“A Person’s Life Is Political”: Notes on David Wojnarowicz’s Work by Peter Valente

Criticism: Peter Valente

I’d always felt an alienation from the “art” world as well as the alienation from the forward thrust of civilization.

—David Wojnarowicz

Politics

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. It was an unprovoked attack that shocked the European community. As of this writing, Putin continues to attack the Ukrainian people, who have shown great resistance, to this attempt to destroy their identity and restore the Soviet empire. Putin’s actions have brought back memories of the US’ invasion of Iraq. But for me, and for artists like David Wojnarowicz, everything tracks back to the colonialism of the 16th century; the vast expansion that conceived of the world as mappable, measurable; of course, the invention of any map or border involves the suppression of the native people. Wojnarowicz writes, in In the Shadow of Forward Motion, “Maps are part of the media world; people accept the implications of the forms outlined on paper as if they were an inherent truth … By tearing through maps I erase borders; borders that create ownership and wars.”

The situation brings me to the status of immigrants in our present time, their sense of hopelessness, their inability to effect a change in their circumstances. Think of those immigrants fleeing a country at war and seeking asylum in the United States, and the situation at the southern border, where, under the previous administration, children were unfed and unbathed, where people lived in unsanitary spaces or rather, prisons. As long as they are not American citizens, white, naturalized, they are at risk of infection or death. They do not exist in the dominant “white” narrative; leaving them unable to mobilize. Perhaps it is this fear of reprisal that prompts authorities to act. We must collapse these distinctions which enforce a duality of inferior and superior, and hack the power grid; imaginatively interrupt and redirect the flow of knowledge, moving through fissures and gaps, to arrive at a new language and way of perceiving the world.  

Reading David Wojnarowicz’s work, I remember the political situation in the 80s; the Tompkins Square Riots, the AIDS crisis and the resultant harsh treatment of the queer community. Internationally, imperialism continued apace, with the Nicaraguan revolution, various terrorist attacks in Beirut, India, and Rome, the invasion of Grenada, the Iran-Iraq war, the hostage crisis, the Tiananmen Square protests, Ronald Reagan as the sunny face of American rectitude. In more recent times, the OCCUPY movements called for an end to corporate greed and government lies, unemployment continues to devastate individual lives and families despite the creation of “millions of jobs” and more than ever there is no hope our government will help the people who pay heavily for its excesses. Wojnarowicz’s work speaks to all these political issues and his rage echoes through the years as a call to action,

Somewhere since childhood I have found comfort and hope in various forces of nature that were either unexplainable or uncontrollable; spontaneous self-combustion or tornadoes, floods or earthquakes and volcanoes – when the future of civilization and all its leanings could suddenly be altered or whisked from human hands by natural occurrence or ‘unnatural’ phenomenon as flying saucers or the reviving from glacial sleep of an old, bewildered dinosaur as in black and white Japanese movies; all this gave me faith in the nature and possibilities of change.

Sexuality

On May 15, 1988, Tommy Lee Trimble and John Lloyd Griffin were harassed for being gay and later shot by Richard Lee Bednarski in Dallas, Texas. Bednarski was convicted of the two murders but the judge who issued the sentence gave Bednarski only 30 years rather than life. The judge, Jack Hampton, said that he believed these homosexuals would not have been killed if they “hadn’t been cruising the streets” for men. In an article for the New York Times, published on January 21, 1986, Richard Meislin writes, “Public fear over the spread of AIDS has led to increased discrimination and violence against homosexuals, even as it has created new obstacles to obtaining legal protections, according both to leaders of homosexual groups and to government officials.” Wojnarowicz sees the larger picture:

Less than a century ago the wholesale slaughter of Indians was commonplace, and they’d have been completely exterminated if not for organization and resistance; today the homosexual in America sustains the same slaughter which is socially acceptable in most areas; witness the judge in Texas that recently reduced the life sentence of a guy convicted of shooting two men to death because they were homosexual. People in various cultures take to bodies of water for purification rites; southern pond baptisms; Indians along the Ganges river; Haitians in voodoo  rituals of cleansing: thus the bathing men; something also richly erotic to me. The four eyes opening or closing mirrors the four pale blue moons in something like eclipse; maybe the final motion of dying. I have no plans to go but if I do this is the partial structure of my frame of references.

Wojnarowicz adds: “It at times is unimaginable for me to understand that after all these centuries that homosexuality can still cause conflict in someone’s mind and yet it’s obvious that those that make policy are still intent on eradicating forms of sexual expression and or those that embody them. Step back a few hundred miles into space; in the air above all this and it looks like ants in a clockwork maze of pre-invented structures.” Didier Eribon, in Returning to Reims, talks about how difficult it is to break out of the pre-invented system that we have been taught to obey since childhood:

All those people who want things to be “regular,” or “meaningful,” or to correspond to “stable points of reference” know they can count on the way adherence to the norm is inculcated into the deepest levels of our consciousness from our earlier years. This happens by way of our ongoing experience of the social world and by way of the discomfort – the shame – we come to feel when the part of the world in which we live fails to follow those tidily organized political and legal rules. The surrounding culture offers us those rules both as the only way life can be lived and as an ideal we must strive for. This is the case even if any such version of a normative family or familial norm in fact corresponds to nothing we ever encounter in real life.

For Wojnarowicz, the frame of reference has to change to expose the pre-invented structures, those foundations that are not organic, but man-made and that control us through surveillance and policing.

Homeless in America

Affordable housing is as much a problem today as it was in the 80s. In “America’s Affordable Housing Crisis: A Contract Unfulfilled,” Lance Freeman writes, “In 1989, 17% of renters paid more than 50% of their income for rent; in 1999, 20% did. Thus, during the period of the longest economic boom in history scarcely any progress was made in the arena of affordable housing.” During the summer of 2012, I decided to make a short documentary on street life in New York and New Jersey. I had just lost my job that previous winter, after a bookstore I had worked in for seventeen years closed and was unemployed. I was about to lose my apartment, which I eventually did, and so I decided to make a film about the homeless. But while I was shooting, I met many different kinds of street people, young and old, who were willing to talk about their experiences or otherwise had interesting and sometimes bizarre tales to tell. Making such a film, without any money or support, and facing the potential dangers of such encounters on the street, is a thankless task in America. The film was never finished but I did publish a book containing stills from the film. I now think of these images, collectively, as a document of the endurance of the human spirit. Wojnarowicz writes about an experience when he was living on the streets:

A mayor who recently decided to charge poor people for their shelter when the shelter is a daily nightmare of rape stabbings robbery and intimidation. When I lived on the streets as a teenager, I was given two tickets for two meals at the shelter on 48th street by the fat captain of the salvation army who said: “We usually don’t help people like you …” (I was rail thin and blood spurted from my mouth at every drag on a cigarette) The shelter kitchen hired a deranged drunkard as a guard to keep order in the food lines; I saw him bash out the eye of an old man who through dizziness stumbled against the door.

At the time when I was making the film I wrote in one of my notebooks: “There is an increasing divide between the everyday life of the average American and the life of the privileged rich. Many of these homeless men and women live outside these two worlds. They are invisible. But they have something to tell us. And we must listen.”

The Order of Things

In David Wojnarowicz’s origin story, he distinguishes between the actual world and the pre-invented world, that which is false and constructed by man, a world of consumerism, pre-fab houses, commercialism, sexual oppression, surveillance, etc. From Close to the Knives:

First there is the world. Then there is the Other World. The Other world is where I sometimes lose my footing. In its calendar turnings, in its pre-invented existence. The barrage of twists and turns where I sometimes get weary trying to keep up with it, minute by minute adapt: the world of the stoplight, the no-smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing, shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place whereby virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space, choice or movement. The bought-up world; the owned world. 

And this problem extends to language. In Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, Wojnarowicz opines,

I hate language. I hate what words are like. I hate the idea of putting these performed gestures on the tip of my tongue or through my lips or through my lips or through the inside of my mouth, forming sounds to approximated something that’s like a cyclone, or something that’s like a flood, or something that’s like a weather system that’s out of control, that’s dangerous, that’s alarming. I hate language in this moment because it seems like so much bullshit. It just seems like sounds that have been uttered back and forth now over centuries. And it all boils down to the same meaning within those sounds, unless you’re more intense in uttering them, or you precede them or accompany them with certain forms of violence.

Even in talking about all of this, I realize nobody could know what the fuck I am talking about – that it is ridiculous when it’s put into language. I’m lying on a bed that’s my bed, but it’s not my bed. It’s all these things of taste and design and ideas that have nothing to do with me, or that I want nothing to do with. And so I submit to them. I submit to the form of this bed. I submit to the feel of the cloth underneath me. 

There is seemingly no way out of this fabricated existence, this invented world; and so for Wojnarowicz: “We’ve been sold a corrupted and false history as well as a corrupted and false future – witness the elections or nightly news.” The order of things is maintained by erasure, destruction, induced lack of memory, detention, punishment; the visible, as the State, is given priority over the invisible, the immigrant, the queer person, the trans person, and asserts its dominance, as Paul B. Preciado writes in An Apartment on Uranus, by the use of “techniques of violence (against women, against children, against non-white men and women, against animals, against the planet as a whole)” and surveillance against those who’s gestures and appearance are not socially accepted and considered inferior, or “other.” Man has destroyed the natural world and is more concerned with constructing a kind of massive Disney land of entertainment, and mindless pleasures, all of which is aimed at brainwashing us in order to help us to consume what we don’t need, believe what we don’t believe, and place are hope in what can never happen; as certain animals become extinct in a ravaged land. Wojnarowicz writes: “With the invention of the word nature we instantly cut ourselves off from the ground we walk on; abstracted ‘nature’ to the point where we feel no identification with its destruction at our hands; the hands of industry or renewal. Using animals as a form to convey information about scale or intention is to take that power away from the human and return it to the life forms that have been abstracted into the ‘other.’” In In The Shadow of Forward Motion, for Wojnarowicz, all this involves our move away from spirituality, and our embrace of a materialist view that seeks to measure and map our way of life, in terms of economics, government, law, order, reason:

The desire for speed that started with the first forms of transportation and later accelerated with the invention of the wheel. The desire for sense in the arena of living; that search that has brought people outside of themselves to find location in time and space; distance and landscape; the coopting of landscape or physical space by attempting to conquer distance and if brought to an extreme would be in the possibility of standing still and simultaneously experiencing every inch of existence by looking outward whereas this has only resulted in the accumulation of billions of bits of outside description; books, films, photographs, writings, music, etc. It’s the journey inward that may solve the ultimate questions we have. Spirituality became a dirty word in this society because of human structure … as adults we are pressured to leave myth behind.

The Nazis destroyed modern art in order to produce images that conformed to their ideology; paintings of bucolic scenes, with healthy and strong heterosexual women and men maintained their idea of the all-powerful state apparatus while the others were being tortured and killed in concentration camps. Paul B. Preciado, in An Apartment on Uranus, writes, “We could say, reading Weber with Butler, that masculinity is to society what the State is to the nation: the holder and legitimate user of violence. This violence is expressed socially in the form of domination, economically in the form of privilege, sexually in the form of aggression and rape.” Instead of viewing the world as unified, singular, and bounded by walls it is more imaginative and revolutionary to view it as multiple, borderless, stateless, and changeable; because, as Wojnarowicz reminds us, the territory is not the map.

Possibilities for Human Connection

There may be no obvious way out of the pre-invented world but perhaps during certain moments when one confronts the actual world of nature, untouched by the human hand of the greedy industrialist whose sole purpose is to rape the natural world for profit and to satisfy his donors. In these special moments alone in nature, Wojnarowicz experiences a kind of transcendence. From Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz:

And in moments like this, with the sky the way it is, just mountains in the distance, I’m sitting on the curve of the earth and watching the light slowly dissipate. A few silhouetted cactuses and a bunch of bees trying to drink some water that’s sitting in a drinking fountain. A couple of them were jerks. They fell in and drowned, but I pulled a few out that were still struggling around. A few trees, just waving slowly. It’s just a real gentle moment. I’m here by myself and I don’t mind. I kind of wish it could just stay like this for maybe a few years, or I just never moved out of this spot. I could just watch the light stay like this. And maybe somebody coming along and just putting their arms around me for a few minutes.

This passage reminds me how teenagers often keep journals, think about love, and about their feelings, and are inclined to write and read poetry. It is the idealism of those years that eventually gets lost. Often, these same people go to college, to study business or computer programming, and forget about that idealistic world in the pursuit of profit. This is the script. And it’s so ingrained in one’s mind that few are able to fight it. If you step out of this structure, you face persecution, abuse, poverty, homelessness; and the world becomes dangerous and your life precarious. It seems like there is no way out of this structure. I don’t have an MFA and turned my back on my engineering background to pursue life as a writer, at times facing homelessness, violence, and the incomprehension of others. Wojnarowicz’s work gives one hope that an alternative world might be possible, one without the polished sheen of artificial surfaces, where everything appears pre-invented and geared toward making everyone into robots obsessed with money and power, just like those greedy profiteers, politicians, and religious fundamentalists who rule the pre-invented world. Just then perhaps real human connections could be possible.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. Forthcoming is his collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022), and Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).

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