Sunday, December 16, 2012

December 16: T Clutch Fleischmann wants you to read Samuel Delany

The year is 2012 so the notion of Advent doesn't sit quite right. Typically, Advent involves contemplative wait for the celebration of the Nativity. It is cyclical in the way that cyclical things also suggest rebirth and the rejuvenation of what came before. Like, Here comes the Advent, and then a year later we'll wait, and then Here comes the Advent, &c. So we're weirdly always waiting for what has already happened, and then eventually that will be the Second Coming, and then who the hell knows what's up after that, except for that it will just be a bigger cycle began again.

But this year is 2012, and Western culture has gotten obsessed with the idea that the Ancient Mayan calendar will end on December 21 and then the Entire World will end. This all despite the fact that many Mayan people today have kindly asked that those of us who are not Mayan please stop using this date to misinterpret their traditions so that we can express our own apocalyptic fears. But the idea lingers, an inverse of the traditional Advent in that we are not-so-calmly waiting for a massive destruction that will end all we know and that, hidden in its background, contains the suggestion of renewal and fresh life.

All of this is an oblique way to introduce Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a book I have been obsessed with for a couple years now. Often I will be having a conversation that has no connection to the book and I will bring it up anyway, saying "That makes me think of Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue" and then talking about the book as though it related to whatever was said before (kind of like right now). The book performs two core functions. In the first, Delany chronicles his extended experiences in the now-closed porn theaters that once held a prominent place in Manhattan. As a regular in these low-cost establishments, Delany had countless sexual encounters with other men, most taking place within the establishments and some transitioning outside, to a home or the street. In a narrative that is both charming and unsentimental, Delany describes these encounters, focusing on a number of men whom he recalls in extended detail while peppering the account with the suggestion of anonymous, perpetual hook-ups. When this concludes, the remainder of the text draws on that narrative in order to develop a theory of what was gained socially by those theaters (and, likewise, what was lost when forces like heterosexism, classism, and sex negativity forced them out of Manhattan). In this overtly academically-minded section, Delany develops a theory built along ideas of social contact ("a fundamentally urban phenomenon" in which people help one another and rely on one another through their daily interactions in the public sphere) and social networking (a "professional and motive-driven" form of interaction that explicitly cannot provide many of the benefits of contact), praising the porn theaters precisely because of the rare opportunity for cross-class contact they provided, and notably looking to writers' conferences to demonstrate the falterings of networking. 

Delany's essays are a rare treat in so many ways. Besides the fact that the book is super, super gay and that is has brilliant ideas about sex, architecture, and community, it is also composed of two hybridized essays that are deftly unique, accessible, and engaging. Of the many different beasts it becomes, the beast through which it tells straightforward narrative/memoir and the beast through which it performs abstracted social critique seem as unlike one another as any of the essay genre's many forms. Yet Delany here seamlessly amalgamates them into one lovely animal. Take these two excerpts. The first, from the narrative-driven section, reads:
"Furthest down the block from the Capri, the Venus was generally a little too scroungy even for me. The drug activity there was often so high as to obliterate the sex activity. Still, on and off through the years, it provided me with a couple of memorable regulars. Gary was one, a handyman who worked at a Catholic church on Tenth Avenue. A lanky, affable guy with a brown ponytail, he impressed me as someone with very fixed habits who, as long as he was within them, was comfortable. And he always seemed comfortable in the theater. I first met him up at the Hollywood when he was about thirty-seven, but their patrolling and monitoring turned him off, so he moved down to the Venus. Regularly he brought in his two forty-two-ounce bottles of beer, generally to sit in the last three or four rows of the orchestra on the right as you came in, settling back to wait for one of three older guys to service him, me among them. He had a regular girlfriend, he claimed, who'd introduced him to the pleasures of getting things shoved up his behind when he had sex, but her overall sexual appetites simply weren't as high as his. That's why he came to the movies. He liked two or three fingers thrust deep up his asshole while you sucked his rather thick, cut seven inches, but he was a little reticent about explaining this to new guys. So he pretty much stuck to the three of us."

while the second, from the theory-nerd-head section, reads:

"As are the spaces of the unconscious and the space of discourse, the space where the class war occurs as such is, in its pure form, imaginary-- imaginary not in the Lacanian sense but rather in the mathematical sense. (In the Lacanian sense, those spaces are specifically Symbolic.) Imaginary numbers-- those involved with i, the square root of minus-one-- do not exist. But they have measurable and demonstrable effects on the real (i.e. political) materiality of science and technology. Similarly, the structures, conflicts, and displacements that occur in the unconscious, the class war, and the space of discourse are simply too useful to ignore in explaining what goes on in the world we live in, unto two men yelling in the hall, one a landlord and one a tenant, if not mayhem out on the streets themselves, or the visible changes in a neighborhood, like Times Square or, indeed, the Upper West Side, over a decade or so, and the specificities of rhetorical shift."

Despite the dissimilar  tones employed, however, the two are made within the book as whole to be inseparable from one another, with moments of theory and of narrative regularly intruding across the others porous boundaries. The same subject, glanced at from two angles at once, reveals the dependency of both angles in order to understand it at all. The text darts astutely through the history of AIDS, of immigration and housing practices, and of public sex, narratives running parallel to and intersecting social theory. Which, of course, how could it be any other way? Delany went to the porn theaters in Manhattan countless times, and there he gave strangers nameless blowjobs, and there he cared for other humans and was cared for by them, and there social categories existed in modes in which they do not otherwise exist, and to understand how lovely and important that all is you need to think about it in a few different ways. Which is what Delaney is generous enough to let us as readers do, refusing to sensationalize or censor, insisting at once on the winsome details and their broad implications. 

In her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman talks about the visceral pleasure we can achieve when we engage with history-telling and the past in a queer way. Queer people, she claims, have "risked experimentation with our bodies and those of others, with affiliation, and with new practices of hoping, demanding, and otherwise making claims on the future, and this has entailed an enormous commitment to the pleasure and power of figuration." Her work is part of a larger academic thread in which our own relationship to the past is reconsidered with the tools and tropes of contemporary queer affinity and gender. Because it's complicated: sometimes it seems like the world might be ending, and sometimes that is terrifying and sometimes it might be the only option for our renewal, but either way there's a fast-coming future while so many bits of the past are there, too, whether we wait in an Advent of religious calm or stock pile ammunition. If this is the present we're at, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is the future and past that we need. It refuses accepted modes of analysis, of narrative, and of essaying. Instead, it mourns the losses of our past to suggest tools for a better future. It declares the interrelatedness of our intellect and our body, our narratives and our theories, by telling them together. And it does this all so wonderfully because of how god damn skilled Delany is with the essay as form. It makes sense that a science fiction writer, invested in the union of fact and fantasy, would pull this off, just as it makes sense that the temporal and routine act of giving some dude a blowjob will, in the mind of the right writer, become an indelible moment of insight. 

T Clutch Fleischmann's first book, Syzygy, Beauty, is available from Sarabande. A Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM, they live in rural Tennessee. 

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