When I read Janice Lee’s novel Imagine a Death and Brenda Iijima’s book of poems Bionic Communality, I am awkward. I grope. I fidget. I wonder how to move. I must grow new limbs, new tails. I find myself entering the space of the flail. In their 2018 article “Genre Flailing,” Lauren Berlant describes the circumstance when any endeavor, such as events, literary criticism, politics, or experimental writing, fails to sustain value for those invested in it. The value of such endeavors or objects of desire becomes unstable: “Genre flailing is a mode of crisis management that arises after an object, or an object in the world, becomes disturbed in a way that intrudes upon one’s confidence about how to move in it.” But if experimental writing with liberatory desires, like Lee’s and Iijima’s, is already playing with genre, already committed to disorientation and estrangement, how can such work be enacting a genre flail? Isn’t that a double negative? Instability and indeterminacy are already the tools of the trade in any number of avant-gardes! Perhaps, the flail pivots on the question of whether any writing, experimental or not, can tackle the ongoing pile-up of crises of our contemporary moment: environmental devastation, gendered and racialized violence, the feeling of end-times. What merges and emerges—experientially—out of a perpetual state of emergency? In sensorial fashion, Lee’s and Iijima’s recent books ask whether writing can proceed with confidence or authority in the throes of crises too big to manage, or even imagine as real. Both works feature characters and speakers in a state of perpetual self-questioning as they experiment with alternative ways to move in worlds made precarious by human impacts.
Imagine a Death and Bionic Communality participate in “the flail” by demonstrating, affectively, the experience of awkwardness in awkwardness, disorientation in disorientation. Innovation cannot simply revel in its newness or associations with progress, but must, by necessity, embrace the clumsy, the awkward, the maladaptive, the intractable. Berlant’s figure of the genre flail allows us to view contemporary experimental writing as a humble endeavor, which does not peremptorily renounce subjectivity or the lyric “I,” but instead articulates fumbling human subjectivities at the moment of impasse. In Lee’s and Iijima’s work, the objects that create disturbance in the world are, to use Caribbean critic Sylvia Wynter’s words, the dominant “genre modes of being human,” which divorce human lifeworlds from other beings—plants, animals, microorganisms. In Bionic Communality, Iijima describes the dominant human mode as “the conventions of the autonomous body,” the individual as a heroic agent. This mode of being human is reproduced in various aesthetic genres, such as movies, literary novels, poems, and memoirs, and governs viewers’ and readers’ expectations about what a home is, what a family is, and what a human is. Iijima problematizes both this mode and readers’ expectations in regards to female desire and gendered dynamics. In The Female Complaint (2008), Berlant calls genre “the nameable aspiration for discursive order.” To be competent at reading genre, Berlant explains, whether women’s sentimental fiction or situation comedy, is “to be cultivated as a kind of subject,” affiliated with a larger social and national order. The genre flail happens when faith in that order fails. Yet even if experimental writing ruptures genre and questions conventional social order, it may still imply a shadow faith in social and institutional order, if only in the belief that this order can change.
In Side Effects, British psychotherapist Adam Phillips suggests that every genre is ghostwritten by the genres it excludes. What, then, haunts the experimental genre flail? The hardening and immobility of convention, the constant undertow of normative genre and gender expectations that experimental works resist can nevertheless be reasserted in such things as reviews. These works by Lee and Iijima, or any experimental work, could be redescribed in the conventional genre terms they exclude, and often are in the genre of the blurb. For instance, I could summarize Iijima’s book, thus: a city woman goes back to her hometown to care for her father after a devastating car accident and by helping him, finds a way to commune with her lost girlhood home. Or Lee’s book: a group of three lonely neighbors—a writer, a photographer, and a retired man—meditate on the purpose of art, love, and kinship and briefly connect in the midst of an epic national disaster. Such Hollywood synopses tell a reader very little about living in the world of these books. Nevertheless, their speakers and characters seem disturbed and haunted by just such redemptive narrative scenarios. For instance, Imagine a Death opens with a multi-page sentence in which the writer character exhorts herself and the reader to “Imagine a death, which really occurs . . . when the imagined deaths in movies are so easy to digest, as the scene of the decapitation of a lovely maiden, this fictitious and choreographed scene that is designed to induce tears and empathy, and without fail you are bawling.” Would it be better, after all, to stop writing, Lee asks, “knowing readers love sentimentality”?
Despite its dystopian setting in a near-future U.S. city, the calamitous events in Imagine a Death are presented as ordinary, not full of suspense or shocks, even as the birds fall from the sky in a weird suicidal fashion like some scene from a Hitchcock film. In trying to approach the genre-play in Lee’s novel, I, too, flail. Is it philosophical-horror, Proustian-futurism, interspecies-metaphysics? The book is divided into chapters with titles that name the three recurring human characters—the writer, the photographer, the old man—interspersed with other chapters titled “The Birds,” “The Fire,” “The Whales,” told through the highly speculative consciousness of non-human characters. The fire and the whales are just as philosophically self-reflective as the old man, the photographer, and the young writer whose narratives open the book. The novel reveals that the writer was orphaned at age nine. As an adult, she continues to mourn her immigrant mother who comes “from a land faraway,” and who describes the writer’s absent father as “just another cruel white man.” Impaled by a shard of metal falling from the sky, her mother is an uncanny presence in the writer’s consciousness, but her death feels less like a freak occurrence than another symptom of everyday horror. For the writer, domesticity has been folded into ecological disaster:
the rim that marked the edge between exclusion and domesticity was deteriorating into itself, and . . . the smell she had woken to was not the smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen but the smell of thousands of trees burning from a wildfire that had already consumed four thousand acres during the night.
The routine nature of disaster has the writer constantly querying the utility of her own artistic practices: “We shouldn’t normalize the chaos, some might respond, so the greyness is easier to handle.” Yet her editor counsels her to attend a literary dinner “which would help her work be in better dialogue with the conditions of the world,” or at least with other humans. But other humans, such as the photographer, a brief failed love-interest, offer little consolation for a world on fire. Later, the writer comes “to see the sentence itself as a colonialist structure,” but nevertheless thinks “that perhaps these long sentences might be something she could give the reader, something they didn’t need but would receive anyways, like a gift, like listening, or something like it.” This self-consciousness and observational acuity envelop all the characters in the writer’s metaphysical uber-imaginary; the long sentences perform minute characterizations of gestures, thoughts, tics, and habits, as if to demonstrate the painful process of flailing.
Each character scrapes against the rubble of their own body schema and consciousness—which are mostly isolated for the human characters. The old man, representing a desiccated Western epistemology, compulsively organizes his spices, his books, and even his old prescription eyeglasses to cope with his grief. He seeks to “constantly refine various and more efficient methods of archiving, of organizing information, of categorizing, of understanding, of studying, of existing, and therefore, of becoming.” But in the failure of his monkish, scholastic bent, which is akin to a form of hoarding, he gropes toward another, more difficult alternative: “to listen and feel with his entire body to learn to attune himself with the immediate surroundings.” Lee’s human characters engage with each other in what Berlant calls a type of “humorlessness,” a lack of openness and warmth involving “the encounter with a fundamental intractability in oneself and in others.” There are no shared genres through which the different humans can understand each other in the ongoing crisis (e.g., man against nature, the underdog). They approach each other with remove, judgment, and irony. Only animals—stray cats, birds, pet dogs—and trees seem to offer any sense of empathic mutuality for the novel’s human characters, allowing them to realize for “just one moment, what it is to be a body without a world.”
The speculations of the birds, the whales, and the trees form a more collective sensorium of interactions in a world that is equal and adjacent to the world of the human characters. These chapters, which channel alternative organizations of non-human consciousness, do not feel like a mere anthropomorphizing gesture on Lee’s part. The affiliated subjectivities of different life forms expand the “becoming” of the writer, the photographer, and the old man, bleeding into the movements of their consciousness. Here, Lee seeks kinship models beyond the dominant national genre that centers human individualism and persists in racist, sexist, and classist worldviews that are harmful to a majority of humans and non-humans. Lee most fully encapsulates Berlant’s genre flail by insisting that it is not enough to merely describe the problem: to write. Human activity, such as writing—an intense object of attachment for the writer—might be insufficient in itself to forge another type of relationship to non-humans, much less humans. Yet the writer persists in writing. In Staying with the Trouble, critic Donna Haraway proposes “tentacular thinking,” which hinges on symbiosis with critters and other forms of life, as an alternative to anthropocentric thinking. It is one thing to propose such types of speculation; it is another to enact such thinking in daily life where the lures and pressures of being social, making a living, and buying stuff fuel our pleasures and desires. Lee questions how to reroute the circuits of desire when, to quote Iijima, “we are capital’s pets.”
Like Lee, Iijima persists in a poetics of the flail, which at times takes on the attribute of a command or set of instructions to not reproduce U.S. settler-colonialist genre forms, which, after all, may erupt at any time from the unconscious. She commands herself to: “regurgitate not the story or what is latent in the story // find circulatory systems, nerve routes.” If the speaker in Bionic Communality is aware that “being white no one shoots me outright,” she is equally conscious that her surface “epidermal” knowledge cannot exorcize her latent racism or linguistically encoded bias, despite her self-imperatives. In this sense, the speaker “can’t mastermind the everything,” cannot be entirely confident that her pronouncement that “a bionic relationship rebuilds the world” will succeed, even though she commits to trying. The emphasis of bionic in the title does not just refer to an artificial or electromechanical limb as a prosthetic, but also to the electrical biological processes of communication between nerves, cells, and synapses throughout the nervous system. The book takes on the shape of a long poem composed in clusters of irregular stanzas, which pays special attention to sound and contains many unpunctuated, end-stopped lines, as if modeled off the nervous system of a body out of place, a body as “a prosthetic outside”:
In survivalist bug out far from normal normal
normal like genre or home, hormonal
homey homily stripes and stars
concussive equidistant clusters, mighty quasars
shun the curb, but to look back, technically Orpheus
or another symmetry group
the hazard of running or being wrong
the wrong race, class, gender
In the afterword, Iijima explains that the text is “a choreographic account” of non-normative movements that she performed when she returned to her hometown in North Adams, Massachusetts, to take care of her father, who was disabled in a car accident. She improvises an awkward “dance lexicon,” which started as a means of communicating with her father and continues as a series of somatic performances on the streets of the town, in graveyards, toxic waste dumps, municipal buildings, and forests. She writes that “[g]ender trouble asserts itself,” as she dances as a wolf/human hybrid wearing an XXL men’s tee shirt printed with a wolf icon—highlighting the absurdity and incongruity of her actions on quiet residential streets: “hello – I’m dancing, don’t be alarmed / hello – this is a dance, outcome unknown.” As a wolf, she states, “I am no more savage than your sister / canus dirus.” The speaker performs “flailing” motions as she remembers young women from her hometown who were murdered in a spate of unsolved crimes during her youth. She is “technically” Orpheus, performing a dance of dismemberment as she struggles to experience their presence in the forest’s decay: “rotting matter and body flailing means come on persistence I die here.” What also haunts the speaker is a Hollywood version of these crimes, Silence of the Lambs. But Iijima’s speaker will not enter into the detective story, become Clarice, and solve the crime. She refuses “Hannibal Lectors, your wanton eyes, a crucible of narcissistic /
outboarding . . .” as she wills herself to “go into the dead girl’s frame of reference and become myself / within her ecosystem which is our economy.”
Iijima’s speaker literally flails to reorganize the various Western genres of the human: “as the subject flails / goes around to make a point about / a future tense that congeals in embassy light.” The speaker flails in order to be “reassembled by multicellular and unicellular organisms / the tiniest beings [that]embody the person.” The speaker flails to awaken her sense of what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls implicit intelligence, the substrate of proto-consciousness that humans share with the microorganisms that make up the networks of every bodily function in every part of the life cycle. The speaker flails in “the sprawling carceral state” in which all bodies are surveilled within the infrastructure of municipal buildings, prisons, and homes. She does this dance without the hope that any human onlookers will join her, or even see her as anything other than an inconvenient spectacle.
Iijima’s practice calls up philosopher Catherine Malabou’s work on brain plasticity and metaphysics. Malabou conceptualizes subjectivity as potentially supple and flexible. After an injury, for example, the brain is sometimes able to compensate and recruit other parts of the neural orchestra to regain function. We are also able to strengthen certain neural networks in the brain through novel actions. The brain—and hence consciousness—is always being affected and transformed epigenetically from contingent encounters. For Iijima, normative U.S. consciousness is injured. U.S. residents, therefore, need to generate alternative mappings and repair broken linkages to other lifeforms in order to heal themselves. The daughter’s expected mode of care for her father—“without shame”—must extend to other organisms with equal abandon.
But Iijima writes an extraordinary poem of “semantical locomotion” without faith in poetry or writing. As she continues in her afterword: “I became convinced that we could say everything we need to with our bodies, sans, for example, English, a tainted tool of colonization and now globalization that has ushered in hardship and violence at every turn.” For Iijima, poetry is at wit’s end, and yet she continues writing poetry, much like the character of the writer in Lee’s work continues to grapple with the form of the sentence and the genre of the novel. In the ethics of Lee’s and Iijima’s works, the improvisatory process of writing becomes more important than hardening the book into a legible genre form, as seductive as those forms might be. Berlant writes that we “genre flail so that we don’t fall through the cracks of heightened affective noise into despair, suicide, or psychosis. We improvise like crazy, where ‘like crazy’ is a little too non-metaphorical.” Experimentation is not enough, but it is something—an action.
If Audre Lorde’s proposition in the title of her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” continues to haunt writers such as Lee and Iijima, maybe the only option is to flail, to throw everything at the problem, as Berlant might say—the body’s ineloquence, the obstreperous endless sentence, the lack of faith itself—when the problem is our received ways of being in the world. Maybe that collective expression of fierce disappointment makes the injury of contemporary modes of consciousness visible. But it also demonstrates that the master’s house is crumbling, showing the cracks, and might take everyone down with it. As for now, works like Lee’s and Iijima’s dance in those cracks and create alternative, improvisational architectures.
*An essay-review of
Imagine a Death. By Janice Lee. Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press, 2021. 238 pp. $21.95, paper.
Bionic Communality. By Brenda Iijima. New York, NY: Roof Books, 2021. 150 pp. $20.00, paper.