Body and violence: An interview with Emji Spero
Note: Emji Spero, an Oakland-based artist and poet exploring the intersections of writing, book art, installation, and performance, visited Philadelphia and the Kelly Writers House in April 2015 to talk about their book almost any shit will do, which uses found language from mycelial studies, word-replacement, and erasure to map the boundaries of collective engagement. Spero is a cofounder and editor of the “art-cult” Timeless, Infinite Light and has described their books as “spells for unraveling capitalism.” In this interview, Spero spoke with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, a poet living in Philadelphia and author of the chapbooks JOGS (Lulu, 2013) and Nite [chickadee]’s (GaussPDF, 2015), about personal trauma, queer longing, surveillance states, public/private access, the Baltimore riots, and a new work on violence as the static and quotidian. The interview concludes with a ten-minute collaborative reading by both poets from almost any shit will do. The interview was transcribed by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague and has been edited for Jacket2. Listen to the recording of this interview here. — Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: Hi! I’m Gabriel Ojeda-Sague. I’m here in the Wexler Studio with Emji Spero, coeditor and cofounder of Timeless, Infinite Light, and a poet and artist living in Oakland, author of almost any shit will do. Hi, Emji.
Emji Spero: Hi!
Ojeda-Sague: Thanks for being with us here. I want to start just by talking about almost any shit will do, which is out by Timeless, Infinite Light, the press you work with, and I want to start just by asking you in your own words — and for people who don’t know the project — to describe the form and maybe the process of how you created the work.
Spero: For almost any shit will do I feel likethere are three threads mainly running through the text. There’s the series of prose blocks that are attempting and sort of failing at defining the terms “the individual” and “the movement.” And those are sort of — those were — that section was my attempt to inhabit or embody a particular point of trauma in my own life in which I was in the middle of an action when I was living in Olympia, Washington, and I was thrown onto the ground by the police during the course of the protest and suffered chronic pain as a result for, like, many years afterwards. So those are sort of an attempt to inhabit that one moment of being thrown to the ground.
The other threads in the piece come from texts on mycelial networks (and mycelium is the root structure that mushrooms grow out of). It exists, like, I think three inches below the ground, it’s one cell layer deep, and it just is like miles and miles long, and it’s actually the largest organism on the earth that we know of so far. And so there was this way, when I was living in the Northwest and doing a lot of radical organizing with people up there, that I would have the sense that I was simultaneously connected with them through our social engagement, but also connected by just standing on the very ground of the Northwest and being connected to people who are at great distances from me. And so I was thinking of that as a way — I started to think of nonhierarchical social organizing and radical politics, and so I started using found language from texts on mycelial networks, which are rhizomatic (any point can connect to any other point).
And I started, um, using language that felt salient to me, that felt like it really dug its feet into my experience of being engaged in those struggles. This was specifically during Iraq [and] Afghanistan where we were stopping shipments of Stryker vehicles, which were in the ports, through direct action, putting our bodies in the way of them. In the end it was an economic tactic: if you make it so expensive for the ports to keep shipping tanks out of them, they stop doing it because it’s not profitable anymore. So, like, I sort of created that connection between those two narratives, the rhizomatic root structures, mycelium, and the one of the organizing that I was doing by doing word replacement. So, replacing the phrase “mushroom” with the phrase “the individual,” and replacing the phrase “mycelium” or “mycelial network” or “structure” with the phrase “the movement.” Because I felt like it was a context-switching almost — not a code switching, but like a context switching, where it enabled me to pull that language out of its original context and use it to talk about something else.
Ojeda-Sague: So, from that biological language you get a certain kind of anatomy for thinking about movements, individuals, and that kind of connectivity that you are describing. And one of the things that struck me, even just in the back material of the book, there’s this, like, emphasis on “three inches under the ground,” and it comes up a lot of times and there’s obviously those almost euphemistic qualities of the word “underground,” and there’s something kind of utopian about that. And I wonder if you’ll speak about what that value you found in this organism that’s almost hidden is. You know, it comes up in certain ways like those mushrooms, but for us on a daily basis it’s not an organism that we are so in contact with because it’s always just right under us. It’s not deep under the ground either, just under the surface.
Spero: Yeah, I feel like this actually relates somewhat to the new work that I’m doing also. I’m working on this project where I’m sort of attempting to, like, really thoroughly write the most quotidian moments of my life, like taking the BART to work and then coming back and, like, buying a sandwich. Just these really sort of mundane moments and the sort of violence that is just beneath them, like always sort of just beneath the surface of that. So I feel like there’s a relation between that sense of … or maybe like [a] campy use of the phrase “the underground” which is, like, yes, it’s like a nod to a utopian gesture, but it also comes out of deep disillusionment and that sort of simultaneous like … I sometimes term this feeling as “as if,” so like “living as if” or sort of living in a sense of possibility “as if” the ways in which you’d like to see people relating to one another could be possible. So I feel like that aura of possibility is embedded in the work but not to the occlusion of the actual reality which we live in. I feel like there are the sort of violences and oppression that we are living in under capital. So I feel like there’s that sort of simultaneously longing for the sort of utopia and the acknowledgement that it is just this longing.
Ojeda-Sague: Right, and at one point you call it “not a trace but a map of what-could-still-be.” Is that a term that resonates with what you’re saying now?
Spero: Yeah, that phrase actually comes from A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari and, um, I feel like … that’s the attempt. I was trying to see how could we map our social relations or how could I map the social relations in which I am in and the multiple intersecting threads of relationality and oppression. And in the end I am failing at doing that. Or, like, that’s why I’m continuing to write because this book totally fails at that, so I have to try again. [Laughs.] I’ve just been reading Cruising Utopia by Jose Muñoz, and I wrote down this quote on my arm from it this morning where he’s talking about Warhol and utopia and the quote is: “the understanding that utopia exists in the quotidian.” So I’m thinking about that underground, right, or like if the surface is the lived daily experience (the microaggressions, the sort of static hum of precarity), then that possibility that is sort of beneath that, that keeps you continuing or that shows up in brief bursts, like in ruptural moments where [for instance] Freddie Gray’s neck is broken: there’s the ruptural moment and then suddenly all of that feeling rises to the surface, and it’s been there all along and then now it is visible. We only notice sometimes the moments of visibility and often pretend this isn’t happening all the time. And so I’ve been trying to think through the way in which the quotidian is also imbued with that violence.
Ojeda-Sague: One of the ways in which what you’re describing is happening in the book is in different kinds of spaces. There’s a lot of architectural spaces being described, a lot of public spaces and private spaces. And then there’s a lot of surfaces; like, I think the most obvious is the biological surface, that issue of just under the surface but also just being, as you described, knowing you are kind of on the same footing, on the same ground, as somebody else near you. And then there’s these totally intimate spaces and surfaces: there’s a lot of describing being with your head on somebody’s lap or, like, being with a lover or something like that. And I’m wondering if we can talk about these spaces, some of which are more quotidian than others, and how you might be finding a certain kind of politics in that. For example, there’s a lot of architectural spaces, which brings up issues of property, private property, personal property, how property gets distributed amongst movements, individuals, and certain capitalistic notions in that equation. Can you talk about why you were branching out into all different spaces and surfaces … to use a loaded term when we’re talking about mycelium?
Spero: [Laughs.] Yeah, my rooting tendrils. [Laughs.] I feel like it’s easier for me to talk about sort of like the permeable boundary between the public and the private spaces and the sorts of intimacies that happen in both of those spaces or the way they sort of blend into each other. You know, the way that you bring … the bedroom is not free of the structures of capitalism, or like the public space of the park or the plaza that so many radicals hold up as the utopian space is also entirely entrenched with[in] the systems in which we still maneuver. But also that like the intimacy of the bedroom can come into those spaces … that those things can be simultaneously present. I think that the sort of mapping of public and private in the work is sort of an attempt to undo both of those categories. Or to undo those sort of assumptions that come along with those categories.
Ojeda-Sague: Right, and there’s something kind of erotic about what you’re describing, like, knowing that your body is in the same space as somebody else. And that has its political and social connotations, but — as well as just being in the same area and having those bodies touching. And you’ve talked about the almost ritualistic return to the site of trauma as something that has a certain kind of erotic energy. Would you mind talking about that? Like, what is the motivating energy behind that?
Spero: I feel like at its very basic level it’s an attempt to process it honestly for myself, just like the trauma of that. But I feel like so often the sites of trauma in our bodies become our greatest focal points of desire. So during this period I would try to inhabit that moment of being thrown to the ground, of becoming unconscious, of being … suddenly not within my own control. Like, in that moment my hands were behind my back, and I was thrown into the concrete. And then, I remember sort of waking up across the parking lot, like not in the space where I landed. So it’s like this sort of attempt to not be dragged from that space. So, during this period I would lay on the ground a lot, because like just after this, six months after that time period, whenever I would lay on the ground and press every point of my body into the ground in like my friend’s living room or wherever I was, I would start sobbing. Like, I couldn’t lay on my back without sobbing. So that was the very act of, like we were talking about before, of performing the corpse, or performing the immobile, in the privacy — not like in a performance context — but just in the privacy of my own, or someone close to me’s, space. It became this very charged site, and so there’s that moment where traumas don’t leave your body.
So I kept returning to it. I kept returning to it by throwing myself to the ground or laying on the ground by processing that … to like, locate it within the map of my body, and it shifts. It shifts, and when you try to approach it, you slide away from the moment. The moment is inaccessible in this way. And so I was just trying to map the sliding away. But still like attempting … so going towards trauma in this way I feel like is similar to the momentum towards that utopian longing, like you move towards it and then it falls away and you move towards it and it falls away. And it’s this repeated exhaustion of that, which I think causes those lulls after, you know, a ruptural moment or after a series of riots or marches, that period of time afterward where it’s just, like, almost sort of hopeless and it feels like you are having to do the less glamorous structural work [Laughs.] that enables the next moment to happen.
Ojeda-Sague: It’s amazing how that gets replicated formally in the book. So, for those who aren’t familiar, there’s these … almost like streaming lines going between the text of the first three pages, and then there’s a prose piece, three pages, and then a prose piece. And there’s these lines that cut through the text on those three pages almost highlighting words or almost making new syntactic measures or making new realms of what those sentences can be. And it’s interesting to see how people navigate that issue because there’s no real clear way of reading it, and it sometimes comes up with really amazing results if you just read the things that are highlighted, almost new ways of thinking of whatever the text is there. And sometimes it’s more clumsy, and sometimes it can kind of falter and maybe I’m thinking: am I reading this the right way, am I not reading this the right way? And that makes me think so much of what you are talking about as this ritual where there’s something being embodied in the text in a very specific way, almost like a pathetic fallacy where it’s part of this fungal organism where it almost seems like this has been a quality of this fungal organism forever and you are tapping into it like a really primal energy. But there’s something so personal and private about that. And it’s on exposition as being a book or a text, so it seems like it’s blurring those same lines, where the trauma is not only embodied but becomes read in very specific and altered ways. Seems to blur those same lines.
Spero: Um … I feel like those threads that run through the book for me are … I usually, in my mind, call it “writing across.” And I think that also comes from Muñoz, honestly, like right out of Disidentifications and that sort of sense of like being both sort of enmeshed and in resistance to, at the same time, or being unable to extricate yourself from culture, liking certain parts of it, but also wanting to be in resistance to those very things that you are entranced by. And so I feel like there’s a way in which a lot of the process of the people I was organizing with during that time period and since are having to take what is … at some level you have to take what’s given to you, you know, the culture that you’re in. And then you have to write yourself across it, or aslant to it, or to create your own narrative within that that is in resistance to it. And so I think that was what that attempt is, you know, to have this sense of alternate possibility. You know, there’s the vertical text that you can just read top to bottom, and then there’s the horizontality of that other text, and that’s sort of what I was trying to evoke with that.
And in the original conception of the work, it was an artist’s book that we have … that there are copies of in the world. That has two spines so you can open it on the left and you can open it on the right, and those lines cut across the gap between those two connected texts. And any page can almost open to any other page or can be paired with any page, and that was the sort of, like, sometimes-clumsy-sometimes-working attempt of it so that it can be connected at any point, as a sort of nod to the mycelial form which does that much more elegantly. [Laughs.]
Ojeda-Sague: [Laughs.] Doesn’t nature always one up us all? What’s interesting is, like, what you are talking about (“writing horizontally”) also reminds me of “reading sideways,” which, honestly, I forget whose concept that is, but it’s a certain kind of reading at an edge. And it almost reminds me of when we talk about queer language, like speaking almost like “below the belt,” or speaking so others can’t hear you …
Spero: Oh yeah, codes!
Ojeda-Sague: Yeah, totally like codes! Or slang, or like a Polari almost. And so, it’s not only, like, a personal or social language between you and other queer people, but it’s almost constantly crafting its own secret language in, maybe, whatever pages you constellate or whatever kind of ways you move. And that is so much like this “beneath the surface” issue, so it’s so interesting to hear you talk about Muñoz now. [Laughs.]
Spero: I feel like one of my … okay, I feel like there’s this way in which queer coding in public space or flagging is very similar to my experience of coded language within radical organizing. During this time, the group I was organizing with was infiltrated by [military operative John Towery] and this came out on NPR. And it totally kind of ate away at our ability to trust and organize with one another. But there’s also this sense in which you are speaking in whispers and you are turning your phones off, and removing the battery when you’re having meetings. There’s all these ways in which you are also speaking in code, speaking against the normative, and have to be for safety or mobility … and … I think … what was I gonna say? [Laughs.]
Ojeda-Sague: [Laughs.] Well, so one of the things that struck me about what you are saying is … you have a lot of experience, or you have some experience in these radical communities coming out in protest. And right now our country is very populated by certain kinds of protests and certain political unrest that is coming out. And if you are comfortable, I wanted to ask you, maybe, how are you looking at these protests that have come out since August after the death of Mike Brown and most recently to when we are speaking now, the protests in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray? I don’t want to talk saying “what is your project for them?” but, how have you been looking at it because so much of this book, almost any shit will do,is related to these protests, related to riots, and that scene?
Spero: Yeah, the context is different. I was involved in organizing against capital, against endless war. And that has intersections obviously with the sort of institutionalized systems of racism that are present in our country that are usually occluded unless you are subject to them. But as someone who is white and who is coming from a relative position of privilege, I’ve had to renavigate the kind of way in which I enter these marches, these riots. After the nonindictment of Darren Wilson, my friend contacted me and was like, “Oh, will you write a piece about the riots that have been happening in Oakland?” and I was like, “No.” You know, there are so many people of color who are writing about this right now who are doing such incredible work, and I don’t exactly know what I could say that they haven’t already said. I think there is something important about an accumulation of voices and that those voices happen across social boundaries, but also like …
You know, it was really fascinating to watch the way in which the discourse was rapidly shifting during those time periods. Like, the first march, everyone had their hands in the air. The second march, after that, everyone was like “white people, don’t put your hands in the air. These are not your hands in the air.” And that shifted. And then, sort of like, the third one, the next discourse shifted, and it was like “white people get in the back of the march.” And this is good: take up less space, don’t commandeer the microphone. You know, there’s this way in which I was participating in it and watching it shift at the same time in a way that was really, really rapid. And that wasn’t possible when I was organizing before because of the proliferation of the Internet. I don’t know, it was really fascinating to watch how quickly the discourse is shifting. So I feel like those ruptural moments finally have a response, you know, regular massive numbers of people are really upset, and that’s good.
I read this thing on Facebook today. It was Rebecca Solnit, and she was writing about how white people need to be educating themselves and not asking people of color to educate them about these things, and I was like, “Yeah, right on!” And then the next paragraph down she started talking about the riots in Baltimore as like “not nonviolent direct action” and that infuriated me. Right? Like it was so close. I was like, “You are so close!” To mark looting or to mark this form of self-defense or resistance as “violent” — she’s saying they’re not non-violent, which is to say they are violent — and to mark that as violence instead of the violence that this is in response to infuriated me. And it’s that sort of neoliberal move of completely eclipsing the actual circumstances under which these are a necessary, and sometimes the only, response that people have.
Ojeda-Sague: Right, and what’s interesting is, that this, what you are talking about, is maybe one of the great results of dialogue about these recent riots: an understanding of every individual’s place in them. So there’s what you are talking about with who can be in total solidarity; like there was that discussion of who can breathe in the Eric Garner protests, where maybe in the first few nights there was a lot of white people chanting “I can’t breathe” in the same way, which has a totally strange quality to it to hear, like, a mass of white people saying that. So it’s a question of understanding individual place in a movement and understanding how each person moves in that space. And there’s this issue now of privacy. I don’t know if you’ve seen this article, but I keep seeing it on Facebook of this, like … headgear or hairstyle that will eclipse …
Spero: Oh, the anti-surveillance fashion move.
Ojeda-Sague: Yeah, which like, not to comment on that specifically, but the idea that people are preparing and sharing these face-obscuring garments or hairstyles, or something like that. There’s an issue of personal privacy where you’re … part of that is an understanding of the surveillance state and knowing any time you can be arrested. But another part of that is, I don’t know if you would say, more understood, [in] relation [to] yourself in a protest or what an individual looks like inside of that movement, which is so much of what your book is.
Spero: I think there’s … the thing that has [been] felt, what I’ve been seeing in that move of the anti-surveillance hairstyle is a resistance of access, but it seems to be coming primarily from people who have had some level of privacy or whose bodies are not seen as fully accessible sometimes. And I feel like a lot of what is coming out in these protests, in these marches, riots lately is the refusal of the black body as being fully accessible, which it has been in the white mind since slavery. And so there’s a similar sort of like refusal of access happening there. Except I think, with the anti-surveillance hairstyle, I think that those are people who have had the privilege of not being accessed sometimes. I don’t know, I just — yeah.
Ojeda-Sague: And that’s a question also of how the body becomes private space and how it becomes utilized by the public … in general, like a public. And that is a construct of slavery and the idea of black bodies as property. And what’s so interesting about that is this issue of how that body resists being accessed, how that body resists being utilized as a public space or space that can be invaded in some way. And so much of that is about privacy in a more general, like, normative sense and a lot of that is about finding yourself in a community … I wonder if we can talk about what, um, what happens to the body of your book in the span of it. Because there’s a certain kind of direction that, at least, I think I see in it of what happens going to the end of that book. But you say — I just want to quote from your interview with Open House which says: “The book is a corpus. It’s a body. Trauma doesn’t just get struck from the body. It remains.” And so I’m wondering what you see as happening to the embodied text or the body that is in that text over the course of this book. Is there a direction it goes? Is this kind of like a repetition throughout the entire thing? Is it moving in some way?
Spero: I felt like the two threads of it were going sort of in different trajectories. I felt like the found language was moving toward the open or moving toward possibility, and the more embodied piece of it was, I guess, subverting the possibility of that by continuing to cycle back and reinhabit that trauma or those traumas. Like it wasn’t just the trauma of being thrown into the ground; it was the trauma of, like, the legal case that lasted for months afterwards and the fallout from the community after the initial period of support. And so I feel like [Laughs.] … I feel like there’s a way in which, sort of, the more conceptualist mode of the found language work is able to inhabit that less embodied sense of the possible. And then that is continually … the body continually reasserts itself in relation to that desire.
There was one reading that I did, I think my favorite reading that I ever did of this work, was where I read the prose pieces (the failed definitions attempting to define the individual and the movement through the body) …
Ojeda-Sague: Where was this?
Spero: This was at Evergreen State College. So I went and — this was with a class — and I did this reading where I like … whenever I would read the ones that were the movement, or defining the movement, I would read them out loud to everybody, like read them like a regular reading. And then whenever I would — I would sort of be moving, walking around the space as I did this, and whenever I would read the ones that were the individual I would go up and get very, very close to someone and whisper those in their ear … and it was really intense. It was just like really charged whenever I would do that, because it was creating these pockets of access, where I was refusing access to most of the room during those moments and only privileging it to the one. We had this discussion afterwards of, like, the effect of that and, like, I had been thinking of that in terms of that sense of public and private space or the kinds of organizing that you do in private, the kinds of organizing that you do in public, the kinds of organizing that happens behind doors, and the kind that happens in the plaza. And someone [poet d. wolach] at one point brought up that like so much of that sort of organizing or code has to happen in a whisper and that this is a necessary part of resistance. And I hadn’t considered that as part of the work at the time, and then through that discussion I was like, “Oh yeah! That’s totally there. Cool, I love seminar, ’cause I learn so much about what the hell I’m doing.” [Laughs.]
But, um, it made me sort of reconsider the work after that discussion. Just thinking in terms of access and who gets it and who doesn’t. And then, sort of that desire for total access to spaces. There’s two narratives from communities that are in resistance: there’s the narrative about, like, desiring access in disability studies, and then there’s also the problem of total access, which is access of the body and how those, in my mind, are coming at heads with one another, right now.
Ojeda-Sague: So, you end almost any shit will do with this line that says, “leave me here in the failure of my language.” And, in my eyes, it’s this totally, like, exhausted, just throwing … just like saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I just want to be left here.” And you’ve talked so much about failure now, in this session. The new work that you are doing now, which for now, I think, you’re calling “Exhaustion,” or you’ve described it as “writing from exhaustion,” is very much about that static state of being totally just washed out, just no energy left. And earlier you said it was about the quotidian. So, I wonder if you could talk about how those two ideas are connected.
Spero: You said the word static and that feels, like, entirely accurate to me. I feel like the new work I’m doing … if you were to hear it, the sound of it is the sound of static. There’s language there, but when I read it, it sounds to me like [Exhales slowly.] And I started writing this work immediately after finishing almost any shit will do. I read Reborn by Susan Sontag, which are her journals which were published posthumously, and I was just like, very overwhelmed by the way in which her journals were in the confessional mode, like, they’re in the “I” voice, but they’re somehow in resistance to that. There would be these lists of, like, what she wanted to read and, like, what movies she was going to and little jotted down notes, or, like, a grocery list. These ways in which … that felt … I guess I was overwhelmed by the fragments from her daily life that you are just sort of having to puzzle together this narrative. And you can’t ever really; you’re always creating it.
So I started writing in that mode, in the journal form with an attempt — sort of my constraint for myself was to resist confessionalism even while writing in the “I” voice, and to see what would happen if I was doing that. I think that the journal form, and the confessional mode, is often denigrated in contemporary poetic circles and that’s just another form of misogyny. And so I’ve been interested in documenting the static sound that is the sort of weather that is the violence in which we maneuver through on a daily basis. In a sense where even when you’re not writing about those violences and those microaggresions and the way in which capital crushes you … even when it’s not directly about that, it is in some sense in the context of that. And it’s omnipresent … and it becomes you, in a way. So I’ve been trying to document that, those very minute … the most minute forms of violence and the ways in which they are put onto the body and the ways in which you put them onto your own body.
Ojeda-Sague: It seems that there is a stream of thought that is connecting mostly to trans identity. There’s a lot of kind of quotidian stories of putting in T, or putting on a binder — things like that, you know, just the kind of daily things you need to do. And I wonder if … you’ve talked about some of the gendered aspects of that already with, um, journaling and how people mark that as a feminine form and often decry it in a misogynistic way. And it seems further that there is a trans aspect to the violence that you are talking about. Like, it’s a specific kind of violence, too. Do you want to talk at all about how that violence is specific in any way or how it seeps into the daily?
Spero: Um, I think that there’s a way in which I experience moving through the world as trans that enacts a distance. So I feel like a lot of this work has a flat affect, like the movement within it is so flat. It’s like a plane and … I mean, like, I guess in context a lot of it does sort of document injecting T, or um, a small thing that someone will say, a time I get she’d, or … but I feel like those experiences — they’re like blips. They happen with such regularity that they become, just sort of like, the background static of the other things that you are trying to accomplish or to do. In the same way that, like, in a lot of it I am going to work or getting coffee and, like, that is also the background static. There’s a way in which I think I’m maybe enacting a violence on my own experience in this work, and I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing with it yet by that flattening: by saying the microaggressions towards me as trans are in equal weight to me getting coffee, are in equal weight to me trying to write an essay on the term “already,” is in equal weight to, like, experiences of sexual assault in my community and the way I’m navigating that — there’s this way in which lived experience pushes everything like right … it equalizes in this way that I think is very violence — “is very violence” [Laughs.] — is very violent.
I feel like equivalency is a very dangerous tendency. And so I realized that I was doing this, or that this is a way of moving through the world and being able to cope is this form of leveling experience. And I’ve been thinking of it in terms of this piece by Lesley Anne Selcer, where she was doing sort of like a rewriting of Bataille’s The Solar Anus in which she takes every noun and connects them with an “is.” So like … I don’t know, I wish I had it in front of me. But just saying “all these things are equal to one another” is this very violent gesture. And I don’t exactly know what’s around that, like that’s still an idea I’m working through: the violence of equivalency. I feel like the public or experienced affect of that is of exhaustion, for me.
Ojeda-Sague: Is part of that violence when the static kind of explodes, like when … I guess my question is: if somebody is in that static environment, if somebody is reading that kind of stasis and they become aware of that — say if I read the project and I think of it as a static voice, does it become more dynamic? Does it explode because I am aware of it? Is there a way that we can identify it and then we know it’s violence?
Spero: That’s what I’ve been trying to get to with my second … when I say second I mean like twentieth rewriting of this piece. [Laughs.] I recently read this book called Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect by Mel Chen, who teaches at Berkeley. And Mel, in this work, is charting the sort of violences that are built into the very structure of our grammar, of English grammar. And after reading that I started really seeing that in my own work and trying to parse apart how my own language is enacting violences, because I don’t want it to be, but it’s going to be in the end always. But I wanted to pick that apart so I started … let me go back a second …
So, in categorical linguistics, the field Mel is writing within, there are certain hierarchies that are set up in language. Some of them are like “I” is greater than “you” is greater than “he, she,” is greater than “it.” So from the human to the animal to the immobile. And there are deep violences that come out of those categories and the ways in which those are happening in language mirrors the ways that [those are] happening in culture, maybe in sort of like a confused causality. Like, they work on each other. And then another one is that the individual is greater than a collective. So these are the normative frameworks for thinking through hierarchies within language. And those hierarchies are related to what is more or less alive, which is to say what is more or less deserving to be alive, or who is more or less deserving of life. And so those questions feel very necessary to be asking right now. I mean, always, but right now especially … in relation to what we were talking about earlier, in relation to racism in America and the ruptures, the riots that are happening out of that. As a white person I need to be really examining the way that I’m working, moving through the world, the kind of space I’m taking up, the ways in which my language is enacting those violences, also.
So, I started pulling apart my journals, grammatically, organizing them according to those hierarchies, so that I could see what is actually happening in the language that I’m using and where those violences are located. And that’s sort of the stage I am at right now: I have lists of every time there is an “I” and what that “I” is doing, every time there is a “you” and what that you is doing, or what is happening to that “you.” So, I have lists of “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “it,” noun phrases, so I’ve completely dissected the text at this point. And when I was reading those to my friend Angel Dominguez in Tuscon, he started pointing out that that reading undoes the static. The text suddenly sparks. The violences are apparent in that arrangement of the text, where it was occluded in the way that I was writing it before. So now I’m trying to figure out, like, how to pair those, what that’s doing, or for maybe the third layer of this how to undo those violences within my own language.
Ojeda-Sague: Well, I have so many more questions but that is probably the right place to end. That project sounds like it’s going to have a great future … after maybe twenty more edits, who knows. I wanted to close out by asking you to read something … from whatever you want.
Spero: Would you want to do a reading with me?
Ojeda-Sague: [Laughs.] Sure, what would you want me to do?
Spero: I think this will be more interesting. Okay, so we’re gonna read from … Gabriel and I are gonna read from almost any shit will do,and we’re gonna read two of the threads together, actually, just to hear what it’s like. Will you begin?