is a sense that what we are experiencing is some negotiation and an authorizing of what constitutes Emirati vernacular design as Rahel Aima might argue (see her piece in Frame – summer issue), or as Laura Egerton reports in Vision, Dubai Design Week becomes a space within which forgotten crafts have the potential to change the future. It is easy to see the relationship between contemporary design, uses of heritage to be future-oriented (and arguably, on fleek in that hipster way), and the ways in which a local aesthetic has been co-opted for contemporary design so it can speak to a local market and sensibility. The form taken by the local aesthetic significantly lends itself to an empathetic sense of belonging, which is integral to these conversations. Interestingly, however, the contest of heritage in the contemporary is less about what is authorized, but rather, what form can account for commitments of time, place, and access to these conversations.
This morning I was taking notes on my laptop as an officer from the NYPD counter terrorism department’s SHIELD unit gave a room full of academic staff ‘active shooter’ training. As the first video was rolling, he walked over and stood behind me to see what I was typing and almost inaudibly asked the young man from IT who was sitting behind me what I was up to. “She’s taking notes,” he whispered back, loud enough for me to hear. My first instinct was to think that maybe buying a bright red laptop was a bad idea, followed quickly by a wish that I had had enough time before the session to run to my office to drop off my stuff and pick up a notebook. My heart was pounding loudly; this person had taken over my safe space rendering it anxious and forced my body to feel defensive when all I had been doing was taking notes. I did not flinch or acknowledge his existence as he paced around me. Even though I like to pretend it does not matter, I know that it was not the red laptop that was the trigger for his suspicion, but rather my hijab. I watched the screen as Derrick O’Dell told us what he did in 2007 during the Virginia Tech mass shooting. I thought of the many students I taught. I thought of the kids in the neighborhood schools. I thought of my young daughter. I thought about what I could do to make it past an ‘active shooter’, and I realized I would have to have a second plan in place as well: how to make it past law enforcement without them thinking it was me.
For decades, ephemeral layers at archaeological sites have been the bane of my existence. The moment I read, hear, or have to confront it at an excavation, my soul does a smh. How can we reconstruct anything meaningful in this ephemerality? To be honest, that frustration is simply a privileged standpoint of archaeologists who work in ancient cities, towns, or any mostly permanent settled space – which is where my training and research has focused. Ephemerality is a challenge and requires me to contend with materials and surfaces in a way I am only starting to understand.
Slow down, you move to fast
You got to make the morning last
(Paul Simon, Feelin’ groovy/The 59th St Bridge Song)
I grew up with vinyl. My family was an aspirational almost hippy immigrant family. The 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was a ‘go-to’ album, as was the (also) 1966 album Revolver. Seemingly child friendly, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beetles infused our household with songs in which we were encouraged to slow down, talk to lamp posts, and live communally in yellow submarines.
Late capitalism has done everything it can to eradicate that possibility from my life.
I heard these songs in the deep recesses of my mind as I was preparing my tenure file earlier this year. My entire being entered into a space of stillness, staring resolutely into the belly of the beast in order to maintain some semblance of resistance to the deep anxiety that is structurally integral to the evaluation process of tenure. I took longer walks, barely responded to emails, slowly stopped talking to others and preferred to count my breath. With every formatting issue or question related to the subjective criteria of excellence, I slowed down even more, questioning in each moment why academic labor had entered into these frameworks of exploitation. The first person I saw upon submission of my file was a colleague of mine who is brilliant, and an adjunct who teaches at three colleges just to make ends meet. My self-indulgent slowness entered into a space of silence.
Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things. [Sound of Music (1965)]
When Rodgers and Hammerstein first produced this song in 1959 on Broadway, they may not have been thinking about debates related to ontology – but how wonderful to be able to list in the same breath raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as favorite things.
Speaking of kittens, I recently watched the film Statues Also Die (1953), directed by Chris Marker (who is obsessed with cats) and Alain Resnais. A brilliant filming of a series of sculptures, masks and other things from Sub-Saharan Africa, set to music, edited to match the tempo, and a narrator posing many thoughtful questions. Through the use of music, playing with light and shadow, the directors of this film were able to animate the masks in such a manner that allowed the things themselves to mount an anti colonial critique. One of the central questions of the film, why African art should be placed in ethnographic museums and western art should be placed in art museums is a question that continues to crop up even today. The impact of this early questioning was so profound that the second half of the film was censored in France until the 1960s. I suspect it was not only because it was an anti colonial critique, but rather the manner in which it unfolded in film might have much to do with it as well.
There is something unflinchingly uncompromising in the face of things that we have in some way wronged or failed to recognize. It is remarkably uncanny. And I am only human to find some humanity in these sorts of encounters.
First run in 1951, “What in the World?” was the Penn Museum‘s Peabody Award-winning popular weekly half hour television program on CBS in which a panel of experts would guess information related to four or five unidentified objects. This program was aired for 14 years and was wildly popular. The show began with an appropriately smoke/fog filled screen, mysterious music, and a haunting voice questioning, “What in the world..?”
Indeed, that is what I thought as well, when I first stumbled upon this show earlier this year.
Michael Brown was only 18 years old; he was unarmed and shot multiple times. I am exhausted by this news.
I cannot find words to express how such blatant racism makes a parent feel. It does not matter what we do for our children, it does not matter how educated we are, or what our politics are or really anything. What matters is the color of our skin. My heart goes out to Michael Brown’s parents and to parents world-wide who have the misfortune of having to contend with a child who has been shot for no reason other than for being different. In this case, it is not just about being different – it is about contending with a heritage of enslavement, the resultant race politics, and issues around police brutality in the United States. And this is not just about people of color: there is something unique, systemic, and targeted about the treatment of young African-American men in this country. And there is something awful about the violence of having to watch it happen over and over again on the television, on YouTube, in your Facebook feed, or on the blogs you read.
I remember watching Rodney King being repeatedly beaten by the LAPD in 1992. I was an undergraduate at the time, and I recall one of my professors likening the publicness of police brutality to the necessary publicness of lynching. Neither the image nor that statement have left my mind.
Earlier this year (2014), I was cleaning out my room at my parents place in New Jersey, going through old boxes, trying to make sense of decades of saved letters, newspaper articles, early printed emails, and old address books. During this time, I came across my first (and only) philately kit with the stamp tongs, magnifying glass, and a perforation gauge, all barely recognizable with age. I must have been about eight when I was gifted this by my maternal grandmothers’ brother who had the year prior brought me a stamp book from England. I remember him telling me it was a fun and educational hobby and one that would make me worldly. The year between the two gifts, I was an avid and easy stamp collector. The year the kit came into my life, I spent much time picking stamps up carefully with my stamp tweezers/tongs and placing them into various stamp books, photo-albums-converted-into-stamp-books or slid them into translucent envelopes. I forgot to collect. I began to curate. I thought more about how groups of stamps might go together, rather than see what was in circulation. The kit-ed-ness created a structure of how the stamps were handled, thought of and collected. Admittedly, I was too young then to recognize how this might be a critical insight into the production of national archives, or to recognize the desire of my grandparents to make me ‘worldly’ at eight as some inflection of postcolonial aspiration.
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Uzma Z. Rizvi.]
In reading news about Gaza, Syria, and Iraq (among other places), I have been actively searching for spaces of humanity and hope in the world around me. Where is that space in which we trust other human beings, the people we do not know and may or may never intersect with again? I have been thinking about how we might design trust and co-operation into our urban fabric and the ways in which we traffic ourselves through our every day.