(Un)Disciplining the ethnographer's body
The poetics of opacity in Renee Gladman's Ravicka series
Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series almost didn’t get published. Dalkey Archive Press planned to publish the first two installations, Event Factory and The Ravickians, but then didn’t. Danielle Dutton, a consultant for Dalkey, couldn’t understand why not. She decided to take matters into her own hands; she founded Dorothy, a publishing project — a press dedicated to publishing what it describes as “near fiction” texts by women — to see the project through. Both Gladman’s texts and Dorothy have gained momentum and esteem over the past decade, though there is a marked gap of sustained critical attention on the project’s seminal texts. Moreover, in the dozen or so book reviews and author interviews the Ravicka series has garnered, it has, amid praise, been described as “social” — a term with a divisive, fraught connotation that has been systematically wielded against poets of color within the greater world of literary criticism.
In Helen Vendler’s infamous 2011 NYRB review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, she makes several egregious claims concerning the merit and value of the poetry by people of color that editor Rita Dove includes. Vendler characterizes an unspecified portion of the anthologized work of Black poets as “angry outbursts,” reinscribing Blackness with a racially specific propensity for violence. She continues, stating: “It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?” For Vendler, the lesser-known poets of color Dove includes in the anthology are, essentially, on probation. After the “objective” process of time passing — and not, say, the subjective choices made by scholars and critics to write about and canonize particular poets and poems — they prove to be either “wheat” or “chaff.” The latter “seep[s] back into the archives of sociology,” an ambiguous, cryptic place whose contours come into focus in contradistinction to how Vendler defines poems that are “wheat.” Namely, the “wheat” is constituted of poems by Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and a slew of other named White poets whom she collectively describes as the “glories of modern literature.” According to this logic and the subsequent bifurcation of poets into these oppositional groupings, time reveals whether a poem belongs to the literary or the sociological. “Sociology” becomes coded; its fate is reserved for unliterary poems by people of color — specifically Black poets whose emotional registers cannot be contained within poetic form — that the passage of time will reveal are devoid of merit.
The racialization — and weaponization — of “sociology,” “social,” and “social science” as descriptors for poetry by people of color is particularly crude; at its foundation it suggests that their/our poems are merely collections of empirical observations, that they are self-referential expressions of social particularity largely devoid of stylistic elements such as rhythm, metaphor, etc. Stripped of poetic markers the poems cease to be poems; they become a sort of personal testimony, autoethnographies, that elicit from critics further reductive descriptors such as “cultural” and “identitarian.” The presumed cultural-artifact-ness of these poems and their presumed facticity is treated as didactic, an opportunity for the reader to learn about race and racism through walking the length of a poem in a poet’s Black or Brown skin. Notwithstanding several notable exceptions such as Dorothy Wang, Aldon Nielsen, and Nathaniel Mackey, who continue to swim against these tides to perform important, critical, nonreductive readings of poems by people of color, these biases have become intimately, and overwhelmingly, ingrained in poetic discourse.
It goes without saying, in the wake of such economic injustice and prolific violence against our communities of color, in the midst of a national uprising against police brutality alongside the continued glorification of Confederate legacies and a global pandemic that impacts Black and Brown communities in alarming disproportionality, that it is vital that we continue to interrogate and expose racist-ideologies-cum-coded-language so that microaggressive, though no less ghastly, acts of racism cease to be normalized as mundane happenings in the world of literary criticism. So when an otherwise well-meaning interviewer for BOMB Magazine says of the inaugural text of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, “I almost want to call Event Factory a social science fiction book,” we know that more than a pun of generic classification is at stake. We’re talking about the ability of a Black lesbian poet to write a text that transcends social particularity, that is stylistic, nonempirical, and inherently more than an immediate reflection of and intervention into her lived “social” experience as a marginalized subject in the United States.
As a genre, science fiction is not without its own deep entanglement with racism. It has been widely argued that science fiction is rooted in and subsequently allusive of Eurocentric, colonialist ideas and values (see, for example, the brilliant anthology of essays Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction edited by Isiah Lavender). Ineluctably, John Rieder argues, “the racism endemic to colonialist discourses is woven into the texture of science fiction” as a result of the coevality of the genre with histories and discourses of colonialism, in particular fifteenth- and sixteenth-century accounts of European contact with and violent settlement of the non-European world, and the scientific discourse that emerged to legitimate their cultural hegemony. As science fiction continued to develop into the nineteenth century, “evolutionary theory and anthropology, both profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology and history, [became] especially important” in determining the thematic material of the genre. It is telling that Kingsley Amis once remarked that “science fiction is written by Americans and Britons, not by foreigners and women.” What his comment indexes is the pervasiveness of the colonialist, masculinist legacy of conquest — of which he is a participant — that continues to influence science fiction into today, even as the borders of the genre have expanded with recent scholarship to include a wider range of works, such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, into its purview.
“Social science fiction” is, in this respect, redundant, as science fiction is congenital to the social sciences, and is always already deeply invested in the documentation of cultural otherness. What “social” indexes, following the lines of Vendler’s thinking, is not so much what is happening within the world of a particular text, but rather the poet of color’s relationship to what is happening. How their social particularity and the thematic material interanimate one another to the degree that the latter becomes an easily identifiable extension, or a reflection, of the former. This very notion, that a text written by a poet of color is, in Wang’s words, “read as mimetic, autobiographical, ‘representative,’ and ethnographic,” distends from the same colonialist discourse that underpins science fiction, that is predicated on the ill-founded assumption that people of color can be “apprehended in terms of the bodily, the material.” Within literary discourse, texts by people of color are often reduced to firsthand accounts of empiric data through which they become knowable, but within science fiction, information of the other is oftentimes secondhand, filtered through a narrator-ethnographer. Gladman’s Ravicka series, in particular Event Factory, dwells in the ensuant distance between the ethnographer and their subject of study, using the gap to stage an intervention into the very idea that the other can be knowable, or comprehendible, through the material.
Thematically, the Ravicka series locates itself firmly within the genre of science fiction in key ways. Science fiction, and in particular the subgenre anthropological science fiction, mirrors the trajectory of first-contact narratives in which European colonizing forces “discover” Indigenous populations of the so-called “third world,” exemplified in well-known accounts such as The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca and Jean de Léry’s History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil. Science fiction distills this formula through the fantastical; narrative arcs are precipitated by contact between two distinct cultures, species, planets, times, etc. The narrator, who often is human or humanlike and relatable to the reader, comes into contact with a nonhuman or unrelatable other. The narrator then seeks to comprehend the other and their cultural nuances through ethnographic inquiry in which empiric details of the other are collected, scrutinized, and mined for significance. This process is predicated upon the “disciplining of the ethnographer’s body,” whereby the ethnographer must distinguish between what sensory input does and does not constitute as “data” and what “data” falls within the scope of their defined area of research. The narrator-ethnographer and their discernments and biases consequently become just as integral to the text as the data collected on their subject.
This pattern is evident even in radical feminist engagements with the genre. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which centers the acceptance of nonbinary gender as the key to alliance building amongst disparate planetary communities and formally integrates various modes of writing such as epistolary, field notes, and regional folklore into a single text, as well as N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, which problematizes class antagonism based on biological difference and treats form as a means of prolonging, or teasing out, the discovery of the depth of difference, there is a preoccupation with ethnography and, by extension, the ethnographic subject. The narratives are overdetermined by a desire to know the other, to comprehend them in a fundamental way that is predicated upon the assumption that the other is, in fact, knowable. While the Ravicka series begins in accordance with this tradition, it quickly departs in its obscuration of the ethnographic subject. Through a disjunctive engagement with form and the narrator’s inability to discipline their body, vital details of the other — the Ravickians as well as the indigenous population of Old Ravicka, the Esaleyons — are programmatically omitted. The resultant effect is that they are rendered unassimilable into the order of the contact narrative.
The precipitating event of Event Factory, and the series at large, is an arrival: the narrator-ethnographer is a quasi-linguist who remains unnamed and ungendered throughout the length of the text (who will be referred to moving forward as “the narrator” using they/them pronouns). They travel to Ravicka, a nation-state in the throes of an indeterminate, elusive crisis. In spite of the fact that the narrator is a linguist, whose specialty is presumably understanding languages within differentiated cultural contexts, miscommunications abound. They take a bus to the downtown where they expect to encounter people, however when they arrive amongst the “towering structures” they are overcome with unease; downtown is empty and completely devoid of human activity. In a bid to make contact with someone, they enter a building generically titled “Market Corp” and, after following a series of unnecessarily difficult instructions, meet an unnamed woman with whom they begin dancing:
I opened the door onto a wall of books with her standing proudly before them. Her arms were folded across her chest and the smile she gave was scandalous. I walked until we were face-to-face with about a foot between us. She unfolded her arms and embraced me. Moving salaciously. We danced without comment. With my head on her shoulder, I read the names of all the books within view. The slenderest volumes of writing I had ever seen. One was called The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, another Company. She hummed a Spanish tune while pulling my ears up with her hands, which were draped across my head. Yes, she had held her arms tightly across my back when I first walked in, but slowly began to move her arms toward the top of my head. My arms were at my hips when this all started. Now they were trying to control my thighs. I think she was a salsa dancer. In Ravicka? Yes, confirmed by her 1-2-3, 1-2-3. And the erratic manner in which she turned me. ‘Hello,’ I thought it was a good time to say. Plus I was short of breath.
I woke up — perhaps hours later — splayed face-down across a desk. It was not the same room where I had danced. I was alone. Light from outside seemed a quarter of what it had been before.
Upon making contact with the first inhabitant of Market Corp, the narrator dreamily drifts in and out of half scenes as narrative continuity erodes. Portions of the narrative appear to go missing; what remains are impressions of human connections, moments of contact and intimacy such as the encounter described above in which the narrator enters a room and abruptly begins dancing with an unnamed Ravickian woman whom they have never met before. Their encounter is marked by language such as “scandalous” and “salacious,” suggesting that the nature of the relationship between the narrator and the woman is both sexually charged and, in some capacity, prohibited. That “they danced without comment” illustrates that the narrator and the Ravickian woman are able to follow each other’s strange, exploratory, desirous bodily cues, enter into a rhythm together, without first establishing a “common ground”; their spontaneous connection is facilitated by an implicit mutual agreement that interacting with one another in a manner consistent with what can best be described as general custom — such as an exchange of names, handshake, etc. — and sociological inquiry — such as the establishment of a relationship based upon fundamental difference — is null. The sole speculation the narrator makes regarding the woman is that she is a salsa dancer, yet this characterization is immediately thwarted of legitimacy when the evidence provided to undergird the claim proves to be scant: “1-2-3, 1-2-3” is a rhythm pattern in no way specific to salsa, and the movements the narrator describes also are inconsistent with the dance. What becomes clear is that the narrator and the Ravickian woman do not know each other, yet they are never strangers. The Ravickian woman is never the other, and the self/other dyad of colonial science fiction is rendered obsolete. The surprising absence of curiosity shown by both parties in respect to their differences gives way to unqualified coexistence, to the delights of a newly kindled yet ephemeral and fleeting desire.
The scene cuts abruptly on the threshold of something. The narrator exchanges the first word with the Ravickian woman, “hello,” a greeting that anticipates more interaction to follow. But we, the readers, are precluded from following what happens next because the narrator ceases reporting the encounter, ostensibly gauging it to be beyond the scope of the ethnography at the precise moment that the subject might come into sharper focus. What transpires between the scenes, the hours of lost information, can only be speculated. Between the lines of omitted text, it can be inferred from the sexual charge at the onset of the encounter, alongside the detail the narrator provides, that they woke up alone — hinting that they laid down not alone, presumably after an event that exhausted them — that the narrator and the Ravickian woman consummated their desire. The omission marks the narrator’s potential breach of objectivity. But again, nothing is for certain other than the fact that something vital is missing.
In light of the omission, what is included carries deeper resonance. A link between Event Factory and Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers is established when the narrator names Kapil’s text as a title in “the wall of books” that the Ravickian woman stands “proudly” in front of. The naming of Kapil’s first full-length collection of poetry is akin to an intertextual summons; as one of the spare setting details provided of the inner sanctums of Market Corp, and of Ravicka at large, it offers as a key for reading and flushing out the lacunas produced by the lack of additional descriptive, grounding details present in the text. Namely, Vertical Interrogation serves as a formal, conceptual predecessor to Event Factory insofar that its salient feature is that it is a collection of interviews that refuse to yield the individuals being interviewed. In the introduction of Vertical Interrogation, Kapil outlines the ostensibly social scientific methodology she uses to organize the materials that comprise the text: over the course of four years (January 12, 1992 to June 4, 1996) she conducts interviews with “Indian women of diverse ages and backgrounds” and asks them to respond to “one or more of a predetermined selection of twelve questions.” The interviews take place in a controlled setting; for precisely half an hour the women are locked in a room with no distractions, during which time they are entreated to either write down or record an audio recording of their answers. Kapil does not attempt to “clean up” their answers, though she notes that she does translate parts of their responses into English before compiling the raw materials into what she intends as “an anthology of the voices of Indian women.” Yet the final text does not necessarily mirror these intentions. As a response to one of the predetermined questions, “what is the shape of your body?” the text reads:
I took notes. But once, after the first few months, he stole my notebook, tore out the pages with all the sexual sentences, photocopied them. His yellow teeth. His Nick Cave albums. His love of eggplant parmesan. And so there are gaps. A surprise ending: and then I see him again, and my whole body is full of spicy eggs. The tangles of my menstrual hair. The swell of my lower body.
To whom “I” refers is unclear. Is it Kapil? An interviewee? Or is it a poetic voice untethered to any actual person outside the world of the poem? The referent of the pronoun “he” is equally opaque, as is the purpose or role of the italicized text. Furthermore, none of the information provided directly answers the posed question. Neither does the answer elucidate any specific or generalizable information regarding Indian women’s attitudes toward their bodies and shapes. Ultimately Kapil juxtaposes the project “as [what she] thought it would be” with “the project as [she] wrote it” — the latter being a text in which the individual answers of the interviewees are utterly indistinguishable from both one another and from Kapil’s own poetic voice, thwarting the ability of the “data” to produce any truths or theories about the nature, culture, experience, or any kind of distinct, concrete particularity of or about Indian women.
The form of the unyielding interview finds traces in the second text of the Ravicka series; The Ravickians begins in a similar prose block style as Event Factory yet diverges two-thirds of the way through into a lineated script. The lineated script persists over twelve sections, collectively titled “Grand Horizontals,” until the text’s end. Each line begins with a dash to signify a new speaker, however critical information such as how many people and exactly who is speaking remains unclear. Unidentified speakers ask questions which elicit indirect or at times seemingly unrelated replies:
-The head cartographer?
-Of so many years ago
-And you say these words now?
-The building I am always seeing through this window
-What would have happened were I not with you all this night?
The disjunctive quality emphasizes all of the contextual information that is missing for the reader to fully understand and make logical sense of the exchange. Instead of complete, coherent answers, the fragments in response to the questions verbally gesture toward answers that are otherwise absent or unsayable. They invite the reader to imagine the questions that would have had to have been posed in order for the answers given to qualify as satisfactory responses. And the questions, instead of leading to the acquisition of knowledge, initially appear to foreground all that is unknown, unattainable, and unshared amongst the speakers.
Yet while the linear trajectory of the question/answer dyad is unsettled and teased apart into semantic unrecognizability for the reader, the characters within the text maintain as if their exchange makes perfect sense. The exchanges extend over the course of nearly sixty pages, and it becomes clear that the unnamed characters are not speaking to each other as much as they are speaking with each other. The polyvocal quality of “Grand Horizontals” allows just that — an accumulation of expressions of, and orientations to, the crisis that expands across the text as a grand horizon. Because of the uninterrupted flow of unnamed speakers, no expression is subordinated. The stream is both successive and individuated; it is not a document or testimony but an index. It serves as a marker to indicate the simultaneity of differing, individually distinct — yet also opaque and categorically irreducible — experiences of the crisis befalling Ravicka.
During a subsequent excursion in Event Factory, the narrator acquires a traveling companion named Dar. In the outskirts of the city, the pair comes across a bridge; as they walk across it, they notice “the iron of the bridge becoming stone, becoming ancient and rough as [they move] along it” (49). The very materials of which the bridge is comprised transition from iron, an ore that produces steel — a key commodity fundamental to the industrialization of the nineteenth century — to stone, a raw material that is associated with “less sophisticated” or “primitive” architectures. The bridge connects Ravicka proper with Old Ravicka, which is seven hundred years old, an “ancient city, a museum,” and seemingly empty save castle ruins. Yet as they traverse the grounds, the narrator and Dar are unexpectedly discovered by the Esaleyons, the local population who are twice othered as being both Ravickians and Indigenous. The Esaleyons’ discovery of the narrator and Dar flips the expectations of contact narratives in which it is the Indigenous people who are “discovered” by outside modern forces and not the other way around. The power dynamics are further troubled as the Esaleyons locate the narrator and Dar in the midst of conducting their own social scientific survey to “map the depths” (58) of their growing population. They decidedly are not objects of study; they are the conductors of their own and document their histories via a complex oral and gestural language.
The Esaleyons, in contrast to the inhabitants of Market Corp, who live in skyscrapers, live in a series of interlocking catacombs or cathedrals belowground, wherein their distinct ana-culture thrives. They are a literal manifestation of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney term “the undercommons,” characterized as being “in between various modes of being and belonging, and on the way to new economies of giving, taking, being with and for.” The economy of the Esaleyons is described as being driven by interpersonal connection, in which “possession [is] gained through comprehension” (57), and acquired through one’s ability to communicate through and interpret the sounds and movements of others. The accuracy of the interpretation is, as is the interpretation itself, wholly subjective, as well as the pursuant “comprehension” it provides. In other words, the communication practices of the Esaleyons are, according to the narrator, not based on a stable system of signs. They are contextual, temporally specific, and always a collaborative effort.
One of their most distinct practices centers around eating. The supremacy of the written word and the written word’s dominance in the Western tradition in legitimating history and information is in Old Ravicka a source of food. That is, the Esaleyons prepare and ingest written texts instead of commodified goods such as meat and vegetables and ritualize the ingestion as follows:
That first night, [the Esaleyons] honored [the narrator and Dar] by reading from ‘the great manuscript’ … The recitation was punctuated every minute or so with a round of backslaps and one person every ten minutes grabbing an empty plate from the center of the table, walking 180 degrees to the other side of the table, replacing the plate, then usurping the chair in front of her, requiring all in attendance to move over one. Going through the machinations brought out the athlete in us. We ate deep into the night. (59)
Western knowledge productions, in the form of written texts, are communally introduced into the digestive cycle, in which they are broken down, mined for nutrients, and excreted into waste. They are literally reduced to shit in a ritual in which bodily gesture supersedes the written word as a means of signification, communication, and social exchange. The written texts comprise the entirety of the Esaleyons’ diet, suggesting that their very survival is organized upon making waste of the Western knowledge and systems that condition the possibility of the ethnography. They need not participate in agriculture, trade, or the larger industries of food production, nor is their subsistence tied to the same natural phenomena of the people in downtown Ravicka. They have rewritten their biological niche, excised themselves from recognizable producer/consumer economies and every other system of material exchange.
Other details of Esaleyon culture are impossible for the narrator to recapitulate. They compare listening to the Esaleyons “explaining the shape and nature of things” — which they did through “gymnastic” movements of the body — to “gathering water without a pail” (61). The narrator self-reflexively acknowledges their limitations and the limits of their account insofar that their methods of comprehending difference are antithetical — anathema — to Esaleyon ways of life to such a degree that they remain indefinitely remote. The narrator contends that the “water gathered around my feet” (61), suggesting that the resultant textual descriptions of the Esaleyons are but minor traces of an incomprehensible whole, negating the validity of the “data” to reflect anything beyond their personal experience of miscomprehension. The subject of the ethnography is subsequently flipped. It becomes a firsthand account of the narrator’s behaviors, of their nuances and cultural particularity as made manifest through their encounter with a society so peculiar and incomparable to their own.
Conclusively, the Ravicka series engages science fiction and its world-building possibilities to perform a critique of how worlds are built. Event Factory in particular stages an intervention into the colonialist belief that the other is fundamentally knowable and can be understood through the application of empiricist methodologies. Throughout the text, Gladman sustains a prolonged engagement with narrative discontinuity and disjunction, both of which work to intentionally obscure details crucial to understanding the nuances of the Ravickians and their Indigenous counterparts, the Esaleyons. These formal decisions pair to cast the narrator as at times willfully and at others calamitously undisciplined. The result is a first-contact narrative that ultimately fails to document the other; it shifts from a microscope to a mirror, reflecting, albeit imprecisely, the shortcomings of the narrator in their role of ethnographer. This failure inherent in empirical documentation, by extension, calls into question the very idea that any text can adequately “capture” or “teach” a reader any grand truths of a cultural experience different than their own. An effect of Gladman’s formal decisions is that the Ravicka series performs the very opacity — and complexity — that descriptors like “sociology” inexcusably suggest is not possible for poetry by people of color. Reverentially, the Ravicka series does not walk the reader through what it is like to be a Black lesbian poet in the United States today. Instead, it poses questions critical to our understanding of what it means to understand, and offers a glimpse into how we might otherwise live, communicate, and be with one another outside of what we already know to be possible.
1. There are slightly different accounts of the Dorothy origin story, all of which describe some version of this, in press reviews from LARB, the Atlantic, the NYT, BOMB, the Paris Review, and others.
2. Helen Vendler, “Are These the Poems to Remember?”New York Review of Books 58, no. 18 (2011).
5. Dorothy Wang’s “Aesthetics Contra ‘Identity’ in Contemporary Poetry Studies” does an excellent job mapping the pervasiveness of racism within poetic discourse, in particular naming Marjorie Perloff as the champion of racist dog-whistling through her insistent use of words such as “identitarian” to describe poetry by people of color. In my own experience as a queer Brown woman, after a small press published a chapbook of mine, they incorrectly assumed it was “identitarian” and described it on their website as a “dreamoir,” a portmanteau of “dream” and memoir,” when in fact it was completely fictitious and did not thematically reflect my life — or identity or culture — in any easy way.
6. Zack Friedman, “Language and Landscape: Renee Gladman,” BOMB Magazine, December 24, 2011.
10. In “Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction,” Partick Sharp discusses and contributes to the evolving taxonomic definitions of science fiction, supporting the Ravicka series placement within the genre. Patrick B. Sharp, “Questing For an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction,” in Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, ed. Isiah Lavender (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014), 117–30.
19. Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and for The Undercommons,” introduction to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York and London: Minor Compositions, 2013), 5.