Rats, Writers, and Menial Magic

Last week, we began to hear things in the walls. At first, just gentle scratching and a smooth sound of sediment, like time passing in an hourglass. Then, the thumping and gnawing that sounded like roadside construction caught in our bathroom wall. We conjured up concerned neighbors who would dutifully report the noise before things got out of hand, and in our greatest flight of fantasy, imagined a landlord who would remotely care.

This week started off with the super unceremoniously beating a rat to death with our broom (we threw the broom away). I cleaned off the bathtub, most disturbed not by the blood but by the amount of fur left behind. The rats continue to swarm in the walls though, and we only have a thin layer of newly-applied plaster as defense.

This whole experience made me think of an animal studies class that I sat in on, where we discussed pestilence–animals are thought of as pests when their movements and lives interfere with human activity. I wonder what lives could be made, or buildings constructed, that could accommodate the gnawing of rats. There must be mountains of essays out there about rats as anti-capitalists.

My mind moves from rats to writers. The other day, a submitter’s cover letter included how many times they had been rejected from their local university’s MFA program. While I really do believe that writers need to stop constantly self-deprecating and/or fetishizing misery, there’s always something charming about these claims to rejections–they’re forward moving, with the lightweight seriousness of significance extended beyond the pinpoint of the momentous event, and often followed by a “maybe this time or next time.” I also love the sentiments that are something along the lines of “I hope, at least, these poems will bring some kind of joy to you.” If I have learned anything, it’s that the substance of living is constituted by tiny joys that seem to have no hope for surviving beyond themselves.

Finally, after conversations with a friend, I have been thinking about the menial and the magical, the menial as the terrain through which the magical surfaces. I’ve viewed tarot and other practices as a hermeneutic exercise that can reorient people or re-sensitize them to otherwise subterranean things. Much in the same way, I like the idea of significance being cohered around sirens, a passing dog, or pigeons wobbling in the street. I know nothing about actual magical practices, but I’ve been a longtime believer of what Kathleen Stewart calls “worlding,” trying to feel out illegible modes of being. Feeling in proximity can collapse linear cartography, time, all kinds of seemingly ossified boundaries for what is possible. I think there’s an interesting and generative homology between the two, so I’m continuing to learn lurk about more through friends.


Following a discussion with friends about, among many other things, Lauren Berlant’s introduction to Cruel Optimism, I’ve been thinking about the distinction they make between the situation and the event, and how this can be applied to creative writing as aesthetic mediation.

One of the foundational interventions Berlant makes in Cruel Optimism is an insistence on examining the present as an immanent affective experience: “One of this book’s central claims is that the present is perceived, first, affectively: the present is what makes itself present to us before it becomes anything else, such as an orchestrated collective event or an epoch on which we can look back” (4).

The present, then, is always under revision, a site of emergence where genres and conventions for processing, organizing, and understanding “what is going on” are contested. One genre of emergence that Berlant attends to is the situation, which they define as: “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event” (5). The kineticism of the situation is contrasted by the event, which is a congealed organization that defines what has happened.

Following Berlant’s definitions, moving writing, for me, is able to take an event and turn it into a situation through aesthetic mediation. Whether it’s a walk through the park or the loss of a loved one, the writing I remember the most is able to shake loose the bounded expectations of the event by deploying language that insists and illustrates how something else may be happening here.

Furthermore, I really love the conditional language Berlant uses in describing the situation–it “may” become an event, it “perhaps” might matter. Often times I will bounce off writing that exchanges one event for another–what is produced is not an open site of contestation oriented towards a significant perhaps but yet another calcified structure that neatly circumscribes worlds of possibilities, one box nested in another.

I think using Berlant’s language here is particularly useful for thinking about writing with greater stakes than producing a pleasing turn of phrase (I’ve always been dissatisfied with defamiliarization as the reigning conceptualization for crafting language). All writing is enunciated in relation to the political, and the structures of intelligibility rendering even the most “apolitical” piece come into greater relief when we think of the situation/event. There are so many stories and poems desperately in need of liquefying their assumptions–of people, places, wars, the familiar comforts they take for granted that might be doing active harm to illegible others.

I’ve been reading for a lit mag, which has provided many opportunities to think about aesthetic mediations of the situation as a genre of emergence. I think I am mainly attracted to writing that can point to other modalities of being in the world or being with others–when the ostensible theme or point or plot is always a little at odds with itself, and it provides the feeling that somewhere in its ecosystem of language, we might perhaps sense something more.