Rachel Zolf in conversation with Brian Teare, March 2015
Note: What follows is an edited transcript of PennSound Podcast #48, a March 18, 2015, conversation between Rachel Zolf and Brian Teare. Zolf and Teare discuss Zolf’s most recent book, Janey’s Arcadia, which Teare described in his introduction to Zolf’s reading at Temple University in November 2014 as a work that “situates us in a Canadian national history in which the ideology of nation building prescribes genocide for Indigenous people, and enlists all its settler-subjects in the campaigns of conversion, dislocation, assimilation, and disappearance.” Zolf created a film, a sound performance, and a number of polyvocal actions related to Janey’s Arcadia and has written recently about the “mad affects” generated by the reading/audience event.
Rachel Zolf’s five books of poetry include Janey’s Arcadia (shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award), Neighbour Procedure, and Human Resources. She has taught at the New School and the University of Calgary and is completing a PhD in philosophy at the European Graduate School. Teare, an assistant professor of English at Temple University, is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Companion Grasses, as well as a number of chapbooks. He also makes books by hand in Philadelphia for his micropress, Albion Books. This interview was recorded in the Wexler Studio at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on March 18, 2015, and was transcribed by Mariah Macias. — Julia Bloch
You can hear the audio of this conversation here.
Brian Teare: So one of the things that I was really moved by in thinking through your work is your kind of nostalgia for Audre Lorde and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and for a kind of second-wave feminist thinking that has also been very foundational for me. In many ways your most recent work is predicated on a little bit of a critique or a rejection of identity as formulated by earlier politics. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to how you’re thinking about ethics in relationship to identity, particularly in Janey’s Arcadia but maybe also in Neighbour Procedure.
Rachel Zolf: Hmm, that’s interesting. I mean, in Human Resources I have a poem that alludes to how Adrienne Rich — actually, for my first book, Her absence, this wanderer, I wanted to use a line from Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” I think it was “half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern in forests” or something. And she said no. I had written to Norton, and got this form letter back saying no, and it was so devastating for a young dyke poet who was so influenced by Rich at that time, whenever that was, in the ’90s. That was all that I had been exposed to. I was in the midst of my own identity crisis, coming out in the early ’90s. So, “Uses of the Erotic,” yeah. I recently mentioned it in a piece in relation to Laura Elrick’s Stalk video and performance — around how Lorde describes the act of looking away, and how looking away from someone is like, she said, using a person like Kleenex. Within that notion of looking and looking away, you can translate that into the basis of ethical relation and the “face” and the relation of self with other. So, I still, I mean, I have very contrary and contradictory views on what is ethics and how politics interrupts ethics, but that problem is sort of the base of all of my work.
And so, in fact, this long theoretical essay-cum-dissertation I’m working on right now is about the notion of the “third,” asking how does the ethical two of the self-other relation get interrupted by the three of the political? But these aren’t real figures like daddy, mommy, me, or the third way, or anything like that. It’s an impersonal third — or more. I think of it as multiplicity that interrupts ethics. So how politics interrupts ethics and destabilizes politics and destabilizes ethics. That’s just a basic thing I’ll say about that, because I want to answer your question — your specific question of that relationship of identity. I don’t have a dialectical approach to identity — I’m not anti-identity. If you think of a theorist who is interested in this, someone like José Muñoz, on disidentification — it’s not counter- or anti-. It’s taking what is, what is there, in terms of hegemonic discourse, and torquing it, twisting it, to your own means towards something else, to some other place. This is why I’m interested in the third. When Benveniste theorizes the third person pronoun of the “they” or the “on” in French, it’s a positionality that displaces the specularity of “I-you.” So, with “I-you,” when I’m speaking now, you’re about to speak, you’re going to become the “I.” There’s only “I-you” — we’re totally dependent on each other. Whereas the impersonal, neutered — these are the terms used for the third-person pronoun — is outside of that specularity. And this is something I’ve been thinking about for years that I try to enact in the work.
Teare: I like that your work never really actively disavows a whole lot, other than violence, which it deeply disavows, but also recognizes the way in which often our very notions of subjectivity are complicit with systems that create violence and perpetrate violence against others. One of the things that’s really complicated about your work is that it tries to hold things in “and” relation as opposed to “either-or” relations. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit how in Janey’s Arcadia, often we have this dyadic relationship between reader and author. We imagine reader and author, and reader and text, and that text is a like a transparent gateway to the author’s point of view and their opinions or their interiority or what have you. And there’s a lot in Janey’s Arcadia that we could say allows us access to what you think about settler politics in Canada. But there’s also a lot that deeply disrupts any direct communication of opinion or historical narrative or semantic meaning. I’m wondering if you could talk about how that relates to this project of trying to create a third.
Zolf: Yeah, I’m interested in positionalities beyond the straight-up two of the writer-reader relation creating an epiphanic moment, so that consciousness-raising through poetry — I mean, even though I’m also deeply implicated in and want that to happen anyway — it’s both/and, as you mentioned. So, I guess I’ll slide into one of the reasons why Janey’s Arcadia came up as a project beyond the page. As I started the process of writing, I was transcribing some of these early settler texts as-is. But I knew I would never leave them as-is, because I’m just not interested in purity, like in conceptual purity — I find it has fascist overtones to it, but that could be a whole other conversation. If it seems transparent on the surface, then what is it hiding below the surface? I think I did that more in Human Resources, just leaving text as is, but by that kind of complex layering I did to introduce noise in the text in Janey’s Arcadia, it — actually, as Sarah Dowling mentioned when we spoke in another context — it creates a rebuff to the reader, in that the reader is not drawn into the text in that kind of “lyric mode.” I mean, you know, “lyric” is always misapplied —
Teare: Not to interrupt, but at a Q&A I saw you give at a reading at Temple, you also pointed out that it doesn’t correct the reader’s politics. Like, it’s not immediately apparent what the OCR [Optical Character Recognition] kind of misrecognition within the text is “for.” It doesn’t have a didactic corrective purpose in the way that other kinds of avant-garde moves really try to mobilize the reader and sort of push them in a particular direction. And it’s not like aspects of Janey’s Arcadia don’t do that, but at the same time, a lot of it is noise — it really is noise — that you’re left with. I think one is, the reader is, left to kind of sit with it, either as a rebuff or as an invitation to thinking with the text, but not thinking through, again, in semantic meaning. You have to go beyond.
Zolf: Of course there are many layers of meaning within sound and noise itself, as sound poetry has taught us so well, or visual poetry. When those strings of code show up on the page, it’s up to you, whoever you is, whether you scan over them or whether you actually parse them out. When I read from the book — I didn’t start out this way, but then I later added trying to physically read the errors, like, “semicolon, slash,” and then using hand gestures to try to enact this slowing down of trying to get through that noise, rather than the glossing over that people do. But I have no control over what the reader does when they read it. And I think it was the aleatory way in which this noise cropped up when I was working — it was just a simple thing of, I want to work with the text, I want to recopy it, so I go and I look at the full-text versions of these old books, which had gone through OCR. And that’s where I found the errors. So that’s what I transcribed, that’s what I copied and pasted in this digital way that we do.
But those moments of noise are I think partly what inspired me to go beyond the page to create this sound performance. I’m not a sound poet, I never aspired to be a sound poet. I had this one event where Jaap Blonk was also performing, and I’m like, oh god, here I am with the most world-famous sound poet and I have do my schtick. It felt totally kind of abject putting myself out there. I don’t know why, other than that, to go back around to your question, at base for me this project is about disavowal in the other sense: disavowed knowledges or foreclosed knowledges. At base in my work there’s an exploration of denial and how denial operates within culture and specific cultures. It’s not didactic, even though I have been very influenced by things like Russian formalism and montage and shock effects, that kind of consciousness-raising aspect of that, and, perhaps, maybe second-wave feminism, although I would never have said that! But I like it.
But I’ve shifted away from that in my thinking about it. The sound performance is a collaborative piece with a number of other people, and the point, for me, is trying to mobilize affect in different ways. So, what kind of affects can be mobilized in the private reading act with just you and the book. What kind of affects can be mobilized in the Janey’s Arcadia film I made or the sound performance. These are different translations of the same material that I’m doing. With the film, using stolen archival footage, it’s happening through the eye, and often in a dark cinema with the lights down, and of course we know all those psychoanalytic readings of what happens in the cinema. What happens in that dream state when I put together these very jarring images, what happens for you as a spectator, or what happens for you as a spectator in the sound performance, or what happens for you as a spectator in the polyvocal actions that we did, where as a community project a group of settler and Indigenous folks used poems from this text and some Indigenous poets’ work and did actions in very charged public spaces like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights or Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. So, for me, it’s not a didactic element. But there’s a very strong drive in why I’m doing this work, and in fact it comes out of Neighbour Procedure. I move from “not in my name,” which is Neighbour Procedure's grappling with Israel's actions, to “look into your own backyard” in Janey's Arcadia. It has bothered me the way some people have interpreted Neighbour Procedure as a kind of liberal, two-sides thing, but for me it’s not like that at all. I’m talking about grievable bodies. I’m talking about what Jews everywhere are responsible for.
Teare: In a recent essay, “Recognizing Mad Affects Beyond Page and Screen,” you refer to Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. And one of the things that she does in that book, which I think is relevant to your work, is somewhat of a critique of, let’s say, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, because it so relies on a particular notion of what the “I” is. And that for her it’s not sufficient, actually, it’s part of the problem that the “I” is conceptualized in a particular way in his work, and that she turns towards Levinas and his way of turning toward, which again you reference in this recent essay. I’ve been teaching Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, and one of the things that happens in that book is that Howe kind of recapitulates some narratives of settler colonialism — this is in the United States, and not in Canada. But one of the things that happens in narratives of settler colonialism in the United States is the way the white woman’s body gets so aligned with the land itself that what gets disappeared under the idea of the land is the presence of Indigenous peoples. So there’s this interesting way in which white women, in their kind of subjection to colonial patriarchal culture, get talked about in terms of the land itself and the colonialism of the land, but then that hides the narrative of the disappearance and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. And one of the things that you’re critiquing in Janey’s Arcadia quite vigorously is the relationship between white settler women and Indigenous bodies, and the ways in which white settler women are complicit with the system and that their bodies in a certain way replace, or write over, the bodies of Indigenous peoples. You point this out in so many incredibly powerful ways in the book: by the list of names, by, sort of reproducing but also messing with the figure of Janey Canuck and the way that she relates to Kathy Acker’s Janey — but this also seems to me to expand or critique that “I” that can be so central in sort of erasing over a “thou” or still only creating a dyadic relationship that doesn’t include that third that you’re talking about. Does that make sense as a network of things?
Zolf: Yeah, one example in Neighbour Procedure is that in the “Shoot and Weep” section, I write poems in which the tortured and the torturer are speaking together in the “I,” you don’t know who the “I” is, and they sort of meld together … which I consciously knew was problematic. But I wanted to work with it — not that they are the same, but there isn’t a clear demarcation of identity, of how identity works. And similarly in the listing of names in Neighbour Procedure, I’m conscious of — I mean, this is where we get into (I might be sliding a little bit away from your question) but it’s central to me about what is the point of all this? And what is the risk of all this? And what would be another way of doing it? How do I do this work without upsetting people? Obviously, if you were one of the families of one of the Palestinian people that I named in that list, you might be angry with me for taking, appropriating — so this is like the issues around appropriation that we are seeing blowing up right now, in terms of Kenny Goldsmith’s acts and stuff like that. So, I mean, I think about this, every day, as a kind of ethical — the ethicality around what I do.
Teare: But I think you frame it in Neighbour Procedure pretty clearly around the notion of grievable bodies and then also what would it mean for particularly a Westerner to be able to pronounce those names.
Teare: And that Neighbour Procedure really forces us to go through that list in an attempt to sound out a language we don’t know — or most of us in the West don’t know— and to also be confronted by the bodies behind those names, and what those names hide and don’t hide, what they give away, you know, given how you contextualize them. What I really found fascinating in the somewhat rhyme between these two books, is they both contain these lists of names, but the list of names in Janey’s Arcadia is very different — like, it serves a very different kind of purpose. And to me, this speaks to some of what you’re talking about —
Zolf: What do you think the purpose is that it serves in Janey’s Arcadia?
Teare: Well, there’s a lot more irony for me in those names, and also what they may or may not be hiding.
Zolf: What kind of irony?
Teare: In terms of the political work they seem to be doing. Because I think for me Janey’s Arcadia is a more savagely ironic book than Neighbour Procedure, which for me is a much more tragic, straightforwardly tragic book, in terms of — it’s not as though it doesn’t unsettle the politics and the accustomed discourses we use to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s so working from the position of trying to think through an ethics that’s ethical. It’s not that Janey’s Arcadia doesn’t do that, but Janey’s Arcadia seems way more — I think it has more fun, you know, with the text, like bringing in Acker and that kind of punk spirit. That doesn’t seem to me to be as active in Neighbour Procedure, which seems appropriate to me, actually, given the closeness of the material in the various books. And so, the appropriation of the settler narratives and the obvious kind of liberties that you take with them in the way that you tweak them — sometimes they’re funny, you know, and you have a lot of fun. At the same time, you’re clearly reviling, you know, the politics behind a lot of the found text. So I feel like there are almost sometimes satirical moves.
Zolf: Yeah, there’s definitely satire within the sequence of Janey poems. But for me, more important parts of the text include naming the missing and murdered Indigenous women from that specific place that I’m writing about, which is where my family settled. It’s a deliberate, obvious specificity. The names of those women are — they’re a kind of counter to the violence of the text that come before them and after them. I had been considering listing the names along every page of the book, so that you would never forget them, but then there are issues of ethicality about even using those names that I considered greatly and have tried to work through, particularly in the polyvocal performances that we do that are community-based. It’s very difficult to talk about this stuff, because I think of this book as being aimed at an audience of settlers. I’m also not interested in writing a book about, going back to your first question, about my personal guilt and how I feel so responsible for being a settler and the ongoing genocide. It’s not like it just happened back then. It’s ongoing, and I believe that we’re all still responsible for what’s happening now, and we’ll always already be responsible for it. There are very few people in Canada that even think that way at all, and I wanted to write a book that was directed at non-Indigenous people. That such a level of disavowal and denial of responsibility allows the ongoing genocide to continue in horrific ways. The incarceration rates for Indigenous peoples in Canada is comparable to the incarceration rates for African American people here. This same stuff keeps going on and on and on. But no matter what I do as a writer, as an artist, whatever, these are always such complex, charged spaces to go into, but I felt like I could not not name grievable bodies in Neighbour Procedure if what I’m talking about is what constitutes a person. The whole notion of a neighbor is, in Freud’s notion that you could hate your neighbor across the fence, but the only way you can do that is if you see them as a person, not three-fifths of a person, as African Americans were and still are seen in the United States, and Palestinians are seen in Israel. You’re not actually a person, so you can’t be a neighbor. And some people have said that I’m trying to talk about the Christian neighbor — “love your neighbor” — no, that’s not what it is. It’s about the neighbor as a third term, beyond friend and enemy, that dyad, trying to explode these dyads. So, also in Janey’s Arcadia, it’s how to figure out how get at this deep denial. So I do have an agenda. But I realized from the reaction to Neighbour Procedure, that I had to do it differently.
I went to Palestine for first time ever during the war on Gaza in 2009, and it was there that I realized it’s fine and good for me to critique what’s happening “over there” in my name, but what about what’s happening on my “own” soil. From “not in my name to look into your own backyard” is this notion that I’ve got to look at what I’m actually responsible for here. And “here” I would say is across the United States and Canada, in terms of how colonial, genocidal, capitalist notions are at the base, the foreground, of the building of both countries, and the foreground of slavery as well. Often in discussions of race in the United States, the Indigenous genocide is completely covered over. But I believe it needs to be brought back up to the surface as one of the ways to start thinking through what is actually happening here and how we got here.
Teare: Well, one of the ways you do that is returning to these texts, these precedent texts, in which they are technically “witnesses,” which is a word you’re very suspicious of. But they are witnesses to this genocide, but their reading of it is so, you could say, insane, or you could say so self-interested, and so full of a nationalist project, that, as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, it is about a certain kind of racial purity as well, that they can’t tolerate indigeneity, let alone see Indigenous peoples as neighbors or —
Zolf: — people, yeah —
Teare: — people. And so I feel like it’s one of the powerful things that you do with those precedent texts is bring them back and remind us these in some ways are the foundations for this kind of disavowal.
Zolf: Right, “no Indians around here,” like in the Janey’s Arcadia poem, “What Women Say of the Canadian Northwest.”
Teare: And to me that was, actually again, one of those really powerful moments of talking about complicity. Because you’re also — it’s not as though you don’t indict men. Like, there’s the pastor figure that you bring in. You write his narrative and his relationship to Indigenous peoples, and portray him as a figure of molestation and sexual violence — but settler women are particularly implicated in this text and are sort of the focal point, I think, as a feminist project … It’s a very interesting one, because you’re really talking about settler genders. That “settler” actually has a kind of gendered position for you in terms of women; they make particular kind of moves rhetorically and socially, and you’re really interested in showing us what these moves do, and what effects they’ve had on very literal bodies that are the grievable bodies that you list.
Zolf: And also changing these valorized feminist archetypes. The Janey Canuck figure is written by Emily Murphy, who is one of the “Famous Five” first-wave Canadian feminists. They’re responsible for a case in Canada where certain white, middle-class women were actually deemed persons — they hadn’t been called persons before — so it was called the Persons Case, and it led to them getting the vote in 1919 or whenever it was. So, these women that are held up as these feminist icons, but in fact they have strong eugenicist ideals, as well as utterly racist white supremacist ideologies — which some would say are of the time, blah blah blah, that’s always the corrective that people say, but it’s also something that most people don’t know. Regular people like, say, students in school. What is taught in the curriculum? When you are taught about the Famous Five in your grade-school class or high-school class, you are not taught about these attitudes of these women. There’s another figure in the book who is the founder of the left-wing party (so we actually have three parties in Canada, and the third party is seemingly social democratic), and the founders of that party were eugenicists too, and white supremacists. And the point, it’s a very obvious point, is that these attitudes are foundational to our country —
Teare: But also you’re saying “foundational” — I mean, that moment of the Famous Five, it’s foundational to what the definition of what a white woman in Canada is legally.
Zolf: Yeah, definitely.
Teare: And we can know that, you know, theoretically, but also to have that an actual legal, historical narrative moment, you know, in terms of creating women’s rights that are predicated on a eugenicist’s white-supremacist notion on what a person is, especially what a woman as person is. I feel like one of the major arguments behind Janey’s Arcadia is trying to show us that the bodies of white settler women in some ways were — wrote over the narratives of Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples in general.
Zolf: Yeah, and in some ways, quite literally. I sort of allude to this in the book, that there were these captivity narratives, white women being seemingly stolen —
Teare: And the US has the same tradition.
Zolf: Right, and they’re often full of lies about being raped — and this narrativizing of the colonial story. In fact, actually, “What Women say in the Canadian Northwest” almost has that narrativizing function. Like, the question the women are asked is “do you have any dread of the Indian?,” and most of them respond “No, no dread at all,” but there’s something about the fear, this culture of fear. Even the question itself is about the culture of fear.
Something that comes to mind is the stuff that’s circulating the past couple days, I’m thinking, I’m sure somebody’s going to write about Kenny Goldsmith’s act in relation to, say, Rob Halpern’s book that’s coming out, Common Place, where he takes autopsy reports of Guantanamo detainees, or I don’t know if it’s one particular detainee. And there’s all sorts of stuff about “unremarkable genitalia,” and the speaker’s relation, in terms of having sexual relations with this occulted body, which is a continuation from his book Music for Porn, where the speaker fucks the soldier’s amputated wound. For me, when I read this work, I get excited by and interested in it as such profound self-implication into the military-industrial complex. Literalizing it, almost.
Teare: This is a question I think about in terms of your work but also in terms of queer work. One thing that you and Sarah Dowling talk about in your conversation is this notion of not necessarily inhabiting queer subjectivity, but inhabiting a kind of queer rhetorical position, or I think you say queer rhetoricity. And one of the problems for me as a thinker is often how queer rhetoricity in some ways, sometimes, disavows a material body. That’s one of the things that I like about Rob’s work, is that it does not disavow the material presence of a body with queer desires. And I feel like Human Resources also doesn’t do that, you know, and that one of the interesting things about Neighbour Procedure and Janey’s Arcadia is, like, this “speaker” kind of gets relegated to paratext in this sort of longer expository prose towards the end of the book. I don’t think this a problem. But it seems like you’re rethinking the presence of material bodies in your new work, in terms of the presence of what you call the stickiness of affect. And I think it’s an issue, because how do we not take certain kinds of theoretical points of view and certain ideas about ethics that tend to erase or privilege mind over body, and sort of rhetoricity over materiality, even as rhetoricity claims —
Zolf: For me, it’s actually not mind over the material body. It’s rhetoricity over identity. I believe the body is very present in the text, but it might be haunting the text. In fact, one of the key reasons why I used Acker — I mean, I did this associative spill through Janey Canuck to Janey Smith, but there are all sorts of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that these white settler women in these texts never have a body. They never shit or piss or fuck. And I try to re-embody these figures. But, you know, it’s only one part of the text. In fact, the text itself is multiple. And I, in fact, wanted to disengage the process from just being about Janey. I believe that those other figures, the Christian missionaries, for example — they’re coming at the same material from a different stance.
Zolf: It’s all about what you can see and what you can’t see. And that’s why I was even bringing up the Rob and Kenny stuff. I’m trying to answer your question about the document. So, for me, when I take the foundational document of this book, “What Women Say About the Canadian Northwest,” I don’t take it as is. I interrupt it by inserting the names of the missing and murdered Indigenous women from Manitoba, and I make sure I don’t include any of their voices — I don’t want to appropriate Indigenous voices. All the voices I appropriate are settler voices. So I appropriate the police discourse or the news discourse on the women’s disappearance, but then I don’t want to leave that alienating discourse as is, so I torque it. So it’s this document that has been upended, that has been marked, by my deliberate interventions. And I would say this is something that Rob is doing in his new book. And I do find it interesting that Kenny is saying that he actually did change some of the autopsy text, because normally according to conceptual “purity,” you’re not supposed to touch anything, and for me that sense of purity relates to eugenics practices. And these notions of clarity that go back to Human Resources, of what is pure, and how does that relate to certain ideologies that were predominant in modernist, early twentieth-century, blah blah futurism and its relation to fascist ideology. I mean — I’m not saying these guys are all fascists...
Teare: No, but I think your point, for me as a reader, is well taken, and also as a thinker, I definitely identify more with your position and the questions that you ask about what are the sort of political ramifications of the conceptual object, and what does that have to do with race, for instance, and certain kinds of privilege. One of the things that happens for me over these three books, from Human Resources to Janey’s Arcadia, and it sounds like, also, kind of implied beyond into the work you’re doing now, is — Human Resources does hew slightly more close to a speaker. There is the location of an “I” within the text. Again, it’s very dispersed. And the affects that I’m asked to feel in relationship to that text, sort of disgust, there’s a lot of abjection and sort of physical abjection in the book in ways I really enjoy. Because they’re clearly the aftereffects of trying to fit into this capitalist system of marketing and PR and etcetera. Interestingly, I also feel asked to feel quite a lot, in both Neighbour Procedure and Janey’s Arcadia, but as I think I was trying to get to before, maybe with not a lot of clarity because it’s something I’m still thinking about, is these don’t ask me to identify with any one physical body in the way that Human Resources does by locating me a little bit in a particular body — though they do create affect in me, quite a lot of affect, around relationality, around other bodies, grievable bodies. And that seems to be a very deliberate choice on your part, to move from locating it slightly more identified with one body to thinking way more about relationality and ethics in relationship to other bodies. I’m interested in that as a queer project, and the way you’re thinking about it differently over time. Does that make sense?
Zolf: Yeah, in fact, when I went to Pratt a few months ago, I actually walked the students through my process. Because, you forget as you’ve been writing for a while, how it starts. So I have two books before Human Resources, and they are both very much about my identity, and about traumatic experiences in my life, and transhistorical trauma, and I had to write those books. I needed to write those books. And if you read them, you see the precursors to what’s happening here. My second book, Masque, kind of explodes into several voices, but the first book has a very straight-up “I” voice. And, so, I see Human Resources as a kind of hinge text that is still drawing on that stuff I was still working through in terms of my identity, because it’s very much about being a lesbian and what does it mean to be Jewish, and I’m only half-Jewish, so what does it mean to be half-Jewish. And, whatever, the broader stuff you’ve already mentioned. Yeah, it’s almost like what we talked about in the beginning, the shift from the “I”— it’s about relationality, but my ideas about relationality were Levinasian, I’d say, in Human Resources. So, you mentioned Butler, choosing Levinas over Buber, but in fact a lot of my thinking has been about critiquing Levinas, too, particularly given there’s a very famous example of where he’s asked, “is not the Palestinian the consummate ‘other’ to the Israeli,” in terms of his notion of the “other,” this “other” who is the face that I’m hostage to, the call of the face, that I can’t not be responsible for. The whole, the foundation of his ethics. And he said, “No, no, no, that’s not what I meant at all.” And he disavows it in that moment. That moment could have changed not only continental philosophy, but it could have changed experience, because these theorists have impact. Anyway, so that’s been foundational for me. I explore it a bit in Neighbour Procedure. So, relationality is a very charged thing for me that is, yes, definitely in the past three books, has been/is foundational. And it’s the question how to work with this two and this three. I mean, Lacan says, in a different context, “it is only because we can count to three that we can count to two,” which is a kind of logical conundrum that doesn’t make sense, right. But that’s kind of what you have to think; you have to hold the three with the two. I can’t just be talking to you without thinking about them in the recording booth over there. I can’t not be thinking about everyone outside right now, and that’s political. And that’s why I’m even drawing on other writers. It’s just not about me and you. So that’s why the books, they explode that notion, as it moves along, to the point where in Janey’s Arcadia I create a polyvocal — I’m more interested in the event, an event that is about polyvocality, that’s about participation as an audience member. That challenges you to go beyond just identification. I don’t believe in identification being the only way into a text or into a performance. I do believe that affect is a kind of excess, this remainder that, this very slippery thing that can stick to you whether you like it or not, can push you into ecstasy, to be pushed outside yourself — ec-stasy.
Teare: Well, and I think also, to link back to Muñoz, affect, and the stickiness of affect, it can be good, it can invite identification, but you’re asking for all of it. You’re having moments where we are asked to identify with atrocity and with our implication and complicity — implication in and complicity with atrocity, as well as we’re asked to laugh, you know. We’re asked to do all sorts of —
Zolf: But laughter’s an affect, right?
Teare: Yeah, and I think that’s part of it — the text in Janey’s Arcadia in particular is very canny about how it employs a lot of different affects, some of which are very identificatory, making us go toward the text. When we think about the implications, we may recoil. In sort of disgust, I was sort of laughing, but that’s not very funny actually. And others that are just straight-up, I don’t want to be complicit with that, like, I want to reject that, and yet it sticks to us. And I feel like that is all at work, both in your performances of Janey’s Arcadia, which I have seen, but also in reading it.
I wonder, though, if you could talk a little bit about how your interest in the performances in the other directions that the text suggests are not bound by a book, how that’s affecting the work you’re working on now. Like, given that you’re … it sounds like somewhat dissatisfied on some level with text, and what text can do, and you’re wanting to push farther outward toward collaborative performance, toward performance, toward sound, toward image, toward very different experiences in terms of viewer, readership, audience member, etc. What does that do for you as a writer? Does it pose new challenges about how you put together a text or how you’re thinking about this new work?
Zolf: Yeah, I have to say that I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going next. I did a bunch of readings and performances for Janey’s Arcadia. I haven’t even started on the new work other than thinking about it. Although interestingly enough, last weekend I went back to some of the same material, I went back to one of the Janey Canuck source texts. And I wrote a couple poems that were — I guess I consider them like translations. So, I consider all these other forms as translations of the same text, of trying — like maybe this will generate affects that will move in some way, that will push knowledge in some way, or disavowed knowledge, I mean. But I don’t know if I’m having any effect by making the movie or doing the sound performance. Like I know in the moment people are very affected by the sound performance where it’s like I have no skin. I go into this place — I’m just using sounds and little phrases from the book, and I’m trying to just draw out feeling. This performance was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, I have to say, artistically. And I know that it has a tremendous effect in the room, and I know that when people watch the movie they like it — but I don’t know what it does. I don’t know if it changes anything. And I don’t — actually, I’m not invested in intentionality. I’m fine with letting it be as an event, that you do what you will as an audience member. It’s just hard to just keep going on that. I’ve put so much effort into all these different modalities.
So anyway, last week I went back to the same material, I don’t know why, and I wrote these very minimalist little pieces that end up saying a lot of what I want to say. And the new work is kind of a sequel. So it might just be that. I might not write — not make another movie. I might not do another sound performance. I don’t know. I’ve been tired lately, so I haven’t done anything.
Teare: No, but I also, I mean, I think one of the things I admire about the trajectory of your work is that on the one hand it has a logic to it. You’re a very rigorous thinker; that’s so clear in your work. And I do, actually, I do feel there is quite a lot of intentionality, even if you’re not that interested in it, I still feel it, you know. I feel the thinking you’re doing, and I’m called by your work to think alongside it.
Teare: At the same time, I also really like that there is room for randomness and strangeness and weirdness and affects that seem, in your preferred word, excessive or in excess of intentionality and that kind of thinking. There’s this other work I’m also called to do alongside the more rational, argumentative, kind of rhetorical and political work. Not that affect isn’t also political, but it’s a different side of politics than some of the more rhetorical moves that you make. So I’m in constant admiration of how you push that in each book, and you push it further, and make it so integral to the intentional aspects of the book, and yet also leave a lot of room open for response, and for a variety of responses that are often beyond what I would call, like, sort of, like, mobilization. You know, like, I have feelings I don’t quite know what to do with, and I don’t quite know what work they’re doing in me.
Zolf: It’s unsettling.
Teare: Yeah, and I totally admire that.
Zolf: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting when you say — I love the notion when you’re saying “alongside,” because it is that sense of contiguity. Like lines of flight. That these directions you can go in — I believe that there is so much productive work that can be done through laughter, and I certainly wasn’t the first one to think that. Freud analyzed laughter and the relationship to the unconscious a long time ago. So I would never say I’m an original. But, that’s one example. It’s disarming, it’s unsettling. Like, how to try to always enact experiences, whether you’re reading or whether you’re watching the movie, that surprise you. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in a kind of complacency.
Teare: I think I also, to maybe take us toward an ending —one of the guiding principles I have as a thinker and a critic and also as a poet is this notion that the queer theorist David Halperin has about how history is not linear, you know, and the idea that there are many historical modalities that exist all sort of folded up in the present. And that we exist in multiple planes of historical thought and historical trajectory all at once, because, for instance, as you’re pointing out, settler colonialism is very active as an ideology both legally and culturally in Canada, right? But it’s not one that seems active on the surface to your everyday person, especially, perhaps, an urban person. And that to bring that to the surface, and to say, “Actually, we still exist in this mentality, in this settler mentality, and by virtue of these settler texts, and these actually are part of our subjecthood in this culture,” is a very powerful thing to do. Because again, one of the things that your book, in Janey’s Arcadia, you’re really arguing, is we also disavow certain historical narratives, like eugenics, for instance. “Oh, we’re totally beyond that, you know, we don’t think that way anymore.” Except you’re saying the very notion of what it means to be a white woman in Canada is actually predicated on eugenics, legally, so how do we think through the present without going back to these historical narratives and historical legal moments that actually have created the culture and the way that the culture thinks about certain subjects, perhaps all of its subjects?
Zolf: I’ve talked about my work in relation to Walter Benjamin’s notion of “now-time,” as these moments of suffering from the past that erupt and flash up in the now, that reorient the present. And it’s not even just that, it’s more like what you’re describing, it’s always already there. It’s how to energize, how to activate this stuff that’s disavowed under the surface, and — particularly in Canada right now, this is a moment where the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women is on the radar. I mean, I wrote the book before it came on the radar, whatever, but this is a moment now where something could happen because those unsettling affects that you feel in relation to these texts or to reading the newspaper article or whatever could perhaps change your relation to how you talk about this stuff or if you talk about this stuff or if you tell your children or if you are a teacher and how you teach a curriculum. I do believe in these kind of small acts as being how change happens. It’s kind of naïve, but there really isn’t an answer that isn’t naïve.
Teare: Yeah, but I think it’s also one of the things that I admire about how you go about your work, is that you’re willing to let the naïve hope live alongside the way more complex and sort of elaborated thinking that you do in the text, and that the people that you quote and are part of the dialogue and part of, not just the dialogue, but of that expanded field of thought that you’re interested in. Like, there’s a lot that’s possible in that space, and you don’t, again, foreclose on desires that might seem much more simple, like the desire not to do violence.
Teare: It’s still there, alongside all the very grand very complicated detail work of the thinking of critics and philosophers like Levinas or Deleuze or Butler or whoever. Which, I feel like — I like that we never have to foreclose on all of these different ranges of experience.
Zolf: And there’s this relationship to what’s to come, to futurity that is complex too. I am influenced by messianic notions, non-religious messianic notions, having to be activated in the now, because you never know what’s going to happen. You never know. It’s not utopian – it’s this idea of always already being activated and being ready, for justice to come, for the community to come, for something other, something different than what we have now.
Teare: That’s a beautiful place to end.
Zolf: Thanks, Brian.
Teare: So thank you, Rachel, for joining me here at the Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writer’s House.