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EE #2: The Summation of an Unending Journey

saturday's picture

I’m struggling with the idea of writing an essay for this topic, that being my own personal journey in understanding prison abolition through the process of doing my research project. For me, essays signify an ending, the culmination of research or experience into some tangible thing to be shared and encapsulated. Essays are dead and motionless, past tense, gesturing towards some future but being unable to adapt themselves or represent change. An essay is something that is done and done. Perhaps that’s just how I’ve been taught, though – being critiqued by teachers and professors over the years, stating that there needs to be a thesis or an argument to an essay, that it needs to cement itself and prove itself into a complete thought. Being wishy-washy or undecided didn’t earn you any favor (though I would have preferred to call it open-minded).


I wish I could have pushed back on that a bit growing up – does a thought need to be complete to be worth sharing? It reminds me of a point brought up in class that I’ve heard in countless ways beforehand – that you need to hit a certain milestone in order to be a ‘real person’ and start to do things. Students are told about life in the “real world” as though their life at that moment isn’t real. You can’t write a paper until the research is done, until even a tentative conclusion is reached. The idea of doing while still learning seems so antithetical to what I’ve known during my academic career. You have to pick a side, sometimes arbitrarily, in order to strengthen your argument, but denying the complexity of those thoughts makes it so much weaker.


It’s like trying to bottle a river – a small piece of the contents can be caught and contained but the motion is lost entirely. How do I begin to sum up a journey that I haven’t ended?


The attached picture at the top of this piece is a rather simplistic representation of my different trains of thought in regards to abolition and reform with regard to the PIC. I wanted to represent the different strands of thought in my head without being confined to the linear structure of writing – when I tried to lay these thoughts out chronologically or thematically, it seemed to fall apart. The colors initially signified a place in time for these thoughts, with the yellow strands representing “past” or “pre-research project” and the blues showing “how I feel now” or “where I’ve come”.  But the more I think about these issues the less I am able to classify any of these thoughts as past or present. It still feels as though I am holding various conflicting thoughts within my head, as I complicate my previous assumptions but find myself unable to let go of them entirely. I’ve analyzed the deep divides in ideologies and goals for the two movements but still group them together in my head as halves of the same whole.


The same question cropped up for me with my project itself. I black out one page, then another, a third and a fourth. When do I know when I’m done? I can always add more pages, more sources, more depth and nuance into these questions. How much do I have to create in order to create a whole project when any ending I give it is artificial at best? In the end I’ve decided on a shorter number of pages, as I want each page to be read with an equal amount of care, and to have an equal impact, which might be lessened by having too much to go through. Rather than being an exhaustive process, I wanted to have my main points shine through while being accessible to a “just wandering past” audience, knowing that nothing can express the depths and lengths of my ongoing relationship with these concepts. It’s a struggle (or compromise) between not wanting to misrepresent myself or sell short my efforts, and also being able to let this material part go - at the end of the day there needs to be something to display, and I want it to be the best something possible.


The best I can hope for, with this essay as well as with my poetry, is a snapshot. Something that can capture where I am not in my thinking and creating, while leaving room open for the fact that my ideas and theories will grow and change far after the exhibit is taken down and this paper is submitted. Having that kind of flexibility in an academic setting is surprisingly unsettling, though I hope that when I reach a point where I can draw conclusions that they’ll be all the stronger for the thought put into them. 


jschlosser's picture

I love the image you use here: "It’s like trying to bottle a river – a small piece of the contents can be caught and contained but the motion is lost entirely." I think you exemplify in this essay how the essay need not bottle but can rather chart a course of something -- our thinking self -- still in motion. This is what I was after with the "experimental" part and the idea that one presents and revises -- there's a process there, a process that I find keeps going and going. (As a sidenote, I also think this idea of the essay is truer to its original meaning as an "attempt"; on the etymology of the essay:

You also use the metaphor of the snapshot, which reminds me of photography and how photographers could often capture an ongoing moment that somehow both contained truth and suggested the limits of any single image. I think Walker Evans did this in amazing ways -- and often caught others unaware through the use of a hidden camera.