Beyond What I Knew

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Imagine this: you are working on a complex jigsaw puzzle, placing piece after piece at ease, when you suddenly realize you have absolutely no idea what goes where next. I felt this initial shock when I first reached the third paragraph of a Judith Butler article I was reading for the Telluride Association Summer Program. What on earth is the language of discursive construction? I thought. What does Butler mean by creating a body “ex nihilo from the resources of discourse”? But as much as I analyzed and diagrammed, there was still some gaping hole in the puzzle that prevented me from seeing the larger picture of Butler’s argument. I could go no further alone. Pulling myself out of my seat, I began wandering the halls of the Telluride House for inspiration, when I ran into fellow TASPer Yichao Hao and asked him, “Did you understand this reading?” We sat down, and I handed him my marked-up book.His eyes swiftly roamed over the pages and his lips parted to say, “Yes… she’s describing how language actually acts on a body.” “But what does that actually mean?” I pursued, stuck in my preconceptions. “Is she referring to a physical transformation?” “Sometimes. See, you’re assuming that all actions have to be physical. But really, one way a body can take form is if we address it using language…”As he spoke, I could feel the missing piece sliding into place. It dawned on me that I had been blind all along, blinded by a worldview that was still too narrow. That was why I had such difficulty with the reading – I couldn’t imagine things existing beyond what I already knew. So I dug deeper and deeper with our conversation – past Judith Butler, past cultural norms, and past the status of chastity in Western history. By the time Yichao left my room, the nightstand was blinking 1:00 A.M. I was a sponge in the coming weeks, filling my brain and my notebook quickly with discourse, lessons and thought. As I became more and more of a post-structuralist and as universal truths I once held to be inherent were unmasked to be social constructs, I came to question everything. Suddenly, nothing could be taken for granted – and my world was redefined. I began to use Michel Foucault and Mary Douglas in those precious and endless streams of conversation outside the classroom. Every night, we would wait for one another in a group on the House balcony. And every night, when enough people had congregated, we would launch into anthropology and the possibility of ethnicist undertones in the international development industry; romantic relationships; censorship, specifically China’s technological panopticon in particular; evolutionary reasons for social phenomena; the meaning of life – anything under the sun. No matter how much homework we had, these talks nourished us and I would come back again and again, one day to tell people the merits of social enterprise, another to learn more about anarcho-capitalism than I could swallow in a night. And the learning never stops. Although the program itself has ended, the lessons survive forever. TASP taught me to be skeptical of everything, even something as ubiquitous or “inherent” as gender. By creating such a binary, we leave room to discriminate those who happen to fall through the cracks of intelligibility. The prejudice directed toward transgender people is an example. Only by scrubbing away these binaries can we take a step toward viewing the world in shades of gray – not as black and white, homosexual and heterosexual, male and female, or rich and poor; not as young and old, native and foreign, or convict and innocent, but as people, forever heterogeneous pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that represents our whole world, in harmony.

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