So Mayer discusses fascism, cinema, genderqueerness and freedom of expression.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

So – there’s an arresting observation about film early on in A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing, your new book: ‘Hirschfeld watched his film burn on film’. It frames a complex discussion on how art broadly, and cinema specifically, can be appropriated to multiple and differing ends. Could you talk a little about that?

What’s fascinating about this question is that film is both an art and a technology, or rather set of changing technological processes. Because film is a more recent form, it enables us to see how all arts rely on and are produced by technologies; for example, the connection between the novel, paper supplies from enclosures, monoculturing and colonial plantations, and also plantation wealth generating a leisure class that could purchase and read them. As a technological process, film developed out of access to certain chemicals and protocols of laboratory science, and also from what was later called ‘the military-industrial complex’, which has continued to push forward developments in cinema such as surround sound and 3D (developed initially for immersive military training programmes). Cinema could have developed otherwise, and filmmakers and film cultures have taken up the changing tools of filmmaking with subversive purpose – from the early avant-garde through the revolutionary anti-colonial Third Cinema to contemporary digital resistance such as citizen journalists documenting police brutality globally.

Part of the resistance is knowing the medium’s history, in order to access and share your own: not vilifying or validating either the technology or the art form tout court, but being clear about its origins and purposes. Third Cinema works, in part, because it formally acknowledges the anthropological origins of moving images, what Fatimah Tobing Rony calls the ‘fascinating cannibalism’ of Eurowestern cameramen and audiences. By acknowledging it, it can then reframe it and rework the medium and the form.

I’m also glad that you see the observation as arresting rather than conventionally melancholic – nothing is possible, everything is self-defeating. Towards the end of the book, I talk about queer theorist Douglas Crimp’s idea of ‘militant melancholia’, of a kind of activist refusal to let go of the cause of grief, loss, erasure or consign it to history as a fait accompli. Watching ‘film burn on film’ is a version of that: it demands that we stay in the moment and bear witness, not just to the act but its contexts and consequences. It’s not watching in a passive sense, but with an ethical intention to look, and to look differently (including at film itself) – and that’s a conviction or tactic shared by many kinds of alternative, resistant and counter-cinematic practices.

The book is something of a manifesto on reclaiming complexity – expressly vis-à-vis gender/queerness, with a note that an ‘expansive vision’ of genders and sexualities, and ‘totalitarianism’, are at odds, The latter’s course-of-action is, inevitably, the censorship or destruction of the former. What recourse do we have to complexity in an era of milled-down simplification?

One recourse is, for me, in saying milled-down simplification where? And how? For whom? Of what? The more I tried to describe ‘expansive visions’ in and of different eras and cultures, the more it became evident to me that the expansiveness was in how we frame what we see. That’s one reason I use the fascinating and creepy history of the ‘ambiguous image’, a two-dimensional optical illusion that started as a kind of cartoon and became the basis of experimental psychology. Look at things one way, and all that’s visible is the imposed frame of dominant culture that wants us to see simplification; look at things another way, and the expansiveness, proliferation, generative creativity, generosity of activists, scholars, artists, conversations is bursting out of and over that frame. Its weight is real, and really destructive – and the richness of what it’s trying to contain (and thus to steal from, as I talk about with anthropology and museums) is as real, and in fact has and defines realness (in both the documentary and drag ball sense, given the book’s shout-out to the legendary Mothers, children and other walkers of Paris is Burning).

That said, our era is unquestionably one in which a narrow frame is perpetuated. There are turbo-capitalist media conglomerates and digital platforms, super-injunctions and libel tourism, the defunding of lifelong education from nursery to later-life access to libraries, the policing of education through Prevent and the new guidelines that exclude anti-capitalist and anti-racist groups from schools, the erasure of public space. The rapacious monetisation of all kinds of data – whether personal data being scraped by social media platforms, or Western big pharma attempting to patent plant DNA – has exacerbated the theft of what should be collectively-held knowledge. Facebook didn’t invent that theft, though. Forcibly separating communities from their knowledge of themselves is a key colonial strategy of subjugation.

It’s maybe a milled-down simplification to say power is always gonna power: that power always depends on limiting access to information. The concomitant is that collective resistance depends on expansive visions and/of complexity: on (re)learning the strategies that work by expanding how many voices are in the room and how they get heard; on (re)gaining access to our histories and lineages, which sometimes means hacking the archives of power and sometimes means reconceiving how and where we see the traces of history that have lived on outside those archives. Because of power’s actions, complexity becomes a job of work, to reach the realness that is ours. Looking differently changes everything.

Exploring the idea of ‘degeneracy’ and ‘genre’, you look at the infamous Entartete ‘Kunst’ exhibition to discuss what fascism does with truth and mendacity, fiction and fact, reality and imagination, sociology and biology in a way I cannot gloss sufficiently, and which I will therefore quote here at length:

Entartet is a Nazi word for a Nazi thing: an idea of difference that strategically presents itself as biological in order to both authenticate and obfuscate deep-rooted prejudice, to confuse the conversation and silence criticism. Its sleight of mind erases argument: defending itself as science on the one hand, while deriding incompatible scientific findings as culture warfare.

What relation do you see between that historical ‘Nazi thing’ (and its subsequent resistance and entrenchment) and contemporary far-right ploys that, it is said, share a playbook of fake news, disinformation, and the like?

It’s really interesting to characterise entartung (degeneracy) as fake news, because that’s exactly what it is in multiple senses: the way that it was initially deployed in the nineteenth century from Max Nordau’s book onwards was to foment, rather than document, culture wars along lines that are very familiar today; and then the Nazis took up the theory written by Nordau, a Jewish historian, who was at least partially looking to ‘prove’ that anti-Semitism was symptomatic of a psychological disorder, and used it as a catch-all term for the Other. They couldn’t have used the term so powerfully without Nordau’s study, which took a scientific term from eugenics (and Berkeley have just closed their eugenics department today, 27 October 2020, in case that is regarded as either historical or ‘pseudo’ scientific) and applied it to his blend of social science and art history.

Fake news is spoken about as if it’s something happening on the surface of our culture – on screen surfaces – as if it’s a recent add-on, something passing. But it works because it’s a practice rooted deeply in how power acts, and particularly how power acts around language and communication, using them for control. It works because certain kinds of language are afforded more truth-value than others in Western culture, like science, without the provision of robust, honest education that would allow everyone to participate in debates around them. And I don’t mean we all have to understand cell biology to participate in the conversation around coronavirus and vaccination, but we need more education about Western science’s colonial history of abusive practices in order to hold scientific practices and practitioners to better ethical standards and create consensus around the necessity of safe vaccination.

Fake news works because where there’s power, there’s dishonesty – acts of hiding, ‘sleight of mind’, as I say in the book. As a public, we are consistently disinformed (and, as I discuss above, it takes work to inform ourselves and test that information). That’s why the language used is so important, word-by-word and clause-by-clause, because disinformation isn’t just the content but the context. We see it powerfully when we look at the extreme, well-publicised example of Nazi fascism, but there’s a studied reluctance of the status quo to see it in our own cultures and contexts.

Talk to me about ‘archive ache’.

This question feels both more poignant and more distant in light of the changing circumstances in which I wrote the book: when I pitched the book, I also applied for funding to spend some time in Berlin, at the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, which is an organisation that, since 1982, preserves and continues Hirschfeld’s work in sexualwissenschaft. I didn’t get the funding, and that changed the shape of the book – as did lockdown, which arrived in the middle of writing.

Writing in lockdown made me realise that what Jacques Derrida calls ‘mal d’archive’ (which I translate as ‘archive ache’) is a part of any (activist, perhaps) writing process, which is the perpetual and perpetually impossible search for the evidence, or the object, or the moment: the quality or connection or practice that will justify the time of writing and make the writing work the way you want it to – that is, to repair the world, in however small and immediate a way. Derrida coined the term in the context of Sho’ah research and the burned archives of European Jewish culture and communities. The ache is both for the search for that lost archival object that does not, and maybe cannot, exist, and for the reason for that search, which is a deep need for the world to be other than as it is. As much as I love working with archival film and papers, archive ache is also the deep realisation that they cannot change the past but only underline our responsibility for how we act ethically in the present.

This is a small book that puts in conversation big things: politics, arts, bodies, genders, sexualities, histories. Are these all always already in conversation, though?

Sure! Perhaps what the book is about is that it’s a conversation that happens in forms that are not (just) verbal – what I call, using Diana Taylor’s term, ‘the repertoire’. It happens in dance moves, snapshots, glances, laughter, protests, sex, hugs, caregiving, mourning, planting, sketching. Big things are little things, are every moment of how we are in our bodies, something that the idea of Politics-with-a-capital-P tries to make us forget. So the question became: how do you bring the concatenation of those little things happening together every moment, and happening differently but in relation in different cultural contexts and moments, to the page? Not because the page is better or more secure (although it is privileged as an archival record in the West), but because it’s one form of ‘carrier bag’ (in Ursula K. Le Guin’s term) that is relatively affordable and transportable and shareable (although that depends on industrial production lowering paper and fuel costs). This is a small book, and it can be in a way because it’s in conversation also with so many other books also attending to the repertoire, also enlarging the conversation; in some ways the bibliographic essay is the most significant or telling bit, because it’s where the book or film or letter that you write might begin.

In many ways, for many reasons, we are told that one must not use the word ‘Nazi’ lightly. The title of your book uses it twice, in subtly different senses. Naming, and the words with which we chose to name, are important. What does naming ‘Nazi’ in this way do?

The title comes from a tinyletter I wrote called entartete in 2016, in a fury, immediately after the US elections. Everything and nothing has changed in the four years between entartete and A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing. Both the need to use words with precision and historical context, and the need to enunciate them clearly, have become perhaps more evident and more pressing.

The original essay, which became the sample I submitted to Peninsula, had little to do with visual culture, but circled specifically around the exclusion of sexuality and sexualwissenschaft from political education, even on the left. In looking up the word ‘cunt’ in the OED, I learned it had traditionally been printed as c*** (whose asterisks made me think of their exactly opposite use of annotating erasure in Paul Celan’s poetry, and Anne Carson’s essay on it, and her question ‘what do we waste when we waste words?’). At one point, ‘cunt’ was defined as ‘a nasty word for a nasty thing’, a phrase I appropriated and whose logic I inverted to describe the way entartung deplores and attempts to erase the messy, complicated reality of the body.

So it actually began as a pun, a play on words, which might be seen as flippant or an empty provocation; but as a poet, I think playing on words is serious play, if you do it ethically and in an invested way. It’s also historically a queer strategy, and a form of resistance for many communities who have been forcibly excluded from self-defining or making meaning.

Nazi was probably among the first words that I learned as a child, growing up conservative Jewish in London, and I learned it as a fixed noun. Using it as a descriptor also allows me to see how Nazism and fascisms continue to operate in my life, in my education, in contemporary politics, in ways that help me to name what I am resisting in solidarity.

I’m afraid I’m going to finish with a fairly weighty question. ‘Silence is death’, we are reminded on the book’s closing page. And that is indeed the bedrock of two vital things that are, in our current moment, presented as at odds in public discourse and in mainstream and social media: freedom of expression, on the one hand, and championing the undebatable rights of those whose identities mean they are, historically and contemporarily, marginalised and erased, on the other. Boiled down – sanitised of complexity and nuance – commentariat presents two vital values as oppositional: free speech, and trans and genderqueer rights. But for both, be it figurative or literal, ‘silence is death’. In shared opposition to fascism – and sharing in historical resistance to the rise of a far-right – how can we reclaim these rights as bedfellows?

I can’t resist ‘bedfellows’ as a persuasive description of the way forward, thank you. Both for ‘bed’, with its implications of intimacy, intensity, embodiment and rest, and ‘fellows’ (a word with a complicated political history in American anti-Communism) that implies not just equality but companionship; even elective affinity, a togetherness not predicated on assumptions but actively and acutely cultivated because of the strength and pleasure it can offer.

Bedfellowship is going to require a revelatory honesty in our pillow talk, not least about free speech which for too long has abrogated to itself predominantly freedom from responsibility for its history and its consequences, not least about the work that ‘free’ is doing in that phrase. Something I’ve been sitting with as I revised the book is Fara Dabhoiwala’s review of Mark Ogborn’s The Freedom of Speech: Talk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World. The article notes that ‘freedom of speech’ as a legal principle may assume a familiarity, but it is one entirely based in contempt. In the eighteenth century, free speech extended from the rules protecting parliamentary procedure to become the possession of the owning class, of ‘propertied, Protestant, white male Britons’ – that is, those who held the franchise. It put the elected and those who elected them on a level, as indeed they were; it recognised that their interests were the same, and thus ‘free speech’ would most likely be speech in favour of the status quo. Dabhoiwala describes it as ‘an immensely potent new ideology and a constant practical marker of their superiority over others’. So free speech, in its legal and political sense, becomes the defining possession of a free man, a man whose freedom is defined by owning others, others whom he may prevent from learning to read and write.

Political revolutions by enslaved people across the Caribbean and the Americas changed and gave charge to the meaning of the word ‘free’, a reminder to white European thinkers that their Enlightenment ideas were severely limited by, and indeed underwritten by the profits of, slavery. ‘Free’ becomes a word associated with defying enslavement at great cost, and as the revolutionary ideal spreads to Europe, freedom of speech, like the idea of universal franchise, subsequently gets taken up as a liberation strategy; to be revolutionary, however, it has to defy rather than seek recourse to the confines of law and government that claim to define and defend it. So ‘free speech’ may not in fact be unproblematically welcome as my bedfellow, without being honest about its history and how it could change to enfranchise rather than disenfranchise. That means what is included as speech, and whose speech – these are intimately bound up.

Freedom of expression, PEN’s chosen phrase, suggestively encapsulates the multiple forms of often-devalued, often-body-based expression that are included in what I call ‘repertoire’ above, including signing, hair braiding, dress, and so on. So freedom of expression de facto already contains, expresses, welcomes and is in fact defined and led by trans and gender/queer people, especially Black and Indigenous trans, gender/queer, Two-Spirit people, whose expression has been most curtailed by Christian capitalist colonialism.

When QTIPOC, in particular, say that ‘silence equals death’, it is a literal statement that is evidenced internationally, every day. There is an epidemic of femicide against Black and Latinx trans women in the US, and also in Brazil. Trans women commit suicide in men’s prisons, or after newspapers out them to their communities. The UK Government’s decision to ignore 70% of respondents to the Gender Recognition Act reformation consultation and retain long waiting lists, arduous assessments and costly legal and medical procedures will be a question of life or death for many – at the very least, of a life fully lived. When the privileged commentariat claim that they are being ‘silenced’, the threat is at most reputational – and yet their columns continued to be published, their books continue to sell, they continue to hold tenured positions: ‘freedom of speech’ is still located in property rights, it seems, rights resting ­– as in the eighteenth century – on the denial of rights to others.

There’s a big difference to consider, before we can get into bed: trans and gender/queer people exist and have existed in culturally-specific ways throughout human society, just as there is evidence of a spectrum of sex/gender as well as sexuality across other-than-human life. ‘Free speech’ is a political idea – a narrow frame intended to exclude that has, at certain times, been re-interpreted resistantly to open up, to include, to change the frame. At the moment, we are seeing a retrenchment in response to decolonisation, the visibility of trans and gender/queer people (which is also decolonial), and the role that digital access has played in the democratisation of freedom of expression. That digital platforms have also extended ‘free speech’ claims to cover those with extremist versions of status quo positions – white nationalists and supremacists and men’s rights activists, most prominently in Anglophone discourse – is unquestionably what has allowed a retrenchment of a liberal defence of ‘free speech’ that covers hate speech. But it is not (that idea of) ‘free speech’ that is under threat most centrally, it is people’s lives under fascisms; silence matters because of its deathliness, not as an equivalence to it.

The ‘right’ to ‘free speech’ as an historically-circumscribed Eurowestern legal and political entity is not the same as either the ‘right’ to be trans and/or gender/queer – which is and always has been an inalienable right of existence – or the community/collective-oriented ‘right’ of freedom of expression, which is contextual and ethical, and also inalienable regardless of legal and political frameworks (which have often favoured exclusion). Those rights, which precede and are unbounded by Western legal and political discourses, are already bedfellows, whether between the sheets or in the streets, and that is where the book’s hope lies.

So Mayer is the author of jacked a kaddish (Litmus, 2018), Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and (O) (Arc, 2015). They contributed an essay in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (Allen & Unwin, 2018) and the introduction to Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás (Ignota, 2018). So is a bookseller at Burley Fisher, a curator with queer feminist film collective Club des Femmes, and co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign and community for parents and carers in the film industry. A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing is published be Peninsula Press.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s