In praise of flat places: On queerness, landscapes and understanding our desires

Flat landscapes aren't a popular thing to love. Their horizons have nothing to orientate yourself toward

Published June 24, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Views of waterway surrounded by reeds, from Norfolk Coast path National Trail near Burnham Overy Staithe, East Anglia, England, UK. (Getty Images/Andrew Michael/Universal Images Group)
Views of waterway surrounded by reeds, from Norfolk Coast path National Trail near Burnham Overy Staithe, East Anglia, England, UK. (Getty Images/Andrew Michael/Universal Images Group)

Who and what do we love? And why?

In the 2007 video "In My Language," the writer and controversial activist Mel Baggs performs the repetitive actions associated with their autism. (Baggs died in April 2020.) Society often views these repetitive stims as evidence that the autistic person is cut off from the world. On the contrary, Baggs explains in subtitles, these actions spring from a profound responsiveness to their environment. They cannot, and will not, differentiate between the trivial, the inanimate, and the socially acceptable. Baggs responds with tender fascination to a stream of water in the same way as a neurotypical person might to a human face or speech. They bat at a string, rattle a door handle, run their finger over a corrugated chair seat, rub their face and head between the pages of a book. All the time they sing, in a beautiful drone which reminds me both of a bagpipe sound and of Pakistani classical music.

…the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as "being in a world of my own". Whereas if I … only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am "opening up to true interaction with the world". They judge my existence, awareness and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to.

[…] I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being…

I read about Baggs's work in the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus lockdown was firmly in place, and I'd been alone and happy in my flat for a long time. I stopped reading, looked up the video and watched it through. After, I lay on my back on my red rug in the middle of the living room with my hands pressed into my eyes. The revelation vibrated through me; I could feel it in my teeth. Not because the idea of a relationship with inanimate things was new to me. But because, in fact, it had never occurred to me that one might not engage deeply and absorbedly with unalive things. A strand of me seemed to shake itself loose and offer itself as distinct, as graspable.

Like a flat landscape, I am content, sometimes, to be without feeling. To want nothing.

I'd long experienced something of what Baggs described. Complex trauma, sustained throughout an isolated and cultish childhood in Pakistan, meant that I'd struggled to feel attuned to human faces (whether my mother, my friends or strangers), preferred to be alone, and avoided strong stimuli, like crowded places or loud voices. Instead, I'd always cleaved to objects – stones, red tripods in pizza boxes, the cut sides of a raw potato – with a rapt affection that I struggled to explain to those around me.

My book "A Flat Place" is about the flat landscapes of Britain and Pakistan, and my intense, fascinated love for them. Flat landscapes aren't a popular thing to love. The bare expanses of prairies, fenlands, wheatfields and marshes can seem boring, bleak, even frightening. Their horizons have no landmarks to hang on to: nothing to orientate yourself toward. That's why we hate them or fear them, mostly, in Western culture. It's hard to find the point of them, in a very literal sense.

But I love them in the same way that I love stones and bones. They are hard, inert, inscrutable. Busy being themselves, in a way I can't stop watching. Because they have no landmarks, I can't grab onto them — can't orientate successfully toward them — and so I could look at them forever.

I think about my sexuality in the same way. It is unfocused, self-enclosed, directed toward strange things. The critic Sara Ahmed turned on a light for me in her book "Queer Phenomenology." She picks up on the "orientation" in "sexual orientation." To be orientated in space is to be directed, or find yourself directed, to someone or something. Thinking in these spatial terms was revelatory to me. My queerness comes from not being orientated to anyone I've met, so far, in a way that's consistent, mutual and survivable: in a way that I can disentangle from my trauma.

How do I explain this? Because of course, you do have to explain yourself in this world. We live alongside other people, and language is all that we have. I don't mind. I say that I am gay; when I am being most accurate, I say I am queer. Not because, as some people think, "queer" affords mobility between socially normative and non-normative gender and sexual presentations. For me, "queer" allows me to move between desiring women, and not desiring anyone at all. Mostly I want to be alone, or with cats: swimming in cold water, until my eyes go blurry. I want to hold clean bones and fossils; I want to look at a plant until I feel like I'm becoming part of it. I want my friends to hug me and help me hold my body together. And I'd like a girlfriend, please, if it's convenient. But don't touch me there. Or there. Ever.

I think about my sexuality in the same way. It is unfocused, self-enclosed, directed towards strange things.

There are other words I could use for myself, apart from "queer" and "gay," but I find I'm not interested in them either. It's not that I don't like labels. Labels are very useful. It's more that I am happy for my murkiness to constitute my sexuality: happy to be one big mess of loves and fascinations which don't separate out neatly. The writer Callum Angus has a short story, "The Swarm," which I double-dog-eared when I read it. A woman gives birth to a swarm of insects. "As it grew," Angus writes, "the swarm's head filled with a constant buzzing sound, its skin was always crawling, and it devoured entire fields of corn in a single afternoon" (105). I am happy to be a swarm.

My book "A Flat Place" makes a case for description rather than summary and conclusions. There's so much we can't know. There are so many ways in which our possibilities of knowing are trapped by the cultural channels available to us. Our conclusions, in general, are not much good. At this point I find it most helpful to describe rather than sum up: to stay on the surface of the flat landscape, and look at what is right there, rather than digging for absolute answers.

And like a flat landscape, I am content, sometimes, to be without feeling. To want nothing. Capitalism tells us that we must always be wanting: that when desire ends, we somehow lose our humanity or distinctiveness. And one of the ways we understand our desires is through landscape. People often use landscape as a way of noticing, describing and validating their feelings. Mountain ranges, or textured rivers — landscapes full of variation — seem appealing because they elicit and reflect the heightened feelings of ecstasy and despair that we're most entranced by: that we think of as representative of "real" human experience. In contrast, we continue to resist the idea that we might love things and spaces which signal their passive inanimateness: a blank stone, a chair seat, or a flat landscape. To feel flat, or to love in a flattened way, or to love flat things, is one step, we're taught to think, from deathliness.

But there are all kinds of reasons why one might not distinguish, in one's loving relationships, between alive and unalive things. For me, it comes from a sense that a living creature might not have much to offer me. Or rather, they offer me something I can't rise to meet.

But why must we always rise to one another?

How much better, I think sometimes, to know that one can never understand another. To sit alongside them, or it, in unbridgeable difference.

By Noreen Masud

Noreen Masud is the author of "A Flat Place: Moving Through Empty Landscapes, Naming Complex Trauma." She is a Lecturer in Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Bristol and an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker 2020. 

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