Melissa Mack does research on publicly-funded social service programs. Singly or collaboratively, she has written many many reports that she often imagines housed in the bowels of the federal departments for which they were written, in unmarked crates a la the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. To make money, she has also hung out ("provided training to") women on welfare, had a paper route, hung out ("supervised") developmentally disabled sex offenders, sold vegetables, hung out ("counseled") with court-involved pregnant and parenting teenagers, and weeded.
September 4, 2011
Dear Poets and Laborers,
I’m away because of a work trip to Washington D.C. to feed the machine of government. I do contract research on publicly funded employment programs for a U.S. Department which shall remain nameless, speaking of the occasion of this Labor Day, yet so far from satisfyingly.
I grew up inside a military industrial evangelical complex the only way I figured out how to deal with was to follow the rules—politeness, selflessness, financial responsibility—and cultivate an inner life I didn’t tell anyone about. But the inner life is as penetrated by The Complex as the outer one (as St. Paul, Giorgio Agamben, and many others have noted), and all unawares I kept mine contained, clean, heterosexual, and imaginative only in so far as it related to attending closely to weather and to practicing a secretly catholic devotionality that kept my heart soft. My paintings looked like Lionel Richie songs, and my animism applied only to the woods behind my various suburban houses. Why am I telling this story?
“And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no ‘breaking forth vision.’” I Samuel 13:1
Well, obviously, that’s not true anymore.
Anne Carson says, “Mere space has power.” We’re here, aren’t we? And there are such a proliferation of heres these days. (e.g. huge swaths of the Arab world, the streets of Oakland, that darling occupation in Vienna where they made the youtube dance joint video about hand signals that facilitate collective conversation).
In The Time That Remains, Giorgio Agamben’s commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Agamben talks about division. The division he’s interested in is Paul’s division of Jew/non-Jew. But I want to think about the division between poets and laborers—which recalls the penetration of “the complex” into the human interior because the reason we are gathered today is that we are all both poets and laborers. But there is an external division too. We’re here and a lot of other people aren’t. They’re rusticating or computing or fighting wars. It isn’t “us and them” that concerns me. Just, my sense of alarm is growing that huge portions of my vital energy are poured into a job that is not my Real Work. I want to be here with you all the time—in all the iterations of that “here” and “you” that exist—doing that Real Work. Which of course is a false division, since having to go to my office most days of the week for most of the day is a reality I can’t ignore. But Agamben. He identifies in Paul an idea of a messianic (for our purposes, read that as revolutionary) division of the law’s division of people (for Paul, into Jew and non-Jew, for me/us, into poet and laborer). I don’t have time to explain it in detail, but such a division renders a remnant. (Agamben calls it a dialectic with three elements rather than two: Jew, non-Jew, and non non-Jew.)
The division of division renders a remnant that prevents the law’s divisions from “being exhaustive.” Which to me means our identities as Poet and Laborer aren’t exclusive. Though we are exhausted.
Agamben also talks about Paul’s idea of the messianic (revolutionary) calling that is “the revocation of every vocation [read: worldly condition], released from itself to allow for its use.” Which I take to mean, I’m still a social scientist. If I now have two vocations, poet and laborer, well, let them both be revoked and rendered inoperative except insofar as they can be used to joyfully rock the casbah. Let them render us a remnant, “hittin’ our rackets like tennis players,” as MIA says. We do our jobs, we work to undo the world in which we have to have the jobs we have. Also most of us make poems.
Here are some remnant, revocational activities I especially like these days: Sex. Potluck. Reading and thematic and political and writing and radical ladies groups. Moots like this one. The making of music. The making of poems. The doing of actions. The saying of spells, the reading of signs, the close attention to the formation of sound in the mouth, into words, into cries of ecstasy or rage or grief. The insertion of the body into spaces ostensibly public until you realize the cops in riot gear have it surrounded and are closing in. Radical generosity meaning the pooling of resources, the sharing of housing, the making of texts and books, the bringing of one’s inadequacy, the willingness to participate in struggle wherever we find it, the making of friends.
I’d really rather walk across lawns in the dark, watch the light change, make love, meet all strangers in mutual gazing, or not, and have that be safe, have that be productive activity. I don’t think it’s too late for that, exactly. But just like how I have to bill my time in tenth of an hour increments, I have to tithe my time to struggle too. To self- and community-educating. To acting out in the presence of my employer and fellow employees. To clothing myself in remnants from the clothing swap. (Thank you, whichever lady—Lauren, was it you?—offered that cute royal purple puffed sleeve sweater with the lavender seed-pearls sewn on the front and marks of mending here and there. I wore it to address The Department.)