Karen Cheung and Paul C. Fermin write about outsiders, love letters, abjection, reality TV, temporal vibes, art theory babes, etc.
The following is a correspondence between two editors who became undefeatable friends. They worked together nearly every day, for the past four years, at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. When one of them decided to leave for London, they began reflecting on...well, everything and nothing in particular, with the unspoken assumption that these letters would be a deeply felt record of their time together (and hopefully not cringe). This correspondence took place from August to September 2022, and was the last thing Karen and Paul worked on together at AAA.
PAUL: DANCE WRITE FEEL
we just got back from lunch and you're sitting at your desk as i type this. we have about a month left before you leave for london, and since this isn't a typical correspondence (whatever that means), i suppose we can drop the social scripts like maeve from westworld and jump right into...stuff.
like, have i mentioned i've been obsessed with yoojung lee's dance choreography?
the woman is a savant of motion. i've been wanting to write something about her style, but in my attempts to describe the uniqueness of her movements—what sets her apart from other choreographers—the inadequacies of my present vocabulary have become apparent.
i don't have the language to meaningfully describe her language, her interventions—her expansiveness and fluidity and swag and precision and timing and grace and power and and and—and i revel in this state: this being confounded by someone, this being in awe, this being driven to exceed present limitations, this being...challenged.
as editors, few things we want more than to work with people who can write as well as yoojung lee can dance. writing as lyrical as her choreography is etheral. i mean, come on:
what if we put out a call for submissions that was just this video, with a line underneath that said:
we are now accepting writing that can do this ^^^. send us ur pitches, k thx!
i feel like we'd get pure chaos in our inboxes for about a month.
anyways. maybe one day i'll commission or write something that does yoojung's choreography justice—whatever dafuq that means (but forreal you know what i mean).
meanwhile, how about this: did you know walter benjamin's dissertation was rejected by both his philosophy and literature departments, which pretty much ended his academic run? (less pressure to write about benjamin since there's already zillions of tomes on him.)
i mean, what were the conditions, the blind spots, the disciplinary attachments, such that his writing could not be acknowledged for its...ummm, sheer brilliance?
maybe i also think about this as an editor/publisher—say, being critical about our own gatekeeping role in "knowledge production" (which, btw, is such a sterile term that obscures all the egos and libidos involved). when gatekeepers appeal to "maintaining standards" or "quality control," these can sometimes be euphemisms for reproducing the status quo, a way of disciplining or excluding more radical voices.
benjamin's work, however, did much more than survive. in uni i remember being assigned his work across nearly all my humanities electives, from political science to comparative literature to film theory, which speaks to buzzwords like its "ongoing relevance" and "transdisciplinarity." but lately i've been drawn to the fact that benjamin's friends—yay, friendship!—fought to keep his work alive. scholem and bataille and adorno, for example, all played a part in preserving benjamin's work, each with their own projections and intentions (e.g., adorno wasn't a fan of all the messianic stuff and seemed to downplay it for benjamin's supposedly "more mature" and properly "political" work).
some of our asia art archive researchers and collections team also come to mind. the way they archive—say, fight for the relevance of—the work of mrinalini mukherjee or huang xiaopeng, for example. those are the type of people you’d want in your corner, right? fighters.
anyways i've been keeping a list of writers like benjamin. people whose work was opposed by the establishment of their day, but who nonetheless outlasted them all and became "essential reading." benjamin is the first entry. here are the next two:
- FRANTZ FANON. His psychiatry dissertation, "Essay on the Disalienation of the Black," was rejected. But the man fought against Nazis and later joined the Algerian National Liberation Front, so of course he wasn't going to let some vacuous dissertation board stop him. Fanon worked hard to get his diss published as a book, and fortunately we now have it in the form of Black Skin, White Masks.
- CEDRIC ROBINSON. The political theory faculty at Stanford refused to sign-off on his dissertation, "Leadership: A Mythic Paradigm." It took three years and a legal challenge for it to finally be approved, and many more years for it to be published as what we now know as The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership. No surprise they didn't want it published—Robinson proves their understanding of the political order itself to be illusory.
i'll say it again: "knowledge production" is such a sterile term. people get fucked up and fucked over, and you know how sticky it gets. in cases like these, "knowledge production" would more aptly be described as war by other means.
benjamin understood this. it's part of what gave his writing its power. he wrote: "The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious" (thank gawd for the jennings translation). benjamin understood that it was a fight, that there were real stakes with a real enemy, and that the enemy remains victorious for now. (side note: you know i got your back in a fight, k.)
but these are all "big names" and all dudes, and i've not had the privilege of interacting with them nearly every day of my life, these past few years, as i have with you, karen.
besides, our relationship revolves around more than just our common enemies. no one puts this better than june jordan:
I am saying that the ultimate connection cannot be the enemy. The ultimate connection must be the needs that we find between us. It is not only who you are, in other words, but what we can do for each other that will determine the connection.
and so i'm also thinking about the writers you're drawn to, and the influence you yourself have had on me, how your diurnal presence has been so intensely formative. for one, this relationship has shifted my reading habits (you do realise that, right?), which in turn has influenced the kind of writing i'm drawn to as an editor, the kind of things i aspire to commission and publish—the kind of person i am, full stop.
which is to say: you loom as large in my personal pantheon as walter benjamin. and then some.
i think one way we articulated the difference in our reading preferences, at least initially, is that even though we're interested in similar thematics, i'm more inclined to reach for critical theory's response to a given impasse, while you tend to favour the way novels and memoirs might address similar terrain.
nowadays, though, i’m more likely to be reading, say, jenny zhang alongside sianne ngai.
this shift is because of you.
when we first started working together, in what feels like a lifetime ago (protests, pandemics, "relationships," etc.), we had discussions about "asian american women who listen to mitski" (which was a thing), and the publishing industry's attachment to trauma narratives. larissa pham laid out the stakes of this back in 2016:
The Internet's personal-essay economy largely operates on the labor of often young, often female writers willing to lay bare some topical personal trauma or condition in exchange for a break into the publishing and media industry. I have been one of them; I still am. Generally titled 'What It's Like to X' or 'How It Feels to X,' these personal essays, and their reported kin, purport to answer for the reader how it feels, whatever it may be....What does it say about us that we must see not only how it felt but also how very bad it was?
we spoke about this off-and-on over the years, and with regards to your own book as you were shaping it—i wonder: where are you on this now? (it's worth noting that mitski herself, apparently overwhelmed, took a hiatus from music and moved to nashville.)
in our own ways, as editors, i think we're always searching—say, longing—for people who unravel and undo and rebuild us like a walter benjamin, like a mitski, like a yoojung lee, like so many others we've commiserated over. we know they're out there; we've even had the privilege of working with some of them. and i wanna say that so much of this is aspirational and, OK, admittedly quixotic—because there's no way anyone's gonna be batting 1000 with criteria that says: "let's commission a walter benjamin for every single essay!"
but anyways, how have your preferences changed over the years, editorial or literary or otherwise? what sorts of shifts have you noted for yourself? are there genres or forms or thematics you're now more interested in exploring? and is anyone more annoying than dj khaled?
let's dance, karen.
"day or night, 빛나던 ride or die,"
Karen: Dropouts & Outsiders
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, you wrote a long email to Em and I meditating on the genre of Westerns. In particular, you discussed the archetype of the “outlaws,” who are committed to the broad notion of justice but operate outside of the realms of civilised order, as outsiders to a community they care about but do not belong to. You and I—sometimes separately, sometimes jointly—go through periods of “obsessions” when we consume large amounts of art in a particular genre, and then belatedly interrogate ourselves about why we were drawn to this writer or filmmaker or musician, try to identify connections between that and what we were going through in our personal or professional lives at that time. Sometimes we figure it out. A THREAD EMERGES! we proclaim with glee. But sometimes they remain bafflingly disparate, and we know we have to be patient—it may only make sense with the passage of time, when we could see and understand ourselves more clearly.
I do not particularly care for cowboys and the Wild West, nor have I read Stanley Cavell (although it’s forever someone I’ll associate with you—like Chris Marker), but I read the email a few times, watching you work out in real time how the figures that populate Westerns relate to your sympathies with the underdog, those who are committed to the fight but often treated as outsiders by the establishment. I mention this now because, well, with the examples you gave—Frantz Fanon, Cedric Robinson—does that not also fall into the same thread of the outsider?
AAA’s Editorial team has a history of accidentally hiring law dropouts; at its peak, there were four of us who had completed our law degrees to varying extents, and one editor (Chelsea) even joined us after a past life as a lawyer. This also makes us one of the only departments at the Archive that isn’t populated with art history graduates. To some extent, we’re all outsiders of the art world. Over the past four years I’ve worked here, the types of responses to our editorial feedback I’ve been most irked by are the ones where art writers make references to our lack of art history credentials, as though that automatically undermines the validity of our comments on their writing. All while remaining entirely oblivious to the unreadability of their jargon-heavy texts! I am sometimes reminded of my favourite snarky piece of writing about the art text, in Paris Review:
Nothing drives home the vacuousness of an art text like having to dissect its every hollow carapace of a sentence. I once translated nearly thirty pages of an artist’s manifesto and still for the life of me was unable to picture not only what his work looked like but of what it consisted. Was it a video? An installation? Fluxus performance? (It ended up being found-object sculpture.) The text was so far up its own abstract ass it had entirely lost sight of the actual work (which I have come to understand is the entire point of an art text).
(On a tangential note, recently I said to you that I worry I’m not a very good editor, and you wondered if it might be because my own writing voice is so loud, when I read other people’s texts I don’t necessarily hear the cadences in their voices. I think it’s a salient observation and it’s something I want to work on.)
You’ve mentioned feeling like an outsider in some of the institutions within which you were brought up—the church, for instance, and as Asian American in your native Chicago. I think this maybe is a thread that connects not just what we look for in the art we are drawn to, but also between the two of us: the perpetual state of existing on the outside. I grew up within different education systems in Hong Kong, and had had a hard time fitting in. (Recently a reviewer of my book wrote that I had an “epically miserable childhood,” which made me laugh.) I, too, wrestled with the question of what it means to belong all my life. Now the positionality of an outsider no longer bothers me—or at least, it doesn’t feel as though it requires addressing in any urgent way. But I still feel this outside-ness at times, especially when I contemplate upon the non-space I’m situated within, with regards to the Anglophone writing scene or publishing industry. I am not American, not Asian American, not diaspora. I don’t fit into the categories of authors on a diversity list for ________ month, because I am not part of that community. Even with the group that I feel most of an affinity to in the existing cultural space outside of Hong Kong—young Asian American women writing (or singing) about Affect—I had, for a long time, felt inferior to them because I’m not an art theory babe who went to Barnard. A few months after your email about Westerns, in one of my pre-publication anxiety spells for my book, I sent you, on WhatsApp, with little context:
thinking about how often ‘cool’ is perpetuated by those who were born into and exist within structures of cultural elitism (liberal art colleges, access to ‘intellectual’ publications), purely for a misguided sense of superiority over those they know will never have access to ‘the club’ in the first place;
cynicism is necessary but it’s also necessary to see what the source of that cynicism is & its proximity to elitist structures. cynicism that originates from a rejection of institutions but that continues to benefit from existing privilege, directed at those who could not afford to survive outside of institutions, is just lazy and boring
I was so easily triggered! Ha. I felt no small amount of anxiety over the fact that with the upcoming publication of the book with a mainstream publisher, I could no longer claim “outsider” status: I’ll be part of the institution, and by extension, the problem. And yet I harboured this simmering resentment towards those who were afforded the choice to reject these institutions, who could say fuck you without consequences. It was so tiring. I was tiring myself out! And you were so exasperated with me, but also patient.
I finally got over it this year; I don’t mythologise these people anymore, or put them on a pedestal, obsess over the ways I could never be like them. As important as it is to identify and find kinship with other outsiders, so as to share resources, there also comes a time when that positioning hurts rather than helps us—e.g., perpetual bitterness, a refusal to acknowledge the privilege that has since been accrued, a misidentification with others kept out of that privilege by means of class and race—and now, now I’m just grateful towards the people who’ve made things possible for me, like my editor Marie, and Clare, and I want to figure out ways I can play a similar role to other people in my life.
If there is one “shift” I notice within myself over these four years, one that you certainly contributed to, I no longer hold myself to irrational standards about what I was “supposed” to have read or not read, and became more comfortable and confident in what I liked and disliked. I am not, as you often characterise it, theory-adverse. What I’m allergic to in writing is posturing, and there is so much posturing in art writing. I just want the writers to cut through the bullshit. I want to know how they FEEL! (OKOK, we’re back to Affect etc.)
I learned about some “important” theorists and writers and artists so embarrassingly late in the game; I would not have survived in the literati/publishing world (when I occasionally peek at literary twitter I feel like I’d barely even survive there). But maybe it’s fine that I forget Kierkegaard was Danish every now and then. My favourite genre of writing this past year has been “women reading dead writers”—Kate Zambreno reading Rilke, Elif Batuman reading the Russians, and Sarah Chihaya reading Anne Carson reading Emily Brontë. There is a strength, too, in writing that comes from a place of feeling intensely, and having the language to articulate it—and so many writers I admire engage with texts, too, in a critical but personal manner.
Are these part of the “same thematics” you’re alluding to?
My question to you: Do you still feel like an outsider? Does it matter? Has it influenced what you read or write?
P.S. I knew you were going to sneak Fanon in here somehow, but I wasn’t expecting it to come so early on. Of the 600+ memes we’ve sent each other (I checked our image log), the Fanon-meme thread is at once the silliest, most serious, and most impossible to explain to other people.
PAUL: BABES OPACITY WAYWARD
i'd rather read your work over art-theory-barnard-babe's any day. no question.
because "your work" is characterised by a refusal of abstraction. you insist on exploring the concrete emotional stakes of a given subject (which is different than saying you're fixated on interiority)—deploying the full range of sense perception to enliven your prose.
like, you'll describe, with muted heartbreak, how after-set plans with a hong kong indie/emo band turned sour once everyone's muscles got sore from lugging around all the instruments and gear; or the way it feels to have dripping water from air conditioners slide down your frizzy hair in this torrid hong kong heat; about the incongruence of seeing your father slumped over a couch at 3am in a white undershirt, while leslie cheung's voice reverberated throughout the living room; how the street to your apartment smelled like bread and fresh laundry, always, and how you ritualistically breathed it in and loved it all the same...
karen, you are so fiercely devoted to documenting your friends, your communities, your city, your favourite music—sharing all the things you love and hate about them always (TMI be damned!). at its best, the specificity of your intensely personal writing illuminates the historical, social, or otherwise political forces impinging upon it. you also have an avowed ethical commitment to improving, to getting better at narrating all this, and to finding new (non-cringe!!!) ways of doing so.
what more can anyone ask of a writer?
so, yeah, between you and art-theory-barnard-babe, my chips are all in on THE KOC. (remember that nickname?)
that said, i do think i have a higher tolerance for "jargon-heavy texts" than you—like, i'll stick around a bit longer to see if there's actually any there, there—even with texts some have deemed "unreadable."
maybe this just comes with being a huge theory nerd, where it's understood that sometimes—stylistically, aesthetically, formally—the text's purported "unreadability" or "opacity" is itself a deliberate choice, perhaps even an ethical one; and a certain pleasure can come from tarrying with these interventions. fred moten writing after/alongside edouard glissant comes to mind (quick shout-out to joseph earl thomas who led a brilliant class on this). texts like these are ones i've returned to over the years—even though i’m still not sure i really understand them.
maybe more interesting are the texts we thought were so transparent and obvious, so simple, but further down the road we realised were anything but—texts that, a lifetime later, we discover to be more profound (say, existentially), or more sinister (say, ideologically), than we initially recognised.
but, yeah, i get what you're saying, karen—i'm with you. more often a text's unreadability may have no deeper significance than just being...terribly and lazily written. and sometimes more than just terrible, it's soul crushingly bad—like, stab my eyeballs, throw me into a vat of acid, i've lost all faith in language itself bad. sometimes i end up taking a walk at the park near our office, or visiting our collections team in the library to restore some HP like a videogame save point. but usually i just turn to you and say, "this is so...agghhhhhh!!! no stakes at all!!!"
anyways, you asked me if i still feel like an outsider. whether that matters, whether that influences what i read/write. i cringe because i wrote that email to you and emily many moons ago, and the shifts i've had since then have been significant.
basically, i'd say i'm not really invested in "outsider-ness." i'm wary of people who romanticise being an outsider, or claim it as some sort of ontological identity, with the kind of movement that ends up reifying the very structures it hopes to critique. wanting to be an outsider for the sake of being an outsider sounds kinda *barf* tbh.
and of course "outsider" is a relative term—outsider to whom or what? the state? the "art world"? the tiktok hamster cosplay community? more important to me are the actual commitments, the stances one takes that renders one as such, and why.
this is yet another way of asking what's at stake.
maybe it's an ethical commitment that excludes one from institutional forms of belonging (e.g., participation in religious communities), a political one that commits you to certain allegiances (and therefore forecloses others), or even personal boundaries that lead you to forgo familial (familiar?) relations. there are always costs; and these costs are real and material and never easy. there is a lot to lose, and the infrastructures for living a "non-normative" life have always been precarious.
but as diane di prima puts it in letter #1: "the stakes are myself / i have no other."
this, btw, is different than saying i am no longer drawn to, or moved by, "outsiders" trying to make a difference in the world—because i am. i tend to gravitate towards them, still.
"the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it," right? at least according to marx. or to change your life, right? according to rilke. and these sorts of changes are not contingent upon maintaining some essential identity as an outsider—but maybe i just feel like "outsiders" are often the only ones doing this sort of work with any gravity.
i want the world to change for them, for you—not the other way around.
i want a world in which they are no longer excluded or rendered as "outsiders." which is the same as saying i cannot abide the world as it stands, the world as we know it. (i said something along similar lines to sam chan just now, which is kinda bonkers since we pretty much just met—but goddamit it's 100% real and i know they get it.)
here's how césaire put it (a huge influence on fanon *sneaking in more fanon*):
The only thing in the world worth beginning:
The End of the world of course.
of course. don't you love that "of course"? the End of the world of course—these are the stakes for césaire.
this is a very different framing than that email about outlaws and outsiders, in which i failed to interrogate conceptions of "justice" and "the world" still based on racial orders of western thought. like, when cavell speaks of "the world," he means something very different than césaire, who understands "the world" to be the colonial world—our world—predicated on forms of dispossession and exclusion and "gratuitous violence" (frank b. wilderson's phrase).
even the very notion of "the human," something we might assume to be universally accessible (spoiler alert: it is not), is something people like sylvia wynter have pushed me to completely re-examine. and there's no way i could've come to these conclusions on my own, or by sticking with traditional paths through the western canon of dead white men we are "supposed" to read.
i am glad you feel more free to read whatever the hell you want, karen, rather than what you are "supposed" to, because this world—the world as it stands—never loved you. why spend so much time courting it?
karen, i'm conscious how abstract and highfalutin this may sound, but let me close this letter with reference to saidiya hartman—because i think she's a genius and there are parallels to draw between her work and your own.
i'm specifically thinking about wayward lives, beautiful experiments, where hartman is looking at america at the turn of the twentieth century. the book opens with a short but compelling "note on method," from which i'll quote at length:
I have crafted a counter-narrative liberated from the judgment and classification that subjected young black women to surveillance, arrest, punishment, and confinement, and offer an account that attends to beautiful experiments—to make living an art—undertaken by those often described as promiscuous, reckless, wild, and wayward. The endeavor is to recover the insurgent ground of these lives; to exhume open rebellion from the case file, to untether waywardness, refusal, mutual aid, and free love from their identification as deviance, criminality, and pathology; to affirm free motherhood (reproductive choice), intimacy outside the institution of marriage, and queer and outlaw passions; and to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked, but is nearly unimaginable.
hartman says the usual "jazz era" narratives focus on college-educated elites like, say, zelda fitzgerald dancing wildly in a country club, as somehow representative of the birth of "the modern world"—even though a decade or two earlier, there were young black women involved in similar social practices; their lives, however, were deemed "criminal" or "pathological," and so even today they remain outside the frame of these "narratives of progress." like, instead we keep getting these productions celebrating "the flapper" as somehow this completely novel and radical redefinition of womanhood.
i think hartman's work is so vital and sacred (yes, sacred).
in the last few lines of her note, she says she's interested in exploring "the utopian longings and the promise of a future world that resided in waywardness," and that the "wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise."
so, yeah—that was a hella roundabout way of saying that, these days, hartman's conception of the "wayward" grips me more than notions of the "outsider." makes sense this book would make me think of your own work, yeah? and you didn't answer my question about "trauma narratives" and mitski and stuff—where are you on all that?
"always wanna go, wanna ride, can you keep up?"
Karen: Abjection & Stuck-ness
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about abjection—that liminal space of unbelonging—and especially about the Abject Woman, as conceptualised by Julia Kristeva. The art that most moves me often arises from a place of abjection, or are made by women who have embraced abjection. They do not shy away from provoking disgust, and consciously address, reject, the conventions and societal expectations imposed upon their female body. Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism opens with the insatiable hunger that women sometimes feel, before sharp-turning into discussions about dreams, particularly dreams of home & utopia (which rather neatly circles back to Berlant’s fantasy and cruel optimism). Then there’s Karla Cornejo Villavicencio and her almost throwaway mentions of self-harm in her memoir, Larissa Pham’s writing about Nan Goldin and bruises (though Larissa’s prose itself is still tender, it’s like she can’t help herself and I love her for it), Jenny Zhang’s poetry centring “cunts” and “goo,” and Chantal Akerman’s rebellion against the figure of the domestic woman in her filmography.
Another example, though this might have been less than intentional, is Mitski’s NPR Tiny Desk set, where she screamed into her guitar pickup as she wore her acne scars like armour. In an old tweet, she once said of the performance, “if u have a presentation or meeting or just have to go show ur face in public when u feel like utter unpresentable garbage I suggest u go see my tiny desk video where I showed up to NPR to be documented forever looking like a big pulsing void and radiating pain and I still did it.” That performance both shakes and shatters me. There is a rawness in it that is beyond music, beyond art. I actually hate that word, raw; so often is it used to describe female writing as veiled criticism that we’ve shown too much skin and it’s unbearable (again, disgust).
There is such a thin line between our projected and real selves, and such a pronounced mismatch between the vulnerability we wish to convey versus the disgust that it elicits within the audience. I’ve been mulling over abjection because I’ve become recently aware of my tendency to perform, both in my writing and in my personal life, for the gaze—how I desire to fulfil and become their projected ideal of me, to be soft & subservient. I am trying to unlearn this, to run towards abjection, towards disgust. This is why, perhaps, I read what I read, and why I identified with, and felt emboldened by, the art of these women. (A THREAD EMERGES)
You asked where I am now, on the question of trauma narratives, and this is perhaps not a straightforward answer to that. I certainly feel much more of an inclination to “protect” myself more, put distance between my “self” and the one I put onto the page. But I also think that, as much as trauma narratives have been “weaponised” by publishing—the desire within the writers themselves to make visible and hold space for trauma has also been weaponised against us. I do not want to gatekeep my own pain. I want it to be blinding, disgusting even, and I don’t care if it makes you uncomfortable. And then, I can put it away; I can move on.
Also, I want to stop apologising, haha.
This segues into something you mentioned with regards to our commissioning of writers—and our yearning for writers who unravel and undo and rebuild us (and more often than not, this fantasy falls short). But that disappointment—idk, is it them, or is it us? In London I bought and read, then subsequently gifted you, Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. At the risk of offering a crude summary, he writes about why it’s so easy to feel intense hatred towards poetry—no other medium promises as much as poetry does. Good poems are supposed to be “transcendent,” “divine,” yet so few of them ever achieve this; worse yet, their attempts at this lofty ideal are so transparent in the writing itself—what we editors like to call being able to see the seams. That is the gap between the “virtual” and the “actual” poem.
All of this is to say: Are we demanding the impossible of our writers, when we commission from them?
I’m getting off topic, but last autumn, I watched, and then made you watch, a Korean film called Little Forest, adapted from a Japanese “slice of life” manga series. In it, the woman runs away from her responsibilities, from society really, voluntarily casting herself out to farm, cook, and contemplate upon life. The viewing experience is so gentle and quiet that it provokes, in us as the audience, the light escapism that the story itself depicts (an escapist film about escapism, if you will). Shortly after I saw the film, I, too, ran away for a long weekend to Lamma to finish some work away from the city. Then I wound up writing a short story about a woman who feels “stuck” (another one of our threads, stuck-ness) and fantasises about being so independent she would not need anybody in this world. You were my first reader for the story, and you did not psychoanalyse the fuck out it, for which I was very grateful. (An anecdote: one time, my friend received a paper from his partner, which came with the explicit instruction NO FEEDBACK PLS PROOFREAD ONLY.)
But these are fantasies. We can dream of better worlds, but we can never be free of the immediate world around us. There is only one world (that we know of thus far), and it’s this. We may do as we wish with that fact, but we cannot change these material conditions. We just have to make what we can out of it.
Your Best Abject Girl
PAUL: THE BEAR THE WORLD
i wanna make a timeline of all the movies and tv shows we binge-watched over the years, and what we were editing/writing while watching.
but i'm so bad at dates! maybe it doesn't matter.
terrace house had to have been our icebreaker show, and i think we were editing the nilima sheikh conversations around that time. more recently we binged the korean reality show single's inferno, which was terrible, but commiserating with you over memes and screenshots—aka, my love language—was totally worth it (the men are trash, per the yooz, but yea-won and so-yeon deserved so much better). this was during hk's fifth covid wave, when we were editing samira's conversation with reliable copy.
i wonder how our netflix consumption affects our editing. (like, “can we get a decent villain up in these footnotes???” or, "this essay desperately needs a han-san persona for the arguments to really cohere…")
the bear, billed as "a restaurant comedy drama" set in a chicago neighbourhood deli called "the beef," is our most recent touchpoint—which makes it our final show while working in the same office. i think there's something poetic about that. about where both we and the show leave off. (open question as to whether we'll be renewed for a second season.)
i mean, the bear is a show about working with a small team in a claustrophobic space, trying to be better while sorting through pain and projections from the past, with anxiety about a future that appears increasingly bleak. it's a show about hometowns, the leaving and returning and avoiding of them, the distance between who you were and who you're becoming—discrepancies in values, convictions, needs—and the near-impossibility of processing, much less communicating all this to others.
it's a show about confronting an impasse, of finding oneself stuck—whether professionally or existentially or geographically or whatever, with the surest sign of distress being the murkiness of these distinctions (which is which is which?)—all the while, without even realising it, you stumble into a "holding environment for love" that is, paradoxically, both fragile and unbreakable.
it's about forming deep relational bonds. one centres on the head chef, carmy, and his sous chef, sydney, who come from radically different worlds, yet who somehow share an unspoken understanding about each other and their craft—what they demand from it, what it demands from them; and working in an environment where their aspirations are not necessarily shared or understood, but where they keep working anyway because they know in their bones what is possible, what's just beyond their present grasp.
there is such a strong—even unhealthy—link they make between their dishes and their very selves. when carmy dismisses sydney's signature risotto dish (and, later, marcus's jelly donut), this rejection cuts so deep that it eventually leads to sydney quitting—the restaurant, and the relationship (which is which is which?).
we are trained to be wary of such pursuits of mastery, of projects for perfecting the neoliberal subject, of the cruel optimism misdirecting our genuine flourishing. but ahhh, a dish executed at its peak (like a "fully realised self"?)—this is something they have an unshakable taste (appetite/drive) for; and their tastes (judgement/sensibilities) are in alignment over what would constitute such occurrences. because they have tasted, they have seen; they remember, they reach; and so they also share a sense—even if not identical—of what could still yet be.
they are not so much demanding the impossible (not from themselves, and not from the other chefs)—but their demands are undergoing a transformation.
call it a crisis.
they no longer want what can be achieved alone. put differently, the very nature of their desire has changed, such that a certain interdependence (or collaboration) is required to meet it. the question is whether, and how, and to what extent, they come to recognise this; whether, and how, and to what extent, they can start building together.
i mean, with all their intensity and bravado and demanding-demands, when it really comes down to it—when it really matters—when shit finally gets real—will they be able to be real with themselves? will they have the requisite courage and vulnerability to choose each other?
this show is, ultimately, aspirational—while consciously trying to avoid the sentimental. which is so key. i mean, there is so much being peddled as "reparative," under the sign of "care" and "relationality." but one thing the bear understands is, well, the same thing tolstoy understood; that "pure and perfect sorrow is as impossible as pure and perfect joy," that even our moments of greatest joy can be tinged, however imperceptibly, with sorrow. and also that there is far greater ambivalence to our days than we may acknowledge.
do you remember the song that plays in the final moments?
you'll recall that the massive financial debt weighing so heavily on carmy—inherited from his deceased older brother—gets resolved through a sort of deus ex machina (a forgivable plot contrivance, since the interpersonal issues and conflicts were always central, and it is really their repair and flourishing that ultimately mattered).
in this scene, everyone has returned—even and especially sydney (gawd i love sydney)—and they gather around the table, "family style." a more conventional director would likely have played up the more celebratory elements, the festivity of the moment, a succession of close-ups on smiles and laughter and cups overflowing. all is restored. all is made whole.
to be sure, there is some of that here.
but there's also a note of sorrow, even ambivalence, that undergirds the scene—a consoling image of carmy's dead brother, who has been an abiding absent-presence throughout the show, is reinserted at the end. radiohead's "let down" is also playing in the background:
don't get sentimental
it always ends up drivel
you know, you know where you are with
you know where you are with
and i love that. especially the unusual phrasing of "you know where you are with."
karen, it would not be hyperbolic to say that certain books, certain passages—hell, even certain sentences have saved my life; and i am not speaking metaphorically.
do you remember when i texted you this photo, when i was at the contemporary art museum in seoul after losing someone i loved?
and how that one sentence ("Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to flee for refugee?")—with absolutely no understanding of its context within the Qur’an—immediately crystalised and consoled something so deep within me, that i ended up repeating the phrase over and over, for at least a solid month, like some lunatic?
another such sentence comes from lauren berlant. it's something they said in passing during a q&a, and i think about it in relation to that final scene in the bear:
What they want is a feeling; they don't really want a world.
berlant was talking about a right-wing populist movement that weaponises public feelings to advance their agenda—in violent opposition to people actually trying to build an inhabitable world.
but that sentence has also helped me find closure amidst the rubble of relationships i tried so desperately and haphazardly to maintain, with the realisation that i cannot build anything of substance with people only interested in a feeling—say, in a connection, rather than a relationship. i have wasted so much time—both my own and that of others—given too much of myself—trying to build with people who, when shit finally got real, only wanted a feeling, and on their own terms. but these are never things one can know in advance. (hopefully much better now at reading the signs and adjusting accordingly.)
the characters in the bear, each in their own way, come to a similar realisation. because for them, it was never really a question of integrating their "real" versus "projected selves" (whatever those are). the resolution of their character arcs involved a transformation, and eventual recognition, of the truth of their desire—and then deciding to decide; choosing to act on it, and collectively. they didn't find themselves in some completely new world; instead, they came to see their present world—the very one and the same—otherwise.
the beef became the bear.
i mean, the whole time they had been cooking with, surrounded by, their fellow chefs and friends and colleagues—but they had never actually chosen them; never really understood what or why or where they were with. yet by the end, their palates, their taste and their tastes, had so radically transformed that they no longer wanted to make their dishes the way they used to. for them, what a "great dish" entails was completely altered, not only the substance of the dish, but also the nature of its production, how and why and with whom it must be made.
they found themselves choosing each other, choosing to build a world together—mutually, noncoercively—and they had only just begun, where they are with: a world shot through with sorrow and joy, with connection and intimacy and tenderness and refuge and possibility, and i had a whole lot more i wanted to say in this letter to you, karen. i wanted to write about little forest (since you mentioned it) and spacetime (!!!) and lacanian psychoanalysis and reality tv and and and—but let me pause for now by saying thank you, chef. thank you for being an abiding presence in my life, especially when some of my own worlds imploded ("oh, for a minute there / i lost myself"). thank you for helping me get back up and fight another day, thank you for helping me embrace where i am with, thank you for being real when it mattered.
love you, karen. i'll write you again later.
“just like honey,”
Karen: Poetry & Trauma Narratives & Love Letters
I like the directness of this epistolary format, how the form lends itself to one saying exactly all that they need to say to another. In some corners of the writing world in Hong Kong, the “literariness” of writing is determined by its opacity, by its strangeness, by the layers one needs to peel back before we get to the core. For a while I, too, confused poeticism with a certain level of unreadability, and it was why I turned instead to writing lyrics—the exhilarating freedom! to just say, you’re so hot it’s hurting my feelings (Caroline Polachek, 2019). No imagery, no setting, no ambiguity—just pure libido.
Or the lyrics to this Girlpool song that I’ve been putting on loop all summer:
Will I die at this faultline?
Between the edge of entropy and woe
I wanted everything so much it grows
Until I can't manage this appetite
I loved you so traumatically that I
Can barely lift the world you left for me
There's lots of ghosts I somehow still can see
God, nobody writes about heartbreak like young girls and queer folks. Sometimes when reading “literature,” we confuse our repulsion towards sentimentality in writing with emotion (which is necessary)—Mary Gaitskill made such a distinction in her interview on the Between the Covers podcast. In lyrics, that delineation is moot. We just say it—sing it—like it is, and I love that.
But this year, I’ve been returning to poetry. Maybe I had given up on that medium too early; I had met people when I first started writing, who had ruined poetry for me—I could never disentangle the artform from them. The last time I wrote or had a poem published was in 2018. If I had read more Emily Berry, Ada Limón, Mary Oliver, Chen Chen, Natalie Diaz, back when I was still trying to be a poet…but I see the poets working in Hong Kong today, some of them so young, and they’re so good, it makes me hopeful. June Jordan says: “Good poems can interdict a suicide, rescue a love affair, and build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter.”
I’ve been reading Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran, a memoir-in-letters; it took a moment for me to realise that it was the same Senthuran we hung out with one afternoon three, maybe four years ago, not long after I started working here. We had talked about the figure of the undead, the homogeneity of hotels and airports, and the song “Nightcall” in the Drive soundtrack. I don’t remember much about those early months at AAA, that year before the protests started, except that I had been happy. I had been starting to heal from the franticness of my days in the newsroom, from the chaos of my early twenties when I drank too much and stayed out too late and got my heart broken, over and over. Sitting in the office in between you and Em, surrounded by stacks of books we’ve started and abandoned, laughing about a Key & Peele skit—it felt like coming home.
The first time you and I met, I was staring into the distance during my interview, distracted, as the summer rain splintered against the window, and you asked me questions about what I had been reading and who the writers I admire were. You like telling this story, to illustrate, I guess, how spacey I am, but I remember that moment too—I was picturing what it’d be like to walk to office every morning from my apartment in Po Hing, how I know that on that route, I’d be able to hear the songbirds that rest in that old tree with the aerial roots. I intuitively knew that being here, I’d have a life that feels a little quieter, more settled. In my last month here, I’ve found myself doing the same, especially on rainy days: sit at the pantry by the water dispenser, watching the small movements on Possession Street and Hollywood Road Park, looking down at the dry goods store where I had bought my toilet brush and claypot, or the fruit and vegetable stall around the corner where I was once guilt-tripped into buying $80 grapes. It is August now, and every day when we’re off work at six, the sky is one shade darker, as if to remind me of my numbered days.
For my first two years here, Em and I would joke about how strange it is we never got to read your writing, even though you are obviously a very good editor, and you had read so much of our work. There had been a piece on AAA, about Cao Fei and hip hop, that you had written before I joined, and I remember skimming it one afternoon, then never being able to find it again (later I learned that you had taken it offline, presumably because you wanted to disown it). You said to me recently that these letters have been easy for you to write because once you have a specific person you’re addressing in your head, the words just come flowing out—when you write to the two of us, or Liana, for example. But even when we’re writing explicitly for an audience, we are often really just writing for a specific person. I think everything I write is just one long, continuous subtweet aimed at people who have left my life, against my wishes. I’m still writing about them, to them, sometimes to say fuck you, sometimes to say I love you.
So it could be worth considering, the next time you find it difficult to write: who is this you you are writing to? And is this you that you’re addressing in the text the same you that you’re hoping would read this?
Returning, for a brief moment, to our thread on trauma narratives: there was a time when I resisted the idea of writing about trauma as catharsis, believing it cheapened the writing or the craft that went into it. I even said this publicly, on a panel at a literary fest last year! I think I wanted to be seen as more writer, less woman. Though if I’m to be completely honest—of course writing is cathartic for me. To be able to force the world, or at least a small part of the world, to read my unresolved resentment or lingering love, even when the recipient is no longer in the picture—what is catharsis if not this?
Perhaps I’m reading into this too much, but when you ask me about trauma narratives, I sense a certain protectiveness, as though you’re trying to tell me to be careful who to be vulnerable towards, who we choose to share our thoughts with. I’ve never really put a value on anything that goes on within my mind or heart—my instinct is always to reveal, to give full, indiscriminate access. Only these days I’ve come to realise that not everybody deserves that level of access to ourselves. I do not want to suddenly build walls around me, but I do want to be more mindful of who I give myself to.
For people like you and me, and the friends that we tend to be drawn to, what we read and watch make up maybe more than half of who we are as human beings. It’s not a topic for small talk at the art openings we keep finding excuses to skip, but core to how we see the world, how we spend the hours of each day, our desires and fears…I get so many cues about a person from what they consume (if anything), their willingness to share their thoughts—and also, sometimes, cues about our relationship or friendship, in whether or not they express any intention in learning what art moves us. And really, what is a playlist but all the things we wish we knew how to say?
Sometimes I love watching something knowing that you’ve already seen it, so I get to come into work and talk to you about it. It reminds me a little of my days reading literature in university, when everybody in class would have seen the same film over the past week. Apart from The Bear, there was that time when you saw all of Mythic Quest over a few days on 2x speed, or when we binged Ugly Delicious (our views on Dave Chang aside—I think we have an exchange somewhere in our email archives about this). Our threads of music and films we exchanged formed the backbone of how we kept in touch, outside of work emails, in the early days of work-from-home. I had a Greta Gerwig mumblecore phase, then made you watch Maggie’s Plan (I still laugh out loud thinking about Julianne Moore’s delivery of the line, “Žižek is speaking. He loves Žižek.”) You got me into Sampha’s music, then gave me his record on vinyl. Whenever I listen to “Plastic 100°C,” I’d remember the way the morning light came through the windows in Po Hing Fong, the solitude I felt in that apartment during the pandemic.
I’ve been in these cycles over the past decade of attaching certain art to different crushes, of sinking myself entirely in what they love, and then having to experience these rituals of exorcism after it all goes to shit, to try and detach a piece of music with this person. (Thread: attachment/detachment.) And then I wonder: do they know? How I would have watched and listened to everything they asked of me, they only had to ask. But this was so rarely true in the reverse, or they had merely wanted to soliloquise at me. Perhaps because of this, I’ve always felt safe sharing what I love with you—knowing that you recognise how important this exchange is to me, and knowing that I’d also watch whatever you want to share with me. Even if it’s a choir singing Lisztomania acapella, sent over with very little context.
It has been a privilege and honour, to have access to you and your thoughts, and to be able to share mine with you. Thank you for not being careless with my heart.
Also, it’s reassuring knowing there’s a very small possibility I’d hear Sampha playing in a café someday and think, man, fuck that Paul guy.
In Rachel Syme’s recent piece on Nora Ephron in the New Yorker, she writes: “[T]his is Ephron’s version of movie magic: a world in which words are so important that you can fall for your enemy just because he knows how to use them…the idea of swooning over someone’s syntax so dramatically that you change your life appears again and again in Ephron’s work.” When I read that, I thought, ugh, I’m such a fucking cliché!! Because love letters have been involved in every case when I had fallen seriously for a boy—whether it was the series of letters my first boyfriend at secondary school wrote me when he was away in China with his family during lunar new year, or the emails a poet and I exchanged when we were long-distancing, or an earnest confession letter in the heat of the early days, all projection and promises that can’t be kept.
In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan runs a small mom-and-pop called “The Shop Around the Corner,” and falls in love with a man she has been corresponding with online—who turns out to be Tom Hanks, the heir to a bookshop chain that ultimately puts Ryan’s shop out of business. But even with all of Ephron’s snappy dialogue and dry wit, I can’t help but feel a stab of annoyance at the ending. Meg Ryan represented the underdogs, the community interests, the warmth of human interactions with your local bookshop owner in a cruel capitalist world—and then she falls in love with the enemy! Fuck that! She gave up the revolution!
Hervé Guibert, to Eugène Savitzkaya: “I love you through your writing.”
(I have been reading Zambreno’s To Write As If Already Dead, and also, Guibert and Savitzkaya’s letters will be published by Semiotext(e) soon. When I sent you an excerpt, you said, dude it'd be awesome if someone paid us to write letters omg).
I’ve always believed that entire lives are made and unmade by good love letters. In other words, my love language is just, well…language. It’s not novel to think of writing as an expression of love, but at times we underestimate the intimacy in the process of editing. I’ve always been the designated editor in every friend group I’ve been in. I’ve looked over and edited university personal statement, job applications, children’s books, thesis proposals, tarot guidebooks, short story collections, artist statements, and most recently, one of my best friend’s wedding vows (during her wedding, which I had watched on Zoom, she incorporated this into her speech: “My best friend at home told me it was lame to say ‘I cannot put into words how much I love you’ because I am literally about to do so”).
In exchange for this “labour,” I’d usually get a promise to take me out for dinner, or homemade risotto. But most times I did this for free. My friends probably didn’t think about this beyond wanting someone to correct their English, but I also know that it is an incredible act of trust, letting me read the first drafts of their hopes and dreams, their proclamations of love, the products of hours of creative labour. If everybody is put on earth for a reason, then I think mine is probably to make sure that my friends are grammatically correct when they ask somebody to marry them.
So, absolutely, albeit in a different way than what you mean: passages, sentences, words, can save lives.
PAUL: BEGIN END WORD LOVE
yesterday was full of quips and slips that i'm guessing we'll be referencing years from now.
like when a dear colleague, nibbling on her vegan tagine lunch set, began regaling us with anecdotes about the 70s, about her childhood friends in kuala lumpur, about meeting her husband through her school's journal (curiously named joyful vanguard), and—oh yeah—casually mentioning her brief trip to zimbabwe during mugabe's ousting (something she's never shared in my seven years of knowing her).
there was also the moment after dinner, when the conversation turned to dreams and the macabre, and our favourite curator disclosed that her biggest fear is dying in an inescapably paradoxical scenario—namely, being burned alive underwater. this untimely cremation apparently occurs in a glass frame—too strong to break, but thin enough for her to see the water just beyond—making the death especially, in her words, "ego destructive." so close, and yet...so dead.
if lunch was about beginnings, dinner was about endings.
i think about the old film convention of using title cards like "THE END" or "FIN" to mark an ending—like, is that really necessary? a fade-to-black wasn't enough? there's never really a "THE BEGINNING" card, which has yet to plunge moviegoers into states of radical uncertainty as to whether something, anything, has actually begun—though ok, fine, i suppose the title of the film itself comes to assume this purpose of "marking a beginning"…but that still doesn't resolve this reliance on signifying-through-words.
in video games there was a different convention: "GAME OVER"—which is kind of funny now that i think about it. i mean, who came up with that, and how did it become the industry/medium standard? in an alternate universe, perhaps the ending title card is something like: "YOU HAVE ERRED"—and then you hear piccolos and xylophones, and the screen glitters in neon blue with a cheshire cat rotating across the screen, before your game resets and you’re offered a chance to try again.
the film l.a. story opens with steve martin's protagonist dropping some choice one-liners in voice-over:
My name is Harris K. Telemacher. I live in LA and I've had seven heart attacks—all imagined. That is to say: I was deeply unhappy but I didn't know it because I was so happy all the time.
another classic paradox. the ol' "didn't know i was unhappy because i was so happy all the time," which i guess is a thing. (karen, i can hear you deflecting, "but what is 'happiness'?")
per romcom conventions, he undergoes a crisis after becoming infatuated with, and then frustrated by, the object of his desire. in the resulting aftermath of a break-up, he asks:
Why is it that we don't always recognise the moment when love begins, but we always know when it ends?
i used to take this as a rhetorical question, whose terms and framing i simply accepted. there's a compelling, intuitive force to it—also helps that it's delivered later in the film, after we've grown more attached to the character, and thus potentially more open to sympathising with his perspective. i thought, yes, "endings" are much more clear-cut and definitive—say, certain—when it comes to love. THE END is clearly demarcated; it's a thing.
i don't believe this anymore. or, rather, i don't accept the terms of the question. (similarly, i don't accept framings like "conditional" versus "unconditional" love, which i've seen so easily weaponised in more religious settings.) to hazard a response would be more simple and more complicated than the framing allows. those who speak of love's "beginning" and/or "ending" may simply be rehearsing their confusion over the nature of "love" in the first place—or maybe their own attachment to, and investment in, narrative conventions of love that someone, somewhere, came up with as the "industry/medium standard," which just continues to be reproduced...
i don't know.
i mean, it’s always a challenge communicating. (cavell: “if speaking for someone else seems a mysterious process, that may be because speaking to someone does not seem mysterious enough.”)
it's even more of a challenge when our respective paradigms or convictions or investments are so disparate. whether it is worthwhile to try to connect, to attempt to communicate—now, never, or possibly much further down the road—depends on the specificities of the context and the relationship (e.g., an aunt reconnecting with her estranged teenage niece, a marxist professor challenging her conservative student's central thesis, a senior executive giving advice to an entry-level colleague, a lover sharing their pain with their beloved, a motley group of strangers on a train). there are certain gulfs, however, that just cannot be bridged through words, words, words alone.
i say this as someone who works with words, makes a living with words (mostly editing the words of other people, but sometimes my own). i say this as someone undergoing lacanian psychoanalysis, in which words—talking—constitute the arena of my analyst and i's interactions. i say this as someone who was raised in a protestant denomination that emphasised the centrality of "THE WORD"—understood as both the beginning and end in the most ultimate, cosmic sense (like, there is literally nothing without THE WORD)—and can still recite the esv translation of john 1:1–5 from memory:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
and so i say this as someone who recognises the power of words, while at the same time remaining ever-so-cognizant of their severe limitations. how confused, opaque, delusional we can be in our use of words, even in (or especially in) our most vehemently stated convictions.
my previous letter noted how we can connect with so many people—literally be surrounded by them—without ever having an actual relationship; how the chefs in the bear were working together for so long, experienced so much drama, "full of sound and fury," but did not know how to build a world together until much later, after they had undergone certain transformations.
now, i'm pointing to the idea that we can say, and we can write, so much—overflowing with words and emotion—without actually meaning any of it.
explicitness should not be conflated with honesty or truth.
stanley cavell once said—and i'm paraphrasing only slightly here—that the task of the modern artist is to find something they can be sincere and serious in; something they can mean. and they may not at all.
something they can mean.
to say something one really, truly, means—even just one thing—have you ever? and to say something that can stay meant beyond an ephemeral moment? my gawd, that requires some real commitment; that requires risk.
and so they may not at all.
the issue of sentimentality is intimately related to all this.
there's a baldwin line from "everybody's protest novel" that bell hooks loved reciting, from memory, in some of her interviews:
Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.
bars. [insert fire emoji]
baldwin had bars on bars on bars.
sentimentality tends to centre one's own immediate (or "excessive and spurious") emotions as the thing most worthy of attention, often drawing on ready-made social scripts and "industry/medium standards"—which themselves belie an "aversion to experience," to life itself, because life cannot be determined (say, controlled) in advance. life requires going off-script, going deeper, risking not knowing ("y’all got the same fucking flows, i don't know who is who").
in certain cases, sentimentality can be pernicious—e.g., decontextualising the irreducible particularities of another person's suffering by reorienting it around the orbit of one's own sympathies or experiences, and so literally obliterating the other from view altogether; or by foreclosing a commitment to the dynamic reality of the situation, of the other, in lieu of gestural tokens of sadness ("wet eyes"?) or symbolic solidarity ("the mask of cruelty"?). sentimentality tends to begin and end in solipsism.
is it possible to build a world, together, with sentimentalists?
we already know the answer when it comes to narcissists, which used to be one of our persistent threads (i.e., recovering from their toxicity). one time we were having lunch at our desks: you were watching a warpaint gig, while i stumbled onto the celebrity psychologist dr ramani's youtube channel. in one of her videos, she says, "narcissistic people don't really have happy endings; they just have endings," and without context or explanation i immediately turned to you and belted out an "OOF," to which you, completely startled, responded, "HUH?!"
and then you put your earbuds back on and returned to your regular warpaint programming.
one of the most famous words in film history comes from orson welles' citizen kane. the word of course is "rosebud"—the last, dying word of the film's titular character, charles foster kane. a journalist is tasked by his boss with unearthing the meaning of this word, presumably to unearth the meaning of the man.
Here's a man who might have been President. He's been loved and hated and talked about as much as any man in our time—but when he comes to die, he's got something on his mind called "Rosebud." What does that mean?
the working theory is that the word carries some secret, ultimate significance—this is the "angle" the journalist decides to pursue. i wonder what you would've said if you were present for this pitch session, karen. (i feel like you would've given it a tentative greenlight out of general apathy.)
after interviewing several people close to kane, from periods spanning his seventy years of life, the journalist assesses the kaleidoscopic portrait he's presented with and concludes that—well, "rosebud" might mean something or nothing or everything in between, but ultimately no single word can explain anyone's life. though this is a rather banal point, it feels earned—the pursuit of which yielded the run of the film itself.
unknowability, opacity, both to ourselves and to each other—while these are clear threads throughout, the film does lean towards painting kane as something of a cautionary tale. it begins and ends, after all, with a shot of a "NO TRESPASSING" sign from kane's exorbitant desert palace named xanadu, "the costliest monument a man has built to himself," emphasising his radical isolation in the narrative vein of classic male hubris and narcissism.
admittedly, these tropes become less interesting with each new revival, a prominent example being the supposed "golden age of prestige tv," a cycle—already "DEAD" / "OVER"—that included shows like the sopranos and breaking bad and mad men. their recurring threads included rampant misogyny and toxic white males, with these shows never straying "far from exploring powerful men in manly worlds facing the limits imposed by masculinity." i can't really stomach shows in this vein anymore, and my diet consists much more of kdramas now (shout-out to our blues), which have their own issues to unpack and critique (and it's been great having you around to commiserate over these shows i watch on 2x speed).
i suppose one reason citizen kane comes to mind, however—and with reference to our thread on publishing and "knowledge production"—is kane's use and abuse of words, his rhetorical strategies, his charisma, his deployment of emotion.
he ran a newspaper after all, a media empire; kane knew how to sway public feeling; he knew how to wield words to build worlds; his was the opposite dream of what deleuze and guattari call "a becoming-minor."
How many styles or genres or literary movements, even very small ones, have only one single dream: to assume a major function in language, to offer themselves as a sort of state language, an official language....create the opposite dream: know how to create a becoming-minor.
the dramatic irony is that kane became the very thing he claimed to be against. he founded his newspaper with a "declaration of principles," in which he shared his commitment to "tell all the news honestly," to "the truth," to being a "tireless champion" of ordinary people's "rights as citizens and as human beings."
but even from the beginning there were hints these words could not possibly be meant by him, or meant in the way kane believed—there were a lot of red flags. his best friend in particular, jedediah leland, saw through kane's self-delusion and called him out on it:
You talk about "the people" as if you own them, as though they belong to you....[but] you don't care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.
kane and leland eventually become estranged.
charles foster kane didn't have a happy ending, he just had an ending. he could not outrun himself, neither amidst the crowds nor alone in his desert palace.
kane wanted life on his own terms, the only terms he acknowledged and recognised—which is a familiar trope: his desperate desire for "love" on his own terms was the very thing blocking him from love entering (trespassing?) into his life. he began and ended with the puzzling opacity of that word.
the things we say under the sway of sentimentality are often things that cannot stay meant beyond their utterance. things that—almost immediately—after the intensity of the moment subsides, we cannot continue to mean with any seriousness or sincerity. sentimentality, for example, can sometimes be characterised by superlatives, by hyperbole, by claims of best-ness—we all speak in this mode; it serves a purpose, even social ones; and scrutinising them like truth-claims run, perhaps, against their more prosaic functions. [insert "why so serious?" gif]
i haven’t listened to the mary gaitskill episode on between the covers that you recommended, but i added it to the list. karen, i'll listen for you (because i listen to you), and for david naimon (because that man's interviews are public treasures)—but tbh gaitskill's distinction between emotion and sentimentality sounds pretty blah.
to be clear, i don't believe stoicism or moderation are somehow "correctives" to sentimentality, or that emotions are somehow always problematic, or that sentimentality is the WORST THING EVER (we'd have to stop commiserating over reality tv shows and ain't no way i'm giving up that ribald source of jouissance). maybe the questions are more like: what are these highly charged emotions being deployed in the service of? what are they obscuring? what are they centring? what are they avoiding?
love is not sentimental because love is not dishonest, because love does not cower before life, because love is not cruel. love does feel, love is emotional (how can it not be?)—but love must move deeper and beyond the sentimental; love must risk life, for it to be love.
and it may not at all.
it's so mysterious, this writing thing. sometimes the words just flow; sometimes there's this effortless clarity—like, i can actually see the words, even feel them somehow—not all at once, but bits at a time; and i'm driven to keep typing and typing and typing to get them down, arriving in places i hadn't anticipated. like, i thought my previous letter would be entirely on lauren berlant and cruel optimism, but once i started typing it turned into an exegesis of the bear. that came as a surprise.
i don't have these "flow states" very often. do you? you're way more prolific (like, no-competition way way way more), so i guess i've just assumed you do. i mean, i've seen you go into beast mode where you crank out two-point-five million words in one sitting, right before a deadline—but i think those sprints are different than these "flow states" i'm describing. how would you describe them? do you also, literally, feel the words? (sometimes i feel them concentrated in the centre of my chest, but also see them taking shape in my frontal lobe like a blob or something, which sounds totally bizarre now that i'm actually typing this.)
while walking to work this morning, i realised that getting into these flow states is not a problem of clarifying the "you" to address—i mean, there are people i can picture not wanting to write to, with perfect clarity—but the particularity of the addressee is everything. there are people, like liana, who come to mind in flashes throughout the day (we're talking proust's madeleine-type associations here); and if i'm watching a show or a film, there's usually something that speaks to our relationship (re: an impasse or possibility).
my thoughts are absolutely saturated with people i hold dear; so it makes sense that, when the time comes to write to them, "i know what to say, mind is a razor blade." there's an excess of material to pull from, a cloud so awash with words and thoughts and feelings and songs already—all that's left is to make it rain. [insert "make it rain" gif]
i was gonna say that maybe it's the depth of the relationship that determines the ease of the writing (or something like that)—but that formulation doesn't feel complete; i can't quite mean that fully. which is another way of saying: i've reached a certain limit of what i can say—and mean—about this.
it really is so mysterious, this writing thing.
karen, you're leaving for london in a few days and haven't even gotten your visa much less finished packing. i'm so behind on all my projects and have to give a zoom talk tonight that i'm probably just gonna wing—yet, somehow, we’ve managed to write these sprawling, meandering letters, amidst our respective storms.
we talked about capping this correspondence off at around the 10,000-word mark, which we've probably already hit, so how about you take the mic now and drop it. let me bow to social conventions by signing off, this time by writing:
THE DARKNESS HAS NOT OVERCOME,
Karen: The Stakes & Friendship & Archiving the Ephemeral
Forgive me: what are the stakes of our present correspondence?
This is the question we ask our writers all the time, and eventually ended up putting on our pitch/submission page. It’s essentially a more socially acceptable way of asking: why should we care about this thing you just wrote? Because sometimes we come read pitches or submissions that resemble academic papers and we think, OKOK I understand the need of this to exist on a research level and it should absolutely be funded and supported, perhaps someday this will change the Discourse in a crucial way we have yet to understand, but why should we read this, and why now?
This is what I’m wondering about our email exchange—all ten thousand words of it! Two people will probably make it this far into the piece and it’d only be because they love us. When I asked you if we should probably get someone to edit us, you said we should just let ourselves have this one thing, as a send-off for me. But why should anybody read this!! Does this piece of writing need to exist in this world? Why not conduct this exchange entirely in private?
Reading your last email: are the stakes, for you, the importance of articulating what love means? (Sorry, it is so reductive to offer this laughably simplistic reading of your eloquent digressions—or threads?—on Citizen Kane.) What words do?
There is a line in reality TV competition shows that is so frequently said by competitors, it’s now parodied: “I’m not here to make friends.” They’re not here for friendship, for god’s sake—they’re here to win! Only of course, many of these competitors go on to make lifelong friendships after the conclusion of the show—I’m thinking of Jay and Adam’s frenemy relationship on the Millennials vs. Gen X season of Survivor, the cute reels that come after the finale of every Great British Bake Off season showing the competitors taking road trips to visit each other, or even the bromances on Love Island Australia.
They weren’t here to make friends—and yet they found kinship with the people around them anyway. Isn’t that beautiful? The inverse of that would then be those who came here to make “friends,” but with the explicit intention of doing so in order to win.
One time, in the office, you turned to me and said, “connections are so important to me, and I’m so put off by people who have no intention of making ones that are genuine.” (This is also another reality-TV-favourite, the term genuine connection, like this Islander definitely has a genuine connection with whoever they’re coupled up with, so please don’t vote them off, etc.... Does such a thing ever exist? Yes, I know, I’m doing that but-does-this-really-exist thing again. Although this time I think it does—it’s every time I say something and you laugh and then say, in a very not-indoor voice, “THAT WAS EXACTLY WHAT I WAS THINKING.”)
On IDEAS (you should rename our publication, it’s hopelessly un-googleable), there is a piece by Zoe Butt called “Practicing Friendship: Respecting Time as a Curator.” It ruminates on the significance of friendship in artistic exchanges, of acts of care and mutual support, of taking time to build empathetic connections, while considering structures of “social capital” in the art world. In a way, that thread still persists within the work of the Archive, most recently with our collaborations with Gudskul and their philosophy of nongkrong—hanging out as a form of practising art. And while I recognise this as necessary to countering the fast-faced production of white-cube art, a part of me also wants to reject packaging friendship as curation, as art, at all.
I bring this up now because this is what the stakes are to me—our friendship, which, over the course of four years, has developed into one of the most important relationships of my life. In your last letter, you mention your suspicion towards the delineation of conditional vs unconditional love—which was a conversation we have had in person, as I was reflecting on the nature of my friendships. The conditional-unconditional delineation is helpful to me insofar as it allows me to know that relationships require time and effort and care to sustain, and that they fade when it is taken for granted or demanded from us, when they are believed to be “unconditional.”
Friendship is the only relationship that isn’t bound by stifling social conventions and expectations, and for that, I regard it as sacred. We define our own boundaries, determine the level of reciprocity. I am often so paralysed by what is expected of me in traditional familial and romantic relationships that I get scared and run away. I am a better friend than I’ve been a daughter, a lover, or a sister. And in return, I’ve made friends that really are, in every sense, family.
It is for these reasons that I recoil when asked to consider friendship as part of “social networks” or even an artistic practice. I feel conflicted when writing about my friends, even though they’ve given explicit consent (more often, they just don’t care). Sometimes, when these friends are also artists/writers/musicians, and I’m genuinely proud of art that they’ve made, I’m still hesitant to share it on social media as look at this thing my friend made out of fear that it looks like I’m doing it for clout, i.e., that I’m saying, look at these cool friends I have (back to posturing / performativity). Even though of course people who make things tend to seek out each other and become friends; it’s been true of every generation of artists. My friends have featured as characters in my writing, we are each other’s most devoted readers and editors, and our group chats and dinners and good night love u-s are why, despite all the shit that goes on in the news, I still find enough good and beauty in this stupid, stupid world, to not want to give up entirely.
But this flaunting of “friendship” is inherent to the contemporary art world (and to some extent, the journalism world), with its parties and who-knows-who and even alliances in order to earn credibility or legitimacy when making work or claiming to speak for a population in spaces where they would otherwise be considered merely a tourist (this is one of my personal ongoing threads, the tourist). Someone once said I did not have to be such a purist about whether or not these people were “real friends”—you could form these bonds where both parties are aware that this was a relationship where they were being merely friendly while helping each other out professionally—but honestly, life is short, who has time to perform friendship? Why waste your time on superficial connections with people who would discard you the moment you were no longer useful to their work?
There is such a public element to making art and writing that sometimes makes me uncomfortable, even though if it’s done entirely in private, and nobody knows about it, then it’s not even art, perhaps it doesn’t even exist in a metaphysical sense. Even performance artists engaging in physical endurance feats need it to be documented or, at the very least, to tell somebody what they’re doing, so it becomes public. Then it becomes a performance.
Some things should just be left alone to be private and pure and un-performed. Like friendship.
In my third week at AAA, we went to a public lecture at a contemporary art institution for the summer course we were then enrolled in. The conceptual artist who was to speak began the talk by cosplaying as a janitor, leaving the audience to wonder where the speaker was, and I suppose he had found this amusing and “disruptive,” but imho, it was pointless and distasteful.
We talk about this all the time, but something that troubles us about contemporary art, and art writing, is this move of juxtaposing some novel but barely relevant idea with another idea, and saying that this “complicates” said ideas, and then go ta-da this is now art. Or it throws in this tangent about class or race that distracts rather than illuminates...
In Valerie C. Doran’s essay “Viewed from a Train: Glimpses of the Artist as Hong Kong Citizen” on IDEAS, editor and critic Wu Jianru asked, during a forum discussion: “I have been wondering about the question of why so many Hong Kong artists create art as part of some kind of social or political protest activity. Why don’t they just participate directly in the protest actions as protestors, rather than as artists, and then do their art apart from this? Is their intention in making protest art to somehow please or ingratiate new audiences?”
The rest of the essay makes attempts at answering this question, and also cites Walter Benjamin and Okui Enwezor’s thoughts on the role of artists in collective action. But it’s a question that I still have no answer for, even after four years here. I was always sceptical about the socially engaged art/social practice movement. Because, why not just be an activist? Not that the roles of protester and activist are binary—you will recall, I had a particularly strong reaction towards a proclamation during the 2019 protests by an artist that they must continue to make art.
But one more thing that has shifted in me during my time at AAA, is that I want to move on from my paranoid reading era and enter reparative reading mode. I want to leave behind that which I’m cynical about, and make room for art which allows me to be moved. Özge, for instance, is someone who, with all her endless patience for a lot of bullshit in this world, has no patience for cynicism.
Yes yes yes terms such as community have been overused and have lost its meaning you are so right and provocative for pointing that out like bra-fucking-vo but what replaces it? What comes after the disruption? What are we rebuilding?
Otherwise we’re all just talking out of our asses.
I’d rather seek out the art that means what it says, and that which stays meant.
I don’t know if I would describe the ease of writing as being in a “flow state” for me, although I’d admit that I’ve always been a fairly fast writer (both to my advantage and detriment). Oftentimes I have a feeling I need to articulate and I don’t start writing until those emotions have festered to a point where it’s begging to be let out, where it’s threatening to spill over. So once the process of writing begins, it is at a stage where I’ve already thought about a topic so intensely that I have a trove of moments and reflections to pull from, and much of it comes quickly and rather painlessly. And then I let it rest, then go back to it and edit, and edit, and edit...
Sometimes we have to be patient. We don’t always know when it’s time for those words to be let out—it could take months, maybe even years. When we force it out too early, it could be misshapen, underdeveloped. That gap between the virtual and the actual—how the piece is in our head versus how it turned out—might be too wide for editing to fix. And then one day we’re talking a walk along the water and somewhere between the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park and the gaudy pandas they installed for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, we realise how we must write it and so we run home, because we’ve been waiting for the words to finally be ready...
It occurred to me this year that I write because I often feel lonely. And so, with nobody in my life to turn to about these thoughts, and blessed with the tools to instead announce them to the “public,” I write. In fact, I’ve noticed that when I do have a person with whom I could constantly share myself with, when I feel heard, when there is an empathetic outlet for my thoughts, I don’t write that much at all. There is no need to write.
Everything that I’ve written here in these letters, these seven thousand or so words—much of it will not come as a surprise to you. They are not obsessive thoughts that have been trapped within me, without a release except in the form of words. Because these threads are topics that we’ve discussed, day in day out, for four whole years, when I’ve had the joy of instantly swiveling my seat to tell you what’s on my mind, or try to make you laugh during the drudgery of a work day. It’s something that I don’t get to do anymore, as I’m finishing this in a room in a house I’m temporarily crashing in Highgate, London. In anticipation of this loss, we started exchanging these letters a month ago. I don’t even have a permanent apartment yet, and still here I am, writing these words.
Why do we do this—share these anecdotes of our time together, our reads on the films and television and theory we have consumed, with everybody else, on the very public forum that is writing?
Perhaps it is that need, again, to document in order to not forget. And perhaps it is to mourn.
In an earlier incarnation of the Archive, we had what we called “content priorities”; in my first year here, the focus was on performance art. One question we kept returning to as an organisation was, how do you archive the ephemeral? And even if you came up with a way—what’s lost in that documentation? How could you possibly capture the nuance of every gesture of the artist, the small movements of the audience, the historical and political context of the performance, the interaction and exchange?
The answer is that we can’t. And yet that hasn’t deterred us from attempting, over and over, these imperfect modes of chronicling and record-keeping.
This is not FIN. It is only the closing of a chapter. The story continues, away from the cameras, and it is ours and only ours.
Once more with feeling,
variations include adding "rain" sound effects, or specifying "slowed + reverb to perfection," which—come on—you gotta just laugh at the audacity of it all, the highly subjective, but no less deadly earnest claims of achieving aural p e r f e c t i o n, through what amounts to adding stock filters to existing tracks (+ covers).
it's a way of playing with time.
which is a way of altering mood and tone and atmosphere. slowing things down to elongate every_exquisite_detail.
every lyric. every note. every inflection that may have passed unnoticed in faster speeds.
did you hear me?
did you get that?
did you understand?
do you feel me?
sound engineers distinguish "reverb" from "echo" and "delay"—all time-based audio effects. to increase the reverb is to multiply and conflate reverberation, to languor in it, immersed in some vague sense of enclosed vastness. spacetime feels imminent, expanded, muddled.
and yet—its bathetic pleasures notwithstanding—the more time spent in the genre, the more a charge of fraudulence becomes admissible, which is perhaps the fate of all things rendered formulaic. a feeling that its intervention is cheap, unearned. something parasitic.
For better or worse, like so much of the internet, slowed + reverb videos exist in a vacuum of historical and geographical context. Tokyo and Houston evaporate, becoming a single nameless city, full of towering high rises, flickering neon, and empty roads, where it’s always 2 a.m. and the love of your life has always just slipped from your grasp. To get there, all you have to do is drive slow. —Andy Cush
a line from one of our problematic faves:
let's never come here again because it would never be as much fun.
heard and felt—but maybe, after four years together, accepted with newfound ambivalence. the formulation doesn't feel quite right. it seems beside the point. the double "never" belying an attachment to p e r f e c t i o n, an utterly sentimental approach to life, to time, with anxiousness masquerading as abdication.
for one, why foreclose? why, when what we've come to understand as "fun" has shifted again and again, when what we thought was impossible has proven to be otherwise. why, when further permutations have opened, when new genres have revealed unexplored terrain. why, when it was the silence punctuating our words that were magic, our separateness giving frame to our presence, the sorrow mixed with the joy—not the "here" isolated as if some variable in a vague equation for fun.
but the concern, oh-so-valid and real—"let's never come here again"—yes yes yes, heard and felt. the violence potentially wrought from attempts to repeat the unrepeatable. the dissolution guaranteed by straining for control, grasping for it and not settling for anything less than perfect repetitions, even if always already displaced by time and space—filters to re-verberate what was once felt and not forgotten.
the song, the dance, whatever you wanna call it—these only take shape, materialise, through the specificity of the movement, through what santigold calls the "rhythm of the road." that it cannot be known in advance is as thrilling as it is terrifying; trust earned and protected, never a given, able to be broken at any moment.
we know this. we lose sight of this. we remind ourselves of this.
for now, a toast—one for the road:
to the songs we haven't sung, to the movements improvised and unchoreographed, which nonetheless will draw on everything we have become, on all we continue to learn in the coming and going and leaving and returning and moving through every_exquisite_moment, speed like time being relative, move move moved will be moving. "we're gone to run the road now / gone, gone now, gone now."
NOTHING WAS THE SAME
LET THE SILENCE SERVE AS FRAME