material girl

Spiritual materialism(s). New materialism(s). Feminist materialism(s). Queer materialism(s). Historical materialism(s). I am weary of categories, but I am excited by conversations about the possibilities of materialism as an ethical foundation.

Materialism has a deservedly bad rap in the context of consumer culture, but the word, even the idea, has no inherent helpful or harming value. It finds a value in relationship, and within systems. I am excited by materialism because it offers me a way to think through unease within the social systems I belong to, enter, get drawn into, inhabit, disturb, gain power and agency through: religious communities, feminism, activist groups, academia, the poetry world, the art world. This is not critique from without or even from within. I am entangled. The unease lets me know our understanding of the system is limited (and usually harmful) and that we must dig deeper. It is important to want to dig deeper until the hyphae of numberless interconnected mycelial bodies are made visible through what might be called prayerful attention.

If a group within which I operate is helping women coming out of prison with resettlement backpacks (toothbrush, towel, some clean socks and underthings, period products, bus passes, etc), are we buying everything at Walmart? Did a woman labor in unsafe conditions in Bangladesh to make the backpack, or the shirt we put in that backpack (listen to Pinksy’s poem in the link, read it at the bottom of this)? Is this action contextualized within conversations about abolition? And if we can’t yet imagine abolition, are we talking about how to enliven and sensitize ourselves enough to become capable of a fiercer kind of imagining?

If we are gathering for direct action against governments because of their inaction (and adverse action) in the face of past, current and impending environmental crisis, is the way we are responding to crisis part of the crisis, as Bayo Akomolafe says?

Are we drawing ‘mystery’ into the realm of the ‘known’ in order to quantify and commodify it?

Bodies. Embodiment. Entanglement. Holobionts. Biocultural phenomena. The monstrous.

(LONG) ASIDE: The corrupting power of POWER is such that now whenever a man rises in public view for his ideas, scholarship, activism, art — and especially if I find these particularly attractive at the level of language — I immediately wonder, has this man ever assaulted anyone? Equally, has a woman ever protected the public image of this man so as not to hinder or limit the reach of his worthy vision?

I appreciate the therapist @somaticwitch on Instagram who, in a collection of resources, suggested Pat Ogden was every bit as good a theorist and therapist as van der Kolk, and while there are zero allegations of harassment against Ogden, everyone knows van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score (published 2014) and few people know Ogden’s Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy (published 2006). Ogden even lists The Body Keeps the Score as a go-to book in an interview. Also published in the early-mid 2000’s is Alice Miller’s The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, and Babette Rothschild’s The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, the second volume of which was more recently published. Without a materialist lens, it is easy to ask: who cares who published what when, isn’t the most important thing that the information gets out there, and that the more people have access to it the better?

Yes. And, no. This isn’t simply a matter of prestige and renown, and even those are not neutral. To publish, to sell, to influence — these all have material values and are conditioned by the structures and processes that enable them, markets, publishing houses, editors, ad agencies, suppliers, promoters, critics, academic institutions, which are all still well invested in (white/cis/straight/male/class-privileged/North Atlantic/Western-traditioned/abled/neurotypical) dominance paradigms. My point is not to deny the merits of van der Kolk’s work nor to suggest that every publication isn’t already an invitation for further work, but to ask what does having a book as popular, let me be clear: as frequently sold-bought-cited-taught, as The Body Keeps the Score allow? What does it obstruct? Other quandaries and disappointments along these lines have included Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Ko Un — which, again, is not to vilify these men further but to ask what did their power, their presence, allow? What did it obstruct? What was left in their place? A space? A question? A desire? Anything at all? Or did the memories of all who loved and needed their work get swallowed up by the shame of having loved and needed the work of men who abused their power? Maybe it’s just time to turn elsewhere.

I am thinking about what it means to read everything within a hermeneutics of suspicion. Ricoeur (whom I have never read except in the words of Rita Felski, whom I have minimally read) was right. In Felski’s words: “there is no reason why our readings cannot blend analysis and attachment, criticism and love.” And yet there are some writers whose work inspires something beyond critique or suspicion, more like humility, awe and even friendship — with the work, if not the author. More recently, for me these writers have been Bayo Akomolafe, Gillian Rose, Stuart Hall, Toni Morrison, Paula Meehan, Shailja Patel, adrienne maree brown, Walter Brueggemann, Arundhati Roy, Fanny Howe. And this goddamned stunning poem by Robert Pinsky, which has haunted me ever since I first read it.


by Robert Pinsky

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar

Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted

This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,

The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames

On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step

Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up

To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held

Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,

Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly

Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,

Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed

By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.

Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton

As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma

And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality

Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,

The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

(I don’t know why the formatting is strange. The poem is in tercets.)

ATTENTION TO SELF-DOUBT PRACTICE. I will from now on use the bottom of posts as a place to log and document the self-defeating thoughts that emerge while I am writing, as an act of transparency, vulnerability, solidarity. Here goes: Other people are saying these things more articulately. You are probably being self-righteous. Is this even aesthetic? Just journal privately (I do this, too — so what’s the difference? Why does this space exist?) What credentials allow you to write about trauma and theory? This is a waste of time. You have never read Paul Ricoeur. You will probably never get to Paul Ricoeur. The first time you heard about Paul Ricoeur was while reading Susan Sontag’s journals, an experience as thoroughly devastating as it was inspiring. How could she think/write like that?? AT 15! Even later. Basically, just give up.

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