Storytelling and Concept-Shedding

Wayne Marshall <wayne@wayneandwax.com>

Thank you for sharing the stories of resistance that you have compiled. I enjoyed reading each of them. As different a life as each narrator has lived, the stories stand together, united by a number of themes: dissatisfaction with the school system; frustration with ongoing, uninterrogated projects variously called "modernization," "globalization," "development," and the like; a kind of post-epiphany commitment to living simply and sensitively, stressing local relationships, sustainable community-models, a new conception of learning (and a concomitant shedding of the conceptual categories with which we are taught to think), and all of this motivated by a strong faith in the good and true. These themes resonate deeply with me, even though I would be hesitant to characterize my own path as one of resistance.

To be honest, I am wary, and a bit weary, of narratives of resistance. I recognize their power and their importance. But the realm of leftist, or radical, or progressive ideas has become a bit saturated by an emphasis on resistance in the absence of an interrogation of resistance’s evil-twin, complicity, which, these days, interests me much more. A focus on resistance seems to preclude any further action, trapping the analysis in a celebratory search for instances of subversion rather than seeking to put the spotlight on the unproductive things we do, the many acts which, tacit or not, endorse the system. Perhaps resistance itself is a "conceptual model that has outlived its usefulness" (Isaac). Surely it is a "social construction" (Shilpa), though that makes it no less experienced as something "real."

The problem that I am trying to point to here is a set of questions that tugs deeply at my moral being when I formulate the book I am writing about hip-hop, when I craft the music through which I express myself, and when I tell the stories I tell in my daily life. Do I undermine my own desire to work for justice by leaving out unseemly details? Is it not, perhaps, the inevitable fallibility of human beings, and our capacity to learn and change, that one should focus on in an account of social life? Considering the incommensurable complexity and diversity of life, and the myriad forms of relation, interaction, and understanding, what is the price of representing a world in a way that too easily glides over the rough patches that give life its texture? But then, how can one stimulate the imagination with dreary, complicated stories?

I do not mean to trivialize stories of resistance nor to argue for their disappearance. The public conversation is certainly enriched, and challenged, by them. For me, it is a question of smoothing over the great complexities and eternal puzzles of life and the dangerous implications of projects that, even in seeking to undermine outdated categories and dominant narratives, propose counter-narratives that never truly shift the paradigm. Reading the stories, I felt the authors striving toward open and alternative ways of being in the world. But I also perceived a tension between the desire to present a coherent narrative with critical thrust and the urge to represent vividly the contours of one’s experience. To present one’s own life story as a comprehensible, linear narrative (as most of these stories do) seems to contradict the wonderful dictum that living is learning, and learning is living. The storytellers’ participation in and benefit from the very system they now decry seem to tug at their consciences, betrayed by the very language they use. To inspect and reflect on these less laudatory experiences, as Kate does, appears to be more productive than renouncing them or retroactively positioning oneself as a lifetime resistor.

If someone has never glimpsed the grounds on which to resist, resistance should be offered up as an epiphany, as a new choice, not as a life path that we all must discover in our autobiographies. When I turn the gaze on myself, I discover that I have experienced resistance more as a struggle against internal forces than external ones (though certainly the two are deeply related). Perhaps I have not yet begun to resist, but I have been wrestling with my complicity, and shedding conceptual baggage, for some time now. I have a feeling, however, that if I were to try to imagine my life as one of resistance it might lessen the power of an actual moment where I unambiguously resist.

Excuse me if I sound too critical. I am simply seeking a way out, a way to work productively against negative social forces, unexamined assumptions, and unjust acts. I offer my concerns in the spirit of filial dialogue, for I see my path and my work as quite parallel to those I had the chance to read. Perhaps it is simply a question of strategy. Personal stories are a powerful means of communication and one of the fundamental ways that we shape our imagination of self and community. To inspire seems better than to scold. But perhaps the most inspiring stories are those that represent the complexities, the difficulties, the failings, and the moments of perseverance we encounter in daily life. The more I understand the world as an unremittingly complicated place (which, nonetheless, can be understood through rather simple and beautiful insights), the lighter I tread on it. Each shift in perspective that I experience — usually as a result of understanding someone else’s —makes me more humble about my own certainty about things, which is not to say that I lack deep faith in truth and goodness.

postscript

Soon after I submitted the reflections above, I was asked to elaborate on my experience of "shedding conceptual baggage"—a phrase that in its vagueness deserves to be called out. With this slightly mixed metaphor, I refer to the humbling effect I have experienced upon learning that the categories through which I understood the world, my foundational concepts, were not unassailable but were contingent (on my education, my home/neighborhood environment, etc.), constructed (which is to say, not the unbridled truth, but rather interpretations of facts), ideologically weighted, etc. I have had the good fortune, over the last decade (since graduating from high school), to consistently have my entire worldview flipped upside down, whether by a set of experiences, a course of challenging reading, a productive dialogue, or the like. This kind of paradigmatic pedestal-smashing has taught me to be open to new ideas and never to hold too tenaciously to something simply because it previously registered as truth (though, as Shilpa says, there is value in trusting one’s gut). I have found deep reward in critical thinking, in questioning as a rule the information I get, the representations I see.

An example of this "shedding" might be the way that I have gradually overcome the categorical thinking imposed on me by the curricula of multiculturalism—all the rage when I was a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although "multiculti" teachings sought to dispel ignorance and prejudice and foster an appreciation of difference, their effect, on me at least (and from what I could see, many of my peers), was to reinforce the idea of difference to such an extent that I felt trapped in my own skin and I felt the gulf between myself and differently colored classmates widen needlessly. I consistently bore witness to sameness in my interactions with my peers, on the basketball court, in the lunch room, in my neighborhood. Yet, despite all my intercultural experience, by middle school I felt an increasing tension between my ideas about identity and difference and my practical knowledge of and feelings about human equality. By positing different "cultures" as discrete, static wholes, multiculturalism encouraged a conceptual framework that lent itself more easily to racist, or at least racialist, ideologies than to the kind of broad, open humanism I find more compelling and productive. It took years of intercultural experience, study, and self-interrogation before I could truly confront and unseat the assumptions I had been taught.

For me, it took being a student of music, and therefore of culture, to unlearn those lessons. Bearing witness to the immense variety and universal power of music as a form of human expression and communication produced a deep critique of any hierarchical ideas I may have previously held. Appreciating the different aesthetic categories, not to mention conceptual categories (no such thing as music in plenty of societies, at least before the colonial era spread around the idea of sound as separable from social function), that people apply to organized sound had a profound effect on me. Becoming a student of culture and realizing how messy a thing it is—how porous, how dynamic—was another way of undermining conceptual frameworks that I barely realized were operating on my thought.

Of course, there is never an easy or final solution, so my latest struggle concerns overcoming the tendency, with such a relativistic view of the world, to sit and contemplate the world in respect and tolerance, even when I know that it needs changing. The path to action, however, has not been too difficult (even if the intellectual justifications lag a bit). My deep belief in the common ground of human life, my understanding of the world as an increasingly connected place (where all actions have reactions), and the frequent and profound intercultural connections I make (e.g., via the musical idiom of hip-hop), all reinforce my basic convictions about working toward justice, freedom, and sustainable, self-sufficient sources of happiness. Currently, I continue to use music to have these experiences and to illustrate these lessons I have learned. Perhaps someday I will be able to write a personal narrative that would be as engaging a representation as the music I make or the story I am trying to tell about hip-hop and Jamaica. Meantime, I am grateful to brave storytellers, such as these contributors, for sharing theirs with me. I simply urge them, as I try to remind myself, to consider carefully and critically the concepts that their narratives endorse, implicitly and explicitly.