we learn from those who help us survive our questions by inviting us into their own
— from Gila Ashtor, “Two Girls2″
I think maybe my whole life as an academic has revolved around asking questions, or trying to ask the right questions. But, until I read Gila Ashtor’s essay, I don’t think I realized that there is also, always, the question of surviving my questions. I didn’t know that my questions — the ones I wanted to ask and the ones I was afraid to ask and the ones I finally got the guts to ask — were something that I had to live through, endure, move past.
I knew that asking a good question, the right question, could disturb, unsettle, intervene. I worked hard at doing that. I tell my students that they should try to ask good questions. That such questions can make a real mark whether they are posed at the end of a lecture or whether the are the beginning of what will be a doctoral project or book or lifelong intellectual investigation. In this sense, I thought of questions, my good ones anyways, as something unambiguously good. And if they unsettled or disturbed people or fields of study, then good.
But I never stopped to think that such questions exact a cost and demand that a burden be borne. I did not understand that asking a question was also about testing my own ability to survive the act of asking.
I love the turn that Ashtor takes in this densely beautiful essay on relationality, Mary Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and Lauren Berlant’s essay on that novel, queer affect, pedagogy, and so much else. It is a turn that finds solace in a kind of doubled questioning: we survive our questions by learning from those who invite us into their own. Surviving our questions is all about finding a way into the questions of others. And those others need to be generous enough to invite us into their own questions.
Reading Ashtor somewhat out of context, I have been thinking about how to survive the questions that have been unleashed in the wake of the deeply complex waves of recognition and sadness and awfulness and solidarity that is #metoo and everything that came before and everything that will come.
What now? You too? Can we say the names? Are you scared? How can we stop being scared? When do I stop being so enraged and exhausted?
Who will invite us into their questions so that we can learn how to survive these questions? I thought a lot about this and, because I work in an institutional context, I immediately thought about feminist leaders, senior academic allies, women who will know stuff. But then I realized, yes, them (and how lucky we are to have them), BUT also: us. We have turn, more than ever, to each other. We have to invite each other into our questions.
And it is going to be hard and we will only survive if we can find what is transformable and be ourselves transformed:
To the extent that “history” is not only what “hurts,” it is also in no small part a result of whom we meet and what, because of who they are, we find transformable, and transformed, about ourselves. (Ashtor)
Let’s keep asking our questions and do it knowing that we can survive them because we have to keep inviting each other in.