nostalgia, reconsidered


The tiger had occupied the back garden adjacent to mine for a good six months before I finally noticed it. I’d never before thought to look out from the deck where I hang my laundry, except to occasionally shake my fist at the distant unseen throngs of kindergartners whose primordial shrieking was interrupted only by the John Philip Souza-esque school anthem blaring over the loudspeakers. Might I mention that recently a music school also opened up in the vicinity that seems to specialize in the chromatic scale played on a million shitty recordersI don’t stand on my balcony much, is what I’m saying. But I was possessed to do so one day because of a sudden attack of nostalgia.

I’m in a weird situation, nostalgia-wise, in my current city, Nanjing. First, I was born and spent the first five years of life here; but we should discount the first three years of unremarkable sentience, which leaves something like two years, which is roughly equivalent to a healthy field-research period except as undergone by a narcissistic toddler with a terrible grasp of methodology. Second, I’m currently doing “grown-up” ethnography (har har) in this city, which makes it my Field Site and makes me the Investigator (hoo boy). Third, I have a lot of family in the city whose basic interpellation of me is still Narcissistic Toddler, not Worldly Researcher, which makes me Grouchy and Intolerant of their Loving Familiar Care.

These factors make me simultaneously susceptible to nostalgic recollections and wary of them. At any moment, I could be strolling in an old neighborhood jammed in some corner not yet obliterated by malls, banks, and hotels, and be tempted by an odor or sight or sound into a fantasized version of my earliest memories, when was that shrieking kindergartner singing “East is Red.” Or did I see that in a movie? At the same time, I was too young when I left for my memories to have much heft. My last recollections are of my triumphal pre-elementary days, when the schoolyard was a stage I dominated with the ego of a mini-Kanye. After that, the primary nostalgic resource for me consists of ’90s pop culture and how slowly it reached Ohio.

So, the attachments I ambivalently have to Nanjing through birth, childhood, and family interact strangely with the new attachments I wish to form in my ethnographic work. At the beginning, I sorted this out by compartmentalizing: here was Nanjing1, which I did not scrutinize all that much. And here was Nanjing2, which I couldn’t look at closely enough.


Back to the ceramic tiger in the garden. It wasn’t critical attentiveness that made me see it, but a sentimental memory. The memory was something like this: On hot days in July, the air was coolest here.

Was it? Not sure. How bizarre it was, though, that such a crystal-clear nostalgia should come over me while I stood on my uncle’s balcony, filled with a specificity of memory and desire I didn’t possess almost as if I were standing in the path of someone else’s misdirected nostalgia-fumes, which then washed over the objects I had seen a dozen times without seeing them, and made them worth seeing. Made me, in fact, start prowling around the neighborhoods around me I had passed by a hundred times, trying to find traces of whatever was there.

Nostalgia has a contagious quality. In heavy doses, it is rightly critiqued for its deluded embrace of pasts that never existed and its politically reactionary contempt for the present and future. As a mass project, it’s misguided at best and destructive at worst. But perhaps this contagion also comes in less abrasive whiffs and smaller atmospheric disturbances, which remind us to lift our heads, look left or right, and nothing more.



Taking snapshots on the street is still deeply embarrassing to me when I’m caught in the act, as if I’m secreting away conference-food scraps in a napkin. During some travels this past summer — which included a few mind-blowing places — I photographed almost nothing, existing on that other side of the spectrum in which I was convinced one couldn’t actually “experience” anything while also mediating it through a lens. I’m not sure I was wrong at the time, but that was then. Now: more tigers, please.

IMG_2184 IMG_2189


black & blue


A month or so ago, I had an idea to do a loosely-connected series of drawings about the life of a toothbrush. This was brought on by a rather holy sight in the documentary “Objectified,” which is about industrial design. Since I’ve been feeling lazy and there are other more important (argh) doings in these quarters, here is simply a screencap of the moment that caused me to gasp in delight.

Look at those lines! Rawrrr.

Cauliflower pastoral


O pleasures of your nubbly head!

and that green outrageous Edwardian collar,

what chutzpah.

Sunk my knife in to the hilt, then

dragged through cumin, drowned in stock.

Like a broken-up mob you sprang

minor versions, scattering.

America’s sweetheart

After seeing the season 3 finale of “Louie,” I started missing China like nothing else. People who have seen the episode will know what I’m talking about.

There’s nothing quite like it in popular media right now: surreal, art-centric, compositional, musical. For all its “Curb Your Enthusiasm” moments of awkwardness and anxiety, I think it’s an anti-reality show (not anti-realist – rather, suspicious of our construals of social moments as the ontological real, attuned to the often-bizarre mediations of our  minds and worlds) and therefore a political show. And therefore necessary.  So I made fan art! I haven’t been this reactively productive since I made all the “My Little Ponies”* get married to each other!


I’m also liking this Parker Posey comeback! She has this sharp, shrewd, overthinking face that’s been missing from films and TV. I loved her in “Party Girl.” God, I loved everything in “Party Girl.”


*For comments on the politics of this show, please refer to my published paper, “The Diminitive Equus of which I have Possessed: Ambivalences of Friendship on the Rainbow Express Train, 1984-1992,” in Diacritics 17:2. 

Before / after


A 20-minute sketch made during one of those nights when all you want to do is drift into good old-fashioned unconsciousness but all your brain wants to do is practice terrible skateboarding tricks off broken conceptual ramps. Skateboarding is terrible, kids. The good news is I dug out my oil pastels for the first time in forever; bad news is I kinda forgot how to use them, if indeed I ever knew.

(Footnote: Tiger in parking lot. From Jon Rafman’s amazing art project with Google maps.)

AFTER: I sleep like a baby, with the help of melatonin, and dream mostly of terror-filled train rides through castles and also big burritos I never get to eat.

The seal’s modesty must be protected

A weekend in La Jolla, CA. There was no visible demarcation of the nude beach, so I was momentarily surprised by the sudden number of pantsless people arising out of the waves. They were all facing in different directions and looking at different things, like people just hanging around during a break in a performance artist’s set piece (Marina Abramovic, is she free?). It was almost oppressively sunny and blue-sky-ed outdoors. I kept imagining if I’d gone to grad school in southern California instead of Chicago – what sort of level I’d be paragliding at; what kind of indie-electro-pop band I’d be playing keyboards for; whether I would have switched my dissertation topic to the local showdown between ritzy beachside residents and the seals who poop on their proverbial front lawns (keywords: politics of everyday (sea)life, animal/human knowledge/fecal production, expertise); and so on. Life is full of questions.

So many things to say about the trip, but the most important is: the sunburn I got has now passed the squawling-baby-face shade of red phase and has now progressed to pleasant umber speckled with pale pink skin peels. When I look down at my chest, it appears I’m wearing a beige tank top over a light brown bodysuit. I’m not.

A first experiment

Inspired by a friend’s forays into illustrating and words-making, I’ve been having lots of fun drawing things that go along with words. I’ll be posting some of these experiments for posterity and for my own reference. This one was done in late August. I’m underwhelmed by the poem itself (dashed off) but it was nice to consider what sorts of images might have what sorts of relations to it.


Did you hear the one about

I know of a woman who lost 2.5 fingers in a motorcycle accident. During the collision with an on-coming SUV, she was flung from her bike, but not before her right hand caught in the spokes. She was dragged a few dozen yards down the street, still conscious when the fingers — flesh nails flexors phalanges metacarpals — were simply torn away. I have a hard time imagining this scene. It’s not like fingers being severed with a knife or crushed by machinery; they just came off. All the action movies we’ve seen have instilled a taken-for-granted appreciation for the fundamental corporeal coherence of hands, which more than any other organ seems to embody pure will (think of those scenes where all but the last joint of the fingers hang on for dear life to a precipice while the whole body dangles). To conceive of the tissue itself separating — coming apart like Play-Doh or overdone meat — requires some mental dexterity that can’t help but negate the hand-like quality of what’s come apart. Even more than not having the stomach, we’re at a loss to hold the thought.

All that remains on her right hand now are the index and the thumb, the stump of the middle, and a smooth, knuckleness ridge. Has it been streamlined to some minimalist essence of handness? Gross and fine motor functions intact, the index and thumb grasp, point, sew, knit, make pie, compose emails, smooth hair, gesticulate. She wears a ring on the index finger, with a fine azure stone. She stirs a pot on the stove. The lines on her palm are intact. She crooks the index come-hither, and cocks the thumb and finger into a gun: pow! She flips you off with the middle stump. She levels a measuring-spoon and whirls a glass of wine for aeration, plays guitar, makes convincing shadow puppets. During conversation her other hand idly smooths the plateau where the missing fingers were, resting there as if to hold their spot. (How does her left hand look to her now, a kind of embarrassed excess with its superfluous outgrowths?) She has big hands for a woman, and I envy her for that; mine are small, stumpy, kid-like. I picture her former hands driving a shovel into the earth or hammering the frame for a canvas, and I picture her 2.5 fingers in the road, polish still on the nails.

* * * *

A friend and I were discussing hands while at a figure-drawing session a few weeks ago. The model, a young female art student, was taking a breather. I’m crap at drawing hands, always have been. Instead of working out the proportions and perspective, I usual leave them, like the face, a noncommital smear. Hands are the test of a technician, and my friend says you can always tell someone is an art teacher by their rendering of hands. The teacher who’s rented out this space proves him right during the model’s next pose; he focuses on her hands to the exclusion of everything else, blows them up on his tablet, smearing the charcoal to capture their stillness.

I tell my pal that it’s strange and taken-for-granted how we all come to this room knowing what a body is and what it means to convey it. Imagine an alien was asked to draw the reclining woman in front of him, and instead of rendering this whole body with shadows and lines indicating the imagined anatomy beneath, perhaps he’d reproduce the fine surface details of her skin: the freckles and lines, the fleur-de-lis tattoo on the nape of her neck. Maybe the alien would be horrified to consume the gingerbread man we’ve been munching on so blithely, convinced it has no innards or nerves.

We talk more about hands. It’s the most face-like part of the body, my friend says, and I agree. He says he once talked to an emergency-room surgeon who’s had to treat all kinds of busted-up people — gunshot wounds to the head, brains seeping out, etc. — but has only recoiled once, when he saw a patient’s mangled hands. At first I’m not convinced. Brains! I say. The seat of human consciousness! Seeping – gross. But there’s so much life in hands, he says. We almost never see them disfigured in films either, I conceded. Yes, there’s more life in a pair of hands than in a pile of brains. So much so that in Albrecht Durer’s drawing of praying hands the metonymic relation almost seems reversed: instead of the hands standing in for the (not depicted) person, it’s as if the person has stood in for the hands all along .

Albrecht Durer, "Praying Hands"

* * * *

The narrative instrumentality of hands is immense, monstrous. The woman without 2.5 fingers will never have to tell another story about herself — she merely needs to initiate a high-five. After the accident perhaps she’s become religious, putting herself in God’s hands. “Who knows how many digits He’s got left,” she’d joke, then roar away on her motorcycle.

Lost and found

If someone came across this blog, they might surmise that after my 2008 entry on Marcel Mauss I fell off the face of the earth. What happened to that giddily resolute enthusiasm about academia and anthropology? The Mauss quote itself, from the classic “Techniques of the Body,” is so random and unnotable as to be irrelevant. I clearly picked it at random. Still: “I aspire only to have things of this nature dancing about in my brain. Incomparable things. I’m serious.” And after that – nothing. As if all the incomparable things took a gander at my vacant brain-space, consulted amongst each other, and decided to pick up residence elsewhere. We’re going down the street to some Germanic studies guy who reads Lacan and plays the cello, they said. You have these dumb thoughts about Chinese ghosts instead. That, or I got run over in the street by the 172.

Well, I’ve managed not to run afoul of any CTA buses thus far, but things definitely change over three years of grad school. You eat too much bad cheese at department events, put off too may essays, spend a few mornings too many slouched at a library computer hoping to catch some of the vigor of other people’s articles, like a kid storming through the snow in PJs trying desperately to contract a cold. All this plowing-away is its own work, and trying to keep aloft of the sleepy snowbanks of nth-year studenthood requires a constant pang of anxiety. Dread. Insecurity. Insufficiency. Bad skin. Tension headaches. These constitute the incomparable stuffs, the techniques of body and mind I’ve acquired, the dance I’ve learned to do. Thanks a lot, Mauss.

But I mean, was I imagining “St. Jerome in his study”? I’ve yet to acquire any lions, and the only momento mori I have lying around is the bunny-shaped clock from Japan to which I refuse to supply batteries and thus neither ticks nor tocks. There are no wood-paneled studies or contemplatively bared human skulls. Advanced schooling is, I’ve realized, mostly about managing the crap you have to do so you can read things in your off-time – a weird game where the thing that’s occupying your time is never really the thing you’re actually doing but the thing that’s deferring what you’re doing. A round of Chutes and Ladders where one piece holds for another indefinitely, getting you nowhere. And all the while, you can feel Life passing by, actually hear it whooosh like a cartoon character rounding a corner on blurred, wheeling legs.

Pause for violins. I know I’m saying nothing new, nothing that the other furrowed-brows at the coffeeshop haven’t commiserated about a hundred times with their grad-school pals. But the real reason I’m writing this is because in the process of writing this, setting down some words about this feeling that’s dogged me, I can feel it fleeing and becoming – like that Mitch Hedberg joke, “that tree is far away” – insignificant. And in its place, there’s the new possibility of recovering that aspiration for “incomparable things” – the desire for confrontation with a more romantic self, who feared pretension a lot less than repetition. Not that this is actually my old self; I’ve never not been a cynic. But hey, fidelity to the past or to the self isn’t what I’m after. Invent away, I say.

Happy new year.