I never reach for Animate Literacies without being drawn back into the conditions of its making, never touch it without it summoning the details of its emergence. In the years before Nathan wrote this extraordinary work, it was being conceived through the movements and momentums of his everyday life. I had a pleasure of witnessing and often participating in these pathways, as we were undergoing a kind of revolution together. We were experiencing an intimate sea change, learning together how to confront the stark limits of our formal educations. All at once, we were engaged in an experimental form of living as best friends and queer collaborators, setting out to make a life together that broke from conventional notions of what constitutes family. We were cohabitating in a small house on Allen Avenue alongside an old blind tabby cat and an incessantly verbal toddler. Our life had shifted from a false sense of total independence to a series of full-throttled codependencies—suddenly and palpably, we were a network of living beings who each needed particular forms of care and attention that were always underway and shifting.
Nathan had emerged as my primary physical and emotional support through a long and disabling health crisis, during which he steadied himself to become an anchor, mooring me through various ongoing forms of intervention and rehabilitation. At the same time, I had set out to write my first book, racing too quickly along the tenure clock and pivoting toward Nathan at every turn to help me to think and unthink the governing logics at the heart of Enlightenment thought. He crawled fully inside my work with me, becoming so intimate with it that it became a shared home, unequivocally ours. While I wrote, he cooked dinners and changed nappies, offered quiet love to our beloved old feline, taught far too many undergraduate classes without job security, studied and learned softer ways of embodying and being embodied by the world. And then the very day I finished and submitted the book, Nathan turned to me and announced: I’m going to write my book now.
And he did, immediately and with a kind of pace and zeal I’d never witnessed before. Through all that caregiving, all that physical and emotional investment in the collective, all that attention to our bodies and needs, Animate Literacies had been developing and emerging so fully in his mind that by the time the actual writing took place, it seemed to have already emerged. Those countless acts of care—of attunement and re-attunement—that had come to shape our lives over years were the living material of this brilliant book. Those years had been a whirlwind time that was catching and metabolizing everything, including our endless pack interruptions, which themselves became part of his frame in thinking and finally writing the book. Suddenly a whole manuscript appeared, and as I read through, I understood immediately how much of life as we were learning to live it differently was in these pages.
Animate Literacies directs our lives of study to the material and affective encounters that give and take shape to our variously marked bodies, human and beyond. “I confront the impossibility of knowing where and how far back a frame has to be drawn” (15), Nathan writes in his breathtaking meditation on “dispersed pedagogy” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This is, to my mind, the most beautiful of impossibilities, where we are challenged toward both the microbial and the enormous, asked not only to play with scale but to situate ourselves within the frame as agents and actants whose ultimate de-centeredness enables so much more life. His animation of scenes of literacy across some of the most canonical literary texts disorient our received ideas about what it means to read, to teach, to learn, to study—in short, to love.
Early in the book, Nathan describes being engaged in an “experiment with sharpening myself to some things toward which my liberal humanist education (in literary studies) has dulled my attention” (21). This “sharpening” is not a piercing act but an orientation to heightened attunements, opening us to ever-widening ethical, spiritual, and political modes of tracking across myriad concurrent scales. This is what I love best about Animate Literacies, where I see most palpably how and when Nathan abandons altogether the distinction between intellectual thought and practiced life. Here, life makes thought possible. And thought is a world that changes how we live, how we commune, how we become capable of reaching for and being reached by more and more of what we’ve been taught to disavow.
It makes sense, then, that this symposium is brimming with engagements by a host of thinkers for whom Nathan’s work serves as an invitation toward an ethico-politics not only about what constitutes something called “literacy,” but about how we have each come to read, teach, listen, and ask questions as individuals and as a wider, disaggregated collective. Those of us who contribute here are joined by virtue of having each been changed by the claims and calls of Animate Literacies.
For months now, Nathan and our ten-year-old have been immersed in a long unfolding adventure of Dungeons and Dragons, a game that hinges on battle and domination but that they have somehow transformed into a world of communal living and evermore nuanced forms of intricate dehumanist coexistence. Yesterday while preparing a meal I overheard part of the game unfolding: A pack of wolves played by Nathan (as Dungeon Master) had surrounded our daughter’s avatar, Rose Thorn, and demanded that she give up her flock of beloved chickens so that the wolves could feast. “I don’t want you to do that,” Rose Thorn replied firmly. “We don’t care what you want,” the wolves persisted. She repeated again, “I really don’t want you to do that,” her voice beginning to shake. The wolves persisted, and just as our daughter begins to become desperate, Nathan asks her a series of questions: “Why do you think the wolves are so angry? What might have happened to them to make them feel this way? What can be done to help this situation?” And then a story begins to unfold between them that patiently brings the wolves into fuller frame, a story of how a dragon has ruined their habitat, leaving them as a roving band of rogues.
At night while brushing her teeth, our daughter tells me about the dragon wreaking havoc in their world, and declares that it’s her keenest mission to discover why it’s become so cruel, and ultimately to befriend it. She is learning her father’s lesson; widening and widening and widening the frame to understand how and why the world is as it is, to read the scene otherwise, and in so doing, to invent or resurrect the otherwise-world.