Tag Archives: feminism

The Female Tradition in Southern Literature

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An effort to redress the pre-90s pattern in southern studies that has excluded non-white male authors. As with all subdivisions of literary canons, women writers and writers of colour have been cast as inferior and special interest, but the canon of southern literature has been especially fraught. This is in part due to the renown of the so-called Southern Renaissance, the accepted wisdom that particular cultural, racial, and political themes marked the tensions of the South post-World War I and this resulted in a literature in which traditional ideas of “the South” were demystified. This collection of essays by women attempts to revive a “feminine tradition” that is hardly radical but offers a starting point for an exploration of the complexity of southern literature. Topics include nineteenth century women diarists, Zora Neale Hurston, orphans, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, interracial friendships between women, anti-abolitionist Caroline Hentz, Charleston poet Beatrice Ravenel, immigrant workers’ strikes, Zelda Fitzgerald, women’s writing as autobiography, and a very outdated heteronormative assessment of queer and genderqueer writer Carson McCullers’ philosophy of love. Unfortunately most of the essayists are white.

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New York, New York: The Cook and the Carpenter

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“In Memoriam” to the Fifth Street Women’s building, at a very specific period of US history: the women’s liberation movement. Feminist, socialist, anarchist, it was New Year’s Eve, 1970 and Arnold herself was part of a group who wanted a counterlife and a revolution. Thirteen days later, it was destroyed by police. This book is specific and wide-ranging, a document and a novel about love and difference. It’s formally avant-garde too, especially in its use of non-gendered pronouns – “na” and “nan” – that grate at first on the reader’s indoctrination in a binary system of gender, then feel natural. Arnold unsettles dearly-held ideas of gender, identity, and possessive monogamy. In Texas, before they establish the takeover in New York City, the cook and the carpenter are romantic partners living collectively with children and adults. Another member, Three, joins and complicates their relationship. Through people, Arnold wonders about dualism and dialectics, unity and difference. Remarkably prescient are her questions about the nature of the self: is it fluid or essential? Much of her thinking seems more radical than most lesbian feminist essentialism, but also considers the limits of a poststructuralist concept of the self as fragmented and forever socially constructed. The dialogue, inebriated meditations, and representation of dancing as freedom, are all beautiful. Unfortunately, I was surprised by how wonderfully written this was: I didn’t expect too much from an experimental lesbian long-out-of-print book from the 70s. It’s forgotten because it’s a radical lesbian text, not because it’s badly written or polemical.

Freedom: rip it up

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TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault

A suburban comedy-drama, monumental in the way only a middle-aged, middle-class straight white American man would have the audacity to write. In this case, as in most, the monument does not yield the audacity it promises. Not even close. Here, the problem is not that the characters are simply unlikeable: they are dull, cliched, and not even believable. None of the truth, ugliness, attraction of most unlikeable characters in literature. The plot is a mess, but not a beautifully chaotic postmodern mess, simply a directionless, pointless collection of events nobody cares about. Franzen’s social realism is proudly middle-brow, what he seems to consider ambitious, without any sense that his execution of the mode is highly conventional. Yet even his realism isn’t believable: convenient events and plot holes abound. His language is trivial, ugly, too repetitive to justify six hundred-plus pages. The structure is fundamentally flawed, switching between the “autobiography” of one of the main characters, Patty, and the various viewpoints of three men, in a charade without function or finesse. If it was written by a woman, it would be read as a gossip column, dismissed as “chick lit,” hardly a Tolstoyan masterpiece of social realism. At the heart of this novel’s problem is its meanspiritedness; what Franzen sees as irony is slathered indiscriminately across the pages, the kind of sarcasm only a middle-aged white man can apply to everything that crosses his path, until the final pages when he seems to want us to care profoundly for his characters. Too late: the snow-love he wraps his ending up in is only sentimentality. In this vein, to read this book without being painfully aware of the almost unremitting misogyny is to inhabit the same world that Franzen does, the world that praises “Freedom” as a contender of the “Great American Novel.” A sexual assault early in the book is represented so gratuitously, so callously, with such a lack of understanding, that it undermines every attempt Franzen makes to cite this trauma as the “reason” for the myriad of Patty’s later issues. Women are described in terms of age, attractiveness, and pliability to men. Numerous references to men’s genitalia as cognisant conquerors and women’s as passive receptacles grow tiresome. Women and girls are the root of all of men’s problems. Later in the book, a rape fantasy is described lovingly. Every sarcastic pot-shot is a cheap shot: rather than being a sweeping, ambitious tome, it is an outdated triumph of the conventional, liberal, white, heterosexual American male in a world of (thankfully) splintering perspectives that offer far more interest and insight. But it is a high price to pay to realise, again, that the most worthwhile writing comes from women, people of colour, queers, all of us on the margins. If misogyny isn’t enough to turn a reader off this novel, let it be the presumptuousness of six hundred-plus pages of misplaced irony, directionless satire, complacent liberalism.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

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Concerned first and foremost with intersectionality, a brief, stark, incisive tract that is another introduction to feminism. Better than most post-second wave works, a call to embrace mass global feminist movement, spotlighting hooks’ characteristic linguistic construction: “feminist movement” and NOT “feminism.” The distinction is patent, a focus on praxis not theory, despite its title. Often it suffers from this, treading an unstable line between palatability and radicalism, most potent in the eagerness to embrace men and heterosexuality. Attacks on white liberal feminism are long overdue, perfect, necessary even more today. Without race and class feminism is useless. Again, outdated cherishing of a destructive gender binary undermines the heat and power of the call for radical eradication of white patriarchal domination and oppression. Most trenchant are chapters on violence and sisterhood. Easy to carry, underline, page through, slip into the hands of those acquaintances who skirt the edges of feminism but don’t yet feel its radical core.

The Daylight Gate

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The 1612 Pendle Hill witch trials, as real today, wilder than Salem, rich on paper. The August Assizes, Lancaster Castle, Daemonology, 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Hogton Hall, the Rough Lee, the North and its darkness, severed heads, poverty, women’s power crushed again and again, and still frightening. The foolishness of patriarchy, the banality of violence against women, children, the poor: all of this moves in a swampy sump, shifting point of view and allegiances. Spitting in the wind, galloping on horses, a woman with fire for hair, the inventor of magenta dye. She writes, rescues, and queers your dull grey Protestantism. Not only the gothic, but patriarchal and feudal oppression, fearfully resonant.

The Use of Pleasure

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How did sexuality acquire its relation to truth? (In construction alone). How a decipherment of the self by the self, how a hermeneutics of desire? How in the 21st century did sexuality come to signal a revelation of the soul as a realm of knowledge about the True Self, where the smallest pieces of desire must be examined and analysed? Ancient Greece, on the other hand, turns to sexual practices themselves, not as moral/immoral, but as moderation, self-mastery, the superiority of the free man and his need to exercise his birthright as active, as ruler. Boys are the most beautiful, women are in a political relationship of ruler/ruled. All a juridico-moral codification of acts, arts of existence, regimen – for “free” men only.

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