“Yet we became friends because of our differences, not despite of them. This was not a simple cognitive trick but rather an orientation of a kind, which Sara Ahmed terms, ‘queer orientations’…“
University of South Australia
Katrina Jaworski is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of South Australia’s Justice and Society Unit. She primarily researches the agency of suicide, with a focus on gender, sexuality, youth, ethics and poetry. She also works on Rwandan genocide, the philosophy of dying bodies, trauma and the cultural politics of thinking.
How do we say goodbye to those we love? What do our efforts to say goodbye reveal? I address these questions by meditating on my queer friendship with Michael Noble. In so doing, I argue that saying goodbye to Michael is a reminder that death is a gift. The essay begins by offering an example of saying goodbye to Michael, namely, the content of my speech at one of the launches of his book, Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, published posthumously in 2019. Thinking in the company of scholars such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler, I then reflect analytically on the content of my goodbye and consider what the gift of Michael’s death teaches us about life. My purpose is to illuminate a paradox, namely, the living are responsible for how the dead are remembered, yet at the same time this responsibility is not entirely up to them.
gift; death; ethical responsibility; queer friendship; grief and loss
Jacques Derrida (1997) once argued that death resides at the heart of friendship, meaning a friend must always die before the other one does. In this sense, friendship is always structured by survival, because eventually we are called upon to bury, to commemorate and to mourn those we love(d) (Brault and Nass 2001). I have had a problem with Derrida’s (1997) argument for quite some time. The problem is not whether Derrida’s argument is wrong. On the contrary, I happen to agree with it wholeheartedly. The problem is that Derrida is annoyingly right. I wish it were otherwise, because the reality of that argument—of which he was no doubt aware—is painful to face. It is also a reality most of us cannot avoid.[i]
I was painfully reminded of Derrida’s (1997) argument shortly before and after Michael Noble died. I was fortunate to see Michael[ii] a few days before he died in May 2018, after which I left for Japan for a two-month residency at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He sat in his recliner at an aged care facility caring for him at the time. He told me that I needed to lose weight, and I told him he was an old queen making a fuss. His eyes sparkled and I chuckled. We always teased one another. Holding his hands, my last parting words were, Michael, your friendship was such a gift, and it has been an honour. While I never wondered as to which one of us would die first, I spent the next two months in Japan, thinking of, and grieving for Michael while my new everyday life pressed on. Each time I was at a shrine or a temple, I would be reminded of Michael given his commitment to Buddhism. In retrospect, Japan was a good place to begin grieving for the latest loss in my life.
Well over a year later, I still find myself saying goodbye to Michael. Based on the artefact he wrote as part of his doctoral dissertation, Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone was published posthumously in 2019 by Buon-Cattivi Press. I was asked to speak at the first book launch at the University of South Australia.[iii] As I read Michael’s novel, I could not help but think of our queer friendship. As I began to compose my thoughts and emotions in preparation for the launch, I felt as if I was saying goodbye to him all over again. This time I did it differently, because the living-yet-dying Michael was gone. And so I wondered whether how we say goodbye matters as much as what we actually say? I also wondered what my efforts would reveal about being human and friendship?
Today, here, now, in the space of the Writing from Below journal, my goodbye and response to the above questions are as follows. I will argue that saying goodbye to Michael is a reminder that death is a gift. I will begin with the content of my speech at the book launch of Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone. Thinking in the company of scholars such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler, I will then reflect analytically on the content of my goodbye and consider what the gift of Michael’s death teaches us about life and loss. My purpose is to illuminate a paradox, namely, the living are responsible for how the dead are remembered, yet at the same time this responsibility is not entirely up to them.
But before I go any further, I want to make something clear. I feel uneasy about writing this essay. Speaking and writing of the dead in the wake of their death does not come easy to me. As Derrida (2001) discusses, despite best intentions, speaking of the dead can serve one’s own ends or interests. Given the kind of competitive cultures in Australian universities in which many scholars work, this essay can serve the purpose of producing another publication for the year, which, together with the journal’s ranking, will not go unnoticed during my annual performance management. But there is more to this. It is easy to presume for those who grieve like me that Michael would approve of this essay. Furthermore, an essay such as this one is a form of personal testimony, always risks reappropriation through which I speak of Michael as if both of us were one. As Derrida (2001, 115) describes, “there is always in mourning the danger of narcissism, for instance, the ‘egoistical’ and no doubt ‘irrepressible’ tendency to bemoan the friend’s death in order to take pity upon oneself….” For Derrida (2001), this kind of narcissism speaks of denial in so far as speaking and writing about the dead momentarily forgets that the dead can no longer respond to us.
Is there a way out of this trap I willingly walked into? No, not really. This does not mean I cannot write about Michael. Instead, it means I need to keep company with what is best described as feelings of discomfort, accepting that perhaps Michael would not agree with what I have to say about him, or perhaps he would agree only a little. This kind of ethical vigilance involves accepting the fact that in speaking of Michael I am also speaking of myself in a personal sense more so than the intellectual one. Of course, this too makes me feel uneasy. But this is something I am prepared to live with given that discomfort in a queer sense does not always have to be negative or constraining, as Sara Ahmed (2004, 155) writes, but rather generative, offering us opportunities to do things differently.
I met Michael in the year 2001 at the Inner Sanctums, Bifurcating Selves: Navigating Cultural Worlds and Educational Contexts conference, organised by Dr Vicki Crowley and Mary Lou Rasmussen.[iv] The conference was co-hosted by Feast: Queer Arts and Cultural Festival, and the University of South Australia in Adelaide.[v] The conference did not attract a large audience, yet it was no less amazing. It was full of queer presenters, including transgender scholars, Aboriginal gay activists, HIV activists, drag performers and so on, with a good number working outside the academia. One of the presenters was Michael Noble. His paper was entitled, “The representation of Klinefelter Syndrome (XXY) in medical and popular discourses.” When it was Michael’s turn to present, he began with his own story—of being diagnosed with the Klinefelter Syndrome and of being intersex. He spoke of his experiences of growing up, of the verbal and physical abuse he experienced, rejection, loneliness and the unforgiving nature of the hormone treatments on his body. He spoke of being told that he would never achieve anything, both by family, doctors and academics, because most people in his situation apparently had lower IQs. What they did not tell him, and what he discovered, was not only that such declarations and labelling were wrong, but also that people in his situation were particularly gifted with language and with the craft of writing, be it creative or professional. Years later I would learn from Michael that he came out of his “intersex closet” so to speak for the very first time during that conference.
I was struck by his presence, his courage, his ability to articulate the ideas he was working with at the time. Here was a human being who defied binaries yet lived between them and outside of them in spite of their violence on his everyday life. Here was a human being who time and time again proved that binaries were fabrications society needed to classify some as normal and others as less so. Over time we became friends. I would see Michael from time to time in Dr Vicki Crowley’s office at Magill Campus, who was my PhD supervisor at the time, and was writing on transgender and intersex issues at the time in the fields of cultural studies and education. Eventually Michael began his PhD studies a few years before I finished mine. While this was during a particularly stressful period in my PhD career, we would chat regularly, especially since Michael turned up to all the seminars and events. Eventually I finished my PhD and worked in a different part of the university. Our friendship resumed properly once I returned to the Magill Campus in 2012. He would come by to find me in my office, usually after going to the gym; ready to chat, or to work out when we could have lunch. Michael refused to have a mobile phone, so it was always pen and paper with him.[vi]
Our lunch dates were always full of intellectual exchanges, gossip and laughter. I made him laugh a lot, and in return he did the same. Michael was very witty, and his humour was like mine, very dry. He would share all sorts of things with me, and I shared in returned. We would talk about our bodies, sex lives (he was a bit saucy I will have you know), our writing and research, meditation, medicine, queer politics, be it good or bad. About five years ago, I told Michael I was bisexual, to which he replied, Finally! Most of us knew this ages ago, my dear. We talked about all things Polish, because he happened to be researching an old Polish family at the time and needed help with translation. He talked about his needlework; I talked about my aspirations to the same. I discovered Michael gravitated towards people who were different, who did not quite fit the mould. Perhaps this is why we became friends. Perhaps this is why he helped so many people, and in so doing, made friends from all walks of life. His life was a gift to others.
So, what do we make of this gift today? The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, once argued that death is a true gift, because there is no economy of exchange between the dead and the living (Michael would be very grumpy with me right about now since I am invoking French philosophers most of whom he saw as a bunch of pompous arses). There is no giving, and giving-in-return because one was given something. In a way, I see Michael’s novel, Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, to be a true gift. Here are Michael’s words on offer, but we cannot say thank you in return, nor is he aware that a gift has been given. In a sense, then, death is a gift of a life once lived, without return, a one-way ticket for which there are no words even if words and language are all we have.
All of this does not make me miss Michael any less. Yet the novel which we are launching today reminds me that if I find myself missing him a little too much in a given moment, all I have to do is reach out for his book, Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, of which he would be very proud, and delighted in having it published. I will confess that I was looking for Michael as I began reading his novel. And I found him. I know this sounds biased, born out of my desire to reconnect with the dead. Yet I also know that those of us who are authors tend to leave traces of ourselves behind. It does not matter what these traces are, and whether they are consciously or unconsciously left behind. In some ways, the character of Nicholas Culpeper reminds me of Michael. Perhaps it is the humour. Perhaps it is the way he words things; or the emotion expressed in different outbursts; or the fact that Culpeper did not fit in anywhere; or the fact that his knowledge was very much subjugated. I see Michael in the meticulous attention to detail. Not many would describe the cuffs of one’s linen shirt, decorated with silk embroidery, or a green silk dress tastefully embroidered and lined with delicate lace in such detail. I see Michael in the range of insults the characters of his novel deploy. A few days ago, I had no idea what mountebank meant. I mean, who knew that mountebank refers to a person who deceives others, especially for financial gains. I do know now, and I wonder just how much time Michael committed to the study of insults and swear words of the 17th century (and whether Trevor, his friend, helped). I see Michael in the way he uses language to create mood, to create a sense of place, which I find marvellous given that he never travelled overseas. I see Michael in the way he uses history to weave a story, a detective story no less. In other words, I truly recommend this book.
So, with these thoughts in mind, I want to conclude by saying that this place, Magill Campus, is a perfect place to launch Michael’s novel. Michael loved this campus. He loved the fact that he had the opportunity to do his PhD, proving wrong, yet again, the very people who said he would never amount to anything. Michael loved his little office; he loved the bench near his office building that you can sit on to listen to the wind in the tree branches above. He appreciated his friends on this campus, including those he did not agree with. I sometimes come past the creek, usually in a hurry to a meeting. More often than not, I stop for a moment near the bridge and look back to see if Michael’s shadow is lingering somewhere between the trees. Who knows, perhaps like the ghost of Nicholas Culpeper, Michael too might appear one day. And so, very finally, it is my pleasure to pronounce Nicholas Culpeper and the Mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone officially launched, and I thank Dr Alex Dunkin for enabling me to be part of this venture.
The gift of death
Let me come back to Derrida once more, albeit in a different way (yes, Derrida again—sorry, Michael). In The Gift of Death, Derrida (1995a) argues that history is bound to three things, namely, responsibility, faith and gift. For Derrida (1995a, 6), responsibility is not so much a matter of duty or accountability in a legal sense as it is “the experience of absolute decisions made outside knowledge and given norms.” Faith appears to follow a similar conceptual pathway in so far as Derrida sees it as a “form of involvement with the other that is a venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty” (1995a, 6). Gift is more complicated. This is not only because Derrida clearly departs from Marcel Mauss’s (1990) canonical work on the gift, but also because it signifies a radical separation and difference between oneself and another human being, or as Derrida describes, “transcendence of the other” (1995a, 6).
Thinking through the three things, Derrida concludes that the gift of death is a “marriage between responsibility and faith” (1995a, 6). This marriage is based on absolute risk, but this risk eschews the other rather than involving them directly, thereby leaving something impossible for the other: death. Death leads to a lack of knowledge and acknowledgement by the other, and this is precisely what is at the heart of a true gift. Put differently, death becomes a gift because the giving party, the dead, do not recognise that the gift has been received and the receiving party, the living, have no apprehension of what has been given since death is not generally considered a gift. In this sense, death is no ordinary gift because it does not involve reciprocity or return as Mauss (1990) argues: there is no economy of exchange, and there are no expectations or gratitude.[vii] In this sense, death as a gift must remain foreign, a paradox—it must become the impossible, which, as Derrida (1992) stresses, is different from being impossible. Death is not impossible because it happens. However, as something that breaks down the circularity of exchange, death gives itself to be thought of as the impossible. In so doing, death demands a response in the face of a non-response from the dead. This response will always be untimely (Derrida 1995b).
What then is my response? How can my goodbye to Michael serve as a reminder that death is a gift? The claim that Michael’s death resonates with death as a gift initially may seem preposterous and absurd. If anything, his death was a loss to us all that knew him. But I will abide with my claim, because through Michael’s death something—his published novel—has been given existentially without him ever knowing the consequences of this giving let alone whether it was a gift in the first place. Michael’s dying, as a singular act, does not permit a return or exchange. He is no longer alive; he cannot tell us whether the book is a gift and what he thinks about it precisely. Certainly, those of us who are left behind to grieve, the living receivers, did not know what the death of Michael offered at the time of his dying and cannot reciprocate or confirm the gift has been given even when we might be compelled to think of his book as a gift. Sure, we could offer our thankyous to Michael for bringing the story of Nicholas Culpeper to life. However, as I explained earlier, it is too late for any exchange. Put differently, it is in that moment of words becoming stuck in my mouth—of wanting to say thanks but knowing that it is too late—that Michael’s death signifies a true gift. In this aporia, or most contradictory moment in time, I truly feel the extent to which Michael’s death is a gift of life, and that gratitude can exist without thanks. My embodied sensing, I also realise, is utterly untimely.
The gift of death comes with responsibility. This responsibility, I want to emphasise, is not simply illuminated through my feelings of discomfort. Quite frankly, I feel like saying to myself, big deal, Katrina! Get over it! I suspect Michael would probably say the same. Internalised reprimands aside, Michael’s death offers an opportunity to think through what it means to be responsible for the dead. Whether we, the living, like it or not, we remain responsible for the dead in so far as it is up to us to represent the content of their lives. In this sense, responsibility appears to be synonymous with accountability for the living are likely to speak of, and on the behalf of the dead. At the same time, I want to suggest that responsibility is also about responding to others, because who and what we are or become through life and living as much death and dying is dependent on how we respond to one another through mutual encounters.
The point I am making here echoes the earlier work of Emmanuel Levinas (1969) who argues that ethics are constituted through our encounters and proximity to other human beings as much as that which lies beyond our constitution. I will not wade into a discussion about what “beyond constitution” might mean other than to say that this represents Levinas’ more theological line of work. Instead, my actual point is that what we say of the dead will give an account of us. This does not mean we ought to obsess over what we say to ensure that we appear in a good light. Instead, the giving of our account serves as a reminder that “responsibility is not a matter of cultivating a will, but of making use of an unwilled susceptibility as a resource for becoming responsive to the Other” (Butler 2005, 91). In this sense, our responsibility for others is not entirely our own, because it will depend on that which emerges between people respond rather than who says what exactly.
Queer friendship is what emerged between Michael and I in the time that we knew each other. This might come across like a blatantly obvious thing to say. Michael first and foremost identified as intersex, and then as gay (but not gay male). I came out as bisexual, eventually. This, however, is not what made our friendship queer. Jack Halberstam (2005, 6) argues that what constitutes queer is not only about non-normative sexualities and subjects, but also about “nonnormative logics and organisations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in space and time.” While Halberstam’s (2005) rethinking applies to space and time specifically, the point about queer failing to fit into neat categories and/or binary pairs is important here. Unlike my embodiment, Michael’s embodiment constantly faced, what Vicki Crowley (2002, 146) highlights as, “the actuality that human physiognomy does not conform to a tidy male/female binary.”
Yet we became friends because of our differences, not despite of them. This was not a simple cognitive trick but rather an orientation of a kind, which Sara Ahmed terms, “queer orientations”. Ahmed (2006, 107) conceptualises queer orientations as “those that put within reach bodies that have been made unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy. Queer orientations might be those that don’t line up, which by seeing the world ‘slantwise’ allow other objects to come into view. A queer orientation might be one that does not overcome what is ‘off-line’, and hence acts out of line with others.” In many ways, Michael was off-line given that he definitely did not fit into the mainstream society; did not easily fit into the local queer community; was often critical of what he perceived as queer community’s normativity when it came to embodiment; and thus he kept his distance even though he had queer friends. This kind of orientation, through his friendships, meant that he frequently welcomed the otherness people around him experienced in their own lives.
Given that Michael did not follow conventional genealogy to sustain a network of friends, I finally understand the degree to which his life demonstrated the “socially contingent character of kinship” (Butler 2000, 6). This contingent character meant that being friends let alone forming kinship with others was always a process of creating bonds rather than something already given. Elizabeth Freeman (2007, 289) best describes the point I am making here when she states that “as a practice, kinship can also be viewed as the process by which bodies and the potential for physical, emotional attachment are created, transformed, and sustained over time.” Michael had no choice but to engage with this process to sustain attachments and bonds. I do not think he would disagree with me saying that his friends were his family, a kinship network composed of people across different walks of life.[viii] And perhaps he would not disagree with me saying that friendship and kinship were a way of life for him, something that Foucault (1994, 138) once expressed in an interview: “A way of life can be shared among individuals of different age, status and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics.”
This way of life, I want to suggest, shows the degree to which Michael’s life itself is grievable. On the one hand, this may come across as patently obvious (yet again), since grief and loss is what we must survive in the wake of Michael’s death. On the other hand, it is a serious philosophical lesson about life Michael’s death offers us. The LGBTQIA+ community let alone intersex people are still considered less human than their heterosexual counterparts given the various normativities that shape our everyday living world (Butler 2004a). As Judith Butler (2004b) notes, we are born into, and constituted by, a social relationality and affective bonds, which pave the way to become fully human. It is impossible to avoid this process of becoming human, because “one becomes an individual only on the condition that one belongs to community” (Butler 2000, 31). Those of us who are deemed as having failed to fit into the given norms are rendered less intelligible or not intelligible at all, especially if we identify outside the heteronormative matrix (Butler 1990). Thus, when someone dies, and their deaths are not mourned, acknowledged or recognised in some way, this tells us the degree to which their life was not worth living, was liveable as such. Put differently, there is a “differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operate to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human…” (Butler 2004b, xv). This may come across as completely contradictory, but perhaps we, as Michael’s family and friends, need to affirm survival, as this reminds us that Michael’s life is grievable, and therefore, in the end, his life was worth living. Otherwise, why would any of us miss him?
Having written this essay does not make me miss Michael any less. Perhaps I now miss him more for the creative craft of thinking and writing often reveals things we did not see earlier in the same way. I cannot help but think that the gift of Michael Noble is as much about death as it is about life, and in retrospect, demonstrating that gratitude exists without return. How untimely this feels! But so is grief and mourning because we do not know exactly when and how it will start (most of the time), and because, as Butler (2004b, 21) posits, both have something to do “with agreeing to undergo a transformation… the result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effects of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned. One can try to choose it, but it may be that this experience of transformation deconstitutes choice at some level.” I chose to write this essay, yet something about it remains outside my choosing, precisely because it is intertwined with the agency of Michael’s life and death. Perhaps this too is a gift of a kind of which I became aware too late in my life—yet again.
As frustrating as the timing of the gift is, its untimeliness is a reminder that queer friendships do matter, that lives outside the normative hetero matrix of embodiment do matter, and that we have to continue to develop and nurture kinship networks in academia and beyond as means of sustaining multiple ways of being in the world. As Butler (1993, 236) once described at length: “The emergence of collective institutions for grieving are thus crucial to survival, to the reassembling of community, the reworking of kinship, the reweaving of sustaining relations. And insofar as they involve the publicization and dramatization of death, they call to be read as life-affirming rejoinders to the dire psychic consequences of a grieving process culturally thwarted and proscribed.” At the end of it all, my rejoinder comes down to this: Michael, your friendship was such a gift, and it has been an honour. Love, Kasia.
[i] I speak of an us and them without presuming that our experiences with friendship, and our responses to death and dying are universal. However, at some point we all have to face the reality of grieving for someone we lost through death, unless of course some of us are hermits in outer space.
[ii] I will use the pronouns he/his/him, as these are the pronouns Michael used. These pronouns, however, were never fixed as Michael’s sense of he/his/him included something about she/her/they/them in relation to the actuality of his embodiment. Undoubtedly, Michael’s use of pronouns was a matter of survival. If born in a different era, perhaps Michael would have had the freedom to identify as non-binary, despite his apprehensions about the politics of non-binary people, and despite some of the clashes between non-binary and intersexed communities.
[iii] The second followed soon after at The 6th Annual South Australian Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Gender, Sex and Sexualities Conference, hosted by the University of Adelaide, 23-34 September 2019.
[iv] Back then, Mary Louise Rasmussen was one of my postgraduate comrades, and now is a Professor of Sociology at the Australian National University. Vicki Crowley retired as a Senior Lecturer from the University of South Australia in 2013.
[v] The city of Adelaide is a capital city in the state of South Australia, Australia. The University of South Australia is comprised of six campuses: City West, City East, Magill, Mawson Lakes, Whyalla, Mount Gambier. The first four are metropolitan and the remaining two are regional.
[vi] Ironically, Michael ended up with a mobile phone in the last three weeks of his life, and took to it like the proverbial duck takes to water.
[vii] For a gift to be a true gift, it must always interrupt the circularity of giving. Derrida (1992, 27) argues at length that Mauss (1990) speaks of everything but the gift in The Gift. This is because Mauss (1990) speaks of the economy, exchange, contract, sacrifice, gift and counter-gift – everything that impels the gift and annuls it at the same time.
[viii] It is worth noting that Michael reached out to his distanced family members in the last 10 days of his life, successfully building bridges to most of them, giving all the opportunity to say their goodbyes in person.
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