Failing at Subjects: The Poetics of the Living Idea

I am not not an academic; and I am not not a failure. These double negatives vibrate for me, which is a way of saying I feel them, in motion. About halfway through my coursework as a PhD student in English, I realized that I cannot write, or cannot force myself to write, a conventional academic essay. I loved being in almost all of my classes, but in the end I wrote maybe four standard twenty-page essays, which could only ever grasp for and miss hypotaxis—the hierarchical organization of points and claims in writing, which structurally delimits subjects and governs the possibilities of conclusions. I did write roughly twenty pages for each of these classes, but the reasons for my inability to write a sustained, argument-driven, academic essay only emerged into a sort of clarity once my book of “poems” materialized—because my book reflected my own values back to me in a way that I’d never had access to before. I cannot write without the leakiness of feeling that marks my commitment to the anarcho-productivity of what I think of as my own hysteria: again and again, my poetry shows how when I am touched superficially and/or deeply by an object, my body desires to follow the object outside of myself in a mytho-pathological quest to manifest the theoretical utility of my performative and actual failure to account for the object’s genius, its life. To me it has always seemed clear that alongside their objects of analysis a person is also an object, in addition to being many other things—though marked by differences and histories which determine their access to power, their ability to live, their relationship to the idea of objecthood, their will in receiving, forming, or living it. In my case, when I turned 30 and landed in Professor Nancy K. Miller’s class on feminisms, autobiography, and theory, I wrote my way into recognizing how my objecthood references the third-rate soap opera of white heteropatriarchal romantic capitalism lived out by these people who made the world around me, and in me. The “essay” that resulted was a sprawling psychosexual and intertextual confession/close-reading/auto-theorization that took the form of many footnotes appended to a single sentence: “I was raised to be a womanizer and a pretty toy.”


I have never had good boundaries, though I’ve learned to recognize their value. Lauryn Hill sang “Everything is everything” from half the open dorm windows when I was in college, her chorus promising, over her critique of oppressive power and the struggle and fatalism it produces, that change is inevitable—her city gets played but it’s what makes the music. “The tautology of power…this is what everything is in everything means,” writes Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster[1]—though what he meant was, in his paradoxical attachment to mastery, master one thing (one word, one sentence, one skill, one role) and you will have learned how to master them all, and will have no need for masters. The “everythings” help me define my tangle with boundaries: something to do with motion, to do with the magnetic possibilities of the tough radiant substance behind the easy word called interdisciplinarity, the lived and shifting complexity of intersectional identity, the deadly politics of borders; something to do with my stark apoplexy at the rolling problem of a priori philosophical categories, a.k.a. subjects. Success, which English tells us is the opposite of failure, continues to require violent forms of legibility, discipline, self-control, and “legitimate” or “lawful” subject production—in life and in institutions. But these are not neutral values, and they are often the very stations through which white capitalism obscures and reproduces itself.


My reference to hysteria is not not an act of gender essentialism, but I believe the brave possibilities of this condition extend to everyone, and depend to a large extent upon your personal relationship with misogyny, your personal relationship with structural power, what you believe you can or must exclude from your own subject in order for it to exist in a way you can survive, in a way that will bring you “success.” Hold on, wait: I am speaking to you from inside of a problem—a problem that seems manifest on such a scale now, and so with gaslighting, with “alternative facts,” with the denigration of protest. But what have you excluded from your writing in order to signify as a viable academic subject? But what vulnerabilities, negativities, doubts, feelings, pains, or pleasures do you repress or sublimate? But is the only way to achieve an identity through the bounded imitation of a pre-existing subject and its self-defining exclusions? Hello, Mom? Is this my death-drive speaking? By a number of standards, I have problems (who doesn’t?); I have problems constituting a subject, I’ve said and written before, but I’m not alone. (The problem of accounting for the freedom and mobility one has to constitute a subject, to identify oneself, to associate with others, to choose work, to take action, to make work and language and art and to share it—and the responsibility to reckon with one’s power and privileges as expressed by how one can do these things—the work of this problem is everywhere and more and more of a palpable weight.) Of course, I bear all the classic symptoms of what’s known as “imposter syndrome,” not to mention, or to mention, that I continue living as an anxious-depressive, unmedicated. Working with them, myself, I keep my neuroses close: she’s a monster, never-been-a-child, head just tipped back into the void, committed to and overstimulated by the minute, hiding and privately burning inside a sentence, a paragraph, a book, itching to give it all away, stewing in the crisis, the vast noise of the internet, terminally aroused and dissatisfied, writing my way “back,” over and over again. I heard Elaine Kahn’s poem “There is Nothing More to Life Than This” before I read it on the page—the words in her voice adamant dissolute, certain abandoneé, dull with intensity—and one line lasered me: “My only purity / is in my failure / to be satisfied.”[2] Satisfaction is the wrong word for what I want from this world, but I know some of what I struggle with inside my body is in tune with what lies beyond me. Like the poem, it’s vital and gross that I want to feel the wrong, and I don’t want something else, my skill with words, to hide it.


My uncool reference to hysteria sets off so many alarms. I think, this is a product of the education I’ve been privileged to receive and also resisted—this is white, overeducated femininity; then, this is an expression of underexamined internalized queer phobia; then, this is a problem of language: to approach the problem in a word, you reinscribe the problem. I choose the word “hysteria” to speak to the connection I feel between myself and others in our manifestations of ungovernable emotional excess (often explicitly or implicitly marked as identity-driven), urgent pushes or outbursts against the “neutral” or “rational” that are disordered or out of order, pathologized somatizations that are argued to have no cause—a kind of speaking of the body that Elaine Showalter describes as “a [not the] feminine protolanguage,” as she historicizes feminist responses to the word and its power in her chapter of Hysteria After Freud.[3] What if, my friend and fellow writer Moriah Askenaizer argues, “hysteria” makes sense—that the messages being sent to us by our bodies that could find their place in writing speak to the present in a way that usefully challenges academic discourse and the forms and conventions of the epistemological power in which it trades. Moriah writes: what is hysterical are “the conditions that produce ‘hysterical’ responses”—the wish and demand that the object be still, and submit to the “smart fancy safe people in a room talking beautifully about eugenics. Bodies slumped, passive or passing out, a talking at or through one another, charades, depression, nausea, migraines, self-harm rituals, etc.” What I learn from my exchange over this word with Moriah is a way of thinking about disciplinary whiteness as a systematic manifestation of hysteria—that hysteria “comes from a supremacist [success!] sociality that makes nothing out of trauma.”


Eyes a-melt in the furnace of institutionalized white hetero/homo-patriarchy, I grope my way among the harmonic repressions of its rhetorical and material forms, submitting and collaborating and resisting and failing as I go: 1) the costly professional coercions signifying academic legibility that I literally cannot afford; 2) contra the admonishment to materially produce and circulate myself, I love the constantly devalued and immaterial labor of teaching, for the beautiful moment lost to scholarly commodification but lodged in the student with unpredictable force and implications; 3) I gawk dumb and unimaginative at the fantastical privileged trajectory of academic study, how the pursuit of a certain kind of “excellence” as an academic systematically valorizes the aspiration for power in order to gain a homing access to the most privileged institutions where one could have the privilege of teaching the fewest classes to the fewest number of primarily privileged students; and 4) fundamentally reactive to formula and convention, I fetishize difficulty, and have a daily auto-masochistic practice of making things harder for myself out of a certain belief that things should be hard, that this work of thinking and teaching and reading and writing should constitute the deepest kinds of self-reckoning with how one operates in the medium of language (who has the time and the inclination? do you? what makes that possible?), and the implications of your operation in language for your presence in the world, and for others. Through past efforts to write a conventional academic essay, I discovered that my resistance to discipline leads me to fuck, or fuck myself, or get fucked (the word means so many things, you choose) to scatter my thoughts like bees so that when they come back they’ve touched more of the world, they bring more of the world back with them, glow or shadow or smear of blood, the kinds of pollen that inoculate my little culture with the organisms of awe and consequence, that bring me back to the question of what I am, what I am in resistance to, and with what I identify and feel connected and responsible to and for—and my own lability and multiplicity, two words and values whose stigmatized senses send my mind tracking back again through that hysterical wood.


But in order to signify as having useful knowledge about any subject other than ourselves, we are induced and compelled to fantasize a “unified voice,” one that projects a capacity for an encompassing consciousness of our subject. The first casualty is often the object of analysis itself: when academic writing takes a beautiful, terrifying, fascinating thing in the world and mangles it to boredom through an aesthetic reduction or theoretical claim that longs to transcend its evidence by ignoring or stilling it. This “unified voice” implies agreement in the reader through a kind of hallucinatory neutrality, and a coercive, implacable will to assert—to the point of scrupulous avoidance or minimization of vulnerability, e.g. references to the conditions or limitations or quixoticisms of the writing self, or ongoing epistemological tensions and thoroughgoing drives that operate in and through the body of the writer. As Lidia Yuknavitch commented on Facebook, “the so-called unified voice relying on a so-called stable thesis and so-called evidenced conclusion has the capacity to dangerously colonize other voices, experiences, and bodies.” I believe this statement describes a phenomenon so broadly manifest (as to include multiple genres of writing) that it could be a starting point for rethinking the ethics of the taught, learned, and perpetuated conditions for an individual’s reading and writing—their assumed goods. Yuknavitch advocates varying forms, fragmentation, “dispersion in multivocality… distortions in content, plurality of experience”—qualities which challenge and create space to reevaluate that aspiration to the “unified voice,” and which acknowledge the shifting and relational character of the existence and productions of the writing being in space, in time, in body.


From my perspective as (primarily) a reader of English “working in fields” associated with literature, pedagogy, and intersectional politics, I see a conscious if not wholly intentional movement to align academic subjects and existential vulnerabilities in an effort to draw attention to them, but for the most part the writing doesn’t seem to change. To swerve toward affirmation: as subjects of academic writing are composed to speak to existential vulnerabilities, issues of power and politics of direct relevance to the present, it seems more and more clear that the writing itself needs to engage in self-reflexive vulnerability in relation to its subject. I think of the simultaneous sonic, material, and theoretical functions of each word in Fred Moten[4], and how each word seems to sound out of a personal experience of the knowledge he’s making through, felt and lived; I think of the messy negativity and desiring criticality of the personal tensely sharing ground with the transnational in Sarah Schulman’s vital work[5]; I think of the weird, raw (like meat?), muscular dexterity of Maggie Nelson’s scholarly and aesthetic references, of how and what her forms demand she manifest in terms of selves.[6] Such acts of what I want to call auto-poetic criticism tend to be fetishized/demonized and quotationally discerped, rather than met and imbibed, discoursed with and through toward something new in the text lover or hater’s writing that gives way to experiments in how the writing of ideas perform their function, their resonance beyond an instrumentalized “aboutness.”


The poet Hannah Ensor pushes me for more on the above (which must be another “chapter,” another “essay”) and points out how this “aboutness,” this problem of “digestion,” recreates and is sustained by economies of citation in academic writing, demanding and regenerating forms of quotability or insertability toward efficiency and volume, toward a prevailing, smooth professionalism and a kind of systematical inaccessibility to unaccustomed readers. I have been thinking about this specifically in relation to my exam reading in queer theory/studies, and how writers in this field, determined to contribute to social justice discourse within academia (and maybe beyond), wield theoretical language in order to attempt totalizations of intersectional politics through strategic list-making, as though to append the categories of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality to the shadow of an idea is to do the work of thinking or writing intersectionally. (The text thereby doing, if anything, the work of creating a kind of defensive safety net for itself or a framework for the registration or regulation of terms for what might constitute the progressive beyond it. “Thinking intersectionally” is easy to say or write, but the kinds of work it actually means seem to fall outside the form of conventional academic writing.) For me, strategic intersectional list-making is a key example of the “aboutness” and the mechanical “doing it right” of academic writing, as opposed to writing that has a kind of presence, a kind of being in writing that feels like it is responsive to its objects, to you, like it lives, like it fails (maybe) to be what it is not—something like a poetics.


I turn toward the poetic because I think it can model these behaviors in language; it can embody felt knowledge, parataxic simultaneity—wherein a kind of leveling and diversification of written phenomena occur, whose boundaries are marked not by transitional phrases and coordinating and subordinating conjunctions but by the kinds of spaces that recognize and grant the reader the freedom to create emphasis and recognize their role in producing meaning and maybe more importantly the kinds of spaces that grant the writer the terrifying freedom to acknowledge their presence in the text, to reckon with the conditions of the production of this knowledge. I’m wondering how the writing we make teaches others how to treat objects. I’m wondering how we teach others how to treat objects. I’m wondering how, in its treatment of its objects, academic writing could model (for others and for itself) the dynamic intimacy of personal, private, and public forms of noticing, then noticing what you haven’t noticed, what you’ve been taught not to notice, varieties of aesthetic responsiveness, naked curiosity, discoveries of assumption and ignorance, admissions of the arbitrariness of archives or applied theoretical frameworks.


I am trying to think of more ways to say that the ways academics write from their bodies matter, the academic body as corps and corpus matters, is the matter that makes the writing. When I say “living idea” and attach it to the word “poetics” in a title that has all the hallmarks of someone subsumed in academic discourse, I want to say something so simple it’s beyond complicated—that we attend, think, and write with our bodies, and that by definition bodies move and feel. But perhaps even more challenging to absorb is the notion that the “objects” of our analysis, the “objects” we teach, are (often) bodies, moving and feeling (even texts). Our attention is composed of feelings, Brian Massumi writes in his introduction to Parables for the Virtual, and sensation is the feeling of having a feeling, a kind of self-relation that multiplies the self, through the varying intensities we experience. I know when knowledge matters because I feel the difference in me, and that means feeling the me I was before and the me I was after. Massumi gently suggests that the problem with academic subjects and the problem with academic thinking and writing is that movement is “subtracted” from the idea of the body.[7] That the body or phenomenon in motion exists with a kind of “present abstraction,” an unfixity, an openness to the world, a capacity to change, an indeterminacy that our ideas could try for.


Thus concludes my review of assignments I keep shouting at myself and failing at as I work on my “dissertation,” as I repeat these sentences from Moten and Harney’s Undercommons: “We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.”[8] I don’t know how or if I can do it, but I want to find concrete ways to encourage forms of writing, relationships between subjects (students, teachers, content, words), that struggle more transparently to account for the movement of life, the multiplicity that inheres in the radically particular subject, the mobility of meaning in the texts we read and teach and give our life and time to, that might contribute to a different kind of relational freedom and responsibility.


I’m talking about a tiny thing, a practice, to be chosen, to be tried and failed at, done over and over every day: meeting, working, and engaging with others (people, objects, texts, ideas) from an initiating belief and a rolling effort to recognize that everyone and everything is in motion, and therefore breathtakingly multiple, productively unstable. What kinds of radical agreements can seek justice and develop terms for an accountability and openness to the before and after of the encounter, foregrounding the unknown and the not visible; what necessary reminders that we are in motion too and make the recognition of motion present with you—that we can move differently and together, or not. I want to know what kinds of tiny releases and tiny freedoms, granted to the self, the other, and the world would make this possible—and what kinds of movements would conspire to emerge from us if we are felt and held to be capable of movement.

[An initial draft of this was presented at Tiny Talks on “Failure,” organized by Becca Klaver and held at Berl’s Poetry Shop, 10 Sept. 2016]

[1] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 26.

[2] Elaine Kahn, “THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS,” Brooklyn Rail, Apr. 1, 2017.

[3] Elaine Showalter, “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender,” in Hysteria Beyond Freud (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 286-344.

[4] These comments feel equally drawn from Fred Moten’s poetry and critical work, but here I’m thinking specifically of The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions, 2014) and the recently released talk, A Poetics of the Undercommons (Butte, MT: Sputnik and Fizzle, 2017).

[5] Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (New York: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016).

[6] Yes, I’ve been working over The Argonauts (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2015) in my mind since before I even read it, but that’s a story for another time; I also think Nelson’s Jane: A Murder (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2005) which renders a palpably physical submission to its evidence and the conditions for the possibility of its meanings.

[7] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 3, 13-14.

[8] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013): 20.


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SARA JANE STONER is a writer, teacher, and PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center working/worrying on a dissertation between pedagogy, queer theory, and contemporary poetics. Her first book, Experience in the Medium of Destruction (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2015) was nominated for a Lambda Award, and GRIEF HOUR, a chapbook, was published in the Spring/Summer issue of Black Warrior Review.

Photo credit: Joey Crimmins