Vinegar Notes

Of Phatic Phonemes and Compulsory Pronouns


My girlfriend Lily makes the cutest sounds. In moments of comfort, coziness, or joy, she will pipe out little notes of pleasure, each one new and tonally distinct from those it follows and precedes, but often rapidly in serial, as if she were sight-reading the bassoon line in a Schoenberg composition. The sounds are semantically quite weak, but they are not altogether without meaning: one can distinguish between some sounds that question, and others that declaim or recapitulate; between those that sound probing, and those that sound probed. Nonetheless, each sound is irreducibly comprised of two elements, with a tension between them. Sometimes that doubleness presents itself as a complicated kind of consonant—“mn,” maybe, like at the end of “limn,” but determinedly a single syllable—and other times they are diphthongs, like “ae,” compounded vowel sounds, retaining some trace of the singular elements from which they have been formed.

The sounds are expressive, and therefore to some degree non-communicative, but they are of the world, in a sense that matters. Lily populates a room with them, furnishes a space: each floats off from her body to become an element of the environment, and perhaps their purpose from Lily’s perspective is to acclimate her to the ecosystem in which she is dwelling, like the creaks a house makes as it settles. Yet there is otherwise nothing creaky or diminished about the sounds; they are bubbles of vitality, rippling out from a body that experiences itself, and is experienced by those around it, as intrinsically and immanently vital. Bubbles in a glass, then—settling, but upwardly into evanescence, rather than one’s foundations. 

I say that she makes these sounds when she is joyful, but she is often joyful, so the sounds are not infrequent. I’ve been doing a lot of home fermentation the last few weeks, which means the apartment and its immediate environs are strewn with buckets, fermentation vessels, and glass jars, each producing some kind of bubbles on a more or less rapid basis. A bucket containing perry mash, in the corner of the dining room, is connected to the outside world by a tube running from the inside, through a hole in the top which Danny made by stabbing the lid with scissors and I sealed up with cling film, into a pint glass filled with water, into which the fermenting pears and yeast occasionally disgorge a bubble or two. (The perry will become vinegar before I drink it—my sobriety is v much intact.) Lily bubbles more frequently than the perry mash, but less rapidly than the celery vinegar which I’ve stashed in her work-nook, into which I have placed an air stone, to pump air through the liquid, accelerating the conversion of ethanol into acetic acid. 

Phatic, Lily’s sounds are also poetic: they make nothing happen, as Auden put it. They are more like punctuation than like emojis, in that they are non-figurative and non-indexical. They shape or inflect meaning, rather than producing it directly.   When I spoon her, or Danny does, or we nuzzle her—sometimes when we nuzzle each other—the sounds will intensify, in volume or frequency or both, but that is not to say that these sounds (although they are adorable) belong solely to the domains and practices of adoration. She makes them while reading, or while looking at beautiful things, or merely inhabiting her environment, which, as I’ve suggested, she does with greater ease than I can muster. Cataloguing with her dynamic body each and everything that is good in the world. 

On the other hand, pronouns. I recently appeared on a podcast with some people who—I think it would be fair to say—are skeptical about what they call “trans ideology.” I want to be careful in talking about that experience, because the hosts were personally respectful towards me, and although I didn’t really come away thinking differently about anything, I can hardly blame them for that—I’m very stubborn, and difficult to persuade even when I’m wrong. The podcast was called Heterodorx, and the hosts were Corinna Cohn and Nina Paley—I believe the episode is broadcast, but I’ll not listen to it, because I loathe the sound of my own voice and am unable to hear recordings of myself without experiencing deep anxiety. I feel as clumsy and lumbering as Lily’s sounds are thrilling and life-packed.

Usually, I think of GCs—the name that anti-trans campaigners online have adopted, short for “gender-critical”—as surfing a wave of forbidden, thrilling pleasure. Disinhibition: the 

moment in which social pretense is cast off, niceties shredded, when one allows oneself to be the child who points out that the emperor has no clothes. For someone in the grip of a disinhibition, auto-infantilization (becoming the child) is primary, and the GCs’ shit-slinging and cruelty seems, often, merely infantile. But the problem with disinhibition is that it engenders ambivalence and stuckness: it is impossible to become the child without also identifying oneself, paradoxically, with the naked emperor, a child of a different kind—perhaps the auto-infantilized subject who experienced his disinhibition just a moment before you did. I tend to think this way, because I am frequently targeted by people who wish to do exactly that to me: regress, point, and claim that the emperor has no clothes on. Everything I write, basically, leads to some kind of regression on the part of those who hate me: it’s a constant, daily experience. Someone transcribed a talk I gave at Toronto and editorialized their transcription with electively idiotic phrases: “what has AA got to do with feminism?,” as though asking the question with enough incredulity could prove the impossibility of a satisfying answer. 

But Nina Paley and Corinna Cohn weren’t like this—well, perhaps Nina was, though that wasn’t all she was doing. Corinna seemed a little defeated, which makes sense: now, by her own account, a “eunuch,” she was previously a trans woman, and has written about her GC radicalization as a process of disillusionment, which is, I suppose, what happens when one has been positioned as the object of another person’s disinhibition. (The sounds that Lily makes: are they illusions?) There was more depression than I expected from the Heterodorks—depression being, in psychoanalytic terms, usually a good thing, a compensation that enables people to disenchant themselves, and eventually to stop seeking impossible pleasures. (Are Lily’s pleasures impossible?)

We cannot not refer to each other. This notion may seem like a truism of structural linguistics, but the weirdness of pronouns has yet to be fully reckoned by Émile Benveniste or anyone else. We cannot not refer to each other, and when we do so we will use pronouns: I will call Corinna “she” and Nina “she,” not because I have a position on their self-understanding (how could I?) but because that is what feels most sensible to me when I use language; it is what I do without thinking. Pronouns aren’t literally compulsory, but when we angle our speech to avoid them, we end up endowing proper nouns with certain qualities proper to pronouns: “Grace says Grace is feeling sad,” for example, would signal that one didn’t want to refer to me with a conventional gendered pronoun, which signal would thereby endow the second “Grace” with its own kind of negatively-constructed gender. One makes conspicuous what one is avoiding, both in this specific case and as a general principle of psychoanalysis. This is a problem with the notion that “pronoun use is compelled speech,” and therefore that workers, for example, should not be required to use trans people’s pronouns. Yes, pronouns are compelled speech—but the compulsion is intrinsic to the English language. About which fact, depression would be as viable a response as any other.

While recording the podcast, I found myself regressing into a prior developmental stage myself: that of the genial clever-boy debater—likable, perhaps, but inescapably concerned with my own mystique, my own brand. I find that depressing, too. Everything that matters to me, everything I love—very much including the vinegars and Lily’s sounds—presents itself as irreducibly communal, essentially worldly. Yet I suck myself in, as if trying to become a worldless one. As much as I want to, I have difficulty accepting myself as part of the world, someone—something—towards whom people will refer, casually, and in terms over which I can assert no control. 

Good morning, world. It is too early, and I am going to try to go back to sleep.