Mourning and Marginalia: Editing the Work of Christopher Chitty
MADELINE LANE-MCKINLEY: I’ve been in tears this morning, thinking about what this all would’ve meant to Chris. It’s impossible to say, really. In some ways, you made his dream come true. In others, it could be nightmarish — you’ve released into the world this text that he refused to imagine as finishable. Except it isn’t that text, is it? It’s become something more complete through your editorial process, and I was thinking about how ultimately that’s what he really needed — was for someone else, and maybe specifically you, to finish up this project.
MAX FOX: That is a really moving thing to say, and really terrifying. During this whole process I’ve been afraid of getting him wrong — making some mistake like putting the chapters in the wrong order, or choosing a draft he’d discarded instead of one he was perfecting — but you’ve put your finger on the actual fear, which is about the decision to finish it at all. In my foreword and in Christopher Nealon’s incredible introduction, we try to make clear the conditions and the limits of this book. I took the drafts of his dissertation I had access to after he died and arranged them into a legible order — that restricts how authoritatively you can read it, but it also opens up [his work] for others to use it generatively. I wonder if he’d call that his dream come true. He was a such a perfectionist, right? Maybe this is my way of finally making him go easier on himself.
You’re right, this is a different book than the one he might have written alone. In some ways, its existence is an expression of my own refusal to accept Chris’s judgments of himself, of his work and his intellectual project. I can accept that he remained unsatisfied with this material, or felt that he couldn’t go on, but it was already too late for this work to end with him. He had transformed me by our encounter, and done the same for many others, and we were all already walking around in the world spreading his influence whether he liked it or not. I felt it would have been like hoarding to keep his powers of insight to myself and whoever else simply happened to have met him.
As I’ve been working on this book I’ve wondered how much my attachment was to him and our experiences together and how much was to the “independent” value of his thought. But the response that others have had who never knew him already convinces me that I haven’t been confusing myself about its worth. I think basically what I added to the text was my capacity to finish some unfinished sentences and shepherd the manuscript through the publication process, which you’re right, maybe he felt was impossible. Maybe he would have ultimately decided to limit his ambitions to a smaller historical study or a more concise work of theory. But what he left was itself so compelling that I think my contribution to it was mainly to have recognized that it couldn’t go unpublished, even if I had to make a number of line-by-line decisions. So yes, I was able to finish this project for him, not as a co-author but as an editor.
The circumstances of your work on this really amplify some of the more typical anxieties of editing — always minding that delicate, precarious, or perhaps nonexistent boundary with authorship. Chris had complex feelings about what it meant to be an author. At times, he seemed emboldened by the idea, and at others he was reluctant, if not embarrassed by the experience of writing and how vulnerable it made him.
Not in a distinct way, but maybe more acutely, he was internalizing a lot of the writing process — the instability, the swings between insight and doubt, the way a project’s evolution is always in at least a minor conflict with the writer’s sense of control. He was very raw to these experiences.
What do you think he was embarrassed of in the idea of authorship? He also seemed to relish making these provocative, bold claims.
He certainly relished the role of provocateur, but he also retreated from it. It was more generally, I think, a point of tension or unresolved feelings. We had a lot of conversations about Foucault’s essay “What Is an Author?” and he reflected a lot, in the writing process, on this unthinkable link between authorship and private property. He was in so many ways a highly original thinker, while a lot of that was really rooted in his critique of originality and the anxiety of influence. Part of this, I’m thinking now, really manifested in his obsession with alter egos — GaGa and MIA come to mind.
But in terms of writing, I don’t know that the process ever felt collective or de-individuated to him in ways that I imagine would have excited him quite a bit. In some ways, your work on the book feels like a collaboration he never got to experience, more focused on — as he might imagine — communizing this history and epistemology that he was building in isolation.
This de-individuating is key, I think. I imagine one of the reasons he struggled to complete this was because, as his project, it was his intellectual authority that was up for assessment, whereas I had the relative luxury of distance from it as a collaborator who joined after the fact. Another aspect of the distance is simply that I left town and was able to see him, his project, and the dissolution of this political moment that brought us three together from a new vantage point. But you were there with him after me and even before, so you’ve seen this project on an even wider arc than me. What is your sense of how his project changed? Is it what he imagined it would be?
He had a very sharp sense of focus on what his project was supposed to do. But this was always being put into crisis — with every seminar, building occupation, argument in The Red Room, he re-thought the whole thing, over and over again. He’d disappear for a couple days and then reappear with new plans. In the later years, the crises were bigger, and more generative.
I think he had felt held back, for a long time, by an ambition to defend Foucault against his Marxist critics. He was in a constant internal battle over Foucault’s legitimacy as a Marxist, and he leaned into this, as a provocateur. As he distanced himself from that battle, though, he became more interested in queer theory and feminism. He wanted Foucault to have a seat at the table, and then he wanted to take an axe to that table. In ways that resonate with his understanding of Foucault, he seemed more motivated to position himself critically within or peripheral to these different epistemologies.
When you started working on this project, we looked through so many of his drafts — some of the false starts and partial revisions — and discovered how he had steadily re-directed himself, going between different registers, from political theory to urban studies, history to literary analysis, region to region and period to period. It was this incredibly complex tapestry, also very chaotic. Some of the interventions you had to make as his editor seemed crucial and were clearly compelled by a desire that Chris shared, to help a broader readership make sense of his thinking. But it’s frustrating — I remember at one point he told me that he wanted it to be “sleek and simple” and under 200 pages, and at other points he seemed hell-bent on making it this umpteen chapter tome. I’ve never wanted you to concern yourself too much with the question of what he would have really wanted, and I think that you’ve done something much better by anticipating, with more clarity, what his readers will need from this text.
If that’s been successful, it’s because I came to it as a reader who needed this book to exist. It’s hard to disentangle my assessment of the field because I encountered it around the same time as I met him and his critique of how people spoke and theorized about sex as a historical object. I remember the very first time I saw him was when he was laying into this poor visiting professor who must have been giving a job talk, and Chris was asking these questions that seemed to be detonating all of the guy’s presuppositions. It was bracing to watch. It seemed like he was in possession of some kind of powerful knowledge that let him take apart this guy’s whole project with a few swipes. Obviously I felt I had to learn what it was that he knew.
This was in 2009 I think, which now seems like a different century. Crucially, the left hadn’t yet returned to the stage as the political actor it is now, so the intellectual formation he was acting against had been mostly occupied with theorizing defeat. Now his project feels more addressed to that horizon, and obviously he can’t incorporate the various insurgent energies that have burst out in the past few years (particularly in trans and black liberation struggles), but at the time it felt like an incredibly thrilling thing to remind the queer theorists that the revolutionary tradition was alive.
These different turns that Chris’s scholarship took can absolutely be mapped onto the pivotal moments of 2009 and 2011. First, the university occupation movement that evolved out of the financial crisis and against privatization, and then, the period when some of those energies and slogans — “Occupy Everything,” “We Are the Crisis,” etc. — began to recirculate with Occupy Wall Street. He was profoundly impacted by these moments, which defined the peaks of both his happiness and suffering. These were experiences that offered him something that writing never could, but which seemed to infuse his intellectual project.
I think this is why one of my favorite pieces by Chris will always be “Scenes from Occupied Oakland,” which he wrote for you at The New Inquiry. That piece really synthesized some of the most interesting tendencies in his writing and thinking, but I think it was also a wake-up call to him — that the point of his writing had to extend beyond or even, actually, just radically challenge his academic conditioning. What was it like to work with him on that piece?
It was strange to inhabit this new role with him. I was new to editing then to begin with, but coming out of the university occupation movement directly into this weird conjuncture of para-academic left publishing as Occupy Wall Street was beginning to explode made it feel like we were secret emissaries with an urgent message: that it was possible to act on history to change it. Spreading this message as far as we could seemed to be the task. So because it felt like a political duty I was able to take on this position as a collaborator or peer in a way that was new for our relationship, since prior to that he’d been so clearly the one in possession of all this esoteric knowledge. While gathering all the materials for this book I had the complex experience of combing through all the emails we sent each other to find any writings he’d sent me, and I re-encountered how we navigated this new dynamic. I’d been so excited to share this new platform we were building with him but also had to tell him, like, this phrasing is totally illegible to a non-academic Marxist, and that’s who you need to be talking to.
He was struggling with making that leap, right? I always thought of my role more as encouraging him to do it, to embrace the talents displayed on his blog, in speeches at rallies, in dance parties. And that’s part of how we’ve approached this posthumous publishing, sorting through his writings to partition the scholarly work from the lay stuff. This book is his work for the academy. The next one, that you and I are working on, will anthologize his other writing. How do you remember him grappling with the contradictions of being this ruthless critic of the university structure and its role in domination, and his seeming inability to imagine himself outside of it?
Chris and I were applying to grad programs in the midst of the financial crisis, and when we started at UCSC in fall 2008 it felt like climbing aboard a sinking ship. The university occupations that came out of that next year became a way for so many of us to politically work through frustrations about this. We were being told by tenured faculty that the purpose of our work was to eventually get jobs like theirs — and hardly any of us believed them, nor did a lot of us want those jobs, but we also didn’t see this as a reason to drop out. A lot of people learned to develop a more instrumental relationship to the university, as a means to health insurance and a way to support, however meagerly, research. And Chris was such an incredibly gifted researcher. He loved spending time in archives. He loved to write. But I think increasingly, he was disturbed by the idea of writing for the academy. At the same time, he had no exit strategy.
In the months before he died, I remember we were both expecting to complete our PhDs in the upcoming year. I was preparing for a life of adjuncting. I asked him if he planned to adjunct and he said maybe, but what he really wanted to do was start his own landscaping business, except he couldn’t figure out how to swing the health insurance.
I’m not sure what writing was in that future, or how fleeting that future might have been in his imagination at the time. I know he was scared of what was to come, after the dissertation was over, and wondering about what he had done with the last seven years. Obviously he did a lot, though I doubt that he knew that.
It’s really heartbreaking to think about how he must have felt. I imagine that he knew he had truly cracked something intellectually significant but seemed to believe he couldn’t keep going with it. I think he did an incredible amount. His archival work alone makes this book a significant advance, but he also marries a sophisticated critique of the whole intellectual formation undergirding queer theory and sexuality studies with his sensitivity to the untheorized presence of sexuality at the heart of the Marxist account of the real subsuption of labor by capital. Of course the exposition can be lumpy at times — it’s an unfinished, enormous project. But there are also these passages of just pure elegance. He was trying to drag two whole fields into conversation — “returning the history of sexuality to the history of property,” as he put it. I think precisely because it was such a generative return, and opened up vistas onto so many other categories and problems, that he may have felt it was too much for him to adequately complete on his own. I wish he had known how much others would want to join him in it.
Managing this process has been very delicate. On the one hand, I had a simple task which was to line up these drafts in a readable order. On the other hand, I had to familiarize myself with the sources and partially built intellectual system he was erecting so I could even reconstruct his notes. All the while, behind this, I was mourning the loss of my friend who I loved, while I was newly encountering him at a more intimate level than probably would have been possible in life. I had this strange vicarious experience of assembling a dissertation without having to do any of the original invention or research myself, but at the same time I still had to chase down all these archival documents of his and set up a version of his work where they all fit together. I think what’s allowed me to deal with the strain of this situation is the feeling I get when I read the text again and find a new jewel in it. But it’s been exhausting. I’m just so grateful that now I can put the project down and others can read it and meet him for themselves.
Madeline Lane-McKinley is a writer and a founding editor of Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry.
Max Fox is a founding editor of Pinko magazine, a former editor of The New Inquiry, and translator of The Amphitheater of the Dead.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Madeline Lane-McKinley reviews "Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness," the recently published book by Matthew Ingram....
What Sam See is looking for in the art he loves is something other than escape. He is seeking forms of shelter....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.