People with too many lice, too many sores, too much scabies have too few if any family, but so do people with no lice, sores, or scabies.
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Empire of Love
awash in coping mechanisms and moping chemicals
Rita Wong, Forage
I’ve been reading Rita Wong’s Forage for a decade, first encountered in a grad class on feminist avant-garde poetry taught by Susan Rudy. And as I reread it to write these notes, I’m also editing an article about Wong and another writer but my reading of Forage started in Susan’s class. Stretched to the present, my reading finds itself rearticulated by Povinelli’s notion of immanent dependency, that is, the idea that we depend on our relationships for life, whether those relationships are with the flows of water we drink or the flows of capital we struggle with to pay our too too high rent. Dependency is different than solidarity because it isn’t the result of choice, but is instead the result of the relations that hold us together.
Wong’s attention to scale, to the ways intimacies between and across bodies are co-productive of global extractive capital. Like Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner, she asks us to consider the ways the intimate meets the global, the ways global dynamics exploit uneven intimacies. Her poems speak to the uncontrollable vectors of intimacy, vibrant matter filled with emergent potential, for better or worse.
Worse involves the material toxicities of spatial production – the result, for Wong, of the ongoing, extractive experiments of capital. The dumping of plastic into the ocean, the leaching of toxic metals into the groundwater, the scrambling of DNA through genetic engineering. Both Povinelli and Chen squint at the global anxieties around these toxicities, from Povinelli’s evocation of the “ghoul health” that panics at the thought of foreign disease entering the sanitized field of Empire to Chen’s breakdown of the yellow panic around lead poisoning. These are powered by a fear that global capitalism is experiencing its just desserts – an unintended return of the ideologically repressed exploitation of labour, primitive accumulation, toxic overseas dumping. There’s a utopian sheen to the idea that all of this toxicity will be deservingly dumped back into the white Western body, but what it produces, as Chen especially makes clear, are intensified forms of racialization that close borders and deepen the economic and environmental injustice that triggered the fear of cosmic retaliation in the first place.
What if worry isn’t so much panic, but is instead a kind of apprehension. The same kind that Roy Miki identifies in Wong’s work – apprehension as a worry combined with an attentiveness to the conditions generating that worry. “Worry has its own social distribution,” Povinelli suggests. Because of her work with Indigenous communities in northwest Australia and in queer communities in North America, she recognizes a strange dialectic around how intimacies are meted out in these very different kinship relationships and in the isolation produced through neoliberal individualism. She tries to work through what communities of care might look like when there’s no one who cares enough to hold you down to take your medicine. Is it possible to hold yourself down with one hand and administer care to yourself with the other? Or is the idea of self-care part of the problem?
Is this the problem: what if capital is the only one who cares whether we take our medicine, whether that medicine is more antidepressants or more capital? The pull to self-care is often a demand to let capital take care of you (if you can afford it). If I were to declare in public that I’m lonely, it would be a cry into this dialectical exchange around who will care for you, who will let you care for them, and who gets shut out from that exchange – a dialectic writ globally in the way that our own assemblies of care produce harm elsewhere. Uncontrollable virtual vectors interlocked with uncontrollable material ones.