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The Liminal, The Interstitial, The Dialogical: the methods devouring themselves

J. Moufawad-Paul
Jul 3, 2018 · 11 min read

A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)

Methods Devour Themselves is a liminal project. Sutured from two methods of engagement, story and essay, this book is an assemblage of fiction and nonfiction. Although its component parts form a sequence of alterity, the project’s totality is the threshold between these methodological forms: something that is more than story or essay, fiction or nonfiction, an authentic dialogue that claims a space at the intersection of particular literary and political sites. Whereas I have plundered Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s stories to fuel my philosophical reflections, Sriduangkaew has plundered these reflections to generate her own stories. The methods truly do devour themselves, sustaining a rather unique organ: fiction, non-fiction, science fiction and fantasy, philosophy, literary theory, reflection, dialogics… “Interstitial” would be the chic theory term.

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The brilliant artist Yto Barrada allowed us to use her art on the cover. Unfortunately this happened after the acknowledgments were written where we could have thanked her profusely for her generosity.

But let’s back up a moment. Considering that this is an essay designed to promote Methods Devour Themselves from the perspective of one of the authors it is worth discussing the origin of the book along with my thoughts about collaborating with Sriduangkaew. Since part of this motivation is already discussed in the book itself, and I’m not interested in making my promotional essay completely redundant, there will be some things I leave unsaid.

Methods Devour Themselves is the result of nearly two years of informal dialogue I’ve enjoyed with Benjanun Sriduangkaew––called “Bee” by her friends and I hope that I’m now counted as one. This dialogue happened mainly on Twitter, particularly in direct messaging, but has also been comprised of my various reviews and engagements with her work, along with several email exchanges. I have been a fan of Bee’s fiction for a long time, which is what led me to pursue a Twitter friendship with her, and she has endorsed one of my books (Austerity Apparatus) in the meantime. While becoming a fan of her fiction I was also a fan of her nonfiction engagement with SFF, so it was with some trepidation that I entered into a collaborative project. You want to be at your best when working with someone whose work you admire and, the express boundaries of the project being what they were, I had to challenge myself constantly. But challenges are a good thing and I hope, in this promotional essay, to describe my experience of this project in a way that will make it intriguing to potential readers.

What has always struck me about Sriduangkaew’s literature is that it seemed primed for philosophical interrogation, particularly the kind of radical anti-systemic philosophy with which I’m engaged. Indeed, that’s what drew me to Sriduangkaew’s work in the first place: it was burgeoning with possibilities, its prose was lush and its concerns possessed a critical depth, and hence I wrote more than one engagement with her work while also using the same work as analogical material for other projects. Why not produce a book, then, that was a direct conversational? Methods Devour Themselves is such a book.

The road that led to the creation of this book took a couple years of navigation. As aforementioned, I was already a fan of Bee’s fiction and had demonstrated my appreciation in my own writing. Most importantly, however, I was a developing an online friendship with her. When I first opened a Twitter account, mainly to promote my book Continuity & Rupture, Benjanun Sriduangkaew was one of the people I followed (among other lefty and/or SFF authors). Eventually I responded to some of her tweets, she would respond to these responses, and before long she was following me as well. I’m not sure when, precisely, we started to converse over Twitter’s direct messaging service (maybe when I worked up the nerve to ask her if she would endorse/blurb Austerity Apparatus though I think it was earlier) but soon we started to have meaningful conversations. I was struck again by the sharpness of her insight, her dedication to political principles, but above all a warmness that belied the caricature painted by her detractors.

I have never met Bee in person, and we will likely never meet, but with the 21st Century being what it is I could carry on a meaningful relationship, that blossomed into a friendship, online and separated by great distance. Hence, Methods Devour Themselves is also a project informed by the technology of this particular place and time. A generation earlier we could not have had the kind of immediate conversation that culminated in this book.

And this is really what this project is: the culmination of a conversation. We were already talking about politics and literature online in an informal manner; why not formalize the conversation and turn it into book? When we first discussed its possibility Bee called it “kind of a metatextual epistolary thing.” We might have used that for a subtitle but “a conversation” sounds far less pretentious. Still it was a lovely way to describe the idea of a book that would be defined by a slippage between fiction and non-fiction, by its liminality.

My initial worry was that the idea of the book would be good in theory but bad in practice. For how does a conversation between fiction and non-fiction sustain itself beyond a single story and essay pairing? The first pairing was easy: I took one of her already published short stories as inspiration for an essay that I wanted to write; there was no point in asking her to write something original, after all, when the first story––by virtue of being first––could have been anything. My worry, then, was that the project would be aborted after my first response, that Benjanun would not find anything in my essay that could provoke a successive fiction.

But then I read Bee’s response to my first essay (“Krungthep is an Onomatopoeia”) and realized that this “kind of metatextual epistolary thing” could indeed work in practice. Something was provoked and, true to form, this something was not cosmetic or forced: the story that responded to my essay response was its own moment in the chain of conversation, another lovely example of Sriduangkaew’s fictional craft.

Indeed, what I found most interesting about this literary experiment was that it really was a conversation that developed within the same thematic register. Bee’s fictional interventions were truly conversational in that they forced me to develop further essays that were part of the same theme. For example, my essay “Living in Amber” is clearly a development of “Debris and Dead Skin” and yet this development would not have been possible without the mediation of Bee’s “Krungthep is an Onomatopoeia” which caused me to think about a related subject that I had never before considered. Similarly, the essay “Envelope of Futures”, a third development on the theme of history and time, was not something I would have written without the mediation of “That Rough-Hewn Sun”. We thus traced out a set of interrelated problematics, zig-zagging between the realms of fiction and nonfiction, that cannibalized each other for the sake of our own respective work. Methods really do devour themselves.

Following Continuity and Rupture and, to a lesser extent, The Communist Necessity and Austerity Apparatus, this project might seem like a departure from my regular work but it is not as if these books did not themselves appear to be departures from each other. After all, the styles of all of my books to date have been quite different: from polemic, to rigorous study, to creative reflection. I have never been happy writing in a single style, and am particularly allergic to limiting my literary production to the academic style, because I feel that different genres of nonfiction accomplish different goals and connect with different readers. My goal in writing and teaching is, first and foremost, to invite people into an encounter with radical, anti-systemic politics (specifically that politics which goes by the name Marxism-Leninism-Maoism)––to encourage readers to think beyond the limits imposed by ruling class ideology. Different invitations work for different individuals, and even I come to understand things in deeper and more nuanced ways when I write about them in different styles.

Fiction is another way to bring readers into confrontation with important political questions. While I have dabbled in writing fiction (I’ve embarked on many unpublished, private manuscripts for the pure joy of writing, most of which are embarrassing and should never see the light of day), I have also used work that I’ve found thought-provoking as analogical material for my own essays and books. Methods Devour Themselves is simply a more direct way to place fiction in relation to political questions, to confront a reader who might otherwise be disinterested in anti-capitalist nonfiction.

Hence, I’m certain readers familiar with my previous books will recognize the consistency. Appearing after work in which I was developing a critique about the current political conjuncture and the questions of organization and strategy this conjuncture raises, my contributions to Methods Devour Themselves are looser meditations/explorations about the political ways of knowing associated with time and history. Provoked by Sriduangkaew’s contributions, my interventions in this book are pieces that I might not have otherwise written which is why I find them precious: they are works of radical philosophy in the moment, encouraged by stories that themselves are “in the moment” interventions.

As Bee writes in the Afterword of Methods Devour Themselves “[t]here is no such thing as apolitical art; nothing is made in a vacuum.” She goes on to argue, echoing Benjamin’s thoughts in “The Author As Producer” or Mao’s claims in “The Yenan Forum on Art and Literature”, that even those who convince themselves that they are outside of politics are in fact inscribing their work with political commitment: “What is inevitable is that something of the writer’s ideology comes through, whether it is one’s worldview on authority or capitalism, or which group of people is more human than others.” What makes her work both vital and ready-at-hand for political excavation is that she is aware of her political intentionality and does not shy away from ideological commitment. Therefore my collaboration in this project is less a departure from my previous work and more of an arrival: to work within a process of cultural production, to draw connections between literature and radical practice, to bring as many readers as possible into an awareness of political intentionality and the need to transgress this horrendous state of affairs.

Writing is generally a solitary craft although the author is never truly alone; when we write we do so upon a foundation of everything we have read, all of the conversations we have had, and our experience as social beings. Even still, the practice of putting ideas on paper or a computer screen can be an atomizing experience. My own writing practice, in fact, is to begin writing at 11pm each night––sometimes ending at 2am––when my daughter and partner are sleeping, the world is silent, and I am alone with my computer. Methods Devour Themselves was a temporary disruption of this practice; it was an act of writing that, even when I worked alone on my chapters, was in dialogue with my collaborator. Whenever I wondered about the direction of one of my essays I would reread parts of whatever story I was engaging with and feel a sense of authorial solidarity.

“Since each of was several,” Deleuze and Guattari wrote about their collaboration at the beginning of A Thousand Plateaus, “there was already quite a crowd. […] We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.” Their declaration might not have been a good idea for a theoretical project (A Thousand Plateaus is an exercise in theoretical eclecticism) but it makes sense for the fiction/nonfiction collaboration I embarked on with Bee. I truly felt the inspiration of this “crowd”, this polyphony of innumerable influences, throughout the writing process that resulted in Methods Devour Themselves.

Indeed, the experience of putting this project together was a joy and, though we limited ourselves to three exchanges, if we had the time it could have continued indefinitely. Upon concluding the project and sending it off to Zero Books, I experienced a sense of loss… it’s not all lost, though, since one of my next planned book projects begins with another analogical engagement with Bee’s work. Collaboration will thus continue in other ways.

Since the personal import I take out of this collaboration is precisely that––personal––my hope is that it will, at the very least, introduce my readers, friends, comrades, and colleagues to Sriduangkaew’s important fictional labour. Many of them have already had to put up with my lionizing of Bee’s literature for a while, and I suspect that more than one friend or comrade has become slightly annoyed by my tendency to keep asking if they have read this or that story that she has published. Now, if they haven’t already decided that Methods Devour Themselves is just an extension of this annoying tendency, these individuals will possibly discover why I have demanded that they care about this SFF author.

Moreover, as noted above, this hybrid book that is both fiction and nonfiction and that defies simple classification, will hopefully bring curious SFF readers into contact with radical theory. Because, when we really get down to it, that is my purpose as an anti-capitalist knowledge producer: everything I write, every project that I undertake, is performed for the singular purpose of bringing more people into the angry and committed anti-capitalist fold.

An old friend and colleague once joked that I was “a propagandist”. Whether he meant it as compliment disguised as a joke or a joke disguised as an insult doesn’t matter much: I am not ashamed to admit that he was correct. Just as Bee has claimed that there is no apolitical art, I would argue that there is no apolitical nonfiction: everything is propaganda of some sort and, like my co-author, I prefer to be intentional about my practice of making propaganda rather than pretending I’m beyond such “petty” concerns. I am more than happy to claim the status of propagandist; I think it is the height of arrogance to imagine my work is dislocated from the vicissitudes of class struggle. I am a militant who seeks to operationalize other militant subjects.

If Methods Devour Themselves serves to consolidate politically aware readers then so much the better. Its hybridity might render it strange, but sometimes this strangeness helps dislocate readers from things they might have otherwise taken for granted. Emanating from several interstices as a polyphony of voices I hope it will be interstitial propaganda for a radical ethos.

Despite the problems of classification that Methods Devour Themselves will necessarily face due to its liminality (is it fiction, non-fiction, SFF, political philosophy?), I believe that these kinds of creative projects are necessary for the development of a counter-hegemonic discourse. The conversation between two different methods of writing can possibly carve out a cultural space that is informed by both story and essay. Such a space is necessarily more than fiction or nonfiction: it is a political assemblage.

As Arundhati Roy wrote in :

Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I’m beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. […] They insist on being told. Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.

Bee’s stories are among those stories that have culled me from the world. My non-fiction along with her fiction, are “different techniques” of a singular story-telling: the immediacy of contributing to a narrative that opposes every discourse that contributes to the maintenance of this “broken world”.

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