The Poetry Project

In all Contact, There is Contagion

Brenda Iijima Interviews Rebecca Teich

Brenda Iijima: Caffeine Chronicles is a propulsive, hyper-alert work. Time is sped up. A critique of capital’s unrelenting relegation of time becomes front and center. The body careens through time, experiences the time clock of waged labor within a precarious gig economy on overdrive. The pace is a reckoning. Speed becomes an offshoot of desire. This work thoroughly realizes the consequences of a social organization that refuses rest. And now suddenly, our somatic registers are completely altered; we find ourselves in an entirely different position vis-à-vis time and labor, living within a pandemic that we don’t understand. We don’t know when the time of COVID-19 will end, and if we will resume our lives as we’ve lived them previously. Time is reordered. Our somatic relation to time is completely transformed. Your line is prescient: “Post facto recognition of a feeling in particular.” First of all, how are you doing in the face of this radical torque. Can you speak to the experience of time revving you evoke in Caffeine Chronicles and the radical reorganizing of time you are now experiencing?

Rebecca Teich: Caffeine Chronicles began as a playful and deadly serious dialing up and into accelerated time, caught in the spokes of the wheel of capital. I was considering the ways that speeding up time occurs against my will, in disregard for personhood and networks of care, among other things.

At the same time, I tried to see how other kinds of speeding up can aggress that crushing tendency. Capitalism exhausts; sometimes, I want to exhaust myself differently, uselessly, desirously, unproductively.

I don’t intend to diminish the value and necessity of rest, but to open toward certain propulsive, exertive forces and instances that weren’t extractive of my capacities and energies but necessary salves juxtaposed with the extraction of the modern working day (which is also often night, or constant).

But even in that, the march of time that capitalism commandeers is never wholly vanquished even as the artifice reveals itself.

Under these re/negotiated conditions, I felt urgency even if that didn’t correspond to the eradicated speeds to which I had grown accustomed. There was a slowness, certainly, to my days as a person who has an apartment to live in, access to most necessities within walking distance, and performs nonessential now-remote work.

While time didn’t feel endlessly, exhaustively sped up, it still was moving against my will—through bearing witness to and being at certain kinds of mercy to state negligence, a shift to a sociality so wildly at odds with the life I led prior, and the snowballing, inundating information streams.

I remember a conversation I had with the poet imogen xtian smith, where we were trying to tease apart exactly how and why our experience of the passage of time felt so different. One conclusion we arrived at was that, previously, we tracked time in (at least) two conflicting but commingled ways: on the one hand, there was the mandated “timesheet”-esque obligations of work that require outputs from me at repeated consistent and tracked intervals, which is that exhaustion-drive you note, and then on the other, the doing of things with others. Both routes bore down on the body and affected each other, sometimes one necessitating the other to make it possible. In some sense, the most overt way I can track time is by the need to “energize” into, at times contradictory, methods by which I sustain myself, to reproduce myself into the next instant, often so as to get through the mandated exhaustion drive and arrive at the “doing things with others.” Which, of course, depends on me partaking in the exhaustive work cycle to afford a space of so-called free time for uncompensated making and doing.

But ultimately it was the latter—doing things with others—that serves as a primary way I felt and understood the passage of time. These encounters mark me. That’s part of why I think your phrasing “time is reordered” is so perfect—it’s not that time itself is at a standstill but our sense of dailiness has been so wholly reordered. It’s also about the broader social environment that makes that passage felt and somatically understood. I had a moment while briefly living alone where I had a deep disorientation that arose from not seeing objects moved around unless I had moved them myself. As if time passing is implied by the intervening of outside, sometimes unseen, forces.

BI: How has this shift in felt-time affected you? How has it changed your relation to futurity, as in, working toward the next moment? How do you break up the composition of linear time?

RT: The way felt-time has been jostled is hard. It can feel like endless deferral to a future that is not guaranteed, as if the now isn’t the now but a suspended zone of anticipation. There are also ways pre-March 2020 life felt like that—the enduring, slow apocalypses that have been going on for a very long time.

But I get frustrated by the notion that everything is actually suspended or paused. Yes, many metrics that we use to track passage have shifted, diminished. Some of those metrics—like random, frequent contact encounters, intimacy with strangers, the simplicity of doing things with friends in intimate proximity, wide-ranging motion—cut to a deep loss in our social fabric. But it isn’t as if these things have ceased to exist and for many—whether by choice or not—they have remained in place since March 2020.

I think there was also a way that, amidst so much perceived and very real slam-the-breaks shutdown slowness, the rush of capital which at times is brushed off as the ordinary hustle bustle, showed its deadly capacities and showed the way by which that deadliness is unevenly distributed along lines of race, class, gender.

I felt there was a more wide-scale witnessing of machinations that brutalize through the demand for swift and immediate fulfillment of market-based and -mediated desires—whose leisure is predicated on the sped-up conveyor belt that is the brutality of others?

Maybe in concrete terms: many people who before weren’t privy to the immense brutality in the chain of exploited labor that makes Amazon Prime 2-day shipping possible had to see it through disruptions in the labor and supply chain, as well as strikes and similar such efforts.

At this particular historical juncture there is so much pressurized austerity, measures where, even when “before” we were given crumbs, we are now called on to expect and receive even less—often from institutions that are seeing a direct increase in profits or are sitting on huge amounts of reserves. I think this has actually pushed many people toward a diametrically opposite response in wildly inspiring ways, to demand everything. Demands to end evictions and rent, to abolish the police are seen as, increasingly and crucially, legitimate and necessary. To see Mariame Kaba’s recently published book We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice become a bestsellerfeels like something larger and beyond subsumption into the culture industry.

There is possibility within rupture and slowness. Slowness contains its own propulsive drive. I am inspired by Caroline Bergvall’s notion of slowness: “a slow pace not prevents a large mindset…slow is a turn to a more post-industral pre-caluptic pace of industry…active not nostalgic. Functional not profit driven.”

Ultimately, I tend toward a rigorous ambivalence—neither framing things as entirely newly catastrophic or unabashedly utopian. I am drawn to a moment in To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Hervé Guibert where his dying mentor, Muzil, says, “This danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities.”

BI: I want to ask you about time and speed from another angle. How do time and speed affect sociality and thus, desire, in your view? A feeling very prominent in your work is a sociality of collective experience despite the traumas of the individualized “I.” As workers-lovers zoom through a space-time continuum motivated by work and commodity there are also profound momentary interactions that break the hegemony of capitalist demand. This passage, for instance:

“Mark for the count, another day, or, another week, or, another season. Mark for the count, cold brews, green tea, caffeine gum, NoDoz. On the subway, gaze of solidarity with a person opposite me, also red bull can in hand. Share the fumes. Suspended in transit and could alone arise, can never return.”

RT: Stranger intimacies and chance contact encounters, until recently, populated so much of my daily life. Are these kinds of interactions and the desire that flows through them facilitated by movement and the speed of that movement? I think yes, in part, in concert with the architectures and inner workings we are siphoned through, those just-passing-by’s or on-the-way-to’s that are kinds of destinations, arrived at in transience, movement, and chance. There is absolutely a unique eros to encounters within that propulsive motion—and a history, a haunting to that eros.

Up until recently, rarely a day had gone by where I knew the name of every person I interacted with, and I have had incredibly profound and intimate encounters with people whose names I do not and never will know. Intimacies ungrounded in repetition, to me, are incredibly important. Sometimes these are quiet moments, sometimes these are unspeakable moments—highly contextualized yet you and the other(s) may be entirely removed from your social context. It holds the potential to inaugurate forms of solidarity that are not predicated on recognizing another as part of your social universe, where there are ways of relating, touching, caring that can happen in transient relations that maybe cannot in more regularized, conventional ones. Within the context of cruising, this contains very real space for physical intimacy and meaningful encounters that are transient and outside of a monogamous couple. I am particularly invested in how this plays out for queer and trans people when cruising does not center gay cis men.

In Caffeine Chronicles, I wanted to afford vast space to contain all ranges, frequencies, intensities of encounter, particularly those that live in moments when high speed meets high sociality. The kinds of desire that emerge through chance collisions in a high speed life system beg the question of what do we have to offer each other, to offer another, when our name/s is/are no longer attached? An interaction devoid of networking, solely contact, even if that contact is merely eye contact (to take a cue from Samuel Delany’s ever-vital distinction between networking and contact).

BI: “In all contact, there is contagion. No interaction is untouch, even as work tries to conceal. Even sold time cannot unbind.”

I can’t get over how your work forecasted a major shift in being together socially! Contact is of course utopian. Contact can also be hazardous. I never imagined I would evoke Daniel Defoe’s The Plague Years in regard to your work but the eras are linking up.

He wrote, “It is not, indeed, to be wondered at, for the danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bowels of love, all concerns for one another. I speak in general, for there are many instances of immoveable affection, pity, and duty, in many, and some that came to my knowledge, that is to say, by hearsay; for I shall not take upon me to vouch the truth of the particulars.” (p. 100)

Please tell us more about your theories of contagion!

RT: Any contact leaves a trace of ourselves on another(s) and a trace of another(s) on ourselves. For me, in this chapbook and generally, rather than contagion implying the need for separation, it actually implies having a sense of duty to one another—perhaps, like Defoe notes, a sense of affection as well.

In Caffeine Chronicles, I was interested in this unavoidable trace that could be said to be contagion. So much attempts (or demands us to attempt) the illusion of separation, which is also about individualism. When recounting the ongoings of the day, who do we include and who do we leave out—does inclusion mirror what is on our google calendars, work meeting schedules, easily categorized relations? I noticed this imposed partitioning off various portions of my life particularly in my teaching, having to engage with people who bring with them their social universes in a professional setting where I am some sort of commandeer over a space. So I began tracking the outside effort required to get myself into that headspace, especially moments where devastations or longings or revelries or complexities within my own social and emotional life imprinted on how I was able to be in a professional-social space, where I was supposed to produce the same “‘result.” How is the way I’m able to arrive at doing this same work different when I am mourning, when I am falling in love, when I am enraged, when I am enthused?

I remember a moment when leading a writing workshop when, while my students were writing, I read a particularly devastating passage in Stone Butch Blues, and had to work hard to hold myself back from crying. How do I make sense of this moment, in the particular public of a classroom?

The tendrils and charges of feeling and motion, across work and play, across social settings and intimate encounters (with people, art, objects) are inseparable. They all contaminate each other.

This pandemic has made a lot of our networks of connection and contagion overt, and the degree to which we do or do not live and acknowledge our interconnected lives. It brings to the fore what many have known or experienced for a long time. Candid conversations about testing and networks of intimate contact are new for some, not for all.

Many have become suddenly and intimately aware of the vast networks of contagion that already existed among us, an “us” that cannot be partitioned apart or segmented in ways both chosen and not.

It makes sense to see so many indulging in the fantasy of individualism because that was the strategy to address contagion offered by the state. But onto whom are we displacing risk in order to maximally indulge an individualistic “perfect bubble”?

It is under the contagion as our premise of our condition (under this pandemic and generally speaking) that it becomes enduringly urgent to challenge the forms of gathering and intimacy we are legislated, policed, regulated into—as if they are desirable, as if they are available. Here, I am talking about the fantasy of cellular life, each in our uncontaminated pods that are sterile, sexless, self-contained, sealed off from and in control of “outside contamination” (even the metaphor fails in its reference to a larger, interconnected system!).

Contagion implies risk. In what ways is the assumption of risk already a foregone conclusion by virtue of the failures of the state, of the upkeep of white supremacy and capitalism? During this current pandemic, we renegotiate risk in old and new ways as we face this particular and entangled contemporary failure of the state. We witness the perceived safety of the nuclear family in contrast with the stigma of living arrangements outside the stably housed, work from home, monogamous couple form, and nuclear family. Certain ways of living, both chosen and not, necessitate taking on more risk and are perceived as risky, stigmatized—when, indeed, living under racial capitalism, under a white supremacist police state, under ongoing primitive accumulation and dispossession, under cisheteropatriarchy, under ever-increasing policing of sexual activity and economies outside of the orderly household is itself an imposition of risk.

The illusory purity brought on by the partitioned-off household and the nuclear family themselves is itself both simply false and a displacement of risk onto more precarious populations. The property-owning, solidly employed white cisheteronormative nuclear family that can have goods premade and delivered, is a kind of imposition of risk onto others and an abandonment of concern for and duty to others outside the “unit.”

I note the way justification of risk often involves appeals to normative institutions—like, it’s okay to travel because I’m seeing my parents, my spouse, etc. Or, on the insidious legislative level of, this risk assumption is state-sanctioned because it is legal work, therefore it is safe.

I do feel insistent on a sense of duty to others—to whom we are necessarily interconnected—rather than indulge in the fantasy of the partitioned-off individual or nuclear family pod unit, a fantasy whose approximation in reality speaks to the hoarding of resources and care, and often the disproportionate displacement of risk onto others outside that partitioning.

BI: I also want to invoke Steve Abbott in relation to contact, the social, and the hazards of being together, a risk that is necessary: “Real friendship is based on extremity where the boundary lines between people break down. It’s like if you’re in an elevator with a group of strangers and the elevator breaks down. Suddenly you look into each other’s eyes and you’re no longer strangers. You can only have real communication when you realize you’re facing possible disaster.” When I read Caffeine Chronicles, I sense a pledge to presencing, of holding people so that they are really seen. This is an ethical commitment and a demand. Can you touch upon the social-relational aspects of your work and how it involves a concerted effort of presencing in the sense of friendships, but also diverse forms of relation?

RT: As I mentioned before, I am deeply invested in stranger intimacies—I think that this means honoring the encounters derived through chance and motion that are not predicated on future investment.

To account for this is to bring to the fore an immense swath of varied and heterogenous intimacies. I take issue with the notion that one needs to name, to know a name, to be held within an ethical relation with others.

In Caffeine Chronicles I was trying to attend to dehierarchicalizing relations—really leaning into and attending to the range of encounters that constitute our desirous, interdependent lives. Normatively speaking, it’s the picture-perfect family and the couple form that are seen as the most important, central, pure forms of relating, that take precedence above all else. Everything else is secondary or worse. It’s palpable how historically and contemporarily other forms of intimacy are criminalized, other forms of gathering and collective caring are denied access to resources and support. I hope for an insistence on a redistribution of care that can more than encompass intimacies beyond the nuclear family and couple form, that can more than encompass strangers. So it was a choice grounded in an ethical insistence to not write about state-sanctioned pure intimacies—the chapbook is full of people, it’s about relations, relationships, intimacies. But it doesn’t name or center family or coupledom. I was more interested in opening up a space for the range of innumerable, incomparable relations that so richly, challengingly, complexly form my social universe.

BI: I want to ask you about regimes of self-care. In Caffeine Chronicles, self-administering caffeine and other substances is a way to regulate consciousness and engage with the world. You underline the ways that substances and architectures are brought into the body. Acts of self-alteration are both fluid and abrupt, subtle and dramatic. As we alter our bodies, we alter society. You perform agency with the ways in which you calibrate your body. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ways you think we might have limited control and also lack control over body politics. “ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY.” This slogan by Sherrie Rabinowitz from 1984 rings in my mind. How can we accomplish this? I’m thinking of your work and bodily agency and the collectivity that is possible when solidarity arises between bodies in crisis. Could you speak to this?

RT: Some of the more obvious perversions of self-care involve the idea of the immediate gratification of isolated consumerism as care and the reinscription of the autonomous, hyper-individuated person who must tend to oneself, severed off from all else. I think I am less interested in self-care than in a commons of care, or rather, I want to insist on their continuity.

Oppressive systems, in many ways, depress. There is also a lot of moralizing about how people find (short-term, long-term, small, large) ways of surviving within that. A lot of those ways of surviving, of coping, of finding life is within risky behavior, the assumption of risk. In this chapbook, I take something fairly mundane and not super moralistically coded—caffeine—and try to push it to its extremity. Is caffeine, or rather what it facilitates, a regime of self-care? Is it a method of self-construction, so often viewed as destruction in the propulsive overdrive when not oriented toward careerism and Work?

This goes back to the question prior that has to do with notions of ‘risk’—sometimes the things that help people survive can look like risky behavior to another. Can risk be self-care, as a method of recognition of bodily autonomy? Sometimes those things, those behaviors deflect risk onto others. It isn’t a simple calculation, these aren’t neat and precise categories; it’s messy, tangled. The tangles pull on each other, knots can form or unravel.

Meanwhile, certain kinds of risk are valued. Wall Street, landlording, these all take on an assumption of risk yet they are ideologically and legislatively safeguarded as legitimate and even necessary.

This is not to say that self-care should be risky, but rather to draw attention to how the opposition between things viewed as important for survival and what is viewed as risky is an inaccurate reflection of what actually constitutes survival and risk, and instead might have more to do with one’s relationship to the margins and how one is accordingly interpolated.

So for me, that kind of self-care is about paying acute attention to myself as well as viewing care as recognition of our interdependent condition.

BI: The work feels urban to me—an expression of contemporary city living. There’s an unexpected switch when suddenly we find ourselves in a pastoral setting. It is so exquisite and surprising when the transition occurs! To find oneself “waiting around in the lush crook of land, microclimate, crevasses between mountains thick with trees.” Sorry for those who haven’t read the chapbook, because this feels like giving away a secret, so, spoiler alert! There’s so much to be said about differences, divisions even, between rural life in the USA and urban life. The “liberalism” and openness of expression that is thought to occur predominantly in urban settings and how, often, rural life is understood as somehow more conservative. This plays out politically for sure, but there is a way that urban life can be thought of as more domesticated and regulated, and rural areas more “wild” in that the ecology is more of an emphasis. Of course, these are both mostly false premises—we are never not “within” ecological reality. That said, the change made me aware of how different the forms of life can be and how situatedness informs so much of our consciousness. How did you decide to add that portal into the experience of rural environs into the work?

RT: A few years ago I went to upstate New York to visit some friends, traveling with another friend who had just moved back to NYC from that area. A few days into the visit and I remember saying to the friend I was visiting with, I now understand why you had the kinds of relations you had when you were living there.

This isn’t to say that the way we relate to each other is overdetermined by whether we live in a city or not, or where we live generally speaking (I think that breeds complacency, as if one has no agency over how one structures relating to others, akin to the boring and untrue adage that one grows more conservative with age). Instead, moments illuminate the way our routes of relating are folded into the broader environment. The way I desire, of course, is subtended by the ways I can move, the spaces I weave through, the kinds of contact encounters and activities that structure those days and forms of sociality.

I also don’t intend to privilege one space of living over another but rather honor the way points of contrast illuminate the whole.

The interstitial aspect of environment operates within the fold of porosity and spillage—I would think in conversation the moment of finding my disposition torqued the experience of and within a rural environment with the moment where my teaching is disrupted by my own emotional experience of loss.

To paraphrase Tithi Bhattacharya’s motivating question on social reproduction, what enables the worker to work? I might also propose the question, what keeps the worker from working? What can the facade required by the job simply not accommodate? I am interested in the answer to these questions including and exceeding the basic necessities of food/water/shelter. In the chapbook I don’t really ever talk about myself doing work, like leading students through a writing exercise or grading—mostly, it traffics in the surrounds, which is about environment. What goes into the machinery of myself that allows me to produce the work that I do, to be productive within a very particular frame? Then there is the output on the other side—the depletion, the needs unmet, or the inability to jostle myself into the affective state needed to perform my required tasks.

And then there is the way this frame is always false as all the sides bleed into each other, the way that the answers to these opposing questions—what sustains and what depletes—could be the same.

BI: What does it say that it took me this long to bring up sex! The sex in this work is such an energizing, ambitious aspect of the dynamics of Caffeine Chronicles—a site of action, togetherness and commingled desire. Sex and sensuality are two sides of a coin. If it stands that every instance is sensual then it must be sexual also? Do we need to distinguish sexuality from sensuality? If so, how? I am interested in the ways that sensuality influences sexuality in your work. The intensifications of sensuality power the this a fair reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

RT: Akin to caffeine, sex can be a vector of exertion that is also productive and unproductive, exhaustive and energizing. It is important for me to view sex as a productive and socially reproductive zone without needing to tether that dominantly to childbirth/rearing. The chapbook is peopled by queer undergrounds and networks of kinship, moves through messy, revelatory, surging routes of desires and care that are most often not oriented toward an assimilationist cisheteronormative futurity. How does sexuality produce modes of sociality and ways of communicating, communing, that might be seen as necessary rather than indulgent excess? What other kinds of subcultures, publics, social relations does sex make and make happen? Maybe the sensual is engaged with that too—forms of sensation, physical activation that are productive and exhaustive, unproductive and energizing.

I appreciate your use of the words “commingled desire”—that these things exist in dialogical relation, alchemical interaction. Here is where I would also trouble the need to even delineate the sensual from the sexual. Maybe connotatively, sensual appears to be more “mild” and perhaps palatable, romantic, respectable. Meanwhile the sexual is gruff, explicit. The exchange of the soft “ns” for the harsh “x.” I want to abandon the palatable and what it glosses over.

Does the sensual have more range and variety, as opposed to the more specific sexual—attachments beyond the boundaries of the body or specific interactions with the body? What does it mean to exclude the sexual from those kinds, ranges, depths of attachments—or to cordon off the sensual to a kind of respectability?

And what if we were to center queer leather and other sexual subcultures. If something isn’t legible as conventional sex, sexual activity, then is it safely sensual as opposed to dangerously sexual? Is it accurate to categorize pain or power play as sensual rather than sexual? If one licks another's blood, are they not fluid bonded? If one pierces another with a needle, is that not penetration? Am I interested in accurately taxonomizing these modes of action/togetherness, or am I interested in a playful, coy muddling? That’s where I think your idea that the intensification of sensuality powers the sexual is fascinating—it feeds into my ideas about contagion too. Where certain kinds and ways of being a sensate thing, of acknowledging the range, depth, and expanse of the senses is the vessel through which sexuality can come to exist, perhaps in otherwise unexpected places, attach itself to unexpected things. To stretch to accommodate more than what was originally thought of as possible—maybe that’s the driving force of my play with these categories, and what explodes them.

#265 — Summer 2021