What I’m reading
I’m reading T. Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through. Early on in the essay, there is a passage where Fleischmann describes creating an artwork with their friend, a fellow artist called Benjy. The process entails pouring bottles of their formerly prescribed pills—prescriptions that only changed due to bureaucracy, expense and insurance rather than a change in condition—onto a large mirror. They aim to spell out post-scarcity positioned on the reflective surface so the phrase can be photographed from above. This way the pills appear to be floating in the photograph, surrounded by nothing but clouds.
As they work, they note how strange it is to see these hard-fought pills, mostly variations on hormone blockers, oestrogen, progesterone, and antiretrovirals, in an anonymous pile: ‘when they are all mixed together they look like pills, generically, unlike when they are in bottles and seem direct references to our survival’.
What I’ve read
It’s easier, actually, to start with what I once read, because it’s obvious—I am making it obvious. In this picture, Jini Maxwell is standing in the beer garden at the Alderman. She (and I do feel she is a she, as entirely as I am a they, and without conflict with this fact) is cradling books in the crook of her arm: Richard Siken’s Crush, Denise Riley’s The Words of Selves. Lyricism against the void. The project is: figure out how to be a self when selfhood is impossible. Louise Glück. Maurice Blanchot. Library fines. Dating women. Everything revolves around the university.
A year later, a minor thesis that is technically about Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, but is really mostly about the chaos of persistence. She has a canvas bag over her shoulder, but she carries the books in her arm regardless, leaning against a trellis with a cigarette in the other hand. Of course, the pose studied: she’s 22—everything is.
Being a smoking girl was comforting. I understood the symbolic weight of this. The book, the back garden of a bar, how smoke moves in space. It was a set of referents that built an image I could understand—I could pick a distant angle from which to view myself. Start at the object, construct outwards from there. From the extrapolated image, she can begin to imagine exercising control. For the first time, she is imagining being looked at as she chooses to be seen.
Side remark in which Judith Butler is a good sport but still has notes
Recently, The New York Times Opinion Columnist, Spencer Bokat-Lindell, tweeted a screenshot of an email Judith Butler sent him about his article, ‘Sweet Potatoes Are Overrated. Turducken Is Performative.’ It provides a concise definition of performativity and its usage in Butler’s Gender Trouble:
— Spencer BokatLindell (@bokatlindell) December 2, 2019
Personally, I don’t believe that performativity theory can wholly account for trans experience, or any experience of gender (it fails to account for closeted trans people, for one thing), but I appreciate Butler’s dedication to the fact that there’s something more interesting going on here than turducken.
Fleischmann’s essay isn’t just about political art. It is a deliberation on queer and trans identities over time, and the relationships and communities that form, dissolve and reform around them. As a piece of autotheory, it takes Fleischmann’s own trans identity, and the queer and trans identities it has evolved from, as its central concern. By examining the relationship between these evolving identities, Fleischmann explores the communal, sexual, political, romantic and familial bonds that exist through these identities, and how they evolve through time.
Post-Scarcity is not the only piece of art Fleischmann makes over the course of the essay. They build a hut modelled after a structure that appears on the front of a book by their friend, where they stay and make art; they take a lover to classic cruising spots around Manhattan, and imagine building small, moveable structures that would encourage public sex throughout Chicago.
The essay is punctured with tracts of ekphrastic poetry that document Fleischmann’s response to Gonzáles-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), Untitled (Orpheus, Twice), Untitled (Passport). Fleischmann quotes poetry, queer theory and art theory throughout, both their own and others. The essay glides into metaphor and lyric with as much ease as it examines the material facts of a relationship, or a city. When access to a life-saving prescription turns on a bureaucratic dime, pills are survival, until they are just pills, until they are art, and art is also survival. The trans body is a creative body. A trans life is a decisive and evolving act of creation.
What I will keep reading
Thinking about the way Lee Lai draws Bron and Rachel and Nessie wild and loose when they’re playing monsters in the woods in Stone Fruit, how the bodies are redrawn completely in a context that denotes freedom. When I read the manuscript, it was unfinished—the last twenty or so pages are all flowing inked lines and no colour, with the pencil blocking still peeking through.
The manuscript I have is 80gsm A4 pages held together by two bulldog clips, and I keep it under my coffee table. Lai’s last book First Year was published on Tumblr, in a limited-run zine, partly due to a lack of funds, and partly because she, like many marginalised creators, ‘likes shit to be free’. Zine culture considers the relationship between maker and reader as primarily creative and communal, rather than passive, alienated and consumerist.
I imagine the book that will exist as an object rather than a proposition: how it will look and read and feel on glossy pages, a finalised object, with every decision made. When I hold the book in my hands, what will I do with the manuscript copy? Will I still pore over its unfinishedness with care?
What I am / reading
The stanza that opens Glück’s ‘Scilla’, from The Wild Iris:
Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we—waves
of sky blue like
a critique of heaven: why
do you treasure your voice
when to be one thing
is to be next to nothing?
Thinking about 22-year-old Jini and lyricism: if what she wanted from reading was to understand the I in I, I think I am now reading to understand the I in we. If I’m going to embrace the slippery plurality of they, then maybe what I’m looking for is also the we in we. This is what I’m working on: the direct references to my survival—what I can make of them in other contexts.
In Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl the main character can change any aspect of their gender at will. Talking to Toby at Daddy Bar last week, they said that one part of Paul frustrated them: the moments of transition never extended into moments of uncertainty. It seems like a limitation that anything outside of the binary was treated as fleeting, transgressive; that the idea of else, or other, was never given real space to develop. When Paul meets Robin—the only other person in the book with the same ability—and can’t immediately discern Robin’s gender, he is enthralled but he never considers the possibility of life outside the binary. It’s a weird limitation imposed on a book whose narrative hinges on fluidity.
And I kind of struggle to articulate to Toby how I feel about their point, which is a good one, but I think my feeling is relief: that even Paul, with every choice easily available to him, still doesn’t have it figured out. He’s still so limited by the ways he looks, and how he understands he is looked at.
When we imagine ourselves, the things we’ve made, we tend to look for single moments in time, captured from an angle that makes them look sky-high and untouchable. Isn’t it a relief to acknowledge that we don’t always fucking get it, despite everything? Everything we have ever built for ourselves, we made with objects we found in one context and dragged absurdly into another. And they fail, and we keep building. We are bringing about a reality, or seeking to, where we can share in that unfinishedness. Isn’t there something freeing in that?
Jini Maxwell is a writer and arts worker. They co-edit The Lifted Brow.