[FC2; 2023]

Keith Raniere, the American cult leader, spoke in full sentences as a one-year-old. He taught himself high school math at age twelve, and by thirteen, he’d mastered coding. So the story goes, the beginnings of a myth, which—though immaterial to NXIVM’s philosophy—is crucial to its influence. Raniere co-founded NXIVM—a “company” specializing in human potential development—in 1998. The group’s philosophy borrowed largely from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which it cloaked in an idiosyncratic blend of corporate jargon and the cant of twelve step programs.

Like Raniere, Elon Musk billed himself as a rebel nonconformist, with a unique intellect and a prophetic vision. Their holistic philosophies were inalienable from a form of self-fashioning that rendered them insular and impervious to external critique. The two men are known to assert authority over fields of knowledge they know little about, and this, somehow, has garnered them a slew of loyal followers, who believe they alone can solve the world’s problems. Their overlap might be more like a personality.

Post-structuralist Jacques Derrida was also a careful guardian of his image. Quite literally. He avoided having his photograph taken. It wasn’t until 1979, when he began appearing increasingly in public debate, that photographs of him started popping up: iconic black and white images of a tousled paragon of brooding virility. As his celebrity status hit its zenith, he began fashioning himself, it would seem, after the late James Dean: pouting over the bowl of a pipe, a cat curled in his lap, peering rakishly over a popped collar. Sometimes, he posed sulkily in the vicinity of an open book. As evinced in his iconography, he was a celebrity, an intellectual, and a rebel without a cause.

Which is why in his mild and ever cogent manner, Noam Chomsky charges post-structuralism with undermining dedicated activism. According to Chomsky, the theory “allows people to strike a radical posture while remaining entirely dissociated from anything that’s happening.” What’s more, he calls it “an instrument of oppressive power structures.” Chomsky notes the material rewards that come of post-structural posturing, and notes too that as a general phenomenon, “it’s worked as a way of insulating sectors of radical intelligentsia from popular movements and actual activism.” In addition to this, Chomsky called it nonsense, deeming their theories “a simulation of knowledge” and compilations of overly fancy language designed to create the impression of profundity.

Ray Levy shares Chomsky’s views, I think. School eviscerates post-structural conceits, derides the cult-leader status of celebrity intellectuals, and denounces the academic pyramid scheme. School, a semi-auto fictional novel, follows Ray, a trans professor, “working in an endless sort of fashion at a liberal arts institution in decline,” and reflecting on his agonized past as a pre-transition graduate student.

The first section of the novel is titled “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man,” after Marquis de Sade’s work of the same title. Sade’s piece begins with a priest’s final question to a dying libertine:

Now that the fatal hour is upon you wherein the veil of illusion is torn aside only to confront every deluded man with the cruel tally of his errors and vices, do you, my son, earnestly repent?

The libertine repents—in a wry twist—only having indulged his keen appetites and strong passions too modestly. He regrets only having relied upon the priest’s doctrines to help him evade the tug of his desire. For Sade’s libertine, the priest’s doctrine entraps; it “blinds” its captives to their true nature.

School is also invested in the entrapment of a doctrine. In this case, post-structuralism, and more specifically queer theory. Levy’s dialogue opens with a question the protagonist poses to the priest. The “priest” in this case is a blend of mentor, former examiner, and a stand-in for queer theory in general. “When you write about yourself,” Ray asks, “I’ve noticed, you place the terms woman and lesbian in quotation marks. That’s one way to communicate that those words don’t fit. Although I feel like I may be stating the problem too lightly. How would you describe it?”

The exchange is intimate, confessional, vulnerable—and yet, it clearly performs a kind of power struggle between two doctrines. Sade’s and Levy’s dialogues turn on a similar question: why not articulate and pursue your desire?  

Levy’s dialogue dramatizes a longstanding tension between queer theory and transgender studies. Queer theory, indebted as it is to post-structuralism, is primarily attentive to sexuality and gender as social and cultural phenomena coded in language. It’s less invested in questions of materiality and embodiment.

There’s this myth that queer theory paved the way for trans studies, when in fact, as Cáel M. Keegan points out in “Against Queer Theory,” queer theory has needed the concept “trans” to “tell its foundational story about gender,” but does “not yet recognize trans studies as a discrete field.” Consequently,

queer theory is the containing ideological architecture against which trans studies must articulate itself. . . . It is not that trans studies is excluded per se, but that it is welcomed to perform only in alignment with specific, pre-existing scripts. . . . Trans studies scholarship is expected to uphold values central to queer theory (deconstruction and anti-normativity) and present itself as an affirmative subfield.

Levy’s pre-transitioned graduate student functions as a figure for trans studies. He suffers an agonizing form of entrapment: he cannot articulate what he wants because post-structuralism imposes a limit on what’s possible—a dead end.

While Sade’s dialogue is—to my mind—exclusively a power struggle, I found the relationship in School far more dynamic and complex. The narrator articulates to his mentor a desire for recognition or closure. The mentor’s text appears only as a series of ellipses. So, it’s unclear whether that recognition is granted. While the reader has no idea what the mentor does or doesn’t say, the narrator is, evidently, afforded the freedom to speak openly and with great intimacy. The dialogue is rich and capacious; it brims with gossip, laughter, denunciation, and affection. The interlocuters share a wound, but they view it through profoundly distinct ideological positions. The discourse attributed to the mentor cribs queer theory, while Levy’s protagonist channels trans studies. In Levy’s version, the mentor—though generous and kind, it seems—absorbs the critique and thereby becomes a symbol of the narrator’s disappointments. 

The narrator’s need to break free from a totalizing theology is still central; like Christianity, deconstruction presents itself as the hand that lifts the veil from the sinner’s eyes, so they might repent, and pursue want in an economy of endless deferral. Levy’s character—like the libertine—refuses absolution. Refuses the salvation of one day, maybe, being able to say “with delighted conviction that [he] knows how to read and [is] a woman in quotation marks.” Ray’s protagonist chooses “a simple form of futurity” instead.

He transitions.

“Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man” is the first of four sections. The second section, “A Sentimental Education,” includes a hilarious parody of Jacques Derrida’s ten-hour address on the ontology of nonhuman animals, wherein he detailed, at great length, his experience of being naked in front of his cat. Levy’s parody is written in quick, breathless sentences like Poe’s Tell Tale Heart. The narrative is told from the perspective of Derrida’s exploited graduate assistant, who according to Levy’s protagonist, Jacques liberally erased from his ten-hour seminar. In Levy’s version, the protagonist not only witnesses Jacques’s nakedness, but presents the old man with a warm towel. Thus, the parody comically juxtaposes Derrida’s critique of the human/animal binary with the professor/assistant binary, within which Jacques uncritically inhabits the privileged position.

The third section is also titled “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man,” but this portion of the discussion shifts its focus from the intellectual dead-end of graduate school to the economic dead-end of the profession.

In the traditional transition narrative, an unequivocal and internal knowledge of one’s true self frequently presages their transition. However, the final section of Ray’s novel, “The Use of Pleasure” reverses this sequence. Ray transitions and then he’s possessed by a decadent demon, with whom he collaboratively and dialogically produces a new interiority. The demon contains artistically inclined multitudes, all of whom subscribe to an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality. Ray holds a séance, of sorts. He believes he’s interviewing Rachilde, a fictional experimental film-maker, when it becomes evident that he’s summoned the demon spirit of a nobleman, who first inhabited—Russian doll-style—the decadent writer, Rachilde, then the (fictional) experimental film-maker, and now wishes to inhabit Ray. The narrator readily agrees to demonic possession and thereby achieves a kind of psychic fulfillment that was lacking in both his education and profession. Here, a kind of psychic reality of transness is presented as an end, not an origin; the demon represents both the artistic community and the tradition for which Ray has long yearned. The novel ends miraculously and happily in its offer of a nuanced relation between material and psychic conditions, suggesting that, perhaps, a material shift can precede a social construct or discursive tradition.

In the podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, Paris Marx ridicules Elon Musk’s belief that “it’s actually a virtue to be clueless about an industry you’re entering.” Musk, Marx notes, thinks through a very narrow technological lens, doesn’t tolerate dissent, and is highly dismissive of expert opinions. Musk’s hubris is akin to the colonial model of the Gates Foundation—which derails the work of local activists who have the knowledge and experience necessary to build sustainable improvements for their communities. And Derrida, too, had global ambitions, though his influences did not extend beyond the western canon. In Derrida: A Biography, Benoit Peeters records a memory of Clare Nancy, wherein Derrida drew her a map of the world and labeled the “countries where he was recognized, those where his enemies were dominant, and finally those where he was still unknown.” In short, he too was in the empire business.

The novel isn’t simply a critique of deconstruction’s colonial ambitions or the cultish qualities of academia, nor is it only a dramatization of the great clash between transgender studies and post-structuralism. The novel gushes with libidinal and economic want. It’s a novel about wanting—in some sense—and being schooled for it. It’s about how social and institutional discipline schools us into an identification with the instructed and self-satisfied, and out of wanting to change conditions that are not actually impossible to alter but which are local and within our reach. It is a novel written against the imperative to enjoy or take pleasure in deprivation. It is a novel, too, that engages with the immense and private delights of transition, ridicule, and gossip.

Jessica Alexander’s novella, None of This Is an Invitation (co-written with Katie Jean Shinkle), was published by Astrophil Press in summer 2023. Her story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her collaborative project, That Woman Could Be You, came out with BlazeVox in April 2022. Her novel, Agnes, We’re Not Murderers, is forthcoming from Clash Books.

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