Troubling Gender, Radicalising Feminism: Easy Notes on Judith Butler

gendertroubleIt is difficult to find a book that is both so central to gender studies and that causes so much gritting of teeth. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, first published in 1990, is still barely understood and still strikes us as way ahead of our own time.

But Butler is pretty much inaccessible to people without a background in gender studies. And also to many of us with such a background. Which is a damn shame, because she will break your mind apart. Yes, a nice experience.

I hope to pull out some basic ideas of Butler that make her so radical. The preface to the original edition and the preface to the 1999 reprinting give a nice summary, even if she doesn’t “dumb down” her notoriously convoluted prose.

skimjudithFirst of all, why does she take issue with what we consider such a straightforward word: woman?

This is Gayle Rubin’s contribution, especially in her seminal piece “The Traffic in Women” – that “normative sexuality fortifies normative gender.” So, Butler extrapolates: “one is a woman, according to this framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual frame and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of place in gender.”

What Butler criticises in most mainstream feminism, and even a lot of academic feminism, is that a concept of “gender hierarchy” cannot explain the complexities of gender’s relationship to power. It doesn’t explain the production of gender. We have to ask: “To what extent does gender hierarchy serve a more or less compulsory heterosexuality, and how often are gender norms policed precisely in the service of shoring up heterosexual hegemony?”

In other words, we cannot have gender without compulsory heterosexuality.

But is it so simple?

Feminist activist Catharine MacKinnon, whose work Butler has criticised harshly, takes this a step further, arguing that “to have a gender means to have entered already into a heterosexual relationship of subordination.”

When Butler introduces performativity, she does so to theorise the potential subversion of this kind of relationship of subordination.

One of the most common misunderstandings of this part of Butler’s theory is that performativity means performance. No. They are very different things. In her 1999 preface to Gender Trouble, Butler clarifies Judith-Butler-Quotes-5this misconception (and many of her own earlier assumptions):

“[T]he performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself.”

Basically, in expecting that we are a gender, inherently, we in fact produce it – or reproduce it. In the doing of gender, we create it.

There is no prior existence of gender.

butlerbigthinkShe clarifies: “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalisation in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.”

Those two points summarise very nicely the most important contributions Gender Trouble has made to feminist theory and queer theory.

It’s quite easy to see how we perform gender through bodily acts, but how does language contribute to the production of gender?

Butler has quite a dim view of the capacity for dominant forms of language to destroy hegemony. Subversion is possible, but language is a hegemonic trap.

subvertShe asks us to think: “If gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.”

Which is a tough ask. How many of us have the ability to subvert grammatical norms successfully and lucidly?

This is essentially what she is pointing to when she asks if the terms “men” and “women” are “untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualising gender and desire? What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces deconstructedand reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?”

In other words, without compulsory heterosexuality, the assumption that heterosexuality is a real and natural phenomenon, everything about gender becomes meaningless.

She also takes issue with what she sees as primary concern of feminist theory – to establish identity. If feminism takes as its starting point the category of “women,” what hegemonic assumptions is it already making about gender and power?

This is indicative of a problem a lot of readers have with Butler. Like Foucault, she seems to deny us any possibility for revolutionary subversion! She even denies the existence of a subject which can act outside cultural norms. That is, we are all socially constructed to such an extent that our ability to defy hegemonic gender is very limited.

I think Butler is more subtle than this. She is relentlessly critical, but she also has little grains of idealism and hope that offer shining possibilities.

In this paragraph she summarises her aims and hopes, which is a good thing to keep in mind when reading Gender Trouble:

“What continues to concern me most is the following kinds of questions: what will and will not consdeconstructtitute an intelligible life, and how do presumptions about normative gender and sexuality determine in advance what will qualify as the ‘human’ and the ‘livable’? In other words, how do normative gender presumptions work to delimit the very field of description that we have for the human? What is the means by which we come to see this delimiting power, and what are the means by which we transform it?”

These are the questions with which Butler radicalises feminism. And for this reason she has been ignored in most mainstream conceptions of feminism. For without identity, are we all just blank spaces?

Her offering is this: “we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity. What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constrains the discourse on feminist politics? And to what extent does the effort to locapridete a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself?”

This is most evident when it comes to a “gay identity.” To what extent are the labels “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual” complicit in heteronormativity?

An unusual question in today’s society, and perhaps one of the things that makes many uncomfortable with Butler. But I think it’s one of the concepts that is at the heart of her optimism. A ruthless critique of all hegemonic assumptions, and an imperative to radicalise everything.butler

The School of Roots: Abominable, Rotting Birds and Women

          Hlne-CixousGr        I am returning to Hélène Cixous’ astonishing book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Roots.”

cixousbook

“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21.

Okay, surely we have got beyond this notion of the impure, the abomination, tied up with the body and so with women (as women are apparently trapped in the body, and so abominable).

impureBut if we haven’t? Cixous wants us to question it not by ignoring this concept of the abominable, but looking at it more closely: “I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive.”

Why do we think of such things as unclean? Why do we struggle to think of women’s bodies as something other than inherently sexualised? Why do we still call menstruation stuff “sanitary products”? Why do so many still think of homosexuality as “unnatural” or, at least, a deviation from nature?

Again, we have arrived at Cixous’ great goal: to go deep, beyond even discomfort.

And so she draws on that “chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing.” The Bible sets out a great list of animals that are “abominable”: unclean, not to be eaten. And so many of them are birds.

a-harpyAnd so many laws about bodies, unclean acts, are about women.

So Cixous tells us: “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people – unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.”

crowBirds frighten me. I shudder when I see a feather. Maybe Cixous can explain why.

“What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected, because others, the rejectors, feel something is taken away from them. But let me leave women aside for today, since this is a controversial issue, and keep only birds and writing. Neither birds not writing take anything away, yet people feel that some forms of writing do take something from us. Clarice Lispector has never been a feminist, Genet is not a feminist, though theirs are writings that may hurt, may dissatisfy, and give the feeling that something is taken away.”

Hmm. Yes. But we need more on what it means to be “abominable,” and why it is so frightening.

evilwomen“That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law, that is ‘proper,’ the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world.”

This is what I want from writing, and reading, after all. But birds?

“So why are those birds imund? Because. As you know, this is the secret of the law: ‘because.’ This is the law’s logic. It is this terrible ‘because,’ this senseless fatal ‘because’ that has decided people’s fate, even in the extremity of the concentration camps.”loudearth_full

Maybe that’s why people seem unnerved when I cannot provide an answer to the riddle of The Loud Earth. But I don’t know how.

“Writing is not put there, it does not happen out there, it does not come from outside. On the contrary, it comes from deep inside. It comes from what Genet calls the ‘nether realms,’ the inferior realms (domains inferiéurs). We’ll try to go there for a time, since this is where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below.”

Is it a hell located in the body? In the way in the cultural imagination hell has always been located in women’s bodies?

“It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think.”

She must be getting at something beyond that patriarchal dichotomy: mind/body, which pairs up with man/woman, the first term in the binary being always superior. I guess collapsing them is scary.

Cixous traces this collapse in Lispector’s work: “Clarice effects an interior return journey, since we began as matter before moving away from whence we came. She makes a return journey to our concrete origins, though the journey is a spiritual one. The journey is spiritual because it is not enough to put one’s foot on the ground to come back to earth. It is an extremely spiritual exercise, reintegrating the earthly, the earth, and the earth’s composition in one’s body, imagination, thought. Clarice does not do this simply: she proceeds by feeling her way, by desiring; she moves blindly, since she is an explorer in the domain, methodically, making mistakes.”

For some reason the earth is more frightening than the spiritual.

“Our fear, since we know perfectly well that we will reach the dangerous point where those who are exclude live – and we hate exclusion. This is our emotional, our personal, and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated, that is why we are apt to commit all kinds of small crimes, self-denials, and treachery.”cmccarthy_impure

That is why we must have a “school of roots.” We must be schooled in roots. Otherwise we sit complacent with our pretty clichés. This is where Cixous believes writing and literature can help us be brave, if only we put in the work: “Kafka insists paradise is not lost, it is there. But we are lazy and impatient. If we were neither lazy nor impatient we would be back in paradise. But we have to deal with this laziness and impatience. And of course with all the representatives of “Those Bible.” There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women, and writing.”

She uses “Those Bible,” that strange construction, as shorthand for all those mind-numbing clichés: shopping centres, weddings, Cosmo, football stadiums, MTV, James Patterson.

shoppingmall      footballstadium

That stuff is only dangerous because it distracts us from real danger. They make the banishment of the abominable seem natural. Exclusion is normalised, until we have a whole range of things deemed impure.

“So in the same line of substitutions you find: Jews, women, niggers, birds, poets, etc., all of them excluded and exiled. Exile is an uncomfortable situation, though it is also a magical situation. I am not making light of the experience of exile. But we can endure it differently. Some exiles die of rage, some transform their exile into a country. I understand those who die of (out)rage.”

I wonder how Cixous foresaw so clearly how I would write about the exile in The Loud Earth. It was excruciating writing about such a recluse. I wrote about her out of hatred, yet I had love for that hatred.

It must be a reluctance to go into hell.

Only in hindsight did I learn from Clarice Lispector’s conception of hell. This was how I had been painting the cave, the grotto, the cellar in The Loud Earth:

“And if many times I paint caves it’s because they are my submersion into the earth, dark but clouded with charity, and I, nature’s blood – extravagant and dangerous caves, Earth’s talisman, where stalactites, fosscavesils, and stones together and where creatures crazy through their own evil nature seek refuse. Caves are my hell. Caves, dreamlike always with their mists, memory or longing? Frightening, frightening, esoteric, greenish with the ooze of time. Rats, with the crosslike wings of bats, hang glimmering in the dark cavern. I see black, hairy spiders. Rats and mice run frightened on the ground and along the walls. Among the stones the scorpion. Crabs, unchanged since prehistoric times, through countless births and deaths, would seem threatening beasts if they were human-sized. Ancient cockroaches drag themselves along in the half light. And all this am I. Everything is heavy with dreams when I paint a cave or write to you about one – out of it comes the clatter of dozens of unfettered horses to trample the shadows with dry hooves, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing liberates itself in sparks; here I am, the cave and I, in the time that will rot us.”

I am glad I didn’t read that before I wrote the book. It is too beautiful.

So how can we get up the courage to access this place of darkness, the roots?

buttressroots“How do we cross borders? It can be done in a completely indifferent and apathetic fashion, although the person who crosses borders in an indifferent fashion never crosses borders. The person who doesn’t tremble while crossing a border doesn’t know there is a border and doesn’t cast doubt on their own definition. The person who trembles while crossing a border casts cellarstairsdoubt on their own definition.”

Not only do we have to cross into darkness, we have to be aware that we are doing it. That can be almost excruciating.

For me this evokes José Esteban Muñoz’s embrace of doubt. Can we be lost in the darkness, amidst the roots, and find something worth finding? He thinks yes:

“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”

aliceinwonderlandCrossing borders, trembling, casting doubt on our own definition, is essentially queer. So, essentially anti-patriarchy in the radically feminist way Cixous embraces.

That is why fiction is a necessary part of the feminist project: it allows us to imagine beyond the established borders: “The immersed author necessarily comes to the point of questioning his/her limits, his/her frontiers, his/her passages, his/her alterations.”

When we areRotting_Fruit trying to feel our way back to the roots, maybe to a place we have never been physically or imaginatively, but only psychically, then we have to embrace the abominable. Even if it will never stop being impure or unclean to us.

“There is passage through the animal state, then through the vegetal state, and so we move away from humankind; from the vegetal we descend into the earth, by the stem, by the root, until we reach what doesn’t concern us, although it exists and inscribes itself, which is of the mineral order, although it doesn’t hold together since we are aiming toward disassembly, toward decomposition.”SW_Queen

Rotting? Death? If women are thought of as closer to nature, more “bodily” than men, then our bodies must be closer to death. Is that why we have so many fearful women? Witches, poisoners, stepmothers?

Cioxus asks if “we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots.” And: “Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried. For instance, if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the imund book. The imund book deals with things, birds, and words that are forbidden by Those He.”

forestwitchLet us think of “Those He” as, less impressively, the patriarchal order. Then, “from the heart where passions rise to the finger tips that hear the body thinking: this is where the Book (Alive)-to-Live (le livre Vivre) springs from…”

Cixous asks us to radically collapse that ultimate patriarchal construction: mind vs body. It is something we have to keep at the forefront of our heads and our fingers, because it has made us what we are. We have to undermine it self-consciously.

“We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Humble work. Without reward. Except joy.”

 

Feminism is for Everybody: A Choice to Love (Part 2)

feminismisforeverybodyYou are mistaken if you think feminism is about women. It is about rethinking gender in a way that unravels patriarchy, which instils ideologies of masculinity that are about domination and violence.

Necessarily, this means we must rethink relationships and family. This is what scares conservatives most, why they cry “political correctness” at any critique of gender stereotypes. Undermining gender necessarily undermines the family.

nuclearfamAs hooks shows, “A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household. Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking.”nuclearfamily

Feminism has always been concerned with such relationships. As hooks traces the concerns of second wave feminism in relation to marriage and partnership, she mentions that many feminists “saw sexual monogamy with men as reinforcing the idea that the female body was property belonging to the individual male she was bonded with. We chose non-monogamous relationships and often refused to marry. We believed living with a male partner without state-sanctioned marriage within patriarchal society helped men maintain a healthy respect for female autonomy. Feminists advocated demanding an end to sexual slavery and called attention to the prevalence of marital rape while at the same time championing the rights of women to express sexual desire, initiate sexual interaction, and be sexually fulfilled.”

Ininstitution a society in which marriage, romance, partnership and intimacy have been structured and defined by patriarchal assumptions, how can we reenvision them as feminist? Is it impossible? Certainly we must always be critical of marriage, monogamy and family units. Then again we must also be critical of polyamory, the fight for marriage equality, and the so-called “non-traditional family.” The problems faced by second wave feminists in their own lives forces us to never let our guard down. For example, is it possible for marriage to be a viable feminist option given the huge, undeniable patriarchal legacy of the institution? It remains as such today.

The discussion sparked by second wave feminism about sexuality remains with us today, though it is still fraught. As hooks advises, “While men must let go of the sexist assumption that female sexuality exists to serve and satisfy their needs, many women must also let go a monogamyfixation on penetration.” This is why feminism is intertwined with ideas of sexuality as much as with race, class, religion, and age. Feminism cannot be heteronormative, it must be queer. Because patriarchy has rested on heteronormativty. But today we still assume that heterosexuality is natural, and that sexual “orientations” are genetic, inborn, fixed, and markers of our identity. Until we let go of this, we can’t reach a feminist sexual politic.

While hooks doesn’t yet articulate this, she does recognise the centrality of heteronormativity to patriarchy: “Masses of heterosexual women remain unable to let go the sexist assumption that their sexuality must always be sought after by men to have meaning and value. To do so they must believe that same-sex sexual encounters, self-pleasuring, and celibacy are as vital and life-enhancing as sexual intercourse with men within patriarchal culture.”cosmomagWe see the truth of the second wave’s realisation that “women would only be truly sexually liberated when we arrived at a place where we could see ourselves as having sexual value and agency irrespective of whether or not we were the objects of male desire.”malegazeWe still live in the world hooks describes here: “We will never know how many millions of women stay in relationships with dominating sexist males simply because they cannot imagine a life where they can be happy without men, whether they are satisfied sexually and emotionally with the men in their life or not. If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency. Lesbian women inspired me from childhood on to claim the space of my own self-definition.”

This is why queer women are vital in “representing” feminism to the mainstream. After all, “this is the special wisdom radical lesbian thinkers brought to the feminist movement. Even if there were exceptional straight women who theoretically understood that one could be utterly fulfilled without the approval of men, without male erotic affirmation, they did not bring to the movement the lived experience of this belief.”

Unfortunately, with the white-washed, straight-washed feminism in the mainstream eye, such truths are swept under the carpet. Today, given the length of time since the radicalism of the second wave that broman feeding womanught feminism to the mainstream, we have forgotten how these women dealt with sexuality and relationality in a patriarchal world. Hooks recalls that, “In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than woman, who could always see things from the male perspective.”

Internalised misogyny and girl hate abound today, to the extent that many think that jealousy is an inborn trait of women and friendships between women. How are we supposed to enact feminism in such a context? Unfortunately, hooks’ observation remains true: “The vast majority of straight women, whether they were actively feminist or not, were more concerned about their relationships with men.

Hooks showholding-handss us what a queer feminism looks like, and why it is for all: “In a world where positive expressions of sexual longing connect us we will all be free to choose those sexual practices which affirm and nurture our growth. Those practices may range from choosing promiscuity or celibacy, from embracing one specific sexual identity and preference or choosing a roaming unchartered desire that is kindled only by interaction and engagement with specific individuals with whom we feel the spark of erotic recognition no matter their sex, race, class, or even their sexual preference.”

Most people’s aversion to this shows how ingrained a patriarchal heteronormativty is within us. Because of this overwhelming power, we struggle to envision intersectionality. Feminism becomes one thing: equality with men. But such a notion is incomprehensible unless we first examine the terms of that “equality.” So, “Women who claim to be feminist while perpetuating homophobia are as misguided and hypocritical as those who want sisterhood while holding on to white supremacist thought.”

Embracing a watered down, palatable version of feminism is easy. Heteronormativity is embedded in everything we hold dear, especially romance, that foundation of so many films, songs, books, and life dreams. But, as the second wave articulated, “female freedom could only happen if women let go their attachment to romantic love.”

nuclearfamilyHard to swallow? Maybe, but ultimately liberating. After all:

Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture makes one unaware, renders one powerless and out of control. Feminist thinkers called attention to the way this notion of love served the interests of patriarchal men and women. It supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a ‘crime of passion,’ plead, ‘I loved her so much I had to kill her.’ Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession, to paradigms of domination and submission wherein it was assumed one person would give love and another person receive it. Within the patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect.”jealousy-love-vanessa-zac-Favim.com-572124This is so uncomfortable because patriarchal romantic love is what we think of as love, how we define love, it is something natural. It is difficult to think of it as socially constructed. And yet the work of feminism has shown us that it is constructed, and for a specific purpose, and that it is damaging.

jealousyloveHooks offers as alternative vision: “When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgement, care, responsibility, commitment, and possessionknowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love.”

Why then would most people prefer the anti-feminist heterosexist dominating versions of romantic love we are fed every day?

It stems from a misunderstanding of the visionary nature of feminism, how it has beamed a light on our most taken-for-granted ideas. As hooks argues, this is partly because “one of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective. We do have radio shows and a few television shows that highlight gender issues, but that is not the same as highlighting feminism.”bitchmedia

On a sidenote, I would recommend the bitch media podcast, which certainly does contain a feminist perspective.

Feminism isn’t just about women, just as everything about women isn’t feminist. Hooks recommends “a collective door-to-door effort to spread the message of feminism,…to start again with the basic premise that feminist politics is necessarily radical.” That includes all these self-declared feminists in the public eye. “Confusion about this inherent radicalism emerged as feminist activists moved away from challenging sexism in all its manifestations and focused solely on reforms.”

Until we end the neverending defences of “feminism doesn’t mean hating men!” we won’t understand the true meaning of the movement. For everybody who has ever been caught in a debate going nowhere with someone who has never educated themselves about feminism but has expected to gain all they need to know from a mainstream mass media which is necessarily patriarchal, here is the book you can hand over.

fist

Feminism is for Everybody: Come Closer (Part 1)

feminismisforeverybodycoffeeIt is scary that a book published almost 15 years ago can be still so relevant and yet so controversial, on a topic such as the status of feminism in today’s society.

When I posted this picture on Instagram, it collected a few defensive comments from ill-informed (coincidentally male) folks. The sight of a small, brightly-coloured book with a kind, deliberately inclusive and hardly hostile title was apparently too much to handle. The very word “feminism” had raised their hackles.

bellhooksNor did they realise the irony of their remarks. On the first page of her Introduction, hooks relates the reactions she receives when telling people who she is and what she does. When she mentions the words “feminist theorist,” she hears the same ill-informed opinions: “When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by letting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives thirdhand.”

The eternal problem we face. Everyone seems to have an opinion on feminism, its aims, its history, its mistakes, its faults and its evils, and yet so few have bothered to skim anything that will educate them properly. How do you expect to learn about feminism through a patriarchal mainstream media? The irony is bitter.

In writing Feminism is for Everybody, hooks has given us a primer, a starting point, a foundational text. It is straightforward, short and easy to read. It tells those who have only come to know the word “feminism” through a mainstream media that is essentially patriarchal, because it is not radical, what the word really means. Where feminism has come from and where it still needs to go.

She says, “I had to write it because I kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not. And without it there was no way to address the hordes of people in this nation who are daily bombarded with anti-feminist backlash, who are being told to hate and resist a movement that they know very little about. There should be so many little feminist primers, easy to read pamphlets and books, telling us all about feminism, that this book would be just another passionate voice speaking out on behalf of feminist politics.”

I think this book is also for those who have labelled themselves feminists in the wake of “successful” mainstream celebrities claiming the title. This book is straightforward and easy to read, but it is rigorous. It comes from a woman who has a background in feminist theory, history and activism. She knows it is not just about “equality,” whatever that means. She will have no watered-down feminism. Her feminism is radical and intersectional because she sees that we cannot have a feminist vision without the destruction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Hardly something these celebrities, who have profited from such a system, will ascribe to. She reminds us that feminism should be unpalatable, because it wants to disrupt the status quo. But in this short book, she also reminds us that we need it.

Emma-Watson-HeForSheSo, fifteen years on, we still need this book. Anti-feminists and new feminists jumping on the bandwagon alike.

“As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality – equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and men sharing household chores and parenting. They see that these women are usually white and materially privileged.”

This is a kind of feminism that can fit into patriarchy. Economic power can become more “equal” so women can participate fully in capitalism without ever thinking deeply about gender, heteronormativity or race.

juliebishopRecently, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, when asked if she was a feminist, replied “I don’t find the need to self-describe in that way…It’s not a term that I find particularly useful these days.”

While there was an uproar, she’s right. She’s not a feminist. She is part of a government that, rather than ending sexist exploitation, is compounding it. She has benefited from a patriarchal system of domination and would rather uphold it than criticise. Why do we expect every woman in a position of power to identify as a feminist? Because the word has become virtually meaningless in mainstream culture. Hooks explains this:

Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics was being slowly removed from feminism.”

corporate feminismAnd Mary Barfoot, in The Coming of Black Genocide, puts it in a way that certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth: “There are white women, hurt and angry, who believed that the ‘70s women’s movement meant sisterhood, and who feel betrayed by escalatory women. By women who went back home to the patriarchy. But the women’s movement never left the father Dick’s side… There was no war. And there was no liberation. We got a share of genocide profits and we love it. We are Sisters of the Patriarchy, and true supporters of national and class oppression, Patriarchy in its highest form is Euro-imperialism on a world scale. If we’re Dick’s sister and want what he has gotten, then in the end we support that system that he got it all from.”

So, is feminism about women occupying more positions of power and privilege within a patriarchal capitalist system of oppression? Is this the idea of “equality” we want to embrace? Should we be happy with the small number of women CEOs and political representatives? Watering down feminism in this way has meant, as hooks says, that “in the ‘90s collusion with the existing social structure was the price of ‘women’s liberation.’”

Twenty years on this still seems to be the case. In making feminism palatable to the mainstream, dragging it against its will into an acceptance of feminism as “equality,” we are on the defensive. We start out by protesting, “No, it’s not anti-men!” In fact, that should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to look into the topic. But in an anti-feminist mass media, this must be the starting point.

Suddenly, these are the women who represent feminism. As hooks points out, “Radical white women tend not to be ‘represented,’ and, if represented at all, they are depicted as a fringe freak element. No wonder then that the ‘power feminism’ of the ‘90s offers wealthy white heterosexual women as the examples of feminist success.”Victoria Jackson, Kathy Freston And Dean Ornish Host Book Party For Arianna Huffington's "Thrive"Here we have feminism-lite. A feminism that slots nicely into the patriarchal status quo:

Mainstream mass media has always chosen a straight woman to represent what the feminist movement stands for – the straighter the better. The more glamourous she is, the more her image can be used to appeal to men. Woman-identified women, whether straight, bisexual, or lesbian rarely make garnering male approval a priority in our lives. This is why we threaten the patriarchy. Lesbian women who have a patriarchal mindset are far less threatening to men than feminist women, gay or straight, who have turned their gaze and their desire away from the patriarchy, away from sexist men.”

lauriepennyLaurie Penny puts it perfectly, echoing the same sentiments hooks had fifteen years ago: “The feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.”

Feminism that actually challenges the status quo, that is intersectional, cannot, as hooks argues, “be appropriated by transnational capitalism as yet another luxury product from the West women in other cultures must fight to have the right to consume.”

This means feminism isn’t about having “the answers.” If it is global, intersectional, aware of class, race, religion, age, and so many more, it must be about listening. Hooks does a great job of explaining briefly and lucidly while feminism must be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Rather than being about some vague notion of “equality,” this is an awareness of the historical and invasive formation of patriarchy. It is a complex, overwhelming, all-consuming collection of forces that is impossible to get our heads around.

Zillah Eisenstein also says: “Feminism(s) as transnational – imagined as the rejection of false race/gender borders and falsely constructed ‘other’ – is a major challenge to masculinist nationalism, the distortions of statist communism and ‘free’-market globalism. It is a feminism that recognises individual diversity, and freedom, and equality, defined through and beyond north/west and south/east dialogues.”

So, if capitalism and patriarchy are so intertwined that we can’t talk about feminism without talking about capitalism, we can’t water it down to a fight for equal pay. Hooks explains: “The truth remains that consumer capitalism was the force leading more women into the workforce. Given the depressed economy white middle-class families would be unable to sustain their class status and their lifestyles if women who had once dreamed solely of working as housewives had not chosen to work outside the home.”

leanin2I have long thought that feminism must be inherently pacifist as well, but I wasn’t able to clarify my ideas until I read hooks’ chapter in this book: “Ending Violence.” She says, “I am among those rare feminist theorists who believe that it is crucial for feminist movement to have as an overriding agenda ending all forms of violence.” All patriarchal violence – that is, violence that is an effort to dominate, to make a person or a group of people feel inferior – must be targeted by feminism. That includes sexual assault, fightclubdomestic violence, child abuse, war, and bar fights. Patriarchy tells us violence is gendered masculine. It tells men that by being born male, they must imprint their superiority on the world. But patriarchy is complex. It positions men in a hierarchy even while telling them that by right of being male, they must assert their dominance. Hooks explains how violence, class and gender intersect in patriarchy: “Since masses of unemployed and working-class men do not feel powerful on their jobs within white supremacist patriarchy they are encouraged to feel that the one place where they will have absolute authority and respect is in the home.” NRL TITANS KNIGHTSIn patriarchy, violence is a way of asserting your dominance, and even your identity. Violence is used to regain power and control because in a patriarchal society it is associated with strength, even while it is often condemned.

So, even while the media reports on domestic violence, while politicians speak out against it and organisations aim to “educate” us, this won’t be effective. Because, as hooks sees, “even though representations of domestic violence abound in mass media and discussions take place on every front, rarely does the public link ending male violence to ending male domination, to eradicating patriarchy. Most citizens of this nation still do not understand the link between male domination and male violence in the home… In mass media everyone raises the question of why this violence is taking place without linking it to patriarchal thinking.”

realmendonthitIt is also true that “early on in feminist thinking activists often failed to liken male violence against women to imperialist militarism. This linkage was often not made because those who were against male violence were often accepting and even supportive of militarism. As long as sexist thinking socialises boys to be ‘killers,’ whether in imaginary good guy, bad guy fights or as soldiers in imperialism to maintain coercive power over nations, patriarchal violence against women and children will continue. In recent years as young males from diverse class backgrounds have committed horrendous acts of violence there has been national condemnation of these acts but few attempts to link this violence to sexist thinking.”larissa waters

I am reminded of a recent debate in Australia in which Greens senator Larissa Waters endorsed the campaign “No Gender December” which shows the harm of gendered toys. She stated that “outdated stereotypes…feed into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.”

Predictably there was outrage over this “political correctness.” But if dolls are designated as “girls’ toys” what are you saying about the traits of caring and nurturing? If superheroes and toy guns are “boys’ toys” how can we deny no-gender-decemberthat physical strength and violence are gendered masculine in our culture? If boys cannot dress up in fairy outfits, what are you telling him about girls and femininity? That it’s “weak,” trivial, and that he best stay away from it at all costs or he will be “emasculated” (one of the most amusing words in the English language). Emotional intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal closeness are for girls, while physical strength, dominance and violence are for boys? Great.

dollsHooks provides an explanation that the general public, crying “political correctness,” may want to think about: “We do know that patriarchal masculinity encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been male. Many men feel that their lives are being threatened if these privileges are taken away, as they have structured no meaningful core identity.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Come on. Do we want to keep sticking up for an outdated patriarchal masculinity when it makes men into people like this? What would we lose by slowly ungendering toys, so that children are seen as people rather than boys or girls?hug

Doesn’t hooks have a better solution? “Boys need healthy self-esteem. They need love. And a wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so they would all be well.”

I will delve into the second half of hooks’ book in the next couple of weeks.

Bellhooks2

The School of Dreams: Writing, Darkness and the Uncanny

gothicblood“Whoever wants to write must be able to reach this lightening region that takes your breath away, where you instantaneously feel at sea and where the moorings are severed with the already-written, the already-known. This ‘blow on the head’ that Kafka describes is the blow on the head of the deadman/deadwoman we are. And that is the awakening from the dead.”

These are the words of Hélène Cixous, again, from her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Dreams.”cixoushe

So, why is itcixousbook that only writing can do this to us, only reading? Because it makes this place into a place we don’t know. The way dreams do. It is Freud’s idea of the Uncanny.

Reading has a lot to do with practice. People who find no need to read have not been shown how. Maybe they think it is about pleasure. In which case there are many things far more pleasurable: TV, shopping, eating. Things that require less effort. But reading is not about the same kind of pleasure. It is about patience, curiosity, and pain.

Theorising why we read, what we get out of it, is hard. As Cixous says, “I can’t make a recipe of it, for as soon as we begin to inscribe signs, to attract attention, we destroy. So though you should hear everything I say, it should then be absorbed, pass through the blood, without your thinking about it, with your living it.” Exactly the opposite of writing. But there are eerie similarities with writing first drafts. When too much second-guessing can leave you with no way out.reading

With first drafts we are scared: “The book writes itself, and if by chance the person opposite should ask you what you are writing, you have nothing to say since you don’t know. Yet the book is written only if it has an engine. A book that writes itself and carries you on board must have an engine even if you don’t know how it works, otherwise it will break down.”

We should not know how it works. We are writing out of the unconscious, out of darkness. If we are lucky much of the darkness will remain, but thicker, more meaningfully patterned.

Thinking of reading and writing as “The School of Dreams” is useful. First drafts should come in a dreamlike state. Because “all great texts begin in this manner that breaks: they break with our thought habits, with the world around us, in an extreme violence that is due to rapidity. They hurl us off to foreign countries.” That’s why reading should be uncomfortable. It makes this world strange, hard to look at. We learn, in Jeanette Winterson’s words, that “to be ill-adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown.” But it should feel like one.

To keep sane in an everyday world is to numb ourselves to dreams. “What we hope for at the School of Dreams is the strength both to deal and to receive the axe’s blow, to look straight at the face of God, which is none other than my own face, but seen naked, the face of my soul. The face of ‘God’ is the unveiling, the staggering vision of the construction we are, the tiny and great lies, the small nontruths we must have incessantly woven to be able to prepare our brothers’ dinner and cook for our children.”

Most people do not dare. Which is why I say it takes practice, patience, and a certain masochism, to feel that need to read great books. It is more a need than a choice. The axe’s blow can be addictive, but it starts with something dreamlike, something uncanny. We just know those pages are there for us. It is not a problem that most people don’t dare, I think. It’s just another way of being.

As dreams take us places without leaving this instant, this space, reading sweeps us to other times, other countries, other minds, other ghettoes, other languages, other brothers, other sisters, other wars. Probably this is why many people take to travel by plane as a substitute. Yes, physical travel is the substitute, but reading is the real thing: “I wonder what kind of poet doesn’t wear out their shoes, writes with their head. The true poet is a traveller. Poetry is about travelling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.” Everything, not just your body in another city, clutching a suitcase.

TravelReadingAnd wholly different, and better: “In order to go to the School of Dreams, something must be displaced, starting with the bed. One has to get going. This is what writing is, starting off. It has to do with activity and passivity. This does not mean one will get there. Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving. One must go on foot, with the body. One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One’s own night. Walking through the self toward the dark.”

Freud’s idea of the uncanny is important for any understanding of how reading does this to us. He uses the word Unheimliche (roughly “unhomely”) to explain how something familiar iuncnanys made strange. It is even more frightening because it was once familiar, soothing. The evil doll is the most basic example. He explains, “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Or, for those of us less sympathetic to psychoanalysis, through the creative force that is at once pleasure, curiosity, and pain.

In the initial writing stage, if we are to write anything worthwhile, we must fall into an experience of the uncanny. We must find this world strange, find that the way we are writing this everyday world makes it into something unfamiliar, even frightening.

The poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes: “The state of creation is this dream state where suddenly, obeying an unknown need, you burn the house down, you push a friend off the top of the mountain.”

If it has to be done, it has to be done. The same if it has to be read. To write you must have courage to do such things but you must also have the sense that is dreamlike, that is more like feeling, to let it happen. “The scene is that of the other world. There is no transition: you wake up in the dream in the other world, on the other side; there is no passport, no visa but this extreme familiarity with extreme strangeness.” So, of course the best kind of travel: “Foreignness becomes a fantastic nationality.”

This is why dreams, and stories, rely so much on signifiers – or symbols. An object, a person, a place, means something else, growing uncanny: “Crossing the frontiers to the other world without transition, at the stroke of a signifier, this is what dreams permit us to do and why, if we are dreamers, we love dreams so much. It’s the cancellation of opposition between inside and outside, there is no explanation: any explanation would destroy the magic.”

dreaming-1We can’t explain a story any more than we can explain a dream. What does that object symbolise? Why does it matter? But it is different for me, different for you. “We are already there by a multitude of signs. And yet we understand nothing. This is how we enter a book. We are blind and ignorant and gradually things become clearer.”

That is why it tadreamingcastlekes patience to be a reader. Even more to write. You must belong to a place you can’t explain. “We are in the world of secrets of all kinds. One calls up another, gives rise to another, so we don’t know if we are inside or outside, or if we are one or two.”

We desire answers, it is all about desiring, but they don’t exist. Cixous understands the ultimate darkness of all good texts: “I hope this sounds mysterious to you. We are immediately drawn into the centre where there is a secret. Do you want to know what the secret is? You can’t because it is a secret.”

And what all good readers, which is what all good writers must be first and foremost, understand: “It is the feeling of secret we become acquainted with when we dream, that is what makes us both enjoy and at the same time fear dreaming. When you are possessed by a dream, when you are the inhabitant of a dream, you are driven by this, by a kind of heart beating: and the dream says something that is never said, that will never be said by anyone else and which you unknow; you possess the unknown secret. It is this, not the possibility of knowing the secret, that makes you both dream and write: the beating presence of it, its feeling.”

The feeling of secret. That’s why we must feel dreams, if we want to write truthfully. “Dreams remind us that there is a treasure locked away somewhere, and writing is the means to try and approach the treasure. And as we know, the treasure is in the searching, not the finding.”

Of course, this is fear above all. But Cixous reassures: “My authors are dreamers: they have understood what Tsvetaeva develops magnificently in ‘Pushkin and Pugachev’: that the unconscious is at the source. I am not speaking in Freudian terms: it has to do with the source of instincts that will be the motors of writing, what Tsvetaeva calls, when she tells the story of the ‘pathfinder,’ ‘the pure element of fear.’”

fearWhy? Because the Other is ultimately unknowable. Sometimes this is about respect: true knowing is unknowing. I cannot know you, so I cannot possess you. But that does not stop me feeling betrayal. The gap, the unknowability, is the source of the greatest kindness and closeness but also the greatest cruelties. “Love and the axe are inseparable. Only the ones who love us can kill us. Those who love us kill us. And we kill those we love. This is what we cannot live. Only the dream tells us this.”

Because it lets us move out of familiarity, into strangeness. Cixous reassures us, again, though not wholly convincingly: “we can enjoy all these axe blows, since we are in the dream’s sacred space where all the rules that ordinarily make us excuse ourselves for the dream are waived. A space that is both totally free and totally limited.”

dreamingwaterSo betrayal becomes meaningful. A lack of reciprocity is symbolic. Her silence is a pattern. His refusal is gothic. But it must be just as cruel as real life.

I had not understood why I adored incomplete endings so much until I read “The School of Dreams.” This is why the short story is so satisfying, ending without end. No neat “wrapping up” of a crime drama. Nothing I write ends neatly. For some, this makes no sense. People want to know “the answer.” Especially for The Loud Earth, the thing that I enjoy most is people’s wondering. A sign of intelligence. Don’t ask me to sum it up for you. I do not know. We both possess the unknown secret, after all.

“As an author I can say that if we are accidentally seized with worry about a text’s ending then this is a totally peculiar experience, one that is disturbing and not necessarily agreeable. If we are completely lost we ask ourselves: How will this end? Will it end? And what if it doesn’t end? This question can take hold of you. It’s far more upsetting than the question of beginning. For one thing a text can have begun before us, which is the best way. For another, getting stuck with the beginning – an experience I have never had – is not so serious since we only have to wait. The text will end up by beginning. A text that presents itself but doesn’t end questions the identity of what we are doing. But does a dream end? Perhaps we don’t think about it much since it’s a difficult moment. The fact that the end might escape us is perhaps the sensation we find most difficult to reconcile with. If the end escapes us where are we? A feeling similar to that of abandonment or the uprootedness we feel when we wake up badly looms. If the dream has stolen away we are inflicted with a more or less intense sensation of mourning. Books that don’t want to end question the entire economy of our relationship to writing and to life. There are books that end all of a sudden. We were writing and suddenly it’s over.”

How can I ever thank Cixous for putting it like that? Not ending is uncanny. We must be lost in fog and accept it, still desiring.

lakenightI suppose this is why I am not a fan of realism. Cixous says Clarice Lispector’s work “appears to be realist, but it has roots of meaning and revelation that go well beyond realism. It plunges into the profoundest depths of our secrets; we could find the signifiers of this scene in a dream.”

And Winterson, who understands the revelation beyond realism: “The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.”

That is why I believe realism is, ironically, a genre of lies.

Because we should seize on this darkness, possessing the unknown secret. “I have always adored these unknown ones who walk along the quay. You can’t write anything more magnificent than this loss which is the subject’s severance, the nonrecognition that, far from remaining abstract, will be materialised to the point of the grass growing on the graves and, then, followed by the arrival of dreams.”

It’s these signifiers, the flesh of detail, that make the world uncanny. All of a sudden we are caught in a place that looked familiar in another light but now, somehow, everything is gone. It is new and old. And we desire to know why, but we can’t. Possessing the unknown secret.

dreamsc

Lost and unspeakable: dreaming queer utopia

quutopiaIn my lit theory class, discussing José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, I listened to the sort of defences of heteronormativity and marriage that I thought didn’t exist anymore among twenty-somethings, at least those who have just read maybe one of the greatest pieces of queer theory ever written.

“I think marriage is important because it validates a relationship between two people. It gives state approval, it tells society your relationship is real.”

“But what if Muñoz’s vision comes true in the future? Will what we call heteronormativity now become queer? What if straight people and marriage and children become the minority?”

“Muñoz wants us all to be able to touch each other. But I don’t like touching people.”

Admittedly, the question “What’s the opposite of queer? Boring?” has a certain truth to it, but I was still scared.

All this only convinced me even more of the truth of Muñoz’s rejection of 21st century LGBT pragmatism that focuses on marriage equality and assimilation into the neoliberal capitalist nation state. Since when have such goals been classified as “queer”?

militaryMuñoz died too soon in 2009, and we lost many things, but we still have all these radical possibilities he set down. Muñoz wants to reclaim queerness. In light of the above responses, maybe this is a more ambitious dream than he realised. We seem to have lost all understanding of queerness. It is radical, deliberately unclear, non-conformist, non-binary, a rejection of all the borders heteronormativity has set in place.

munoz                        IMG_4361

For Muñoz, too, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”

Queerness must be theorised, because we must theorise a way out of heteronormativity. Only then will we find a way out of patriarchy and a binary gender system that loves nothing but borders and definitions.

This is why queer does not mean LGBT. Or LGBTQIA. While those identities have been politically useful, they are not radical. They do not recognise the politics of desire, that rather than being natural or located in genes, it is fluid.

not-gay-as-in-happySo, when we learn to see queerness we see that it is “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”

The pragmatism of the LGBT agenda does not allow it to think of this future. It wants to be included in heteronormativity. Marriage, the family, the military, the mainstream patriarchal institutions that hold a certain way of relating to others as “normal.” Obviously marriage should be open to all. But rewinding a little, we should ask ourselves why marriage is the end goal. Is it really to know that the state sanctions our relationship? Why do we feel the need for that? Can we imagine a more radical utopia?

AssimilatedAfter all, a “claim to the pragmatic is the product of a short-sighted here that fails to include anything but an entitled and privileged world. The there of queer utopia cannot simply be that of the faltering yet still influential nation-state.”

The desire for marriage is just that – a desire. We cannot pretend it is natural, a biological consequence of genetic monogamy. Our desires are political. Judith Butler’s essay “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” is one of the best expressions of how we can queer the gay marriage debate that I’ve ever read. Finally I understand the real political and relational implications of prizing marriage as an institution.

marriageequFor Butler, we must ask “what forms of relationship ought to be legitimated by the state. The crisis of legitimation can be considered from a number of perspectives, but let us consider for the moment the ambivalent gift that legitimation can become. To be legitimated by the state is to enter into the terms of legitimation offered there and to find that one’s public and recognisable sense of personhood is fundamentally dependent on the lexicon of that legitimation.”

And, scarily, the actual debate shuts down the kind of possibilities that queerness sees on the horizon. “Here a certain normative crisis ensues. On the one hand, it is important to mark how the field of intelligible and speakable sexuality is circumscribed so that we can see how options outside of marriage are becoming foreclosed as unthinkable, and how the terms of thinkability are enforced by the narrow debates over who and what will be included in the norm.”

marriageI hope you are sufficiently frightened by now. But don’t worry, Butler has some (not uncommon) words of comfort.

“On the other hand, there is always the possibility of savouring the status of unthinkability, if it is a status, as the most critical, the most radical, the most valuable. As the sexually unrepresentable, such sexual possibilities can figure the sublime within the contemporary field of sexuality, a site of pure resistance, a site uncoopted by normativity. But how does one think politics from such a site of unrepresentability?”

I think this is Muñoz’s project. And he manages to represent it in the most hopeful, colourful way we could ask for in this conservative time. He does it by savouring that unthinkability, using the fluidity, sensuousness and playfulness that he wants for his queer utopia.

Queerness undermines all our ideas of relationality, intimacy, what desires we classify as important. For Muñoz queerness is an “impulse that we see in everyday life. This impulse is to be glimpsed as something that is extra to the everyday transaction of heteronormative capitalism.”

It is uncontained. A “stepping out of the linearity of straight time.” It is joyful, because tied up with all the rainbow of emotions: sadness, happiness, despair, anger, excitement. “Queerness’s ecstatic and horizontal temporality is a path and a movement to a greater openness to the world.”

For me, Muñoz’s idea that queerness is on the horizon, a utopian dream, something nostalgic but also hopeful, is about kindness. It’s about greater affective awareness. That is a weird made up phrase, but I think I mean being more aware of our emotions, their flow into and out of other people and the physical world surrounding us. In patriarchal heteronormativity, relationships designated as romantic, sexual and monogamous have always been about power. Queerness lets us hope for greater kindness, because greater fluidity. Kate Millett (in “Sexual Politics“) analyses Norman Mailer’s misogyny as a result of his belief that relationships are like war:

“As the formula of ‘fucking as conquest’ holds true, the conquest is not only over the female, but over the male’s own fears for his masculinity, his courage, his dominance, the test of erection. To fail at any enterprise is to become female, defeated by the lurking treachery of Freudian bisexuality, the feminine in a man giving out like a trick knee at a track meet. Since all this is so arduous, men are, Mailer believes, self-evidently entitled to victory, their ‘existential assertion.’ Reminding his teammates that ‘nobody was born a man’ Mailer lays down the regulations – ‘you earned your manhood, provided you were good enough, bold enough.’”

noteveryboyIf, as queerness lets us hope for, our identities are not tied up with gender, with proving at every step our masculinity, or our femininity, then our relationships are no longer about power. We can forget. We can be free.

But Norman Mailer also recognised that this is a frightening prospect. What do we do once all our ideas of “normal,” so tied up with gender and heternormativity, are undone? The utopia becomes a nightmare, because our identities no longer have a familiar fixed point.

Millett describes this nightmare: “The real abyss which portentous phrases such as ‘existential dread’ were invented to mask is the fear of nonexistence. That, or the secret terror of homosexuality; a mixture of sin, fascination, and fear which drives Mailer to his heterosexual posturing. To be faggot, damned, leprous – to cease to be virile were either to cease to be – or to become the most grotesque form of feminine inferiority – queer.”

But why is this new mode of desiring so inferior? Because:

“In a climate of sexual counterrevolution, homosexuality constitutes the mortal offense against heterosexual orthodoxy, the unforgivable sin that sends one off irreparably in the vast grey fields of virility’s damned.”existential-crisis

Butler put this nightmare in a way that still rings true in 2014: “Many people feel that who they are as egos in the world, whatever imaginary centres they have, would be radically dissolved were they to engage in homosexual relations. They would rather die than engage in homosexual relations. For these people homosexuality represents the prospect of the psychotic dissolution of the subject.”

Heteronormativity barely allows us to think outside of its barriers. Though it allows for “alternative” identities – LGBT identities – these must be outside a heterosexual “centre.” They must also be containable. In no way may the fluidity that queerness promises be allowed to dissolve this centre and mix up our relationships like spreading ink. That would be psychotic dissolution.

inkwaterIf heteronormativity says something must be one thing or the other, queerness says no, it can be both or neither. Hope and loss can be here at once. “We can understand queerness itself as being filled with the intention to be lost. Queerness is illegible and therefore lost in relation to the straight minds’ mapping of space. Queerness is lost in space or lost in relation to the space of heteronormativity.”

For anyone who has felt the strictures of heteronormativity as painful, this is solace. Yes, it’s something like pride: “To accept loss the way in which one’s queerness will always render one lost to a world of heterosexual imperatives, codes, and laws. To accept loss is to accept queerness – or more accurately, to accept the loss of heteronormativity, authorisation, and entitlement.”

You are lost, but this is why you are able to hope. This is why queerness is not related to your “object of desire” and especially not the gender of that object. It is instead a mode of desiring and a refusal to be mapped by heteronormativity’s instruments.dorothy

“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”

It is tempting to want to be included. Sometimes it is even necessary. Especially when the alternative is the worst consequences of social exclusion – institutional discrimination, violence and death. That’s why queer utopia must be on the horizon for everyone. That instead of the heteronormative dictate that inclusion be on “our” terms, there must be no terms.

Millett puts the lack of awareness that comes from desiring normativity – that is, outsiders’ longing for inclusion within heteronormativity – very bluntly:

“Oppression creates a psychology in the oppressed. Marxism, though adroit at analysing the economic and political situation of such persons, has often neglected, perhaps out of nervous dismay, to notice how thoroughly the oppressed are corrupted by their situation, how deeply they envy and admire their masters, how utterly they are polluted by their ideas and values, nofuturehow even their attitude toward themselves is dictated by those who own them.”

Queerness denies such ownership. Muñoz again dismisses pragmatism by declaring that “political hope fails queers because, like signification, it was not originally made for us. It resonates only on the level of reproductive futurity.” Here he refers to the fact that all political discourse and our ideas of the future are centred on the child – that symbolic force of heteronormativity.

Muñoz works with the idea of that uncompromising queer theorist Lee Edelman who attacks the symbol of the child: “Edelman recommends that queers give up hope and embrace a certain negation endemic to our abjection within the symbolic. What we get, in exchange for giving up on futurity, abandoning politics and hope, is a certain jouissance that at once defines and negates us. Edelman’s psychoanalytic optic reveals that the social is inoperable for the always already shattered queer subject.”

Depressing? Maybe. But as Millett celebrates in her description of a drag queen, queerness, by refusing all standards of normativity, can show us a horizon unclouded by the anxiety inherent in gender norms, in the protection of the “normal” family, and in the desperation of “living through” our children:

queer“But as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen in drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once – or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose, she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation.”

Being lost isn’t always a bad thing. Confusing people, even causing psychotic dissolution, which may last only a second before someone re-establishes their limits of normativity by casting you as deviant, can be enjoyable. This is the utopian possibility of negation. But of course this must be conscious. After all, as Muñoz puts it, “heteronormative culture makes queers think that both the past and the future do not belong to them.” In spite of this exclusion, we can create. “A nothing is a utopian act insofar as it acknowledges a lack that is normalised as reality and attempts to work with and through nothingness and ephemerality: it is both a critique and an additive or reparative gesture. Queer utopian practice is about “building” and “doing” in response to that status of nothing assigned to us by the heteronormative world.”
queertopiaThis is a conscious way of creating the world through a conscious being in the world. Knowing that being in the world is not just heteronormativity’s linear time, romance, monogamy, appropriate feelings, acceptable gestures. A queer mode of being in the world is a fuller experience of relationality. Get ready for the accusations of irresponsibility, childishness, lack of commitment, all the insults pegged at those who don’t wish to comply with heteronormativity. Because, as Muñoz says, such behaviour is often seen as pointless rebellion, without political motive. But “escape itself need not be a surrender, but, instead, may be more like a refusal of a dominant order and its systemic violence.”

Muñoz tells us that utopia is about hope and failure together. “Hope and disappointment operate within a dialectical tension in this notion of queer utopia. Queerness’s failure is temporal and, from this project’s perspective, potentially utopian, and inasmuch as it does not queerutopiasadhere to straight time, interrupting its protocols, it can be an avant-garde practice that interrupts the here and now. To perform such interruptions is not glorious or heroic work.”

Well, that’s a disappointment. How can we refuse heteronormativity and take on all the backlash that comes with such a choice, if we don’t even have the comfort of knowing we are heroines? More of the disappointment of utopia, I suppose.

But is has to be conscious, because of the pure difficulty. I have so much internalised heteronormativity that I need to remind myself daily what queerness is. But Muñoz gives us more hope. Queerness isn’t just intellectual knowledge, a way to critically encounter situations. It’s that way of being in the world. It’s embodied. It’s relational. It’s intimate. It’s here and now, future and past. That is, “We know time through the field of the affective, and affect is tightly bound to temporal.” It’s emotional. It’s ecstatic.

For those of us who want to think a way out of heteronormativity without going down a path to existential dread, Muñoz has painted the horizon. This is the utopia of the not yet here, illuminated with the glitter of the past.

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A Fanatic Heart: Edna O’Brien’s screaming women

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This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?

O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

edna1Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?

authorsWho are the great Irish writers?

Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.

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Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.

This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.

Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and othecountrygirlsften burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.

This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?

For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”

For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.

Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:catholicchurch

“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”

This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”

ITV ARCHIVEEdna O’Brien

It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.

To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.

She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.

holdinghandsIn the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich

Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”

So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”

That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”

Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”

The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”

drowningOf course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.

The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.

Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.

This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.

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