The One You Get

I got advance copies this week! Soon, the book will be in the world. I guess it’s partway in the world now. Baby steps. I’m excited.

The launch party will be September 12, 8 pm at The Red Room at KGB in New York. I’ll read for a very short time. There will be great music and delicious cocktails. I’ll sign books. But mostly we’ll have fun.

“Jason Tougaw’s intelligent, funny, and deeply moving memoir is that rare thing: the story of a family that is at once particular and universal. The variously wild, tender, deluded, suffering, incorrigible, and resilient people who are so vividly portrayed in this book are nothing if not idiosyncratic. At the same time, this story of a boy growing up in California during the years of a waning counter culture deftly incorporates sophisticated reflections on the brain science of human memory and development and the ongoing mystery of why some of us survive a chaotic and brutal childhood and others don’t.” –Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women



A Single Man’s Brain

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) is a story of a grieving organism. George, its protagonist, is a professor bereft after the death of partner Jim. His grieving is solitary. The homophobia of his world curtails communal mourning rituals. In response, he narrates himself in ecological terms, as an organism, his brain and body commingling with an environment fundamentally changed by the loss of his most intimate companion. George lives on the margins of social life, but he’s intimate with biological life.

Isherwood (right), with his friends Wystan Auden and Stephen Spender. He was a social creature, not a solitary one like George.

In that sense, A Single Man is a precursor to 21st-century neuronovels like Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, or Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. Isherwood opens the novel with George waking uneasily into consciousness, his brain almost bullying him into reluctant action:

Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deducted I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until—later or sooner—no, not perhaps—quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.

But meanwhile the cortex, the grim disciplinarian, has taken place at the central controls and has been testing them, one after another: the legs stretch, the lower back is arched, the fingers clench and relax. And now, over the entire intercommunication system, is issued the first general order of the day: UP.

The subjectless am and now of the first sentence indicate a fringe state on the cusp of awareness, evolving fairly quickly into a feeling of identity in time (similar to the key scene from Powers’s The Echo Maker, when Mark Schluter wakes from coma). The narrator is reluctant to resume a life, or an identity, whose meaning is so strongly defined by Jim’s death. Like so many more recent neuronovels, Isherwood portrays George’s brain with agency: His fear of living “tweaks the vagus” nerve. His cortex is a “grim disciplinarian” that manipulates his body and issues commands. His body is an “intercommunication system.”

George wrestles with his brain throughout the novel. He worries that his students see him as “a severed head carried into the classroom to lecture to them from a dish.” He laments that they “don’t want to know about my feelings or my glands or anything below the neck.” As he tries to sleep, “the brain inside the skull on the pillow cognizes darkly”—enabling him to consider “decisions not quite made,” decisions “waking George” can’t face. When he sleeps, “All over this quietly pulsating vehicle the skeleton crew make their tiny adjustments. As for what goes on topside, they know nothing of this but danger signals, false alarms mostly: red lights flashed from the panicky brain stem, curtly contradicted by green all clears from the level-headed cortex. But now the controls are on automatic. The cortex is drowsing; the brain stem registers only an occasional nightmare.”

The novel ends with his quiet death, from a stroke: “Cortex and brain stem are murdered in the blackout with the speed of an Indian strangler. Throttled out of its oxygen, the heart clenches and stops. The lungs go dead, their power line cut. All over the body, the arterials contract.” Isherwood narrates George as an organism, using the language of physiology for a double effect, creating both clinical distance and bodily intimacy. George’s thoughts and feelings aren’t enough. We need to get inside his body to understand his grief.

In his essay “Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief” (2004), James Krasner draws on neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran’s research on phantom limbs and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories of embodied identity to make an argument about grief in literary works by Woolf, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, David Wills, and Mark Doty. One of his central observations, that “grieving people also find themselves in an unaccommodating physical environment, in which the absence of the beloved’s body changes their habitual motions through space,” could come straight from a review of Isherwood’s novel (published forty years before Krasner’s essay).

Krasner argues that literary portraits of grief suggest that people who share each other’s lives—spouses, partners, parents, siblings, caretakers—become part of each other’s bodily identities, what Merleau-Ponty calls “body-schema.” He enlists Ramachandran’s research to argue that “phantom limb pain occurs when the limb feels abnormally present although it is abnormally absent. . . . Literary portrayals of grief that emphasize embodiment present the bereaved with compromised bodies, stumbling or contorting as they fail to adjust to the physical postures and environments their losses have left to them.”

Again, Isherwood’s novel seems to anticipate Krasner’s argument. His description of George and Jim’s relationship is thick with descriptions of the two men’s bodies inhabiting each other’s identities:

Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small place, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love—think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them! The doorway into the kitchen has been built too narrow. Two people in a hurry, with plates of food in their hands, are apt to keep colliding here. And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge—as though the track had disappeared down a landside. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.

He stands quite still, silent, or at most uttering a brief animal grunt, as he waits for the spasm to pass. Then he walks into the kitchen. These morning spasms are too painful to be treated sentimentally. After them, he feels relief, merely. It is like getting over a bad attack of cramp.

Isherwood directs readers, quite explicitly—“Think of two people”—to imagine the physicality of daily intimacy, but also that physicality’s capacity to crawl through the explanatory gap between the biology of cells and the experiences of sensation, emotion, feeling, and thought. Jostling and colliding become conduits of identity. Isherwood’s narrator adopts something like what sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor calls an “intercorporeal perspective.” George’s problem is not simply his loss, but also his internalization of homophobia, which prevents him from sharing the pain of his physical and emotional loss with others.

Technically—socially—George is single. George is single because he can’t marry, can’t be widowed. But his life with Jim, the marriage of their identities, trumps social strictures. In a chapter of The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (2016), Pitts-Taylor examines biological research on kinship through the lens of queer theory. Much of the kinship research focuses on hormones as mechanisms of attachment, but Pitts-Taylor argues that the evidence in this research warrants reconsideration: Prairie voles are not as monogamous as the research once suggested; hormones may be involved in human attachments, but they don’t create or define them.

Instead, she concludes, like Isherwood, that “Being biologically related does not have to mean genetically related; it can mean having a biological investment in another, in the form of an intercorporeal tie to another, that is the product of interaction, intimacy, or companionship. The transformation of bodies as they live with and toward others is a kind of relatedness that ought to be recognized. For humans, at least, such relatedness is also discursive, historical, and political.” Throughout the book, Pitts-Taylor re-examines neuroscience research and theory, teasing out its cultural and political implications, looking for what she calls “chances for life that are at stake in our attempts to frame and understand” human bodies in neurobiological terms. When it comes to kinship, strictly reductionist theories suggest limited possibilities for life when they assume heterosexual drives define what counts as kinship. They restrict “chances for life” for a character like George.

Isherwood’s novel ends with George’s death, but it’s not a gloomy tale about a man dying of grief. George finds chances for life while he grieves—and Isherwood is careful not to portray this as a contradiction, but as a nuance, or in Pitts-Taylor’s terms, a “queerer possibility” for what it means to be a human organism. During one scene, George drives around Los Angeles, observing Christmas shoppers “crowd the stores and sidewalks,” noting how these same crowds “were cramming the markets, buying the shelves bare of beans” during the Cuban missile crisis. George sees himself both apart from and a part of these people he calls “The Majority.” As Isherwood writes, “George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures.” Instead, he responds to their creaturely behavior with philosophical ebullience: “I am alive, he says to himself, I am alive! And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight, and appetite. How good to be in a body—even this old beat-up carcass—that still has warm blood and live semen and rich marrow and wholesome flesh!”

Later, he revels bodysurfing at night with Kenny, one of his students. Just before the final scene in which he goes to sleep, not realizing he’ll die before he wakes, he masturbates, “thinking of Kenny: The blood throbs deep down in George’s groin. The flesh stirs and swells up, suddenly hard hot. The pajamas are pulled off, tossed out of bed.” As a character, George struggles with homophobia and grief, but his narrator, with his “intercorporeal perspective,” represents his body’s ability both to merge with and defy the social structures that curtail his chances for life.

If the merging of bodies is central to Isherwood’s novel, it’s not limited strictly to human bodies, or even biological ones. The novel’s most famous scene features George contemplating tide pools at the beach on the night he will die:

Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness—so to speak—are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures co-exist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And throughout the day the ebb tide, they know no other.

The tide pools are an explicit metaphor for consciousness. George’s body—with its “skeleton crew”—is akin to the rocks, holding his identity together. The pools, sloshing over with life forms, are akin to physical, phenomenological, and social components of his identity. They splash into others; the sea splashes into them; the tide goes out, and they evaporate. If A Single Man is a proto-neuronovel, it’s one that suggests that one man’s physical body, like the pools, is alive with “queerer possibilities” than his world recognizes. By implication, the same must be true for The Majority. Isherwood’s sly move, in 1964, was to cast George as an allegorical figure, a representative of the variety of humans, queer creatures like him, intercorporeal and sparkling with undiscovered secrets.

Political Organisms

My ears perked up when I read that Barack Obama was talking to his daughters about what it means to think about humans (and voters) as organisms. New York Magazine‘s Gabriella Paiella asked him what he tells his daughters about the election of Donald Trump:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop … You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

It’s messy. I think what he’s saying is that our biology expresses itself in culture–and vice versa. We may all have “flare-ups of bigotry,” emerging from our bodies. We’re responsible for the flare-ups. We might have to vanquish them. Notice the President’s rhetorical stance here. His language suggests we’re all organisms, all part of the problem and the solution, culpable and redeemable. Sort of like characters in Jane Austen.

Or Ralph Ellison. In 2008, David Samuels wrote in the New Republic about the influence of  Ellison’s Invisible Man on The President. Interestingly, the novel opens with a description of its protagonist as a human organism:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ellison’s narrator is flesh, bone, fiber, and liquids–the materials of self. He is also a person with a mind others can’t see. They project images onto him. Some of the projections stick, particularly in a novel about the foundation of racism upon with the United States is built. President Obama is, like all of us, flesh, bone, fiber, and liquids. As our first African American President, he’s experienced his share of our projections times a zillion.

I think the President is talking about humans as organisms in order to ask us to check our projections–and to be a little forgiving of each other’s fiber and liquids. Voting in Donald Trump was a mistake, and now the President asks his daughters to take responsibility for that, to fight for kindness, respect, and understanding. The fight will take many forms, and those forms will depend on what happens in terms of policy. The rhetoric matters, but it can be really distracting.

I think The President is also asking us to consider how the rhetoric enfolds us. I think he’s reminding us of one of the lessons we university professors impress on our students: Avoid generalizations.

White workers feel neglected. Feminists failed Hilary Clinton. African Americans are disenchanted with the Democratic Party. Anybody who voted for Trump is racist. Millennials want revolution. Bernie Sanders supporters are naive. Latino voters will clinch it for Clinton. The media is biased (in whatever direction). Americans are worse than we thought. Americans are the greatest people on earth. 

Claims about groups of people–as monoliths–are swirling in American culture just now. They are headlines and topic sentences and tweets. They scare and dishearten. They compel people to project each other through mirrors of hard, distorting glass. I could reel off a dozen reasons I believe electing Donald Trump was a serious mistake, but you’ve heard these already. What I won’t do is hypothesize about why it happened. I don’t know. I do know that voters are organisms too. Organisms change in response to their environment. Human organisms recoil when they see projections of themselves that look like caricature. Recoiling is a pause in the preparation for battle. In the case of our current political divides, these are often petty, circular battles on social media.

I guess what I’m saying, following The President’s lead, is that we’re more likely to create an environment conducive to respect and understanding if we avoid the generalizations (and name calling). It’s hard for billions of people to figure out how to organize the world so we may live together with some semblance of justice. We don’t do a great job. Justice tends to elude us. When we achieve it, it’s partial–and often leads to new forms of injustice. The institutions in Invisible Man–schools, activist organizations, neighborhoods, factories–are all flawed. They are made by people (well, characters) who have at best partial understandings of the motives and actions that ooze from their fiber and liquid bodies, through their minds, and all over other people.

I don’t think we understand ourselves or the culture we share any better than the characters in Invisible Man do. But we are all narrating the culture, in our daily lives, through our work, on our social media. I think it’s worth seeing what happens if we resist generalizations and monolithic thinking. What might the culture become if we do?

LuxRd Has a Message for Us

On election eve, Lux Rd. springs their new video, “Get Your Fucking Hope Back” (directed by James Matthew Daniel). If the medium is the message, it seems like there’s something here about reimagining what it means to be human–because the models we’ve been working with seem to be making us miserable. Here’s to reimagination! Also, love those move, those dancers, that creepy milk, and the sexy opening and closing images.

Club Zu

club zu

Creepie ghoulies and New Romantics share the love outside Club Zu in Solana Beach, California.

Hips wave and duck. Arms move in unison, right to left, fists gently closed, like they’re pulling a big lever. When the chorus comes, You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record baby, several dancers interrupt the lever pulling for a brief miming of a record turning, palm down, on cue, right round round round. Kelsey, the nineteen-year-old owner of Club Zu, is on stage, next to a guy in a cape with a skeleton dangling from his ear, its arm looped through the ring in his nose. He waves his arms like a snake charmer, legs together, swaying. Kelsey wears red plaid pants, a black sweater, and black boots. His hair is black and stands up straight off his head. He seems to be looking at nothing, like he’s too inside the music to notice all these people who’ve come to his club from all over San Diego County in their newest outfits, hair freshly dyed, debuting their latest make-up concepts.

I’m eyeing Kelsey’s two friends, who round out the trio of what I consider the coolest people on earth. Tara is tall, pale, lush, the biggest and most gorgeous goth girl here. Her hair is black, with royal blue roots, eyes pale blue, black eyebrows, lips royal with black liner, diamond in her nose. Brian is tiny next to her, with a crimped copper bob, black eyeliner, no lipstick, brocade vest, pegged black wool pants. They’re friends with The Thompson Twins, who hang out here whenever they’re in town for a show.

As Dead or Alive fades into the intro to Visage’s “Fade to Grey,” I hear Paul tell somebody, “this is the twelve-inch.” One man on a lonely platform. One case sitting by his side. I can’t help staring at Kelsey and his friends. “You want to be introduced?” Shannon asks. “You think Kelsey’s cute?” I do, but that’s not it. I want to be them. I adjust the dangling rhinestones in my ear and feel sticky wet behind my lobe. Paul pierced my ear before we caught the bus to the coast, with a needle and rubbing alcohol. He told me to wear the stainless steel stud he had from when he got his pierced at the mall, but I was dying to wear my new rhinestones. We’re pretending we don’t care that we don’t have a ride home.

“We’re going outside,” Paul whispers in my ear as I fiddle with it, “as soon as the song ends.” Wishing life wouldn’t be so dull. Pull, wave, duck, charm, bend, sway.

“Okay, come on,” Paul says, hooking arms with a tiny girl I’ve never seen, but whose rold model is clealry Siouxsie. “I heard Steve Strange has AIDS,” she says as we squeeze through the waving ducking swaying bending crowd. She’s talking about Visage’s singer.

“Really?” I ask. I’m excited to a degree that verges on panic. His new friend brought up the subject that scares me the most. I don’t tell anybody, but I think about AIDS periodically each day, tracing imagined sexual histories for any guy who’s had sex with any guy I’ve made out with. And any guy Paul has. If I’ve got, he does. And vice versa. I don’t know anybody with HIV yet. It will be several years before I’ll have friends who die from AIDS. But this is the beginning of ten years of panic.

“It’s the rumor in London,” she says. I have no idea, at fifteen, that I’m even more afraid of the people I want to be, like Paul’s new friend, who seems to carry rumors across the Atlantic, who drops casual remarks about the health of New Romantic stars I stare at on record covers and videos. If I want all this so badly, why does it freak me out so much?

Thankfully, Warren and Tiffany interrupt my angsty Visage fueled reverie. Theylank us, with two short girls with shaved heads. “Let’s go.” No time for thinking. We’ve known Tiffany since grade school. Now she’s got a mowhawk, and she and Warren are an item. We follow.

“Where are we going?” I ask, regretting the question and feeling like a dork.

“Just come on,” Warren says, patting his back pocket.

We follow him down the alley behind the club. There are some concrete steps with grass growing pretty high out of the cracks, leading to a path along the cliff, where you can climb down to the beach. We can hear waves smashing on the shore below. Warren sits on the steps, surrounded by girls. Tiffany climbs to the top. She and Warren haven’t held hands or kissed all night. The rest of us fill in around the steps. Warren takes a lighter and pipe out of his pocket, digs around some more and pulls out his pot. “Yum,” he says, holding the baggy up to the light from the street lamp, flicking the pot with his index finger and watching it bounce and settle. “Sticky bud. Hawaiian.”

Every now and then Warren starts talking like this, flaunting the collision of his full lips painted red and the surfer boy words coming out of them.

Warren fills the pipe gently, careful to rub the sticky bud into dust without losing any. He lights, sucks, breathes in, hands the pipe to Emily, who lights, sucks, breathes, hands the pipe to Scratch. “Oh yeah,” Warren says, breathing out a cloud of smoke, filling the air with the smell of my mom’s parties. “That’s it,” he says. Somehow, filtered through Warren’s lungs and clinging to the salt in the air, the dense sweet smell seems to have lost all traces of my mom, her boyfriends, my uncles, or their friends. This may be the same pot hippies and metalheads smoke, but it manages to smell like new wave.

Paul takes a hit. He lights, sucks, breathes, hands the pipe to me. I hold it to my mouth and flick the lighter. The flame burns my thumb. I have trouble keeping it lit long enough to burn the pot, but I’m determined. I suck in a cloud of smoke as Paul spurts one out, coughing, laughing. “I can’t stop,” he laughs. “I can’t stop.”

“You didn’t get a hit,” Warren say, hopping off the steps and reaching for the pipe. “Let me help.” He snaps the lighter and tells me to suck. I cough. Paul laughs. Warren and Tiffany laugh. I laugh through more coughs, afraid I might throw up. My ear throbs. There’s a scab growing around the fastener at the back of my lobe, gluing the heavy rhinestones in place. But I got a hit. I’m high, like Warren, with Warren. “Let’s dance,” he says. “Put on your red shoes,” putting his arm around me, lighting the pipe, sucking, and then blowing the smoke into my mouth, grazing my lips.

“I’m so stoned,” Paul says as we walk. “Oh my god, I feel like I’m floating.” I’m not sure if I feel anything or not, but Warren’s lips almost just touched mine.

“Floating on a cloud of love,” Warren says.

“Oh my god, could you be any more of a cliché?” Paul says.

When we show our stamps and re-enter, Kelsey and his friends are dancing to “Collapsing New People” by Fad Gadget. We duck and wave to blend in, sway and bend with the crowd to Soft Cell, Heaven 17, Haysi Fantayzee, Cee Farrow, Blancmange, The Human League, Fashion.

At the stroke of two a.m., the lights come up and the dancers shield their eyes in imitation of Vampires stranded under a rising sun. “I hate to say goodbye,” Kelsey announces over the sound system, “but you creepy ghoulies have to go out into the night. Before the lights melt your foundation.” People pretend not to smile as they circle each other out the door, onto the sidewalk, into cars. Scratch has a car, but it’s full.

“Let’s hit the beach,” Warren says. “Watch the sun rise. First bus is 5:41.”

We follow him up the concrete stairs, seven ride-less, beach-bound stragglers in melting foundation. We have to navigate wobbly stairs with rope for banisters down the cliff.  We feel around in the dark with our feet for a spot without rocks or seaweed. We sit, stars above us beaming just enough light to see the sand particles creeping into our velvet, spandex, lace, and wool. We can hear the waves and just see their froth.  Warren lights the pipe, making his face glow. His lips are puffy, sucking, his eyes almost transparent they’re so light.

“It’s so fuckin’ cold,” Paul says. We all have our arms wrapped around our torsos.

“Let’s cozy up for body warmth,” Warren says, shaking out a shiver. We huddle, a line of beached newros. “Pot will help.” I close my eyes and pretend to sleep while the rest of them light, suck, and breathe, until I really am sleeping, inside a dewy sweet cloud.

I wake warmer, sun on my face, one of the girls shaking me. “You have to see this,” she says, pointing to the glowing pink sun over the cliff, ascending the lavender sky. “Look at the sun,” she says. The pink glows oranger by the second. It’s almost striped: bubblegum pink, red-orange, pure orange. There’s an L-shaped speck of black toward the bottom, like dust on a camera lens.

“It’s a sun spot,” Paul says, sounding encyclopedic, as usual. “It’s probably fucking up satellite communications. The fog’s making it so we can look with the naked eye.” Periwinkle waves lap tan sand at our backs while we watch, their white froth invisible now, canceled out by the white dawn bleaching the sky and sand.

I have no way of knowing it, but Steve Strange will be alive in 2013, releasing a new Visage record. Robert Smith, Siouxsie, and Duran Duran will all still be making records. I will be alive. For now, my earlobe is all scab, the blood caking the edges of the rhinestone poking through it. I taste my finger after fiddling with it, and it’s kind of like licking the ocean.


From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).


Interview with Heather Houser

9780231165143Heather Houser’s book Ecosickness in U.S. Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP 2014) moved and fascinated me. Houser writes about ecology and sickness in fiction by some of the most influential contemporary American writers, including Jan Zita Grover, Marge Piercy, Richard Powers, Leslie Marmon Silko, David Foster Wallace, and David Wojnarowicz. Houser’s writing is lucid and engaging. She does an amazing job of showing how these writers elicit particular feelings—anxiety, wonder, disgust—and motivate readers to environmental consciousness. We read fiction to lose (and find) ourselves in worlds invented by writers. How do those invented worlds help us think about feel? How do they reflect the bewildering thing we call the real world? Can they motivate us to ethical engagement? I’m delighted that Heather Houser agreed to talk about some of these questions with me.

Ecosickness in U.S. Contemporary Fiction is the winner of Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present Book Award for 2015. It will be published in paperback this spring.

In your book, you describe fiction as “a laboratory for perceptual and affective changes that can catalyze ethical and political projects.” Your focus is works of fiction that tell ecological stories, about forms of illness and suffering that link human bodies with environmental factors that play often mysterious roles in making them sick. I love the way you borrow the word laboratory from science here. A lab is the place where experiments happen, and scientists conduct experiments when they want to learn something about something that remains mysterious. I would love to hear you talk about an example of a work of fiction as a laboratory—one example that really shows what mean.

Your characterization of the meanings of laboratory precisely matches what I was thinking with this. One of the claims of Ecosickness is that authors depict and deploy emotions like disgust and anxiety in ways that don’t predictably conform to an environmental ethic or politics. So, just as the etiologies of the sicknesses that authors like David Foster Wallace and Leslie Marmon Silko depict aren’t cut-and-dried, the trajectories of emotions are uncertain. Let’s take Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) as an example. In Ecosickness I run through how this enormous novel’s precise and relentless detailing of the horrors of racism, genocide, and environmental degradation generates anxiety in characters and readers alike. I think of Almanac as a laboratory for anxiety because the outcomes of this emotion are as uncertain as the outcomes of the exploitations and rebellions the book narrates. Will anxiety be politically motivating or will it tip over into paralysis? I find this uncertainty productive for literary analysis for the same reasons I assume it’s productive for authors: it’s not predictive and this encourages the critic to examine aesthetic strategies like plot structure and metaphor as kinds of tools or methods in the experiment with affect. How does, in the case of Almanac, the novel’s sprawling geography and character set influence the production of anxiety? How does a conclusion entitled “Home” calm this disturbing feeling?


Todd Haynes’s film Safe (1995) has become an iconic take on eco-sickness in our time.

How do you define ecosickness? What’s the origin of the term? I ask because it seems to me that all illness involves relationships between an organism and an environment, but I think you mean something more particular—both conceptually and historically.

Most illnesses have environmental factors that shape them, even if they don’t cause them. But you’re right that I mean something more particular here. “Ecosickness” refers to the interplays between human bodies and the more-than-human world that manifest materially through dysfunction and conceptually, culturally, and politically through our tropes and narratives. This has an historical dimension because, I argue, innovations in technoscience such as genetic modification and biosphere engineering helped intensify the damages through which the imbrications of body and environment become visible. They have also intensified the affects that attach to transformations to life itself. The term “ecosickness” emerged from conversations with my writing group and mentors as I was writing the dissertation that became the book. I was using “sickness” to capture my meaning but was running up against the fact that this word typically calls up either the human body alone and/or moral judgment. By adding “eco-,” I thought I could retain but augment those associations. Most importantly, I hoped readers would come to think of dysfunction as pervasive and as necessarily engaging numerous systems—biological, social, political, etc.

I’d imagine many people suffering from various forms of ecosickness have a hard time finding answers about the causes of their symptoms—and that people build communities to help each other find answers, and solace. Are there any particular community groups or projects that stand out to you for the ways they help people cope with the uncertainties you discuss in the book?

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this, but I’m aware of a number of citizen science networks that monitor the environmental conditions that might correlate to lived sickness. There’s often a distance between the institutions and experts that examine the human body and those that research environmental pollutants and other factors. To fill this gap and connect dots–if only for themselves–people become naturalists of the “unnatural” and diarists of their own body’s functioning. With new technologies, citizen science is becoming more quantified and integrated. For example, the Air Quality Egg project provides devices for detecting and reporting on air pollution. Stacy Alaimo, Steven Epstein, and Giovanna di Chiro have all written tellingly of these grassroots ways of establishing environmental and medical expertise and how they hook up with political and social justice fights. The Human Toxome Project is building communities and citizen knowledge of environmental sickness.

Your question about anxiety—will it motivate or paralyze?—rings true to me. It seems to me this is a feeling most people I know live with every day. Your book’s focus on ecosickness connects so many of the contemporary realities that provoke anxiety: the pollution that’s transforming the earth, economic and social injustice, geopolitical inequities, mortality, the possibility of extinction or apocalypse. The list could go on. You’ve read and thought about these subjects more than most. In your reading, have you come across ideas or actions or suggestions that strike you as antidotes to personal and political paralysis?

Truthfully, I think enduring antidotes, especially ones that come in the formal of external motivation, are hard to find. Disgust at injustice and antipathy toward inertia are the strongest antidotes for me personally. Ann Cvetkovich’s book Depression: A Public Feeling offers remarkable reflections on both these spurs to involvement, and I’m continually inspired by those like my UT colleagues Robert Jensen and Snehal Shingavi who never fail to organize and speak out. I share her sentiment, voiced there, that there will be days when we throw up our hands and sit it all out. And then there will be days of activation when we see alternatives to the realities you describe and want to do our damnedest–through protest, lobbying, teaching, conversation, writing, meditation—to make those alternatives know. To my mind, the strongest sources of paralysis are perfectionism and fatalism and just doing can stave off both tendencies.

Can we talk a little more about perfectionism and fatalism? I think you’re absolutely right that both lead to paralysis. Both tendencies seem to involve a yearning for certainty. Perfectionism is a fantasy that we can do something just right, fatalism that it doesn’t matter what we do. In your book, you made a conscious choice to write about works of fiction that don’t offer any clear cause-and-effect explanations for the relationship between sickness and environment. I’m guessing here, but your point about just doing seems related to that decision. You’re writing about works of fiction that seem less about solving problems that living with, through, or beyond them. In other words, doing. I’m curious to hear about how you made the decision to focus on texts that aren’t explicit or definite about environmental causes for sickness. Did you know all along that this was what you wanted to do, or did you realize it some time later in the process of doing your research and writing? What difference does it make when works of fiction don’t represent definite causes for the sicknesses they portray?

This is a rich question with a number of rabbit trails to follow. Ecosickness initially emerged from a broader interest in representations of disease in 20th-century fiction. I certainly investigated stories in which diseases–or potential diseases–had environmental causes (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge), but I also found stories in which disease and environmental decline were seemingly running on parallel tracks. I didn’t know quite what to make of this at first but wanted to explore whether there was some feature of the works–representational strategies, ideological investments, historical conditions, etc.–that bends those parallel lines and make them converge at a level other than plot. In doing my readings, I found that the feature that bent the lines was narrative affect, which I define in Ecosickness as emotions attached to formal dimensions of texts that draw conceptual and experiential homologies between somatic and environmental damage. 

Highlighting narratives without definite causes helped me think outside of the “solution” model of ecocriticism and political criticism more general. The upshots for an environmental politics of books like Infinite Jest or North Enough aren’t always tidy or uplifting. If much political criticism of the 80s-00s looked to literature for its subversive potential or ability to resist oppression and exploitation, the criticism of the messy narratives in Ecosickness instead shows the obstacles to more politically assuaging (for some) readings. Looking outside of cause-and-effect models also encouraged attention to formal mechanisms like metaphoric systems (primarily what I call throughout my book medicalization) or how narrative structures and characterization mesh (as in the case of Almanac of the Dead). This allows for a criticism in which formal attentiveness is in the service of eco-political, ethical, and affective interpretation.

As with any project, some pragmatic things also motivated my choice of narratives that aren’t invested in rooting out causes or drawing vectors between cause and effect. That was to build on rather than reduplicate some of the excellent scholarship on environmental health culture and history that appeared as I was conceiving the project. I’m thinking here of magnificent titles by Stacy Alaimo—Bodily Natures–and Linda Nash—Inescapable Ecologies. While both studies are explicit about the impossibility of pinpointing etiologies in environmental health matters, the kinds of texts and phenomena they examine raise an expectation for that discovery even if they don’t satisfy it.

Let’s talk another feeling—wonder. You discuss wonder in novels by Richard Powers, including The Echo Maker. I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of the cranes in that novel, which you write about. When I first read your gorgeous interpretations of the cranes, I thought, “Oh, shit, I’ve been scooped.” Then I realized that there’s plenty of room for your reading and mine, and that yours will only help me make mine stronger. Anyway, you discuss wonder in some surprising and complex ways—not simply as a great feeling that helps us cope or hope. Can you give readers of the blog a preview of your take on how wonder works in our emotional and literary lives?

Wonder is just everywhere in environmental writing. I’m encountering it over and over as I work on my current project (called, for now, “Environmental Art and the Infowhelm”) for which I’m reading classical natural history and “the new natural history” of the past 30 years. In studying Powers’s The Echo Maker for Ecosickness I found that, for as much as wonder motivates the science-curious characters and science-driven plot and, in fact, is the essence of inquiry, it also shares features with projection and paranoia. Showing how wonder can slide into these relations, Power’s story of neurological damage and habitat destruction also shows that even feelings like wonder that seem productive for environmental care can have other outcomes.  I want to continue thinking about the trajectories of wonder, especially as it arises from curiosity in my current project, but there I’ll be focusing especially on its effects on ways of attending to and knowing the more-than human.

So we have something to look forward to. I, for one, am excited to read anything you write—but especially if it’s about wonder and curiosity. I imagine we’ll all be thinking about all things more-than-human in the near future. I’d imagine you teach some fascinating courses. I’d love to hear about how your teaching relates to your writing about eco-sickness and about the cultural work of feelings in general. 

I taught a course called “Imagining Contamination” in which we discussed Todd Haynes’s film Safe (1995). The idea for the course was to think about medical, environmental, cultural, and social contaminants and how one type can become the others. Safe is a particularly challenging film to watch and to teach, not least because it is deliberately irritating–the soundtrack, the color palette and lighting, some characters’ seeming vacuity. Viewers can easily become polarized about the status of the protagonist, Carol White’s (Julianne Moore), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Some students readily fell into the “it’s all in her head; she’s hysterical” interpretation and read Carol’s disease as Haynes’s indictment of suburban domesticity and consumerism. Others considered features of the film such as mise-en-scène that suggested environmental causes to the symptoms Carol develops that ultimately lead her to leave her family and San Fernando Valley home to live in the desert with others affected by MCS. Safe to me is a laboratory for thinking and feeling because of its unpredictability. Haynes’s aesthetic strategies combined with his refusal to preach—to be avowedly and identifiably environmentalist—set in motion the experiment in which my students participated. Without denying the validity of their divergent responses, I tried to steer them to think about how even what’s “in our heads” has a reality, not only because the feelings it produces in the so-called hysterical person are embodied and experienced but also in that toxicity–actual and perceived–has sociocultural origins. In any case, Safe might be the work I’ve taught that most makes students feel experimented upon precisely because they are so uneasy in the act of viewing and in their ensuing interpretations. It gets at one of the points with which I conclude Ecosickness: “Uncertainty about the outcomes of affect makes it hazardous terrain, for the artist and for the critic.” And for the teacher and student.

Sesame Street’s Missed Opportunity

“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

–Junot Diaz

In her careful, compassionate critique of Sesame Street‘s new attempts to represent autistic kids on the show, Erin Human, quotes Junot Diaz, from a speech he gave to New Jersey students. Diaz sees his job as a novelist as “making mirrors” for people who aren’t represented much in mainstream culture.

That is what Sesame Street is trying to do with autistic kids. In “Not in Love with Julia,” Erin Human has spent a lot of time with the show’s various materials and she’s evaluated them, thinking about whether she’d want her own kids to see them. Sesame Street has created an autistic character, Julia. She’s intended to be a positive representation, to help kids understand neurological difference. But Julia isn’t a full-fledged muppet. She only appears in animated sequences. She doesn’t speak for herself, and the narratives she’s involved in are all aimed at educating so-called neurotypical kids. They don’t really speak to autistic kids on their terms.

I want to share Human’s article about Sesame Street, because she’s a master rhetorician. She offers a serious critique without attacking anybody. She’s a model of civil discourse, and we need more of that in the world. I also want to share it because autistic people’s lives will be improved if our cultures produce mirrors like the ones Diaz describes. The same goes for people who embody all kinds of difference, neurological or otherwise.

Because Human–whose name is amazing!–is such a compassionate critic, she ends with a sort of rallying cry:

This website is not good. There’s too much that’s bad tipping the scales toward ableism and stigma. I hope Sesame Street listens. I think they can still fix this. Go back to the drawing board (literally and figuratively) with Julia, scrap everything else. Yep, scrap it. You made an autistic muppet, awesome. I love that she does happy flapping and loves to sing. Make her a real muppet. Make her part of the Sesame Street family. Let her talk instead of just talking about her. Let autistic kids see their reflection in her and feel that they are real people too, not monsters. Let them tell their own stories. Sesame Street has always known how to let kids be kids and they can do it again, and they can start now.

It would be amazing if the people who make Sesame Street hear Human’s message. They have a chance to do a better job. I would love to see them rise to the occasion.

Joseph LeDoux: On the Radio

9780670015337In my other life as a DJ, I had the pleasure of spending two hours on the air with Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist and frontman for the band The Amygdaloids. My show is The Mixtape, on 90.5 FM WJFF in Jeffersonville, New York. Usually, it’s a music show, but last week it was a combination of music and interview. In his new book,  Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Anxiety, LeDoux argues that we need to understand consciousness if we’re going to understand fear and anxiety. Along with the book, LeDoux’s band The Amygdaloids released a CD also entitled Anxious.  During the show, we play several tracks from the CD and music about anxiety and fear from the pop music archive. We also discuss the biology of emotion, the “hard problem” of consciousness, and therapeutic treatments for anxiety (among other topics). You can listen here.

Caitlin Kuhwald: Jane Eyre’s Watercolors


Caitlin Kuhwald, “Iceberg.” Watercolor. 2014.

 The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon.  Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it.  Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible.  Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge.  This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre


Jane Eyre fans, get ready. Illustrator and watercolorist Caitlyn Kuhwald is revivifying Jane’s art. Jane Eyre spends a lot of time daydreaming worlds even more menacing than the ones she lives in. A prolific artist throughout the novel, she documents some of these daydreams in watercolor. Of course, drawing and painting would have been essential skills for a Victorian governess, who needed the “accomplishments” of the ruling classes in order to instruct her pupils in them–music, art, a breadth of reading from the classics to the contemporary. Ekphrasis–the literary depiction of a work of art–has a long history, including Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad, the frescoes in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the Grecian urn in Keats, the masterpiece in Zola, Dorian Gray’s portrait in Wilde, Icarus falling in Auden, The Goldfinch in Donna Tartt. Like these, Jane Eyre’s drawings are central to plot: Through them, Rochester learns that he has not hired a run-of-the-mill governess, setting in motion is compulsion to seduce her.

The terror of Jane’s watercolors strays pretty far from the routine landscapes or portraits of your ordinary governess. Like an heir to William Blake and a foremother to the surrealists, Jane Eyre is preoccupied with mystical landscapes and morbid bodies. Kuhwald’s recreations tell the story. I’ve included two finished pieces, “Evening Star” and “Iceberg”–as well exploratory illustrations for “Corpse,” a work in progress–along with Brontë’s descriptions of the watercolors from the novel. This is an ongoing project for Kuhwald, who is also considering illustrating some of the dreams and fantasies Jane doesn’t draw in the novel.


Caitlin Kuhwald, “Evening Star.” Watercolor. 2015.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze.  Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine.  The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail.  On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre



Caitlin Kuhwald. Sketch for “Corpse.” Ink on paper. 2015.

The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land.  One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart.  Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Caitlyn Kuhwald is known for her use of bright color, the precision of her detail, and her ability to re-envision the aesthetics of other eras. She’s an artist whose visual voice is ideal for the job of giving visual form to the terror and beauty of Jane Eyre’s artistic vision. 


The McGill Pain Index (and Its Metaphors)

If you’re in a lot of pain, you’re likely to visit a doctor who will ask you to complete a questionnaire based on the McGill Pain Index, which gets its name from the venerable Canadian University where it was developed. Pain is subjective, and the index is designed to generate something like objective statistics about our collective experience of physical pain.

I can’t help thinking the project is hopeless. How can people know how to rate pain on a scale of 1 to 10? In relation to what? The history of our own pain? The pain of others? The most severe pain I ever experienced was when I was in middle school. I’d sprayed my hair lavender to go to school as a punk rocker on Halloween. I guess I sprayed too many fumes up my nose and ended up in the nurse’s office barfing with a migraine (the only one I’ve experienced). I guess I’d rate that pain a 9. It probably saved me from getting my ass kicked that day, which saved me from physical pain that probably would have rated only a 5 or 6. (And plenty of unrateable humiliation.)

But the McGill Pain Index doesn’t just rate pain. It categorizes it. Pain can flicker, jump, drill, stab, cut, rasp, burn, or shoot.


Nearly every category of pain on the index is a metaphor. Pain is a knife, it’s a hammer, a fire, a drill, a gun, a piece of sandpaper. Virginia Woolf complained that “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” The McGill Pain Index was launched in 1971, 30 years after Woolf’s death. I wonder if she would have appreciated it.

In her book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry remarks that “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” We can’t share pain. It reminds us that we’re alone with our pesky subjective experiences. Based on this, Scarry observes that another person’s pain is always doubtful. We can’t share it, so we can’t believe it, not viscerally. Our own pain, she writes, is “a certainty.” We know it. It dominates us.

But we can share pain, through metaphors. This makes me wonder: Has the McGill Index unwittingly turned the clinical experience of diagnosing pain into an aesthetic exercise?

In the words of Emily Dickinson,

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Pain is an obliterating certainty. It dominates consciousness. It suspends time. It sees itself everywhere. But when we atomize it, with the McGill metaphors, we fill in the blanks and interrupt the infinity. That’s what aesthetic experience does: It hijacks consciousness with experience created through engagement with an artist’s tools for simulating experience in paint or words or video.

I don’t remember if the school nurse talked the fake punk rocker in her office that day through the McGill questionnaire, but from memory I’d call that pain icy. The projectile vomit, on the other hand, was rasping.

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