I started rereading Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (2017) last week with a group of friends and colleagues. We’ll all be working through it through July and August. During our very first discussion on the book’s introduction, a friend raised an issue that struck and stuck with me: namely, that the questions Ahmed asks her readers feel exciting and arresting. After all, they are not, typically, the kind of questions we might be used to asking when teaching students about feminism as a historical / political movement or feminism as an interpretive framework (i.e., as a “literary” theory).
Questions like, “where did we find feminism, or where did feminism find us? . . . From whom did I find feminism?” (4).
These questions, my friend stated, are hard questions. Really hard.
I’ve been thinking about my friend’s comment all week. A lot. For all the times I’ve thought, taught, and discussed Living a Feminist Life over these past two years, it never struck me that these are difficult questions. Why not? Continue reading
Yesterday, South Dakota State University hosted “Day One” of The Space Between Society’s annual conference. The theme this year is “Staging the Space Between” (organized by Nicole Flynn).
The first three sessions / ten presentations covered a wide range of research areas and topics: from a popular French television drama (Un village français) to the ethnographic (covertly / subversively signifying) stagings of der Nister to “A Brief History of Invisible Ventriloquism” to Kazimir Malevich’s antedated paintings to the 1938 landmark abortion rights case Rex v. Bourne to Priestley’s Time and the Conways (1937), Marion Craig Wentworth’s War Brides (1915), Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918), T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), and Willa Cather’s My Àntonia (1918).
Amazing presentations. All of them.
Excepting the final three texts listed here (by West, Eliot, and Cather), almost all of this material was new to me, and I came away not only learning a whole bunch but feeling like I needed to spend the next morning looking back over my notes in order to formulate (even if just for myself) a few questions. These questions tend to respond to patterns I drew among the presentations, so they may not be terribly pressing to the individual researchers. But I record them here as a way, at the very least, to create some kind of artifact of their collective thinking.
How do appeals to accuracy / authenticity work? Are they useful frameworks for staging the hostility and/or collaboration between realism and modernism (both of which claim, in a sense, to be more accurate or more authentic than the other)?
What are we (or others) asking or looking for when we (or they) want a story of a life (or lives) to fit these categories or criteria (i.e., accurate or authentic or [sur]real)?
Related Comment / Question: Across several of these presentations, the “ruse” or “charade” intersected with (or quite literally became) a strategy of refusal or survival (or play). These strategies also entailed various degrees of risk or reward (even entertainment). Can we say, then, in response to modernists who critiqued realist drama for its purported fakery: yes, that’s sometimes the point?
And can we say the same thing in response to those who criticize modernists for distorting reality? Where, then, does that leave us re: the opposition / dialectic between realism and modernism?
Layne Parish Craig gave a compelling presentation on Wentworth’s War Brides, challenging us to see it and the discourse around its performances as a way to think more sympathetically (not the right word) about withholding sex from men as a (feminist) political tool or strategy. Indeed, in the course of her talk, withholding sex from men also fit in a larger framework of feminist political strategies:
a. refusals to take back husbands who had fought in war (killing other husbands / sons) b. refusals to open drawing rooms to returning soldiers c. refusals to bear sons (who would potentially be drafted into future war efforts)
I forget the context in which Craig presented us with these three strategies (only three among many), but I’m drawn to them because they present us with a sociopolitical framework seems to me more radical than a sex strike. Indeed, to refuse to take back husbands seems to entail the refusal of a form of heteronormative conviviality or a form of flourishing that is toxically complicit in the impulse to war. The refusal to open a drawing room dovetails with Woolf’s tale of killing the Angel in the House in “Professions for Women” (a cluster of domestic norms and duties, asymmetrical moral obligations and attentions, etc.). The refusal of sex (and thus reproduction) then fits into a broad activist threat to several normative futures: the future of war, of family, of public/private organization, etc., etc., etc.
Can we say, then, that there’s something queer (in the broad sense of refusing normative forms reproduction and family life) in this radical feministstrategy?If so, how do we think about it in relation to Aimee Wilson’s work on “Queer Pregnancy” in Cather’s novel—on the particular intersection of masculinity and pregnancy (which seem to cut against the Edelmanian refusal of reproductive futures)?
Neither a question or comment, but an imperative: check out Lesley Hall’s incredible resource, Literary Abortion.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name; Continue reading
1. Did you poop in there? 2. Are you a “Mister Man”? 3. Speaking as Cat:I need two hue-mons. 4. I’m not going in the basement. 5. Come cuddle with me. 6. Stop yelling at me. 7. Speaking as Cat: Hue-mon, I need that fish. 8. Speaking as Cat: Hue-mons don’t do the things. 9. Speaking as Cat: I could murder you a little bit. 10. Singing to the Cat: You are fierce. / You are tough. / Doing things. / Killing stuff. 11. As Cat Bites and Gnaws My Arm: I thought we were friends! 12. Are you a “Buster Brown”? [My cat is white.] 13. Do you want to go in the sump pump? 14. Do you want to drink that squirrel? 15. Speaking as Cat: I’m gonna lick that spinach. 16. Speaking as Cat: I’m gonna get this water a little bit. 17. I’m not going to turn the TV on! [Translation: I will not open the front door.] 18. Such a buddy. Was that good dinner? 19. Such a friend. 20. Speaking as Cat: I need to put this humon to bed. Continue reading
Still, some things I pondered this morning after reading Lisa Duggan’s Bully Blogger post (from 18 Aug) on the Ronell / Reitmar case:
(1) We shouldn’t forget the rhetorical situation of the academic letter penned in support of Avital Ronell. It uses forms of persuasion fitted for administrators and their concerns. This doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of the letter, its writers, or its language (especially its premature judgment of Nimrod Reitmar), but it is not an insignificant point.
(2) There is a longer history that is easy to dismiss or forget when rehearsing our general rules and axioms for teacher / student relationships (e.g., keep it professional, etc.). Histories, for instance, of queer / trans / nonwhite survival and kinship—histories in which the classroom became and becomes a place where some human beings found / find resources for living and flourishing, sometimes through language and community and behavior and forms of life that can appear to normative / normalizing eyes as strange, odd, twisted, bent, eccentric. Queer. Non-normative. These histories should not be an alibi for abuse or for the foreclosure of the futures of the young, of course. But they are contexts we should keep in mind and learn to honor nevertheless. We in the humanities are supposed to be sensitive to contexts in general (and to these contexts of survival and kinship in particular).
(3) All analyses miss things. #MeToo might be “one part feminist social justice movement” and “one part neoliberal publicity stunt” (as Duggan puts it). But this socio-phenomenal force is also more than the sum of these two components. For young students (especially queer and trans students) outraged by Duggan’s post, Halberstam’s RT’ing of it, and Butler’s recent editorial (which did not offer an apology to the complainant but did apologize to the MLA) something more seems to be going on. This something might be generational (the young asking those of us with institutionally-validated authority to reconsider what we are reproducing and how we might teach / advise / supervise differently). Learning to hear this rage and these gestures of revolt clearly seems like it should be part of the structural analysis Duggan calls for. Yet her post seems to dismiss or to neglect the rage of the young—as if one must push their concerns aside in order to do the serious work of cultural analysis. (Should we read their rage as symptoms of a wider “sex panic”?)
(4) While I have been calling for an evaluation of structures of harm that graduate education reproduces, I think it is also wise to interrogate our judgments of Ronell herself—and of Reitmar. After all, for some people it is quite easy to pin the case on the failings of Critical Theory. Or the Academic Left. It is also quite easy for some people to pin the case on the failures of Feminism. Or Queer Politics. How sure are we (no matter our stated political and ethical positions) that we aren’t reproducing misogyny and homophobia in our (purportedly progressive) judgments? How would we even know?
(5) I don’t yet know what to say about Duggan’s intervention here re: confidentiality. I’m suspicious of institutions and the impulse to encode and regulate permissive behavior in our legal system. I’ve learned this from great teachers and theorists and scholars. But my gut also tells me that she overstates Ronell’s position of powerlessness and downplays the powerlessness of the advisee. But then again—am I right? Who needs protecting from whom here? Do both need protection? Where is the best place to locate and develop procedures for “a restorative justice process”? Have we too quickly internalized a sense of carceral and punitive right(eous)ness?
(6) I’m still really mad at Jonathan Culler and Slavoj Zizek. Perhaps it’s safe to focus my anger here.
(7) I think we have a lot to learn from our students about pedagogical resistance and need and revision and care and caution.
(8) I feel like I don’t know anything.
(9) Someday I’ll teach Butler’s apology to the MLA beside The Psychic Life of Power (1997).
This week begins the Fall 2018 semester, and I am tasked with leading a group of 20 students through a course in Literary Criticism. Half of them are graduate students. I enjoy these courses a great deal, because I’m fascinated by the critical history of my field. I enjoy reading essays by Cleanth Brooks, revisiting the promises of reader response criticism, dwelling in the still captivating work of Roland Barthes, learning (anew) the interventions of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Smith, Barbara H. Smith, and on, and on. I even like puzzling out Lacan’s seminars as well as the many critiques of psychoanalysis that have multiplied over the years.
But today I enter a new classroom, and I’m faced with the potential consequences of assigning Jonathan Culler’s A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory after also having read this morning his comments in this LARB blog post. In response to a question of whether or not he regretted signing a letter sent to NYU in support of Ronell (a letter that also included the signatures of Butler, Spivak, Emily Apter, and many more), especially after hearing of the evidence presented in the New York Times, Culler writes,
Jon Wiener, author of the blogpost linked above, continues, “[Culler] accepted [Ronell’s] defense that Nimrod ‘reciprocated,’ and pointed out that if Nimrod had been ‘upset’ by the emails, ‘he could have chosen to work with someone else’—which indeed often happens with grad students.” I really can’t fathom this response.
Honestly, I can’t.
How do I square the perceptive analyses of Culler with the human being saying these things?
I’m not judging the impulse to support a friend.
I would probably want to do the same.
But I do judge the stupidity of Culler’s proposed solution.
And I do judge him for his refusal to see that (the appearance of) reciprocity is not always (probably usually isn’t) a sign of equality.
There are many lessons to learn here, and I continue learning a great deal as I read the reactions of my friends and my colleagues to this case.
But today I want to be open with my students about this case. I want them to know that the humanities are better than this—that scholars and teachers who almost never find their name in newspapers or who do not have high honorarium expectations when they travel or present their work (but who are rockstar researchers all the same) are here at the University of South Dakota—ready to listen to, to teach, to guide, to honor, and to learn from them and their work.
AND what is Life?—An hour-glass on the run, A mist retreating from the morning sun, A busy, bustling, still repeated dream.— Its length?—A minute’s pause, a moment’s thought. And happiness?—A bubble on the stream, That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.
What is vain Hope?—The puffing gale of morn, That robs each flow’ret of its gem,—and dies; A cobweb hiding disappointment’s thorn, Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.
—And thou, O Trouble?—nothing can suppose (And sure the Power of Wisdom only knows), What need requireth thee: So free and liberal as thy bounty flows, Some necessary cause must surely be. But disappointments, pains, and every woe Devoted wretches feel, The universal plagues of life below, Are mysteries still ’neath Fate’s unbroken seal.
And what is Death? is still the cause unfound? That dark, mysterious name of horrid sound?— A long and lingering sleep, the weary crave. And Peace? where can its happiness abound?— No where at all, save heaven, and the grave.
Then what is Life?—When stripp’d of its disguise, A thing to be desir’d it cannot be; Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes Gives proof sufficient of its vanity. ’Tis but a trial all must undergo; To teach unthankful mortals how to prize That happiness vain man’s denied to know, Until he’s call’d to claim it in the skies.