Category Sex, or An Essay on the Label Machine
by Ken Chen
My old thing is working more efficiently by not having a body. I wanted
to dilute my body until I was only a dry vapor.
My new thing is to behave slow as an animal, slow as touch. Because of
mortality, we each possess a finite number of new things. My new thing is
no longer thinking about mortality.
Consider an old-new creature collaged from label cassette and USB port.
Consider the label maker: it functions as a category machine. We may
place it in the same category as the mind. I saw this morning clear
recycling bags strewn on the metaphysical snow. Kahlua, Absolut, and
juice cartons—clues to a New Year party. The bottles already possessed
labels, which like the bags render their contents transparent as
If we operated the label maker as vigorously as the categorical mind, then
we would have invented literature.
The novelist protested and said she labored in the fields beyond yes and
There was a woman who kept her hair pulled back, organized her life with
a Teutonic fastidiousness, and wore unnecessary glasses because she did
not want her coworkers to see through her beauty into her self. She was
not generous at work, but possessed another self, she told herself, a dark
wild-haired woman who slept with men she met on OKCupid. She
thought this was a newer cliché than meeting men smoking outside bars
but still a cliché.
She abandoned her life joyously, grinding it into a sensuous ruin.
Was it joyful? What gave her one-night stands their categorically
pornographic quality is they lacked true eroticism. They were adventures
in sex, not adventures in life. She believed this other woman was a
separate person and thought neither self was a disguise for the other.
Who was it that said that people could be placed into one of two
categories? Was it the drive towards union (perforation of categories) and
the fear of merger (solidification of categories)?
The author invited her to a party on New Year’s.
When we talk about this woman, do we mean to describe one person or
the author and a woman? Are the author and the woman, an inventor and
her invention? Or was it two women, two inventions?
The party was quiet and made no one feel uncomfortable, for which they
felt without realizing it disappointed, as though they had missed out on
The author was clumsily gregarious, had
never lived in a large city, and thought fondly about her characters while
she shoveled the dirt on all fours in her backyard garden in Sunnyvale.
Do not ask if the blossom refutes the bud, Hegel said, or if the fruit
rebuts the flower. These things do not constitute separate categories but
the way time unfolds us. The origin of the word halo comes from the
hoop of golden grains that the oxen-team would thresh onto the floor.
In pre-naturalistic painting, the halo functions as a label, marking special
persons as being saints, the category that denotes the administrators of
being. Yet the function of halos is to radiate presence through the barriers
of category. The Sage-King Shun could infiltrate a direction with
propriety merely by glancing at it.
And the woman who was like all of us created.
Having dowsed city’s tunnels lit with faces, having stood-up the New
Year party and walked cold into a Smith Street bar, she saw a woman
drinking by herself wearing thick-rimmed glasses, a twin set, and an
inviolable halo and decided to approach her.
Ken Chen is the author of Juvenilia, winner of the 2009 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. His writing has appeared in Fence, Jubilat, Boston Review, Manoa, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere. A lawyer living in Brooklyn, he directs the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. (9/2013)