Symposium Introduction

It’s November 2019 in Seattle, Washington. I am attending the annual meetings of my primary professional organization, the American Anthropological Association (AAA). It is the first time I have spoken to a large gathering of fellow anthropologists since my diagnosis, in 2016, with a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. For almost the entire previous decade, my life has been occupied with an increasingly unruly body and a complicated, traumatizing medical system; all the plans I had to continue fieldwork in north India have dissipated into the swirl of physician apathy around me: I can’t help you. I don’t know why this is happening to you. Have you tried yoga or meditation? About a month before the meetings, an experimental new treatment has helped my mobility levels; I don’t bring my wheelchair to the conference. I stand in front of an audience without assistance for the first time in years.

It’s not just the first time I’m in front of a professional audience in a while. It’s also the first time I am calling on my training—the training that also built my body, along with my special genetic coding, beginning in ballet and tap lessons at age five—as a dancer, a stage performer. I haven’t “performed,” since I left my playwrighting major in 1995, seduced away by my love for cultural anthropology. But for this presentation, behind me on a large screen, film sequences are spliced together, my (pre-Covid-19) largely housebound life of the previous several years flashing for all to see. Knitting, which I do to pass the time when my hands cooperate; untangling balls of yarn; wrapping a broken wrist (a constant risk, given my condition) in an Ace bandage. Next comes rare footage of myself at age seventeen, dancing on a stage, seeming graceful but now, I can see –  I point out to the audience – a body riddled with signs of a deeply problematic hypermobility in almost every joint.

I talk about how embodied autoethnography and spoken word performance are helping me deal with the ethical quagmire of studying a thing that I also am: a confused disabled chronically ill woman in a lot of pain, looking for answers in social media forums and from international specialists and from within my own family history. I talk about the pain—pain so fierce even the guys writing the objective pain scales feel sorry for me. Pain that can’t be written in realist genres so I have to resort to the imagery of childhood nightmares about cartoon villains. And I talk about the loss. The career, travel, more children, I might have had that will never be.

More remarkable than standing on my often-pained legs is that I have given myself permission to put all these things into this presentation: the dancer, the anthropologist, the woman in pain. They’re all on the dais with me. We can say a lot about how far various academic disciplines have come in embracing novel forms of research and presentation. But still. this talk is unusual. How did it come to be?

It was born seven months earlier, when Dorinne Kondo contacted me, having been given my info by a close mutual friend, who told her that I was also working with genre-bending forms of ethnography. That I was also dealing with a rapidly changing adult body that was reshaping the lines between work, art, and survival in my life. “I’m going to put together a panel,” she said, inviting me to contribute. And then she suggested that presentations need not be traditional conference papers – that we might present in whatever genre best suited the work we were doing. A simple suggestion, really, that, it is no exaggeration to say, has changed my life.

*

I read Worldmaking after my first conversation and email exchanges with Dorinne and it was like coming home, attending a joyful all-out dance party, getting a backstage pass to some of the most important productions in recent US theater history, and being deeply challenged as an aspiring anti-racist scholar, all at the same time. So when I heard that Syndicate was interested in convening a symposium about the book, I jumped at the chance to help organize it, a task that has truly been my great privilege. While the pieces collected here will not allow readers to turn away from the realities of anti-Blackness, Asian-hate, the ongoing extractions of settler colonialism, and their intersection with so many other forms of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, economic oppression and all the structures of privilege and violent erasure that tell people “this is not your world, you have no right to make it,” they will also bring, I believe, great joy.

In recent conversations with Dorinne, we have discussed the way that the kind of joy that arises from work like Worldmaking does not mean happiness. Joy, in this sense, is the erotic, as imagined by Audre Lorde (also referenced in Lin’s piece below): that possibility of connection and meaning that gets you out of bed in the morning in the face of the horror show. These artistic-scholarly responses to Worldmaking also produce joy – the kind that rises up when people tell the truth about a thing in a creative way so that we can feel our connection and distance at the same time: reparative creativity, a concept mentioned in every piece as a keystone of this important book.

In her discussion of the playwrighting and performance practices of Anna Deavere Smith, Kondo describes this simultaneous move in which Smith, or any of us engaged in the work of making art and scholarship rooted in social relationships, leap toward one another through language or performance or embodied listening, without erasing or collapsing power-laden difference. To make these leaps, artist-scholars must practice what she calls “radical availability to others” (106). And, indeed, while none of the authors in this symposium speak from exactly the same racial, social, economic, or historical position, they have made themselves radically available to Kondo’s text, to one another, and to you, the readers. The results are extraordinary.

It is also important to mention that Kondo’s descriptions of working on the dramaturgical teams of both Smith and David Henry Hwang are ethnographic gold that should be taught regularly in performance studies, theater, and anthropology departments around the world.

*

As she says in Worldmaking, one aspect of the theater that drew Kondo from being an observer to a creator of theater is its deep, essential sociality—the way a performance relies on the energy and expertise of so many people working together for a common goal, even if it is no obvious at the outset what that goal is. Kondo has taken that expertise and transferred it back into anthropology and allied fields in such a way that on that stage in 2019 I could feel supported enough to try something I had literally never seen at a professional scholarly conference, something painfully self-revelatory, and feel supported, even joyous, about the whole thing. Her role in our field is path-breaking and her entire career stands as a testament to the effort to create and support truly interdisciplinary work that refuses zealously guarded disciplinary borders—as an earlier-career scholar with the benefit of her mentorship, I can personally attest to the great gift she has given not only me, but so many others.

And look, Dorinne Kondo has done it yet again! Conjured a magical group of serious play-mates and interlocutors to discuss some of the highlights of Worldmaking! The contributions gathered here—which Kondo herself has called an almost embarrassing wealth of intellectual and artistic riches—and the layered, rich, diverse meanings they have all taken from this incomparably creative work—are a testament to Kondo’s importance as a scholar on and off the page. Following her visionary lead, most of the contributors here have chosen nontraditional forms for their responses, from a short play (Lin) to a personal “confession” (Singh) to an artful reflection on the crafting/making of bodies as reparative creativity as seen in the bodybuilding practices of Tommy Kono (Chow). And the dialogue between Kondo and Christen Smith about the staging of “Seamless” at the 2018 AAA, as well as the birth of Wakanda University, should be seen as no less than an oral history of a pivotal moment in the history of anthropology in the United States for the way it is situated in pressing questions about the discipline’s ongoing anti-Black racism, colonial “othering,” and practices of extractive knowledge-making.

*

I could not be happier to share this set of essays with you and to express my gratitude to my friend, mentor, and teacher, Dorinne Kondo.

Lana Lin

Response

Seams

Characters

LL—Taiwanese American filmmaker, artist, writer

DK—Japanese American anthropologist, dramaturg, playwright

ADS—African American actor, performer, playwright

MK—Jewish Austrian psychoanalyst

DWW—White British pediatrician and psychoanalyst

JW—White Rhode Island professor of English

OAO—White Danish psychoanalyst

EKS—Jewish American poet, artist, literary critic, teacher

DHH—Chinese American playwright, librettist, screenwriter

TN—African American cultural critic and scholar

SA—Australian, British Pakistani feminist writer, independent scholar

AL—Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet

RWG—Black prison abolitionist and scholar

 

TIME—Spring 2021

PLACE—Online

 

ACT 1

(The empty space behind the characters is filled with a painting of a life-sized woman, half sitting, half lying, her skin like gold.)

 

LL:   When I was a child, I enjoyed watching the television series Kung Fu, often with my father. Neither of us ever commented upon the fact that the main character, a half-Asian Shaolin monk, was played by non-Asian David Carradine. There was nothing out of the ordinary in this, so conditioned was I to unmarked whiteness standing in as the universal. I had no critique about racial masquerade and no expectation of seeing myself reflected on screen. One could dismiss this as a child’s lack of knowledge, but surely if the world of representation actually reflected the real world, a child could cognitively assess the difference between a white person and a person of Asian descent. The fact that I was trained not to see or even to expect the world of representation to mirror my own is really rather tragic, not something given.

 

LL and DK: The world of representation is made not given. Who is on screen matters.

 

DK:  Who is standing onstage matters. It may be the first step in confronting the unbearable whiteness of mainstream theater.

 

LL:   And the unbearable whiteness of media.

 

LL and DK:        Who is behind the scenes also matters.

 

DK:  The team of dramaturgs for Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight were unified in a common goal, not in our similarities. We fought, we were brought to tears, but this discomfort, the hard work of adjudicating passionately held, sometimes incommensurable positions, characterized our politics of affiliation.

 

ADS: She has been known to make me cry.

 

LL:   A Japanese American woman who can make an African American woman cry—that’s impressive.

 

DK:  Dramaturgical critique is a mode of political intervention and a form of reparative creativity.

 

LL:   (To DK.) What you call “reparative creativity” I have referred to as “creative reparative” projects and objects. (To MK.) You taught me that mourning is reparative work. Speech, care, reading, writing, love—these are all or can be reparative performances.

 

(A video of an infant suckling is projected on top of the painting.)

 

MK:  Let me remind you that the first creation in the mind of the infant is the maternal breast.

 

DWW:       And the baby’s capacity to love emerges from this creativity.

 

DK:  (To MK.) I have been wondering about this painting behind us

 

MK:  Ah, yes, the naked Negress. This was the first painting of a beautiful, wealthy depressive, Ruth Kjär. Evocative, but I was more concerned with the portraits that followed. To be honest my interest was focused on the creative impulse to re-make that which we psychically destroy.

 

DK:  But it is quite disappointing that you skip over analysis of the power-laden valences of this racialized and gendered image.

 

JW:   And you affirm the art historical valorization of the “nude” when you describe the negress as “naked.” The nude is not specifically “raced,” and is presumed to be white. But to paint an unclothed black woman is to paint a “naked, sexualized” woman.

 

OAO:         I spent years tracking down this mysterious painting. It turns out Kjär is a pseudonym. I’m 98% certain that the artist was Ruth Weber who was said “to incarnate the unbearable lightness of being itself” with “a few spatterings of black African blood.” And the painted figure is none other than Josephine Baker!

 

JW:   As I suspected, the artist felt an identification with racial blackness!

 

DK:  In David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, a white man gets to play a Chinese man. We could say that the play enacts a double layer of cross racial identification, an Asian man identifying with a white man identifying as a Chinese man.

 

EKS: With a fat woman’s defiance, I identify as a gay man, but the whiteness of my cross gender identification remains unmarked. Is cross gender identification less fraught than cross racial identification?

 

LL:   In my earliest experiences of group dynamics, I would often find myself sitting in a room full of white children with perhaps one other Asian person besides myself, a boy. The presumption that I was a girl gave me a modicum of belonging on the basis of sex whereas my racial status isolated me and made me vulnerable in an ocean of suburban whiteness.

 

ADS and DHH:

Talking frankly about race can be more intimate than sex!

 

LL:   Returning to the concept of reparation with its multi-layered artistic, psychic, political, legal, and economic meanings . . .

 

DK:  Individuals incarcerated in the Japanese internment camps received $20,000 in reparations through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

 

LL:   On March 22 this year, Evanston, Illinois, a little over an hour away from the suburb where I grew up, approved reparations for Black residents for codified discrimination, awarding $25,000 to eligible individuals toward housing costs. This is cause for celebration, yet it bears noting that in thirty-three years, the amount of individual reparation has increased only $5,000. And Japanese internment camps operated for four years, while chattel slavery was legal in the US for 244 years.

 

TN:   Racial inertia works to keep the status quo in place.

 

DK:  The metaphor of “repair” resonates powerfully because it acknowledges a savage tearing asunder, after which nothing is ever fully restored.

 

LL:   More than a metaphor, repair is a material process, whether in craft or medical interventions. Creative reparative responses to illness do reparative work. Responses to loss, they attempt to close a gap that cannot be closed but may be at least temporarily bridged.

 

DK:  Our subjectivities are the graveyards of our losses, which never disappear.

 

ADS: I want the audience to experience the gap, because I know if they experience the gap, they will appreciate my reach for the other. This reach is what moves them, not a mush of me and the other, not a presumption that I can play everything and everybody, but more a desire to reach for something that is very clearly not me—my deep feeling of my separateness from everything, not my ability to pass for everything.

 

DK:  Though we cannot become another, we can leap toward another.

 

ADS: We can listen for someone’s poem.

 

DK:  But the failures of seamless reproduction—stuttering, tics, rhythmic shifts—can be the sites of political possibility and individual agency.

 

ADS: Noticing the knots, makings the seams visible.

 

LL:   This goes to how genre and form are related to race-making. Are questions of race in artistic creation always also a question of form? This conversation, for instance, has no dramatic arc, and is almost entirely made up of citation and appropriation.

 

SA:   Citation is feminist memory.

 

DK:  We are constantly engaged in a dynamic of appropriation on a daily basis. Essentialist notions of identity are always already citations of cultural ideals and narrative conventions. Conventional genres assume a universal audience, which is itself a power-evasive move that masks the always already marked character of diverse and incommensurable audiences-in-the-plural, who are unevenly positioned in multiple matrices of power.

 

(The “naked Negress” painting has disappeared and is replaced by an image of Yong Soon Min’s installation, Movement, which consists of vinyl records, compact discs, mirrors, and paint that form a pattern like a planetary constellation.)

 

DK:  Let us remember not to tether the reparative exclusively to the individual. We need to link the reparative creativity of artistic production to systemic inequalities.

 

AL:   This has been at the forefront of my work as a Black lesbian mother, warrior, poet, which I consider a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power. Without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.

 

DK:  (Crosses stage.) If (racial) trauma has an afterlife—if structural racism persists in the very constitution of the subject, whether majoritarian or minoritarian—the postracial becomes an impossibility.

 

LL:   We have never been postracial. The murder of six Asian women in Atlanta on March 16 this year and the never-ending barrage of reports of anti-Asian violence show all too clearly how far from color blindness this country remains. What kind of impact did the Atlanta shootings have on you?

 

DK:  (Chokes, cannot speak, choking on history.)

 

LL:   Let me turn to an anecdote to lighten the mood. Or maybe not lighten it; after all, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. Since I began with an anecdote, I’ll end with one, and we’ll call it a dramatic arc. In mid-July of last year, a little over six weeks after the killing of George Floyd, I received an email from a white male colleague asking if I might be willing to share links to a few of my short films for his class. He only had the budget to rent one 16mm film print and the rental was earmarked for a white man’s film. Today, less than two weeks since the Atlanta spa shootings, and just over a year since the murder of Breonna Taylor, I received an email from a different white man inviting me to participate on a panel with a white woman and a white man. He confessed that there was only one honorarium and it would go to the person whose income stream was least predictable, which was by his account the white man, who presumably does not hold a university position. These messages frame the past year for me, from lockdown to escalating anti-Asian violence, from the relentless brutality against Black poor lives to the ways in which Covid mortality can itself be seen as a form of racism . . .

 

RWG:        (Somber tone.) Racism is vulnerability to premature death.

 

DK:  Given the power-laden context of affective violence, in which minoritarian subjects repeatedly confront erasure or denigration, reparative creativity becomes a way to give public life to the erased and marginalized.

 

(Music from the LPs and CDs of Movement rises.)

 

LL:   This is perhaps why I am publicly reflecting on what I would typically keep private. The men who committed these micro aggressions are not Republicans or people who have not benefited from progressive education. On the contrary, they are intelligent Leftists who can critically discuss the problems of settler colonialism, neoliberal capitalism, and the carceral state. They may devote their professional lives to the pursuit of a just, egalitarian, humane and ethical society, yet this vision is suspended in the realm of ideas that may be overlooked in a flurry of email writing. For the rest of us who cannot escape the ways in which our bodies and minds are marked by race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and various states of ability, and age—these identity markers have . . .

 

DK:  life determining impact. Issues of race and class are pervasive and have life-determining impact.

 

LL and DK:        Our redressive outrage can and should be channeled toward world-making that can bear the weight of our marked flesh. (Music cuts out. Blackout.)

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Klein, Melanie. “Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929): 436–43.

Kondo, Dorinne. Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Lin, Lana. Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. Argyle, NY: Spinsters, Ink, 1980.

Nyong’o, Tavia. The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Olsen, Ole Andkjaer. “Depression and Reparation as Themes in Melanie Klein’s Analysis of the Painter Ruth Weber.” Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review 27 (2004): 34–42.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “White Glasses.” In Tendencies, 252–66. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Walton, Jean. Fair Sex, Savage Dreams: Race, Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  • Dorinne Kondo

    Dorinne Kondo

    Reply

    Reparation, Creativity, and “the Sadism of a Hostile World”

    Lights rise on an image of Yong Soon Min’s installation “Movement,” the cover image for Kondo’s Worldmaking. The (painstakingly chosen) font slowly emerges on the image. DK enters. She brandishes a piece of chalk and traces a rectangular shape on the floor. She examines the shape, turns around to appraise the image of her book. She turns back to the audience, looking quizzical, cocks her head, apparently not quite satisfied.

    Slowly, the image of Worldmaking morphs into an image of Lana Lin’s Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer. DK gazes at it, touches it, trying to feel its dimensions, trying to develop a haptic sense of its contents. The book opens. We see a page, then another. DK touches the upstage screen, “turning” them feverishly.

     

    DK: Oh my God!

     

    She turns to the chalk outlines of the rectangle she has drawn, takes up the chalk, starts writing. Suddenly a golden light illuminates the space of the book outlined on the floor. The sky opens, and fragments of pages waft down from the ceiling. DK watches in wonder. As the fragments float earthward, she gathers handfuls of paper, first tasting them, then stuffing them into her mouth. Devouring.1 LL enters.

     

    LL: You might hurt yourself. Eating so fast.

     

    DK: (muffled, her mouth is stuffed) Making up for lost time.

     

    LL: The oral phase in Klein involves fusion. Aggression Guilt for the aggression.

     

    DK: I love this book! And I feel guilty that I didn’t know about it before.

     

    LL: It would have been nice. How did we not know each other’s work?

     

    DK: I don’t know. I don’t know! I feel like a deficient academic.

     

    LL: Maybe it’s the academic hiving.

     

    DK: Our silos. Film and performance are different.

     

    LL: But not.

     

    DK and LL. That different!

     

    DK: And I feel such affinity. Resonances, moments of “fusion” and a realization of separateness.

     

    LL: Klein. What I called the creative reparative.

     

    DK: What I called reparative creativity.

     

    LL and DK: We both believe in the power of the arts, of work, of writing, of objects, of making, as reparative practices.

     

    DK: As you said about Audre Lorde:

     

    LL: “She mobilizes the oscillation between destruction and creation, between death and life, putting death to use such that survival amounts to an insistence upon ‘not death.’ She does not try to imagine a world without pain and hardship. She tries to imagine a world that can make use of it. She tasked herself to create something new, something that did not seek to restore the past or fill the absences that remained in the wake of devastation.” In the face of bodily vulnerability. Existential vulnerability. Mine, breast cancer. In remission, that aberration of linear temporality.

     

    DK: Mine, open heart surgery that left me at best two-thirds of who I was before. Never completely healed or back to normal. Feeling much worse than before the surgery. Despite numbers and metrics that say I am back to “normal.” But what about my daily violent fatigue?

     

    LL: I talk about Lorde and her difference from Klein.

     

    DK: It’s so important! I want to amplify this point in my next project on fear and its unequal distribution. For me, as a cis-gender Asian American woman, this is the first time—at least in Los Angeles—that I’ve felt such palpable fear of being physically attacked. I’ve been “used to” verbal assault for decades. The worst was New Haven in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Three in twenty minutes. But racial harassment happened regularly in Boston. Only once in LA, even after all these years. Visual, not verbal. Young kids stretching the corners of their eyes into a slant. Microaggressions are another story, of course. So . . . what about populations who live constantly with fear . . . of death, deportation, who cannot sleep safely in their own beds, if they even have one? Some populations are more “vulnerable to premature death,” as Ruthie Gilmore would say, than others. As COVID, racist, gendered, anti-trans violence dramatically underlines. You said so eloquently:

     

    LL: “For Lorde the offenses of sexism and racism converge in their demand to cover over differences that are apprehended as transgressive . . . she recognized that the convergence of multiple registers of identity constructed her and her sisters of color as especially vulnerable to violences of all sorts, including but certainly not limited to ill health, poverty, sexual assault, and discrimination. . . . One could say that the poisonous projections of hatred, which Lorde experienced as a black lesbian, produced what Klein called schizoid defense mechanisms in which parts of the self are annihilated. . . . Klein’s theories on aggression . . . describe it in terms of injury and a threat to survival. But for both Lorde and Klein, aggression can also be self-protective . . . importantly, Lorde’s masochism responds to a sadism that, unlike Klein’s phantasied aggression extends from the reality of a hostile world. “

     

    DK and LL: A SADISM THAT EXTENDS FROM THE REALITY OF A HOSTILE WORLD.

     

    DK: Fear and aggression, not as phobia or as excessive, but a reasonable response to that world.

     

    LL: The creative reparative.

     

    DK: The creative reparative.

     

    LL: The work of creativity.

     

    DK: Reparative creativity.

     

    LL: Fractures.

     

    DK: Fragments.

     

    LL: Moments of joy.

     

    DK: And passion.

     

    LL and DK: And survival. Remaking worlds. But never completely.

     

    They each take a broom and sweep off the chalk. KUROGO carry in a rounded, transparent dome, lopsided and in disrepair. Some panels are torn. A snow globe, perhaps, that LL described eloquently in Freud’s Jaw? LL and DK step inside to inspect. Small, white paper fragments drift down from above, like snowflakes. They enjoy the falling snow for a moment, then start their work of repair, gathering the snowflakes into piles, trying to patch the panels of the globe, as snow continues to fall and lights fade.


    1. Chloe Johnston and James Moreno, “Illuminations/Marginalia,” master’s thesis, Northwestern University, 2007. On a visit to Northwestern’s Department of Performance Studies, I was invited by E. Patrick Johnson and D. Soyini Madison to the rehearsal for an MA thesis production devised by two of their students. Even in rehearsal, “Illuminations/ Marginalia” remains one of the most memorable theatrical experiences I’ve had—epitomized in a scene where a woman gazes in wonder at the light illuminating a book, the falling fragments of paper falling from the sky, and literally devours the pages. Is there a more telling theatricalization of an intellectual’s relation to the book? “Making words flesh,” as the authors say?

Julietta Singh

Response

July 4, 2022, 1:00 am

Broderick D. V. Chow

Response

July 11, 2022, 1:00 am

Christen Smith

Response

July 18, 2022, 1:00 am

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