In-betweenness as Ordinary

Like the solitary old man who begins to look like his dog, so life begins to mirror one’s research.

Since beginning my first funded period of PhD research five months ago in September 2018, I’ve noticed how my the deeper I get into analyzing in-betweenness in narratives, the more I see it around me and in my own life.

These five months have been spectacular: reading, writing, and shaping my dissertation, which will soon be in the home stretch towards completion.

But after about three or four months, I realised, too, that I have to start thinking about making additional money and thinking about what comes next–how to get the next round of funding, the post-docs after that and possibly even a career. Yesterday I laughed, though tired, when I realized that I’d worked four separate jobs in one day: translating, proofreading, substitute teaching and my academic work. Welcome to the neoliberal late-capitalistic freelance-gig economy!

Within this process, I have been grounded by one book: James Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy: A World in Motion (2014). In Maffie’s analysis of Aztec philosophy (or actually metaphysics), he puts a lot of weight on the centrality of nepantla, which is, of course, the central concept I’m using to analyze in-betweenness in narratives.

Now, the difference between Maffie and Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Laura Pérez, is in the premise the Aztecs held that everything is: a) made of the same stuff (teotl, a kind of sacred energy) and b) that it is defined by constant flux, change and movement. As opposed to Platonic essentialism, where the nature of something is defined by its being, or ‘is-ness,’ the Aztecs believed the cosmos and everything in it are defined by change.

In Western terms, this would be called ‘processual metaphysics.’

When analyzing a corpus made up of Bildungsromane, as I am, processual is what you want, as the genre is defined by change and movement.

Also, this links nicely to what I’ve always found most inspiring in literature as in life: becoming. The horizon is out there and we’re striving for it–it’s outward and mobile.

One of my primary texts, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, adds a nice–shall we say feminine–caveat to this. One does not necessarily have to create a hierarchy of them vs. me, with the ‘me’ leaving ‘them’ behind. I’ll go out and be successful and you all stay behind in your backward ways.

Rather, she shows that it is possible, through a process of becoming, to indeed change but also return ‘full circle’ (as Cisneros puts it) to help those who cannot leave as easily and you.

Importantly within all this is Anzaldúa’s observation that you pick and choose what is best from various cultures, identities, places, etc., including your own. You reject what is damaging. This highlights the ’empowering’ aspect of nepantla.

Just today over lunch, my colleague Maï Soreau pointed out that there is ‘in-betweenness,’ which is empowering (Homi Bhabha called it ‘disruptive performativity,’ and there is ‘betweenship,’ which is being the recipient of harmful in-betweenness.

This is very important distinction, and I will look into it. Again in reference to Cisneros, there are characters in her novel that are simply stuck in the role of wife, mother and woman, enclosed within the walls of the home looking out the window longingly. Their time is static. They’re in betweenship (perhaps taken from Karl Grandin?) The narrator Esperanza’s time, on the other hand, is in becoming. It embraces the in-betweenness and empowers herself through it.

Novelists enjoy dramatic events and realizations. Americans enjoy hope and happy endings. Together, these texts have a better chance of framing in-betweenness as empowering.

When it comes to our own lives–in-betweenness as ordinary hack work as a freelancer–or the lives of migrants, refugees, minorities, persecuted groups, etc., some of the hope leaks out. For this reason, it is imperative that one moves forward in all humility and acknowledges in-betweenness as a spectrum. Sometimes its great; other times it stinks.

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