An Improvisational Session with Mikhail Epstein at the University of Rhode Island, Providence Campus
Friday, March 27th, 2003, 2 pm
Sona Aronian (Modern Languages/Russian, University of Rhode Island)
Stephen Barber (English, University of Rhode Island)
Mary Cappello (English, University of Rhode Island)
Mikhail Epstein (Russian-REALC, Emory)
Thomas Epstein (Russian, Boston College)
Dan Novak (Philosophy, Feinstein College of Continuing Education, URI/Providence)
Jean Walton (English, University of Rhode Island)
Selected by Majority:
Duration of writing: 1 hour
Duration of entire session: 3 1/2 hours (2-5:30)
Texts (in the order of readings):
At the Supermarket
Why is the factory conveyor belt called a conveyor belt? It’s not only that it is a flat, long moving surface along which some objects are conveyed from one point in the production line to another, from one worker to another, from worker to some other part of the apparatus. No, it’s called a belt precisely because there is an upper surface and a lower surface to it; because it connects up back to itself, just as the belt worn by a person encircles the waist and then is connected by a buckle. The conveyor belt is also a band that connects back up to itself, without a buckle, so that one surface of it shows above, or on top, and another surface is hidden below; or rather, the entire length of the outer surface of the conveyor belt is presented to the observer by sections, in a continuous flowing motion, as it proceeds across the surface of the plane along which objects are to be conveyed. It goes round and round, exposing every part of its surface by turn, and then renewing itself in the hidden, underneath part of the mechanism, only to re-emerge again. It is this being a loop that gives it the name of belt, not its proportions or its flatness, but its continuity with itself.
A belt (looped back on itself, going round and round, sometimes continuously, sometimes intermittently, as it is stopped and started) conveys these objects placed on it, sections of the belt do their work, carry the load, then are relieved of it. The conveyor belt itself goes nowhere; it only circulates on its prescribed, designated section of the production apparatus, looping up over the top, and looping back underneath again. In the supermarket, to the child, it seems like this belt is endless, that it emerges from a mysterious track it has been following underneath the counter, perhaps underneath the floor, you can’t see what’s underneath there, where does the belt come from? In the supermarket, it moves intermittently, too: someone puts a carton of milk, a bag of kiwis, a can of tomatoes on its tarry, partly glossy, rubbery black surface, then suddenly, the milk, the fruit, the can have jerked up the counter towards the scale, and you don’t realize at first how they’ve moved all by themselves (now a head of lettuce is added, and your Cap’n Crunch cereal) and again the whole surface littered with groceries jerks forward and some new rubbery conveying surface emerges from under the lip of the edge of the counter.
After a while, you figure out it’s the checkout woman, in her green apron, who’s pushing a secret button to make these groceries move towards her so she can pick each one up with one hand, wave it above the metal surface which is the scale, until a beep is heard, while with the other hand, she punches in the price of the item on her cash register. But wait a minute, there is no reason to do this any longer, or not in the case of most of the groceries that go through the checkout today, because that electronic beep is the sound of the item registering its own price through the scanner which has detected its bar code. In my recollection of the grocery store conveyor belt as perceived from a child’s perspective, I superimposed one period of technology over another, had my green-aproned check-out employee waving back and forth the can of tomatoes until the scanner detected its barcode, and simultaneously had her, with her other hand, punching in the price of the can (which she had just read from a sticker on its top surface) on the keys of the cash register, punch, punch, punch, one key for each finger, then with the first hand again reaching for the next item that she has just “conveyed” to herself by pushing the mysterious button that propels the conveyor belt around its path.
If her two hands are occupied (one, in 2003, waving a cereal box over a bar code detector, the other, in 1965, punching keys on a cash register) then with what has she been controlling her conveyor belt? It must be with her foot, she has a peddle down there which she steps on each time the next batch of groceries are a little out of her reach. One hand grasps the items, another punches buttons, her foot stomps on a peddle and incrementally, item by item, all the groceries that were behind you in the cart are now being stowed in plastic, no I’m sorry, in paper bags, and the bags are loaded back into the cart with you for the trip out to the car.
It’s such a short distance, from where the groceries are deposited onto the conveyor belt at one end, to the scale and code detector at the other end; is the conveyor belt really necessary? How much work is it doing? And yet, it is the one aspect of the supermarket check out routine that has been preserved, has remained all these years, from 1965 until 2003, from the Cocoa Puffs of your childhood to the Bran Flakes of your middle age, as though it is the most essential part of purchasing groceries. Certainly, between the two of them, the shopper and the store clerk, they could get those groceries out of the basket, along the counter, and into the bags without the aid of the conveyor belt? Of course they could. So the conveyor belt must have an other than utilitarian purpose.
First: it links up the supermarket as the site of consumption to the factory as the site of production. Even as you are in the process of purchasing the foodstuffs that you are to consume, you are also given the illusion that you are part of a production process as well, indeed, putting your products on that last bit of production line, the conveyor belt, which will convey them directly to your carry-out bags. But more importantly perhaps, each food item itself is given a symbolic little joyride, from one human to another. Each gets its own electric road trip before it is tumbled, willy-nilly, among its fellow commodities. Each is “conveyed”—not carried, not tossed, not handled—but “conveyed” down the final bit of road. The conveyor belt inaugurates it into its status as personally owned possession (soon to be consumed), rather than a ware on public display.
At Monks House, Virginia Woolf's country home in Sussex, I found myself a researcher without a belt. Without cease my hands were occupied with holding up that which my missing belt could not, and that activity made me acutely self-conscious before the many tourists and scholars who brushed inches away from me as they pursued their various interests. For some the belt may suggest the banal, the mundane, the things we don't notice; but for me, on that day, as on all others, its an item of absolute necessity. I remember thinking then, as I do now when writing down this particular memory, of a comment made by Woolf's husband, Leonard, to an interviewer. His wife, he said, could never escape public notice. He offered two possible explanations for the mockery that befell Woolf on her daily city or country walks. The first, that she talked vividly to herself during these walks, as she worked out aloud rhythms for her novel, suggests her extreme unselfconsciousness and the primacy of her art -- its refusal, really, to be sequestered into the private realm of her writing studio. The second explanation suggested a more sinister mockery: his wife had several times been institutionalized because of madness -- those who have been mad, he opined, have it ever inscribed on their faces. It cannot be effaced. But on consideration the first explanation betrays the public as no less motivated by sinister impulses than does the second. In each case Woolf, if her husband is to be trusted, suffered public mockery because she had not, in the words of Prufrock, prepared a face to meet the faces she was meeting.
I had forgotten my belt not out of unselfconsciousness, but rather because even for me it can attain to that sorry status of the banal, the mundane, hence, the forgettable. In my care to pack for my stay in London, the oftentimes embracing strip of leather lay dejected by my bed, and there remained until my return. The trip to Monks House comprised my second day; in other words, I hadn't by then found the opportunity to purchase another belt. Like one who notices one's throat only when it's soar, so my whole body felt noticeable to me because of its belt-less state. The thinness of my body not only seemed, but was, a spectacle to the tourists of Monk's House, as I busied about with hands ever clutched to the top of my pants.
Whenever I return to London I feel myself no longer the spectacle I prove in the U.S. There other men are as slender as this self, and the effeminacy that so often attends thin men knows there no stabilized sexualized referent. The very first time I set foot into an American club my thinness, now a skinniness, bespoke to those I encountered grave illness -- in London a happily inhabitable composition of bones; in the US, a stigma publicly unbearable because of its discomfiting disclosure of, or disavowed metonymical association with, HIV or AIDS.
I first thought "the belt" only when I was without it. It signifies to me the embodied and the national, and, non-analogously, the agent of the spectacle and the object of the spectacle. For Woolf, too, slenderness signified, and in some ways she maintained a vicious set of associations for its opposite: fatness. Indeed, one close friend, Eve, cannot, as it were, stomach Woolf whose fat-phobia is proves too repellant. Woolf describes the fat as the chew-ers, the cognitively lethargic if not dead, and, I'm afraid, as family reproducers, the heterosexual unthinking. But Eve has her own set of inverse associations. She's made uncomfortable by thin women; considers them beset by flakiness; and grudges them the ease with which they move in public.
I've not said a word about the private with respect to the belt: that it suggests at once desire is, I'm sure, a commonplace. So too its association with violence. I can't remain with the second association, and I can't depart from the first. I see the belt as queer. And again I only notice this not by way of queer itself, but by way of its opposite, the decidedly straight (distinguishable, that is, from the heterosexual). How curious a thing it is to see a belt hanging from the body of one who has no such need! Drooping, it hangs heavy with meaning. So too with bow-ties; only those for whom bow-ties are made can sport them. They, too, are queer. It's not style that makes the man; but queer that makes the belt, the bow tie.
The question of necessity and of accessory is a question not to be posed in the vicinity of queer where those two terms are not contradictory but synonymous. Those two explanations offered by Leonard Woolf regarding the mockery that befell his wife on her public outings jar me now. I'm pleased when someone I adore or cherish says of me, Simply to look at you is to know you’re queer; I'm devastated when a member of the "they" finds that corporeal articulation violently in need of shutting up. Woolf's "madness," legible to passers-by, to strangers, proved for her a matter of pride -- the condition, she maintained, for her writing. Leonard's description of her as mad strikes me as at so cognitive a remove from Virginia Woolf's inhabitation of madness as that known by me from the queer conferred upon me by those in the know and that queer conferred upon me by those unthinkingly compelled by the knowledges of ignorance. Woolf talks aloud to herself, establishing monologue, dialogue, rhythm; or, she reads as "mad." Such a difference from the outer and the inner; the seen and the agent.
But like the belt itself, with its associations for me of desire and the violence I have dispelled from these pages, I find the above containing both desire and violence; embrace and exclusion; and my own loving and prejudicial constraints. I let my fingers linger on it, not quite opening it, not quite closing it.
The Tao of the Belt
The Belt who?
The Beltway who?
Ah, good question – who indeed is within the Beltway surrounding Washington!
A tentative table of contents for some serious sidelights on the belt:
THEORY OF THE BELT
THE DHARMA OF THE BELT
THE THEORY OF THE BELT
The theory of the belt, belthood as it were, must at the very least be encompassing but certainly not restrictive. What shall we make of this peculiar instrument of enclosure?
The belt is a sartorial artifact at the juncture of clothes and body, a way of holding the body and shaping clothes to it to create usefulness and beauty. The theory of the cincture. Does Carlyle speak of this useful impediment in his Sartor Resartus? Did humans start with rough skins, robes and cloaks and then only find the need to measure off upper and lower bodily zones? Or does all clothing mensuration orient from the belly-button, the navel? Or does the belt aboriginally help keep our sides from splitting with laughter, nervous or riotous at the cosmic joke or at these leaping pieces of protoplasm as we dance the earth?
In any event, the belt: an encloser, an enclotheser keeping clothes segregated and in array… The belt as technology and, as all technology, meant to be appropriate, to be a good fit. Like all technology the belt, when used rightly, becomes imperceptible, becomes unconscious in its right functioning like a good car, airplane, faster-than-light soft rocket vehicle or a well functioning nano-manufacturing plant. All good devices recede from our attention when they are used correctly and are in good fit. Ostentation or poor fit create attention.
The belt should be a supporter of the diaphram, not its enemy. It should be an ally of the breath and not a constriction of it. The belt can be seen as a Western colonialist clothing implement and regime, but it need not be. A belt may simply be an accouterment of good posture, alignment and a proper bearing or comportment that expresses the harmony of organismic verticality and horizontality. Proper human alignment expresses the resolution of light and gravity and the happy belt helps in that process. It can manifest the “right holding” of the organism, a sattvic quality that medianizes between over expansion versus too-tightness and rigidity.
Earth has its belts: its imaginary lines of longitude and latitude marking off convenient zones and enabling easy and calibratedly sure travel.
Chaos theory and the presence of the Van Allen belt of asteroids tell us that the Newtonian / Sun King model of our immediate solar neighborhood is somewhat oversimplified. Here belts signify the tenuous balances and equilibria amidst ancient collisions and outermost debris perils. Ah, the cost of leaving one’s home and neighborhood!
Belt as symbolic of the father, family rule giver and enforcer. But not all families sing like the violent Sopranos!
SCHOOL : “Saved by the belt!”
Along with lunchbags and pencils belts were part of our school gear and clothing. A new belt for Easter.
Yes, the conveyor belt as symbol of society: all the prescribed ritual paths and predicted outcomes… Hallmark (cards) realities… Plato should have used conveyor belts for the prisoners in his cave of illusion, but he did parade objects (to be shadowed) on a platform… Oh well, he lived before Ford!
There are of course electronic “belts” – bands, electromagnetic frequencies, bandwidths. This is metaphoric of our many channels of choice as sensitive receivers. So, proposition determinative of our world mandala: the amount and kind of life one has “inside” one allows one or opens one to the “corresponding” reality “without.” Nietzsche: “What one sees in another one also inflames in him” (or we might say inspires). The Universe doesn’t lie; it is exquisite…
THE DHARMA OF BELTS
What aspect of Spiritual practice do belts remind us of? Well, again, good fit / good no-consciousness, right posture, alignment and harmony of one’s organism-being. What else? While boundaries can be illusory and manipulated for cruel purposes (as all human artifacts), the importance of limits. Without limits there would be Hegelian “bad infinities” overwhelming, confusing and suffocating boundlessnesses. The apeiron. But limits protect us, mercifully they enable us to appreciate our mortal lives as gifts and each moment as precious. Without the seeming arbitrariness of limits we would have the greatest illusions – omnipotence and immortality. Limits each moment, enable our lives as offerings.
Meteor belt — the earth itself cinctured by flying rocks.
The Belt Parkway — a highway that circumscribes the borough of Queens, New York, a circular road on which I spent many childhood hours inhaling gas fumes in endless traffic jams, looking at my father’s tense face in profile, dreaming of how I would escape enclosures of all kinds: car windscreens, family happiness, language (English and every other), nation — but not yet belts.
How do I feel about belts now? Like most everything else in my world, I’m ambivalent about belts. I’ll admit this much: I like tightening my belt, like the security of cloth against my body, the safety of gathered flesh, the creation of an artificial center in my otherwise mysterious body. But the idea of the belt, of this belt I feel as I sit here in Providence, R.I.: this belt disturbs me. And it’s not only because I was frequently beaten with one in childhood by my stepfather. The belt I have in mind, my belt, seems like a confession of disharmony: without one my pants will fall down, I’ll blush, shudder, and then die, my car won’t operate, the earth will whirl out of orbit. My belt is a cover-up — the cover-up I need to avoid the scandal of Being.
Interestingly, I own only one belt, and it is almost always covered by a sweater. (Ask anyone who knows me: I almost always wear a sweater.) Indeed I own many many sweaters but only one belt. I mean only one belt at a time. In the last twenty-five years I think I have owned only two belts: I wore the last one, which was made of black leather, until the leather frayed, until the fourth hole gaped like a wound (why didn’t it bleed?), until someone — probably my wife — threw it out as I blissfully slept, unaware. I remember briefly mourning that belt — then I went out and bought a new one, also of black leather. I tightened it and went about my new life, which was exactly like the old life, this life that is. As I write this I now realize how important and nurturing, yet simultaneously how destructive, my one belt policy is: my belt, like my name, seems bound up with my identity. Mine is the black belt, tightened at the fourth hole, which is hidden by the sweater I am wearing — the sweater I am always wearing.
The belt holds me together — it keeps me together, out of sight of myself and others under the sweater, all for the sake of propriety (but for whom?) and security. I have the feeling that if I take off, indeed if I loosen, my belt, my guts will spill out. Or I’ll hang myself. I don’t dare take off my belt. I love and fear my belt. I worship my belt. Like many well-behaved Americans I am at my happiest in my car because there I get to wear an additional belt, the glorious seat belt. The word belt is beginning to pinch and asphyxiate me: belt belt belt. Ceinture ceinture ceinture. Remni, remni, remni. It’s not helping. I can’t breathe in my belt. I can’t move in it. To belt someone. I hate this belt. Down with all belts. With belt. There, I’ve said it.
The World Needs To Be Unbelted
There have been no belts in my life. I can look at them and recall their most lurid symbolism: Dicken's poor progeny bent over to their power, wondering how on earth this horror was conceived. Could it first have been a belted being with no room to roam free but to bottom-up a weaker belted being close by? Might it have been earlier a tree bough turned club, striking like Biblical bolts from Heaven, demanding further imitation on earth with every conceivable form and shape available to perverse imagination? But does it matter, where belts came from? Why are they still here? Those helpless to the belt have expanded beyond Dickens' classroom and the private home to the borders of lands where the free of spirit cannot go back and forth. Borders are belts forbidding free passage; leather whips in the hands of the father-creators of ever new empires, demanding the absolute allegiance of silence.
There have been no belts in my life. Unless, of course, my life began before I was born: while my mother, silenced by a non-native tongue from a teaching position, was standing endless hours at a conveyer belt, the legal whip of the New World. She was brought to that factory by those border-belts that denied her presence. True, she had accepted obediance to survive: a promise to marry a Turkish cavalry officer, her first belt of violence. Ah, it was to be my fate: she fled in the secret of the night to a missionary home, in turn, to flee the border-belts within which had stood her home. The flight of her feet did not free her spirit. The oppressive memories were to silence her voice in my presence forever.
Is this why I look at belts just for their color? How many shades of how many colors might enhance a solitary piece of clothing? Will silver, gold, or a wooden buckle be best to match? Yet belts remain hanging in my closet, I do not wear them. There are trousers enough to be belted. My eyes are still drawn to attractive buckles on others, or in shops such as the brilliant blue of the Navajo in Arizona. But my eyes' joy no longer leads my hand to touch them, to buy them. I wonder how the other belts landed in my closet only to languish there. Are pre-birth memories working out their design? Was I destined to say no to belts and borders, to make of them the unnecessary moments of life, since I had no say in their existence, their creation, their use?
There have been no belts in my life. Yet, yes has a much nicer sound than no. Why not take my turn at belt making. I would want them to yield from leather to cloth. The buckle with its tines would in turn yield to sashes and bows. Their home and school functions would be to provide celebrations of accomplishments. Factories would be sitdown spots for a carousel-like movement of conveyer belts offering healthy exercise for up and down arms. Last and in no way least, borders would become official gathering places to celebrate free crossings of food, wine, and blessings. There have been no belts in my life, but still the world itself needs some unbelting.
Belting Out, Belting In
To begin with, if I choose associativeness—as we turn toward our pages, poised to compose, Dan says something about a ring, a boxing ring, and immediately I see another way in which belt manifests: as a boxing title, an indication of a knotch achieved on the ladder of martial arts. As you gain competency, power, strength, expertise, you gain another belt, like a ring to its tree? You gain a differently colored belt, black being the most impenetrable, master of darkness. I suppose my first thoughts then are as follows: what is the significance of the ways that seeing follows announcement, noticing follows utterance, attention follows logos? Hearing the word “belt,” I now see belts everywhere. The world is full of belts. Highways are called “beltways,” belts are bans and bands. Does a belt hold back and therefore ban the belly, or, embracing it, work as a kind of tether to and evocation of appetite? And now I see my mother, belting out a song: full-bodied, unrehearsed, scream? No, gutsy growl. A song that doesn’t heed the music so much as the heart or the need.
So, the first thing I notice is this proliferation of signifieds emerging from such an innocent-seeming signifier. Well, not innocent-seeming in its affiliation with violence, but innocent in its everydayness, the way that it gets to exist without being remarked upon. The second thing I notice is that the associations I announced did not originally include the, for me, obvious image of my father’s belt--his hand on the belt pulling back the tongue—(does a belt have a tongue?), pulling a, I don’t know what to call it, the tooth of the belt forward. I don’t know the names of the parts that make up a belt. Why don’t I? Maybe I should. Given that belts are so ubiquitous, perhaps we should learn to distinguish among them, understand their functions, their parts, their language and therefore not reduce them automatically to the metaphors they yearn to be.
Belts have invoked both mother and father. Is Oedipality to rear its insistent head once again? And “repression”? What shame prevented me from colloquizing “father” in my desire to get to the bottom of belts, to wax poetic about belts, to intellectualize? Hats, I had said at the beginning of the session, took me to belts, but what you have to understand is that my patronymic is “hat”/ “cappello,” the name of the father. I saw my name on my departmental mailbox yesterday and experienced an uncanny estrangement from it laced with the assurance of recognition: “That’s me,” I thought, as I glanced up at the word “Cappello”—“hat”—and believe it or not I also saw the face of my Sicilian grandfather, the ghosts of the dead, looking down on me from the vantage of the different world they inhabit or more precisely the different worlds they inhabited when they lived: could they, would they have imagined their name above a mailbox in the university? (I always joked that my ancestors were mad hatters). I know for sure they were shoemakers, metalworkers, and musicians. (If you make shoes, chances are you’ve at some point also fashioned belts). How did I come to live so far from those who made me? Father sent me away with his belt; I sometimes hold onto my belt as if it’s what holds me to the world; I might in my mind’s eye send the belt back to him, a lifeline, a conveyance.
But to return to the name on the mailbox as a form of phantom recognition. Perhaps my name wouldn’t have figured this way had I not been teaching Stein’s Geographical History of America that morning, chewing together with my students the line, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” “We are we because our father knew us by hitting us, or failed to, or threatening, withdrew.” Stein wanted an I beyond the recognition of her pup, Basket, and beyond the recognition of an audience. An I that did something other than salute, “ay ay.” She wanted a writing I. To live fully in and through the writing eye. Not to be hedged around, not a belted identity. Was there listening involved in the imagining of that writing I? She did listen to Picasso and Cezanne and William James but mostly she spoke without listening. Unlike Dan today who among our circle of essayists explained what Misha had said in a way that was beautifully indicative of having heard, having heard better than I heard. It’s rare to see a peson listen that well.
Here’s something odd: sometimes when I’m shopping for clothes, instead of the size crossing my mind, my name occurs to me. In other words, instead of thinking “it’s size 10 I’m in search of,” “Cappello” comes to mind, as though I’m searching for pants in size “Cappello.” This might be leftover from having worn a uniform in Catholic school, but what’s more intriguing is how the mistake suggests a name IS a size, a measure worth outgrowing.
Ah, belts! Slap, slosh, move, convey, hold, grope, fumble, tighten. In the landscape, a band of trees; the roses convey their scent; I hold my breath; the moon is tightening; drops move along a branch like so many packages, uniform and successive. As though time is belted round, slowed, it is its own dimension, and we move in spite of it, companions in a presumably expanding universe. Yoked one to the other, or provoked, one by the other?
I liked the concept in Italian—the word “ne”: our Sicilian teacher had explained it was a necessary but meaningless utterance. Is a belt necessary but meaningless? I don’t think so: it holds up rather than lets one lie down, drop down, drop one’s pants. It seems to insist on verticality. It secures; it’s a ring around Saturnalian waists, wastelands? Ring of light, a band of pain? Lasso?
A utility belt enables me to strap my tools to my body. As a woman I presumably have no tools and therefore don’t require a belt.
It’s true I’d probably prefer to go beltless, to drop down as in a dance, to master the ground, not in the way that bombs drop or parachutes. I would like to be wearing shoes as I fall—I like the smell of leather and the feel of my foot tenderly grasped. I like to buy shoes that resemble those of my Sicilian grandfather (a quiet man who often seemed to be studying his shoes and whose squared toed shoes spoke a language I longed to know) or of a brand recommended by grandfather Petracca: his name meant “the cornerstone in an arch.” A belt accents and accentuates. Could we be released from even as we choose what we ban or bundle?