Monday, May 25, 2009

Inside out

A former student who lived in my neighborhood was having a yard sale before moving to South Korea. I passed his house on foot, waved, and shouted, “Selling out, are you?”

He laughed and hollered back: “Bailing out is more like it.”

The two expressions, while grammatically similar, have different senses: selling out is an abandonment. It implies moral failing. One sells out to the bad guys. Bailing out, on the other hand, suggests coming to another’s rescue or rescuing oneself. He bailed out of the plane as it was about to crash.

But in both senses “out” is the direction of flight. What then are we to make of “cashing it in”? I cash in my chips when I quit the game. And to “throw in the towel” is to concede defeat and get out of the fight. I throw in the towel when I’m “all in” – which is to say, completely exhausted.

Cashing in my chips is quite the opposite of investing in the market, or buying into an idea, or jumping into the fray. In fact, jumping in is another way of saying checking out my options, which is to say plugging in to current opportunities.

And that’s not the same as burning out, though if I am successful I may score a knock out, which is not the same as calling a time out.

As prepositions, in and out are always opposed, but it is not always clear whether it's better to be in the frying pan or out in the fire. The desirability of either side depends on the idiom. Inside is not always better than outside, and vice versa.

What matters in each case is the implied movement across, from one side to the other. I am getting out or cashing in, checking out or jumping in. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m inside or outside (it doesn’t matter, that is, outside the idiom) so long as I get across the boundary between.

In these cases, at least, it’s the crossing that matters more than the direction.

Of course, if I’m trying to get out of a bad situation, direction matters. The direction matters within the framework of the idiom, to the real or imagined situation. But these expressions all seem to choose equivocally between in and out as the desirable end point.

What matters is the movement, the transition, the crossing over.

This is significant to matters of both place and identity.

Inside and outside are places. But as places they serve as metaphors for identity: I get into my role as a teacher, or get out of my role as a task master. Collective identities as well: there are in groups and out groups. People on the inside try to keep out the people on the outside. They may try to kick out some on the inside.

But the in group can just as well be an out group. In and out matter less than being or moving toward one side relative to another.

What matters is relativity: compared to those on one side of an imaginary wall I am on the same or a different side. With respect to sides it always depends.

Identities, like places, are, if not interchangeable, at least nonessential. That is, one side (or type) isn’t inherently good or bad. Being able to cross – simply the ability to do so - is the important value, the desirable feature.

I’ve thought about this in terms of the way whites think about and behave around other races, which historically is to demonize people of color as outsiders, aliens, and others. Yet the other is also desired – haven’t whites sought out, imitated (imagined), and appealed to others as creative sources of alternative identity?

After all, the “cool” or “hip” or “in” group is often the out group. The transgressive act is creative, interesting, edgy.

So much is this the case that so-called “dweebs” or “nerds,” who seem (in a white-bread sort of way) quintessentially outsiders, can be, relative to insiders among out groups, new sorts of insider, simply for standing outside. That sentence was meant to be dizzying.

I don’t want to imply, particularly with respect to race, that social location, doesn’t matter. Of course it does, especially when some locations more than others dominate the resources and affairs of others.

Rather where I am going with all this is to the notion that there is nothing essentially good or bad about particular locations. What really matters is being able to cross over and participate in the other side.

Liberation is not achieved on one’s arrival but in the act of transition, crossing over, and for many the transition itself occurs in the will to transgress, to challenge the status quo.

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