On Changing the World (In Transit)

The following is a post I wrote in the airport as I considered a question. I was offgrid while in transit, so (in the interest of authenticity) I’m uploading it as is…was. Follow @krgpryal and @valoriedthomas, who help make me want to be smarter.

My battery’s low because I’ve been in transit for a while and I’m cramping up, so this will be short (by regular stream of consciousness standards), possibly incoherent (see previous), and deliberately underwhelming (see previous). You should be aware of this. I can do better. I know I can, but it’s 4 a.m., which means it’s Euphemistic Hour here at JFK, where I’m sitting in a wheelchair instead of on the terrazzo floor, which would be certain to give me a cold and make me regret this latest surge in nomadism that has me bound for Panama and Trinidad on a four and a half day turnaround. It’s not glamorous, but I’m okay with it. Some TSA staff are filing in to begin their shift, many of them unable to approximate the swagger implied by their ill-fitting uniforms, embroidered badges, and their way too canny ability to transfer their apparent disdain to passengers in the form of discomfort and delays and courtesy.

The end-shifters walk differently, more loosely. They talk with greater ease. Only English speakers among them, though. I can kind of remember the “going home” feeling—worked as a security guard here and at the Guggenheim in SoHo, back in ’92. The supervisor, a cup of coffee in hand, looks on.

Yeah, so anyway.

For those of you who know me as @drbrowne on the Twitter, when I’m not teaching  or complaining about theoretical minutiae, documenting the bacchanalian vagaries of everyday life in word and image or struggling to resolve what I consider to be the very real dilemma of having a martini or chocolate milk, I sometimes take a notably reflective turn—a turn oriented, somewhat, to the task of envisioning, enacting, and possibly achieving change among those who desire or require it. Change. It’s tied to how I see rhetoric operating not as the “empty” counterpart to reality, but as practice that is theoretically informed and has the potential to enable social action—praxis. I discuss this in different places in Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. In the book, I basically suggest that the impulse to ask questions and answer them in/on our own terms is critical because it places a significant degree of responsibility on us—the “us” that is made up of practitioners, both aware and unaware, of the range of peculiarities that bear definitive potential and allow that “us” to claim difference in relation to the operation of other(ed?) social formations and epistemological frameworks with which we may come into contact (or within which we may be forced to exist). Simply put, we are obliged to “stand and deliver.” You know? Given that, the question becomes something like what will you deliver when you stand? Keeping in mind that what you deliver will also serve as the ground on which you stand, what will you say?

Ok, pause. Starting to get a little blog-deep.

There’s a reason I find myself reflecting on this now. A couple days ago, my friend Katie Guest Pryal (@krgpryal) mentioned me in a tweet that asked, plainly, “What does it take to change the world?” “Plainly” isn’t really the right word. But I have a valid excuse. It’s (now just a little after) 4 a.m.. Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about it off and on these last couple of days (in, admittedly, a very casual way). Here is what I’ve come up with. I’m gonna write it (and read it back to myself) in the voice of the XX guy, whose authenticity is predicated on his ability to perform a role he knows you know he’s performing with the intention of getting me to subscribe to a lifestyle I cannot hope to attain. Seriously, the voice. “I don’t usually drink…etc., etc.,… but etc., etc….And concerning changing the world, here is what I have to say:”

You will have to be a liar. This is one of the conditions. You want to change the world? Lie. It is unavoidable. You may need to tell many in the course of your pursuit, but those are ancillary. Incidental. In the beginning, you will only need to tell one. And because it’s that first lie, that “original sin,” if you like, it requires some ceremony. Find a quiet place. No, better yet, find a noisy place, a place in which you can observe people you are convinced do not “get it” but need to “get it” as they go about their business (or their pleasure). Sit, or stand, if you like, but be inconspicuous enough to be able to safely cast judgment on the “others.” And remember that term. It will serve you—literally. They may not necessarily be “sheep” in your view, but they will certainly be blind not to see what you clearly do. Apathy can blind. Busy people can be blind. You will soften your assessment a little in time, abiding by a neat relativism that (i) liberates them from your “unique” brand of consciousness and (ii) liberates you from judging too harshly their choices or their shared inability not to “get it”. Your education and your experience will have either endowed you with or led you to a kind of grace that you will have honed, shaped, and then sharpened for just such a moment. Pick your place. Then say, in one convicted breath,

“I have to do something about this.”

[You should be reading in your own voice by now or mine.] Do not forget the emphasis where I have indicated. It is important. The self-awareness implied by the “I” will require no such emphasis—the assumption being that you will have gotten so used to yourself that neither the breakthrough nor your enunciation of it will be enhanced either way, so there’s really no need. There will also be a rhythmic undulation to the statement, which will provide a bit of style. You will need your energy for all the times you repeat this lie.

You will repeat this lie.
You will repeat this lie because you must repeat this lie.
You must because it is imperative that you believe you are necessary to whatever needs to be done.

You—your work, your particular set of qualities, skills, gifts, etc.—are needed to achieve an outcome that aligns with your vision.

(And before you go any further, rest assured that you ought not feel any ambivalence about it being a vision. The world you imagine will either never have existed, or you will far too young to remember when the world was anything like you imagine it to be. So be content with “vision” and move with it. Commit to it.) You are needed. At the moment of initial declaration, no one else need hear you because you will be telling this lie to yourself.

You are the one who has to believe it.

Additional statements will follow, as you offer yourself the necessary qualifications and rationale. They will vary but nonetheless align with a vision you have either been given, been blessed with, or taken upon yourself to address a thing in the world that requires your attention, your style, your whatever. I do not mean to be cavalier. With time, you will modify your qualifications enough to replace the ubiquitous “whatever” with something more substantive and convincing, both to yourself and with whom you will have (by this time) shared this mission—your audience. And, as you already know, there is more than enough to justify those modifications. “So much trouble in the world,” as Bob Marley would sing in the song of the same name—eponymous, right? So take your pick.

Concerned about the continued rape of the African continent? There you are. Gang rapes and mall occupations, and their attendant conspiracies? Go on. Have them, they are yours. Perhaps the displacement of natives turned refugees in their own land moves you to act—well, first to tears, then to act. You can have it, domestic or foreign. A war? Hunger? Gay bashing? Ally bashing? A particular cancer? The violation of women by their governments or their men or their women? There are issues in vogue and those that continue to linger in the penumbra. You will already be thinking (aren’t you already doing it?) of troubles I have undoubtedly overlooked. “Don’t get me started!” you will say. So much trouble in the world.

Take them. Get in there. Save who you can. Do what you can.

And, above all, be real (goes the lie). Whether through pretense or your appropriation of it, be real. You will, of course, have to bracket the fact that while not as crucial as the chocolate milk-martini issue, you risk visiting the same brand of imperialism on these “things” to which you direct your attention, thereby reinscribing the same forms of violence—normative violence, the trauma of the everyday—to which the respective social formations would have been accustomed long before you came around with your “awareness.” You will have to believe that change is not the same thing as, well, the same thing. It will be necessarily different, will lead to less of the problems you highlight as your thesis. You need to believe this because if you do not, who should? Others may replicate the ideologies of their respective oppressive systems, but your intervention will be different. It must be different.

Anyway, I’m getting tired. I’ve been traveling since teaching undergrads about Gayatri Spivak’s take on the subaltern and Dexter Gordon’s historical genealogy of black nationalism from the 19th century. I’m fading. So, yeah. Tired—miles to go before I rest, and all that. So I’ll break off reflection and postulation here. Waxing philosophical with waning sophistication can bode ill if drawn too far out.

Most days I’m like Montaigne with it, deferring to whatever discursive wave is bound to break with a polite “What do I know?” But @krgpryal‘s question requires acknowledgment, if not an answer. My attempt, if it is not yet clear, has been the former. If asked right now, exhausted but thankfully not too broken to backpack to nations, I might say you have a couple choices. To change the world qua world, you will have to lie because your vision will bear the mark of megalomania—no matter how subtle and regardless of your motives—that you cannot give in to, that you must rail against if you can. But there is a way around it that could save you the aggravation of doing a dance to music you have neither composed nor have developed any real skill dancing to (side-eye). You will need to change both your point(s) of focus and your means of focus—your focal point as well as your way of focusing on it (lens included); change your subject (or historically othered object) and the methodology for approaching it; what you say and, if possible, the language.

In short, seek not to change the world but to change yourself. Do not only complain about or rail against a system you must inevitably subscribe to so you can attain the credibility that will then (it is hoped) allow you to do the kind of work you really want to do.

Even revolutionaries have to eat. Ask one. They’ll tell you.

But do not stop. Do not dare to stop. Do what you must to become an expert in the articulation of your own ideas. All other ideas exist—at least, in part—for that purpose. Converse, even if it is with yourself. Know that there is no more pathology in offering a response to your own ideas than engaging those of ghosts. Do not wait upon those who come to discredit; they will find their way to you. If lost, they follow those who credit you, for they will also find their way. Of this you can be certain. Know that those like you who want to change the world are, like you, driven more by terror than by arrogance, more by ignorance than by certainty (in spite of what your vision may seem to ensure, as opposed to theirs).

If you want to change the world, get over yourself and do the work of articulating your humanity anew, of failing horribly for an ideal you understand but may not know—a vision—and recognize that it will not ever be as you have conceived it. Whether to your delight or demise, accept that it is so. Accept it, then get to work. Do something about it. I’m out.