Thursday, October 29, 2009

the plot hard to follow, the text obscured

As a reader and a consumer of other media I have long known that, for me, plot is far and away one of the least important aspects of a work. My favorite part of a book or movie, especially a plot-driven book or movie, is almost invariably the beginning, before things start happening; I'll be far more engrossed by the interactions between people and their environment than I am by an alien invasion. I like things to move slowly, and I like to watch how the parts fit together. I used to think that this was a rejection of the change that invariably happens once the plot picks up (something I resisted in my own life), but I'm starting to wonder if maybe it's something deeper and more complicated than that.

Along with plot, I also have some issues with language, and I'm beginning to think that these two discontents are more connected than they seem. I have a deep-seated love of reading and of books and a respect for the way a string of well-placed words can sometimes almost chime, but I also have an equally deep abiding resentment at the limitations that language places on what I perceive as reality; I get deeply concerned about definitions, how they limit and change our perceptions, and I fear that using the "wrong" words can distort both my meaning and my understanding. Maybe this sounds a bit dramatic, but language is a large part of how we touch and understand other people, and often it seems so completely inadequate.

But lately I've also been considering the fallacies of trajectory, of plotline, when placed in the context of reality. Life is not a book, and yet I think there is a desire to shape it into a sort of storyline, to place events into a concrete order with a logical progression, to make assumptions about what may or may not have happened (or, even more dangerously, what will happen) and to manipulate actuality into a neat little package with all of the correct narrative elements represented. This may (or may not--I'm not sure) be fairly harmless when the context is an amusing vignette designed to make people laugh at parties, but it can be incredibly harmful when it is forced onto the messy, incomplete, and thoroughly glorious lives of real people. Language becomes not just definitionally problematic, but suspect in terms of authenticity.

The narrative that prompted me to this realization is one of transition, which makes sense when you consider personal change as a frequently integral aspect of plot arc. Many, many of my queer, genderqueer, transgender, and otherwise transgressive friends have been told or have had it implied to them that they are "not trans enough", a phrase which boggles my mind and seems to defy all logic. It implies that there is a way to be trans and, consequently, a way not to be trans, and that if you haven't fulfilled some sort of completely imaginary guidelines then you are a failure as an identity, as a person. This particular narrative arc seems to require you to start off as one thing (a man or woman) and become another (a woman or man) and that there is a way in which this is accomplished that is neat and correct and strictly defined, but it could be applied to any number of personal identity choices. The moral of this particular story is that if you choose to define your own identity, either theoretically or physically, you are a eyed with distrust. You are disrupting the arc.

This is bad enough when it is considered in terms of interactions with friends and acquaintances and such, but when you consider--for instance--the medical rhetoric regarding transition (or intersexuality, or queerness, or mental illness, or femaleness, or any myriad of other things at any given point in history) it becomes a much scarier prospect. The policing of narrative falls hardest on those who don't follow the storyline, and the consequences can range from discomfort to forced conformity to pain and death. It drastically reduces the possibilities available to us by criminalizing those who don't agree to follow the rules.

There are so many narratives, and by trying to see them as stories we can so easily negate their actual lived value and blind ourselves to what we could be learning from them. I'm not trans, so that isn't my narrative. But I don't want to be defined solely by my actions; I want to be defined by who I was and how I felt while I was doing things, and by the small moments of connection and insight that I witnessed along the way. This does not mean I am not prey to the wiles of story, because this blog and many of my daily interactions are full of stories. I don't know what that means. I don't want to impose order on the disorder of life, but it's so damn hard to communicate otherwise. That is the power of language: it is everywhere, and it is flawed and imprecise. I have no answers, just a lingering feeling that I'm either creating or destroying something, or maybe both.

3 comments:

Rosiecat said...

My friend Ian complains about a similar problem: that old cliche, "Everything happens for a reason." I think he has a point: we make up stories to convince ourselves that there is some sort of rhyme or reason in all the pain and disorder of everyday life. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that if you are making a choice based on a past experience, there is a reason for your choice. That's called learning.

hannah said...

hi, This a lovely piece - and excellent word choices. I hear what you're saying about the expectation of fitting life into some sort of universal timeline. But the thing I like about narratives is that, contrary to other people's expectations, you can write your life into whatever story you want. I love to invent multiple, often conflicting, personal narratives. It helps me keep track of my shifting identity. And of course, as poetry shows us, there are plenty of narratives that are broken, or cyclical, or bifurcating. These stories are reminders, for me, that even when I sometimes feel caught up in a cliche, my life is so much more complex, and unpredictable, than that.

ammie said...

Rose-Anne: I'm learning all the time. And I love it :)
Hannah: That was an extremely comforting comment, actually. Multiple, conflicting personal narratives to reflect shifting identity is perhaps the only logical way to deal with the rigidity and imprecision of language, or at least the only one I can think of right now. Thank you for reminding me of the possibilities.