‘Saliva Made Deliberately Airborne Will Not Be Ignored’, by Samuel Cooney
The day last month that much of the Australian news media decided to coordinate their grubby hot spotlights onto a single human being in Nicky Minus, we at The Lifted Brow received much of the correspondence, simply because early in the feral proceedings an interview with Nicky published on our website was quoted in an article, with a helpful link provided. Throughout the next forty-eight hours or so, hundreds of people sent us their thoughts through social media channels and email. Of these messages, less than one per cent were messages of support for Nicky or our publishing house; more than ninety-nine per cent were vile, violent and hateful notes, none of which I will describe, but many of which I screengrabbed, collated, zipfiled and sent to the police.
A bunch of journalists that day picked up the trail, intrepid hounds that they are. (From which outlets do you reckon they came a-sniffing? Can you guess? Yes, you guessed correct, and for doing so you win nothing except a share of the collective sinking realisation the current news climate is a bit shite.) The hounds were all from those increasingly gross and reliably irresponsible publications—including but not limited to the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and Mamamia—and they all wanted quotes from anyone who knew Nicky so that they could insert them into their lukewarm content. One of these hounds I could not shake; he would not give up the chase, for his masters had trained him well. He tried acting neutral, he tried cajoling, he tried flattery. Still, I did not respond, because what we were never going to do when it came to Nicky was to furnish any journalist’s notepad or inbox with any material at all.
If a front-line pawn sits atop a cannon directed straight at you and/or someone or something you care about, and this pawn asks you for a cannonball, pretty please with sugar on top, it can be somewhat tempting to give this pawn what he asks for, just to see the thing go boom. But I was resolute. I was also angry, and bored because I couldn’t do anything else with my day anymore, what with it being interrupted every five minutes by me needing to scrub our social media channels of threatening and disgusting comments and people. So I decided to craft a quick response to this journalist, one in which there would be nothing except glowing references to Nicky, one that could not be flipped in any way to be negative. I wanted to put this hound in a bind: that he would either need to quote me and, as such, ruin his article which was supposed to be entirely anti-Nicky, or give up and chase down some other scent. He kept asking why we had come out publicly in support of Nicky, and here is what I wrote to him:
Last night, after Nicky was publicly identified as the person in that situation, a whole bunch of right-wing trolls started leaving comments on our various social media pages. Our quick statement on social media was simply to let such people know that we are not the channel to turn to if you want to abuse, threaten or insult Nicky. However, despite our best efforts, we are still finding ourselves on the receiving end of many disgusting comments and messages, many outlining imagined acts of violence towards Nicky, and some that are just generally hateful.
I can attest that Nicky is a thoughtful, kind, generous and intelligent human being, someone who wants the world to be better than it currently is. She is a terrific artist, one who understands that art is always political, in both small and big ways. We’ve been very proud to publish her work many times, including on our front cover.
I know that in the past Nicky has always stood on the just and good and ethical side of contests, and without having an in-depth knowledge of yesterday’s protest, I assume the same thing here. We support her both specifically and generally because she always works hard for fairness, for inclusiveness, and against those who seek the opposite. The world we live in today has never been more starkly unfair, and we support Nicky (and anyone) drawing attention to this fact.
A single incident does not sum up a person, but a single incident can shine a spotlight on something much more important than that person, or that fleeting incident.
The Lifted Brow is many different things to many different people: a publishing house, an arts institution, a print magazine, a website, a community, a safe space, a soapbox. I’ve been volunteering here for years and it’s continually tricky: I have small-p and big-P political views, the twenty-plus staff each have political views, the thousand-plus contributors we’ve published each have political views, and somehow we both simultaneously and at different times must speak for all, for some, or for almost none. We are a not-for-profit organisation which began simply: The Lifted Brow launched in order to publish and promote excellent artistic work, especially boundary-pushing literary writing and narrative comics, both of which founder Ronnie Scott felt weren’t getting a fair crack in Australia, even though people in this country were making such work. And yet somewhere along the way it became obvious that no one, no individual or collective or company, and definitely not us, can put art into the world and remain politically neutral. And so we find ourselves engaged in conversations and arguments, and we do our best to facilitate dialogue, and we do our best to bring people into this dialogue and not exclude anyone who might have something useful to add, and we do our best to make amends when we fuck up.
We came out in support of Nicky because we wanted those who yearned to shut her up and cut her down to know that we weren’t any kind of conduit for their vitriol. But we also came out in support of Nicky because Nicky has a track record of caring for other people and caring for issues that negatively affect the world. We came out in support of Nicky because she is a brilliant artist, one who pours everything into her work, one whose work always contains more the more time you spend with it. We came out in support of Nicky because as a publisher we endorse any individual’s prerogative to say No or Yes or This isn’t right or Fuck you. We came out in support of Nicky because as a small publisher of voices from the literary, demographic and socio-political margins, we need to not be entirely steamrolled, sometimes. We came out in support of Nicky because saliva flies out of the mouth of anyone speaking with passion; because saliva made deliberately airborne will not be ignored; because saliva is used to lick the glue on the envelopes which we use to post out our magazine, a magazine full of explicitly and implicitly political work, some work which some of us agree with, some work which some of us don’t, but always work which all of us believe opens up our readers’ minds and bodies to the strange and the new; because saliva begins the digestion process long before an item reaches the guts, and there are things in this world that simply need to be chewed up, swallowed and magically transformed into fertiliser, for it is fertiliser that helps new things grow.
Samuel Cooney is the Publisher and Director of The Lifted Brow.
‘A Short Essay About Violence’, by Ellena Savage
Look at them shedding crocodile tears over violence! They practically invented violence and still reproduce its dominance. There was violence and bad shit before capitalism, of course, but this generalized and non-specific violence, this everywhere threat: that’s its great invention. No wonder we are anxious and fearful of our lives.
Everything is violence
…is a ridiculous phrase. This morning I made blueberry pancakes for someone I care about, which is not an act of violence but an act of generosity (I made them from scratch; we could have eaten toast) and material necessity (one has to eat breakfast). But the blueberries were frozen (I’m not a millionaire), the flour was home-brand (I’m not a thousand-aire). Somewhere along the line, someone paid for my pancakes, and that someone wasn’t me.
We talk about the pancakes; we don’t talk about how they got on the table. Nor how the table got there.
Are blueberry pancakes not violence? Can you be sure?
But of course you can’t live in a state of permanent anxiety. Your mind turns over these thoughts, it finds patterns and gaps in them that, when taken to their end, inspire some horror about what humans are really like. And, all the while, the time passes; you live through it.
Everything is violence except that which is not. Giving and receiving love. Thinking clearly and deeply. Making and consuming art. But these soft pleasures hold the least resistance to violence: you find them, always, nesting in foundations carved out by the hand of violence. Reason fetters love to moral goodness; marriage binds it to capitalism; procreation chains it to the state, to gender roles, to domestication. You find ‘thinking clearly and deeply’ in lukewarm Nespresso office cultures, repackaged as thinking soberly and proficiently. Art is the greediest pleasure of all, housing itself as it does in the courts of kings.
Everything is violence is a diminishing kind of claim: if everything is violence, then acts of stark brutality have no meaning. Of course, acts of stark brutality have their own devastating meaning. But that meaning is contingent on the innocence of the victim. Violence is relational: it is regulated by the legitimising functions of the law, by the differences between the ease with which we walk through the world.
In the history of English poetry, the window has often been conceived of as a figure for imagination, as a kind of lens through which we see, through which we envision. And part of what’s at stake is that, to fix a broken window is to fix another way of imagining the world. … The broken window, the alternate window through which we see the world is not just the way in which we see something that doesn’t exist, but how we see and imagine what does exist.
In December 2014, I stood in political rapture among thousands of people protesting, in grief and revolution, the non-indictments of Officers Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson. We were surrounded on all sides by riot police dressed head-to-toe in black, awaiting their orders—imposing, to say the least, which is, I suppose, the point. A few hours into the march, somebody smashed a window at the old Sears-Roebuck building on Telegraph Avenue. This broken window marked the break between a legal and illegal assembly—the riot police moved in formation and drove us out. If you stuck around, they’d arrest you.
I saw the man who smashed the window: I swear he bolted past me seconds after the crash, black beanie pulled down low, but this image is just a novelistic detail. Word moved through the crowd that it must have been an undercover cop who’d smashed it—the march had been blocking the streets for hours, and the city, paying its officers overtime, wanted to wrap it up—because, in the state of California, the moment any private property is destroyed, police can then issue a dispersal order which renders the assembly illegal, making it possible to prosecute anyone who “fails to disperse”. It sounds paranoid—“the cops did it” (here is the violence of language, when what you say is marked insane before you even say it)—but a few nights later there was a guy at a rally attempting to goad activists into breaking things, and because he was acting so suspicious and no one in the crowd knew him, someone pulled off his black-bloc scarf, and, like a Scooby-Doo villain, there stood an undercover cop. This unmasking was considered assault, there was a scuffle, and his partner promptly pulled his weapon on the crowd. Can you imagine? A live police officer’s gun in your face because you’re protesting police violence. How are you supposed to believe anything after that? The SFPD admitted it had embedded undercover highway patrolmen in the demonstrations for weeks.
Unease rippled through the crowd; some said that this was getting out of hand. And then some anarchists started screaming the words “peace police”, a pejorative for those within the movement who did the dirty work of regulating dissent for the police. Several women held hands and stood around the smashed window, to invert this escalation, and to protect others from the fractured shards. (Consequently, QTPOC and others created their own alliances to strategise actions that didn’t further put them in the front line of police force.)
Behind them the old Sears building was up for lease, and, dark and empty, it presented a ghostly premonition of Oakland’s future: a hub for tech boom colonists, a comfortable home for the plaid-shirted gentry, this city that once nurtured the Black Panthers, this place that has informed the imaginative conditions for almost every radical movement in the West since. This city’s future, no doubt, excluded the bulk of activists present. Across the Bay in San Francisco, seventy-one per cent of the homeless are former residents of the city. Fifty per cent had lived in the city for more than a decade before their rents outsized their wages. And when you think about these connections, you don’t look at individuals. You don’t think of them as free agents making free choices; you think of them as acting in ways that history has made it possible for them to. You name it, and the words you use resemble “the system” and your sentiments are suddenly mad.
How are these fractions connected? How does the image of law itself embody violence? The homeless present an affront to the ideological promise of liberal economics: that ‘innovation’ and pure accumulation are inherently tethered to the betterment of human lives. So too are the presence of bodies that don’t conform. The promise that liberalism—the belief in individual equality and sovereignty—are the fundamental terms of exchange in Western democracies, that equality is guaranteed at birth, is called into question when non-conforming bodies, bodies that resist assimilation into white (straight, etc.) ideology, become visible. This liberal vision of equality needs to remove the visible obstructions to its premise. It responds to provocations against its fiction in fear, and with violence. “If you do bad things to people, you do not feel safe,” writes Deborah Levy.
Maybe it was a cop, and maybe it was a white anarchist-insurrectionist, and maybe it was a Fred Moten fan who’d smashed the window – because looking through it, into the ghost of the future, he saw an image that didn’t include him, an image that was built around the fact of his exclusion, and smashing it was a reasonable act to restructure the future as one in which he got to live. Or maybe that, too, is bunk.
Torn between my personal inclinations (I don’t want to do violence) and the facticity I bear (my female body is an object of state and interpersonal violence), I can’t afford to offer a moral position on violence. It is ingrained in every social relation. You can’t talk about politics without talking about violence. As an integral part of political processes, protest is the arm which dramatizes grievances felt. Violence or its threat is part of that. “In one sense, to speak of violence in the political process is to speak of the political process; the ultima ratio of political action is force,” writes Bruce L.R. Smith.
Spitting at history
[T]he law sees violence in the hands of individuals as threatening to undermine the legal system. As threatening to frustrate legal ends and law enforcement, perhaps? Oh no; because then what would be condemned is not violence pure and simple but only violence employed for unlawful ends.
— Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’
Hierarchies of violence are drawn against an individual’s own belief in their security. The safer your body is, the clearer the distinctions between forms of violence are.
When I tweeted a sentence of support for the artist Nicky Minus from my personal account, I didn’t anticipate the discursive violence that would be directed at me. Concerned citizens wrote to me imploring that I go to jail for a very long time and see how I liked it; they told me they’d come find me at work and ejaculate on my face; they said they hoped that every meal I ate from now till the time of my death contained a stranger’s spit or semen. Some of them created accounts specifically for this. So moved were they by the taboo of a relatively small act of violence that they responded with violence. Not to mention the neglect, in all this, of the violence of the fact of suspended municipal democracy.
The problem with protesting the suspension of a positive right like democracy is that you have no value to withdraw from the body you are protesting. You have no leverage. When you’re a labourer, you can withdraw your labour; the value of your body’s potential gives you something to trade on. When you have sexual or reproductive value, you can withhold—though with less security—your sexuality and chores: women have used sex strikes against male partners in all cultures to influence their own and others’ political conditions. In institutions where your body has no value, though, where your body is seen, maybe, as a burden, the power of your body as a tool of insurrection is neutralised. Asylum seekers’ hunger strikes in detention are largely ineffective because in detention they are given no productive or potential value: they have no value to withdraw. This reduction of human value, of course, erupts in chaotic violence – anyone can see that.
Maybe you still have your voice. But voices, unless they are backed by real material power, are flimsy and easily discredited. You stand in a place and you shout what you like – that’s what you’re entitled to. Theatrical dissent. And if there’s more that you want than to shout and be ignored, there is a line, and you choose or choose not to step over it.
The history of social change is made with violence. Show me a bloodless revolution, a bloodless civil war, a bloodless anti-colonial movement. Show me a nation whose borders aren’t dug out with graves.
Yet nonviolent actors from every movement are cherry-picked and celebrated to appease the liberal sense that history is always moving in the right direction, that there is a legitimate process for each and every political grievance, that no-one has been left out. There is no modern democracy without a civil war; no liberalism without the reign of terror. No Black Liberation without the Panthers. Even feminism—in the first, third and fourth waves—call on the legitimising force of laws to protect the female person from misogynist violations. Windows are broken in some form or another, and when they are, crocodiles shed tears.
Ellena Savage is a Contributing Editor at The Lifted Brow.