Andrea Long Chu
in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa
“I experienced my transness as a shape the Internet made when it looked at me.”
I want to start by talking about writing. During your visiting seminar at CalArts last spring, one of my colleagues asked you to impart some advice for young writers trying to develop a regular writing practice. You offered two thoughts in response: one, find time for physical pleasure—whatever that might look like—and two, taking speed doesn’t make you a better writer. What is your relationship to writing these days, embodied or otherwise?
[Laughs.] Right now, it’s both strange and difficult. I went on hormones in 2018. I had anticipated that they would interrupt my ability to write, which they did. I got four books done in 2018 while I was on leave. I kept on anticipating, “alright, I’m starting hormones at the end of this, and I think they will fuck me up for a while.” To be honest, I didn’t really write anything between 2018 and last summer. I managed to do a couple commissions and articles, but that’s like my second day job—that’s not the art, you know? I’ve had to reinvent my process. I used to write in this dissociated and manic state. I stopped writing for a while because the hormones solved some of my dissociative tendencies. Maybe writers are just people who make mental illness functional [Laughter.]. Whatever kind of mental illness you have, you have to find a way to stop it from being an obstacle—it has to become the causative thing that allows you to get work done.
Writers are people who need writing. It’s ok if people who don’t need to write end up writing, of course. But writers need it. It’s a need that you can’t really fathom—and that’s why you do it. I’m slowly cobbling together a new process. Formally speaking, my position in the structure of patriarchy and gender changed, so I’m perceived differently. I’m taken far less seriously, which is incredibly freeing. Nobody takes me seriously, so I can just write whatever I want now. I’ve been really leaning into that—more than I’d like to admit, I think.
The idea of need feels essential here. In Reverse Cowgirl, you recount your involvement with Australian communists during the late 1970s and the early ‘80s. You describe becoming involved with a Communist reading group through the party—"party school,” as you refer to it. Party school allowed you to approach critical theory as a tool, directly suited toward a present need, be it political, aesthetic, or inter-personal, as opposed to some sort of academic discipline with rigid stipulations regarding citation, demonstrating familiarity with field specific literature, and so on. Your account of party school reminded me of Robert Glück’s account of the self-education of the New Narrative writers, which was happening around the same time in San Francisco.
Ah, that’s an interesting connection. Definitely.
Obviously, these two moments are happening across the world from one another. And, to be fair, New Narrative was a literary organization, not a political one. In his essay “Long Note on New Narrative,” Glück writes, “Bruce [Boone] and I pillaged critical theory for concepts that gave us access to our experience . . . to the endless chain of equal cultural manifestations (a song by R.E.M.; The Diet of Worms; Rousseau’s Confessions) we add another equal sign, attaching the self as yet another thing the culture ‘dreamed up.’” Your writing seems to employ theory less as a set of concepts that exist for their own sake, and more so as an aesthetic toolbox of sorts—one which can be manipulated to fit the needs of the hands it falls into. What is your current relationship to theory? Do you have any interest in using theory to get at some sort of objective truth?
I’m not against academic queer theory, nor academic Marxism. I just don’t want to give them more prestige. I’m interested in conceptual thinking that is generated by, and corrected by, some sort of practice of life as much as it is by politics—this doesn’t have to be capital-P Politics, either. When I write about other people’s work, I’m mostly drawn to the ways in which their work intersects with a life practice. I’ve written about the Situationists, Andrei Platonov, and even early Donna Haraway, for instance—all of whom learned through direct movement experience. I don’t want to fetishize that connection, of course—you need to be a little careful. That said, I’m interested in this difference: for whom is theory a thing that they need in order to live, and for whom is theory a career path?
Academic theory tends toward a certain sort of scholasticism—a veneration of the great fathers, and very occasionally the great mothers. We have to do family abolition in theory. I don’t consider any of the people I’ve written about to be great fathers of Marxism, or great fathers of the avant-garde, but rather as these weird aunts and uncles. So, what would it mean to do family abolition in how we do theory? I don’t think we’re even close to that. A lot of people have realized that there’s not much of a future in the academic game—its days as a space where you could do critical theory seem to be ending. For some reason, this realization has led many people to double down on their veneration of Hegel, or of Lacan, or of whoever else is daddy. There’s been a retreat into a very conservative model of how to do theory, alongside a growing understanding that the practice has materially changed.
I was always drawn to the New Narrative people. I saw them as fellow travelers of each other—there was no party for them to be in. I also had similar life experiences to many of them. I attempted to be a gay man several times in my life, which led me to similar intellectual and political spaces. I was given Foucault in the form of badly translated photocopies—before there were real translations in English—by people who were trying to do anti-psychiatry work, people who were working to decriminalize homosexuality. I was given theory by self-described “nasty street queens,” who were like, “you need to read this” [Laughs.]. I very much relate to what Robert Gluck is saying there, and to the aesthetic quality of that approach to writing theory. As Deleuze says, concepts are to theory what characters are to novels, except they’re impersonal. You must tell a story about these impersonal forces, objects, and movements in the world. I think there is a value to that move as a kind of truth claim. Not necessarily as something which is more true than the novel, but rather as something which is a corrective to the novel’s faults, or a corrective to narrative’s limits and faults. The thing about a good concept is that it is slightly true about a lot of things, whereas a good fact is mostly true about something in particular. We’re often overwhelmed by the facticity of the world, and that’s why you need a good concept. But there’s a sort of philosophical error in thinking that the concept is more true, as if it is some sort of fundamental ontology. It’s not. It’s a tactic for organizing knowledge and experience.
Right. It’s a little astounding how quickly this type of aggressive intellectual conservatism can emerge out of what are, hypothetically speaking, left-wing schools of thought. You touch upon this in Capital is Dead, when you ask how many more “—capitalisms” need to be coined before we start to accept the possibility that there might perhaps be a better word for describing the politics of our current moment besides “capitalism.” I feel like para-academic writing often seems to get unfairly derided for being “anti-theory”—or even for being somehow openly against intellectual rigor. I think that happened with Andrea Long Chu, for instance, when she published Females. As far as I understand it, the thrust of that book was to say, “this book is a thought experiment, and I’m going to follow it to its logical conclusion.” At the same time, Chu was hedging her own bet, as if to say, “this might not stand up to critical scrutiny”—the point being that it shouldn’t need to in order to be useful.
I think it’s important, on both an aesthetic, political, and epistemological level, that a theory fails—good theory includes its own collapse. It’s a holding pattern—it holds certain things together, and is slightly true, but then it falls apart. You shouldn’t be stuck being a Heideggerian for the rest of your life, or whatever else, you know? I’m very strongly committed to that idea. I’ve had this thought experiment that I’ve been drawing out for over twenty years: what if this isn’t even capitalism anymore? What if it’s something worse? I’m more than happy for that theory to fail. But people don’t seem to be willing to even have that thought experiment—which is, in a sense, illuminating of the thought experiment itself, as well as of the politics of presenting it. Why is this idea not even thinkable? Why is there an absolute insistence that capitalism is eternal, that we’re always in it? Why is that where we’ve ended up, both conceptually and emotionally?
I think Andrea Long Chu’s book engages a related conceptual problem. I love that book, but it’s not a book you can agree with. So often we just want things to agree with, things to channel our feelings. I don’t think that’s theory’s job. Theory is supposed to be difficult, or counterintuitive. On some level, it should be self-evidently wrong, but on some other level it should be more correct than it has any need to be. I was raised on Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, for instance. Every now and then, you get a concept like “simulation” or “the vector,” and then you read a little further and you go, “wait a second, this just got batshit crazy.” Like, “what’s going on in this paragraph?”—you know? When you’re reading these sorts of texts, it’s like listening to free jazz. It’s going to go to some place where it won’t work for a bit, and then you watch the artist get themselves out of that hole and go somewhere else. Why have we lost that pleasure? People want theory daddies. People want something to be right. People want to be emotionally satisfied by something that enables them to think through some relation to capitalism. I want work that is a little harder to parse than that. Take Frank Wilderson’s writing on the concept of Afropessimism, for instance—that’s one of the great, truly unnegotiable bodies of work. It comes directly out of praxis, out of the failure of the movement in South Africa—the failure of this moment that most of us in the West don’t even know about. And it’s profound. But it’s not work that you can agree with. That’s how it’s designed to be, you know?
It almost insists that you disagree with it, yeah? That certain unacceptable quality seems to be part of the point of the work in the first place. It’s a provocation, a willingness to say something which you know cannot expand past a certain point, to say something that intentionally cannot hold everything together to the degree that it claims to. The provocation is in knowing this limit and insisting on saying it nonetheless.
Right. Andrea’s work is a détournement of Frank’s work—that is clearly where her style of thought came from. It doesn’t have quite the depth and resonance as Wilderson. We need to bear in mind that Andrea is just starting out. She got pretty aggressively attacked for writing Females, even by other trans people. When that was happening, I was like, “just let people have a little space for this sort of thinking.” I have some problems with Females too, but let’s maintain a little space for that sort of writing. People often think that the aesthetic is something that happens out in the world, and that theory is then some sort of discourse “about” it. That’s wrong. Theory is an aesthetic practice, and an ethical practice, and a political practice—it’s all of those things. It has to include a sense of play, or some sort of delicious quality, just like any other kind of interesting art.
Definitely. Most of the canonical “theory daddies” we have today were playing with language in their own time. So much of Marx or Freud or Deleuze’s work is an experiment in free play with words, with twisting and modifying words to suit an as-of-yet unexpressed concept. It’s interesting to think about the moment where things shift, the moment where correct interpretation and textual fidelity come to the fore—the whole endless debate around like, “this is what Deleuze really meant when he said rhizome,” or, “this is what Freud really meant by projection.” This attitude seems to forget that those words begin as speculative, fast-and-loose attempts to aesthetically modify language—they’re generated on the fly in order to clear out some sort of unexplored conceptual space.
It’s important to remember that lot of the transmission of these concepts, especially in an American context, takes place through comparative literature departments. I’m all for that form of transmission. I need help with this stuff. I don’t read German—I need someone to walk me through what Freud is doing with language, because I can’t do that myself. I don’t want to come off as anti-intellectual about all of this. I just think that side of theory is subsidiary to my main interests. I’m interested in working with that desire for originality in language, that desire to make a work of art. I’m interested in work that has learned from theory but doesn’t imitate the masters, or that isn’t just a commentary on them. If it is a commentary, it ought to be a sly commentary, as someone like Marx so often does. For example, Marx has a passage where he says something to the effect of, “well, as Hegel says somewhere, all great moments in history happen twice.” But Hegel didn’t say that! Marx completely made it up [Laughs.]. It’s definitely a Hegelian thought, but there’s some sort of play going on, you know?
Totally. Part of what drew me to your writing, and particularly to your more recent work, is your ability to capture a certain tense, almost contradictory relationship towards established concepts. On the one hand, you are often wary about relying upon them in order to make narrative sense of the world—they easily blur crucial distinctions between epistemic moments, creating a sort of ahistorical fiction out of real events.
This idea shows up regularly in Reverse Cowgirl, for instance. You often interject with these short asides like, ‘today we might call this gender dysphoria, or being non-binary, or transness.’ At the same time, you refuse to simply employ concepts like dysphoria or transness to describe your experience of coming-of-age during the 1970s and ’80s—there’s this recognition that that language did not exist, or at least function, at the time in the same way that it does now, and that, as a result, something about the original experience gets lost when we pave over it with later discursive concepts. All the same, your writing is very attuned to the potential usefulness of historical narratives. You insist upon the need to create better fictions for making sense of our present—whether that means reappropriating well-trodden terms like “vulgar Marxism” in Capital is Dead, or constructing these make-shift literary cannons, from Jean Genet to Juliana Huxtable, Chris Kraus to Andrei Platonov, and so on. How do you approach the idea of historical accuracy in your writing? There seems to be a balancing act of sorts going on in your work, toggling between factual rigor and a sort of intentional infidelity towards certain terms, people, and places—is that fair to say?
Platonov is an unlikely addition, but those other three definitely go together. The only real thing I took from my Leninist education was the idea of two steps backwards, three steps forwards. I want to be attentive to the gift of this cultural past. I want to think of cultural history outside of the boundaries of private property and ownership, which is how academia and the book trade think of it. I want to think of it as a commons of struggle—a struggle to understand and participate in the world. That’s what literature and theory are to me. I’m not interested in willful misreading. At the same time, concepts have to be modified sometimes. If we’ve read our Derrida, for instance, we’re never gonna be all that faithful to Derrida’s ideas, you know? Even in repetition there’s difference.
I’ve never found a therapist who could explain why I do this to myself, but I want to be like a weird aunt for other people—someone who tells them: “you know, we could all be doing this totally differently.” We could be playing with concepts—playing in a way that probably isn’t useful for anyone hoping to have a straight up career in the elite humanities. I get to do what I do because I’m an undergraduate liberal arts teacher. I’m not preparing people for this ever-narrowing academic funnel, which is ever more conservative about intellectual life and the forms it can take. The most interesting stuff to me has always had a para-academic dimension—even more so now, given the historical circumstances. This shouldn’t sound as weird as some people think it does, but what if writing theory was an art existing in relation to the needs one needs to meet to be able to pass through life? If you look back on history, who has generated that sort of writing? The labor movement did, gay people did, trans people did, anti-colonial movements did, Black liberation did. They all had that need for a conceptual dimension, something to organize the structure of the possibility of life.
Definitely. Perhaps now would be a good moment to pivot towards your recent work a little more explicitly. I noticed that dissociation features heavily in both Reverse Cowgirl and Philosophy for Spiders. Both books open with a sensation of non-existence brought on by the death of a loved one—in Reverse Cowgirl it’s the premature death of your mother, in Philosophy for Spiders its Kathy Acker visiting you years after her death during a dream sequence. I’m curious about your decision to portray dissociation as a potentially productive state, as opposed to a purely debilitating one. Towards the end of Reverse Cowgirl, for instance, there’s a sequence in which you take mushrooms while on a lakeside retreat in upstate New York. The ensuing trip allows you to come to terms with your transness for the first time. Your altered state produces a multiplicity of possible new selves: “hello world, I’m trans! Am I binary or non-binary? Am I trans-femme or a trans-woman?” Similarly, in Philosophy for Spiders sex often has the effect of multiplying the number of ‘people’ in the room—all of the sudden it’s not just you and Kathy, but rather the ‘penetrated you’ and the ‘penetrating you,’ the ‘penetrating Kathy’ and the ‘penetrated Kathy,’ and so on.
Yes. I want to be careful and note that dissociation can be very debilitating for people with trauma. It can also be debilitating for people with gender dysphoria. Trans women dissociate a lot. Trans women are also more likely to have been traumatized. It wasn’t until after I finished writing Reverse Cowgirl that I realized that the first scene of the book was the first time I ever dissociated. I’m told my mother is dead with no preparation—all of the sudden, I’m not there. That dissociated state became a place where I could go. Eventually, that state became where the writing came from. Being constantly in a state of dissociation was debilitating in many aspects of my life. It harmed my ability to have relationships. Dissociation is not good, in many ways.
That said, I think there’s a tendency right now to think of all of our variously weird, crooked timber versions of being as somehow fallen from a perfect state. People tend to adopt this notion that there’s some high functioning, neurotypical, not manic, not depressed, not dissociated subjectivity somewhere. I don’t think that exists. Everybody is a hot mess of coping mechanisms and nonsense. If we’re all fallen, there’s nothing we’ve fallen from. So how do you structure your life around that realization? It may mean that you need medical intervention, which is a complicated conversation that I’m totally here for having. The version of medical intervention that I have experience with involves trans people and our need to have access to hormones and surgeries. I’m not a critic of turning to medical intervention. At the same time, we can also start to think about an aesthetic of practicing yourself as an art, with whatever weird, flawed subjectivity and body you have, or can create. That idea is what led me to thinking about dissociation as a thing that has a distinct aesthetic meaning. It’s a little bit inspired by Mark Fisher’s writing on depression, although it's different in many ways. How do we take these states which are so often pinned on the individual, and think of them as social instead? Why is the world making you depressed? And why is the world not an enabling place for people in that state? I don’t get depressed that much, so it’s not for me to answer, but that’s one of the things I’ve taken from Mark. For me, the question is this: how is the world producing so much dissociation? How is it designed to be unaccommodating to people experiencing dissociation? What if, instead of feeling like a failed human, we found a way to make dissociation useful?
I don’t dissociate as much as I used to, because I generally feel better since I transitioned. I still have this childhood trauma thing going on, but as far as all the gender dysphoria goes, I’m doing a lot better. Like I said, I quit writing for a few years because of that—I’m just now building my practice back up to the level of nuance and focus that it used to have before I transitioned.
What brought you back to writing?
If I’m not writing, I don’t do well. Writing is still one of those ways of being in the world that I really need. Trying to rework my writing process was very frustrating. I never would have actually followed through with it, but I did have this thought a few times of like, “do I need to detransition to be a writer again?” That notion terrified me. I don’t think I need to, but it’s been a struggle nonetheless.
My forthcoming book Raving came together very quickly—it felt like a bit of a breakthrough to be writing again. I tried doing a proposal for a trade book around the same time too, but that failed. I suppose I’ll always be a niche taste [Laughs.]. I got all of this feedback on the trade book like, “this is great, but can it be more of a conventional trans memoir?” But I’m incapable of writing that sort of book—I’m ideologically and politically opposed to it. On top of that, things just tend to invariably come out weird when I write. I love the readers I get—they like that weirdness and understand it. Don’t get me wrong, I could definitely use the money that I’d get if I wrote something that worked for a larger audience. But I like the audience I have. I don’t have a good answer for why I came back to writing. Writers are always asked to talk about this sort of thing, but there’s a level at which it’s inexplicable. The idea that you would sit alone by yourself for hours and hours, moving little black marks around a computer screen—that’s just an inexplicable thing to do with your life. We just circle the mystery over and over, you know?
I suppose it’s maybe a silly question to ask, in some ways, insofar as one of the initial reasons for writing has to do with the fact that we’re generally opaque to ourselves—that we need to sit down and write to get closer to some form of true introspection or self-understanding.
That’s one of the fundamental insights in Freud’s work, right? The self is unknowable to itself. Memoir is nonsense, like, it’s just fiction. If you know that, then you can start to use that genre differently, you know?
People are still trying to do these Freudian memoirs, where they try to psychoanalyze themselves in this or that way. But you can’t, babe, you just can’t. We’re all making fictions out of our lives all the time, and we’re really only partly aware that we’re doing so. So, what sort of truth can you find within that fiction? That was the problematic of Reverse Cowgirl, in a sense, as well as the first half of Philosophy for Spiders.
I feel like this is partly an issue of genre choice and convention, yeah? Genre enables certain narrative possibilities, but it also throws up certain limits. Porn seems to be the dominant genre of both Reverse Cowgirl and the first half of Philosophy for Spiders, although it’s certainly not the only genre at play. What led you to porn as a form of writing?
A lot of academics decide at some point or another—usually late into their career—that they have a novel in them. If you haven’t already noticed, these novels usually aren’t great.
I thought, “well, I ought to lower people’s expectations—I’ll do genre fiction!” I love science fiction, but I have no imagination—I can’t build worlds. So, I decided to write about fucking. I found that, weirdly enough, sex was something I could attend to. It was also something that dissociation had made visible in my life, in a way. This sounds surreal, but not being present for a lot of the sex that I’ve had ended up making sex a thing I could have a pretty clear perspective on. I drew upon the French tradition of treating sex as an object that’s available for thinking about conceptually—writers like Sade and Bataille and so forth.
There’s this idea of the “bad” kind of transsexual woman, the “autogynephile.” They wouldn’t let these women transition back in the gender clinic days, because we were seen as fetishists. We were seen as having some sort of erotic investment in femininity. We are attracted to women. The gatekeepers of access to care were not in the business of making transsexual lesbian women. They thought they could manufacture heterosexuality out of faggots, you know? One of my goals was to write a book that was available for the bad kind of transsexual—it’s not the first book to do this, but that was one of my goals. I think I mention Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, which just got rereleased, in Reverse Cowgirl. It’s a great book, but it didn’t work for me. We need even more versions of that story. We shouldn’t have to find ourselves in just one book. Rather, we should be able to define different dimensions of ourselves between a few books. Trans-lit still needs a few more options for people to be able to turn to.
On a more mundane level, porn is just fun to write. What can I say? I like to fuck. A sixty-year-old trans woman admitting that she fucks and that she likes it pushes a lot of people’s buttons, too, so there’s something to that. You’re not supposed to have sex after you’re thirty-five, it’s sort of unspeakable. People are only able to think of their parents fucking past that age. No one can think of grown-ups in this culture, it’s insane.
To maybe stick with this idea of fun-for-fun’s sake for a moment, I kept on thinking about Kevin Killian’s approach to sex writing while reading Reverse Cowgirl. He has this whole theory that sex writing partially overcomes the alienating split between reader and writer inherent in most prose, insofar as porn creates a shared experience of physical arousal that extends off the page. Do you ever think about the reader’s embodied response when you’re writing?
Oh yeah, totally. There’s this whole bit in Reverse Cowgirl that’s like, ‘fuck or be fucked by this book.’ Like, roll it into a tube and . . . you know [Laughs.]. All my writing is structured around the asymmetry of penetration. That’s one of the ongoing themes in my work. I want to produce effects in readers. That said, I’m not someone who can structure a narrative that’s going to immediately grip you. I don’t have that skill, and I’m frankly suspicious of it. I’m more interested in situation and story. Can I create a situation that will be problematically arousing? I would love to be able to produce the conceptual, “brain on fire” feeling that good theory produces. I don’t know if I do, but I sort of aim for that.
Sometimes I want my writing to be emotional, especially when it comes to the stuff about my childhood loss of a parent. And then I also love Roland Barthes’ “pleasure of the text”—I guess I want it all! I’m not claiming to be able to do all of those things well, but one should have ambitions. I want people to be able to work with the text at any of those levels. It kind of tickles me that some people get off on my books. If people are getting handjobs out of Reverse Cowgirl, that makes me very happy [Laughs.]. That said, I’m not interested in being transgressive. Transgression stopped working as an avant-garde tactic. It is a tool of the far-right now. Often, I find that it is helpful to set up what’s going to happen for the reader, as opposed to blindsiding them or shocking them. Content warnings are a thing that should happen sometimes—and that’s a question of genre too, yeah? Shape the reader’s expectation, but then play with it a little bit.
That idea of the constructed situation seems to recur throughout your writing. Maybe to stick with the example of sex writing, you provide all of these meticulous accounts in Reverse Cowgirl regarding your repeated attempt to stage the ideal sex scene—almost as if sex were a genre that you’re testing the limitations of. You explore different cocktails of food and drugs, tamper with the balance between music and mood, and on and on. At the same time, your attempts to carefully construct and control a sex scene are regularly interrupted by this persistent and deflating incursion of reality: someone gets too tired, a sour remark kills the mood, or whatever else. It reminded me a bit of that Oscar Wilde quip about cigarettes being the greatest pleasure, insofar as they have the decency of leaving you unsatisfied.
[Laughs.] There’s a part in Reverse Cowgirl that’s about my time working at this glory hole place—for context, this was during my first or second attempt at being a gay man. I was drawn to this idea of an aesthetic practice of producing the space of fucking, or the space of sexuality. There was disco music, it was dark, there were all the little video booths and all of that. I had this thought like, “oh, this space is an attempt to do sex as an art form.”
But that particular aesthetic didn’t work for me. One of the reasons I couldn’t be a gay man is that I can’t cruise. I’m a romantic, I need context and all of that. There’s a whole history of gay literature that’s about particular kinds of aesthetics and sexual experience, but just not aesthetics that I personally like. There’s stuff in Philosophy for Spiders about what I learned about fucking from Kathy Acker. And then there’s stuff in Reverse Cowgirl about what I learned about fucking from a bunch of different cis women, and from some of my boyfriends. We can think about sex as art, as a type of aesthetic practice. That takes away some of the moralizing around it, I think. This isn’t to deny the emotional dimension to sex at all—I’m a person who can’t really separate those things. But the emotional dimension doesn’t have to overdetermine sexuality, either. Where’s the literature on that, you know?
We have this hyper-moralistic discourse around sexuality—and to be very clear, I’m a big believer in consent. But is that really all we’re able think about? How do you make it fun? How do you set a mood? How do you frankly communicate needs? I wanted to seed these questions into the conversation a little bit. So much of the discourse around sex is focused on an ethical structure—which is not unimportant, I’m very for that. But like, ok, you’ve had a good conversation about consent, but the lighting is wrong, or one of the people hates the music that’s playing, or you picked the wrong vibrator for the moment. People don’t think of sexuality as a thing that you can spend a lifetime learning. It’s all thought of on a heterosexual model—people assume you’ll fuck a lot when you’re young and then you’ll have kids and never have sex again. Even queer people think like this. But no, you can spend a lifetime on it—your body will change, and in some ways, it will get better and more accommodating.
Nobody is just a bottom past the age of thirty or thirty-five.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. I always think like, “you know, honey, we were all cute and hot in our 20s.” But then you inevitably get older. Whether you end up doing it all that much or not, being able to top is kind of an ethical and aesthetic imperative. It’s also necessary to think outside of that language, too. Bottom is such a limiting word. I prefer to think of it as being a hole. We need to think about what we are contributing to the language and practice of sex.
I want to return to writing for a second. I noticed that you often make use of the second person address in your recent work. That stylistic decision stuck out to me, mostly because it’s a narrative perspective that theory writing and fiction seem to be equally allergic to, generally speaking. In the essay “Girls Like Us,” you describe the second person utterance “you” as a type of naming through not naming—as an invocation of another’s presence through their absence. Is there a particular audience or addressee you have in mind when working in the second person, or are you using it more as a purely rhetorical or performative device?
My failed trade book proposal was all in the second person. Most writers are simply not allowed to do second person, to put it plainly. Second person has always fascinated me though. It’s closely tied to the epistolary form. In a way, I did get to do a second person autofiction book on accident, which was the Acker correspondences, I’m Very Into You. That book reads like autofiction, even though it’s all real—we didn’t change anything except for the names. There’s something fascinating about the direct address, because the reader gets to be a voyeur. It’s almost like the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, in a sense. Second person has always been a minor tendency in Western letters—we devour volumes and volumes of diaries and letters by old writers. That’s often where the best stuff is, too. If you’re a writer, the letters and notebooks of other writers are always going to be their most interesting writing. You see how they work.
Totally. The journals Andre Gide kept while he was writing The Counterfeiters are probably more famous than the novel itself.
Those journals are probably the main Gide work that people still read. Those sorts of things are interesting because they give you a glimpse into the means of production behind literature. They’re snapshots of what goes into the labor of writing before everything gets filtered through editors and all of the other various channels of the production cycle. I’m not against making things more available to readers. There’s a certain aggression towards the audience in modernism that I dislike. This aggression tends to be somewhat masculine, as well, like, “I’m gonna force you to read this incredibly difficult thing for the hell of it.” I want it to be a little more seductive than that. I’m happy to work with reader’s expectations around genre convention and things like that.
You stage expectations for the reader very early on in Philosophy for Spiders. From the jump, you assert that your particular depiction of Kathy Acker is not reflective of some greater truth about Kathy’s life—you are not claiming ownership or expert authority over her life’s narrative. What was your experience of writing that book? How did you balance your personal history with her against the numerous other accounts of her life that have been published in recent years? As you openly admit in the book, many of these other Acker accounts were written by people who knew her better during her life—or, in other cases, by people who are more well-versed in the scholarship and critical writing surrounding her oeuvre.
I knew her very briefly. Kathy often fell in love with people for a week, or a month. Our relationship fit into her general type, in that sense. I’m also not the only person she fell for who was “assigned male at birth,” if you catch my drift—I wasn’t the only one with gender issues, in other words. I wanted to nudge the conversation around Kathy’s relation to transness—both on a personal level, and as it exists in the public domain. I am not claiming that Kathy was trans. But removing the assumption that she was a cis woman can be helpful for reading her in different ways. One of my pieces of evidence for that idea was to ask, “well, what do I actually remember about my time with Kathy?” I remember writing to Matias [Viegener, Acker’s literary executor] and saying, “I’m trying to write about Kathy, but all I can remember about her is the sex. Is that ok to write about?” Matias texted me back, “of course it’s ok—it’s Kathy!” [Laughs.].
I mean, Kathy wrote about almost everyone that she fucked. She names a lot of them directly. It’s not hard to figure out which pieces are about Peter Wollen or Sylvere Lotringer. One question that that raises is: what added perspective does an account of how they fucked give you? I find that understanding a writer’s sex life is often a helpful way for thinking about how gender and sexuality function in their books. I can make sense of gender and sexuality by thinking through my personal account of these sorts of experiences.
At the same time, I also want people to have a little skepticism about my personal account. In Philosophy for Spiders, I wrote from what I remembered, and then later fact checked whatever details I was able to. I sometimes found out that my memory of certain events was faulty. This is something that I address directly in the book itself. Kathy’s house in London was not across from the canal, for instance. It was two blocks away from the canal—my memory folded that space into a psychic geography that doesn’t exist. My intention is to take a memory and open it up towards a reading—to write about my memories of someone for whom sexuality was central. At the same time, reading a woman—if that’s what Kathy was—or a queer person through their sexual practice is fraught, and I want to acknowledge that too.
Right. It’s a question of ownership. It’s a question of which stories belong to who, and of engaging narrative as a form of personal property. Kathy Acker was particularly attuned to that question, yeah? One of her signature narrative devices was plagiarism. Her writing is littered with passages and blocks of text that she directly lifted from other works—usually canonical works of western literature, like Don Quixote and The Scarlet Letter, no less. But she never tried to hide her plagiarism—she would never cite the works that she repurposed, but it doesn’t take much work to figure out which books she was lifting passages from. I think that’s an anti-academic approach to working through other texts, at heart. The type of close reading you often find in academic criticism tends to uphold this idea of the single author behind the text, or the single subject who owns a piece of intellectual property, be it an essay or book or anthology. In this case, there is the neatly defined writerly subject who creates the book itself, and then there are the textual objects, in the form of quotations and references, that the writer brings into their work. These textual objects are perhaps “acknowledged” as the intellectual property of another writer, insofar as they are properly cited, but the cited writer themself is functionally absented from the work. It is only their narrative property, in the form of a borrowed quotation, which finds its way into the text. Kathy’s approach totally flips that dynamic on its head though, yeah?
Right now, I feel like the dominant response to the question of narrative property seems to be expansion, as in, “how do we widen the net of who has access to storytelling; how do we beef up the protections that grant people control over the way in which their story is told, so that there are more and more diverse types of writerly subjects relaying new perspectives on life.” But then you have someone like Kathy, who might say, “wait a second, what if we tabled the whole question of property entirely for a second, and then see what happens in its absence.” What if, instead of hoping to produce a story of one’s own, writers approached their craft as a process of reorganization. Writing not as a process of expansion and constant novelty, but rather as a process of recontextualization and de-individuating.
I think Kathy’s work is incredibly sophisticated. There’s a larger tradition she was working through. To me, her work really follows in the tradition of Comte de Lautréamont and Guy Debord. That said, I don’t know how much she knew about the Situationists. We know she got some of these ideas through Burroughs—the materiality of the text, the idea that all text is equal. That within itself is an astonishing thought—people still struggle with it, right? Any piece of text is, on some material level, equal to any other, and thus equally available. This breaks all the laws of genre and hierarchy and property. It is all yours as much as it is anybody else’s. She really practiced literary communism in that way. At the same time, she knew full well that she made her income through copyrights—she nearly got sued over some nonsense about plagiarism, you know? She was aware that she was performing this utopian practice in a commodified world. So, there was a tension there—a tension which she allowed to be productive.
There’s an additional layer to this: if all text is materially equal, regardless of whether you produced it or not, then who is the author of the text? The text becomes this distributed subjectivity. It’s you, but also all the things you put into it—and then those things are all equal too! All of the authors are present, equally. In my reading, there are multiple Kathys—multiple related but not always consistent “Kathys”—at play in the text. To me that’s astonishing, and also perhaps why she’s often difficult to read. People mistake what the proper name “Kathy Acker” on the title page is doing there.
I love that idea of every author having an equal role in the production of the text itself. That’s an old New Narrative trick—if the standard rule of literature is to show, not tell, then New Narrative’s response is to tell and tell and tell, ad nauseum. Instead of folding all these various referents and influences into a singular, aesthetically consistent narrative perspective, you just splice in the reference itself, unmediated. You do that in a few parts Reverse Cowgirl—I’m thinking of the section about your email correspondences with Chris Kraus, in particular. Chris offers you all of this editorial advice about where to take the manuscript next, which sorts of themes could be touched on again, which parts of the book could benefit from a shift in momentum, and so on. Instead of reworking the book around Chris’s notes, however, you just paste her remarks directly into the manuscript itself. If Chris is the one who came up with this or that idea for the book, why shouldn’t she also be the one who gets to say it, right?
Yeah. I love New Narrative. In my mind, those types of narrative devices are part of an attempt to undo the damage that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop version of American fiction has inflicted upon us, you know? Those foundational MFA writing programs produce a perfectly depoliticized, commodity literature—bourgeois literature, basically. One of bourgeois literature’s eventual undoings needs to be queerness. Another one needs to be women who don’t fit into a respectable model. New Narrative is an attempt to put that all together, right? It’s a literature which is co-produced by gay men and women—it’s important to name that it’s not just gay men’s literature, although certain books like Robert Glück’s Jack the Modernist are touchstones of that for me. I quote the sex party scene from Jack the Modernist in Reverse Cowgirl. I cut it off in the middle, though—there’s a second fuck later on in that scene that gets extremely abject. I wanted Reverse Cowgirl’s readers to have to go and find Glück’s book and read the full thing for themselves, firsthand, in order to experience the real deal. So much of what New Narrative was doing was culty and cliquey in that way—which is fine! They all show up in each other’s books. It’s like this kind of auto-production of culture through text.
Definitely. I want to push this idea of the cultural production of texts a little further. You recently produced a five-part podcast interview series for MOSTYN Gallery. Each instalment features you in conversation with a different publisher, all of whom are loosely connected through the concept of “artist as publisher. You begin with the early DIY practices of Jacqueline de Jong, who produced The Situationist Times, and G.B. Jones, who co-produced the queer punk zine J.D.s with Bruce LaBruce. You then pass through both Semiotext(e)and e-flux, before finally ending the series on an interview with Hannah Baer from Deluge Books—coincidentally, one of November’s more recent interviews was with K. Allado McDowell, whose book Amor Cringe was just published through Deluge. Could you perhaps say a bit about the genesis of this interview series?
Jacqueline de Jong was visiting New York City. I had arranged to meet her while she was in town. I wrote about her all the way back in 2011, in my book The Beach Beneath the Street. And you know how artists are—if you write about them once, they want you to write about them forever [Laughs.]. I love Jacqueline, but I haven’t written about her since. Anyways, I went to the opening for her show Border-Line at Ortuzar Projects in New York and we got coffee. Essentially, someone from MOSTYN caught wind of my meeting with Jacqueline and commissioned the series after that. Quite frankly, I did the series because MOSTYN was offering me a lot of money. I live in New York, so I need a second job—which usually means that I take every commission that’s worth taking. Although in this case it took forever to get paid.
They wanted a podcast series, so I had to figure out what I wanted that to look like. I wanted an excuse to talk to some people publicly about the production of textual objects that are meant to circulate differently—textual objects which inevitably become commodities, but which aren’t designed to be part of the main commodity system. I knew I wanted to talk to Hedi [El Kholti], because you rarely see him speak publicly about his involvement with Semiotext(e), even though he does so much for the press. I don’t say that to negate what Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus have done, of course. But Hedi can really speak to the materiality of running it—he’s the guy who sorts out the royalty checks and all of that. This is a typical Hedi story, but when I interviewed him, he was like, “I’m looking at your check right now, it’s coming, it isn’t late!”
I’d never met G.B. Jones. Interviewing her was such a pleasure. Our lives are very parallel, because we’re roughly contemporaries. I read J.Ds around the time that they were publishing it, or, if not that, then things like that from the same time—I can’t remember exactly which queer zines I had access to. And then you have something like Deluge, which makes you realize that people are still doing the same types of publishing projects to this day. I’m always resistant to this “you missed it” mentality. There’s always something going on, and I always want to know where it is. I had access to Hannah, so Deluge seemed like the obvious choice, although there are a few others I could have brought in as well.
Part of what fascinates me about the podcast series is its roughly chronological progression. You start with The Situationist Times and queer zines, which both seemed to be intensely wrapped up in these technical questions of printing and material production. Then Semiotext(e) and e-flux come in, and things shift a bit—there’s a bit more of a professionalized air to things, a bit more of a sense of cultural overlap between publishing and academia and the art world. And then there’s Deluge, which is currently experimenting with AI-generated text and cryptocurrency-based financial models. Placed side by side, you start to see a sort of dialectic between each of these publishers. On the one hand, they each appear to be invariably shaped by the technical and cultural contexts of their moment. On the other hand, you realize that they’re really all concerned with the same thing: how do you produce and circulate this material without going broke?
Right. They’re all operating at different scales, so the aesthetic and business solutions the arrive at end up looking a little different. Money is definitely a shared through line, though—they’re all trying to figure out how to make intellectual and creative projects work under financial constraint. The genius of something like e-flux, for instance, is that there’s an entire business operating alongside the publishing project itself. This is going to sound more cynical than I want it to, but the journal acts as a bit of a loss leader—it’s this sort of prestige object. They pay their contributors well, and the journal is free—neither of those things would be possible without this larger business apparatus. To be clear—e-flux has a great editorial staff and is very transparent about how they operate. It’s outside of academia, but it’s intellectually serious and it has sustained itself already for a long time.
I want to talk a bit about your recent writing on raving. You have a book called Raving coming out next year through Duke and you have also been involved in an ongoing series of readings in New York called Writing on Raving. Perhaps you could start by saying a little bit about the impetus for your interest in raving as a subject?
I’ve always felt like my body was free in techno. My theory is that techno isn’t made for human bodies. It’s made for aliens. I don’t feel particularly alienated from it, for that reason. By contrast, there are versions of house music that, to me at least, seem to be all about the gay male body—and that’s great. I love house, but it’s not for my body. A lot of transwomen end up adopting a trans mom, or even multiple trans moms. I happened to pick a person who is younger than myself. I picked someone who I thought I could get help from, and who I thought might need my help at some point down the line as well. It became a reciprocal relationship of sorts. It just so happens that my trans mom is a raver. About five years ago, I mentioned in passing that I use to love going to raves in the ’90s. My trans mom says, “there’s a rave this weekend. You’re coming.” So, I went. When I got there, I was like, “oh, this still works for me.” It works on this diffuse type of dysphoria, a dysphoria which nothing else seems to be able to touch. I can put on a dress or wear earrings and that helps me, I can reshape my body with hormones or via surgery and it helps me, but there’s something that those things can’t touch. I go dancing basically every weekend. I haven’t been in a few weeks, but I’m going to solve that this weekend—it’s Pride, after all!
I wrote about raving a little bit here and there, and then Margaret Grebowicz contacted me about a series for Duke University Press called “Practices,” asking me if I’d write a book. She wanted to list my book as a potential title in the hopes that it would help convince Duke to agree to the series. I said yes, kind of not really intending to ever write the book actually [Laughs.]. At any rate, she emailed me last summer and said, “alright, someone who was commissioned to write a book for the series just dropped out, could you do a book in three months?” In a slightly manic moment I said yes, on the condition that the book had to be about raving, because I hadn’t been writing much, but I had been dancing a lot.
I ended up returning to the subculture side of cultural studies while writing the book. In Australia, you do your law degree at the same time as your undergrad degree—I was supposed to be a law student. I ended up taking my required criminology course with the radical criminologist at my university, Gill Boehringer, who taught me to think critically about the “sociology of deviance.” I very quickly learned that this stuff around deviance was about policing my friends. I had to get out. So, my entry into cultural studies was through the lesser used door of critical criminology. I had a bit of training in cultural studies, and I’ve written about the hacker and the gamer. I’m interested in social types. Who is the raver? I’m a raver, more so than I ever was a hacker or a gamer. A bit of my approach to social types comes from Duchamp. Duchamp chose ready-mades on the principal of visual indifference, so I used to write about aesthetic objects that I was indifferent to. For instance, I’m interested in the avant-garde side of gaming, and I tried to do it justice in Gamer Theory—but it’s not my world, you know? Raving is closer to home for me, so I needed to find a different set of formal strategies for approaching it. These are my friends that I’m writing about, after all. The rave scene is an intentionally opaque world—they put stickers over your phone at some parties, for instance. You don’t really talk about what happens during the rave. I had to come up with formal strategies for describing the experience that were separated from proper names and places. I wrote the whole book so quickly—I’m still in a love affair with it. I’m sure it will come out and then I’ll notice all its flaws [Laughs.].
You’ve uploaded a couple short pieces on raving to Bandcamp over the past few months. If I’m not mistaken, those are excerpts from the book, yeah?
Yeah. Those are the two pieces that I read at the Writing on Raving series at Nowadays. I feel as if I’ve kind of arrived during a moment in which the New York queer and trans rave scene wants a space to critically think about itself, which makes me happy. I didn’t start the Writing on Raving series—it was started by Zoë Beery and Geoffrey Mak. After the first instalment, I kind of invited myself to help organize the following readings. I think they’re both ok with that [Laughs.]. I had access to certain writers that they didn’t know all that well, which helped—I knew Hannah Baer, for example. All of the shows we’ve done have been packed so far. I feel like I’ve gotten to be a part of something early on in its development, which is exciting. The scene still feels nascent—we’re early on in the process of trying to figure out this new set of literary forms and styles of performance. I was late to trans literature by at least ten years, at least in terms of its current iteration, so it feels nice to arrive a little earlier than that to something else.
At any rate, there are two excerpts from Raving up on Bandcamp—actually one is from the book, and the other was written in the spirit of it. My roommate made the accompanying music for both excerpts, under a couple of different names. The Bandcamp tracks are specifically designed for Nowadays’ sound system. I’m used to doing readings at bookstores through the shittiest sound systems in the universe. Nowadays, on the other hand, is one of the best clubs in the city. We deliberately designed the tracks so that my voice would be nested within a larger sonic wave, with frequencies above and below it. It’s been so much fun to rethink how one performs writing. Rave culture has been around for over thirty years, but there’s a very specific contemporary iteration of it going on in New York right now. Also, to be clear, techno is Black music—I’m a guest in that sound. I’m being hosted in something that doesn’t belong to me. There’s also a specific space for trans bodies at raves, which is crucial. Raves offer a way to think through the distinction between transness and queerness—they also highlight the fact that queerness, from its inception, was already different from certain pre-existing types of gay nightlife culture.
I love that idea of a voice being surrounded by, or nested within, this totalizing sonic landscape. That notion of totality reminds me a bit of the term “default dance,” which shows up a couple times in one of your Bandcamp excerpts. Assuming I understand your use of the term correctly, the default dance is something that is pretty unmistakable to anyone who’s spent time around raves. It’s that moment an hour or so in where any attempt at conscious or varied or expressive dancing becomes exhausted, that moment where you can’t help but lock into a single repetitive motion.
Yep, that’s exactly it.
I kept on returning to that idea while preparing for this interview. On the one hand, everyone seems to have their own particular default dance, which they’re perhaps not even consciously aware of—in that sense, the default dance implies the existence of a certain concept of subconscious personal style. On the other hand, the default dance is a totally collective and unexceptional experience—everyone descends into it sooner or later. Nobody escapes. I feel like pre-default dancing, for lack of a better term, can almost be read as a very intentional attempt to perform, or materialize, one’s subjectivity. In a way, it’s a passive acknowledgement that there are other individuals in the room—an acknowledgement that you are subject to the gaze of others, and that you must express yourself accordingly. Someone might think you’re a bad dancer if you don’t switch things up enough, for instance—which would be a dreadful blow to the ego. The pre-default dance is almost like an attempt to project a sort of individual will or desire upon the rave space, to craft the experience in your image. The default dance, on the other hand, is perhaps the result of a slow attrition of individual desire and self-consciousness—it’s what happens when your attempt at crafting the rave in your image inevitably fails.
To put it in terms of my own personal metaphysics, you have to let the beat fuck you [Laughs.]. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re not really at the rave. It’s a little hilarious, but usually a bunch of straight guys show up and treat the DJ like an object to look at. They’ll do this sort of downward fist pump thing a couple of times, and then they’re done. They talk to each other and take out their phones and all of this other nonsense. I don’t get that. You’ve got to let the beat fuck you good, or you’re missing the whole point of the experience. You’re always kind of trying to use the space against other people’s uses of it. I have much more respect for some of those competing uses than others. A good rave is more intimate than a sex party. You’re seeing someone’s body move unselfconsciously in close proximity to yours—the fact that it’s non-sexual makes it even more intimate, in a way. A good rave is a beautiful type of aesthetic practice. I’m a third-generation atheist, but, in a sense, raves are almost like a religious experience devoid of content. It's a spiritual feeling without any liturgy or required code of beliefs. It’s pure movement in space.
It’s often an extremely ambivalent space, yeah? It doesn’t care at all for individual desires, it doesn’t cater to specific tastes or forms of self-styling in the same way that something like a circuit party might. You’re describing a space that has no intention of reaffirming one’s sense of self—a space that, if anything, seeks to overwhelm and undo any conscious sense of self. There’s something really fascinating there: what if technology’s ambivalence towards human desire isn’t always a negative thing? What if this ambivalence is approached as a conduit for productive aesthetic discovery, on both the individual and collective level?
When raving, you give yourself over to the machine, but you choose to do so. I think that’s true of DJs, too. Interesting DJs don’t think of what they’re doing in terms of mastery. They exist within the production of this repetitive rave space time machine, just like the rest of us. They try to feed it, like, “what track comes next? Can these two tracks exist on top of one another? Can I bury this certain frequency range without killing the energy?” They’re writing the same rave experience alongside the rest of us. To me, raving is essentially a way of experiencing one’s interiority from within a technical commodified universe that is in the process of taking us to hell. Raving is not an answer to anything, but it is a way of making life endurable for a stretch of time. It’s also a way of doing very intense forms of labor that produce absolutely nothing at all—in an era where most labor is actively destroying the world, no less. In the middle of winter, the dance floor becomes an absolute sauna, for example, yet we keep on dancing through it—it’s serious work! It’s about working really hard and having nothing to show for it. It’s an open-ended aesthetic experiment that we’re all still figuring out, I think.
I’d love to do a book on the hustler, too—you’d have hacker, gamer, raver, hustler, and then Greimas square the diagram would finally be complete. I don’t know if that book will ever happen, but I want it to. I have these arcs of books that thread together, but there are always gaps. I think the hustler would complete that series for me.
You published an essay in Document Journal a few days ago which loosely surveys a spread of trans spaces and social worlds, as seen from the perspective of your daily route through Brooklyn on the G train. You recount how your desire to be in closer proximity to trans nightlife effectively drew you towards Bushwick, which is the epicenter of Brooklyn’s rave scene—this desire for collectivity fundamentally reorganized your relationship to urban space, in other words. The relationship between an interior psyche and external city life seems crucial to how you’re approaching the idea of the raver, yeah?
I love cities. That’s a throughline that runs throughout all my work—even when it’s perhaps not so obvious. Hacker Manifesto doesn’t talk about cities at all, for instance, but it’s very much about being in Berlin and Amsterdam during a certain moment in time. I love New York. It doesn’t love you back, which is an important thing to remember. It’s getting untenable to live here too, in many ways. That said, cities are a place some of us need to be. We can’t survive outside of urban space. We don’t own this space. It’s a space which is heavily policed. It’s a space where a lot of people hate us. But there’s usually enough of us gathering momentum in these small pockets to make things work. One pocket will get rapidly gentrified, and then we’ll have to move on, you know? It’s always temporary—we’re implicated in something which isn’t good. We’re displacing people. But I don’t have agency around that. I have to be honest about that fact, rather than moralistic.
The thing about being trans is you have two ages. I transitioned very late. I’m a sixty-year-old woman, who also happens to be a baby trans woman at the same time. There’s a certain sadness attached to that, but I’m trying to squeeze some creative potential out of the gap between those two ages by documenting the various trans cultures around me, and by steering resources towards the culture to the best of my ability. To the limits of my ability, I can document, I can recognize, I can promote, and I can pay people through the institutions that I have access to. I never ask trans people to work for free. Trans people, and especially trans women, have never really had a consolidated, ongoing, well-documented, accessible, aesthetically varied, intergenerational, interracial culture. We’ve always had culture. We’ve always been here and have always made stuff. But our culture has never had much in the way of sustainability. And I can’t solve that, but I can do these little things here and there, like pointing towards all the people who are doing amazing work—all the people who are Bushwick famous, basically. The rest of the world rarely appreciates these geniuses, mostly because of trans-misogyny and racism. This isn’t unique to New York, obviously. I’m sure there are scenes like this going on where you are in LA, as well. But it’s not my job to do this work over there. I don’t want to act like New York is the center of the world, but it’s the world that I’m in. It’s amazing, and I’m an anomaly in it. I mean, where are the other trans women my age? Many of them are dead. Making it to sixty is rare, especially if you came out early, or if you were born in the ’60s. Too many of the trans women who would be my contemporaries aren’t here anymore, which is unfortunately a common story for many other trans people too.
Right. And how do you go about forming a sense of lineage, or of historical identity, out of that? It’s thorny work. I can’t really speak to what that looks like for trans women, but it’s certainly a question that shows up as well—albeit perhaps in a slightly different way—for me and other gay men born after the height of the AIDS crisis. There’s a whole swath of gay men from the 1980s and ’90s who never had the chance to make art, or to document their lives as they experienced them, or who were only in the nascent stages of beginning to do so when they died. Those who were able to make work were largely compelled to divert the entirety of their creative and intellectual and political energy towards addressing AIDS head on. It feels difficult to unquestioningly valorize the work that came out of that moment, because so many of those artists and activists and intellectuals would have undoubtedly gone on to do greater work had they not been saddled by the epidemic and the political culture which fueled it. But that work is also, in many cases at least, the only surviving document we have of a past culture. There’s a tension between, on the one hand, wanting a history which isn’t shrouded violence or pain or mystery and, on the other, wanting to hold on to the small bits of history that have actually managed to survive the passage of time.
Yeah. Sarah Schulman talks about that in The Gentrification of the Mind. There were all of these gay writers who never got to do that second book. She’s also not saying that they were all geniuses. But it still matters that these writers existed, and that they got cut off, you know? The filmmaker Steven Cummings was a very dear friend of mine who I lost—there are other people I lost, of course, but in terms of artists, Steven is the one I always come back to. He only got to make one film, and it kills me that there isn’t a second one. I want to cry just thinking about it.
But I also want to add trans women to this story—where are they in that same history? A lot of archiving and narrating leaves my sisters out. I’m not the person to redress that, but it’s also something that shouldn’t go unsaid. AIDS history gets treated in a way that centers gay men, particularly white gay men. It leaves out trans women, it leaves out intravenous drug users. I’ve lost people from that. I was never a big IV drug user, but I’ve lost people from that world. Those people get treated as even more “fallen,” even less noble—fuck that, you know? I was a part of that whole generation. I was one of those people who had to get one of those first fucking HIV tests, where you thought it was a death sentence. I think we’re losing a sense of what that moment was like. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore edited a whole anthology about the generational effects of AIDS called Between Certain Death and a Possible Future. I thought about writing a piece for that, but ultimately didn’t. It was too hard. I also had reasons for exempting myself from the larger gay culture in Sydney around that time—partly because I wasn’t actually a homosexual man, of course. I was queer in a different way and hadn’t figured it out.
As you know, Sarah is very clear about the hole AIDS left in the continuity of certain avant-garde practices in the city. This is something that maybe, just maybe, reestablishing itself in New York—not in Chelsea, perhaps, but in certain parts of Brooklyn instead. This is happening in part due to the fact that AIDS has become survivable, even if it hasn’t ended.
I feel like there’s a connection between Sarah Schulman’s writing and our earlier conversation about transplant cultures and urban sociality, which might help to bring the discussion back towards your recent work on raving. There’s a section early in The Gentrification of the Mind where Sarah tries to push back on—or maybe complicate is a better word—this idea that queer people and trans people move to urban centers, like New York, purely in search of sexual adventure and bohemian life, and that, as a result, they should bear the full responsibility of their complicity in the beginning stages of gentrification. This argument that they have no rightful stake or claim to belonging in the neighborhoods that they inhabit, in other words. To this point, Schulman notes that these cities, whether its New York or LA or Chicago, are not easy to live in—they’re extremely expensive, and there are often significantly higher rates of transphobic and homophobic violence. These cities are no paradise for most gay and queer and trans people. These transplant cultures form out of need—people are displaced from their rural and suburban upbringings by familial homophobia, or by a complete lack of options for leading a fulfilling life. They ultimately gather in spaces where they might have a better chance at finding something to meaningfully affirm their subjectivity, whether that thing is friendship or love or—god forbid, I know—fun.
It’s obviously imperative to acknowledge and contend with the role these transplant cultures play in gentrification. At the same time, so many of these transplant cultures are comprised of people who are not simply toughing out the city in order to satisfy some need or desire, but who are also toughing out the city because they have no other home to go back to. The city becomes the closest thing to a home, regardless of how tenuous this concept of home might be. In order to fully comprehend the relationship between queer and trans transplant cultures and the politics of city life, you must pass through this question of lack and need, yeah? This question of what is happening to necessitate such a transplant culture in the first place.
Exactly. This is so true for so many trans women. My story is different. I’m a middle-class person who came out late, so I want to be clear to differentiate my personal experience from that story. But for many trans women growing up outside of these spaces, like, first, you might get killed, second, you may kill yourself, and third, you don’t have any access to the means for actually transitioning. You don’t have any access to knowledge—this was particularly true before the internet. So, you don’t really have any option but to scrape some pennies together and, well . . . you know, it’s a cursed song in a lot of ways, but do what they do in “Walk on the Wild Side.” It’s girls hitchhiking from Miami, girls hitchhiking from Long Island. I’m not gonna say the lyrics to the song, but you know what I mean.
This is probably as true of LA as it is of New York, but I think the big thing that has changed in recent years is that the city not only continues to feast on weird brains—which it has always done—but has also woken up to the fact that it does this. For example, if you are a trans woman who is fucked up in almost every respect, but who happens to be a savant genius at coding, there’s a slot in the city for you—there’s a niche you can fill other than sex work, which is what a lot of dolls end up doing. The city seems to be rethinking itself. It’s still heavily policed, with the brunt of this policing falling on Black and brown bodies, including queer and trans people. But, at the same time, there’s this contradictory impulse where the city knows that it needs that weirdness, that it needs that difference. Sometimes that weirdness is the thing that the city feeds on directly. Other times, that weirdness belongs to the people who provide the services that the city feeds on. Trans people often work in nightlife, for instance—not just sex work, but the whole panopoly of services designed for the entertainment of straight people. I think it’s important to take this idea of transplant cultures out of a moralistic language, but without giving oneself excuses for the place one occupies in that cycle of commodification and extraction. The city extracts value from our brains—it’s like a factory feeding off the creativity and difference of queer and trans cultures. I’m a part of that factory too, you know?
I think one of the missing pieces to this puzzle is the double bind of visibility, which is something you wrote about recently for Document. On the one hand, heightened visibility makes certain spaces much more viable and accessible for those who depend upon them for survival, as well as for a meaningful sense of life. Not just in the sense of providing one with a community of peers and friends and lovers, but also in the sense that these spaces can introduce one to a wide network of resources for navigating city life. A friend met through raving might end up getting that trans woman with a gift for coding a job interview, for instance—perhaps at a company that would have otherwise rejected her on the basis of her transness, had she not had the benefit of a solid reference in the form of her raver friend. At the same time, visibility heightens the possibility of violence. If queer and trans people have an easier time finding spaces that cater towards them, then those who oppose the existence of such spaces will also have an easier time finding them as well. Is there a way out of this double bind?
I’m so wary when it comes to writing about this sort of stuff—I often try to obfuscate the details of the spaces that I write about. Clubs don’t have a choice but to signal that they’re queer spaces—you wouldn’t know that they’re there otherwise, right? How do you send out the bat signal that an alternative way of life is possible? This extends beyond transness and queerness, of course—there’s other people who need the city for other reasons. How do you signal that this certain way of life can be found here or there, yet without drawing too much attention to it? For example, to the people who don’t need to know about it—people, who, if they do know about it, will hate it, and if they hate it, they’ll do something about it.
In the old days no one knew anything about these spaces and worlds, which held me back for years. I didn’t understand my own transness because I had really bad resources. I had talked myself into being some sort of pathological pervert who would just try to get through life as best as possible, because I didn’t have the resources for thinking about my life as something other than that. Those resources seem more available now, which is a good thing. That said, I don’t think that “representational” visibility is our friend. On the one hand, I’m so happy that Laverne Cox or whoever else can make a good living. I would much rather see a Black trans woman making money off the spectacle than anybody else. But I don’t know if that actually helps anybody. I think Laverne Cox knows that, and, as a result, tries to find other ways to help—she produced that documentary Disclosure, for instance. But the mere fact of her success doesn’t help other people, right? She’s a sophisticated person and clearly understands that fact.
A lot of people ask me where these raves are, and my response ends up being, “I don’t know you.” It’s not usually that hard to figure out where most of these things are at, but you have to kind of prove yourself before you get to go to certain spaces. Like, “here’s the starter one that’s open to anyone, and then here’s the hardcore one for people we trust.” I don’t think that’s an exclusive attitude or anything—not every space is for everybody. There are Black spaces that are not for me. There are trans spaces that are specifically for the dolls. I’m not one of the dolls—I’ve never done sex work, I’m not attracted to men, I don’t do high-femme. It’s a separate world. Sometimes I’ll go to those spaces, if it’s a bigger event or a fundraiser. But we’re not all the same. People need their own space sometimes, and I think that’s worth respecting and not drawing too much attention to. It’s a subtle thing.
I think there’s still a lot to be learned from pre-Liberation gay culture on this topic. We all talk about that past iteration of gay culture as sort of old-fashioned thing—like, “fuck that, let’s be out and proud!” But the out and proud shift led us into identity politics and bourgeois fags and all of that other complicated stuff. There’s something to be said about the way gay culture functioned before Liberation. It wasn’t perfect, and I don’t want to idealize it or romanticize it, but there was something incredible about that coded, bat signal approach to culture. There was something incredible about terms like “friends of Dorothy.” Or, in my world, the world of girls like us, that code might take the shape of a question like, “where are the tall girls?” You either know what these things mean, or you don’t. It’s a form of double coding. That’s obviously the origins of camp, too, to be able to hold a double code in your head at the same time. We’re forced to have a kind of expertise when it comes to these practices.
That’s my current provisional answer on the topic, I guess.
One last question. In your interview with Hannah from Deluge, you briefly mention the possibility of a future book titled, “Love and Money, Sex and Death”—
[Laughs.] Oh no. Go on . . .
The phrase shows up as a chapter title in Reverse Cowgirl, and also recurs throughout Philosophy for Spiders. Why those two couplets? Can we expect something in the vein of this title from you in the future?
God, I’ve been trying to write a book with that title for over twenty-five years. I even had a contract with Verso for a book with that name in the ’80s! It never happened, obviously—they fired my editor there, so I didn’t end up doing it. When I re-signed with Verso, I ended up calling up my old editor and asking him like, “should I even tell them that I have this unfulfilled contract?” And he was like, “there’s no institutional memory, I guarantee you nobody even remembers.” So, I didn’t say anything. I guess I accidentally walked away with an advance, Malcolm McLaren style [Laughs.]. I’ve tried writing that book so many times. The rejected trade book proposal I was telling you about at the start of our conversation had that title.
Nine publishers looked at the proposal and wrote reader’s reports, and they all said no. Or rather, they all said they would “step aside,” which is the term of art they like to use for “no.” I won’t name the publisher, but one publisher’s reader report said that the fist-fucking scene lacked emotional intensity, that it didn’t work in the second person. But there is no fist-fucking scene in the book!
My book was criticized for an imaginary scene that never happened. Like, “what intern wrote this,” you know? That intern probably had twenty books to read that week, so I’m not blaming them at all, but it’s like, “come on!” I’d love to do something with that name one day—I just think it’s a killer title, right? Love and Money, Sex and Death. Those are the four arts we’re trying to figure out how to make work under, you know, call it whatever you like, capitalism, or something worse. So, if anybody reading this interview would like to contract me to write this book, which I think should sell ok . . . I’ll make it less weird than the proposal, I promise!
Maybe we can use that as the pull quote to promote the interview.
[Laughs.] It’s just such a simple idea that gets at everything fucked up in this world. Love and money, sex and death—how do we lift the curse!
“I experienced my transness as a shape the Internet made when it looked at me.”