Slant

Untimely Feedback

A spread from Leo Lionni's Frederick (1967).

IN MID-NOVEMBER I am asked to skype with a writing class in New York. How nice to see again, after some months of Midwest fashion drab, the eager young of NYU in their particularized plumages. Arrayed against windowless cinderblock walls, they are diffident at first, then warm up. They have read my book on 1990s punk feminism and want to talk about its relevance for today. Does it suggest any actions for the present.

Friends have been texting me from New York. The city is in shock, they say, or mourning. We are all stunned and teary; the public is teary. It’s like after 9/11, one says, and I remember the raw, loving communion of the F train. Not long after, when Bush sent shock and awe to the Iraqi people, I downed well whiskey at an ugly gay bar and saw all our crass or utopian flirtations tinged with mass death. All my writing those days was in wes, transcribing the comfort of collective feeling.

Here in Indiana there’s no subway and I never take the bus, and I fall asleep too early for the town’s gay bar. Above the downtown’s empty sidewalks, SUVs and pickup trucks with In God We Trust license plates rev in wide loops around tall parking garages. There is conviviality within cordons of membership, gym, food co-op, church or shul, but outside these oases, nothing. Public life is so thinned here, compared with everywhere I’ve ever known, and I almost understand how people might vote as if nobody else’s life was really real.

For a week after the election I leave the house only for a daily plunge in a small, shallow lap pool that I share with elderly aqua-joggers and two snorkeled men. We’re on the edge of our time zone, there’s no sun on my 8 AM swim, and I think, This is like Alaska! I live in Alaska, or Iceland, how romantic. But in the north, people band together to survive the winter. We need winter-night stew parties and municipal hot-tub hobnobs here. And we need marches and Sunday activism salons. My town’s group of white folks for racial justice, who hold their potlucks at the Unitarian church, decided to leaflet at the mall and ask Christmas shoppers to sign a pledge of resistance. The mall pledged to arrest them, and the event was canceled.

Lately I’ve been thinking less about ’90s punk and more about American Communists during the Popular Front in the late 1930s: What happens to a radical politics and cultural program when the revolutionary horizon vanishes and pragmatic and deeply flawed alliances take its place. It’s a very Obama-era part of a larger project, a luxurious dilemma to think about, before the purges, blacklists, deportations, and killings all came to happen here. But that moment has things to teach the present too.

I’ve been listening, closely, to the guttural sounds of physical labor Leadbelly grafts into his performances of work songs after the figure of “the worker” and a commitment to justice for Black people both disappear from his activist audiences’ politics, vanished with that revolutionary horizon. Take this hammer—HAAH! he sings. And carry it to the captain—HAAH! Tell him I’m gone—HAAH! Tell him I’m gone.

And to the “screaming” a young girl in a Tillie Olsen story from 1956 associates with gospel music, which she hears in her friend’s church and, later, on the radio in pop form, where it cleaves her open to the cruelties of racism (“Why did they sing and scream like that?” the girl asks her mother, weeping. “I hear it all the time.”) but she can’t get beyond her ineffectual tears.

And also, I think now: The electric hum at the beginning of Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya,” the tearing jabs of feedback, Corin Tucker’s unholy yells on old Heavens to Betsy 7”s that have helped make ’90s punk feminism an influence on contemporary feminist thought—I’m talking especially of vernacular feminist thought, the kind that lives on the internet unobstructed by paywalls. Riot grrrl, I tell the students, was born at the end of twelve years of right-wing rule in this country. It was gathering momentum while Anita Hill was being grilled. The main attacks on women were hitting young women particularly hard, and the established feminist movement provided nearly no language or arena for addressing this. And riot grrrl’s effects on feminist thought are still unfolding after two and a half decades. When you respond to your moment, your response’s usefulness might live on and morph and thrive.

When things can’t be articulated directly, when they have no arena or lexicon in a political field, they find hybrid forms that traverse eras and worlds, carrying the historically inutterable like oak branches bearing messy tentacular moss. The song carries the feedback, the hum, the haah, the scream. And these things make the song live on differently.

But this is not the most important thing right now, I tell the NYU students on my laptop screen as Indiana dusk descends. The most important thing is to protect who we can, know that we will not defeat this soon enough to make irrelevant the question of how many lives we might save. Some of these may be ours, but assuredly many will not be.

We have to defend who we can and resist however we can. Yet we will all need sustenance, like the field mice in the picture book Frederick, the one I give to all my friends who have babies, so many babies in these deadening days and I have no problem cathecting to reproductive futurism—a queer maternal, let’s call it—in the face of the alternatives. Who has a better idea? These mice, the mice in Frederick, have gathered enough food to get them through the winter, but they also need songs and poems and memories of color if they’re to survive the gray. There will be singing about the dark times, as Brecht said, but not only about the dark times.

So we will ask the past for help—Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism is already surfacing with complicated, provocative questions to ask. We can listen, too, to ways the less utterable—the vision made almost impossible by a current set of conditions—has always had its say. And perhaps it will help us survive and protect ourselves and others, this understanding that what we say and shriek and grunt and encode in feedback in these terrifying times will sustain not only us but also those who will populate whatever this poor world of ours has left to call a future.

Sara Marcus, the author of Girls to the Front (2010), has written for The New Republic, Bookforum, and Texte zur Kunst, among other places. She is currently a doctoral fellow in English and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Princeton.

For more, read the December issue of Artforum: “The Year in Shock”—critics reflect on the upheaval of political and perceptual experience as we know it.

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