MN: Given that The Red Parts was the first book in my life that I’d made any money on—not to mention how much the money helped me at that particular juncture, or how proud and relieved I was to have wrested a meaningful piece of writing out of the horror of my aunt’s 2005 murder trial—the whole “meretricious” invocation (i.e. “of or relating to a prostitute”) felt like a perverse sort of welcome mat: this is how it is, then. This is the welcome for a woman joining this sphere. OK, I thought, so be it.
That’s partly why I adore Eileen Myles’s proposal, in her Inferno, of being invited to become a prostitute in New York as a parallel for becoming a poet. I mean, why not? I just finished Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory, which has a great chapter on her sex work (I’m rooming here in Mexico for the week with the amazing Annie Sprinkle, who lent me Virginie’s book—so at the moment I’m in a real reclamatory mood.) I love it how, in Virginie’s book, whenever she hits upon some kind of misogynistic dead-end or supremely irritating or unjust moment, she just says, literally, “well, fuck you.” I’m not a person who can say such things very easily—nor, I think, are you—so it’s a real pleasure for me sometimes to hear others doing so. Just like it’s a real pleasure for me to read the writing of others for whom the charge “You’re embarrassing yourself” has no truck.
As for “importunate”: according to my OED, it means “burdensome; troublesome; persistent or pressing in solicitation.” You’re right—it’s a kind of begging—clambering, as you say—that’s at issue, that disrupts the-man-who-doesn’t-need-anything, or, conversely, the man for whom longing is annoyingly sacrosanct, poetically alchemized into the dignity of “yearning.” (Barthes: “we are always being told about Desire, never about Pleasure; Desire has an epistemic dignity, Pleasure does not.”) There’s a lot of pleasure in your poems—the pleasure of the language, the pleasure of syntax, of unusual vocabulary, unusual collisions; the pleasure of “discovery rather than receipt,” as you say. I think that’s what makes your poetry difficult and generous at the same time—you have to submit to its tightly coiled syntactical mazes in order to discover their twists and turns of meaning, of emotion—but they always deliver, should one take the time. Should one go with the encounter being proposed, as you say.
BB: Solicitous and whorish, is that then the literary beat officer’s read on us? It is interesting—and, sure, a bit unfair, teleological—to boil the two reviews down to judgment about open and mercenary lust on the public square. “A walking way of standing still,” I believe that’s what Joe D’Alessandro claims to have in Heat, when interviewed by the street cop who suggests his idle lamppost leaning is suggestive. He orders him to keep it moving, anyway. Which reminds me of Standing Still and Walking in New York, the O’Hara book of essay prose, with him and Larry Rivers on the cover in folded arms taking the avenue in.
My other question to you has to do with assessments of your work like the ones I made when I said I loved realizing that Jane was about girlhood or sisterhood, or ones such as Eileen Myles’s formulation on the book’s cover, “a deep, dark female masterpiece.” Considering some response to Bluets, are you comfortable with such assessments that determine your work is where one might “learn” about female experience?
MN: Honestly I’m pretty comfortable with such assessments, even though I know a lot of people wouldn’t be. I mean, it’s preposterous to think that there’s something called “female experience” or “femaleness” in which all women share. But I’m not one of those people who thinks “I want to be an artist, god damn it, not a female artist!” This is likely a result of the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to come up in a time and place in which being called a female artist did not assign you to any ghetto; or, maybe more to the point, if it did, I was proud of the ghetto, and unafraid of its grouping. I mean, if Eileen Myles wants to call Jane a “deep, dark female masterpiece,” I’ll take it. (I also knew that she was layering it up by placing “female” and “masterpiece” side by side, so there’s an interesting political wager already embedded in the frame.)
I have also always felt strongly that girlhood and femaleness, as well as transgender identifications of all stripes, are as fundamental to the human experience as the so-called straight white male subject and all his trappings. So when I hear the word “female” applied to my work, I almost hear it as “human,” even though I know for others the word works in an opposite fashion. I think this stance is likely the result of a long habit of reclamation, some of which I performed in my New York School book, which celebrates what Alice Notley once called her “girl theory of poets,” but which also keeps a lively ambivalence about the word “women” throughout, as in its title: Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions.
Would my feelings on the matter change if I felt these gendered remarks were hindering my work’s capacity to be taken seriously, or if such designations landed my work on the “women’s studies” shelf instead of on that of poetry or literature? Absolutely! For God’s sake, let’s all be human already! But in a sense I’m done with gaping after the human, and after those who presume to have privileged access to it. I already know we belong, so fuck it.
BB: I’m interested in what you are reading, in what is foremost in your reader’s mind (I know you are finishing a book about art and cruelty) that you might consult soonest in thinking about our topic. What five books are on your desk or in your midst right now that relate to the topic at hand—sociality, friendship, gender and poetry and poetics. And how have they organized or disorganized your thinking about the question?
Felix Guattari, Chaosophy
Adam Phillips, Winnicott
Judith Butler, Precarious Life
Barbara Hammer, Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life
Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling
Barbara Hammer I just saw in conversation with Silas Howard at the Hammer Museum in LA the other night, and it was so moving, for so many different reasons. One is that Barbara and Silas, as stage presences, represented such different moments in feminism and queer life: Barbara, as a true hero of sexual liberation from back in the day, filming Super-8 movies with her shirt off in a field full of naked women, jerking off at the Macy’s counter with her core of “super dykes,” exploring sexuality that was hot but not based in power play or S/M—& most of her writing about sex in her book is excited by the sameness she feels about other women’s bodies, not the difference. By contrast, Silas comes from a subsequent generation more rooted in punk rock/homocore, more transgressive/in-your-face stunts (as performed with his band Tribe 8), the rise of transgenderism, and bold interventions into Hollywood and/or narrative cinema (as with By Hook or By Crook, which Silas made with my Harry [Dodge]) rather than in experimental, non-narrative film like Barbara’s. But that night at the Hammer, due to their deep mutual respect, broadness of vision, openness, lightheartedness, and real sense of solidarity, these differences were exactly what differences can be, at their best: fascinating points for conversation, overlap, and observation, rather than occasions for rift, competition, or non-understanding. This was a tent in which everyone could party, and it gave me hope for all of our futures.
The Winnicott and the Butler have been useful to me together in thinking about our radical dependency on others, a dependency that nearly every theory of subjectivity has tried to obliterate or at least downplay. (I’ve been reading Kristeva lately, on the matricide she proposes at the heart of subjectivity—compelling, but foul.) It is so heartening to hear someone say—as Adam Phillips says in his little book written with Barbara Taylor, On Kindness—that to deny or discount as pathological the dependency that grows between intimates really makes no sense at all. The ways in which we come to depend upon each other—and, as cited above, the ways in which we may or may not always be able to deliver unto each other what we need or want—is the human struggle, sometimes performed on the most dire, basic levels (can an infant get the sustenance it needs to survive?), and sometimes on the more psychologically complex (as in the grief described by Butler, in which we must grapple with losing a part of ourselves when we lose a beloved other).
BB: Two of the books you mention are books I’ve recently read, Touching Feeling and Precarious Life; in fact they are two most transformative nonfiction books I’ve read this year. I am moved by the searching exploration of both books, by their uniqueness in “the field” (as discourse not fastidiously mounted on other discourse) but maybe even more fascinated by their similarities. First, they share a means and an end: both writers propose our commonality, our physical or eidetic or haptic or affective commonality, as humans, in the course of arguing for, at least, more intentionality and agency in the humanities. Sedgwick’s critique is that reading and interpreting any text from a “paranoid” paradigm is merely to make exposure the objective (aha, we were right about the policy influence of Cheney’s oil friends: now what?) and reifies humiliation as a kind of annihilation. Reifies too, time, as the measure of anxiety: anticipation and retrospection are the active elements of proving oneself right about something. (Why is her substitutive aspiration for a reader of signs, of texts, disappointingly diffuse: to accrete and to organize and to heal? Maybe I don’t understand what she calls “reparative reading.”)
In Butler’s case, she wishes for a new discipline that can study the structure of address, in an era and technological/ethical situation in which speakers are routinely permitted passive or relativist or inferential or concessional (or, to use Sedgwick’s term “periperformative”) assertions, a study that would locate responsibility in speech back to the speaker-function, one speaker at a time. Is it a corollary perhaps to the saw about poetry (which I believe): I don’t know that poetry can be taught, but I know it can be learned. Likewise, I know from my experience (the call I feel to answer) that I am being addressed and therefore I know that that someone has addressed me. Indirection should not be an obviation in political discourse, she determines, which kind of nails it.
Both positions are stimulating and it seems to me both thinkers are at pains not to distance or discredit the work they and others have done to defamiliarize and denaturalize the author-subject (and sexual binarism) in the appeal for responsive and empowered critical speech. Isn’t it as though they really (I’m tempted to say “finally”) were addressing squarely the freshman student or indeed the freshman provost who asks ‘But what does theory do?’
MN: Precarious Life and Touching Feeling are two of the most transformative nonfiction books I’ve read in the past few years, too. Both were great the first time; both have significantly opened up in subsequent readings. Harry and I have been returning to Sedgwick’s “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold” for some time now, trying to decode it. It’s like Eve’s speaking ten languages at once, and depending on which one you are ready or able to hear, you will hear that one; but if, say, you suddenly read a lot of chaos theory, or affect theory, or systems theory, or Buddhist writing, a different reading bobs up and becomes suddenly available to you. In those late writings, she seems to have come up with a way to manifest her deep love and understanding of the embroidered—the texts have so many threads. Complexity is all—but not, as she makes clear, an excuse for any fuzzy invocation of multiplicity, or worse, of the infinite.
Gender and sexuality certainly bring the questions of which lives count, which lives are visible/readable as lives, and which are grievable, to the fore. But it’s no accident that Butler—who posed some of those questions most eloquently as a queer theorist—has now taken those questions to other lives, such as those of the Iraqis and Afghanis killed in the United States’s ongoing wars on those countries. Such is the focus of Precarious Life.
BB: I wonder what you mean by “it’s no accident.” What, for you, is the connection between Butler’s (and Sedgwick’s) early work on the performance and construction of gender and queerness and the more recent engagements both writers have (had) in reparative and “new humanist” reading and analysis? What is the threadthrough? I can imagine you have given it some thought in your current book project on art and cruelty. Is the connection in the negation or illegibility of lives, in the threat or contrastive “normativity” alterity produces?
MN: In part I just mean that it would have been very hard, in the Bush II years, not to shift one’s attention toward the atrocities being committed so egregiously in our name, and in the name of the War on Terror. The other threadthrough, as you say, seems apropos to current discussions about gay rights, civil rights, and human rights—i.e. the difficulties that have attended casting the fight for, say, gay marriage, as a human rights issue, and all the controversy (within the gay community, as well as without) that has attended it. For it isn’t just “whose lives count,” but also, “what counts as a life?”—what rights attend or should attend a life in order to make it “count,” or make it livable. (Hence all the renewed interest in Arendt, and the prevalence of Agamben, etc.)
The argument for gay rights—or for the recognizability, visibility, and dignity of the queer subject—is inextricably linked to humanist discourse, the discourse of human rights. The more radical among us think the whole discourse needs to be hauled up and reconfigured. I’m totally on board for this. At the same time, I’m also a pragmatist, and a romantic—I married my Harry, even as I believe just about everything the beyond-marriage queers say—and I’m glad that I did. Personally I tend to think of all rights as an invention, rather than as “inalienable”—what use is it to yell, “I was born with a right!” in the face of someone who is lawfully discriminating against you? Better to address the behavior head on, I think. Work from contingency rather than essence.
As for normativity, I have to say that I’m not sure what it is anymore, and so I certainly don’t know how alterity produces it, or how it produces alterity. I’ve lost sight, or maybe patience, with claims about the heteronormative, or the homonormative, as they say. To me these terms have begun to take on something of a policing vibe, but perhaps that’s just a reflection of my own life, some of the folks I know. I mean, certainly the normative is in full swing out there; I just try to keep my distance, surround myself with those who think otherwise, but who aren’t cops about it.
To my mind, the right-wing, family-values version of normativity is really and truly freaky, in all its claustrophobia, all its mean, provincial sentimentality. Conversely, or relatedly, I’ve also become steadily less likely to believe there is anything necessarily radical about choosing sexual partners or life partners of the same sex—save the reaction-formation that ensues when heteronormative culture pushes on you, threatens you, tries to “cure” or shame you, won’t let you into a loved one’s emergency room or an adoption office, beats you up, or kills you.
We got into a really heated debate with our good friend Jack Halberstam the other night, in which Jack was asserting that gays were absolutely not second-class citizens anymore, that they were as or more guilty than others of benefiting from gentrifying neighborhoods, and that gays feared being gay-bashed far more than the statistics suggest they should, indicating that some queers now use this fear as an outdated means of thinking of themselves as victims, which conveniently obscures their class sins or status.
There’s some truth here, and I don’t have the facts to dispute statistics. But even if Jack has the numbers right about gay-bashing (and I’m not totally sure he does), an internalized fear of being discriminated against or beat up or what have you seems to me a real force, not one that can easily be discounted as phantasmagorical. Or, perhaps more to the point: the phantasmagorical still bears important information, perhaps even powerful truths, that one cannot wish away. Not yet, anyway.