Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis in the California Native Gardenat the Arboretum in San Francisco hosted by the Carville Annex
On Sunday November 1st, I spent the afternoon sitting in a stone circle in the Arboretum basking in the pleasure of hearing Diana Block read from her new novel Clandestine Occupations, a book built around 6 female narrators, all involved in social justice advocacy, and Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis read from their ongoing exchange or correspondence project--The Instead--due out from Carville Annex Press in the spring. They've described it below.
But first, I can tell you that their constraints and considerable intellectual and creative powers/prowess have produced a beautiful, whip-smart piece that traces thought's and advocacy's engagement in the daily; the piece explores, among many other things, the overlap of sod and fracking and prison sites, Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," workout boot camp, Brian Massumi, and Gregory Bateson on play, authority and discomfort in pedagogies, shifts/splices/changes.
Miranda's close-reading of Lamar's video and Emily's reading of boot camp pedagogy through the bridge of Lamar's song blasting in the studio was particularly pleasing and densely layered. These close-readings reminded me of the many communal readings performed by the band in the novels comprising the ongoing series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate by Nate Mackey. In Bedouin Hornbook, for example, the band is in San Francisco when they come across some graffiti on a boarded-up storefront. It reads: “‘Mr. Slick and Mister Brother are one of the two most baddest dude in town, and Sutter Street’” (26). Each band member interprets the message differently. Their conversation, a performative debate or critical dozens if you will, occurs before a crowd, one that participates with laughter and critique of their own.
To the pleasures of reading--on our own and with others, in humor and horror, criticality and hope--as provided to us by Emily and Miranda!
The Instead [24/48/72/96/120] is a record of a series of five email dialogues conducted during prearranged, bracketed time periods between two time zones, states, years, and people: Emily Abendroth & Miranda Mellis. The first dialogue unfolded over 24 hours between 11/18/14–11/19/14; the second over 48 hours between 12/29/14–12/30/14; the third over 72 hours between 4/11/15–4/13/15; the fourth over 96 hours between 6/27/15–6/30/15; and the fifth over 120 hours between 9/1/15–9/5/15. The dialogues are punctuated by pauses during which each person went to work, or off the grid, or to sleep or . . . to wake up/return to new thoughts, notes, and questions.
The selection that follows below is a short excerpt from Emily and Miranda’s second 48 hour dialogue session.
EA: I think it’s interesting to think about how writing or other art practices might at the very least endeavor to de-mask relations even if they can’t, all on their lonesome, change them. In other words, we might not be able to write “the undoing of prisons” or “the dissolution of militarized borders” but we can use our writing to unleash questions and activate inquiries that might assist in bringing the “necessity” or “efficacy” of said systems into such a deep position of suspicion or destabilization that the writing participates in collectively motivating or propelling acts that push us closer toward that undoing. This is the work that language can potentially do when it refuses to demurely accept the naturalized or the normative protocols of its era’s status quos.
For instance, what happens when we replace the phrase “police violence” – which is critically at the forefront of so many people’s minds right now – with the phrase “the violence of policing”? A lot happens actually! Suddenly we’re training our eyes and minds to look, not for a few individuals who exhibit exaggerated acts of aggression within an otherwise functional system but, at a system whose very existence is predicated on the violent enforcement of restrictive codes of behavior meant to “protect” the property, lifestyles, wealth, and political ideology of a very specific segment of the population only (along very predictable – and historical! – race, class, and gender lines).
What about when we speak not of “prison violence” but instead “the violence of prisons”? Not about “gender violence” but “the violence of gender”? Again, I think a lot of important work can potentially take place in those re-framings. Perhaps even exactly the kind of labor that your vision of the archer conjures in aiming their arrow at a specific point where the intersectionality of various systems of oppressions is made legible and the depth of the “reverse engineering” required reveals itself.
I think the word “decarceration” is and can be powerful in that way and I’m glad whenever I hear that it successfully strikes as such to others’ ears. When the Philadelphia-based group that I work and organize with, Decarcerate PA, first named itself several years ago, we were excited to have generated a moniker that was also a verb/an action, embodying a demand for the reorientation we were seeking and not just a description of the problem we were confronting. But while I definitely agree that prisons are a striking locus point for viewing the intrinsic violence, disequilibrium, neglect/abuse, and deeply rooted supremacist/imperialist tendencies of the nation as a whole in an amplified state, I think that folks who are closely and critically examining the relations at play in schooling, health care, gender inequality, transphobia and militarism, etc. are also doing the work of mapping many of these same dynamics and intersectionalities. I think that maybe the task for each of us, in our various counter-power organizing efforts, is to turn what we’re working on into a “keystone” of that kind (whatever its focus), so that it becomes a vehicle of transport for drawing connections to other people and struggles and disparities, rather than one that isolates (y)our organization from others or puts it in a position of fighting for its unique priority on a scale or ladder of issues that are actually all deeply linked.
I’m curious if you think of that kind of intersectional mapping work as something that fiction can also do? I certainly think of your fiction as often achieving or making room for something like that – a kind of intricate tracing of complex links and dense connections that in other forums or arenas sometimes get designated as having to be ignored or left behind because it all gets “too messy” or “too hard” to articulate in the form of a single slogan or request/demand. And I definitely think I frequently go to poetry or to a writing practice in general with the personal need to open up that kind of space, whether or not I actually succeed each time in creating it. A space to not have “immediate” or “correct” answers, a space to rest in and wrestle with indeterminacy. In that vein, I wanted to offer this other passage, also from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in their essay “Politics Surrounded”:
In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional, so it seems we need correctional institutions in the common, settling us, correcting us. But we won’t stand corrected. Moreover, incorrect as we are there’s nothing wrong with us. We don’t want to be correct and we won’t be corrected. Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.
I love how “the indeterminate” and “the everything” (at least in terms of what’s of consequence) become parallel terms in this closing, each understood as something that we owe one another, coupled with an obligation to “give the lie to” institutions and cry wolf on the weak to non-existent forms of self-determination that we’re consistently bribed with as compensation for our obedience.
It’s interesting to consider that one of the important spaces/uses of fiction or poetry might not be so much to invent, but rather to try to pull the wool off of current “conjured” or “fabricated” representations of the daily real politic. And that this effort to comprehend those forces of the mundane, both banal and fantastical and frequently monstrous, might require powers of mind that we’ve been explicitly encouraged to leave uncultivated or underdeveloped. The novelist/essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written: “I most seem to understand the inner logic of social processes when I am deep inside imaginative territory.”
Where do imaginative territory and the inner logic of social processes come into contact as you are writing or conceiving of a written piece? Or, to take it out of the realm of writing alone, when you are making breakfast or brushing your teeth or teaching?
MM: The inner logic of social processes which are misogynist and ageist will tell me when I am brushing my teeth to lament their condition. Sure: my teeth are not new. They bear the signs of the passing of time! And various other signs. Once my front tooth was knocked out. A friend picked it up. At the emergency room, the attending physician asked if anyone had the tooth. My friend held it up. This doctor, whose hair went down to her waist, put that tooth back in. It didn’t re-root–it was dead, unplugged from my nervous system–but it has dwelt, if not lived in my mouth ever since, magically holding up, a little tomb, and its discoloration tells the story of the sudden flight it took! I can laugh now–that happened when I was sixteen. It was a waking nightmare at that age of intense facial self-consciousness. One is so out of control when it comes to the face. People socialized as female are taught to obsessively try to control what others face when they face our face. There’s that trope of the dementedly made-up female face, exaggerated eye make-up, smeared lipstick, when the face becomes abject, pleading for a rest from all this impression-control. Some kind of long-term experiment is being performed on how much mental space people will devote to trying to control something that (a) can’t ultimately be controlled and (b) doesn’t matter.
In J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello there is a scene in which the main protagonist analyzes an animal experiment such that it becomes an exemplary parable of the stupidity of reductivism, as well as the damage done when the unexamined assumptions of power go untested. Elizabeth Costello (I think of her as Cotezee’s avatar) rejects the idea that animals do not possess reason. She recounts an experiment that was conducted in the 1920s by Wolfgang Kohler with an ape named Sultan who was deprived of bananas until he figured out a way to get them. He stacks crates to reach bananas suspended beyond his reach. What Costello emphasizes is the stupidity of setting the stupid task, which by its very structure precludes a real exploration, and ignores the pain and confusion of the context. She imagines Sultan thinking: “What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?” That is, the experiment asks the wrong questions: “a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics toward the humbler reaches of practical reason.” This is like the corporatization of education. This is like the mercantilist policing of bodies that teaches us to focus on appearances rather than experiences, on controlling impressions rather than reveling in the sensuous immanence of our bodies, of textures, colors, the play of forms. So rather than proving or disproving the question, the experiment does a third, unintentional thing: it sabotages intelligence, structurally reducing us to “the less interesting thought.” Reducing my relationship to my teeth when I am brushing them, to worrying about how they appear–which I am inculcated and invited to do by the misogynist, necro-politicking patriarchy that precedes me–would be to think the less interesting thought.
Excursions into imaginative territory can instead make me wonder at the fact that teeth are an extension of the nervous system, that they are solid, immersed in the fluidity and space of my mouth, that they show me the inside of my body, that they allow me to eat, and they also show me my innards’ logic as death, my skeleton. The inner logic of social processes, such as the structure of health care, insofar as I have access to it, can allow me to imagine that the socius thinks my teeth matter, and therefore that my life matters (in that having teeth allows me to eat and continue to live). That inner logic, since health care and dentistry are not accessible to me unless I can fulfill the condition of earning sufficient amounts of money, also tells me that if I stop fulfilling that condition, stop earning money, that my teeth, and by extension my life, don’t matter. I have to keep earning my teeth, so I can chew up the commodity world. This thought is the end point of a possible, as yet, unwritten parable in which from the state of someone’s teeth we can extrapolate the teeth of one’s state. We can look into the inner logic of social processes, and see intertwining systems. Parables are compressed, distilled versions of complex logics that imaginatively counsel us as to their effects. I love Kafka’s parable about the leopards breaking into the temple. But lately, I have had this Kafka parable on my mind a lot:
I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.
On the one hand, no justice without remembrance. On the other hand, no change without forgetting. If our memory of our former “inability to swim” is stronger than our knowledge of how to swim, even if we know how to swim, we won’t be able to swim. Sometimes one has an idea for how to solve something and one sets out to enact changes and bring about a solution and one is confronted by treatises on The Hopelessness of Changing Anything and The History of Impossibility In General. “That won’t work, because when we tried to do that before…” The memory of the former inability to swim prevents swimming. This is of interest not only with regards to learning but with regards to social change. We think of learning as remembering, but the parable says, remembering may also entail forgetting. This parable’s root system is connected to the story of Lot’s wife, Edith, as well as to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both are told not to look back. Edith (my grandmother’s name) looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice. On the one hand, fuck you Hades, etcetera. On the other hand, the moral of the story is, know when to look back, and know when not to.