Interceptionality, or The Ambiguity of the Albatross
Coleridge wrote that ‘Poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.’ In his epic, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ published in 1798, the albatross is an uncertain presence, neither its species or colour is specified. It displays affection, presaging hope, guiding the ship and accompanying its crew for ‘food or play.’ But once the mariner randomly shoots the bird, the albatross becomes a burden, morphing into a symbol of atonement. Unnaturally slung from the mariner’s neck it crosses a boundary between the physical and moral world. The mariner endures seven days without rain or wind, suffering fever, hallucinations, the death of his crew and shipwreck. Native to the south polar seas, albatrosses were rarely sighted by European sailors, an early source being Cook’s voyages. There is overall agreement that Coleridge’s source was George Shelvocke’s account of a black albatross, also known as ‘sooty albatross’ or ‘quakerbird’, which he encountered during his round the world voyage, 1719-22. The bird was shot by the second captain because it was considered an ill-omen when the winds were unfavourable. Certainly, the albatross is othered in the poem, not merely by the laws of hospitality but by its uncharacteristic depiction and by the mythical, male-centred language that Coleridge used.
William Empson reads in the poem’s nautical tropes an anti-colonial subtext, while J.R Ebbotson interprets abolitionist themes of ‘European racial guilt, and the need to make restitution.’ This would be consistent with Coleridge’s early aspirations for social justice and the utopian pursuit of a Pantisocracy he shared with fellow abolitionist, Robert Southey. In a more recent essay, Debbie Lee argues that the mariner’s febrile affliction and ‘black lips’, along with the entire crew’s, is symptomatic of yellow fever, a haemorrhagic infection for which African slaves had immunity, whereas Europeans were particularly susceptible with horrific consequences during the era of the slave trade. She notes that in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, fever accounted for 70 per cent of all European deaths in the Caribbean, with yellow fever being the main cause. So it would be reasonable to read the poem as allegory, critiquing the injustice perpetuated by European racism and slavery.
Does Coleridge correspondingly mean to illuminate for readers, how the chi or imaginary spirit is forfeited to rational arguments? Psychoanalytic critic David Beres contends that while the dream state and the unconscious inform the poem, Coleridge wrote in a state of alertness, applying principles of thought to poetic structure from ‘pure imagination’. Consider the real albatross, transmigrating perilously through the central stanzas of an epic ballad that begins in medias res, the grey-bearded sailor cautioning the wedding guest with his outlandish tale. The bird’s presence reminds us that the reason we write is to rediscover language, as it navigates narrative frames, post-truths and other discourses.
We cannot remain whole and in endless dialogue with difference: something is bound to be sacrificed. But why the albatross? In J.M Coetzee’s novel, Elizabeth Costello, the vegetarian novelist and cat lover Elizabeth, encounters two albatrosses, a mother and fledgling bird. The mature albatross regards her ‘steadily…with amusement’, while the fledgling is ‘more hostile.’ Coetzee demystifies the albatross, freeing it, momentarily, from its literary cords, while tying new ligatures:
It opens its beak, gives a long, soundless cry of warning. So she and the two birds remain, inspecting each other. Before the fall, she thinks. This is how it must have been before the fall. I could miss the boat, stay here. Ask God to take care of me.
The word ‘albatross’ is produced by Adam’s vocabulary in Genesis, language anticipating other kinds of domination by men over birds, animals and also women. Elizabeth Costello quietly reflects on this, speaking to the Russian singer standing nearby in a dark green anorak as they both observe the large, mottled bird: ‘An albatross …That is the English word. I don’t know what they call themselves.’
The ambiguity of the albatross compelled me to speak at a public forum on gatekeeping, hosted graciously, and provocatively, by the J.M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide. I had been apprehensive about this — because it is fatiguing to talk about ‘racism’ and ‘diversity’, to offer new frameworks, something Reni Eddo-Lodge brilliantly concedes in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Theorising oppression diverts critical focus from my creative work. I have been targeted in social media with various claims and veiled threats. For years I have felt marginalised as a literary writer of colour in a culture that seeks to limit its migrant authors to the closed narratives of immigration, assimilation and consumption. The subliminal double gesture of the albatross proved too intriguing for me to resist. It became an interception, marking its distinct trajectory through the conforming ubiquity of signs.
It occurred to me that an albatross appears briefly in my poem, ‘The Ghost Ship,’ quite possibly tracing a subconscious origin from Coleridge, since language often comes to us from the shared repository of our dreamed lives. What does the whiteness of my albatross signal, as it lays slain in the cradle of a man’s elbow? Is it a racial sign? And what is the meaning of the bird’s disappearance for the narrator? Perhaps as a community and a culture swamped with the hyperreal, the material traumas resulting from various forms of oppression, we have lost sight of the imaginary, and the compelling nature of all that is irreducible, or ambiguous. So indoctrinated are we, so accustomed to naming, to categories and taxonomies with their consequent hierarchies and their emergencies of exclusion.
We have become complicit with surveillance in an age when private vexations spill into the public arena via unrestricted social media forums. These highly-polarised feeds negotiate truth, casting verdicts which circumvent otherwise fraught legal processes and institutional authority to expose misogyny and structural racism. Yet, vicariously, other distortions are rendered apparent. If power and violence are amplified by silence, what is the relationship between language and violence? Is this something we even need to consider?
Recent accusations against Junot Díaz in social media suggest that violation is not limited to the unquestionably intolerable behaviour being disclosed. The cascade effect of dissemination draws new zones of impunity, hardening our moral outrage, calcifying social power into knowledge. It prompts us to consider what might be withheld, distorted or lost in the process. Zinzi Clemmon’s accusations were, I believe, a spectacularly successful form of #interceptionality, disrupting a frame that upheld the celebrity author’s dazzling reputation and covering-up misconduct and misogyny. It mobilised the mass anger and pain of women who have been abused.
Should there be collective accountability for such public outcries? In the parataxis of these cultural texts, in the scattering and dispersion of anecdotal disclosures collaged with dogmas, reliant on memory and personal defences, what values and implications do we lose? Linda Martín Alcoff offers her own reservations in the New York Times:
Can we remain aware of multiple forms of oppression in our analysis? Can we demand more of a structural and systemic analysis without reducing individual responsibility? Can we respect the rage we are hearing as well as plan for a different future? I believe we must.
Interceptionality operates on what the late Gérard Genette described as ‘thresholds of interpretation,’ where meaning can be mediated, translated and contextualised. I began to theorise interceptionality after reading about Genette’s narrative theory, metalepsis, and theories of colonial space, such as J.K Noyes’ theory of spatiality in colonial discourse. Noyes argues that space is a place where signification and subjectivity occur within boundaries and borders, regulating movement across those borders. So space is not merely understood as geographical nor as historical but as a matrix, in which socio-economic systems exist in opposition, alliance or conflict with each other, conducting power. A further reason why I theorised interceptionality was because I felt that the CALD sector needed to have a discourse that was alternative to the hegemony of the white Australian binary postcolonial invocations, to explain our pragmatism and our activism – because discourse elevates the status of narratives and cultural texts. Our position was being stigmatised, reduced, both economically and in a direct and personal way. At that time, I didn’t realise that what I was undertaking was a form of narrative mediation.
As a communications tool interceptionality alters the paratexts and the framing of cultural narratives such as meritocracy and capital. It questions the concealed privilege of categories such as whiteness and class. Within marginal groups, differences are frequently yoked together to resist hegemony. But as Spivak argues in Outside in the Teaching Machine, those minorities who cannot be readily named or identified have difficulty accessing normative narratives within cultural spaces, and are positioned uneasily within opposing discourses and cultural conflicts. By her account this unrepresented gap is ‘irretrievably heterogeneous,’ semantically and syntactically. But such a conceptually-rich field can become a space to alter the conventions and standards (what she calls ‘value-coding’) to forge new connections, to clear the ground for historical recovery. The slower ensuing project is to repair the archival lacunas authored by Western theory, history and culture.
The word ‘interceptionality’ deliberately draws from intersectionality, the matrix of social and racial intersections that oppress individuals. Intersectionality had its beginnings with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 framework. Crenshaw demonstrated that legal cases of domestic violence were complicated by race, class and, or gender leading to adverse outcomes for those disempowered by multiple identities. She showed that racism and sexism are often replicated by anti-discrimination law and in domestic violence services which fail to account for heterogeneity, owing to the fixed and mutually exclusive categories of race and gender.
While intersectionality addresses the need for contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements to layer and complicate the relationships between subjectivity and power, it has isolated itself within an increasingly polarised leftist and educated minority experience. According to Jennifer Nash intersectionality remains confined to a descriptive analysis that is poorly defined. She terms this a ‘theoretical, political and methodological murkiness.’ Nash writes:
Now that intersectionality itself has become an institutionalized intellectual project, and the dominant tool for excavating the voices of the marginalized, it is incumbent upon intersectional scholars to critically interrogate the goals of the intersectional project as they determine how to chart the future of this theoretical and political movement. The important insights that identity is complex, that subjectivity is messy, and that personhood is inextricably bound up with vectors of power are only an analytic starting point; it is time for intersectionality to begin to sort out the paradoxes upon which its theory rests in the service of strengthening its explanatory power.
Intersectionality has become a buzzword; a phenomenon that has attracted spectacular success within contemporary feminist scholarship. Eleanor Robertson, an Australian feminist wrote an article last year in The Guardian titled: ‘Intersectional-what? Feminism’s problem with jargon is that any idiot can pick it up and have a go.’ She cited a Hilary Clinton tweet on Flint’s water crisis, in which Clinton uses the phrase ‘we face a complex set of intersectional challenges’ matched with a mind-map diagram, which Robertson described as ‘hair ball’. In Clinton’s diagram, there are nodes labelled ‘accountable leadership’, ‘good public schools in every ZIP code’, ‘investments in communities of colour’ and ‘jobs programs for unemployed youth.’ These are connected by an apparently arbitrary network of lines. This is a very good example of how intersectionality’s failure to address policy leaves it susceptible to exhausting and overloading its descriptive capacity.
How we establish the initiatives required to amend policy across complex configurations and intersectional intensities is undoubtedly going to be challenging. Interceptionality accelerates this process. It places pressure on the master narratives that co-author nationalism, capitalist enterprise, industry and coloniality, all of which continue to operate in alliance to requisition the production of knowledge. This is happening as multiculturalism and transnationalism is driven by industry in Australia and across national borders.
In Bourdieu’s field theory, agents within a field are constituted by the relations of forces which they either work to conserve or transform. By rupturing cultural frames that normalise discrepancies, interceptionality is transformative. Foucault’s analysis of discourse explains how discourse constructs us, how it creates boundaries to define and position us, and it is in this process of making meaning that we see the operations of power. He also describes political fear and punishment. Indeed there is an economy of fear which relies on bystanders and victims educating others to shield themselves: this is something I have observed through our interceptions at Mascara – and it brings me to raise the point that one of the problems with activisms and identity politics is the way that capitalism and industry co-opts and co-modifies otherness and alterity to co-author a collective narrative, foreclosing the way ahead for minority or experimental voices. These dynamics can be stifling and exhausting. When you are economically fatigued and creatively demoralised by the omnipresent gate it becomes a visceral affliction. It feels like a slow death. But when I am feeling intrepid, I know that the only way forward as a writer, creatively, is not to be silenced ever; that interceptions do work, and are working.
An example of our interceptionality was occasioned by the 40th Anniversary of International Women’s Day Poetry reading in 2015. Mascara sent a letter to the organisers of the reading, offering to pay for an Aboriginal and an Asian Australian poet to read at the event, which featured four other women poets. Our interception was supported by Australian Poetry. It did not succeed in terms of the event itself, which proceeded as planned by the organisers, but something was mediated and a conversation ensued, which was deeply felt. I expressed my frustration and sadness with the inequalities in funding a journal like Mascara which has tried to supplement and to diversify the Australian canon, particularly with its book reviews. I think it would be fair to say that the conversation was a catalyst for some changes. Invariably, when this happens it may harm my career as a writer. I may get blocked on social media or have to suffer critical silences; however, there is a trade-off because for the interceptor what is performed is a discursive empowerment, which may not be experienced immediately. That empowerment may be delayed, but there is a progression of thought, an autonomy which is necessary for writing, and a confidence in understanding the intricate relationships between power, language and meaning. This development is subtle and painful and progressive over time.
As a neologism ‘interceptionality’ is abstract, a reminder that language and knowledge are contextual and embedded as traces. The word suggests a slippage: a misreading of intersectionality; one which is latent, potentially transforming. The word slides. It is musical and playful. But it also emphasises process rather than category; it points to the instrumentality operating on performative contradictions within capital, knowledge, language and power. It is movement and speed, and like the albatross it encounters dominions and the powerful dreams that disadvantage those voices positioned ambivalently across globalisation’s transactional and obscured borders.
Theoretically, I believe that interceptionality arises from the space of catachresis. It arises from the gap between opposing discourses, from the voice of what Spivak calls ‘the irretrievably heterogenous,’ rupturing through categories in volatile, risk-taking and unstable ways. However, while interceptionality is pragmatic and goal-orientated, it cannot and does not attain a completion or a fulfilment of its goals; rather, I believe, it is a process of infinite ruptures of the frame. The frame that defines, that categorises, that records in tabular form and taxonomies, that names and polarises binary oppositions. I think the Junot Díaz case exemplifies the mobilisation of mass anger to create a new normative, despite Díaz having stepped down from the Pulitzer board and acknowledging his guilt, stating ‘I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.’ Yet still, the publicised anger, conflated with personal judgements, has flowed forth.
I am a survivor. I have had to navigate the controlling, implacable world of powerful literary men in this industry, as well as powerful women, to the extent that last year, I felt that my resources were utterly exhausted. The gate was being closed on me at numerous checkpoints in the Australian literary scene, despite the interest in my fiction and poetry overseas. The majority of white Australians in literature and publishing seem to be in complete denial (or more than partial ignorance) of the economic instability that structural racism perpetuates, leaving women of colour vulnerable to antagonism and narcissistic behaviours. Make no mistake; there is very little compassion in this industry, and simply not enough to salvage the loss. What concerns me now, however, is the process that closes the narrative frame around a new centredness, whether it be the Díaz narrative or the narratives of diversity, of multiculturalism or of race being stridently contested and policed in social media. As a writer deeply interested in aesthetics, language and thinking, the nuances and ambiguities of meaning matter to me sufficiently that I am prepared to argue the case.
By recuperating the paratext, our newsletters, images, hyperlinks and social media messages can, and indeed have, successfully reframed and recentred marginal narratives to contextualise or mediate the interests of our cohort. The #Interceptionality hashtag archive records one tweet describing how Mascara’s decade of funding from the Australia Council for the Arts amounted to less than a salaried Arts CEO in a white organisation for a single year. We copied individuals and organisations in this tweet, inviting them to dialogue, to provide responses or simply witness, suggesting to our readers that hegemony is constituted not with singularity but through the collective shape of a creative community. This triggered a defensive chain of remarks but the ongoing discussion has also alerted many bystanders to the economic realities and discrepancies in cultural capital. Specifying these differences when we communicate our history of restricted funding or cultural exclusion is a dialectic aspect of interceptionality. It informs a narrative mediation, stemming from the understanding that identity is structured within a network or web of discourses whereby privilege and hierarchy can recruit subjects to certain positions limiting the space from where they can act and how they can speak. So the conflicts over race, class and representation already privilege some participants over others depending on how they are positioned.
Legal reform theorist Sarah Cobb argues that narrative closure or coherence is problematic within conflict because it stabilises the description of the problem in ways that delimit its transformation. We see narrative closure in operation when there is silence, when no response is made to the claims of structural racism. Cobb concludes that narrative coherence conducts power and influence, and that this is problematic for those whose stories are less coherent or less stable because they are more likely to be absorbed into a dominant story which does not flow from their experience. She cites how children’s stories leave out sections of the plot and are often incomplete, so that they get absorbed into adult accounts during legal mediations. A similar dynamic operates for culturally diverse writers where literary writing resists permanent structures of nationalism or normative themes, finding expression in language which is fragmented, aesthetically nuanced, more subtle or risk-taking.
Interceptionality is one way that the ‘irretrievably heterogeneous’ or decentred heterogeneous can speak and be heard. It comes to us from a space of catachresis, from a space in political and social systems that representation is failing. Derrida describes catachresis as concerning ‘first the violent and forced abusive inscription of a sign, the imposition of a sign upon a meaning which did not yet have its own proper sign in language’. He gestures to an originary pre-Adamite incompleteness inherent to all semantics and socio-economic fields. Spivak extends this politically to describe catachresis as the act of ‘reversing, displacing, and seizing the apparatus of value-coding.’ Conceptually speaking, interceptionality is as transient and as conspicuous as the albatross crossing diegetic thresholds in the allegorical novel or epic poem. It reframes narratives that have historically, through Western canons and criticisms, been conceived hierarchically. This has the power to endow speakers who are positioned in the margins with greater degrees of subjectivity.
Sadly, the proto-conservationist themes of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ have made little impact on our respect for the albatross. The bird’s survival has been historically threatened by multiple harms: shooting, clubbing, long-line fishing, and more recently plastic debris contamination. How does the albatross become the subject of its own narrative? Did Coleridge mean to critique the moral transgression of European racism and the economic exploitation of the slave trade? Or does the poem espouse, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, the expression of individual transcendent ideals within the milieu of collective national guilt and political disillusionment? Who shot the albatross, if not the Ancient Mariner?
While it takes an entire industry, a crew of editors, critics, judges, publishers and institutions to legitimise selected Australian books, allowing their authors passage across oceans and borders, it takes the same extensive parameters to block others. There are unsettled, often conflated forces and contradictory borders through which interceptionality navigates, speaking for those who are ambiguously defined. Readers and critics may inadvertently mistake me. My activism has been a way of protecting my creativity; it is a way of nourishing and reviving what withers, interiorly, when we are silenced by ideologies, or when we become centred ourselves within cultural frames. For me, the question of the albatross cannot be answered without categorising and sacrificing something necessarily elusive for the practise of writing; for reasons that Coleridge had foreseen, perhaps in a fragment or a vision as he walked along the Quantocks coastline, the peat moors and quiet country lanes of Somerset. In this diegesis, the spell and the fever dreams are what bring us back to life.
Soon the man was in his cabin, still spellbound by the song
of lost leviathans, the smell of brine, bilge, and burning oil.
Birds circled the grey skies, but there was no white albatross.
‘The Ghost Ship’
This essay was first presented as part of Provocations, a new public forum initiated by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Culture at the University of Adelaide tackling controversies in the arts and humanities. The theme of the first series was ‘Who Shot the Albatross?: Gate-keeping in Australian culture’.
Alcoff, Linda Martín. 16 May 2018
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