September 20, 2009

Contest 2009: Why the Contaminated Essay?

By Josh Morsell, Managing Editor

This year, dislocate is sponsoring a contest for "contaminated" essays. In her September 14 blog, Editor-in-Chief Colleen Coyne wrote about her Google search for "dislocate," and I found her results amusing, so I thought I'd try the same with "contamination." But whereas Colleen learned of a guy who fantasized about having a superpower where he could "dislocate and relocate joints at will... kind of like a flesh transformer," the results for contamination just weren't funny. Parsley was contaminated with salmonella; salted plums with lead. There are dangerous levels of antifreeze in the soil of Bad Axe, Michigan, and a "mercury mystery" in a Twin Falls, Idaho parking lot (nobody knows where the poison came from). Television tubes buried in Ottawa, Ohio have leaked into people's backyards. Dangerous staph germs found at West Coast beaches! Farm runoff fouls wells! One in ten Americans drinks dangerously contaminated water! Over 16 million acres of Vietnam still rife with unexploded bombs! My Google search found 862 articles about contamination published in just the past week.

Just so my blog entry wouldn't be completely depressing, I thought, How can I make this funny? (To be clear, there is no requirement for humor in the Contaminated Essay Contest - although humor is quite welcome.) I wondered if contamination could be a superpower, and I looked up the Wikipedia "List of superhuman features and abilities in fiction." The closest things were X-Ray and Captain Atom, both of whom can emit radiation at will, but they're not really contaminators. They just blast you with energy, bam. I wanted to find a superpower about creeping, chronic infection.

I did find a lot of references to another kind of superpower/potential superpower afflicted by contamination - the U.S., China, Europe, Russia, India, and Brazil suffer contaminations of water, soil, milk, even of "cancerous politics." That's not funny, either.

Why does dislocation get to be funny? When you dislocate something, it tends to happen quickly. Maybe quick makes slapstick? Contamination connotes slowness, a creeping weakening, and chronic stress - if you even know it's happening before your teeth fall out.

To even look for humor seems in poor taste.

But then, I heard on Fresh Air about "cancertainment," a subculture of young cancer patients who share information and inside jokes through blogs with titles like "Cancer is Hilarious." Check out Iva Skoch's Newsweek article "A Malignant Melanoma Walks Into a Bar." Skoch, who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 29, writes that, "Often, the reality is so overwhelming that all I can do is laugh."

The inspiration for the Contaminated Essay Contest came from a lyric essay by poet Colleen McCarthy, a student here at the University of Minnesota Creative Writing Program. Colleen's father covered the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident when he was a young journalist, and he later took a job as a spokesperson for an electric utility that operates several nuclear power plants. Deploying her prose much in the manner of poetry, Colleen explores the dendritic networks of the nuclear industry - the destructive and productive ways it has become implicated in our economy, our government, our culture, our natural environment and our bodies. For both sickness and health, it has become part of what we are.

Ecologically, the world has always been interconnected, with a range of impositions and complicities between organisms and elements: parasitism, amensalism, commensalism, mutualism; contamination, infection, competition, exploitation, cooperation, fertilization.

As human societies become more complexly interconnected, we face ever new contaminations, minglings, and opportunities; the terrain shifts; "perhaps, even, the limit toward which we speed is for every sphere of life to be contaminated by every other sphere" (to quote our contest write-up).

We want the Contaminated Essay Contest to address a condition of life today, a set of unanswered questions; and we seek new language, new formal expressions, with which to meet these questions.

Not everybody finds contamination, with its connotations of sickness and trouble, to be aesthetically attractive. Some have suggested that we change the name to, I don't know what, The Healing Essay Contest or something. But I suggest that contamination is very present and very future; and, whether we fight it, take advantage of it, laugh at it, or just curl up fetal, we've got to deal with it. So let's have some fun.

P.S. If you're looking for prompts to get you going on this essay, here's an interesting breakdown of six types of contamination: physical, social, psychic, moral, cultural, and artistic/rhetorical.