Rubbish, trees, and a new place by Ramón E. Soto-Crespo

Ramón E. Soto-Crespo is an associate professor of English. 

Fall is my favorite season and today I discovered myself reading trees. This habit is new, it grew out of necessity for getting acquainted with my new surroundings. During the past decade I lived in a downtown loft apartment in the midst of a concrete jungle, where buses, cars, parking lots were numerous, but trees were not. These past couple of months, I have acquired greater appreciation for the ecology of my surroundings and enjoy looking at the mature trees on Church Street. Everyday we have visitors: cardinals, rabbits, squirrels, and the occasional garden snake. They are all part of a new place, a new habitat.

I am not only reading trees, but also enjoying reading rubbish. I don’t mean nature as rubbish, nor do I mean that I go around inspecting people’s bins on garbage day. I am referring to rubbish theory of the 1970s. For the past few years I have been reading Anglophone Caribbean postwar trash fiction, hundreds of pulp novels, from Christopher Nicole’s Caribee (1974) to Richard Tressillian’s Bloodheart (1986), wherein I have discovered a neglected literary world of historical novels that resemble the debris of rubbish and seaweed found in a Sargasso sea. My interest in this literary archive led me to what I am reading today: rubbish theory from the 70s and 80s.

Purity and Danger by Mary DouglasAt the moment, I am devouring Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1970), Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (1979), and Jonathan Culler’s “Junk and Rubbish” (1985). All oldies, but good oldies.

Douglas’s dictum that “where there is dirt there is system” (2) offers a perspectival shift on how to reinterpret those things that are out of place. Her book is peppered with wonderful insights about the role of purity in Western culture and with examples of sexual practices that come across as dirty precisely because they are out of place. If sex sells, disturbing sex is a bonanza. Her theory is a wonderful heap of anomalies.

Rubbish Theory by Michael ThompsonThompson introduces a conceptual framework that places rubbish in a prominent place. Rubbish is for Thompson an object in limbo, that is to say, in-between the categories of transient or durable. We make this judgment call everyday when—without hesitation—we place some objects in a trash can and others in storage bins. Rubbish is the category for those objects that are in limbo: they have acquired a sentimental value that exceeds any use value that they once possessed and, as a result, they are kept. For example, souvenirs from our trips abroad, or prizes won in a county fair. Rubbish could eventually become trash or acquire immense collectible value. Often they become our most precious items precisely because their value cannot be assessed in economic terms.

Culler’s review of these theories is wonderful and he warns us: “the charm of rubbish” is that it is “really more important than most people think.” Culler’s essay puts rubbish theory in perspective as he describes books that had become rubbish to contemporary theorists until the new interest in waste and debt made us aware of them once again.

“Contemporary theories of trash are great, but rubbish theory from the 70s is even better!” I keep saying to myself, as I read and write to my heart’s content. However, the other day, I found myself aware that I had created a routine. I would read and write on rubbish until 4 o’clock and then go for a late afternoon walk where, without knowing, I have been reading trees. I have been inspecting the reddish, yellowish, bright orange colors of the fall foliage and I can see now the crevices in trunks and branches where squirrels live and hide. A whole new perspective opened when the trees became naked, revealing a busy habitat that had been out of sight until now.

Finite Perfection by Michael WeinsteinI remembered a quote by Emerson that my recently deceased dissertation advisor, Michael A. Weinstein, taught me: “Most persons do not see the sun.” At that moment, I became aware of two things of a personal nature. My reading of trees is actually looking at trees in a new light. Michael’s death had made me sensitive to the writers that he loved: William James, Emerson, Thoreau, Santayana, and Dewey. His passing had reawakened memories of our walks and conversations. At the same time, I became aware of something else, that where others had failed to see me, he had seen me. My eternal gratitude for this profound gesture was to see the world anew, to see what he loved, to value what others had deemed rubbish.

Emerson wrote: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” I see today that the fall colors are brighter, the air cooler, and the trees livelier.

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What I’m Reading by Jane Kanter

Jane Kanter is an undergraduate at UIUC, currently spending her junior year in Senegal.

The Transformation of American Agriculture I am an all-opportunity reader—I enjoy nonfiction as well as novels, and layman’s science books as well as history. I’m a Global Studies major, with interest in sustainable agriculture and agricultural policy, so I read a fair amount on agriculture and social studies of agriculture for my classes and research. Currently, I’m in the process of organizing the library at Agrecol Afrique, the NGO where I’m doing an internship. It’s mostly agricultural manuals and books on organic agriculture and management of NGOs—sadly, a lot of it’s in English, which most of the other employees aren’t fluent in, so it’s of limited use. Putting it in order allows me to do a bit of skimming of titles and figure out what might be useful for my research as well.

L’Etranger by Albert CamusI received a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas a few years back, a welcome present for a traveler who reads quickly and often. This year especially, when every ounce must count for my travels, I was glad to be able to bring a lot of books without filling a suitcase. I’ve loaded it with a good blend of literature, nonfiction, and a bit of paperback-type sci-fi as well.

I’m spread out between several books right now—I prefer to juggle between a few different topics rather than commit to one. Currently in-progress on my Kindle are the French edition of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger), Madhu Vishwanathan’s Subsistence Marketplaces (the textbook for an online course which I ended up dropping, but I’ve found very educational, living in the midst of such economies), the Bible (which I’m marching through as an exercise in education about my The Holy Bibleown culture), The Transformation of American Agriculture (a book on the general state of corn and farm policy in the US right now) and a novel.

For October, I thought it would be good to find a horror novel or ghost story to read. Though I am long fan of horror, ghost stories, and tales of monsters (much to my parents’ chagrin, as I frequently bit off more than I could chew and had nightmares), I have a lot of trouble with it as a genre, which tends to be dominated by male characters and writers, not to mention rather sexist or misogynistic tropes. After doing a bit of research via Goodreads and some reading blogs, I settled on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. I’m very glad I did, as even though I’m only halfway through it, I’m sure it’s going to become a favorite of mine.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin KiernanThe Drowning Girl is a very unconventional narrative, told by Imp, a young schizophrenic artist, through notes on her typewriter that she insists she is writing down only for herself. I appreciate that unlike in many stories, Imp’s mental illness is not revealed as a mark of her unreliability at the climax (indeed, she states it outright in the first chapter), or romanticized, or demonized – it simply is, as a way of showing how she interprets the world and the events around her. She weaves a rich web of stories about family struggles with mental illness, mermaids, fairy tales, and art – the title is a reference to a painting that the narrator is obsessed with. And as to my earlier complaint about gender in horror, the story is wholly female-driven (Imp was raised by her mother, aunts, and grandmother, and her partner is a transsexual woman), and all in all it’s a very wonderful addition to the genre.

So there you have it. Ghosts, farming, French, and spirituality – the reading list of a young person figuring things out.

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Judith Pintar’s Reading List: Interactive Fiction

Judith Pintar is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and a faculty affiliate with the Illinois Informatics Institute.

When people hear that I am teaching a course on the writing and programming of Interactive Fiction (IF), if they have an association with the term, they will invariably mention Zork, the most famous game released by the 1980s software pioneer Infocom. Despite the company’s dramatic fall, which heralded the death of commercially successful text adventure games, IF never actually went away; it merely shifted sideways and continued evolving within a non-commercial literary commons.

Recently I’ve been reading short works of IF, and I have been intrigued by those that set their narratives in single locations. Early text adventures typically sprawled, often requiring players to map the world on a piece of paper while their character wandered through twisty underground passages, solving arcane puzzles involving unlikely feats of engineering and a desperate need for light. Contemporary IF writers defy conventions of content, structure, style and narrative, revising (sometimes reprising) old tropes, and stretching the genre in new and unexpected directions. In single location games, because the player doesn’t move through an external map, interior spaces—relationships, conversations, histories, memories, and nightmares—drive the narratives instead.

Galatea by Emily ShortGalatea (2000) by Emily Short, is a work recognized for it multi-linearity and the complexity of its character development. The story takes place in an art gallery, where we find an installation of a statue with its back turned to us. We discover that it – she – can speak, and that she is, more or less, a living woman. Depending on what we choose to ask her about her existence, her sculptor Pygmalion, and how it was that she came to life, we elicit her memories, thoughts, and complicated emotions. How the story ends depends on the particular thread of the conversation and the kind of relationship that we have developed with Galatea as a result.

>ask about waking

“What was it like, waking up?” you ask.

She turns—not her whole body, just her head, so that you can see one ear behind the cascade of hair. “It was night. I had been able to hear, and see, for a long time—it was the talking, or the pain of being carved, that made me aware, I think.

“But one night—he slept in a corner of the studio—I heard him screaming in his sleep. More loudly than usual. And I forgot that I couldn’t move, and I just stepped down and woke him.”

Short is a co-author of the programming language and game development system, Inform 7, in which Galatea was written. She extended the capacities of the language to make conversations with the character Galatea more natural. She has taken it on as an ongoing programming mission to help IF writers give their non-player-characters (NPCs) the appearance of agency, so they feel as “real” as the character whose actions the player directs—both constrained inside the narrative structure, of course, but with preferences, resistances, and desires.

Shade by Andrew PlotkinIn contrast to the conversational complexity that is central to Galatea, Andrew Plotkin’s work, Shade (2000) is all about mood. Plotkin, like Short, has made many technical and creative contributions to the IF Commons. Shade begins in the player’s own apartment as we are getting ready to go to a Burning Man-type desert festival, nervously packing as we wait for our taxi to arrive. There is no other character in Shade other than the player. Available actions are all familiar and banal: reading a to-do list, vacuuming the carpet, watering a house plant. Anomalous and initially inexplicable changes in the apartment confuse, and then disturb, and then frighten us. We find ourselves moving towards an inexorable ending that we finally comprehend, but can’t avert. Plotkin manages in this simple story to make us question our facile presumption that Interactive Fiction must be a game that can be won.

Lime Ergot by Caleb WilsonAnother single location short work that I like a lot is Caleb Wilson’s Lime Ergot, (2014). This narrative gains its depth through time rather than space. The puzzles are all about attention to detail. The plot emerges through the triggering of the player-character’s memories, and through opaque revelations about the history that led us to be left behind on the fictional island of St. Stellio in the company of a terrifying eighty year old woman in a wheelchair, a former General with a murderous past. There are two endings to the story which are not exactly two different outcomes but, rather, two interpretations of what our player-character has been experiencing on this strange island.

Wilson, like many writers of IF, is an active and long-standing participant in the online IF community. Many of his games, as well as games by Short and Plotkin, were written for annual game-writing contests, sometimes under pseudonyms. The point of these ubiquitous contests is less about competition, and more about inspiring the game-writing community as a whole to write and write and write, and to read each other’s work.

There is no denying that the non-commercial nature of contemporary Interactive Fiction has narrowed its audience. But consider: poetry readings can be small affairs, attended mainly by other poets. That fact would never be taken as a judgment on the quality of the work presented. Nor would anyone be surprised if non-poets in the audience, after arriving home from a reading, are moved to try their hand at poetry-writing themselves. Interactive Fiction is just like that. You’ll see.

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The Cookbook Project by Melissa Edwards

Melissa Edwards is Director of Research Communications in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

There are many joys of living in a college town, not the least of which is easy access to specialty grocery stores that serve the needs of a community that includes people from nearly every country in the world.

What does that have to do with reading?

For those of us who love to read cookbooks, it means that inspiration has a real chance to become reality.

It also means that you can pick up some galangal or a bit of chapati flour or a bag of masa harina on the way home from work. And that means, in theory, anyway, that you can whip up some flavors in your central Illinois kitchen that have no business being there, beyond curiosity and a taste for adventure.

Earlier in the year, I decided to press that proximity into the service of my palate. A good ethnic grocer, an abundant garden, a friendship or two with international colleagues with exquisite taste in food, et voilà! A project was born.

As I considered where to go with this idea, I came up with a few parameters:

  1. Once a month, I’d whip up a feast with the cuisine of a different country.
  2. I would only use cookbooks that I could get at my local public library.
  3. I would incorporate locally sourced products—even if those products originated halfway around the world. If I could incorporate some things from my own garden, I got bonus points.
  4. I would try my best to move beyond tacos and lasagnas and pad thais.

Gran Cocina LatinaSo, in January, I started in Mexico. The library had several books to chose from, including the gloriously comprehensive Gran Cocina Latina. At nearly 1,000 pages the book is as comprehensive a look as you could hope to get at Latin American cuisine. I cooked up a feast! February was India, March was Morocco and again, the library delivered with Madhur Jaffrey’s From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail and the lovely Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes from the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora.

But then April hit. I’m involved in a charity that does work in Tanzania, so I thought I’d give Tanzanian cuisine a try. Perhaps not surprisingly, the library didn’t have anything on the shelf, so I requested the only cookbook available through interlibrary loan. (It was terrible, so I revisited India.) As the months went by, I traveled to Cuba and Greece, enjoyed Thai on the 4th of July, and in August sorted through five library shelves of cookbooks to select something for Italian night.

Morocco by Jeff KoehlerWhat started as a fun little hobby has evolved into a fascinating exploration of culture, history, science, conquest, immigration, and, of course, cooking techniques. Perhaps even more interestingly, though, are the questions it raises about access – to information, to food, to exotic ingredients, even to dreams.

Why do you cook the way you cook? Why do you read what you read? Why are there dozens of Italian cookbooks in my local library, but only one lonely book about Peru?

I understand that I could very easily just order things up from Amazon – and in fact, I often do that. But as I’m approaching the end of my cookbook project, I realize that it hasn’t been an international cooking project at all. It’s been about global context for an authentically local experience and exploring the fullness of what’s possible here in my own part of the world.

Or perhaps it’s even simpler than that. When I described my project to my mom, her response was so beautifully, authentically her that I giggled for hours:

“My favorite country to eat from is Candyland.”

Mine too, Mom. Mine too.

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What I’m Reading by Doug Beck

Doug Beck is a professor of physics.

ReadingMatters_AdelmanI’ve recently finished a couple of books—a biography of Albert Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher, by Jeremy Adelman and The Birth of a Theorem by Cédric Villani.  Hirschman was a developmental economist and thinker whose path took him from Weimar Germany, to education in Paris and London, to the Spanish civil war, to the resistance in Marseille, to the U.S. and the Marshall Plan State Department.  Repelled by Senator McCarthy, he moved to the ground in Columbia, only returning to the U.S. later in his career to eventually lead the nascent social science program at the IAS in Princeton.  His life was nothing if not remarkable.  Cédric Villani is a winner of the Fields Medal in mathematics—his idiosyncrasy is on display as he describes the halting, sometimes almost
painful, but ultimately exhilarating extraction of a kernel from nature.  (I don’t understand the excerpts from his papers either.)  Currently, it’s on to American Pastoral by Philip Roth and then to the new biography of Frank Gehry—I’m always interested in the emergence of ideas and the way they are expressed.


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What are you reading right now by Will Mitchell

Will Mitchell is an Information Technology Specialist in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

What are you reading right now?
Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 4.12.27 PMThere are two articles that I’ve read recently that I would like to share: “LeBron James pledges up to $42M for Akron kids to go to college” written by Benjamin Snyder and, “Report: LeBron expanding program to help adults get GEDs” written by David Kenyon.

Benjamin Snyder’s article discusses how Lebron James has pledged to pay tuition for all students to attend the University of Akron who have successfully completed his “I Promise” program and graduated from the Akron public high school system.  The details of who qualifies for the scholarships is still being determined; nonetheless, this is a very encouraging program considering that without it, many of the students may not have had an opportunity to attend a university at all.

David Kenyon’s article speaks on another way Lebron James is attempting to help families from Akron’s inner city.  For those parents of children enrolled in Lebron’s foundation’s scholarship program that do not have High School Diplomas, those parents are eligible for financial support in pursuit of a GED.  This financial support includes paid practice and official tests, free bus passes and parking to attend classes and, access to an HP laptop that the parents can keep if they complete the classes.  I think this is great!

If it’s a book, are you reading it on a device or between hard covers? Which do you prefer and why?

I prefer reading on my computer or phone.  The reasons being are that these devices allow me to have a numerous reading materials in one location (either my phone or computer) and, to perform internet searches for additional information on the topic that I am reading.

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Laurie Matheson: Nothing like a good mystery

Laurie Matheson is the Director of the University of Illinois Press.

Heat Wave by Eric KlinenbergAs a publishing professional much of my time is devoted to reading and assessing the qualities of a piece of writing. Is it persuasive, compelling, intriguing? Is it well constructed, free of mechanical errors, graceful? Is it loose or tight? Formal or conversational? Analytic or descriptive? All of these factor in to the success of a piece. But if I had to drill down to the one element that makes me want to keep reading, it’s whether there’s a central knot the narrative is progressively untying, a problem whose resolution is uncovered layer by layer.

Perhaps the importance I ascribe to this quality comes from my first job in publishing, as an editorial assistant to Susanne Kirk, the editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons who handled mystery novels. Susanne’s work with authors was like the work my acquisitions colleagues and I do with our authors, in providing authors with a critical perspective that can step back from the work and suggest alternate ways of structuring arguments, rebalancing the narrative elements to foreground the essential and allow the secondary to recede, try to pull the storyline forward and hang the details on the central structure. But since Susanne Collapse by Jared Diamondwas working with fiction writers, sometimes she would actually suggest a different twist to the plot or even a different ending. Her marvelous eye for character, as well as a sly sense of humor, marked the novels she chose to publish.

Scholarly books don’t necessarily prioritize those elements, but one lesson they can take from mystery novels is pacing, and building the narrative around a central compelling enigma. For instance, Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago dissects the social, political, and institutional factors that made a week of sweltering conditions in 1995 disproportionately deadly. Like Heat Wave, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed explores the choices various civilizations have made, ways they have elected or declined to adapt, sometimes with cataclysmic results. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate SummerscaleBoth of these derive their power from a central burning question, from expert pacing, and from a sense of foreboding, as each ill-fated decision, each confluence of decisive events comes into view at the perfect moment. Kate Summersdale’s marvelous The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, which weaves together a true crime, the dawn of the detective novel, and the historical emergence of the private detective figure, similarly pulls the reader inexorably forward, making us want to find out the end of the story. Historians, musicologists, and others take note: there’s nothing like a good mystery to keep a reader turning the pages.

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What I’m reading By Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson is the Director of the Institute for Genomic Biology.

Honeydew by Edith PearlmanI recently finished The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It’s a provocative mix of biology, social psychology, politics and religion that helps me better see some of the contours of what a new synthesis of the life and social sciences to explain human behavior might look like. I’m currently enjoying Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, a wonderful collection of short stories by a master of the form. I am so impressed by her ability to render vivid characters and provoke strong emotional responses with so few words. My own genre is the scientific paper, so I very much admire her brevity—but I can only hope to communicate a new discovery with the force that she communicates a new insight.

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Mark Ballard’s Vacation Reading List

Mark Ballard is the President of BankChampaign.; he writes about investments at Mark’s Investment Blog.

Most of the time I have to read boring economic reports and forecasts, financial statements from the 200+ companies I follow for our clients, and regulatory guidance from the Comptroller of the Currency. So when I go on vacation, I like to find books that are as far removed from these financial publications as possible.

Vacation reading is always for pleasure. Whether its crime novels from Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, fantasy books in the Game of Thrones genre, or comedic novels like Matt Ruff’s Fool On The Hill or his Sewer, Gas and Electric, I just roll wherever my mood leads me.

Skink - No Surrender by Carl HiassenThis vacation, I rented a house on the southern coast of Portugal with a group of friends. Lots of pool, beach and boat time allowed me to indulge myself in one of my all-time favorite writers Carl Hiaasen. On this particular trip I read five of the seven books in his Skink series.

Skink you ask?

The books in order are: Double Whammy, Native Tongue, Stormy Weather, Sick Puppy, Skinny Dip, Star Island, and Skink – No Surrender. Each one has a separate storyline that can only be described as comedic crime novel. The main characters in each novel are different, but each has a set of minor characters that are tangential to but also critical to the resolution of the plot. The central minor character is a man called Skink (but also occasionally called Governor and/or Captain).

Double Whammy by Carl HiassenSkink is the assumed persona of Clinton Tyree, ex-governor of Florida from the 1970’s, who has gone off the deep-end and now resides in the wilderness of Southern Florida, whether it be the Everglades or in the swampy areas of the Florida Keyes.

The novels all include eccentric native Floridians and their interactions with transplants from the North. Skink’s sole mission in life is to try to preserve as much of undeveloped Florida as he can. While Governor, he tried to pass legislation that would freeze all development, cut back on tourism and protect what remains of the native landscape. Naturally, he ran afoul of special interests, politicians, developers, and bankers (we always get a bad rap, eh?) who joined forces to fight his efforts. One day he snapped, left the capital, and ended his term in office by having his personal body guard, Jim Tile (who is in the present books as a Florida State Trooper, marginalized by being one of the few African Americans in that career), drive him into the sunset.

Stormy Weather by Carl HiassenLiving in the wilderness, Skink is described by Hiaasen as tall, muscular, deeply tanned with long silver hair with a glass eye that is somewhat larger than his normal eye and crimson in color. Many of the female lead characters in the series are attracted to him despite his antics (eating road kill, shooting at tourist busses, and tormenting all sorts of developers who try to pave over what is left of Florida’s undeveloped land).

Skink is generally involved in resolution of the central crime of the novel and somehow always manages to fade back into the wilderness after he saves the day and the environment. Much of the time, his immense collection of books (which are stored in junker cars abandoned in the marshlands), many of which are first editions, come somehow into play as does his love of 1960’s and 1970’s classic rock music.

If you are looking for a new read that doesn’t tax your mind too much but that does provide some laughs and leaves you curious about what happens next to Skink and Jim Tile, I can definitely recommend these Carl Hiaasen books as an enjoyable way to spend a vacation or just some down time here at home.

–Mark Ballard

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Solitary Readings About Being Single After Obergefell by Martin Manalansan

Martin Manalansan is a professor of Asian American Studies and Anthropology.

Reading is a source of solitary pleasure for me because it conjures the magic of words and worlds. However these days, I am ashamed to say that most of my readings do not involve the pile of tomes by my side table in the bedroom. Earlier this year, I planned to peruse this stack of about a dozen books of fiction (with titles like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Mundo Cruel by Luis Negron) every night before going to sleep. I had hoped that these materials would give me an escape from the mundane and pave the way to a restful sleep in the midst of the summer heat. Alas, these plans were not meant to be. Hopefully, these books find their way to my hands, heart and head some other day. Instead of escaping, my reading habits at present emplace me on the terra firma of blunt-edged quotidian realities.

Since May, I have been reading what I NEED to read to finish my second book manuscript about undocumented queer immigrants living in dire circumstances or what most would perceive as lonely lives of desperation. Recently, some of my work-related perusings have unexpectedly found their way into a more personal space. While I initially steeled myself to suffering through months of examining turgid social science documents on immigration, things changed on the fateful day of June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court decided on the Obergefell v. Hodges case or what is now known as the gay marriage case. In writing the majority opinion and referring to the gay and lesbian petitioners, Justice Anthony Kennedy offered these final lines:

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions…”

In one swoop, Justice Kennedy gathered together the unmarried, the unattached and the uncoupled then sequestered them in the prison house of despair and forlornness, unfulfilled, and not quite civilized or mature. I was aghast at his words originally written to exalt the gay and lesbian petitioners but unwittingly casting aside populations who fall outside the ideals and institutions of marriage and family. I could only go back to my work – fuming.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric KlinenbergThis historic event happened while I was plodding through two sociology trade books, Richard Sennett’s book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation and Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Both books grapple with the slow diminution and weakening of tribalism, collective ties and sociality in the modern world. Klinenberg, in particular, examines the increasing prevalence of people living alone in many parts of the United States. I was reading these books to understand the predicament of the people I was writing about – undocumented, immigrant, working class and queer individuals who were, at least in the time of my fieldwork were single or unattached in the legal and vernacular sense. They are in Klinenberg’s term, “singletons” who by choice or circumstance have found themselves without links to a significant other by love, marriage, and/or blood. To put it another way, these people were not in companionate forms of life.

Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled by Michael CobbIn reflecting further about these issues, I turned to Michael Cobb, a literary scholar from the University of Toronto, and his book Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled. Cobb meticulously maps and trenchantly critiques the world that has been tailor-made for the coupled and the partnered. While these three authors would all agree that being uncoupled or a singleton is in fact the New Normal, it is still considered as peculiar if not anomalous.   Cobb explains, “Part of the reason being single is terrible is that it’s been made into a mystifying condition, marked by failure, characterized by an almost unassimilable oddity despite its always threatening ubiquity.”

Cobb’s words reverberate with the cacophony brought about by the riotous celebration of gay marriage and its accouterments including rituals, costumes and the cake, oh yes…the cake! While the SCOTUS decision is widely considered as a watershed moment that opened up opportunities for queer singletons to enter into the binds and bonds of marriage, it is also enmeshed in many messy contradictions and tensions. At one party I attended last month, a gay man likened being single today as akin to wearing bell bottomed pants and hippie love beads (outside of Halloween, devoid of irony, camp, or any conscious intentions of going retro). Singlehood has become an anachrony for queers– a casualty of some temporal glitch. To be single in the post-Obergefell era is to fall into and be swallowed by the deep muddled quagmire of the partnered and the companioned as well as being forced to confront the stepped-up derision of the singleton, the soloist, and the unattached. The gay marriage decision is now being used to shame and bully the queer uncoupled and further buttress a world utterly devoted to the attached, the companioned and the married.

I can only think of our own campus as a prime example where the attractions used to lure many job candidates are amenities such as spousal hires, good elementary and high schools, and family style dwellings among others. I arrived at UIUC in 1999 which was a time when departmental and university phone directories would list staff and faculty with their respective spouses names in parenthesis. As a progressive campus, these names would include common law and same sex partners. However, such enticements and amenities for potential “tribal” members of our community were part of larger structural and emotional energies that propelled me out of my huge furnished apartment in Urbana to a smaller one bedroom in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. My reason for leaving is not because Chicago is more progressive or better than Urbana-Champaign since all these places consistently promote a valorized image of couples and families. I left because Chicago’s density allowed me to feel less alienated as a single gay man of color. To be in a throng of strangers in the city is more comforting to someone like me than the warm bucolic fictions of togetherness. I am perceived by other people to be less collegial, more aloof, and quite disaffected, and further imagined as someone either living a reckless debauched existence, an over-extended youth, or wallowing in mournful pitiful loneliness. None of it is accurate.

After reading Cobb’s work and many others, what remains to be true for the uncoupled in Gay Marriage America is that to be a singleton does not mean one is lonely, immoral, immature or pathetic. To be unmarried or uncoupled is not a prison sentence (sorry, Justice Kennedy). To be alone is not about failure or the lack of possibilities but rather about opening up a rich trove of options and alternatives. Finally, being alone is a dignified mode of survival and a necessary form of life.

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