Preoccupation: Notes on Anne Boyer and Stephanie Young
“We have begun to recognize that for our movements to work and thrive, we need to be able to socialize our experiences of grief, illness, pain, death, things that now are often relegated to the margins or the outside of our political work.” – Sylvia Federici
“…it seemed important not to stand on stage, to be with everyone while I spoke, like a sound effect coming from within the group…” –Stephanie Young
“Hello my vital demystified art moving through everyone and pluralist” –Anne Boyer
I recently participated in on a conversation on genre and the Occupy Movement with Sara Larsen, Laura Woltag, and Eirik Steinhoff.
We talked about the thrills and challenges of being in an unexpected situation where the genre conventions we had learned didn’t apply: one of the joys of being at the general strike was to improvise and watch others improvise, to not know what to do.
But there have also been moments over the last months of overwhelming fear and not knowing where to put it, without a form to find oneself in.
‘Empty’ space is crowded – with ideology, deference, hierarchy, and fear, as well as with love and perseverance. In that crowd, we’re searching for forms that allow action with others – forms that are self-reproducing, allow life-dense accrual, like a coral reef – but haven’t hardened into script.
We’re asking each other how to empty and fill this space. As Anne Boyer says in My Common Heart, “I prefer the teeming crowd of souls to the teeming soul itself…How an individual, alone, can do almost nothing. She cannot make children or be a poet alone.”
As Stephanie Young says in a new prose work, “But I wanted to make so many others visible and audible in the room, wanted to drag up every pressure or gift or fortuitous encounter that helped me think, or hurt, or pushed me over edges into other edges.”
When I set about writing on these two poets’ work, I wanted to think how their writing manifests the struggle for new forms that has been such a hallmark of the Occupy movement. I wanted to think what a demystified art looks like, how art acts when it’s part of socializing emotional experience.
These two pieces, while formally very different works – a section of a larger prose piece (SY) and a varied collection of lyrics, prose blocks, IM chats, and more (AB) – both foreground their own handling of genre and affect, contending explicitly with the given to build up the new.
Both are poets of the group – as Stephanie Young says, “Carriers of all kinds: how one poet’s work will appear in another, but not just work, and not just poets, how all sorts of person will appear in another, persons will appear in persons. All their neuroses, education, thoughtfulness, love, saliva, fear, money, weapons, guilt, pin #, language, forms and records, sweat and envy, their momentum, their breath, their lack.”
When these poets write the crowd, they write its sociability and irritability, its possibilities and its foreclosures – its violence, which is also its openness and resistance to control. Anne Boyer says “How the remedy for the state is always the crowd” and “How the crowd will kill you and barely notice it. How it will save you or rage if the state has made you dead.”
As I write about these two works individually, I want to keep this sense of the group in the foreground. Particularly in their rounded and ambivalent group feeling, these two artists are deeply allied to the horizontality and openness that, in forms drawn from anarchism and feminism, has invigorated Occupy.
One way to describe the vital demystified art: building structures of feeling together. To make it possible to gather in a plaza or a square, you might build those structures first in the imaginary: dream up a thought experiment in a prose block or a poem.
This “pilot project” writes the web of relations that is to occur in the square, makes visible the actors hidden by our current ideologies. This form of the vital demystified art is utopian – it creates the world one wants to live in, clearing a space where one is free to act. There’s no telling where that might lead.
There are countless examples of this type of practice in My Common Heart. The prose piece "Preoccupation" literally offers training for being in the spaces that capitalist structures have rendered hostile and frightening: “Position your body in minor places unwelcome to your body…If you have a job, stand in your workplace’s supply closet for seven minutes longer than necessary for what task might be done.”
Another moment I return to in My Common Heart is from the poem “All of a Sudden the City on Fire”:
“I am never personal or impersonal
just an arsonist, I guess
receiving no pay for this,
I volunteer as a soft minister
of burning up
the known and unknown
brothels, daycares and call centers
living rooms, city blocks
the women and children
more visible than nature!
I knew it!
I am that woman! I have a child!”
The sense of relief and euphoria I feel reading these lines tells me something about how constraining everyday gendered experience is in patriarchy. That is, I read “I am that woman!” with the feeling of “taking the street” – in the sense of surging with a group into social life, pleasure, and power in a formerly interdicted space.
Anne Boyer’s tones of joyous, unruly affirmation remake the major key. With the affect of the crowd feeling its own life and power, these tones bring what our dominant hierarchies would call the marginal – “women and children mostly” – into view, and triumphantly so.
As she says, “It is in no way impossible to be Walt Whitman, but truer and more precise, making my only home ‘the innocent question,’ like Giulietta Masina but listening to Democracy Now.”
‘It is in no way impossible” is at the core of My Common Heart’s particular, casually powerful utopianism. Rather than a utopia of “no place,” one finds justice now, in action: “Everything is so near to perilous and still everyday I’m waking all up in that vision full of silver, a beggar among beggars.”
One pleasure of reading Anne Boyer’s work is the vibrancy and strangeness (and also the familiarity and commonness) of her engagement. In the final poem of My Common Heart, “The World Is Restored,” she offers: “we marry androids”; “we do not come home to banking systems”; “we sit down to eat dinner”; “mothers are omnipotent”; “we clump together when you shuffle us”; “we live 950 years.”
But what I’m describing as utopianism is only one aspect of My Common Heart, which is also resolutely impure, vulnerable, conflicted, and pained. If we are to (again from “The World Is Restored”) “assume no totalitarian premise,” whatever premises appear will have to open and open again – to tweak genre.
It is telling that the title of My Common Heart comes from a poem, “I Keep It In My Empire,” on the queasy interweaving of self and despotism:
“I keep in my common empire my heart also common
the empire is spoiling the loot of the body
and also the loot of the flourishing body”
It’s telling, too, that in “My Vital Demystified Art,” the demystified art is described as “consisting of sobbing mostly”. (As Yosefa Raz puts it in her MANIFESTO ON WEAKNESS: “if there’s no tearjerkers it’s not my revolution.”)
This aspect of A Common Heart – its ambivalence, the vision that sees the vital demystified art as “like Aztec ranks returning Cortez also” – became clearer to me in reading Stephanie Young’s new prose work.
The role of ambivalence itself – in Boyer’s work and in Young’s – came into focus for me through the lens of Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism”: the phenomenon of becoming attached to an object that gives one the feeling that life will continue, because it feels so deeply connected to one’s basic sense of continuity in the world.
What makes these attachments cruel is that they damage us at the same time we cling to them. A destructive love affair, a political system that never delivers, a white-picket-fence fantasy unattainable under neoliberalism, can all be occasions for cruel optimism.
It feels impossible to give up, in each case, a desire for love, a political hope, or a sustaining dream of the good life. But in their cruelly optimistic versions, each of these objects harms the person who keeps reaching for it.
Stephanie Young’s work could be viewed as a sustained interrogation of cruel optimism – how to cope with the fact that the things one loves--experiences of pleasure, group affiliations, the habits of persona – are possibly damaging to oneself and, through their connections to an imperialist system, even more damaging to others.
Two powerful moments from the piece show her working through this idea in reflections about the murder of Oscar Grant and about a gender performance of “girlish enthusiasm”:
“In the upside down world of a holiday, BART runs all night. The murder of an unarmed African American man occurs when the truth of that world reveals its overwhelming force. In the upside down world of a holiday, the mostly white poets I am and hang out with are across town, in a beautiful house that’s difficult to reach by public transportation.”
“…There’s a moment when my enthusiasm fails me, but I can’t place it. Or maybe I fail it, maybe I wasn’t ever meant to become participation, though I could float in on girlish enthusiasm, I enjoy my body’s sex, the performance of its assigned gender, it’s fun when you’re young, but the culture finds girlish enthuasiam distasteful in aging women and I received this message well, so well I never knew, but did secrete the message through my glands. Maybe I gave myself the rash.”
If a group must be close enough to coalesce, to share its meanings, to be readable as “young woman” or “Bay Area poet,” does that mean that that closeness has to wind up as constraint, prohibition?
Or, as Rosa Luxemburg says, “Those who do not move do not notice their chains.” What happens, then, when you do move, and do feel your chains? When it feels bad?
To create something new there is an attempt at clearing away: “I hoped each section would contextualize or topple the next, build on and take apart its surroundings,” Young writes. Lara Durback told me that her experience of Oscar Grant Plaza was predicated on the absence of money there. Without the web transactions weave, her interactions were different.
Or: in being with other bodies, I feel in my responses not just the things I have learned but also in the things I would like to unlearn. My response of overwhelming fear to bodies in riot gear. My relative ease or lack of ease in talking to people whose bodies are dressed like mine or not dressed like mine, streaming the social codes I know.
There’s never a blank space, but there’s a circling, a clearing away and a building up. The vital demystified art reads the self, inhabits the social, and writes a self to inhabit the social. It socializes emotional experience, or reveals the threads of already-existing emotion running through the group, covertly determining what we see and hear.
The more I read Stephanie Young’s piece, the more I feel that its particular genius is beginning with failure. That the piece is right in a million ways when it opens “I have to begin with failure. This thing I made that failed.”
The piece begins, and drives its narrative, as a prose interrogation of an older mixed-genre piece of Young’s – a neo-benshi or movie-telling piece – “the thing I made that failed” whose individual and social problematic she’s interrogating.
Gradually, the terms of that failure open up into a sustained, subtle and multi-threaded work on group norms and expectations, social movements, love and ambivalence, fear and anger, Oscar Grant’s death, the system that made it, the currents of gossip and information, an outside to the self and where that might be.
A failure is an attempt that, precisely because it could not be received, reveals the conditions and limitations that prevented reception: “I think I might have been trying to say something about gossip as an event which hides other events. And the thing I made that failed wound up doing this exactly. The gossip came through the tube loud and clear, but not much else.”
Failure is the occasion for a new form: the place where genre rules have fallen apart. And failure has the emotional drive to explain itself - the drive to explore and ramify in its new prose form. Whereas success (like the form of the big sanctioned protest march) can have too much institutional privilege to lose, becoming ossified, codified, and dead.
Failure is a diagnosis. In Stephanie Young’s piece, systemic failures shade over into or are registered as individual failures, or as failures of sociability. These are literalized to powerful effect, like the rash on the skin, in a way that brings to mind Rob Halpern’s concept of “patiency” – where language itself becomes a body that, through being damaged and distorted by a cruel system, diagnoses that system’s flaws.
Although the group can be narrowing, even threatening, in Stephanie Young’s piece the impacts one feels from others (one’s “patiency”) is also the primary way to register the world. The love, the not-love, the shared suffering – the group is the lens that hurts and helps into understanding, or into struggling to understand.
And so a failure is a way of reading. By unpacking how sounds hide in sounds, people in people, people in groups, information in gossip, Young demonstrates a powerful and to my mind optimistic (though not cruelly optimistic) way of reading.
It’s a way of reading that remakes failure by insisting genre never really quite closes.
Her method insists on going back in – into the thing that failed, into the writing and thinking of others, into the past. Placing the events beside each other, people and places beside each other, as a way of dreaming their opening towards each other.
I want to quote my favorite section of Young’s piece at length. In this section, Young claims that the failure of her neo-benshi piece was due to her placement of a sound “nobody recognized” as its epigraph. That is, the writer transmitted something the audience failed to receive. In this section, she re-works that ‘failure’ into a moment of collective experience, as the sound gradually reveals its origin:
“I’m beginning to understand that the thing I made that failed did so for a central reason, and the reason was a sound nobody recognized, and the failure is because of where I placed it, a kind of epigraph, at the beginning, in a loop, in the dark. It’s the first thing you hear, the roar of the crowd in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, half in, half out of the train, stopped at the Fruitvale BART station, captured on somebody’s camera phone, later posted to YouTube, but the thing I made that failed didn’t say any of that, it was just a sound, like air being sucked out of the room, or a long collective drawn out NO, moan of the wind outside a house during a blizzard, on the prairie, pandemonium, the sounds that came before and the sounds that came after the shot that killed Oscar Grant, shot in the back by BART cop Johannes Mehserle at close range, Grant is on the ground, on his stomach, he’s unarmed, but you can’t see that in the piece I made that failed, it’s only sound, of the shot itself, and the brief but total silence surrounding the shot, the sound has so many parts, there’s a low wail running through it, holding it together.”
The vital demystified art reveals what is hidden, and I feel here, again, Silvia Federici’s insistence that movements must socialize pain and grief to survive. We have to hear the low wail – it holds things together. Stephanie Young’s protracted and stylized reading of what she claims as her own failure re-opens the idea of reading inadequacy, ugly feelings, and fear – that they could become generative, if read differently.
Much like the various Occupy encampments themselves, these two writers imagine what kind of space, what kind of world, could be built. They punch holes in my genre expectations of how the world works, and shape new forms to build on.
And so, to close, through Anne Boyer and Stephanie Young’s work, I’m daydreaming a way of reading that aims to propagate new forms by all these means:
By spilling what one is supposed to hold. (“And you know already” – writes Anne Boyer – “of my faithful contempt for kings.”)
By valuing what one is supposed to devalue. By pushing aside the bait, the good life fantasy we are offered. (An exorcism of cruel optimism that swallows it whole and then spits it out glowing.)
By being a writer of the group, but wanting to make the group ever more capacious, open and porous. By opening oneself, by leaking.
By having a body. By having a body that won’t allow you to speak from the safe anonymity of the general condition. By having a body that recognizes itself in a lumpy revolution, a jubilant, tender, and sad revolution, an unfinished revolution. By failing.