McKenzie Wark and Shola von Reinhold in Conversation with Susan Stryker

About the event

More hypnotism, basically. 11/10 waffle rating.

About LOTE and Shola

Ostensibly they were there to discuss Shola von Reinhold’s novel LOTE, released last year and is available to read for free should you wish to do that sort of thing. I read a few pages from the sample available on Kindle and can confirm it is typical fan fiction; self-absorbed with plodding sentences which don’t make sense.

Opening paragraph – ‘But where’s her gold lamé pocketbook?!’ I hear you cry.
from page 2 – prose to rival that of E.L. James

According to the Guardian review of the book, the main protagonist in the novel is ‘Mathilda – who is black, working-class and gay – and while on a work placement at a gallery, comes across an old photograph of a forgotten black Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm, and becomes fixated’.  A secret society called LOTE is discovered. Don’t worry, it’s probably much worse than it sounds.

Von Reinhold’s pronouns are they/them and appeared on camera wearing a long grey wig. His voice was incredibly plummy so I suspect his experience of rubbing shoulders with anyone working class is minimal (probably just the staff). He appears to be mid-20s and is the beneficiary of a programme to help black British writers.

Reverse Cowgirl and McKenzie Wark

Wark has published several books about the internet but in terms of gender identity issues is most famous for his memoir Reverse Cowgirl, apparently about his sexual exploits, which has received the praise of Grace Lavery and Paul B. Preciado. Nuff said. Wark recently ‘transitioned’ in his fifties (see this reference from 2017). Wark kept on throwing his hands around in a typical ‘feminine’ way throughout the conversation and probably thought he was casting spells.

The conversation

It opened by Wark telling us that he gave his copy of LOTE to his ‘trans mum’ to read, who then passed it onto their wife (who probably threw it in the bin). Seriously though this is a 60 year old man who has a ‘trans mum’.

The important thing about the book were the words: transfixions, glamour (related to ‘casting spells’), pretty (related to ‘crafting’) and beauty. ‘Perhaps the whole world was ornamental’ was the ‘big’ philosophical question the book threw up (i.e. that complicated queer theory that you can imagine the world as you want). All these things, of course, were nothing to with Western aesthetics but were ‘black trans femmes cultural productions’. Or summink.

After precisely 15 minutes of absolute wibble from both Wark and von Reinhold, Stryker intervened to tell them the premise of the book needed to be explained, otherwise no one would have the foggiest what they were talking about. Stryker made the sensible decision to give that explanation himself.

Von Reinhold told us that transfixions (which can also mean to pierce with a sharp weapon) was an important theme in the book and related to prey and predators. For example, a predator could ‘dazzle’ prey into ‘paralysis’. As an example of ‘dazzle’ we were shown a grainy old video of the 70s disco singer Sylvester, the video frame was smaller than a phone screen and I’m guessing it wasn’t Sylvester’s best performance, sounding utterly out of tune. The clip had apparently gone viral in the community.

Wark mentioned that he had seen the clip of Sylvester doing a cover of the Beatles’ Blackbird, which Wark likened to ‘taking Blackbird home again, because the Beatles stole so much from black music, and it’s like “no, let’s take it back”‘.

Sylvester was great, but was he a transfixion? asked Wark. Transfixion has an internal tension. Images can physically resonate.

It wasn’t a word that he had personally calculated, von Reinhold said, it was a word that ‘Mathilda’ just used. Trans can mean movement. Transfixed however means stationary and this was an excuse to make connections to Jesus on the Cross (referred to as ‘camp ecclesiastical images’). Transfixion also rhymes with crucifix. Trans also rhymes with trance. All these things put his protagonist into a ‘hypnogogic state’. A state I was almost reaching myself at this point and it wasn’t even halfway through yet.

Wark whined that trans people had always existed and something about stone masonry.

Lotus eaters

In the novel the characters go off and eat lotus leaves, a natural narcotic. Wark said in Greek mythology the lotus eaters lose concern for their families for lotus eating instead.

Von Reinhold said that Homer’s Odyssey was the classic patriarch, and that the lotus eaters were his helpers. Captain Cook lost two men on a voyage who might have been queer who made it to an island. That island might have had different gender categories. Or summink. It’s very difficult to follow someone when every other word is ‘like’ and ‘you know’.

Stryker looked ineffably bored.

There is the intimate connections between the queer and trans worlds, and pleasure now, right? Delayed gratifications in the interests of building families and empires and states is really not for us because we’re never going to get the benefits of any of that anyway.

McKenzie Wark

Wark wanted von Reinhold to discuss the category of ‘the luxuries’ in the novel and how this could count as an aesthetic. Von Reinhold said this was part of a ‘chemical manuscript’ known as the ‘Book of the Luxuries’. Odyssey didn’t like the lotus eaters because they were imitating the luxuries. You couldn’t tell whether the lotus eaters were male or female.

What this might be a metaphor for, is anyone’s guess.

Wark talked a bit about his own transition and book and said that all the sex scenes in the book were real. He came out late and ‘hid’ for a long time in glam rock, disco and other spaces where ‘access to the feminine seemed possible’. There was a tension between androgyny and trans femininity – the former being a world that society wanted to push ‘us back into’ and being told you were not allowed to ‘transition’. The ‘cis world’ was obsessed with trans people.

Stryker was beginning to look very uncomfortable with his eyes often glancing over to what I imagine was a clock.

What if the universe is ornamental all the way through? asked Wark

[It could be] an essential ornament but also basking in its excrescenceness and in its essentialness and yeah I mean almost, I almost don’t know where to start with ornament and like some of my thoughts have not moved on, but just gone sideways and I think I have more latched onto aspects of ornament and ornamentalness but yeah maybe just like er you know, thinking – well actually something I was thinking about recently in relation to ornament specifically is, you know, its status, obviously in the can- in the Western Cannon, but also its, how its, how kind of like its been hated on, on all sides, so you know, you know, neoclassical.

von Reinhold – the first two minutes of his mind blowing monologue on Ornamental, funnily enough the word ‘mental’ is in ornamental – he forgot that bit

Von Reinhold went on to say that ornamental is basically coded as queer, which basically means trans, black, leftist, highly feminised but anti-fertile and anti-virile (interestingly these last two is exactly the effect of cross sex hormones on men). On the other hand being bourgeois and fascist was also ornamental. ‘Prestige slaves’ sometimes wore ‘ornamental collars’. It’s a term with a flexible meaning then.

I wasn’t the only one losing the will to live. Stryker’s face was showing more tells, blinking his eyes rapidly, licking lips and what looked like emergency breaths.

Question and Answer

Stryker finally swooped in, to stop the ornaMENTAL monologues and was keen to show, at least verbally, that he was still on side by telling Wark he was making the same point he wanted to make.

Stryker said that LOTE explores black traditions of thought and compared it to two paintings done by the Native American artist Kent Monkman. Another clever, but ultimately empty, reference.

Someone asked a question about colonialism and von Reinhold sensibly declined because it was ‘too big’ to answer.

The theme of chemical manuscripts in the book were like alchemy treatises. Wark said that trans femme people had to ‘navigate prettiness’ regardless of whether you wanted to be it. Von Reinhold said in the novel developing beauty was accessible via a chemical androgyne angel. Or summink.

That was as much as I could manage

It’s rare for me to leave early but I really couldn’t stand it.

LOTE sounds like nothing more than a gender identity version of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, i.e. having just enough arcane and intellectual references to make a cult member feel they’re reading something intellectual and then I imagine it is easily quotable back to another cult member. Then they can pretend that they just had an intellectual conversation and oh, all these historical references back to ancient civilisation! And the archives!

Here is the link to the webinar.

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