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Wild Writing

I cannot tame my writing. I create outline after outline, yet the words always leak out the edges and send out tendrils in new directions that raise more questions. I try to introduce a short anecdote to demonstrate what I am saying, but then that story starts talking a blue streak and leads into a whole other place, unexpected and organizationally confusing. And yet I cannot let go of these tangents. They reveal more and the unexpected places they take me unfold the world as a beautifully complex place.

Sigh.

But there must be structure. An argument. An overriding theoretical intervention. It cannot be implied, and some things must be spelled out. There must be a narrative.

So I try again. Cut and paste together another structure. Just focus on stitching the edges together. Think of it as breadcrumb trails, dropping in words where they are needed to lead the reader along the path. But this implied that I know the way, when in reality there are so many interesting junctions, and how do I decide which way to turn? Decide I must, for if not, the readers run wild and sometimes miss the most interesting vantage point. Sometimes it is necessary to say, “Look, look here!” Acknowledge the lovely side trails, but we cannot investigate these whole woods in a single day.

Trudge and tarry, trudge and tarry. This is one way to proceed along the trail. Rather than trudging, can I dance, or skip, or otherwise make my merry way? Maybe, perhaps at times. But if there is one thing I have learned from my years of long distance running is that the trudge has its virtues too. Trudges require endurance, and a willingness to push through some rather uncomfortable moments. This pace tends to be slower, but also opens up the vistas of a journey slowly, one solid step at at time. Trudging can also lead to wild places. In fact, a solid steady trudge is more likely to lead to those places worth going, and yet few may find on their breathless dancing way, for they grew weary long ago what with all the energy of skipping along. But the trudgers, they can tarry in places of dancer’s dreams.

Perhaps I need to balance between the slow march and the exuberant dance. Enjoy the exultation of surprising lines of flight, but remember to slow down and come back to the reassuring slow shuffle of prosaic prose. Because I am not on this journey alone. I carry other people’s stories. I am scouting paths along which others will follow. If my route is too rough or unexpected, my readers may get lost, and then what kind of guide am I?

Remember the best ride leaders. They create a route that leads to lovely and sometimes unexpected places. Long, arduous climbs are rewarded with secret caches of just-right sitting places with gorgeous views. On the way down, options are discussed, but ultimately the leader picks and takes us down descents suitable for the audience. The more adept can fly with glee, while others stumble gingerly, still learning. A good ending to rides can sometimes be the trickiest part. Too technical isn’t always good, since people may be tired and make dangerous mistakes. Nobody likes a boring road slog to get back to where they began, and going back over the hills again can be daunting. So finding the right cool-down flow back is key. Take the riders somewhere that keeps them on their toes in a relaxed, leisurely way. A way that allows for sure but easy breathing.

Now write…

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Sharing Voice

Nobody every said writing ethnography would be easy. On the contrary, there are legions of articles, books, and chapters articulating the difficulties of this very pastime. It is a genre unto itself. Yet like so many circumstances, its difficulty cannot be fully appreciated until one is immersed in the process.

I’d like to think I take a relational approach to my research. I do not assume that those with whom I play and study need my expertise to properly elucidate what matters in their own lives. They are already actively theorizing their lives through practice in incredibly complex ways. Part of my work is to understand how this is happening and perhaps approach why. There is no question of whether or not I will get it “right,” since that would assume there is only one way to live and think about the activity of biking. However, as I tell my students, while there might not be many “right” and “wrong” answers in my classes, there are certainly better answers–or answers that produce more favorable consequences.

So I seek to balance their voices and stories with my own, for in the research process I undoubtedly became implicated in the active and embodied theorizing of this activity called mountain biking. This, in turn, must be put into dialogue with secondary literature and a general argument about the “point” of all this and why anyone should care. It’s easy to talk about, but difficult to find the word-order that does it best.

The way I craft these stories is its own theorizing. Word choice matters. Placement of quotations and embedding description. Show, don’t tell. Isn’t that the writing advice we always tell our students?

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This was originally written as a talk for a panel, “Get your theories up and running with lively machines” at the 2009 Society for the Social Studies of Science. Three years later, the marathon continues…

I am curious about the endurance of academic writing.  I sought to transpose exertion interviewing, interviews done with athletes as they train, onto academics, specifically graduate students.  I found that athletes would respond differently to questions in the moments of physical exertion than they would at other times.  I wondered, would academics do the same?  And what would the moment of exertion look like?

Turns out the loneliness of the long distance runner is nothing to the loneliness of the academic writing.  Writing seems to be a very solitary activity for most graduate students I spoke with.  They sit at their chosen location and encounter the blinking cursor alone.  Some choose to make their solitary confinement explicit by cloistering themselves away in an office or bedroom.  Others choose cafes, but speak of the necessity to block out the sounds and bodies around them.  Only the Internet connects.  Email, blogs, facebook, and chats connected some writers to other bodies.  However, they often framed these other bodies as distraction rather than helps.

Despite the straining distraction of the Internet, online interaction still seemed the best model for applying exertion interviewing to academics.  Catch them while they’re at their most productive, and intra-rupt!

I asked them questions.  What are you doing right now?  Where are you?  How do you feel?  Are you comfortable/uncomfortable?  Does anything feel particularly good or bad?  Their response time said as much as the pure text of their answers, though I cannot say I understand the meaning exactly. I also interviewed some of these graduate students in person, out of work mode, at local coffee shops, where I work a lot.

It turns out we graduate students often do research and writing in quite painful ways.  Marge Simpson once chastised Bart for making fun of graduate students, saying, “They’re not bad people, they just made a terrible life choice.”  The Ph.D. comic strip makes the pains of graduate student life into its main source of humor.  But is this pain productive?  Is academic work like the old saying goes, “No pain, no gain”?

A little discomfort can be a good thing.  Some graduate students expressed a desire to feel slightly uncomfortable when they wrote.  It made them more present in the moment, and less likely to fall asleep.  David works in his office at a “really big desk” in a wooden chair, ornately carved made especially for UC Ph. D. alumnus in urology Dr. Blake, which David picked up at a garage sale for $20—detritus of a messy divorce.  He describes the chair as “comfortable enough.”  “I am sometimes temped to get a cushion, but kinda like that I get uncomfortable after sitting for awhile.”  His mahogany desktop digs into his elbows after a few hours of work, but he likes this mild pain, as it keeps him present.  He also describes the bodily soreness he gets from evening weightlifting sessions as a sensation that “keeps me present.”  For David, the sensation of embodiment made manifest through slight physical discomfort links him to a particular present, a space and time in which he must be productive.

Another graduate student, Katie, engages in bodily practices that for most would be characterized as sacrifice or self-abuse.  She describes herself as “absurdly organized—it’s a sickness really” and is happy to have found the “one industry that rewards it.”  Like an embodied version of the comic strip, she laughs as she describes the many ways her work habits have “wrecked her body.”  She refuses the sacrifice narrative, though, saying “It’s predicated on this idea that I and my body are distinct things.  You know, the body sacrificed for the sake of the intellectual mind, it’s so stupidly Cartesian, the idea that you have to sacrifice corporal or mental health.  They’re not distinct things and you don’t own them.”  Katie’s rejection of the liberal humanist body is deeply personal and embodied.  But it is also troubled.  Her eighty hour a week work schedule inflicts exhaustion and her body talks back.  Days come when she just cannot do a thing, physically or mentally, due to sheer exhaustion.  She requires her body to say “no” rather than negotiate with discourses and practices of health.  She says, “I love this more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone.  I would rather die in my office at 35 than stop…”

For others, discomfort and pain was not a motivating factor.  Soreness came from studying, but they did not notice it until they moved.  For these graduate students, writing was often associated with immobility, and a disengagement with the body.  That which drew them back into the body—external distractions, fidgeting, uncomfortable chairs—was avoided.  Often students sought out “comfy chairs” for work.  These students often would not notice mounting soreness in their bodies until they moved.  They also located their pain in specific places, and often to specific behaviors.  Jacob tends to wrap his ankles around the legs of his chair, leading to pain in his legs when he unwraps them.  Dani feels pain in her neck attributed to hunching over the screen, and fears someday developing “the professor’s slouch.” Janet prefers to write reclining in bed, her computer resting on her chest.  This makes her neck hurt, but she enjoys it because sitting at a desk makes it feel “too much like work.”  In this position, she feels much less nervous and enjoys her work more, a sentiment that came through when we chatted as she reclined.

For Janet and others, certain embodied practice of academic work keep them sane.  Without a hint of a smile nor a modicum of exaggeration, David says, “I’m either disciplined or I’m crazy.” Janet acknowledges that she “needs a psychotherapist to change my habits, but I think (what I do now) is the best way.”  Julie and Katie channel compulsive work habits into high productivity and embrace the fact that they are wrecking their bodies.  It is the only way they know to survive.  To a greater or lesser degree, these are all ways we “do research” in the sense that Mol & Law talk about “doing diabetes.”  More than  text is made in this process—so also are bodies, spaces and objects.

So self-help becomes self-torture, and self-torture becomes self-help.  Sensation, even of pain, becomes a site of concentration.  A strain in the back tells you that you are alive.  A pain in the wrists keeps you in the present.  Therapy happens at the writing station, but the therapists are the keyboard, the pen and paper, the space, the lighting, the chair.  Sitting cross-legged makes a nervous student feel more stable.  Resting wrists on a hard surface makes writing more concrete.  Editing with a pen in hand grants more “control” and flexibility over the writing process.  So, too, the problems of writing, and the writing self, come to exist outside the skin.  Doris muses, “I just need to buy better lamps…maybe then I could read more, just pick up a book and read.”  Noisy conversations at the next table over distract.  Daniel is convinced that he cannot write without a cigarette. “I know it’s probably not true, but I’ll tell you, I’ll sit there for three or four hours and the magic won’t happen.  So I’ll run out and get a pack of cigarettes.”  And always, the next book will have the answer.  Jacob says he “checks out books compulsively,” and others spoke of the desire to have more time to read.

The limits of the body are leaky, and we make ourselves through objects and machines.  But it seems some forms of making the self might be “better” than others.  And how are we to know what is best?  We are confused, we are damaged, we are tortured.  Worst of all, we did it to ourselves.  We need help.

In theory and in practice, we have no idea where our bodies begin and end, nor how to heal them when they rupture.  Might writing be part of this process?  It seems the direction of writing to or from our bodies matters: obligation to or motivation from, which Joe will talk about more soon.  Coming to bodies, in the form of assignments, deadlines, and the like, writing can become an obligation for another.  Motivated writing lives more comfortably in the body, and perhaps leads to better embodied practices of writing.  Of course, in either case the relationships between the writing and the body craft physiological responses.  Hormones proliferate, muscles shorten, necks crook, wrists ache, stomachs paunch.  The bodies of graduate students I chat with are as damaged as the bodies of athletes I run with.  We refuse to take the time to care for our bodies.  We forget that the borders of ourselves and our writing are burst and the mess is all over our computer screen.

Perhaps the best self-help might come in minding our relationships better.  We can not only demonstrate care for our companion species, but also let our companion species care for us.  When Dani works, she sits on the floor and types at the coffee table.  While she does this, she also plays fetch, rhythmically throwing a ball for her hyperactive herding dog.  She is forced to leave the house, get away from her work, two to three times a day to walk the same dog, happily and unremittingly demanding her care—care for both dog and person.  David’s five-hour block of work time is dictated by another, his young daughter.  To care for her, he must care for himself through a regimented schedule and a discipline that allows for spontaneity.  Janet spend enormous amounts of time reading forums of what’s happening in her home city and gets nervous if she’s not doing this.  What seems like avoidance of writing might actually be care for connections, caring for others, both human and machine, as care for self.  Perhaps we can best craft our writing body by caring for others—both human and non-human.

I wonder if care for others can also help us to develop a different ethic around pain as well, where pain brings comfort.  When I run hard, a cramping pain seeps into my lower abdomen.  The day I learned to hug the pain, rather than fight it, I felt better and ran faster.  The pain did not dissipate, it simply became a part of me.  Studies of athletes reinforce my experience, indicating that athletes who acknowledge and work with their pain, rather than ignoring it or fighting it, do better and improve their performance.

Now, what would it mean for us, as STSers, to hug our pain?  What sort of communities of meaning-making might we foster to help mitigate the suffering of pain, to make pain more productive?  I admit I’m not quite sure, but I know it has to do with favorite pencils, lined notebook paper, laptops, scissors, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, children, partners, friends, colleagues, hormones, fingers, necks, backs, eyeglasses, word counts, clocks, chairs, coffee, whiskey, tea, beef jerky, popcorn, cheese, Modafanil, brooms, and whatever else makes writing a pleasure-pain, or pain-pleasure.

To read Joe Dumit’s perspective on STS and writing, see his paper on Sitzfleisch.

Please feel free to share your stories of writing pain and pleasure!

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Places Go Stale

Moving is crucial to my writing process. Sometimes this is as simple as standing up and stretching. Sitting in the same place too long the body dulls. The mind wanders and fingertips flip back and forth between the writing screen and the Internet. This is a sign that stimulation is needed. The body-mind place is going stale.

This moment often feels sleepy too. This is when my eyelids get heavy and my brain gets foggy. And sometimes a nap does help.

Other times (such as today), I step outside. Stretch. Eat a banana.

Do not return to the same old stale!

I move from the couch to a table outside on the porch where I can feel the cool breezes. My mind gets sharper. My fingers feel a pulsing flow as if they cannot stand not clicking away one word. They practically shake with excitement.

Writing is always a bodily affair tied to place.

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Transitions

Writing has been hard lately. Perhaps this is because life has been hard lately. Writing is a highly embodied process for me, and at the moment being connected to my body is a difficult thing. There’s lots of helpless emotions brewing and processing, sometimes bursting from my body in unexpected and sometimes embarrassing ways. I’m fairly certain my attempt to keep these explosions under control is part of what has made my writing so stilted and paltry lately.

At the same time, another strange change has occurred that I only recently became aware of. In the past, when I was upset, I ran. I found that I couldn’t cry and run at the same time, which brought a sense of clarity and control. Though I would never necessarily work out my problems on the run, I would often feel better at the end with endorphins and exhaustion coursing through my veins.

Lately this failsafe method of body-mind-emotion confluence hasn’t been working so well. In fact, running has elicited more breakdowns that it has helped in recent days.

What has helped is riding the smooth trails of the mountains on my bike. Concentrating on the curves and lines of a just-right technical trail make me exist in the moment with a new confidence that leave me feeling solid. The burning of biking is different than running, but more in line with my bodily needs at the moment.

I’ve yet to determine what this means for my writing. But like biking, I hope that practicing in this new writing-body will also produce comfort.

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The preservation of spaces of nature is far from a natural act. Sites of wilderness are more museum than found artifact, replete with the historical baggage of colonialism, racism, ableism, and sexism endemic to some of our nation’s finest institutions of preservation. They are stolen, taken by violent means, made ‘pure’ through the extinguishing of that which was branded dirty, wasteful, or unappreciative of the ‘treasures’ around them.

This is the refrain environmental historians know too well. Its haunting tune enters the consciousness of the outdoor enthusiast and leaves them deflated, thrown into chaos as they watch their innocent nature assemblage become reterritorialized as imperialist, sullied, and soaked in histories of oppression. Access is racialized and privileged. Redwoods become sites of eugenics. Parks are preserved at the expense of others who suffer environmental degradation out of scale. The rhythm is thrown in chaos.

And so I come back to the mundane refrain. The sun warm on my skin feels good. Moving through the quiet hush of the trees calms me. I am a platitude. I giggle like a child. Is this a natal refrain of footsteps and heartbeats, breathing and wind? Maybe here is a refrain prone to deterritorialization. The refrain is a new budding.

“the intra-assemblage, the territorial asemblage, territorializes function and forces (sexuality, aggressiveness, gregariousness, etc.) and in the process of territorializing them transforms them” (325).

Just because I giggle in the outdoors does not excuse me from the territoriality of violence that we call nature. The ongoing legagies and everyday enactments of privilege ensure that I am always reterritorialized into these histories. But we need not escape one assemblage to enter another. When moments oscillate in the vibrations of shuddering leaves or the wind howling in our ears, these refrains can be “a prism, a crystal of space-time.” Assemblages are both amplified and eliminated. We are both fully complicit with and fully outside of colonized nature.

In a seminar, a woman asked, “can we decolonize hiking?” Perhaps the answer is yes and no, a both/and. We’ll never get free, but we can still certainly be swept away in moment when the music of the most mundane refrain catches us.

A reflection inspired by A Thousand Plateaus chapter 11: On the Refrain.

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A Methodology for Reading D&G

Reading A Thousand Plateaus can be a confusing and potentially frustrating experience. Readers often complain that they do not understand precisely what the authors are talking about, or what the point of the whole thing is anyways. I know often in my own experience I find myself thinking, “What in the world do they mean by strata? Plane of consistency? What is all this nonsense about anyways?” So I try to read in a looser, more flexible way. I let the words wash over me. I pay more attention when a phrase strikes me, but not too much attention lest I get caught up on concerns of precisely sorting out the difference between content and expression. If there is one thing D&G know how to do, it is to name things. The defining of things, not so much. This can be frustrating, to put it mildly.

Luckily, I stumbled upon the ideal method for encountering this esoteric text. I have a particular talent that lends itself to this methodology known within the medical world as idiopathic hypersomnulance. In everyday terms this means, “you are really sleepy, and we don’t know why.”

As I sit at the table diligently plowing through Prof. Challenger’s lecture, I surreptitiously slip out the side door into a less linear narrative that complements his style quite nicely. Strata slide into new assemblages that revolve around a wagon wheel spinning and bumping rhythmically along a trail that is both over and in the strata. It wobbles along terrain, bumpy and uneven, but with a flow that suddenly slips and flies off into a gully unseen from the original angle of view.

I jolt back to the room as my eyelids fly open and encounter the white page with black text adorned with a few stray marks of purple lines, placed practically randomly upon the page. Probably the best way to situate them. I make a new mark in blue. Those knees. Yes, I like the knees. Imagine breaking to make this articulation. We break trail to make a new possibility. Destruction is perhaps then simply planes of consistency reaching stratum for new assemblages. I mean, look at where our dear professor ends up when this is all said and done.

Signifiers and signs blur and disarticulate. This feels so cozy and familiar. I’d forgotten the pleasure of the slipping away, of watching the world remove itself from its banal congruity and take on more surprising and simple forms. The comfort of nothing more than the eyes, barely open. The next word on the page. What was it? Time becomes elastic, measured in eye-beats. One. Substratum. Two. Divisions of stratum. Three. (hold onto the phrase. Don’t move the eyeballs while they are closed. It’s easier to find the word again then with little effort) Four. Stratum.  And so on this trance reading slips between the black figures on the page and illustrative assemblages behind closed eyelids.

“Hello.” Eyes shoot open. Smile. Greetings. I look down. “woman-bow-steppe assemblage?” Of course. Like my body-bike-terrain assemblage.

And so you can see that this method of somnambulistic reflection offers much promise to the scholar seeking to read with D&G in a manner befitting their style.

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