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The Stakes of Silence

24 May

My favorite ex got married a few months ago. We broke up long ago (if you’ve been with bogey from the beginning you might remember him) but you can’t spend five years with someone unless you really like them, and when he first told me he was getting married I kept waiting for nostalgia or resentment or even envy. Most everyone I’ve dated is now married and it has never occurred to me to care, but I felt I owed him—or rather I owed the us-as-was—an attempt at appropriate emotion. Try as I did, though, all there was to it was happiness and the narrative satisfaction of loose ends neatly tied together.

Then the wedding happened, and there were pictures, and there were comments on those pictures (by various random humans) about how he had “saved the best for the last” and that was when my temper flared. It was comforting, after the stormy year I’ve had, to finally feel a small sorrow, and I started listening to the song in pursuit of a pleasantly maudlin night. I soon discovered I was “some silly girl” and growled I am a fucking woman and took the whole thing very personally indeed. It hurts to be reduced into a trivial obstacle in the drama of someone else’s life; it’s the sort of thing most of us know about ourselves even as we rarely face the full shattering reality of it. Other people, so to say, are always already the reserve army of emotional labor, and all it means to honestly love someone is to convince them that they are not expendable.

This past year I tried, belligerently and often ridiculously, to do precisely that—and it was the hardest thing, bar none, that I’ve ever done. But there’s no convincing people that prefer to remain indifferent; there’s only accepting it, which sounds perfectly obvious until you live through the knowledge that the person you love has no space for you in their life and is willing to be quite ruthless about it. (It took Hegel to teach me about indifference, because I am a very deep idiot.) The how, why, and where of it all requires rather more backstory that I’m willing to go into but essentially what happened last year was that two people I trusted beyond all reason betrayed that trust within a few months of one another and I lost my mind. Around the same time, I was harassed, if that’s the word, with devastating intimacy, by someone (else) who had clearly been far more attentive to my online existence (and those of the people in my life) than I had. It wasn’t all a coincidence, it was a… whirlpool. There were a lot of emails, there was a breach of privacy, there was a great deal of embarrassment; it wasn’t threatening, but it went on for far too long and eventually there was the grim vulnerability of knowing I had handed someone the weapons with which they hurt me.

At this point, I could have taken down bogey, deleted my social media, and gone to ground. I almost did. Perhaps, in retrospect, I ought to have. At the time, though, that felt like defeat—and I can be, have you noticed, a pretty pugnacious human. So I stuck around, made my jokes and my peace, and figured I would get over it and start publishing again; I was certainly writing enough, if not quite well enough. Each time I got to a pitch or a byline, though, I stalled. Last year’s post took me six weeks to upload, and the thought of actually publishing something made me feel horribly exposed. It took Aisha weeks to convince me to publish the Shape of Water review, and the only way I can cobble together Advocate editorials is by writing boring and/or obvious ones.

Speaking of that review— the first essay I published under my own name after the Deccan history essay last February— the title of this post was the working title on it, born as it was from a year in which it felt like I all was doing was throwing some sort of very principled tantrum even as I was utterly unable to say something (anything!) that might actually matter and that might give me some pride rather than steadily deplete it. I can’t quite explain it, if anything twitter ought to make me feel more vulnerable than writing a bogey-post six people will read. And so it does, but for precisely that reason it’s easier to feel brave (or something) every time I log in. In the act of preserving my right to have a voice, I seem to have lost my actual voice— I began bogey to be a writer, but these days I feel like I kept bogey and lost the writing.

keyezua_Fortia(7).jpg

Keyezua, “Fortia,” 2017

A lot of this exhausting year has been about scavenging a life from the debris of my previous one. I’ve spent so long trying to sort out the kind of life I can have that I lost sight of the one I want to have. I don’t regret it; I would do it all again, fall in love, risk a broken heart, even sacrifice my dignity until it began to feel like I simply had none left. (I do, of course, I have enough dignity to drown a dromedary.) But somewhere along the way I began to… disintegrate, and it’s time to admit a measure of defeat. I’m, well, scared. Not of anyone else, all that’s sorted, just for myself. The past two summers have been bleak, and I don’t know what to do with this one except retreat and hope to emerge with some wisdom, some wit, some discipline. Which brings me roundabout to my point.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: I want to build a life I won’t eventually need to delete. I have erased novels and voices and cities and lovers and careers and I am just fucking done. And I want to write; since I can’t make myself write posts or essays, I’m writing letters. To you lot, to those of you who want them, anyhow. Mostly I’m doing this for the structure of it, and I’ll be quite content writing into a void, so long as I can pretend to myself it isn’t one, which was always the point of bogey anyway. I’m also kicking myself off the internet once I get home in June, so if you want me, this is where I’ll be. I’ll send one every Thursday starting next week, until September— and there will be no archives. If you see this in July or something and want to catch up; write me and if I know you we can work something out. If we’ve never interacted, I apologize for being rude, but I won’t respond.

The letters won’t be all about my life or anything, which is in any case not that interesting. It’ll mostly be stuff I’m reading and thinking through—some of which will be tinged with the personal; it’s just how I’m writing these days, especially with the exciting state of feminism—so they’ll be some sort of cross between my twitter account and what bogey used to be. I expect them to be much shorter than the traditional bogey post (certainly this one) and far chattier, but I tend to get obsessed with whatever I’m working on, so mostly it’ll be me blathering about trains or mythology or legal reasoning or fossils or whatever. If I get too arcane, please do write me, and I’ll fix it in the next letter and explain and so on. I desperately want to find my way back to writing for non-academic audiences and I’ll very much appreciate all the help I can get. Again, if I don’t know you and you email me: I will read, but I won’t respond, at least not directly. I’m sorry to sound pompous, it’s not that I think I’m above reproach or debate, I just need the space and silent strangers.

Below the fold, belying all that I just said, is a very academic thingamajig about Adorno’s reading of Kant, which is such a beautiful piece of philosophizing I thought it was the perfect way to start and couldn’t bring myself to tamper with it by simplifying it any further. I can, however, alert you to the stakes, so I’ll do that first.

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The Oasis of Now.

3 Aug

I wrote this essay for a seminar about democracy back in the spring, pretty well on a whim, once it became reasonably clear there wasn’t to be an Indian summer for the JNU protests. The midterm was a far more earnest affair about Laclau and Modi and Real Politics, and I’m sure my professor will be very grateful if you can enlighten her about what any of this has to do with democracy (in my defense, she assigned the Derrida and the Benjamin and it’s really all their fault.) She seemed to like it though, and it continues to amuse me, and it is sort of a companion to “Map of Lost Longings” if only in my own head. I was going to publish it, but I realized that I’m not done thinking it, not yet. Which means, naturally, that bogey was yanked away from her happy holiday. (It is far, far, far longer than Map, maybe move on now?) Anyway, onward. Oh, also, spoiler (?) alerts for the first nine seasons of the new Who. I haven’t seen the tenth yet, but I’m madly curious about the Return to Gallifrey.

The Prosthesis of the Other.

If you are looking for me,
I am beyond nowhere

—“The Oasis of Now” by  Sohrab Sepehri, translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati.

“I only have one language; it is not mine” begins Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin. A few pages later, he heightens (and arguably dissolves) the paradox into an antinomy: “We only ever speak one language—we never speak only one language.” Perhaps it is the verb that makes the second observation seem more quotidian than the first; it troubles my categories less: I speak in many tongues, but I express only myself. So long as the ipseity of “I”— a speaking-thinking-knowing subject—remains undisturbed, that’s an easy claim to accept.

What does it even mean, though, to “have” a language?

Treating language like a possession entails breaching the boundary between words and things, an unsettling provocation for anyone trained within the assumptions of a certain (mostly modern) rationality. To own a language is to exert a claim over a shared reality, an assertion that is both intimate and violent, and anything but natural. That is, I think, Derrida’s point: there is terror in language—“soft, discreet, glaring” (23)—and highlighting that terror points to the processes of historical and colonial usurpation that make more material hegemonies possible.  I speak, I have, the language I am given; I am trapped within the language that allows me passage, that makes my truths heard and hearable, inasmuch as I survive within the only history that makes me inevitable. Language makes reality credible and legible, and so makes reality itself.

morning-sun_hopper

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper.

I inhabit a world made by language and by the promises that it extracts. But what if I didn’t? What if I could slip, magically and at will, across idioms, making them legible to myself even as I remain a cipher to them? What sort of being can traverse, but not transcend, the trap of wandering meaning? What if I lived, precisely, within the “incommunicable” that Khatibi identifies: lost in the translation between worlds? Would such a chimerical, alchemical figure even possess an “I” to speak from? Is that the bargain, then, that the price of having the impossible, universal language—and thus the capacity to narrate a universal history—is to be deprived of a stable self? Is that the only sort of creature that isn’t destined to write, but instead writes their own destiny?

It was in search of this quixotic beast that I began thinking about Doctor Who.

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Defeated Despair

1 Mar

A few weeks ago Caravan published After the Last Sky, my first paid publication in almost three years. I wrote it for Caravan because I’m a completist, and I wanted to close a circle that opened three years ago with Darkness Visible.

After the Last Sky was written just as I was transitioning from one of the darkest periods of my life into the sort of smack-dab happiness that is impossible to channel into language. It’s odd how that happens, this chiaroscuro of emotion, but without that joy, or the pain that came before, this would have been a very different essay and perhaps a feebler one. This was an essay written, as John Berger once said in “Undefeated Despair” from a familiarity with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words. It is an essay about ruin.

Here is a simpler formulation: I wrote an essay about women who learned to live without love even as I was falling in love. If that makes me a hypocrite, all I can say is it makes an excellent change from an earnest despair. But there is despair in that essay, of course there is, it’s all over the place. Despair with prescriptive, idealized feminisms; despair with structures that exalt and oppress women; despair with explanations that remain trapped in clichés, despair with myself, with the smallness and uselessness of my words in the face of totalizing narratives. Perhaps, then, all that my tiny satisfaction offered me was a way out of defeat, and with that I must move on. And so I will.

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The Dying of a Light.

27 Jan

On 27th January 2010 I had just finished setting up my first apartment. I was 23, I was in love, the world awaited my storm. I had an independent study in which to be an Intellectual. I had a boyfriend who did the dishes. Nothing could stop me now, this was It. It was perhaps the last time in my life I would be incorrigibly optimistic.

That was the day Howard Zinn died. That was the day when, though I didn’t know it then, I set out to be a writer. Was that a fair trade on the universal balance? Probably not. But this is how I began. I restrained myself from tinkering too much with this elegy, and not only because I’d end up rewriting it entirely. It might be verbose and a little pompous, but it was written for love, and that is rare in this writing life. Besides, as it turns out, I did spend 2010 researching the Reformation and (in)direct democracy, and there is a lot to be said for beginning a new life with an act of mourning. In the darkest part of this silent Sunday morning, as Barthes might have said (but did not quite), I was vigilant. And all of him leaped before my eyes.

Zinn

An Encomium

Professor Howard Zinn died on 27th January 2010, a fortnight ago at the time of writing. Apart from the resigned rage one feels about the mortality of one’s heroes, my primary emotion was anticipation. I had recently procured, with some difficulty, a copy of Zinn’s Passionate Declarations. I now had good reason to ignore boring daily life and work my way through Zinn’s legacy, a project as inviting as it is daunting. After a month spent separated from my library, the prospect of a reading list soothed me.

In the fortnight since his death was announced, I have spent many nights listening to his lectures, mining his books, locating his prolific journalism. I spent even more time tracking Zinn within a maze of historiography: all great scholars spin a web around them that can prove as revelatory as dissecting the shape of the beast itself. I gave myself a week to “get a grip” on Zinn, and have never underestimated a task more.

It was not the sheer profligacy of his work, as I never expected to read all of it, but the amazing variety of subjects that his writing suggested that ultimately did me in. It’s difficult to chart matters in an organized fashion when a single book (Passionate Declarations) can make you want to research everything from the Reformation to direct democracy. When one ventures into the vast terrain of work inspired by or transformed by Zinn’s historiography the project looses all moorings in rationality. It becomes epic, spawning academic cottage industries.

I have no doubt such a fate lies in store for the late, great Professor Zinn. I suspect he would be amused by all the posthumous interest, considering he spent his lifetime languishing in academia’s back closet, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Genius is historically betrayed by the grave.

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Tabernacle or Tomb?

19 Jan

One of the dilemmas I’m grappling with is that of an audience. Who am I writing for? It’s not that I write to be read – this would be foolhardy- but that the proposed reader influences how any text is constructed. It’s a question answered instinctively when you write for publication, even when that publication is simply your own blog. But I remain entirely at sea when it comes to writing as a graded exercise with defined guidelines. Partly, of course, it is that I carry it badly. Last semester I folded my words into my life, rather than the other way around, which is never a good idea for someone as chronically fickle as me.

The Dickinson essay below is a good example of the weird niche I currently occupy. I wrote it (and I admit this is dubious) for a “controversy” assignment, and while it was fun reading Dickinson for two weeks, I’m not sure where/how to pitch it, or indeed if I should pitch it. I’m leaning towards no: which self-respecting books blog would accept my solemn exegesis of her verse? (in less than fifty words!) Who else would care? Is this basically a blogpost pointing out that other people are writing blogposts? Is it only logical to expect my reader to know who Emily Dickinson is and why she is VITAL? If so, why bother writing it?

 Anyway. I fully expect y’all to consider this a purely rhetorical puzzle, so here’s another reason to read it. This essay has sentimental value: the first booksy thing I did in NYC was attend the launch of Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader. It was my first solo outing in DUMBO; I got spectacularly lost* and I kept circling this guy selling pretzels until eventually he took pity on a starving student and gave me one. It was a magic pretzel. I finally found my way down Water Street the next go-around and a great good time was had. I mingled. I sipped artisanal beer and made eye-contact and small lit-chat and was generally an urbane sophisticate** and a new din was born. All for the love of Emily Dickinson.***

 *Even google is stumped by Brooklyn.

** yeah, ok. I wore perfume and I scuffed my sneakers.

***tbh, I often find Dickinson fucking exhausting. So frenetic! So baroque! I know her well enough to misrepresent myself as a fangirl, but in most moods I’m.. conflicted.

Dickinson

Dickinson

All great poets spawn cottage industries of interpretation. Emily Dickinson, High Priestess of American Literature, is no exception. There is an Emily Dickinson museum, an International Society, and an academic journal dedicated entirely to explicating her riddling verse.  Several poets have written tributes to Dickinson, from William Carlos William’s “To An Elder Poet” to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home” to Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters.

 What is curious is the extent to which she survives in the popular imagination. There has been a novel written about her every year for the last five years, as well as six popular biographies, a parody, and a book inspired by her penchant for writing on envelopes.  In 2010, the New York Botanical Society held a Dickinson-themed flower exhibit. She was on Broadway in 1976, as the protagonist of The Belle of Amherst. She turns up as a larger-than-life puppet in the movie Being John Malkovich, a mockery of the Dickinson cult that Joyce Carol Oates expanded by writing a novella featuring a diminutive robotic Emily.  2013 will see a Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City’s Miranda. Popstars, a certain barometer of the cultural temperature, have also invoked the spirit of Emily Dickinson: Pete Doherty admits to “nicking her lines” because she’s “fucking outrageous”; Carla Bruni went so far as to set an entire poem to music. As Paul Legault writes in the introduction to The Emily Dickinson Reader, “Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.” The question, then, is why. What’s the secret to Emily Dickinson’s immortality? The best vitality, she once said, cannot excel decay. But what of that? 

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