5 for the End of the Year: 2021

Black Butler: Yana Toboso

It’s not like I found enough to love in Black Butler that I chose to write a novel set in the universe during NaNoWriMo. This past year, I read the whole manga up to the most recent volume available in English and watched the anime, including the non-canonical second season. (I have thoughts for another time there.) I admire the way Yana Toboso constructs the events of the manga so that everything ends on a cliffhanger, but not in a way that feels contrived and irritating. There’s an aura of the old pulp style about the manga’s structure in most chapters that I really enjoy.

Lovesick: Junji Ito

I’ve ready a lot of Ito since quarantine, when the spirals of Uzumaki drew me in during the biggest shutdown in 2020. Lovesick is a collection of shorter works, the title story of which is a deeply upsetting meditation on lost love, fortunes, and fate. I also enjoyed Ito’s Cat Diary, which gives audiences an opportunity to see his usually terrifying art style in a more humorous context.

Red, White, and Royal Blue: Casey McQuistion

This rom-com is probably the lightest thing on the list, but definitely one that I had the most fun about. Queer romance being something in vogue at the moment, I was slightly worried that it would fall into tropelandia or simply be the exact same formula as a hetero Harlequin, but with gays. I was happy to have my fears wiped away by the story of an English prince and the son of the President of the United States. Witty, sexy, profane–what else could you want from a fun read?

Suspiria

I rewatched Dario Argento’s Suspiria for the first time since college this summer and I had forgotten just how deeply implanted elements of this movie were. Even if I had not been able to remember which film they belonged to, seeing Argento’s camera move down a hallway and land on a particular window frame or element of decoration brought it flooding back with a nauseating reminder of what was to come. Garish and astonishing,

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon

I think that this might be the best biography I’ve read in a long time. Cornell’s life might seem very quiet by comparison to other grand artists of the period, but I found the little details–the counting of his days and obsessions–to be the most rewarding part of the book. Cornell has been a pet fascination of mine for a few years, particularly in relation to concepts of hauntology and nostalgia. I gave a few artist friends copies of the book for the holidays.

Updike’s Versions: Reflections on Childhood

This text was originally read at the 2021 John Updike Society Conference in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Although this piece is about memoirs, I want to open with a quote from Midpoint. This quote comes from the preamble, to the second section of the title poem, which is made up of pointillist reproductions of family photographs. The poet’s eye turns to these photographs, magnified and turned into the patterned spheres of newsprint, and delivers a remark that serves, perhaps, as guidance:

Distance improves vision. Lost time sifts through these immutable old screens.

Perhaps now more than ever, readers have come to look for the autobiographical underpinnings of a text. Autofiction is in vogue again, and with it the question of a writer’s responsibilities—to the past, family and friends, to memory and invention; to readers. Most writers—if not all—take from life to a greater or lesser extent, just as most texts are at some level in conversation with other texts. Themes, if not events, can constitute a writer’s identity—the well-spring of material.

For a writer such as Updike, the phrase “autofiction” or “autobiographical” writer seems a somewhat uneasy fit. Reading two of Updike’s contributions to the memoir genre—“The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood” and the later essay-memoir collection Self-Consciousness (1989)—allows an appreciative reader of the fiction to observe the way a skilled stylist can produce visions and revisions of an event, an emotion, and experience, as if viewing life with a cubist eye. Just as we add or subtract details from our past as we speak to a new colleague or stranger across a café table, a writer can begin from their base elements of lived experience (thoughts, emotions, senses, the popular culture radiating through their time) to shape elements into new images.

There is a hesitancy when the autobiographical percentage in an author’s work is brought up. One does not want to suggest a sense of taking transcription from life. The nature of the work can also change the extent to which we assume autobiography is at play—we do not ask Thomas Harris how close he is to Hannibal Lecter. That Updike returns so frequently to chronical the domestic life—especially the evolution of marriage—invites these questions. Nicholson Baker, in his study U & I, speculates on the awareness of this autobiographical interpretation: “Updike knows that people are going to assume that the fictional wife of an Updike-like male character corresponds closely with Updike’s own real-life wife—after all, Updike himself angered Nabokov by suggesting Ada was Vera” (Baker 115). In the introduction to Self-Consciousness, Updike gives the clear indication that he is both aware of reader’s interest in the construction of work and self, and of the sense that the memoir is not the final word on anything.

The veins had been tapped, of course—the load mined—in over thirty years’ worth of prose and poetry; and where an especially striking marked parallel in my other work seemed to me, I have quoted it, as a footnote. But merciful forgetfulness has no doubt hidden many other echoes from me, as well as erode the raw material of autobiography into shapes scarcely less imaginary, though less final, than these of fiction. (xi)

Here is an accounting then, but it might not quite add up perfectly. Updike, like many authors, was a chronic reviser (the Library of America edition of his Collected Later Stories refers to the incorporation of “posthumous corrections found in Updike’s personal copies of his books.”) The world is worked and reworked—from his childhood, his family history, his thoughts and feelings and desires. The footnotes of Self-Consciousness serve as moments where the author opens the door. At the same time, those moments are being curated by the author. The development of the self, the development of consciousness, is, in its way, the intersection of place and time—the creation of a self, a “writerly writer” that was summed in the New Yorker style Updike had cultivated since his own youth; a style, after reading him, many others also wished to attain. “What I have written here strains to be true but nevertheless is not true enough. Truth is anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian” (234). The trickiness of memory and self-creation is made clear when Updike mentions a moment from his parents’ lives together:

I remember waiting with her [Updike’s mother] by a window for my father to return from weeks on the road. It is in the Shillington living room. My hands are on the radiator ridges, I can see my father striding through the hedge toward the grape arbor, I feel my mother’s excitement beside me mingle with mine. But she says this cannot be; he had lost his job before I was born. (155)

I love this moment from Self-Consciousness because it shows not only the fickleness of memory but also the way that an author can create a scene, moving through details so real that he may believe it a true piece of his past, though it is a chronological impossibility.

Since I first picked up a copy of Self-Consciousness, when I was already reading Updike (and too young to understand half of what I was getting into), I was entranced by the specificity of the subtitle: memoirs—an autumn word, suggesting the foxed and discolored edges of a photograph. It is a nostalgic form for a work focalized through nostalgia. Suzanne Henning Uphaus writes that

Certainly, Updike misses the ideal past, a time when the writer could depend upon a “common store of assumptions,” when the paper he wrote on was far from blank. […] Updike’s nostalgia for such a past is a constant theme in his fiction. We see it at first, strongly presented, by the older people in the earlier novels […] In Couples, however, the older generation has disappeared; Piet’s parents are dead, as is the past they represent. It remains for him only to recognize and accept this fact. (Uphaus, 132-133)

As a writer, I have often thought that childhood memories are most interesting because in childhood we lack so much contextual information for what is happening around us, as if we had tuned in to some unfamiliar soap opera on an afternoon home sick from work—we vaguely recognize the characters, we can fill-in the details of the story, but we cannot know firsthand what we did not witness. The connections of location and memory in Self-Consciousness suggests the author was piecing together and processing his experiences through the distance that improves vision written about in Midpoint. Opening with “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington, Updike travels the old neighborhood and the old past, while his family watches Being There. The streetlights are harsher than he remembers. Things changed radically from Updike’s childhood—something he had already been bracing himself for since at least the 1960s when he wrote that “It has taken me the shock of many returnings, more and more widely spaced now, to learn what seems simple enough, that change is the order of things” (165). Memories pour forth and are arranged in neat order, forming a walking tour of what is lost and what remains. Earlier, the sense of self and grounding was placed in more explicit terms in “The Dogwood Tree,” with the determination that can only come from childhood certainties:

My geography went like this: in the center of the world lay our neighborhood of Shillington. Around it there was greater Shillington, and around that Berks County. Around Berks County there was the State of Pennsylvania, the best, the least eccentric state in the Union. Around Pennsylvania, there was the United States […] There was only one possible nation: mine. (163)

The youthful sense of the center of the world existing as far as the legs of a boy can carry him recurs in Updike over and over, from his experience with a reporter discussed in the opening of Adam Begley’s biography (later fictionalized in one of Updike’s stories) to the protagonist of his late short story “Kinderszenen”—the first Updike short story I ever sought out in its original magazine publication, in Harper’s. The young Toby moves through his neighborhood, so similar to the one described by Updike in both memoirs, now able to cut and collage the scenes of the past into some new fiction. Indeed, the passage that comes to me most clearly is the alley-space by the chicken house, used as an outdoor bathroom, appearing again across a forty-year distance.

In remembering the dogwood tree I remember the faintly speckled asbestos shingles of the chicken house at the bottom of our yard, fronting on the alley. We had a barn as well […] and between the chicken house and the barn there was a narrow space where my grandfather, with his sly country ways, would urinate. I, a child, did also, passing through this narrow, hidden-feeling passage to the school grounds beyond our property; the fibrous tan-gray of the shingles would leap up dark, silky and almost black, when wetted. (152)

Consider looking at this scene again through “Kinderszenen”:

The field is two minutes’ walk away […], from the lower end of the yard, through the narrow space between the chicken house and the empty garage. Mother complains that this space smells of urine, and blames the men of the house, including Toby. It makes her just wild to think about it. “What’s the point of having indoor toilets?” she asks, getting red in the face. Still, Toby keeps doing it. Just being in this space between two walls, the chicken house’s asbestos shingles and the old garage’s wooden clapboards with the red paint flicking off, makes him need to go wee-wee. (864)

Though pictures do not appear in Self-Consciousness and the photograph that illustrated “The Dogwood Tree” as it first appeared in Five Boyhoods is absent from Assorted Prose, the photographs of the author taken by his mother serve as footholds for his memories. In “The Dogwood Tree,” the author had looked at himself as a child, looking out into the future, and found himself troubled that he had not yet turned out into the man the child had wanted to become.

I go back now, to Pennsylvania, and on one of the walls of the house in which my parents now live there hangs a photograph of myself as a boy. I am smiling, and staring with clear eyes at something in the corner of the room. I stand before that photograph, and am disappointed to receive no flicker, not the shadow of a flicker, of approval or gratitude. The boy continues to smile at the corner of the room, beyond me. That boy is not a ghost to me, he is real to me; it is I who am a ghost to him. Like some phantom conjured by this child from a glue bottle, I have executed his commands; acquired pencils, paper, and an office. Now I wait apprehensively for his next command, or at least a nod of appreciation, and he smiles through me[..]. (185)

From childhood through adulthood, the successful author is photographed again and again. “Without those accumulating photographs my past would have vanished year after year. Instead, it accumulated, loose in a set of shoeboxes, in no order, and because of its randomness ever fresh, ever stunning.” (12) The portrait of the author that I most admire is the author photograph by Elena Seibert, in which the author’s face peeks out from his hands, allowing the shy smile and the sense of a child who knows something that the reader does not know. If you will pardon my temporary adoption of Nicholson Baker’s “memory criticism” approach, I cannot help but recall—against historical chronology of “Kinderszenen,” and the moment in which the protagonist, Toby, reflects on how he came to know the secret knowledge of differences between himself and girls. “How had she seen him peeking? Had his spying eye gleamed in the crack?” (855). I, probably among many readers, had the experience of finding the secret knowledge of the adult world—and, perhaps, an explanation for why each of my grandparent’s divorced—in Updike’s work. There is then a kinship between the author and reader, of us both children peeking in the dark, peeking through the crack, and sharing some unspoken knowledge—dare I call it Higher Gossip?

Looking out towards the future caused great anxiety in Updike, as the child grew into a man, into a parent, into a grandparent. In Self-Consciousness, Updike recalls “squatting in our cellar making my daughter a dollhouse under the close sky of the cobwebby ceiling, and the hammer going numb in my hand as I saw not only my life but hers, so recently begun, as a futile misadventure, a leap out of the dark and back” (97). A decade or so later, perhaps this dollhouse memory would burrow itself down and out once more, as an existential needle-drop in his glimpse into the (now past) future, Toward the End of Time.

Our eldest, Mildred, had an eighth birthday coming in May, and I wanted to build her a dollhouse. It wasn’t to be a very elaborate one […] but whenever I went down to the cellar to work on the dollhouse[..] a clammy sense of futility would ooze out from the rough old eighteenth-century foundation stones and try to drown me. […] I would die, but also the little girl I was making this for would die, would die an old lady in whose mind I had become a dim patriarchal myth[…] (81-82).

Even in youth, there was a connection between the future, particularly the self-less future after the author was no more: “The dread of death comes upon me in futuristic space movies, and when, in early adolescence, I would read science-fiction, I dreaded those future aeons when I would not be present—an endless succession of days I would mist, wit their own news and songs, and styles of machine” (243-244).

“The Dogwood Tree” seems conspicuously absent from the flaneurs’ journey that opens Self-Consciousness. Updike expressed uneasiness with “The Dogwood Tree” even when it was gathered in Assorted Prose. “Though there are some tenderly tuned passages, my reminiscence in general, I fear, has the under-cooked quality of prose written to order, under insufficient personal pressure” (viii-ix). There might also be the sense that the changes he had witnessed were in fact only the preamble to greater change. And yet, the dogwood tree that inspires the title becomes in some ways a metaphor for Updike’s life and later his career on the whole—“each year with increasing volume and brilliance” (151).

Perhaps these letters gathered together in my remarks find only so much to hold them together against the “increasing volume and brilliance” of a life’s work. Though a professor once told me never to end a presentation with another writer’s words, I will come back to the beginning and end with a quote from Midpoint, one that sums the writer’s craft:

Reality transcends itself within;

Atomically, all writers must begin.

The Truth arrives as if by telegraph:

One dot; two dots; a silence; then a laugh. (38)

November Update

Hello and thank you for visiting my weblog. Like many people around the world, I’m taking the month of November to participate in NaNoWriMo. This is going to push all other writing projects to the side for a minute while I focus on the slightly mad attempt to write a full novel of at least 50,000 words in the space of a month. So far, relatively so good. I’ve long been an admirer of much more productive writers than myself, so I hope this month will give me the opportunity to develop better working habits that might allow me to finish more pieces for here and elsewhere.

See you in December,

J.

John Updike Conference Details

Self-Consciousness, 2021

I will be appearing at the John Updike Society conference this weekend with a presentation, “Updike’s Versions: Reflections on Childhood.” I will be appearing on Saturday’s panel at the 10:00am time slot. I am so looking forward to my first academic conference since COVID delayed this one a full year. I hope that everyone has a happy and healthy weekend.

Above is a collage that I created while I was working on my presentation and hit a pretty terrible roadblock. Named after Updike’s memoir, I wanted to address the emotions that writing about this man–who mirrored so many of my own anxieties and concerns at various points of my life. I haven’t shared much of my collage work, but I find it a helpful way to experiment with thoughts and imagery.

Photography and Janet Malcolm

Photography—the nature of images, and the nature of documentation, of cataloging, of representation—was one of Janet Malcolm’s key subjects, from her first book of criticism, Diana and Nikon, to her own work as a photographer. This latter work is greatly overshadowed by her lasting contribution to written culture—her books In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer, and The Silent Woman, among others, being some of the most incisive critical works about the ethics of writing. (Already, a digression: I found the recent splash-up over Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”—namely the essay published in Slate by Alexis Nowicki, who claimed that a personal relationship she had was the inspiration for the viral hit story—reenforced my sense of sadness over Malcolm’s recent passing. Not that I felt that she would have necessarily written a word about the incident, but sadness at the fact that it was no longer possible she’d jump into the conversation.) Reading Diana and Nikon in the past week, I was reminded of the slim volume of photographs Malcolm published in 2008, Burdock.

Burdock is a study of leaves Malcolm photographed over three summers in the Berkshires. These large leaves are presented as highly-detailed works of documentary and art. (It was this summer that I found myself in a position of despair, realizing that I could no longer look at any nature photograph without thinking of climate crisis, which has turned nature photography into a monument for a time-bomb.) The leaves are posed simply, without ornamentation and seemingly without context.  As in Malcolm’s writing, it is in the details of the subject that makes the work unique.

Writing of Richard Avedon,  one of the great photographers—whom Malcolm returned to as a subject several times in Diana and Nikon—Malcolm points to the way that Avedon’s most iconic works passed through several stages, from the early portraits “characterized by their aliveness and (often exaggerated) expressiveness, and by the photographer’s conception of the subject as the embodiment of what he does” (44) to the shift towards the blunt, somewhat intimidating works that hold the “Avedon style.”

“His subjects become older, and his camera dwells on the horrible things that age can do to people’s faces—on the flabby flesh, the slack skin, the ugly growths, the puffy eyes, the knotted necks, the aimless wrinkles, the fearful and anxious set of the mouth, the marks left by sickness, madness, alcoholism, and irreversible disappointment. These pictures of people who no longer care how they look—or shouldn’t if they do—were taken under the glare of strobe lights or in bright daylight, to pick out every degrading and disgusting detail; were often angled from below, to reveal the collapse of chin into formless flaccidity or to accentuate the tense, death-rattle attenuation of neck; and were printed in savage black contrast.” (44-45)

This “horrible,” “collapse,” and “savage” photography is on display in Burdock. There is no looking away from a leaf that has been eaten into, been torn, been collapsing in on itself, or at the very least has been plucked from its landscape. The damaged spots on the leaves are the same spots we have seen over and over: on our hands and faces, in old photographs and medical charts, in documentary footage and reconstructions of “lost” or damaged films. Their lives can be read on the surface of their bodies.

Malcolm’s burdock leaves show they owe as much to Avedon photographs as much as they do fine lacework or silhouettes. The body of the leaf can be exposed with the same bluntness as a nude portrait, a passport photograph, or a patient on a table. The leaf is documented, almost as in an experiment. One can see shadows, or perhaps the blurred aura of the leaf’s green on the white backdrop. This returns us to the Avedon comparison (an influence Malcolm openly admits in the introduction to this volume) and shows the soft corners—the bleeding edge—of Malcolm’s photography as opposed to the tight, highly contrasting, black and white portraits Avedon was known for, in which the subject is as distinct from the background as a thick, black-lined cartoon. Malcolm’s effect is that of Modernist pastels. The composition of leaves also brings to mind Mapplethorpe’s late photographs of flowers, which display a rich physicality and depth, or the iconic paintings of Georgia O’Keefe.

And while thinking of O’Keefe, we are reminded of Stieglitz, who floats throughout Diana and Nikon, including a review of a volume of photographs of O’Keefe (which O’Keefe would not let Malcolm reproduce images from in her volume). One of the key points in the review is the effect that the crop, the frame of the image, can have in changing the impact of the work. Discussing these nude portraits, Malcolm writes that, in contrast to Stieglitz’s image as “pompous, sententious, petulant, cold, sexless,” “The man who took the pictures of O’Keefe is a person of evident warmth, passion, erotic imaginativeness and assured masculinity.”

“One Stieglitz nude, of 1918 (never before published)—a torso cropped at the chest and mid-thigh—stands out from the rest in its blunt sexuality. The picture is taken from below, from a gynecologist’s vantage point. […] What gives the picture its tremendous erotic impact is, paradoxically, the very thing that saves it from being lewd and unprintable in an art book. The photograph is printed to darken out the particulars of the genitals: the dark pubic hair merges with the darkness below and forms an enormous black place at the center of the picture which dominates the composition—drags the eye to itself, as an abyss compels the gaze of the vertiginous into its fathomless darkness” (133-134).

(She returns to this focus on the crop in a discussion of Edward Weston’s photograph Torso of Neil throughout Diana and Nikon, and later in a discussion of the photographs of Herta Hilscher-Wittegnstein, both of which concern the representation of the body and its emotional effects.) The crop focuses on a subject—a movement of the eye that performs a slight-of-hand for the viewer, or directs a viewer’s focus like a traffic cone. Malcolm’s photographs of burdock leaves often leave out the bottle in which they were placed to stand tall, but the hinting mouth of the bottle appears in a few of them, and lingers there like something we are not supposed to be seeing, like the mixing of drugs in a test tube.

The clinical nature of Malcolm’s photographs demonstrates a paradoxical frame of mind: documenting the natural world, and in doing so, removing it to a new context, one in which it decays and spends its final moments apart from its natural location. But is this pinning down not the job of a writer? Certainly, as one who has worked as a passport photographer, one can see the difficulty of representing the subject in a recognizable way while presenting the subject removed from real-world context through a sterile background. In Diana and Nikon, Malcolm remarks about the selection process of photographs—namely, there is a moment before and after the photograph was taken, and often there are photographs that were almost the “iconic” photograph, but were not quite right. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem, PA.,” Malcolm writes not only of alternate photographs made by Walker Evans (multiple versions of iconic works, as opposed to Stieglitz and his theoretical “one-take” masterwork, The Steerage,” discussed in the opening of Diana and Nikon) but also of the ability for a photograph’s printing and editing to change the context and meaning of the photograph itself. Using Evans’s photograph of a sharecropper, Malcolm points to the fact that the image that was widely disseminated and used in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is, in fact, retouched and printed in a manner that blunts the “horror” elements discussed earlier.  The photograph as printed (and given “iconic” status) “betrays” the text written by James Agee. Photography, then, has the ability to contort the perception or experience of reality. (This becomes explicit in the playful spirit of surrealist photographers, or disturbingly in bad reportage.) The pose of Malcolm’s leaves rarely allows for this kind of betrayal or seduction, unless it is consciously playing with these ideas, as in one photograph of a curved leaf folding over, looking both as if it is closing and opening at the same time.

Malcolm’s camera came to the leaves with the same pointedness as her pen came to sentences. The works reproduced in Burdock will perhaps seem simple and small at a first glance, but further inspection demonstrates the Malcolm style that many readers admired throughout her life and work.

Janet Malcolm

Buster & Beyoncé

The contemporary wisdom is that silent films are difficult for modern audiences to watch. This is not surprising. Silent films contain a different pacing; a different visual emphasis. The language of a silent film swings between more subtle renderings of emotion (Louise Brooks and sometimes Garbo) and exaggerated emphasis to compensate for the lack of speech (everyone else, including Chaplin, the Gish sisters, Swanson, and sometimes Garbo). At the start of quarantine, I went back to watch silent films because I found the actors possessed an intense emotional versatility in their eyes. A person’s eyes have become one of the most important facets of reading someone’s emotional situation when a third of their face is covered by a mask. “We’ll see a lot of actors who developed very good communication with their eyes,” I said when asked what I thought would come out of the prolonged quarantine.

In part because of the work of Guy Maddin, Godard, and Peter Greenaway, I became fascinated by the concept of revisiting classic films and presenting them in new contexts: recreating lost sequences, supplying new music, or contrasting documentary footage or outtakes with the final project. I was also reminded by the internet that Beyoncé is always on beat. And so I took this short clip from The Cook, a 1918 silent short film with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton as two kitchen workers in a hotel, and spliced it with “Apeshit” by The Carters. What happens if you put these two artists, a century apart, in direct contact with each other? What calls out and speaks across time–beyond the intentions of anyone involved with either work?

Reading about The Cook, I became aware that the sequence I had found and heard was, in fact, a parody of Theda Bara’s performance in Salome: a lost silent film about the beheading of John the Baptist, loosely based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

(This would also be the basis for Ken Russell’s absurd, neo-Victoriana, Freudian sex romp, Salome’s Last Dance, featuring the legendary Glenda Jackson as Salome’s mother.) The Cook itself was considered lost until the 1990s. I was fascinated by the idea that film historians had uncovered a lost parody of a lost film (or potentially two, if one considers Arbuckle’s holding a sausage to his chest and pretending to die of snakebite as a possible reference to Bara’s 1917 Cleopatra.) The music video for “Apeshit” by the Carters visualizes a certain odyssey–a journey through culture to center black identity as central to culture, occupying the space of other grand signifiers of culture, such as the Mona Lisa. We see then two messages, one of elevation, and one of parody, working around each other when forced into direct conversation.

What fascinates me are the possibilities for opening up new audiences to classic films; to open a door to a greater potential visual literacy and reference for the next generation. Perhaps it doesn’t come down to something as grand as that. Perhaps, in the end, it is a question of entertainment before anything else.

Notes on Queering “Ally”

These notes were delivered in a different form as a guest lecture at Kutztown University on 1 April, 2021. They have been reworked from that lecture for the purposes of clarification and citation. There were many wonderful questions asked by the students, and I have worked some of my replies to them into the finalized notes. This work is, in many ways, still in progress–the issues under discussion cannot be resolved by a single lecture or essay, but must be part of an ongoing personal and social critique.

While the terminology of allyship arrives in the 1980s, I would argue that allyship as an action, as well as the concept of an ally as an invested participant in a movement, began with the change in the contemporary structure of what we now term social justice movements. Many contemporary imaginings of American history present the Civil Rights movement in a crystalized moment of the 1960s, reaching its zenith in the persons of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, rather than presenting the era of the 1960s as part of a momentum building from previous decades of boycotts, protests, and marches on Washington. (This is not to downplay or erase the serious victories of icons of this movement, but to point to the tendency we have to clean up and simplify the nature of activism, social change, and the lives of activists as opposed to the force of a group political action.) I cannot pinpoint a moment when ideas of how to best organize shifted, but I would not be the first to suggest that the majority of movements that have obtained serious success in recent history have largely followed in the steps of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Inside the discussion of “Who Is an Ally?,” leading from a piece by Micki McEyla, we see an appeal on the part of the person outside of the group under discussion (IE: the other, who is assumed to be part of the heterosexual majority as opposed to the marginalized gay and lesbian subject). Allyship is given contemporary definition and form through a discussion of Washington and Evans’s Beyond Tolerance, a guide on being an ally to the lesbian and gay community of the 1980s. As McElya points out, all the benefits of allyship are presented as primarily benefitting the ally. One of the primary motivations of allyship is, half-jokingly, the boon to culture and richness of life that the ally will be able to lay claim to enjoying, to be “invited to some of the most fun parties, have some of the best foods, play some of the best sports, have some of the best intellectual discussion, and experience some of the best music in the world, because everyone knows that lesbian and gay people are good at all of these things.” The appeal to exceptionalism–we deserve our rights and your respect because we are just so damn good at what we do–serves a purpose, but it also lays the groundwork for another series of problems within the proclaimed-exceptional community: burnout, self-consciousness, impostor syndrome, and perfectionism for fear of letting everyone else down. If constant exceptionalism is what it takes to convince someone they should support the rights of others, then we are all in a very unstable boat.

I would argue that allyship, like friendship and many other social interactions, comes down to certain ethical questions that we will not be able to answer definitively: What do we owe to each other? At what point do we have a responsibility beyond our own interests to support the rights of others? Do our deeper motivations for helping another person validate or invalidate our good works? When do we get to call ourselves a friend or an ally? And, perhaps the most difficult and troubling question for those who proclaim their ally status, At what point can a person or a group deny the status of “ally” to an individual?

“Who is an Ally?” begins with a discussion on the nature of naming within the LGBT+ community and what has become known as the “alphabet soup” problem. Jonathan Rauch, in a 2019 article cited by McEyla, suggests that the problem of too many letters (LGBTQIAA+) can be solved by replacing them with the singular letter “Q.” The problem, of course, is that any attempt at renaming or reworking the name of a group is inherently going to cause as much conflict as the original name. “Rauch noted that the ‘Q’ would be derived from ‘queer,’ itself an increasingly common term of inclusion in popular discourse, it would be sheared of the word’s ugly history and more recent ‘radical baggage.'” Leaving aside the reactionary aura of the phrase “radical baggage,” I want to challenge the idea that replacing a word with a single letter inherently changes the history of the word or the effect of the letter. The abbreviating of a word short-circuits the speaking or enacting of the word, but it does not erase the word itself. In critical discussion of racist and pejorative language, particularly in light of the ongoing acts of racist violence against Black and Asian-American communities that prompted part of this very discussion, there is often a tendency to redact a slur or profanity, or to cover up all but the first and last letters with asterisks and dashes. I found two examples in a copy of the NY Daily News I purchased the night before these remarks were delivered and I include them below:

“‘I’m going to hurt somebody,’ Ooi said the man snarled. ‘I’m going to f–k somebody up.”

-“Together, They Fight the Hate,” NY Daily News, 30 March, 2021, pg 10.

“A witness at the end of the minutelong [sic] video ca be heard claiming the victim called the suspect the N-word.”

-“Another Beatdown of Asian on Subway,” NY Daily News, 30 March, 2021, pg. 11

Here we see both the abbreviation of the word “fuck,” as well as the short-handing of a racial slur. This act in reporting places the writer or speaker on an awkward footing, allowing them to “say it without saying it,” as it were. The ghost of the slur and profanity remain in the space between the letters, which we as readers fill in. It does not eliminate the “baggage” of these words: in fact, it re-enforces their history on the reader. (There is also the unfortunate fact that the QAnon theory is sometimes referred to simply as “Q” in online spaces. Given the history (both past and ongoing) of presenting LGBT+ people as sexual predators, this dovetailing of self-naming and conspiracy theory is very poorly timed.

Rauch’s idea does, in fact, bring to the forefront an important point about reclaiming and reworking words, particularly words that have a “baggage,” like Queer. Queer, as a term, is always the mark of the outsider or the Other. The outsider term comes with a space of questioning: the outsider is defined as being apart from the assumed normal structure of a community or group in one or more ways, and is defined, stereotyped, and penalized for not fitting into what is viewed as “normal.” Toni Morrison defines the process of Othering as follows:

“What is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power (social, psychological, or economical? Is it the thrill of belonging–which implies being pat of something bigger than one’s solo self, and therefore stronger? My initial view leans towards the social/psychological need for a “stranger,” an Other in order to define the estranged self (the crowd seeker is always the lonely one.”

-Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others, pgs. 15-16.

Rarely do those defining Otherness turn that same gaze upon themselves and seek to define, in a meaningful way, “What is normal?” Normal is assumed, Other or Queer is presented in contrast, or in negative relief to, the assumption. Therefore, it is also important to question or queer the assumptive definition of a term that is being claimed, reused, and held by individuals seeking to meet under a word. In “Critically Queer,” Judith Butler lays out the argument for continued analysis of the way in which these words are used:

“Who is represented by which use of the term, and who is excluded? For whom does the term present an impossible conflict between racial, ethnic, or religious affiliation and sexual politics? What kinds of policies are enabled by what kinds of usages, and which are backgrounded or erased from view? In this sense, the genealogical critique of the queer subject will be central to queer politics to the extent that it constitutes a self-critical dimension within activism, a persistent reminder to take the time to consider the exclusionary force of one of activism’s most treasured contemporary premises.

[…]

“If the term queer is to be a site of collective contestation… it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes. This also means that it will doubtlessly have to be yielded in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively.” (Butler 172)

In this way, we have to consider not only “Queer” but “Ally,” as well as any other term deployed for the purposes of political organizing. Ally comes with the implication that the user is standing with, but separate from, a group. (This is why many–myself included–have been somewhat mystified by the arguments of including allies in the LGBT+ umbrella: one does not become a member of the Black community by being an Ally in support of Black Lives Matter.) Butler is well aware that words, once released into the world, are no longer entirely under our control. They can be played with, played against, recut, reworked, remixed, redefined, and given meaning beyond our intent or understanding–sometimes within reason, sometimes (as in the case of certain interpretations of Butler’s Gender Trouble, mentioned in “Critically Queer”) with the clear intent of misunderstanding from a closed mind. Indeed, in the semi-satirical book, You Can Keep that to Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor, the author, Adam Smyer, says that the first term that should be thrown out of the lexicon is, in fact, “Ally.”

“Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Bein part of the problem was never considered. And, really, ‘ally’ was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now ‘I’m an ally’ is the ‘Don’t hurt me!’ of our time” (11).

Smyer’s book moves between a humorous approach and a sense of genuine frustration–at both rhetorical strategies and the very realistic silencing and unwillingness to have a deep conversation about the issues effecting people of color in the United States. Smyer performs an act of informing the (presumed pale) reader of a term, the context in which it is used, the problem with the term, the context, and the use, and why it should be, in effect, cancelled. This represents, in a simple way, the critical strategies called for by Butler in “Critically Queer.”

In the same way, we can see a connection between Smyer’s work and the now-infamous New Statesman interview between Alona Ferber and Judith Butler, in which Butler replies to Ferber’s questions with refutations of the way the questions were constructed while still answering the question in direct, fairly simple language. (The straightforwardness of Butler’s replies, after spending so much time with “Critically Queer,” might still remain the most shocking part of this exchange for me.) This interview comes across as an example of critical engagement in “real time” as well as an application of the theories in “Critically Queer,” from her question about what is assumed in the use of the phrase “mainstream feminism” to the discussion of the term “TERF”:

“I am not aware that terf is used as a slur. I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favor exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?”

Later:

“Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled. We tell histories about what it meant to be a woman at a certain time and place, and we track the transformation of those categories over time.”

A significant portion of the works engaged with in the lead-up to this lecture are about the question of identity, either being defined by things outside of ourselves, or through identities we take on and claim for ourselves. This brings with it baggage: what constitutes proclaiming yourself as a member of a group, and what makes your membership valid or invalid? In the case of Allyship, there remains a question of what constitutes “being an Ally.” As Colleen Clemens states in her essay “Ally or Accomplice,” while one may hear accomplice and think about crime, the original meaning of the word conveys a sense of cooperation—and not in a criminal sense.” This past summer, many of us witnessed the limits of allyship in light of the global pandemic and crack down on protests and acts of civil disobedience in the face of state-sanctioned violence in major cities. The ongoing crisis of COVID-19 and the ongoing crisis in hate crimes, abuse of police power, and ongoing intimidation and suppression of voting rights in the aftermath of the 2020 election, has forced some using the language of allyship into a corner. To proclaim that one is an Ally is to say that one supports and stands with a group: to say that one is an accomplice is to say that one is going to aid a group. To proclaim that one is an Ally to this or that cause without substantive action is, in fact, mere performance, enacted for the benefit of the Ally alone. I suggest that to say that one is an ally without offering any kind of proof is to enter into the same ghostly space as the letters removed from an abbreviated slur: one is making an appearance without really being there.

The move from Ally to Accomplice follows Butler’s idea that terms “will doubtlessly have to be yielded in favor of terms that do political work more effectively” (172). An accomplice might not have been central to the action at hand, but is enmeshed with the work of the targeted group or actor one is standing with. This removes a barrier of protection on the part of the accomplice–one cannot entirely walk away, one must take a risk in being included in repercussions stemming from protest action–and promotes a more-substantial affinity between the outsider and the group.

What are we willing to risk when we say that we stand with another person, particularly when we stand to gain little to nothing for doing so? We must ask what our purpose is, where our soul lies with our sense of justice and critical thought, and grow from that point, using what tools we have, and seeking new means of connection to others.

Drella: Sunday Morning

A year ago, I made a cover of “Surrender” by Suicide under the moniker of Drella. After another creative block, I found myself making shadowboxes and collage works, being too tired to do any essay writing. Inspired by a shadowbox I made for my boyfriend’s birthday, I thought to record a version of one of my favorite songs, “Sunday Morning,” by the Velvet Underground, from their debut album The Velvet Underground And Nico. Of course, the album was produced by Andy Warhol, who was the original Drella according to founding VU members John Cale and Lou Reed.