13 July 2007

California Dreaming (1): The Gown Made of Curtains

C'est sexy le ciel de Californie
Sous ma peau j'ai L.A. en overdose

So sexy le spleen d'un road movie

Dans l'rétro ma vie qui s'anamorphose

Mylène Farmer

So sorry for the long silence. I have been, for the past several weeks, ensconced in California teaching a summer course, and out of my typical spaces for work. I am in residence with Chaucer Dad and Philosopher Mom, tending to my summer tan, catching up on both meaningless and meaningful readings, swimming at the university pool, and generally participating in the socio-cultural dissipation that can make California seem, after a spell outside of her cartographical and psychic boundaries, hallucinogenic in the extreme.

I am writing this on the shade of the stone patio, surrounded by the daisies, hydrangea, rosemary, jade plants, fragrant sage, and Japanese Aralia I planted when I lived here, in what seems another lifetime. Behind me, in the house, lunch percolates someplace, one teenaged boy watches the Animal Planet while another tends to his pet birds. A cool breeze blows, and time seems to have stopped on this moment, the latest in a series of perfect moments that together make the past weeks meld into one beatific, amorphous cloud, whilst elsewhere I imagine Mr. Gordo and Big Sis sweating in the heat of Big Eastern City, Prancilla sexily sipping lattes in the street cafes of Lake City, La Vicks back in Cold City from México lindo with Love Buckets, La Donna slinging hash in a pink satin hot pants in Calgary, and The Voice on the île of Montréal. Oddly enough, it does seem like most of my friends have spread about the continent like seeds on the wind, with chance encounters and brief visits the only respite from the relentless sun and obligatory holidays someplace else where one is at this particular moment.

Being back teaching at my doctoral university and the town that surrounds it has been surreal, to say the least. So much history under the bridge, experiences and memories overlaid on each other transparently, so that I am the long-haired and clueless first-year graduate student, the jaded ABD TA with a buzzcut and a bad attitude, the post-doc adjunct sporting a Caesar and kissing admin ass madly (Please hire me again to do your drudgery! Please!), and the relatively well-placed professional, currently mildly shaggy, all at once. Places and spaces are constantly shifting and changing, and this place is no different, although it retains the dystopic qualities that have been the subject of some theoretical speculation, as well as remaining generally indicative of Californian life after Proposition 13, if not before. The boundless good weather leads the uninitiated into actually believing in immortality, a mistake some native-born Californians like myself recognise as pure folly. But it is easy to understand the fundamental error in judgment, to see the formation of the misapprehension of possibility, which has led aüslanders and transplants into disasters of the macro and micro variety, from cannibalism in a snowbound valley to the elusive promise of fiduciary and spiritual nirvana that haunts the ruins of Silicon Valley. For the native Californian, the indigene Californio/a, the sun and mild weather and benevolent breezes mask the sudden tragic change— the firestorm, the earthquake, the flood, or alternatively, more contemporarily, the single-handed destruction of our once enviable social services and educational infrastructure through greed, selfishness, and racism. The point for us is not nirvana but survivance. And for some of us, that survival is found outside the bounds of the state that formed and nurtured our character.

My doctoral university, the Gown on the Town, has grown immensely since my salad days here. In fact, it is really a different place. Once a sort of public country club for the children of the Californian white élite, it has become much more racially diverse, and much more professionally oriented. Of course it is experiencing the pressures most public universities are: to increase enrollments, raise the profile of “excellence,” and better serve its public mission, however you want to define it. Here, for the most part that seems to be contained in an effort to throw up as many cheaply constructed, vaguely PoMo buildings as one can. The construction boom that has filled in the previously idle campus niches of parking lots and fallow fields seemingly reflects a manic effort to demonstrate some sort of socio-political work ethic: Jesus is coming, look busy! Although in this case it would be the Regents, bureaucratic functionaries from the State legislature, and fat cat business folk. The aesthetic rationale, like so much of America, is definitively Potemkin village— And here is a University, PLC.

The architectural modus operandi seems to be camp (as in bears and the woods, not Tiffany lamps). The new buildings all look the same, cheap stucco construction with burnished steel touches and corrugated tin decoration. The floors in the new buildings boom when you walk on them because they are made of wood, not concrete, and the walls are made of poor quality dry wall that does not contain sound. The classrooms seem invariably hot and smelling of old garbage, with poor lighting design and lacking all the Mod Cons even the classrooms at Cold City U. have. Gone are the days of particular seminar rooms with views and air and round tables, where perchance during class one could catch a whiff of marijuana smoke from outside the window, which had some personality to distinguish themselves from others, so that you at least knew you were in a particular building as opposed to another. Introducing mass education on the cheap! Drug-free, smoke-free, thought-free. A well-padded luxury booby hatch!

The increasing tilt towards the sciences, pronounced here but present everywhere, has meant a growth in the science complex and a reduction in the space and money devoted to the liberal arts tradition. The shiny young soldiers of science march to and fro across campus, brows furrowed by equations and labs. When I was trained here, most undergraduates seemed enamoured with the humanities in a touching and perhaps naïve manner. Even in a lecture of 300, they still wanted (annoyingly, to be true) “more feedback on my writing.” They wanted to learn Gamelan, consider ethics in Arendt, study obscure sub-titled film noir. Now, my current students seem less interested in discussion, in the crazy quilt of new things, useless things, and more in assessment and landing an A, game design and Hong Kong cinema and law school applications, which I suppose on some level is fine, if a somewhat radical departure from the rules of the institution I learned here as a doctoral candidate. That training has served me well, only insofar as it gave me an appreciation of the work, the real artisanal skill involved in such educational processes. I can do it, and do it well, although increasingly it is a skill set, even here (perhaps especially here), that resembles making wooden clogs by hand. In other words, hopelessly antediluvian.

Visiting my old department, to plan a lunch with the department administrator, I couldn’t help perusing the dissertations and master’s theses lining the shelves, including my own. A tradition started by the previous administrator was the practice of taking Polaroid snapshots of incoming grad students. My photo used to be up on the corkboard where the snaps are displayed, first with long hair then later with shorter hair, and I regard the newer generation. I do notice some transmen, their old female names actually crossed out and replaced by rugged new masculine ones on the labels. The one transwoman I knew of graduated a couple of seasons ago, so her picture is missing. That naming practice seems handcrafted in a peculiar way: why the desire for evidence here on the label of the glossy oddly focused Polaroid? In my day, the bogey wo/man of the moment for the critics outside the department was the lesbian of color, crawling pirate-like through the classroom window with a knife held between her lips. Now it’s the attack of the 50-foot Tranny. My old department, always on the cutting edge! This makes me happy, in a strange sort of way: a reassurance that no matter the vagaries and furies outside, the department is still making interesting choices.

The new faces tell me nothing, really, all grinning in a delusional, Jim Jones “Drink the Kool-aid” sort of way, as if they've either just survived or are about to embark on a life-threatening adventure. A different framed photo of a graduating cohort from my own time provides more fodder for commentary. As the department admin and I look at the photo, I trace out the faces with my finger while entoning, “Nut job, nut job, nut job, sorta kinda nut job, nut job.” The graduates collected within the bounds of this particular photo have all gone on to jobs both mediocre and spectacular. Some of them parlayed their moneymakers into some rather good placements. But do you ever have those moments when you actually feel your tongue turning into a knife? I realise I am being too fresh in a shared office with other ears around (the department admin demurs, even though I know she agrees with my assessment), but I cannot help myself: I turn into a mad, evil queen at a glance of the faces of old “enemies.” A feeling of rage wells up within me, and I want to verbally destroy the modest artifacts of the program, the photos and memos on the walls and the collected blue books of academic work, cut them up like Uma with a sword.

Afterwards, walking home under a hot sun, I wonder why this impulse? It seems immature and hateful, as well as being perhaps just a bit too easy of a task. Bitter, table of one? Perhaps it is because now I recognise the strange and tortured games played here in the last decade for what they were, pure mind fucks that were grounded in ridiculous political rigidity as well as Lord of the Flies socialization. Maybe if I had realised what we were actually doing was burlesque, the sexy bump-and-grind of marketing our identity, whether corporeal or intellectual, to the highest bidder, then I would have done “better,” have become better institutionalised with a permanent chip on my shoulder. Although I have come to recognise my current professional state as not too shabby, there is always ressentiment and competition, old friends in the Biz. Another sharp recognition has been the special and particular qualities of a Western, but also specifically Californian training, one that doesn’t necessarily translate well afuera. In any event, I’m sure I’ll get caught up on all the department drama next week when I lunch outside the office with the department admin. Some of those comedic tragedies will bring an evil smile to my face. What can I say? Nothing feels quite as good as Schadenfraude.



Vila H. said...

"Maybe if I had realised what we were actually doing was burlesque, the sexy bump-and-grind of marketing our identity, whether corporeal or intellectual, to the highest bidder, then I would have done “better”..."

(Fastening fishnets.) Now I understand everything. Thank you.

Guarandol said...

Love the pics and how you imbedded them into the text, and the subtexts of your prose.
California is burning! Your piece is strong enough to create a precious paradox: California is the place where catasthrope and nostalgia meet. Sometimes your piece suggests that both are one and the same. This reminded me of Derrida when he said that every apocaliptic fantasy is reactionary, afterall.

Anonymous said...

Academia seems to be one part skill and two parts luck. There are people applying for sessional jobs who have books out from respected presses. Yet there they are, going from institution to institution like academic nomads, trying to find the "right fit."