Civilizations without Boats Prospectus

Boat in Dulac
A Heterogeography of Chauvin, Louisiana

what

These are the facts of Chauvin, Louisiana: a small, coastal town, populated by refugees from the Acadian diaspora; a place where men are trawlers, roustabouts, and roughnecks, and the women wives, cashiers; a hurricane disaster plain; shore-zero for oil spills; a French community that morphed into an illiterate American one; a repository for the old songs, two-steps, and trickster tales from a beautiful, impossible past; a population uneducated on behalf of the state, a still-spooky Catholicism, and technological maladjustment. And yet, facts are not enough.

This research projects intends to map the spaces between those “facts,” the impossible places, the intensities felt behind the hard stones of culture, the worlds that are verging on becoming. I want to study how people make worlds out of the stories and landscapes they live in. I want to understand how these worlds harden into story and culture and land, how they become facts. I want to understand the worlds that die and the ones that are eroded by the strong worlds already extant.

To do this, I will go to Chauvin and talk to the people that live there, make movies with them, look through their stuff, and share in their imaginings. My questions will be: How do you imagine your past? What could the future hold for you, your town, your landscapes? How do you move through the world in the present and what stories and fantasies propel you? But questions, like facts, are not enough. To cull the ephemeral space between actualities requires being attuned to the senses, to my subjects’ and mine, to bodily navigation—in addition to discourse, official or otherwise. I am after the kinds of fantasies that make it possible to live in the face of loss. The kinds that acknowledge the loss of industry, the loss of land, and the loss of community heritage, which in turn have embedded emotional importance in these lost things.

I want to study these people’s lives and the worlds they make in them in order to understand how the people of a small, precarious town carve out space for themselves that they can live in, how they manage paradoxical fantasies and stories, what populates and fuels their dreams. In the process of exploring these research questions, perhaps we might begin to touch the process whereby space, narrative, affect, and imagination condense into fact, how we might intervene in our own myth and world making.

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Telepoetics of Dial-up, or “I thought geography was the point!”

On page 105 of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum implies that for adults in 2012, the physicality of the internet is elusive because it seems magical. For eight-year-olds, he argues, internet tech is not a strange concept. Still, apparently, approaching the material structure of the web should be met with “childlike wonder.” While using the internet today in 2013 certainly elides distance and machine in the sheer immediacy of web browsing—made possible by technological innovation and applications of physics—it wasn’t always so imperceptible, even for average users.

My family first connected to the internet in 1996 with an ISP called Cajun.Net, basically the first service provider to lease the phone lines for data travel in Terrebonne Parish. Like many companies in Louisiana, its name is a bit “on the nose” emphatic local expression. Its logo features a zany crawfish on a surfboard, propelled no doubt by the tidal waves of information flowing through Cajun.Net’s routers. As far as I could tell at the time, most people I knew who used the internet sent chain emails to people who had the same area code, more for the novelty of sharing text and clipart than for serious communication. At 12 years old, I didn’t have (or know anyone with) a job in information, so who knows what Cajun.Net subscribers were doing with their computers. It seems Cajun.Net got at least the local ethos right: a crazy-looking crawfish on a West-coast transportation system, somewhere on top of an ocean. I mean that some people in Louisiana, who often make their locality visible (especially the well-defined tropes of their cultural groups), were able to participate in conversations they would have otherwise been left out of.

Cowabunga.

Nevertheless, there were physical problems with connecting to the internet that were neither foreign nor incomprehensible, ones that perhaps placed us more than our rad logos. Sometimes, when you dialed up the number of the ISP’s router, you’d get a busy signal. This meant the line was in use at the other end, same as in telephones. This and the other material trappings of telephony (sound at a distance)—phone lines, dial tones, etc.—emphasized the physical space between the user and the ISP, making visceral the gatekeeping aspect of local networks. Living in southern Terrebonne Parish, this distance was much more aggravating than magical. The phone lines were outdated technology with low bandwidth and no redundancy. I remember hoping for the day when AT&T would decide to drive down Highway 56 and lay some new wire. I longed for a T1 connection, though I’d have been happy with DSL. This was in 2003.

I would argue a type of “child-like” wonder was borne out of a serious consideration of geography. Chatting with French people on IRC chat servers in 1998, for instance, was a possibility opened up by the internet, but never elided that they were still over there. This is about access. Even as recently as 2006 when I spent an autumn in France, problems of connectivity were physical—searching for a place that was connected to the internet in order to bridge the gaps to communicate my family, searching (on foot) the Latin Quarter for a place that would give me access to both a plug-in and an internet connection. It was not as easy as it apparently is now. In 2004 and 2005, I worked on an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which was serviced by a fiber-optic loop in combination with cellular and microwave broadcasting. This system was buggy and unreliable. The main use of the network was to deliver and report information to and from the platforms and the oil base and LOOP (Louisiana Offshore Oil Port) or whoever handled the pipeline.

On disait : « A/S/L ? ? »
On disait : « A/S/L ? ? »

Although we may take the physicality of certain technologies for granted (a thing everyone always has done), I don’t believe we’ve yet entered the cloud metaphor entirely, even if the plutocracies (Google, Facebook, et al) insist we have. Access is neither universal nor guaranteed to those who have it. Not everyone treats the communication within the web as placeless—even if they don’t know the plot on land on which their data sit. But what we often do take for granted, even as we point out the materiality of the packet routes or the existence of deepsea fiber optics, is that these technologies and places—our data and communication stored there, the minerals that house them and the electricity that maintain them—these are loci of power and are loci that can be owned. This fact is a much more dangerous thing to overlook, and especially easy if we concede to Blum’s optimistic paranoia about how we are increasingly digital but the internet is increasingly human.

You Can Take the Boy out of Jersey…

The night before we left Newark, our kung fu school had a cake for us. All the people in the Intermediate class that Tuesday were ordered to give us a sweaty hug before they left. There was a card. There were goodbyes. It was a surprise. It was the first time we felt so much belonging in a long, long time. The next day, we sped off toward the South.

First off, I want to say fuck Elizabeth Bishop. The art of losing isn’t hard to master my ass. In the last seven years, I’ve lived in New Orleans, Chicago, Paris, Moncton, Ithaca, Newark, and now Atlanta. There’s always the exhilaration of finding in a new place the things that will sustain you while you’re there, what types of bad habits will be reinforced by a new proximity to the things you wished you’d had for longer.

I’m looking at you, Italian Beef sandwiches.

There’s also always the slow build of new friendships as you insert yourself into the orifice of some community, some space you will take up until you look like you’ve been there all along. And each time, there’s the slow ache of giving up followed by the sharpness of being absent.

In my case, every time the new place becomes home, I have to go on craigslist, find a new state, city, neighborhood with a new price range and yearning for certain amenities. Maybe you only are aware of community when you have to give it up, when you know it’s temporary, that your relationships will be carried out now by choice and long distance instead of spatially.

I don’t know. But these are the things I miss about Jersey:

  1. Yee’s Hung Ga. I have a previous post about kung fu. Of course, Linda and I are still practicing (albeit sporadically until our schedules firm up) and plan to continue being a part of the school via Skype and thrice a year trips to Clifton, but especially with something that so situates you within a body, the lack of physical presence blows.
  2. Our apartment. It had a bonkers layout and rained through a lighting fixture when a serious storm would pass, but it was the place where I would write and clean and grade and read. It was a place where I could take things and be taken.

    One rad room of a few.
  3. The McCarter Highway. I know this is stupid because it is dangerous and full of traffic, but the familiarity of what you see when you are driving a daily routine become imbedded as the iconography of your life. And when they’re gone, they’re gone and you feel less peopled.
  4. The AJ Seabras Grocery Store. For the dipped madeleines, the Cortez brand of Spanish salamis, the puffy sort of French bread rolls (on which I would put bologna and tomato and Kewpie mayonnaise), the smell of bacalhau, the cheap San Pellegrino in a can, the block and a half distance to my front door.
  5. The silent/incomprehensible Portuguese people I never got to know.
  6. Weaving around the double-parked cars late on a Thursday night on Lafayette Street, making the sharp left turn onto Wilson, waiting for the garage door to lift and let me into safety and respite.

It was a bunker on the third floor, the place where I watched everything Whedon did, with a dryer that barely dried anything and kitchen glassed in. It was my first apartment with carpet or a dishwasher. It was where Linda and I, exhausted from teaching, taught and retaught each other to make a home wherever we were, and in doing so, baptized a building home.

And now, we call a new place home having lost the one we had. I am a student again in a PhD program at Emory. Our new place has a swimming pool and permanent pine smell and twice the space of our home in Newark. Now, we’re banishing and planting, inking ourselves in the new language of home.