In 1971, Valerie Solanas briefly took refuge in a collective living space called the Brooklyn Commune. She instantly caused divisions around the gendered labor of trash disposal. “Valerie convinced women that it was not their job to take out the garbage and that men should do it—‘Why should a woman take out men’s shit?’” The women rebelled, the commune imploded, and Solanas would be remembered for the split. Many years later, the friend who brought her there was stopped in New York City by a man who asked, “Do you know who I am? . . . I was part of that collective that you brought Valerie Solanas to and I wanted to say thank you a fucking lot! She destroyed our collective. She caused problems immediately and she took a gun out of her bag and shot into the ceiling . . . It’s ’cause of you that this happened, so I blame you.”1
I was on a flight to Atlanta while I was preparing for the interview with Solanas’ biographer, Breanne Fahs. Even with a triumvirate of unwelcoming literature in my lap—Testo Junkie, the biography, and SCUM Manifesto—the round, suited man to my left barged his way into conversation. It was October 2014. Within five minutes I learned that he lived in Round Rock, Texas and owned a website domain for tracking sex offenders; “unfortunately there are always pedophiles, so I’m never out of work,” he quipped. His income is not outrageous cuz he’s not one of those CEOs: he’s decided he doesn’t want any more than $25,000 a month. “My Facebook isn’t even set up by me,” he said, chuckling with calculated flippancy, “my secretary runs it.” He started from nowhere, that heroic place.
I admit to being amused when he described himself as an “off the hook Virgo” and then, when he learned I was a Leo, that “you come across as cold but are probably very loving. You’re just smart. I once had a Leo in my life and she ripped my heart apart.” But I was more arrested by the juxtaposition of his egomania and Solanas’ description of woman’s role as trash collector. Sometimes I incredulously allow men to talk to themselves at me, as my friend Lyle describes it, just to see how long they’ll continue before becoming self-aware. Sometimes this is different than being a trash collector, and sometimes it isn’t.
CEO ordered a whiskey miniature and a can of coke from the flight attendant’s cart and mixed it on the fold-out tray in front of him. He spit like a broken lawn sprinkler while suggesting I google him and find his profile—which is to say, his secretary’s profile—on Facebook, and when the attendant walked back through the aisle holding a trash bag for an assembly line of reclined passengers, he spent an eternity in leisure, fumbling with his plasticware and rambling about how he doesn’t even really drink while she stood suspended in the aisle. She waited with her strained stewardess smile, arms extended outward holding the open bag. In Solanas’ play Up Your Ass there’s a character named Ginger who bursts through her apartment doors asking if anyone has seen a turd. Bongi, the free-wheeling protagonist, responds with utter normalcy at someone’s searching for a distinct piece of excrement while also expressing curiosity at why she needs it. It turns out Ginger is having two male co-workers over for dinner and plans to serve herself, not them, the turd—if she can find it. “The turd’s for me,” Ginger says. “Everyone knows that men have much more respect for women who’re good at lapping up shit.”
Shit, trash disposal, and waste processing recur throughout Solanas’ work. One of the dinner guests shows up before the turd surfaces and he explains to Bongi, “Ginger’s the only girl on our staff, so she’s kinda like a rudder in a sea of restless creativity; calmly and patiently picking up on all the odds and ends that our feverish imaginations let straggle—she researches the data, organizes it, analyzes it, interprets it, composes the reports...” Ginger is one of those women who self-professedly relates better to men than women. With her male therapist, for example, she shares a “common value system—we both swear by creativity. He’s got this very creative theory about creativity that so beautifully expresses my own creative thought—creative passivity. It’s such an uplifting experience once you get the hang of it—relating to emptiness; let your soul sway gently in the void.” Solanas knew that women were the invisible grunt-work carers and quantifiers, and the repetitive riff on creativity was Solanas mocking the re-branding of that work as innovation—portending the information age’s creative class. She was also satirizing the meaning that such workers try to make of this labor, by having Ginger speak from what Alan Liu calls the cold space of nonidentity. “Cool is an attitude or pose from within the belly of the beast,” Liu writes, “an effort to make one’s very mode of inhabiting a cubicle express [an] alternative lifestyle.” It’s such an uplifting experience once you get the hang of it—relating to emptiness; let your soul sway gently in the void. Later, when the guest asks what woman’s talent is Bongi says endurance, and when prodded by him for having a “precarious,” stop-and-start occupation (sex work) as opposed to a real job, she fires back, “What’s life supposed to be, anyway? An endurance contest?”
Arlie Russell Hochschild notes that “women tend to manage feeling more because in general they depend on men for money, and one of the various ways of repaying their debt is to do extra emotion work—especially emotion work that affirms, enhances, and celebrates the well-being and status work of others.” Like Ginger, I was being hailed by the CEO on the plane to admire his accomplishments, out of a structural debt that figures me as indebted before the encounter—despite our relation as strangers, despite our non-conjugality. A debt that figures me as trash collector. What would I ask for anyway, a data entry job registering sex offenders? I wonder what it feels like to be the man whose comfort is enabled by the fact that nearly every person he encounters allows him to monologue on them, but likely only because they want something from him. What is the feeling of being a creditor, a trash depositor? I want to read the patriarch’s affect theory. But the problem with that is the symbolic male’s lack of self-awareness, which means that being a creditor feels like oblivion, and that the question needs to be reformulated into, “What does oblivion feel like?” Oblivion and endurance overlap at the same inconvenient spot: Where one is oblivious another endures.
Russell calls Ginger the “rudder,” which is the mechanism that controls the direction of both boats and planes. How undergirding, directing, and guiding can be framed as diminutive is an insidious mystery, but Solanas is exceptional because she took her role as rudder seriously. She was an argonaut who gave new meaning to her minoritarian affects. She was an affective resistor of debt even though she couldn’t afford it.
In creative writing class, a writer commented on Maggie Nelson’s “use of the body as a motif” and in this moment my rendezvous with creative writing was over. Discussion also circled around how to categorize Nelson’s form, the use of both subjective experience and theory. I thought: what other way is there to live? Theory is not an expedient, the body is not a motif. The body-as-motif is everything that is wrong with Western culture.
Two parts in The Argonauts made me cry. The first was George and Mary Oppen’s love story. They were married for six decades, and after George died from Alzheimer’s-related illness, this note was found tacked above his desk:
Being with Mary: it has
been almost too wonderful
it is hard to believe
My eyes burned as a glaze the width of a contact lens took an eternity to form. I couldn’t remember crying being this physically painful, but flying dehydrates.
The second was Nelson’s foray into Winnicott’s concept of “feeling real.” It might not have been so gutting if the timing had been different. This particular plane ride was my flight home—away from the east coast— but the flight there had been something different.
Nelson writes, “One can aspire to feel real, one can help others to feel real, and one can oneself feel real—a feeling Winnicott describes as the collected, primary sensation of aliveness, ‘the aliveness of the body tissues and working of body-functions, including the heart’s action and breathing,’ which makes spontaneous gesture possible. For Winnicott, feeling real is not reactive to external stimuli, nor is it an identity. It is a sensation—a sensation that spreads. Among other things, it makes one want to live.”
I cried because this had been the only way I’d known how to tell a person I’d been with for many years that I loved them. In an email I’d sent when I came back from Colombia and he’d stayed in 2011, I wrote
your living makes everyone else tolerable
you make me happy, you make me feel like life is real
when you say “but i’m ready to be in the same town” is it meant as a
feeling or something you’re placing down for consideration?
i told some people about the mangoes that fell during dinner
the sap they make
can you even say “rotting” for what mangoes do on the ground
I trudged into the airport at 5am that Wednesday morning. Four years after the email, 2 1/2 years after we’d finally decided to live in the same town (as friends), and more than a year of no contact. I looked up from the self check-in kiosk at the very moment he approached and we saw each other in the same instant. We stood five feet apart tapping the touch screens as the effect of our laser eye contact rapidly cleared the 5am fog.
A Delta employee walked up to ask him and his partner if they’d gotten it all figured out. They had. “Good, and congratulations!” the employee said. His partner was pregnant, which I had just learned the week before by whimsically visiting his blog. She smiled while he stood there with his head down, completing the check-in. I couldn’t believe how jarred I was by their proximity as they rolled away to TSA. We were obviously going to be on the same plane, I knew that. Tucson has the sweetest and smallest airport, with its twenty gates and Saguaro cactus pride. But our classic cosmic luck will have the three of us sitting in the same row—me, him, and his pregnant girlfriend. It turned out to be one degree removed from that awful: I was row 40 and they were 41 across the aisle.
An inadequate way of saying it is that we had grown apart. I cut off contact after a series of events made respectful relating impossible and when the unresolvable nature of our conflict finally clicked into place. The ways each of us were fucked up were incompatible. And the specter of our life-altering romance was haunting the friendship we were trying to sustain. He had always wanted a long-term partner with whom to have children and I knew I was not the mother he had in mind, perhaps not a mother at all. In severing our relationship we lost a world, but if it had not happened there was a way in which neither of us would have been free. So when I read that he and his partner were going to have a baby I thought both, “I had a feeling this exact thing would happen” and “I’m so happy for him, this is what he’s always wanted.”
It was a soft sort of trauma sitting on that plane for 3 1/2 hours—dull and persistent. My heart was racing even as I engaged a tactic of remaining completely, unnaturally still. They were talking and leaning into each other as I sat alone on display a row in front of them. For a few seconds, I allowed myself to strain to hear his voice just to remember what it sounded like, but the din of the engine was too loud. I also willfully tried to block it out knowing that the avalanche wrought by the sound of a loved one’s voice is only paralleled by their scent. What made those hours so terror-filled was less envy than it was 1) the potency of our gag rule: knowing that I ceased contact, knowing why I did, and feeling an overwhelming sense of love for him despite those facts, as well as 2) the knowledge that my presence as a solitary traveler offered him a perfect opportunity to interpret me through the narrative that soothes him about our dissolution. In other words, the very fact of two (now three) VS. one might confirm me as the problem, allowing him to disavow his role in the series of events.
This knowingness on my part turned out not to be paranoia, although the physicality of the VS. probably produced an unnecessary surplus of it. A few days later I rebelled against the obliviousness that buoyed my wellbeing and checked his blog. Analyzed the data. He’d posted a venting, apostrophic text about a you who lacks self-reflection.
Along with the text he posted two videos: the first, a documentation of a fried chicken-induced food coma, camera spanning to an array of fast food trash that remained after the binge: like the inverse of a youtube unboxing video or a trash haul. The second was a video shot during a car ride at night, the camera held from a bird’s eye so that that his face appeared foregrounded and his girlfriend, the designated driver, is visible behind him. I recognize the glazed look in his eyes. He is singing a slow motion version of a Johnny Paycheck song: I’m tellin’ you friend / don’t take her she’s all I got / everything in life I’ll ever need. I register the cinematic quality of this moment, standing outside myself, watching me watch the video on my computer screen. The filmic witnessing of a home movie after the fact of a death. The happiness I feel for him is still there; I wish him happiness. And what that moment taught me is something about charismatic love that showers whoever is in the slot. His love is familiar, and I was right about not filling it. I love him despite knowingness and this scares me at the same time that it teaches me about my capacity to love. No longer taking out the trash, or no longer collecting data, is not so much about tallying your correctness as it is about doing what is right for yourself.
What I’m talking about is the sinking feeling of making a right decision. I believe there is a point in habitual right-decision-making when decisions are no longer trailed by the sink.
Flying back from Atlanta, I’m stuck beside a loquacious couple popping Xanax on the way to LA. They’re in real estate in Alabama and before I could assume their red-state residency meant they, too, were red, they trashed the taboo against talking politics in confined spaces and presumed solidarity in liberal identification. Republicans are just bad people you know? but they’re both fiscally conservative and she was going to pursue a graduate education but then “this happened and kids” as she pointed to her shrugging husband. They kept ordering boxed airplane food and gin and tonics, getting dreadfully drunker beside me. She was like Ginger, one of the boys, and he had one of those cartoon faces. When the attendant with a good sense of humor leaned down to whisper the results of his research in my ear, cartoon face eavesdropped: “Okay: so it’s Waka Flocka Flame.” I’d passed the tall, tattooed rapper in first class swearing I knew him but couldn’t put a name to his face, so I’d asked the attendant when I walked to the bathroom. Cartoon goes, “What? Who?” and after learning why this person was famous he began denigrating rap music like all sophisticated white folk do. “My son listens to that crap.” But his face suddenly lit up. He had an idea. He pulled out a vomit bag from the seatback and hailed the flight attendant who was working first class. “Hello, I am wondering if you can please have Waka Flock sign this for my son—he’s a big fan.” She darted her eyes in the direction of the first class curtain and told him that he was asleep, but that she’d see what she can do if he wakes up, and anyway, she has paper up at her station. He corrected her: “No, it has to be the vomit bag.” He thinks the idea is genius and commendably funny. He somehow sees no correlation between his initial equation of rap with “crap”—racism—and asking a black man to sign a vomit bag, which is also asking him to accede to his status as trash. The flight attendant was the trash collector, the data entry worker, so she didn’t even think about asking for the autograph.
1 Fahs, Breanne. 2014. Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman who wrote SCUM (and shot Andy Warhol). New York: Feminist Press.