“The life history draws closer to the official presentation of the official model of the self (identity card, civil record, curriculum vitae, official biography) and to the philosophy of identity which underlies it, as one draws closer to official interrogations in official inquiries — the limit of which is the judicial inquiry or police investigation — at the same time, drawing away from the intimate exchanges between very close friends and from the logic of the secret which are current in these protected markets...” (Pierre Bourdieu, "The Biographical Illusion")
Biographies are sneaky. Autobiographies are extra sneaky. It’s hard to render life in prose.
People’s features shift with the light, the ambiance, the gaze of the generalized other. Mine too.
We’re all products of a set of social forces. I could talk to you about my sociology. I have a U.S. passport and some university diplomas; I would describe my ethnic location within Euro-American whiteness as Nordo-Judaic (thus a Jewish first name, a Norwegian last name); I was born in the early 1980s in New England (in eastern Connecticut, which in class terms is very unlike western Connecticut); I could theoretically get a German passport, because of post-Holocaust citizenship restitution provisions. Some of these things I identify with strongly, while some just feel like accidents of history.
Lately I’ve especially identified with questions about gender and gender politics. I identify as genderqueer, and when I got married, we put some work into trying to write a feminist wedding ceremony. I’ve been meaning to do something with that text.
I like writing: it takes you out of yourself.
Sometimes I do have utopian moments. At least, I think about utopianism a lot and I like imagining a better world than the one we live in. But I mean, there are people more utopian than me. My babysitter when I was small was a rebel sculptor who had fled “the rat race” (as he called it) and lived in a tiny cabin in the woods. With kerosene lamps at night, and many windows to watch the birds and animals passing by the swamp outside. I’m not that utopian. That kind of utopianism is too lonely.
Avery Gordon has a great analysis of Toni Cade Bambara as a utopian thinker, which I always come back to.
“Freedom? Yes. You. Don’t you want to be free? Freedom is what Bambara, the dreamer, the organizer, and the bad housekeeper, is after. What does she mean by freedom? Freedom means facing up to what’s killing you, healing the damage, and becoming in-different to the lure of sacrificial promises of monied or exclusive happiness and the familiarity of your own pain… Freedom, Bambara insists, is a process. It is not the end of history nor an elusive goal never achievable. It is not a better nation-state however disguised as a cooperative. It is not an ideal set of rules detached from the people who make them or live by them… Freedom is the process by which you develop a practice for being unavailable for servitude.”
Being unavailable for servitude is hard, because the demands don’t just come from outside.
Still, a lot of my utopian thoughts center around unrealized longings for equality and egalitarian values. Manifestly the world is radically unequal, whether you look along gendered lines, racial lines, national and hemispheric lines, class lines, religious lines, whatever lines — not all the lines even have names. If you’re an ethnographer, you’re always thinking about antagonisms and boundaries in society.
It’s not about wishing them away. I really don’t think equality is about everyone being identical. It’s not a fantasy of flattening. It’s anti-hierarchical but not anti-difference. It’s anti-domination but not opposed to power. When can there be power without domination? What does Bambara’s freedom look like in practice?
It’s not about fleeing into a kibbutz or utopian enclave; I agree with Gordon there. The places you idealize aren’t necessarily the places you spend your life living in. That’s a thought I learned from Sara Ahmed, who comments at one point in Living a Feminist Life, “I am relatively comfortable in critical theory, I do not deposit my hope there.” It’s possible to have utopian commitments without giving up on ordinary ambivalence.
What goes for places goes for people too. The people who show you what your world can be aren’t necessarily the ones who are going to live in it alongside you. As a teacher, that seems natural for me. As a student, it was harder to accept; I wanted my teachers to stick around.
Existence is an inventory of ambivalences and transient shapes, even though it’s not only that. My dad died not so long ago, and I tried to write something in his honor, but I don’t know if it quite captured the right things. He was a sort of utopian too. Who isn’t?
You can’t write about yourself without writing about others. That’s why this isn’t really a biography: since life isn’t strictly about individuals. What we call “a person” is a collective entity. To be is to be for others, to be with others, to exist in the minds of others.
Anyway, for an academic, a biography is a problem of occupational health and safety. It’s a workplace hazard among academics to suffer from identities and positions. To need them. To be an academic is to have a “location” in a “field.” To fit into bins. To be labeled with keywords. These days, to have an academic self you have to “be your brand.”
So I’m not going to pin myself down too much more than I just did. But to keep things concrete, I can at least give you a list of places I’ve lived.
- Cleveland Heights, Ohio
- Stellenbosch, South Africa
- Whittier, California
- Paris (Guy Moquet, Crimée, Barbès, Bir Hakeim, Pernety, Cité Univ., Place Monge)
- Chicago (Hyde Park, Pilsen)
- Somerville, Massachusetts
- Ithaca, New York
- Mansfield, Connecticut
- Willimantic, Connecticut