Replaceable You

Replace Me by Amber Husain. London: Peninsula Press. 128 pages. $8.
Amber Husain. Photo: Leila Husain

Amber Husain’s Replace Me is a long-form essay on human replaceability in the workplace and in intimate relationships. It draws from Husain’s own experiences and an extensive list of articles, books, films, and artworks. The latter includes the sculpture by German Conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel that lends its title to the book. Trockel has made at least two works with the title Replace Me, but the one that Husain cites is from 2011: two ceramic sofas covered in plastic with a soft blanket thrown on top. For Husain, the work “distills this doomed collision between fears and fantasies of replacement.” The blanket representing a kind of personalization where “the idea of replacement stops feeling like a luxury and starts sounding like a threat.”

In early December, I exchanged emails with Husain. Here is a condensed version of our conversation.

STEPHANIE LaCAVA: Alongside more classical works and older theory and fiction, Replace Me cites recent books like Aaron Benanav's Automation and the Future of Work (2020) and Isabel Waidners We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (2019). Is there anything—long or short form—youve read in recent months that you imagine adding to the existing bibliography? I’m also interested in how the book historicizes fears and fantasies of replacement in different contexts . . .

AMBER HUSAIN: Interestingly, both the texts you mention fall in parts of the book where I’m writing in the past tense, first about the graduate workplace of the 2010s, and then about our first pandemic summer in 2020. So we’re talking about very recent traumas, but not so recent or so resistant to comprehension that they couldn’t be historicized. I think, in retrospect, I was drawn to contemporary texts that spoke to the book’s historical-ish narrative in ways that wouldn’t risk reaching an expiration date. In that sense, it’s difficult to imagine newer writing or research being added to that text.

But Replace Me certainly leaves questions unanswered, specifically about the nature of desire, whether and how it can or should be politicized, and whether sexual and romantic desires (where I end the book) are exceptions to—or actually paradigm cases of—“political” desires. On these questions, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex and Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again have started some very interesting conversations. I also think Marx, Freud, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari and various other dead guys still have things to add to contemporary feminist discourse around these questions. I’m not ashamed to have them keep helping me think through my answers.

I would like to hear more about how the fear of being replaced plays out in the context of desire. Its difficult to reconcile, as you mention in the book, ideals of partnership and love with the politics of collectivity?

I think if I’m being really honest one of the earliest impulses behind the book was the desperation I felt throughout the first half of my twenties not to be replaced by my boyfriend—who I loved kind of ferociously, you might say neurotically—and the truths I had to accept in the aftermath of that replacement. He was both chronically jealous and regularly unfaithful, and I was kind of clinically insecure. This was obviously a suboptimal combination that made us both supremely possessive, which jarred with these political ideals we were forming at the time. We thought we might solve that problem by opening our relationship. I think I only half-recognized the extent to which, in practice, we treated this more as a therapeutic strategy than a political commitment. We both became even more possessive—further in spirit than whatever political enlightenment we were trying to project—and ever more paranoid about the prospect of being replaced. In the aftermath, when all the stakes were removed and I could finally admit to myself that I’d hated the whole situation, I felt like I had to face the question of why. Was it not hypocritical to want an end to the patriarchal, proprietorial “structures” that monogamy and heterosexuality seemed to represent, but also want to be loved exceptionally, uniquely, and unconditionally, more, again, forever.

I’m very critical of the ways in which people are made replaceable or dispensable in politically violent ways—as workers, for example, or as members of a population. In an economic and social—and therefore psychic—arrangement in which the fundamental organizing principle is competition, we’re made to feel that survival depends on making ourselves irreplaceable. For a long time, I struggled to reconcile my desire to resist this with what I felt was my fundamental right to be loved by the person who at some point I’d decided was supposed to love me.

What I think we need to think more about, and maybe experiment with more, is how cultivating a desire for collectivity and equality on the level of the political might help us to change the nature of sexual and romantic relations altogether, whether monogamous or not, heterosexual or not. Rather than thinking about it in terms of lifestyle choices we might think about what kind of world would make all sex, all relationships, better, safer, more equal. There is still the question of desire—the unconscious, the uncontrollable, the unknowable—but I don’t think desire is completely separable from our material conditions or the things we engage in collectively to bring those conditions about.

I found it illuminating when you explain that the idea of a humanoid robot goes all the way back to Homers Iliad. He writes about what you calla fleet of automated women . . . at work in a forge in the sky.” Hephaestus with his defective legs, lords over this band. Each of his minions interchangeable . . .

I recently heard Jacqueline Rose reference something uncannily similar on this issue of how power becomes violence, in relation to her book On Violence and On Violence Against Women. I haven’t read it yet, but in this interview she was discussing Hannah Arendt’s idea that “power flaunts itself in direct proportion to its having no foundation.” Talking about Oscar Pistorius and Harvey Weinstein (who apparently used a walker in court), Rose points to the literal sense in which “violence happens when power knows it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.” This is basically what I was implying when I wrote about Hephaestus, and how our disempowerment is handed down as violence. Since Homer uses a lot of epithets, almost every time Hephaestus is mentioned in the Iliad he’s announced as the “lame god” with a “rolling gait.” His workshop, full of all these gold fembots he’s made for himself, is supposed to sound like a great place but to me it sounds pretty violence-adjacent.

Did you read the essay by Jaqueline Rose that just came out in The Guardian? I thought of you. How do you feel about it?

I have now! I admire Jacqueline Rose very much, and since my own writing has so much to do with the psychic dimension of politics, I find her thoughts on the importance of this very clarifying. In the Guardian essay you mention she covers one aspect of the pandemic in particular that I also write about, namely the failure of an immunitary politics whereby some are made dispensable in order to secure the immunity (literal as well as more figurative) of others. Rose is hopeful that the pandemic’s exposure of our common mortality, and the terrible cost to the ruling classes of refusing to contemplate their/our own failures, might inform the building of a better world. I hope so too, though I think it’s important also to emphasize that while an individualist politics proves self-defeating for the vast majority, there are still those who benefit from and thrive on the exploitation of that majority and the expropriation of their lives and futures.

Rose does acknowledge that the global distribution of the virus and vaccination program has been “cruelly unequal,” but then points to the fact that we’re all going to die sometime, and that no one can therefore save themselves forever through the sacrifice of others. I wonder if by making this move, we—I include myself and my own work in this—risk de-emphasizing that the struggle for a better future will always involve antagonism. That those who benefit most from (racial, cis-hetero-patriarchal) capitalism can join the side of the many, but this requires a certain force of desire that can’t be reduced to self-interest. In that sense, I think what Rose says about the need to change our relationship to time is very important—perhaps the cultivation of that desire requires an ability to feel beyond the idea of one’s own lifetime.

One of my other favorite strands in the book is when you mention Herbert Marcuse vis a vis Ottessa Moshfeghs novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Of the book’s narrator you write, Rather than seeking to insert herself into systems of interdependence—developing friendships or networks of care beyond her bubble of disdain—the narrator is unable to exercise desire beyond the terms and objects provided by private healthcare.” This is such a clear and incisive way to explain a certain type of young American woman. Do you think there's a counterpart in literature for a European equivalent?

I don’t know about a European literary equivalent, but the more I think about this doomed self-help ethos, the more I think it’s pretty universal in the UK, too. Our national health service has been being privatized for several decades, alongside other economic and psychic forms of privatization. There’s the obvious fact that swathes of social problems have been medicalized, and then within that system, medicine provides us with certain limiting vocabularies for ourselves, always as individual subjects. For example, I deal with the health system here in the UK a lot for chronic migraines. In periods where this becomes the main character in my life, normally for months at a time or longer, I find my desires constrict to what I think the system could offer me in the best-case scenario. I start to feel like a load of toxic injections in my head would be the best thing in the world if it would give me a chance to reenter society; it’s not intuitive under neoliberalism to think much bigger than that—about what kind of society wouldn’t exile the sick, for example.

But then you know we do have a national health system here, which we never would have had if the people who made it happen hadn’t been able to desire or imagine anything other than a capitalistic model of care.

On page ninety-nine you bring up Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism and explain it as “the fantasy of having options where there are none, anchored in a hope for a future less characterized by threat.” Berlant feels more vital now than ever . . .

I don’t think I’ve ever had what you might call a hysterical emotional reaction to the deaths of people I never knew, even if I admired them. But the death of Lauren Berlant moved me quite seriously, I think perhaps because she helped so many people understand the significance of what ties people together affectively, maybe including things like mass public grieving. I’m very drawn towards thinking about our incoherence as political subjects. That’s basically all Replace Me is about. Berlant showed people how to identify what collective impulses could be redeemed from the optimism that neoliberal ideology dooms, rather than just pitying or mocking it. I think the Left (myself included) have a long way to go in terms of correcting that instinct, but the possibilities that it opens up do, I think, give cause for (less cruel!) optimism. Obviously Berlant’s legacy isn’t reducible to the idea of cruel optimism, but I do think it’s very, if not most, important that we continue to think with that idea. It wasn’t like Berlant was ever going to argue us out of our damaging attachments in their lifetime; the whole point was that new ideals, fantasies, and structures of belonging can’t be argued into existence. They have to be developed over time, with mutual support among what we call “the many.”

Stephanie LaCava is a writer based in New York City. Her debut novel The Superrationals was published by Semiotext(e) in 2020. I Fear My Pain Interests You is forthcoming from Verso this September.