Text messaging, parasexual literature, and psychiatry in drag.
I personally don’t know where relationships come from, but I suspect they are conceived in the gaps between our boundaries. Beau Rice’s Tex (Penny-Ante Editions, 2014) is an exploration of such borders and what connects them: a study in masculinity, language, and space in the form of 252 bound pages of text messages. Here Rice has archived eight months of an exclusively digital relationship with the diffident Matt G. It is rife with emoji, word play, and theory; it is interrupted by emails from friends, Craigslist hookups, and someone who wants insurance money. The book treats sex (and there is a lot of it) as obscene and vulnerable, often both at the same time. Ultimately, maybe, Rice’s archive speaks of desire: in love, in language. It is the grid-work that fills the gap. Tex’s appeal to desire is electronically contoured, taking shape as a set of sentient haikus:
So much of the stuff i
read is inspired and
motivated by intense
writer people meeting
aloof/absent men and
being shaken up by them
but it’s like the 21st century,
don’t they know how to
have textual intercourse?
I first met Beau a few years ago at the Jewel’s Catch One disco club in Los Angeles. Like a relationship comprised of text messages, Rice himself is a taut balance of glittering wit and self-aware anxiety. We chatted online about process, personality, eroticism, and Internet sex.
Aiden Arata Tex has been described as “a performance act in text”—do you agree with that?
Beau Rice I suppose the composition of the book was a performance to the degree that texting people, especially people absent from your everyday life, is inherently performative. There are inconsistencies in the ways I narrate myself to different interlocutors at different times, and I think that's pretty normal—using white lies to frame anecdotes in a way that sensibly expresses your feelings about things. But I wouldn't pursue the performance thing too far, because the truth is that Matt and I text in pretty much the same way even after we become aware that the dialogue is bound for future publication. Still, I think texting as a style of writing is performative and prone to irony or even falseness.
AA Or, it’s performative in the service of authenticity. Like Degas saying he didn’t paint what he saw, but painted what enabled others to see what he saw. I think this performative nature also draws more attention to itself in text, maybe.
BR I'm also interested in texting as a form of mass-culture poetry. Long text messages appear as these narrow things, at least on most phones, and they're very enjambed, and as someone versed in poetry (with a special fondness for skinny poems) I am affected by that. Also, they're economical, and condensed—like imagine you're replying in one message to several different ideas that someone has sent you—the challenge to compose something that can enjoyably link all of them feels like the challenge asserted by an emergent poem. And so, in the past ten or so years, this style of writing has become normalized, but I think it resembles poetry, which is still widely maligned, more than any conventional prose style.
AA You also do non-textual performance art, correct?
BR Yeah, I have a drag persona. Her name is Aporia Caprice. She's a louche-seeming and overconfident low-end psychologist. She does one-on-one performances for people in private rooms at parties, or at least that's been her context so far. The first one was about how she gave up her practice as a psychic in Culver City after being visited by the ghost of Freud's wife's sister, Minna Bernays, with whom he quite possibly had an affair. This made her go off and start operating a rogue psychoanalytic practice, trying to recruit people to join “a laboratory for new intimacies.”
It was intentionally creepy, and for those who she selected, they were then given the privilege of paying an exorbitant monthly fee to participate. A few people were so dazed by the interaction that they even gave me their credit card info.
The other thing I've done, as her, was getting people to sign up for her new tech startup, Personology.com, that claims to present a new and superior form for online dating based on discredited characterologies from throughout history.
AA There’s something very mirror-like in the one-on-one performance, and I think also in Tex’s percipience. What are the benefits of narcissism?
BR That's a deep question for me, and I'm not sure how to answer it. What I can point to is a concept that fascinated me in the very early stages of making Tex, which is literary theorist Leo Bersani's idea of "impersonal narcissism"—which became for me an optimistic sense of the possibilities of people being narcissistic together, and tolerant of the narcissism of others.
AA Do you think that people are inevitably self-involved then? How do we work with that?
BR I think artists, and particularly young writers, are a very self-involved class of people. I don't know about self-involvement as universal—for example, what about people who work tirelessly as nurses or activists? But to be involved with oneself also seems like a description of consciousness, so it's philosophical and therefore outside of my capacity to offer much clarity. Rather than narcissism, I’ve recently been into thinking about pygmalionism—the condition of being absorbed in an objectified version of the self rather than in some watery reflection of it.
AA So many writers consider themselves activists and vice versa. I wonder if that's a fallacy—like if it’s possible to direct our love of attention away from ourselves and toward other things.
BR One way of doing that, I think, is acknowledging the limits of what excites or interests us. Then again, psychologist Adam Phillips writes somewhere that there's nothing more narcissistic than talking about your own narcissism.
AA This seems like something you have anxiety over in the book.
BR It’s a fear of being boring, and a masochistic capacity for exploring that.
AA Was writing this a way of punishing yourself?
BR I think of it as counterphobia—just putting it all out there in print because ugly feelings are so often seeping out of me anyways. I was also motivated to make something with therapeutic value, and to contrast myself with Matt, who does real work as a therapist.
As for punishment, in my experience of being the submissive in highly codified (plus totally gay male) BDSM experiences, I always feel so in control, even serviced. I'm interested in BDSM as a kind of spa treatment. I always feel so refreshed afterwards. And because the bodily pleasure is frequently not genital, I think it narrows the gap between sex and non-sex. That's not about narcissism, but there you have it. I can sense a connection to narcissism (or—new preference—pygmalionism) but I can't find the words for it.
AA I think one of the best motifs in the book is Matt's study of psychology. That narrative seems to unfold really organically; did you curate these conversations at all or do you just have an exceptionally expository and well-timed textual relationship with Matt?
BR The conversation with Matt, which takes up about 75% of the book, was edited to be readable for people with no knowledge of us. I didn't alter the content much at all, and most of the time when I tried to I ended up going back to what we had originally texted. The “third-party stream,” which is the other 25% of the book, wasn't so much curated as built out of everything I had in my inboxes, with preference given for diversity of tones and styles of connections.
AA Working with real people, do you feel indebted to what actually occurred?
BR Yes. To replace what people wrote with my own words felt violent.
AA Matt’s awareness/complicity with your documentation is interesting. That actually becomes part of the narrative, the book trying to finish itself.
AA How do you feel about Tex being your first book? Is this something off of which you want to build a body of work?
BR Yes and no. Yes because the form holds inquiries about all kinds of things that interest me, and no because I want to distance myself from the messy text message form.
AA Do you worry that because this book is “real,” you’ve dropped jokes that you might like to repeat, like when you want to impress someone or get laid or something, and you can’t use them anymore because they’re in print?
BR That is real, yeah, but I'm not worried. Maybe I’ll do the Joyce Carol Oates thing and not allow my partner (if this person ever materializes) to read any of my work.
AA It occurred to me, while reading Tex, that you have to be culturally iPhone to understand this text—though you could probably be, like, ethnically Android or something. But really, you’d have to be fluent in iPhone.
BR Really? What about the text is particularly iPhone to you? I mean, other than emoji, which remain available only to the Apple elite—not to suggest that I see them as wholly positive.
AA Yes, the emoji specifically were what I was thinking of, because we get their descriptors, but unless you're versed in emoji, you don't know what it means to send someone a lock or two dancing girls.
BR But what does it mean? Very little!
AA But if you don't know what it means, you don't know how important it is! There are other codes too—queer culture and LA culture, maybe Texas culture, drug culture …
BR Yeah, the book is hinged on the particularity of the cultures I live in. But I think there's something feminist, and something queer, about particularity itself.
AA We need to do a test. I need the opinion of someone with a flip phone.
BR I'd be interested to know that.
AA Can you expound on these feminist/queer aspects of particularity?
BR I can try. The patriarchal hegemony is based on a universalizing conception of the straight male. A lot of the feminist literature that inspires me seems to come from a writer who has given herself permission to write what she knows, even though men will continue marginalizing her for failing to capture “the human experience.” But what the fuck is that? Me going to queer dance parties may seem trivial, and it is, but so is Ben Lerner doing a writing residency in Marfa, or Karl Ove Knausgaard failing to open a beer bottle with a lighter. So it seems we’re seeing the emergence of a hetero-male tradition of this, this style of exposing the affective actuality of the writer’s failure-ridden daily life. But what makes me sick is the disparity of esteem given to these books by men, regardless of their merit.
As for queerness, I'd say that the particularity of a person's desires or their relationship to shame is what makes the more normal sexual categories inadequate.
AA How do you feel about publishing a physical book of electronic source material, rather than going the ebook route? What’s the deal with the thingness of this?
BR I’m very pleased with the thingness of it. I think that materiality and objecthood are a theme of the book so it sort of completes that aspect. And obviously if you publish a book and tell everybody that it’s an ebook people are less enthusiastic about it. And less resentful, because that happens too.
AA Do people resent you? Have you been getting hate mail?
BR No, I haven’t, but I’ve gotten three manuscripts from strangers in my inbox, and one scathing review from a writer in my demographic who hates the way Matt and I talk about “normcore” in the book.
AA What are you reading right now?
BR I am reading Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting by Sianne Ngai. It's difficult, but I highly recommend it. Also I'm so excited to show you this book I just got: Sex and the Cyber Citizen. It's from the ‘90s. My friend Boh gave it to me, he found it in the erotica section of a used bookstore in the Valley.
It's by this woman Cleo Odzer, a former groupie who got a PhD in anthropology and went on to write these bizarrely personal ethnographies. She returns to New York after conducting research on prostitution in Thailand, and is just astounded by the existence of chat rooms; and she's computer savvy, so she's able to get super into cyber sex.
AA Oh, this is a non-fiction book. I immediately assumed it was an erotic pulp novel.
BR No, it’s hilariously serious. Serious and polemical about how amazing chat sex is. Also there are all these obsolete terms, like “fleshmeet,” for when you meet someone from the Internet in person for the first time.
AA “Once having met online, they soon exchange phone numbers and call each other.” This sounds like a guide for aliens who want to have Internet sex like human people.
BR The quotes from other sources are isolated in these gray chat boxes, which I admire, and the font is so early Internet. It's written in a singularly odd language full of outdated acronyms and porny chatting. She’s really amazed by this ASCII rose: ---<---<@
AA ---<---<@ ++
BR She died under mysterious circumstances in the Goa hippie community, in India, in 2001. Because she got so involved with online socializing, there are all of these people who contribute to message boards in her memory. I'm fascinated by them. And even though her book is absolute kitsch, I think her shock over the possibilities of sexual expression on the Internet are legitimate, and I love it as a reminder of how weird online socializing often is.
Also, I want to tell you about this idea for a project my friend Tracy had—compiling and publishing the cover letters and job applications of writers. There’s nothing I would find more embarrassing, so that makes me into it. I guess I just like the idea of turning the menial work we have to do, especially as twenty-somethings, into “real” work and not having that be concealed from the culture.
AA We’re in a weirdly exciting place because everyone’s struggling. We don’t have to deal with as many books about writers, because no one is just a writer anymore.
BR But there’s also this growing genre of, like, Brooklyn Fiction. Literary culture in a phase of decadence, with all these celebrated novels milking their own milieu.
AA Where does your book come into play, in/against that tradition?
BR I didn't start seeing my book as a novel until it was almost finished. One thing I can say is that the book has a different attitude to labor. I didn't work hard on it in the way that MFA students are trained to worry over short stories for years. It was “soft work.” Also, it's collaborative. It's not from one brain. Now I'm reading the Wikipedia page for “soft skills.” Can we talk about sex or something?
AA I feel like the book addresses sex so head-on. I’m left with few questions.
BR Here's something—Beau in the book is caught between being a slut and wanting a boyfriend. And he's agonistic about it. In an incoherent, contradictory way.
AA Is that different from IRL Beau? And is IRL Beau different from online Beau who is talking to me now?
BR They're the same.
AA You write (in the form of a text to Matt), “i feel shitty for demanding your attention when you obviously want some hotter honest guy who flosses all the time to kiss. my only hope is that you feel weird if i become famous.” And then you say “bye” to him, on page ten—the whole book is like trying to end itself all the time, then something interesting happens, and the text stops trying to suicide because it’s distracted by attention or a clever message. That’s probably a metaphor for something.
BR I don't think of it as a metaphor, just a demonstration of the weird ways people go about having long-distance text relationships.
AA Do you think it's possible to have a successful text relationship?
BR Yes! I think a long-distance text relationship can operate as a low-grade, but still promising, form of psychoanalysis.
AA Must it be punctuated by IRL interactions? Or at least the promise of them, even if that promise never comes to fruition?
BR No, not necessarily. To extend the psychoanalysis connection, it may be better in certain cases if IRL interactions are avoided. Epistolary relationships, of course, have existed for centuries. The difference for us is the constant and fragmentary nature of texting. I met someone in San Francisco last weekend who claimed to work for a company that owns the technology for "someone-is-typing" bubbles.
Which are a recent development that alter the form of our (over)sharing. They encourage us to wait for people to finish their thinking-through on things. I think they're good. The guy was a classist asshole though, the kind of person SF is being lost to, apparently.
AA Yes, Bay Area OkCupid is full of tech-bros who claim to love nature, but really I think they love indoor rock climbing and the friction of a harness on their balls in the name of disruption. Unrelated/related: I like that Tex talks so much about sex, but it's not really manifested.
BR Unrelated/related: I'm sure I would love to suck the cocks of many of them. I always see so many hot straight dudes in the bay.
AA … Can I publish that?
BR Yeah, of course!
AA I hope you net a tech daddy. A Paypal papi.
BR I don't think I could successfully sustain a sugar-daddy relationship. I'm not passive enough. I am interested in gay guys being more truthful about their lust for hetero men.
AA Do you think Tex is sexy?
BR Good question. I do not. And I'm concerned that men who read it will remove me from their list of the possibly-fun-to-fuck. I think it's ... parasexual? It's more about the ways we narrate sex and attempt to find it online by writing.
AA Which is maybe funny because you quote Pierre Guyotat, saying, “Pornography is more beautiful than eroticism. Eroticism is boring. Eroticism is an ideology. Eroticism is ugly.” And then in talking about your encounters we're inevitably eroticizing them. (Or, maybe I’m eroticizing them as the reader? Like, you’re documenting these conversations, turning them into pornography, but I’m interpreting them, thus turning your porn into erotica. “Is it porn if it's an image of a text about a penis?” etc.)
BR Well, whether or not something is porn is well-worn territory—the old “you know it when you see it.” But I think it's merely a matter of whether or not someone is masturbating while watching or reading something, or otherwise arousing themselves sexually to the exclusion of criticality. For example, in the book I disclose that I used to masturbate to Full House as an adolescent, and it's true. I think that demonstrates the possibility of anything being turned into porn. What do you mean you “eroticized” the conversations about sex in the book? To me they are not hot, in that they show worried verbal bemusement surrounding sex.
AA I insinuated circumstances and connections between these little text modules. Not eroticized in a sexy way. I see how that could be confusing.
BR I like it when Matt says, “sex is the saddest.” And then, “mourning sex.” This comes before he finds a boyfriend, while he's celibate.
AA A lot of foreshadowing. There’s something to notice here about the disposable and the infinite—“plastic bag” duality. Texting is so immediate, while literature seems to me so permanent, and Tex is both things at once.
BR Right, it's an odd archive. It's like I Edward Snowden’d myself in order to achieve the publication of a book object, which I was so convinced I wanted. That's not actually very relevant to what you said—I apologize.
AA I think I know what you mean, and also I think the miscommunication is important and relevant to this conversation about verbalized desire/actual desire. And about language. This is making me think about how I feel like I have been un-learning how to write, un-training myself, not pleasing an English professor.
BR I relate to that, using words in a glitzy way.
AA Totally shitty.
BR My diction is getting lower. I think that’s true of a lot of English majors. I’ve read—and this shows how calculating I am—that a diversity of high and low diction sounds more intelligent than simple high diction. So I try to mix it up. And I fucking love cursing.
AA There’s a linguistic seduction there for sure.
BR It’s about making your speech emotional. And it leaves a spot for something—since the semantic content of “fucking” doesn’t really register most of the time—that’s like a blank space for what isn’t expressible. But still, it’s striking that cursing has so much to do with penetration. The power inherent to being on top. For me, a bonus of being a bottom is knowing how to feel overpowered, so I don’t overvalue sex as much.
Aiden Arata’s work has appeared on Medium, Potluck, Electric Cereal, Pank, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland and tweets @aidenarata.