A Report to the Conservatory

“But to truly take worms seriously, we would not only have to revise our assessment of their activities but also need to question our larger faith in the uniqueness of humans and to reinvent concepts now attached to that faith.”[1]

 

A Report to the Conservatory[2]

“Honored members of the Julliard Conservatory! You have done me the honor of inviting me to give you an account of the life I formerly lived as a worm.[3] Five years separate me from my existence as a worm living in the southern crescent of New Orleans. I left the interstitial space of the flood zone, as a refugee, for the fast-paced life of New York City. There was a prick in my heart the day I dragged my belongings from this former French colony to northeastern island. I come from the French quartier in New Orleans. For an account of that history you can refer to Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. The city, although filled with avant-garde jazz and street performers was saturated with the obstinate problem of unemployment for worms like myself. After the Great Flood, I left the warmth of the gulf and the collective spirit of my former peers for the rat infested streets and subways.

I have, at times, taken pleasure in observing the prodigious buildings in Manhattan. At first, it was difficult moving around on my belly trying to pull myself up somehow. After taking the time to learn the viola, I have felt myself more comfortable in the world of musicians and academics than I originally felt. This was all a matter of performance—if I could pretend to be a human than somehow I could transform into an active member of society. And so I began the process of physically and mentally transforming myself through the power of mind. The first thing I learned was how to hold a viola and bow. Holding these two items displayed some candor. Today, when I hold the viola and the bow, I stand firm—on two feet unlike my former peers from New Orleans.

True humans are constantly impressed by my abilities to play the viola. They wonder how I was able to use my mind to transform my body. Despite the accolades, I occasionally receive comments about how my nature is not entirely repressed. So far as I am concerned, I am just like everyone else. I have attention and self-control in my practice. I feel like a human. I speak like a human. I read Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring like a human. But this was not always so.

In the beginning, I would imitate the musicians I saw. I feigned disinterest and complained about everything. When Schoenberg would come on I would soak in the atonality and screech with the mezzo-soprano. Soon, I was playing Bela Bartok’s Viola Concerto. Still, for a long time, I did not understand the difference between a major cord and a minor cord. After I began to thinking of myself as a person, I sprang into the community of human beings, and I felt its echo—“Just listen. She’s playing Y piece!”—like a kiss on my entire body.

Imitating musicians was not something that pleased me. I imitate them, because this is the only way that I can cope with what I lost and it offers me a way out from the flood bayou. I used all my energy to get into Julliard. Music was my only way out. Playing the viola was the way to fulfill my American Dream.

And I learned, like a true human. Alas, I learned that one has to be diligent and ruthless to find one’s way out of a limbless state. My wiggling nature turned off, and in the process, I developed hands and feet.

As I became even more confident of my abilities, the general public followed my progress and my future began to brighten. I took on students and instructed the on the proper bowing technique, let them sit down, and I studied them. And such progress! I was delighted to help worms, humans, and everything in between.

In the evening, I almost always have a performance, and my success could hardly rise any higher. When I come home late at night from banquets, from scientific societies, from social gatherings in someone’s home, I think about the moments where I would move on my belly.

On the whole, at any rate, I have achieved what I wished to achieve. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Conservatory. I have only made a report.”

-Transcribed by Edna Bonhomme on August 2010[4]

Motivation

In the early twentieth century, Franz Kafka, a German-Jew wrote a short story in a Zionist magazine about the story of an ape that acquires human-like traits. The story was meant to highlight the difficulties that Jews faced in Europe—the problem of acceptance despite assimilation. The purpose of my piece was to explore the ways the hierarchies of race and class shapes the African American experience in the United States.  In her chapter “A Life of Metal”, Jane Bennett notes:

Rotpeter gives an account of his ‘life’: the term here refers to a biological condition consistent with the capacity for emotion, sociality, and reflection. This is a life, Kafka makes clear, that apes share with me, for the difference between them is only that between points on a single ‘line.’[5]

What becomes apparent in Kafka’s work and my short piece is that racial and religious identity become part of the performance for survival. When marginalized groups face various forms of instability they imitate or acquire the patterns of the hegemonic class. I particularly tell this story from the perspective of a Hurricane Katrina survivor to highlight the figure of life and to see how the African American experience in the United States is politically, psychologically, and physically denied certain forms of vitality. If we are to accept Bennett’s rendering of Gilles Deleuze as an “indeterminate vitality”, we find that the Katrina refugee turned viola player is initially an actant. With time, the work becomes a political actor with clear virtues.

According to Bennett, “A life thus names a restless activeness, a destructive-creative force-presence that does not coincide fully with any specific body. A life tears the fabric of the actual without ever coming fully ‘out’ in a person, place, or thing.”[6] The worm’s life comes in two forms—as a negative recalcitrance and a positive force. People who go through the physical trauma of forced migration will have to engage in new acts to prevent themselves from further harm, e.g., taking on a new trade. Moreover, they have to join together with others in a collective unit to survive. Humans, apes, worms, and bacteria have different degrees of power. Yet, in this story I wanted to convey the ways in which beings with presumably less power (worms) can use their will to transform into a being with more power (human). Overall, this story acknowledges how ecology sheds lights on race, class, and vitality in twenty-first century America.


[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matters, 108

[2] Based on Franz Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy” which was mentioned in Chapter 5 of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter.

[3] I choose to focus on a worm rather than an ape for my story. I am invoking Darwin’s account of worms and their ability to usher in human culture and work alongside humans. Worms, in this paradigm, have agency through collective work.

[4] In August 2005, I lived in the southeastern region of Portland, Oregon. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, many cities and neighborhoods in the United States offered to take in survivors from the hurricane. The majority of the residents in my neighborhood explicitly refused to take them in because they did not want to “ruin” the social fabric of the neighborhood. For this reason, I did not have a chance to meet any refugees immediately after the hurricane.

[5] Bennett, Vibrant Matter

[6] Ibid, 54

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