Last week (or was it the week before?), I posted on the idea that the ubiquity of certain narrative forms has shaped how see the world and given rise to both “big book” history and conspiracy theories.
Last weekend, I read (after an inexcusable delay) Maggie Nelson’s remarkable book The Argonauts (2015). The book defies description or definition and in that way fits with my larger argument that what we need to make the second decade of the 21st century different from the first is new forms of narrative in our political culture and in our popular culture. She explores the transformation of her own body during motherhood, her partner’s body over the course of top surgery and testosterone therapy, and the bodies of her son and step-son. The book, though, is not about bodies as bodies, but, to attempt to describe a complicated book in a few sentences, about the blurry boundaries between ourselves and others and the inadequacy of the categories that we use to describe our world.
I was particular drawn to a couple of paragraphs in the book that describe a conversation between Nelson and her partner after watching X-Men: First Class, as he recovered from top surgery:
“We bantered good-naturedly, yet somehow allowed ourselves to get polarized into a needless binary. That’s what we’ve hated about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasion for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuff a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them rendering you less able to see out, to get out.
While we talked, we said word like nonviolence, assimilation, threats to survival, preserving the radical. But when I think about it now I hear only the background buzz of our trying to explain something to each other, to ourselves, about our lived experiences thus far on this peeled, endangered planet. As is so often the case, the intensity of our need to be understood distorted our positions, backed us further into the cage.”
Like everyone, I’ve struggled to come to terms with a world that seems to constantly be turning in on itself and presenting a series of binaries that give the appearance of choice, but actually lead one to a paralyzing cul-de-sac of contractions and paradoxes. Rather than encouraging us to engage in more sophisticated ways with our original binaries, however, our polarized world of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and us versus them, instead goes about building the intellectual infrastructures that justify and accommodate the binaries and our choices. This same infrastructure then then flickers on and off behind the scenes sometimes as the fleeting object of critique, sometimes as a provisional set of practical accommodations, sometimes as the deeply ingrained contradictions of social structures, and sometimes as deep network of conspiratorial relationships.
Most of us feel frustrated when we uncover the binding infrastructures that we’ve created that allows for this or that series of binaries to coexist simultaneously, but we also (speaking for myself at least), lack the tools to escape. I feel like reading more works of fiction that allows me to explore lightly-sketched, often-shadowy worlds that resist resolution. I also wonder whether taking a deep dive into “queer theory” (broadly defined) that seeks to complicate binaries of all kinds might also offer a way not to resolve the binaries that have to come to define daily (especially political) life in contemporary society, but to find more (socially, politically, culturally?) productive ways to ignore them.