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Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
My dad shoots a four-foot rattler. Privilege, property, poverty, and the glacial-speed apocalypse convene.
In the ambiguously threatening decline of late capitalist oligarchy, class and asset-power split at the root. This is no My Fair Lady, wherein one’s wages clang in one’s speech. Our signals blocked, we signal anew. Consider Rebecca Loudon’s “Giving Praise to Sleek,” where the nouns say “bourgeois” while the syntax warns the girl she may not pass:
the train rocked us to BritenbushI stood naked in the hot springsbecause that is what he wantedwe volleyed through mountainsin the dark a man’s hand circled my leghe whispered your ankles are smallare you a grown girl?I read Bleak House using a larkas a bookmark its flattened spine
Or consider a poet who’s gotten too little airtime on the kitsch wires. Jennifer L. Knox’s early “Chicken Bucket” shocks us with its first few lines—is she making fun of us? Is she making fun of people from trailer parks? (Would the middle class reader think white trash? Would she say it aloud?)
Today I turn thirteen and quit the 4-H club for good.I smoke way too much pot for that shit.Besides, Mama lost the rabbit and both legsfrom the hip down in Vegas.What am I supposed to do? Pretend to have a rabbit?Bring an empty cage to the fair and say,His name’s REO Speedwagon and he weighs eight pounds?
Crass from one angle, subtle lacework from another, the joke is on every word. In “Money and God,” Susan Wheeler’s sex worker might be any of us bound for something better, bound in marriage, bound to oil, money, fire:
leg on a train—polyvinylled seatrank johnafter the money ran outafter the wire came inafter humilia—humid—the homily, end of the nation—waters gilded reared in the sun along a crinoline shorestruck like a match for the sea.
Her diction wanders, and sweaty vernaculars comingle wherever one kind of striking out meets another.
I don’t have an authentic vernacular. Why should I?
Scrambling for purchase, who can orient herself in class? We’re scrambling to find solid ground, sending an S.O.S., looking for the mirror-neuron response known as “home.” What neighborhood can I afford to live in? Do I belong anywhere I hang my hat? I hang my head. Thus we scramble the code.
Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution is a forerunner, a code-scrambling venture into capitalism’s grim afterlife:
. . .Opal o opusbehole, neon hibiscus bloom beacons!“Tan Lotion Tanya” billboard…sheyour lucent Virgil, den I’s taka ovaas talky Virgil…
What can you sell, and in what language ought you to sell it? When talking about money becomes so déclassé, your survival depends on sleight of tongue, as Jennifer Tamayo tells it:
The third week the embryo has made a home. The mother’s bloodstream brings nutrients & takes away waste. The country's bloodstream brings nutrients in & takes away waste. Eating & Shitting. If the country detects the child as "foreign," goodbye. If the mother’s body detects the embryo as “foreign,” the body dispels it. Goodbye.
Good taste demands we agree on the emperor’s-new-clothes transparency of normative talky. If the taste is foreign, the reader may expel it.
Our economic identity manifests as terror and longing. We must, as Daniel Tiffany points out, devour class identity and the notion that territory equals security. Hong takes us further in Engine Empire’s boomtown triptych:
One laborer accidentally swallowed iceand it caused him to hallucinate, blither in another language[…]One day, I decided to steal some.I pocketed one grain.The snow glowed bluely in my hovel.My little lamp.Then one night I don’t know why I swallowed it.And this is what I saw.
As the future crumbles one step ahead of us, we’d rather hallucinate a barren fuckscape than observe the abyss. Speculative work must contend with the reader’s demand for nostalgic comfort, for flattened discord, enhanced high-tones. Counterintuitively, nostalgia can and does apply to our reflections on the future, not just the past. Nostalgia doesn’t point backward, but inward. It helps us narrate our lives, our nations, and skim over tumultuous times. When we view sci-fi and fantasy through the self-limiting lens of nostalgia, we take a reductivist comfort in otherwise complex worlds, picturing ourselves among the slang-savvy scavengers/saviors of Defiance, World War Z, The Year of the Flood. Surely I would survive! Surely I’d fathom the new systems of class, currency, territory! But we’re not in Thunderdome anymore. Nor are we escaping Melancholia-style. These dystopias tell us we’re long past staving off, incapable of predicting terrain, too far gone for zombies.
Joyelle McSweeney’s necropastoral reminds us that we can’t speak a future in which we’re already stripped of agency, droning dead:
Flet wakes to the tent blown away as if she were never sleeping in the tent. She sits up in a dry slick bet. Checks and receipts: bank waste. Her face caked, she knocks the chalk from the seams of her eyes. Her lids and cheeks are cushy, swollen. Inflamed. She rakes up a breath cut with the powder that fills her veins. Decay. Dust from a sap. Lowered visor. Grand elapse.
We don’t speak well enough or often enough about class in polite company or present tense because, like realism, middle class vernacular is a political choice that has spent decades masquerading as neutral. In its light on snow and apples in bowls, its birds alight from the crisp lines of the daybreak fence, its children with white mugs of cold milk—that is, in its tasteful white abundance—it has signaled so constantly that we are immune to its buzz. We are lulled in its embrace. It offers one pretty dish after another, and I readily consume all the things with blood on their hands and chemicals in their nether regions. Overfull, how can I devour my own class identity? Instead, abject, I vomit (as does the milk-skin-sickened girl in Kristeva’s Powers of Horror). As Knox does:
I can’t buy a new chicken bucketbecause I spent all the money at Hardy’s.So I go back to the trailer, crouch outsidebehind a bush, do all the Whip-Its,puke on myself, roll in the dirt,and throw open the screen door like a big empty wind.
They tore your words out of my throat and held themin the pink arc cast by a security light. Give him upthey told me, and I did. Over and over againretching into their outstretched sack, retchingmoney and grief and the look of your hairplastered down by an oily rain.
As a first generation middle class Reaganomics baby, my class identity is the anxiety of passing, never fitting, money $lipping, of hiding or flashing knuckle tats same as I switch vernacular depending on who(m) I'm talking to. The questions I’m posed: Is your family white trash? What do you know about the working class experience? Were you spoiled? And I do want to tell you about my beloveds who grew up in impoverished cults, on food stamps, in trailer parks, grasping the middle class’s skirts. About how unpredictably our incomes swell and shrink. About how we live in the kingdom of illness, where inflation competes with pain for power:
If Nietzsche called his pain a dog then I call my pain a desire, a creature who looks up at me from a bare mattress on a bare floor, a kind of dog, a kind of child […] Her emaciated body appears even thinner as her head pivots forward for another mouthful. When she sleeps I work the graveyard shift […] (Tory Dent).
I want to tell you about how I’m complicit in the sweatshop lyceum. About my intimate relations with the state via my finances, uterus, education, homestead—that is, via citizenship. I tell you grotesquely and grossly. Because the hour of tasteless abundance has passed, because it’s the hour when sailors and sirens speak the same salty tongue, as Lara Glenum conducts:
AN EMBARASSMENT OF BITCHE$$$(a floor show 4 FISHONISTAS)#I can’t find my bloody panties+ The boneworld is endingin explosive fright& loud streamers#Slutever
I don’t have an authentic vernacular. Why should I? We perform speech within a patriarchal structure that awaits us from birth. I speak all its tongues, and like the girl possessed, I can no longer speak in one at a time. Kitsch, goth, Gurlesque, necropastoral. Not to deify but to witness.
Danielle Pafunda is author of seven books including the recent Natural History Rape Museum (Bloof Books) and forthcoming The Dead Girls Speak in Unison (Coconut). She teaches at the University of Wyoming.
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