‘And (I said I would get back to this) I also advise, no matter how tempting, how clever that line sounds, that when, from deep inside the bubble, you think it would be a good idea to say that we are all fucked because creative writing can be taught, that you don’t demonstrate your bad judgment by actually saying it. Because that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unless you really have lost all sense of perspective, or never had it to begin with, why we are fucked. (And we aren’t, completely, yet, but it is probably coming, for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with creative writing.)Right now, though, the Syrians living in the Zaatari refugee camp—they are that. And the Libyans drowning off the coast of Italy when their boats catch fire. And those girls in Nigeria. And the Christians in northern Iraq. And people who don’t have water, or have too much of it and their countries are drowning. And the polar bears. And the elephants. And people living in appliance boxes under bridges. Those are the fucked ones. You do not—none of the people who will read this do—get to count yourself among them. Something to remember when you write, anything at all.’
‘For the expressly defined traveller – of certain means and disposition, on the search for something authentic – these experiences constitute a sense of what might be called the sublime, often simply labelled as life (or perhaps some take on God).
But why does this search for authenticity, for some sense of relative meaning, cast us out into the world? In his wonderful book of essays, The Dream of Spaceflight (2000), Wyn Wachhorst observes that ‘the heart of exploration, it seems, is an attempt to complete the grand internal model of reality, to broaden the context of meaning, to find the center by completing the edge’.
I came across book and quote inadvertently, through a recent essay in Aeon by physics professor Gene Tracy. Both Wachhorst and Tracy discuss the seismic shifts caused by the Copernican revolution, and how it not only placed Earth adrift in an indifferent universe, rather than at its centre, but also cut our sense of self adrift from our own concrete being. We became ‘wanderers among the stars, through a space with no centre’, as Tracy puts it.
As with the physical, so with the psychical: the onset of the scientific revolution externalised meaning, materialised it – and the self became a more abstract concept. Science and technology advanced, the death of God was proclaimed, and we were left standing, somewhat bewildered, the universe stretching away endlessly.
And so we travel. We travel for moments of clarity, moments of inspiration and confirmation, moments of joyous serendipity that let us see back through the proverbial Oort Cloud of our outward conquests to the pale blue dot – that we might, to paraphrase Wachhorst, grasp our own essence in its entirety.’
Slow reading – the deep engagement and relaxed pace we bring to our most enjoyable reading experiences – has re-emerged into more mainstream discussion as a tonic for the perceived surge in everyday life’s pace and the reduced ability to focus associated with digital technology and social media.
There is a surface paradox in this: if we are lacking in time, how could something that intentionally takes more time to achieve less provide a counter? Quite obviously, the number of hours in a day hasn’t changed, but the number of things we feel necessary to fit into those hours seems to have greatly increased with digitisation: efficiency and accessibility have created a fear of missing out that equates living with quantity. Perhaps unconsciously, slow reading (and other slow activities) helps to restore an appreciation of how much space our hours actually contain by doing away with clutter and negating that fear.
“Historians of all stripes agree that the empire to a large extent ‘shaped the modern world’, in positive and negative ways. It laid the foundations for the globally connected order we now inhabit. It also established the parameters of modern politics as we know it – especially international politics – as well as for modern selves: both in the metropole and the colony. Identities were constructed in opposition, in dialogue with ‘the other’, in a messy tangled process of fear, desire and control. Race-relations were mediated on the frontier, the slave plantation, or in the jungle at the sharp end; but also at home, at imperial and colonial exhibitions, in the media, in novels, stories and nursery rhymes – even on jars of marmalade and matchboxes.
Empire relied on a latent idea of racial superiority to sustain consent and to justify its expansion. Racial superiority resolved the contradiction between the abhorrent idea of conquering (and killing) others and the grim necessity of profiting from them. It was for their own good. It was only possible to think like that – and for a good hundred years from 1860 to 1960, this was government policy and the mainstream opinion of English speakers – if you believed in the supremacy of your own race. This was what drove colonial officials to dress for dinner even when dining alone in the middle of the bush, or what made tea time such an iconic ritual for the colonials in the dominions. And it was what allowed the highly contingent victory in the Second World War to be interpreted in racial terms: that there was something exceptionally plucky and determined about the English-speaking peoples that led to the defeat of ‘the Hun’.
The construction of an indomitable, white, English-speaking, Protestant, civilized identity was a central product and tool of the empire. It was hugely successful and very durable. Prior to World War Two, the field of international relations was conceived in terms of race relations between the European peoples and their dominions – nation states were not the explanatory unit, races were. The United States, Canada and Australia were not seen to be entirely separate from the United Kingdom. Hitler saw himself as leader of a race that extended beyond the confining borders of Germany. Nation states are very recent myths, and the root of modern identity politics is the sense of racial superiority necessary for the imperial impulse to govern the world.”
Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’
So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.
I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most.
…In her most recent book, Staying Alive (2014), Schechtman maintains that ‘persons experience their lives as unified wholes’ in some way that goes far beyond their basic awareness of themselves as single finite biological individuals with a certain curriculum vitae. She still thinks that ‘we constitute ourselves as persons… by developing and operating with a (mostly implicit) autobiographical narrative which acts as the lens through which we experience the world’.
… I do, like the American novelist John Updike and many others, ‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronym’ Alberto Caeiro (one of 75 alter egos under which he wrote) is a strange man, but he captures an experience common to many when he says that: ‘Each moment I feel as if I’ve just been born/Into an endlessly new world.’ Some will immediately understand this. Others will be puzzled, and perhaps skeptical. The general lesson is of human difference.
Just because from dawn to dusk everyone was forced to hear on the radio and read in newspapers that everyone’s life in the Soviet land was wonderful and was going to be infinitely better still, and that everyone else out in the capitalist world envied the happiness of Soviet people’s lives, no one was duped into thinking this was actually how things were, neither in their own lives or in the lives of people all around them, in their cities and villages. Everyone knew the truth, even in the absence of any alternative, more reality-bound source of information. Everyone knew how things were in reality. How could one not? One had one’s eyes and ears and one’s own life to live.
Everyone knew that the country was mired in poverty and decay and stagnation and degradation, drowning in lies and cynicism and all-out drunkenness. Everyone knew that they, the Soviet people, lived in a veritable funhouse of a giant isolated world unto itself, in the parallel reality of that endless hall of crazily distorted mirrors. People were not fooled, to put it mildly. Still, there was nothing they, including myself and everyone I knew, could do with or about that understanding. There was no place for them to take it, to pour it out on. Being exposed to constant, relentless irradiation by that funhouse reality, forever aswim in a sea of lies, had made people lethargic and apathetic, cynical and fatalistic, dumbfounded into mute infantilism, drunkenness, and helpless rage in the meagreness of their tiny private, personal worlds. Their worlds were small and filled with sameness. People lived their lives in a state of permanent shell shock, like dynamite-blasted fish still somehow capable of swimming.
This is what constant, permanent exposure to alternative reality does: it deafens and deadens you.
Memoir has a powerful history of asserting a place for marginalised voices. The implicit belief that underlines many examples of life writing: that one’s experiences are worth recording – and should be read – can be revolutionary. It can also be a galvanising story for those with shared or similar experiences of oppression to realise that they aren’t alone.
With a sense that my own experiences are in some way important, I embarked on an experiment with writing about myself (in unpublished, abandoned-rough-draft form). The experiment was to write pieces about my experiences in my early 20s of becoming very mentally unwell. It was to depict the frightening experience of losing contact with reality and losing the will to live. It was also to depict a contradictory treatment landscape that involved a long, nightmarish fog where I was too overmedicated to realise that I was overmedicated, but at a different point was denied treatment (‘you’re fine, lots of girls like you go through similar things’) and gaslit by professionals. I’ve written about these things in essays and analytical pieces, but this was different because it was raw narrative. I was writing in the first person, in the present tense, as though the incidents were ongoing. It was about how it felt to be me then.
The experiment cannot continue. I’ve discovered that memoir can be a form of masochism as much as it can be a potential assertion of progressive politics.
Memoir evokes the ethics of representing oneself, or past iterations of one’s self. Until I started drafting in this vein, I didn’t realise a story that you wrote about yourself could be unethical.
Confessional pieces promise a utopia of representation – with a vague trickledown rationale that the more confessions published, the broader the representation of people and their experience, thus dismantling the testosterone-soaked whitewashed mainstream. They also tap into the concept of consciousness raising, a technique used by feminists where women shared personal stories to examine how oppression influences their lives, where the more stories shared, the more women could see they weren’t isolated but under the weight of a system.
But the majority of work published is largely restricted to the experiences of white, middle-class women and herded off to ‘women’s sites’, presenting them as a niche audience rather than a sizable portion of the status quo. While women’s sites may claim the best of feminist intentions, it is worth questioning these publications and their role in financially exploiting the women they claim to (partially) represent, paying flat fees for freelancers without annual leave or superannuation, often accompanied by restrictions on where they can be published. Not only are we not getting actual representation, our work is quartered away from what is considered news important for every reader – even if the odd stray confessing woman does turn up in the op-ed pages.
It’s as much a move for ad revenue as it is a gendered indictment, where ‘the personal is political’ . . . and profitable. But it’s also partitioned. When a man writes a confessional, it’s considered a gender-neutral essay with the sheen of credibility that patriarchy often affords masculinity. Yet women’s are viewed with less merit, not read as widely or considered to hold the same professionalism.
The very fact women’s stories are not considered fully mainstream or professional is the strongest admission that we refuse to listen to women, despite the denials of publications who say they publish based on merit. The lesson is that men can occupy both the personal and professional without their gender influencing judgement, whereas women are expected to choose between the two and even then are still not able to occupy the same wide broadcast.
The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.
…We may have turned the wounded woman into a kind of goddess, romanticized her illness and idealized her suffering, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t happen. Women still have wounds: broken hearts and broken bones and broken lungs. How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them? Without corroborating an old mythos that turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship?
The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.”He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.
…The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.
Part of the book’s project is to assert the generative value of words and actions that could seem merely destructive or negative—resigning, refusing, rejecting. One of Ahmed’s most striking decisions in this regard is to not cite any white men at all. This explicit commitment is a gesture of refusal, but one designed to make room for what is usually ignored. Feminism is about who gets the credit and, more often, who doesn’t. Or as Ahmed defines it, in more embodied terms, “Citational privilege: when you do not need to intend your own reproduction.” In other words, citations breed more citations, so the lucky few whose work is already accepted as central will never need to spend time promoting it. Ahmed opens her book by quoting an axiom from Flavia Dzodan, who wrote in 2011, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” This was a line drawn in the sand at a time when the feminist writing of white, well-networked women was being rewarded with steady gigs and book contracts (my own book contract could be considered one of these), while Dzodan and many others whose ideas fed feminism’s creative resurgence online continued to do their work largely unrecognized and for free. In August 2016, Dzodan offered an update to her cutting slogan: “My feminism will be capitalist, appropriative and bullshit merchandise.” In the intervening years, while she had struggled to make a living as a writer, she had watched as her signature demand for intersectional feminism was printed and sold on tote bags, pins, and coffee mugs. “It was bizarre to see my name in pink fonts,” she wrote, “when the entirety of my work has been against the commodification of feminist ideas and the misuse, appropriation and subsequent lack of credit of feminism of color.”
… Ahmed’s earliest memories of her own feminism include being, at dinner in her childhood home, “a killjoy at the table.” Crucially, her concept of feminism is rooted not in an attempt at consensus, but in an embrace of conflict. For Ahmed, feminism is not a single awakening—it is instead that series of “snaps,” fights, breaks, and ruptures. Where some might see infighting, Ahmed sees a skill that individual feminists learn in order to survive, and that also drives further feminist thought as a whole, ensuring its survival. Far from embracing a neat narrative of so-called empowerment, she describes the sense of purpose that can only emerge from negative experience, the clarity of vision that comes when you must look at things from the outside: “Becoming feminist puts us in touch with a world through alienation from a world.” Each feminism forced to create itself outside the walls that surround the mainstream can find points of connection to another: black feminisms and queer feminisms and Muslim feminisms, feminist futurists and dystopians. What’s outside comes to define the interior; “from margin to center,” as bell hooks wrote. “Perhaps,” Ahmed offers suggestively, generously, “those who are bad for morale can join forces.”
Robertson’s volume is a collection of seemingly occasional essays (for gallery catalogues, invited talks, and contributions to journals) which nevertheless hangs together nicely as a series of brief excursions into the social heart of language and the complex ways in which identity is both overdetermined and, in the clashing multiple forces of that overdetermination, allowed a clinamen’s swerve towards freedom.
“Lastingness” swerves amongst readings of its titular authors, exploring the process of readerly “nilling” (as opposed to “willing”—Robertson takes the concept from Arendt), by which a reader’s identity and agency is engaged as refusal and rejection. “[R]eaderly desire achieves its lastingness,” Robertson writes, “its pleasurable sense of suspended duration, in a complicitous nilling, a charged refusal.” She continues,
“As I understand Arendt, the will twists towards a consciousness of itself, away from instrumental agency, and into a stance of nilling. The will is split within itself, not between carnal and spiritual considerations, but between willing and nilling, which are co-determining drives.”
As a definition of agency—that we are as much engaged in moments of affirmation as we are in moments of rejection, that we will to do certain things, but just as importantly nill to not do others—I think this is quite significant, especially in the context of a culture which needs to start doing a lot less, and which has to find ways to embrace absences and the leaving alone of certain things (environments / resources). It’s also a re-polarizing of a gendered sense of agency, where the male will is countered by a female nill, not as passivity to his activity, but as an active refusal and abnegation of authority—a “sustained erotic anarchy.”
At the heart of Robertson’s analysis is the contention that all language is social, and that there is no simple binary of individual and collective, but rather, that language and the social are the dialectical interpenetration—through the address—of these discursive poles. “The ego is the one who linguistically addresses another, and it is only through this address that each, in a reciprocal entwining, may fashion herself as ‘I’.”
What is the role of the poem in all of this? Robertson speaks directly to my own understanding, and my own “poetics,” here. It’s a wonderful feeling, to find another writer articulating something you’ve been stumbling towards in the dark for years. Like a bird being named, whose song you’ve been listening to each dawn for decades, without ever identifying its source.
“The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics.”
- A fever, a restlessness: a review of Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine How does the person inside the body come out of the body? Why are some people so easy to be around, so free and warm, and others so deeply hidden inside the boundaries of their corporeality? Why can’t I project what I want to project without having to explain it, in a tumble of awkward inarticulacies? Why am I not my purest, cleanest self, visible always and to everyone, without the trappings of a gender, a hairstyle, an outfit, a mood?Some people would say the real trappings that stifle my purest self are the consumer items I buy, impulsively and sometimes compulsively, and have come to need for true happiness. If you asked a truly happy person which three things they could not live without, they might say: love, friendship, expression. If you asked me which three things I could not live without, I would say: iPhone, Too-Faced Born This Way Oil-Free Foundation in Vanilla, black coffee.
…You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is made of this kind of writing. It’s sharp and cute, cutting and absurd. It’s about borders melting and dissolving: borders between you and the world outside, borders between things as they are and the same things drawn to their most grotesque extremes. You have to allow yourself to be absorbed by this book or it won’t make any sense.