Feeling Self-Ish

I’m flush, if somewhat nervous, about my assignment as author of this article. In writing it, I am tasked with the project of locating myself in multiple and often conflicting positions—writer/subject, artist/advisor, artist/audience, audience/critic, critic/friend, self/other—and, in doing so, speaking of and from multiple locations while transgressing the boundaries between them.

When Todd and Niegel asked me to help them out as a kind of semi-collaborator (officially, they are working as Elastic City, semi-officially Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith, although we are all friends, so I am already struggling to identify each of us properly in relation to all the ways our relationships entangle), it was originally for a walk that was to be designed around the concept of impossibility. I can’t trace the steps (because I was not there for them) that led to what would eventually become Selfies, the walk that Todd and Niegel presented at CUNY as part of the Prelude festival’s tenth anniversary season of experimental and contemporary work in theater. But my sense is that the final result (as much as there can be one) was very much a kind of impossible achievement.

For starters, they got about a dozen strangers (more or less) to sign up for a participatory walk during the course of which they would be getting naked with their fellow walker/strangers. Despite reactionary popular assumptions that we’re all a bunch of repressed sexual creatures chomping at the bit for a chance to get close to the naked flesh of others, in reality, getting naked in front of strangers and friends alike is a very hard sell. Todd and Niegel even had to sell it to me. Maybe not as hard as to some, but I was mainly concerned with how the compulsory terms of collective nakedness might not so much “self select” the audience for the walk, but, rather, that it might exclude many who would otherwise be curious to join a walk touching on the multi-faceted dimensions of “the self,” many of which have little to do (but I would not go so far as to say nothing to do) with the naked body.

I was centrally concerned with the shame and stigma that the body, in American culture at least, is exposed to, if not entirely produced by, particularly insofar as things like body size, abledness, age, religion, race, gender and sexuality are inscribed in the body in a way that actually does create a vector determining who will even be allowed to be naked, when and where. (Just think of how much more acceptable it is for “men” to run around shirtless. Or, I can think of several conversations where people have expressed something to the effect of, “I went to a nude beach but it was mainly fat people. Eww. Gross.”) Access to public nakedness, sadly, one realizes, is not equal. And for that reason, I wanted to be convinced that the choice of compulsory nakedness wasn’t simply predicated upon a combination of privileges. The following artists’ note appeared in the textual materials for the walk. I quote it here because it was to some extent a result of my deliberations with Todd and Niegel around this very subject:

Asking walk participants to completely disrobe is extremely vulnerable for everyone, us included. Though we are aware that this choice might deter some from attending, our intention is to revel in that vulnerability in order to better investigate our relationships to our bodies and each other. We hope you’ll join us!

While unable to transcend the terms of social privileging (because that’s how privilege seems to work), Todd and Niegel were at least able to make a gesture at situating themselves as vulnerable participants in their own choice to ask others to get naked with them. It is a vulnerability that is, I would say, less associated with fear, and has more to do with a kind of exuberant openness in the face of the unknowable. This move seems to me a deeply reparative gesture toward the other; a gesture that abashedly invites the other to come nearer. It’s a move that crosses the potentiating humiliation-effects of public nakedness by inverting the terms of engagement. From where I sit, their invitation signals a kind of radical, non-paranoid artistic practice, and is a testament to the kind of work Niegel and Todd are doing.

“ ☞ ”

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick spent her final years—of teaching, and, one might say, of life—at the CUNY Graduate Center. A pioneer in the field of Queer Theory and an transformative intellectual figure for many, Sedgwick’s writings veered, perhaps more than any of her contemporaries, toward and through the subject of shame. It is in a chapter on Henry James, in the last book she would publish during her lifetime, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Theory, where Sedgwick developed her theory of queer performativity, which she defined as “a strategy for the production of meaning and being, in relation to the affect shame and to the later and related affect of stigma.” In the same work, Sedgwick also delivered an influential thesis on psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s concept of “paranoid” and “depressive” positions; the former being an affective relation to the pursuit of knowledge girded by suspicion and aimed at the exposure of hidden threats; the latter is equally useful for knowledge gathering, and yet, what distinguishes it from paranoia, and appears to have made it attractive to Sedgwick, is that it relies largely on the subject’s own interpretive resources to mend the epistemic break that seems to have created the traumatic sense of a not-knowing. The depressive position allows one to reconstruct a fractured, traumatic object of knowledge (read: other) in a way that opens it once again for identification and exchange. For this reason, the knowledge process initiated by the depressive position is called “reparative.” As Sedgwick poignantly notes: “Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.”

Incidentally, although perhaps not entirely without mutual influence, I had been re-reading parts of Touching Feeling in the weeks leading up to the walk at CUNY. My last contributions to Selfies, coming through a rehearsal two weeks prior to the festival, had mostly to do with the consistency and saturation of the subject—broadly: the multiplicities of “the self” (hence, the plural of the title). I also contributed a few suggestions regarding choreography and how to think the touchy proposition of gathering a bunch of strangers into a dark room and asking them to disrobe, move around, share personal stories, and, daringly, to touch one another. During this process, I hadn’t (I don’t think), been drawing any obvious connections between the work that Todd and Niegel were putting together with occasional input from me, and Sedgwick’s densely threaded critical writing that I had been pouring over on my own. Not, that is, until the night of the walk, when mid-way through the naked portion, Todd and Niegel pointedly turned the subject of the walk to the subject of shame.

Before marching headlong down that road, however, let me take us back to the beginning of the walk so that the reader might have a better view of the overall character of Selfies, and also so that I can situate the work within the two key aspects of Sedgwick’s late work: the concept of queer performativity and the Kleinian reparative process.

“ ☜ ”

The beginning of the walk surged with a kind of giddiness. We all knew what would be coming later, and it is no one’s fault that we are set up to locate public nakedness as a node of anxiety and anticipation. We knew what was coming, but also, we could not know how it would be; what it actually would be like. Still, Todd and Niegel met the group in the atrium of the Graduate Center, bubbly, nervously confident, and began to lead us through a series of actions; learning each other’s name; watching one another walk around the atrium then describing it to the person who did the walking. The walk engaged the space at the same time concentrating on our senses of self within it. A bright moment on the stage of a recital hall brought the eponymous neologism “selfie” to the fore, where each of us were tasked with walking across the stage (populated, at the time, with a troupe of dancers warming up for their own performance) and directing the other participants—as if they were our camera—on how to visually capture our walk. My own self-conscious direction was, “From the side, and only from the waist up!” Others were, “Watch the bottom of my shoes,” or, “Watch how I get their attention” (referring, of course, to the dancers). Our self portraits, it turns out, can hardly be freed from an integral dependence on the regard of others.

Prior to the dark room—don’t worry, it’s coming—Todd and Niegel divided the group and paired them off, each person constituting both a “self” and an “other half.” These welded semi-wholes were led into a bathroom that had been richly made over as a spa. Soft music and dim lighting. Plastic roses garlanded the urinals; a touch at once Marcel Duchamp, Jack Smith and Jean Genet. The aroma of perhaps lavender filled the air, and we were brought to sinks and asked to wash and massage the hands of our other half. This would be our last activity before being divided and, one by one, led into a dark room lit barely by light coming from underneath a partition separating our room from the next.

The series of ritualized actions that led to all of us becoming naked were carefully constructed. To rephrase: During these actions, I felt palpably cared for. Each participant was asked to answer questions about specific articles of clothing. It was truly a revelation to realize that I could tell a story, if asked, about every article of clothing I own (note to those presently suffering from  writer’s block!). The moment of disrobing was choreographed so that we all faced away from each other, eyes closed, and in a given window (I think, five minutes), we were asked to have fully completed the disrobe, having stacked our belongings neatly in a pile next to us. Taking what felt like an exceptionally long time to remove one’s clothing, a part of our daily habitus that is probably done in haste and with a fair amount of carelessness (if fairly without consciousness), activated a sense of feeling that drew one’s attention to parts of the body that one might regularly take for granted, particularly during the process of casting off one’s clothing. It was another surprise; a sensual exploration that tumbled in slow motion toward a moment of anticipation and subliminal anxiety: being naked with others. Then, once there, at that moment of uncanny sensual awareness, eyes still closed, we spread out to the perimeter of the room and “explored” the wall with the surface of our bodies; thus reflexively exploring our bodies with the surface of the wall. After following the wall clockwise, and upon returning to our point of origin, we opened our eyes. (Surprise #3, for me at least: Upon seeing what appeared to be the silhouette of a woman’s body I felt the distinct sense of what I would call “comfort.”) From here, we were asked to come into an oval in the center of the room, where Todd and Niegel broached the subject of shame.

Each participant was given a votive candle. We were asked to think of a part or aspect of our body around which we felt shame. We would light the candle, keeping this shame in mind. Then Todd and Niegel opened it up to the group to decide how to extinguish these flames of shame. Their idea was that the group would huddle together behind one person and we would all collectively blow out each other’s candle. But then, what did we think? Here, the group feeling deepened, and everyone seemed to open up more, offering suggestions and reflecting on how to proceed with this task. And it was at this point, what would become a sort of fulcrum around which the walk would transform, that Sedgwick came to my mind, and I offered this intervention: That shame, as argued by Sedgwick and her concept of queer performativity, can be productive, flirtatious, and imaginative. We can, and likely do, build entire worlds around shame, worlds that we might otherwise call self, and, also, art. I wanted to make sure that the process of extinguishing the candles did not carry with it a tacit assumption that the flame of shame was a negative mark that we were necessarily attempting to exclude or disavow. It was important, to me, to know and to prosthelytize as much, that this flame of shame could be celebrated as well as mourned. After our deliberation, the group concluded that each person would decide the fate of her flame. Everyone chose something different, and each person’s choice seemed to reflect a sincere, personal engagement with the body and its relation to shame. One person really wanted the group behind her. Another asked that someone else use his boot to snuff out his candle. I invited everyone to imagine “our assholes” as we blew out my candle together. The light whipped out with a flourish of collective laughter.

After this deeply trusting exercise, the rest of the walk seemed to stretch out. We explored each other’s bodies, guiding each other’s hands first to touch places on our own bodies, then to touch the other’s body, all the while courting the arrival of arousal, violation, pleasure, judgement, fluid; all of which is to say, feelings. Then we came into a huddle, threading our arms together like a cat’s cradle, and lurched across the room, eventually coming to the floor in a mass of bodies, not knowing who or even what we were touching, nor who or what was touching us. (My hand fell finally into the hand of another person. Whose hand?).

Digital portraits were then taken of each of us washed in the blue light of a video projector. After pairing off and redressing one another—an activity which, rather than feeling like some kind of relieving closure, instead, continued to push the boundaries of intimacy: the sour smell of his socks; the aspiring insoles in my boots; the frayed piece of rope he used for a belt; the warp in the leather of my belt from where my belly protrudes; his boxers; my briefs—we were led up and outside of the building where, upon looking back in, our selfies were projected inside a gallery space for all (or maybe just for us and a few curious passers by) to see. Our selfies had escaped us.

“ ☞ ☜ ”

That the moment of the walk addressed to the subject of shame was also the moment that the collective feeling of the group seemed to pivot and enrich—or, in popular parlance, Things, you could say, got real—leads me to reflect on how tethered Sedgwick’s concept of queer performativity (as a productive relation between shame and identity) is to her insights into the work done by reparative knowledge practices, and, more simplified, how queerness is tethered to depressive positionality (work by no means original to this article: for starters, see José Esteban Muñoz’s “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down”). Both seem to achieve a kind of critical touching; the former, through a flirtatious introversion—even, I would say, a self-obsession—that invites the other to make contact; the latter, a hermeneutical decision to reconnect with, or re-touch, the other who seems to have broken our connection with them. Both seem to gesture at contact-making, at touching, in a way that reaches across (even simply ignores) the booby traps and hesitations that shame and paranoia have the potential to riddle into our capacity to make ourselves and our worlds.

Sedgwick’s chapter on the paranoid and depressive positions primarily addressed what she saw as paranoid practices of theoretical inquiry that were, at the time (the early 2000s), a kind of default in academia. It isn’t that paranoid research isn’t or can’t be useful, but there might be knowledge available to us that paranoid research, partly because of it’s foreclosing assumption of already knowing what it is trying to expose, won’t reach. I don’t see why we should—and I don’t think Sedgwick would have asked us to—limit this concern to academic knowledge practices. One has but to glance at the Prelude.13 festival program to gather that concepts like research, investigation, questioning, and indeed, exposure, are some of the fundamental ways that theater (as art) is being thought and made. In turn, these can become fundamentally what we expect theater (as art) to be and do. In other words, theater’s broad overlap with inquiry makes it open to paranoid approaches to knowledge as much as any academic project would be.

It is notable that the author’s note for Selfies couldn’t disentangle the notion of “investigation” from the choice to present collective nakedness as a possibility for art-making, which is to say, for experience. And perhaps, in our present aesthetic moment (if there is such a thing), it will be unavoidable that art practices will move to justify themselves by demonstrating proofs, in a way, as a necessary component of what it means to make art. Today, art must prove itself, it would seem, and what better way to do that than to expose hidden truths; to unearth assumptions; to show the world what is really there?

And yet, Selfies, in practice, moved forward in its investigation (quite literally at times) blindly. Todd and Niegel at no point presumed to know what would be discovered by their investigations, and it is precisely upon that not knowing that Elastic City’s participatory walks open up space for surprise, an affective response that the paranoid position explicitly militates against. As Sedgwick notes, “the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se,” and it is in relation to this paranoid principle of surprise aversion, in part, that I wish to make the claim that their courting of surprise marks Todd and Niegel’s work as a reparative aesthetic practice. I am not, however, not by any means, arguing that Elastic City’s practice is never paranoid, nor, even further, that it was the only reparative theatrical practice happening at Prelude. One might venture to say that all artists probably teeter between the two positions, or, more probably, that they frequently superimpose them. Kudos to the festival curators, Caleb Hammons and Frank Hentschker, for demonstrating through their selections just such a superimposition, or, what I would call, a cohabitation of paranoid and reparative theatrical practices in contemporary theater.

One feeling that comes to me every time I attend an Elastic City walk is, for lack of a better cliché, a sense of childlike wonder. Even when a particular walk might deal with a subject that could seem daunting or in need of grave tonality (i.e. AIDS, as was the subject for Todd and Niegel’s Spread), these walks somehow manage to create space for curiosity; play; experimentation and its less liked buddy, failure. I often liken the experience to being on a playground. (Can one think of a place loaded with more foundational sites of trauma, shame and stigma?) And yet, Todd and Niegel somehow restage the playground as a place of playful unknowingness, but where the children (aka, us) somehow know better, or have learned that there are more responses to falling down or screwing up socially (a terrorizing social event that has sooooo much to do with “not knowing”; i.e. the rules of the game; the thing to wear; the sport to play) than the dual punishments of public shaming and hidden gossip. Todd and Niegel’s work repairs this place, queers this place; a place one might venture to call the always-place of art-making, or, perhaps, just—the place of making.

It might do us well, then, to remind ourselves that the epistemological space across which we make theater is an always fractured, traumatized place. Selfies ended with “thank you cards,” hugs and exchanges of numbers between its participants. It’s hard to imagine many theatrical performances ending this way. But I would like to imagine it happening. If not only and always, then at least more often.

RYAN TRACY has written for print and online publications such as The New York PressThe American ReaderThe International Gay and Lesbian ReviewMouvement (France), The Brooklyn Rail, Claudia La Rocco’s Performance ClubCalifornia Quarterlyculturebot.orgThe Orange County Register, and countercritic.com.

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