Feminism is sensational.
This is the first sentence of a lecture I am due to give at a conference in Paris tomorrow on “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity.”
I want to think more of the many ways in which this sentence is true. Something might be described as “sensational” when it provokes great excitement and interest. Feminism is sensational in this sense; even if what is provocative about feminism seems to be at times what makes feminism a set of arguments that is hard to deliver. We learn about the feminist cause by the bother feminism causes! My own impression is that there is a burgeoning interest in feminism involving not only an increasing sense of the necessity of protesting against violence against women, against how poverty or the cuts in public spending disproportionately affect women, a revival of feminist marching, but also an increasing interest in some “older” feminist concepts and vocabularies, ones that might have been assumed to have become less relevant, even dated. Feminist intellectual histories can be a resource for the present, which might be why one of our tasks as feminists is to keep feminism alive as a sensational form of politics.
I am thinking of sensational in other senses. Becoming a feminist might begin with an experience you have that gives you a sense of injustice, a feeling that something is wrong or a feeling of being wronged. As you search for an understanding, of why for instance being a girl is about what you cannot do, where you cannot go, you begin to identify patterns and regularities. That sense of injustice becomes more and more sensible, as you acquire knowledge and understanding. I think what I found so hopeful about teaching Women’s Studies was exactly this: sharing in this process of sense making. Students often said to me what they hoped for from Women’s Studies was an ability to turn their sense of injustice into arguments that they could present to others.
Feminism: making sense. I have been thinking back to my own experiences growing up, of the ways in which as a young woman I was taught to expect certain kinds of unwanted male attention. I think of how wearing that was: how it taught me to make myself smaller; to try not to appear. I think one of most politicizing moments, when my anxiety about this unwanted attention turned into anger, was when I was back safely at home, watching the cricket on television. Every time a woman passed the score board, the guys below the board would put up a number, 1-10. There would be a roar and a cheer from the crowd whenever there was a 10. And somehow I “got it,” how sexism works as a system that generated alignments; the camera work that meant the audience at home would participate in that moment, that judging of women by their appearance. Anyone who protested would of course become killjoys, getting in the way of the innocent enjoyment of others.
Many years later when I would read feminist film theory, and think about how the camera takes on the male gaze, I would have access to a set of terms that would help explain the processes I had begun to recognize. But it was the moment of “seeing” these incidents as a set of processes (a woman seeing how the world is aligned to render the woman as seen) that was the radical moment for me.
Feminism makes sense. I think one of the reasons I find the project “everyday sexism” so compelling is how it shows how the cataloguing of instances of sexism can be a collective project: http://everydaysexism.com/.
The project involves the creation of a space in which we can insert our own individual experience of sexism, so that we show what we know: that this or that incident is not isolated but part of a social structure; that what’s happens to me, over and over again, happens to others. And you learn from that, what that repetition does; you realise how you learned to take up less space. That sense of injustice becomes energetic; feminism as the movement of consciousness, a movement to consciousness. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices, because actually we had been taught to over-look so much; we are taught not to notice what happens right in front of us. I think that there can be nothing more challenging and potentially world shattering than the recognition or consciousness of structure. Structures are reproduced by the very techniques that stop us from recognizing them.
This is why I think the terms “sexism” and “racism” are both so important, as willful words: words that get in the way, that go the wrong way; words that are heard as stubborn and obstinate. The words themselves become pointed; because they do point out social phenomena that many are invested in not recognizing as phenomena, as such recognition would get in the way of how they can occupy space, of their right to act as they do.
If there is increasing use of the term “sexism” within feminist public culture (and of course we should also note that this “increasing” might be a measure of the extent of the recession of that term: and if feminists are using the term it does not mean it will be picked up), I would say that it is not exercised as much as you might expect within feminist theory in the academy today. I learnt so much from the critiques of how sexism is structural to disciplines. And we still need to make these critiques! But if anything there has been a shift to a more affirmative feminism within gender studies, though I would not present this shift as universal. I alluded to some of the reasons for this relative absence of concern with sexism within feminist theory in my previous blog post. The word “sexism” I think tends to be heard not only as dated but also as negative; as if pointing out sexism is to be lodged endlessly into the mode of negative critique, and as if pointing out sexism is what would stop us engaging more affirmatively and creatively with intellectual traditions.
I think it will me some take time to track how this differentiation of an affirmative feminism from a feminism concerned with sexism happened. But let me offer some preliminary thoughts. Elizabeth Grosz suggests in an article published as early as 1990 that:
“Feminist theory must always function in two directions if it is effectively challenge patriarchal knowledges. On the one hand, it must engage in what could be called a negative or reactive project of challenging what currently exists, or criticizing prevailing social, political, and theoretical relations. Without this negative or anti-sexist goal, feminist theory remains unanchored in and unrelated to the socio-theoretical status quo. It risks repeating the problems of the past, especially patriarchal assumptions, without recognising them as such. But if it remains simply reactive, simply a critique, it ultimately affirms the theories it wishes to move beyond. It necessarily remains on the ground it aims to contest. (1)
Now here Grosz is arguing very clearly that feminism needs to operate in both directions; feminism does need to engage with the work of critique, it does need to have an anti-sexist agenda, and it also needs to affirm alternatives. Indeed there is an implication, that without alternatives, critiques themselves become ways of reproducing what is critiqued. I can understand this position; and indeed I have learned from Grosz’s inventive and affirmative readings over many years. But I want to ask: what if the process of coming to better understandings of sexism, how it works, how it get reproduced through institutions, is actually creative? What if thinking of sexism as something to be explained gives us the resources to rethink the world as such? In other words, what if understanding sexism is first philosophy because it shows up in what philosophy begins with right from the beginning? What if being “anti-sexist” is an affirmative gesture because of the ground it refuses to leave? It might be that remaining on this ground is how we can disturb that ground.
I am always interested in words, and one of my own tendencies to follow them around (I called this method of following words “an ethnography of words” in On Being Included, with specific reference to the mobility required to follow super mobile words such as diversity, in and out of documents, in and out of meetings). The word that catches my attention in this paragraph is “reactive,” which is used twice, the first time coupled with “negative.” That word “reactive” is often heard as negative: and it is one of the words that surrounds the feminist killjoy (she, we, are surrounded by words!). You are assumed to be reactive, or more often, more usually, “over-reacting,” when you question something, comment on something. Action and reaction is often aligned with active and passive, one of the most gendered of distinctions. In my chapter, “Feminist Attachments” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I questioned the uses of the action/reaction distinction (which tends to be distributed in bodies): “I would argue that a politics which acts without reaction is impossible: such a possibility depends on the erasure and concealment of histories that come before the subject. There is no pure or originary action which is outside such a history of ‘reaction’, whereby bodies come to be ‘impressed upon’ by the surfaces of others”. I want to make the argument more strongly now: our reactions to worlds, how we are affected by worlds, are forms of knowledge that re-orientate our relation to those worlds. A reaction might even seem like an “over-reaction” precisely given the walls of perception; sometimes you have to become insistent just to get through. Perhaps creativity is possible in how we come up against what we come up against.
I think any implication that critique itself is “simply negative,” or a way of being stuck in the past could be opened to question. Feminism might be most creative when it attempts to explain how the past is reproduced in the present. Can we as feminist theorists begin to think of sexism as “philosophically interesting” not only as something that explains phenomena but as what we need to explain? It is a sensational question.
Feminism is sensational: it is a becoming alive to the world in our reactions to worlds.
Feminist killjoys: over-react! As ever, a negative judgment can be transformed into a rebellious command.
(1). Elizabeth Grosz (1990). “Contemporary Theories of Power and Subjectivity” in Sneja Gunew (ed). Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct. Routledge: London.