BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by A.L. Steiner

In her new book, The Arg­onauts, Mag­gie Nel­son re­fracts gen­der the­ory through the prism of her ex­pe­ri­ence form­ing a non- het­eronor­ma­tive fam­ily.

Mag­gie Nel­son’s new book, The Arg­onauts, is wholly com­plex and plea­sur­able, cross-con­nect­ing forms of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, the­o­rhetor­i­cal, and epis­tolyri­cal in­quiry. I don’t think she would have it any other way. As we’ve come to know each other over the past eight or so years, we’ve weaved in and out of each other’s lives, con­scious­nesses, per­sonal spa­ces, and work­places. I was first in­tro­duced to her through her memoir The Red Parts (2007), and later had a rau­cously mem­o­rable time at her book launch for Women, the New York School, and Other True Ab­strac­tions (2011), which keyed me into spec­tac­u­lar­iza­tions such as the amaz­ing Ber­nadette Mayer and Kim Gor­don fuck­ing her guitar.

The cycli­cal con­fig­u­ra­tions con­nect­ing us as artists were ush­ered in by the in­evitabil­ity of a queer com­mu­nity. We’re both, at times, per­form­ing pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion— some­times, to­gether, we’ve felt the bur­den of con­tra­dic­tion re­gard­ing such con­ceits and con­straints. As ped­a­gogues, I feel we con­nect deeply (maybe it’s just that I want to take her class). We con­sider fu­ture with­out fu­tu­rity. We seek the plea­sures de­nied to, or hid­den from us.

In 2012, I asked Mag­gie to write a short es­say for a zine I wanted to self-pub­lish, mostly be­cause at the open­ing for my in­stal­la­tion Pup­pies and Ba­bies she had made me cry just by talk­ing about the work. It may be true that we were both pre­car­i­ously emo­tional for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but the ex­pe­ri­ence brought us closer to­gether. I wish Mag­gie was writ­ing this in­tro­duc­tion, but nonethe­less, I hope you en­joy read­ing us. Please feel free to get back to us with any ques­tions or prob­lems.

A. L. STEINER: It’s so bizarre to be me­di­ated.

MAG­GIE NEL­SON: I know. Sud­denly there’s a third per­son here with us.

ALS: Or a dis­sem­i­nated au­di­ence, or an imag­i­nary fandom. I know you do have a lot of fans though, that’s the thing.

MN: As do you.

ALS: We could get into that. ( laugh­ter) In your new book, The Arg­onauts, you write that artistry trumps mas­tery; I guess it comes from your re­la­tion to some of Barthes’s writ­ing. I was won­der­ing about that, in terms of your process. I want to start there, be­cause that re­lates not only to the way that I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced your writ­ing, but also to a life phi­los­o­phy.

MN: In that part of The Arg­onauts I’m telling the story of an en­counter I once wit­nessed be­tween art critic Ros­alind Krauss and fem­i­nist critic Jane Gal­lop, in which Krauss kind of scolded Gal­lop for talk­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy with­out be­ing an art his­to­rian. I note that both crit­ics made re­course to Barthes, who also wasn’t an art his­to­rian, but I say, “artistry trumps mas­tery.” When I wrote that line, I was think­ing of a part of Barthes’s The Neu­tral where he ad­dresses a com­ment from a stu­dent who has reser­va­tions about what she sees as his un­in­formed use of a Bud­dhist para­ble in one of his lec­tures. He re­sponds: “I thank her, but this ob­ser­va­tion re­veals a misun­der­stand­ing about the way I pro­ceed when I ‘cite’ (I call) a knowl­edge [...] When I cite from Bud­dhism or from Skep­ti­cism, you must not be­lieve me: I am out­side mas­tery, I have no mas­tery what­so­ever [...] My aim = to be nei­ther master nor dis­ci­ple but, in the Ni­et­zschean sense (thus with no need for a good grade), ‘artist.’” There’s a lot to talk about here—like, whether a white French guy lec­tur­ing at the Col­lège de France can so easily dis­avow a po­si­tion of mas­tery when pre­sent­ing Bud­dhist para­bles—but still, I love his re­sponse, as it ar­tic­u­lates the kind of per­mis­sion I need to grant my­self in my writ­ing, to touch things other peo­ple some­times think you’re not sup­posed to touch.

ALS: Yeah, be­cause we’re not scholars. I’ve been told that, cat­e­gor­i­cally.

MN: The Arg­onauts, like so much of my writ­ing, tries to break down what­ever’s left of the par­ti­tion be­tween “ivory tower schol­ar­ship” over there, and lived, em­bod­ied life over here. In this phase of the break­down, the speaker is not go­ing to be able to main­tain a po­si­tion of mas­tery. It’s go­ing to get sub­jec­tive and maybe a lit­tle messy. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think things through or read texts se­ri­ously. But I have not been in the aca­demic world for a long time, so that’s not the bar by which I’m mea­sur­ing my think­ing or writ­ing.

ALS: Your writ­ing does this a lot—it’s the un­known area or pa­ram­e­ter of per­mis­sion, where artistry ex­ists in the

for­mu­la­tion of re­search, if we’re go­ing to for­mal­ize it. For me, it’s re­ally im­por­tant to think in terms of mul­ti­plic­ity, but not to be­come at­tached.

MN: What kind of at­tach­ment do you mean?

ALS: Where one stands in re­la­tion to the story that one is telling. The goal is to tell it not only through the per­sonal body, but through a mul­ti­plic­ity of voices. So if you make a propo­si­tion, to then be­come at­tached to it feels detri­men­tal to the propo­si­tion. For in­stance, you write, “I don’t want to rep­re­sent any­thing. […] I have also never been less in­ter­ested in ar­gu­ing for the right­ness, much less the right­eous­ness, of any par­tic­u­lar po­si­tion or ori­en­ta­tion.”

MN: I see what you’re say­ing. Of­ten peo­ple will go, “But you said this in your writ­ing!“And I’m like, Yeah, I did, but that was a per­for­ma­tive mo­ment—I’m not writ­ing in or­der to come to a the­sis that I will then go around the coun­try de­fend­ing. That’s the artistry part, be­cause cre­ative work, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, priv­i­leges per­for­ma­tiv­ity over fix­ity. The Arg­onauts is non­fic­tion, but my hope is that it has enough artistry that by the book’s end, the ex­pe­ri­ence of it has gen­er­ated some­thing greater than the sum of its parts. That larger thing has a lot to do with the con­text the work cre­ates—the fam­i­lies of re­la­tion it has drawn, on its own terms.

The birthing story in my book, for in­stance—it was re­ally im­por­tant to me to find the right con­text for it, to find the right thing to jux­ta­pose it with so that it would gain in mean­ing, so that it would be big­ger than one layer of tes­ti­mony.

ALS: I com­pletely re­late. To ob­jec­tify that ex­pe­ri­ence is not the point. I can’t jus­tify show­ing some­thing with­out the con­text of pos­si­bil­i­ties and re­la­tions around it. In your book, it feels like the writ­ing builds speed when the phys­i­cal­ity of the body en­ters the story.

MN: In­ter­est­ing. I did want it to have a cer­tain speed­i­ness at mo­ments. When I de­cided to in­ter­weave the birth story of my son with the deathbed story of Harry’s mother—I couldn’t be­lieve I was—

ALS: —tack­ling that?

MN: Yeah. Birth and death. I mean, you’ve got to be kid­ding, pair­ing them to­gether so di­rectly. But on the other hand, I thought, Let’s just try it.

ALS: That’s what I felt about my in­stal­la­tion Pup­pies & Ba­bies (2012).

MN: I re­mem­ber what you wrote to me about the im­pe­tus for it—you said it started as a sort of joke: “The joke com­ing from the fact that some­times I’d find my­self shoot­ing pup­pies/dogs and ba­bies and what for? Were they part of my ‘work’? How did/could they fit in to the high­brow genre of la­bels of­ten at­tached to my work— in­stal­la­tion- based, for ma­ture au­di­ences, po­lit­i­cal, etc.?”

So what did it feel like, once you moved past the joke and just went for it?

ALS: Oh, amaz­ing. But also be­cause I had a dream con­ver­sa­tion about it through your writ­ing of the es­say for the show’s zine. When I was con­struct­ing the in­stal­la­tion, it still felt very much like, Re­ally, am I gonna go there?

MN: This is what I like so much about your work. You ac­knowl­edge the fear that you might be push­ing to­ward a place that you aren’t sure will be a good one to go to— in the case of Pup­pies & Ba­bies, into the sen­ti­men­tal, or ba­nal, or clichéd, or what­ever. You push on any­way, you re­spect your im­pulses, un­til you find/make some­thing com­pletely worth­while.

ALS: The un­sus­tain­abil­ity of the bi­nary—nor­ma­tive on one hand, and trans­gres­sive on the other—is what we’re both in­ves­ti­gat­ing, to some de­gree. While read­ing your books, there are mo­ments where I’m not sure that what you’re writ­ing about is okay. Then, on the other hand, in The Arg­onauts, there are in­stances of lov­ing the trans­gres­sion em­bed­ded in your mus­ings of sodomit­i­cal ma­ter­nity, of de­light in crack­ing open the book and swiftly en­coun­ter­ing an ass-fuck­ing scene, for in­stance, as Anna Joy [Springer] deftly ob­served at your book party.

We’re aware that con­tem­po­rary lan­guage is op­pres­sive; we fail or refuse to de­scribe our ex­pe­ri­ences un­der pa­tri­ar­chal op­pres­sion within a sys­tem of cap­i­tal- cen­tric dev­as­ta­tion. What does it mean for words to be “good enough” as you muse re­gard­ing D.W. Win­ni­cott’s work?

MN: The nor­ma­tive/ trans­gres­sive di­chotomy is so deep. I re­mem­ber a stu­dent I had a while ago, a trans per­son deeply in­vested in anti- as­sim­i­la­tion, who was say­ing to me quite plain­tively one day, “I just don’t see how to keep re­sist­ing the nor­ma­tive!” So I asked him, “Can you name what it is, ex­actly, that you feel like you have to re­sist?” And he said, “Well, I don’t want to get mar­ried or have a baby.” Af­ter he left my of­fice I just kept think­ing, Well, that’s weird, ‘cuz I’m mar­ried, and I have a baby. And, while it would be silly to dis­avow the nor­ma­tive pol­i­tics of such things, I do be­lieve we’re en­ter­ing a time when the pre­sump­tion that sim­ply re­ject­ing cer­tain be­hav­iors or bod­ily en­mesh­ments—with each other, with the state—will de­liver one into a rad­i­cal state of re­sis­tance, queer or oth­er­wise, is un­ten­able. It’s de­cid­edly not good enough. I wanted The Arg­onauts to ask deeper, or at least dif­fer­ent, ques­tions about rad­i­cal­ity—ques­tions that don’t just have to do with re­fus­ing pro­cre­ation. I mean, how is that go­ing to make the world a bet­ter place for ev­ery­one?

ALS: There is no an­swer to that, which is why the in­quiry con­tin­ues. We first talked about rad­i­cal­ity to­gether in 2011, in Philadelphia. We were talk­ing about equal­ity, free­dom, and nor­ma­tiv­ity as na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ments, a lo­ca­tional po­si­tion­al­ity. How is a body or per­son “equal” to another, or even more so, to any­thing else? Is it about same­ness, or like­ness, be­ing “as good as,” or as­sim­i­lat­ing?

MN: Right. This is one of the rea­sons I wanted to talk to you. In Philadelphia you gave this pre­sen­ta­tion on some re­ally in­ter­est­ing things about free­dom. I have my notes on it some­where. You were do­ing some­thing vis­ual.

ALS: The vis­ual th­e­saurus.

MN: Right. Maybe, in­stead of my find­ing my notes, you could re- ex­plain the idea be­hind it to me now?

ALS: Well, this vis­ual semi­otic web was sand­wiched be­tween re­act­ing to the in­ter­sec­tions of judg­ment, choice, con­sump­tion, agency, voice, and broad­cast. I’d opened with a quote from Gregg Bor­dowitz: “To­day, waves of sen­sa­tion over­whelm the in­di­vid­ual dis­pos­sessed of any ground­ing frame­work for ex­pe­ri­ence. We are awash in emo­tions, sub­ject to sug­ges­tion, or­ga­nized by panic, moved by anx­i­ety. […] If there is any­thing new to say about the cur­rent ethos, it can only be de­scribed as the un­prece­dented in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of a con­flict be­tween stim­u­lus and cog­ni­tion. A res­o­lu­tion to this con­flict seems pos­si­ble: we must de­feat the time- hon­ored op­po­si­tions be­tween feel­ing and thought, sense and un­der­stand­ing. Is that achiev­able? Is that de­sir­able? Do we have a choice?” The larger ques­tion for me is pars­ing what’s in­side and out­side of con­di­tions. Con­di­tions lead to de­ci­sions, whether pas­sive or ac­tive de­ci­sion- mak­ing pro­cesses are at stake, cre­at­ing in­ter­con­nec­tiv­i­ties and de­pen­den­cies. There is no “free­dom,” only the sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of free­doms that may arise in spec­i­fied en­clo­sures. In his talk “An Ecol­ogy of (Elo­quent) Things,” which I watched online, Fred Moten dis­cusses build­ing a “dif­fer­ence en­gine […] crit­i­cal tran­scen­dence of pri­vate prop­erty and of mono­cul­tural vi­o­lence….”

MN: Around the time of the gath­er­ing in Philadelphia, I was sup­posed to be writ­ing a schol­arly book, which I still want to write, about free­dom, eman­ci­pa­tion, lib­er­a­tion, and their re­la­tion­ship to one another. In some ways, The Arg­onauts in­ter­rupted that pro­ject; in other ways, it’s a con­tin­u­a­tion, or an episode, of it. Our cul­ture gen­er­ally op­poses en­mesh­ment and in­ter­re­la­tion with oth­ers to the in­di­vid­ual, au­ton­o­mous free­dom to do what­ever you want. Oth­ers, with all their needs and con­cerns, just bring you down, man! The whole writ­ing of this book in­volved show­ing draft af­ter draft to my part­ner Harry [Dodge], and think­ing hard about all of the re­la­tions I was sketch­ing out, in­clud­ing my re­la­tion to a rad­i­cally de­pen­dent be­ing: my son. Even­tu­ally, the writ­ing of the thing felt like pass­ing through the cru­cible of Fou­cault’s no­tion that free­dom never ex­ists out­side power, that free­dom is not an un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated promised land one gains ac­cess to vis- à-vis a one- off lib­er­a­tion, but is bet­ter un­der­stood, ex­pe­ri­enced, as a prac­tice. His whole trip is to “em­pha­size prac­tices of free­dom over pro­cesses of lib­er­a­tion.”

ALS: At the be­gin­ning of The Arg­onauts, you ask: How

I wanted The Arg­onauts to ask deeper, or at least dif­fer­ent, ques­tions about rad­i­cal­ity— ques­tions that don’t just have to do with re­fus­ing pro­cre­ation. I mean, how is that go­ing to make the world a bet­ter place for ev­ery­one?

can a book be both free ex­pres­sion and ne­go­ti­a­tion?

MN: Yeah, at that mo­ment in the book, I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing “free ex­pres­sion” and “ne­go­ti­a­tion” as painfully op­po­si­tional, but I guess one could also ask, What ex­pres­sion isn’t a ne­go­ti­a­tion of some sort?

ALS: More re­cently, we had a con­ver­sa­tion about au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­quiry. It’s cen­tral to a lot of the ques­tions rel­a­tive to our re­spec­tive works. The more you look at my work, and the more I read your work, the more it be­comes ap­par­ent that it’s a slow high­light­ing and un­fold­ing of the dif­fer­ent forms that au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­quiry can take.

MN: Your work is so in­ter­est­ing to me on this ac­count, in terms of its mix of fic­tive per­for­ma­tiv­ity—as in al­low­ing peo­ple to play char­ac­ters—and reg­u­lar old au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, as in the snap­shots in Pup­pies and Ba­bies. Then add to that a kind of ex­alted per­for­mance of the self, like your own ap­pear­ance do­ing top­less car-wash­ing at the end of your and A.K. Burns’s film, Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Cen­ter (2010).

ALS: Maybe that could be ex­plained through your text:

The aim is not to an­swer ques­tions, it’s to get out, to get out of it.” It’s not about not know­ing but about think­ing of to­geth­er­ness, not only of peo­ple, but also of im­ages in re­la­tion to things. Ob­fus­ca­tion is con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism’s great­est ac­com­plish­ment—un­der­stand­ing the sys­temic solely in ser­vice of it­self. The phys­i­cal emp­ty­ing out, the birthing, hap­pens and sud­denly you’re start­ing over.

MN: That’s a Gilles Deleuze/Claire Par­net quo­ta­tion, from their col­lab­o­ra­tive book Di­a­logues. They don’t spec­ify what one is try­ing to get out of—that’s kind of the point. I think we all know the feel­ing. Which re­minds me of the part in The Arg­onauts where I talk about go­ing to see Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Cen­ter at REDCAT here in LA. I write that it made “that lit­tle por­tal swing open for me,” the por­tal that re­minds me of our right to be free. I write, quot­ing Naomi Gins­berg (as quoted by her son Allen in Kad­dish): “I col­lect these mo­ments. I know they hold a key. It doesn’t mat­ter to me if the key must re­main perched in a lock, in­cip­i­ent. The key is in the win­dow, the key is in the sun­light at the win­dow the key is in the bars, in the sun­light in the win­dow.”

You’re at the win­dow and the sun­light is com­ing in and it’s not like you’re en­tirely free, but you touch some­thing that feels like you got out, you got out of it. I know there are a lot of prob­lems with this kind of for­mu­la­tion, as if we lived in some sort of prison and all we could hope for are glimpses of sun­light at the win­dow, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you can’t

plan for those mo­ments, and you never re­ally know what you’re go­ing to see or do that will make you feel one of them. Should you be lucky enough to have them or keep hav­ing them, you’re go­ing to keep know­ing, on an ex­pe­ri­en­tial level, that life can be oth­er­wise. A de­based ver­sion of this could be peo­ple who do acid or some­thing and then they’re like, “I’m never go­ing to for­get the way I felt when I was high,” but as soon as they come down they do for­get, or re­al­ize the rev­e­la­tion was er­satz, or had no sus­tain­ing power. What I like about cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences of art is that if they’re re­ally good, you can keep go­ing back to them, and keep get­ting that feel­ing. You can at­tempt to fig­ure out how and why the work gives that free­dom-feel­ing and, to some ex­tent, you will fig­ure it out, but in another sense, it re­mains a mys­tery.

ALS: It’s that open­ness, or it could be an empti­ness. How and when and why and where is there a way out, when we can’t imag­ine the other side of the out? It’s like be­ing able to take a leap into a place of the fa­mil­iar un­known… I don’t know if that makes any sense. Do we aim to­ward some­thing that is un­man­age­able and unimag­ined? Does a lived prac­tice ex­tend it­self to the point where one’s re­al­ity has to fall apart? You talk about that re­ally clearly: If I give birth to this baby, I’m go­ing to fall to pieces. You know that’s com­ing. That’s a re­ally pro­found place that can’t be ex­pe­ri­enced in any other way: the process will be soli­tary and unique.

Some­times it’s ter­ri­ble when you can ac­tu­ally re­ex­pe­ri­ence things over and over. Like pho­tog­ra­phy. We live in a cul­ture that at­tempts to sup­press the value of chance, the space al­low­ing one to miss some­thing, the in­tan­gi­ble or fun­gi­ble.

MN: What was it like to fin­ish the big tour of Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Cen­ter? Was there some kind of come down, af­ter all that ef­fort di­rected out­ward?

ALS: No, it was more shifty and slip­pery than that. I felt like maybe that was it, that there’d be noth­ing af­ter it. That anx­i­ety, you know: Is there any more that I can dis­cover through the work that I do? I don’t feel pan­icky about it. It’s just the re­turn­ing ques­tion.

MN: I’ll of­ten have some­thing that’s both­er­ing me, but then af­ter work­ing it out in a book, I usu­ally feel I have ex­hausted the prob­lem. Not solved it; I’m just ex­hausted with it. I thought about nor­ma­tiv­ity and rad­i­cal­ity enough, and now it’s time to go on to the next thing. I never know if I’ve got­ten any­where with it. I just know that I’ve un­rav­eled the knot of it enough so that it doesn’t feel as tight or con­strain­ing or per­plex­ing as it did at the start. Maybe this is a de­based form of free­dom, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cop- out, the whole “I’m just try­ing to pose the right ques­tions” thing, even if the ques­tions

re­ally are rhetor­i­cal or unan­swer­able. In a con­ver­sa­tion, we’re not go­ing to de­cide what art does or should do, or how it is or is not go­ing to help the planet. Not right here, right now, and that’s okay.

ALS: You write about the “plea­sure of rec­og­niz­ing that one may have to un­dergo the same re­al­iza­tions, write the same notes in the mar­gin, re­turn to the same themes in one’s work, re­learn the same emo­tional truths, write the same book over and over again […] be­cause such re­vis­i­ta­tions con­sti­tute a life.” That po­si­tion is now more pal­pa­bly ur­gent, or at least seems so.

MN: Do you re­ally think so? It seems to me there are lots of sit­u­a­tions right now that re­quire a sense of ur­gency that hu­man be­ings don’t seem to be able to man­i­fest; I’m not sure that end­lessly re­vis­it­ing one’s pre­vi­ous rev­e­la­tions fur­thers us along that road.

ALS: That is the con­di­tion. What we’re look­ing at is the in­abil­ity of our species to re­spond. As much as we’re re­spond­ing in the ter­tiary cracks, fill­ing the holes. One of my stu­dents asked, “What lan­guage do we use? First post­mod­ernism… now what?” I don’t know… ac­cel­er­a­tionism, posthu­man­ism, abo­li­tion? There are peo­ple mak­ing up shit. ( laugh­ter) Lan­guage ac­tu­ally does feel ur­gent and the value of my own prac­tice feels re­ally con­fus­ing right now, be­cause it’s so en­meshed with things that are, at best, pe­riph­eral, ad­ja­cent. We know the casino crap­i­tal game is over, there is noth­ing out­side of it. What we have wreaked, we will now reap.

MN: Are you say­ing that your in­ter­est in cul­tural pol­i­tics or sex­u­al­ity might not feel like the most dire arena to fo­cus on right now, po­lit­i­cally speak­ing? Ob­vi­ously that di­chotomy need not be there—in fact, one of the main char­ac­ter­is­tics of much of the work I ad­mire is its ca­pac­ity to give a felt sense of how and why and where cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal, racial, and sex­ual pol­i­tics touch, and how the so- called per­sonal, or the em­bod­ied, in­fuses all those spheres and is in­fused by them. I wanted The Arg­onauts to con­trib­ute to that tra­di­tion.

ALS: Most def­i­nitely. The in­ter­sec­tional or the in­tra­sex­ual feels like a re­sponse to a lack, filled by the con­scious­ness that nar­ra­tives have to em­body. For in­stance, Harry’s voice in your book is present, but I had no idea if the en­tries were Harry’s words or your own com­po­si­tion.

MN: Those are def­i­nitely Harry’s words! Af­ter his mom died, he sent an email to a bunch of friends de­scrib­ing her death, which wasn’t re­ally his nor­mal re­la­tional style, so it made him worry that he was over­shar­ing. But some­times wit­ness­ing a death brings that out in us—we’ve touched some­thing sa­cred or lim­i­nal, and we want other peo­ple to know about it, for in­scrutable but ur­gent rea­sons. As a writer, I feel like that all of the time. So in pair­ing his words with my la­bor story, I was also try­ing to high­light a mo­men­tary kin­ship be­tween Harry and me, a de­sire we both had, even if for a mo­ment, to give tes­ti­mony and share it with oth­ers. I thought what he wrote was so beau­ti­ful, so I just lifted it in its en­tirety (with per­mis­sion). To tell you the truth, though, when I first did it, it brought up all these closet fears I have that Harry’s a bet­ter writer than I am, and now ev­ery­one would know. ( laugh­ter)

ALS: All we’re do­ing is ex­press­ing our fears right now.

MN: This whole book was writ­ten un­der the spell of read­ing a lot of Moten’s work, in par­tic­u­lar his book with Ste­fano Harney, The Un­der­com­mons. In it, they talk about the im­por­tance of three ques­tions that have taken on tal­is­manic im­por­tance to me. They are: 1) What do we not have that we need? 2) ( To be posed prior to the above): What do we have that we want to keep?, and 3) With­out call­ing some­thing to or­der, how can you still sing?

Part of my pro­ject here was to de­pict a lot of crap, the ten­sions that can at­tend daily life, re­la­tional life—as my friend Eula Biss, one of this book’s first read­ers, sagely said, “You put the arg back in arg­onauts!” And there is a fair amount of “Arg!” here. At the same time, I wanted to get at this hum, this sense of love go­ing on. This was a chal­lenge to my­self, be­cause of­ten we are very prac­ticed in see­ing only the parts of our lives or the world that are driv­ing us crazy. You know, the parts we want to change, not the parts we want to keep. So I wanted to see if I could write my­self into deeper in­ti­macy with both things.

ALS: This is a quote from your book that I re­cently used in a public talk: “How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how peo­ple feel about their gen­der or their sex­u­al­ity—or any­thing else, re­ally—is to lis­ten to what they tell you, and to try to treat them ac­cord­ingly, with­out shel­lack­ing over their ver­sion of re­al­ity with yours? [...] A be­com­ing in which one never be­comes, a be­com­ing whose rule is nei­ther evo­lu­tion nor asymp­tote but a cer­tain turn­ing, a cer­tain turn­ing in­ward.” I was think­ing about the space be­tween fic­tion and the per­sonal; I don’t know if you ever find out how peo­ple feel.

MN: Yeah.

ALS: I liked your at­tempt. It goes back to au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in­quiry be­cause the sto­ries are com­ing from around us, as much as they’re com­ing from in­side us. Nar­ra­tive is sym­bi­otic, sys­temic, de­pen­dent. I know I can’t make any­thing with­out some­one else.

MN: I feel like I shel­lack over other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences all the time. I think we all do. It’s not like once you get the news that this isn’t a good way to ap­proach oth­ers, you just stop do­ing it, you know what I mean? We started this in­ter­view talk­ing about es­chew­ing mas­tery, but I feel like ninety- nine per­cent of my day, in or­der to shore up my ego, I’m dish­ing out some kind of mono­logue of mas­tery over my col­leagues, or stu­dents, or the New York Times, or the dumb per­son who I just talked to. Or I might gain sen­si­tiv­ity in one arena, while I’m still

dish­ing it out in another. Maybe I’ve done that here. I wouldn’t be sur­prised.

MN: When you were tour­ing Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Cen­ter, I’m cu­ri­ous about what you learned from all these Q&As in terms of this no­tion of mas­tery or un­mas­tery, of per­form­ing or ac­tu­ally be­ing re­ally open, while also hav­ing these strong provo­ca­tions that you wanted to put out there. Some­times I sense that I’m get­ting more and more de­fen­sive in those sit­u­a­tions, or I’ll cease to be in a pro­duc­tive in­ter­change with the per­son and just be­come like, Get me out of here! I’m not al­ways as good at try­ing to aikido the mo­ment into a third pos­si­bil­ity that nei­ther the ques­tioner nor I have yet thought of to­gether. I’m won­der­ing if you fig­ured out that art while you were on the road.

ALS: The aikido, yeah. I guess I just never feel like I’m right, but I also never feel like the other per­son is nec­es­sar­ily right.

MN: We get to be in our wrong­ness to­gether.

ALS: To­tally. Speak­ing from my ex­pe­ri­ence of it, Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Cen­ter al­lows for things to be wrong. I re­al­ized that a lot when I did the next pro­ject, More Real Than Re­al­ity It­self, and in­ter­viewed sev­eral ac­tivists who had been in prison. Ericka Hug­gins was one of them, and in her in­ter­view she stated that “women and rad­i­cal, black and rad­i­cal don’t nec­es­sar­ily go to­gether.” These are bi­na­ries of rad­i­cal­ity that are feared, and pro­jected to be in sym­pa­thy; the real truth is that if they were, so­ci­etal struc­tures and our hu­man­ness would look very dif­fer­ent.

A.K. [ Burns] and I con­cluded Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Cen­ter ask­ing, “What did you think of that, be­cause that shit was crazy, right?” Only a lit­tle piece of it is us, and the other pieces are so many other peo­ple. I went into it with com­plete cu­rios­ity and ques­tion­ing. Overtly po­lit­i­cal work is in­evitably po­lit­i­cally prob­lem­atic. That’s another form of pre­car­ity I added onto my fully pre­car­i­ous life! That ded­i­ca­tion line in the piece, which you men­tion in the book, “Ded­i­cated to the queer­est of the queers,” out­lines this for me.

MN: Yeah, I want to hear what you have to say about it.

ALS: The film is ded­i­cated to those who are so fuck­ing out­side that even other marginal­ized bod­ies can’t see them. Ex­pres­sions, em­bod­i­ments that aren’t al­low­able, per­mis­si­ble. The space that the late Mar­sha P. John­son or Sylvia Rivera de­manded. Bod­ies that af­fect per­cep­tion.

MN: I like that idea, that it was more of a ges­ture to­ward those who are not rep­re­sentable, rather than about cre­at­ing a kind of queer pyra­mid, which is how I read it at the time (and thus how I rep­re­sented it in my book). But now, hear­ing you talk, it sounds more like a spin on José Muñoz’s line in Cruis­ing Utopia, “We have never been queer,” by which he means to em­pha­size that the true value of queer­ness, for him, lies in its fu­tu­rity, its prom­ise, not in its achiev­abil­ity or ac­tu­al­ity in the present. To be hon­est, I’m not re­ally sold on this fu­tu­rity, just as I’m not sold on Lee Edel­man’s “no fu­ture” stance ei­ther. I’m more of a lay Bud­dhist, I guess, al­ways try­ing to bur­row into the present, see what can be found there. But again, I like your clar­i­fi­ca­tion of your ded­i­ca­tion, es­pe­cially as it gets back to the ques­tion that be­gins The Arg­onauts, about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween what can be rep­re­sented and that which ex­ceeds rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

ALS: One frus­trated com­ment some­one over­heard in front of my in­stal­la­tion Cost- ben­e­fit anal­y­sis in the 2014 Whit­ney Bi­en­nial was, “I just don’t get this les­bian thing!”

MN: ( laugh­ter)

ALS: The as­sump­tion that there’s some­thing to get. If you see a whole “les­bian thing,” then it’s worked—you “got it.” I’ve done my job. But the ques­tion isn’t “What is a ‘les­bian’ thing?” I ac­tu­ally don’t know what it is. It’s what­ever you want it to be. It’s like a mass of what­ever you think I’m putting out there. You know, I’m not con­cerned with the viewer know­ing who I am and vice versa, which isn’t pos­si­ble, but rather who we are, in re­la­tion to each other.

MN: In some ways I agree—but how can we even know that when we put work out there to strangers? Some­times when peo­ple tell me about a strong re­la­tion they have felt to me via read­ing my work, it can feel more alien­at­ing than when I imag­ine the work set­ting off into a void. Maybe this is just be­cause it’s so amaz­ingly dif­fi­cult to give each other cred­i­ble re­ports from our in­te­ri­or­ity. Or maybe it’s be­cause there’s some­thing deeply soli­tary about writ­ing, even when it prom­ises or de­picts re­la­tion. That’s prob­a­bly why I took the time to write out, in The Arg­onauts, some of the pro­found ef­fects that your work has had on me. That kind of at­ten­tion seems like it beats com­ing up to you at a party and say­ing, you know, “I love your work.”

ALS: I love your work.

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