The kind of enduring interest in birds that many people share is something completely lost on me. While I have a general appreciation for birds, this is not paired with any skill at identifying them by sight or sound. I’m pretty sensitive to sound, but these are usually the loud, annoying or interruptive ones: early morning construction, lawn mowing, planes overhead. Attempting some amateur attunement to birds, I realise that at least five distinct bird calls are part of the hum of construction, cars, motorbikes, planes, and barking dogs that are on constant rotation outside my window in inner Sydney. The only one of these that I can identify is the currawong, and even that I wouldn’t put money on. The wild diversity of life outside is a welcome surprise brought into relief just by listening.
If listening reveals a world unfolding around us, pishing reveals how our desire-motivated actions shape that world. A pish is a sound that birdwatchers use to attract particular birds, drawing them out and into view. While predominantly oriented by curiosity, pishing also carries within it a statement on where it is effective and where it should be used, and so implicitly then is also about where things are or ought to be.
Fernando do Campo’s video Pishing in the Archive (2021) finds him pishing somewhere unexpected. The eponymous archive is Green-Wood Cemetery’s archive in Brooklyn, NY, the cemetery being the site where sparrows were first successfully introduced to the Americas as part of the Euro-ification of the landscape. The birds themselves are physically absent in this room. do Campo pishes into this ostensible void and finds it structured by colonial legacies and rationales that retain so much of their power by being kept out of sight.
I am not a birdwatcher, but pishing is familiar in kind if not explicitly in action. As a suburban Assyrian queer interested in suburban x ethnic x queer equations, the call and response of the pish, of looking for examples, exemplars, evidence is pretty standard fare. But this search can feel akin to pishing in a vacuum, done when all existing wisdom tells you nothing will show itself, return the call or come wide-eyed and curious.
Recently, a trusted mentor, in a writerly flourish, described my attachment to queers and suburbs as wish fulfilment. At first, I took this as the flourish it was and laughed. But like the other birds that come to investigate a pish, ‘wish fulfilment’ drew out others to join laughter: anxiety, annoyance, existential dread, and, of course, drama. These are all fleeting feelings, but the spectre of irrelevance and dismissal is a powerful conduit to invisibility. Wish fulfilment is also the vibe if not the actual words used by many Assyrians who disavow queerness from their communal ranks. ‘There are no queers out there’/‘There are no queers in our group’ seem right out of another time and yet the sentiment infuses well-meaning and antagonistic alike. The histories and lives that remain hidden have always been discoverable to those who look and listen.
I understand wish fulfilment to mean partly imagined. A nice dream but one at odds with the way things are. Pishing is more open and active in shaping the world. Pishing feels like a good fit for those of us with a wish fulfilment orientation to the world. While pishing for suburban or Assyrian queers requires a different set of tools, as the pishee it also allows me to think about the smaller moments that create and anchor my partly imagined world.
Curious or angry little birds are the most responsive to a pish. There are many moments in my life where I act in a similar way, where I get drawn out of a moment in my day, my interest peaked, or my flow disturbed, where everyday evidence textures and complicates otherwise simple worlds. Often this happens on public transport:
My ears prick up. Did I just hear that? Probably not, so I withdraw my attention and return to the book/podcast/song/thought at hand.
No, wait, that time I’m sure I heard it. I press pause and let the more active tendrils of my attention expand around me.
A snippet of Assyrian.
A comment about the suburbs I grew up in.
A name I recognise.
A dramatic moment.
These are the sounds and things that draw me out. Human social conventions dictate that in the more mundane version of eavesdropping I keep it discreet and not rip out my headphones and ogle the speaker.
I’m the curious little bird in this scenario, even though this is not an actual pish and my sudden appearance is not the goal of a random conversation or piece of gossip I am tuning in to. We are always pulled by our streams of attention and attachment, revealed to actually be bit players in numerous other unfolding narratives.
A similar thing happens when reading, researching, or watching. The interests that I’m most attuned to pop and arrest my attention.
Pishing as I press and prod it through my perspective jars and works against erasure by bringing something into view.
An imperfect analogy I’ve stretched near its breaking point, pishing is useful up to the point it meets certain limitations. First, by finding myself as the bird I generate a sense of equivalence or, worse, hierarchy, where the world exists not only as backdrop to my insular dramas but as an explainer. Non-human animals are ripe for analogous explanation of human animal behaviour: native, invasive, migratory, displaced, endangered, extinct, and even the everyday version I’ve used above to gesture to how my attention ebbs and flows. But the entwining of human-animal worlds is more material than analogy allows. So, while I don’t resist my human-centred focus, this exists together with those whose focus is elsewhere without it being a question of hierarchy or dismissal.
The complex histories that exist right under the surface of our attention, capacity, and interest always return to interconnection. How we think about birds, queers, or Assyrians are all part of a broader cultural package defined predominantly by the arrogance and chauvinism that keeps things separate, siloed, as they appear, in their right place and nowhere else, the responsibility of some and not others.
The second limitation is a shorter one. By staying within the familiar, by understanding the world through what is expected – where, when, who, and how – we will always miss something. By only ever hearing the planes overhead, we miss the currawongs and their many networks. By only ever seeing queerness in the city, we lose the tendrils of queerness from elsewhere that feed and exist separate to it. By only seeing Assyrians in the light of Christianity-inflected homophobia, we miss the fags like me whose wish fulfilment sustains many a productive though sideward interest. do Campo finds material and social interconnection by pressing on expectation. By pishing in the archive, he finds history alive and responsive. The colonial project manufacturing the American views in the video, introducing the sparrows outside, and bringing do Campo inside are an ongoing site of connection and contestation. By opening a dialogue, he queers what we think of as the evidential.1
Through shifting our expectations, we find other things. We also find a different standard of evidence, a different way to return to other concerns and attachments. Wish fulfilment reveals not only how we imagine the world but also how the world imagines itself.