Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry world. From all the lost collections. (A Wild 22)
In one of my undergraduate seminars, we are discussing a passage in Alice Walker’s remarkable novel Meridian.
“Truman,” Meridian said, when she lay back, exhausted, on the floor. “Do you remember what happened the last time we went out? Remember how that woman attacked me and then slammed the door in our faces?”
“I never explained to you why she did that. She did it because I know something about her life that she told me, but now wishes I didn’t know it because she’s afraid of what people will think about her if they know. That woman left her husband because he was infatuated with his dog.”
“No, no, I mean it. He was in love with a dog. He bought the best of everything for the dog to eat. He brushed its coat a dozen times a day. He talked to it constantly, ignoring his children and his wife. He let it sleep on the best bed in the guest room. Some night he would stay with it. When his wife finally screamed and asked him why, he explained that the dog has better qualities than she had. (239-40)
Several members of the seminar find it inconceivable that a man would prefer a dog over his wife. Sachiko Orui quietly insists, maybe the dog had better qualities than his wife, and asks: Why is this inconceivable? What comes in your way of imagining a rich and complex relationship between the man and the dog?
Roy Choi, inventor of the kogi taco, a Mexican Korean fusion taco, that galvanizes the food trucks craze and food culture in Los Angeles writes on their blog
[What does] profitability [mean] when our whole existence is at stake?
I stopped eating meat this week. That’s why I’m thinking about leaving cooking…I will no longer eat meat for my own consumption.
Animals be talking to me. They told me . . . stop. Stop, Roy. Please.
“The production of sexual identity, through which unpredictable constellations of desire, knowledge, and practice become concretized into limited models of sexual identity, is bound up,” Meg Wesling suggests, “in the way capital produces subjects accommodated to its own needs” (107).
If queer is about the capacity of finding pleasure in strange ways and unexpected places, what comes in the way of imagining that nonhuman animals may also have the capacity to find pleasure in unexpected ways and strange places?
How does the “othering” of nonhuman animals, the constitution of nonhuman animals as animal, limit our imaginaries? And how do our particular co-constitutions of humans and nonhumans matter for who lives and dies in this world, and how?
“Arrogance is arrogance,” Terry Tempest Williams writes in Finding Beauty in a Broken World, “and cruelty committed to a person or animal is cruelty” (90).
Apropos of nothing, they say in class, the whales are dying. They ask: Are the whales committing mass suicide? Do you think dying collectively is their way of saying to us they are finding it impossible to live in a world that has been made so inhospitable to their existence? Do you think they are saying something to us and we are not listening because we don’t know how to listen or don’t want to listen? Or if we say the whales are committing suicide is that our way of possibly getting off the hook for killing them? And if we say the whales are committing suicide are we anthropomorphizing the whales?
What is erased and produced in the constitution of nonhuman animals as animals—and of humans as humans? Susan McHugh notes that
human ways of being [which in any case are always themselves unstable and varied] . . . when used as a measure of social agency . . . set precise limits to what can be known about “the” animal, even the so-called autobiographical or anthropomorphizing one . . . Hence, the need for other models of agency at the bleeding edges of queer studies and animal studies. (155)
A member of the seminar declares having read that Aristotle wrote about whale strandings more than 2000 years ago, so it doesn’t appear this is a recent phenomenon or produced by human impact.
News arrives of another gay teen suicide and I get caught up in the frenzy over adolescent suicides.
Haunted by the suicides of adolescents, Eve Sedgwick writes, “the knowledge is indelible, but not astonishing, to anyone with a reason to be attuned to the profligate way this culture has of denying and despoiling queer energies and lives” (1).
Another member of the seminar proclaims: I don’t trust Aristotle. Didn’t they argue that some people are naturally slaves and some are naturally master? In any case, maybe Aristotle didn’t know how to read what the whales were saying?
I don't know what to say.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reportedly calls the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi an "unspeakable tragedy" and is apparently unable to “imagine how the two students accused of secretly filming Clementi can sleep at night ‘knowing that they contributed to driving that young man’ to suicide” (NJ).
The Huffington Post reports “Conservation staff in New Zealand have put down 33 stranded whales…As well as the 33 whales that were shot, 36 had died naturally” (New Zealand). Naturally?
Squid Ink: You know, one would hope that animals would talk to more chefs, if not literally, then metaphorically. You want people to have a responsibility to what they're cooking, especially in this era of whole-animal cuisine.
Roy Choi: Right now, we're buying thousands of pounds of meat, between all the [restaurant] outlets. And if I continue to grow the business, that'll become tens of thousands of pounds of meat. The business is predicated upon giving the best quality for the cheapest price, so then if the businesses continue to grow at the pace they're growing, then I'm only going to be forced to make commodity decisions, which means I'll be forced in a way to give in to mass slaughter[. . .] I was reading some of the things [Gonjasufi] was saying about breaking patterns that no longer serve you. (Scattergood)
Dan Savage launches the It Gets Better campaign in response to Clementi’s and other gay teen suicides. Everybody, including President Obama, gets in the act and records an “it gets better” video. Jasbir Puar observes
Savage's IGB video is a mandate to fold into urban, neoliberal gay enclaves, a form of liberal handholding and upward-mobility that echoes the now discredited “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” immigrant motto. Savage embodies the spirit of a coming-of-age success story. He is able-bodied, monied, confident, well-travelled, suitably partnered and betrays no trace of abjection or shame. His message translates to: Come out, move to the city, travel to Paris, adopt a kid, pay your taxes, demand representation. But how useful is it to imagine troubled gay youth might master their injury and turn blame and guilt into transgression, triumph, and all-American success?
Amid the voices clamoring for Dharun Ravi to be punished with a significant prison sentence, Eric Marcus compares their own father's suicide with Clementi's and affirms, "We've turned Tyler Clementi into a two-dimensional symbol of anti-gay bullying and Dharun Ravi into a scapegoat . . . This . . . case . . . screams out for compassion and understanding."
Adrienne Rich urges, “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us” (On Lies 35).
What makes for a grievable life? The suicides of certain gay adolescents here and now, but not third world teenagers or nonhuman animals, some of whom may be queer, dying as a result of US and other imperialisms, the dropping of bombs and drone strikes, capitalist greed.
“Fallujah, Basra, Beirut, Gaza” (Rallin).
What kinds of understandings and compassion are possible within dominant structures and frameworks? In the wake of the 2012 ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage in North Carolina, I, too, get wrapped up in the fervor for gay marriage, even though I believe that rather than focusing our energies on legalizing gay marriage we should be working to dismantle marriage for everyone. How does the current obsessive focus on gay marriage normalize gay, banish perverse, and domesticate and despoil queer energies and lives? Tony Kushner asks:
Is there a relationship between homosexual liberation and socialism? That's an unfashionable utopian question, but I pose it because it's entirely conceivable that we will one day live miserably in a thoroughly ravaged world in which lesbians and gay men can marry and serve openly in the Army and that's it. (9)
Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Sanford, Berkeley, Baltimore, Los Angeles.
Cary Wolfe, drawing on Cora Diamond and Stanley Cavell, reminds us that "philosophy can…no longer be seen as mastery, as a kind of clutching or grasping via analytical categories and concepts that seemed for Heidegger, 'a kind of sublimized violence’. . . Rather, the duty of thinking is not to ‘deflect’ but to suffer...our 'exposure' to the world" (71). L. Michael Sacasas suggests that Wolfe like “Diamond begins to ground our response to nonhuman animals in a shared sense of frailty, vulnerability, and ability to suffer” but “wants to go further still.”
To suffer . . . grieving for the energies (queer? perverse?) disciplined in the constitution of the modern subject promoted and subsumed by capitalism . . . haunted by the lives lost in the constitution of nonhuman animal/human animal as distinct . . . distraught about the conditions of life produced by late capitalism that are antithetical to the flourishing of animal/queer . . . and, rhetoric?
“The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being / ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children”—Audre Lorde’s famous words.
“Falling back on old equations of non/human and non/heteronormative identity forms,” McHugh asserts, “compounds the problems with understanding the significance of queerness and animality alike, by restricting our receptivity to the complex social operations embodied in and across species forms” (167). Disruptive queer theoretical spectrums are needed to investigate new understandings of social creatures.
My former colleague J.C. Ross advises students as they work on their papers to spend time at local animal shelters reading aloud their works in progress to the dogs at the shelters.
Elizabeth Costello: “Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?” (Coetzee 69).
Maybe the suicides of adolescents is not just the result of ostracism but a resistance to socialization into dominant gender? Is the fear motivating the suicides not a fear of not fitting in but the fear of being forced to fit in? Or is it the fear of acceptance, the horror of acceptance? Can we read the suicides as moments of queer resistance? Are the teenagers killing themselves because they are perverse and find pleasure in strangeness, because they are terrified of the gay and gender normalizations that are being thrust on them and because they feel they are being coerced into gay and gender normalizations? Is it gender and gay hegemonies that are killing their queer energies and queer lives? Are the suicides of adolescents a mark of their unwillingness to live in a world that denies and deprives them of imaginative ways of being? Do their suicides thwart what has come to be the only realizable goal of gay—normalcy?
As for the whales, could it be that not only are we are killing the whales, but that the whales, like the Buddhist monks who immolate themselves, are killing themselves in radical political protest, as witness? Could we read their collective dyings over a span of centuries as the whales fighting back, acting up?
Since (heteronormative) Western rhetoric appears to be failing us, is it time (again) to listen to nonhuman animals? “Animals have been talking to me,” Roy Choi says, “and any shaman will say that that's not that weird. So they've been telling me to stop. One of my best friends told me: If animals are talking to you, you better fucking listen dude” (Scattergood). Although Choi’s listening to animals and rejection of profitability seem to be fleeting, perhaps Choi’s momentarily opening himself up to listening in ways we are not expected to listen can be constituted as a queer listening, a moment of queer human animal/nonhuman animal kinship predicated on queer propensities for unpredictable sites/styles of alliance and pleasure. Perhaps Choi’s perverse (queer?), albeit ephemeral, imagination can serve as invitation to us rhetoricians in the here-now: If we could listen without the burdens of 2000 years of so-called Western rhetoric, what would we hear and (how) might listening queerly provoke us not into reclaiming but into imaginatively “putting together, inch by inch the starry world. From all the lost collections”?
I am grateful for Ian Barnard and Anjali Arondekar’s counsel, my research assistants Nana Yamada and Alexander Scott’s help with this piece at different key moments, Alexander Scott’s assistance with putting together this special issue, and the insights of members in my seminars over the years. Gracias. Shukriya.
Choi, Roy. Riding Shotgun. 30 April 2012. Web. 13 March 2013. http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/riding-shotgun-food-truck-king-roy-choi-158323.
Coetzee, J. M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.
Kushner, Tony. “A Socialism of the Skin.” The Nation 4 July 1994: 8-13. Print.
Lorde, Audre. The Black Unicorn. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Print.
Marcus, Eric. “Dharun Ravi Wrongly Blamed for Tyler Clementi’s Suicide.” NJ Star-Ledger. 30 March 2012. Web. 5 January 2013. http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2012/03/dharun_ravi_wrongly_blamed_for.html.
McHugh, Susan. “Queer (and) Animal Theories. GLQ 15.1 2009: 153-69. Print.
“NJ Gov. Wonders How Rutgers ‘Spies’ Can Sleep at Night After Tyler Clementi Suicide.” abc NEWS. 30 September 2010. Web. 5 January 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/US/suicide-rutgers-university-freshman-tyler-clementi-stuns-veteran/story?id=11763784.
“New Zealand Stranded Whales Shot After Failed Rescue Attempts on Farewell Spit.” The Huffington Post. 25 January 2012. Web. 5 January 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/26/new-zealand-stranded-whales_n_1233433.html.
Orui, Sachiko. Soka University of America. Aliso Viejo, CA. Fall 2010. Class Discussion.
Puar Jasbir. “In the Wake of It Gets Better.” The Guardian. 16 November 2010. Web. 5 January 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/16/wake-it-gets-better-campaign.
Rallin, Aneil. “Dreads and Open Mouths: On Writing/Teaching.” Text 11.2 2007. Web. 11 October 2014. http://www.textjournal.com.au/oct07/rallin.htm.
Rich, Adrienne. A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Print.
—. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Print.
Ross, J.C. Phone conversation. 2010.
Sacasas, L. Michael. “Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism?” Rhizomes 20. Summer 2010. Web. 11 October 2014. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue20/reviews/sacasas.html.
Scattergood, Amy. “Q & A With Roy Choi: Slinging Tacos at Midnight, Calling Out Jamie Oliver + Choi’s Vegetable Moment.” LA Weekly Blog. 16 May 2012. Web. 5 January 2013. http://www.laweekly.com/restaurants/q-and-a-with-roy-choi-slinging-tacos-at-midnight-calling-out-jamie-oliver-chois-vegetable-moment-2378337.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. Print.
Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. Print.
Wesling, Meg. “Queer Value.” GLQ 18.1 2012: 107-25. Print.
Williams, Terry Tempest. Finding Beauty in a Broken World. New York: Vintage, 2009. Print.
Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.