C Magazine


Issue 131

Amy Lawless and Chris Cheney: I Cry: The Desire to Be Rejected (Pioneer Works Press, 2016)
by Heather White

Last year, demonstrators staged CRYING; A PROTEST at the Dia:Beacon Carl Andre retrospective. In a room featuring the austere minimalism of a man accused (but acquitted) of the spousal homicide of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, a crowd formed to sob together and conspicuously. Not defeatist or passive, this crying comprised activism. The event was an expression of collective anguish about violence that’s not isolated. It came on the heels of internet artist Audrey Wollen’s proposal (“Sad Girl Theory”) that the very feeling of sadness is a resistance of the systems that perpetuate it. Wollen claims as activists those who have never cried for an audience, and who would never consider themselves protesters. Some, like Judy Garland or Virginia Woolf, she claims posthumously; they died long before the art world grew so interested in crying as social commentary.

In a recent book from Pioneer Works Press, I Cry: The Desire to be Rejected, Amy Lawless and Chris Cheney also question what our tears mean vis-a-vis our isolation. Their work considers the political in the most generic sense: they care about how people collaborate, communicate, co-exist.

The authors, who are poets, are mostly interested in the inevitable, developmental consequences of being human. Their book opens with a description of a parenting technique called Ferberization, which distinguishes between two ways we all cry when we’re starting life. There’s the baby’s cry for food, which should always be heeded, since a baby can’t satisfy her own hunger. But if the child “is having difficulty sleeping or being alone, a parent is suggested not to comfort the child, but to let that child ‘cry it out’”. The idea is that the child will learn to soothe herself; she’ll stop crying when the tears flush out whatever emotional irritant is inside. (It may be politically relevant that this ignorable cry is called a “protest cry” on some online parenting forums I found. And perhaps it’s aesthetically relevant that this unhungry cry is also described as sounding “more fake.”)

Like a pair of tear deconstructionists, the authors of I Cry challenge this binary wherein either another person is needed or the self is enough. They present a third kind of crying, a kind that self-soothing can’t stop, because the crying itself is what soothes. The baby’s protest becomes a kind of prototypical performance. “This kind of crying is sung from a need to not be alone, and you are not alone, you are with your selves: audience and performer.” I Cry is always We Cry; you are not self, but selves. In this model, crying is both expressing and witnessing together, and it becomes a structural impossibility to cry alone. Not because, as Wollen suggests, we’re always expressing a piece of communal, inflicted pain, but because a single self can be its own community.

I Cry is itself, like so many texts, a community of sorts: Lawless and Cheney incorporate thinkers, artists and other others whose work and violence help explain what builds and what limits identity. Serial killers and pop singers make cameos, as do siblings and mothers. The authors quote repeatedly or at length: psychoanalytic theorist Žižek (to establish how the Other is always implicitly referenced); installation art pioneer Kurt Schwitters (to consider how one’s tangible creations – and the loss of them – constitute the self, or don’t); and a friend who’s an advice columnist (to address the emotional fallout of an absurd Twitter abandonment).

They also reference the fictional selves they’ve created, and this is maybe the best stuff of I Cry. One of the poets once created a Myspace profile for the least famous Baldwin brother (Daniel), and one of them posed on Yelp as a widower who reviewed restaurants (unfavourably) before moving on to critiquing ATMs. And so the book also serves as documentation of virtual performance art that’s never quite named as such. Context about these performances proffers some of the most poignant insight on the book’s central question: how many can we be? Or, maybe, how can we be many?

The inventor of the widower laments that “I wanted to be more than myself.” The Baldwin impersonator explains that “I needed someone to wear like a glove in order to escape my own life.” The authors don’t replace themselves with others, but rather expand themselves by accumulating others. They escape by growing. To this end, they’re also preternaturally interested in facts about cannibals. They explain how, “[p]oetically/metaphorically speaking, of course, cannibalism seemed so romantic: finally two or more people can be together 4-eva.”

Concern with numbers pervades I Cry. In their quest to be many, Lawless and Cheney yearn to reach many. Fluctuations in the number of a tweet’s likes or an account’s followers comprise plot points: these authors cry to be heard and they count their listeners. They grapple with the embarrassment of the truth that virtual popularity is important to them; they’re thrilled when a group of role-playing Korean teenagers follow their Twitter account, and deeply hurt when they defect.

Perhaps playing to this sensitivity about being popular, reader @realitybeach consoled in an Instagram caption of a photo of I Cry: “This book is so much better than The Argonauts. Thank you.” Of course, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s latest book, was also a poetic narrative about identity grounded in an artworld life and interspersed with critical theory. It’s been so trendy that, when a friend recently complained to me of the absurdly long waitlist he’d joined at the library, I knew it couldn’t be for anything else.

My library doesn’t carry I Cry. I was gifted it by another friend who loved it so much she bought several for those she figured might feel the same. And maybe it takes a village to read a book. As Lawless and Cheney (alongside Wollen and the crying protesters) suggest, intimations of community often flicker in solitude. When I consider whether my friend’s friends and I might form such a community, I imagine us hushed and huddled around a baby monitor, eavesdropping on an absurd but affecting performance of cries, nodding at each other.