Robert Reid-Pharr: Forever 54

EPISODE 7
Cultural critic Robert Reid-Pharr considers the existential choice between elapsed time and remaining time on the elliptical.

ABOUT THE GUEST
Robert Reid-Pharr is a Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and of African and African American Studies at Harvard. He is the author of four books: Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain, and Post-Humanist CritiqueConjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black AmericanBlack, Gay, Man: Essays; and Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual.

ABOUT THE HOST
Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA and other museums, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.

ABOUT THE TITLE
SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.

CREDITS
This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Stella Binion, Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Assistant Producers: Itai Almor, Charlie Theobald
Editor: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Media: Justine Lee with help from Angela Liao and Alex Qiao
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Roger Kingsepp, Tod Lippy, Nick Rymer, Maddy Sinnock, Sue Simon, Shirin Mazdeyasna

TRANSCRIPTION:

ROBERT REID-PHARR: I’m actually more about clothes than people think.

NEIL GOLDBERG: Oh?

ROBERT: So, I’ve acquired a taste for men’s hats.

NEIL: Really? [crosstalk 00:00:10]

ROBERT: I’m often wearing a hat.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I’m, like, a page boy golf hat look.

NEIL: Like a newsie?

ROBERT: Like a newsie, yeah.

NEIL: I think that could be very effective. Do you ever being your classes with, “Extra! Extra!”?

ROBERT: Extra! Extra! The enlightenment was a white man’s trick to enslave all of us. Ouch!

NEIL: Ouch!

ROBERT: Too soon.

NEIL: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg, and this is my new podcast, SHE’S A TALKER. On today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Harvard.

NEIL: First, I want to tell you a little bit about the podcast itself. I’m a visual artist, but for the last million or so years, I’ve been writing passing thoughts down on index cards. I’ve got thousands of them. I originally wrote the cards just for me, or maybe a starting point for future art projects, but in SHE’S A TALKER, I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite artists, writers, performers and beyond.

NEIL: These days, the cards often start out as recordings I make into my phone throughout the day. Here are some recent ones.

NEIL: Choosing a city bike is like picking a pumpkin from a pumpkin patch.

NEIL: Dying on the day when Daylight Savings Time changes.

NEIL: Today, I came out to a student as ancient.

NEIL: People who have strong negative feelings about little dogs, when we’re all the little dog.

NEIL: I’m excited to have as my guest, Robert Reed-Pharr, a professor at Harvard whose work encompasses the studies of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s really fitting that this episode releases on the day after Thanksgiving, when all kinds of vectors of colonialism and consumerism collide, given that these issues figure prominently in Robert’s work and in our conversation.

NEIL: Robert is a long-time, dear friend, and, in fact, he was in the original SHE’S A TALKER, from way back in the early 90s, when I video taped dozens of gay men, all over New York City, combing their cats and saying, “She’s a talker.” Here’s our conversation.

NEIL: Robert, how do you introduce yourself?

ROBERT: I guess, the easiest thing for me to say would be that I’m a Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. I’m a literary and cultural critic, activist, all around good guy.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What’s your astrological sign?

ROBERT: I’m an Aries, and I don’t care. Which, every time I say that to people, they say, “Ah! That is the sign of an Aries.”

NEIL: That’s so Aries, I know. Our audience, if you could see Robert’s patronizing and indulging look, as I mention astrology.

ROBERT: It’s not even that I’m anti-astrology. I can go to a party and be perfectly polite while people have that silly astrology conversation that happens at every party. I will even do my part in it.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: The thing is, I don’t believe in any way, in any fixed truths.

NEIL: As someone who doesn’t believe in fixed truths, can we have a run through your day? Okay. You wake up, you don’t believe in fixed truths.

ROBERT: I don’t.

NEIL: Then, tell me how that informs the next?

ROBERT: Well, I’ve actually said this to you directly before, that every day of my life I clean my home. I think of it as one of my practices.

ROBERT: I said to a friend recently that if the choice for me in a day is to miss my [inaudible 00:03:54], or make my bed, I make my bed. That’s always the option. So, part of what I think it’s, in terms of my own practice as a human being, is because I don’t think, oh my gosh, there is an absolute certainty. I’m very careful with certain types of details.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: So, the bed does need to be made.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: All sorts of financial decisions do need to be taken into account, and all sorts of social, and emotional, and political decisions need to be taken, because God is not going to come and save you today, or ever.

NEIL: Today or ever. Have you ever missed a flight because you had to make your bed?

ROBERT: Pretty much. That is why –

NEIL: Metaphorically, or the metaphorical bed? Or, not the metaphorical bed?

ROBERT: I will put it like this. At the beginning of every story in which I missed a flight, there is a messy bed that becomes a made-up bed. So, if you come back home and it’s all horrible, at least you have the bed made, you know?

NEIL: I love it! I don’t quite get to how that relates to not having fixed truths. I mean, the idea is that God’s not going to make your bed? Or, given that there’s no God?

ROBERT: Given that there is no magic.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I’ll say it that way. Given that there is no magic, attention to humdrum everyday details is what we actually have.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: It’s what human beings actually have available to them.

NEIL: What did your parents tell their friends you do?

ROBERT: They said that I was a University Professor, definitely, and liked it. They lead with that.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: You know, I’m sure they wanted exactly the conversation I did not want to have, they did, in fact, want to have, and had many times with people.

NEIL: Do you feel like your parents had a grasp on what, within that broad category of being a University Professor it is you did?

ROBERT: No, absolutely not, nor did they care in the least. They cared that I was getting some type of paycheck, and that I was perfectly respectable, and that’s it.

NEIL: So, let’s say one of their friends had a follow up question –

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: – what might they say?

ROBERT: Well, what does he teach? They would say, “He teaches some type of literature, Black stuff.” So, some type of 19th-Century Black stuff, that’s what they would have said.

ROBERT: Now, I have to say, I, in fact, have not done that for, probably, close to two decades now. But, they say, okay, this person teaches late 18th and early 19th Century African-American literature and culture, and no one’s going to follow up.

NEIL: So, that’s where your parents had it stuck, to the extent they had anything stuck?

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: It never evolved?

ROBERT: Yeah.

NEIL: Because, in fact, today, what your focus is … Here we are on the plane again.

ROBERT: Well, the first book I wrote was on early African-American fiction. I then wrote a book called Black Gay Men, that was a collection of essays on race and sexuality. Also, I started working much more solidly in the middle of the 20th-Century.

ROBERT: So, I have, in fact, just this moment come from the [inaudible 00:06:54] Center for Research in Black Culture, because I am attempting to write a biography of James Baldwin.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I can’t wait for that book.

NEIL: What is something that you find yourself thinking about today?

ROBERT: The big question that I think about all the time is a complicated thing about happiness, and fear, and despairing. The United States is governed by, what I think of as not only a White Supremacist, but a misogynist, a bigot, and a fool. I’m stressed that our country is that sad, and that bad-off that we’ve allowed that to happen, and we are allowing that to happen.

ROBERT: That said, I just don’t personally want to be in this mode of, oh my God, these are the final days, and things have never been so bad for us. Which, I think, is, in fact, a cop-out, and it implies that you don’t know history well, and that you also are saying that, oh my gosh, you don’t have any more responsibility.

ROBERT: I’ll tell you a weird aside to this, and that is that I very much enjoy science fiction, and I have been associated my life with Samuel DeLany, whose novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is a very long novel, that goes into the near future. I think 70 years into the near future, or so. One of the things that he really demonstrates quite well is that though so much in science fiction and fantasy is about apocalyptic images of what the world is, the full history of our humanity is that the world muddles on after your life has ended, after generations have passed. That’s the idea that these times are the worst that we’ve ever been through, and that things are going to blow up all of a sudden I think is actually a cop out, and a way for people to not be able to address the reality that all of has finite existences.

NEIL: I secretly hope that my students do imitations of me.

ROBERT: I know they do.

NEIL: Have you?

ROBERT: Yeah.

NEIL: What do you think they are?

ROBERT: I have a technical answer to this. I think that one of the things that happens in the classroom if you’re successful is that you have a classroom personality, and you have a classroom character that leads the class. They should, in fact, be able to imitate that character, because many of the complexities of your own personality go away so you can produce this more two-dimensional character who is more useful to teaching.

ROBERT: So, I think that they imagine that they’re imitating you, but they’re imitating, in fact, your [simulacrum 00:09:23] for that moment. But, good. Good for you.

NEIL: To be an effective teacher, there are definitely certain channels that have to be brought way down, you know?

ROBERT: Absolutely.

NEIL: You know the teachers who don’t do that.

ROBERT: Yeah. If you’re effective, you’re producing a character who ought to allow places where the students can connect with that character.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What do you –

ROBERT: It’s often why I think students actually think a lot about what their faculty members are like outside of the classroom, because it’s very, very clear that inside the classroom, you’re seeing a certain type of performance.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: That’s basic.

NEIL: Yeah, yeah. Interesting.

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: Do you have any hopes around what your students imitation of you sounds like?

ROBERT: I hope they think I’m mean.

NEIL: Why?

ROBERT: Because I’m not. I’m a full-on pushover. So, anything any student asks me, they get. So, I’m just hoping that there’s a lead that they’re afraid to ask me, because I’ve given them such a tough demeanor.

NEIL: Forever 21 sounds like a curse.

ROBERT: Really, doesn’t it? Oh my God. Every time I see someone go in there, I always think, “Boo, do you really want to be 21?” [inaudible 00:10:37], living in your Mama’s basement? No.

NEIL: If you had to be forever anything, what would it be?

ROBERT: I would be forever 54.

NEIL: Oh, let’s get the branding on that store worked up.

ROBERT: I’m 54 now. I’m 54 now. I think that if vampires wanted to take me now, as one of their own, it would be a good time to take me. Do you know what I’m saying?

NEIL: Let’s imagine there’s a store called Forever 54. What would one get there?

ROBERT: Well, it would get … I would hope that Forever 54 would carry … Is it Ben Sherman? Those shirts, those gay shirts? I see why gay men love those shirts. It’s because it fits you tightly up top, and then it blouses out a little bit, and then cinches again at the waist.

NEIL: Oh.

ROBERT: That makes a 54-year old look good.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: You know what I’m saying? That cut is right.

NEIL: Yeah. What other products might be in Forever 54?

ROBERT: A lot of morning and evening facial things. You know, so, toners, really high end ones. Then, definitely, high end night creams, with a little retinol, of course. Maybe some spray-on sunscreen. There needs to be more of that. Forever 54 would like some light, spray-on sunscreen. Like, just a mist that gives you at least 15 or 30 SPF.

NEIL: I love a spray-on sunscreen, except I feel like those cans are more polluting than … Yeah.

ROBERT: Forever 54 does need to be eco, that is true.

NEIL: God knows.

ROBERT: Low packaging.

NEIL: That’s Forever 54.

NEIL: Okay, Robert, next card. The semi-existential choice between elapsed time and remaining time on an elliptical?

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: Choosing one or the other?

ROBERT: Wow.

NEIL: What do you choose?

ROBERT: Wow. We’re getting into the deep do-do now. I don’t even know. I think I want to stay focused on … I think, on the elliptical, I was going to say that I want to stay focused on the remaining time, to keep the positive.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: But, I’m fully focused on the elapsed time. Fully, fully. That’s really what I’m concerned with. The question for me is, how much time have I been trying to shrink my man side-boob? You know what I’m saying? That’s all I really care about.

NEIL: Ah.

ROBERT: It’s elapsed time.

NEIL: How metaphorically does that live for you, that question?

ROBERT: Not at all, not at all. It’s a specific thing.

NEIL: So, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how much time you’ve lived versus how time ahead?

ROBERT: Oh! That’s a good question. I think almost never about how much time I’ve lived.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I think every day about how time I have ahead.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: Not because I know what the answer to that is, but I’m always gaming the system.

NEIL: What does that mean?

ROBERT: You know, I’m trying to always eat some hocus-pocus thing that’s going to add to my longevity. I’m always on the elliptical machine, because I think it will add to my longevity. I’m always making myself not do things because they will shorten my longevity. I’m concerned about the future, I’m very future oriented.

ROBERT: For one thing, I have no religious nothing.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: I have no spiritual blah blah. I just don’t have it.

NEIL: Right.

ROBERT: So, my sense is that, this is my time on the planet. This is it.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: So, my sense is, why not … I want every little second I get on the merry-go-round now. I will say to people, you know, I’m trying actively to live into my mid-nineties.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: They’re like, what? It’s going to be horrible. I’m like, no, it’s going to be horrible for you with that attitude. Why do you dislike the “we who want to live?”

NEIL: Well, now here’s my thing. When my times comes, great. Like, I’m fine with it. In other words, these people who are, like, I must survive at any cost, 911. Building bunkers and things like that.

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: I feel like, if there’s a nuclear explosion, I am heading in the direction of the explosion, I think. I love being alive. Love encompasses sadness, and other emotions, so I have a complicated … I have a rich relationship to being alive, but I have zero wish to remain alive when the circumstances of my living become unfavorable past a certain point.

ROBERT: But, what a minute. Even the way that you’ve just described all that begins with what I think is … I won’t call it speciest, and but definitely a pretty standard, oh my God, when the bombs fall, what we going to do?

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: – thing, that I actually think is, in fact, associated with, I think, some fairly conservative ways in which we think about the world.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: There’s a reason that –

NEIL: Break it down.

ROBERT: There are reasons that there are a million The Day After Tomorrow movies.

NEIL: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ROBERT: All those movies, they go exactly the same way. The horrible event happens, and in the United States, the horrible nasty East Coast is wiped from the planet. Maybe LA, because it also maybe needs to be wiped from the planet.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Then, suddenly, the pestilence goes right up to Ohio, and stops for some reason or another.

NEIL: Where, in fact, that’s where it begins. Just kidding, to my listeners in Ohio.

ROBERT: A beautiful, wholesome White family is brought together again in love.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: I’m like, what? What is that fantasy about? Why is that repeating so much?

NEIL: Right.

ROBERT: What is it that, you know, that is our version of what the end game of life actually is? Why don’t we have a more human scale version of what it is to live on the planet?

NEIL: Huh.

ROBERT: So, I’m about the human scale.

NEIL: Next card. Whole Foods animal welfare levels. The arrogance of leaving it to the consumer to decide the level of suffering an animal should endure. So, Whole Foods has introduced this numbering system, one to five, to indicate the quality of the animals’ life.

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: To me, that feels utterly perverse.

ROBERT: Yeah.

NEIL: What are your thoughts?

ROBERT: I think it’s absolutely creepy, and I think that American lefties around food are wildly hypocritical.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: You know, the truth of the matter is that we all need to be paying much more money for food, in order to get food that is sustainability sourced, which there hasn’t been animal cruelty. I also think that the paying for it doesn’t need to happen simply based on what’s people’s earning potential is. I think that when you walk into the grocery store, no matter whether or not Mom is working as a high-powered attorney, or Mom is working at Whole Foods, that their ability to have the best quality food needs to be 100% equaled.

NEIL: I know politics isn’t your game, but how does one implement that?

ROBERT: We already do in this country, all sorts of price support for, particularly, big industry crops. Particularly wheat and corn.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: You can do that with other types of food, as well.

NEIL: So, basically, you’re not proposing different pricing schemes?

ROBERT: No. I’m saying that everybody –

NEIL: You’re saying bring down the price of –

ROBERT: For everybody.

NEIL: I love it.

ROBERT: Actually, I’m saying, pay the price that is actually costs to have the types of food that we have, but lets do resource sharing in order to make sure that good food is not going only to wealthy people.

NEIL: A television censor, “Can the anus be shown on TV?”

ROBERT: It should be. We would be a better people.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: If we would just get over our fear of our actual bodies, particularly the anus, which we’re particularly terrified of, we would get over a lot of the neuroses and the hate.

NEIL: So, what would your anal programming be?

ROBERT: Well, I don’t know that we need to have a rush to so much anal programming. I would probably just go ahead and be Capitalists with it, let the market decide how the anus is to be imaged.

ROBERT: Actually, I think that people generally should be seen with their clothes on.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I’m a strong believer in that.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: You know, that we’re made for it. So, very often, seeing people naked is not great.

NEIL: You know, in college there was always the person who would get naked at a party?

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: First of all, it’s never the person you want it to be.

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: But, it was, like, even if they were gorgeous, it was an unwelcome dose of some type of realness that I don’t approve of.

ROBERT: It’s just unnecessary.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Remember, I like a little [inaudible 00:19:22].

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Artifice, excuse me.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: Did you say orifice?

ROBERT: I like a little orifice. I like a little artificial orifice.

NEIL: Oh, yeah. Oh, God.

ROBERT: I like a little artifice.

NEIL: That’s my most dependable sex partner, is the artificial orifice.

ROBERT: Alrighty, Alrighty.

NEIL: Toilet brush, the inescapable truth of embodiment?

ROBERT: There you go, that’s true. I am suspect of people who, when you go into their bathrooms, there is no toilet brush there. I’m like, this nasty.

NEIL: I feel like the toilet brush should be on a flag or something. Or, we should have to see the toilet brush, it’s important.

ROBERT: I think every time you remove the toilet brush from its little container, and you lift up the toilet seat, and you swish it around in that toilet because you don’t want it to have whatever discolored scrim is in the toilet visible to the next person, it reconnects you to the basics of your humanity, your embody to humanity. That’s a good and positive thing.

ROBERT: You know, part of the joking that we were doing about the artificial orifice and all of that has to do with the fact that I believe that human beings should acknowledge themselves, first and foremost, as animals in animal bodies, and that we are apes in most ways, not dissimilar from the other great apes, and that we have needs having to do with that embodiment. Within certain limitations, and certain possibilities, having to do with that embodiment as well.

NEIL: What do you think that does for us, to acknowledge that?

ROBERT: Well, you know, I think that this idea that you can divide the human being into body and into spirit, and you can divide human beings into the scale from the basis of the body to the etheriality of the spirit leads now, right this second, to the murder and abuse of billions of people on this planet.

ROBERT: So, I would rather that we recognize ourselves as species [inaudible 00:21:26], that we actually embrace the fact that we live in limited bodies that are only going to be on this planet for a while.

NEIL: Can you break down for me how the division between mind and … between spirit and body leads to genocide?

ROBERT: Well, part of the thing that actually happens is … one is that, part of even the genesis of the distinction between spirit and body is the genesis that happens. Historically, at the very moment that you see the development of colonization, and the way in which the spirit is maintained is visa vie the production of certain types of hyper-embodied individuals who support those individuals who are escaping their bodies through access to the spiritual, to the ethereal, to what Matthew Arnold would have thought of as culture.

NEIL: In that split that happens, with the birth of colonialism, is that the colonizer is associated with spirit, with philosophy, and the colonized is associated with the body –

ROBERT: Yeah, that’s right.

NEIL: – and labor.

ROBERT: That’s exactly right. What I’m saying is, we’re all animals at the end of the day. We’re a successful species of apes.

NEIL: Thank you for being a guest on –

ROBERT: Thank you!

NEIL: – SHE’S A TALKER. Can you tell me, though –

ROBERT: Oh, the show is SHE’S A TALKER?

NEIL: Yeah. Oh my God!

ROBERT: Oh, yeah.

NEIL: Oh my God! Okay.

ROBERT: Oh my Lord have Mercy.

NEIL: Listeners! Check this out. This show is called SHE’S A TALKER because I did a video in 1992 of a huge number of gay men combing their female cats throughout New York City, and saying, “She’s a talker.” Who was one of the people in it, but Robert Reid-Pharr, with Cassie?

ROBERT: With Cassie!

NEIL: With Cassie.

ROBERT: Cassie, who’s in Heaven, long in Heaven now. She’s in Heaven for a while.

NEIL: She’s in Heaven, but –

ROBERT: She lived to be 19.

NEIL: See?

ROBERT: She’s a talker. You filmed her when she was one.

NEIL: She had a four legs at that time.

ROBERT: She had all four legs. She lost a leg to the movement at some point.

NEIL: And, as you like to point out whenever you would tell anyone she’d lost a leg, but she still caught mice?

ROBERT: And she still caught mice.

NEIL: On that note, Robert, thank you.

ROBERT: Cheers, my brother!

NEIL: Cheers! Thank you for being on SHE’S A TALKER.

ROBERT: Big old kiss and hug!

NEIL: Muah!

NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. So, it’s Black Friday. Capitalism still exists for the time being, and we now have SHE’S A TALKER merch for everyone on your holiday list. We’re talking mugs, totes, tshirts, even little onesies, all graced with the resplendent image of the show’s muse, my cat, Beverly. You can get yours at ShesATalker.com.

NEIL: This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund, and with help from Devin Guinn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Itai Almar, Fraser McCullough, Molly Donahue, Justine Lee, Angela Liao, Alex Qiao, Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller, who sings the theme song you’re about to hear.

NEIL: Thank you to all of them, and to my guest Robert Reid-Pharr, and to you, for listening.

Jeff Hiller: SHE’S A TALKER, with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER, with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER, it’s better than it sounds.ROBERT REID-PHARR: I’m actually more about clothes than people think.

NEIL GOLDBERG: Oh?

ROBERT: So, I’ve acquired a taste for men’s hats.

NEIL: Really?

ROBERT: I’m often wearing a hat.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I’m, like, a page boy golf hat look.

NEIL: Like a newsie?

ROBERT: Like a newsie, yeah.

NEIL: I think that could be very effective. Do you ever being your classes with, “Extra! Extra!”?

ROBERT: Extra! Extra! The enlightenment was a white man’s trick to enslave all of us. Ouch!

NEIL: Ouch!

ROBERT: Too soon.

NEIL: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg, and this is my new podcast, SHE’S A TALKER. On today’s episode, I’ll be talking to Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Harvard.

NEIL: First, I want to tell you a little bit about the podcast itself. I’m a visual artist, but for the last million or so years, I’ve been writing passing thoughts down on index cards. I’ve got thousands of them. I originally wrote the cards just for me, or maybe a starting point for future art projects, but in SHE’S A TALKER, I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite artists, writers, performers and beyond.

NEIL: These days, the cards often start out as recordings I make into my phone throughout the day. Here are some recent ones.

NEIL: Choosing a city bike is like picking a pumpkin from a pumpkin patch.

NEIL: Dying on the day when Daylight Savings Time changes.

NEIL: Today, I came out to a student as ancient.

NEIL: People who have strong negative feelings about little dogs, when we’re all the little dog.

NEIL: I’m excited to have as my guest, Robert Reed-Pharr, a professor at Harvard whose work encompasses the studies of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s really fitting that this episode releases on the day after Thanksgiving, when all kinds of vectors of colonialism and consumerism collide, given that these issues figure prominently in Robert’s work and in our conversation.

NEIL: Robert is a long-time, dear friend, and, in fact, he was in the original SHE’S A TALKER, from way back in the early 90s, when I video taped dozens of gay men, all over New York City, combing their cats and saying, “She’s a talker.” Here’s our conversation.

NEIL: Robert, how do you introduce yourself?

ROBERT: I guess, the easiest thing for me to say would be that I’m a Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. I’m a literary and cultural critic, activist, all around good guy.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What’s your astrological sign?

ROBERT: I’m an Aries, and I don’t care. Which, every time I say that to people, they say, “Ah! That is the sign of an Aries.”

NEIL: That’s so Aries, I know. Our audience, if you could see Robert’s patronizing and indulging look, as I mention astrology.

ROBERT: It’s not even that I’m anti-astrology. I can go to a party and be perfectly polite while people have that silly astrology conversation that happens at every party. I will even do my part in it.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: The thing is, I don’t believe in any way, in any fixed truths.

NEIL: As someone who doesn’t believe in fixed truths, can we have a run through your day? Okay. You wake up, you don’t believe in fixed truths.

ROBERT: I don’t.

NEIL: Then, tell me how that informs the next?

ROBERT: Well, I’ve actually said this to you directly before, that every day of my life I clean my home. I think of it as one of my practices.

ROBERT: I said to a friend recently that if the choice for me in a day is to miss my flight or make my bed, I make my bed. That’s always the option. So, part of what I think it’s, in terms of my own practice as a human being, is because I don’t think, oh my gosh, there is an absolute certainty. I’m very careful with certain types of details.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: So, the bed does need to be made.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: All sorts of financial decisions do need to be taken into account, and all sorts of social, and emotional, and political decisions need to be taken, because God is not going to come and save you today, or ever.

NEIL: Today or ever. Have you ever missed a flight because you had to make your bed?

ROBERT: Pretty much. That is why –

NEIL: Metaphorically, or the metaphorical bed? Or, not the metaphorical bed?

ROBERT: I will put it like this. At the beginning of every story in which I missed a flight, there is a messy bed that becomes a made-up bed. So, if you come back home and it’s all horrible, at least you have the bed made, you know?

NEIL: I love it! I don’t quite get to how that relates to not having fixed truths. I mean, the idea is that God’s not going to make your bed? Or, given that there’s no God?

ROBERT: Given that there is no magic.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I’ll say it that way. Given that there is no magic, attention to humdrum everyday details is what we actually have.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: It’s what human beings actually have available to them.

NEIL: What did your parents tell their friends you do?

ROBERT: They said that I was a University Professor, definitely, and liked it. They lead with that.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: You know, I’m sure they wanted exactly the conversation I did not want to have, they did, in fact, want to have, and had many times with people.

NEIL: Do you feel like your parents had a grasp on what, within that broad category of being a University Professor it is you did?

ROBERT: No, absolutely not, nor did they care in the least. They cared that I was getting some type of paycheck, and that I was perfectly respectable, and that’s it.

NEIL: So, let’s say one of their friends had a follow up question –

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: – what might they say?

ROBERT: Well, what does he teach? They would say, “He teaches some type of literature, Black stuff.” So, some type of 19th-Century Black stuff, that’s what they would have said.

ROBERT: Now, I have to say, I, in fact, have not done that for, probably, close to two decades now. But, they say, okay, this person teaches late 18th and early 19th Century African-American literature and culture, and no one’s going to follow up.

NEIL: So, that’s where your parents had it stuck, to the extent they had anything stuck?

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: It never evolved?

ROBERT: Yeah.

NEIL: Because, in fact, today, what your focus is … Here we are on the plane again.

ROBERT: Well, the first book I wrote was on early African-American fiction. I then wrote a book called Black Gay Men, that was a collection of essays on race and sexuality. Also, I started working much more solidly in the middle of the 20th-Century.

ROBERT: So, I have, in fact, just this moment come from the The Schaumberg Center for Research in Black Culture, because I am attempting to write a biography of James Baldwin.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I can’t wait for that book.

NEIL: What is something that you find yourself thinking about today?

ROBERT: The big question that I think about all the time is a complicated thing about happiness, and fear, and despairing. The United States is governed by, what I think of as not only a White Supremacist, but a misogynist, a bigot, and a fool. I’m stressed that our country is that sad, and that bad-off that we’ve allowed that to happen, and we are allowing that to happen.

ROBERT: That said, I just don’t personally want to be in this mode of, oh my God, these are the final days, and things have never been so bad for us. Which, I think, is, in fact, a cop-out, and it implies that you don’t know history well, and that you also are saying that, oh my gosh, you don’t have any more responsibility.

ROBERT: I’ll tell you a weird aside to this, and that is that I very much enjoy science fiction, and I have been associated my life with Samuel DeLany, whose novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is a very long novel, that goes into the near future. I think 70 years into the near future, or so. One of the things that he really demonstrates quite well is that though so much in science fiction and fantasy is about apocalyptic images of what the world is, the full history of our humanity is that the world muddles on after your life has ended, after generations have passed. That’s the idea that these times are the worst that we’ve ever been through, and that things are going to blow up all of a sudden I think is actually a cop out, and a way for people to not be able to address the reality that all of has finite existences.

NEIL: I secretly hope that my students do imitations of me.

ROBERT: I know they do.

NEIL: Have you?

ROBERT: Yeah.

NEIL: What do you think they are?

ROBERT: I have a technical answer to this. I think that one of the things that happens in the classroom if you’re successful is that you have a classroom personality, and you have a classroom character that leads the class. They should, in fact, be able to imitate that character, because many of the complexities of your own personality go away so you can produce this more two-dimensional character who is more useful to teaching.

ROBERT: So, I think that they imagine that they’re imitating you, but they’re imitating, in fact, your simulacrum for that moment. But, good. Good for you.

NEIL: To be an effective teacher, there are definitely certain channels that have to be brought way down, you know?

ROBERT: Absolutely.

NEIL: You know the teachers who don’t do that.

ROBERT: Yeah. If you’re effective, you’re producing a character who ought to allow places where the students can connect with that character.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What do you –

ROBERT: It’s often why I think students actually think a lot about what their faculty members are like outside of the classroom, because it’s very, very clear that inside the classroom, you’re seeing a certain type of performance.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: That’s basic.

NEIL: Yeah, yeah. Interesting.

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: Do you have any hopes around what your students imitation of you sounds like?

ROBERT: I hope they think I’m mean.

NEIL: Why?

ROBERT: Because I’m not. I’m a full-on pushover. So, anything any student asks me, they get. So, I’m just hoping that there’s a lead that they’re afraid to ask me, because I’ve given them such a tough demeanor.

NEIL: Forever 21 sounds like a curse.

ROBERT: Really, doesn’t it? Oh my God. Every time I see someone go in there, I always think, “Boo, do you really want to be 21?”, living in your Mama’s basement? No.

NEIL: If you had to be forever anything, what would it be?

ROBERT: I would be forever 54.

NEIL: Oh, let’s get the branding on that store worked up.

ROBERT: I’m 54 now. I’m 54 now. I think that if vampires wanted to take me now, as one of their own, it would be a good time to take me. Do you know what I’m saying?

NEIL: Let’s imagine there’s a store called Forever 54. What would one get there?

ROBERT: Well, it would get … I would hope that Forever 54 would carry … Is it Ben Sherman? Those shirts, those gay shirts? I see why gay men love those shirts. It’s because it fits you tightly up top, and then it blouses out a little bit, and then cinches again at the waist.

NEIL: Oh.

ROBERT: That makes a 54-year old look good.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: You know what I’m saying? That cut is right.

NEIL: Yeah. What other products might be in Forever 54?

ROBERT: A lot of morning and evening facial things. You know, so, toners, really high end ones. Then, definitely, high end night creams, with a little retinol, of course. Maybe some spray-on sunscreen. There needs to be more of that. Forever 54 would like some light, spray-on sunscreen. Like, just a mist that gives you at least 15 or 30 SPF.

NEIL: I love a spray-on sunscreen, except I feel like those cans are more polluting than … Yeah.

ROBERT: Forever 54 does need to be eco, that is true.

NEIL: God knows.

ROBERT: Low packaging.

NEIL: That’s Forever 54.

NEIL: Okay, Robert, next card. The semi-existential choice between elapsed time and remaining time on an elliptical?

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: Choosing one or the other?

ROBERT: Wow.

NEIL: What do you choose?

ROBERT: Wow. We’re getting into the deep do-do now. I don’t even know. I think I want to stay focused on … I think, on the elliptical, I was going to say that I want to stay focused on the remaining time, to keep the positive.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: But, I’m fully focused on the elapsed time. Fully, fully. That’s really what I’m concerned with. The question for me is, how much time have I been trying to shrink my man side-boob? You know what I’m saying? That’s all I really care about.

NEIL: Ah.

ROBERT: It’s elapsed time.

NEIL: How metaphorically does that live for you, that question?

ROBERT: Not at all, not at all. It’s a specific thing.

NEIL: So, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how much time you’ve lived versus how time ahead?

ROBERT: Oh! That’s a good question. I think almost never about how much time I’ve lived.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I think every day about how time I have ahead.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: Not because I know what the answer to that is, but I’m always gaming the system.

NEIL: What does that mean?

ROBERT: You know, I’m trying to always eat some hocus-pocus thing that’s going to add to my longevity. I’m always on the elliptical machine, because I think it will add to my longevity. I’m always making myself not do things because they will shorten my longevity. I’m concerned about the future, I’m very future oriented.

ROBERT: For one thing, I have no religious nothing.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: I have no spiritual blah blah. I just don’t have it.

NEIL: Right.

ROBERT: So, my sense is that, this is my time on the planet. This is it.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: So, my sense is, why not … I want every little second I get on the merry-go-round now. I will say to people, you know, I’m trying actively to live into my mid-nineties.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: They’re like, what? It’s going to be horrible. I’m like, no, it’s going to be horrible for you with that attitude. Why do you dislike the “we who want to live?”

NEIL: Well, now here’s my thing. When my times comes, great. Like, I’m fine with it. In other words, these people who are, like, I must survive at any cost, 911. Building bunkers and things like that.

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: I feel like, if there’s a nuclear explosion, I am heading in the direction of the explosion, I think. I love being alive. Love encompasses sadness, and other emotions, so I have a complicated … I have a rich relationship to being alive, but I have zero wish to remain alive when the circumstances of my living become unfavorable past a certain point.

ROBERT: But, what a minute. Even the way that you’ve just described all that begins with what I think is … I won’t call it speciest, and but definitely a pretty standard, oh my God, when the bombs fall, what we going to do?

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: – thing, that I actually think is, in fact, associated with, I think, some fairly conservative ways in which we think about the world.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: There’s a reason that –

NEIL: Break it down.

ROBERT: There are reasons that there are a million The Day After Tomorrow movies.

NEIL: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ROBERT: All those movies, they go exactly the same way. The horrible event happens, and in the United States, the horrible nasty East Coast is wiped from the planet. Maybe LA, because it also maybe needs to be wiped from the planet.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Then, suddenly, the pestilence goes right up to Ohio, and stops for some reason or another.

NEIL: Where, in fact, that’s where it begins. Just kidding, to my listeners in Ohio.

ROBERT: A beautiful, wholesome White family is brought together again in love.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: I’m like, what? What is that fantasy about? Why is that repeating so much?

NEIL: Right.

ROBERT: What is it that, you know, that is our version of what the end game of life actually is? Why don’t we have a more human scale version of what it is to live on the planet?

NEIL: Huh.

ROBERT: So, I’m about the human scale.

NEIL: Next card. Whole Foods animal welfare levels. The arrogance of leaving it to the consumer to decide the level of suffering an animal should endure. So, Whole Foods has introduced this numbering system, one to five, to indicate the quality of the animals’ life.

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: To me, that feels utterly perverse.

ROBERT: Yeah.

NEIL: What are your thoughts?

ROBERT: I think it’s absolutely creepy, and I think that American lefties around food are wildly hypocritical.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: You know, the truth of the matter is that we all need to be paying much more money for food, in order to get food that is sustainability sourced, which there hasn’t been animal cruelty. I also think that the paying for it doesn’t need to happen simply based on what’s people’s earning potential is. I think that when you walk into the grocery store, no matter whether or not Mom is working as a high-powered attorney, or Mom is working at Whole Foods, that their ability to have the best quality food needs to be 100% equaled.

NEIL: I know politics isn’t your game, but how does one implement that?

ROBERT: We already do in this country, all sorts of price support for, particularly, big industry crops. Particularly wheat and corn.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: You can do that with other types of food, as well.

NEIL: So, basically, you’re not proposing different pricing schemes?

ROBERT: No. I’m saying that everybody –

NEIL: You’re saying bring down the price of –

ROBERT: For everybody.

NEIL: I love it.

ROBERT: Actually, I’m saying, pay the price that is actually costs to have the types of food that we have, but lets do resource sharing in order to make sure that good food is not going only to wealthy people.

NEIL: A television censor, “Can the anus be shown on TV?”

ROBERT: It should be. We would be a better people.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: If we would just get over our fear of our actual bodies, particularly the anus, which we’re particularly terrified of, we would get over a lot of the neuroses and the hate.

NEIL: So, what would your anal programming be?

ROBERT: Well, I don’t know that we need to have a rush to so much anal programming. I would probably just go ahead and be Capitalists with it, let the market decide how the anus is to be imaged.

ROBERT: Actually, I think that people generally should be seen with their clothes on.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: I’m a strong believer in that.

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT: You know, that we’re made for it. So, very often, seeing people naked is not great.

NEIL: You know, in college there was always the person who would get naked at a party?

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: First of all, it’s never the person you want it to be.

ROBERT: Right.

NEIL: But, it was, like, even if they were gorgeous, it was an unwelcome dose of some type of realness that I don’t approve of.

ROBERT: It’s just unnecessary.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Remember, I like a little…

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Artifice, excuse me.

NEIL: Yeah.

ROBERT: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

NEIL: Did you say orifice?

ROBERT: I like a little orifice. I like a little artificial orifice.

NEIL: Oh, yeah. Oh, God.

ROBERT: I like a little artifice.

NEIL: That’s my most dependable sex partner, is the artificial orifice.

ROBERT: Alrighty, Alrighty.

NEIL: Toilet brush, the inescapable truth of embodiment?

ROBERT: There you go, that’s true. I am suspect of people who, when you go into their bathrooms, there is no toilet brush there. I’m like, this nasty.

NEIL: I feel like the toilet brush should be on a flag or something. Or, we should have to see the toilet brush, it’s important.

ROBERT: I think every time you remove the toilet brush from its little container, and you lift up the toilet seat, and you swish it around in that toilet because you don’t want it to have whatever discolored scrim is in the toilet visible to the next person, it reconnects you to the basics of your humanity, your embody to humanity. That’s a good and positive thing.

ROBERT: You know, part of the joking that we were doing about the artificial orifice and all of that has to do with the fact that I believe that human beings should acknowledge themselves, first and foremost, as animals in animal bodies, and that we are apes in most ways, not dissimilar from the other great apes, and that we have needs having to do with that embodiment. Within certain limitations, and certain possibilities, having to do with that embodiment as well.

NEIL: What do you think that does for us, to acknowledge that?

ROBERT: Well, you know, I think that this idea that you can divide the human being into body and into spirit, and you can divide human beings into the scale from the basis of the body to the ethereality of the spirit leads now, right this second, to the murder and abuse of billions of people on this planet.

ROBERT: So, I would rather that we recognize ourselves as species kin, that we actually embrace the fact that we live in limited bodies that are only going to be on this planet for a while.

NEIL: Can you break down for me how the division between mind and … between spirit and body leads to genocide?

ROBERT: Well, part of the thing that actually happens is … one is that, part of even the genesis of the distinction between spirit and body is the genesis that happens. Historically, at the very moment that you see the development of colonization, and the way in which the spirit is maintained is visa vie the production of certain types of hyper-embodied individuals who support those individuals who are escaping their bodies through access to the spiritual, to the ethereal, to what Matthew Arnold would have thought of as culture.

NEIL: In that split that happens, with the birth of colonialism, is that the colonizer is associated with spirit, with philosophy, and the colonized is associated with the body –

ROBERT: Yeah, that’s right.

NEIL: – and labor.

ROBERT: That’s exactly right. What I’m saying is, we’re all animals at the end of the day. We’re a successful species of apes.

NEIL: Thank you for being a guest on –

ROBERT: Thank you!

NEIL: – SHE’S A TALKER. Can you tell me, though –

ROBERT: Oh, the show is SHE’S A TALKER?

NEIL: Yeah. Oh my God!

ROBERT: Oh, yeah.

NEIL: Oh my God! Okay.

ROBERT: Oh my Lord have Mercy.

NEIL: Listeners! Check this out. This show is called SHE’S A TALKER because I did a video in 1992 of a huge number of gay men combing their female cats throughout New York City, and saying, “She’s a talker.” Who was one of the people in it, but Robert Reid-Pharr, with Cassie?

ROBERT: With Cassie!

NEIL: With Cassie.

ROBERT: Cassie, who’s in Heaven, long in Heaven now. She’s in Heaven for a while.

NEIL: She’s in Heaven, but –

ROBERT: She lived to be 19.

NEIL: See?

ROBERT: She’s a talker. You filmed her when she was one.

NEIL: She had a four legs at that time.

ROBERT: She had all four legs. She lost a leg to the movement at some point.

NEIL: And, as you like to point out whenever you would tell anyone she’d lost a leg, but she still caught mice?

ROBERT: And she still caught mice.

NEIL: On that note, Robert, thank you.

ROBERT: Cheers, my brother!

NEIL: Cheers! Thank you for being on SHE’S A TALKER.

ROBERT: Big old kiss and hug!

NEIL: Muah!

NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of SHE’S A TALKER. So, it’s Black Friday. Capitalism still exists for the time being, and we now have SHE’S A TALKER merch for everyone on your holiday list. We’re talking mugs, totes, tshirts, even little onesies, all graced with the resplendent image of the show’s muse, my cat, Beverly. You can get yours at ShesATalker.com.

NEIL: This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund, and with help from Devin Guinn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Itai Almar, Fraser McCullough, Molly Donahue, Justine Lee, Angela Liao, Alex Qiao, Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller, who sings the theme song you’re about to hear.

NEIL: Thank you to all of them, and to my guest Robert Reid-Pharr, and to you, for listening.

Jeff Hiller: SHE’S A TALKER, with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER, with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER, it’s better than it sounds.