Anna Vitale is the author of Our Rimbaud Mask, Detroit Detroit, and other works like Different Worlds and Unknown Pleasures. Other writing can be found at Full Stop, Jacket2, Alienocene, and Psychology Today. She has been the host of the Tenderness Junction on WFMU in Jersey City and teaches at the School of Visual Arts and Bard College’s Language and Thinking program. She grew up in Detroit and lives in Brooklyn.
This conversation took place in September 2018 at Astoria Park in Queens, New York with Judah Rubin for A Perfect Vacuum.
A Perfect Vacuum: I want to talk about David Wojnarowicz, and his piece Rimbaud in New York specifically. In your writing you note how all the spaces Wojnarowicz photographs are emptied out. Why is that the case, and what does empty space do?
Anna Vitale: These could be spaces where there are lots of people and yet the place is still empty or it’s literally without people, where historically you know that is not generally the case. The two different examples – when Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud figure is on a subway platform facing the camera and everyone else is facing away from the figure, presumably anticipating the direction of the train, but then you’re wondering, what is this guy doing, why isn’t he with the group? This suddenly makes a place that seems very full, very crowded, totally empty because nobody is paying attention to this figure who would appear very strange because he is strange, but no one is looking. They’re all faced the opposite direction.
This is one of the ways that empty space comes to be meaningful: that person in the mask is getting no attention but is the one being photographed, while everyone else is paying attention to the regular activity of…whatever, the train coming. And somehow in the Coney Island photos it is possible that one day you go to Coney Island and it’s a ghost town. I’m sure that can happen but it also seems like it’s part of the architecture of the mask.
I’m not quite sure why I’m using the term architecture except that I’m talking about space now, but the mask is supposed to have a relationship to emptiness or absence: the face of the person in the mask, and facelessness of everyone else. There are exceptions, but those exceptions serve no strong function in taking us away from the reality of the absence.
And it’s even more excruciating, or can be. The Coney Island photographs are published in the Soho Weekly where the front cover is about New Yorkers at the beach in the summer, so it’s in stark contrast to another reality where the beaches are crowded, it’s fun, and there are bodies to look at. There are ways of being looked at that the mask really changes and erases in some way; it engages in some way the question of erasure. I was visiting my mom in Detroit recently, and every time it’s the same stupid awe of the emptiness of the space in Detroit and being able to drive down streets that you’ve either never been on, or have been on, but they seem newly devastated even though they’ve looked that way for a long time.
And my mom wanted to take me to look for houses we’d lived in, and because of her brain injury she doesn’t remember the addresses but we were on the right streets. And you get this really ridiculous and disorienting problem of the house not being there anymore and the addresses go from like 1082 Rademacher to 1092 and we’re looking for 1088, and there’s just literally no 1088 anymore. That is a different kind of problem but related in my head to why I care or cared about the absence of people in the photos and there not being any faces except for this masked face that matters in the photographs. That—the masked face—wasn’t being interpreted in any way beyond loneliness, which is fine, but also wasn’t good enough for me, because loneliness is not the same as erasure.
APV: What is happening in this house hunting trip with your mom, beyond the uncanny feeling of space having been wiped off the map?
AV: My mom wanted me to drive her around to find these houses because she is trying to write her autobiography, which is intimately wrapped up in our life together, and she feels she needs a photo of these houses or needs to see them again in order to write. You get there and in a very banal, quotidian even cliché way there’s no there there. There’s nothing to take a picture of, so I drive my mom through three different neighborhoods in southwest Detroit and Dearborn to try to find houses we lived in but we didn’t take any pictures because not only was a house missing in one case but my mother didn’t know which houses were ours. This is partially because of her brain injury and also because those houses look the same as each other. The only thing that makes one of them special to us is that we lived in one of them but now we don’t know which one we lived in, so the idea of this specialness being located has evaporated.
APV: Like taking a picture of a ghost. How do you know it’s your ghost? The house is haunted, how do you know it’s your dead? Where does that, in terms of architecture, prefab architecture, track housing of memory, where does that leave you if you’re looking to this as an autobiographical source? Is there a longing for generic memory? A memory that is situated in the architecture but not of it?
AV: That takes me to the mask that Wojnarowicz made of Rimbaud’s face, which is a flat, photocopy on something like posterboard and generates a really rich and odd relationship between surface and depth or surface and interior. I write about this in Our Rimbaud Mask, how we get really excited about an image and we believe it represents something material about us, something deep, but our certainty about that reflection ends up turning us away from all we don’t know and can’t see. That would be desire in some way. A generic memory would be something in the past that has already happened but something you don’t yet know that could only come to you in a row of houses that all look the same. There’s nothing inside yet, nothing inside of what you’re after because you haven’t said anything yet.
APV: What is the infrastructure of your dream life as it appears in language?
AV: The most interesting thing to me about my dreams is that I don’t know what they’re about and they’re trying to tell me something about my life, about my world, my desires. Any story that can come from them in writing that is for other people I’ve tried to make through a story about fear and desire. This came up recently. I had a dream, though I haven’t written it yet: there was a very big snake I didn’t want to be near at a restaurant, and there was an Indian woman who was taking care of this snake, was not afraid of it, and I remember feeling really frustrated that there was someone in the dream with an ethnicity and a racialized identity that didn’t make sense to me – why am I dreaming about a raced body in relationship to this snake? And, basically, why do I dream about race? Race is a big part of my dream life and these dreams produce questions about what secret or not-so-secret relationships I, whoever I am, have to racialized bodies, and that leads me to try to tell some kind of story or pursue a line of thinking that throws my certainty about what I think is good and right or wrong, into question. If you say you don’t see race, or you say you see race and you know what it means, Surprise! You had a dream about all kinds of people doing all kinds of things and you don’t know what any of it means, or you have an idea, but you’re not sure. Telling that story shows how my dreams are personal and not personal; they belong and don’t belong to me.
APV: Is ownership or belonging then the right framework to think these things in?
AV: If I think of the way we say something about desire, wanting something – that we sometimes think of desire as a thing you can own in the sense that it’s yours – I want that, and that is of my own accord, my own agency, drive, etc – that doesn’t come to me from elsewhere, but of course it does, whatever this antecedent it refers to. But I think it’s not the right language: belonging or possession of desire or your dream or the vision of your dream. It’s mystical in a way and I don’t know how to think about that, but I feel like your dreams/ my dreams do come to me from the outside, and maybe the outside is the unconscious and maybe what that does discursively is de-privatize the unconscious. No, it’s not just your secret dark place, it’s much more distributed than that, and there’s a bunch of junk in there that isn’t your deep dark secrets that maybe, though this is a weird fantasy, comes from a collective unconscious.
No, it’s not just your secret dark place, it’s much more distributed than that…
APV: Well there has to be some - if people didn’t share some collective unconscious…
AV: Well what would happen if there wasn’t a shared unconscious?
APV: A lot of your writing moves through spaces – there is physical movement more than the inner-I-eye. How are you moving through collective desires and mapping them for yourself? If we are saying that the personal desires are not necessarily just personal, then how do you feel yourself interacting with that more collective or distributed unconscious?
AV: I have two thoughts – 1) I really love and appreciate this image that you’ve given me of thinking an arc, infrastructure, landscape, which hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind while writing. It makes me think of how Freud makes the unconscious a topographical scene. And you can have other ways of thinking the psyche but maybe that’s one that I’ve chosen, or wanted to follow. 2) My relationship to symbols or iconography—In Our Rimbaud Mask, I turn in the end to the fact that I have this burning house tattoo and Ted Rees and Ari Banias also have Wojnarowicz tattoos, and this is a manifestation of something many of us have attached to that has felt highly particular in the way that tattoos are, and also, of course, not at all, which I think is extraordinary and strange. Then today I was folding a lot of clothes and I realized how many shirts and sweatshirts I have with symbols or icons—that particular hinge of my Aaliyah t-shirt or Simone White wore a Tupac shirt to a reading she gave—and I remember realizing t-shirts or tattoos are ways of calling someone you don’t know but you hope will pick up because they recognize the address, but you don’t even know who you’re trying to call but you hope they’ll answer. That’s sort of this collective form of address – how do you feel spoken to by people you’re not talking to right at that moment? Where does another piece of a relationship get extended?
APV: Reminds me of De Certeau who in Practice of Everyday Life, with street signs or the street space he thinks about four, five dimensional spaces – memory, linguistic customs – where you might be able to make very different depictions of how language and desire meet that does not happen when you’re just considering the specifics of the name.
But I am wondering about Amiri Baraka’s Preface To a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. What is the preface doing – is it a tuning, a rehearsal, an eternally displaced desire?
AV: Prefaces cut both ways and point in at least two directions which makes the preface so much more than itself. There’s so much that gets anticipated. A preface that does this as a book sends you into a fantasy of a future with a suicide note but keeps you in a place that is before that, in a book that is before that, and you are also being told that this book is not the real deal yet. It will explain something to you about what is coming but what is coming is never there. A preface to a twenty-volume suicide note is also what comes before the end of someone’s life or the promise of taking one’s life. One is thrust into a weird time regarding birth, death, realization. Now, some might think I take that title too seriously or they would be happy to tell me that the suicide note doesn’t exist so therefore the preface is keeping us away from it for a long time or forever, eternity, especially because ellipses that follow the book title. But I think that for that book and maybe for prefaces in general, that they have a kind of constitutive relationship to suicidal fantasy. They’re a good way to write about an ending because you are offering them before a book. So it makes me laugh but maybe it helps offer a twin to how excessive it is to want an ending, how extreme it is to imagine the end of your life or the end of the book, to think you had figured out the beginning-middle-end of the book, but that was just an exercise in finishing, and you were just looking for a bigger ending and needed relief.
APV: It also seems that’s the case with Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hells – an autobiographical sort of writing – the same basic idea in promising. That’s also the problem in Dante…we both situate him inside and outside the world at the same time. We count on him to have gotten his work back to us, but he must have been able to be outside the world to access the writing of the Divine Comedy. It is a contingency of life in death. And Dante never, after Inferno, takes a break. He’s at the mountain right after. So maybe the achievement of death or closure feels so false because it seems, you’re saying, it’s akin to Jabes “desire for a beginning, dread of one single end.’ Desire for an ending that is achieved through multiple voices that cannot be heard.
Yes, there’s a fantasy of resurrection or surviving your own death, or coming back or getting another life that is really other to the one that you had when you wrote that book.
AV: Yes, there’s a fantasy of resurrection or surviving your own death, or coming back or getting another life that is really other to the one that you had when you wrote that book. I’m thinking of The Dead Lecturer which for me is conceptually a continuation to Preface because we have to imagine that LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka is the dead lecturer but we are compelled to ask whether that’s the case, and in one of the poem we get a line that is like ”is it Roi who is dead?” Fred Moten makes something of this moment in In The Break, this question of who is dead. He says that we have to say we do know that it is Roi who is dead, we have to be sure of that so Baraka can go on to have another life. But when I write about it, I ask, well, Fred, Baraka’s poem has this question mark in it. It’s a question. We don’t have to be sure; the question is important – is it Roi who is dead? Why ask the question if we must be sure?
APV: It is so patriarchally oriented – can I take their name? Can I take their name so I can begin to anticipate my own death? And that’s power, constantly anticipating death. Are there ways, examples, that you can think of in which a naming and a continuity is not these sorts of hard and fast limits? where the question is not just a question of succession?
AV: One thing about Baraka is that we can let in the questions that the desire for really distinct endings or closure open up. Nate Mackey’s reading of the changing-same in Baraka is really beautiful. One thing Mackey says is something about orphans. Though it’s a citation from another book, I mention it because naming is a way to belong to a family, and the stakes of that range wildly depending on whether your ancestors were enslaved in the US or not, but naming is a way to belong to a family, and now I have Moten in my ear, and he says in The Undercommons “fuck a home,” and I wonder if that also means fuck a family. And that ambivalence—how available can anyone be to not having language try to do that work for them? Language doing the work of positioning you, holding you in relation to your origins, but I don’t know that it can’t, and we also know it doesn’t ever, but also to imagine that it can only fail to do that is to maybe miss what we want it do. I’m really interested in what we want; I know very little about how things are, or whether they are how we all say they are, but I’m very interested in what we want to say they are, and what we lose when we say they’re one way rather than another, because we might miss out on something super delicious or rich or colorful. Maybe something very lovely, or another type of pain we should get in touch with.
APV: So something less declarative?
AV: Yes, and to be uncertain. Not because uncertainty is so great, but because there might be something else. Adam Phillips would imagine ask, what are declarations a solution to? If we need to make declarations, then what kind of problem is there that necessitates that? Let’s hang out in that problem as long as we can, because if we’re already at the declaration we’ve already made the travel through the landscape, the architecture, the ability to look at the names of the streets and have them surface, if we declare, we’ve…
APV: We should look for the house that isn’t there anymore because that’s going to be much more useful than saying that one looks just like the house we were looking for so let’s just use that – better to look for the house that can’t possibly exist or be found anymore, because that itself is the desire to make a declaration – is that what you’re saying?
AV: Yeah, and I giggle because I got such a kick out of that – I had already known that that house wasn’t there anymore because I already did this trip with my dad 10 years ago, but it didn’t matter to my mom. She needed to see for herself, and there’s something beautiful about that – not the loss, which sucks – but the desire to find something is kind of beautiful and not giving up on that. If I were going to make claims about the absence of the house, or Detroit – making claims would take me away from why my mom wanted to see it in the first place.