Format: 191 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5 x 8.5 in. Price: $13.95; Publisher: Wonder; Non-exhaustive list of types of guys who message the protagonist on an unnamed sex app: “cool guy”, “masc guy”, “bi guy”, “interesting guy”, “crazy guy”, “Gemini guy”, “good guy”; Number of times that the word “sorry” appears in The Switch: 19; Representative sentences: “I give you / at least one hundred / million trillion / little kisses. But no big ones.”
Central Question: What if avoidance works?
In “Friendship as a Way of Life,” Michel Foucault writes that the point of gayness “is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.” It’s not about asking what queerness is, but about asking what it can do, and for Foucault, the gayest part of being gay isn’t sex—not even cruising!—but friendship. Friends “have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.” Reading this now is depressing; Foucault thought so much could happen just from gay people being friends.
Anne Garréta wrote that “to appease is not the same as to fulfill,” and it’s telling that Shiv Kotecha chose this quote for the epigraph of his new book of poetry, The Switch. The appeasement in The Switch refers perhaps to the erotic friendship between two characters, Shiv and Diana, in the opening poem, I’m sorry, Shiv. I’m sorry, Diana. They are both gay, but want to be straight for each other. The hypothetical arrangement is less because of homophobia, although that still exists in external and internalized forms. For the narrator’s family, heterosexuality is both rooted in “tradition” and an assimilation tactic that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. You may be straight, chirps pinkwashing American life, but only by clinging to your religious and cultural values, unlike the rest of us in the (supposedly) secular, liberal west. Being straight is a way to be like your family, which has been excluded, but it also means being straight. Marrying your lesbian best friend seems like a way to have both, but it also just sounds nice, or like maybe it’s already happened. They share a Brooklyn apartment and a cat. They make each other feel specific and adored, functioning not just as an informal economic unit designed to reduce the costs of NYC living more bearable, but as a mini-hub of social reproduction—cuddling, bickering about Catullus—as a way to return to work. In an essay titled “On the Loves of Others,” Hannah Black wrote that “the couple form is the fullest expression of love and proximity available to us, and it bears all the insufficiencies of present social relations.” If you cannot burrow into love, perhaps you can teeter adjacent to it; perhaps you can, like millennia of straight couples before you, just be married and not have sex. After all, as Kotecha writes:
“any moment between
two friends has nothing
really, like fucking, that ties
it together to the next.”
Marriages have contracts. Friendships don’t. Grasping for legalistic language is embarrassing; so is being alone. In another Hannah Black essay, “You Are Too Much”, she writes, “Love is the catastrophe of openness to another, but what made openness so catastrophic?”
The cover of The Switch shows Jesus helping Saint Thomas shove a finger into an open wound below his nipple. The figures behind Saint Thomas appear to be mildly losing it: they look like baby carrots, peeled and wet. Multiple jokes are being made here: openness is a hole is bottoming; “openness” is a trope of queer theory, now adopted by neoliberalism. Saint Thomas fingers the wound; he looks either serene or blank.
“The critical object is unbearable much like the object of love is,” said Lauren Berlant in a 2013 Social Text interview, a statement that perhaps also applies to fingering the Son of God’s chest. “Too present, distant, enigmatic, banal, sublime, alluring and aversive; too much and too little to take in, and yet, one discovers all this only after it’s been taken in, however partially.”
In a Twitter DM, writer and editor Alex Colston guessed that, in this quote, Berlant is referencing what psychoanalysis calls a “partial object,” or “the part of the object we are driven toward obtaining but which we, fatefully, cannot wholly possess, absorb, or incorporate: every attempt leaves something to be desired. This remainder signals a loss or a lack. This might all seem tragic at first but the fact remains that without the lack we wouldn’t desire at all.” The Switch is about being battered or flitting from one object to another, about hoping that one single object will fill you up. The lack of a simultaneously overwhelming, serene happiness is not a narrative endpoint. The protagonist of The Switch finds new ways to keep desiring and avoid death, drifting or racing from one partial object to the next. As the narrator explains to a much younger friend, “The way to overcome the effects of pain, is simply to replace the feeling with another similar or slightly larger pain.”
The narrator approaches both partial objects by avoiding them. Instead of texting his crush to say “I love you,” he tries to write poems; in the way that each pin on the Flight Simulator app represents time not spent on your phone, each poem is congealed time spent not messaging this potential lover. As for grad school, the narrator is procrastinating dropping out:
“Let the ‘dissertation’ take you to Berlin, and while there, go to Berghain, then to Gegen, then to ShuZ, followed by OHM, then back to Berghain.
But first, be sure to sufficiently choke your dick one to eight times so that you can’t, when you get there, fuck a damn thing. You’re too much in love. There, now go.
He writes poems instead of writing his dissertation. It’s possible to imagine that the narrator’s hyper-specific, research-based lines of poetry (on the Russian Formalist Viktor Shlovksy or the poet Jack Spicer’s “fictional diaries of Oliver Charming), smattered with literary-historical gossip, were once notes for a dissertation. In this sense, The Switch is part of an expanding genre: “leaving academia lit.”
The book’s mix of poetics and lines of critical prose thus also feel like a way to talk about the limits of critique (that is, the official though hardly singular form of labor that grad students and academics are paid to perform.) In a 2015 Los Angeles Review of Books essay on Rita Felski’s book The Limits of Critique (2015), writer Matthew Mullins says that the critic’s job as “is to interrogate the text, diagnose its complicity with social forces, rebel against this complicity, and extol the virtues of texts that do this work for us.” While critics have become increasingly suspicious of critique’s “panoptic eye,” they cannot find a way out of it, finding themselves in a critique of critique which is itself still… critique. “We have reached a point of diminishing return, a vicious circle,” Mullins writes. “The more suspicious we become of critique, the more we are captured by its style.” The Switch is less a critique of a critique than a way to ease out of it by writing poetry, even as it is also mourns for critique as one among many objects that once promised to make desire and disappointment go away. Like communism and psychoanalysis, The Switch argues that you don’t want what you think you want, and that you will never be happy—though you could be happier than you are now.