The Smell of Infrastructure

Institutions, infrastructure, utility, utilitarianism . . . these are the things I’m thinking about.  Bruce Robbins’ piece, “The Smell of Infrastructure” is helping to guide my way, making the case that infrastructure is invisible, neglected because it is public – that private ownership is that which makes things visible, matter. But the article *really* is about the history of anti-utlitarianism in modern literary study – – how we throw the baby out with the toilet water when we oppose utilitarianism and associate utility with problematic Victorian politics or the intensification of inequality. He traces a line from Mill to Arnold to Eliot to Williams to Foucault.

It’s this genealogy that is of most interest to me, today, especially the suggestion:

“Let me add that if the humanities in the era of cultural studies took up Foucault instead of Arnold as our inspiration, and did so without missing a beat, this is in large part because of a constitutive disgust for Bentham and utilitarianism, lodged deep in the interdisciplinary unconscious, a disgust that prepared us to recognize ourselves in Foucault’s gesture of singling out Bentham’s Panopticon to stand for what is most wrong with the modern world, or at least for what we are here on earth to make right” (27).

Robbins’ claim might be suggestive–finding continuities in discontinuous and oppositional thought–, but I find it utterly frustrating because it seems to miss the whole point. Foucault uses the Panopticon not to “stand for what is most wrong with the modern world” but rather to show one example of many of how the forms of discipline within the modern world are different, and proliferate far beyond the panopticon. And Foucault certainly doesn’t want to “make right” – he wants to understand how the drive to “make right” also involves power. Which is one reason why the political perspective of Foucault does not give us the language to defend public infrastructure or institutions.  Arnold, of course, does. But this language is hardly satisfying because its engagement with power is not invisible, but all too apparent. Which means, that if not pursuing *all* causal connections is a privilege, so too is deciding what kinds of power matters, is visible, or should be made visible.  What’s visible very much depends on where’s one’s located.

The Latehomecomer

Choosing a common read book is not an easy task, made no easier by the various university entities with stakes in the program.  The process makes visible how the growing bureaucracy of university often actively subverts the goals of the university – – to teach – – by claiming to know the one thing that trumps any other form of knowledge – – students.  Actively resisting this knowledge of students (students won’t read this, students won’t read anything, students will find this culture too strange – despite the fact that significant percentage of them have identify with or have ties to this culture), a book was chosen that is beautiful, complicated, and teaches by opening up spaces to think about the disparate intersections of individuals and history, memories and dreams, fears and futures rather than closing down culture and experience into a neat little (and usually hateful) message or moral.  The book is Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.

Today I’m grateful for this book because of its ending, the description of her grandmother’s death. Quite powerful because it reminds us that death is not the same–not the great equalizer we think it to be– that her grandmother’s death is a privileged death because it is the first ‘natural’ death in the family in a long, long time. And yet, the words resonate:

“In all the languages of the earth, in all the richness of words, there is no word, no comparison, no equivalent, for my grandmother trying to be strong for me, her one me naib” (240-1).

The singularity of the experience–it’s resistance to any translation or language–is precisely what is shared in a vague, uncertain way.  For recognizing great strength (not necessarily for anyone, but just because that is who she was) and its limits and not needing language to express it, to know it, is powerful shit.