OCTOBER 20, 2020
IN HER 2007 BOOK, Awkward: A Detour, Mary Cappello posits the title state as a natural response to a world indifferent to our comfort or desires. “Awkwardness could be an effect of the rough handling of reality over which one has no control,” she proposes, and over the course of her wide-ranging, digressive, book-length essay, Cappello approaches the question of awkwardness from a variety of different angles. Melding memoir, literary and film criticism, etymological study, and many other modes, her book offers up a range of perspectives on and definitions of the state of awkwardness, all of which speak to the gap between our natural inclinations and the ways we are forced to adjust these inclinations to fit both a physical world and a social environment that routinely refutes them. “Each day on earth,” Cappello writes, “is at base an endless adjustment to there being too much or not enough, to there being something missing or something extra,” and it’s in this adjustment that awkwardness occurs.
But, for Cappello, awkwardness is not something to reject or try to overcome, but rather a quality to “grow into […] to maintain against all odds; in the end, to become.” That is because awkwardness, as she comes to define it, is not only a natural state of being but a potentially forceful political tool. By recognizing and embracing awkwardness, we are obliged to acknowledge the gaps between the way the world really is and the narratives put forth by the official representatives of culture to maintain their power. Cappello cites, as an example, a newscaster reporting on the Iraq War, telling of biological and chemical warfare, expected mass casualties, and the attempted suicide of Guantanamo Bay detainees, all in the same emotionless monotone. “The absence of awkwardness in such uses of language is grotesque,” Cappello writes. “Shouldn’t she be stuttering? Shouldn’t she be tongue tied?”
If this official, non-awkward use of language is used to sell war and atrocity, then Cappello risks, even embraces, the awkwardness of language in her writing. Tearing apart words to get at new meanings, introducing disjunctions, and following tangents — “detours” — she employs a fragmented, kaleidoscopic approach, viewing her subjects from a range of unexpected perspectives. This embracing of the discursive, of the gaps and incongruities that define our existence, is one that carries through Cappello’s full body of work, defining such subsequent titles as her 2009 memoir Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, her 2016 “mood almanack” Life Breaks In, and, perhaps most memorably, her 2011 volume Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them.
This last-named book, a free-ranging consideration of the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, is particularly concerned with the confusion of boundaries. In considering this collection of over 2,000 objects extracted by the pioneering laryngologist Dr. Jackson from his patients’ throats, lungs, and stomachs, Cappello reflects on the violation inherent in the act of ingesting and inspiring foreign bodies, and the ways it “point[s] up the human body’s foreignness to the world of which it is a part.” It’s a question of awkwardness once again — what should not be in our bodies being in our bodies, the confusion among the different functions of the mouth: speaking, swallowing, breathing — and it’s also once again a matter of who controls that awkwardness. For all her admiration for Jackson’s skill and innovation, Cappello is less laudatory when she considers his position as the gatekeeper of the mouth’s charged boundary, a position he wields rigorously, if largely benevolently, over his young and often female charges.
Although Swallow is not quite as digressive as her 2007 book, it still embraces the tangential, the awkward, in ways that allow Cappello to come at her subject from as many perspectives as she chooses, avoiding authoritative conclusions. This essayistic approach, with its constant questing, its lack of certitude, is not only essential to Cappello’s working methods but to her worldview as well. In her latest book, the monograph Lecture, Cappello takes this approach further by explicitly making the question of form into a moral issue, a political question. The lecture as it exists in the popular imagination is, she explains, an inflexible tool for the relaying of knowledge, an often-boring one-way exchange of information, passed from an unchallenged expert to a largely passive audience. This conception, she argues, is not only out of keeping with what the lecture has historically been but limits its future potential in a way that shuts down thought and dangerously props up power and received authority.
In its stead, Lecture — which itself is expanded from a lecture Cappello gave in 2017 and which proceeds by her customary fragments, asides, and hidden paths — proposes the eponymous art form as a cousin to other flexible genres, such as the note, the aphorism, and, especially, the essay. (The book’s lengthy third section considers the uses of the note — both as starting point and as corollary to the lecture — in considerable detail.) As Cappello writes early on in the book, her aim is to “restor[e] the lecture’s affiliation with the essay, not, in the process, to arrive at a lecture that comes to its point, and does so with dazzling aplomb, but to re-value wandering ways […] to court the counter-intuition of going on a journey with a wandering guide.” For Cappello, the lecture as properly practiced is, like the essay, a more generous and expansive form, filled with digressions and asides, suggestive rather than definitive. It opens up a space for the listener to think and even, encouraging a different kind of attention in its audience, to dream. “Great lectures are irreducible to knowledge as such,” Cappello writes, “they stir something in our souls that they ask us to heed.”
But what qualifies as a great lecture? What might a great lecture look and sound like? Although Cappello is a little stingy with specifics — at one point, she provides a tantalizing list of contemporary “essay-lecturers,” including Anna Deavere Smith, Randy Rainbow, and Tracie Morris, but then fails to discuss any of their works — she does provide a telling example late in the book that helps define more closely what she has in mind. Searching the University of Pennsylvania’s website, she comes across a series of videos called “60-Second Lectures,” where different faculty members are given one minute to profess on the topic of their expertise. As Cappello soon discovers, none of the professors make imaginative use of the time constraint, instead frantically trying to pack as much information into the 60-second limit as possible. The only exception proves to be the experimental poet Charles Bernstein, who explicitly acknowledges the framework, “occup[ying] time and discover[ing] the amplitude of one minute of utterance or one minute of life,” and offering the viewer a list poem (another close relative of the lecture properly conceived) that is filled with a vivifying negation and a final stirring affirmation. His recitation, in part, reads:
My lecture is called “What Makes a Poem a Poem.”
I’m gonna set my timer.
[He adjusts his watch.]
It’s not rhyming words at the end of a line.
It’s not form.
It’s not structure.
It’s not loneliness.
It’s not location.
It’s not the sky.
It’s not the words.
It’s not the things between the words.
It’s not the meter.
It’s not the meter —
[Here the timer on his watch goes off, and he pauses to listen for several long seconds.]
It’s the timing.
Bernstein’s poem/lecture/essay not only plays imaginatively with the form, it offers a direct rebuke to the other lecturers in the series and, by extension, to anyone who would use the form as a means of propping up their alleged expertise, reducing the listener, in Cappello’s memorable image, to “a wall of sorts to which wet strands of spaghetti, once flung, might or might not stick.” As Cappello makes clear, this dismissal of authority is particularly important in light of recent political developments, in which we’ve seen a move toward authoritarianism supported by a belligerent official voice. “When ‘lecture’ becomes a homonym for ‘hector,’ we know we’ve fallen on bad times,” Cappello writes, referencing specifically the bellicose lies spun from the podium by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. When the lecture becomes the province of such individuals, it becomes increasingly necessary to interrogate the form so that we might, on the one hand, resist its authority, and, on the other, reinvent it completely. By seeing through the false claims of the lecture and understanding different possibilities for the form, we deprive the official representatives of their standing. It is only in doing so that we can hope to “take back the lectern from […] Spicer” and his prevaricating successors.
The lecture, like the essay, like the state of awkwardness that Cappello explored so fruitfully 13 years earlier, operates in the gap between what a person knows is real and what that person is told is real. “When you know what you know is not what you know but something else,” Cappello writes, “unease is the result of the gap.” Cappello doesn’t view this dissociation simply as an abstract, existential crisis, but one that is rooted in the “real of gender, of race, of fill in the blank.” While we know that such markers are arbitrary, we are nonetheless forced to live in a world that tells us at every second that they are not. The essay, or the lecture, or the essay/lecture, can be a necessary tool for acknowledging and challenging this disjunction.
“All great essays,” Mary Cappello writes, “investigate the space between what one is told about the real and what one truly knows about it. This is the essay, and the lecture’s, essential life-affirming disassociated ground.” It’s the ground that Cappello has tread throughout her two-decade writing career, and she not only explores this ground further in her latest book but makes its operating method into her central subject. In doing so, she ensures that Lecture — with its fragments and digressions, its considerable self-reflection, and its significant moral and political heft — serves as its own well-earned justification.