Time Queerly Tangled (pt 2)
Posted by <Jady> on 2021-06-21
No trip without a tripper
Preparing for the trip to Virginia for my brother's family day, I designed the Ulysses pact through my packing. I only packed clothes that made me happy, feminine ones, ones I felt comfortable wearing in New Orleans and did not feel comfortable wearing in the conservative suburb next door. No backup outfits; I would not allow myself to cover through my wardrobe. I packed navigation tools for the journey: the Morgan Robbins tarot and Astral Weeks. The rest of the pact had to come down to will: I committed to myself that I would stay open, that anything negative that may come in, I would let flow through me without tightening my heart in fear. I would do this by reminding myself that the negative input cannot hurt me, that inasmuch as there even is a "me," it cannot be harmed that way. I thought of it like, nothing could actually hurt me short of something cutting my skin and making me bleed, and even then it's arguable how much that could even hurt me, the being-non-being, me-non-me at the seat of consciousness from which I would experience this trip.
Traveling with my parents for so long thrust me back into old childhood dynamics, being put between them the way so many children are. Habits the three of us had long shed jumped from our pasts into that car. Listening compassionately and relaxing when I felt the urge to tense up at these patterns allowed me to see through the patterns to the people behind them, my parents, to their love for me and one another. What I had seen before as bothersome obsessions of my mom's, I could now see as related to my own obsessions, and related to her mother's as well. My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression, later clinging to aspects of life that implied stability, order, and a steady flow of needs being satisfied. I don't doubt my grandmother would have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder had she ever seen a psychiatrist as an older adult. I grew up hearing stories of her obsessions, like my grandmother staying up late every night, scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees until it was spotless. I grew up hearing stories of her mother, my great-grandmother, and her acting out for attention, trying to gain a foothold in a world that didn't meet her needs, that looked past her. It became so much clearer how this reflected in translation down through each generation, inflecting differently in each person it touched. I felt closer to my mom, seeing for the first time how my own obsessions came from a feminine lineage, a translation enacted through love, through mothers doing their best to give their children a better life. My love for my mom grew so much deeper. I felt her love more strongly, too.
My day of reckoning with the aircraft carrier arrived, June 30, 2018. I wore a sleeveless, rayon top, white, loose, and flowy, with long, realistic flower illustrations growing up the body of it. I wore white jeans, a white sunhat (that I had to remove on board), and a white cardigan with lace trim and shell buttons. I was in something that made me happy; this was how I wanted to move and be in the world as a brave, beautiful person. We walked up a gangway into a giant maw on the side of the ship, onto a deck a few stories below the flight deck. I was in the belly of the beast, as I saw it, feeling vulnerable, sticking with my plan, relaxing and opening my heart continuously.
I focused on my family, not putting my energy into looking for input from other people. I didn't watch body language, I didn't read facial expressions, I didn't even really listen all that much. I wanted to be available for my brother and parents, not so much for other people. However, I didn't block out anyone. I know I missed out on the more subtle affirmations people might have been transmitting with their body language, but I also saw this technique as important to making it through a day of already too much stimulation. Some of the negative still made it through, of course, and I did what I had practiced: I relaxed and opened my heart and allowed it to pass through me without getting stuck. I got a few lovely compliments, too.
Spending the day on this vessel with an open heart and mind helped me see the aspects of life on the ship that were beautiful to me (really!), that I want to see more of in the world. What I saw was a miniature socialist economy. Whatever people needed, they got. When people needed help, they would ask another and receive it. The teamwork to make this whole thing happen (the good and the bad) made me think of the planetary scale cooperation we need to turn this earthship around from the annihilation of our species.
My plan for the day worked. I had a meaningful day with my family; I spent time with my brother seeing into and understanding his world; I learned things I didn't anticipate learning; I didn't hide.
My dad rented a house for us in a rural town outside Virginia Beach, where we stayed for several days, my brother having gotten leave from the ship. The long days with little planned allowed for conversation to stretch out in time, to have some of that nonlinear play that's so special to me. My brother had known I was trans for a couple years before this, but not before the last time I'd seen him. I saw this trip as a chance to connect with him almost as a new sibling, or to pick up a different thread from what we had left before. I opened myself to him, to however he would relate to this different me, however our new relationship would emerge. Early on in this stay, my brother asked me if I had thought about changing my name. I said that I had, but that I had decided not to because of how my mom had insisted on the importance of my name, and the dangers in ever relinquishing a name.
I was named after two men in my family, a two-word first name. When I was a child, I would watch my mom insist on my name with outsiders, underlining the name on forms to show it was one name, correcting people who abbreviated it, teaching me how to advocate for myself this way. My mom would tell me the story of my dad, how he went by one name as a child and adolescent, then went by another name as an adult. She said that when friends from his childhood would meet his new friends, they would be trapped in this confusion over his identity, both sides insisting that the name they used was the right one. She warned me this would happen to me if I ever went by anything other than the exact name I had been given, and drilled into me that it would be bad for me if other people were to have confusion about my identity, that their confusion was my problem. When I arrived on campus my first year of college, I suddenly had to meet hundreds of new people at once—there was even a game at orientation that involved introducing yourself to literally every student in the class, one by one, in two huge rings. I caved; I started using my initials to make it easier for other people, not for myself. By the time I realized my mistake—that I had done it for the wrong reasons, to appease others—it was too late. I went by my initials that first semester, growing to like it as a shift in identity from my adolescence. When I told my mom about it at winter break, she told me the same stories she had told me before, with the same warnings. I felt guilty. I went back to school and reintroduced myself to people with my whole name, asking them to please stop using my initials.
It was only during this trip with my family that I understood the most useful lesson from my experiences with my name growing up. I learned about standing up for myself, especially with strangers, about not letting other people define me. I told this all to my brother. He told me, "you don't have to keep it. Like anyone, you can change your name; you can make decisions for yourself. Plus, you're trans. It's totally normal for trans people to change their names. If your childhood friends meet your new friends, and if there is any confusion, it's their job to adapt to the new name and embrace you. That's part of trans etiquette." If I hadn't made a commitment to staying open, to not give in to clenching around discomfort, I would have rejected this, saying that I deserve to chart my own course, that I don't need to follow some trans norm. Instead, though, I saw the truth in what he was saying, and his love in giving that advice to me. I realized I didn't, in fact, want to go by this name, these two male names, my whole life. I saw the possibility in a change. I started to entertain the idea, talking with him over the next few days about possible names. He suggested some variations on my initials, since I had already gone by the initials before, to have an overlap in comfort.
When it was time to leave Virginia and go home, I felt completely different from who I was before the trip. I knew that I had done what I wanted. I had been open; I had been brave. I had kept my heart open and relaxed. I had accepted whatever came in front of me in reality. In that, I had learned a lot about myself, my family; I had grown deeper with my brother (as planned); I learned a deeper connection with my mom (not planned, but quite welcome).
My parents and I took shifts driving back from Virginia, through the massive Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and Tennessee, then down through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I kept my eyes glued to the mountains, as I had never seen real mountains before. Big hills, yes. Cliffs and canyons, yes. But no mountains like these, gray behemoths piercing the sky. Emerging onto the coastal plain, I felt myself on the home stretch of my journey of transformation, though we had hours left to drive. The conversation with my brother about names reemerged, and I spent my non-driving time brainstorming in my sketchbook how I might change my name in a way that suited my needs, continually setting aside the perceived desires of others that would come up in my head. I found a name that was based on my old initials, similar to one my brother suggested, but shorter in spelling and more intuitive in pronunciation. I closed my eyes and listened to Astral Weeks on my headphones to travel to my conclusion.
The Last Unicorn
By the end of "Slim Slow Slider," the final track on the album, I was up for driving duty. Something had emerged in my travel through the album: the idea of changing my entire name, leaving the whole thing behind. I put on the car stereo a deep house playlist. My parents didn't object, which was good because I needed the gentleness of the music to carry me out of the vulnerable place I had been in Astral Weeks. I focused on the road and thought about how I might change my last name. I thought about how many surnames emerged historically, from one's profession, or father's name, or from their place of origin. So it was about where you're from, what you do, who you are or who you're related to, who is family.
Years before, in 2015, I had done a lot of genealogical research, so I knew a lot of the names and stories of people in my family generations ago. I had made that sad discovery many genealogists make, that the line grows cold with women because they were expected to lose their names. Their history became unimportant, undocumented. Their stories died. I felt affinity with these women because I expected (and still do) to be erased before whatever genealogy may be performed by my siblings' children's children, as a queer person with an unusual family illegible to the state. I didn't want to be lost, even knowing that it was outside my control.
Behind the wheel I thought, that old desire, to be validated through remembrance and persistence in history, is now in such contradiction with my beliefs about what matters, about time, memory, eternal life. To me, there is no eternal life except through the effects of our actions, our karma, what moves out in ripples and becomes part of the flow.
In undergrad, I took a class called Death and Dying, co-listed under Sociology and Anthropology. The professor was an expert in Terror Management Theory, which says that nearly everything we do in society is in response to a fear of death, to resist the idea that we die and just don't exist anymore. So much of culture, ambition has to do with creating something that people will see when you're gone, so you'll have eternal life in how you're seen and remembered, even though you won't be there. Learning this from him was kind of blackpilling, confronting my own terror management, confronting the fact that whatever I leave behind will not matter to me because I will be dead. Several years after I graduated, this professor of mine died on campus between classes. He just dropped dead. When I heard the news, I knew that was exactly what he would want—at the same time, he wouldn't give a shit.
I let go of my name. I let go of how people choose their names. I didn't want to nail myself down as being from somewhere, or being someone, or doing some thing; I didn't want to choose my name as being tied to specific people or to whom I'm related. I wanted the name to fit what I was trying to inhabit, what I felt myself growing into, which is openness, not the feeling of being a person unto oneself and separate from others, living in ego. I learned from the Morgan Robbins tarot that we are often confronted with the illusion that we are faced with other people, that we are separate from them. That is the card called "There are no others." It has a sea serpent rising and falling into the waves, multiple loops up out of the water, arcing, and descending into the water. This is not explained in an exegesis in the LWB, but it is clear that one could be a segment of that sea serpent and look around, and see other segments and believe them to be separate, just through that one way of sensing. Yet to be tapped into that body sense, one would know "I am not separate." In some myths, river deities are not considered to be separate from the body of water they inhabit; the god is the river. The same is true of Poseidon; he is the sea. The sea serpent on the card is one with the sea as well.
I had learned this and other lessons from the deck previously, understanding them cognitively, feeling them in spiritual ways, but I was now inhabiting the space I had sought for so long, a space of open surrender, of not identifying, of existing in the flow—and that was what I wanted to be my name. I felt a need to craft in this name a tool for remembering the lessons I had learned on the trip.
There's another card from the Morgan Robbins tarot called "And there I was . . . surrounded." The description says:
Surrounded by the various and sometimes bizarre creatures of nature, I received a message. It said: "You and the earth are one".
The illustration on the card is a field of flowers, and one flower—whether by perspective in the drawing or just artistic, psychedelic reworking of reality—is larger than the others, apparently feeling the experience of all the other flowers, being the same, not being separate from the meadow, not being separate from the earth. And I was there. I made it, into the card. I didn't need a structure anymore. It was all spirit and surrender.
This experience was so precious to me; it felt so fragile, I knew there was a risk of it fading over time, or maybe the demands of life, of capitalism, might wear on my spirit and draw this lesson out of my awareness, that I might lose it forever, forgetting I ever learned it—like the threat faced by The Last Unicorn: the longer she stays human in the king's castle, the more she forgets she was ever a unicorn. I didn't want to forget this. That card stuck in my mind: "and there I was... surrounded." I knew I wanted that word, but not the finality implied by the ending. I chose the name "Surrounding" to be a name that fills that use of where I'm from, what I do, who I am, with whom I am in relation; it's wherever I am; it's what surrounds me, and I am not all that separate from that surrounding. I am it as well, in process, in becoming. This crystal clarity—that cool, melting clarity that comes with psychedelic realizations—flowed down and in and on and out of my body while I was driving through the coastal plains. All I could see was green, the kudzu and oak, the tall green grass, just green green green green green green green green, everywhere—except the sky, which was not all that broad because the green stretched up so high. The road was barely there in the green, just a narrow gray strip, and I was surrounded by green. The wavelengths of that light were pummeling my eyes, going directly to my brain, right into this open system I had been cultivating for days, years. I felt blessed, one.
I have it still. I don't cling to it, but it's there. The reminder is always with me; I can't escape it. With that choice, I accomplished the Ulysses pact that I had wanted all those years—to bind myself in the future, to always remember this.
Broadening political working space
In feel-good, pop psychology, the kind of things you see in pastel watercolor infographics on Instagram, global change is discussed as a matter of very small scale workings. Live peace. Love will solve everything. This has rightly faced criticism as a distraction from the very large changes that need to occur for our survival as a species—it won't come about just in microinteractions between people; we need reorganized economic and political systems. Furthermore, this hyper-focus on small scale choices conveniently puts the onus for change on individuals, as if to say, if you don't get the world you want, it's your fault. This plays in neatly with the Protestant work ethic that still dominates Western culture today, as well as more conservative Catholic understandings of good and evil—I'm thinking of guilt as a central organizing principle of my childhood.
Srnicek and Williams' book Inventing the Future, while outlining a political agenda to diminish the emphasis on work and increase automation to the point where no-one has to work, provides a useful background in a term they call "folk politics," and how this relates to the overall needs of building political power (2015). Folk politics is like pop psychology, but for politics. From the inside, it's experienced as common sense; however, it's a common sense that's historically constructed, that lags behind the swift changes in the nature of power in the contemporary landscape, with more focus on immediacy than large-scale, long-term thought. Srnicek and Williams outline three ways folk politics is focused on immediacy: temporally, spatially, and conceptually. Temporally, folk politics is reactive, eschews long-term goals, opts for ephemeral actions, draws more on the past than the future, and emphasizes spontaneity over institutional action. Spatially, folk politics characterizes local, small-scale action as more authentic, designing its actions for such instead of anything scale-able. It prefers a politics of withdrawal and refusal instead of counter-institutional or counter-hegemonic organizing. Individualism, as discussed above, also figures into the local spatial focus of folk politics by decision-making being located more in the individual. Conceptually, the authors write, "there is a preference for the everyday over the structural, valorising personal experience over systematic thinking; for feeling over thinking, emphasising individual suffering; . . . for the particular over the universal; . . . and for the ethical over the political—as in ethical consumerism" (12). Folk politics prefers simple concepts over complexity.
However, the base of culture and politics is still composed of people in relation to one another, and change has to happen on every level simultaneously to get where we need to go. In Inventing the Future, the authors make the critical point that instead of a vanguard leading the revolution in the classical sense, we have to have a diversity of types of action, of types of networks, through a counter-hegemonic strategy. Counter-hegemony focuses the action of the base in changing superstructure without the stifling localism of folk politics. It recognizes that indeed the local cannot be ignored, but it insists on scaling this, making room for such imagination by discarding the neoliberal common sense and expanding the horizon of possibilities. The authors urge preparatory work in building counter-hegemonic power not only so that these structures can be ready in the event of a crisis, but also to shift the Overton window—the range of ideas acceptable to discuss in politics and media—such that the change we need can start to occur.
Where Lee Edelman in No Future (2004) urges rejection of the future and withdrawal from the political—to him unavoidably interwoven with reproductive futurism—José Esteban Muñoz insists in Cruising Utopia (2009) that the now is not enough, that queerness itself proves this. Muñoz turns to the past, the everyday, the aesthetic to feed a hope aligned toward future imagining. He always brings it back to the future. This methodology subverts some of the absolutism of Srnicek and Williams' outline of folk politics: where they counterpose the particular and universal, the past and the future, the quotidian and the structural, I see Muñoz create a Klein bottle of these terms, a higher dimensional model, each "opposite" connecting on the front and back end, looping into one another, forming one continuous surface on which to cruise, dream, and create. These three scholars connect in their scrutiny of immediacy and how the fixation on such hamstrings our potential, keeping the imaginary of the future fixed while the world changes.
In my narrative, I give examples of how I've used queer and trans theories of time, embodiment, and utopia, and the practice of compassion, to heal myself, connect more organismically with others, and extricate myself from some of the natural logics of liberalism, especially the imposition of discrete, linear time and the centralization of identity. Now I will outline how these practices open up a broader space for political change: in considering people as processes of open-ended becoming, as self-organizing systems within self-organizing systems—systems that adjust a commingled past, present, and future, that work change in virtualities and realities—the logic of folk politics is broken down further: immediacy, the local, even the individual reveal themselves more as constructs than indissoluble, natural concepts. Creativity expands, as does the horizon of possibilities. These practices connect to the counter-hegemony in Inventing the Future on the back end: building the new structures and networks we need must use methods connected to our humanity, our connectedness—this is the basis of class consciousness, to reclaim human dignity effaced by capital. Our methods must creatively work outside of the logics imposed by capitalism, those of isolating persons into bodies ending at the skin, of slotting life into a time unnatural to how affect and embodiments interact. This will fuel new thinking we have yet to achieve, what lies just beyond the visible horizon.
Dual power, dual rhythm
The concept of dual power has experienced an increase of attention in the years after Occupy Wall Street, as interest in socialism and anarchism in online communities has increased. This has especially been seen in local mutual aid organizations, but larger scale discussions have also taken place, such as Jameson's An American Utopia (2016). Although romantic ideas of dual power in the classical sense may be invalid with the changing nature of power over time (see folk politics), the concept still holds promise when applied in the counter-hegemonic organizational ecology described by Srnicek and Williams. We may not be able to depend on the default withering away of the state, but it's still useful to imagine building power alongside institutions that cannot be immediately dismantled.
Taken in a more creative direction, however, the potential increases even more. W. E. B. Du Bois describes a primary and secondary rhythm in his 1905 manuscript "Sociology Hesitant," rediscovered and published in 2000. Elizabeth Freeman writes an exposition of this concept at the end of Time Binds (2010): primary rhythm is akin to what I describe as the linear, discrete time of capital, or what Freeman calls chrononormative time, as well as all other rhythms that are unavoidable, such as biological rhythms. Secondary rhythm describes the "traces of indeterminate force," happenings of chance and the surplus that comprises agency as well. With these two rhythms flowing simultaneously, there are rises in tempo of the secondary rhythm that contrast with this primary rhythm. Du Bois locates an example of this coalescing in "a woman's club." Freeman supposes that Du Bois was referring to such clubs organized by Black women with the aim to provide education, advocacy, and mutual aid for its members and the poor. This is the very same kind of institution given as an example of dual power, such as in Louisianan social aid and pleasure clubs, or the Black Panthers' school breakfast network. So could we connect these rhythms to dual power, and imagine building a music of dual rhythm? Could the music infuse the counter-hegemonic project, with instrumentalists and beatmakers creating, reflecting, and evolving patterns of being?
In another creative example, Mathilda Cullen (2020) builds on writing by Sean Bonney (2015). Bonney describes two tracks of time superimposed: one composed of unfinished events like the Paris Commune, of revolutionary ideas that "refuse to die" (116) running on top of normative time, which holds capital, dead labor, and completed events. Cullen hypothesizes something like a tesseract mapped onto three dimensional space, where "each rift in the fabric of normative time births a specter, a ghost of which haunts the possibility of the future it conceived even as it closed," with our revolutionary task being to "set the specters of once-futures loose to finish what they started" (31). Using models from higher dimensional math, we can not only see but act on the multiplicities running concurrently in our reality, on "past" timelines alive-but-not-alive in the present.
Starting from a project of building rhythm, let us use queer time and simpkins' elaboration of trans embodiment to examine how we can affect rhythms in the commingled past, present, and future. The theory of hyperstition deals with the future acting on the present. But let's shift those terms back one tense: the present can change the past. We see this in simpkins' description of trans narratives writing on top of the past, knitting points in time together. In another way, the past materializes in the present, or enacts itself in the present, through the material changes wrought by it and in our memories of it, both conscious and embodied—for instance in trauma. In the childhood encounter meditation I described earlier, my somatic memories of childhood trauma changed through my low-tech time travel, bringing compassion into the past, and passing that healing up through the years to myself in the moment of my giving it. My memory changes now in telling my story. In The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, the anarchist physicist Shevek finds inspiration for his unified theory of time in the loop of a promise and its fulfillment—the two points in time are connected so intimately as for no time to exist between them at all. Giving someone a gift, whether that is a listening and compassionate ear, or a copy of a top-of-the-funnel book like Capitalist Realism, or a needed thing heretofore unprovided, affects that person's past in how they see it—and therefore changes the present and possible futures. For instance, Capitalist Realism often changes how the reader (the gift recipient) understands their memories of growing up in the capitalist realist landscape. In the warm, affirming relationship from Carl Rogers, beings connect organismically, shucking societal and political impingements to wade into the messiness of human affect, of actual human time.
In many ways, what I'm saying is not new. I only rearrange some things and call attention to how we already engage with the past(-present-future) as a space of change. I see this engagement in many places, such as in communities like the one behind this blog—a community that operates under the assumptions that everyone is capable of growth, that nobody should be unnecessarily spurned, that our relating compassionately with one another makes our community stronger and more sustainable. I also see this happening in the changing discourse on Instagram, where, within the last five years, I'm now more likely to see people discussing a miscommunication than arguing past one another in mutual ignorance.
When we stop and think a moment about this space of change, we can see how it branches out rhizomatically: each person with many pasts, multiple truths about each past (my abusers, my mentors), nonadjacent points in those pasts knitted together, connected to pasts that never happened, to a present that could have existed, to futures that may still, with virtual connections to futures beyond the horizon, as yet unimagined. Each of these persons an open-ended becoming, a body stretching beyond the skin spatially and temporally; each of these becomings enmeshed vibrantly, with nodes and lines in the rhizome sometimes superimposing, sometimes diverging from those in (other? "there are no others") becomings. Beholding this complexity becomes easier with compassion, with a seeking to understand that person's world as they see it, as Rogers describes. With compassion comes a strengthening of materialist analysis: the material conditions we examine include the affective forces of the people therein.
Bootlicking is not compassionate
Let me take a moment to address two hazards, however: that of misunderstanding the scale and site of action, and that of misunderstanding compassion. The practices and concepts I have described above operate counter to the logics of folk politics, which accepts the temporal regime of capital and insists on the immediate. Although what I describe happens at the level of person-to-person, this is affective activity. Affect may precede consciousness, but it does not supersede conscious thought; it holds no more importance in our project than the larger scale creations urged by Srnicek and Williams. With this thought infused in the action of the counter-hegemonic project, new possibilities emerge; we discard the historically outmoded logics of the past.
Bootlicking is not compassionate. Briefly tracing one of the threads of my development as a person: I used to be quite a pushover. Acting from the desire to make life better for other people, I would obsequiously serve even my bullies in middle school, enriching a cycle of exploitation. I thought I was following the call for compassion in Christianity. Winding through that time of my abuser-mentors teaching me self-love without teaching me "no," it took me a long time to connect compassionate intention for the outside with compassionate intention for the inside: compassion is not a vector from me to you. It's a totality of respect for the dignity of all. On that note, compassion compels fierceness in our political project. In the face of exploitation, it's not compassionate to say, "let's understand where the bosses are coming from." It's compassionate to address the systemic denial of human dignity, and to demand change. In terms of conflict, which is inevitable, the practices I've described work well with those called "conflict transformation," which I will not describe in detail, but will summarize as an embrace of conflict as an opportunity. Although this area of thought has been elaborated more recently by imperialist international relations theory, I nevertheless encourage further reading in it.
I've gone through many changes in my journey, especially in my views of the world. What I've learned and experienced has led me to have more merciful attitudes toward mistakes by others and myself than I had in college. Not only is each person I meet at one point on a journey, that journey is not a linear timeline. They're also not really at one precise point on that journey, either. Contradictions and multiplicities are always at play. What I can see of their world is limited; I can foreclose understanding through dismissal and contempt, or I can create with compassion—and a framework of queer time, multiplicity, open-endedness—at least a potential for more understanding and mutual growth and change. This keeps me focused on the big picture, the massive changes that need to occur, instead of getting bogged down by one person.
Now, ten years removed from the surge in liberal social justice rhetoric of my time in undergrad, I'm seeing more imagination practiced by change-seekers, dreamers, doers, especially online. Part of this is because of the broadening of my focus; part of this is because of real changes in internet culture. I have hope for an explosion of imagination in the near future, a continuation of the work underway, as we reevaluate the norms internet culture picked up in the last ten years. I dream of a counter-hegemonic project—infused with hyperspatial, queer-timed creativity—shaped by virtuosic musicians tuned into the messy complexities of the real rhythms of life, the enmeshments. The horizon vibrates with possibility.
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