Miscellaneous reading notes for > kill author Issue Thirteen.
“Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English.” Says Bhanu Kapil, quoting W.B. Yeats, tweeting for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog.
She continues: “Guess I’m fucked. Can you say that on twitter (sic)? I never did this before.”
When Orwell says, in the quote that precedes this issue, that “there are no reliable words,” he’s not only talking about the indeterminacy of language, but about the intersection between the treachery and corruptibility of words, and the treachery and corruptibility of a world. When he says that the struggle for writers in English is one “against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective,” we can hear the Orwell of Politics and the English Language, the Orwell for whom questions of vagueness, obscurity and the decorative aren’t only questions of style, but charged with politico-ethical meaning.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”
Issue Thirteen of > kill author could serve as a kind of primer on how to write, and write back to, Anglophony and Americanity. On how to write in the language that, like Bhanu Kapil puts it, is fucking you over. Is fucking me over. Yeats would lump my face in with his Indians.
On that place where the violence of Anglo-American history and the violence of Anglo-American celebrity collapse into each other. With John Wayne, God, and Mount Rushmore as the father-spectres (fathers “that cannot be picked,” like your country of birth) hanging over César Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and an Indian woman who remains nameless. “Americans bought the insurance because they were reminded of how it is to be seen, like through a riflescope.” (Sire Lines of America)
Where even the epistolary form is made complicit with the sadomasochistic erotics of global power (“the cum vote”); how torture is literally written on the body of an Other. (For a letter to be any good)
Where what ties the terror of a police kidnapping and the terror of capitalist unfreedom is their dailiness: “Eventually, we returned to the apparently profitable work of living our lives.” (Holiday Cycle)
Cultural-industrial complex; even the birds are eating Oreos: “These birds nowadays, they’ll eat anything. I saw one get into a bag of Oreos once. It ate all the cream filling and left the cookies. I tried to catch it with a net, but you know how it goes.” (How to Eat an Oriole)
Even on a train from London to York: “considerations of what Jessica Alba’s vagina is presently occupied by.” (Seat Reserved)
And grief is framed by a pop song, and private pain is spliced with “Lady Diana’s crash,” “Bush vs. Gore,” “shoe bombs and airport x-rays.” (Since You’ve Been Gone) The personal is political—but what does it mean when even the personal isn’t permitted to be personal anymore? When the 24-hour media cycle cuts into your life story, rewrites it, casting itself in bold? When your memory is collective memory, and vice versa?
History lesson in a sentence or lyric. “I can’t genocide; it’s been a long morning.” (pottymouth)
The non-place (“airplane,” “otherwise empty hotel elevator,” “bus,” “subway”) and the celebrity body: they always go together well. It’s why Lost in Translation had to happen in a luxury hotel, in an exotic country (for the characters, that is). The heterotopias of fantasy, of cruising. Where façade and intimacy flicker back and forth. Also: how to seduce and provoke celebrities, who make their living out of endlessly seducing and provoking us. (Things I Could Do)
The non-place, and the indeterminate local; reproduced everywhere, identified nowhere. The gestural, shorthand brutality of a word (a world) like here: “We’re just around here or we’re doing around here, what the around here is, what does around here matter, why and does it matter, around oh here, just rape around here and let us watch. From here.” (from Around Here)
Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity:
It should be noted, too, that the screens of the planet daily carry a mixture of images (news, advertising and fiction) of which neither the presentation nor the purpose is identical, at least in principle, but which assemble before our eyes that is relatively homogenous in its diversity. What could be more realistic and, in a sense, more informative about life in the United States than a good American TV series? Nor should we forget the sort of false familiarity the small screen establishes between the viewers and the actors of big-scale history, whose profiles become as well known to us as those of soap-opera heroes and international artistic or sporting stars. They are like the landscapes in which we regularly watch them playing out their movies: Texas, California, Washington, the Elysée, Twickenham, the gruelling stages of the Tour de France or the Arabian desert: we may not know them personally, but we recognize them.
This spatial overabundance works like a decoy, but a decoy whose manipulator would be very hard to identify (there is nobody pulling the strings). In very large part, it serves as a substitute for the universes which ethnology has traditionally made its own. We can say of these universes, which are themselves broadly fictional, that they are essentially universes of recognition. The property of symbolic universes is that they constitute a means of recognition, rather than knowledge, for those who have inherited them: closed universes where everything is a sign; collections of codes to which only some hold the key but whose existence everyone accepts; totalities which are partially fictional but effective; cosmologies one might think had been invented for the benefit of ethnologists.
It’s always being delayed: the important conversation, the one where you finally talk about love, the one where you and I matter, even though “we aren’t movie stars, we aren’t models, we aren’t politicians, we just walk around occupying this negligible zone of ourselves.” (Like Paparazzi) Delayed, avoided, circumscribed, mediated. Until you encounter that point where you don’t have to read another tabloid, watch another cartoon, another catastrophe-romance, another zombie movie to live it, to know it: the zombie movie has already gone inside. The zone doesn’t have to be negligible, but increasingly it is, now.
But what’s outside is already an extension of what’s inside. Topology is psychological, carnal. Culture is always trying to destroy the body—especially a mother’s body—but can’t seem to stop it from imprinting. “People forget the electrical system in the walls of the house started as a nervous system. That plumbing evolved from intestines. Author was one of the first to comprehend that we are the mother of our house, rare parasites that create our own host.” (Car)
Sometimes the cartoon talks back. Penelope Pussycat calls out her lifelong antagonist and his many fans. And with her, a chorus of women—the stripper, the witch, the suicide—call out the culture that killed them. Is still killing them. (Penelope Pussycat Finally Speaks, An Open Letter to Pepe Le Pew)
Like that Dave Chapelle stand-up routine about the ways in which rape culture is programmed into children: “And we’re watching Pepe Le Pew and I’m looking at it like, whoa, good God, what kind of fuckin’ rapist is this guy? …my nephew was sitting there cracking up: ‘Heeheehee, see, sometimes you gotta take the pussy, like Pepe!’”
In the cartoon, Penelope’s black fur is always accidentally-on-purpose bleached, or painted. So she better passes for a skunk. So she better passes for the mate she’ll never be. Someone Pepe would want to fuck.
Chemicals, hygiene and the properly-sexualized body. The work of beauty: “I squat in bleach to burn off history. I paint it over. I gloss it up. I take pictures of perfect pussies and paste them over mine. I scrub until it bleeds.” (I get clean I get clean for you)
Work of beauty until it works. “After 40 years they made the Starbucks’ mermaid younger, more attractive with more defined hair, and now my coffee tastes better.” (I Hope She Breathes Like a Mammoth)
Work of beauty until it hurts. “He goes too far, as if he can smell the animal sex. This is who he is. / I am small and barely swing when he leaves me. The chains always hold. / He comes back with clean tools and I let him. This is who I am.” (Said, Done)
Žižek famously said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism; have we also reached a time when even personal freedom can now only be envisioned as personal obliteration; only imagined in the aftermath of a holocaust? “I need a bomb, a blaze, a demolition. I need total, brutal relinquishment… I feel myself seared and cauterised. I feel thick chocking smoke hands wrap around my identity and finally bear it skywards... I wait to become cleansed and empty, I wait to become fire-pure and reborn.” (Dogs the Size of Cows)
But if that doesn’t work: “Don’t Despair. Visit the Department of / Partial Certainty. Request another / certificate of renewed clarification.” (Some Good Advice)
And wilderness, the first protagonist. The one in that North American origin story, where the beginning of a nation feels as brutal as (and indistinguishable from) the end of the world. “Farmers with improvised weapons followed the wake of hooves and steaming entrails across caked earth.” (Barren Lands — 1)
Where the natural, the paradisiacal, only lasts for an episode, before disillusionment and dread set in. You don’t get lost in the words; the woods are already lost. “In these woods I burn down everything that I don’t understand.” ([ the fourth house /// rebuilt ])
The frontier myth having always been a dystopic science fiction, “an endless book with pages crashing their bloody ink upon the distant shore.” (First Things First)
The way Judith Butler talks about anachronistic resurgence: “the historical time that we thought was past turns out to structure the contemporary field with a persistence that gives the lie to history as chronology.”
And after wilderness? Coming-of-age, that tragicomic gore-porn. The bogeyman/swamp monster of burgeoning sexual and spiritual maturity, hunted by villagers: “Burn the swamp. Damn the crocodiles. The pervert must be smoked out of his hole. Deputize the fathers. Blaze the torches. Evil must be stopped and the boundaries of freedom defended.” (The Chaperone)
I live in England now but I’m still growing up in America. Usually, it seems to consist of being told to equate individualism with independence. Everyone working in the same house, but everyone in isolation: “We can no longer be a we, we say. There is no we anymore.” (When All You Want Doesn’t Want You)
Writing (living) in English can also sometimes feels like combing through a national museum’s little gift shop of horrors. Artifacts. Signs of life without life. Or: the signs were buried alive.
“In the middle of the floor: an ice rink minus the skaters—wax disk from a jelly jar; toothpicks and dental floss for the railing.” “Not a tree in the ear but ears on the tree, at least a thousand / Beneath the tree a lone gramophone is preoccupied with Beethoven’s Late String Quartets.” (Box II, Box III)
Like that Lynne Tillman story Dynasty Reruns, where she writes:
The banner for the show stretched across the width of the National Gallery’s East Building. TREASURE HOUSES OF GREAT BRITAIN, FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OF PRIVATE PATRONAGE AND ART COLLECTING…
Was she expected to be grateful to or respectful of the aristocracy for having first created and then preserved Western civilization? The show’s banner could have read: WESTERN CIVILIZATION BROUGHT TO YOU BY...
Brought to you by the prisoner who preserves it: “He eats the dust off statues and laps lovingly at impressionistic paintings, he tickles tasty tarnish free. All night he feasts so things stay the same. He feasts on newness, but he can never leave.” (Night Hungers)
Brought to you by the one who preserves the prisoner: “I will carve and cast your form into powerful poses, protect you from carpet beetles and moths. In return, you must simply hold still, forever.” (Why I Chose Taxidermy as My Art)
How to begin everything you write with the words: “I never did this before.”
Harryette Mullen, Present Tense, from Sleeping with the Dictionary:
Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine, the wrong brain keeps talking through my hat. Now that I’ve been licked all over by the English tongue, my common law spout is suing for divorce. Now that the Vatican has confessed and the White House has issued an apology, I can forgive everything and forget nothing. Now the overdrawn credits roll as the bankrupt star drives a patchwork cab to the finished line, where a broke robot waves a mended tablecloth, which is the stale flag of a checkmate career. Now that the history of civilization has been encrypted on a medium grain of rice, it’s taken the starch out of the stuffed shorts. Now as the Voice of America crackles and fades, the market reports that today the Euro hit a new low. Now as the reel unravels, our story unwinds with the curious dynamic of an action flick without a white protagonist.
Elaine Castillo was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in England. Her writing can be found in PANK’s Queer Issue, Bluestem Magazine, Used Furniture Review, here at > kill author, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor to the PANK blog and Big Other, and can also be found at her website. Her short films can be found on Vimeo.