Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to unbuild walls.
―Ursula K Le Guin
I attended a memorial tour of Stolpersteine in Leipzig on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and I was underwhelmed. Not by the lack of thoughtfulness, understanding of history, or even a degree of care but for a total lack of imagination. The most that can be mustered in most cultural, historical reconciliations with mass murder is simply unimaginative at best. Each script for the tour ran something like, “A Jew lived here, she did some things but we don’t really know what. She was deported and died.”
As a diasporic Jew, I asked myself, “what was her day like? Did she have friends? Play an instrument? What happened to her children? They almost certainly went to America. Did I meet some of her descendants without knowing it in the years I lived in New York? Did some of them come back? What language do they speak now? What does their handwriting look like? Does their poodle look creepily like them? Do they water their plants once a week or twice a week?” These are questions I ask because, whether directly or indirectly, I have a relationship to these people. Normally they are just names on placards that people ignore the other 364 days of the year. I ask these questions to begin to send tendrils of thought beyond the event, in hopes that some answers will come back to me at some point. Tendrils, rhizomes, that can probe under the surface of this performance on the 9th of November and erupt into liveliness on the other side of the evental walls that have been placed around this social and ancestral pain.
I don’t want ever to see another film or read another book where the only motivation is sheer force of (masculine) will. I especially never want to think about or talk about dystopia ever again. I’ve been living in a society foreign to me long enough to know that our ability to renew social impulses after catastrophe is limited only by our imagination. And yet I’m sad to report, I fear the German imagination has not been up to the task yet. Still operating under the notion that in order to bring about transformation it must be willed, resisted into existence. Continually looking back on destruction, overtly or otherwise, horizons of possibility as described by Hannah Arendt in Understanding and Politics are impossible, “Even though we have lost yardsticks by which to measure, and rules under which to subsume the particular, a being whose essence is a beginning may have enough of origin within himself to understand without preconceived categories and to judge without the set of customary rules which is morality.” The society I’m learning slowly to call home, seems to be chasing ghosts.
When the self-described Querdenkers came to Leipzig, to protest measures against the Corona pandemic, the Wohnprojekt where I was living, had a call to action. The political activism in the leftist circles I run in was talking about “20,000 Nazis coming to Leipzig” (anyone who disagrees with you in the German left is a Nazi) and how we need to baton down the doors and get ready possibly to be attacked. Weapons were fashioned out of balloons filled with sand. I got swept away in this rhetoric and out of fear stayed with my partner for several days to let the worst of the weekend pass. When I returned to the project, nothing had happened, and the balloons filled with sand are still in a bucket next to the windows of the first floor. They needed something to resist, in order to come into a feeling of liveliness, something intensely lacking in their, well, lives. We’ve lost our yardsticks but haven’t yet found “the essence which is a beginning” within, in order to understand and discern. We’ve lost the plot. I’m bored.
So how can someone be conceived of as “a being whose essence is a beginning?” In Always Coming Home Le Guin invented a heroine who needed to leave and come back — who was named North Owl, unnamed Ayatyu, and then renamed Woman Coming Home. She returns to her ancestral home and then is once again renamed Stone Telling because she spends the rest of her life explaining a foreign society to a Utopic society. Her final name is defined by her relational function, as opposed to her identitarian names before. Her identity is in a constant fluctuation of dislocation and continuation. She changes names to match the current expression of her individual identity. The name demarcates a beginning that indicates something essential. The name changes as the marker changes. And this is an indication toward an essence that is a spontaneous expression of thought content, and names are simply signifiers of that lived experience. I imagine the character arch of North Owl/Ayatyu/Woman Coming Home/Stone Telling not located in the Valley or with the Dayao or returning but rather as approaching the walls, boundaries, and railings of the identities that were thrust upon her. Ayatyu turns the dial on the trajectory of gravitational pull by 90 degrees so that slowly, slowly the wall becomes the path and she has to walk that path to the limits, until it bends back on itself — bending back on herself as Woman Coming Home. Because she cannot reach infinitude but has extended along the edge of possibility toward transcendence, she needs yet another name, Stone Telling.
This personhood articulated by Le Guin is of the Kesh Valley People from her mother and Dayao from her father. Kesh society is invented as having the flavor of indigeneity in their cultural practices — they are seemingly indigenous to the northern valleys of what was once northern California. They are a speculative expression of indigeneity and it is not entirely certain what that exactly would mean in our current identitarian political frameworks. This is the privilege afforded the writer of speculative or augmented realities. So for the purposes of the deterritorialized placement of the narrative, Le Guin developed a society living in relative peace, ruled by an open council of all individuals who have come of age (anarchist in political, economic, and cultural structure), and what capital does exist is meant to serve political entities needing to exchange goods. Culture-making and cultural participation are decoupled from capitalistic modes of production and valuation. The Kesh are arguably Ursula K Le Guin’s most refined imagination of utopic praxis.
And it is of course not conceptualized as an utopic vacuum or island. It is juxtaposed against Dayao society which is capitalistic, hierarchical, patriarchal and uses militarized force to extract resources and mandate its political and economic hegemony. It also produces no notable culture. Dislodging a narrative from it’s assigned presuppositions and giving new meaning to terminology, identity, or relationship is the practice of building relationscapes which have a rhizomatic nature. For Woman Coming Home, names of people, places, and things change based on which society she is in and which language she is speaking. Her name changes based on where she is, how she wants to be seen, or what she has experienced. It is also interesting to see that there are some Dayao words she learns that have no place in Kesh and Kesh words that morph or lose particularity in Dayao. A relationscape with a multiplicity of phenomena makes space for a multiplicity of signifiers for these phenomena, without grasping for fixity or categorization. A relationscape is a field of experience where all possible phenomenology co-arise without fixation on binary termini like beginning-end, this-that, birth-death, cis-trans. Because Woman Coming Home is a halfling she occupies the interstices of social contracts. While living with the Valley People, she learns masculine and feminine assigned activities, she never choses one “lodge” or another but learns from them all as a child and adolescent. When she lives amongst Dayao society she is of Terter House by default of her birth and also Retforok House by a social contract she makes with another family, seemingly to strengthen her position in the city but then she explains later it was because she was bored. A contract she willingly breaks when it no longer serves it purpose.
Many decisions I make I can justify by saying I was navigating systems of oppression. That is true. Often however, I made a major life decision because I was bored. I should define boredom. The gift of being a trans woman in a misogynistic, transphobic society is that no one really expects anything from you. No one really knows where to put you and so while there is an insecurity involved in that transness, there is also a tremendous amount of freedom. My identity is heavily politicized and policed. My body is evaluated based on capitalistic notions of beauty and patriarchal restrictions on femininity. But because relational fields of experience are largely conceived, promulgated, and enforced by cis- and heteronormative assumptions, because my experience falls out of range for what these mechinistic presets can compute, there is an entire universe available to me as a trans woman, that 99.9% of the rest of the human population cannot even begin to conceptualize, let alone see or understand.
Another Californian, Tracy K Smith, in sharing her impressions from a childhood in nature had this to say about boredom: “I thought my life was boring, riddled with absence, a never ending idle afternoon, I dreamt of growing up and getting away from my parents house in our small town of going someplace where things happened. Now, I look back at all of that daydreaming as a luxurious freedom, the freedom to get to know the sound of my own thoughts.” She was introducing Margaret Atwood’s poem “Bored” in which Atwood juxtaposes in the first lines of the poem the words bored and board. In poetic form, she brings into relationship the concept of boredom with “the distance between things” and explains further, “Such minutiae. It’s what / the animals spend most of their time at, / ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels, / shuffling the leaves in their burrows.” Smith continues in her introduction to this examination of boredom, saying it “invites the mind to wander, to wonder, to be imprinted by all the little strange and wonderful pieces of the world it happens upon… Boredom: that wonderful laboratory of the imagination.”
My existence is ohne Geländerᛎ in so many meaningful and terrible ways. Because of the thrust of human history, I mourn the lack of known ancestors, for example. The lack of Cherokee ancestors, the disappearance of Jewish ancestors, and the disappearance or erasure of trans ancestors. I wish so often that I had the railings they made, to map and make sense of an experience that doesn’t have the support of a pre-existing social scaffolding. My laboratory of the imaginal is in the direction of Atwood’s suggestion that boredom is something to do with the distance between, something to do with being without handrails and on the outs. So often I’m in a relationality that assumes my experience matches the range of prevailing forms and norms. I want, from this place of insecurity, pain and confusion, to lash out at Hannah Arendt. I yell and toss her words across the room, “she had the privilege to long for lack of railings!” But maybe that is the price of being this free. I’m so free I long for bondage. I’m bored.
I was living in Berlin in 2019 and commuting from Britz to Wedding by bicycle for a theater project with Club Real. On this daily commute to the outdoor site of the project, I had to pass through Mitte from the old American sector of former West Berlin, momentarily into former East Berlin, and back again into former West Berlin, and then making my way down Oslower Straße to a parcel of land gifted to us by the Berlin Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa because statute of limitations was up and the Jewish family that had the rights to come reclaim the property after the war were long since expired. Something needed to be done with this place and we were experimenting with democratic and transhumanistic forms of theater making. It was “a real dump site” as our radio drama on Deutschlandfunk Kultur would later describe it.
I only knew how to locate myself in the former locality because where the Berlin Wall was torn down now are cobblestones to commemorate it and the narrow wheels of my city bike slipped on the grouted grooves, on the edges between cobblestones. Le Guin describes a wall in the first chapter of The Dispossessed, “Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres… Looked at from the other side, the enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.”
It turns out German society is structured in such a way that one is not able to unbuild a wall without an indication of the past wall in the future. Movement flows freely over these demarcations but with a wrinkle, a hiccup located in the past, dislocated in the present, and therefore again re-located in the future. I took to humming and singing as I passed over the cobblestones. Something to carry me across this rumbling inheritance of misunderstanding and fear.
I’m unsure if thinking without borders, into a field of consciousness, this Utopia where thinking the thinking of thinking, is possible. Maybe we can sing into it. Anyway, I don’t know that it truly was ever an aim of Arendt’s work. Someone she admired deeply and is often overlooked in the telling of her story was Karl Jaspers, who dedicated the entirety of his philosophical inquiry to communication and relationality. He also posited that border situations were where communication stopped and the inner activity of transcendence began. I don’t know what Arendt imagined as she developed her concept but I somehow imagine Hannah’s Existenz extending out with the exhale after a drag of cigarette and Karl picking up the signal of her thinking. I imagine them dancing to the same vibrational frequency along the edges of possibility and transcending all border situations. There is something of poetry and of dance and of breath that begins to indicate toward this thinking without railings.
I feel fairly certain Utopia is not a semi-arid terraformed moon in the planetary system of Tau Ceti, as in The Dispossessed. I think this is why Ursula called it an “ambivalent utopia.” There is a reason she invented an utopic imagination in the northern valleys of California. It’s a place she knows. She smelled the juniper and laurel laden air, looked onto the summit of Ako-Yet from Lake Siskiyou, climbed the mountain, and looked down on the valleys, rivers, forests, and the lake. It’s all real and yet there is something rhizomatic there now, too. I imagine Ursula on a hike to the top of Mount Shasta, her labored breath carrying elemental, atomized portions of her storytelling from the base of the mountain to the top. I see with her eyes from the summit as she names and unnames and renames every bend and turn of the river. I scan with her eyes the I-5, a highway that cuts across state boundaries and skirts around the base of the mountain. Ein Geländer durch das Geländeᛎᛎ. A banister through the terrain. The mind can form, deform, and re/form the meaning of signifiers through thinking (denken) with and through such landmarks but not the landmarks (ohne Geländer) as such. Projected now over the valley, the mountain, the river, the forest, the lake, the highway, is meaning — a transcendent meaning — that wasn’t there before I was immersed in the stories of the Kesh. A meaning that makes a transcendent place where Ursula and I meet — a relationscape where we dance along the edges of possibility.
Utopia is already here, deterritorialized, ohne Geländer. I know this in my body. I’ve taken my trans body and my trans mind so frequently just beyond my Self. Continually just beyond myself, I have developed, through the activity of authentic imagination, a faster-than-light device that Le Guin conceived of in her science-fiction. I have a built-in ansible. I send out FLT messages into the universe and receive the response instantly. I’ve fallen out of that range, that field of thinking where limits have been placed, into deterritorialized relationscapes, and my transness is the device used to access those relationscapes.
Some of us long for the unbuilding of walls and some of us hold onto what those walls gave us. I’ve come to realize that words like transsexual and transgender and even now queer have come to be walls. I needed those walls at one point, or at least I think I did. And parts of me believe that there is overwhelming evidence to support the existence of those walls — protection from a hostile world, certainty where there otherwise is none. I happily join Le Guin now in the project of unbuilding walls and I think my book is an attempt to join her. I think also then of Yitzhak referring to the Berlin Wall in the rock-opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch screeching, “Now that the wall’s gone, we don’t know who we are anymore!” This song also contains probably the most profound lyric of the entire rock opera that is glossed over and never really revisited again, “there is not much of a difference between a bridge and a wall.” This is why we need relationscapes, eine Lücke wo es Platz gibtᛎᛎᛎ. This is why we need transness.
Throwing Hannah Arendt’s words across the room and sending my anger with them, I bend the beam of observation back onto myself in my memory. The words sounded like “she had the privilege to long for lack of railings!” but I hear now, “then I won’t know who I am anymore!” The book lands, not with a thud on the floor in a disheveled heap, mangled by my insult, but back in my hands. The words bend back on me, move through me, and encourage me to continue — continue just beyond myself. Instead of “Understanding and Politics” emanating toward me from my hands, it’s the poetry of David Whyte:
Half a step
and the rest
And it’s this sort of relationality that brings me into synchronization with “the gait of things.” Ursula K Le Guin wrote in Always Coming Home, “Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast: even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.” I think it is no mistake that the final work of Arendt, Life of the Mind, was in two volumes and ended not with Thinking but with Willing. The life of the mind is in its faculty of generating thought-content of course but it is also in the activity of thinking, the thinking that is the spark that ignites activity. That thinking is relational. David Whyte’s poem Everything is Waiting for You contains the admonition, “To feel abandoned is to deny / the intimacy of your surroundings… Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the / conversation.” Thinking eases into the conversation of things and is enhanced by difference.
I don’t press my thumbs
I rather cross
My fingers one for luck
And the other for the lie.
The one seen says: I
Have a wish a dream, the one
Unseen says: I
Will break this promise.
I don’t press my thumbs
I rather cross
The fine line between the truth
Told straight and the truth
Told between the fold
Of my first and second fingers
Of my first and second life. . .
This poem that I wrote about cultural differenceᛎᛎᛎᛎ and romantic partnership, begins to hint at the richness and possibility of difference. Le Guin punctuates her explanation of handmind with this, “Purity is on the edge of evil, they say.” I sense resonance with Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. On the Le Guin side of the coin, is the danger of evil in thinking that has not been suffused with embodiment. On the Arendt side of the coin, is the danger of evil in embodiment that has not been suffused with thinking. The question of evil is not of purity or banality. The question of evil is the way in which we are witnessed transcending our limits and how going beyond ourselves elicits a response of fear, of abandonment in the other — a denial of the intimacy of our surroundings.
. . .My love presses her thumbs
Both hands in front
Brings both sides together daring me
To untether my fingers.
ᛎIn reference to Arendt’s thinking without handrails, denken ohne Geländer
ᛎᛎA railing or even handle (Geländer) through the area of land/scape (Gelände). This is to point out the linguistic tie made in German between land and projective mapping. Perhaps another essay for another day.
ᛎᛎᛎA gap/opening where there is space. Space to encounter. Space to let the spontaneity of rhizomatic relationality erupt.
ᛎᛎᛎᛎGermans press their thumbs “ich drücke meine Daumen” for wishing good luck