Stilted Creation: The Internalized Panopticon and the Self-Perpetuation of Silence

It took me a long time to begin this blog. There was a point in my life where I did write without filter and for my friends, but when people stopped reading, I stopped writing in that capacity. That’s when I most began to rely on journaling. Looking back on those journals has been a recent endeavor, and it has been surprisingly fruitful. I can analyze myself with the understanding and distance I have now. But aside from that—those journals were spaces of creation that I have since abandoned in many ways.

I still journal, but infrequently, and reservedly.

I found it fascinating how I wrote with such freedom in those days. There will be pages of me writing about the pain and shame, and then almost immediately, it will become something different—without jotting down a date or indicating any other sort of emotional shift, I’ll be dissecting lyrics, gleefully raving about an impressive classmate while every now and then commenting on a bit of music. I can imagine my 17 year-old self on the bus with her iPod playing, allowing her diary to absorb the product of competing strains of thought vying for attention. (Incidentally–George Saunders’ “Victory Lap” is an excellent piece that I think so closely manages to capture the true mayhem of inner monologues).

At some point, a paranoia set in. That fear of surveillance came back and I was certain even my journal’s writing would come back to haunt me, be used as evidence in some impending shame tribunal. Luckily, I had begun forming circles of support having started somewhat anew at university, and thus relied less on writing anyway. But even as I vented my anxieties to friends, I occupied spaces with the proverbial look over the shoulder.

It began with being convinced my journals would be read, escalated into thinking that that person who I’ve come to realize was abusive could read my mind (and s/he had a disarming way of making it seem like s/he could), until it did become me being terrified of being overheard in any public space. But to what end? In many ways, it didn’t necessarily prevent me from doing what I set my mind to. I still went to shows, hung out with my guy friends at night, read, watched and listened to whatever I wanted. I just did it fearfully.

Where a fear of surveillance did make a difference was in creation. Consumption is one thing—it can be done in private, it can be hidden, and if one were to seek it out, they would need to know where and how to look. Creation is somewhat different. Creation requires the creator to put herself out there, put her work out there, and if necessary, put her name to it. And that fear was only one of a myriad of all-consuming fears. There was the fear of failure, hardwired into me since I so miserably disappointed everyone in high school and they made sure to tell me as much. There was a fear of accountability, where I imagined myself being called center-stage to justify my politics to unsympathetic ears.

So I look at my journals today, and there are sometimes periods of unbounded creation. But for the most part, there is an insecurity permeated through even this wholly private space—a clear restraint, projects begun and abandoned when they required too much of an emotional commitment. I began writing as if someone was reading, as if someone was judging the narrative I was forming, criticizing my writing style, word choice, analysis.

Even now as I write this, my heart aches with my reliance on clichés—knowing that I speak to the problems of not engaging the writing-as-process ethos of a writer. This incapacitating self-awareness is useless if not used to better one’s writing. It does not have an effect insomuch as pushing me to create new conceits; instead, it simply makes me go, “This is all you are capable of.”

And is that not the goal of Bentham’s Panopticon that Michel Foucault speaks of in Discipline & Punish–the prison so structured that prisoners could never be certain whether or not they were being watched from the all-seeing panoptic structure and thus behaved as if they were always being watched? Isn’t that what Edward Snowden says is the greatest problem in NSA spying? That it alters human behavior by instilling the fear of being surveilled? In my case—I know I am not being watched and yet have altered my behavior somewhat as if I am. I wish I could extend this further to create a systemic critique, but if I am honest, I will say this fear is rooted almost entirely in the abusive aspects of my upbringing. It most certainly was exacerbated by the panoptic nature of the surveillance arm of my religious community and the institutional racism in post 9/11 politics, but those structures would not have had as strong an impact were I not a vulnerable subject to begin with.

But that is where this blog comes in, and I am excited by that. This blog challenges me to engage with that fear and call it out for what it is, and in that process something is created and interventions begin to be made.

I will end this with some of the people and pieces of art that have stuck with me these past few weeks and pushed me to begin this project in the first place.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah features a character named Ifemelu who starts a blog. Adiche’s writing is beautiful, whereas Ifemelu’s has the imperfections of someone venturing into the foray and developing her craft. This juxtaposition and the beauty and value in both types of writing placates somewhat my own inhibitions about my writing.
  • of Montreal’s Clayton Rychlik asked me if I wrote songs in such a genuine manner that for a moment, I believed I could.
  • of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes rejects the idea that all songs on records need to be hits, and discusses the value in creating ugly art. There’s a broader context and a deeper examination of the psyche that such artistic endeavors can speak to, which I think can be said for weaker vs. stronger written pieces as well.
  • I told my therapist about my fear of writing about things I was not an expert in. She said that an examination of my life and my traumas was something I was an expert in. And she’s right–what would give someone else more credibility about this?
  • Anaïs Nin’s diaries are inspiring examples of how powerful an art form journal writing can be.
  • And, of course, best friend who pushed me to start blogging to begin with.
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Art as Companion: of Montreal, trauma, and healing.

The other day I imagined myself mustering up the courage and composure and self-confidence to ask Kevin Barnes for a moment so I could tell him why I value his art so much and what he and the band have done for me. Kevin has always been very generous with his time, and we’ve talked and hugged and he sat on my lap in a photobooth once. But as often as we have met, I haven’t been able to speak to him without being overwhelmed.

At their afterparty in Chicago, I chatted with [of Montreal’s drummer] Clayton Rychlik (who is a sunbeam of a human who radiates warmth everywhere he goes), and he kindly asked if I’d ever been to Pakistan, where my parents are from. I remember hesitating and admitting that while I had, it wasn’t willingly. At three I was abducted by my father and taken to Pakistan for a few months. I apologized for being a downer and dumping the big-T childhood trauma anecdote (at a gay bar with Kevin blasting his impossibly loud DJ set in the background), and he apologized for bringing it up. But I told him it was fine and that it was why I have grown up to be such an anxious adult.

And the reality is is that it is fine. It’s a weird, bizarre thing that happened that is going to sound terrible and kind of sensational no matter how easily it’s slipped into a conversation and I have learned to express it and speak about it while not falling into the pit of shame that comes with airing one’s dirty laundry. I feel the need to apologize because, for me, sharing these things feels like burdening others, but there is something about the apology that disrupts the vulnerability of conversation, I find. I feel like with the apology comes the suggestion to move on, when—if I’m honest—I want to be able to speak to others about why what has happened is important and why it and subsequent additional traumas impact my relationships—including my relationship with of Montreal.

Anyway, in my fictive imagining of this encounter with Kevin, I said something like this—

I have always wanted to tell you why your work has been so important to me, where it’s fit in in how I cope with life, and how inextricably it has shaped who I am today. I have had many traumas in my life. The big one is obvious and explains well how the seeds of lifelong insecurity were sown in a three year-old who’s taken from her home to a different country where she’s told another woman is her mother, where her cousins beat her, and where she contracts malaria eventually leading to her being returned to the states months later, emaciated and filthy and unfamiliar with her own family. But what I only recently (as in—in the past few months) recognized was the rippling effect this trauma has outwards onto those who were waiting at home, those who had lost a child and then gotten her back. The tragedy is perhaps that trauma altered them in such a way that they adopted roles in my life that ended up being abusive.

I live with a constant fear of surveillance, and I used to attribute it to my religion, my religious and cultural community, my status as a woman of color, etc. But more concretely, I’ve come to realize, my traumatized family members—one in particular—were the ones who enacted surveillance. They/s/he looked through my things and punished me for thinking out of line, consuming music and literature that was deemed inappropriate. S/he frequently interrogated me until I wept. At the worst times (and there were only a handful), there was the physical attack or shunning. For years I existed in this power dynamic with someone I loved, respected, and placed on such a pedestal, but who constantly evoked fear in me, and I didn’t realize it until a few weeks ago when I sat with her/im and talked about my future and I noticed that every time s/he asked me something, s/he would come with the aim of demoralization and I would respond accordingly. It was the same dynamic we had when I was younger, and there was something in that dynamic that was equitable to a trauma response. Questions about my future evoked trauma responses in both of us—and why wouldn’t they? The greatest trauma in our life had to do with the question of my life and my future twenty years ago.

Regardless, I grew up in an environment where I had to keep many of my interests hidden. I even snuck out to an of Montreal show in eighth grade but left after the opening bands because the last time I had snuck out to a show was the last time I had been hit and shunned. But I still felt a compulsion to seek out these experiences—I grew up desperately needing other people to support me and art that could help me make sense of my experiences.

The problem with being a depressed and traumatized child is that self-sabotage became a part of your nature. When things are going well in friend circles or in school, you naturally expect it to come to a crushing end and thus make sure to disrupt it before it has a chance to hurt you outside of your control. As a result, I was really fucking lonely and isolated my first two years in high school… but that was when Skeletal Lamping came out.

As a teenager, I didn’t have a grasp on why I was so chronically unhappy and anxious all the time. I naturally assumed it was some fault in my character and consumed art to distract myself. Skeletal Lamping was the perfect distraction in so many ways. I remember listening to that record constantly—literally on repeat for months. There was something about the unabashed, beautiful, and clever songwriting, and the seamless interspersion of tragedy, comedy, vitriol, and empathy that stunned and surprised me and kept me interested. I kept finding new things in that record to focus on. And it all existed in this sonically diverse work of art in which each song crashed into each other in unexpected ways from “Nonpareil of Favor”’s extended outro into “Wicked Wisdom” to “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants’” collision into “Mingusings.” I think what I found empowering from that record was that it coincided with how I existed at the time. There were all these competing emotions and messages permeated with a blatant sexuality that was liberating for someone who wouldn’t dare explore it otherwise and who, up until that point, had to hide even the most benign expressions of sexuality out of fear of retribution or ostracization. Skeletal Lamping is just the first example (although there are examples in previous albums) of a piece of art that helped me gain an understanding of how okay it is to be in a state of competing emotions and not require resolution or consolidation into one—not understanding one’s own anger or fear, doing wrong but not being wrong. It’s something that I needed to experience then to make sense of how I live now. How I can love family members who have hurt me in irreversible ways, and how I can move forward and not plunge into dismay knowing I too have hurt people along the way.

False Priest came out the month I started college. Entirely by chance, I took classes early in college that helped me disrupt the self-loathing mindset I held and made me start unpacking some of my childhood experiences. “Godly Intersex” is a track that continuously takes my breath away because of how poignant it was to hear it in those days. It astounds me and I am tremendously grateful that each release since Hissing Fauna, really has been like a companion on my own continuing self-analysis.

When Paralytic Stalks was released, “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” in particular (‘I’ve inherited spiritual sanctions for some old ancestral crime/It was committed long ago but the punishment’s absolved all down the family line/Everyone’s so unstable on my mother’s side/And emotionally barren on my father’s side/But tell me how can I attempt to atone for somebody else’s willful ignorance?) and “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” became songs I relied quite heavily on as I examined the role of my family’s history with mental health and all the traumas we’ve experienced both as a nuclear unit and historically. Incidentally, this was also the tour when I first started going to shows.

At the tail end of my junior year of college and the first quarter of what would have been my senior year, I had done a lot of labor into making sense of trauma and it had begun taking its toll on my body. I had frequent back-to-back panic attacks and ultimately needed to take leave from university for a year. lousy with sylvianbriar is probably the record with the lyrics that affected me the most in any particular moment in time. I caught myself muttering “Oh shit, oh shit,” the first few times I listened to “Fugitive Air”. Listening to lyrics like “I hope I never feel the terror like when you discover your autonomy had flipped”, when that was the exact terror I was navigating was dizzying, to say the least. “Obsidian Currents” and “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit” also hit close to home, but it was when I first heard “Triumph of Disintegration” and started weeping in the back seat of my uncle’s car that I truly understood how important it was for me to hear you articulate the things I found myself also struggling with—in different ways, of course, but still somehow so accurately expressed. I see so much of myself in how you explore your own mind. We are obviously very, very different people, with different histories and different worldviews, but without fail you have a way of making sense of things so sharply and exactly that listening to it is tremendously healing.

This exposition has become so long and I haven’t even gotten to how much I rely on your live shows. You all are artists that go out of your way to involve your audience—there’s an intimacy, catharsis, and sense of community that emerges in every live show I’ve attended. After every performance, I have had only amazing experiences with my fellow audience members in ways that I find so rarely outside of your shows. And you guys are incredibly sweet and gracious with your time (shout out to the rest of the band! And a special shout out to Clayton who reached out to me after each of the past six or whatever live shows I’ve been to and made a persistent effort to get to know me when I was probably a tremendous ball of starstruck anxiety the first five times).

You (all) have a way of making people feel special and important and those are tremendous qualities and when they come from someone whose work has helped me in so many ways and shaped me into who I am, I can’t even adequately tell you the effect it has so thank you, thank you, thank you. These spaces are so liberating and filled with a sense of solidarity that transcends things I am self-conscious about like my appearance or my cultural/religious/social/political identity. I feel respected and included because of the things that make me feel ostracized in other spaces, and I can’t tell you how much I have needed that.