Notes on Definitive Guide

Like every issue of Dilettante Army, this one made our theme new to us. When we started imagining Definitive Guide, we were thinking about the guide as a project and as a figure. What makes a guide definitive (at least, for a little while)? What kinds of desires for clarity and comprehensiveness drive us when we’re in search of a guide? What do guides have to say about the uncertainties and the concrete facts of a cultural climate? We were particularly aware of the oppressive potential of guides, which can be stifling and prescriptive. And although this issue doesn’t shy away from the sinister normativity of guides, it also shows us a lot about the uses and the pleasures of definition. That’s dialectics, baby. 

As writers turned in pieces about guidance in archives, border-crossing, craft, sex, psychoanalysis, and other subjects with a variety of stakes and consequences, we were struck by how careful they were to honor the emotional underbelly of the impulse to create or seek out a guide (sometimes by way of strong critique!): guides are barometers of different forms of interest in the world, some of which are about a passion to engage it, others to shut it out by imposing an order on it, still others to make sense of it or to bring publics into being that might not otherwise exist, for better and worse.   

This issue also refined our ideas about the differences between what a reader or a follower of a guide might want and what writers of guides are striving to do. But these populations come together on this point: complete and timeless definitiveness may be impossible, but that doesn’t lift the imperative to define things as best you can for the present moment. Good definitive guides know they can only avoid obsolescence for so long before they fall out of touch with contemporary concerns and new editions are needed. These guides require serious, ongoing revision to stay with the current moment. They’re less definitive in the sense of “that’s the end of that” and much more definitive in the sense of their resemblance to good critique, which is never finished. 

Definitive Guide is aided in its invocations by the imagination of Sarah K Williams, who has illustrated this issue with diagrams of mechanisms and procedures that do not exist. Her busy, layered schematics make sense (and nonsense) of likely spots for a reader to turn, drill down, or pull up short. 

In this issue of Dilettante Army

Abby Kluchin and Patrick Blanchfield take on our anxieties and fantasies about whether there’s a doctor in the house through an explanation of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s sujet supposé savoir, the “subject supposed to know.” Who has access to knowledge? Does someone else know more than we do? Are we supposed to be the experts in the room? Kluchin and Blanchfield argue that although we can’t really get out of the dynamics of the “subject supposed to know,” just as we can’t get out of our transferences, it may be possible to traverse them by developing an awareness of the purposes these preoccupations with knowledge serve in our lives. This series of recognitions can even allow us to change our relationships to ourselves and others, which is equivalent to changing our lives. 

In an essay about guides to women’s orgasm in the form of sex manuals directed at heterosexual men, Adora Svitak examines the wish for a reproducible, mechanical way of producing orgasm that doesn’t rely on the fine art of listening and attending to your partner(s). Does heterosexual sex have to be so “subject verb object” or can orgasm be something more “unpredictable and wending and collaborative”? Svitak contends that the ambition for definitive guides to sexual pleasure misses the value of experiences that are particular, peculiar, and resistant to capture. 

Music instruction books for beginners pack their pages with notes on how to stand and how to arrange your face as well as how to play—Christopher Reeves listens instead to an array of modernist artists who countered this disciplinary instrumentation and sounded a clarion call to performative experimentation and absurdity. From George Brecht and Nam June Paik to Yvonne Rainer, artists have played with the physical performance of music to find new forms of movement and expression outside of “proper” playing. Reeves asks: how might a beginner refuse to condition their bodies and approach “proper play” as optional?

Benjamin Williams examines the handbook, a document that acts to orient unfamiliar readers, in the expanding space of U.S. migrant detention centers–the long “carceral shadows” of criminalized migration. The National Detainee Handbook standardizes detainees into numbers, case files, and assigned beds, stripping them of their stories and their rights while informing them of their responsibilities (and avoiding any responsibilities for the detainers). Against this banal wall of civil discourse, artist Pablo Allison registers his grievance on these same government forms through sketches of detainee life and portraits of those who live it. In Detainee Handbook, Allison records the information the government refuses to collect and therefore cannot control.

Chenoa Baker maps the history of Black guidebooks for U.S. travelers (most famously The Negro Motorist Green Book) on a parallel track to her own movements through a landscape haunted by past and present terrors. Through two recent exhibitions on Black guidebooks, Baker shows the still-urgent need for Black community knowledge—she remembers the people who risked their own safety to bring this knowledge to others, giving those who came after them the necessary guidance to find their own paths.

In conversation, Greg Newton and Deborah Edel discuss the archives and spaces that facilitate queer knowledge-making. The Lesbian Herstory Archives, of which Edel is a co-founder, began to preserve the histories of lesbian lives when it was clear no one would, creating a community resource that is foundational to queer scholarship. Bureau of General Services—Queer Division is a bookstore that is much more than a bookstore—BGSQD provides programming and art exhibitions from and for New York’s queer community. These projects act as finding aids for queer guides. 

Melissa Monroe’s poem, “The Evolution of the Androgynous Trephine,” offers a playful, curio cabinet introduction to the history of trepanning, the procedure of opening up a hole in the skull for therapeutic purposes. From medieval attempts to repair the psyche to Classical and contemporary medical approaches to physical trauma, Monroe charts the history of “head trauma,” broadly conceived.  

Last year’s trail had treacherous patches of marsh from all the rains. Next year’s may have empty channels where streams once flowed. But this year’s trail and this year’s weather are what we need to navigate. The guide that helps us do that gets that its definitions have an expiration date and it’s more than OK with that: once it’s said what it has to say about the present (to those who care to look), its work is done. It can become, in its old age, an almanac of the past.