Category Archives: Ideas

Needless cruelty

Recently, my friend lent me an advance copy of a book we were both looking forward to, as it is the sequel to another book we both seriously enjoyed.  (I won’t be specific about the title or author, because SPOILERS ABOUND.  But even without specifying the book, a lot of this post will sound familiar – you’ve seen or heard similar tropes before.)  Anyway, I couldn’t put the book down; I drank it up for the price of a couple nights’ sleep.  There was a lot to love about the story and the telling.  But one of the last scenes of the book really threw me for a loop, and has sort of obstructed a pleasurable memory of the whole.  I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my response to it.

[TW]

The novel is fantasy fiction.  Toward the end of the book, some of the characters summon a powerful supernatural being, and the supernatural being rapes one of the female characters.

My first response to this – aside from a mental flinch – was to wonder why this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.
My next and lingering response was to be equal parts disturbed and annoyed that  this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.

Let’s have some context, borrowed from Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown.  Sady is tired of seeing sexual assault as a way to “spice up” horror.  What I found particularly resonant about her post was the observation that most of the buttons pushed in horror are unusual; massacre and torture are horrific, but are blessedly infrequent occurrences in our part of the world.  Sexual assault, on the other hand, is incredibly common – so much so that the probability of a  survivor of sexual assault viewing any such movie is very high.  And the narrative strategy of using rape catapult a horrific scene into more-horrific is just… insulting, really.  Not to mention unoriginal.  Another thoughtful read on using sexual assault as a narrative tool comes from Shakesville: Melissa McEwan is contemptuous of the suggestion that the viewers need gratuitous sex and assault to demonstrate the extent of a character’s villainy.  (Concerning the presence of this visual shorthand in a fantasy film, she adds: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet’s climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape, as if the weather is just a suggestion but rape is immutable.”)

So back to the why.  I picked up and finished the novel described above while I was in the midst of reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, which has put me in the mindframe for contemplation.  The Art of Cruelty is more exploration than argument, which I like. Nelson sets out to consider and analyze some artworks and poems that she finds disturbing, or that have been criticized for their depictions of cruelty; she’s not interested in a wholesale condemnation or relativistic defense, but she does want to find and model a way to query and assess such works.  The way she goes about this is similar to the way I’ve been taught to read poetry and art: what does x element of the work do?  What cultural bells does it set off, does it cause the viewer/reader to view or read is a particular way?  Does the experience of reading/viewing allow the reader/viewer some space with which to make meaning of it?

That’s what I’m asking myself about the act of rape in this scene, in this book.  What does it do for the narrative?

  • The scene that includes the act serves as a climax of one character’s story, and precipitates the climax of the total narrative.
  • The act demonstrates the  cruelty of the Supernatural Being.
  • The act is a trial for the Female Character to overcome.
  • The act is the source of the Female Character’s own supernatural powers.

Okay, fine. Now what if the scene had been deleted, or replaced with something else?

  • The scene that concludes with the act of rape, would without rape still serve as the climax of her story. As my friend and I discussed a few days ago, the summoning of the Supernatural Being is an incredible scene. It is shocking, horrifying, unexpected, meaningful – everything a good plot twist in a thoughtful book should be. (And then the Being leans her over a table and ZZZZZZZZZ and also UGH.)
  • Prior to the rape, the Supernatural Being demonstrates the extent of his supernaturality and cruelty in some pretty spectacular ways – emphasis on spectacle, with the Female Character acting as a horrified witness to the Being’s casual violence. Emphasis on horror, too, where “horror” denotes a class of events that falls so far outside of habitual human experience that we learn something about our own boundaries. (Not that horror is always meaningful! But there is a reason that the stories of historical cruelties still captivate.) Being supernatural, the Being could have done any number of things to the Female Character. It seems… odd, and out of place, that he chose to reenact that pool table scene from The Watchmen.
  • Setting aside the inherently problematic (and overused) trope of giving a female character a rape to overcome as a part of her character development: this Female Character has already overcome a great deal. Among other things, throughout the novel she negotiates a near-constant barrage of sexual harassment and objectification. Her response is to use these circumstances for her own gain, a compromise that earns her both power and damage. That was all well-written and well-considered, I thought. Adding one final, boss-battle outrage against her body just seems like overkill, an Intro to Fiction misstep.
  • And finally – the rape is the first act of sexualized violence in which the Female Character is utterly helpless (rather than complicit, and acting with some agency).  And it is the act that transforms her into a Supernatural Being herself. She is, in other words, a woman in her own refrigerator. She reminds me of the title character of The Wind-Up Girl, who does not discover her own strength until a barrage of unimaginably (yet attentively described) brutalizing circumstances pushes her past the point of endurances.  Not just brutal circumstances, but gendered circumstances. It reminds me, too, of that awful chapter in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which the narrator lovingly describes the stoic heroism with which a woman he knows survived a brutal attack. These are not flattering comparisons. They’re called Hideous Men for a reason.

To sum up: no, I can’t think of a single reason why this book – which I was prepared to love, which I did in fact love many things about – derailed me with an act of needless sexual violence. I question the choice to place rape in this seat of honor: narrative climax, boss battle, origin story. I don’t say that it should never be written.  I don’t even pretend to sketch out some rules about when it’s okay and when it is not okay.  I only want to ask – why is this here?

And I wouldn’t mind if authors, editors, and previewers would think to ask themselves the same.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Gender, Ideas

Many selves

Two conversations and the PQfEW that sparked their memories.

1. Between myself and my first love, a year or more after the romance had ended and the rupture it left had started to close painfully together:
I don’t remember the context – perhaps I remarked on how much he’d changed over the last year, how he’d gone from fervently religious to agnostic and back again. He said he felt that he was the same person he had always been. I’m me, he insisted. There are always certain characteristics that define me. I’m loyal. Hard-working. Passionate.
I didn’t know how to disagree aloud, but I could see cracks in these identities he had chosen. Loyal to what, at whose expense? Passionate when and at what cost?

2. Many years later, I was drinking sour ale and waiting for a table with a former flame – the flame part was already former to this occasion of waiting. We regaled one another with tales of our shared history, of what we’d been and done since then. He said, I think you’re the same. Older. More grown-up. But the same.
I said I wouldn’t like to think so; I didn’t like who I was then. I didn’t add whether I thought he was also the same. There were some continuous threads: same cockiness, an occasional startling tenderness. I remembered those characteristics from our adolescence, but in truth I felt that the object of my infatuation from so long ago was not relevant to the person drinking sour ale with me that night.
He said, you think there’s nothing in us that stays the same? That we’re endlessly changing from the forces external to us? He didn’t say it quite like that; I’m sure he said it more eloquently and with a note of tender derision.
I thought, because it seemed like so much blasphemy to say that there was no kernel that is me. Am I nothing? Just a bundle of repeated behaviors and related images? But for the sake of argument I said yes, there is nothing. I may or may not have added, the sameness that you see in me is what you desire and fear to be the same.

3. And then there is Trinh Minh-ha saying the same thing more beautifully and with more hope. She says,

A critical difference from myself means that I am not i, am within and within i. I/i can be I or i, you and me both involved. We (with capital W) sometimes include(s), other times exclude(s) me. You and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me, while remaining what you are and what i am not. The differences made between entities comprehended as absolute presences – hence the notions of pure origin and true self – are an outgrowth of a dualistic system of thought peculiar to the Occident.

So then, that idea that I am myself and not more or less than that – it is just an idea. One way of comprehending the incomprehensible. She says,

“I” is, therefore, not a unified subject, a fixed identity, or that solid mass covered with layers of superficialities one has gradually to peel off before one can see its true face. “I” is, itself, infinite layers.

And if so, there is no need to limit oneself to one self. No need to find the self, in that sense that it is something concrete that got lost or covered in dust. No need to hang onto the same self that you projected when you didn’t know what that self could or ought to be. A web, infinitely built and rebuilt, not sediment. No kind of rock, precious or not.

Quotes from Woman, Native, Other.

4 Comments

Filed under Ideas, Navelgazing, PQfEW

PQfEW: Pre- and Post-colonial feminisms

Better late than never.

These quotes come from the anthology that I quoted from last week, Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. The essays are mostly descriptive – they explain and contextualize some of the ways that feminism exists in so-called Third World countries. (The term Third World is problematic, but it is frequently used by these writers to refer to any country that is struggling to develop a national government, economy, and identity in the wake of American or European colonization.) But the essays are also a little prescriptive – they are warnings or maybe even chastisements to Western feminists who make Third World oppression their business without acquainting themselves with the colonial history that led to the present state.

Reading transnational feminism is challenging for me – world history is not my strong suit, and transnational feminists frequently employ sharp theoretical criticisms as well as material narratives. But the perspective is well worth the challenge – let me know if you want me to explain or clarify anything in this sampling.

“Throughout global history, with few exceptions, women, the feminine, and figures of gender, have traditionally anchored the nationalist imaginary – that undisclosed ideological matrix of nationalist culture. For example, at some point of their historical emergence, nations and nationalisms inevitably posit and naturalize a strategic set of relationships linking land, language, history, and people to produce a crucial nexus of pivotal terms – “motherland,” “mother tongue,” historical or traditional “mother culture,” “founding fathers,” etc.- that will hold together the affective conditions, the emotive core, of nationalist ideology and pull a collection of disparate peoples into a self-identified nation.”
“Nationalism is so powerful a force in the Third World that to counter the charge if anti-nationalism – the assertion that feminism is of foreign origin and influence, and therefore implicitly or expressly anti-national – the strategic response of a Third World feminism under threat must be, and has sometimes been, to assume the nationalist mantle itself.” Geraldine Heng, “’A Great Way to Fly’: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.”
There are two important prongs to this argument. 1, sexism is often built right into the foundations of a developing nation – the metaphors Heng lists are certainly familiar, and they do reflect a pattern of figuring the nation as a female body that both nurtures/generates its citizens and requires those citizens to protect and possess it. Sometimes this weird gendering of land and people remains at the metaphorical level, but often enough it reifies a preexisting division of labor and urges the nation’s men to protect their women from the political sphere, and the women to replenish the supply of protective men. Heng quotes some staggering speechs from the Singapore prime minister along these lines. She also gives a very literal example of this appropriation of the female body for national image and ideology: the Singapore Girl, the sexy air hostess/mascot for Singapore Airlines. Publicity for SIA revolved around this sexualized, Orientalized image of a passive woman eager to provide comfort and satisfaction. This image crystallizes a number of ideological problems – the appropriated female body, the hypermasculine business world, the Westernization of the business world, without which this Orientalized icon wouldn’t have so much currency – but criticism from women’s activist groups was not successful in addressing those issues. Why? They were accused of trying to sabotage the Airline’s key to successful business – which leads to quote 2: feminism in the Third World might be seen as anti-modern when it attacks processes of development that disadvantage women, but it might also be seen as too modern as it is a product of the West.
Thus, despite all of the internal contradictions, feminism may very well take on the “mantle of nationalism” (a phrase that conjures an image of hiding underneath a big national flag, to me) in order to carry on the business of protecting women’s more immediate interests.

 

“Prevailing gender ideologies have much bearing on the types of violence that are manifested in a given context. The confinement of women to the economically dependent role of housewife is a condition that has made it difficult for many women to leave otherwise unbearably violent situations. In other words, the domestication of women is a precondition for the crime we define as domestic violence.” Amina Mama, “Sheroes and Villains.”This is a line in a larger argument about the types of oppression experienced by women in sub-Saharan African countries, and the ways in which women resist – that resistance is a huge point in each essay I read last week. The writers insist that we avoid falling into the trap of considering “other” women helplessly victimized – where there is oppression, as I said in an earlier post, there will be resistance.
But this quote jumped out because it could certainly apply to American women as well. I find the phrase “the domestication of women” particularly compelling… it sounds like the women are animals that are housetrained for practical use or enjoyment. In the instance Mama describes – the Congolese housewives hand-picked and trained to espouse the local men employed by the colonial regime there – this is not an exaggeration; one can observe vestiges of this kind of sexism in family values talk in our own political arena.

 

“To fully comprehend the struggles of native peoples, and specifically native women, we must also understand the US as an advanced colonial state, because territorial colonization remains integral to the relationship between the state and native peoples.”
“Unlike other racially subordinated groups whose relationship to the American state have been defined largely by forced exclusion, the relationships of native peoples have been predicated on practices of forced inclusion.” Marie Anna Jaimes Guerrero, “Civil Rights versus Sovereignty.”
In case you forgot, the United States began as a colony – and, although we like the heroic story of breaking off from the big mean empire, the first and continuous story is one of disenfranchising a pre-existing nation – well, a multitude of pre-existing nations. This essay describes the ways in which the United States not only rewrote the citizenship and government of the indigenous people, but also superimposed a patriarchy onto cultures that practiced various degrees of matriarchy, gender equality, or gender fluidity.
Two phrases that are useful and meaningful: I’m not completely sure what Guerrero means by advanced colonial state, but it does seem that the US is one of few colonies that has not only maintained its political control over the land and indigenous people for centuries, but is pretty successful at disabling the indigenous culture: Native Americans can choose reservation or assimilation, both of which are largely dictated by US standards. Also, forced inclusion is a succinct way of describing exactly what “assimilation” means – it is not a synonym of integration, which suggests agency and cooperation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, Ideas, PQfEW, Race

PQfEW and the price of an ethical dilemma

Which is nine dollars, if you’re curious.

I had jury duty today.  I reorganized my comp class’s readings for the prior three sessions and cancelled today’s session.  I packed two books, one of which was the source for this week’s quotes.

Curiously, I was Juror Number 1.  That meant I got to be the line leader as we marched up to the second waiting room and down to the courtroom.  In the courtroom they gave us all numbered placards, which we were to hold up if we answered “yes” to any of the judge’s questions.  Would anyone be incapable of walking down nine flights in case of an emergency?  No response.  Is anyone related or closely acquainted with the defendant, any of the lawyers, or the judge?  No response.  This is a criminal trial for multiple charges.  The primary charge is murder.  There is a chance – not a certainty, but a chance – that the jury would be asked to consider capital punishment.  Does anyone have a religious, ethical, or conscientious objection with the death penalty?

Pause.  Do you?

I mean, I have a vague distaste for the death penalty.  I think the entire justice system would benefit the community more if it focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment.  Punishment might take the criminal out of the world for a little while or for life, but it doesn’t solve the conditions that lead to crime in the first place.  That’s as far as I’ve ever gotten when reflecting on the death penalty, except in cases where I was so horrified by the scope of the crime that my gut reaction was this man does not deserve to live

But to make that call?  When someone says to you, Citizen you must look at this man who may have killed a human being.  If he did, would you object to the responsibility for killing him in return?  Quick now.

Resume.  I slowly raised my placard, as did about twenty others in the sixty of us.  I’m still not sure if that was the right answer.

Being Number 1 meant that I was first to be called into a little room, where a man asked me why I raised my placard on a question about hardship.  (The trial will probably go on for a week, and I would not be able to cancel or find a substitute for all of multiple classes.)  Then I read for a little while longer, and by 1pm I was released into the hall with a dozen or so others, and was handed a check for $9. 

Interestingly, my reading for this week had much to do with law.  I was reading the introduction to Feminist Geneaologies, Colonial Legacies, and Democratic Futures in which M Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty do more than just criticize the state of globalization and the stumbling development of transnational feminism: they describe what a real democracy might look like.  To do so, they have to dismantle some of the preconceptions of Democracy (they capitalize this intentionally) in the US is practiced. 

“The citizenship machinery is not ‘blind’ to differences; in fact, it uses a legal apparatus to transform difference into inequality.  In its efforts to remain ‘blind’ to differences in the name of equal treatment, the law often perpetuates the naturalization of heterosexuality and the production of psychic economies that conform to the dictates of the ideological superiority of the heterosexual family… on questions of homosexuality the state reneges on its promise to protect all citizens from terrorist violence.”

That’s just the first of several built-in inequalities they pick apart in this introduction.  They describe the imagined recipient of welfare as a young black female (although this is not always the case) and the consequent erasure of young black females as citizens due full rights.  Alexander and Mohanty both immigrated to America, and they have quite a bit to say about the process of gaining citizenship legally and ideologically.  (By the way, how do you love “psychic economies” as a creative way of talking about ideologies?)  But the overvaluation of the heterosexual family seems like a good place to start, since ENDA was recently revised in a way that doesn’t sufficiently protect transgendered people from workplace discrimination.

Actually, discussing how not-blind the law is makes a good connection to last week’s quotes about objectivity and who is presumed to possess it… additionally, Thinking Girl recently read an article questioning whether women and blacks could be impartial judges.

The second quote is a good one for me to remember – it’s so easy when discussing the cultures of hate in our own society (not to mention other ones!) to think of the objects of this hate as, well, objects.  And victims.  The example Mohanty likes to use is the veil… Westerners just love to go on rants about the veil and the seclusion of women in other countries, but the veil can also have significant personal and religious meaning.  The trouble is not the veil itself, but the forced choice of whether to wear it or not.  Regardless, it’s not useful to think of veiled women (or any women) as victims of the veil or their womanhood, because to do so erases the personhood right out of the picture.

“Women do not imagine themselves as victims or dependents of governing structures but as agents of theur own lives.  Agency is understood here as the conscious and ongoing reproduction of the terms of one’s existence while taking responsibility for this process.”

5 Comments

Filed under Gender, Ideas, Navelgazing, PQfEW

PQfEW: Feminist epistemology and standpoint

I’m quite late for Feminist Friday – my family was in town over the weekend.  I also only managed to cobble together two quotes and some general discussion… but that’s probably good, since the ideas are quite abstract. 

Epistemology, you probably already know, is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is, well, known. Feminist epistemology seeks to affirm women as people who can know and create knowledge – still a relevant point to make, since people still get up in front of the APA and make up theories about why women have no substantial contribution to science and culture.  (For a good rundown and smackdown on this speech, try here.)

“Vision can be good for avoiding binary oppositions. I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere. . . Vision in this technological feast [as it currently is] becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, the eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters.”
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.”
I love this article. Haraway is no Adrienne Rich, but she does have a way with words and makes a kind of poetry out of a serious critique of scientific methodology. Her overall argument in this piece is that it’s all very well and good for women to become social and natural scientists and participate in making knowledge, but it’s also important to understand how the current understanding of “making knowledge” is necessarily limited. If science seeks total, objective, and abstract knowledge, then it is ignoring its own blind spots, irrelevancies, and biases. But if one can situate one’s knowledge as originating from a particular standpoint (I’m white, female, overeducated, middle-class, etc.) then one can acknowledge one’s partial knowledge of what there is to know… and my partial knowledge is relevant and interesting but only part of a bigger picture.

 

This particular pair of quotes appear in her discussion of the obsession with vision in science. Vision is useful, she says, if we understand it as seeing from a body in a particular place. The text I omitted was a description of how science and medicine enhanced the “primate” eye, make it see further and more and differently – which is not a problem for Haraway, except when it seduces our primate brains into thinking we can see everything. This imagined omnivision is a “god trick,” a phrase she invokes frequently to characterize various scientific aspirations that ignore their human limitations.  The eye seduced into believing in its own omniscience becomes an invasive, destructive eye:  it actively and hungrily devours what it can see (c.f. “male gaze“).  The solution, then, might mean acknowledging that no single eye (naked or not) can claim true objectivity – objectivity can only be approached by conversations among multiple subjective standpoints.

“Feminist inquiry joins other ‘underclass’ approaches in insisting on the importance of ‘studying up,’ instead of ‘studying down.’ While employers have often commissioned studies of how to make workers happy with less power and pay, workers have rarely been in a position to undertake or commission studies of anything at all, let alone how to make employers happy with less power and profit. Similarly, psychiatrists have endlessly studied what they regard as women’s peculiar mental and behavioral characteristics, but women have only recently begun to study the bizarre mental and behavioural characteristics of psychiatrists.”
Sandra Harding, “Is there a Feminist Method?”

As the title of this piece suggests, Harding is attempting to answer the demand for feminism to account for itself in terms of method and methodology – there was plenty of feminist theory floating about, but how you could possibly take that seriously if it didn’t have a system? Harding, along with previously quoted women, notes that there are and should be many feminisms. There are, however, ways to characterize and systematize a feminist approach. It largely has to do with recognizing your standpoint and how it affects your worldview; it is, kind of consequentially, also about critiquing systems of power and distribution. This quote points out the recentness of this institution analysis, and makes some very striking material examples – how many centuries did philosophers and doctors explain away the weirdness of women on behalf of the women? It also points out the possible good intentions of the clueless… employers want their employees happy, obviously, because they have an investment in the labor. Likewise, people of either sex might participate in sexism and misogyny without realizing it because they don’t, of course, hate women… or at least they think they don’t… but they are nonetheless invested in systems that disadvantage or dehumanize women.

 Feel free to demand explanations or ask for more detail!

7 Comments

Filed under Gender, Ideas, PQfEW, Vision

Powerful quotes from empowered women

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:
s320x240.png

“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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, Ideas, PQfEW, Sex