Political Masochism: On Trisha Low’s “Socialist Realism”

November 20, 2019   •   By Andrew Duncan Waddell

Socialist Realism

Trisha Low

AMONG THE MANY SITES of inquiry through which Trisha Low shepherds us in her latest work — the May Day protest, the Sophie Calle exhibition, the years-long hunger strike in maximum-security Turkish prisons — the one to which I keep returning is the waterboarding workshop. S&M practitioners have gathered in a Chelsea, Manhattan, basement to learn the basics of the infamous torture-method-cum-erotic-art. When Low attempts to put the instruction into practice, instead of gasping for air beneath the damp towel, she instinctively holds her breath, causing the vexed instructor to halt the procedure and warn her that, if she doesn’t try to breathe, if she doesn’t cough and gag, she’s liable to pass out and die without her partner even noticing. Low tries again, but, alas, the lure of asphyxiation is too great. She is chastised once again: “It’s just that you don’t know how to struggle correctly.”

These words of rebuke are transformed into a refrain, whose momentum carries us through the remainder of Socialist Realism, a consistently incisive and surprising new work of nonfiction. There are several such refrains, each of them a compelling nucleus around which Low’s constellations of childhood memories, art criticism, and self-reflection revolve. Whether the struggle is political, artistic, or romantic in nature, it seems to Low that she’s just not doing it right. How to struggle correctly: could any question be more pressing at this particular moment, with fascism on the rise at home and abroad, with the forecasted date of the planet’s uninhabitability advancing relentlessly, with an endless procession of think pieces bolstering our awareness of the ways our individual actions are linked to a global regime of exploitation?

Such are the world-historical stakes lurking beneath even the most trivial of Low’s interactions: swiping on Tinder or cooking pancakes for her partner; rewatching Jurassic Park (1993) or a Chantal Akerman film; driving to San Francisco full of shame and resentment in order to pick up a $25,000 purse for her mother. The frequent meditations on global politics and contemporary works of art never feel like gratuitous digressions but constitute the most reliable pleasures of the text, and they serve to deepen what is ultimately an intimate and complex portrait of a life.

Low was born in Singapore to wealthy parents whose values and expectations she is unable to outrun, however much she disavows them. Her journey westward — from her London boarding school to her New York poetry scene to her current home in the “Gay Bay Area” — is given to us in jumbled fragments, small moments of discovery that serve as so many points of departure for her compelling inquiry into the nature of identity. She is a young girl watching The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), stumbling upon a queer desire that involves possessing, inhabiting, and erasing one’s lover. She is a teenager fetishizing Japanese culture and Lolita fashion, impersonating an Other in an effort to escape what feels stifling in her own heritage. She is a twentysomething with a near-religious reverence for works of art that are unsentimental and cruel and reveal to viewers what is most shameful about themselves. These various pasts are rendered in a present-tense prose that is direct and precise, consistently fresh, and admirably free from excesses of vanity or self-loathing. Recollections are handled like so many pieces of evidence that might throw fresh light on such old questions as: what is it we mean by “home”?

Home, what even is it? I’m not sure, but I know I want it — because home is a chronic matter of wanting. Of forcing desire, despite itself, into a shape — one with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s about futurity. “Going home” is necessarily a journey, but it’s also the security of destination. It’s knowing you have a place to rest after all your time spent wandering, even if you have to trick yourself into believing it exists.

Low sees us tricking ourselves into making homes out of romantic relationships, political ideologies, nostalgic notions of heritage or nation. To trick oneself this way is not always a bad thing (though it often is; think: fascism). Even if a home is built on shaky ground, it can keep us safe and comfortable and give us space to breathe, at least for a time. But a home is also a set of walls that keep others out. A home is a box full of furniture that dictates the paths we walk, prescribing our movements through space. It is this desire, or this need, to believe in some version of a stable “home” that compels us to construct and perform identities (and to permit identities to construct us). Low is particularly interested in the moments when identities chafe, when she feels the competing claims and commitments of distinct identity groups working within her, or when she feels an identity label to be guiding and confining her actions.

Much of this chafing arises from notions of ambition and sacrifice, and the role that each should play in an ethical life. Early in the book, a young Low listens rapt to her grandmother’s bedtime account of Wu Zetian, a concubine in a seventh-century emperor’s palace, fated to starve in the sovereign’s mausoleum upon his death. Through wily schemes of seduction, manipulation, betrayal, and murder, Wu Zetian escapes her lowly fate and eventually becomes the first great empress of China. Grandma sums up the miraculous trajectory as “[c]heating your way into a better life.” Seven-year-old Low is confused. Haven’t all the stories she’s ever heard taught her the importance of struggling through a great ordeal to reach one’s destiny, to become oneself? Aren’t her parents sending her to school in the West for precisely this reason — so she can struggle to become rich and powerful like Empress Wu?

As she grows older, Low rejects a filial piety that would have her hoarding wealth alongside her parents back in Singapore. She will not sacrifice her own dreams or principles to make her parents happy. She finds new allegiances — to political revolution and to art. But then (of course) her art and her politics often seem to demand conflicting things! Ambition is inherently suspect, as it is the beating heart that propels capitalistic greed … but isn’t ambition also necessary for executing artistic visions and for dreaming up better, more equitable futures? Sacrifice is the stuff of slavish filial piety … but isn’t it also essential for achieving all her utopian political goals? What if her allegiance to her own art is nothing but “foreign individualism rearing its head”? She fears that any “subversive art” tolerated by the state will only reinforce the state’s legitimacy, serving as an example of its magnanimous openness to dissent. She resents expectations about the way she should perform race in her art, and the accusations that she is acquiescing to whiteness or trying to “pass for white” if she fails to offer a “scenic narrative about [her] race.” There are so many wrong ways to struggle! What is a young leftist poet to do?

The conflict is familiar, but Low avoids the familiar responses, neither conforming to au courant progressive talking points, nor sinking into lazy, reactionary positions against them. And she gives herself no quarter when it comes to investigating her own hypocrisies: “I prefer owning up to the contradictory demands of my proliferate identities, racial or political or otherwise.” She recognizes the flux of identity in her own life, the way certain identity categories can feel central in certain moments, and then become less meaningful (or even inappropriate) in others. “Queer,” for instance, feels right to describe her sexual and romantic history, and her current relationship with her partner. And yet, she recalls feeling uncomfortable claiming the label when she was in a monogamous relationship with a cis man, as well as in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting. She found herself in the company of people whose queerness seemed more visible, the source of more sustained discrimination. “You can’t demand your queer cred alongside the lack of scrutiny that comes with your straight white boyfriend.” She rebels against the confinement that a static identity imposes on her dynamic self, the way a category can itself proscribe behavior.

On the other hand, she has no interest in rubbing shoulders with the smug, public-intellectual bros who make their livings railing against identity politics, wringing their hands about how such essentialist nonsense stands in the way of our blessed universal humanism. After all, doesn’t boasting about one’s aversion to “identity” amount to joining the clan of individualists, who band together to build a house that will keep out the scourge of “identity”? Low admits: “I built a house from my lack of belonging.” She acknowledges the ways in which identities can be empowering and necessary for securing collective rights, and the fact that, however confining or constructed an identity may be, it is constructed because it names (however partially or imprecisely) something real — a common social reality, a shared feeling of belonging or exclusion. She reflects on her discomfort with any identity that has a “shared wound” as its central feature (and the relentless policing of the identity’s borders that inevitably arises) while recognizing that suffering is one of the most powerful forces binding people to a shared political commitment.

Witnessing Low squirm for 150 pages among the competing claims of her “proliferate identities,” her conflicting loyalties to artistic autonomy and to collective political struggle, I was reminded often of Susan Sontag (though their prose bears little resemblance; Low is casual and intimate, worlds away from Sontag’s arch solemnity). In much of Sontag’s work, we see this longing to be politically useful, to harmonize her political commitments with her aesthetic pleasures, though on some level she feels it to be impossible. In her famous essay “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes” (1982), Sontag writes of Walter Benjamin’s “tragic awareness that every work of civilization is also a work of barbarism.” It is an awareness that courses through Low’s book as well. She will never struggle “correctly,” in a way that is morally above reproach, in a way that frees her from participation in the systems that exploit her fellow humans. This is a belief born from a desperate hunger for purity, for extremity. It is the sort of longing that undergirds Sontag’s admiration for an extreme figure like Simone Weil, and Low’s admiration for the protestors who succumb to their death fasts in the Turkish prisons.

And so we arrive, near the book’s conclusion, at the inevitable destination: the Nazi Holocaust, that shining historical example, so often invoked because of its extremity and the ease with which that extremity permits us to identify good and evil in the world. Low is watching Army of Shadows (1969), a film about the French Resistance. From here, it looks so clearly noble, so correct, to join some underground cell of resisters, even when the fate of the resister is anonymous martyrdom at the hands of a genocidal state that brushes them into the ash heap of history as easily as swatting a gnat. Low romanticizes the situation of the doomed martyrs because it makes resistance, even in the face of failure or death, look unassailable. Fidelity to one’s convictions is more important than the success or ultimate result of the action.

Let us see what happens when the same principle is applied to a more mundane situation. Earlier in the book, Low identifies an ex-boyfriend, Thomson, as “one of the most intensely moral humans” she knows “because he is able to see starkness in the world and act on it with a confidence I do not possess” [emphasis mine]. An example: He was once at a frat party where another young man was “aggressive towards him,” so Thomson decided to give the evil aggressor a Solo cup full of bleach, masked with a splash of beer on top, knowing full well it could kill the young man. (“Before [Thomson] can do anything, the girl he is with takes the cup out of his hand.”) The way the anecdote is rendered — the banality and vagueness of the conflict, the extremity and specificity of the retribution — can only be deliberate provocation. What is being lauded and longed for is the ability to live one’s daily life with clear convictions about what is wrong, and to act decisively and radically on those convictions. The substance of the conviction is less important than the certainty with which it’s held, the intensity with which it’s pursued.

What sort of “morality” is this? Morality as the opposite of circumspection. It is the morality of the guillotine. Not the most compelling stuff, in terms of guiding principles for an ethical life. But as an honest accounting of the longings that have birthed Low’s radical impulses, and of her hunger to tear down a civilization’s suicidal status quo, it is admirably forthright and searching. It is morality as a wild swinging of the pendulum away from the insipid, toothless ethics of an American consumer class, whose members satisfy themselves with assurances that they are kind to their children and their neighbors, that they are doing the best they can. And for all her romanticizing of extremity, Low does take us back from the murderous edge of such a morality.

The first entry for “stark” in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary reads: “rigid in, or as if in death.” And, indeed, a death could be the immediate consequence of Thomson’s supposedly moral impulse. Low knows this, knows that extinction is the logical endpoint of her desperate yearning for stark certainties. Only in death do our perceptions of reality, our sense of self, and our convictions cease to move. Life is motion, my motion colliding with yours, the borders of our identities shifting as they rub against each other.

How much simpler it would be to be swaddled inside a stable home, an ideology, a tomb. Throughout the book, Low peers out from the “murky muddle” she inhabits (and professes to prefer), in order to pine after this life-defying fixity. She waxes poetic about the instant of freedom found in orgasm — la petite mort (the little death) — in which you are “severed from reality.” She tells her friends over dinner that, when the revolution arrives, she will be the first to throw herself on the guillotine. She harbors an anti-natalist fantasy, in which humans agree to stop reproducing — “a slow, gentle apocalypse.”

One’s ability to enjoy the wealth of insight and nuance to be found in Low’s book probably hinges on one’s patience for these sometimes melodramatic declarations — as well as the depth of one’s investment in staring down the ways we are complicit in the suffering of our fellow humans, one’s interest in altering the conditions that permit such suffering. The writing is consistently earnest, short on irony. When describing her memory of a punk show from her youth, she writes, “the edges [of the memory] are wet and sanitized by my romanticism.” The same can be said of her writing about the protests she attends as an adult. Few details are disclosed — who has organized them for what purpose, their stated demands or policy goals. Instead, we are meant to be swept up in the romantic swoon of collective action. The expectation can be tiresome, but perhaps less tiresome than our contemporary culture’s unflagging irony, its self-aware smirk at anything that might carry a whiff of naïve idealism. For how often is the armor of irony just a meager defense against authentic feelings of helplessness and despair, when our desires for a better world collide with daunting systems of power?

Low’s answer to this helplessness is to champion “masochism” as a productive political attitude. This is unlikely to be a popular proposal. Historically, America does not like masochists, or even modesty. It is a country practiced at performing a very different identity, one based on founding myths of domination and exceptionalism. It is a country that has long painted the left as a joyless and self-denying bunch, obsessed with criticism of nation and of self. So much self-flagellation looks, to so many, like a self-righteous performance. Low assures us that her brand of masochism is not a shallow performance of principle, but simply an honest admission of the situation in which we find ourselves: bound by violent systems, largely powerless to wriggle free from them, and yet committed to struggling against them anyway. It is a worthwhile commitment, she argues, because in choosing, together, to honor our desires for impossible utopias, we cultivate the belief and trust in one another that is essential for creating something new, something different — even if that something will never wholly satisfy our utopian desires.

This is precisely what moderates and mainstream liberals recoil from in those further to the left: their reluctance to rally around what seems “pragmatic” or “politically feasible,” in favor of struggling toward ideals that look impossible to realize. Whether or not one finds Low’s masochism to be a compelling political position, her inquiry will not fail to stimulate anyone who shares her belief that limiting our vision to that which appears “pragmatic” and “politically feasible” is a woefully inadequate response to the extremity of our moment.


Andrew Waddell is a writer living in Los Angeles. He teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and is currently working on a novel.