By Elioenai R. Quinones
I find it strange that when asked to write this final paper while thinking of something that can represent or be a part of the assemblage that is Kalamazoo college and/ or that of this class, my mind took me back in time to Spring quarter last year. While I was walking and approaching a couple of stairs up to Trowbridge I felt the need to stand still because something about the twilight sky and the lack of humidity made me look around. My eyes fell upon the stairs first and then slowly took in what was around me. There was silence seeping from campus abandoned by the majority of its students. Suddenly a glimpse of a vision or a daydream shot through my mind’s eyes and the muted campus for a split second appeared to me differently like snapshots of those photographs with long exposure. For that split moment I saw the blurriness of the past and the future, past shrubs and grasses and flowers and the more vivid and colorful motions of people from past classes and new ones hurriedly frozen in time layer over layer going up and down those stairs.
The truth about why I chose to talk about stairs isn’t crystal clear to me except to the way that I relate them as one of the most foundational pieces to this campus and its people. For example, we talked about the way that the nonhuman or even the nonliving can still carry this sense of vibrant matter, not a soul and not exactly this term of “life.” I want to connect most of this paper to Jane Bennet’s reading on the life of a metal which was a chapter that was exceptionally fascinating to me. Whether they are formed by cement, stone, bricks, linoleum, or wood, they all show some function of mechanism ingrained into their purpose all made up of something whether they are organic or mineral.
The invention of a fragmented horizontal slope. I can hear my physics teacher in high school anthropomorphizing the action of walking by a single sentence. He said, “There is a balance to all movement, you walk and you physically push the ground back. It’s the same, you walk and the ground pushes you forward.” So everytime that I run up the stairs I think, i’m pushing myself against each step carrying for a second both my weight and gravity, all of this is imposed upon that step. Then, that step directs that same amount of force and pushes me upwards. I thought it crazy of me to be aware of this every time I walk or go up or down the stairs. At one point I really did become concerned on how I was wasting my brain on thoughts like these. Bennet states, “‘Objects’ appear as such because their becoming proceeds at a speed or a level below the threshold of human discernment. It is hard indeed to keep one’s mind wrapped around a materiality that is not reducible to extension in space, difficult to dwell with the notion of an incorporeality or a differential of intensities” (58). It is this lack of understanding from us that even makes organic matter seem to be without life, because plants/ vegetables/ fruits don’t move as something we consider to be alive, we are able to pluck them with ease, commodify and mutate. Bennet here describes the inorganic, specifically metal but I take the argument as not exclusive.
I would not want to continue with my subject matter without first mentioning how difficult this campus is to many groups of people. Physically this campus is a complete maze and painful place for those with disabilities. You never realize the infinite amount of stairs unless you are someone already tackling it on. One of my good friends last year slipped on black ice and had to be on crutches during the entire winter quarter. The physical aid that would help an able bodied person is only then limited to a specific group and a specific purpose. For many, stairs make it easier to go up a hill, steep or not. Each step giving way for certain people and for whichever direction. Even having the privilege of being able-bodied, I still find some stairs to be awkwardly fitting to my leg span. Those that are too large that the pattern of my steps isn’t constant causing me to jumble my legs. I choose to just hike up or down the hill alongside instead.
Stairs intersect the hill we are on, embedded and inside residence and other buildings. Some curl tightly around each other like the one in the Fine Arts building, others are so worn that the edges seem to be polished by the sliding of innumerable shoes. The stairs in the library are wide and inviting while the ones within Olds Upton seem ever going and narrow. The cement stairs outside are only 2-4 steps at times but enough to create great stress when it can’t be physically avoided. Stairs are layers and those are not accessible to all.
If I may, I find stairs to be metaphorically connected to this college. Many of the students enter into a mindset of having to accomplish various expectations like saying the right things out and inside of the classroom, running a student organization, being in many others at the same time, involvement in leadership positions, and having jobs with the right amount of value that amounts to small improving steps towards a resume of high standards. Steps lead upwards.
Here I wonder to myself, I look around and notice that I am standing still watching many of those in the class under me, same as me, and above me going up so many staircases. I wonder, what they are pushing downwards on each step other than their own weight. I wonder what I am capable to push under me so that I am, in turn, pushed forwards.
I remember running up to the back entrance of Dewats earlier this year where there are brick steps. I was running because it was cold and I wanted to be inside so I didn’t notice that one of the bricks on the step was a bit loose than the others and so fear shot straight to my toes when I lost my balance. My other foot reached the last step and regained my balance. Brick stairs remind me of my ceramics’ class this term. I had no idea that bricks were ceramic. When assigned a new project, my professors words warned, “The clay remembers.” We weren’t supposed to bend our testing tiles while the clay was still wet. Part of my rebellious instinct wanted me to disregard this statement but the authority didn’t root from her, it rooted from the clay and so I obeyed. And so it did remember, while resting my tile flat while being wet, it was pulled in accident. Once it was fired, sure enough, the clay remembered and was not “forgiving” as was the red clay.
Like my physics high school teacher, my ceramics professor also has a connection that Bennett begins to explain, “Instead of a formative power detachable from matter, artisans… and anyone else intimate with things encounter a creative materiality with incipient tendencies and propensities, which are variably enacted depending on the other forces, affects, or bodies with which they come into close contact.” (56). It makes sense that the girl who has been working with clay since the age of 12 talks of it as if it had a life and mind of its own. So, “To theorize a kind of geoaffect or material vitality, a theory born of a methodological commitment to avoid anthropocentrism and biocentrism- or perhaps it is more accurate to say that is born of an irrational love of matter” (61) is a way to begin an understanding and recognition that “life” exists not only in the organic but in minerals too.
My experiences here in Kalamazoo College, those that I have more of a right to explain since it is how I perceive the world to be, haven’t been good to me. A comforting thought and vision that helps me through are the physical things like the stairs where I know I have not been the first and will not be the last to go through this place.