THOUGHTS ON CONFINEMENT 2: “HEY”
(Note: “Melanie and the Movies” postponed until next week)
Just “Hey” is frequently how my students begin an email to me (and this despite a long schpiel I give at start of each semester on how they can call me Rachel or Professor Levitsky whatever is easier/more comfortable for them). I confess I find it crushing, and distancing, though I know that it is meant to be casual and familiar, at least meant as some sort of non-deferential treatment. I miss ‘dears’ and ‘hellos.’ I even miss my name or being called something which designates me as more than a random body. I know I sound sickly nostalgic. And I know that in the movement into casual, non-descript address, there is some deliberate eschewing of formality deemed oppressive, manners rejected as antiquated and hierarchical forms.
Again I’ll quote Dana Greene who helped me with statistics last week – I have a long sustained conversation about liberation with Dana, she is the interlocuting voice in my thinking about Confinement. Dana tells a story that when visiting facilities researching Restorative Justice, at a Maximum Security Prison in the mid-west where she was hosted by two elderly ex-school teachers, let’s say Mrs. Pinewood and Miss Jones, perfectly coifed and neatly dressed, who ran a Life Skills Program which included instruction in writing skills. Mrs. Pinewood and Miss Jones designated all their students as “Mr. …” and demanded formal address. At one point in the day, one student picked up a candy out of the bowl on the teachers’ desk and was reprimanded “Now you know Mr. Allah that those candies are meant for our guests.” Later at dinner the ladies told Dana about how they had another sort of communication with their students in which they deposited certain items, writing tools, notebooks and the like, into the trash bins on the way into their office and these were retrieved by the guys in the know.
In my fantasy about courtesy I imagine it as a kind of commons, a collective space that creates more room for difference and distinction and in the case of this story, maneuvers of resistance. The informality, the heys, the lack of hellos in advance of speaking, seem to me to assume not a level of equality, but a level of affective sameness, in which the salutation, the moment of assessment, is skipped. An this lack of assessment makes us vulnerable, puts us on the defensive. Individual and defended, of course we need to create our own safe insides, frat houses where it’s okay to be a little bit cruel.
P.S. Thank you Cara for pointing out the construction of the ‘inside’. I think that’s right, there is an impulse or a conceit amongst poets to create an alternative universe as a way out. Interesting and troubling. I thinking here that any inside is the inside (I too like to be inside). And of course there is no generalizing, every poet I know has a different life. I was talking to ETG yesterday about the television show “House” (an inside we can both enter for untold hours) and how it works on a similar premise, ranks close again the “outside” (e.g. the investigator of House’s vicodin/methadone/booze addled days at the hospital) to protect the fragile but complete system inside of the hospital. For those of you who don’t watch television, imagine Sherlock Holmes as a brilliant but ill-mannered and unwashed doctor, and Watson as the slightly effete, squeaky clean chief oncologist and a super petite, succulently curved, determinedly jewish, hospital chief as Irene Adler — http:/ /en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irene_Adler —the only woman who could ever slay … A mutually protective theater of cruelty, when push comes to shove they sometimes have each other’s back.
P.S.S. Disclaimer: I was not raised in the ways of politesse. My chaotic working class parents and people put their fingers in their plates when they ate on plates and not directly from the big dish and did not, as matter of course, great a person with a salutation when addressing someone/encountering someone anew. My father, horrified that he had raised one just like himself used to bemoan the fact that he had not sent me to ‘finishing school.” I did not end up in finishing school but in October, 1993 I wandered off to Mexico, alone. I happened to be there in January 1, 2004 the day of the Zapatista rebellion and participated in some supportive organizing from El D.F. Always I found myself mesmerized by the universality of courtesy and what I perceived that it enabled, politically.R