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Courtesy of Alok Vaid-Menon

March 3, 2019

LING | The Dangers of Binaries

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We often find ourselves unwittingly navigating spaces and situations defined by binaries — binaries of power, binaries of us and them, binaries of convenience. Beyond the racism, misinformation and bigotry that this sort of paradigm fosters, it also has a way of shaping our vocabularies: how we verbalize hurt, trauma and passed-down rage. It’s easier to say, “Ugh, white men” when being trampled in a sweaty mosh pit at a hip-hop concert than to unpack racial undercurrents and misogyny. It’s easier to say, “Problematic” when a professor distills an entire culture and the history of its people into a flippant statement than to sort through institutionalized erasure and personal experience.

On Saturday evening, Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming artist, performed in Klarman Auditorium, where they explored the deconstruction of such binaries through vulnerability and self love. In their performance, they used a combination of poetry, comedy and art in order to poke fun at and examine identity and systems of oppression. Menon, known for their fashion and poetry, uses their performance to interrogate the intersections of race, gender and queerness through storytelling and their own personal experiences as a transfeminine artist. Interspersed between absurdist monologues they delivered a scathing, tongue-in-cheek critique on neocolonialism and white feminism, demanding self-awareness and accountability in the midst of entertainment.

In their performance, Menon imagines a future society that is more inclusive, inviting the audience to participate in this vision. Menon paints the possibility of an inclusivity built on vulnerability and most importantly, a shared vulnerability. Through this performance, they created a space that prompted questions on what a community looks like when we acknowledge our own vulnerability and reliance on each other. Questions like: How can we better understand the pain of others through our own? How can we better listen? When are we going to acknowledge that everyone at Cornell has irritable bowel syndrome? We are able to better draw connections between ourselves and others by first finding areas of sameness, touchpoints to build foundations for better discourse.

This approach, one of emotional processing and intelligence, can be seen as a softness rooted in femininity and queer culture. In the zine, “Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance,” the artist Be Oakley defines radical softness through the context of their identity as a white, non-binary queer person, citing it as “an internal feeling that drives how we carry ourselves in the world. This softness is the tenderness of our identities that gives us strength in our willingness to survive. This softness is the result of the beauty of our friendships, support systems or chosen families. This softness — which one can express unapologetically — is a source of strength that can never be taken away from us, even in death.”

During this performance, Menon invited the audience to sit with their loneliness and to embrace the confusion that comes with being a young person that has to navigate both virtual and in-person social networks. At an Ivy League university like Cornell, an institution rooted in values like success and indomitable drive, it’s easy to forget oneself. It is not uncommon to see students, skilled in task completion and time management, compartmentalize their own emotions. However it is these emotions, as well as the messiness and confusion that comes with them, that makes us human and allows us to better understand one another and to also become better. It is best said in a scene from the film Call Me By Your Name, my favorite Ryuichi Sakamoto-soundtracked tutorial on how to properly eat a soft boiled egg, “if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste!”

 

Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at igl3@cornell.edu. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.