I’ve been reading a LOT of feminist theory each week. All of it is thought-provoking, some of it is world-rocking, and quite a bit of it is beautifully written – many of these women, like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, are not only theorists but also poets.
Some of the thoughtful, politically conscious blogs I enjoy have a custom of posting on specifically feminist issues each Friday. I don’t trust myself to stick to a similar routine – I’m already churning out as much coherent thought as I can in weekly response papers for either class, and it doesn’t make sense to post those here. However, I can join in on Feminist Friday action by sharing some particularly compelling points from my reading each week, usually from places where I wrote “Wow!” in the margins. Perhaps some of you will be encourage to read up – you don’t have to be widely read to be a feminist, but people frequently make assumptions about the many forms of feminism without reading any of it at all.
This week’s theme seems to be the difficulty of negotiating solidarity with individuality.
“Stopped by the movements of a huge early bumble bee which has somehow gotten inside this house and is reeling, bumping, stunning itself against windowpanes and sills. I open the front door and speak to it, trying to attract it outside. It is looking for what it needs, just as I am, and like me, it has gotten trapped in a place where it cannot fulfill its own life. I could open the jar of honey on the kitchen counter and perhaps it would take honey from that jar; but its life-process, its work, its mode of being, cannot be fulfilled inside this house.And I, too, have been bumping my way against glassy panes, falling half-stunned, gathering myself up and crawling, then again taking-off, searching.”
“The difficulty of saying I – another phrase from Christa Wolf. But once having said it, as we realize the necessity to go further, isn’t there a difficulty of saying ‘we’? You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for us. Two thoughts: there is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I’. There is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through.”
– Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location.”
I had a hard time choosing just one quote from this piece, which reads more like a poem than a talk at a conference (which was the occasion for its presentation). The implications of the bee story are pretty evident, but just to give you some context: Rich was one of the major theorists for feminist and lesbian identity politics when identity politics were developing across all movements. In this piece, written sometime later, she is trying to negotiate the problems that arise when she says “I AM” a woman, a lesbian, etc.and you don’t account for the complications of your position in a web of power – I am also white and therefore have a different relationship to power than women and lesbians who are not. Hence, politics of location: literally and figuratively, from where do you speak?
So the honeybee passage, I think, is about struggling to break out of the limitations of her previous self-definition… but the description of the banging up against glass and stumbling seems to speak about so many more kinds of limitations, like the ability to self-define in the first place. To recall a previous post about Rich and compulsory heterosexuality… sexual “preference,” too, could have been a glass enclosure that I stunned myself against over and over until I found a way to negotiate it. (Jeffrey Weeks sez: “heterosexuality has to be learned.”) Or, the whole metaphor of the home as limit could have resonance… It reminds me of a circular, pointless argument I had with a conservative writer a few months ago. I was arguing for the accessibility of vaccines like Gardasil to protect women who are victims of sexual violence. The other guy argued that if it weren’t for radical feminists trying to behave like men and refuse the protection of men, maybe women wouldn’t be assaulted so often. Aside from its basis in false premises (the “protection” offered women, namely marriage, is as much a location of violence and abuse as any other location), this statement sort of horribly denies the female right to self-determination. Women shouldn’t need men and seclusion to protect them from other men – that’s like offering a jar of honey to this bee, it is not at all the same thing as making one’s own.
The second quotation deals more closely with the issues of solidarity and individuality, and I selected it because it’s so concise, almost slogan-ready. Basically: identity politics developed because of exclusion. Your history is white, so I will celebrate and argue for my blackness. Your feminist theory is straight, so I will make a space for lesbian theory. The trouble is, then, that people don’t claim single identities… and if you’re a black feminist theorist, you still might not discussing the needs of black lesbian women, and if you’re a white female feminist, you’re very likely ignoring any other forms of oppression than sexism. Speaking for other people threatens to erase them. At the same time, Rich argues here, you cannot speak only for yourself… and Audre Lorde has some ideas about that.
“Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.”
– Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”
Audre Lorde is notable for her powerful, memorable exhortations – for example, the title of this piece, which comes from another essay of hers. This piece is her response to an invitation to comment on “the role of difference” within the lives of women at a conference. She notes and lambasts the otherwise absent consideration of race, sexuality, class, and age in so much theory: she is supposed to be a token, and speak for them all. But the supposed correction for this oversight – bring in a black lesbian feminist, and make sure we talk about racism as well as feminism, about sexuality as well as sexism – implies that there is no connection between those various conversations. Lorde argues that if you ignore differences or treat them as incommensurable, rather than acknowledging how they necessarily shape and compel the conversations that must take place, then you’re just reinstating the means by which you and others are oppressed: using the master’s tools, as it were. Thatis passive and redundant; what’s active is confronting, challenging, and talking about difference.
P.S…. I’m a nerd and I love this:
“I can only speak for myself. But what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life. And I mean that literally. For me literature is a way of knowing that I am not hallucinating, that whatever I feel/know is.”
– Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory.”
This article is written as a criticism of some then-new waves of critical theory that abstract the hell out of everything. Theory is important, Christian argues, but if it loses a connection with practicality then it becomes prescriptive (read: oppressive, limited). This line falls nearly at the end of the argument, where she manifests her own purpose in reading and analyzing literature in response to all the prescribed purposes she outlines earlier. This is a really good reminder for those of us who repeatedly ask ourselves what we’re doing in grad school (“But what do we think we’re doing anyway?” which is the title of another Christian piece). That one sentence – what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life – just hit me in the gut. I think that what I write has always been done to save my own life in some sense, from my bad teenage poetry to my long, heated journals in college to my online analysis of my love life in New Orleans and especially now… it’s always been about reassuring myself that what I experience is and has a knowable shape, even when it doesn’t.
In that way, our motives may originate within our own skins… but notice that what saves her life is the communion with texts, the testimony from other minds that she is not hallucinating after all.