I have been writing a lot, mostly about desire and transness or nonbinary identities, or trans social movements. In a word, politics–I’ve been writing about politics. And there is no shortage of material in political theory trying to determine what is meant by this seemingly catch-all word. And politics means only so much outside of a doing: there is a gendered politics and there is the politics of gender; or a sexual politics and the politics of sexuality. (These quickly start to read and feel like distinctions without a difference.) Where does this meaning, and doing, happen?
Meaning-making is constant to which anyone who has ever had the chance to say they “lived” can aver. I am referring to how we assert meaning onto the improvisational scenes of everyday life, scenes that force us to make decisions about certain courses of action; about which desires get clustered around what trajectories; and about which risks we are willing to expose ourselves to. Every narrative has a poetics to it, really. I have in mind that old meaning of poetics whereby “making” is called into the question of ordinary, day-to-day being in the world.
Nonnormative lives and nonnormative genders have particular relevance for me for some obvious and non-obvious reasons—in the hidden but sensed construction of nonnormative relations to otherwise normative fantasy.
Warning: I’m feeling poetic and political, which is never a good combination for the overzealous writer like me—imagining themselves (my pronouns are they/them) to be a theorist who imagines they are reaching a reading audience. I keep thinking of the various ways that language can provide the medium for this understanding. I also think how language can occult the circumstances for the arrival of some new consciousness. I can’t help but think how language is a constant social practice, or sets of social practices, always subject to change. I am equally fascinated by the power that poetry has had in my own life’s narrative—the freedom and disciplinary methods that the activity of “creating” yokes together. In my recent writing efforts (a piece on happiness, a piece on nonbinary identities, and a piece on the trans complaint) I have had to consider my politics. Or, perhaps more to the point, I have had to consider the politics of (my) self.
I remember my first publication in a book. It was a poem in an anthology called At the Dawn of Day published in 2006–a poem written about Thomas Jefferson as a class project for a class devoted to, you guessed it, the life and times of Jefferson. I called it—fascinated with Latin, studying an old copy of Wheelock’s Latin purchased online that same year—Petitor Veritatis. I’m sure it doesn’t translate as I had hoped it would into “Seeker of Truth.” So I can be nauseated on two counts by re-visiting it. And so can readers.
The name recalls a sentiment of,
When being flogged under the iron
Fists of slavery, when mounted on the back of some
Equestrian beast, that future guided greatness.
The born genius, locked
In a constant altercation with
An antiquated moral fiefdom
Occupying the mind and spirit,
So recalcitrant, leads the blind way
With a torch emblazoned by the light of courage
I have to stop for a moment and consider what it is, exactly, I was hoping to have done here. “The name” of Jefferson “recalls a sentiment of” something like the historical truth of his legacy to slavery. But I lose myself in wanting to convey something like a memory. Specifically, that line “when mounted on the back of some/ Equestrian beast” had meant to signify Jefferson’s earliest childhood memory of being placed upon and taken from the back of a horse by the hands of a family slave. Was this memory supposed to sully “that future guided greatness” so as to diminish his name? Or the name of all Founding Fathers? Such that, from the back of a beast of burden he had remembered being lifted by the hands of enslaved humans—on all sides of this “born genius” were human things propping him up because their legal status denied them humanity. On all sides there had been something like an occupation of “mind and spirit,/ So recalcitrant, lead[ing] the blind way” for others toward revolution. But whose politics am I writing, his or mine?
Free is a four letter word
One screams when whipped against
A post for attempting it.
Aimed at breaking their wills, you rebut
This institution, but it gets caught
Like vomit in the throat:
Your courage but lip service
To gain a great utilitarian good, for a Declaration.
And so God buttresses you,
But purports to tyrannize the politique.
You disallow Him to adhere
To the government.
Merci, my God would be offended.
There it is, perhaps, the answer to my question. Free is quite literally a four letter word, also an open secret—a perverse performative power in American history. It is indeed the word “One screams when whipped against a post for attempting it.” All this talk of those who suffered, of those whose lives ended and whose were broken—and no reference to race? No reference to black bodies under the yoke? No wonder that slavery would “get caught/ Like vomit in the throat”! It had been the founding principles of such things like “life” and “liberty” by virtue of saturating opposites. Race propped it up. Capital most assuredly. Jefferson’s striving for a “utilitarian good, for a Declaration” meant more to those owning than those who were owned. And Nature’s God was “Reason,” and all that Enlightenment nonsense—this too amounted to little more than a quick “thank you” from little old agnostic me, the writer. I admit, that “Merci” was meant to signify Jefferson’s love of French. But why…why there? What could that word be doing if not some pedantic wordplay? Because nowhere were the black bodies of slaves made explicit. I had kept them hidden behind a polyglottal urge to dilate language.
Then, you die.
And what is left of you but spirit,
A corpse, bones, parietals, femora?
A corpse cannot study Latin;
It can only lie there in a stone box,
Still as the sea, calm and impassive.
Death—there is the truth of all seeking for all sense of meaning. Death anchors being. It is Jefferson’s spirit we remember, after all. It is a single man joining together the speculative recollections of nationhood and American “dreamscapes.” Is it simply because there is nothing but spirit since “A corpse cannot study Latin”? Since all a corpse can do is mark the end of a body, the organismic life, the corpse sits calmly? Against what is “calmly” judged? Narrative does more than a dead body ever could. But bodies—these are things whose gravity swings the gates of history open and closed as generative narrative force. The seeking of truth never ends, then. It rediscovers the scattered remains of so many of the dead. The histories of racist nations must be made to “speak” with the great mounting of dead bodies that convoke its lurid past. And yet a single voice can govern the narrative itself. Poetics reminds us that the bodies of those lost, propping up a national voice, need to be woven together like so many morose threads to history’s unfinished tapestry.
And is this the politics of (my) self? Looking back and re-configuring some of the pieces I think I see something—of the author and my trajectory (I went by Brandon then, you know). Of being in an honors class at a state school; of thinking about the prize one might win if selected as “best” among the various textual projects collected and published in Dawn; of also thinking about the edits, having handed over parts and pieces and having phone calls with Ashley Cline who wondered what I meant by “rebut” and to remind me that “lip service” was separated into two words, not one. But also of my mother’s cancer, her slow death, and the anger I had been feeling throughout the experience. And of feeling an immense surplus of rage at the injustice of watching her die, choking on the fluid buildup in her lungs. How the sting attending her injustice flooded into the sting of having to accept other unjust histories, like Jefferson’s “genius,” and the invisible gravity of whiteness. Illness and anger were co-present affects in what I could call the proscenium of my teens and early twenties. And I can’t imagine a better phrasing than Eve Sedgwick’s: “Isn’t anger almost necessarily the most diachronic, the most narrative of emotions, the one most necessarily mistranslated in the freeze-frame?” (p. 193). Because, by god, yes. Anger was the most narratively mobile, the most movable of emotions and affective “states.” The question is, really, how it would be at all possible to do aesthetic justice to anger in narrative. Anger is so mobile; so quick to judgment and so, too, quick to dissipation. And yet it can remain, like the glue holding credit cards to their thin envelope-bound letters. Have you ever rolled the substance between your index finger and thumb?
And I couldn’t tell, reading and recollecting my thoughts here, whether I was angry at injustice generally or the impingement my mother’s illness and death had on my sense of being entitled to something like a meaningful life. The cluster of desires in Petitor had been constrained by the fantasy of critique to set me free. Perhaps free from the facts of whiteness and its effects on my nonnormative storyboarding. I was queer; I had a dead mother; I was depressive, bulimic, a cutter; I couldn’t decide then and still can’t decide now in what direction to draw the line of gender as a means of self-identification. And there again Sedgwick—saying that the ambivalence generated between the cultural expectations of identifying “with” and identifying “as” are powerful operations in the narrative. (Identifying with men had nothing to do with identifying as one.) I couldn’t then and can’t now identify as a man. And identifying as white, well, that afforded far less affectivity than how strongly I disidentified with/from white people.
And in that last sense, perhaps, came the most powerful point of departure for why I wrote Petitor–crystallized more than a decade later upon my re-reading. That there is such generative torsion in this history of (my) self, such mobility to anger, that I failed to realize just how such a politics had been, too, a proscenium converging the troubling scenes of self-affirming rage at the expense of actual criticism of racialized injustice.
There is a certain self-protective instinct involved in all critical writing, I suppose. It consists, mainly, in this: misrecognizing a liberatory politics as the politics of liberation. There is and will probably always be something akin to a disciplinary fantasy haphazardly coordinating our styles. Or, to borrow yet again from Sedgwick, “these stigmata of ‘decisiveness’ in and authority over one’s language are recognizable as such by their family resemblance to the power, rage, and assault that parents present to the child with a demand for compulsory misrecognition of them as discretion and love” (p. 184). This is a “polylogic” she would explain as posing a difficult opposition to something truly “emancipatory” about the political. And so I return to some of the claims I made at the beginning of this now-too-long meditation. Historical narratives end up servicing the needs of politics, whether great care is taken or not. A certain poetics of misrecognition might enable us to see along what lines of stress these needs create.
“Petitor Veritatis,” by Brandon Aultman, in At the Dawn of Day, edited by Ashley Cline and Lowell Catlett, 9. Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2006.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “A Poem is Being Written,” in Tendencies by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 175-210. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.