My play On Top has been nominated for a MyTheatre Award for Outstanding New Work in Toronto, and Kelly Bedard asked me a bunch of smart and provocative interview questions about it. I replied with some thoughts on that play, the “controversy” around my earlier play Little Death, socialism vs. barbarism, F/m strap-on porn, and mooning fascists.
I think Jason Guriel is a genius prose stylist, and as an editor he’s a gentleman and very sharp, but I’m not convinced by his polemic in The Walrus against self-consciously political art. Maybe Auden’s right that poetry makes nothing happen, but only if you define “poetry” (and “happen”) pretty narrowly. Art can make better political imagination happen. It can make greater clarity about the nature of things happen. Plato exiled the poets from his Republic, but Plato’s own poetry (e.g. The Republic!) made a hell of a lot of Western consciousness happen.
I share Jason’s impatience with sentimental odes to art’s politically redemptive power. It’s true that, as he says, “the degree to which one’s earnest message is on the right side of history isn’t enough to redeem a cliché image or rote expression.” But just because there’s loads of dumb talk about art out there, reams of facile politicking in and around it, doesn’t mean art should abdicate in the face of intolerable social problems. Dazzling style gives delight, which matters, but such virtuosity can be placed in the service of any end, and all ends aren’t equally defensible. You have to weigh them and choose.
Jason’s choosing not to choose, taking style as its own end, is a classic liberal move: an assertion of individual freedom (style) and achieved personal responsibility (craft), coupled with a rejection of noisy collectivist activisms — which, on closer inspection, turns out to be itself a highly activist politics in defense of the existing liberal order, a worldview that represents itself as the inevitable, the only rational basis for consensus. It elides the economic, cultural, historical reasons why many people can’t or won’t assent to that consensus, and why they might look to art for various kinds of help.
You could maybe defend Jason’s position, or one thematically related to it, by making the argument Pierre Bourdieu proposes about “art for art’s sake”: that it’s not at all apolitical but instead represents a stronghold of autonomy from an all-pervading market logic. The market tends to assimilate most of what we’d consider Western art creation, though, so I’m not sure that’s a way out. Maybe the more productive thing would be to argue for subtler, smarter political art. Even if apolitical art were desirable, it isn’t possible.
When I argue, as I do, for dialectic over dualism in the way we process conflict, some folk get the impression I’m arguing for inaction. I’m not. I’m arguing for more thoughtful action. Maybe for “tragic” rather than “heroic” action, acting in doubt rather than acting in false certainty.
Here are a few examples of issues I grapple with that seem to me in need of a synthesis you might call “dialectical,” not just an affirmation of one pole or the other:
There are brutal inequalities in society that, given the considerably fucked way the individual is socialized under capitalism, may need to be addressed by handing more (redistributive, etc.) power to the state. || The state is brutal, repressive, and authoritarian, with basically illimitable, irresponsible sovereignty, it tends towards hierarchy and centralization of power, and this is as true of socialist states as of capitalist.
Trauma is a discourse weaponized in and by neoliberalism to hide structural problems under expressions of individual pain, to avoid structural reform by pushing for individual redress. || Trauma is an all too real lived experience that must be taken seriously and treated compassionately, that mustn’t be dismissed as mere politics.
Most of our social problems are structural and most people live with some manner of false consciousness, a misunderstanding of their own interests. || To tell someone they have false consciousness, they misread their own experiences, is horrendously condescending and often just plain inaccurate, and most people who do so are kind of dicks.
Directly, writing/theorizing makes nothing happen. It is in fact “all talk.” || No ethical action is possible without doing the work that writing/theorizing gives voice to.
To feel so so so so much is a spiritual and political resource that matters. || Raw emotion isn’t a coherent politics, nor does it necessarily point towards one.
You will do harm, no matter what; you can’t avoid it. || You’re obliged to try your fucking hardest to avoid doing harm.
I might add to this list.
This piece by Caleb Luna (they/them) gets at an issue that increasingly seems to me to be *the* sticking point for a radical politics rooted in the erotic, in love. What happens to bodies marked by the majority as unbeautiful? Urging people to redefine their idea of beauty, as corporate marketing campaigns sometimes do, misses the point. That still makes beauty the measure of worth. It’s not enough to say, “You too are beautiful, body that society relentlessly devalues”; what’s radical and necessary is to say, “Your human value has nothing to do with your beauty or unbeauty, your human value is inalienable, and yet you’re still a body and your body is still good.”
I’ve often been kinda terrified about how alone I’d feel if nobody I find attractive found me attractive. I’ve worried that my tendency to date conventionally nice-looking able-bodied white people, when once in a while they’ll have me, just doesn’t scale: if everybody did that or tried to do that, so so so many people would be frustrated and alone.
And hey wait: so many people ARE frustrated and alone! It’s almost as if a neoliberal market logic applied to the sexual “marketplace” results, for some, in what Michel Houellebecq calls “absolute pauperization.” It’s almost as if the neoliberal privatization of care, the political consensus that people are mostly responsible for themselves and it’s not the role of the community to look after all its members, means that people who don’t find mates — whose bodies make it difficult to find mates — are pretty royally fucked.
But speaking of fucking, you want to fuck who you want to fuck, right? You do. It’s hard if not impossible to “reeducate” desire. But the identification of sex with care — the reality that, as Luna points out in their piece, a lot of people direct a disproportionate amount of their emotional energy towards the person they’re fucking — is a problem. Of course you should show as much care as possible to whomever you’re fucking. But a radically loving politics needs to go further.
Maybe it means building more friendships that are as committed and emotional-energy-intensive as good sexual relationships. Maybe it means fucking those you care about but who aren’t socially marked as beautiful, and also worshipping beauty (because beauty is amazing) and fucking those it abides in. Probably it doesn’t mean monogamy, which deals in a logic of status and possession and will-to-babymaking that causes many people, for both social and biological reasons, to prioritize beauty. (My partner and I aren’t monogamous and I still happen to think she’s beautiful, but I would love her and want to take care of her and be taken care of by her even if she weren’t.) Certainly it doesn’t mean pretending, because we want to protest oppressive forms of “objectification,” that we’re not bodies. That’s wrong. We don’t *have* bodies. We’re not spirits that borrow bodies. That’s Christianity. That’s Plato. That’s metaphor. We’re bodies.
I dunno. But it seems to me that the fundamental political question is an erotic one, that a politics that enables people to live fully human lives must both affirm beauty (because beauty is amazing) and refuse to make it a necessary basis for care.
On November 14th, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, and dozens of other celebrated Canadian authors published an open letter to the University of British Columbia. It was an act of protest against the university’s mistreatment of one of their CanLit luminary peers, Steven Galloway, the novelist and former UBC Creative Writing Program chair at the centre of a sex scandal. It’s now known that Galloway had an affair with a middle-aged student in his department, who later accused him of sexual assault; a number of his students also allege that he played favourites, created a sexualized environment, and engaged in horseplay that crossed lines of decorum at the least.
None of these details were available to the public last November, when The Globe and Mail and other major news outlets ran the story that Galloway had been suspended from his job in light of unspecified “serious allegations.” An internal investigation at UBC followed, conducted by a retired provincial Supreme Court judge. Her report found most of the complaints against Galloway, including the sexual assault one, couldn’t be substantiated. Still, whatever was in the report was enough for UBC, and Galloway was fired in June, without severance. There was extensive media coverage, with varying degrees of sympathy for the different parties. Galloway tried to kill himself.
In The Walrus magazine, Margaret Atwood likens the business to the Salem Witch Trials, total reputational annihilation on the basis of whisper campaigns and a guilty-because-accused standard of public judgment. She’s right. Many others on Twitter express concern for the complainants, de-centred in favour of Galloway in the heavyweights’ letter. They’re right. Dorothy Palmer, a union leader and activist, argues on Facebook that the open-letter CanLuminaries are bourgeois stars of the neoliberal gig economy and their weaponizing the media is a form of union-busting: the controversy should be settled through unions’ established protocols, better able to ensure fairness and privacy. In principle, she’s right.
Except the fairness and privacy ship sailed last November, when UBC failed both Galloway and his accusers by allowing his suspension to leak to Canada’s daily newspaper of record and thus to social media. What anybody embedded in the neoliberal gig economy knows is that your union grievance rights are worth shit once your personal brand is dead. Whether you’re a bestselling author or a desperate MFA grad watching your bank balance dwindle (or both), you are your name—or, to be precise, your name’s globally accessible Google search results.
Employment depends on them. Housing may depend on them. Future friendship and romance most certainly depend on them. Someone whose name has been wrecked online must wonder, each time they meet a new person: Do they know the shame my name now holds, and will they abandon me when they find out? To be sure, many victims of sexual assault feel a parallel version of this loneliness when they wonder, each time they meet someone new: Can they tell I’m traumatized, and will they abandon me when they find out? The open-letter-writers may have felt the former horror more acutely. Or they may have felt, as they imply, that Galloway has gotten a rawer deal than the complainants in light of the circumstances that are known. I can’t tell if the CanLuminaries’ demand for a public inquiry into the events is all that coherent; it’s not clear to me that such a thing would benefit the main stakeholders at this point, though unmuzzling Galloway might well benefit his mental health. What I wish is that these exceptional writers had used their collective force of imagination to probe more searchingly the moral, ethical, and legal questions before them.
Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon keep watch for their Godot, I wait for the Canadian theatre—so self-confidently progressive, so sure of its liberal bona fides—to produce something like a class critique, an adequate reckoning with its own economic premises and those of our society. It never comes.
In vain, mumbling and prancing like Beckett’s Lucky, I hold out for some brave fool to say: “Hey, institutional theatres that claim millions of dollars in public funding, you’re still of and for the rich, and courting the brown rich in addition to the white rich doesn’t make you paragons of social justice. How about enacting policies that make your work consistently affordable for patrons who earn near or below the Canadian median income? That, like many European repertory companies, offer wage security to artists and not only or mostly to administrators? That provide childcare so attendees needn’t be able to afford babysitters in addition to show tickets? Most importantly, how about staging work that challenges, and doesn’t just affirm, your audience’s liberal triumphalism?”
In the National Post, I reviewed Sex With Shakespeare, Jillian Keenan’s beautiful memoir of kinky coming-of-age and the Bard.