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By Lina Chhun
A few months after returning from dissertation work abroad, I attended a talk with Professor Aisha Finch at UCLA. The talk expanded on Aisha’s recent book, explored gendered dimensions of slave insurgencies in Cuba and the sugar time of the plantation economy…
I cannot think violence outside of my understandings of historical and structural violence, racialized violence, or what M. NourbeSe Philip recently termed “the first globalization of the skin.”
In fact, it is difficult for me to write about feeling like a thing… reduction to a thing… without immediately reflecting on Aimé Césaire’s “thingification,” colonialism’s effect on the colonized (as well as the colonizer).
As I listened to Aisha speak all those months ago, I thought about the terror of carpet bombing campaigns—the infinite time of terror that was sugar cropping on the plantation—and the perpetuity of insecurity accompanying the oftentimes indiscriminate nature of bombing campaigns (elsewhere of course, in our contemporary history). I thought about what happened to the body when it was obliterated in the U.S. carpet bombings of Cambodia in the 1960s and early 1970s. And I wondered about the body and how it might register that historical trauma in the present.
I want to approach with caution here.
I owe an invaluable intellectual and ethical debt to Black and postcolonial studies, and especially Black feminist genealogies and knowledge production. I think these experiences in relation with Alexander Weheliye’s notion of “bringing-into-relation” in mind, the possibility of “think[ing] through the commonalities and disparities between…two spaces without awakening the demon of comparison” (72). M. NourbeSe Philip’s words concerning not doing a second violence in our explication of relation.
I want to approach these understandings of violence with care, as Christina Sharpe has written, “I am trying, too, to find the words that will articulate care” (19), an ethics of care. In doing so, I hope to minimize the harm I might do in further extracting from vulnerable histories and communities, to do less violence to the silences of history, and honor—as my amazing friend Karen Hanna has recently articulated—the necessity of “challenging academic thievery.”
Aisha ended her talk by discussing the possibility of experiencing time differently, of experiencing the body differently. She spoke of experiential dimensions of the body that moved away from the perpetuity of sugar time—of it, yet also outside of it.
Through the Black laborer’s movement—through dance, spirituality, through communion, through those moments of alternative embodiment—inhabiting the body became a way of inhabiting time, consequently reversing the thingification of plantation temporality.
I often think about what it means to inhabit one’s own body, to occupy time.
I feel most alive, most human, in those moments when I’m most in my body, when perhaps paradoxically, my body both stops and moves through time.
I wonder if trauma will always feel as it does. As if someone is stealing the present from me. That loss of control when my body is transplanted back there, back to how it felt before. Back to a different time when my body did not feel like my own.
I sometimes ask myself if I will always feel this way. I have often thought of depression and anxiety as (unwanted) companions though I suppose, I have become acquainted with their lurking presence.
The paralysis sometimes comes slowly, sometimes comes on suddenly. It sometimes lurks beneath the surface. That sometimes is the worst. That latency sometimes is the worst.
This previous summer, I finally bypassed my long-standing resistance and started antidepressant medication for the first time.
I know many people for whom such a step has been life-saving, life-affirming.
But the experience made me feel like a stranger in my own body. Again. It was as if I was hovering someplace just above my body, unable to settle completely.
The medication transported my body and mind to a time-space that felt familiar, that frightened me.
Teaching ultimately put me back into my body—in my present—pulled me into the moment and helped me move in and through time; the moment no longer moving through me.
I felt most free in those moments of communion with my body, in my present and in being present with my students. Enacting feminist pedagogy together. They were a gift to me this previous summer, and I hope the class was also in some small way, a gift to them as well.
I say I still love him—as I do all my former partners—not to absolve him. Although I believe I have forgiven him.
I say I still love him because I do, an enactment of caring for another human being closely intertwined in my life for many years.
I know the dangers of naming, again that possibility of exceptionalism—the reification of identity.
I know my former partner is not a monster. He is a person, one embedded in a social and structural context that denigrates the feminine; consciously or unconsciously viewing the feminine as less than. He is a person embedded in this world we are all living in—liberal-leaning or not—participating in racist, sexist discourses, misrecognizing the relationship between language and material consequences.
He was not a monster. But he did not always do good things.
Initially, I felt the need to expend affective and intellectual energy to further re-humanize him here. Penance perhaps for my own one-time deeply buried internalized racism. The knowledge that he himself was viewed as less than human because he was not white. My reluctance to further the dehumanization of men of color. Especially in this moment we are living in.
But perhaps this would be a misrecognition of my own responsibility.
I choose to say that I still love him to continue to unsettle the specter of both intimate partner and sexual violence. To trouble the artificial walls we put up when we speak of violence, attempt to make meaning of the world.
Sometimes those walls perform a function, but that function inevitably hurts us. When we view the world through these zero-sum binaries that function to distance, we are unable to see each other and ourselves within this system we occupy. We are unable to ask ourselves about our own complicity, unable to challenge our own investments in ways of thinking, speaking, and doing that might cause harm.
We are unable to ask ourselves how we can do better.
For Part One and Three:
Lina Chhun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Lina’s research addresses war, militarism, violence, and trauma, focusing on the processes of memory and history-making in regards to U.S. empire in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Lina’s dissertation project studies narrative silences and the dynamics of remembrance regarding the U.S. bombing campaigns of 1964-1973 in Cambodia, connecting understandings of the bombings to registers of commemoration regarding the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-1979.