DREAM LIFE OF WASTE:

ARCHAEOLOGIES OF THE SOUL IN THE KEY OF CAPITALISM

(ENTRIES ORGANIZED IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER BY DATE OF OBSOLESCENCE)

by Seo-Young Chu

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

   The past is still here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.

—Corollary to a saying attributed to William Gibson 


 

   Expiration dates are units of nostalgia, elegies for the future.

—Ancient proverb


 

   Somehow I must throw these things away.

—Journal entry from July 2019

* * *

•Expiration date: February 2015

•Expired product: Chloraseptic Sore Throat Lozenges

•Journal entry from February 2015:

 

I love spoilers. I am obsessed with expiration dates. Time is a linear arrow. How are those three sentences interrelated?

("You will probably have trouble remembering events that occurred before treatment began. It will be difficult for you to remember things in the weeks or months leading up to treatment. Some patients have problems with memories from previous years too. You will also have trouble remembering events that happened during the weeks of your treatment.")

This place is full of kipple. For example: three copies of Paradise Lost. Five identical black dresses. Countless scarves. Dust, dust, dust. Unopened cans of soup that expired years ago. (I think I'll eat them anyway.) Unopened tubes of Neosporin that say "use by 2011/7." (I think I'll use them anyway.) There was a time when 2011 seemed like the far future: science-fictional, unimaginable. Yet here we are: 2015.

I write this on my phone because at the moment my computer isn't working. I've had the computer since 2010 (?). I've had this smartphone (my first) since 2012. I've had my TV since August 2001. Some part of me is reluctant to let go of technology that still functions - no matter how antiquated my machines may seem to other people. (To purchase the latest gadgetry the last person I often am.) Thus I hold on to my computer even though at times it inexplicably blacks out and swallows up my precious data.

I have measured out my life not with coffee spoons but in units of displacement: today's date minus the expiration date of an obsolete product. 

It is one thing to say goodbye. It's another thing to log off. It's another thing to enter the witness protection program. It's another thing to fall asleep. It's another thing never to wake up.

Why am I haunted by works of art in which painters find themselves inside their own paintings, or novelists find themselves inside their own novels, or sculptors find themselves locked into postures of graceful design?

I wonder if non-humans are haunted by similar thoughts.

I wonder if the torpedo fish is capable of administering electroconvulsive therapy to itself.

Spoiler: Treatment isn't scheduled to start until the semester ends, but I am practicing mentally losing whatever it is that I will lose. Goodbye, old brain. Let's be as unsentimental as possible. You knew this day would come. The kipple levels are rising. The expiration dates are expiring. The machines you love are dying. Thank you for your service.


 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: June 2015

•Expired product: Hydratensive Healing Lotion

•Journal entry from June 2015:

 

Nothing hurt, and everything had the quality of a dream. For example, I found myself in a staring contest with a machine. We were alone, the two of us, in an otherwise mostly empty room. I had already examined the anatomy charts on the walls and found a comfortable place to sit as I waited for the doctor to arrive. Left with little else to do, I initiated a staring match with a machine. (It was was only natural.) The machine won, of course, so I took a photo of it. Then the doctor arrived, and soon there were sticky (honey?) patches of bumblebee voltage stinging different parts of my body. It was fun!  From a distance I watched my arms kick the air involuntarily. My love for onomatopoeia deepened and I discovered a new appreciation for the letter "Z." ("Zap.") Even more fascinating: the itsy bitsy musical needles that, from within my flesh, played the tune of nerves buzzing and crackling. A ghostly soundtrack. Jagged, alien, chaotic. And the neurologist's final gift: an ultrasound of my head and neck. "As long as they're healthy," I thought to myself, my mind drifting to the image of ocean waves. Those events happened in a state of suspension, the way so many tests seem to happen. Outside, by contrast, was a radiant awakeness. I literally stumbled and found that I was kneeling at the door of TENDER BUTTONS. Is sugar a vegetable? "Are you okay?" someone asked, and the first words out of my mouth were: "I'm worried about the BUTTONS. Are the BUTTONS okay?" They were, and so was I. Tender, I suppose, are the buttons. Tender are the nerves. Tender are the nations. Tender is the earth. I'm falling asleep from the dream of today. Or maybe I'm about to wake up—


 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: December 2015

•Expired product: Twelve unopened soda cans in the kitchen cabinet from various delivery places.  (I never ordered them--they were always complimentary--and I never felt like drinking them.  Thus they found themselves sitting past expiration in rainbow limbo:  red Coca Cola, orange Sunkist, yellow-green Sprite, indigo Pepsi...)

•Journal entry from December 2015: 

 

A Syllabus for Lyric, which is a pseudonym 

 

REQUIREMENTS:

- yellow-orange construction paper so bright the hues will blind most eyes

- unconscious knowledge of the color turquoise and its many depths

- too much empathy

- hybrid metal

- nerves that feel more pain than pleasure

- exactly one smile

- motherboard

- zeroer and zeroer fucks left to give

- a country in Asia 

- strange little seeds found inside a garage

- politics (because otherwise)

- timepieces that die easily

- asterisk skies

- Perse’phone 

 

POLICY FOR BELATEDNESS:

- Time is what hurts.

- Expiration dates will give structure to your anxiety, especially when you live past the expiration date that was given to you by your earlier selves.

- You will try to counter-outlive your expiration date many times.  You will be terrified of both succeeding and failing your efforts.  

- Eternity is what promises.

 

Assignment: Memorize page 1 without remembering having read it in the first place.  

 

Look at page 1 and feel startled by what you have forgotten:  the size of the page, the vibrating blues that bleed on the verge of scarlet fever, the shadows falling on the page, and your own inability to turn around to face the sources you are asked to cite.

 

Turn to page x.  Fall in love with the woman who stands before you and whose likeness somehow finds itself on that very page.  Identify the woman, spend time with her, let her spend time with you, risk that rush of raw chemicals, question each other for days and then weeks and then months and then years until the answers to the test grow together into a living nerve, a living dendrite, only ultimately to relinquish this same woman to someone else without truly knowing how she feels about the relinquishment.

 

Break. Write a customer review about it.

 

Find yourself in a car that you are not driving.  The man driving the car is saying "...and you didn't even want......"

 

Let the injured denim lie, sleeping, unconscious, mis-buttoned, fraying.  Let the years pass by.

 

Find receipts. “So many, so many, my god so many receipts...”

 

Build a robot.  

 

Instruct the robot to construct a terrarium out of ingredients of the robot's choosing.

 

Give the robot what it wants: 

your life.

Only your life.

Which is everything, but just literally.

Let the rest grow.


 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: May 2016

•Expired product: Neutrogena sunscreen

•Journal entry from May 2016:

 

To understand agoraphobia, imagine a leash connecting two entities: (1) a terrified rescue dog and (2) a human trying to coax the fearful dog into crossing the threshold between indoors and outside.

 

I am the human. I am the leash. I am the dog. 

 

I am the agoraphobe.

 

Come on, let's go outside, the world is safe, people are good, nothing bad will happen. It's okay, you can do it.

 

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I left my apartment building and took a walk by myself in the dark. 

 

I managed to walk my body downstairs and through the front door and into the warm night. 

 

Outside was an ample rush of happening. Overheard: a woman on the phone urgently urging in a language not English. Overheard overhead: the roar of a jet plane taking off from La Guardia Airport. Oversmelled: nicotine from teenagers smoking, languidly conversing in Korean. Overglanced: people of all ages standing in clusters staring down at their screens. Overwhelmed: a dog being walked by a human, the human wondering "Am I a peripheral character in a rough draft of a William Gibson novel right now?" and the dog wondering, "Why are there so many dead branches and stray vines? Why do so many faces look sad? Downtown Flushing in Queens is illegible to me at this moment in the ocean river of time. Will I drown? I can't read the signs. But maybe that's because I'm a dog. Not even a real dog. Metaphor dog. Does this metaphor for agoraphobia make sense? Is the world safe? We might be safe. Safe enough for tonight. The leash is telling me: Keep walking. Walk. Trust that it's good for you. Walk."


 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: November 2016

•Expired product: Butternut squash soup

•Journal entry from November 2016:

 

I am a whale floating inside the ocean. Suddenly I hear the Korean DMZ and the Mexico-U.S. border singing to each other— It is an eerie song. I wake up in a trance. Are these wires in my head, or are they geodetic lines? Or perhaps: roots, stems, vines—


 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: January 2017

•Expired product: Purpose cleansing wash

•Journal entry from January 2017:


 

- I don't understand the world. 

- I am a Jennie-shaped bundle of preexisting conditions. 

- I feel so much inexpressible love for so many human beings. 

- My preexisting conditions preceded even my conception. For example: postmemory, vivid images coiled in DNA. So much history.

- I'm sitting here by myself in an apartment in Flushing, NY. It's evening. I just did some paperwork. I can feel my brain start to fall asleep. I feel vulnerable. I feel alive. I feel calm, drowsy, and entirely in awe of all the scales of reality. 

- I want to remember this moment. 

 

* * *

 

•Expiration date: September 2017

•Expired product: can of tuna fish 

•Journal entry from September 2017:

 

Finished writing something that I will probably call “A Refuge for the Blazonaut.” Or maybe I will call it “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe.” I wrote most of it on my smartphone. I showed the latest version to X and Y. They did not know how to respond. I cannot help but feel devastated by their confusion.

 

* * *

 

•Expiration date: July 2018

•Expired product: Anbesol Oral Anesthetic 

•Journal entry from July 2018:

 

Once, while visiting you, I woke up in the middle of the night to find you lying next to me. Our heads were facing each other on the same pillow.  Your eyes were luminous, round, alert. You were watching me with such focus, such intricate uncanny sentience, that I was moved almost to tears. “What is it? What are you trying to tell me?” I whispered. And in that moonlit room you lifted your head, looked away from me, looked back at me, murmured “oo’weu'f!,” placed your body closer to mine, pressed your body against mine, and shared a sigh that sounded minutes deep. 

 

Still I don’t know who you were to me. Nephew, sibling, friend, oppa, great grandfather? All of the above. None of the above. More.

 

You were our first. “It’s like we’re more American now,” my mother said. “Especially since he’s a beagle. An American dog.”

 

Personally I think you were Korean American. The first time I saw you eat, you were being fed freshly cooked Korean bulgogi and kalbi by my Korean mother’s adoring hand. I swear I saw your eyes turn into the Hangul word for love. 

 

We did not anticipate the full shape and size of your genius and generosity.—The way, for example, you effortlessly reunified four members of a family by becoming the beloved fifth member. The way you performed comedy for us and made us laugh. The way you gave me and my mother something about which—someone about whom—to gossip lovingly and worry together. The way you showed me, especially over the past few years, how my brother’s capacity for love, responsibility, and sacrifice is heroic.

 

There’s so much else—I remember how yoga came so naturally to you; and I vividly remember how, after baths, you would run around indoors like a race car, your speed and precision together a marvel to witness; I remember your exquisite ears and dear eyelashes; and I    and 

 

Calvin Chu (February 2003—July 2018)

 

* * *

 

•Expiration date: August 2018

•Expired product: XXXX credit card

•Journal entry from August 2018:

 

I vowed never to turn into my mother. Yet this morning my rage made me strong enough to lacerate a yoga mat and punch through my bookshelves in six places. My father stood there in despair like a war orphan, which he literally is, he is a war orphan and it breaks my heart, this war orphan kept begging me, “Please. Hurt *me*, Jennie. Please, hurt *me.*” And I kept shrieking, “Never, never, I refuse to hurt you!” —And then, because I started to remember certain vivid details of what happened to me at Stanford, my rage exploded into violent sobbing and I started pummeling myself. Again. And only then did I feel okay. I felt—connected to my mom. Comforted by my mom.


 

I vowed never to turn into my Stanford rapist professor. Yet the truth is that I tend to take too many intellectual risks. I enjoy exploring the limits of genre and language. I crave intellectual excitement. And I have often felt moved, animated, inspired by my own students. They teach me much more often than I teach them. Isn’t that the kind of thing Jay Fliegelman would have said?


 

My nightmares this morning—the dreams that ignited my fury and self-loathing—were peopled with Avital Ronell, Anthony Bourdain, and Asia Argento. I woke up to the memory of two things Jay said to me back in 2000:


 

1. That’s the thought police, Jennie, and they’re coming for you!


 

2. This feeling dare not speak its name.


 

Horrified, I —


 

How many times can a person break. 


 

I don’t feel safe teaching. I don’t feel safe not teaching. I don’t feel safe anywhere. The fallout from my existence is so toxic. 


 

You should be careful. Don’t come too close to me.


 

Fuck


 

Fuck Stanford, fuck the Stanford English Department, fuck the silencers, fuck precarity, fuck war, fuck trauma, fuck mental illness, fuck coverups, fuck the Catholic Church, fuck Trump, fuck all the rapists and abusers, fuck this pain. Fuck!


 

How many times can a person break? I don’t know. 

 

Maybe the person isn’t broken at all. 

 

Maybe reality is broken. Obviously.


 

The thought police aren’t coming for me. 

 

The thought police have been here all along.


 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: December 2018

•Expired product: Tropicana orange juice

•Journal entry from December 2018:

 

I was born to end my life

 

My death will be a contribution to reality

 

My suicide will be a political act, an aesthetic act, a metaphysical act, an act of gentle violence, an act of charity, a contribution to reality

 

* * *


 

•Expiration date: January 2019

•Expired product: Duracell AA batteries

•Journal entry from January 2019:

 

It’s a dark gray square wall.

 

It’s made up of 100 dark gray squares identical in size.

 

Now it’s a theater of colorful blocks.

 

It’s about shapes.

 

It’s about clearing space.

 

It’s about building prismatic structures.

 

It’s about mathematics.

 

It’s about this Taylor Swift song I can’t help listening to right now.

 

It’s about relationships.

 

It’s about destruction.

 

It’s about blank space.

 

It’s about losing. Losing the game. Losing the ones you love.

 

It’s about the sound of change—coins and transformation. 

 

It’s about renewal and starting over. Over and over and over again.


 

* * *

 

  • Expiration date: February 2019

  • Expired product: Salicylic acid

  • Journal entry from February 2019:

 

I’m not sure why, but 


 

I am so happy to be alive—


 

* * *

 

  • Expiration date: June 2019

  • Expired product: Maximum Strength Aspercreme with Lidocaine 

  • Journal entry from June 2019:

 

My safeword is “capitalism.”

Just kidding.

Capitalism! I’m not kidding!

* * *


 

•Expiration date: July 2019

•Expired product: U.S. Passport

•Journal entry from July 2019:


 

One year later, I remember my brother calling me from the veterinarian office.

 

“Here,” my brother said softly, holding the phone to Calvin’s face. We were using FaceTime.

 

“Calvin!” I whispered, struggling not to cry, though I knew that by then he had been deaf for many months, so it was pointless for me to say anything. 

 

But he must have sensed my brother’s distress, because suddenly I could hear him try to howl. 

 

To this day it haunts me that I added to his discomfort on the day he died.


 

* * *

 

Expiration date: April 2025

Expired product: Acuvue contact lenses

Journal entry: 


 

       Vision will happen

Seo-Young Chu is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Queens College, CUNY. Her publications include Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation, “I, Stereotype: Detained in the Uncanny Valley,” “Chogakpo Fantasia,” “Free Indirect Suicide,” and “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major.”

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