Conflict Is Not Abuse by Sarah Shulman

I finished reading Conflict Is Not Abuse almost a year ago, and I still don’t know what to make of it, but something makes think about it probably once a week. Schulman’s main thesis is right there in the title — conflict is not abuse. But lately, especially on the internet, this gets muddled, by a lack of open communication, and a sense that someone must be at fault for any negative interaction, that there must be a victim and an abuser, instead of people who are making a mess.

(Today what made me think about the book was a post about the new Star Wars movie, describing all situations where characters hurt each other as abuse, which is… Not good literary analysis, to begin with, and also not worth my energy. I don’t think Schulman had Star Wars meta in mind when she was writing this book, but like I said, all kind of things keep leading me back here.)

The problem she identifies is really compelling: how we tend to frame all kinds of mutually created conflict as abuse, which stops people from working through conflict in a productive manner, and can also obscure real instances of abuse. She sees how framing things as abuse often leads to one side of the argument being shunned, which makes sense, because you don’t want an abuser in your circle. But at the same time, shunning someone does nothing to address what it is that made them behave in this way that made them cause harm. And maybe it isn’t your responsibility to help that person, but if they were a part of your community, and if you care about your community, then maybe you should? But then what does that look like? How do you find balance with this.

Schulman doesn’t have any real solutions. She says we should stop shunning each other, and talk to each other in real life instead of just on the computer, and while she might be right, we aren’t actually going to stop talking to each other digitally, and sometimes it’s hard to make space for yourself that feels comfortable without excluding others.

Even without an answer, this book is valuable for what it asks us to do — slow down and look at what is happening in our communities. Even if we don’t know what to do from there, slowing down and wondering what we aren’t seeing seems like a wise first step. I can tell I’m going to keep on thinking about this book, probably reread it at some point. Few books I’ve read this past year have made me think more, or stuck with me in this way.


writing papers + Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

It’s the terrible part of the semester where I just have to sit down and write papers even if I don’t feel like it. I like to think I’m a pretty disciplined writer, pretty productive even when I don’t have deadlines. But that doesn’t mean I want to produce 18-20 pages about a specific facet of modern poetry between now and next Thursday. I have my research all done, I have a working thesis, now I just need to sit down and put it all together into actual sentences that make sense, and hopefully, that I don’t hate the sound of. But that doesn’t sound fun at all. It will be good for me, I suppose, but no, it doesn’t sound fun at all.

Over Thanksgiving break I finally finished reading Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch.

a story about book hoarding: I first bought Camp Concentration ages ago, back before Magers&Quinn moved their sf section. I was Christmas shopping in uptown with Emma, and it was a couple bucks. It sat ignored on my shelf for years. I picked it up over spring break, either my sophomore or junior year of college, where I started it, and then brought it to the Como conservatory, where it got left behind, and then I was too lazy to go back and check lost and found or whatever. Last year, before Christmas, I was at Uncle Hugo’s, looking for presents for Emma, and there was a copy for a couple bucks, so I picked it up. It sat ignored on my shelf until last week, where I needed something good to read while I was home, and god, picking it up again was a great decision.

I don’t want to explain anything about the concept, because it’s complicated, and I think it’s probably more enjoyable to go in knowing nothing. Also, I could explain the initial set up, but it takes several sharp turns over the course of the book, including two very close to the end.

I cannot remember being more impressed by the end of a novel more than I’m impressed by the end of Camp Concentration. It reorientates itself suddenly, startlingly, but still in a way that is perfectly true to what preceded it, and casts the whole story in another more brilliant light. It was breathtaking.

If I was really sharp I’d do something to link the themes of Camp Concentration — appreciating poetry, coercement to productive genius, etc. It would be terribly pretentious, but I could do it. But if I’m going to commit any brain-power to in-depth literary analysis, it should really be in one of the papers I’m writing. So I guess you’ll have to read Camp Concentration yourself in order to make connections to my sad semester’s end complaining.

queer actualities

Michel Foucault was a gay man who was into bdsm and died of AIDS.

I’ve spent too much of the past day talking to straight people about queer theory. I love queer theory. It’s important to how I make sense of the world. I find it stimulating and enlightening. I think straight people should learn about queer theory — I think everyone should learn about queer theory. I just worry, that when it’s taught, something much more important to me gets lost.

What I’m really all about, is queer actuality. I care about writers who are queer, and characters who are queer, and theorists who are queer. I care about the actualities of their lives. I care about the history of their sexualities, I care about their gender troubles, I care about their cruising utopias. I care about how they belong to this complicated, nebulous, not-straight tribe, same as I do.

I’ve been thinking lately, about how in an English course you’re much more likely to read a lesbian theorist than a lesbian novelist. At some point, you’re going to read Butler, or read about Butler, but you might never read a novel by a woman who identified as queer. Sarah Schulman’s nonfiction about the lack of lesbian novelists is much more likely to be taught than her own novels. In undergrad I once had an instructor give the class a biography of James Baldwin that didn’t mention that he was gay. The number one thing you can tell me to make me care about a writer is tell me that they’re queer.

Michel Foucault was a gay man who was into bdsm and died of AIDS. He wrote about sexuality and power. These were not abstract concerns for him. They were pieces of his life.

The great thing about queer theory is how you can use it to look at anything. I love that. Use queer as a verb. Queer boring straight writers. Queer texts that are drowning in unintended subtext. Queer everything. Please, I’m begging of you, please, make every piece of the world as queer as you possibly can.

But don’t stop talking about actual queer people and actual queer lives. The word queer became popular in the 1990s with the rise of ACT UP and queer nation. WE’RE HERE, WE’RE QUEER, GET USED TO IT. NOT GAY AS IN HAPPY, BUT QUEER AS IN FUCK YOU.

Fuck you if you’re going to take use queer theory and not care about queer people. Get me on a better day and I’ll be more charitable about this — queer theory is for everyone — but I’m so tired right now. Tired and angry, but mostly tired. I don’t want to think about straight people any longer. Goodnight.

gay strains of a sad waltz

Queer culture is appropriating old poems that use gay to mean happy instead of queer. We have been robbed of so much queer literature, we’re allowed to steal whatever scraps are available. The straights killed Oscar Wilde, they have to give us this.

I’m being facetious, but only sort of. I do read poetry that uses the word gay through an ahistorical gay lens. I can’t help myself. I see that word, and expect to find something that belongs to me, something I belong to. Even when I know that isn’t what the author meant to make me do, it’s a hard instinct to turn off.

I could make an argument about death of the author, and maybe I should, but I feel like the real issue is historicity. I’m putting an anachronistic concept onto the work. It’s the problem of how you can’t really call Alexander the Great gay, even though he totally was, because the idea of sexuality as an identity didn’t exist in his era. I feel much worse about putting gayness into a setting where it didn’t exist as a coherent identity than I do reading homoeroticism in a text where the author didn’t intend it.

(I actually feel really good doing that. The Outsiders has strong homosocial tendencies. The author is dead. Stay gay Ponyboy.)

I’m reading Wallace Stevens for a class right now, and I’m really enjoying it. He uses a lot of gorgeous abstract language, poems that are about the orders of the words and the images they create, not about a thing you can point at easily. So I guess it’s understandable that I was able to read one of his poems entirely anachronistic unintended manner.

Here, you go read it and then keep on with what I have to say.

When I read this, I thought gosh, this would be a wonderful poem to read at the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS in the middle of the crisis. I’ve read so much about these funerals, seen them recreated in fiction, and recorded in documentary. I was too young to remember my godfather’s funeral, I’ve only heard stories. My mother was so upset by the hellfire and damnation offered at the small town they grew up in, that she organized another memorial at our hippy church in the cities. I have to imagine there was lots of singing. I know his mother came down for it. I wonder if my mother sang, she loves being asked to sing at funerals — but maybe she was too busy holding me, or too busy crying.

There was just something very striking in the poem. The repeated line, “Too many waltzes have ended” speaks to the scale of loss. And the lines “Yet the shapes / For which the voices cry, these, too, may be / Modes of desire, modes of revealing desire,” could say something community, that is united in desire, even as it is wracked by tragedy. The stuff about Hoon doesn’t fit anywhere, but that’s alright, having a line that doesn’t fit or make sense just adds to the over all strength of the poem. I don’t want to do a close reading, filling each line with ahistorical significance that I placed there. That isn’t the kind of writing I like spending my time doing, and I feel it will be stronger if you make the connections yourself.

“Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz” could be about just about anything you need it to be. Stevens could not have anticipated my reading. He might not have appreciated it. He was a Republican. But also, he believed in the importance of imagination, so maybe he would have been fine with my appropriation of his words. And if not, the author is dead, he’s dead, and so is my godfather, so are so many. “Too many waltzes have ended.”

Too many poems were not written, a generation of gay writers lost before their time, still falling. Today would have been Oscar Wilde’s 163rd birthday, but he only made it to 46. I can take whatever poem I want and get my dirty gay feelings all over it, and no one can stop me.

I am going to travel back in time to punch T.S. Eliot in the face

I want to travel back in time and punch T.S. Eliot in the face. I’m not much for physical violence, but I think I could take him.

We spent two weeks in my modern poetry class talking about Eliot, and honestly, it made me hate him? I expect this hate will fade with time, but it is still true and hotly felt. Fuck that guy.

I had to devote two and a half hours of my life to discussing “The Wasteland.” Which, first of all, you can’t understand “The Wasteland” in two and a half hours. And even if you could, do you really want to? Before this class I did not hate “The Wasteland,” it has some fascinating language in it, I appreciated that. But picking it apart is honestly, one of the circles of hell. It is all allusions to other things! He likes using lots of different languages and expecting the reader to follow along. He wrote his own notes to the poem, but didn’t bother to include any translations, why would he want to do that, the elitist fuck.

One of my classmates called “The Wasteland” “perfect.” Which is just… baffling. Important, sure, fascinating even. But also, kind of miserable? Like, intentionally miserable? In a very interesting way! But on a lot of levels it’s a deeply unpleasant poem!

I keep on thinking about how it’s made up of so many allusions, this kind of puzzel box of a poem, where everything is also pointing at something else. And often, I like these things. I kept on thinking about Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There, and Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Ink. Both of these works are so dense with references, but they aren’t dependant on catching all the allusions to be appreciated.

I’m Not There is steeped in the mythology of Bob Dylan. And yeah, it helps if you know a lot about Dylan. It helps to know that the motorcycle is a sign of coming disaster, it helps to know the story about him visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital, it helps to know about his relationship with Nico. But you don’t need to know all that to access the movies. I’m not particularly fluent in how Dylan played with the story of Billy the Kid, but that thread of the movie still works for me. It’s still compelling, within itself, and within the whole of the film.

The first time I read Vellum and Ink I was a junior in high school, and I understood, maybe a third of the references? I got the punk rock ones, the gay history, and a fair amount of the Shakespeare, but not most of the politics, and none of the Sumerian mythology. (They’re really weird fucking books, and I love them with my WHOLE HEART.) Despite not understanding so many of the underlying levels, I still fell for these books. I still fell for the language, and the characters, and the SPIRIT of the thing.

It’s true, that it may be unfair to compare novels and a film to a poem, but I don’t think so. These are all texts with very fragmented narratives. That’s something they have in common with “The Wasteland” actually. They have longer fragmented narratives, but that’s the difference between a long poem, a feature film, or a thousand pages of weird speculative fiction. There is more narrative, it’s more a matter of scale than ratio.

think my problem is only like, 40% Eliot, and 50% my opinion that we should let texts breath and be confusing? That poems aren’t things to solve. They’re things to speculate over, with the recognition that you might not get anywhere, and that there will be a multiplicity of readings.

Oh god, is this another one of those situations where the real problems is that I internalized way too much Foucault? I hadn’t even thought of that, but it might be. I should remember, if I have a problem with how something is being done, it is probably because of Foucault, aka the “I’m too queer for this” excuse.

I am going to stop writing about Eliot now, and hopefully forever. I want to leave you with something nice, so here is a poem I encountered, in which a very young T.S. Eliot writes about St Sebastian. I am gay enough for that.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

You know that thing where there’s a book everyone say’s you’re going to love, and you think you’re going to love it, but you’re really scared to read it, because what if it’s a letdown? I had The Dispossessed sitting on my shelf for years before I was ready to risk it. But there was nothing to worry about! It’s about anarchism in space! It’s brilliant! I loved it! If there’s one complaint, I guess I wish the gay best friend had more of an interior life and a love interest of his own, but like, that is a minor complaint, and I loved everything? Anarchism in space! What a cool smart book. This isn’t a good review, just go read it.

The Wind Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi

Incredibly world building, not great book. This book is set in Thailand in a future where global warming and food scarcity because of different mutations are the big concerns. It’s a very interesting, conceivable, and frightening future! The world building really is great! On the cover someone compares it to William Gibson, and I don’t disagree. It’s just that maybe men shouldn’t write books? The wind up girl in the title is Emiko, a new person engineered by a Japanese corporation. She was designed to be beautiful and obedient, it’s in her training and in her DNA. She traveled to Thailand as a secretary/sex companion of a Japanese businessman, but was left behind when it cost less for him to upgrade to a newer model than to buy a ticket home for her. Sad. So she’s left to find a new patron, where she’s regularly raped and abused, but can’t do anything because she’s in the country illegally, and also it’s her nature to have a master? And she eventually overcomes her programing and fights back, and gets the happiest ending of anyone in the book really. But it’s just super unnecessary? Like, I think it’s maybe supposed to be a story about a badass woman saving herself, but the fact that it’s written by a man, and the way it’s written, it really didn’t work for me. Maybe if Emiko had more dimensions, or maybe if anyone had more dimensions, or maybe if Bacigalupi was more aware of the casual misogyny instead of just the super messed up stuff? I don’t know, it just didn’t sit well with me at all. The world building sure was great though.