(This is a truncated and edited transcript of a lecture I gave on 3 Oct 2020, as part of the Writing & Concepts program. You can view the lecture, conducted by Zoom, here.

This talk was written after Brian Castro’s essay ‘Eight Chinese Lessons’, and covers some themes I broach in my writing practice and book-in-progress, an essay collection provisionally titled Peripathetic: Notes on (Un)belonging.)

 

Connection (aka being extremely online)

I found home through the internet – in fact, my whole life is indebted to the internet. I don’t mean that figuratively. Soon after finishing school at nineteen, I got myself a job working in a cybercafe. Besides connecting customers to their computers, there was nothing else to do. It was my entryway to becoming extremely online, which saw me spending an inordinate amount of time on the internet – something like twelve hours a day, six days a week.

It was through being extremely online that I found DIY culture and punk. I like to joke that it’s my weird religion, and while I have a certain amount of scepticism towards it now, its overarching ethos continues to shape my life. Growing up a lonely, alienated child in Singapore, this discovery was crucial. I don’t know if I’d still be alive if I hadn’t made it. More than that, the twin poles of online connection and the punk subculture gave me a language to understand myself and the world in a way that I could not possibly have through traditional systems and institutions, which were out of reach for me in the first place.

This idea of connection continues to serve as an exegesis for my work. I eventuated a creative practice through digital networks – which I must note, is not the same as ‘networking’. For me, online connection fed (and still feeds) a hunger for community via a love of ephemera unburdened by the weight of expectation and respectability. To an outsider’s eye, it can seem like ‘a pastiche of bullshit’.

Recently, someone asked me how the existence of the internet has shaped and permeated my work, and I concluded that they are inextricable. I have an intertextual relationship with the internet: my writing practice could not have existed without it, as much as I could not have grown as a person without it. Even if I’m not directly addressing online-ness in my work, I’m always in conversation with it – whether that’s through pirated PDFs of scholarly work, memes, or how culture is shaped by online-ness, in terms of algorithmic activity or how we use social media to express ourselves. One way to put it would be what Julietta Singh writes in Unthinking Mastery, about beginning to

exile ourselves from feeling comfortable at home (which so often involves opaque forms of mastery), turning instead toward forms of queer dispossession that reach for different ways of inhabiting our scholarly domains – and more primordially, of inhabiting ourselves.

Through unlearning mastery, I find home in not belonging.

The internet was always meant to be a corporate playground, even before Big Tech’s grip became more apparent. Capital moves through the panopticon, and in dialogue with it, I become a part of capital. The threat of co-option is always present.

 

The hyperreal

What do I mean when I refer to the ‘hyperreal’? On the surface, it’s a term borrowed from Jean Baudrillard, which he defines in Simulacra and Simulation as ‘a real without origin or reality’. In other words, it’s something so decontextualised that its origins become murky. An example would be when people quote random shit online and it seems meaningful and profound, until one actually takes the time to look at the original text. Terms such as ‘self-care’ and ‘intersectionality’ fall within this sphere: we see them laundered through the spin-cycle of culture until nothing is left.

As someone writing in these times, I feel as though I’m always writing against the hyperreal, while simultaneously existing within it. As Mark Fisher wrote: ‘a moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism.’ So does a critique of or exploration into the hyperreal reinforce the hyperreal? It seems so from my vantage point, at least in terms of capital subsuming whatever you produce into its mechanisms, for it to be spat out once more.

Of course, it’s easy to denounce the futility of that, where one is tempted to say ‘what’s the point?’ But instead of circling the ouroboric nature of the hyperreal, I want to be able to join past and present together and think about how a future self will judge me. Using José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of ‘queering time’, so to speak, because time is a colonial concept to begin with. In Cruising Utopia, he notes: ‘The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.’ Which is why, in my writing, I never want to forget the thinkers and artists before me, and also why I believe that no idea is ‘new’ per se. I’m not trying to be ‘the first’ to create something because that’s ahistorical; the obsession with the ‘lone genius’ is ahistorical.

The more digging I do, the more I find people who have created work that speaks to my work in some way – which I like to refer to as ‘the chaos magick of knowledge’. I want to be able to glimpse that ‘then and there’, to dream and create a future that does not rest on binaries, which seems more poignant in a time of ‘no future’.

 

Authenticity

One major binary I encounter is ‘authenticity’. There is a cultural obsession with authenticity that seems to occupy a universal space. Perhaps this obsession comes from moralism, and perhaps this is why the idea of ‘authenticity’ is all-encompassing – the idea that what’s ‘real’ is sacred, and what’s ‘fake’ is a crime. When you think about ‘authenticity’, place and time goes out the window. Society pursues authenticity most visibly through food and identity, whether that means cultural identity or identity on social media.

So it’s this tension between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that I’m also always thinking about in my work. And I think due to the fact of my not having led a linear path in life, ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ never feels that clear-cut. Which may sound bad to some people.

In my work, especially as I only write non-fiction, the sense of pursuing an ‘authentic’ self seems omnipresent, and even highly regarded in certain circles. In non-fiction, one is not traditionally supposed to make things up or lie about their life, but there is also this to consider: when you write ‘the real’, it’s already ‘false’ as soon as it’s on the page. Then it becomes real again.

Moreover, there’s the long-flogged question of memory: how can you trust yourself to recall things from the past and then depict it accurately? And when you include the internet in this equation, the shape of memory changes again. I’ve explored this in a previous essay, and I’ve also played with this idea of authenticity while thinking through digital piracy, copyright and intellectual property in what was termed a ‘fictive non-fiction essay’.  

By deliberately pointing out these contradictions, I maintain that the real contradiction is this: authenticity is a fallacy. This feels particularly pertinent in an era of ‘fake news’, and in an era where our sense of what’s considered ‘reality’ is often brought into question. ‘Globalisation’, while a flawed concept, has also undeniably resulted in an even starker blurring of boundaries. So instead of drawing firm lines between what’s ‘real’ or ‘fake’, I want to keep troubling it. Annihilating the border, so to speak.

 

Opacity

On the subject of border annihilation, I will briefly mention how I broach opacity in my work. This is influenced by Édouard Glissant, whose theory of opacity has guided the way I think about my practice.

In 1969, at a congress at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Glissant asked:

Why must we evaluate people on the scale of the transparency of ideas proposed by the west? … As far as I’m concerned, a person has the right to be opaque. That doesn’t stop me from liking that person, it doesn’t stop me from working with him, hanging out with him, etc.

Two decades later, he expanded further on this question in Poetics of Relation, where he rejected the western requirement for transparency by suggesting a kind of unknowability that doesn’t hinge on a constant need for explanation. Being opaque, then, would mean that the grounds for acceptance would be cut off from the obsession to label and classify.

In 2020, calls for transparency seem even more relentless. I think – especially with the internet – there’s a renewed need to be transparent: in terms of what we’re doing, what we’re thinking. This pressure to be transparent appears even more acute for those on the margins; if you’re easily understood, then you become more visible. Which comes back to the demand for straightforward memoirs, books that outline a journey of a marginalised someone from childhood to adulthood, and which show clearly what it is that they are oppressed for, their anguishes, etc.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these stories. But I want to explore the possibilities of opacity as well. If people who are considered conventional can be vague or ambiguous – which of course comes from that flawed idea of ‘universality’ – then I also have nothing to prove. This seems particularly important in an age of surveillance where co-option is rampant; I want to be afforded the luxury of ambiguity. If you get it, you get it; and if you don’t, then, sorry I guess it’s not for you. I don’t claim to understand all the writing and art out there.

As such, opacity is something I’d like to achieve in my practice. Or as, another one of my philosophical daddies, Byung-Chul Han, writes in The Transparency Society: ‘Anesthetic hypercommunication reduces complexity in order to accelerate itself.’

 

(Un)belonging

To refer to what I was saying before about punk teaching me the idea of borderlessness–despite having critiques of it now – is that it generally revolves around a North American (and to a lesser extent, British) way of thinking and being. However, it’s irrefutable that I learnt about borderlessness through punk itself.

When I bring up borderlessness in the context of my work, it’s connected to internationalism. And while talk of ‘globalisation’ is common in recent times – especially due to increased migration and movement, not to mention the internet – I’m not advocating a type of United Nations-esque ‘colour-blind’ sameness. What I refer to as borderlessness is related to the feeling of unbelonging, of wanting to step past the idea of the nation-state – which historian Benedict Anderson has referred to as ‘imagined communities’.

This section was the hardest to write. And I think that’s because when you think about belonging and unbelonging, one bleeds into the other. It has preoccupied swathes of writers and artists since forever: Homi Bhabha thinks about ‘unhomeliness’. It’s a recurring theme in Chekhov’s work. Of course, I’m just scratching the surface here.

The tension between ‘belonging’ and ‘unbelonging’ resembles the tension between ‘normal’ and ‘weird’, which I’ve written about before. To recognise one is to recognise the other, and to invalidate one is to invalidate the other – they can’t exist in isolation. And it’s even more knotty to think about when you think about it alongside individualism: insofar that by singling yourself out as an ‘excluded’ person in this context is to exceptionalise it.

Edward Said has written about this: in his essay ‘Reflections on Exile’, he wrote that ‘clutching difference like a weapon to be used with stiffened will, the exile jealously insists on their right to refuse to belong.’ Dionne Brand also expressed something similar in A Map to the Door of No Return: ‘to feel the strange intimacy of coveted estrangement.’

A delicate dance emerges out of this dialectic. Which relates back to my previous point on opacity, bringing me to ask: how to strive for a kind of invisibility that stems from being so inconsequential that one’s oddities are taken for granted, but yet refuses to allow for hierarchy? I want to challenge how I am excluded, but this does not preclude questioning the spaces that welcome my presence. Coming as someone who experiences both, and putting a microscope under this desire to belong and unbelong, I want to keep hacking away at this tension.

 

Truth/representation

Now we arrive at my final point, which I’ve touched on at the beginning: this idea of ‘truth’. But here I want to connect ‘truth’ to representation, in how when something is represented through the act of observation, it then confirms its existence as complete and true. Yet these observations are always tied to the difficult work of informing the world we inhabit – which in the context of the internet, also means our ‘filter bubbles’ – while also noticing that pretense, inaccuracy and other contexts are always coming up against it.

When I mention ‘representation’, I’m also thinking about representation in terms of so-called ‘minority representation’, which I’ve written about in the past. At the same time, I want to be very careful when I critique representation, due to the fact that I didn’t experience racialised exclusion until I was an adult. What I’ve found useful when thinking about this is something that poet Rabih Alameddine once wrote in his essay ‘Comforting Myths’:

What I’m saying is that there is more other, scarier other, translated other, untranslatable other, the utterly strange other, the other who can’t stand you. Those of us allowed to speak are the tip of the iceberg. We are the cute other.

Circling back to belonging and unbelonging, this is about creating work that has no interest in enjoying belonging at the expense of someone else. Not so much speaking truth to power – but dismantling and decentring that power. A power that is then re-distributed.

This may sound idealistic to some, but idealism has always guided me, as has Donna Haraway’s idea of ‘staying with the trouble’. It’s akin to when José Esteban Muñoz calls queerness ‘that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.’ What is the missing thing? It’s not necessarily a lack. I think when you imagine missing things within a capitalist framework, such as a hole that needs to be filled, you think about something not being ‘enough’. Here, I’d also like to bring up something that Alison Whittaker said in a conversation in 2017, ‘it’s about making something you can bark back at.’ Which I think is a good way of ending this talk.

 

Image by Jr Korpa

Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an editor, essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books and Runway Journal, among others. She is the reviews editor at Meanjin, an editor at Liminal Magazine and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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