on fucking octopuses

A couple of days ago, the Marxist-feminist theorist Sophie Lewis tweeted a thread about a documentary she’d seen involving a man’s relationship with an octopus. A Catholic writer named Elizabeth Bruenig (whom I can’t link, because she has blocked me), triggered a pile-on against Lewis, in which Lewis was accused by various anti-intellectual parties of having libeled the subject of the documentary, of advocating for bestiality, of equating homosexuality with bestiality, and various other things. Lewis had done none of these things, but the pile-on spread to two further constituencies: the usual anti-sex crowd, who were looking for an opportunity to say “queer is a slur” or something; and a constituency of young, queer lefties whose objection seemed to be that Lewis’s thread was cringe, and that they didn’t so much mind that they’d been whipped into a frenzy by the author of anti-sex articles for The American Conservative, because they really didn’t like what they kept calling “theory.”

I stepped in on Lewis’s side (stunned that so many people who should have known better seemed to be relishing Bruenig’s monstering of her) and drew quite a lot of fire myself from the same mixture of children, terfs, and the Capital Vol. II or gtfo crowd. I lost over a hundred Twitter followers, and was told that it was my own fault for having advocated bestiality. I started to get DMs asking me why I wanted to fuck octopuses. Eventually, this became funnier than not, and I started playing it up, talking about how it turned out I did want to fuck octopuses, and after all what was so wrong with that?

In the midst of all this, a journalist contacted me to interview me about my thoughts about queer theory, octopus fucking, and Sophie Lewis. The plan for publication has been shelved, because apparently a marine biologist pulled out, so with the journalist’s encouragement I am publishing that interview below. I’m keeping the journalist’s name out of this to protect their blushes.

* * *

Hi Grace, what did you find compelling about Sophie’s thread?

I generally find Sophie Lewis’s thought compelling. Hers is a radical theoretical framework grounded in the rhythms of queer life—which I enjoy thinking with and occasionally against. I read Jasbir Puar’s perspective recently about how the calls to abolish the family reify or re-instantiate colonial social models predicated on the imposition of genders, and I thought that was reasonable too. Either way, I’m still mulling over the utopian socialism at the core of Lewis’s thought, as I am with the by-now-commonplace assertion that “gender is a colonial construct,” which explains a great deal, but doesn’t explain the phenomenon of trans women—our lives, our desires, our histories—and the way in which sometimes highly binary gender constructions have been part of radical, decolonial practices, especially in the traditions of Black trans feminism, since the nineteenth century.

I liked the octopus thread because it offered some insight into the critical practice that Lewis deploys, which sometimes gets lost in the abstractions deployed for and against her work. The question of how we—readers, thinkers, queer people in general—engage with the objects that we engage with is interesting to me. I saw some people on Twitter objecting to Sophie’s thread because they thought it valorized Netflix, and Netflix is a large, powerful, disreputable corporation. I have no empathy with the person who would respond in that way, but I think just objectively such a person would lack an interest in the messiness of criticism. I think queer theory (if it exists) and Marxism have both oscillated between criticism and theory, phenomenological immediacy and structural critique. The dialectical materialism has, historically, been deployed in the service of exactly this problematic—how to engage the fact that the world as we see it has been utterly subsumed by capital.

I also like when dykes talk about eroticism, and I liked the pictures, and Sophie is funny. It wasn’t all very serious.

Why is queer theory important to help us understand what’s happening here? Is it more or less important than say, marine biology?

I think I have to reject both premises! I’m not sure I think queer theory is important for achieving that end, and I’m not sure it can be separated out from marine biology—I suspect one could have a queer theory of marine biology (and Eva Hayward’s and Jason Zuzga’s work both point in that direction). I actually didn’t really see Lewis’s thread as exemplifying queer theory—it was just a tender, observant note on a nature documentary. That it was attacked as queer theory, and that that association led it to be called “degenerate” by the terfs, and “decadent” by some anonymous left-wing accounts, indicates that far more was at stake here than what Sophie Lewis thinks about octopuses: what was at stake was the question of “queer” as a political subject of any stripe whatsoever.

At one point, Foster describes the octopus as a “liquid predator”. Is there something specific to octopuses that make them seem more appropriate for queer eroticism than other animals?

As I mentioned to you when I agreed to do this, I haven’t seen the movie and I’m in no rush to do so. That phrase feels kind of hot to me—I can understand others won’t feel that way—but god knows, nobody can legislate for another person’s fantasy (queer theory number one). Human-octopus sex has been a subject of fantasy for many centuries, of course; perhaps people look at Hokusai’s famous print “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” and see it primarily as a depiction of sexual violence against an unconsenting animal, but I’d venture to say that such an interpretation would be eccentric, and that what is quite clearly depicted is a “dream”—that is, a fantasy—of a particular kind of sexual intensity for which the octopus is a sign. Perhaps “attentiveness,” perhaps “devotion,” perhaps “skill at cunnilingus,” or fleshiness, or sucking... I mean it’s not hard to speculate what people might find hot about the fantasy Hokusai’s depicting.

I think that people misunderstood what “queer” might mean in a context like this one: it isn’t that there’s something homosexual about the sex act Hokusai is depicting, or about the eroticism Lewis is evoking (and neither of those are the same; and neither is their mode of representation, obviously enough). “Queer” has been used for decades to denote a coalitional politics, grounded in LGBTQ community responses to the AIDS pandemic, and the mass-murderous neglect of the state in the face of that pandemic. “Silence = death” remains one of the enduring slogans of queer activism, and is perhaps queer theory number two (it is, at least, a theory that is distinctively queer). So, we could say, a queer theory emerges only to confront the dominant biopolitical regime of the moment; it could not exist abstractly, or in the absence of such a coalitional confrontation.

Why do you think people reacted the way they did, especially to Sophie’s assertion that the filmmaker and the octopus ‘have a kind of sex’?

This is a big question, and of course it’s important to note that there were a number of constituencies—I counted three—who took issue with Lewis’s thread, and they did so for different reasons. Undergirding all, however, is the central fact of American life: erotophobia, an overwhelming aversion to eroticism that structures any and every political representation under the sign of neoliberal modernity (queer theory number three). We could think about the constant silencing of erotic relations, their banalizing into questions of fucking (“did he fuck the octopus”), as though the reduction of aquatic, liquefacient eroticism into a pornomechanical act can—and should—dispel any doubts that the erotic necessarily produces. Sex itself is banished under the same logic, but recently we have seen the partial recuperation of sex at the precise expense of eroticism: this is how, for example, people may talk with pornographic directness about their own sexual fantasies and practices, but recoil utterly when sex detaches itself from the str8, pornomechanical fucking dyad: when sex becomes amorous, collective, relational—in short, erotic

Now, the ideological structure of the erotophobic aversion is intimately tied up with the meaning of the phrase “silence = death,” and indeed with psychoanalysis, which is as useful a queer theory of the erotic (number four) as we’ve developed. So let us enumerate the three groups of haters who came after Lewis. First, Liz Bruenig, the “dirtbag left,” and the mainstream biopolitical administrators for whom they speaks: the terfs who supported Bernie, those who aren’t terfs but find reason to grouse about “identity politics,” whatever they take that to mean. These people escalated to using words like “degenerate”; Bruenig herself has written warmly in The American Conservative about a book recommending that Christian lesbians to avoid sex. This constituency, however drenched it may be in the juice of political reform, is motivated by one thing: erotophobia, which is inseparable from homophobia (in so far as the homosexual becomes the figure for anti-erotophobia), from misogyny (because women are taken to signal eroticism) and, ultimately, from biopolitical power as such. 

Second, actual children: plenty of people going after Lewis were kids. I can’t be too mad about that, I suppose, but it was annoying to see so many people who should have known better encouraging children to associate Lewis’s eroticism of the octopus with bestiality—it was the opposite of pedagogy, and it was shameful.

Third, a constituency of younger queers themselves who seemed to find Lewis’s thread, and my defense of it, cringey, and believed they could separate their own aversion from erotophobia by relocating it in a resistance to theory. Perhaps the “theory” in question was “queer theory”—some seemed to think so—but I suspect it was actually psychoanalysis: a theory of eros, that is, that refuses to differentiate between different kinds of desire—that clumps together eros and philia as “libido.” Somehow, a group of left queers decided that the psychoanalytic discursive register was decadent—as though it were not itself a mobilized component of “silence = death”—and responded with rage, embarrassment, and disgust.

Foster does describe himself as being in love with the octopus. Do you think it’s necessarily an erotic love? Aren’t there other types of love it could be?

As I’ve said I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve answered this above: psychoanalysis refuses to distinguish. That’s challenging to a lot of people—it is a mortal threat to erotophobia—but it explains why so many kinds of love and desire bleed into each other, how hard it is to separate out and make sense of our desires... Str8 thought, recoiling against the erotic drive, attempts to split desire into different kinds; it understands queerness as a kind of desire rather than as a coalitional politics founded on the fact of desire as a prohibited social condition. Queer theory number four: the governance of desire is the central problematic for biopolitical power, and the coalitional forces arranged to contest that power are what we call “queer.” Please do note that this coalitional model of queer has less than nothing to do with validating or confirming an identity, or with the question of who is allowed to say or do certain things—perhaps that is an unpopular view now, but it should be one of interest to anyone who understands their work as oriented towards socialism. Str8 thought taxonomizes desires—it creates heterosexuals and homosexuals—but queer theory turns to the struggles into which desire as such throws us all.

Ok here’s the big one. Did he, in your professional opinion, fuck the octopus?

It sounds to me like the substance of Lewis’s claim is that the dude loved the octopus, and that that love spoke in powerful, intimate, and complex ways to the fact of queer desire as Lewis understands and feels it. So, I’m less interested in the question you’ve asked me than in its demand to be understood as the question: what questions does this one silence, what can it not imagine about eroticism, and how is it working to suppress queer life?

sorted

“Place the bag upon your head, child, and you shall know which is the way you must go. And we shall raise you in the way you must go.”

So the bag was placed over his head, though he wasn’t a child any longer. The Scottish woman enunciated her words carefully, as though pronouncing a death sentence, the secret of a smile flickering at the corners of her mouth. The policy had initially been developed to help identify workplace bullies early on, with the goal of keeping them as comfortable as possible. But the idea had been, if anything, too successful, and now the bag could be placed on anyone, everyone, at any point, for any taxonomic purpose one wished. It was well known that there were four paths out of there, escape routes if you like, though only a minority of those onto whom the bag was placed knew more than the bare minimum. 

There was a rumor, and wasn’t it true, that the first of the paths was the straightest, a path of leonine strength. Those who took it were life’s winners. When one is dealing with a sociopath, one keeps things steady. The man forever trying to bite his own nose off, lips stretching and jaw clenching as he sucks his face in through the hard palate. The lion-man is a vacuum in the mouth: the corresponding flavor is Salt. Lion-woman, though cruel in her own way, had bent herself into a brittle, fuckable sneer. Of the pair, she resembled a lion the more: she shook her mane fiercely, and she told her lovers that she loved fiercely, although it was not love. There was a third, a lion-runt, a lion-grunt, a lion-gimp, who proved the rest; onto him they pushed themselves, into his mouth were spat the cruelest jokes, the meanest and sharpest words. “Cunt,” they called him, “you stupid cunt”—even in front of his mother, who laughed along because she preferred his brothers. Later, they said of the runt: “he truly was the bravest one of all,” which was true by default. The idea being you keep everything cozy until you can get close enough to put one right between the eyes.

The second path out solicited the soft ones. The marshmallow boys and the simple plain girls with their loopy handwriting. These gentle creatures were used to test vaccines, and their arms were needle-freckled, every now and then a blotch where some spike or other made pollution. Flowers of clotted blood clung on under the epidermis. These soft ones lived pacified lives, speaking perhaps in rhyme, perhaps in childish, vacant alliteration: “my parsley petals primp up fat!,” one such used to say in joy, a reference to his bulbous, itching hemorrhoids. And they loved onomatopoeia. They named themselves such: “Mungo Flopsy,” “Petit-four Puggleton,” “Weebling Wally.” And they they walked by sloping: they sloped through the woods, towards the logging plant, heavy-shouldered. When they had to be moved it was night-time; you could not move the soft ones by day: too lobotomized, too druggy. Spherical, they rolled. 

For each path had its inverse. Nothing was accomplished by accident in the School, the School of the Pig Scar. Very little was accomplished at all, such was the state of permanent embattlement, and that was by design, since despite the rather puckish title of “School” it had acquired from one of the elderly commanders (a roughly sentimental old fellow whose peccadillos were neither more nor less than what one would expect), it was clear that there was no longer a pretense at an educational mission. What was the mission, someone sometimes wondered, and the wise Scottish woman replied “sorting.” It is a vague word, perhaps, but nonetheless she meant something quite specific by it: the School existed to separate, group, taxonomize, and hierarchize every soul ever clasped in flesh. That, she concedes, is a rather ambitious goal for a single Institution, and yet it could be achieved with patience—one does not choose, after all, whose bodies shall pass under one’s roof, pass through one’s metal detector, or shred flesh on one’s razor-tipped barbed wire, but one certainly can choose how to dispense with them. When she reached this part of the spiel, the Scottish woman would sprinkle one of her trademark half-smiles onto her lips: “indeed, how can one do anything but choose?”

This all being so, the third path was that known as “sky burial”: it was reserved for the beaks, the peckers, the sharp-clawed ones. Not the rascals (rascals were usually sent to Placating) but the intellectuals, if you like—the dreamers, the black-wearers, as well as (bit of an odd one) the sluts. This was the path of secrecy, the path of excavation, and those who were set upon it were carved in one place only. Can you guess: yes, it was carved in the solar plexus, in the center of the body, tiny little “x” marks, little crosses, one each Monday morning, to mark the work ahead. Their bellies grew mottled and tight through the astringent property of scar tissue; when it was time to terminate one, it would be by the careful removal of the scar-plug and the gradual draining of the arteries. The Scottish woman, who admired much about each of her charges (though they each caused her trouble too) did not care for the sharp ones, and rarely attended to them personally, preferring to dispatch after them the quick gentleman, or “Old Blobface,” as he was known. 

The fourth path was misnamed, for in truth there was no path, merely a stile, and a large gaping hole in the universe where the money used to be. Choking and choking and choking on the money-hole, spluttering and squirting one’s everything into the hole, those sent on the fourth way were quickly driven to despair (and sexual mania) by the stickiness of it all, the adhesion, the glue of body and body. They were forced to drink bleach—small quantities of bleach, or to snort little crystals of bleach up their cocaine-hungry little noses, sharp as you like. I don’t even believe they ended, the bleach team: I believe they are still out there, howling and sticking their dicks into the black hole of the void, electrical sockets, books that chap them with paper cuts by the dozen. 

For the Scottish woman, there was no pleasure in this, only the truth: we are all, are we not, different from each other, and wouldn’t we be happiest to be among our own kind? The logical force of that syllogism did not bring her joy, it simply persuaded her, and sat in her like a rock. For the bag itself? Deep joy. The bag that was plunged around the body of the sortable, that gripped and clenched with hard membrane and soft, and that knew, as soon as the plunging had begun, what sorting awaited. For the bag, sorting was like birthing: “once you enter me,” it seemed to say, “i know your future and your past.” And there was nothing to apologize for. Some are meant for greatness, and others are meant to serve as pusbags in drug trials: each has and all have been pushed out of a pussy and cast in a bag, each shrouded in liquor and squeezed until every chromosome had been read and accounted for. For the bag, pulling was the same as pushing, fucking was the same as eating, killing was the same as curing, motherhood was the same as crime. And truly, it really was like nineteen eighty four.

Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman and Guy Debord

When one anticipates the ending of things, is one’s orientation towards them thinking, or is it something else—dreading, wishing, playing, perhaps even (like the child in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”) mimicking the ending in order to subsume endings within the remit of mental continuation, and fantasize that one will outlast one’s own death? To think of an ending to things would be, at least, to act as though one believes it within the remit of one’s power. This is one of the bases by which psychoanalysis distinguishes between the death drive and suicidal ideation; the latter fully absorbed within the realm of ideas and fantasies, the former a structural truth that conditions thinking and fantasizing as such. Phillipe Sollers described Guy Debord’s suicide as “a revolutionary act,” but it’s exactly that kind of macho posturing that gives revolutionary acts a bad name. A revolutionary act would end things; Guy Debord’s suicide ended only his thinking about ending things. (One presumes.) A revolutionary act in which things were ended would of course be preceded by a thinking of that act, but the thinking and the acting are not the same. This isn’t a complaint against Debord, whose alcoholic shamelessness I continue to admire, even as my patience with the broey campus Adornians who introduced him to me have receded to naught.

This weekend, Danny and I watched i’m thinking of ending things, Charlie Kaufman’s movie adaptation of the novel by Iain Reid. I was excited in advance because it was billed somewhere as a horror movie (which it isn’t), and because the same people who loathed Synecdoche, New York described it as “self-indulgent.” As the kind of Hegelian who tends to think that revolutionary acts emerge more quickly from self-indulgence than from thinking, and especially from the thinking of the type of movie critic who just enjoys popcorn trash, you know?, I was excited. (I love popcorn trash, but then I do not review movies for a newspaper, and if I did I would try to take the job seriously.) And Synecdoche, New York is, I think, a truly brilliant movie—more revolutionary and more act-like than Guy Debord’s suicide, at any rate, and with similar apparent aims. The conceit is a little more complicated than I can be bothered to recite, but basically Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an earnestly mediocre director of regional theater, who wins a MacArthur and decides to produce an enormous and immersive theatrical experience in which every element of his life, and much of the first half of the movie, is re-enacted by other actors. This play of his expands to engulf the entire city, which appears to be undergoing a civil war of some kind, and eventually the world ends, almost everyone is killed, and Hoffman dies after many years of unresolved loneliness, every part of his life an unfired shotgun on Chekhov’s wall. 

Synecdoche, New York ends by bringing the diegetic and metadiegetic chronologies into a single, perfect circle: the film cuts to black at the exact moment of Hoffman’s death, upon which he has meditated for several minutes, but which neither he nor the audience has “thought” in the usual sense. Even if he anticipates his death, the death that arrives is unlike that which is anticipatable—the movie ends, we do not see the body. This particular device is not what makes Synecdoche, New York any good—god knows, it is as old as cinema and, abstractly, as old as Plato—but it is interesting, in so far as it is an attempt by Kaufman to solve a quite particular problem: how does one end a narrative which has already demonstrated a refusal to end or evening a more-or-less realist narrative opening? One’s refusal to think of ending things, after all, does not prevent things from ending; any and every revolutionary act can be made to sound fatuous as long as it is only a thinking, but in so far as revolutions are, at some degree of historical abstraction, a fairly regular and reliable occurrence, the belief that things will never end—because one refuses to think of their ending—is going to be no more successful a prophylaxis against the event of ending. 

Synecdoche, New York is useful in one sense that, in fact, has nothing to do with how the movie itself ends, and everything to do with the construction of an endless form (endless in the sense that the form of a shape is endless, not an immortal being) within its narrative frame. The idea of an eternally expansive play—a literalization of “all the world’s a stage,” I guess—in which we can all be cast, in all our mediocrity, to play some other mediocrity, mimic their mediocre patterns of life, quirks and habits, and follow them to mediocre deaths that are not even our own—this is perhaps a familiar assault on the sanctity of the bourgeois ego, but it is beautifully and scrappily executed by Hoffman, and even more by Tom Noonan, who plays the actor Hoffman recruits to play himself, and who ultimately is not only more likable than the original, but unlike the original seems to understand both the value and the limitations of his project. Viewers of Synecdoche, New York are subjected to a system whose function is quite independent of the movie’s own narrative, which achieves independence enough that it makes sense to say that its multi-dimension geometry encompasses even the act of viewing, and thinking about viewing.

(Since I rewatched Synecdoche, New York earlier this year, I have had magnetized to my fridge door a phrase I scribbled while watching: “I must create a geometrical system with relative independence from diegesis and its own capacity for self-replication.” This idea has been the guiding thread of my major writing project over the last year, details of which I’ve promised not to talk too much about for a little while, but about which some kind of inkling remains: is there such a system? And if so, is it good enough, does it kill enough, will it make enough live or reanimate enough?)

Anyway, this all to say that i’m thinking of ending things has a different approach to Synecdoche, New York, and I think it’s worth naming, because reviewers keep conflating the two. Spoilers imminently ahead. The novel upon which the movie is based has a single, conceptually self-reliant twist: the girl who has been narrating to us is a fiction, being remembered by an elderly janitor who is also remembering himself as a young man. Upon such a revelation, which one might characterize as a highly thought-about ending, much can be hung: details can be transformed into proleptic clues, meaning assured as a metaphysical scheme, a theory of everything. In the movie, on the other hand, the possibility (x character equals y character; Edward Norton is Tyler Durden) is perhaps implied, but it is not exhibited, and, even if true, the ending does not explain the surfeit of details in the foregoing—does not explain the “not varnish” behind the ice cream parlor, or the final sequence in which our hero accepts a Nobel prize in comically-stagey geriatric make-up. Even if it could be made to, one would have to insert the ending into the foregoing and turn the key just so. This is what happens in Mulholland Drive, in which everything can be made to make a singular kind of diegetic sense (but not Inland Empire, in which it can’t). The ending of i’m thinking about ending things swerves away from ending things, preferring instead to imagine keeping things misty, unthought, and unthinkable. 

For this reason, I think Synecdoche, New York is the far better movie, a movie that stages the question of how to think of ending things while refusing to let that question be all that matters. The new movie refuses the strong conceptual close of the novel, but nonetheless requires that an ending—even if it does not end—be the keyhole through which the whole is viewable. I also far prefer Inland Empire to Mulholland Drive. As I find myself called to the revolutionary act that would not name itself until after it has been enacted, that would not think of its ending, but only of its world-building, its systematicity, its durability. This is also how I understand the difference between communism and anarchism. 

I AM BRANDED

Dearest ones,

Thank you so much to those of you who wrote in response to my rather peremptory (not to say officious) request for branding info. I learned things! A number of you belong to one or some of the demographic groups I mentioned—but just as many of you weren’t at all. Which goes to show that marketing is bunk, to our collective relief. Some people shared moving stories of how writing by trans people—especially writing about sex—can help wear away the feelings of isolation that so many of us have. This strikes me as a good use of one’s time on earth—so thank you for sharing these stories with me.

Another thing that really resonated with me yesterday, which a number of people mentioned in their messages, is that confident trans women (and, of course, we understand “confidence” as both emerging from and tending to reproduce a certain kind of privilege) can be especially invigorating to cis women. This hasn’t exactly occurred to me before, but I can certainly see how it might work. I do think some version of that axis of solidarity is the basis for much of my work; much of our work. Feminism is that which trans and cis women have in common.

Thank you! I will try to respond individually but please be patient for this morning I am reeling from spiro and lexapro withdrawal (thanks to a mix-up moving prescriptions). So taking it a little easy today—and vibing out to the best of my ability.

yours,

grace

xoxo

BRAND ME BABY ALL NIGHT LONG

Okay, I have a brand, right? Right. It’s a grim thing to acknowledge but after all why be euphemistic about it? People buy my book or pay for this newsletter for multiple reasons, but part of it (presumably—I mean the alternative is quite grim to contemplate) would be because they dig me personally. Not, I suspect, as a person—my teeth are terrible, and I find interacting with children difficult, and both are quite charmless, if not morally dubious—but as a figure, a brand, a network of associations. It’s awkward to talk about this, especially when I haven’t written for a while, but let’s entertain the prospect, because I am on the cusp—the very cusp!—of attempting to sell a commercial book for the first time. To sell something you need to know what the brand is. And I do not know what my brand is. So I am once again asking for your help.

When I met the person who shortly afterwards became my agent last year, she asked me what I would want from an agent. I said I wanted someone to help me make sense of the various things I do. I suppose it is not just writers who have this problem: “does my job reflect my values” is after all quite relatable, on espère, and perhaps so is “why is my partner the way he is, why do I want a partner of this type—do I, even?” (In my case, I do: I suspect one of the less “relatable” things about me is that however complex my thoughts about my husband’s life and work, my feelings about him are quite simple—I’m fucking infatuated, smitten, cuntstruck.) So what are the things I do?

✅ I write about Victorian literature, often in ways that have been shaped by a psychoanalytic tradition of reading pre-C20 texts;

✅ I make dumb jokes, often of a desublimating nature—the difference between desublimation and bathos, meanwhile, is more important to me than that between good and evil;

✅ I post slutty pictures of myself on Twitter and Instagram. No point being euphemistic about this. I’m a highly trained specialist in literary studies, but I also present my boobs for delectation on social media. Why? You know why—because I want to, and I can;

✅ I get stuck in to various political controversies, especially those around prison and police abolition, trans civil rights, and the cultural politics of universities. 

Now, is there a brand here? Certainly “slutty professor” is a kind of brand—though there are more professional sluts than professors who deploy it (although I‘d cite the work of my brilliant senior colleague Juana-Maria Rodriguez as a counterexample). “Millennial” seems to have some of it: ruthlessly driven and over-productive (to the point of being both infuriating and arguably counter-revolutionary), irreverent but good at manipulating existing power structures for my own benefit, and comfortable with forms of affirmation that gen x-ers find cringey or trite. But there are many millennials and I am trying to sell a book—so how to differentiate myself? (By the way I was born in 1983, so I’m cusp.)

I also think—this is awkward, but I think it’s true—I think my brand includes some notion that I am good at what I do. Even though we’re not sure what it is. “Good” in a capable, millennial, “self-starter” kind of way—even (to my horror) a “girl boss” kind of way. Which is to say my brand more resembles the negative stereotype of a Warren voter than that of a Sanders voter. I’m not sure that this aspect of my brand would survive much contact with my working day, where I am typically a little more absent-minded-professor than people might expect, but c’est la vie; it is the brand, and we service the brand after all. And perhaps I shall become more competent and capable, if the brand rewards me for doing so! I’m sure that my colleagues and students would be pleased if we could shave a couple of hours off my average response time on a work email.

But I’m not trying to be all dystopian today. You see, I need your help. You all have, at some point, clicked on something of mine that brought you here—which means that collectively, you know a good deal more than I do about my brand. And that information would be useful to me. Out there, in the world of marketing departments, this is called “market research,” but here it is just us girls, just having a cozy chat. (Is coziness part of my brand? Why not? Answer me!) I was chatting with a friend last night, who sold a book recently for a lot of money (successful friends: part of the brand? plz provide examples.) and her advice to me was to develop a strong sense of who the most mainstream reader of my book could be without changing the book. 

I liked this exercise, but I was terrible at it. I initially said that it was “writing about sex, and who doesn’t like to read about sex?” My friend responded “don’t pitch me on the topic, pitch me on the reader! Describe the reader!” Suddenly I remembered images of women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway, and perhaps enjoying the bumps of the carriage more than previously they would. So: commuters, which means “young professionals,” where “young” means “millennials.” Millennial women! My friend nodded sagely as I finally began to decipher the riddle. Are these commuting masturbators homosexuals? Probably not, or at least not all of them. Some—perhaps most—are women in straight relationships, feeling for themselves the shittiness of straight relationships. (There is a word for this: “heteropessimist.”) OK: I am pitching to a successful, straight, busy young professional who kind of loathes or resents straightness as a structure of feeling. But why would such a reader give a hoot about Jude the Obscure, or Mars Attacks!, for that matter? Perhaps they were English majors and don’t get to use their undergraduate passions often enough in their day to day life. Do we have a brand yet?

Assiduous readers will have noticed a switch taking place: at this point, the “brand” is produced not through extrapolations of my character, but through a quasi-economic modeling of your behavior, starting with where you live (one of the fifteen American metro areas with a subway system), what kind of job you have (clerical; hence “commuting”—traveling during rush hour), how you fuck (str8ly and unsatisfactorily), and what you sentimentalize (literature; Victorian literature being preeminently sentimentalizable). Lest any of this feel condescending rather than bracing, the description could fit me quite easily, at any point of the last twenty years—it is only as I leave the “young” part of “young professional” behind that my sex life begins to feel more worth celebrating than quietly, bitterly ruing. But the fact that it is my experience too merely makes me susceptible to my own brand; it is not the me-ness of that profile that characterizes the brand—in so far as it is a brand, it is a model of you, not of me. At least, that was how my glamorous and successful friend was encouraging me to think. 

Now, I’m a pathological narcissist, and I have some questions about this method—surely my brand, my quiddity, my whatness, should focus on me (of whom there is only one) rather than you, of whom there are many? And yet of course it cannot be so. For there is only one of me, and if my brand depends upon— 37 year old Victorianist transsexual, married to minor (but beloved) celebrity, apt to get into public fights but then appear suddenly morally ennobled—then my book is not going to sell. And how I want my book to sell; I want it, do you hear? I must have. Give, for I want.

Now, wanting aside, perhaps I could stoop to ask you, dear readers, two questions, and ask you to respond either here on the thread or over email to me.

One, who are you? Do you know others like you? Are you alone in this terrifying and hostile world, or are you one of a group? Is the group with you, or remote? Why are you reading this? How did this moment arise in your life? Who are you, to read these words, and to ponder their intrusive significance? What’s in this for you, dear reader?

Two, who am I? Do you know others like me? Am I alone in this terrifying and hostile world, or am I one of a group? Is the group with me, or remote? Why am I writing this? How did this moment arise in my life? Who am I, to write these words, and to ponder their intrusive significance? What’s in this for me, hypocrite écrivaine!

Oh and a bonus question: do you guys all like Sally Rooney, or— ✂️ 

Loading more posts…