Flashback: nov·el·T Writes the Apocalypse

I fell down a rabbit hole today, combing through old computer files to curate a project I want to work on later, and found so many old writings I had forgotten about. Some are cringe-worthy, some surprisingly good, some hilariously melodramatic (I blame the genres). Then I came across this. And the nostalgia hit me hard enough that, no matter the quality of this piece, I had to share it here.

So, back in the day, when I was a brand new high school teacher fresh off the assembly line, I opened up my classroom after school for student writers to try NaNoWriMo and, after November was over, they stayed and we formed the nov·el·T club (our school’s name was Timberview). As a club, we decided to write a novel together. We world-builded as a group, loosely sketched an over-arching plot, and then assigned chapters to singles or pairs who wrote their chunks before passing what they wrote to the next group to continue the story and so on and so forth. The students asked me to write the “Intro,” the sort of preface that set the scene, explained a little bit why our brand of the Apocalypse occurred, and that they could all refer back to to keep the story on track. No pressure.

Do keep in mind, this would have been around Aught 9, the very height of The Hunger Games (book) craze and my students (OK, me too) ate those books up and devoured anything Amazon might have spit out under Customers who bought this item also bought…

I share this “Intro” as an artefact of a younger, idealistic me who would have written anything–no matter how wacky or nerdy or anime-inspired–those kids asked me to and had a blast doing it. I loved those students. While there are many things about teaching high school I don’t miss, they aren’t one of them.

I wish I remembered the name of the novel or had any of the other parts (we never did finish it), but this was all I found in my searching today, and it’s time to climb out of the rabbit hole and plan my American Lit class for tomorrow in which we will discuss, as one of the authors we’re reading says, that “Stories are a wondrous thing. And they are dangerous.”* That they very much do create our world with us and that it’s not such a stretch, or speculation, to say that, one day, they will help us end it too.

How’s that for melodrama? Even if it is true.

[ PS: You’ll notice I made the President a woman. Back then I thought, Surely that won’t be a thing of fiction for long. Almost a decade later and alas. One day. ]

[ PSS: I dare you to not love that last line. Genius. 😉 ]

~

silene-virginica060708-3539bncmbz

Intro

The world ended because of a poem about flowers.

Nationwide, students rallied behind symbolism the long-dead poet probably never intended. They plastered his lines on buildings and shouted them in mobs and set them to music and strummed them with guitars. The President took offense and the Congress didn’t back her, though the House certainly did, and the Prime Minister across the sea seized the opportunity to poke fun and open old wounds and the tension built until one diplomat at one dinner said the wrong thing and…well.

The poem seemed like such a small thing at the time.

The war isn’t worth mentioning. Or, maybe, it’s too much to mention. One war is like another, after all. Regardless of time or place or instigator or victim or beginning or end.

People rebelled. People took sides. People enlisted. People protested. People burned the poem. People tucked the poem away in their hearts for another, safer, time.

People, too many people, died.

What is worth mentioning is that, in the end, it was North America versus the world. The US, Canada, and Mexico. Strong. United. Holding a hungry, angry world at bay. But then our President chose the unthinkable; she unleashed what should never have been unleashed.

One bomb: a seemingly normal missile in a seemingly everyday barrage. Except this one contained just one thimble-full of a disease that had been dormant since the Ice Age, that no one but the American scientists who’d discovered it knew existed, much less had a cure for. Silene Fever, extracted from one of the frozen flowers Russians revived and American scientists stole…though no one knew anything about that story until far, much too far, later.

One target: Great Britain herself.  From the heart of the country that spawned ours, the Fever spread. House to house, city to city, county to country. And, like dominoes, the world fell one continent at a time. Except for North America, the Alliance, who’d all been sharing rations, who’d all been drinking the same protein shake pushed on us by a government trying to keep us healthy when trade embargoes cut off our resources  We didn’t know they’d been inoculating us and our allies. We didn’t know they’d planned this strike for longer than any of us could have possibly imagined. Neither did the other Alliance governments.

Horrified, Canada and Mexico turned on the United States too. Our borders shrank as the remaining Alliance herded us, north and south, killing and overrunning as they went. All to get to the President and her Cabinet hiding from the allies they’d thought would be grateful, would fall at their feet and unite under the President’s leadership.

We fought back, but we were divided—fighting among ourselves over who was right and who was wrong. Fracturing into dozens and then hundreds of factions. Banding together where we could, with who we could, just to survive our own infighting.  We didn’t have the horror and disgust the Alliance had to unite them. We were, instead, the cause of their anger; our country’s crime was their rallying point.

Our numbers dwindled until we were crammed into the heart of what was once an expansive nation. We became a sad amalgamation of what was once South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma. What now has no real name except for what whoever holds the land in that moment chooses to name it.

The Alliance contained us here and destroyed the rest of our nation. With biological and chemical warfare. With fire and pollution and flood and any other conceivable punishment they found that would scar the land around us and leave it unusable. Out there beyond the scorched and decimated land, the Alliance moves on, repairing the world or licking its wounds. None of us knows.

We are isolated. The ravaged remains of a nation, imprisoned by what’s left of the world for the sins of a government we now hate. Trapped in an island of bare-civilization among a sea of wasted land that stretches far beyond where our strongest could walk and still make it back alive. Within our little reservation boundaries shift, alliances form and fracture. The Gangs roam and conquer and die out and are reborn.

The Fever is still free in the world.

We are immune but not all of our children and grandchildren are. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern, genetics and fate are equally harsh. Some survive, some don’t, some live so deformed it frightens even those meant to love them the most.

We are immune, but the animals weren’t. At the best, whole species died out. At the worst they mutated into things that hunt us now, that walk the Wastes between our land and the Alliance beyond.

Resources are scarce. Worth dying for.

Poetry is shunned. All but forgotten except among those with hearts strong enough and dreams crazy enough to overcome the pain and fear now associated with what everyone believes destroyed the world.

As for the flowers the poet sang of…Well, there are none.

~

*The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King

Photo: Fire Pink (Silene virginica) © Jeffrey Pippen

 

Excerpt: Center for Theory Talk

CenterforTheory

“The Agential Classroom: Tuning to a Posthuman Pedagogy”

In taking the material turn, posthumanism as characterized above and which I calibrate my teaching and work to doesn’t abandon the work done in the linguistic turn or through social constructivism, feminism or post-colonialism, but takes the theories already working through the posts and recalibrates them to the more-than-human. The decentering of the human in both posthumanism and its application to education, then, is not a symbolic move (Pedersen “Is the ‘Posthuman’ Educable?), but an actual recalibration of the way we understand our relation with the world, a recalibration that understands human skin is as porous, as permeable a boundary (Alaimo) as the one Schulz penned in ink. (Re)entangling the material with the discursive, ontology with epistemology, and the human with the nonhuman, posthumanism and posthumanist education as my teaching and work uses them are, Snaza and Weaver argue, “a continuation of the radical democratic, even utopian projects of the twentieth-century … [that] seek not only schools that are less authoritarian and oppressive, but also a global social formation that is not driven by [the] exploitations, dehumanization, and asymmetrical violence.”

 

Dissed: That Self-Congratulatory Anecdote from MLA

Dissed are excerpts from the dissertation that have been cut, killed, excised, burned on the altar of common sense and distance before being left here to not die…

At the 2017 MLA conference I was set to talk about this very project in a roundtable called ‘Teaching as Theoretical Practice.”* There were four papers on the panel—the first and second papers were co-authored and, therefore, got a few extra minutes. I went last and had been, along with the other single author, allotted a shorter-than-usual twelve minutes. I admitted defeat before I even got up to the mic. You saw the length of the last chapter. You’re looking at the length of this one. It wasn’t going to happen. But a funny thing happened while I was listening to my fellow panelists go before me and scribbling notes on their talks in my ever-present journal. Another talk emerged. And tapped me on the shoulder. And said, “Hey, do you mind sharing me with the group?”

So I did.

In my very first time at MLA, I winged it. But that was ok, because I was supposed to talk about a posthuman classroom, about posthuman education and what it could be, and so, being tuned to the posthuman after working in my hotel room for days on that dead-in-the-water talk, I knew posthumanism at work when I saw (felt? heard?) it and I leaned into the intra-action. What I’d noticed as I scribbled my notes

[my fellow panelists’ theories and thoughts materialized (with countless other actors I’d never know about like computers, texts, other readers…) in words on a page and then sent back out (material still, waves of sound in air) via voices (some accented, some nervous, some quiet) moving through a small room where a full audience (pretty diverse, from younger than me to late sixties, more women than men) sat in hotel conference chairs (all in rows, aisle down the middle of two sides, regimental) blinking or moving or nodding or dreaming or any other number of things while these new thoughts touched their own theories here or slid by them there and I took in the words myself too (flavored with the audience’s reactions and the speaker’s intonations and a healthy dose of you’re-not-really-considering-winging-this nerves that got worse as it became more obvious what kind of cool pattern was emerging) and through an amazing series of instantly (to my human perception of the work my body-machine can do) embodied actions materialized my own thoughts on the matter at hand with a pen with maroon ink on a lined white page (starting right below my shopping list for this very trip) in a hardbound journal I’m never without]

or rather, what I’d noted as I intra-acted within the phenomenon of our roundtable (all that described above and surely more that I’m missing) was that, as the panel went from that first co-authored panel on hybrid teaching/performed theory/collaborative pedagogy to the next on collaborative teaching/collaborative research/collaborative student writing to the one before me on theater-based pedagogy/language as performance/embodied movement, the presentations dealt more and more with posthumanism and posthuman strategies in the classroom. Indeed, the presenters’ ways of talking about their pedagogy sounded more and more posthuman. The mind and the student became less and less cut off from the body and world. Relations between actors in the classroom—not all of them necessarily human—became more and more important. Movement and space played more and more of a role in the consideration of what was taught and how.

So, I stood up. Took my notations and the idea that had tapped me on the shoulder up to the mic, told the audience I’d decided to talk about the panel instead and then asked the panel how many of them considered what they were doing posthuman. Reactions ranged, in almost direct proportion to how “posthuman” I’d felt their talk was, down the line from 1) blank stares only at me to 2) smiles and exchanged looks between presenters to 3) a smile and a nod to me. The looks in the audience as I rolled out my plan to talk through how I saw posthumanism working in the classes they’d already been briefed on while adding a bit about my own at the end were about the same—although there was more of an equal distribution between blank stares and nods/smiles. None of this surprised me.

Nor did the last intra-action with the audience. A man in the back—middle-aged or older, white, obviously well-versed in theory/criticism (he was a name-dropper)—asked Anna (the presenter before me working with theater-based pedagogy in a foreign language classroom) about a particular theory she was using (I forget the exact question). In trying to explain her answer, she looked at me and brought up posthumanism as she talked about movement and a student interacting with a bike while I nodded and mentally prepared to engage…

At which point Man-in-Back raised his hand in a half-wave, said there are many types of humanism, perhaps a more Vygotsky humanism in this case of language development, and, looking at me, finished the wave with a “This posthumanism makes no sense.”

As I said, this isn’t surprising. This—indifferent or (sometimes) disgusted dismissal—is the most common response I get when I bring up posthumanism in a conversation with colleagues and fellow academics not immersed in the conversation. And I am 100% sure Man-in-Back was expressing the thoughts of at least half the people in the room, including the first two authors on our panel. And yet posthumanism played in that room, in those presentations, in my understanding of the phenomenon that was our roundtable. I tuned in to a different station, still in the same room, just working on a different wavelength and saw the knowledge-in-being emerge differently.

I had an opportunity, to either listen and respond to the meaning being made or to stick with the original plan and impose that dead-in-the-water talk on the room, changing the trajectory of the conversation and missing the opportunity for a more productive moment. “Winging it” here, for me, wasn’t the irresponsible move of someone who didn’t like her talk anymore but an intentional movement into intra-action, much like a listening or surfing pedagogy that decenters the teacher (in this case, speaker) and moves continuously between what was planned and what, once all actors are engaged, their intra-action needs in order to be truly productive and meaningful. It was, in a sense, though I didn’t provide this meta-commentary to the panel in the moment, performative. I was giving a talk on posthumanism, so I made a posthuman move.

The room didn’t make it easy (or, more accurately, the human arrangement of the room). Those rows of uncomfortable chairs held the audience in a state of desk-broken attention (or inattention) learned long ago in school: quiet, polite, still, ready to receive the knowledge. As academics we’re more likely to push back at that knowledge via questions (or statements framed as questions) but that’s another layer of learned behavior for learning—conference-broken. We know the drill when we come into those rooms of rows with the table/podium/screen up front. But posthuman strategies, theories, practices, thoughts, being, etc. already exist/move/are in such humanist (or designed-for-humanism) spaces. It’s like the light paradox Barad theorizes her own posthuman theories from—light, this supposed “thing” or observable object is wave and particle depending on the apparatus you use to diffract it. That room: knowledge disseminated and meaning made. Humanist and posthumanist, depending on what lens you use.

Rockysteps

Me, the day after said presentation, on the Rocky steps recreating that iconic film moment in a blizzard. Magic. Photo credit to the complete stranger strangely dressed in shorts and a thin t-shirt who asked me to take his pic for him, thereby inspiring me to ask the same.

~

 

*January 6, 2017. Sponsored by the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Studies in the Profession and chaired by Caroline Eagan. The papers were as follows: “Hybrid Teaching, or the Performance of Comparative Theory” by Germán Campos-Muñoz (Appalachian State U) and Mich Nyawalo (Shawnee State U); “From Practice to Theory: Collaboration in the Composition Classroom” by Joanna Grim (Lehigh U) and Dana McClain (Lehigh U); “Performance and the Foreign Language and Culture Curriculum: Theory and Practice” by Anna Santucci (Brown U); “English Remix: Curating and Enacting a Posthuman Classroom” by Sarah Shelton. Our abstracts can still be found at https://mlagrads.mla.hcommons.org/2016/12/20/abstracts-for-csgsp-roundtable-teaching-as-theoretical-practice/

Excerpt: Book Review Published in Fat Studies

Dumplin

Julie Murphy’s 2015 young adult (YA) novel, Dumplin’: Go Big or Go Home, stands out among YAfiction starring fat protagonists for an important reason: never, ever, not even for a moment in the course of the novel does the self-proclaimed fat girl go on a diet. The point, in other words, of the book is not for Willowdean Dickson to lose weight, but to struggle through being a teenager. Even more importantly—and realistically—though she begins the book believing she’s “always been happy in this skin” (124), Will discovers that her body-positivity and confidence aren’t as stable and solid as she originally thought. Willowdean spends the book trying to regain this confidence, to get back to what she sees as her true, fat-positive self. And while this constant seesawing back and forth between body confidence and shame might put off some readers who see Will as wishy-washy and unreliable, this tension is in fact the novel’s strength: a realistic portrayal (especially for a teenager) of the all-too-real struggle to stay fat-positive in a thin-centric world.

[…]

While I won’t spoil the pageant results for the future reader, I will say that the experience, the process of entering and going through the pageant, is successful in some way for each of the unlikely suspects. It becomes a road to something that they each needed to do or to discover about themselves. It is something to do now, not later when they become thin or able or any other form of different society might imply they need to become before deserving what “normal” people deserve by default. And because they chose to seize—in this case via participation in a pageant—what society might have implicated they shouldn’t or couldn’t seize, these unlikely suspects open their worlds and embrace the notion that either/or is an illusion. Willowdean states it best: “Sometimes figuring out who you are means understanding that we are a mosaic of experiences. I’m Dumplin’. And Will and Willowdean. I’m fat. I’m happy. I’m insecure. I’m bold” (366). Indeed, sometimes a story is positive because it dares to let the reader see, to experience, the negatives. Dumplin’ is that kind of story, making it a far more layered (and far more positive for it) YA tale than those that fat protagonists were allowed in literature, television, and film even a decade ago.

© Taylor and Francis: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21604851.2017.1286881

Excerpt: Article Published in Fat Studies Journal

Fatstudeisabstract

Introduction

For too long, scholars and critics not working from a fat studies perspective have celebrated novels that feature fat teens losing weight and finding happiness and self-worth only because of that weight loss. Indeed, in her article, “Voracious Appetites: The Construction of ‘Fatness’ in the Boy Hero in English Children’s Literature,” Jean Webb analyzes fat character’s “lives [as having] the potential to expand positively as their waistlines recede healthily” (119) (my emphasis). The “as” in Webb’s analysis is key to revealing the ableism and fat bias inherent in U.S. society in general and in Webb’s argument in particular. Fat studies, however, reveals that the “Bildungsroman of weight loss” that Webb valorizes is far from being the positive and pragmatic solution she characterizes it as. Instead, working from a fat studies perspective, I claim that when a quest structure melds with the cosmetic panopticon, we get what I call “the fat quest” (see Fig. 1), a culturally constructed set of steps a fat protagonist must take before he/she can be considered worthy. Recent novels like My Big Fat Manifesto or Eleanor & Park positively challenge the fat quest, breaking its pattern or excluding it altogether. But if we are to help youth find worth outside of a qualifying “as,” it is essential that scholars stop arguing from ableist perspectives and begin celebrating and empowering critique and literature that reads positively through a fat studies lens.

[…]

The Fat Quest

While a “Bildungsroman of weight loss” can exist—and be praised as positive—in ableist discourse, a body-positive, fat-acceptance discourse doesn’t accept or ascribe such a benign-bordering-on-positive name to such structures and strategies. They are better called and understood as a “fat quest,” a path—assigned by a thin-centric society to fat people—that characters must follow in order to illicit empathy, understanding, and to even be considered human. The fat quest is, then, a culturally constructed set of steps that must be taken before a fat protagonist can be considered human enough, thin enough, and worthy enough of dreams and quests that “normal” teen protagonists get to undertake. And though the fat quest promotes ableism by tying health and worth to weight via fat bias, understanding its structure, breaking it down, and reframing it as one version of instead of as the YA fat fiction genre itself opens up a space for authors, scholars, and readers to challenge ableism. Such is the power of genre—texts mix and mingle via uptake and help disparate readers enter the discourse through shared expectations while encouraging the questioning of ideology through reversals and gaps.

In the U.S., we love a good quest. It’s an old genre, but one that we readily recognize and understand. After all, the American Dream is a quest, a journey from nothing to something typified by our national mythology of the “self-made man.” The American Dream, in fact, demands willpower and scorns those too “lazy” to make their dreams come true. This quest structure, then, melds with the “cosmetic panopticon” (Giovanelli & Ostertag 2009:289), 4 a prison of our own making, powered by our media’s consistent and exclusive casting (e.g., in literature, movies, television, theater) of fat people in the roles of “the old, the ugly, or the comical” (Jester 2009: 249). Our teens must “[navigate] puberty’s mysterious turf” with the help of this media that celebrates an ideal that “can only be attained by the thinnest 5% of the population, thus, oddly consigning the majority to outsider status” (Glessner et al. 2006: 117). They quickly learn that their bodies are “the ultimate expression of the self” (Brumberg 1997: 97) and that “fatness in the United States ‘means’ excess of desire, of bodily urges not controlled, of immoral, lazy, sinful habits” (Farrell 2011: 10). Indeed “much more than a neutral description of a type of flesh, fatness carries with it such stigma that it propels [teens] to take drastic, extreme measures to remove it” (Farrell 2011:10). And, as The Biggest Loser, as diet ads, as One Fat Summer teaches teens, fat characters can be “good”—they can get the girl or boy, win the prize, stop the bullying, save their family, earn respect—if, as their extreme measure, they go on the fat quest. Unfortunately, such diet measures rarely work outside of marketing and fiction and readers are left wondering why they cannot achieve a similar “magical” transformation 5 and left believing that they are even more worthless than before (Bacon & Aphramor 2011).

As I’ve outlined in Fig. 1, Robert Lipsyte’s(1977) One Fat Summer is the quintessential fat quest tale, his protagonist, Bobby Marks, the negative baseline against which I measure the positivity of the portrayal of other fat protagonists. First published in 1977, One Fat Summer follows Bobby Marks’ summer fighting bullies and his own body only to come out the winner and, more importantly, thin. He is celebrated for this weight loss; it solves his problems. His journey, as Fig. 1 shows, consists of nine steps that become the defining structure of a pure fat quest tale, a structure which drives all character and plot development, a plot that teens easily recognize and can predict the outcome of—the character will live thinly ever after.

© Taylor and Francis: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21604851.2016.1146117