*Note: This essay was written and delivered as a talk on the online panel of “Writing in the time of COVID-19: Race, Dystopia, and the Humanities in/of Crisis.” The panel was sponsored by EALA, Taiwan, organized and moderated by Professor Andy Chih-ming Wang. My deepest gratitude to Andy, who invited me to be part of the conversation in the first place, and to my co-panelists Jessica Chang and Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose feedback and engagement helped me think with more depth. I am grateful, too, for the audience listening in from different parts of the world and the tech support group for the event.

Thank you, Andy and Hsinya, for putting this panel together, and special thanks to Yiyun, for her work on coordination. I feel very honored to be here with my co-panelists—my good friend Jessica Chang and Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. It also means a lot to me to be able to have a conversation with an audience largely based in Taiwan. I really appreciate your time and attention.

In my talk today, I want to reflect on what we mean when we use the term “crisis.” One form of crisis I will discuss is the ordinary violence caused by neoliberal institutional culture and the politics of respectability. I want to consider how the demands of neoliberal institutional culture deprive our ability to give attention to ourselves and others. While I will discuss how writing is an important way to attend to ourselves and those who we care about, I also want to touch upon the impossibility of writing during this precarious time. 

I. On “Crisis”

I want to begin by reflecting on the idea of “crisis” as indicated in the title of this event. The term crisis usually invokes a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. It also implies a situation that is exceptional or unprecedented–one in which we feel our lives are threatened. Yet, as Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte reminds us, the feeling of the “unprecedented” requires us to experience something as “new,” as “never happened before.” {1} In other words, the idea of crisis reveals the gaps in our knowledge and experience because what is a new precious experience to us might not be new to others. It is in this process of experiencing something as new and exceptional that we tend to ignore the ordinary violence and structural problems that have always already been in place.

As a broad sweeping term, “crisis” demands questions that specify its subjects and effects: Whose crisis are we talking about here? What kind of crisis? Whose crisis gets the most attention and visibility, and whose doesn’t? 

Because the term crisis refuses any universal claim, I can only speak about crisis and how it is related to writing from a partial perspective. When the pandemic hit central Pennsylvania and my institution announced the state of lockdown in March, we were told we were in moments of crisis. Yet, if you are in a grad program in humanities in the United States long enough, you are already very familiar with the term “crisis.” Every day, you hear people talk about the crisis of higher education, the lack of state fundings for public education, the shutdown of programs and departments, the scarcity of jobs, and the brutal experience of being on the market. Every day, you hear horror stories about how faculty, especially women of color, and queer and trans people, are overworked; you learn that many public universities were founded on the conditions of colonial white supremacist project and that you need to gain recognition in a system that is set up to erase your being. Every day, you learn that you need to be hyper-professionalized, to talk and project like a cisgender white man to earn respect and respectability from the institution. 

Eventually, you learn that the higher ed institution continues to perpetuate hierarchy, paternalism, and white supremacy that cut through your sense of being and self-worth. All of this makes you feel you are in a state of crisis the moment you became part of the broken institution that is U.S. higher education. 

So when the global pandemic hit and it was officially declared we live in crisis, I couldn’t help but wonder if many of us, including many of my overworked, underpaid, and constantly intimidated fellow grad students who are told they are never good enough, have been in crisis for so long. We have been in crisis for so long to the point that the structural violence done to our minds and bodies feel so ordinary and invisible.

While the global pandemic does intensify multiple forms of crisis, including anti-Asian racism, police brutality, economic recession, overstrained medical systems, and state border closure, I find it important to recognize the pandemic as not causing an “unprecedented” crisis or exceptional situation. Rather, the pandemic worked to accelerate and intensify multiple forms of violence that are already there. 

II.  Politics of Respectability 

In the context of the United States, and more specifically neoliberal higher ed institutions, forms of violence and inequality have to be linked to white supremacy and racial capitalism. By racial capitalism I am thinking along the lines argued by Cedric Robinson, Iyko Day, and Grace Kyungwon Hong, who remind us that just as the capitalist system encourages privatization of infrastructure, knowledge, and healthcare, it also disavows the roles of differently racialized bodies that make capital accumulation and property ownership possible in the first place. {2} 

White supremacy and racial capitalism not only perpetuate racial hatred of different kinds, but they also create a certain “politics of respectability” that is based on the image of white cisgender men. This image dictates the norms of who counts as “appropriate,” “professional,” and “credible.” Neoliberal institutions make us desire that kind of respectability, even though pursuing it means internalizing colonial hierarchical thinking that validates our existence by making us think we are more superior than others, and even though such a pursuit entails self-debilitation on both psychic and emotional levels.

This politics of respectability shapes how we interact with people around us, how we teach, and how we perceive ourselves as writers and teachers. One example I can think of involves a teaching mentoring meeting I recently had with my mentees, who are three first-year instructors in our program. During the meeting we recently had, we were talking about how to rethink classroom “authority” and build trust in an online teaching environment. I wanted to address this topic in our mentoring meeting because I noticed that establishing “authority” and “respectability” became a source of anxiety for one of my mentees. We therefore discussed how the popular image of a respectable professor is often male, specifically white cisgender male, and it is almost impossible for women to fully replicate that kind of respectability. All of my three mentees are young white women, and we had to discuss what it means to be a marked person in an institutional setting that bases respectability on one’s unmarked status. 

This politics of respectability makes you talk and perform in a certain way so that you can assimilate and earn respect. The politics of respectability infiltrates many parts of higher ed institutions, creating a deeply alienating experience for Black and Indigenous people, Latinx and Asians, LGBTQA communities, people with disability, and those who are poor. In many ways, this politics of respectability operates as a form of ordinary violence that wounds our sense of being. It is an ongoing crisis that alienates us from ourselves. Shaped by neoliberal racial culture, this harmful politics of respectability, as my friend and colleague Miriam Gonzales says, is the “normative state in higher ed institutions for non-normative academics.” 

On a fundamental level, the crises I have referred to, including racial capitalism, harmful neoliebral institutions, and the politics of respectability, deprive us of attention. In other words, to live with these forms of everyday crisis means you are constantly distracted, alienated, pulled to different directions, to the point that you are burned out and are no longer able to give any attention to yourself and others. 

What I find most hurtful about these crises is that they operate in a quiet unnoticeable way. They don’t involve any spectacle or unprecedentedness, which makes it even harder to acknowledge their existence. In addition, they are normalized as part of our daily reality to the point that we reproduce certain expectations based on white cisgender male images. If we cannot achieve those expectations or respectability, we blame ourselves as the “problems.”

How do we attend to ourselves when we constantly feel alienated by neoliberal institutions, or when we feel we need to achieve the kind respectability that is impossible to obtain in the first place?  How do we ever become ourselves when we always perceive ourselves from the eyes of white supremacist institutions and believe that we are the “problems” to be corrected? 

III.  Writing as Attention-Giving

It is through answering these questions that I want to think about the meaning of writing. For me, one important meaning of writing is to give attention to ourselves and the beings and things we care about. I want to highlight the role of attention here because the global pandemic and the current political climate in the United States create a particular economy of attention that makes it difficult to attend to our physical and mental health, as well as our feelings. In many of the institutional settings, including a graduate program, a seminar room, a corporate workplace, or a town hall, it is very difficult to attend to and talk about our negative feelings generated by racial structure and neoliberal professionalism. And quite often, our inability to talk about our feelings has to do with the violence and politics of respectability. 

Those negative feelings can range from a sense of inadequacy, intimidation, and anger, to depression, melancholy, or the feeling of being constantly measured, dehumanized, and dismissed. In her collection of essays, poet Cathy Park Hong calls these feelings minor feelings. According to her,

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a state of cognitive dissonance. […] Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult–in other words, when we decide to be honest. When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that white people consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequality are not commensurable with their deluded reality. 

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, 56-57.

One important function of writing, then, is to create a space where we can attend to our minor feelings–feelings that are seen as illegitimate in the realm of noliebral institutions that celebrate survival,  resilience, and exceptionalism. Writing, whether in the forms of journaling, blogging, or free writing during workshops, create a space where we can acknowledge those minor feelings and validate their existence, without worrying about the politics of respectability or appropriateness. While Cathy Park Hong is largely talking about minor feelings generated by racial inequality, I want to add to the picture misogyny, paternalism, homo- and trans-phobia and neoliberal dehumanization that I often encounter in various institutional settings. Just as it is important to talk about survival and resilience, it is equally important to have a space where we can give attention to these minor feelings without worrying about whether they are“appropriate” or “legitimate.” 

When the global pandemic started and institutions of multiple levels failed to respond, I was thinking about how I could possibly create a space where minor feelings can be expressed and acknowledged. I was thinking about this question particularly in a pedagogical context. In this past spring, I was teaching my first Asian American literature class focused on “transpacific solidarities.” When my university announced the lockdown and every class had to go online, I decided to revamp the syllabus to craft an online work plan and a new final assignment. In place of the group project that asked my students to create profiles for transpacific social movements, I asked them to work instead on multimedia reflective narratives that trace their relationship to Asian America as well as to the literary texts we had read throughout the semester. My students were asked to identify moments of self-reflection, surprise or shock, or of transformation and to connect them to their lived experience, perceptions of identity, and their observations about the unsettling circumstances. Unlike an analytical or critical essay, this assignment asked my students to use the personal voice of I and to attend to their feelings and experiences during the pandemic. I also asked each of my students to read and provide feedback on two other students’ reflective narratives. In the end, I was really impressed by the level of thoughtfulness and generosity that my students gave to each other. Many of them acknowledged their classmates’ feelings and experiences, which generated a collective avowal that is hard to cultivate in most of the neoliberal institutional settings.

Through this final assignment, I also learned that writing as a way to attend to ourselves can be best sustained by collectivity, or an economy of attention that encourages mutual engagement, attentive listening, and careful reading. Minor feelings have a hard time being acknowledged not because writers have not found creative forms to express them but because too often both mainstream society and marginalized people themselves are not trained to hear and recognize them. By having my students read their peers’ reflective narratives and write feedback for them, and by engaging with their reflections and feelings, I was hoping to model a form of collectivity that I myself really wanted to see in a neoliberal institutional culture that dismisses and divides, that encourages us to project and produce, rather than listen and engage.

Reading my students’ work made me realize good writing and thinking is also derived from one’s careful reading—that is, an ability to enter others’ worlds and logics without making assumptions or imposing one’s view on others’ lived experiences. Writing during the time of COVID-19 is also about reading and reading together in a time that has long been made precarious by racial capitalism and neoliebral institutions. 

So far, I have discussed writing as a way to attend to ourselves in a time when toxic institutional cultures, white supremacy, and racial capitalism continue to distract and debilitate our bodies. To conclude my talk, however, I want to acknowledge the very contradiction and impossibility of writing during this time. 

Writing is an act of attention-giving that also requires attention to sustain it. When we feel distracted and drained, when every bit of our energy and attention is used to cope with broken institutions or to achieve impossible respectability, we cannot write. This impossibility of writing calls our attention to the conditions of possibility of writing itself, which requires a body–a functional body that feels safe enough to focus and attend. To borrow from feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed, to be able to write also means to be able to face your writing desk, which means that there are no other forces that demand your attention and make you leave your desk. {3}

In a time when many of us are forced into a survival mode, when we have to deal with multiple forms of everyday violence that deprive our attention, perhaps it is okay not to write. Perhaps, we should acknowledge that sometimes it is impossible to write. It is fine to leave your desk and not to produce words, not to be productive, and not to pursue respectability that promises upward mobility but alienates your sense of being.

For in a neoliberal racial ruin that is further complicated by the global pandemic, our broken bodies, just like the thoughts and words we produce, also need our attention.  

References

{1} Kyle Whyte. “Against Crisis Epistemology.” Handbook of Critical Indigenous Studies (2020): n. pag. Print.

{2} See Cedric J. Robinson, On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance (2019); Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism (2016); Grace Kyungwon Hong, Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference (2015).

{3} Sara Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology (2006).

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