A conversation between Elliot C. Mason and Susana Medina, on the publication of The Instagram Archipelago: Race, Gender, and the Lives of Dead Fish. At Burley Fisher bookshop, London, September 2022.
Susana Medina: You speak about the Sea as expansive homogenization, and propose Black Island thinking instead, where difference and resistance are celebrated. Do you see digital life as the best media to house this type of thinking? Towards the end of the book you talk, with longing and hope, about a physical place for people to gather, a social island where people’s ways of being cannot be subsumed in the Sea, or in the homogenizing force of capital, and about a possible utopia being the closed space of inwards study. Is escape resistance?
Elliot C. Mason: Maybe the title of the book is misleading, but I don’t see social media advertising companies as the site for archipelagos, where islands of difference maintain their way of being against the homogenization of the Sea/capital. The digital space is ultimately a visual spectacle. It’s the moments in the cinema between the lights turning off and the film coming on, adverts projected into a void where no other senses are registerable except the possibility of desire. The digital space is the expansive terrain of a kind of choir of billboards.
Some theorists have tried to speak about the users of social media as the products being sold, but that’s a misunderstanding. The product of social media companies is advertising space, the owners of that space are the data monopolies—Facebook, Twitter, etc.—and the customers are the advertisers. It’s a classic business model, in the end. The users are the potential buyers, the people who are expected to respond to the adverts. In that sense, the digital space is quite remarkably similar to any physical space we inhabit. Adverts cross my experience constantly, whether I’m scrolling through Instagram or walking through town or sitting on my sofa.
The sites of resistance I talk about, those island spaces to escape to, don’t necessarily abolish the visual spectacle of advertising, because what’s the point of that? It can be fun, like tearing down the statues, and it can bring people together and stop the offensive worship of violence that gathers in those monuments, but it doesn’t change the fundamental problem. The problem isn’t the statues but the continuation of a history of domination that is narrativized by those testaments to slavery, to colonization, to whatever it might be. And equally, the advertising space of social media is just a sign for a political system that has wholly subsumed itself within the function of the economy: all social life has been collapsed into economic life, and nothing matters but the continuation of the economy, as the perverse idiocy of this new Conservative government in the UK is showing us once again—only the economy matters, or at least the symbolic order of the economy as the single meaningful expression of the nation; lives don’t matter.
But that’s not to say that some kind of individual, libertarian escape is the answer. I don’t propose people singularly running off into the woods like some medieval saint and just living with the birds and bees. The islands are specifically and especially about being-together, which becomes an extension of the conditions of being rather than some opt-in hang-out for when the weather’s good. These islands are ways of being-together otherwise, ways of communicating that cannot be accumulated into the data-processing function of digital space or the property relations of physical space. The islands I talk about are those moments that capital cannot find a way to mediate.
This summer my mum got divorced and all my siblings and I—my mum has five children—came back from all the places where we live and all the things we do with our lives to just sit in her kitchen and hold her while she cried. We spent the summer drinking wine with our mum, doing this thing called being-together that cannot be computed in the productive pursuits of capital, of the Sea. That is an island language we developed, an island ethics of care and of being-together. For the moment, that’s our little island of resistance against the violence of this careless order. The island is the impulse to maintain that way of being, against capital’s desire to capture that care and turn it into more energy for the homogenizing project of the Sea.
SM: You use the Sea as a metaphor for lots of things: expansive homogenization, the empire, the police, neoliberal capitalism. The metaphor makes sense as an invasive force. There is, of course, the initial connection of sea and empire—as the song goes ‘Britannia rules the waves’—in which the sea is subjugated. From an ecological point of view, and this is on a different plane, of course, the sea is sheer diversity; each wave is unique, the sea is still largely unexplored, and it’s an ecosystem that is in grave danger, through human-caused climate breakdown and recurrent wreckage. The sea is very much a victim of rampant capitalism, a homogenous gaze, neoliberalism, and all the forces you make it a metaphor of. How do you navigate these ideas? Are you changing the meaning of the signifier in a way that it inflicts upon it a different kind of violence?
ECM: For sure, I have committed some kind of narrative sin against the sea in this book. I have nothing against the sea, the real sea of water and fish, I should say! In a way my desire to write the book was initially a kind of saviour complex about the fish that I saw in those strange and horrifying photos on Idan’s Instagram account. The endless repetition of images of fisherwomen dangling fish corpses on yachts created a very filmic experience of murder, witnessing these carcasses used as entertainment.
In Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both, one of the main characters, a teenage girl in Cambridge, sees a porn video for the first time and is so stunned by the aggressive semiotics of its performance that she doesn’t know how to react. She wants to save the performer in the scene, this woman who is used like a speechless commodity. So this teenager decides to watch the video once every day, just to mark her presence with the performer, to be there with her, wherever that actress is, so she doesn’t feel alone inside the video.
In one sense, it’s a critique of this liberal attempt at sympathy, at just turning up and standing there despite it being useless, this bourgeois liberal way of thinking that we can be the saviour of everyone who’s suffering. I recognize that in myself too. I’ve never known how to act against the horror of living in capitalism, so throughout my adult life I’ve just turned up at meetings, stood around with socialists, waiting for someone to present something better, to do something that changes all the doom. And in that sense there’s something very relatable about that teenager’s need to just be there, to just turn up every day at the scene of the video and witness it, to bear that inside herself, no matter how unbearable it is to bear.
But then what it comes down to—the real pointlessness of her sympathy—is a misunderstanding of what sympathy is. Because it’s not the ability to put oneself in someone else’s position. How would it possibly help the porn actress to know that a teenager in England is imagining what it’s like to be a porn star in L.A. or wherever she is? It’s useless. That kind of sympathy presumes a fundamental separation between the objects of our pain; it presumes the things that cause my suffering in the world are completely separable from the things that cause your suffering, and that is an illusion. That’s just false. Sympathy, instead, is the sharing of a general pain, as Fred Moten says. Sympathy is specifically the maintenance of the island, not the universalization of the Sea—it’s saying, I don’t know what a porn performance is like, what it’s like to exchange my time literally as my body, for my commodity to be myself, but I know what it’s like to exist in a misogynist economy, I know what it’s like for feckless patriarchal bigots to rule my legal access to medicine, I know all about the differential respect given to any task deemed a feminine task, I know about the ubiquity of perves and all the eyes that spread across the street, up my skirt, down my top. It’s the sharing of a general pain, not the placing of oneself on the island of an other.
When I first saw Idan’s images on Instagram, I was horrified. I wanted to save the fish, at least, and then in my more violent moments I imagined I could “save” those fisherwomen from the pervy fishermen who took them out on yachts. Presuming no one had agency but myself, that no one has ethics but myself, I universalized my own ways of being in the world and thought I could place myself in the position of those fisherwomen, of those fish. That’s how, I think, I ended up refusing to see the sea as the sea, as its own island of resistance against its brutal pollution by the Sea. Instead I turned it into a gimmick for my theory of the Sea, without understanding the sharing of a general pain between me, the fish, and the real sea.
But readers are better at reading than I am at writing, so I hope—and from conversations so far, I think it’s true—that people see the sea, not only the Sea, and they can celebrate its way of being beyond the limitations of my metaphor. Readers share a general pain, which is what brings us to reading texts, I guess.
SM: How does Black radicalism and its difference, its resistance to homogeneity, differ from relativism, in the way that both resist being absorbed? ‘What I propose is a cultural logic that celebrates non-universal ways of thinking,’ you write in the introduction to the book. That would be lovely, but some of us already have that cultural logic; we are forced into it. As a disabled person, I cannot choose to be part of the hegemonic logic.
ECM: It’s true, as you say, that many people don’t have a choice in their island language being separated from the universal form of the Sea. The ways of being of many people is necessarily excluded from the dominant way of being of the Sea, of the normative order. I’m certainly not attempting to dissuade or reject anyone’s struggle, whatever it might be. If the queer struggle is in pursuit of legal recognition and the state regulation of marriage extending to them, then I’m not going to say anything against it. My way of studying is to listen to people’s own struggle, to trust their ways of organizing their own social life, rather than proposing some universal project for everyone.
All I’ve learnt in these few decades of life I’m blessed to have been given is to shut up and listen. I disagree with the idea that the law can ever be ethical, or that the law can give anything like an ethical opening into social life—all it can do is close and fold the various (island) lives of people into the normative order of the state and its economy—but still, if LGBTQI+ people say they want the “freedom” offered by the law because the alternative is the legal justification of violence against them, then there’s no way I’m going to say anything against that. And if I can do anything to help—if they want some white bloke who usually performs the set of codes misguidedly called “straight”—then I’ll be there to help them, to make the coffees or whatever.
And I’ve certainly realized that the simple celebration of difference takes on a particular risk when you are the one performing the difference. Living in London, where I’m from, it was easy to theorize difference because I basically display no difference, apart from being a communist in a capitalist society but that’s not marked on me, no one can tell that from looking at me. But when I moved to Sweden, almost two years ago now, my performance of difference took on a certain kind of risk, not the same scale of risk of many other people living in Sweden—racialized, gendered, disablized, religious ways of being, or those registered by the state as “refugees”—but a risk nonetheless, then it took on a whole different tone for me. Sweden just voted in a block of right-wing parties which includes the far right, a party that was once explicitly neo-Nazi, so being a foreigner isn’t so celebratory anymore, even a white British foreigner, with all the privileges that assumes.
So there’s a huge amount of naivety in the whole theory of islands, on my part. But in the sense that the theory comes down to a practice of stopping, staying, and listening, then it maybe doesn’t matter how naive and insufficient I personally am as the theorist, or at least the person who arbitrarily stamped their name on the front of the book despite the theories inside the book of course coming from everyone around me, everyone I speak to, everyone I listen to.
But in terms of relativism, I don’t think it’s the same. I write quite a bit about religion in the book, about the social production of a moral order that’s sealed within that social way of life, but that isn’t relative in the sense of arising necessarily out of those geographical, historical, economic, social or whatever conditions. The moral order is universal within the limits of the people it applies to, among the people who adopt that moral code. And the ethics of the island is about maintaining the practice that works for those who involve themselves within it, rather than trying to categorize and delineate exactly the parameters of what conditions give rise to certain ways of being.
SM: You satirize and reappropriate the label of “female artist”, turning it into a metaphor for the kind of island art practices you talk about, those that form languages and socialities that cannot be subsumed into the universalizing project of the Sea. “Female artists” rupture universality. As you write, “the whole point is that the language she uses is a language specific to herself.” There can be a kind of language that women are more likely to identify with, but I also see that language as sharing a knowledge that others are welcome to understand, even if they cannot experience it; to share the trauma from the mostly historical absence of women in the arts. Are you proposing an exclusionary ethics? A ethical program meant specifically for people who aren’t you?
ECM: That’s a difficult question. I think this goes back to what I was saying about the sharing of a general pain, that beautiful formula that Moten puts together in an interview with Millennials Are Killing Capitalism. There is differential access to that general pain, which affords both juridical/economic punishment and a privilege of being outside that logic of punishment, which Moten, in his book Stolen Life, calls the “the underprivilege of being sentenced to the gift of constant escape”.
There is something that is known specifically in that underprivileged space, where the misogynist economy reproduces the feminized category of exclusion from certain spaces, of undervaluation, of imposed expectations about conduct and sex and social placement and care. Those expressions of patriarchal violence produce a unity in exclusion, and it is that unity that forms the meaning of being internal to the logic of those people excluded through feminization.
What I mean is that gender is an arbitrary logic that divides people according to who is expected to perform the set of behaviours deemed hegemonic and who is expected to be outside those behaviours, either incapable of those behaviours or excluded and banned from them, but the effect that that has on those excluded is a unique way of knowing the world, a special access to being that cannot be known in the hegemonic framework. That is the gift of being sentenced to constant escape. The feminized person is condemned to escape as the behaviours of misogynist authority chase them down and regulate their conduct, but that very act of constant escape is the access to a way of being otherwise.
Then, for sure, that way of knowing isn’t exclusive to those who are forced into it, or those whose historical/economic/ontological conditions gave rise to that way of knowing. If someone else can sit and learn from it then that’s even better. The island, as I describe it in The Instagram Archipelago, is a porous sociality, through which specific forms of communal knowledge are distributed as the archipelago. It isn’t sealed forever. The islands are maintained precisely to keep other islands alive. That’s the praxis of the archipelago, a kind of underground network of ways of knowing that are not mediated by the production of value and the pursuit of knowledge as property.
What I mean is that I don’t think the people designated “men”—meaning those who don’t escape, and ideally enforce the borders of gender, rather than those condemned to constant escape—shouldn’t be involved in feminism, or that the set of symbolic inheritances that result in “white” people shouldn’t turn up for antiracist struggle. It’s just that when we do, our involvement should begin and continue as the practice of shutting up and listening.
Now, of course, by writing this book I’m not shutting up and listening. It’s 150 pages of me talking. But maybe that’s more a question for my psychoanalyst than for my publisher or my friends in the struggle.
SM: You talk about the theories of Jasbir K. Puar, about trans people disavowing their relationship to disability, and being integrated into a neoliberal vision, because the aim of that vision is to render all bodies productive. Does this apply universally to the category of disability, though? What about people who wear glasses? What also came up for me when reading those passages was the question of the desire of disabled people. The desire to recover, to walk, hear, see, to feel at ease in your own body, and that that doesn’t necessarily need to be a neoliberal imperative to improve oneself or return to some ideal productivity. These are complex lives, and what mainly affects these communities is suffering; it’s the emotive aspect of disability, the feeling of being other. The fact is that society disables people by taking difference into account. In any case, these communities have a long history of pain and resistance, alongside absorption into ideas of “normality” that might only be partially feasible because of trauma.
ECM: I think Puar’s work on transness and disability is very difficult to read. She draws an intentionally striking and in a sense quite offensive link between becoming trans and unbecoming disabled. To fail to perform the correct set of gendered behaviours, for Puar, is disablizing; it renders the body a disabled body by its incorrect use of gendered expectations. By adopting the normative pharmaceutical procedure of transitioning, by investing in the production of medicines and regulating treatments that claim to correct the nonconforming body, trans people disavow their disability and become able-bodied, having made their nonconformance of gender at least conform to economic productivity.
I think the reduction of everything to economic impulses is very often unhelpful, but in this case I’ll take an economic angle: to be disabled, in the fury of the capitalist totality we pseudo-live in, is to be improperly economically productive. To be disabled is to fail to be a functioning producer of value. However, there are ways in which this very failure, as capital deems it, is appropriated by capital and becomes productive. As you mention, glasses are exemplary. Not being able to see properly, in the range of visual coordinates deemed proper for tasks of value-production, means being unable to produce in the same way as others. But the economy is compensated by those people purchasing glasses, investing in the fashion of eyewear, paying for the distribution and production of contact lenses, circulating images of cool glasses on social media companies, etc.
What could have hindered productivity becomes another opportunity for the production of value. The pharmaceutical industry’s production of “treatments” to regulate the expected conformance of the gender-nonconforming body is a massive part of the economy. These drug monopolies are grotesquely successful at making profit, and what their model relies on is essentially the faith of trans people in the idea that they are improperly nonconforming. For pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs to trans people, those people must believe that they are disabled because they have not been accurately gendered. They have failed to perform the set of behaviours and ways of being that would make them fit the binary model, so they are rendered as disabled. That failure is narrated as a debt to society, a debt which can only be repaid by investing in the production of value: they reclaim their productivity by disavowing their disability, instead becoming properly trans, which is to say a proper product of what Franco Berardi has called “psychopharmacological maintenance”.
But anyway, those are just my thoughts on Puar. I find her work so interesting, but I don’t know anything about disability. I wear glasses, but that’s basically the extent of my experience of disability, aside from a personal involvement in caring for someone deemed disabled, but I don’t think I’m ready to sort of turn that into theory yet. I would be very interested in hearing your opinion of this. We’ve spoken about it before, about your deafness—I remember you referring to yourself as a “bionic woman”. And I think it’s very interesting what you say about the emotions and the desire of being disabled, of having been disabled by the general refusal to adapt to difference.
SM: The Israeli artist your book is about, Idan Hayosh, says he’s not interested in political statements or national, collective guilt, but in “the possibility of a very personal responsibility.” Is your writing about Israel a rebuke to this statement? When talking about Israel, you write about foundation myths and systemic and arbitrary sacrificial death. In the case of Israel, given the trauma, and the chronology, one would expect a different narrative, one focused more on the contemporary state rather than its mythical foundations. But you also talk about the exodus, and the gathering practices of biblical Jews as a kind of proto-island. But has property now become the ultimate ontological pursuit, making state murder always about property, and tradition something that can no longer be invoked? I would have loved to see more on Palestine lives. How can they build their black islands?
ECM: I think my discussion of Israel is more theological than political, in the sense that I’m talking about biblical Israel, looking into how the early Israelites were constructing an island of their own, a historical and social island in which their mode of communication and their way of being was specific to themselves. The God of the Tanakh, in my reading of it at least, seems to me to be solely the God of Israel. He’s not concerned with the rest of the world. It’s the story of how one family set up a little place to call their own. Now, I certainly don’t mean for that reading to be brought forward to this contemporary imperial Israel and its mechanisms of murder and conquest.
Anything about contemporary Israel in the book is understood only through Idan, through his experience as an Israeli artist. His three years of compulsory military service have essentially established the art practice of the rest of his life. His aesthetics are so brutal, so military, in a way, and it’s that heavy remnant of trauma and the pervasive persistence of the imperial war-machine in his work that I find so interesting. Even physically, he’s like a testament to the twisted optics and explosive soundscape of war. He’s tall and speaks in a fiery baritone, somehow excessively calm, if that makes sense, but with a Leonard Cohenesque growl in his voice that always feels like it could blow, like the fuse of his gentle patience is tethered to his memories of war. He also smokes constantly, so as he stands beside you, his deep voice like torn silk rubbed onto your ear drums, he’s burning, like the rubble of some city only recently destroyed.
Personally, the weird thing about the book is that I never actually met him until the first book launch. We had only communicated by email and over Instagram. I told him I was writing about him, and he sent all these affirmations of his love. Like everyone else, I’m always in lack of love, in pursuit of more, and those celebrations just pushed me endlessly into the writing of the book. But it was clear that he didn’t really need the book. It wasn’t what he wanted, it was just something he accepted being around.
When I finally met him, at the release party in Bolzano at the gallery where I first saw his work, he told me he hadn’t read a book since 2006. I realized then that I’d been the Sea, subsuming his island language into my own universalizing practice. I’m a PhD student in literature—books are my bread and butter, they’re everything I think about and do all day. But that way of accessing the world has nothing to do with Idan. If I had met him before writing the book, I think I would never have written the book. The whole premise of the book is based on a refusal to listen to the artist’s own way of being in the world. It’s like I’ve become the personification of Israel in his own lingering trauma.
But anyway, I don’t think I try to rebuke his refusal of collective guilt. There’s this great Leonard Cohen line, from ‘Lover Lover Lover’: “I asked my father, I said, ‘Father, change my name. The one I’m using now is covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and blame.’” Some people, in their struggle, are focused on the changing of their name, the refusal of that collective guilt as a way of entering a different kind of access to the world, a way of stepping sideways out of that capturing frame of seeing that defines the world entirely as guilt, as shame, in that very precise way that is shared by Catholics and Jews, both having a connection to God that is always mediated by a public performance of their dedication. Others, meanwhile, are focused on the second part of Cohen’s lyrics, on the blame itself, the history that is narrated as continuous cowardice, as fear and guilt. You can pick the precise and personal or the broad and historical. In the end I’m not sure it’ll make that much difference. They’re both a struggle for a practice of constant escape.
But anyway, I’d love to hear more about the Palestinian struggle too, their islands of resistance. I’m not the one to speak about it, but I want to listen.
SM: You talk a lot about imperialism, the history of empire, the connections between British history and the Israeli present. How do you see this in the context of the Queen’s death, where a certain past is invoked to shape the future that continues that mythical past? Yes, we cannot focus on the male gaze when it comes to islands of resistance. We need to move towards a new gaze, or some way of being that isn’t a gaze at all- What kind of gaze do we need to develop? I’m thinking about how climate breakdown requires a coming together. Can we do so in an archipelagic kind of way?
ECM: One of the things that I learn from black studies is that the struggle precedes the oppression. The rebellion is already going on before it is captured and subsumed in the expansive drive of power. The struggle—ethically and historically—is primary. And in that sense, I’m not necessarily looking for a new gaze, a new formulation of seeing that isn’t already enclosed within the optics of racialization and misogyny. I’m just seeing if I can help in any way to bring the struggle back, to take back the rebellion that was always ours anyway, that we have always been doing. The practices that exceed the violence of capital are already happening. The gathering is gathered, it just needs to find a way of staying gathered.
Of course, like any oppressive force, like any colonial institution, Elizabeth Windsor is the continued suppression and violent foreclosure of the social life of the struggle. Like any unethical thief, any inheritor of slaughter and looter of social wealth, she is the force that disavows the possibility of our being-together. She is the guard keeping people away from social wealth, from the struggle that precedes our social life. Theft and the denial of theft is all those people have ever done. The only game they’ve ever been involved in is the flaunting of our coagulated blood. So, in that sense, all I think is fuck her. Fuck all those pricks. Fuck her children and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. The only ethical response to the living monuments of massive violence is their abolition, the abolition of their lives as royalty.
The thing with these things is that the archipelago forms a language and a praxis between the islands, but the Sea is loud, the Sea is powerful, the Sea is overbearing. Those Windsor wankers are the Sea, obviously. The quieter they get—the quieter we make them—the more we hear the archipelago. That’s not to try and universalize the language of the islands or turn practices of struggle into the dominant mode of operating, but rather to learn from the ways things are done differently in pursuit of the abolition of the dominant way of being, which is to say the abolition of capitalism as the force that invests in the destruction of the planet and in the continued power of those who profit from that destruction.
We can, I think, get rid of the Sea and live with only islands, infinite islands, each speaking its own way of being. Now, in these moments of grand theorizing, I reveal the kind of Foucauldian-Deleuzian parts of this project, the proposition for an infinite network of difference, difference that is always different to itself. I want to avoid any association with those behemoths of theory. My project isn’t like theirs, but then again there are moments when similitude arises on its own. So for now I’ll just accept it. I’ll let the Sea of theory wash over me.
I want islands of endless difference, and the abolition of the Sea. I don’t know how to get that, but loads of people do, and they’re already doing it. By writing The Instagram Archipelago, I hope that some of those people can be helped in some way towards getting a world of islands. I hope to help their project against the Sea. And if it does help them, then hopefully they’ll let me—me and everyone else—turn up to their gathering, sit beside them in their struggle, and listen.