Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interpellating _Coal Mountain Elementary_ by Mark Nowak, based on a talk by John Zuern

This past Thursday I attended a colloquium given by my colleague, John Zuern, called "Who's There? Two Modes of 'Interpellation' with Implications for an Ethics of Fiction."  I won't forget the first talk I heard John deliver, in which he managed to discuss the Vatican and software icons in the same breath.  And I won't forget this one either, as it so ably framed issues in my Documentary Poetry class, as well as in the four novels John is working on for his book project.

The two methods of interpellation John laid out are by Louis Althusser and Emmanuel Levinas.  The more famous Althusserian theory posits that we are interpellated into the dominant culture as compliant subjects without our really knowing it.  For me, the moment of interpellation emerges most vividly when my bored children suggest that we do something fun, like go shopping.  Ah, consumerism.  Levinas' less famous formulation of interpellation depends on our being interrupted out of our self-satisfaction.  The knock on the door does not offer us the end of a dream that becomes a poem, as it did for Coleridge, but a disturbance that shakes us, gives us "consciousness of" the Other, puts us in proximity to that Other.  The problem is that disturbance, like a wave, folds over on itself.  The writer needs to extend that moment, or repeat it.  But that much is for later.

And so I re-opened Mark Nowak's Coal Mountain Elementary on Friday morning before workshop and saw Nowak working with these models.  For those of you who haven't read this book, a brief description: Nowak collages testimonies on the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, various mine disasters in China, and school lessons about the coal mining industry devised by the American Coal Foundation (a non-profit!).  He also includes photographs of mines and miners from China by Ian Teh and photographs of Sago that he took.  Jules Boykoff has elsewhere referred to this juxtaposition of China and West Virginia as "radical geography."  I included it in my documentary poetry class as the limit-case of authorship as collage, as curation, as editing, rather than as writing.

The clear model of interpellation in Coal Mountain Elementary is the Althusserian one, which emerges in the lessons prepared by the American Coal Foundation to teach children about profits and losses in the industry (monetary, not human, costs).  That "the ACF does not engage in lobbying" is a red herring, as their work is to indoctrinate children into the virtues of capitalist coal mining by way of worksheets on the making of coal flowers and the mining of chocolate chip cookies (sic).  Again, I thought of my children, their school worksheets.  A worksheet is a form that comes to the child from an anonymous authority--no one knows who authors the worksheet--and it demands particular answers on the blank lines it offers.  My daughter, when she fills the sheet out, may feel she is operating with volition, but she is not the author; she is the form filler, the person offering the answers that have already been determined.  The children who do the chocolate chip project in Nowak's book are then asked to create a worksheet for other students; this only enforces the notion that we are being made into subjects who then do unto others as others have done unto us.

That we were talking about worksheets in workshop struck me as telling.  While the children of the first lesson were to "observe the process of crystallization in the making of coal flowers, a historic craft among coal mining families," we were gathered to talk about the "craft" of poetry.  Our workshop is a metaphor for the place where a craftsperson makes something useful, even something beautiful.  But is that beauty a cover for the ugly industry it advocates, if that industry is coal-mining or even the poetry biz?  Hmmm.  (Do the beautiful color photographs of Chinese miners and the cities they live in offer any cover for our recognition of the toll they pay for their dangerous work?)  While the children are not being told about that toll, we graduate student/professorial subjects think we know all too well.  We've been talking a lot about tenderness (see this post) and discomfort in our class.  But how to "solve" our own experiment?  I suspect we cannot, except by carrying its perpetual discomfort with us, like the Levinasian moment of interpellation.  And I'm keen to remember our workshop colleague, JS, who reminds us that beauty is a good thing.

And so we arrived at the ethics of form.  Form is often talked about as craft, which is assumed to have its own value.  But for us, in this course especially, form is what enables us to keep the disturbances going.  When my student DC copies the directions for the pulmonary respirator and alternates moments of being with his dying grandfather; when AB prints a poem by a woman inmate beside statistics about incarceration; when DK writes a Valentine out of equations for financial derivatives, these cause disturbances in us.  But lest we get too comfortable in our forms, we need to switch gears, keep the reader guessing.  And we need to do that without seeming to switch those gears arbitrarily.  As in, the form must say something significant about the content.  Better yet, it does that through the content, so that the process remains alive to writer and reader alike.  Not a work-sheet, but a working-place.

There are many more lessons here, appropriate in talking about a book based on lessons, where lessons are learned in West Virginia and China, in our classrooms, and in Kuykendall 410 where John Zuern so ably shepherded us through his ideas about interpellation.  The last "lesson" in Nowak's book mandates that children write "creatively," but within rather severe restrictions.  This is another moment to think about pedagogy (what am I offering my students and how am I limiting them?) and about reading (to what extent am I being re-interpellated by Nowak's text, and should I be skeptical of that process?)  I hope to return to them soon.  Levinas's "traumatism of astonishment," which might otherwise be translated into the surprising thoughts during meditation or an apt synchronicity recognized, is everywhere to be felt.  I want also to note the irony of learning so much about documentary poetry from a talk on the ethics of fiction.  But for now I need to switch forms, leave the blog for the work of this coming week . . .

Note: Probably the best interview with Nowak is by Steel Wagstaff and can be found here.  It was originally published in Contemporary Literature.

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