the academy, autotheory, and the argonauts

i hide in the seats on the outer circle of the u-shaped seminar table. i’m just auditing queer (affect) theory, and also a thing i’ve learned about myself and my anxiety is that i have an incredibly difficult time speaking in class. my membership in the outer circles feels befitting. i am battling a severe case of impostor syndrome, but also sitting smug in a certain sense of superiority. as i gaze around a room populated mostly with english doctoral students, i see much of the same; primarily white washed (though tastefully multicultural), gender conforming, mainstream gays praising gay marriage and speaking about non-monogamy as something racy, tantalizing/having their minds blown by the idea that something beyond them exists, straight folks who are trying to get ahead on the latest hot field in the academy.

i do not know how they really identify. and categorizing them seems precisely contradictory to the ethos of “queer” itself. queer is expansive and welcoming. we read through the list in sedgwick’s “what’s queer”, an exhaustive index that demonstrates how queer holds most all of us since the ideal of monogamous cisgender heterosexuality is something so few people actually fit neatly into.

but, sometimes i can be a petty bitch. i sit arms tightly crossed and wonder: how many of you know what being queer is really like? how many of you will walk out of here and experience the ramifications of living a life outside binaries of gender and sexuality?

i surreptitiously scroll my gmail to find a message from my department manager (who calls me by my mostly decorative legal name) asking if i would be interested in participating in a mock classroom scene in a video about the program. as if to say, be our trans face. the privilege of institutional access means sometimes playing the token, selling yourself for objectification.

in another class we discuss preciado’s testo junkie. i am nervous, shaking. it is a strange and hollow feeling to find yourself an *object* of study. i am unsure whether i can talk about my life as a trans person. my peers wax academic about hormones and transmasculinity, perform linguistic acrobatics for which they will be praised. i want to stand up and yell. i want to run. i want to out myself. because this book, for all its flaws, feels important to me.

so i do. out myself that is. i feel a sense of discomfort in the room and i’m not sure if it’s because of the revelation of my gender history or if it’s because i’ve committed the ultimate academic faux pas: attempting to interject my own experience into the sterile, rigid sphere of the academy.

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a year ago i quit the academy or maybe the academy quit me with a thick stack of rejection letters. i met them, to my surprise, with tremendous relief. i had spared myself five more years of facing contradictions: treat theory as dogma/tend to lived experiences, theorize failure/succeed at all costs, think creatively/produce academic, disciplined work. i had failed, finally, spectacularly. no future, indeed.

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there was a particular genre of work that i craved, i chased in the academy. testo junkie, ann cvetkovich’s depression: a public feeling, s. lochlann jain’s malignant, audre lorde’s zami. stacey young coined the term “autotheory” in her 1997 book changing the wor(l)d: discourse, politics, and the feminist movement. she argues that autotheoretical texts “differ from straightforwardly autobiographical accounts… in that they not only place personal experience within political contexts, but they also conceive of those contexts as multiple and shifting. Moreover, they investigate the ways in which what gets encoded as “personal experience” is always constructed through these multiple and shifting contexts.” autotheory is a feminist modality, a method of writing the self that shatters the academic fourth wall and asks how theory (political, academic, or otherwise) can be incorporated and intermingled with real life, not merely used as a tool to measure, describe, and define it.

this type of writing is a tool of resistance, particularly for marginalized folks in that it both refuses the exclusion of oppressed people from academic discourse about them, and it rejects the flattening out and objectification of those same groups that seems to proliferate in academic contexts. it takes emotion as its own unique and valid site of knowledge. it honors the ways in which the “multiple and shifting” contexts of real life can unravel even our seemingly strongest theories.

because, here’s the thing we often seem to forget: theories are hypothetical, relative. theories intersect with our lived experience as various points; strong theories intersect with our lives more frequently and persistently. but, they cannot be made to define our lives. real lives are slippery, unpredictable. real lives both exceed and fail theory. autotheory brings us back to a world where theory is useful tool (after all, our lives are motored by theories), but not a sort of dogmatic measuring stick of reality.

****

everyone has been telling me i have to read maggie nelson’s the argonauts since it’s 2015 release, and i’ve only just gotten around to it. it was everything i needed at this particular moment.

on a somewhat tangential note, nelson’s poetic-prose style is something i can only aspire to (re)create. a rejection of the confines of grammar and structure that keep prose in a stranglehold, a more direct and explanatory relationship to the reader than poetry. but, perhaps this isn’t exactly tangential. nelson’s rejection of both academic writing and traditional creative writing forms lends a queerness to her work at the very level of the text. she culls from what resonates with her, what feels fitting while rejecting those aspects of form that don’t serve her work. and, isn’t that just what sedgwick talked about: queers have a long history of having to pick and choose from objects of mainstream culture in order to cobble together something new, unique.

nelson does much the same with her treatment of theory throughout the book. the argonauts makes space for the mother, the reproductive body in the field of queer theory. as much as i too nodded happily and giddily read the oft-cited screed of fucks in lee edelman’s no future, the rejection of reproductive futurism lends itself to a misogynistic rejection of the mother, of motherhood in queer theory. in addition to the very obvious fact that there are queer mothers, nelson sees motherhood as a (thus far) lost opportunity for queer theorists. after all, what could be more self-shattering, to borrow from leo bersani, than the process of conceiving, carrying, and birthing another human life? of falling, of leaving the body in pieces; of splitting the psyche and then attempting to patch it back together again?

the question of theorizing motherhood, of course, has a much longer history, particularly in the field of psychoanalysis. nelson pulls from freud, lacan, and others, but inserts herself and her experience into the narrative. freud was a cisgender man, a man who essentially created motherhood as an object of study absent any personal experience of being a (queer) mother. nelson stubbornly inserts her pregnant body into these narratives, these theories. she cobbles together pieces of freud and lacan with luce irigaray, melanie klein, judith butler, and others to create a personal, workable theory of her own experience with motherhood. in doing so, she fleshes out these same theories.

but, ultimately, nelson acknowledges that even her theoretical aspiration to be the finite or the sodomitical mother, the non-procreative sexual person who embraces the maternal, the mother who reinforces her separateness from her child at the risk of the child’s rage, may fail. that’s one of the things that makes this text and other works of autotheory so powerful. they refuse the call to be prescriptive (proscriptive?), a call that makes so many academic texts feel uncomfortably definitive. there is no insistent future or past in nelson’s work, only a gentle suggestion to take care in the present, to be, to exist, to take care queerly. human evolution is, after all, a “teleology without a point.”

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still, i wonder who gets to write these texts. people with tenure? people with established artistic and academic careers? this type of work was not acceptable in my graduate career, so i did the next best thing. i wrote (theoretically) about feelings and real people, real historical figures who i admired. i cobbled.

a year out of the academy and i am returning, inspired, to autotheory. so, i’ll be here in my little corner of the internet, attempting to do it justice.

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success?

it is a story i have told thousands and thousands of times with wrists and foam. each slightly different than the last, but of a shared nature. today i pass the story to someone else, but the telling takes time and learning the narrative even longer. i forget that i know it by heart.

repetition has been theorized in many ways. there’s the butlerian track, the idea that the thing we call identity is actually the accretion of the repeated performances of given actions, speech acts, expressions that already possess cultural and symbolic meaning. i have repeated this story full-time for over five years now; the hellos, how are yous and LATTE FOR HERE, CAPPUCCINO TO GOs. am i become customer servant, barista from the persistent and exhausted repetition of these acts? have i dug myself into an identity trap?

two years ago i was on track to be an academic. but, academic is a word, a trade, an identity that never comfortably adhered to me. now i am overeducated. now my intellectual potential feels, well, underutilized.

and there’s the bunk, yet oft cited notion that 10,000 hours of repeating the same activity is the attainment of mastery. let’s see, 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year (minus those three weeks of vacation i took to have top surgery, but who’s counting?), for 5 years adds up to a cool 10,400 hours. i have spent 10,400 hours of my life doing this one strange thing. sad, and yet is this the very definition of mastery? have i done something truly incredible here? and, now having achieved mastery, can i turn back to pass the process on to others?

i always said i didn’t want to be a teacher, because that’s what my mom and dad did and they both seemed stressed out a lot.

seems i can’t help myself.

****

how do i make meaning from my work? how do i resist making my work mean when it comes to my self and my identity?

i experience tension, pull from two sides. on one is the desire to do my work well and with care. from each detail, the grind, the tamp, the pull, the steam, the pour. i take care of each customer and take pride in doing my work well. because nothing is worse than spending the pittance that is your wage on an overpriced espresso drink, only to find that it’s bitter, acrid/sharp, overfoamed, underfoamed, melted, undrinkable. i have always tried to be the best at everything i do. but, that’s a holdover from my anxious youth. that’s a holdover from being raised as a woman, being told repeatedly that i had to work harder and do better to receive the credit and respect i was due.

barista is a transient occupation. people enter and exit at all times. it is hotbed of mediocrity. which i both love and hate.

on the other side is a punk, anticapitalist ethos. i want to slow down. i want to fuck up, spill, fail, a refusal to line someone else’s already overflowing coffers. i want to resist hierarchies and let things slip. i want to shout in the faces of people who treat me like an overly complicated cash register/coffee making machine. i want to banish coffee from the united states for the ecological impact of its transport and the economic impact on the folks who farm it for too little pay. i want to refuse to participate in the caffeine ideology that says we must always be rushed and productive, even if it means locking ourselves in jittery and unhealthy drug cycles.

****

a few weeks ago i took on a promotion. i took up a position of power, a slightly higher rung on the workplace ladder from employee to management. i feel, at long last, respected for the talent i have and the effort i put into my work (which is no doubt in part a result of my being perceived as a man now). but, i wonder whether management is an inherently fraught subject position. is it possible to be a “good” manager or have i tacitly consented to participate in an irreparable capitalist power dynamic? or, if we’re stuck in this moment of capitalism where labor is structured in this particular way, is it an act of harm reduction to have someone in a management position who is interested in creating a safe and healthy work environment for their staff?

of course, the new position has also come with an increase in my pay which is a contentious point as i navigate the choppy seas of neoliberal capitalism. increased pay and a managerial role are a boon when it comes to weathering my crushing student debt, my vulnerable position as a member of class that faces employment and housing discrimination, and the precarious nature of service labor. but, an increase in my pay stands on the backs of others receiving less. i watch my pay rise while the cooks and dishwashers who motor the entire food service industry in new york continue to be overworked and severely underpaid. the notion of deserving seems a moot point.

****

what does it mean to be successful? do i want success or is it just another chronormative ideology of progressive achievements that i would do well to critique/analyze/resist?

or would success look like something more simple? would it look like having friends and lovers, good food, peace and clarity, space for creative expression, space for contemplation of philosophy and the cosmos, a sense of meaning beyond who i am and what i do?