There Are Stories of Machines
A Review of Andrea Abi-Karam’s EXTRATRANSMISSION
“I USED TO WORK IN A LAB WITH RATS FOR A LONG TIME. A MEMORY LAB.”
So opens Andrea Abi-Karam’s first full-length collection of poetry EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press, 2019). Themes of surveillance, contested subject memory, and the differences between animals recur and transfigure in EXTRATRANSMISSION to mine and undermine the relationships between capitalism, patriarchy, and nationalism. Abi-Karam, who is a self-described “arab-american genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg,” goes after white nationalism's foot soldiers: cops, patriots, and parasitic technocrats, while searching the system's glitches for an escape. Abi-Karam, who studied with the poet Juliana Spahr at Mills College, published THE AFTERMATH on Commune Editions in 2016.
In Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times theorist Jasbir Puar, who blurbed EXTRATRANSMISSION, writes, “At this historical juncture, the invocation of the terrorist as a queer, nonnational, perversely racialized other has become part of the normative script of the US war on terror.” Homonationalist biopolitics produces this homophobic and racist othering that marks some queer bodies as being in need of "saving" in the interest of empire, while rendering other queer bodies disposable. Puar's conceptual framing of homonationalism explains a contemporary development where sexually progressive multiculturalism, including the “tolerance” of queer people, is used as a reactionary tool against states and peoples deemed a security threat. For example, Puar writes that the increase in rights for queer citizens in Israel paralleled the increased segregation and subjugation of Palestinian people since the Oslo Accords.
If Puar offers us a theoretical landscape for understanding how queer visibility is instrumentalized by the US war machine, then Abi-Karam’s EXTRATRANSMISSION is a manifesto for ungovernable queers that comes out of that landscape. It is a manifesto for those who would rather be considered criminals in the pursuit of a collective insurgency than be affiliated with the pigs.
In the section titled “KILL COP/KILL BRO” non-linear prose fragments, sometimes in all caps, explore a speculative militancy. The lines come fast and sharp:
kill all the noise bros who move to Brooklyn & tell everyone
desperately that the noise they’re making is the only thing they
believe in. kill all the bro poets. actually you know what, kill all the bros. kill all the power dynamics in the room. kill all the power dynamics in the white room.
Revenge fantasies upend the daily microaggressions from cops, customers, and dicks at shows, to create a violent but playful spectacle out of power shifting:
TO THE NEXT TECH BRO WHO COMES IN HERE.
YR GETTING SEVERED FINGERS
INSTEAD OF FRIES.
FRY THEM UP.
Threatening the enemy is only one of the critical modes Abi-Karam uses to go after the atomization of our lives “on the assembly line to american nationalism." In an interview with Davey Davis for BOMB Magazine, Abi-Karam explains there is also an interior intention to their vengeance, "an ongoing reminder to kill the bro in your own head.” Exploring a thread of combat-induced brain injury that winds through the collection, Abi-Karam writes about the soft edges of the body as a limit to the otherwise insatiable war on terror:
for the soft skin that caves in from / every bit of shrapnel. for the soft skull that splits on impact. for the / soft brain that bounces back and forth inside the skull. for the soft / brain that tears and swells . . . still turns the body back on. for the soft person who can’t / remember.
Abi-Karam continues to use traumatic brain injury as a metaphor for violent dissociation and the loss that precedes healing and renewal in the section “DECREATION." What would it mean to disremember the human constructed by the settler’s imaginary? To disremember the social formations and mythical attachments that codify, other, dominate, and destroy other life-forms?
THIS IS NOT TEXTBOOK PTSD
THIS IS THE END OF THE CANON & AN ATTEMPT TO ADAPT IN A
WORLD THAT CONSTANTLY FAILS ME
THIS IS THE END OF A PERSON & THE BEGINNING OF A
AN IRREVERSIBLE DETACHMENT FROM MY BODY
A WALKING GHOST.
In her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway defines a cyborg as a "cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction . . . The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world . . . resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.” Abi-Karam’s poetics thread us through the visceral process of cyborg becoming:
AT WHAT POINT DID U REALIZE THERE WAS
SOMETHING VERY VERY WRONG?
The boundaries of settler humanism are the boundaries of forced category, gender, reproduction, and war. Abi-Karam’s poetics instruct the reader to fight back and forge an escape through a reckoning with failed bodies:
ports on the inside of my wrist that fail to connect that fail to remember for i’m waiting to connect i need to connect without this connection i am alone i desire control of the connection from the inside of my wrist to my brain. what gets sent. what gets translated. i pick at the thinner wires that reach out of the tops of my arms. pull them out quickly, a little resistance and then the skin lets go.
Haraway opens “A Cyborg Manifesto” with a meditation on blasphemy and irony: “Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method.” Irony's contradictions are rife in our digital communication. Online instantaneity hosts rebellion and collective joy alongside the uncontrollable dissemination of misogynist and racist threats and images of mutilation and death. Abi-Karam wields irony to undermine fixed truths and interrogate the familiar. In one part of EXTRATRANSMISSION an epigram that reads like a tweet is patterned along the page, eventually spilling off of it, almost as if it’s an echo, a laugh:
DID U KNOW THAT IF YR A COMBAT VETERAN WITH
EMOTIONAL OR PHYSICAL WOUNDS U CAN RIDE
THERAPEUTIC HORSES FOR FREE?
Irony also makes rhetorical space for the recognition that can accompany ruptures:
THE STATE GAVE U THE PDA BUT IT ALSO GAVE U THE INJURY
WHICH CAME FIRST
THE INJURY OR THE TECH?
To escape hegemony is not necessarily to escape injury. One finds it difficult to avoid state-inflicted wounds. But escape does allow one to see the limits of the body, the limits of the mind, the need for touch and a place to rest, as our most important encryption, our refusal to succumb to total productivity, total automation. That we are "haunted by the possibility of the future” is what enables both our immense despair and our unconquered resistance.
To access Puar’s writing on homonationalism I was forced to use a password to log in through a private university library account. Having left the page open for too long, the site cut me off: “Your session has expired, please refresh and search again.” Searching again, I looked for answers on EXTRATRANSMISSION’s neon pink cover. The black drawings on the cover could be flowers or stars or spiders who are spinning a new web, a new kind of network. Abi-Karam’s poetry asks for more: “How to become a new glitch, a new disruption?”