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Un Magazine 12.2

Seeking Arrangement

Sally Olds and Rosie Funder

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21/26

Article

This transcript began as a conversation between Alex Griffin, Rosie Funder, and Sally Olds, and was edited into its final form by Rosie Funder and Sally Olds.

Sally Olds
To me the thing that became painfully apparent was that I didn’t believe in poly as a political form. And all my energy and, uh, prowess was going into propping up a heterosexual relationship. It made me more dependent on J___, not less. I became a kind of secretary, corresponding with everyone, doing all this scheduling. Maintaining the relationship became our relationship, and that’s when you know the relationship is doomed.
Rosie Funder
What would it have looked like if it had worked?
SO
It would have been ... basically identical to before we opened up, just with more bodies and sex. We were, I was, acting in basically a monogamous way, attempting to preserve what we had but making it sustainable by allowing for, like, strategic lapses. There were long lists. We were reading all these poly self-help books at the time that advocated for rigorous advance-planning.
Alex Griffin
So there was a plan for the day-to-day management: what happened to disrupt it?
SO
Well, my partner fell for someone else as soon as we opened up. Like, instantly. And she was her own person, with her own desires, and these didn’t fit the plan. But it was really hard, because there were very few good models or role-models. There are so many histories and possibilities lost to this one very geeky, very white, Dan Savage-y paradigm, the one dominating social media and the literature on poly, which gets ripped apart on Twitter on the reg for its asymmetrical haircut, neckbeard vibes. I don’t want to buy into that hipster backlash, which ends up just being conservative. Nor do I want to give poly a free pass. Actually I think poly should go harder, not try to make itself more palatable.
AG
I’m really interested in ‘going hard’ with poly, of just embracing what gets classified as less palatable. My model for relationships was conventionally palatable to an extreme where it became inverted... my parents went hard at monogamy to the extent there wasn’t an outside world, or friends, or family, or even a past. Like I only learnt recently that I have a half-brother somewhere and this coincides with my parents finally opening up about their younger lives. Until I was 24 they didn’t exist before we were born. And since we didn’t spend time with extended family, we were extremely closed-nuclear-ahistorical...
SO
Nuclear families are ahistorical, on a personal level and a macro- level. At least Anglo-Aussie ones are. We just assume they’ve always been.
AG
Exactly, but I only see now how as products of that, that meant we had no accessible history. And hell I feel this creepily now with why I’m researching doomsday prepping: it’s what my parents did with their lives. You can decide you don’t need a history. What your dad did when he was 21 is completely irrelevant when you’re in a bunker and the zombies are outside.
RF
God it’s the opposite for me. What my parents did in their twenties is so present in my life. Especially their decision to join the Foundation.
SO
Can you explain what the Foundation is?
RF
Yeah, it’s an intentional community that I grew up in. It started in the 1970s in Melbourne with yoga students but eventually migrated to Warwick in the 1980s. It differs from a lot of other sixties and seventies counterculture movements by virtue of its emphasis, which was on education and spirituality as opposed to free love and drugs. Actually, it was quite conservative in a way. It was completely free of drugs and alcohol.
AG
My parents’ conservatism was completely founded on drugs and alcohol. [Laughter]. They’d get blasted by themselves every night to keep things in order.
RF
That couldn’t be further from my experience—it’s still jarring for me to see boomers drunk. We all lived together on some land on the outskirts of Warwick, which basically consisted of two blocks of houses and the school that the Foundation started. It was all very communal, no fences, that kind of thing. There was definitely an ‘it takes a village’ mentality. If you wanted to be a part of the Foundation you had to invest so much of your time. I mean the motto of the school is something like ‘in pursuit of service’.
AG
What was it that was at stake, what were you working towards?
RF
So the school, which was called the School of Total Education, was more or less at the centre of the Foundation. All these businesses were set up to fund it, mostly bakeries and medical practices. Actually the bakery the Foundation set up back in Melbourne in the 70s ended up becoming the first Brumby’s. We farmed Echinacea for Mediherb to make money. I was thinking about it all in terms of employment: everyone was hyper-employed, which I think is pretty common when you’re in a community that borders on cult. The boundaries essentially collapsed between work life and home life. Vijay, who was the chairman of the Foundation, and everyone’s spiritual teacher, wanted people to be constantly busy. He would send people to different states to complete projects if he felt they were too idle, pretty much at his whim.
SO
How do you think all this has shaped your relationship to family?
RO
I think it’s taken me longer than I realised to shake the general heteronormativity of the Foundation. I had forgotten that for so long they wouldn’t allow single parents to send their kids to the school. And there were certainly no same sex couples. Just queerness in general, never came up. Married couples only got one wage—the wife had to forfeit hers—and with each child you got a ‘boost’. Actually, my parents were dating for six months and then dad went to Vijay and asked if he thought they were suited and if they could get married. Vijay would play matchmaker, give you a list of people he thought you would work well with.
SO
OKCupid. OKGuru. [Laughter]
AG
Doomsday preppers are all about matchmaking but it’s never poly. It’s all nuclear with this unnerving practical bent: some forums are basically endless personal ads seeking partners suitable for some precise vision of a world after society, like stockpiling resources in someone else’s body. Like “I’m 23, I work out, I can build an airstrip, I need a partner who can handle light weapons and gut fish.” But it’s always about reproducing the nuclear family to preserve that as a unit, um, in very much a new biblical, old testament-
SO
Neo-biblical-
AG
Like very much re-colonising an imagined landscape with this family as a template. And, I think Sally could speak better to this, but that seems pretty antithetical to most queer or subaltern approaches-
SO
It’s not staying with the trouble.
AG
It’s not staying with the trouble. It’s an ejector-seat reservation.
RF
I feel like I had a total aha! moment just now. I’ve never conceived of the Foundation in those terms, BUT, and I don’t know if I’ve told you this before: the only reason the Foundation moved from Melbourne to Warwick—which seems so unlikely, Warwick being the backwater that it was, especially in the early 80s—is that Vijay had this contact, Colonel David Hackworth [laughter], who was an ex-US military guy, who had this intelligence that in the case of nuclear war south-east Queensland would be the safest place in the world. So Vijay picked Warwick and everyone moved. That’s why I was born in fucking Warwick and not in St Kilda. Vijay would tell all his students stuff like, you’re the vanguard. That kind of a term is so doomsday-ish.
SO
That just reminded me of what I learnt, briefly, about Russian cosmism. It was a philosophical movement developed by Nikolai Fedorov in the late 19th, early 20th century, and people like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were into it. I saw Boris Groys give a talk about it. Basically, one of the central ideas is that.... you raise everyone from the dead. [Laughter]. There’s no other way to say it. But this occurs along a genetic chain. So, I work on raising my ancestors from the dead, and they work to raise theirs, and so on. The idea is that the whole of society is pitched towards—everything: science, economics, art—this common goal of overcoming mortality. And it’s kind of like, obviously quite insane, to imagine this as a project that anyone would commit to, but, at least the way Groys framed it, it’s about creating a faith with each other. Without knowing if it will be reciprocated, you trust that when you die, eventually, maybe in a million years time, you will be raised from the dead. It’s about pitching towards the future in the longest term possible. Which is fascinating in terms of prepping because prepping is such a short term solution. Maybe it’s not, but it feels like a gathering-in.
AG
That’s true. But it’s also strange because we engage in this long- term faith every time we use money. This mutual fiction that we are relying upon, long-term, to potentially work out.
SO
We trade things that don’t exist.
AG
But in doing so—these nonexistent commodities—we assume solidarity. How do we build a solidarity between nuclear units, and every other unit, towards the ineffable future unit, what’s the unit of exchange which brings those all to parity? Sorry, I’m thinking totally in economics here. There’s the term ‘network externality’, whereby the value of an act or a piece of hardware depends on the extent to which it is already used: like why does everyone use Google? Because everyone uses Google. It becomes a self-sustaining mechanism and gains value the more people do it.
SO
It's cosmism.
AG
Google is cosmism. Oh my god! Verso! [Laughter].
SO
Is anything not cosmism?
AG
I think literally no! If we arrive at a sustainable mutual fiction which is also inherently self-sustaining because of its network externality we are essentially gonna live forever. Maybe it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s sufficiently self-sustaining through the tenacity of the faith which engenders faith.
SO
And self-sustenance is the goal or one of the goals of preppers, communes. The goal of being self-sustaining becomes self-sustaining.
AG
I wanna...what is love? [Laughter]. Is it the future? I’ve only really thought about this question at a surface level before this: but what is love? Like I wanna kick someone down the road and have them kick me down the road too. I want it to be self-sustaining and to wake up in the morning and care. And for that care to be of use, and generous. And that is itself a question of sustenance. But how do you build that into an economy where everything is precarious?
SO
I saw this attractive woman in the supermarket this morning, and as I rounded the corner by accident I almost swung my basket into her. I said ‘sorry’, and thought, ‘I could really get used to apologising to you.’ [Laughter]. It just made me think, I dunno, that’s what relationships are. Someone you are happy to apologise to for a long time.
RF
I think it’s easier to talk about that state hypothetically and not really understand the restlessness of that reality. When you’re in that state it can really get to you, all the ‘what ifs’ plague you.
AG
Yeah I mean, what’s restlessness? Internal precarity?
SO
I think almost by definition, precarity is intimate. Virno talks about how in post-Fordism there’s no external/internal divide. An experience of financial precarity like losing your job heightens a sense of ontological precarity, the vulnerability of just being a mortal human in the world. I think the same goes for breakups. They really threaten your sense of safety from the inside out.
RF
I saw that when people disavowed Vijay and left the Foundation. They took their trust from him—their total deference to his guidance—and got the thrill, the anxiety, of placing it back in themselves, regaining that sense of autonomy.
AG
I’m fascinated by how people go off-plan—to move towards uncertainty when we’re all being propelled there already.
SO
That’s why poly didn’t work for me at that time. For me the strife wasn’t worth the promise of a well-oiled poly set-up. It’s like, ok, I’m doing poly so I can be better at poly: what else? It still hoards care and resources within a closed unit, a less traditional but potentially just as conservative one as monogamy. A poly unit might even be better at accumulating, more flexible in working and raising children, more amenable to precarity. Maybe it has to be about restructuring and redistributing labour more broadly, not about individual empowerment.
RF
But I don’t want to dismiss the empowerment thing. I think that’s kind of phony. I can’t help but come from an individual space on some level, and I would like there to be, almost, more external pressure for me to want to combat my own insecurities and jealousies. You do get a lot of affirmation if you can’t triumph over them, like ‘Oh I couldn’t do it’, ‘Yeah absolutely, I couldn’t do it either!’
SO
The whole time everyone was waiting for J__ and I to fail. They wanted us to reaffirm their idea that non-monogamy could never work. It’s a truism in poly communities how if your relationship fails while you’re poly, people say it’s cause you’re poly. But it’s never because of monogamy if you’re monogamous.
AG
And how neoliberal is that! It’s your fault if you fail. But what’s wrong with failure? How else do you confront who you actually are. Self-actualisation is terrifying as a model. ‘Having it all’ has to be actively rejected and re-politicised: what we really want is safety, right?
SO
Let’s think about self-actualisation for a sec. Agency is self- management, I think Preciado says. Like, the story goes: previously, we were forced to be in a hetero-nuclear family, and now we’re self- determining—now it’s getting more and more acceptable to be poly, which is meant to be more liberating. Apart from this totally spurious progress narrative, which completely ignores pre-colonial relationship structures, is it just another example of privatising the management of precarity?
AG
So far all we have is stockpiling capital and bureaucratic management—spreadsheets for meals and who sleeps with who. Planning has to be more than that. I guess you have to imagine by acting, and vice versa. Extreme preppers start with their worst case scenario and work backwards, but they start by assuming their future-
SO
But what’s ‘the future’, in all of this? The unacknowledged framework in prepping, the Foundation, family, relationships is the child, or a child in the abstract. That’s how people, preppers especially, imagine entering the future—through the child, replicating themselves and their particular values. Cosmism is so fascinating because it works backwards to go forwards.
AG
Instead of planning by kicking the trouble down the road. My parents always said growing up that they hoped our generation would sort things out. What the fuck.
RF
We’re already living out plans. We need to make other plans. And the thing you planned for is never the thing that ends up devastating you.
AG
Your utopian project is necessarily doomed, and that has to be your starting point.

Notes on method
Transcripts and interviews often arrive on the page as though delivered directly from speech to text. Shadowing this method, this absence of method, we began with a deference to the initial conversation.

This took place in person, in Parkville, 2017, and resulted in a transcript of 16000 words. Later, working over Skype from a shared Google doc, we began the editing process. What remained on the page was untouched, but its meaning had already been changed by the excisions. Each cut we made foreclosed a possible direction the piece could have taken and offered a new one. Same with each addition. The editing process turned out to be one of reconciling ourselves with contingency, which disrupted all our efforts to ensure fidelity and replication. The process and form coaxed us out of a reproductive futurism we didn’t know we had.

Sally Olds is a writer and editor from Queensland, living in Narrm/ Melbourne. She has published essays and reviews in AQNB, Bumf, and Howl & Echoes, and is currently working on a collection of experimental essays about work.

Rosie Funder is a writer living between Brisbane and Narrm/ Melbourne. She is a 2018 Griffith Review fellow and has been published in The Lifted Brow and The Conspirator. She is currently working on a collection of essays about obsession.