Essay: Peta MurrayFrancesca Rendle-Shorton queer kinship

Kin-as-Ethics: experiments in un/authorised queer essay practice

INSTRUCTIONS TO THE READER:

  • The different parts of this intervention into the essay may be read in any order in homage to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980).
  • It may also be diverting for the reader to apply alphabetical and/or numerical filters so as to read each author’s entries as discrete components, thus 1,2,3,4 etc (Francesca Rendle-Short) and A,B,C,D etc (Peta Murray).
  • A randomising instrument may also be applied for the experience of the essay willy-nilly.
  • The reader need feel no obligation to keep paragraphs or indeed sentences intact.

1. As I begin to write kin and ethics a dear writing friend corresponds with me in messages about writing and love and rallying and the idea of being ‘inside the between’ when we come close how there is a ‘turning there’ how it is ‘the both of us’ and how the work of language of prepositions and prepositional thinking opens derring-do to a means of queering and transing language that becomes possible.

A: As I begin to write kin and ethics a dear friend messages me to tell me that she and her long time bae are calling it quits. She writes: ‘I feel incredibly sad and just needed a hug. I can’t really talk as I feel too emotional. What can one say?’ What can one say? This is the phrase that pierces me, the Barthesian punctum, a ‘pinkture’ as I have called it elsewhere in my own neo-lingo, via my votive practice of neologism, where I also wrote: ‘I have nothing to say. Still there is the consolation of consonance, the balm of sound. The refrigerator purrs. The old dog sups at her bowl then clips about the wooden floorboards on high heels. My fingers at the keyboards clack. This inversion is a prelude to tonight’s Gaelic lesson, still to be done, in which I shall talk to myself in a foreign tongue in an olde-worlde word order. About pets. About items of clothing. About the weather. I am not myself. I can’t remember what real life feels like. Still. There is food. There is cheese. Oatcakes, and mustard fruits. There are online panels and seminars full of articulate artists and queer folx and women of colour who jolt me with the electricity of their brilliance’ (ibid).

(I hope it is okay with my collaborating author that my first impulse here is to call-and-response. Tiphony and Antiphony. Tiffany and anti-tiffany*.)

*Whoever she is. I have no tiffany in my life, unless it is the three-basket stainless steel tiffin in our kitchen, meant to be used for bearing hot meals to people with broken hearts.

2. I watch a lecture by Jack Halberstam on moving beyond a politics of recognition and the challenge of trans* (the * being a diacritical mark to suggest we have reached the limit of our linguistic ability to describe what is happening within the gendered body, that the trans body is a constantly unfolding project, that the binary no longer has explanatory purchase) and talk of building a trans archive. It offers an alternative record to the normative history we’ve all been force-fed, through a frame from the graphic novel Fun Home: A Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel that addresses the question of trans and queer kinship: ‘I didn’t know there were women who wore men’s clothing and had men’s haircuts. But like a traveller in a foreign country who runs into someone from home – someone they’ve never spoken to but know by sight – I recognised her with a surge of joy’. That person. There. The front and centre butch, wide hip forward, the keyrings, the belt, the buckle, the hands on the waist-as-hip, the check shirt, the gather of shirt across seam of breast, the double chin and pursed mouth, the bulk, eyes in a steady gaze. I didn’t know. But I see. This idea of kin and recognition and joy; intra-queer recognition, Halberstam says, stranger recognition of kin, how we can think of kinship differently.

B: I watch a series of lectures by Laurie Anderson who performs online essays within what I used to know as a blackboard but she declares to be a VR Chalkboard. Anderson’s 2021 lecture series is called Spending the War Without You and each one is named, The River, The Rock, The Forest and the pieces are something about living with the kroonervirus through the ronageist, as I have come to name it. (I have a brief and fleeting memory of a beloved grandfather, who made a claim on the invention of a greenboard to assist students with low vision.) It’s not a chalkboard at all, but a digital installation Anderson has made with a collaborator, Taiwanese new media artist, Hsin-Chien Huang. Anderson moves from room to room, cave to cave, as in some lexical Lascaux where the wall paintings are not bulls or bears or birds, but crude chalk marks, letters, numbers, and random scrivenings. They make sense to me, in that moment, just as her words do as she utters them, moving effortlessly from Dante to Lou Reed. I take copious notes but cannot locate them now, when I need them. All I know is that I want to be Laurie Anderson if I grow up.

3. Halberstam introduces me to the merographic method which is built on an understanding of parts rather than wholes (from mereology the abstract study of the relations between parts and wholes). That nothing can be described as a fixed whole because another might redescribe that whole in another way, a whole with same or different parts. That: to think of relations and connections we need to recognise parts. In this way Halberstam says ‘we should be attentive to the partial and arbitrary nature of all description and theory and the complex interactions between people and technology, human bodies and other non-human animal forms, scales and intensities’. As I’ve said elsewhere: an inherent respect for the other is ‘necessary in any ethical encounter’.

C: Lou Reed introduces me to Holly. ‘Holly came from Miami, F.L.A, hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A. Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she; She says, “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side”’. I think about my own wild side and whether I have ever walked it? Queer since before I knew there was words for it, yet sixty-plus years so remarkably staid. Of settled or sedate character; not flighty or capricious. Is it too late to walk it now, queerly, bent, into my wild-er-ness? Is it too late to take flight? To be changeable as the whether? To cultivate my own delicious campriciousness? If so, it must be language that shows the way, drawing my descent down-down-down into some cavernous queerness in which I may find myself lost.

4. I think of my own path through parts and kin, the ethics of queer seeing, bodies and anatomies, glossaries and glossums and glossa and the day I first saw recognition and-and-and-and kin and almost missed the point because I didn’t think I was one of them because I didn’t like dogs, for a start, and I didn’t have the right boy haircut either. But I knew. A late coming out, post partum, but a study of kin and kinship and kinning nonetheless. Recognition. Desire. Want. The comfortable swagger. The being in skin. The space these bodies occupied. The press of fingers and toes against the hairs on my skin. Letters and words spelt out on my thighs, erotic tracery. The feltness of parts, proximity, amongness and betweenness, insides and outs, a prepositional awareness and yes, surge of joy. Fuck, yes. The making of sugar shapes in my bloodstream, the redistribution and bringing together of parts, my parts, my chosen parts, oh-glorious-yes, and language to touch and touch and touch again and again.

D: I think of my empath through pars and skin, the ethics of queasying. I cannot explain why I have the compulsion to do this to your words, BTW, to bust them up like this. It’s like I’m a kid again, parallel-playing with blocks beside you. You build a tall tower of coloured wooden rectangles and squares and rods and cubes, calibrated and balanced, and I go ahead and knock your tower over. It’s the only way I know. Break it all down. Break it all down-down.

Or do I start with Holly? I know a few of them, but what intrigues me more is this: that ilex, or holly, is a genus of about 480 species. That they can be evergreen or deciduous trees and shrubs, but they can equally be climbers. That they are flowering plants of the family Aquifoliaceae, but here’s the kicker. That they are the ONLY LIVING GENUS IN THAT FAMILY. I knew there was something about them. Empath. That’s me. In science fiction, I am the entity with the paranormal ability to read the mental and emotional states of other beings. In ‘real life’ I’m an HSP. It’s pop-psych. I’m a pop-psych-cle, if you will, a highly sensitive, porous being. Makes me leaky. Makes me human flypaper. A blotter. Highly absorbent, I take you in. HSP.

An Acronym of my Own. Would Virginia Woolf approve, I wonder?

5. Mary Cappello tells us that language ‘is our salvation’. When I hear or say the word language, find it on my tongue langue-ing there_____ it reminds me of lying back in a lounge suit, in tulle and sequins, drapery and fur, froufrou fabulous; twirling and redesigning, inserting and taking out, re-sentencing, making nouns do verb things, prepositions do statement nouns – aroundness, beyondness, athwartness – rearranging and reimagining what’s come before, what’s coming after, substituting words for words, half sentences for quarters and thirds, what’s on the cutting floor, embracing the mess, and stretching what Nicole Walker told me once were body-verbs and reclaimed nouns (pers comm), retrieving and reviving what’s in our writerly DNA. In. Other. Words. Making things up. Acting out (Fleischmann: ‘the bent essay – the essay that Acts Up and steps outside of the line it was supposed to stand behind’). Languaging. Lingua-ing. Tongue-ing.

E: Virginia Woolf tells us that ‘masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice’ (emphasis added). It is this that we reach for, perhaps in trying to write together – akin, akin-bro – of kin-as-ethics? Not the masterpiece, one hastens to add, nor even the masterypiece for as Jack Halberstam exhorts us in The Queer Art of Failure, we must ‘First, Resist mastery’.Even so. Nonetheless. Notwithstanding, or rather, yes, with-standing as in standing-with, we think in common, we think as body corpus, we think kinaesthetics kinesthetically. Using our t/rusty old analogue gaydars – takes one to know one – takes two to know four – takes four to know some other number (I remain defiantly dys-numerate) – we arrive via some kind of exponential growth via some kind of kinesthetic algorithm relating to awareness by means of proprioception to a place where, as Adriana Cavarero contends: ‘there is the privileging of the word as a vehicle of a desire for identity that only the narrated form seems to render tangible (emphasis added).

6. I come back to the point, to the doing, to the application of ideas, processual thought and method – from the Greek μέθοδος (methodos) coming from μετá (meta) meaning ‘with’ or ‘towards’, and οδóς (odos) meaning ‘road’ or ‘street’ coming from the ancient Greek verb μετέρχομαι (meterxomai) which would be directly translated as ‘to move towards a certain goal’ (thanks to Melody Ellis and her Greek teacher) – as opposed to theory about what we do, systems and design and practice methodologies and approaches and figuring the logic of the doing the what we want to know; what we know we want – not that that meta aspect is all bad. But. The point. This is a thinking focused on how. This is practice. This is prepositional thinking also. Not focussing on the about so much as the around, the alongside, the against. And. Importantly. How. How around, how alongside, how against. The nitty grit of it. A prepositional ethics develops in this trying and this doing. This is where the juice is, the slide, the slantness, the fail and fail again, but, also, try-and-try, and push-through, bend and counter-bend, inexhaustible love (to borrow from Anne Carson). It is where the ethics sit, a regard for regard and safe keeping, under-standing. In this doing and the languaging that comes with it, there is – there is there is – an ethics at play, a parsing of care and forethought, attentiveness, a delicate swinging between and back and forth and love and acknowledgement – to believe is to love (related to geloven, also to lief, leave and love, and leubh, ‘to care, desire, love’). ‘It’s not a question of drawing the contours, but of what escapes the contour, the secret movement, the breaking, the torment, the unexpected’ (CixousHow it shifts across and towards and near and beneath. Pays attention to that movement. This secret movement is a prepositional ethic that builds cachet and not so cachet. Beginning with self. The process of forming an ethics of self is as Michel Foucault argued, a kind of continual self-bricolage through writing – bricolage connecting nicely with Halberstam’s merographic parts – assembly, and disassembly of subjectivity, making and re-making, un-doing and re-doing – and doing. It is a resistant practice full of limits and possibilities, a practice of becoming.

F: I come back to the point, to the doing, to the application of ideas, processual thought and method in quest of ​​a poetics of sustained practice in my advancing age. Wrighting. For ours and ours.

7. Oh, also, the funny thing that happens when saying things out loud. Say kin thinking fast. Which when you sound out kinthinking gives a lisp speech impediment. Movement of tongue between teeth and lip. Before speech. A giving of body life first to first kin which is self (our first audience) then familial kin in any way we make it or is made, desired kin, borrowed kin, neighbour kin, kith-and-kin (original sense for kith was knowledge), stranger kin, salvaged kin, put-together kin, different kinds (related to kin) of mi familia. Say kin(thin)king soundout kinkthink giving us twists and curves.

G: Oh, also, the funny thing that happens through my bloggery, where I amuse myself whenever lockdown is dropped over us, like a specimen jar entrapping bugs. They have us ‘under’ lockdown again, so I busy myself with tonight’s offering, toying with posting ‘pom-pom circumstance’ as Phrase o’ the Day. Pom-pom circumstance puts wordage to the aureola of wattle blossom dot-painting the landscape with artificial yellow, like something mixed by a paint chemist and spectrometry to make it pop. Pom-pom circumstance shakes ornamental tufts in your face, pointlessly pointillist pageantry, riotous rah-rah, to tell you that spring is coming, in spite of it all, and kithing (a verb used in Scotland, now obsolete) kindredship, connection and renewal for all. Through kithing one may announce, declare, proclaim affinity and hope. In kithing one makes alliances known by action or by words. Kindred spiritedness, pom-pom circumstance cheer-leads us lisping and louche into a new ethics of rococo-laboration.

8. Learning Auslan helps me with prepositional thinking, queer thinking: kin thinking. Kin(thin)king. Not only learning prepositions in Auslan such as near, between, through, inside, about, around, towards, shaping hands to follow up and over and across – there are sheets of Auslan lessons pegged to the toilet wall – but learning how to think differently, how to think spatially, diagrammatically, how to communicate with the body, how to shape hands in different ways, how to use facial expression, be demonstrative with the subtlety of variations. But sharp too. The precision required. Flexibility. Attention needed (you can’t not look at who you are speaking to, you can’t not express your face, and it’s preferable to be in the kitchen if you are at a houseparty where there is light so you can see one another). Also: what those signs and hand shapes might look like in return, to imagine looking back at you from the other side of self, looking at the hand making the shape of sound, how to read Auslan (how-to-read is the best of ethical projects). ‘The rub between edges, the crossing of thresholds, insides and outsides, outsides with insides […] creates new neural pathways, allows for slantness, oblique and not so oblique resistances, push-through, and importantly, processual thinking’. Auslan is built around the internal structure and logic of HOLME: handshape, orientation, location, movement, expression. It requires lots of practice, for me as a hearing body learning what it might mean to be deaf, to be reliant on speaking bodies and hand-to-hand, learning to tune into a different complexion of sound. O, joy.

H: Learning Gaelic helps me become the full Scot’s breakfast. Speaking of kith. Speaking of kin. For some reason I have become possessed with a need to give expression to what I assume to be a lost part of my ancestry. I’m not talking Celtic cross tattoos, and I’m still iffy on the bagpipes, but give me the whisky and the tartans and the iasg agus buntàta (fish and potatoes) and my wee Border Terrier doggies and give me the Scottish Country Dancing and the reeling and the jigging and the midges and the lochs and the glens and the glories of an endangered language that is all glottis and lenition, leads most sentences out with a verb and does all kinds of bonkers things with gender. I sometimes wonder whether – if I was growing up now, if I had been born some decades later – would I have tossed my female identity into the lochness of gender fluidity and thrown my she/her pronouns down the nearest uill, uill, uill? I cannot say for sure, but I suspect I might have tried on non-binary for size, even for a while. Am I allowed to say this? Am I allowed to think it? Would it be easier to say, or think these thoughts, in another language? In another body? I truly don’t know. What I do know is that when I took up Scottish country dancing as a sport – as my hobby, as whatever it is I now pursue – I was taken aside early in the piece by one of the more proficient women and told in no uncertain terms that it would be a good two years before I would be allowed to be a man.

9. I have been reading María Puig de la Bellacasa on the significance of caring in relation to thinking and knowing. Alongside that reading I’ve been watching Pose on Binge, the award-winning brilliant dramatisation of the underground ball culture of the gay and trans community of New York in the late 1980s, house mothers and the making of kin and family and community to live and die with. You’ve got to watch it. One of the central characters, Pray Tell, who can sing like an angel, says at one point: ‘[W]e are living in a world where all of us could truly be gone one day, where our kind is just a memory. One the rest of the world would be happy to forget. All we have left is right now. That love and that promise is who I claim to be’. He was talking of AIDs and the terrible way it was killing his brothers and sisters: at that time, AIDs was the leading cause of death for Americans aged 25 to 44. Watching this and reading Puig de la Bellacasa, I have to say something about the importance of calling out hidden assumptions or positionalities: ‘nothing comes without its world’ (Haraway). As Puig de la Bellacasa puts it when exploring the prepositional relations of epistemology, thinking-with, thinking-for: ‘That knowledge is situated means that knowing and thinking are inconceivable without a multitude of relations that also make possible the worlds we think with’. When it comes to thinking care (related etymologically to practice and practicare, chara, grief and lament), and thinking it a responsibility to show care (or the desire to dish it out), it’s all too easy to objectify the ‘other’, appropriate the other’s experience as our own, be paternalistic, fetishize – care because we want to show care or to demonstrate we are a caring person – in other words, where caring is more about making the caregiver feel good. The question is: how do we create and build meaningful caring, careful (and kinship) relations while recognising divergent worlds and positions, perspectives, and cultures? Giving care (or being kin and the care and love that kin is predicated on) is relational because it involves different selves and different entities, but the very thing of care/kin itself is relational also; it’s not one way. There has to be give and take. There must be exchange. Of some kind. Openness and vulnerability. Curiosity. Magic. An ongoing sense of flux and not-knowing. Even un-doing. Un-learning. A communitas of care. Waiting, being ready for it, as Edith Turner said in interview of communitas and the joy of it: ​​‘[W]e and all things are all mixed up and bound to each other’. It comes back to practice, to the doing, the making. Puig de la Bellacasa: ‘[L]ooking at care as a practical everyday commitment, as something we do that affects the meaning of thinking-for’. That, the doing of care is related to thinking and to thinking care. To change, possibly, sometimes, importantly, n e c e s s a r i l y, ‘from where we are’. To live relationships. And to think of this not just to talk more talk, to find new theory, or to write more writing, more, more_______, but to be, to do, to now. As Pray Tell says: ‘That love and that promise is who I claim to be.’ Kin as ethics as verb.

I: I am meant to be reading Deleuze and Guattari. And this month’s book group text, the novel, Found Objects by Emily Maguire. Instead, I am re-reading Madison Moore, who writes: ‘Style is political, a theory of a poetic self. More than anything, fabulousness is political glitter-a glitter bomb through everyday life’. I returned to Moore after watching – indeed inhaling – Pose over a binge or three in our latest lockdowns and falling utterly in love with its characters with their extravaganza of names: Electra, Angel, Miss Candy, Cubby, Pray ‘and the category is…..’ Tell – father figure to the children of the ballroom – and the sublime Blanca, played by MJ Rodriguez. You’ve got to watch it. It is a testimony to trans-scendence, elevating worn out ideas and overwriting clichés of the familial as product of bloodlines or marriages, ancestries, or strategic political alliances.

Pose sees family over-wrought. Pose struts family towards something ethical and dignified and paradoxical in its capacity to be both singular and complete, while also part of a more complex whole. Pose vogues family into something fabulous in the original meaning of the word as able to be reshaped with and through inventiveness and acts of fabulation to tell fantastic stories of hope, wonder.

AND THE CATEGORY IS…..kin(e)d-ness.

All this, with Billy Porter, big hair, frocks and cameos from Sandra Bernhardt and Patti LuPone. What’s not to like?

10. What there is to relish about learning Auslan, the sign language of Deaf culture (and all sorts of other things besides – I’ve been introduced to it by my daughter-in-law), is that it teaches you about the ethics of relationships, it’s a new understanding of kinship with a language that is passed from hand to hand. As a hearing person it introduces you to a new family, a new culture, a new way of seeing. All through hand talk. It is a language that is alive and dynamic. It is expressive and spatial. It is considered an endangered language. It keeps you humble, like all good kinships. Keeps up the play. The dance. Even the pinkture when needed… As I sortie up and down streets in my suburb during lockdown I practice my vocabulary, prepositions, determiners and adverbs, different shapes of the hand – the thumb pushed up into the fist of a pointer finger like a nuzzling small one (which I learn is a handshape called the key), a turnover of the key to the right for next, a wave of the key from side to side for soon, key down with two thumbs-up for early, up and over an imaginary fence-line for after. We collect words using the same hand shape thinking this is a good-way-as-any to learn. Gun-shape vocabulary for far, travel, a lot, why, teacher, language; hand claws for always and sorry. There is so much to remember, it is easy to forget, and you have to go back to basics, try and try again, look up books and readers, signs online, patterns and shapes over and over and try to figure it out. Become a three-year old again learning language for the first time. Lounging/languaging/tongueing/swaggering/kinkthinking there.

J: What there is to relish in approaching an end to this essay is the parallel with the way I end most days here. Will you think less of me when I tell you that one of my most joyful moments each evening is setting our fire? I have no defence; it’s winter, we are in the nether regions and we have a small cast iron firebox furnace Coonara – I don’t know the technical term – that generates a generous warmth should we decide to light it. Fire-setting is not always the precursor to fire-lighting. Sometimes fire-setting is satisfying enough. It is an art form.

Do I take this opportunity too to critique my partner’s approach, which I find wasteful and excessive, even though it has a higher strike rate than mine if the match is brought to it? Or do I simply step you through mine, which is a ritualised, restrained practice of scaffolding and building a course for a fire, should it decide to take hold?

A bed of ashes first. Do not sweep out a firebox too regularly. Accumulating cold ashes in umpteen shades of grey make a good bed for the edifice one is about to build. First the local newspaper, last week’s and well-read, scrunched into balls. Five, perhaps six will suffice. Do not use the colorised advertorials. Just your bog standard local news in print. A whole newspaper – such as my partner might use – is not required. The paper is not a path, it is a mere signpost, directing the flame to a nearby twig. Enter the kindling. Again, restraint – even parsimony, if you will – there is no need to arrange a tent of twigs if one divines among one’s kindling stock, selects and arrays each stick carefully, using only the most skeletal first, and then upscaling. This is the only use I have ever had in my life for trigonometry, but there is something almost jigsorcerish about the problem of the puzzle of the dispersal of the kindling so that each leans gentle on its fellow. It is like a game of pick-up-sticks, but in reverse; a queer version, whereby instead of taking sticks away, one adds them, one by one, from the slender to the thick, building a tilting tower of possibility for fire to crawl along, licking as it climbs. Here is kindling doing what it does best, leaning, propping, upholding, immanent in pre-ignition. Not yet alight, not yet aflame, but ready, at any moment to be animated, roused and nurtured, as an animal might kindle its young.


Note

Laurie Anderson delivered a lecture on 24 March 2021 in The Forest, the second in a series of lectures, Spending the War Without You, which looked at the challenges we face as artists and citizens as we reinvent our culture with ambiguity and beauty. Harvard’s preeminent lecture series in the arts and humanities, the Norton Lectures recognise individuals of extraordinary talent who, in addition to their particular expertise, have the gift of wide dissemination and wise expression.

Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, from the album Transformer, was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson in 1972. Touching on transgenderism, drugs, prostitution and oral sex, the song became Reed’s best-selling single. Lou Reed was married to Laurie Anderson from 2008 until his death in 2013.

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