This audio interview between Joohyun Kim and Che Gossett is part of the Housework at Chapterhouse series, a conversation between friends and with the history of this space. Housework is work undervalued, invisible, unpaid. It is classed, raced and gendered. It is also the work that allows life, it is “reproductive.” It is intimate. It’s necessary. It’s weird. It has been precarious. This is the kind of work we want to recognize.
Chapter and Verse was a series by Ryan Eckes and Stan Mir that ran for nine years at Chapterhouse and supported young writers and established voices. It supported us. There was something expansive and generous about this room that operated outside funding and institutions. We want to keep and expand that spirit. The transcription of this conversation was completed by Colette Arand.
Joohyun Kim: So there’s such a strong sense of flow between disciplines and periods of time, registers of thinking in your writing and your research, and you really show your conversities with black and trans archivists, scientists, historians, poets, activists. Your intellectual work really seems to embody the archive as you peer into it. Can you talk about how you came to do the kind of scholarship and activism you’re doing now? How did you end up doing Black Studies, Animal Studies, Critical Race Studies, Queer and Trans Studies, archival research, social media and activism all at once? And when did you begin considering yourself a scholar?
Che Gossett: That’s a great question, it’s so capacious. So thank you for that, and thank you for having me. Maybe I’ll kind of disentangle some of that. In terms of my most recent interests, I got really into thinking about blackness and animality in some ways after I went on a delegation to Palestine in 2014 of archivists and librarians, and reading Fanon, and also reading queer of color critical theory around questions of thingliness, which felt tied up with animality. Mel Chen’s book, Animacies, was really influential for me for a bunch of different reasons. He talks about animacy as a continuum and how the dyad of animate versus the inanimate has been used as part of a racial and colonial project. So we see that from everything from Hegel to the new object-oriented ontology that is claiming animate life for inert, so-called inert objects, but doing it with the backdrop of a colonial history that is unacknowledged. Where the last time people said that objects were alive, it was called animism and they were indigenous people. I think about the relationship between personhood, objecthood, subjecthood and how that also relates to questions of race and animalization became something that Fanon activated for me. I had a discomfort with a critical Animal Studies or history of Animal Studies that really is unreflective about whiteness and unreflective about anti-blackness. My work responds to that and tries to intervene in that, and to take black thought really seriously. So to say, how is it that blackness has been positioned ontologically outside of the category of the human so that there’s a human/black binary that precedes or is parallel to the human/animal binary, but what does the human/animal binary mean when to be human is to be white and to be able-bodied and to be neuronormative, etc. To think through how that proximity to animality changes the question of the human/animal binary and how something like abolition, which grows out of the black freedom struggle, is a way or a lens or a sight through which to approach these questions, not only as an object of study, but also as an object of struggle. So I guess I would say that what weaves a lot of this together is an appreciation for black thought and its political power, really, and also being involved in social activist movements that would shape how I thought about things.
JK: I’m pretty familiar with your work and I know that you love Fred Moten, and he and Stefano Harney say that black study moves against the mastery of an over the concept, as if it were a matter of life and death, but more important, black study means that you refuse to serve your concepts with mastery. How do you feel this relates to your life and your scholarship?
CG: Well, I guess I can give an example of how that might correspond to my project around blackness and animality and questions of Palestine. A thinker and a poet who I’ve been really sitting with recently is Glissant, who wrote Poetics of Relation and he has this whole idea of opacity. I think it’s at the beginning of that text and he’s talking about the right to opacity. And I think that’s such a fascinating concept, and political maneuver, and it’s really going against the grain of typical constructions of Western Enlightenment, you know? It’s throwing shade at the Western Enlightenment, which I think is great. For me, it’s part of a conceptual apparatus that we can locate in black thought, whether it’s Hortense Spillers’ on the flesh or Glissant on opacity or Fanon on combat breath, or Frederick Douglass on invisible agency. I’m like oh, here’s this other thing that is like a portal or window. It’s helping me to really think about—just as we refuse the knowability of the human subject, because that’s part of what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the transparent eye—that everything is, under enlightenment, regimes of knowledge and power. It’s part of a colonial racial project that makes everything an object and every person a thing. There’s also a way that can work for the figure of the animal, too, that there’s opacity of the animal that is the animal’s own subjectivity. So what might it mean to accept that we can have imaginaries about animality, we can have relations, but they’re not beings for us. They’re beings with us. That’s one way that I’m maybe refusing this idea of mastery. And maybe in other ways, thinking about myself as a para-academic and thinking about building forms of intellectual life that are social and don’t just happen in hierarchical classrooms. That happen, you know, because I think I learn so much through activism—it’s therapeutic and also knowledge production. And actually being involved in Critical Resistance was a really amazing experience for me and also gave me a new political grammar around carceral prison, you know, the carceral colonial continuum. That really shaped my thought. The work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Dylan Rodriguez, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, people who think through abolition, and also especially queer and trans prison abolitionist politics. That’s all theory, and it’s really critical theory so that’s really key to me. So that’s also about refusing mastery, or thinking through the figure of the slave, or thinking about abolition not as an event, you know, but a relation, which is important to me for so many different struggles.
JK: Joy James also talks about this tenuous and insufficient relationship that often occurs between academia and activism. As you’re navigating grad school, what sort of models do you see of liberatory scholarship, or people who are working sort of at the intersections of academia and activism, or academia and resistance to carceral state violence? Is there a boundary? What are the boundaries between intellectual work, academia, activism, abolition? How do you feel those boundaries in your own work and life?
CG: In 2004, I was in graduate school at Brown and had the great opportunity to take a class with Joy James and that was a real moment of politicization for me. I taught in a prison through that class, actually, and it was abolitionist pedagogy. Abolition as pedagogy, that pushes out the boundaries between—it sees the academic industrial complex as a site of struggle, and a site of knowledge and power. And so when I mentioned critical resistance before, I’m also thinking too about Eric Stanley and Nat Smith, who were both also involved in Critical Resistance and think about the trans and queer politics of abolition itself. Their work with Captive Genders brought together incarcerated and non-incarcerated thinkers and really tried to think about the person as a gendering and racialized apparatus that reproduces racial violence and the gender binarism and really the premature death of queer and trans people of color. Being involved in projects like that where you take the criticality of—or the theoretical infrastructure of Ethnic Studies and all these other disciplines that we’re a part of and extending the struggle of—and bring it to bear on social conditions that we face. Those are political projects that have been really important to me and I think are important to keep going.
JK: I have a few more questions just about your relationship to academia. You say in other places you have an open relationship with academia and you say you’re a para-academic. Can you explain more what you mean by that?
CG: I think that academia is a place where I have access to tools and resources and enriching, amazing professors. That’s a real gift and resource for me, like intellectual resource. And also I find there’s art spaces, artistic spaces that are outside of academia but also in dialogue with academia. Earlier this year I went to a program called Arika in Scotland, an arts festival, and some of the other attendees were Juliana Huxtable and Miss Major and the prior years, there had been Denise Ferreira de Silva and Fred Moten. Just going back to, how do we engage these issues and discussions in multiple places at the same time, and think about the limits of doing this kind of work in a setting like the academic industrial complex, or the university. Doing this work through those tensions.
JK: Right. I can really see that in your presence in the world, giving talks at conferences and engaging in discussions on social media, Twitter, and Facebook. What do you consider your role to be or your relationship to be with social media? Are you inspired by things that you read on Facebook or Twitter? You’ve talked about the digital afterlife of slavery. Do you think that struggles for an abolitionist imaginary should engage with the digital archive with this digital afterlife? Is social media an undercommons as well for you?
CG: Yeah, I feel like it’s such a complex thing, social media. On the one hand, it’s a huge source of—it’s a public sphere and there’s a lot of knowledge production and hashtags or people having conversations across space. The circulation of that is really important so that’s really exciting. It’s a way for me to maintain connections with people and I also treat it like a blog in this way, which is funny because then I’m like, it’s actually not that at all, it’s not private. There’s something nice about the conciseness of the Facebook status, and it pulls together a lot of different people from across areas of life, which is interesting. There’s been a lot of discussions that have been hosted on Twitter, especially around abolition where it’s like professors, Black Studies professors, prison abolitionists, organizers across a range of issues. That’s very alive, which is nice. One main thing, or a question that I’m sitting with is thinking about corporate power like Facebook and Twitter—we’re doing all this voluntary labor for these corporations, and also they’re hyper-gentrifying San Francisco and the Bay. That’s something that I sit with and would love to see and be a part of strategies—how do we do the work that we need to do using those platforms, and then also challenge and develop strategies around the material reality of these are corporations that are actively pushing poor black people, people who are queer and trans and do sex work on the street out of areas of San Francisco?
JK: I also wanted to ask about your archival research. Could you just say a little bit about the research that you’re doing now? I know you’re working on queer histories into AIDS activism so if you could talk a little bit about the research you’re working on.
CG: The last type of archival research that I was engaged in was about legacies of queer, black solidarity with Palestinian struggle and so part of that was looking at June Jordan’s archives at Schlessinger Library, which were really fascinating. It’s such an intimacy. It’s like an intimate act to go and look at people’s archival papers. The other person was George Jackson, who, when he was killed, murdered in prison, had a collection of 99 books in his cell, which was the limit, and one of them was a book of Palestinian poetry. So I was trying to think about how did that get there and how it maybe could be a site for thinking through that connection. And so I looked at his archive at Berkeley, which was really moving and beautiful. There was his younger brother Jonathan’s obituary from the funeral in the archive, and it was just intense and moving. And also something that was really profound was the edition of Soledad Brother that we all can buy at the store or read at the library is drastically different than the original manuscript that’s there so that made me think a lot about translation and questions of representation and authenticity. That’s something I’m still interested in. Then the last person is James Baldwin, and so it’s queer and non-queer black Palestine archival project. And so Baldwin spent time doing work around black solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, after Andrew Young was—there was controversy around him. And he wrote a lot about black/Jewish relation. After going on this delegation, I was really interested in this. So yeah, that’s a thread I want to keep looking at.
JK: How do you think about the relationship between archival work and present-day struggle between history and constructing or re-constructing histories? Saidiya Hartman talks about absences in the archive and how do you, you know, think about those absences in the way you write or intervene politically?
CG: One project that I’m involved in is working on a journal about genealogies of transfeminism, but re-thinking feminism as always already trans. So instead of transfeminism being a new kind of initiative or asking, seeing feminism as the domain of cisgender feminists, and then asking for inclusion into that space, thinking about what are the ways that trans and gender non-conforming people, especially of color, especially women of color like Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson and many others have articulated feminism itself, and centering blackness and indigeneity within that as a genealogy. Archives, like looking at the writings of Sylvia Rivera and thinking about how she gave a speech in ’73 at the Pride Festival that was really about abolition feminism. There’s video of it that my sister popularized online, which is another great archival act, really, about how do we make this information more available and more accessible? Because the university can be a disciplinary site that asks for ID or all these other things that can prevent it so how do we continue to circulate this information within our social movements? Sylvia Rivera gave this really impassioned speech about the white, middle class, gay club that she called the movement at that time, or the face of the movement at that time, actually, and centers incarcerated trans women, and she speaks as a survivor. For me, finding these archives speaks to a broader project that’s resisting archival violence and epistemic erasure. And not for just a politics of recognition or visibility as in now you really see me, and I’m authentic. We can be, you know, part of recognized subjects, but it’s actually about what theoretical work has been done, because I think it changes our optics. It really forces us to ask different questions once we do that archival work or take that knowledge seriously.
JK: You’re always, through your work, troubling canons and concepts and norms from what you’ve quoted as the position of the unthought, and as you were saying, it seems like this position is transfeminist, queer, black, animal. How do you see these exclusions operating together either in the archive or the scholarship that you’re doing with black thought right now? Do you feel like in terms of the connections that you’re making that there are other people that are sharing these revelations or connections with you, but traversing different disciplines in different areas of study? How is this position of the unthought maybe different from you or do you see it being different in the way that you think through it than how it might be generally thought of in black studies or in animal studies and feminist studies?
CG: Maybe I think everything through blackness. It wouldn’t be a question of how is this different, but how is everything thought through these things? So thinking black thought as the origin point through which to approach other disciplines. But “The Position of the Unthought” is also an amazing interview of Saidiya Hartman by Frank Wilderson, and Wilderson uses this term to disclose or intimate all the ways that blackness becomes the position of the unthought, and how that shapes thought itself. This summer, I’m doing research about questions of Palestinian struggle and interspecies politics, which is also an archival project that tries to bring together a lot around the unthought. For instance, in my research about blackness, the animal, also the figure of the beast and questions of sovereignty, sovereignty as being a proper political subject versus what Nahum Chandler calls unsovereignty. So thinking about how, you know, the figure of the black and the figure of the animal have to deal with or are made unsovereign, that’s something I’ve been really interested in. Someone who I think through that work with is Fanon a lot, because those are focal points in his whole body of work and especially Black Skin White Masks. With thinking about Palestinian struggle, I found out about an organization called the Palestinian Animal League, that is really thinking about decolonization as an interspecies affair, basically, and the bio and necro politics of colonization and occupation, but thinking about it for all colonized life. That includes the human, Palestinian subject, and animals, non-human animals under occupation and thinking about entanglement and how decolonization really is an ecological project in the face of what people would call the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene and the terrible condition of the world we’re living in right now. I think that I’m planning on going and doing this research and learning more about what this group is doing and also what they’re struggling against is what you might call animal-washing of the occupation by the IDF, where the IDF is now using vegan boots and vegan meals so that it’s a similar thread around thinking about white supremacy and veganism, for instance, or white supremacy and animal liberation, and how those things like animal liberation are never outside of a racial or colonial context. So the space might change, geopolitically it’s a different area, and also we’re still dealing with questions of colonialism and racialization and who is a personhood, who has personhood or not, or the Judith Butler question of who can live a livable life, and I think that’s just as much a question about the non-human animal as it is for the human, and because of racialization, etc., capitalism, those are really connected. My project is about thinking through these sites and the politics these discursive politics of animalwashing— so how the animal gets taken up, like in the zoos in Gaza for instance, there was a whole international animal rights western push to save the animals who were in zoos in Gaza, or the New York Post blaming Hamas for them dying when it was the IDF bombs. Thinking about how race and speciesism and biopower and necropower are all wrapped up in each other in this site, and then how people are struggling against it. And really thinking through Fanon as the lynchpin between on the one hand thinking about blackness and sovereignty and unsovereignty and animality and on the other hand, colonialism and the colonial subject and animality in the Palestinian struggle.
JK: So it’s generative to think in terms of Animal Studies and also Black Studies, but that’s separate poles of—
CG: Or Black Studies as always already Animal Studies.
JK: Just to come back to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, they talk about how black studies places the concept as such under intense generative and degenerative distress. When I read your work, I can really feel this kind of pressure on concepts and pressure on the idea of the human and taking that category apart. But how is the intellectual work—again, just going back to the idea of undoing concepts related to this idea of matter and animality, is abolition a way of undoing concepts in the world? How do you think about abolition in relation to revolution? I notice that revolution is something that I hear a lot more in Marxist theory and I’m wondering how you think about the relationship between revolution and abolition.
CG: Yeah, well, I really like what you just said about abolition as the undoing of concepts, because I think that the carceral is as much an ideological infrastructure as it is a material one. Or that reinforces it. So the ways that we think carcerally about how to solve social problems really impacts how many prisons there are in the world, and we see that play out across so many different social movements when things turn on the figure of the innocent person and how that just opens up space for more people to be folded into their carceral system. I think that abolition itself is a revolutionary activity and thought, and an experiment. It’s like a social experiment and praxis. There was another piece of your question that I’m now—
JK: Oh, how you maybe think about abolition and revolution, whether they’re different?
CG: Right. I guess that there are many Marxist abolitionists, but I think that there’s an emphasis on revolution as a perennial process. And Shanti Austin, for instance, talks about revolution with a small r. I think that something else that is really powerful is this idea of pre-figurative politics. That really relates, too, to questions or practices of transformative justice and care in times of crisis. So thinking about everyday acts of abolition, and I know Cece McDonald and Dean Spade and Reina, my sibling, have done great conversational work talking about what are strategies that are acts of everyday abolition. To build the world that we want to see in the here and now, and that everybody has a role in that. And it will look a lot different than the dramatic kind of what it means to inhabit a revolutionary subjectivity, you know? That all of us can be part of that. And then also some of the things about maybe some anarchist feels about thinking about the revolution as a continuum and it’s also revolutionary to do collective organizing that is more horizontal and consensus based. So thinking about the process mattering and shaping the product and the means and the ends.
JK: Can you say a little bit more about these anarchist feels?
CG: Work that has been influential for me in terms of autonomous Marxism theoretically might be—and it’s like a long list, but just as an example, Antonio Negri and others, autonomous Marxists try and—it’s like a question of how do—what’s the power roles that play out with authoritarianism? And are there alternate ways to organize in an anti-capitalist fashion other than top-down, for instance, and still win? That’s what I mean.
JK: This is a question in debates I’ve been having with a variety of friends in my milieu, but is there a way that you integrate the materialism of Marxism, and then the argument about black ontology and afropessimism? How do you think about racial capitalism as both an ontological and also material process?
CG: Well, I think looking at the effects of — they’re mutually reinforcing. So looking at the effects of racial capitalism, to reduce the body to the flesh, like Hortence Spiller brilliantly lays out, happens via racial capitalism. And I think work like Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson that even gives us this language of racial capitalism, or thinks about capitalism as a racial project elucidates that. I also think that just in terms of trans of color liberation struggles, thinking about the ways in which racial capitalism in our time of the visibility moment, while which may be now is gone. A brief affair, a brief time to shine. At least in that way. Thinking about the ways in which racial capitalism has always been a site of struggle and determination for queer and trans people of color and how racial capitalism means a proximity to violence. It orchestrates social life. So so many of our movements are confronting it. And I also think that there is, for instance, an afropessimist critique of Marxism to the extent that blackness is unthought in particular Marxist pedagogy, versions of Marxist pedagogy. That said, it’s also very Fanonian in that Fanon says Marx must be slightly stretched in the colonial situation. Frank Wilderson’s work is really profound and so much of his engagement is a critique of Marxist thought, but also a blackening of Marxist thought and it’s using Cedric Robinson. Even the title, Red White and Black— that’s a chapter title from Cedric Robinson. You need both is what I would say. Ideally, the critiques of Marxism, like blackness radicalizes Marxism.
JK: So blackness is a way in to thinking about capitalism and settler colonialism in a way that’s different from the way it’s been thought in orthodox Marxist thinking.
CG: Yeah, so coming from the position of people who were commodified. And I think that that’s Fred Moten’s book In the Break, and really Cedric Robinson’s majestic book is incredible for that.
JK: I like what you said before about revolution with a small r and pre-figurative politics, and I think elsewhere you talk about abolition being a movement of nobodies. Also, I think from what you’re saying about how nobodyness is fundamental in a thinking about blackness and just the non-humanity of blackness as a category. Often it seems in radical spaces, there’s a lot of uplifting of the idea of visibility and productivity and work, and based on theoretical work that you’re doing and the activist work that you’re doing, how do you find ways to resist ableist or anti-POC forms of recognition and building relations of interdependence and mutual recognition in the spaces that you move through? How this kind of building based on this sense of nobodyness, or a movement of nobodies?
CG: I think that’s something that happens through political organizing and leveling out different positionalities. I’m not so sure that I have found that and I think that it’s like thinking about the connections between what Denise de Silva, she talks about nobodies. Do we want to be somebodies recognized by the state or nobodies against it? Dean Spade and Reina have really—really Reina has written a lot about this in her speech to Hampshire College and really being part of a politics of refusal as opposed to incorporation. And I guess I would say that I see that in a lot of queer and trans anti-prison organizing. So refusing the terms of visibility, which are always really hierarchical and based on exclusion. But I do think there’s, you know, in academia, there’s still fame and it has its own type of visibility, and I think that’s an ongoing project to think about not only intellectual work like deconstructing what it means to be a somebody and how to inhabit a form of nobodyness that is against the subject, you know, the genre of man or the huMan with a capital M in it. But I think particular experimental spaces like Arika that I was talking about before or work I’ve been able to do at the New Museum with Denise de Silva and Bradley. These maybe undercommons beneath academic spaces of knowledge and power feels like a way of approaching that, but I think that that’s an ongoing struggle.
JK: Do you often feel yourself in very stark tension with academia or the ways in which institutionally you’re interpolated into academia?
CG: Yeah, I mean, I have a very queer relation to academia. I’m an older student, which I like being, being in but not of, like DuBois said, is particular to me. But it’s also why I admire so much of the work of members of prison abolitionists who, you know, Ruthie Gilmore will say academia is their day job. So that, I think, as a role model. And abolitionist pedagogy, which doesn’t exclusively happen at all in academia, but it’s really radical and powerful when it does.
JK: Can you think of other examples than the ones you’ve already named of people who are in academia that really inspire you in terms of moving through these intersections you’re navigating multiple different spaces?
CG: Yeah. I think that the work of C. Riley Snorton is really powerful for Black Trans Studies. How do we create new theoretical discussions and work, or queer and trans of color critique. Jin Haritaworn in Canada, who co-edited an anthology on queer necropolitics, and Rod Ferguson. I don’t know, there’s a long list of people.
JK: In doing the archival research that you’re doing and also the working and doing political organizing, are there problems with recognition that come up, recording or documenting work that you’re doing or the politics of refusal, having some way of navigating, enlivening and more keeping alive this work and communicating it to others, in tension with the forms of recognition that are attributed to it? Do you have conversations or discussions when you organize about things like that?
CG: Yeah. Yes, and I mean, some of the work that’s really thinking about archival accessibility that’s really inspiring to me, like, for example, would be like the New York Trans Oral History Project that includes people who are in academia who do Trans Studies, and is also doing participatory acts and research and thinking about how do we get incarcerated trans oral history? So I think that there’s all these different models of thinking through what’s a methodology of solidarity, for instance. That’s a question I’m really interested in. And accessibility is a piece of that. So how do I get this material out into the world? And it’s also about how do we do the work that we do? But accessibility feels like a crucial piece.
JK: Can you say more about that accessibility? Accessing ideas, accessing archives?
CG: My work is so—happens through activism. That’s what sparks my interest. For instance, AIDS activism in Philadelphia, I did a long project on the life of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, who was part of ACT UP Philadelphia and a Penn student and was involved in all these other different, like black power solidarity and medical marijuana for folks living with HIV/AIDS and HIV decriminalization so that I guess that my engagement with these archives feels political, so it really puts pressure on or helps me to think about what’s the responsibilities that I have with these materials, and how do I engage community members with the product, or with what I write.
JK: Thank you for sitting for the interview with me today.
Joohyun Kim is a poet, feminist, and anti-capitalist. She writes in the militant research collective Praxis Research. Her chapbook Rhizomes is out with Birds of Lace.