By Emiliana Renuart
I am laying on my back on that scratchy, blue-green carpet that only a classroom can have. It has soaked up the smell of the kids who, at the slightest hint of spring, lose their shoes in exchange for bare feet; the smell of cleaning supplies from the staff who tend to these rooms; and strangely, the smell of the books that have opened here; the inky scent of notes smeared across college ruled paper; the smell of chalk. It smells like every classroom I have been in since kindergarten, but as I lay here, I can’t tell if my nostalgia credits it with more than it is. Perhaps, it is all only dirty feet and Lysol. It is uncomfortable down here on the floor, but I focus instead on holding my body still enough that I don’t knock into JP or Sharmeen on either side of me. I wonder how Q, all 6’4” of him, can fit in this circle, wonder about who beyond my periphery, with the Vans on, had to wedge themselves beneath a desk, wonder what we would look like to anyone who happened to walk in. As I meditate, I bring my focus in and out of myself, like a breath. A radiating light that starts deep in me then concentrates itself above my head with the light of everyone in the room. We stretch it and move it and change it together until it grows large enough to emanate from the entire planet before drawing it, lovingly, back into our own bodies. Together, we, with our bodies, the carpet, the focus, the nostalgia, the wondering, make a living assemblage.
When reflecting on the final meditation we did as a class, the thing that kept coming to mind was intentionality: how I had to focus on my breathing to deepen it before it became a momentary pattern, how I found the edges of my body to make sure they were not disturbing anyone else before I relaxed enough to let my forearm rest against someone next to me, how I had to conjure a light out of myself before it could exist with the light of others. Being intentional changed the way I, and others around me, would have experienced the meditation. We all had to intentionally engage: a cerebral and abstract process.
Jane Bennett’s thing-power comes to mind. Although a concept is different than a thing and we may assign it different, sometimes more powerful, qualities, it is, certainly, separate from humans and even non-human beings; therefore, Bennett’s definition of thing-power as the “curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effect both dramatic and subtle,” can be translated and applied to concepts as well. (Bennett, 6) The conceptual-ness of intentionality did not prevent it from having real and experienced impacts on the moments we shared as a class; not just on the floor, but when in conversation, when walking together around campus and down in the Grove, when leading class discussions, even when simply watching a film together. In order to form an assemblage of a class, we each, individually, had to mindfully dedicate ourselves to each other and the space we were creating.
The vibrancy of such an internal concept had me considering a few questions, connected to class discussions and readings. The first is also derived from Bennett, where she asks if vitalism, or the belief that humans are inherently and innately different from non-human or non-living things, is intrinsically “allie[d]…with violence?” (89) It is easy, I believe, to argue that this belief can be extremely violent, as we have discussed all quarter. However, I am pulled back to both the questions that Nikki Silvestri and Ayça Çubukçu posed to the class: where are you unknowingly committing violence and where are you prepared and willing to allow yourself to commit violence? Vitalism, certainly, leads to violence, as Bennett specifically explores how the logic is used to oppose abortion and to justify war, but is a change in framework enough to truly prevent that? Or does the form of violence only change to look and behave differently, even as we attempt to be more intentional and decenter ourselves?
Bennett writes that “such attentiveness to nonhuman matter and its powers,” as we’ve tried to develop in this class, “is likely to erode any notion of a preformed or static hierarchy of nature.” (89) The hierarchy, which usually descends from God to Man to Nature, is one that justifies humans enacting change and manipulating Nature, which can often include not only non-human living beings, but also humans who are considered to be subhuman or less than human. This behavior is often warranted by a supposedly divine and irrefutable mandate; it is sometimes disguised as providing aid or guidance to those who are in need of help while, in reality, it dehumanizes certain humans and devalues the lives and vibrancies of non-human living things and inanimate things. While intentionally working against these modes of thought which produce violence, which is what I believe our assemblage as a class is founded in, I am constantly struggling to find the balance between being productive and taking time to prepare myself through learning and discussion and finding real-life actions that can help combat this violence, though Bennett argues that this “attentiveness” or learning or discussion that we are engaged in begins to inevitably break down some of the frameworks that contribute to violence, which is the first step to understanding how to combat it.
The second thought that comes to mind as I pondered the intentionality I, and others, possessed during the meditation and throughout the quarter, is related to forms of knowledge production. As people living in the United States and as people engaged in academia, there are types of knowledge that are ‘standard’ and familiar to us; these types are usually the ones that are accepted and seen as valid by others in our spheres of interaction. As I focused very purposefully on my body, the smell of the carpet, the people around me, and finally that unseen light that we shaped with our minds, I realized how frequently I tuned out and ignored much of the world around me. Nikki Silvestri talked about the farmers who could listen to what the plants needed to be able to grow and be healthy; Anna Tsing writes that the mushroom pickers danced as they pursued “lines of life…through senses, movements, and orientations” as a “form of forest knowledge.” (Tsing, 241) Both women identified forms of knowledge that are not necessarily able to be taught through traditional methods, such as in a classroom, a textbook, or a report, but that uniquely qualified individuals to even further break down hierarchies and distinctions between human and non-human life.
Thinking about knowledge brings me back to laying on that floor on the last day of class. I was first most conscious of my body, but not of how it functions for me to keep me alive or how good it feels to breathe deeply and intentionally; instead I was conscious of how it occupied space in the room and how it related to other physical things, like the floor or other people. Then I was conscious of the people around me, how their physical bodies fit into that space as well. I focused on what I have been taught to focus on: the immediate, the physical, the seen. Even as I tuned into my other senses and began to become aware of how the floor felt and smelled, I oriented myself to those senses again through the familiar – books, chalk, cleaning supplies. What finally pushed my intentional focus beyond what is traditional knowledge or ways of thinking for me was the call to imagine a light concentrating in our bodies and then pooling over to combine with those of others. I have never experienced light radiating from a body like that in a physical or seen way, so I was forced to push my frame of mind beyond the boundaries of what it usually encompasses. I was forced to purposefully discard or think beyond the limits of what I know, what I’ve been taught, how I imagine – something that each reading and each class discussion prompted me to do as well.
The meditation, the class, this reflection, and the assemblage that we and those experiences formed leave me with several questions to tend to. What are we not listening to? What are we not seeing? What are we not feeling? What are the vibrancies we are blinded to? How does our blindness contribute, even unknowingly or unintentionally, to violence against humans, living things, and non-living things? How can the frameworks we’ve learned in this class help us tune into the parts of the world we are missing out on or actively erasing and dismissing, when we are able to decenter ourselves and the forms of knowledge we’ve been conditioned to accept?
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.