embracing uncertainty

Of late, I have pondered some seemingly diverse issues and common threads have struck a chord. Awareness of this arose whilst seeking inspiration, which I found in a film I had not seen for some years: Pump up the Volume (1990) [wikipedia, imdb]. Many of the issues I have pondered were explored in the film, though share commonality with recent experiences and academic texts I have engaged with. These musings are somewhat of a mash-up…

I sporadically find myself seeking an outlet—usually something creative and/or physical. When I get to the point of seeking/needing to seek I often find myself pondering some of the questions raised in Pump Up the Volume. Having relocated (returned) to a city and country far from ‘home’, I am in an environment without my familiar social networks, a developed knowledge, or sense, of place. The process of gaining these, much like other scenarios, can be an exciting, unnerving and challenging experience—embracing the uncomfortableness in which one is situated, alongside a sense of powerlessness. Their are commonalities with the focus of an academic text I have been reading of late: Ien Ang’s (2001) On not speaking Chinese: living between Asia and the West. [Routledge]

Ien Ang’s work is about the notion of identity in a multicultural society—somewhat autobiographical and academic. My interest is not with the notion of multiculturalism per se, rather the relations embedded with in and the reactions to such notions (for example, multiculturalism has been used as a ‘discursive strategy’ in Australia, seeking to challenge enmeshed, old, ideals predicated on a fear of penetration, destablisation and dislodgement of white Australia from its majoritarian and hegemonic position). My interest lies in how white people themselves have experienced the uncomfortableness, have become unsettled (an interesting double entendre) when they have sought/worked towards change. What I am referring to as change is actions seeking a more socially just society, actions supporting Aboriginal peoples in their struggles for respect and recognition. This uncomfortableness seems to emerge when those involved in such actions find their own outlooks somewhat problematic—a little similar to cognitive dissonance. Not only are they implicated in what they are seeking to redress (often actively, if unintentionally, perpetuating it), but the action required of them in seeking to transcend this puts them in a very uncomfortable situation.

This may not be that clear… Ien Ang uses the example of the rise of Pauline Hanson’s [wikipedia] ‘populist’ comments about Australia being ‘swamped by Asians’ and white Australia feeling they should have a right to decide who is allowed ‘in’ to Australia. These ideas are predicated on protecting/preserving the society they have constructed as ‘their’ own—somewhat ironic as these ‘rights’ they ascribe to themselves are explicitly denied Aboriginal peoples. Ang locates the source of this as an uncomfortableness, of trying to define boundaries based on the past—what one is comfortable with. This is often a romanticised and essentialised construction: one that forgets the negatives. It is this uncomfortableness that locates the common ground between Ang’s example and what I was attempting to articulate. Tied to seeking a shift towards a fair and just society—one that embraces plurality and moves away from the established hegemony—requires a giving up of ‘power over’ (in a Foucaldian sense), being open to a loss of control.

This was the commonality I drew from watching Pump Up the Volume—not necessarily the inspiration I was seeking, yet it has proven fruitful. The uncertainty; the uncomfortableness of the students at Hubert Humphrey High; the resistance of the adults/authority figures to any challenge to the status quo; how the students come to embrace this uncertainty. This is a message I have seen in many academic (and activist) engagements and reflections on seeking to transcend/challenge the ongoing impacts of imperialism/colonialism.

Uncertainty was also something I saw in the faces of students when I visited a University campus during the first week of the new academic year. It was an uncertainty enmeshed with an excitement—a willingness to explore the unknown, to let oneself go and embrace it. I found this somewhat exciting and a part of the appeal of being on a campus.

To try to tie this together, I am trying to embrace my own uncomfortableness with my current situation, my own feeling of powerlessness. I hope that I will always be able to embrace a level of uncomfortableness, to push my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone. A phrase (a cliché?) I reflect on every once in a while—often through seeing it in activists, academics, others—is ‘today’s revolutionaries, tomorrows reformists’. When we get comfortable, we often become (to varying levels) oblivious to issues that matter. Being exposed to them makes us uncomfortable and we shut them out or close ourselves off to them. Preventing ourselves from shutting off, even though a challenge and often resulting in an exposing of ourselves to the challenges of uncomfortableness… It is this dualistic notion (embracing uncomfortableness) that I have drawn from my experiences of late—even when it is not necessarily enjoyable. I hope those who read this can think of at least one example—common to all of us—when we embrace (somewhat forced to?) uncomfortableness and look back at the time(s) with fond memories… a four letter word…

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