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A Poem about the Flash

If I were the Flash

I would also mourn the loss of my mother.

But I would honor her by telling the person I love

That I run and protect others

As much as I run and protect myself.
(Because) If I were the Flash

I would know that I must come undone. Always.

And that there is no suturing this undoneness. Ever.

There is only letting the pieces pull themselves together.

In odd shapes. In new forms. The pieces improvise.

This is a vulnerable self.
If I were the Flash I would not fear this vulnerability.

Because I know

(My being vulnerable, others’ being vulnerable, your being vulnerable)

This is our being.

And our selves can afford the attention.

 

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The “Real Problem” Critique and Other Ironies

This post is about trans studies. But I suck at making catchy titles. Also, these are more notes to a common theme toward the genre of the trans complaint.

In the weeks following Andrea Long Chu’s New York Times op-ed about how her bottom surgery, opinions proliferated. Chu’s tendentious claim (if it is indeed tendentious to have any feeling whatsoever about one’s own body) was that her new vagina would not make her happy. Further, transition and gender-confirming practices will not secure the state of being happy. Such an outcome, in so many ways, is impossible. And so Chu bore all: about her depression, her own experiences transitioning, the questionable medical ethics of happiness. Read it.

And there were proliferating feelings in opposition to her op-ed. They were written and spoken and included the new genre of the activist “Tweet-thread.” The whole thing, I felt, was a validation of Chu’s own theories about social and political theory that she had written in an article in N+1 just a few short months before. There she argued that feminist texts (but theoretical texts specifically) are so many occasions for feeling. They are not about feeling right or wrong, necessarily. These feelings can reaffirm old lines of thought; can branch out into new lines of inquiry; can alter one’s adherence to fantasy; can crank up the desire to feel a part of something larger than oneself. I think Chu was right. The cultural text, the theoretical narrative, is a powerful locus for generating those feelings. And make no mistake. The op-ed was as much theory as practice, thought-piece as narrative act. I poured over the reactions just one Tweet at a time (or thread, rather). Many linked to blogs. But one contribution caught my eye. It proclaimed to illustrate the “real problem” with Chu’s op-ed (if not the oeuvre that was underscoring her content). I’ll focus on that.

I. Pussy, or the Real Problems with Cisnormativity

Gwen Benaway, Canadian writer and theorist, wrote “Pussy” for the blog carte blanche. She opens, arguing that “trans girls have surgeries for many reasons” because, as one reads on,  Chu’s op-ed overlooked how her narrative can become a placeholder for all others. Benaway’s text is itself is an excellent excursion through the poetics of desire. Poet Anne Sexton’s lines are used in the epigraph to sum how Benaway felt, touched, and opened up herself for love and sexuality. That her vulnerability (both physical and emotional, if ever the two can be dissimplicated) was something shared. And so she finds her sense of wellbeing through the intersubjective, the powerful invocation of an other, and the construction of a tangible self. (Note: The epigraph is an excerpt from Anne Sexton’s confessional poem, “The Truth the Dead Know.” Not that there is a canonical read here, but the poem itself reflect a mood and meditation about her father’s funeral and the death of both her parents, of feeling and touching in the genre of traumatic loss, of such closeness that “men would kill for.” Benaway would alter Sexton’s lines to reflect a kind of intertextuality to orgasm.)

And so Benaway gets through her story with a caveat: She isn’t out to offer a rebuttal against Chu. It’s just that she proceeds to do exactly that. Some of the argument is that Chu should have thought more diligently about the forum of her op-ed. In that sense, Chu had opened up to a world of readers who would simply take those experiences and appropriate them onto the experiences of all other trans women. Benaway: “Like most rhetorical and symbolic objects, trans women’s bodies are always up for debate in the public space. When Chu made a single negative remark about her imagined post-operative body, it became commentary on all of our post-operative bodies, whether she meant it to be or not.(I’ll bracket for now her problem of making the trans body a theoretical object on the one hand and a matter of living singularity on the other.) For now, the “real problem.” Benaway writes that Chu engages in writing and narrative symbolism that cisnormative publics can metabolize. (These are the “cis overlords,” Benaway’s readers are invited to contemplate.) In this sense Benaway can argue that Chu “wasn’t being provocative or radical.” She was writing as a matter of course for a consumerist, bourgeois culture. “The real problem [my italics] with Chu’s piece isn’t that she gave an uncritical and damaging account of herself, but that anyone required her to explain herself in the first place.” Her point is not entirely clear. But if this is meant to draw our (and here I mean trans writers and critics) attention to the the relationship between a mass-mediated cisnormative public and its problematic expectations and that the locus of actually existing misrepresentation is there–then yes, Chu’s op-ed (in itself) isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that Chu’s “new” pussy now speaks for all other “new” pussies. And so Benaway’s pussy becomes a problem for others to contemplate, to ask about, to become points of everyday conversation. In so many words, the “real problem” is cisnormativity.

Benaway’s critique of cisnormative culture is powerful in spite of itself. The argument seems to go something like this. Cisnormative discourse, like any supremacist discourse, is about relationality. It’s about how History has determined the what, when, where, and how of non-dominant people. The trans body is thus a sign, one that is inscribed from its very inception by norms that deprive the trans person an opportunity to speak. This is a familiar and powerful discourse that thinkers like Gayatri Spivak (1988) have made staples in critical theory. And so Benaway indicts Chu of being duped into textualizing the cis-genre of discourse. Chu is more a liberal rube than a radical trans critic. Benaway, on the other hand, seems assured that she has literalized something Chu merely mediated through theory. Not texts here. It’s the body (Benaway’s pussy) that is the source of feeling–orgasmic, powerful feeling. I agree with Benaway. Our bodies are the means through which so many forms of pleasure and discover take place. She argues that “my body isn’t a theoretical argument which unifies the disparate complexities of being a trans girl.” But nowhere in view are her comments about trans bodies being sigils, canvases upon which cisnormative cultural production represent its ilk. She just proceeds to theorize. It’s about her relation to things and the world. She seeks to standardize what is perceivably a really trans narrative, especially about “trans girls” and SRS. This is precisely the practice of theory and the theory of practice.

II. A Question of Transness

The difference is in forum. Chu’s narrative appeared in the so-called public sphere of a widely read newspaper. Benway wrote for carte blanche. (This isn’t my judgment on which forms of writing merit publication. I’m writing on a personally run blog.) But there is something to be said about the intimate public and affectworld that Benaway’s vehicle promises. Affectworlds are spaces that hold feelings together without fear of imminent rupture. Back in 1988, commenting on the state of a then-feminist politics, Lauren Berlant wrote that “with few exceptions, these [consciousness-raising, affectworld-like] projects assume a singularity of female spectatorship or subjecthood, and would ask us to recognize one kind of subject activity over another as the distinguishing mark of femininity” (p. 239). Gender was (rightly or wrongly) being “defined as a category that absorbs certain questions about the historical life of the subject” and as something “to be deployed” (p. 239). This kind of deployment, along with its historical absorption and political uptake, encouraged a particular American phenomenon of the history of women’s culture and, more broadly, “gendered industries.” It was a history of fantasy, feminine power, and the abjection of private/domestic life. The very multiplicity and fragmentation that such mass-mediated cultures produced invited a sense of anxiety. Who controlled which narratives? Which feelings were really, truly women’s feelings? Other questions had to surface. How would lesbian desires fit with those of the suburban hetero wife? Was motherhood still a sign of feminine power? For that matter, where were Black women, indigenous women, and other women of color in this discussion? What of the poor or near poor? The homeless who could not inhabit what was traditionally private (the home) nor the public (as visible persons)? Mass media opened the door to misrepresent what constitutes a class “woman,” as well as women’s politics and especially feminism. The oppressor was patriarchy and its persistence in masking the oppressive exclusion of women from public life. This genre of mass-mediated culture  related to the white bourgeois woman defined the contours of what Berlant called the “female complaint.”

In many ways I find parallels between Berlant’s notion and what is unfolding in trans studies today. As more trans narratives and experiences begin to appear on the scene of mass-media, ordinary lifeworlds are being confronted with ideological contest. Identity and the symbolic integrity of the self’s essence are challenged. Consider the phrase, more politically salient than ever, that trans women are women. Chu was held in contempt for asking how it is possible that she could want to be something she already was. And Chu’s provocative op-ed was a moment of rupture within what was being persistently corralled into a narrative cohesion of transness. In a sense, the op-ed was a quasi-event that underscored the multiplicitous ways that trans women might relate to their bodies, their selves, and the culture that provides (and simultaneously denies) them intelligibility. Benaway perceived the op-ed as a failure in politically meaningful performance. It had been contaminated by cisnormative patriarchy. So to borrow a bit, the “trans complaint” (or perhaps the “trans female complaint” as it is unfolding here) is an amalgamated complexity of anxieties (from Chu’s to Benaway’s) about what constitutes the symbolic power and narrative diversity of transness. What is unfolding now is  an urgency to “align ourselves, in our differences from each other, to perform, theorize, constantly intensify the rupture of the private, and inhabit, as much as we can, the constantly expanding negative terrain that will transform the [cisnormative] patriarchal public sphere” (p. 254). Part of this means interrogating the (bourgeois, white, privileged) attitude that equates publishing an op-ed in a widely read publication with the “good little trans writer” as its trope. What is unfolding demands that we (trans people, trans communities more generally) cannot be “horrified” when a trans woman repurposes parts of an otherwise cisnormative cultural imaginary in order to make sense of their lives, their ordinaries, their crises. The heart of the trans complaint seems to be about recognition. And recognition is the gift that keeps on taking.

III. Final Thoughts on History

Benaway ends her discussion with a rare kind of accusal. She argues that Chu views SRS and transition versions of escapism. This is based, in part, on Chu’s revelation that women have vaginas and so she wants one, too. But for Benaway, this kind of escape is not possible. She references critical theorist Saidiya Hartman’s (2017) elaboration of aesthetics and the racialized slum, arguing that there is no life outside the “trans girl streets.” Those streets, Benaway argues, have a permanent residency in subpersonhood. Now, say what you will about the persistence of subpersonhood, but my sense is that “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum” is about an historical relation where Hartman draws lines among geography, good-life fantasy, and the various allegories of Black (female) life in America. For Hartman, History is what hurts. No matter how your frame it, no matter the audience, and no matter what words you use to gloss your narrative of it, History is what you live in. It is the “elsewhere” as much as the “here” of being. That is why breaking with History means breaking with what has made you a self. That is terrifying. But it is also beautiful. Perhaps this is a point that Benaway fails to consider in her critique. Chu is willing to break with her relation to a History about trans women. She is willing to deal with all that is traumatic and ordinary, both ugly and beautiful, in the terror that such a break will inevitably invite. 

Epilogue: Redemptive Critique

Admittedly, Benaway references one of my favorite Anne Sexton poems. “The Truth the Dead Know” kept me together after my mother’s passing, a lifetime of battling cancer ended in 2004. Sexton’s final lines ask “And what of the dead? […] They refuse/ to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.” Benedictions make no difference to those who have died. They matter only for the rituals of the living. Perhaps reading this poem in relation to History one might be argue that there is an invitation to militate against empty gestures that embolden homogeneous relationships with the past. We should favor a redemptive critique instead. This critique calls upon the past, to be an expressed “now,” that dislocates History out of its private ritual in textbooks and classroom discussion–but a public avowal of what could be otherwise.

References (without Hyperlinks):

L. Berlant, 1988, “The Female Complaint,” Social Text (Autumn): pp. 237-259.

G. Spivak, 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, pp. 271-313, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).

Some Notes on Ambivalence

These are just notes. I haven’t proofread them for exact clarity. I want to return to them later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how trans people manage the fact that crisis-affects saturate ordinary life. Ambivalence plays an important role here. (Even more so in political contexts.) The definition of ambivalence I have in mind consists of the agonism contained in its lived form: the co-presence of two moods or feelings that are in diametric opposition to one another. It seems so closely related to being aloof. But it’s not. It might be easy to think that ambivalence is a function of privilege, of aloofness or unchallenged distance, of individual sovereignty and personhood. But I tend to think otherwise. Ambivalence is more closely a function of non-sovereign relations with the world, among non-dominant groups with other non-dominant and dominant groups. In this sense, ambivalence offers non-sovereign subjects some psychic (and physical) space from everyday scenes of dissipating negativity. “Not again,” or “Why me,” or “Of course, great,” all these expressions capture what is at the heart of ambivalence: streetwise criticism of the present. And we all might agree that such criticisms do not usually emerge from the sovereignty that privilege protects. Being critical of present scene(s) in ordinary life, of constantly thinking about how its moments could have been and could be otherwise, extends from what is anxious in the experience of the non-dominant reality.

Anxiety is certainly as close to a universal “feeling” among humans that I am willing to hazard calling “universal.” And under conditions of non-sovereignty in scenes of the ordinary, the ambivalent subject must make snap decisions about how much energy to preserve or express; about whether a given action is worth the possible consequences. This is partly because the non-sovereign has more to lose in material and emotional terms. This is partly because the non-sovereign has many more objects of worry at any given time. It is a condition that some call minority stress, and others have called John Henryism when associated with anti-black racism. Thus, ambivalence is a way of fragmenting the scene into moments that can be metabolized there or later. One might consider Claudia Rankine’s work in Citizen (2014) as exemplum of ambivalent ordinariness. Here are a few phrases from that text. All of which extend from scenes in which racism is confronted (is both the aesthetic gloss and canvas). “…your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt….” (7); “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?“ (9); “You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested…” (10); “You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend” (11); “Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression….” (14); “Yes, of course, (15); “There I go? You ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile,” (16). These are scenes where the narrator’s affective knowledge engages her style of affective management. The former is what one knows about ordinary life because it has been inscribed, in a certain psychoanalytic sense, in the terrain of feelings. One can feel that something is wrong with a scene and adjust. This is knowledge of the affective sort. Affective management is a genre of how the narrator handles affects, of letting them swell or shrink. It all depends. Ambivalence is a style, then, within this genre.

Why is this affective style so important for the ordinariness of political life? Because it might spare someone the costs of having to engage. It spares those reserves so that one might preserve. This is because the marginalized self has been the object of Historical abjection, of narrative dislocation, and of pathologized will. Ambivalent subjects practice a moment of lateral agency, an extension into the ordinary that moves beyond what popular notions of linear experiences of time might allow. In psychoanalysis these are so many scenes of projection (attachments that relate hopes or fears to present objects into the future) or introjection (attaching certain feelings to present objects that make sense of the uncanny feelings that something was already there, waiting). Where racism is concerned (and in most instances it is a concern), theorist Patricia J. Williams writes that “these non-body-bound, uncompartmentalized ideas recognize the power of spirit, or what we in our secularized society might describe as they dynamism of self-as-reinterpreted-by-the-perceptions-of-others” (Alchemy of Race and Rights, 72-73). These ideas bear a resemblance to Hegel’s dialectic of recognition in Phenomenology of Spirit–if Hegel cared to make such scenes between Lord and Bondsman about racial domination. (Thankfully many intervening theorists like Williams have done so.) Ambivalent subjects must deal with the fact of their images and narratives being objects of supremacist discourse. What I mean by “deal” is reaction to a givenness of pressure that laminates the scene of sociality. This scene is predicated the symbolic economy that prefigures the scene; the non-dominant subject does not experience control over the flow of this kind of economy, only its effects. This is the heart of ambivalent styles of management, of dealing, of extending laterally into a world that seems to forbid growing vertically above it.

Ambivalence as I have described it here cannot be a non-knowing, a state of abjection in which all knowledge of conditions have been arrogated somehow. I am dealing with damage not defeat, here. Intead, ambivalence is the style that reflects upon Rankine’s notion that “you take in things you don’t want all the time” (2014, 55). Such a way of framing things puts an illuminating gloss on Williams’s mood where “this is the sort of morning when I hate being a lawyer, a teach, and just about everything else in my life. It’s all I can do to feed the cats” (1991, 4). Also on Susan Stryker’s words in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” (2006) where she meditates on “the possibility of meaningful agency and action exists, even within field of domination that bring about the universal cultural rape of all flesh” (254). The world is brought in and out of focus because the threshold of the body is not a sovereign border. It is porous. It requires more from the non-dominant (intersecting selves of gender, race, sex, sexuality, and class). Because History is both a material and unconscious terrain both lived and having been lived (the books one reads in History Courses are textualizations of History, a story of certain accounts that accumulate to represent the ideal scenes in ordinary life). The material relationship this History imposes on the non-dominant subject conditions the need for ambivalence. It turns the hurt of History into something that can be metabolized as something other than painful non-control.

References:

Claudia Rankine, 2014, Citizen: An American Lyric, (Minneapolis: Greywolf Press).

Susan Stryker, 2006, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 244-256, (New York: Routledge).

Patricia J. Williams, 1991, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Recognition is the Gift that Keeps on Taking

Side note: I don’t love Trump. And the fact that this entry is about him frustrates me. I don’t believe in giving power/energy to people or concepts that are absorptive of what could be used creatively in my ordinary. We get enough of that in everyday life.

For those who don’t read my stuff (and it’s not a lot of stuff so I can’t blame you) I’m mostly focused on issues of trans studies and critical theory. For those who do know my stuff, you know I’m fairly critical of liberal rhetoric about recognition. And it’s easy to be. There’s enough written about this tradition that rehearsing here would be repetitious.

And yet the current administration has recently released statements that they will roll back on Obama-era trans-inclusive practices. Trump wants to make sexed identity an entirely birth-assigned phenomenon. Gender is thus attached to a patently tired theory of dichotomous sex. Here’s the NYTimes:

The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

I don’t want to over- or understate what is going on. This is no doubt a situation rather than an event. An event constitutes the actuality of things, it refines and defines and puts clarity to inchoate feelings. The event is good or bad. Maybe it’s neutral. It depends. Situations often come and go and allow us to speculate about the possibility of the event. And that’s what I would like to comment on. We are speculating about the future ahead. We are worried about the power of recognition being taken away.

For me, as someone who is just coming into feelings of transmasculinity and exploring what it means to be nonbinary, Trump’s memo is one part frightening, one part meh. I’m frightened because these changes prevent needed structures that would ensure a sense of security for trans people in ordinary life. There is a symbolic weight that feels crushing. And it will surely make public dialogue about the flexibility of the conventionalities of sex/gender more difficult. And this is why I’m meh. You know the conventions–the ones we endorse everyday; the ones we ratify just to get along; to figure out who we want to befriend or date or both; or fuck (if that’s your thing). For Trump and his followers, it means that a “biological female” can fail to look and act like a woman according to some of these conventions–all the while misrecognizing those failures as so many forms of success. This is old news, but a different way of thinking about what constitutes “realness” in sex/gender, or the right or wrong way to embody it. And what’s fucked is that people like Trump get to codify the failures he’s comfortable with. The rest of us who are living within the interstices get to deal with the mess. “The messes are what kill you…”

So if we all live for recognition, what kind of recognition? From whom? Where and in what space/place? Maybe part of this gift that keeps on taking is the fact that we are all viewed as being a part of some larger event even though it defines something we struggle with in our most ordinary ordinariness.

Thoughts on Work

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to write anything creative. I don’t mean that academic kind of creative. That’s different, right?

Well, I want to share a few anecdotes. The first is about prescription drugs. The second is about Red Bull and my landlord. And the third is about loving my job. They’re all related to the same theme, more or less. (I’m taking a stab at a theme here because, to be honest, most of my writing goes discursive faster than Gordon Ramsay can say “fuck off”.) The theme is work, particularly the affective part of it. I’ll define affect later.

There Aren’t Pills For That

At a time when B. Preciado’s work couldn’t be anymore important, I’ve found myself criticizing the very institutions that have provided the most structural sense of security. Psychiatry. Pharmaceuticals. Therapy. They’re all interrelated and it would be boring and repetitious to rehearse why. So…anecdote time.  I’m prescribed five medications, all of which are psychotropic. Two antidepressants, one of which comes in differing milligrams. One anti-panic medication taken three times daily. The other is a small-dose derivative of speed used to counteract the sleepy-effects of the others. Yes, I’m taking a drug to counteract the side effects of other drugs. Oh, the irony.

So I finished graduate school. I got my PhD. And I found out that my insurance ended quite abruptly. So all those visits with my psych over this past summer were not covered. But she’s great. (This is critical since it’s so easy for any number of critics to go “she’s a cog in the machine” blah blah blah) She’s a worker, a highly paid worker, but a worker who can understand that my means have been and will continue to be limited. So she’s waived a few office visits.

The drug companies are different. (In those instances, yeah, anyone you speak to on the phone is a “cog in the machine” and it’s not all blah blah blah.) Short story: I’ve been paying out of pocket for my meds. But the real fun starts, for folks like myself, when one drug meant to counteract the effects of the other drugs is on a delay. You see, medications aren’t always available. And for those of us who need certain drugs that counteract the effects of others, when there’s a shortage of that drug, we feel it. Let me emphasize: we literally feel it. I’m on some heavy medications that make me feel tired almost all of the time. No self-help book will not lift me out of bed and make the sun sing to me as I make my way to class. (I can see Preciado reading this and saying, “I told you so.”)

Anyway, I’ve been struggling to get back on insurance. My employer can cover me, and hopefully “grandfather” me in. But the snag is that it comes out of my already meager paycheck as an adjunct. I need this particular insurance because it’s the same as my previous company–an insurance my psych takes. So we shall see.

(Oh…for those who might be wondering. It isn’t easy to find another psych. Imagine being forced out of a 7 year relationship with an intimate partner. Imagine being told you need to get a new partner within a month. Then imagine that your entire way of life will come undone if you don’t. That’s what would be roughly equivalent for those who are not plugged into this psycho-therapeutic culture.)

Red Bulls and Lawsuits

Did I mention that I was a part of a lawsuit? It was tarted by my Tenant Association (yay), that took my landlord to court for lack of adequate repairs. We went several months with no heat in our entire building last winter. All this in spite of frequent complaints. We went together, made a collective effort alongside a pretty impressive legal team, and sued. We got a settlement. It was probably more of a chunk out of the landlord’s pride than his wallet. But we got something nevertheless. This was all during my trouble with insurance. My sense of the ordinary was very much in disarray.

So how do Red Bulls fit in? I was looking at my recycling bin. I noticed that it was nearly filled with those silvery-blue cylinders. I had been drinking about four over the course of six hours for nearly a week. Maybe we could think of Red Bulls less as a commodity and more as a metaphor. It doesn’t have to be the actual drink, the one that gives you energy and wings and stuff. And so we are left with this kind of circuit board. Workers get tired after the work-cycle because the work-cycle is taking more and more energy in ways that could be put to the creative reproduction of ordinary life. (Like taking a landlord to court, living on poverty wages, grading papers, preparing and executing lectures, and paying for commuting fares that end up being almost a third your gross bi-weekly income.) Workers need more energy that isn’t being reserved in their bodies “naturally.” So markets arise offering fixes to that energy drain. These fixes fill those workers with enough synthesized forms of what are essentially meth. so these same workers can get their jobs get done. That’s what it comes to, after all. Getting the job done quickly and effectively. I don’t want to get into the pornographic side of this argument. Suffice it to say that this system makes exploited bodies of us all. (Side note: I love my job.)

Being and Tired

I suppose what I am aiming at here is that making a life requires a lot more than time and what is possible in 8 hours. These are the conditions of late capitalism. The difficulty associated with making a life, however, is not equally distributed. In other words, feeling that difficulty is not felt equally. That’s affect. Feeling that something is difficult, the strain on the body and the emotions, is the state of being affected by work.

For adjuncts this has become commonplace. You care for your students. You care for your creative research efforts. But you’re tired from commuting and grading and not having enough money to reproduce the bare minimum for ordinary life. You miss payments on your phone, rent, or utilities. You apply for food stamps. You feel the sting of having spent so many years honing your skills as a researcher and thinker and teacher that all you can feel and think is, well, dissipation. Sure, there are photos of happy post-defense grad students. But I always consider that a kind of qualified happiness.

Affect is tricky. It gets circulated in variously strange ways under economic systems in late capitalism. At the end of the day, or the week, or the month, you still have to love your job. And to compensate for this drain, this excessive burden on the body and the mind, new sources of energy-promising commodities saturate the markets. And we buy them, mostly out of necessity, and consume them. But we do so thinking that we have to fix ourselves so we can get to that spot in our lives where, having the energy to do so, we feel validated. But why do we need to fix ourselves? Why is it expected that our bodies can commit?

Affect is tricky. I can still love my job and hate the culture of work that has contaminated it.

 

Feminism and Dying: Reading Sedgwick Pt. Two

Part Two: Feminism for the Men Who Love and Lose

This writing project, however brief and punctuated by long breaks, was taken on as a means of dealing with the effects of Sedgwick’s analyses on my own thinking about queer and feminist theories, and most critical theories alike. In particular, I see these entries as (sometimes disjointed) thoughts on what it might mean for me, a queer feminist with a nonbinary trans identity, to re-examine things, to look into the intensities I feel about my own work in activism and literature, and wonder as to how they have been shaped by loss, and the parallel loss sustained by another figure in my life: my father.

Love and Memory 

For Sedgwick, in Dialogue, her diagnosis was enough to challenge her beliefs in everything from paranoid reading to the affective turn in social theory. She focused on positive affects (joy) instead of negative ones (shame) as a means of addressing what happens to feeling in a culture that situates the self as unfeeling. She did this because, as she states later in Touching Feeling, finding joy and repair in criticism seems so much more pressing once she situated her life-line alongside her friends. She realized that joy could be a critical object, a partial object, and not something absconded by psychoanalysis, robbing joy of its authenticity. To feel joy. To love. That was what Sedgwick began thinking on when she realized that generations of queers whose lives were lost might never have known that. And generations of critics might never revisit it.

I want to ask a question that moves in two directions at once. It is the same question asked in different equations. How do we make room for men to feel something, anything, when feminisms could be read as foreclosing that space? When can we, or when do we, love the men in our lives? In this entry, I want to examine the nature of my father’s experiences with my mother’s slow death.

This entry will meditate on the strange effects of love on memory and life trajectory. Of the fact that he had a longer period of conscious time with caring for her. Of the experience of it in terms of love and the attachments he made to things like medicine, government, politics, sexuality, and gender identity. Of what it must have meant for a working class white hetero-male to see his lover dying. Of how this perceived inevitably led to a certain kind of dealing with the world, a certain genre of living that invites some form of recourse into feminist and queer thought. If only for the sake of understanding how these formative forces enabled a relationship between a hetero-father and a queer-child in the ways that it did.

Memory is strange, that “if not the truth, [memory] is also not a lie,” as Claudia Rankine puts it. Memory is somewhere in between–a re-connection to the historical self so that the present self can exist, persist, and be temporally coherent. We choose as to whether this inter-subjective exchange between temporally distinct selves is nourishing or harmful. So writing feelings and affects might not find the same kind of (approximated) empirical precision an analyst with transcriptions might have. All any of us can do with our memory, or the recollection of someone else’s, is apprehend the intensity of a memory in conjunction with all the strange webs and connections established in along the way to our ongoing present.

Love’s Not So Erosive Effects on Memory

My father was a military man. He grew up with a military father. It was a strict life. But from the stories I heard it was often brutal. Filled with his father’s alcoholic rage and abuse. Dad went through high school and quickly joined the Air Force. Fast forward a few years and the man meeting my mother–a mother who had a child (me) out of wedlock–was formed out of the fires of that kind of intensity. So I wonder whether I am exculpated from my judgments of him, of his rigid habits of heteronormativity, traditionalism, and that these may have been intensified by the feelings sustained during a life lived always adjacent to (perhaps fully saturated by) illness and its affects.

A memory: I remember once rummaging through various things in the living room. My mom hated when I would “rummage.” It wasn’t my stuff after all. It was a combination of things. But I remember once when I removed a card that my father and sent to her and it read something like “and all the blue out there.” I didn’t know what it meant. When she saw me “rummaging,” she remarked, “let me see what you go there.” And she explained. My father was in the Air Force, requiring some physical distance between the two of them. And his love captured her and “all the blue.” And I was transfixed. I still am.

I want to pause here and also wonder at the fact that this kind of imagining/remembering, one that is inspired by the emotion called love, defies what Berlant calls love’s immemorial effects. Love, normative love at least, is what allows for the convention of the “female complaint” to persist, “where women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Normative love recruits people, mostly women, into arrangements and attachments that reinforce a code of quiet desperation because it romanticizes the past. It reframes history in such a way that those historical conditions are no longer remembers as conditions, just episodes on the path toward happiness.

Two Considerations

Here’s the first thing. I am feeling a more or less rich encounter with some kind of emotion–something like love, perhaps? And I am inhabiting memories that aren’t justifying repairing end of my relationship with my father, or the patterns of behaviors that got us to this point where we no longer speak. Rather, it has reopened those pathways to examine them and possibly repair them not because I want a traditional or normative kinship relationship with my father again. Not because having a relationship with him would fulfill a normative desire, to feel normal, like all of my other friends. It stems from a feeling that so many men in our lives–if only and maybe for a queer feminist like myself–are too often put at arms length. As if their masculinity is, in itself, toxic without any hope of redemption.

Perhaps I should feel privileged, however great or small, by the fact that such love flourished during times of her illness, when my mother was so weak she couldn’t leave the bed. When she needed help to the bathroom. I learned that love is not beautiful in the normative sense. Love is dark and impatient as much as it is light and kind. It is a relationship obtained among things, between intimate partners, that has a sense of stability. A stability, a ringing truth of something I didn’t, at that point nor since, fully understand. 

Here’s the second thing. If this feeling, this normative sensorium of intimate reciprocity, is always jeopardized by illness, what does this mean for the men who experience the other side of loss? What does this mean for a feminist point of view to incorporate those feelings? A queer point of view? Any of it? Berlant’s book The Female Complaint aims to reflect on the sentimentality of that complaint, of the intimate publics created in the name of hetero-femininity and the exclusionary practices such affective spaces invoke. And within these these intimate publics, also created by dominant feminisms, must they always prima facie excavate men from their genealogies? And which? Heterosexual men? White men? Or are they queer men? Hyper-masculinized or “machismo” men? Men of color? Transmen? Where they intersect? Are we always at a point of departure and not a point of arrival? That there are men who do the care-taking and the mending and the crying and the emotional labor that inevitably gets left out portraits of working class life. In that sense, I ask: where in the cartography of feminisms does love become the gift that keeps on taking from those we pejoratively “men”? When does this cartography take stock of the feeling (hu)man in any of its critical engagements? Because “every bad thing/ that threatens people I love,” Sedgwick wrote, is the dread of the double movement of cancer–from within to without. She wanted joy where she feared only dread would dwell.

And so if men are caught in this nexus of feeling where they are saturated by a culture of non-feeling and yet feel too much; if they are not welcome in feminisms’ pantheon and acid-wash of patriarchal critique; if, in the abstract, they are always easily making a life because their worlds have already been defined beforehand by their birthright of masculinity–if all this is true, when is it appropriate to love the men in our lives so they (and we) might learn to feel (our) joy? Or do they deserve even that?

End of Pt. 2