Tuesday, July 23, 2013

One or the Other Side of a Line

In my senior year of college, I wrote an essay deconstructing the Raymond Carver short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  It was the most ambitious (read: long) essay I'd written, topped only barely by an essay I wrote in grad school about the Roman emperor Hadrian.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of those modern literary short stories where a group of middle-class white people sit around a table and talk while the reader criticizes them for their shallowness and lack of understanding.  My essay analyzed the way the story both enforces and undermines binary oppositions such as permanence/transience and natural/artificial.  I was very proud of it.  I suppose that, since I'm talking about it, I'm still proud.  So, even though I haven't read WWTAWWTAL since college, and can't remember anything else that Carver has written, I feel a sense of ownership towards that story.

This was going to be a short post.  I just wanted to say that I'd seen a few blog posts lately that are titled What We Talk About When We Talk About __________, and that the name strikes a little happy note in me.  I think, hey I know that story!

But I started thinking about the way it makes me happy, and why.  WWTAWWTAL is the kind of story that English majors read.  So when someone references it, I feel like we're in a club together, the club of people who majored in English (or took lit classes on the side), despite people chiding us for not being more practical, despite the assumption that there was nothing for an English major to do besides teach Huck Finn to teenagers.  I feel like we have a shared experience.  And I love that feeling.

I remember having lunch with a friend of mine in Chicago while I was in town at a conference.  I was excitedly telling him about the Queering the Classroom panel I had attended, which I had found inspiring and thought-provoking.  I told him that they used words like intersectionality, and I immediately felt like I belonged.  My friend said, "what's intersectionality?"

Here's the thing: lingo is only inclusive to the people who know it.  References to story titles are only inclusive to the people who get them. 

It hadn't occurred to me that my friend wouldn't know the word.  He is not ignorant of social justice concerns.  As soon as I gave him a definition, he immediately came up with an example.  He knows the concept.  He just hadn't heard the word before.  If he had been at the panel, I'm sure that he would have figured out, from the context, what it meant.

—But do you see what I'm doing here?  I'm trying to prove that he is, actually, in the club with me.  That the term excluded him by mistake.  And trying to prove that he deserves to be included is the same as saying that some people don't.  That feeling I love so much, of feeling like I'm part of something, it only has meaning if there is an alternative.  If someone else is being excluded.

I am very, very, sensitive to the divide between insider/outsider.  It is, perhaps, the dominant structure with which I have organized my experiences. There are few things that I love more, or hate more, than the feeling of being on one or the other side of a line. 

No comments: