The View from the Stage
The View from the StageJudy Bond Interviews Radiohead's Thom Yorke
In the next world war/in a jackknifed juggernaut/I am born again/in the neon sign scrolling up and down/i am born again/in an interstella burst/I am back to save the universe.
—"Airbag" by Radiohead
Earlier this year my son Arthur introduced me to the British rock group Radiohead by playing their song "Karma Police." My curiosity about the Buddhist reference overcame my parental apprehension about his interest in alternative rock and what my husband and I perceive to be its associated vices. It's easy to forget that I survived a similar passion starting with the likes of Screaming Jay Hawkins and Clarence "Frogman" Henry on black radio in Norfolk, Virginia. This was in the days before Buddy Holly, Elvis and the Beatles.
Listening to Radiohead's CDs, I was intrigued by the band's ability to combine desolate lyrics with uplifting melodies. Any irony was overridden by the beauty of lead singer Thom Yorke's voice, especially when soaring in falsetto range. However bleak and cold the modern landscape sketched by the lyrics, a transcendent optimism, perennial as grass, emerged through the cracks in the cement.
I wanted to interview this thoughtful young man Thom Yorke and find out why he was drawn to the cause of Tibet. This summer's Tibetan Freedom Concert was the second he and his band had played, and on the second day of the concert, we were ushered into Radiohead's dressing room tent next to the stadium and introduced to Thom. I sat down beside him on the couch and my son Arthur took a chair. I took out my long list of questions; Thom said, "Blimey!"
Judy Bond: First of all, let me thank you as a parent.
Thom Yorke: Why?
Judy Bond: My generation has screwed things up.
Thom Yorke: (laughs) Yeah. I know.
Judy Bond: And Rome is burning.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. It is, isn't it.
Judy Bond: And so for us parents, I'm very grateful that you've become a light in the darkness. I worry about him (I motion toward Arthur).
Thom Yorke: (to Arthur) There you go.
Judy Bond: So let me thank you for maintaining your optimism.
Thom Yorke: Well, I've been reading a lot about the fifty years since the Second World War, about Western foreign policy and all that. I try not to let it get to me, but sometimes I just think that there's no hope. Then I realize, "Well, hang on, that's what they'd love us to believe." It's a fight, a mental fight. I grew up under Thatcher. I grew up believing that I was fundamentally powerless. Then gradually over the years it occurred to me that this was actually a very convenient myth for the state.
Judy Bond: So you've chosen to exert your power by helping the Tibetan cause. I understand you were very moved by the first Tibetan Freedom Concert you did.
Thom Yorke: I was very moved indeed. It came at a crucial point for us; it was the beginning of promoting our album "OK Computer." We were very nervous and didn't know what to expect, but when we came backstage, there was a little note saying, "Please leave your egos behind." That was a big thing for me. Coming from Britain, I was terrified of meeting all these other artists, because artists over there tend to fight with each other a lot, the premise being that there's not enough room for everybody. But we got over here and all the other artists were incredibly friendly.
Judy Bond: You spoke eloquently at the press conference about the plight of the Tibetan people. How did you get interested in the Tibetan cause?
Thom Yorke: Well, I really got interested in it when I bought a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Robert Thurman. There's a great introduction to Buddhism in that, a good twenty pages. Then I read Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which didn't feel like a religious book in the normal sense. It felt like common sense from start to finish. I guess that's what wisdom is, really. It's the most extraordinary thing I've ever read.
The problem is, I cannot meditate. That's the one thing I can't do. That's the thing that's driving me nuts. I have a house by the sea, and I can sit and listen to the sound of the sea and eventually . . . but I can't really do it. I think there are lots of reasons for it. My excuse has always been that music does it for me. I think it does, but not often enough to justify saying that. It's the same kind of thing because you are not wrapped up in your thoughts anymore. So when it works it's really good.
Judy Bond: It was very good of you to break your holiday after the world tour and come back from England to donate your performance this weekend and appear tomorrow at the rally.
Thom Yorke: I couldn't have lived with myself if we hadn't done it. It's like trying to give something back after a year of taking and taking. For me and I think for most of the artists here, Tibet is the final test. If they let Tibet be wiped out then...
Judy Bond: This is not the first cause that you've promoted. There was something called Warchild.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, it's about the Bosnian crisis principally. Generally speaking I think that sometimes charity is cosmetic. I mean, the only reason the Bosnian situation got out of control was that the U.N. and Western Europe turned a blind eye. Leading up to the war, they kept having these talks: everyone turns up in suits with briefcases, including the Serbs, and just because they sat down at what the Western Europeans deemed their level, they were fooled blind. The Serbs committed mass murder, genocide, the most revolting crimes, but if they send someone off in a suit with a briefcase, then everything is fine. It's completely cosmetic. I think sometimes all the charities are doing is mopping up the blood. It's a shame. This is the black hole I always get lost in, so I'll pull myself out now.
The thing about the Tibetan cause is that it's a bit more positive—because of the nonviolence element and because there is no China-hating involved. Then it makes a bit more sense.
Judy Bond: There's a moral stance you take with your audience.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, which is dangerous. But there you go.
Judy Bond: Well, you're up there in a position where people listen to what you say. I appreciate that you do that for them.
Thom Yorke: That comes from my dad, actually. My dad spent his whole life getting into fights for telling what he believed to be the truth. Basically it comes from my dad—and he's screaming right-wing, so there you are.
Judy Bond: Going back to the nonviolence that's being promoted here, I've read that because of other children teasing you about your damaged eye, you had to defend yourself with your fists.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, again that's from my father.
Judy Bond: Looking back on those years now, how do you feel about the fighting?
Thom Yorke: (long pause) Well, it only dawned on me about six months ago that not everybody's against me all the time. It was something of a revelation (laughing) . . . that's all I can say really.
Judy Bond: How many of your fans do you think are interested in the Tibetan cause?
Thom Yorke: I don't know. There's something in the music about trying to validate yourself, and I hope through that they'll see why we're so interested in the Tibetan movement. I haven't really gotten any feedback from them, but that's why we've kept going on about it. Maybe it does some good or maybe it washes over people, but if it was me and I was getting newsletters talking about it, then I would probably try to find out more. That's what U2 did for Amnesty International during the eighties, and it really worked.
Our generation for so long has genuinely believed it has no power at all. Have you seen that Pepsi advert where they are all going "aaaahhhhh youth!!"(thrusts his hand out as if holding soda can) and they get their kicks jumping off mountains or something? That's the conclusion of something. I think we should move on from there. I don't think young people are as demoralized as the media and government would like us to think. The obvious sign of that is how strong and how close personal connections are and how much people are able to build a life for themselves, despite all this stuff that's been thrown at them.
Noam Chomsky has said that any member of society can change things simply by their consumer power. If nothing else at all, if you don't write letters or anything else, if you don't buy any of this stuff, the companies will freak out. It's that easy.
The next day at the National Day for Tibet rally on the Capitol lawn, Thom Yorke closes out the speeches by singing "Street Spirit." He shouts "Power for the people" and departs the stage. Sogyal Rinpoche takes the mike and leads the gathering in a few closing prayers, among them four lines from The Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life:
"For as long as space endures/ And for as long as living beings remain/ Until then may I abide/To dispel the misery of the world";
and from the Four Immeasurables:
"May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness/ May they be free of suffering and the root of suffering/ May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering/ May they dwell in equanimity free from passion, aggression, and ignorance."
Judy Bond is a writer based in Baltimore.
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A Memorable Ass-chew
A Memorable Ass-chewBy: In my virginal, pre-ass-chew state, I was thick-headedly oblivious to the danger, my mind racing past that minor detail. Now, like a guard dog’s bite, the ass-chew snaps me out of it and back to sensibility.
Five summers ago, on vacation with my wife and two daughters, I was driving on Route 95 north out of New Jersey, heading onto the George Washington Bridge. As you head toward the bridge you have to choose a lane for either the upper or lower tier. I ended up choosing the one with the biggest traffic jam.
Heroically I tried to undo my bad decision by crossing a flat median strip and joining the zooming traffic heading to the other tier. Before I could complete the gambit, a New Jersey state policeman sped up behind me. From where, I will never know.
The asking for the license part went as per usual, and then he instructed me to get out and join him at the front of the car. With my back to the car, he looked around me and through the windshield, surveying the people within. He then turned his attention back to me. I stood dumbly in the sweltering heat, cars and trucks loudly passing. Tall and bulky, dressed in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and disheveled shorts, I was the picture of what my daughter would call the TV tourist. The officer, smartly dressed, trim and steely, was six inches shorter. He looked up at me grimly. Is that your family in there?
As my family and all passing traffic looked on at this ludicrous Laurel and Hardy, cop-and-tourist sight, he asked me, Do you want the ticket or the ass-chew?
Immediately, I wanted to burst out laughing at this absurd Hobson’s choice. Fortunately, something deep within me knew that laughing loudly in the face of this policeman was not a good idea. Sheepishly, I replied, I guess I’ll take the ass-chew.
He started walking further down the road, out of earshot of the car. Dutifully I followed behind. He faced me down, lunging his chin to within a centimeter of my face, and began to bellow from deep in his rock-hard gut. The decibel level was never again to decrease.
You make me sick. I can’t stand to even be in your presence. You disgust me. A person like you doesn’t deserve to have children. How can you call yourself a father when you would risk the lives of your family to pull a stunt like that? Do you see those trucks passing by? Look at them!
Only fucking scum like you would like to see your wife and children chewed up under the wheels of one of those trucks.
You are without a doubt the stupidest fucking idiot I have ever seen. Is there only shit in that big fat head of yours? Are you ever going to try something like that again?
Now, get out of my sight before I have to be sick.
Yes, officer. Thank you.
Hangdog and in shock, I plodded back to the car. What the hell was that? my wife asked.
You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve thought about that ass-chew many times since then. Most of all, I’ve thought about it when I’ve been about to do something reckless just to save a little time. In my virginal, pre-ass-chew state, I was thick-headedly oblivious to the danger, my mind racing past that minor detail. Now, like a guard dog’s bite, the ass-chew snaps me out of it and back to sensibility.
Perhaps the highway policeman didn’t need to be quite so demeaning. I don’t advocate, for example, the complete stripping down of the dignity of military recruits. If one obliterates their self-worth, it seems possible that they may not value the lives of others. That may well be the point, but it shouldn’t be. My Lai and Oradour should tell us that.
In my case, though, I greatly appreciated that ass-chew. It was compassionate. I didn’t have to pay a ticket. In fact, there was no lasting punishment. Only instant, utter, and complete rehabilitation with a sense of humor, I might add. I am ever grateful. It’s just possible that policeman has saved my life on a few occasions more, when his ass-chew reverberated at the right moment.
In many of the would-be traditions of the New Age, and in distorted versions of ancient traditions, there is a fear of negativity and sharpness, of anything that is cutting, of the utterance of no. Affirmation is often not only the cornerstone but the be-all and end-all.
Perhaps the fear stems from the obvious abusiveness and violence that negativity can develop into. But if our reluctance leads us to imagine that we can foster an enlightened world free of boundaries and sharp edges, our Pollyannaish efforts are doomed to failure. A world where silent dogs have no teeth and roses have no thorns is a dream born of fear.
One of the cardinal virtues of many spiritual traditions is ahimsa, Sanskrit for not-harming. The a means no. Sometimes we have to express it to prevent a broader harm taking place. We often ask people in uniforms to help us do that job. We may resent them for it, but they save our lives, and sometimes they give their own doing it.
Even in the storybook world of Babar, there is a general, and I bet he has to give a good ass-chew every now and then.
Barry Boyce is the senior editor of the Shambhala Sun.
Looking into Laziness
Looking into Laziness
Rather than feeling discouraged by laziness, we could get to know laziness profoundly. This very moment of laziness becomes our personal teacher.
Traditionally, laziness is taught as one of the obstacles to awakening. There are different kinds of laziness. First, there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.
Comfort orientation comes in a variety of forms. Sogyal Rinpoche writes that in the East, for example, laziness often manifests as flopping down in the sun with one’s cronies, drinking tea, and letting the days pass by. In the West, he observes, laziness frequently manifests as speed. People rush from one thing to another, from the gym to the office to the bar to the mountains to the meditation class to the kitchen sink, the backyard, the club. We rush around seeking, seeking, seeking comfort and ease.
Whether we flop or rush, and wherever on the globe we happen to be, the comfort-orientation brand of laziness is characterized by a profound ignoring. We look for oblivion: a life that doesn’t hurt, a refuge from difficulty or self-doubt or edginess. We want a break from being ourselves, a break from the life that happens to be ours. So through laziness we look for spaciousness and relief; but finding what we seek is like drinking salt water, because our thirst for comfort and ease is never satisfied.
Loss of Heart
The laziness of loss of heart is characterized by vulnerability, woundedness, and not knowing what to do. We tried just being ourselves and we didn’t measure up. The way we are is not okay. We chased after pleasure and found no lasting happiness. We took time off, went on vacation, learned to meditate, studied spiritual teachings, or spent years dedicated to certain political or philosophical views. We helped the poor or saved the trees or drank or took drugs, and we found no satisfaction. We tried and we failed. We came to a painful, hopeless place. We don’t even want to move. We feel we could gladly sleep for a thousand years. Our life feels meaningless. Loss of heart is so painful that we become paralyzed.
Couldn’t Care Less
Couldn’t care less is harder, more icy, fatalistic. This particular flavor of laziness has an edge of cynicism and bitterness. We feel that we just don’t give a damn anymore. We feel lazy and mean at the same time. We feel mean toward this disappointing and lousy world, and toward this person and that person. Mostly we feel mean toward ourselves. We made a mistake. We’re not exactly sure what this mistake was, but we got it all wrong; and now, to hell with it! We try to forget in any way we can. We stop doing much. We feel as if we can’t do much anyway, and frankly, we don’t care.
So What To Do?
Built into the human predicament seems to be the assumption that we should eliminate our failings; as adequate and worthy people, we should be able simply to leap over our weaknesses. So perhaps the grown-up thing to do would be to blow up laziness with a bomb, or drop it into the Atlantic Ocean with a huge weight so it would never reappear, or send it off into space so that it would float out into infinity and we’d never have to relate to it again.
But if we ask ourselves, Where does joy come from? Where does inspiration come from?, we will find they do not come from getting rid of anything. They do not come from dividing ourselves in two and struggling against our own energy. They do not come from seeing laziness as an opponent, or something out there that we should leap over. They do not come from denigrating ourselves.
The path of awakening is a process. It’s a process of gradually learning to become intimate with our so-called obstacles. So rather than feeling discouraged by laziness, we could look into our laziness, become curious about laziness. We could get to know laziness profoundly.
We can unite with laziness, be our laziness, know its smell and taste, feel it fully in our bodies. The spiritual path is a process of relaxing into this very moment of being. We touch in with this moment of lethargy or loss of heart, this moment of pain, of avoidance, of couldn’t care less. We touch in and then we go forward. This is the training. Whether in formal meditation or throughout our days and nights, we can train in letting go of our commentary and contacting the felt quality of our experience. We can touch our experience without getting hooked by the story line. We can touch this very moment of being and then move on.
We are sitting in meditation or going about our usual routine, and it occurs to us to listen to what we’re saying. What we hear is, Oy vey, oy vey! Woe is me. I’m a failure. There’s no hope. We look at what we do to ourselves, what we say to ourselves, how we lose heart or try to distract ourselves. Then we let those words go and touch the heart of this moment. We touch the very center of this moment of being and then we let go. This is how we train. Again and again, this is our practice.
We join our loss of heart with honesty and kindness. Instead of pulling back from the pain of laziness, we move closer. We lean into the wave. We swim into the wave.
Somewhere in the process of staying with the moment, it might occur to us that there are a lot of unhappy brothers and sisters out there, suffering as we are suffering. In becoming intimate with our own pain, with our own laziness, we are touching in with all of them, understanding them, knowing our kinship with all of them.
We are sitting in front of the television eating chips, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes. Hour after hour after hour we sit there. Then for some reason, we see ourselves clearly. We have the choice to eat the tenth bag of chips and watch the sixteenth sitcom, or to relate with our depression and laziness in an honest and openhearted way. Instead of continuing to zone out and shut down and close off, we lean in and relax. This is how we practice.
So maybe we open the window or go out for a walk, or maybe we sit silently, but whatever we do, it occurs to us to stay with ourselves, to go behind the words, behind the ignoring, and to feel the quality of this moment of being, in our hearts, in our stomachs, for ourselves, and for all of the millions of others in the same boat. We start to train in openness and compassion toward this very moment. This very moment of laziness becomes our personal teacher. This precious moment becomes our profound and healing practice.
Pema Chödrön is the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
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The Irony and the Ecstasy
The Irony and the EcstasyBy: Now that the postmodern wave is washing on the shore of its own demise, what new worldviews surge from the ocean of the soul to announce a new perception?
The reason that art in the postmodern, existential world has reached something of a cul-de-sac is not that art itself is exhausted, but that the existential worldview is. Just as rational modernity previously exhausted its forms and gave way to a-perspectival postmodernity, so now the postmodern itself is on a morbid deathwatch, with nothing but infinitely mirrored irony to hold its hand, casting flowers where they will not be missed. The skull of postmodernity grins on the near horizon, and in the meantime, we are between two worldviews, one slowly dying, one not yet born.
Whatever we may think about it, and volumes have been written, perhaps the best that can be said of the avant-garde is that it always implicitly understood itself to be riding the crest of the breaking wave of evolving worldviews. The avant-garde was the leading edge, the growing tip, of an evolving humanity. It would herald the new, announce the forthcoming. It would first spot, then depict, new ways of seeing, new modes of being, new forms of cognition, new heights or depths of feeling, and in all cases, new modes of perception. It would spot, and depict, the coming worldview, while breaking decisively with the old.
The story is familiar. Jacques-Louis David’s art was part of the early rise of modernity (reason and revolution) that violently broke with the remnants of the mythic, aristocratic, hierarchical, rococo past. From neoclassicism to abstract expressionism, each succeeding growing tip became in turn the conventional, accepted norm, only to see its own form challenged by the next avant-garde. Even postmodernism, with its a-perspectival madness, which first attempted to deconstruct the avant-garde altogether, intimately depended upon it for something to deconstruct; thus, as Donald Kuspit points out in The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, a type of neo-avant-garde art inevitably dogged postmodernism from the start.
Like huge successive waves crashing ashore, worldviews succeed one another, and the avant-garde, at their best, were the great surfers of these waves. Now that the postmodern wave is washing on the shore of its own demise, what new waves are forthcoming? What new worldviews surge from the ocean of the soul to announce a new perception? Where are we to look for the contents of the sincere artistic statements that will supplant irony and a-perspectival madness? Standing on tiptoe, looking through the mist, can the vague outline of the face of tomorrow’s art, and therefore, tomorrow’s world, even be seen?
What worldviews, from those available, might carry the contours of tomorrow’s art? Of course, some aspects of the coming landscape will be entirely new and original. Creative advance into novelty, according to Whitehead, is the basic feature of the universe. But we also know, from extensive psychological and sociological research, that certain basic features of the dozen or so major worldviews are potentials already available to the human organism, and instead of starting entirely from scratch, nature usually reworks what is at hand, before adding the finishing touches of novelty.
We know the worldviews that have been tried, toiled at, worked, and exhausted: archaic, magic, mythic, mental-rational (modern), and existential a-perspectival (postmodern). The postmodern, of course, will continue its major influence for decades to come, on the way to its final resting place. It is simply that artistic productions, as canaries in the cultural mine shaft, are dropping dead in alarming numbers as the rotting gas of postmodernity first starts whiffing down that tunnel. So the art world, more quickly than the sturdier herd mentality, seeks out new horizons; thus the dead-end of today’s art is really the future endgame of the postmodern worldview in general. So what other horizons are available right now?
Three, at least: subtle, causal, and non-dual. The phenomenologists of worldviews (those who research and describe the contours of available worldviews) describe these three worldviews as being transrational or transpersonal, and they contrast them with the earlier worldviews, some of which are prerational or prepersonal (archaic, magic, and mythic), and some of which are rational or personal (mental and existential).
This gives men and women, as potentials in their own organisms, a spectrum of available worldviews, ranging from prerational to rational to transrational, from prepersonal to personal to transpersonal, from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious. Supposing that we have exhausted the dizzying rhetorical regress of self-reflexivity, there are only two ways to go: back into subconsciousness, or forward into superconsciousness, back to the infrarational, or beyond to the suprarational.
The distinction is important, because the transrational, transpersonal worldviews are what might be called spiritual, yet they bear little relation to the traditional religious worldviews of the magic and mythic spheres. The transrational realms have nothing to do with external gods and goddesses, and everything to do with an interior awareness that plumbs the depths of the psyche. Nothing to do with petitionary prayer and ritual, and everything to do with expanding and clarifying awareness. Nothing to do with dogma and belief, everything to do with cleansing perception. Not everlasting life for the ego, but transcending the ego altogether. When one exhausts the personal, there is left the transpersonal. There is, right now, simply nowhere else to go.
Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. Copyright Ken Wilber, 1998.
From childhood on I have had to struggle to break from the impositions of images that don’t represent me accurately or well. Even though this is a drag, it too is part of the struggle, part of the process of decolonization.
The lights are low in my place and I am listening to Brandy sing: "I’d like to get to know if I could be the kinda girl you could be down for." Tonight, I am sitting alone. The last time I was listening to this song I was with my honey. We were just talking—"conversation" in the best sense of the word—continuing an ongoing dialogue about artistic production, about working overtime to create decolonized images of black folk when so often the means of production are in the hands of those who ain’t even thinking about decolonization. We are stealing a feel or two and sharing our dreams about the work we do—where we want to see it go. We are talking about Fanon and the issue of whether or not black folks have any "ontological resistance to the white gaze." Sometimes we stop our talk to watch the light in the room, the shadows. He makes films and is into thinking about light.
His work is always so way out there he does not have to struggle to get folks to take him seriously—to see him as someone who thinks deeply about the world, whose vision moves with and beyond the need for political justice. Even though much of his work deals with radical black subjectivity, he is not seen as hung up about race. In my critical essays I am always talking about white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Nobody accuses him of lingering too long on the "feminist" trip. Me—I’ve grown accustomed to being looked at through a narrow lens by most folks.
Whether it’s the black women who "trash" me for folks giving my work just too much "play" (even though these same folks rarely talk about the significance of the work or why lots of readers are into it and never trash black male peers who get mega-bucks and mega-play) or those who have read one of my fifteen books and think they know everything there is to know about me, from childhood on I have had to struggle to break from the impositions of images that don’t represent me accurately or well. Most folks don’t seem to want to believe that one can be struggling for justice and into nuanced cultural perspectives, aesthetics, and the vernacular at the same time. I have to constantly resist the censorship and silencing that my self-declared enemies hope will be the outcome of attacks and dismissals. Even though this is a drag, it too is part of the struggle—part of the process of decolonization.
The struggle to "be myself" in all the complexity of my being has been waged on the homefront and in the public world. During my first year in college I was always hanging out with a white hippie with long hair and a bright red beard who played bluegrass. One evening in the wee hours of the night as we were taking a midnight stroll on what appeared to be vacant streets, five black males walked up to me, pushing me into a dark corner where they taunted me with the question, "Nigger gal, what you doin’ with a white man—who do you think you are." I was too startled to speak. And even if I had found my voice, had found the words, I could not have answered the question. It was a question I used to hear as a girl whenever I in any way transgressed the boundaries of the rules set by a solid working class religious intact patriarchal black family.
That question has haunted me over the years whenever I have said or done things that break with bourgeois decorum; whenever I have been a rebel with a cause that requires breaking rules and speaking against the imposed silences. As an intellectual and critical thinker, I have always wanted to follow wherever my mind and heart lead me. I have not wanted to get stuck in absolutes. I have wanted to be always "existentially self-reflective"—those are philosopher Cornel West’s words. Back in the day when we were not well-known public intellectuals, but dissenting critical thinkers who liked to play music and dance and talk ideas way into the night, this was his playful taunt. Then, neither of us wanted to be hemmed in by bourgeois etiquette and rules. We wanted to be "cool," "down." Academia was where we worked but we wanted a life on the outside. We did not want to be imprisoned in institutions of higher learning that would reward us and then demand that we stop being outlaws—that we stop stepping out on the edge.
It takes courage and critical vigilance not to conform. It takes knowing the rules of the game, how to play and win, as well as finding strategies to win without compromising in ways that violate or destroy the integrity of your being. Years ago, when I did not have tenure, I naively imagined that after tenure, after job security, it would be possible to just be myself, do my thing, play the game the way it suits me. I know better now. I know that outside pressure to conform never stops, that there are myriad ways those in power who don’t like what you do can make coming to work hard and stressful. Now that I am a Distinguished Professor at the very top of the corporate academic mountain, the pressures intensify, as does the sense of isolation. How wrong I was to imagine that there would be "freedom" at the top. There is definitely more money at the top, more perks, but this rarely translates into greater freedom.
My desire to leave academic work has intensified not only because of the way its conventions restrict creativity in the classroom, but also the way it restricts the mind—the way intellectuals think and write outside the classroom. To a grave extent the academy has always been so similar to the dysfunctional patriarchal family hierarchy that hemmed me in as a child that I feel that I can never be truly healthy—well and whole in the deepest sense—without leaving it. Like my family of origin it has offered a place to settle and collect myself, even as it has sought to limit and confine that self.
In the endless work and play of doing my own thing, I am sometimes assailed on all sides. Mama and daddy don’t like what I do—putting their business in the streets. According to one black woman feminist, "Black women academics don’t like me." When I go to lecture I am more likely than not to be told that I am not at all like the image created by gossip and rumor— that I am not "difficult." And being single it’s hard on the romance front (most bodies come to me having heard more about me than I have heard about them).
At the end of the day though, despite all the hassles and bullshit, I am a lucky "girl." ‘Cause I walk the paths I need to walk, and always write only what I need to say. As a soul in this world seeking to fully self-actualize, I feel free. I know who I am. I know I like to go the distance, to go all the way. I know I have the courage to transgress when necessary without making a virtue or a fetish of transgression.
I write with intensity, discipline and constancy, because this is the work that calls me—the vocation of my heart. The writing I do is always meant to serve as critical intervention, as resistance. Balancing the desire to have work meaningfully touch relevant issues without, as well as always reflect artistic expression and integrity within, is not an easy task. While much of my cultural criticism challenges representations that reinforce existing structures of domination, it also offers new and different representations. The work then is always part of our struggle for liberation.
Much of that struggle begins with challenging sexist and racist stereotypes that offer such a flat vision of black female identity. Since practically everyone is socialized to expect certain stereotypical behavior from black females (including black females), one of the most useful interventions has been feminist critical discussion that both defines what the imposed stereotypes are and offers both strategies of resistance and alternative ways to construct self and identity. Even though more black females than ever before are critical of sexism, this does not mean that they are embracing feminism or a critique of gender roles in all aspects of life. For example: the idea that black women are "stronger," more capable of withstanding abuse than other groups of women, has been continually challenged by feminist thinkers. Even so, black women across class, along with everyone else, continue to embrace this image.
In the worst ways, mass media offered—and continue to offer—a vision of feminism to the public that suggested it was a movement for equal rights that would make women be like men. The fact that the feminist movement was equally critical of male identity formation within patriarchy was rarely given attention in the media. Clearly, the aspect of reformist feminism most people could understand was the insistence on equal pay for equal work. Coupled with that was the stereotype of women become pseudo-men. In the final analysis, mass media and the mass public have shown a willingness to embrace women acting like patriarchal men while they eschew feminist attempts to transform male and female roles.
(continued in: Ain't She Still a Woman?, bell hooks, Shambhala Sun, January 1999. )
bell hooks is the author of Wounds of Passion, published by Henry Holt and Company
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