Problems of Place: Is There Any Way Out of This Dream?

This piece is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace.

“The rock over by the path grew larger—it appeared to speak. All relations were transformed. Everything particular became landscape, a spread-out image. Desperation seized him; to flee from all of this, to gain clarity in the horror. He took a deep breath and looked to the sky with resolve and composure. How strangely cold the air was, how bright and near the stars.”[1]


When you look up at the towers on a day like this they fade into the mist. As the sky kneels low, the hardened spikes of the city soften as they climb up through the mist. Their staggering presence at ground level transmutes into something like a residue or after-effect. Toronto, like all the places I’ve known in my life, is a kind of after-effect of itself, marked by an almost plantlike life cycle: vast trunks spring up, reach their zenith, crumble into fenced-in dirt tracts that, as sure as sunrise, will yield another crop of condos, commercial strips—capital’s vegetative monoculture.

On misty days we see that no building, no matter its prestige, will stand up against the dreams of progress. They are all ruins as soon as ground breaks, their very memories soon to be obliterated by some whim or another.

Given this reap-and-sow of productive entropy, and the well-known havoc that it wreaks on matters both mundane and profound, why have I pledged myself to this place? But wait, wait. Let’s take a few steps back, let the past have its fair say. Like the rock by the path in Benjamin’s shimmering vision, cities, and memories, grow and speak in their own ways.

2. Decay: “Everything Particular Became Landscape”

Toronto is my place, my friend, my companion, my shelter from a past I loathe. Toronto and I, we grew together, and after three years (one spent chronically unemployed and desperate and the other two in grad school and somehow more desperate) we have become each other the way that human muscles, gears, and wheels weave together to make a cyclist-bicycle.

I’ve left Toronto on trips and it goes with me. Obviously, there are other city-people who tie me here—romantic partners, fast friends, the people at the burrito restaurant who recognize me on sight, former friends I’m afraid of—but in only three short years I’ve become fastened not just to friend circles and communities but also to the city itself. I desire and fear and eat, sleep, pray, and grow with it.

As Benjamin writes, “everything particular” becomes landscape. All my struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, the way my campus has become a developers’ playground and an educational nightmare—these are all local landmarks, provincial markers of a fundamental crisis rippling through all of our social institutions in Toronto and in academia. And just as the misty curtains that hang over downtown don’t obscure buildings as much as underline their temporal limits, the current confusion and struggles that are wracking our increasingly precarious and fickle Academia don’t reveal the latest impediment to progress, but instead the catastrophic nature of academia’s entire history.

If academia is a landscape, then all my particular struggles with dehumanization, the punishing discipline of publishing, teaching, networking, flailing to survive arise from poisons afflicting the whole land.

3. “To Flee from all of This, Clarity in the Horror”

A recurring nightmare I’ve had for a few years: I’m visiting an unnamed relative’s house, which bears a superficial resemblance to their actual dwelling. But instead of the familiar walls, beige walls, stuccoed walls, the house opens up in every direction and for a dizzying distance. Floors upon floors spiral at the speed of thought from the ground level, honeycombed by rooms, halls, vast windows, polished elevator doors, on and on and on ad infinitum.

Within these baroque hallways I keep stumbling across memories I’ve buried or forgotten. Meetings, deadlines, names, room numbers for classes, banking passwords. They all entwine and coagulate together until I wake up in an anxious sweat.

“He felt from a pressure on his own body how giant hands were forming masses of fog, how a tower, a cathedral of twilight arose. ‘The cathedral—you yourself are within it,’ he heard a voice say.”[2]

Not too long ago it would have been impossible for someone as obviously queer and trans as I am standing up at academic conferences or teaching undergraduates in tutorials. The idea of a nearly six-and-a-half-foot dyke with a deep voice sharing health insurance with xeir partner would be unthinkable to the people who professionalized history as a discipline in the 19th century.

Indeed, that I have a place at all, this weird little nexus of roads, green spaces, farmland, water lines, austere edifices—my cathedral of twilight—is because of ceaseless struggle against institutionalized transphobia and homophobia. But this is not progress as much as it is the crisis broadening itself to more and more people. Now queers can be precarious teaching drones too!

For me, the past struggles I inherit impose a kind of command to use whatever this space affords me to undo the marginalization and suffering of people I share kinship with. It’s an endless struggle to heal, to survive, to avoid giving up so much of myself to professors and supervisors that there’s nothing left for talks with lovers and cleaning my house in the evenings. Surviving through academia, surviving the constant crisis, is a balancing act of investing in spaces of protection and growth for marginalized others in the academy and creating space that pushes academia as far away as possible when I want to.

4. “Bright and Near the Stars”

As far as we can consider academia a place—airline routes, conference rooms, lecture halls, bathrooms for crying, the embrace of friends, the cold gaze of university “leaders”—it’s a place where dreams meet steely reality. I have carried that spark inside me, the beilef in my ability to contribute something life-giving to people who hunger for history, for ten years now.

And despite the fact that I’ve in some sense made it, found the place where I can let loose and contribute, I’m plagued by doubts and insecurities. I spent a year paying double tuition because I couldn’t finish my MA, and the dream has started to feel like a snare set up to catch passionate people in a productivity crunch.

I don’t have it in me to leave my readers with anything hopeful. I think we’re living in a time of terminal decay, a time of rising waters where the light of the stars that felt so soft and comforting in youth grow searingly cold. Here in Toronto, the world is fleeting and dreamlike. The city, the university, the land, air, and water have all become my body and I have become them. All our fates are bound up in vast impersonal processes that haunt our peripheral vision like the astral beings of cosmic horror.

All that leaves us with is our spaces, the ones we can make into refuges and hearths of resilience. The world I know is cruel, but the people I pull close are full of love and courage. There are no exits, but luckily the fleeting nature of the present, as the past instructs us, opens up infinite possibilities breaking through each moment.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Pan of the Evening,” chapter five in Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness” edited and translated by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie
and Sebastian Truskolaski (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2016), iBooks version.

[2] Ibid.

*Featured image credit: Paul Klee, Der Luftballon. 1926, oil on primed black board, 32.5 x 33 cm. Dickinson Gallery, London and New York. From: The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness” edited and translated by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski (New York, New York: Verso Books, 2016), iBooks version.