Monday, November 5, 2012

The Historical Present

In reading Ahmed’s section on Audre Lorde, I am struck by the way “misperception…creates an object” (54). I am reminded of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man in which Ellison writes, “That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality… you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds… It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time…you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful.” Indeed, Ellison points to the misperception Ahmed speaks of—misperception that makes it impossible to claim a sense of self or identity. For the invisible man, being made into an object, being misperceived or not seen at all, makes it impossible for him to claim a space. We see the way in which the Invisible Man can only he know he exists by being recognized in space—Ellison writes of his bodily responses. And yet Ahmed discusses a problem: if “an individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective” (71), what happens when the collective constricts the movement of the individual? How then can an individual map him/herself? 
What is interesting about Audre Lorde’s scene is her moment of recognition: there is a shift. First, she does not see the terrible thing on the seat and then she realizes that the “terrible thing” is in fact her. The realization happens because of the interaction between bodies, it happens in an interaction between self and “other,” it happens when she is turned into this “other” and then struggles to locate herself. What Ahmed points to is the way that this experience happens both in the present and is also historically felt. It is both Lorde’s individual experience and is linked to a collective experience of oppression in which social spaces constrict and limit Black women. Ahmed writes, “the past is living rather than dead; the past lives in the very wounds that remain open in the present” (33). Thus Ahmed argues that we must recognize the past because it is mixed in with our present.  It is important to note that Lorde’s experience extends beyond this moment. When Ahmed discusses the way a daughter feels her mother’s pain, we understand the intergenerational and historical transmission of loss. Indeed, it seems that Lorde’s feelings are her own but they are perhaps, her mother’s feelings too, tied to a history and a historical present in which Black women are objectified.

Ahmed points to the way society relies on “an imagined other” (49). The 9/11 footage creates a rhetoric of fear and protection that relies on “us” as needing protection and “them” as the enemy. Those in the footage invoke The Civil War, arguing that the United States must again defend itself.  The nation of “America” is meant to feel a collective fear.

I am interested in the role of language in Ahmed’s work. We see the extent to which emotions are felt physically. We see too the way in which oppression limits bodies. And yet her intervention lies in her ability to link language to the body. She calls for an alternative way to read, and I think, to see. She says, “Such forgetting would simply repeat the forgetting that is already implicated in the fetishising of the wound. Rather, our task would be to learn to remember how embodied subjects come to be wounded in the first place, which requires that we learn to read that pain, as well as recognize how the pain is already read in the intensity of how it surfaces” (173). We must learn to read, and learn to read on the surfaces of the body, as opposed to prescribing or covering over the experiences of those who are historically marginalized. Thus she speaks to the power of translation. How can language create alternative spaces? How can language intervene to recognize the experience of being made invisible and objectified? Part of our task is to acknowledge the way historical wounds still live in our present. 

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