A Mini-Essay by EMJI SPERO — a panel talk from SWP

Emji Spero is a person in the world — a VERY SMART person. Sparks were discharged during mountaintop conversations over gin and cigarettes this past week. Tract / Trace is honored to re-post Emji’s talk on performance, identity, and the space of writing — Emji as Co-Researcher. You can find eir blog here. To being —

I was invited to speak on performance for eight minutes at Naropa, specifically on the question: Is there an aspect of your work that is lost if it is never performed? What follows is a response, the transcription of a process. The footnotes inserted afterward.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that this is an impossible task; to attempt to speak rhizomatically on performance for eight minutes is to leave many things out, is to sacrifice complexity for clarity, and because I care for you or because I could care for you, I will try to hold these complexities, the best I can, though they slip between the cracks of every sentence.
Coming from a perspective of being between, of being queer or trans, and similarly of those who are between cultures, nations, binaries or borders, the notion of what is and is not performance begins to collapse.[1] Let me see if I can elaborate. And I will begin from my own experience in the hope that it carries across.
Being outside what is the norm trains you to recognize the gestures of normativity. Having been born female bodied, my upbringing was immersed in the gestures and codes of normative (white) femininity, in this immersion, a carrying of outside within oneself, to rupture, to deconstruct these codes to even be able to recognize them; subtle, simple things, the lilt up at the ends of sentences, implying a question?, the tilt of the head when another is speaking, raising the pitch of my voice when I want to get something from someone, crossing the legs, holding the body at a slight angle in relation to a speaking someone, not initiating conversation, how to giggle to deflect attention, there are many other examples. When viewed together, these motions form a gestural language.
I was not directly trained in the gestural language of normative (white) masculinity, I had to learn through research, through observation, to tip my head back while talking, to square my shoulders, to lace my fingers together and lean back into my hands pushing my hips forward[here the fingers are laced together, the body of the speaker leaning back and into], to place a heavy period at the ends of my sentences, to widen my stance, to pitch down the voice, for example. And that is not to say I am trans-masculine.  And that is to recognize the social and economic and geographic limitations placed on certain bodies preventing their ability to move fluidly, to access certain modes of normativity, to pass in this way, whether they wish to or not.
Those of us who are able to pass or who are aware that we are failing to pass are well versed in languages such as these, whether those are languages of gesture, gender, dialect or culture, nationality, what have you.
But a shift happens, in this awareness. These languages become unmoored. They are shaken loose from their stable position, a tectonic rumbling in the realm essential qualities, and these gestures, these languages become visible, in becoming visible, can be recognized as performance.[2] And this recognition collapses the binary, suddenly you see that everyone every day, at all times, in all places, whether you are aware of it or not are performing, and that in every moment of your performance, you are either re-inscribing the status quo or you are disrupting it. And so this performance-in-every-moment, whether you want it to be or not, whether you are aware of it or not, is also a political act.
This way of being body in the world, this awareness of performance-in-every-moment has been present in literary avant garde movements throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Consider the happenings or readymades of dada, consider fluxus scores, situationist situations, consider collagefound-languageannotation[3]. Consider the decentralizing that attempts to occur through death of the author, through N+7, through cut-up and other procedural practices, despite their often absence of the body, despite their often absence of a critique of colonialism. Consider the whiteness of the approaches I have mentioned. Consider somatics, the opening of many bodies through ritual and the positionality of your own body in relation to the limitations placed on other bodies. Consider a vector moving outward in all directions, emergence, the attempted dispersion of power through punk, DIY, RIOT GRRRL, the dispersed geography of the internet.
What if we consider these decentralizing movements in the context of the systematic erasure of free public spaces in the United States. And in many other places stained by colonialism. And here I am talking about land and property and privatization of reources, and here I am speaking of the criminalization and capitalization and militarization of the commons. And here I am speaking of sit and lie laws, of free speech zones, of stop and frisk, of the erasure of posse comitatus, of surveillance, of sanitization and safety and so many other methods of curtailing and the unequal distribution of these curtailings of different bodies. And when I speak of these small everyday curtailings and here I am quoting Erica Hunt (link to:http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Hunt.php) who was quoting someone else, I do not remember, maybe Freire maybe Boal, who said that “we must always be practicing our freedom.”[4]
And so as our commons are being taken from us, how can we, as writers, as artists, as performers-at-all-times, create new forms of commoning?
How in eight minutes, or a lifetime, to trace the lines between the body and gesture, gesture and language, language and the everyday, the everyday and performance, performance and the land, the land and the limits placed upon it, the limits placed upon us and the need we have for commoning. I have no answers. I do not know how to do this because it does not exist yet. And we already know how to do this because it does not exist yet.
What if we consider performance as the site of intersection between a body, or bodies, and the commons. And when I say commons I mean land and I mean language and the space of the page[5] and also this room, and I also mean you and you and you and you and yous. And how can we pull these invisible threads to the surface? And when we are everyday, how can we prepare ourselves to encounter this shimmering field of possibility, this space that betweens us.

[1] In the introduction to Disidentifications. José Muñoz proposes that “insert quote here.
[2] Having eaten my copy of the book, Gender Trouble, for a performance last summer, I can no longer accurately cite the source of this way of thinking in my body. The words have been consumed, have altered me on a cellular level, and I must only assume have euphemistically “passed through” by now. I can recall to you the taste of Butler’s language, which was dry and stuck to the sides of my mouth, though, it stuck.
[3] Specifically, annotation of the everyday occurring through conversations. See: footnote 5.
[4] In searching the internet for this quote days later, I uncovered a thing having been washed through many ears and my own mistranslating, it was Freire who writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that “Education [insert: Performance] either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which [we] deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of [our] world.”
[5] After I had spilled his coffee across the table, while we were soaking it up with white napkins, JH Phrydas asked with emphatic hands if I would agree that “a page in a book is a point of contact between two [or more] bodies,” given the accumulation of knowledge on mirror neurons and empathetic neurological processes. See: essay. [link to transcript of panel discussion that has never yet existed]

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