I keep trying to figure it out. The possibilities, that is. It’s a year ago. It’s now. It’s five years later, I mean three. I’m in Oakland, California. I’m in New York City, New York. I’m alone. I’m with my lover, touching their skin as though it’s a gauzy, like a dream. I’m at a bar, everybody is. We’re yelling about art, no, politics. It doesn’t matter because we’re really yelling about the wire. What is the origin of the phrase ‘Where is home’ but more importantly, what is the structure of its sharper, truer meaning. If that’s different in any way than, well ‘what do you desire,’ Dress it up however you like. Sorry, what I meant to say was ‘hey how’d she get an literary agent’; no, ‘when the revolution, whatever. We end up making out anyway, everyone pressed against the wall with the wrong person and their shattered ideology. Every reiterative question playing a peformative façade against the breakdown of a pose. “I’m a comrade who strongly believes in the power of communism.” “I’ve been easily seduced by fashion and decadence.” I’m lost. I’m over there, in the next moment, thirsting after capitalist dick, hell, every time I move my body through different registers, places, times, I go to a different reception hall. I give them my coat. They give me a name tag. I don’t try to read it because I don’t ever want to know. Which script. I figure it out anyway. I look at the people around me. They all look the same as one other. We speak in the same tone. We all talk small. He said. She said. Etc.
I’m in Freud’s old office in Hampstead, London. These days, they show art here. Today, it’s an exhibition of works by the artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, entitled Polymorphous Perverse. Built on both Anna and Freud’s formulations of childhood sexuality, the sculptures are excessive and obnoxious, composed of plastic doll parts that mechanise themselves as you walk past. It’s all limbs zipping out of plastic trashbags, baby heads popping out of soap boxes, everything encircled in dribbles of cherry red blood. It’s so coded with shock value as to almost be sarcastic so I feel mostly at home. I walk past a small but austere etching of Moses, hanging on one of the walls. In this portrait, he looks furious. He’s holding the Ten Commandments above his head, as though he’s ready to smash them at his feet. There’s a ragged tin can perched on a small wooden table, directly beneath him. It has no label or lid. It’s open, so I lean in to take a look and I let out a noise between a sob and a shriek because as I move my head, a single hot dog with a lone baked bean balanced on its end emerges vertically out of the can. It makes a loud, mechanical whir. It’s baldly pink and erect. It’s cheerily impotent. I can’t help it. I lose it, I’m laughing.
Here’s the thing about impotence. I don’t think it’s strange to want any human activity to quote unquote Do Something, just as I don’t think it’s strange to desire utopia. How could we not? Coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in the book by the same name, the term ‘UTOPIA’ has come to mean a perfect place. One in which everyone could have what they needed and yet nothing would have to change—someplace better than what we know. But when defined, Utopia, which comes from the Greek ou for not, and topos, for place, literally means no-place. In a painful twist of irony, in order for utopia to be flawless, it can never come into being. And to embrace our desire for Utopia, is to recognise, too, its certain emptiness. Guy Hocquenghem writes, “Utopia… is an obligation not an end. The obligation is not the absorption of the utopia into the real, but the penetration of the real by utopia. Utopia is not something to be anticipated. [rather] In hinting at possibilities outside the realm of the probable, it reorients the real, deters the real from limiting itself, closing in on itself.” For Hocquenghem, the value of Utopia is not in serving as a structural blueprint for an imminent future, but as an impetus for imagining life beyond what we know is possible. For seeking a set of terms to build society that do not depend on our current flawed foundations. It is this imagining itself that has deep implications for the way we might continue to go about living—even if its direct results are not a perfect revolution.
Memories, verifiable? Like Joan Didion, I came to California with a desire to reinvent myself even if I didn’t know how. I was not planning to spend every summer with you together, in Lake Tahoe, like she did. but I did expect to find some kind of home.
I have an ex-boyfriend who I believe is one of the most intensely moral humans I know. I believe this because he is able to see starkness in the world and act on it with a confidence I do not possess. I am jealous of that ability. I like a story that he once told me. I like telling it to people because it makes me feel as though I could have the same ability even when I do not. Unlike him, I am not ever able to believe that I am making the correct decision. My ex-boyfriend is at a frat party. He’s skinny and wears tight pants and a plaid shirt. Another boy is aggressive towards him. He is polite. He remains calm. He backs away. He knows the other boy is wrong. He goes into the kitchen. He gets a bottle of bleach out from under the sink. He fills a red solo cup with a quarter cup of bleach and tops the rest of it off with beer. He tastes it, gingerly, so he doesn’t hurt himself but makes sure that the taste of bleach is not quite detectable. He knows that if someone takes more than full sip, it is more than likely he will kill them. He knows he will do this because the other boy is wrong. He is with a girl he loves. Before he can do anything, the girl he is with takes the cup out of his hand. He doesn’t blink an eye. He acquiesces because he loves her. I believe he is intensely moral without being naïve or uncomplicated, which is a difficult thing to be.
We live our lives out in a series of endless rooms. It’s hard to tell which or whose room you’re in. It doesn’t matter which or whose house you’ve witlessly wandered into either. Sometimes, there are crowds in each one, jostling, but sometimes the room is empty and you’re the only one waiting. You encounter other people in these rooms. Each person’s behavior reveals some kind of strange double bind at the intersection of intense fantasy and overt restriction. The rooms we are sitting in are never simply rooms because a decision has been made. We have somehow chosen to sit in these rooms, and choice, whenever it occurs, makes whatever happens after it seem important. There is little emotion or interaction between the people in these rooms. In small, private moments you might see a few pats on the back, or hugs, but these gestures are restrained and secretive. Mostly as if drugged in a dentist’s chair each individual sits frozen and immobile. Their stiffness reveals an intense concentration, an incredible will to block out all that is going on around them that might destroy the fantasy they want to sustain. The seats on either side of each person are empty. The world of the future does not allow for the intrusion of worldly problems.
I’m walking around this exhibition in Freud’s cottage and it becomes clear that the artists Noble and Webster don’t intend to cast aspersions on Freud’s theories. They don’t intend to detract from how his psychologizing became the foundation of how we understand the modern human subject, of how we value identity. But they don’t want to let go of how absurd and arbitrary it is either. I stop in front of a sculpture called Black Narcissus. It looks like a mess of brass cast hands and cocks, entwined and gesturing to each other, melded into a friction of attachment and acrimony. Some hands are curled into fists or they’re gracefully draped, some cocks are flaccid or bent or aggressively erect. But there’s a spotlight shining on this black mass, so that when illuminated, it creates a shadow. And what we see on the wall directly behind the sculpture is a perfect silhouette of Noble and Webster’s conjoined heads, sitting directly next to a cast bust of Freud’s own, exactly the same size. Identity, ideology, semiotics crudely reduced to cock and hand, sensation and sensation received, desire and desire fulfilled. Not to be dumb, but god, just like facing it, literally. How fucking funny and awful is that?
In writing about early Soviet artistic culture and emergent forms of Socialist Realism, Robert Bird sees that ‘aesthetic strategies for fostering revolutionary intimacy’ were the priority in a system that wanted to engage comrades across the world. That if revolution was going to happen, it would ‘[come into being] through… countless intimate gestures, not as a totality but as a series.’ As such, socialist realist artists were interested in communicating not the tenants or historic nuances of communism, but rather what revolution could ‘look like, sound like, feel like… those realms of preformulation where sensory-data congeals into ‘something that matters’ and those realms of post-formulation where ‘something’ is experienced as mattering.’ Revolutionary art was not about starkness: of the theoretical or of the world as is, but about stigmata; something that could pierce through. About transforming a material politics into an ethics as intensity.
It’s dark and I’m upset. This is nothing new. I remember the room. I remember there was carpet; I was annoyed by how green the walls were. It was packed. There was a band playing who had long curly metal hair and black glitter leggings and maybe were from Israel. It was a great show. Someone ripped his jack from his amp and sucked it as though there was no air in the room. It shivered and exhaled in decadent response to the aridness of the screech. It was the night that we had refused to let anyone go upstairs to our bedrooms (It was every night). The crowd was tight. My eyes were so dry they couldn’t blink. Wide and dark behind my eyelids. Someone got hit in the head by a crowdsurfing cymbal. They went up the stairs. We tried to stop them. They screamed ‘I have AIDS.’ There was blood everywhere. Their forehead was in your face. Ivy tried to hit them. You held up your hands, your palms were wide and stark. You said ‘whoa can I get you some help – I just want to help you.’ Your eyes were very light. You had blood streaked all the way down the side of your face, across your right cheek and close to your mouth. I reeled. I was very still. The scene was circuited. Panic rubbing against a frame of people assembling for dispersal. The world was very taut. We thought we could take everything and hold it by throwing our bodies senselessly together. We were a perverse venn diagram turned into belief. We were some kind of cross. I said, ‘It’s okay,’ and saw it come true. I held them in my arms. I had an urge to see the cymbal. I wanted to know what instrument it was that strung out this picture. When I remember it now, it feels like a puzzle. The pieces fit, but the edges are wet and cleaned off with my sanitized romanticism. I wanted to kiss blood off your eyebrow. I washed it out of Ivy’s hair. That’s what I remember. Was this every show? No one wants to go back there, but it doesn’t mean they’re not nostalgic for it either.
There are crawlspaces in my life that are places where I begin to feel again. There are mindnumbing boxes that are difficult to leave. They can be the same. I left home. I’m in the gag. I hope it’s okay that I’m stuck here for a while. I’m sorry I didn’t write back sooner, but I think remembering will help. The memories started small, like wisps nailed against my temples. When I shook my head they defined themselves against where I thought they were supposed to go. I’ve listed them below, maybe you can verify.
It’s Saturday. I’m at a S/M waterboarding workshop, in a basement somewhere in Chelsea. I’m nostalgic, so it feels like this space could be any other space – the black hallway, beer stains on the floor, the faint whiff of detergent trying to mask the lingering cigarette stench, the dull glossiness of a bad paint job and the matte marker of graffiti. We sit in rows and watch as a woman chokes and retches under the soaked cotton of a drenched tshirt; as she had fizzy mountain dew dripped slowly into her nostrils so her airways can never clear from the sugar. The workshop covers everything, from the history of waterboarding in a specifically S/M context to what to tell your TSA officer if your carry on luggage is full of waterboarding equipment to the physiology of oxygen deprivation, to how to emergency respond if something goes wrong. The man doing the demonstration is obviously hard through his tight black jeans, he keeps stroking his cock with his zipper half open while he tells us this information. Occasionally he giggles, nervous and high pitched. His wife burbles under the cloth and jerks, feebly before he removes it and spits in her face. I recognized the dazed look in her eyes and it might not seem like it but I know she feels delirious and relieved, the world turning green and torn apart as though it were dispensable, as though it were no longer hers. Her knees jerk up. I see the wet cotton worm its way into her mouth and pucker.
The workshop is two and a half hours but feels like 45 minutes. I feel the dampness spreading uncomfortably into the mesh of my tights The girl next to me can’t stop sneezing from the humidity. Occasionally, she swims into my field of vision, wide-eyed and lovesick through her hayfever tears. The collar around her neck reads ‘Daddy’s Little Slut.’
I’m at home, reading Kathy Acker’s Algeria—A SERIES OF INVOCATIONS BECAUSE NOTHING ELSE WORKS. Ostensibly, it’s a report about the war. I mean, the facts are all here, well, the facts are all wrong, it’s a bricolaged series of news broadcasts about terrorist attacks and revolutionary struggle and the Algerian War, patched together in a misrepresentation almost worthy of Fox News. Acker vividly describes waterboarding as a state-sanctioned mode of torture. “While the Algerian longed for water, they dumped his head into a bucket of ice-cold liquid until he had to breathe the liquid. They did this again and again. They did this again and again.” This goes on until we become unsure what is insanity, what is pleasure, what is “The moment before the Algerian went crazy and accepted horror as usual, his greatest fear and torment was this consciousness that he, the Algerian, is about to go crazy, has to give up his mind which is anger and accept the horrible inequality he is fighting against” (3). They do this again and again. The section is entitled “THE IMPORTANCE OF SEX / BECAUSE IT BREAKS THE RATIONAL MIND.” Torture or desire? I hate equals I love you. Acker draws an ambivalent equivalence between gossip, political rhetoric, revolutionary polemic, sexual experience. It becomes impossible to know what is the truth, sure, but also what is ethical, what can inform our agency and what can destroy it. Ideals to be jigsawed, shuffled and sliced like meaningless paper, everything up for exchange in an ineffectual marketplace. It’s about futility.
It’s Saturday. I’m at an S/M waterboarding workshop. It’s hour two and there’s a bunch of spare equipment set out so we can try some things on our own. The workshop leaders watch. It’s my turn. I’m no stranger to asphyxiation and the cool drip of the water is starting to make the intensity in my chest burn from lack of oxygen as much as it begins to calm me, but I’m suddenly stopped, the towel is ripped away from my face, an unwelcome gasp of air screeching through my lungs. And amidst my gasping, the woman who’s helping me shrieks ‘Oh god, stop, you’re a breath holder!’ as though it is some a terrible accusation. I’m confused. As it turns out, what makes for successful waterboarding is our body’s instinctive urge to inhale when denied oxygen. What makes it so painful is the convulsive gasping that comes from trying to suck in life-affirming air but finding in its place only damp, suffocating moisture from a cloth over the nose and mouth. As it turns out, waterboarding is no match for little me, whose years of training as a synchronized swimmer has dulled my intuitive urge to inhale when I am deprived of oxygen. Instead, I hold my breath, stubbornly until I can’t help but pass out. Not only does this mean that I don’t suffer as dramatically, but my body basically won’t express any symptoms before I move swiftly on my way to permanent brain damage. ‘Most people kick or struggle, when they’re waterboarded, you know, from the panic, which is part of the enjoyment,’ the woman explains. ‘But if you’re holding your breath, you’ll just be still as a rock, and how would we know – how could your partner know then, if you’re,’ she pauses, looking confused ‘well, if you’re already dead.’ It’s cold under the air conditioning and I can suddenly feel the slime of water and snot and saliva dripping down the back of my throat. It’s warm and alive. I feel subliminal. I’m overcome with a sense of relief or disappointment, I can’t quite tell. The woman grabs my arm and shakes it once. I’m jolted to the present. She says, firmly, ‘It’s just that you don’t know how to struggle correctly.’ ‘I know.’ I say to her. I can’t help it. I am going to die in disgraceful circumstances. The air conditioner whirs.
I’m back. I’m in the gag. I’ve got a whole envelope of scabs I picked off while I was gone. I’m at home, on the internet, reading about how someone thinks I’m an anti-black racist who hates my family. I’m tilting my face towards the blinding spotlight, letting some patterned morse code of cock and finger imprint itself on the back of my eyes.
Reading Kathy Acker, we discover there is no way to read its literariness without having to confront its obscenity, no way to be turned on without being turned off by its source material. Reading it is to acknowledge how we cannot escape our contextual or constituent parts. And left loose and uncomposed, these contradictory fragments of text, begin to collapse inward upon something else all together. They rub up against each other; they hurt and oppose and confuse. And yet, in their shredded, affective intensity, they do. Struggle, that is.
In an interview, Tim Noble and Sue Webster are asked about how they managed to make so many plaster casts of Noble’s erect penis. It was a struggle, they say, to make such a cast. That they tried everything, from plastered gauze to moulding clay, but everything was too cold, or too hard, or too unbecoming for such a fragile event as an erection. They landed on materials used for dental impression, the gooey silicone still warm before it set, a comfortable cocoon for a bald, pink member, easy to mould and compress, simple to turn out hundreds of different casts of wrinkled organs from which to construct the contours of a face. Noble and Webster, in their Freudian parody create a space to not discover, but to reveal what is soft, or flexible, or comic, or pathetic about what they are mirroring. Noble’s cock set in fluoride goo, each iteration a smaller and smaller stage of erection, a fainter and fainter silhouette. Something that delivers a perfectly reflective but damning portrait, one’s silhouette is always and already the shadow of one’s departure. I left –
Home. It happens because we’re human and our fantasy is narrow. Our dreams remain limited to what we have worldly referents for. In other words, we can only collage utopia out of what we know of our empirical universe; it can only ever be a bricolage of pleasures vividly recalled. Some days, I wake up weak. I am going to die in disgraceful circumstances. I don’t know how to struggle correctly. Do you?
Whatever. You can make utopia out of almost anything.
Picture a circle delineating the internal edge of a hollow column defined by velvet curtains hanging from high above; we are walking around the edges, tossing objects into the display area from behind the curtains where we walk in a circle and never meet and take turns running from who’s hurt who, or lost what, or done what to whom, and how much, or how and for what. We look at each other through the curtains across the circle full of clutter and in this way we say hi and form impressions and are impressed by these forms. Maybe I’ll put in some characters and some recognizable desires that can be thwarted by the unfortunate tendency of characters to interact with each other. Is that art or politics? Who cares. Anyway I wish there was more blood about it.
I was going to struggle, finally. If I could. I wanted to try, You knew. You told me so. You said, “I hope that, for the sake of the rest of you, you find an oasis that isn’t a mirage.” I didn’t.
I did everything I possibly could, to try to make you happy.