Frankie Dytor talks to writer, activist and curator, So Mayer, about their brilliant book, A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing, writing as non-linear montage, actively creating the anarchive, the iconic figure of Magnus Hirschfeld, embodiment and more.
Hi! thanks so much for speaking with me. I absolutely loved A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing. I think it has so many beautiful and tender things to say about queer history and queerness. Importantly, it describes how the creation of a modern European queer subjectivity was bound up with the imperial and colonial project. As I understood it, a key claim of this book is that because of this entanglement we have to return to these terrible and distressing moments in history and recognise the stakes of queerness in them. And, as you describe it, that isn’t just a process of separating the good from the bad, it’s actually understanding that they have always been entwined together. For that reason, we can never simply look back and single out selective moments of queer liberation or resistance: we have to do something else with the archive we have – we have to actively create the anarchive.
It was only really when I finished writing the book and started to give talks and have conversations about it, that I realised what the book is about, which I would sum up as the practice of ethical queer curation. It is not ethical to pretend that the archive is neutral. It’s not ethical to address some aspects of the archive and not the other. And it’s also obviously not ethical to appropriate material from the archive which have been expropriated from indigenous cultures, for instance white queer people calling themselves two-spirit, rather than standing in solidarity with an erased history.
At the same time, we have to think ethically about what it means using the archive, because it was made by the state. And that can become very recursive, and very paralysing, unless you start from the premise that it is messy, that this is also our history, and that white queer people have been complicit sometimes through fetishization in colonialism and imperialism. We also have to understand that homophobia and transphobia are products of imperialism and colonialism. That, for me, has been a position of incredible solidarity, especially going through the transphobia that has possessed British – and to some extent American and Canadian – public life in the last few years. To always remember that transphobia is colonialist and it is fascist: it is a product of colonialism, and that means both understanding and perceiving that the recourse either to biology or histories of gender violence are straw men, and that of consequence my curation and my writing has to be in solidarity with those who have been more affected than I have.
The book in some ways was conceived as a massive subtweet of transphobia – as twitter only gives you 280 characters – to really hammer home that point of how binary gender was constructed, and also how queerness was constructed as this very white experience by sexologists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Sexology was within this framework of understanding of asking what white masculinity is. How do you unpick that? I grew up with the film Labyrinth, and it’s true that the only way forward is the way back, as the bird on the man’s head says.
There’s a lot of thinking about time in queer and trans theory, a lot of which fetishizes the future, or fetishizes no futures, but always is in this very vexed relationship with linear temporality, especially with what to do with pasts. I think the only thing we can do is to pick up these pasts and shake them. And I’m certainly not the only person attempting to do this or making this claim. Reading Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides as I was working on this book made me realise what a small part of the project I was undertaking, hopefully in accompliceship with those incredible works of scholarship.
You use the term QUILTBAG (queer, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, gay) to describe the community and I also got a sense that your writing was conceived as a form of patchwork itself, in its expansive and generous sense. I was wondering what you thought about your writing process as part of the QUILTBAG?
It was absolutely a process of non-linear montage and curation. It wasn’t a way that I had approached writing something of that length before. In my academic monographs, I approached them structurally, linearly; in the case of Political Animals I split each chapter into a suitable article length, and it was the most structural process I’ve ever engaged in. After Political Animals, I switched to a much less academic form of writing using tinyletter and a long project I called Disturbing Words, where I picked a word every two weeks and addressed it in a very fragmentary essay form. A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing began as one of those essays, called ‘Entartete’, which I wrote in the weeks after Trump was elected, trying to think about classification and taxonomy. A lot of people were sharing Umberto Eco’s essay on the taxonomy of fascism, and what its recognisable aspects were. I started looking into this history of taxonomy and how it was practised, particularly thinking about it alongside the Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition as this incredible combination of narcissistic defensiveness with disavowal; we’re going to taxonomise the untaxonomisable, in order to say that it is untaxonomisable. These acts of evasive taxonomy, or deploying taxonomy in order to say one thing when you mean another, started to fit together in that essay and then with my history, with the taxonomisation of the Holocaust itself, as a ‘Jewish’ event, where the other communities that were hugely affected were only subsequently recognised. I saw a Pathé still of the 1933 burning of the books at the exhibition Institute of Sexology at the Wellcome Trust and started to think about it in relation to queerness. The exhibition was both very interesting and very problematic; there was no sense that sexology was a colonial project, even though exhibition included the items from the collection of Henry Wellcome. I also found myself thinking about it as a still from a moving image, and what that meant in terms of decontextualisation and fixity.
Even though I was trying not to write about cinema, the project became about cinema as I tried to think about how you could expand something that is in fragments to be more capacious. I had published an essay which began ‘cinema is a rape machine’ and I thought I was done with writing about film. But all these things kept coming up, and I began to think about whether cinema as a popular art form that encodes movement could stand against the museum and the archive, and then what happens when it is co-opted into it.
I think the thing about the QUILTBAG specifically is its two elements: the quilt and the bag. The republication of Ursula K. le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ignota Books – and I think there are discussions to have about what is essentialist, anthropologist and white about it – and what it has to say about non-linear and non-violent writing, about gathering, about collaboration, about noticing as ethical processes, have really struck a chord. So my book is both a quilt, in the sense that it is stitched together, and a bag, in the sense that there is so much stuff in it, and a lot of them are gifts given to me. In the later stages of writing there was this pivot moment, where I’d done a first draft just before lockdown, and then lockdown hit and it became a whole different process. I couldn’t go to the library, it became a much more online research book and then having to reach out to people and ask them questions.
I am very conscious of being one voice amongst many. I am never trying to claim leadership or suggest that I have originated something. The quiltbag is hugely important for that. This is one facet that fits in with hundreds and thousands of others. Watching academia in the media foster forms of tokenization, making them spokespeople, I think that is part of the hierarchy with the individual. The desire to be heard has been exploited. That is also one way of reading Paris is Burning. Their need to be heard on their own terms has been exploited, not necessarily by the director, but by the uptake of the film itself. My book ends with this crisis of how to navigate this crisis of visibility, which I think Shola von Reinhold’s LOTE is also about in lots of clever and wonderful ways, it’s about disappearing, in ways that are gleeful, spectacular and full of pathos. Why should one disappear? Because one can’t have visibility on one’s own terms or one’s community’s terms.
Magnus Hirschfeld in particular plays a central role in the book. As the founder of the Institut of Sexualwissenschaft, he is obviously very important in queer history, but there are lots of other early sexologists and figures you could have chosen from. Why Hirschfeld in particular?
In part simply because he was the first person I had ever heard of. Hirschfeld is a cultural icon. I am also a poet, and in 2017 I started working on a chapbook called ‘jacked a kaddish’. I was interested in the impact WWI had on the trajectory of developing discourses about gender and sexuality, and the way in which medicalization and psychologization – particularly of masculinity – within and after the war then impacted that. For instance, the fetishization of technology – aeroplanes, bombs, guns – as ways of understanding and shoring masculinity back up. It sounds like a ridiculous subject for a poetry book!
It was also the first thing I wanted to write as publicly non-binary, exploring some of those historical notions of gender that are really fetishized and that I fetishize. This was another moment when people were thinking of the posthuman, although they didn’t necessarily frame it as such. I came across this Hirschfeld book that I had never heard of before, which wasn’t in print, called the Sexual History of the World War. It is the wildest book I have ever read. This guy was a marketing genius! The book is clickbait! It was translated in the US when he went there in the 1930s. But in the 1920s he wrote a Sexualwissenschaft of militarism, imperialism, sex work, the Soviet revolution. He understood it as coming from feminism and queer liberation. And trans liberation too. From the late 19thc to the second world war, gender and sexuality are not separate from each other, and there is no real thinking about them separately. After the Second World War that becomes very pathologized and they get split apart. When I was developing the book, I was really pleased to see Invert Journal pop up. I’m really interested in the word Invert. What does it mean to think about gender and sexuality together in messy ways? And how do you do that descriptively rather than proscriptively?
In Sexual History of the World War, Hirschfeld is asking how not to revert to a binary idea of gender, militarised, white, abled and ableist masculinity that is imperialist (basically Prussian). From his travels and through meeting people like Langston Hughes, he comes to understand – or is coming to understand – that both sexology and imperialism is about taxonomizing bodies, in ways that are hierarchical. He ultimately never thinks his way out of sexology, and it remains a useful tool for him. So, what ethically do we do with this question of what if? As a queer and feminist curator I don’t have many whats.There may have been trans activists in the 19th century but we don’t have much documentation, or they lived their lives privately, which is also a right. I don’t have many whats, only a lot of what ifs, and these interventions have so many parts of ethical framing around them. This is central to the quiltbag, which I conceive as being an open project. I grew up as a queer person in the 90s with the image of the Aids memorial quilt, as something that would never end. That is incredibly tragic and frustrating, because the reason it never ended is, in part, state neglect. But this unending also conceived of the project as being without authorship, not framed by capital.
One of the most intriguing points in the book for me was where you write about censorship itself being a form of archive or archival practice. Can you explain more about that?
I read this essay by Italo Calvino – who is much more Marxist than he is often given credit for – where he says that the censor is the only true reader, because the censor is the only person who truly believes that literature can change the world, else why would they censor it? I remember reading this, and the debate between him and Milan Kundera, who said that if you had actually lived through a country with Soviet oppression, you wouldn’t have this kind of devil’s advocate regard for the censor, and thinking about both of those positions. What is a censor, what is censorship. If we’re talking about it in the context of early 20th century sexology, censorship is a psychological mechanism; it’s a mechanism of the unconscious. Freud talks about this: we all self-censor, he calls this repression. If we rephrase censorship, what is the relationship between censorship and history, what is the relationship between repression and history. Suddenly it becomes clear that repression stores all the things that are most important to us, distorts them, causes us to act through parapraxes, narcissistic defensive mechanisms and all these other tools of the unconscious that I love using metaphorically as examples whilst also thinking that psychoanalysis went wrong in many ways. So we repress stuff, meaning that we act against ourselves. If what we are repressing is embodiment, then no wonder we’re burning the world down.
The word embodiment comes up a few times in the book, and it’s obviously a term that preoccupies a lot of trans and queer work. What do you understand embodiment to be in the context of your work?
Basically, what Eliza Steinbock describes in Shimmering Images: how being in a body is what connects us to other people. Embodiment is what we are given to understand the world, ourselves in the world, others in the world, including plant and animal life, and only by being in embodiment – which is the thing Christian, capitalist, heteropatriachal life doesn’t want – whatever that doesn’t want is embodiment. That is really different from language around performativity, around bioessentialism. I have seen Black scholars and activists online rightly challenging the pervasive use of the phrase ‘Black bodies’ used to describe (to contain, to ossify) living communities, and I’m thinking about that in relation to the complex history of feminist uses of the term ‘body’ to emphasise the full complexity of presence and interdependence, and whether the word ‘body’ can still sustain that. Embodiment is not just confined to this one body; it is a state that is shared to animate beings. It’s close to Animacies in the way conceived by Mel Y. Chang, but it’s not quite that, and it’s also not Elizabeth Grosz‘s idea of the fleshly. It is much more cyborg. I am pure Donna Haraway in this: cyborgs have embodiment. This isn’t about erasing subjectivity, it is about retaining it whilst also decentring the Enlightenment idea that the individual is the ideal. Eurowestern language really struggles with this, since it is so classed and raced.
Judith Butler says that we are undone by each other, and that’s it, we are inter-dependent. Their work gets much more interesting once they have said that: from that point on, there are the two Butlers. It’s at this point that they acknowledge their Jewishness and their struggles with that, and they also acknowledge they have mischaracterized trans life. There is something very affecting about that. To me, the word embodiment gets over the problem of the individual and the collective, since in embodiment there is always both, and it can only ever be both, since we are co-constitutive. I think that is the thing that terrifies colonialists, capitalists and transphobes: that the body is not a discrete object, that it is socially and culturally constituted, and that it changes.
We are undone by each other! I think that co-constitution comes across so clearly and so beautifully in the book. I should also mention in that vein that I was actually reading a borrowed copy of your book for the interview. The endlessly generous Pema Monaghan lent me her copy, and it has an inscription in it from you to her, ‘in love and solidarity’. That solidarity opened the book for me, and it also ended it: if you don’t mind, can I read you the closing section from the book? It made me cry.
“If we cannot learn out history in all its complexity, we cannot speak it […] The history we carry is our history, each of us an anarchive, perhaps of untaken photographs and destroyed films, of works we will never have the opportunity to see or make, but also of the yearning to make that impossible work possible. This is the secret we keep, people like us whom power tries to deny: that immortality lives in our continuous resistance.
Is in us; is us.”
So Mayer’s A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing is published by Peninsula Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
In honour of this interview and Frankie’s b a r o q u e series, we have three copies of this excellent text to give away. To win a copy like and retweet our Tweet of the interview on Twitter, and follow Peninsula Press and Lucy Writers (from Monday morning). On Instagram, like our post, follow both Lucy Writers and Peninsula Press, and tag one friend in the comments section. The giveaway will close on Friday 24th September, 12am (BST).
This interview was commissioned as part of Frankie Dytor’s series, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
In von Reinhold’s debut novel, the forgotten black modernist poet Hermia Druitt is rediscovered one day in the archives. As Mathilda goes on a hunt to find out more about this elusive figure, a kaleidoscope of aesthetic joy ensues. Mathilda, we are told, is one of the Arcadian types: those with an “inclination towards historicised fragments”, but not one infected with the more insidious forms of history-worship. Instead, as she explains, “I would not get thrown off track: I could rove over the past and seek out that lost detail to contribute to the great constitution: exhume a dead beautiful feeling, discover a wisp of radical attitude pickled since antiquity, revive revolutionary but lustrous sensibilities long perished”. This series likewise wants to use the past in new and unexpected ways, that trans the archive and queer the record.
Join us to celebrate the dazzle of the b a r o q u e!
Send your creative and critical writing, audio recordings, films, art work and reviews to Frankie Dytor, guest editor of b a r o q u e, dytorfrankie[at]gmail.com
Submissions open 3rd June. For more information and for review titles see the full Call Out here.
Feature image is courtesy of So Mayer. Lucy Writers would like to express their extreme thanks to Frankie Dytor and So Mayer for this interview.