Useless* and Useful

*for/to capitalism

  • recognition and acceptance of limits
  • willingness to be wrong (and admit it)
  • willingness to accept being bad at things (and to enjoy them anyway)
  • motivated by goals other than “excellence” and mastery and success
  • only sometimes interested in progress
  • not taking self too seriously
  • unconcerned about being better/the best
  • not an expert
  • a dabbler
  • dilettante
  • jack of all trades, master of none
  • an abecedarian (beginner)
  • outside or on the edge or fringes of capitalist logics
  • striving to practice humility
  • not useful to capitalism
  • unable or unwilling to repeat norms properly
  • also: difficult, outdated, no-longer-new
A Daily Reminder / Sara Lynne Puotinen

H ow does it feel to face your limits, when you’re
U nable to continue ignoring that
M any others will always be faster, stronger,
I n better shape,
L ive longer,
I magine wider, deeper?
T his is not a tragedy.
Y our liberation is found in this realization.

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity / Sara Lynne Puotinen

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

It’s not the humidity, it’s the heat.

It’s not the heat, it’s the atmospheric moisture.

It’s not the warm temperatures, it’s the moisture in the air.

It’s not the warm temperature, it’s the moisture in the air and in your hair, on your skin, in-between your toes, on the back of your neck. And it’s the stickiness between your fingers as you rub them together, trying to keep your hands relaxed. And it’s the fibers from the cottonwood seeds, the catkins, that fly into your eye or your mouth or get stuck in the sweat on your face.

It is the heat and the humidity and the effects of both on your body as you run:
the increased sweat,
the depletion of electrolytes,
the flagging energy,
the dehydration,
the pumping of blood to the skin and not to your heart or your muscles,
the sweat that can’t evaporate to cool your body,
the elevated heart rate.

It’s not the heat or the humidity it’s the dew point, which is the temperature at which water condenses. The closer the dew point is to the temp in the air, the longer the sweat will stay in your hair because the air is too saturated and your sweat can’t evaporate, which is how your body cools you down.

But, here’s the problem:
Today, as I slogged through my run, struggling to stay upright for 60 minutes, the heat wasn’t too bad, only 74—still high, but it could have been more. The humidity was a mere 37 percent. And the dew point? Only 45! The chart that I found online didn’t even bother describing a dew point so low. It started with 50-54, marking that as very comfortable running conditions. Very comfortable?!

So it’s not the heat, not the humidity, not the dew point? Could it be me? Maybe. But, today’s run was no failure of will; it was a test of fortitude. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t fly or breathe in the world or even run the entire time. But I kept moving, accepting, and not resisting, my limits.

It’s not defeat, it’s humility.

you are nobody to the trees

You are facing a mountain, walking among great trees, and you think: they are just there. They are there, they didn’t expect me, they were always there. They were there long before me and they will still be there long after me (Gros, 82-83).

You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind.

Philosophy of Walking/Gros
humility is the prize of the leaf-world

Understand from the first this certainty. Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive–that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.

Upstream/ Mary Oliver
be difficult and useless for capitalism

To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship (Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing).

The Useless Tree

The story is about a carpenter who sees a tree of impressive size and age. But the carpenter passes it right by, declaring it a “worthless tree” that has only gotten to be this old because its gnarled branches would not be good for timber. “Are you comparing me with those useful trees?” The tree points out to him that fruit trees and timber trees are regularly ravaged. Meanwhile, uselessness has been this tree’s strategy: “This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever habe grown this large?” The tree balks at the distinction between usefulness and worth, made by a man who only sees trees as potential timber: “What’s the point of this–things condemning things? You a worthless man about to die–how do you know I’m a worthless tree?” … This formulation–the usefulness of uselessness–is typical of Zhuang Zhou…it’s an observation of a social world that is…defined by hypocrisy, ignorance, and illogic. In a society like that, a man attempting a humble and ethical life would certainly appear “backward”: for him, good would be bad, up would be down, productivity would be destructive, and indeed, uselessness would be useful.

How to Do Nothing/ Jenny Odell
Where the amateur is celebrated and beauty is never slicked up

I find delight (reading Ross Gay’s wonderful, The Book of Delights, I’m trying to be better about claiming my own quirky delights) in this mannequin and her continued (and improbable) presence at the State Fair in a space barely touched by progress where the amateur is celebrated and beauty is never slicked up. Every year, walking into the creative activities building and seeing these cracked, faded, weathered mannequins still adorned in handmade hats and coats and scarves and sweaters, looking creepy and odd, I am delighted–and not in an ironic, hipster way. Here, the ugly and old and outdated have a space. I think I’m almost able to articulate this delight, but not quite. I’ll keep working at it. Something about how these mannequins represent resistance to the relentless need (by capitalism) to constantly change things to make them better! and newer! and prettier! and, in doing so, erase/remove/destroy those things which don’t fit their vision of better/newer/prettier. I love things that are ugly and overlooked and unsettling.

from Evidence of Teaching…Exuberance

In order to embody the feminist pedagogical principle of de-centering myself as the Authority, I worked to participate with my students in confronting, negotiating, and processing new ideas and authors. One way in which I participated was by frequently choosing readings that were new to me and that I had never read before and reading them alongside of my students. In participating with my students by reading texts for the first time, I was able to experience, even if it was to much lesser degree, the excitement, scariness, wonder, and discomfort of new ideas along with them. 

to be of use

?: Do you think that poetry possesses genuine power?

Jericho Brown: Yeah, I do. The way I think about poetry, is sometimes I get concerned, because I find that other poets don’t feel this way. But the way I think about poetry is the way I think about my car, or my microwave, or bread. And I feel like poetry has use in my physical body. And in my spirit, in my mental being, I feel like poetry does work. The trouble is, and this is part of the reason why poetry is invaluable. You can’t put you can’t put a price tag on it the same way you can put a price tag on a microwave, or a TV, or the car, or the bread, you know? You don’t know what poetry is doing when it’s doing the work it does. Like you know why you’re eating bread and you actually know the result of having eaten bread, you know exactly why your microwave is in the house, you know what it’s supposed to do. You know, if you read enough poems, over time that those poems are doing work on your soul, but you don’t get to know. You don’t get to know how to name that. You don’t even get to know that it has happened when you read a poem. Do you know what I mean? You can read a poem. I know I’ve read poems, that really didn’t matter. I didn’t understand how much they mattered until years and years later. And then they started doing work. And they had really been doing that work all the time. But you could read a poem now that prepares you for an experience that you’re not going to have for twenty years. To answer your question of the why, I think when things get bad, we become all the more aware of our souls, you know? You know, at the height of sex, we say, Oh, God, because we’re most vulnerable, you know what I mean? And at our lowest of lows, even those of us who are atheists, we say, Oh, God, a saying that has to do with seeking, or calling out or asking for a God. The reason why when things get bad people turn to poems, is because they suddenly remember, in the same way, they say, Oh, God, they certainly remember, oh, there is a sound for this. There is an ointment, a cure, something that will help me bide my time or get through this moment. And that is the power of the word. And so, I think it happens instinctively or intuitively, and I don’t think anybody directs it. I think people turn to poetry in the same way that they turn to God, or to church, or to religion, because they understand just as all religions do, the power of words, that words do make a difference, I think we know that… I think we know that you can speak over a life, and therefore change that life… When you read poems, they are speaking over you. And so, when you read them aloud to yourself, you’re speaking over yourself, and so you’re changing things, you’re making yourself somehow better. I think that’s why. And I have to say, and I hope I can, I mean, I can say this, on behalf of, of the poets, but I know I feel this way in a way that feels communal with other poets. I am grateful, I think 2020 was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. But I am grateful that I had the opportunity, that what I do, that my gift was of use. Never before did I feel that way. I mean, I’ve always felt my gift was of use. But never before did I feel that way, as much as I have this last year. This year, I really felt like, oh, people need this and I need to be there, I need to make it accessible to them. I mean, the poems are always out there. But the presence of the poet communicating what poems can do, I think, was necessary in that moment, not just for me, but from so many poets. We found ourselves needed, consciously, not subconsciously or unconsciously, but consciously needed by people. I think we fulfil that need. And I’m proud of that, that we continue to, and I’m proud of that. You know, what’s wonderful about poets and what’s wonderful about this great artist community that we’re part of is that even when people think that the need isn’t there, the need will still be there and the poets will still be feeling. Even when we’re asleep, even when we’re not. which we will be, you know, it’s a matter of time before we go back to thinking everything’s all right. When there are still people getting shot in the street for absolutely no reason by police. We’ll be there soon enough. The poet’s will still, even in those times be telling the truth, you know?

Interview with Jericho Brown