by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.14, 2013
A few weeks ago I wrote a play called “Dead Youth, or, the Leaks”, which is basically a knifed-up (in/per)version of The Tempest. It features characters that may or may not be Julian Assange, Henrietta Lacks, teenage Somalian ‘pirate’ Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, and a female Antoine de Saint-Exupery, all adrift on a hijacked container ship, pulled toward Magnetic Island by mysterious currents of dark energy. But as I imagine my play, the critical factors of identity-stabilization—gender, race, aliveness or deadness, whether one is in fact a ‘real person’—are all soluble. In fact the titular character, Dead Youth, is elastically posthumous, multinational, decomposing, erotic, multibodied, plural.
In thinking about my play, the phrase ‘soluble personhood’ came to mind… I realized that I was thinking about the possibility that what we normally demarcate as a ‘person’ might be in fact be less securely bounded. That rather than a homeland security of the self, there might be a soluble personhood—a black-lit spectrum of ways in which one supposed ‘person’ might occupy another’s literal and spectral space, become imbricated, a coefficient, a parasite or a saint… On the most conventionally acceptable ethical pole this might be called ‘empathy’, on the most conventionally unacceptable a kind of possession or military/imperial occupation. I have been thinking about this as a model for thinking about both living in the world and the act of writing, the radical act of co-identification that is not always benign, benevolent, ethical, but which radically re-situates the space of ‘event’ in an occult, contradictory, irreal “dark” space… dark in the physics sense of that term…a site we don’t have the coordinates of, an anticause which might issue radical effects…
For me there is an (imperfect, and therefore energy-shedding) analogy for this somewhere in the matter of privacy vs secrecy as it pertains to leaks and drones. The drone is the supposed non-cause which only has effects. It moves around the planet like a leak, and then, like a dream deferred, it explodes. Only once it has its effect is it deduced as a cause. Relatedly, the TOR-encryption system utilized by Manning and Assange is an elaborate strategy of movement and envelopment. Importantly, the encryption doesn’t encrypt the ‘secret content’ of the leak; instead, the successive onion-like layers of encryption wrap around the content and direct how the content is moved around the Internet through so many nodes and portals that its journey can’t be recreated to find the source of the leak.( Indeed, the very verb hidden in the noun ‘leak’ gestures towards this shadowy/shameful/obscene action, this movement.)
TOR-encryption is interesting to me because the content of the message is of no interest to the hackers that built this system; only the motion is, the jackets of code that distend and obscure the event of transmission and make it irreal; then, once it arrives, it lyses its content, sheds effects so, so real that it’s reality-changing. Analogously, the much vaunted territory of ‘interiority’, so important to conventional personhood and its handmaiden, literature, becomes chimerical when reconceived from a framework of solubility. One idea, one body, one gender, one ethnicity, one language contains another, another which may also be, a la Heisenberg, a nothing, until it can’t survive it anymore.
I realize one keystone for my thinking about soluble personhood is Leslie Scalapino’s Dahlia’s Iris: Secret Autobiography + Fiction¸the over-nomination of the title accurately forecasting the oversaturation of the book itself with genres, persons, plots. A lot goes on in this busy brain of a book, including a detective plot, but I was stopped in my tracks by what happens on page 27 when the reader is suddenly given some irreal information about one of the protagonists, the Detective Grace Abe:
Grace had changed. Four years earlier a meeting of occurrences had precipitated, or suddenly there was a man who had been a marine dead who was in her. She would be running out, it would be him running. But she would never leave her body or her own mind when he was there. He’d been Special Forces, an assassin when he was alive; she hadn’t known him but she would feel the presence of his activities, ‘ghosts of actions she had done’ which were apparently his, or hers. Though she hadn’t acted (when he had killed someone, before entering her).
First addicted to Ibogaine, a drug used by Indian hunters, causing illness of vomiting followed by elation and an utter lucidity in hunting, she’d spiraled with the marine being there erratically. Then addicted to a Peruvian drug derived from frogs, the secretion applied to burn marks on one’s chest or arms […] She changed. The marine who really was a particular unknown person, did not return.
Yet there were still flickers as if she’d known people before, whom she was now seeing. […]
As in the entire oeuvre of Alice Notley, here one figure is a medium for the dead but the effect is neither consistently revelatory nor tolerable, neither stable nor totally eradicable. Is Grace ‘hosting’ the marine or at war with him? She does violence to her ‘self’ in an effort to burn him out, or maybe in an effort to mimic his own drug addictions or chemical warfare in Vietnam. Thus she might be most fully ‘embodying’ the marine and accepting his occupation when she is mimicking him and using her own body to stage the event of violence against him. Scalapino’s typically charming and frustrating prose flickers across the lines, the graceful comma or the unexpected ‘or’ often doing the linking of two quite disparate or unbearable thoughts. “She would be running out, it would be him running.” As this sentence suggests, solubility and fluidity is not a lovely thing; one entity is drained, another filled, both poisoned, both killed. Everything is adulterated. Although the ‘marine’ supposedly does not return, he does somehow return as after-effects, irreal re-cognitions.
And yet, I find this passage incredibly liberating; I feel a self-re-cognition everytime I re-turn to it. This is what it feels like to be in the world, to be a figure at once perpetrating an occupation and suffering one, to be bearing in one’s ‘self’ the virtual violence of everyplace. What I buy, eat, wear, use is a violence on myself and others. I cannot think of exceptions. Meanwhile I host a radical array of others, of ideas, images, griefs, fantasies, disappointments, which seem to occupy the part of ‘me’ that other people think of as their ‘selves’. So I’m carrying all this violence around, doing it to my ‘self’, all the time. I wish I didn’t have a self and could just be passed out in the puddle like Narcissus. It’s debriding and decomposing and sad this solubility, but sometimes often spectacular, a drug. I think of Lucas De Lima’s lucidly surreal elegy on the death of his friend, Ana Maria, by alligator attack, an irreal project of solubility which requires of occupation of the poet-space by many spectral and real and irreal bodies and species. Lucas enfigures this co-habitation when he writes:
My beak returns to Ana Maria’s throat. Feeding.
On cloudy nights when she dies again I have to perform such dives—
It is not a hacker we pursue
Or a wireless connection to bathe in
We want a waterfall in the Space we digitize together
I maximize windows when Ana Maria throws a seed at me
Keep MySpace blank for her
This occupation may be a consensual one on the part of the poet but it is a painful one, a grief-engorged one, an intolerable one, an unsurvivable one, as one death is transferred into the body of another, what Lucas might call ‘conviviality’, or I might call co-morbidity. We might call solubility a survival strategy for life in the Anthropocene if survival itself weren’t such a debatable goal, and if we weren’t already dead.