Chemical Traces, Citational Trajectories…: some notes on subjectivity and critique.
[written on the 26th of August 2017 so as to be presented at the IPAK SSSCP summer school. minor revisions since then.]
It is the hot — very hot, too hot — afternoon of the 26th of August and I have finally come around to writing up this brief presentation in certain conditions of psychic precarity and somatic uncertainty. My key issue here is a chemical one, specifically pertaining to the benzamide anti-psychotic known as Amisulpride in English language contexts, which is most commonly used in the treatment of schizophrenia, but also applied, in countries such as Italy and Portugal, in the treatment of persistent mood disorders such as my own — namely, unipolar depression. I abruptly ran out of this medication, which the Serbian pharmaceutical market has no exact equivalent to, on Wednesday evening and have since then been navigating the painful psychic and physical densities of sudden withdrawal and its ensuing symptoms, ranging from muscle spams to increased heart rate, from fuzzyness of perception to nausea, from lack of appetite to mental confusion and, eventually, a persistent, low-key sense of urgency and a constant state of mild anxiety.
As a medicalized subject, familiar with the narrativizing techniques of mainstream psychotherapy and used to inhabiting the conflicting, even properly contradictory conditions of agency and articulation that such an institutional/intimate positionality implies, I am quick to mobilize my narrative apparatus around this chemical assemblage of dissonant effects, mapping this specific experience onto a wider chronology of cognitive and affective processes over the last couple of months of my life, thus conjuring a provisional emotive archive of — I don’t know — doubts, highs, poems, conversations, moods, pleasures, dissonances, pains, panics, excitations, fantasies, textures, images, comedowns, moments of insight — and so on. This is, ultimately, my current location: where I am speaking from, and what I am speaking with.
If I have I started this piece on a personal note, with this very tangible sense of textual self and by deploying as familiar a discursive framework as that of the confessional, it is not so as to delimit the conditions of critical articulation by neatly illuminating the design of its material structures, and thus closing down conditions for dialogue or naturalizing the claims made here by grounding them on the authority of experience. On the contrary, I am aiming for something hopefully both more troubled and more troubling, as well as more properly performative. Namely, I am trying, no matter how clumsily, to temporarily fold the line which seperates the embodied subject from its own ritical discourse, not meaning by that to unequivocally place critique within the domain of personhood or personhood within the domain of critique, but rather to trace something of the fleshy messyness which I believe characterizes the multiple parallels, rhymes, linkages, intersections, zones of contact and feedback loops between our contingent, embodied selves on the one hand, and, on the other, the material and discursive trajectories of our critical projects — especially, it must be noted, as trans, queer and/or feminist subjects working in the realms of trans, queer and/or feminist knowledges.
Now, in the wake both of post-structuralist critical and textual theories and of anti-capitalist and anti-hierarchical critiques of the myth of the modern self, as well as of the economic and symbolic logic of individualism that sustains it, we must be keenly aware of how problematic the construct of the self is, and of the many not just epistemic but also ethical and political risks that underlie what we might provisionally refer to as any form of “subjectivist” critique. To put it as succintly as possible, we can neither submit to a naive, mimetic epistemology which would take textual narratives of the self (and the very process of self-narration, for that matter) as transparent and truthful, nor can we afford to suspend our suspicions regarding how self-narration may work to reify the individual, bound, coherent self as a fundamental category of western modernity. In this sense, marxist critiques of bourgeois individualism or interventions such as Judith Butler’s on the complex ontological and performative status of the linguistic “I” have proven potent and quite fruitful for gender and sexuality studies.
However, I would like to briefly invoke a counter-history which does not negate or exclude these legitimate concerns as much as complete the picture of how overwhelmingly dense and powerful the matter of self-narration and “subjectivist critique” is. First, I would like to call attention, no matter how fleetingly, to how phenomena such as first-person oral histories, confessional poetic registers, audiovisual self-documentation and autobiographical performance practices have proven to be fundamental for the strategies of self-elaboration, political resistance and community-building of various oppressed and insurgent groups in the past decades. Here I am thinking — and I do acknowledge and apologize for the western-centric nature of my selection — of examples such as African American spoken word artists, engaging in anti-racist creative practice; the slow and tentative formation of a new wave of politicized autobiographical work by young trans and queer performance artists in Portugal, or the LGBTQI+, of feminist communities of makers and consumers of pornography and post-pornography in certain European cities (such as Barcelona, to give just one example), and so on.
Secondly, we can — and I’ll add that I think we should, for epistemic and political reasons — try and fashion a slightly awkward, jagged, non-linear bibliographical history of theoretical and critical practices surrounding more careful and more creative uses of the self, one which will help us complicate and repurpose the concepts of self-articulation and self-narration in potent, provocative directions. Specifically, I think we can benefit from insisting still, and more and more, on the triangulation of English-language autobiographical feminist theory and/or feminist theories of autobiography (particularly of the 80s and 90s), French post-structuralist experiments with self-fiction by authors such as Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and perhaps most notably Roland Barthes, and contemporary experimental practices in queer critical writing (a tradition indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s foundational work but found in as recent and different a writer as Paul B. Preciado) — not to speak of other tremendously generative critical terrains, such as anti-colonial and decolonial critique and trans studies. The process of repeatedly crossing over among these discursive territories is not, needless to say, a linear, cumulative one: on the contrary, the sites of disjuncture, tension and contradiction multiply, constantly, due to the many intellectual and political differences among them.
Yet perhaps that is precisely the method of citational practice we need, or at least I need, at this point in time: one which stays with the trouble of thinking about, with and through problems which we cannot seek to resolve within any feasible temporal horizon and with any single theoretical apparatus in hand. I am convinced we are at a point of our collective theoretical and political trajectories where we cannot yet, if we ever will, dispose of the category of the self in any meaningful material or discursive manner. And quite on the contrary, drawing on the creative and critical practices I have just noted on, I am convinced the self is still a vital site of meaning and materiality which trans, queer and/or feminist knowledge-production projects should draw on so as to produce historically and ethically responsible critical accounts, as well as, more plainly, so that we may collectivelly survive and sustain ourselves, by describing, indexing, tracing, discussing and even archiving our embodied specificities, thus raising the possibility of reconceptualizing our critical writing practices as modes of not just fashioning the self, but even of preserving its materiality textually.
So if I align myself with Sedgwick’s description of the self as a “heuristic” (which accompanies her deployment of what she dubs autobiographical “avatars” within her writing practice), or with Elspeth Probyn’s description of the self as “useful fiction”, I do so so as to occupy unsteady, troubled critical terrain — one in which a clear stance is taken against the ideology of scientific positivism by means of a re-assertion of the fundamental importance of subjectivity, partiality, materiality and location (here I am thinking of Donna Haraway’s important work in feminist epistemology), and where the relationship between the embodied self and critical textuality can be opened up and re-imagined, yes. But also one in which I am skeptical and careful regarding the authoritarian truth effects and the problematic ideological countours of narratives of the individual, injecting a persistent sense of tension into the theoretical moment.
The solution, then? None, I reckon, or maybe just too many to capture here and now. As a queer — or more properly, enquanto paneleiro… –, as someone living with what is more or less problematically described as “mental illness”, and, furthermore, as someone doing critical work as and through those positionalities, I am doing my best to stick to a poetics and an ethics of contradiction, of trouble, of inconclusion. And maybe that’s the simple point of my intro, ultimately: to instantiate and to stay, at all costs, with the fleshy messyness of subjectivity and of critique as a viable means of experimenting with and recreating our knowledges, not so much for the sake of solutions as much as to generate complex, fruitful trouble.