In Conversation with Jordy Rosenberg

Jordy Rosenberg is the author of Confessions of the Fox (2018), a novel that re-tells the story of Jack Sheppard, a famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker who, in Confessions, is trans. The book is also the story of Jack’s lover, Edgeworth Bess, who in the novel is named Bess Kahn, and of the fictional academic, Dr. Voth, who by chance discovers an unknown manuscript of Jack’s ‘confessions’. Together the found manuscript and Dr. Voth’s footnoted annotations create a formally innovative novel, combining fiction, metafiction, critical theory and archival sources. Rosenberg is also a Professor of 18th-Century Literature, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Critical Theory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

A reading from Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Jordy Rosenberg in conversation with Honor Gavin

On 20 May 2020, Rosenberg was in virtual conversation with Honor Gavin from the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. We offer here an abridged transcription of the recording, with some indicative headings to signal its main subjects and topics. 

(c) Beowulf Sheehan

On the Archive

HG: My first question is in relation to the theme of this year’s Sexuality Summer School, ‘Queering the Archive’. Confessions of the Fox emerges as a manuscript recovered from a University library book sale; the novel’s final image is of a very different library, with ‘soaring walls of chitin, spiderweb and glass’ flashing ‘red in the setting sun’ (p.316). The book is also then appended by a list of ‘Resources’ in bibliographical form. Could you begin by speaking about these various versions of the archive in Confessions, and perhaps about how and in what ways an archive shifts, or otherwise, depending on whether it is approached either critically or creatively? 

JR: I like to think about the temporal and spatial compressions in [Confessions] – where you have the footnotes at the bottom of the page that are taking place in the present, and then the body of the text that’s purportedly taking place in the eighteenth century, and then also the resources section which is taking place in another kind of present – as creating a series of portals. That question of the archive as a portal or a paratext, rather than as the archive as such, was maybe more what I was interested in. The question of being provoked – that Benjaminian sense of something from the past flashing up in the present.

[…] [But] the issue of the archive was more of an irritant to the project, in the sense of a grain of sand that got stuck, and which produces something else that is generative but not necessarily in a comfortable way. Part of the problem, I think, is that a lot of trans writers and trans novelists feel a kind of pressure to produce either a contemporary archive or engage with existing archives to produce some kind of history of transness. And I’m neither a historian of transness nor a theorist of the archive, so neither of those things was something I was going to be able to do. 

…the issue of the archive was more of an irritant to the project, in the sense of a grain of sand that got stuck, and which produces something else that is generative but not necessarily in a comfortable way.

Jordy Rosenberg

I also felt stuck in terms of what I felt was a polarity in queer studies or approaches to sexuality at the time I was writing [Confessions], which really started in 2010. As far as I understood it, there were two main contradictory orientations in approaches to sexuality: one was seeing sexuality as a form of deviance, but ontologically so; and then sexuality as a modality of state power. To put it another way: sexuality as a site of discipline and control, or sexuality as a kind of germ seed of chance and contingency. To me this was the result of divergent opinion in the field as to what sexuality as an object of study is. This is a reduction on my part, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll say that we could bookmark this split around a Foucauldian trajectory which sees sexuality as a vector as power, and a new materialist orientation towards sexuality, especially transsexuality, as something that involves a hopeful embrace of trans as a kind of ur-vitalism.

This is something a colleague and friend of mine Kadji Amin and I were talking about a lot at the time I was writing. Kadji describes transness as sometimes being embraced in trans studies as a primary vitality underlying all of being and life – a kind of ahistorical, pre-ontological force. There’s this tendency to want to exempt transness from history, or at least from the balefulness, or the more unsavoury aspects, of history. Kadji points out there’s a real tension there between wanting to see transness as prior to power, and then the Foucauldian understanding of vitality and vitalism as produced by biopower. And so I was having a hard time finding out how to do queer studies within that framework, and I couldn’t figure out a way to academically intervene. 

In a way, I did want to do some of the Foucauldian work of not exempting transness from the balefulness of history, and so [in Confessions] I was trying to attach transness to questions of the birth of biopolitics and of the modern Western medical tradition – and that takes place at the level of plot in the book. But I also wanted to leave a place for a utopian urge that, with some exceptions, hasn’t really had an easy time in queer studies, and that has to do with a utopian Marxist tradition which has historically seen sexuality as naming a node within the field of reproduction and the affective, psychic and embodied life of the subject, or sexuality as naming the intersection of the field of collective action with that of state power and the juridical. So for me the Marxist trajectory – not that this has always been well-articulated within Marxism; it’s taken a lot of queer and feminist scholars to bring this out – can see sexuality as potentially marking a site of active contestation with the state and with capital and reproductive accumulative logic. I wanted to neither go the vitalist tradition nor a strictly Foucauldian tradition, but to write a text that would open a place for thinking through some of the dynamics of sexuality as a mode of conflict and contestation.

There’s this tendency to want to exempt transness from history, or at least from the balefulness, or the more unsavoury aspects, of history.

Jordy Rosenberg

A lot of queer scholars hold on to the idea of sexuality as a/the site of chance and contingency. That’s fine, but I wanted to specify what that means historically and politically. The angle that I wanted to take in the book was, in a way, this Althusserian line around the materialism of the encounter – so trying to figure out what’s the relationship between dispossession and chance. […] One of the best-known encounters with this question of an intersection of Marxist and Foucauldian approaches is Kevin Floyd’s book The Reification of Desire, which looks at sexuality within a frame of regimes of accumulation. […] But what would then be a properly materialist account of chance, the element of chance that exists within sexuality, when we’re talking about the history of the violence of the medical profession? To bring it back to the question of the archive: I guess all of this ranges around the question of the archive as a contingent encounter – that eruption of the past into the present, and the portals of the past into the present at the level of plot and structure in Confessions.

A lot of queer scholars hold on to the idea of sexuality as a/the site of chance and contingency. That’s fine, but I wanted to specify what that means historically and politically.

Jordy Rosenberg

On Genre, Form and Affect 

HG: I’m fascinated by the ways in which Confessions refracts genres, and how this seems intrinsic to the story of transness that it tells. You’ve spoken already about the novel’s paratextual elements as kinds of portals, which is suggestive of the role of the speculative in the novel, or of the role of Science Fiction tropes. Cues like the ‘prismatic’ postindustrial landscape and ‘crystal trails’ mentioned in the Dr Voth’s Forward make me think, in particular, of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975), with its shifting setting – the two-mooned city of Bellona – and the character of the Kid, who becomes a poet by writing in a notebook that’s already been written in, perhaps akin to the Editor of Confessions. You’ve written about Delany, I know. How have you learnt from his work? And how do questions of genre become significant in connection to transness?

JR: Maybe it’s helpful to go back to what I remember being the first thing that I loved about Delany – I’m remembering a 1992 edition of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. It was the first Delany that I read, and this edition had a very low-budget cover; it was a black and white cover, very unexceptional looking, almost like a mimeographed shot of outer-space – it looked like anywheres-ville outerspace. It wasn’t a giant exploding nebula. It was like you were driving along a country highway and you stop at a gas station and you see outer-space, and I really loved the way that Delany paired space opera with what Darieck Scott describes as ‘extravagant abjection’. It has to do with the way in which queer bodilyness, or what is sometimes described as queer abjection, shows up in the airy expanses of outer-space. It seems impossible – these two things are not supposed to go together. 

So there was something about this pairing of space opera and the queer body in Delany – you’ve got these interstellar expanses and the gleaming, far-futural neon lustre of space, and it’s always permeated and centred on and coming back to this always seemingly impossible thing of the body that’s always shedding muck, and effluvia, and waste products, and excess. That excited me on a really deep level – and it was also this collision of genre. Reading that book – really reading all of Delany’s work – you can only begin to give an account of it; but what you come to understand is that it’s giving an account of you. You don’t even maybe understand that account, but you know that that’s what’s happening. Those collisions were things I had in mind when trying to write [Confessions], but completely inimitably. 

HG: One thing that for me has been really helpful from Delany has been the idea of ‘subjunctivity’ that he develops in the essay ‘About 5,750 Words,’ where he says that the difference between genres is not a matter of content – the preponderance or otherwise of space-ships – but of language, of the ways in which words refer and take on meaning, or of the ‘tension on the thread of meaning’ between words and between words and their referents, a tension which produces the ‘mood’ of a text in relation to its sense of reality (this could have happened, this could happen in the future). Once you start thinking about genre in this way it’s very generative. 

JR: I totally agree. It’s not that one cannot take something from workmanly craft discussions of genre – and I think one should, and I probably should have more – but I also get influenced by analytical accounts of what genre is, and try to write towards them. Fredric Jameson has this obsession with Raymond Carver, the hardboiled noir writer. He talks about something he took from Carver, where Carver’s talking about how everybody thinks noir is the elements – there’s got to be a murder; there’s got to be a femme fatale – but really what it’s about is arranging the elements of language in a certain way to produce a certain affect in the reader. I really do like thinking about genre as this intersection of form and affect, and of the production of affect through form.

On Desire, Identity and ‘Gender as Accumulation Strategy’*

*Title of an essay by Kay Gabriel in Invert (May 2020)

HG: So something else I wanted to ask you was about the relation between desire and identity in Confessions. It seems to me that there’s a kind of insistence on the inseparability of desire and identity. I was thinking about something Andrea Long Chu wrote in ‘On Liking Women’, where she talks about transition expressing ‘not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire’ – and I was wondering what you’d say about Confessions in relationship to that?

JR: I think the first thing to say about Andrea Long Chu’s essay is that it hit like a meteor with a lot of people, including me, because it lifted some of what felt like prohibitions around talking about desire and transness. It’s true that the writing of Confessions – and I appreciate you bringing this together – did come out of feelings of desire and identity having been at least for me – and this is a personal thing – the leading edge of thinking gender, for myself. […] I didn’t need to work it out analytically because it was a novel – I could just write from a space that was very directed around how desire shapes gender identity, personally. 

But I think Andrea’s intervention there has been really important. There’s another recent piece that just come out which engages with Andrea’s work in ways that I find very compelling and sympathetic, and that’s an essay by the poet and theorist Kay Gabriel in the UK journal Invert – it’s called ‘Gender as Accumulation Strategy.’ This essay is phenomenal to me. Let’s say on a certain level the essay begins with saying, okay, Andrea Long Chu’s intervention is good, because it’s part of this psychoanalytic trend around making explicit the role that fantasy has in subject-formation, in a way that’s universal from a psychoanalytic point of view. But there’s something that Kay Gabriel brings out that has to do with a question I was also very concerned with in Confessions, [which is] this question around reproductive labour and transness. Kay wants to talk about the ways in which sex work is inextricable from the formation of trans identity as such, and struggles around access to hormones as a form of labour rights. I think the idea of bringing together desire/pleasure and this history around sex work is really critical. Kay [talks about] how the history of transsexuality is the history of sex work and how this helps point towards two critical insights – and I’m only going to talk about the first one:  in ‘transsexuals, capital,’ she says, ‘discovers a reserve category of disposable reproductive labour in the form of sex work’. That is something I was thinking about [in Confessions], because I was trying to think about not so much the histories of trans as the pre-histories of trans, and to that extent I think to me the character of Bess is more relevant on a certain level to thinking about the history of transness even more than Jack is.

Kay is also in this really beautiful way working with Fredric Jameson – she talks about pleasure as a kind of concession to embodied life, where we concede that we are embodied and that we live embodied lives, and of transness as a demand for autonomy over pleasure, and as a set of demands coming out of the history of sex work. And I think that double-pronged specification and universalization is really important.

On Memoir, Autofiction and Fictions of Self-Management

HG: So I guess then I have a question about memoir. We’ve mentioned Chu’s ‘On Liking Women’, but I was also thinking about Females and the way it interpolates memoir into theory, perhaps in ways we could think about alongside what Confessions is doing. So I was wondering if you had thoughts about that in relation to thinking about Confessions as a memoir – in oblique as well as manifest ways? 

JR: As an aside I’ll say I have questions, in regard to the rise of memoir and autofiction, about the remaindering of the question of autobiography. We don’t use that word so much anymore and it feels very stodgy. But I was reading Stuart Hall’s memoir and this is a paraphrase but at one point he is describing his own resistance to writing autobiography, and then what seems to push him over the edge is taking a birds-eye view of where his life stands in relation to history – what historical forces intersected to produce him in the particular subjective position that he was in. So as a category I wonder what has become of autobiography, because it so much more demands that one includes the question of history and one’s relation to it.

[…] But again I have a scholarly interest in the pre-history of contemporary forms of autofiction and what I see as two things: fictions of self-management (I think questions of autofiction intersect with fictions of self-management), which also intersect with questions of trans or gender self-management, as opposed to gender as a form of accumulation; but it also goes back to this question of the allegorical, or the waning of the allegorical – or what I think I would like to see as a question of the/an aesthetics of non-form in the present. Or the appearance of non-form. I’m interested in the longue durée of literary excess or the anti-figural residua that don’t make it into allegory, and what is the long history of that into the present. […] There is the question of the anti-figural remainder that maybe takes the form of autofiction now, and I’m curious about the early modern roots of those questions.

HG: Some of these questions around autofiction make me think about questions of naming. I’m thinking again here of Chu’s Females and the way that text ends – ‘Fifty years later, Valerie [Solanas] shot Andy again […]’ It’s an ending that hovers very cleverly between reality and metaphor, refusing, perhaps, to distinguish between them, so that ‘Andy’ refers to Andy Warhol but also doesn’t: a deadname is not so much named as implied, without that name ever having ‘belonged’ to anybody in a straightforward way. The subjunctivity – to invoke Delany again – is interesting: the ‘tension on the thread of meaning’ is handled in a very particular way. How did you handle questions of naming in Confessions?

JR: Well, I really like this question – and I feel like you’re developing a theory across these questions that has to with Chu’s book and genre – but naming is something I didn’t actually think about very much, so anything that appears there is either the compulsion of the market around producing certain narratives –that I didn’t want to produce – around naming, or was done unwittingly. But to me it does go back to autofiction, because one of the questions of autofiction is what does the ‘I’ refer to. Sometimes we get a kind of insistence – like, I think, in Karl Ove Knausgaard – where the ‘I’ refers only to ‘myself’. This drive, which can go in many different directions and have many different valences, to me seems to continually be returned to autofiction, and to me is a fantasy around a perfect metabolics of autofiction and subjectivity. This does, to me, go back to certain fantasies around the development of exogenous hormones, the suturing of trans identity to that medical narrative where one becomes a closed system of referring only to, or being metabolically managed only by, oneself, where one’s gender is a closed system, a closed loop. 

And I will say I have this long-standing scholarly interest […] in representations of settler bodies in the seventeenth and eighteenth century also being the location of this fantasy of perfect metabolisms. Richard Ligon’s travel narrative of Barbados is one place where I am doing some work looking at this – where you get these fantasies of plantation owners and families managing the landscape perfectly, with the total erasure of other forms of labour. [There’s this] settler-colonial fantasy, or early enlightenment fantasy, that remains with us, that settler-colonial bodies are able to repair the problems that they cause. The problems that they cause have this Marxist name, ‘metabolic rift’, which has to do with the increasing distance between the sites of production and the sites of consumption of products, and this causes a lot of problems – ecological problems, social problems. People are eating food stuffs not in the place they’re produced and they’re defecating in London what would have been fertiliser in the countryside. This is a problem that’s incredibly intensified once you have colonial sites shifting products back to the metropole, but there are also these fantasy scenes – moments that are pure ideology, where you get the ideological resolution of real social contradictions, where settler bodies are able to solve the problems that settler bodies cause.

To what extent does this fantasy of perfect metabolism find its way into fantasies around transness, find its way into fantasies about literary form, or the collapse of the allegorical as a kind of contemporary form, and how does it get constellated in the mainstreaming of trans autofiction as perfect self-management?

Jordy Rosenberg

[…] To what extent does this fantasy of perfect metabolism find its way into fantasies around transness, find its way into fantasies about literary form, or the collapse of the allegorical as a kind of contemporary form, and how does it get constellated in the mainstreaming of trans autofiction as perfect self-management? I’m not being so silly as to say that one is a total mediation of something that happened in the early eighteenth century, but this longue durée of literary excrescence interests me.

HG: This also makes me think of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, and the way he talks there about how the [realist] novel develops in such a way that it cannot ‘think’ certain kinds of experience or events – such as climate change – because it’s sculpted to a certain form of contained experience that depends on the excommunication of other forms of experience elsewhere, while nonetheless passing itself of as natural – and how that is itself a kind of fantasy. And that fantasy also entails another fantasy – of a character who is in the foreground, with a background against which they act.  

JR: Yes, I totally agree. I’ve been trying to think about this talk Sofia Samatar gives on Ghosh’s book, where he is making that argument that the actual historical context of the realist novel was what it had to exclude from itself in order to be, or to come into being. Samatar, because she is a genre fiction writer, is trying to think about whether there are ways in which genre fiction can take up the charge. I remember the talk ending with this kind of exhortation about what such an impossible book would be like – a book that is somehow able to communicate the sublime historical context of climate change that Ghosh says is excluded from the novel. She says: ‘write me a book that a plant could read.’ It’s counterfactual and impossible. I hadn’t put that together with the Ghosh, but that’s really helpful. 

Jordy Rosenberg by Beowulf Sheehan

References

  • Kadji Amin, ‘Glands, Eugenics, and Rejuvenation in Man into Woman: A Biopolitical Genealogy of Transsexuality,’ Transgender Studies Quarterly (2018) 5 (4), 589-605
  • Andrea Long Chu, ‘On Liking Women,’ N+1, 30: Motherland (Winter 2018)
  • Andrea Long Chu, Females (Verso, 2019)
  • Samuel Delany, ‘About 5,750 Words,’ (1978) in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Wesleyan UP, 2009), pp.1-15
  • Samuel Delany, Dhalgren (Bantam, 1975)
  • Samuel Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Bantam, 1984)
  • Samuel Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (NYU Press, 1999)
  • Kevin Floyd, The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
  • Kay Gabriel, ‘Gender As Accumulation Strategy,’ Invert, May 2020
  • Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
  • Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Duke UP, 2017)
  • Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (Verso, 2016)
  • Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657).
  • Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (NYU Press, 2010)
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