Feminist Wonder

In the last week I have been working on a chapter, “Feminism is Sensational,” the opening chapter of Living a Feminist Life. It is an extension, elaboration of a blog post that shared the same title. And I have been thinking more about feminist hurt: how the histories that leave us fragile are often the histories that bring us to feminism.

As I have been working on this chapter, though, I have realised: whilst feminism can hurt, whilst feminism can make us even more aware of what hurts, this does not account for, or fully account for, how I feel about feminism. When I think about feminism, I also feel hopeful, often despite the enormity of what we come up against, those walls, those hardenings of history. My chapter, “Feminism is Sensational,” has thus become something more like an existential account of becoming a feminist. I am interested in how consciousness of gender (say, as a way of directing human traffic) can be a world consciousness that can leave us shattered. But shattering is also what enables us to become alive to possibility. Becoming feminist can inject life into a world by allowing you to recognise not only that things acquire shape over time, but that this shape is not necessary or inevitable; that possibilities are not always lost, even when we have given them up.

And it was rather odd, because I realised I have written about this, like this, before. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) I wrote about wonder as a key feminist emotion (alongside hope and anger). Let me share a few paragraphs from that text (from pp. 180-183):

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My relationship to feminism has never felt like one of negation: it has never been reducible to the feelings of pain, anger or rage, which have nevertheless, at times, given my politics a sense of urgency. It has felt like something more creative, something that responds to the world with joy and care, as well as with an attention to details that are surprising. Descartes’ Passions of the Soul describes “wonder” as the first and primary emotion, as it is about being surprised by that which is before us (Descartes 1985: 350). As he elaborates:

When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished at it. Since all this may happen before we know whether or not the object is beneficial to us, I regard wonder as the first of all the passions.(Descartes 1985: 350).

Wonder here seems premised on “firstness”: the object that appears before the subject is encountered for the first time, or as if for the first time. It is hence a departure from ordinary experience; or, by implication, the ordinary is not experienced or felt at all. We can relate this non-feeling of ordinariness to the feeling of comfort, as a feeling that one does not feel oneself feel. What is ordinary, familiar or usual often resists being perceived by consciousness. It becomes taken for granted, as the background that we do not even notice, and which allows objects to stand out or stand apart. Wonder is an encounter with an object that one does not recognise; or wonder works to transform the ordinary, which is already recognised, into the extraordinary. As such, wonder expands our field of vision and touch. Wonder is the pre-condition of the exposure of the subject to the world: we wonder when we are moved by that which we face.

So wonder, as an affective relation to the world, is about seeing the world that one faces and is faced with “as if” for the first time. What is the status of the “as if”? Does such an impulse to wonder require an erasure of history, by forgetting that one has seen the world before, or even that the world pre-cedes the impulse to wonder? It could be assumed that the “as if” functions as a radical form of subjectivism, in which the subject forgets all that has taken place before a given moment of contemplation. But I would suggest that wonder allows us to see the surfaces of the world as made, and as such wonder opens up rather than suspends historicity. Historicity is what is concealed by the transformation of the world into “the ordinary,” into something that is already familiar, or recognisable. The ordinariness of the world is an effect of reification, as Marx has shown us. I would describe Marxism as a philosophy of wonder: what appear before consciousness, as objects of perception, are not simply given, but are effects of history: “Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse” (Marx and Engels 1965: 57).

The surprise of wonder is crucial to how it moves bodies. Luce Irigaray emphasises this relation between wonder and movement: ‘Wonder is the motivating force behind mobility in all its dimensions’ (Irigaray 1993: 73). Sometimes how we feel and what we think is contained within the reproduction of the ordinary. Nothing noticeable happens, and repetition, while it creates desire, sometimes just goes on and on. But then something happens, which is out of the ordinary – and hence a relation to the ordinary – and that something surprises us. The philosophical literature on wonder has not focused on wonder as a corporeal experience, largely because it has been associated with the sublime and the sacred, as an affect that we might imagine leaves the materiality of the body behind. But for me the expansion of wonder is bodily (see Midgley 1989). The body opens as the world opens up before it; the body unfolds into the unfolding of a world that becomes approached as another body. This opening is not without its risks: wonder can be closed down if what we approach is unwelcome, or undoes the promise of that opening up. But wonder is a passion that motivates the desire to keep looking; it keeps alive the possibility of freshness, and vitality of a living that can live as if for the first time. This first-time-ness of wonder is not the radical present – a moment that is liveable only insofar as it is cut off from prior acts of perception. Rather, wonder involves the radicalisation of our relation to the past, which is transformed into that which lives and breathes in the present.

Wonder is what brought me to feminism; what gave me the capacity to name myself as a feminist. Certainly, when I first came into contact with feminism, and began to read my own life and the lives of others differently, everything became surprising. At the time, this felt like moving out of false consciousness, though now I see that I was not moving into the truth as such, but just towards a way of understanding that explained things better. I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time, and that all that I took for granted as given – as a question of the way things are – had come to be over time, and was contingent. It is through wonder that pain and anger come to life, as wonder allows us to realise that what hurts, and what causes pain, and what we feel is wrong, is not necessary, and can be unmade as well as made. Wonder energises the hope of transformation, and the will for politics.

No wonder, wonder is key to feminist pedagogy. In the Women’s Studies classroom, students might respond firstly with a sense of assurance (“This is the way the world is”), then with disbelief (“How can the world be like this?”) and towards a sense of wonder (“How did the world come to take this shape?”). The critical wonder that feminism involves is about the troubling effect of certain questions: questions like “How has the world taken the shape that it has?”, but also “Why is it that power relations are so difficult to transform?”, “What does it mean to be invested in the conditions of subordination as well as dominance?” and so on.

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Moving forward, Queer Phenomenology (2006) ended its discussion of disorientation and queer objects with a discussion of wonder (from pp 162-164):

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Think of Sartre’s novel Nausea (1963). A rather queer novel, I would say, in the sense that it is a novel about “things” becoming oblique. Nausea could be described as a phenomenological description of disorientation, of a man losing his grip on the world. What is striking about this novel is how much the loss of grip is directed towards objects that gather around the narrator, a writer, as objects that come to “disturb” rather than extend human action. The narrator begins with the desire to describe such objects, and how they are given and arranged, as a way of describing queer effects: “I must say how I see this table, the street, people, my packet of tobacco, since these are the things which have changed” (Sartre 1963: 9). Here again, the table appears, it even comes first, as a sign of the orientation of writing. To write a story of disorientation begins with the table becoming queer. It is the things around him, gathered in the way that they are (as a horizon around the body, and the objects that are near enough, including the table), which reveal the disorientation in the order of things.

Disorientation could be described here as the “becoming oblique” of the world, a becoming which is at once interior and exterior, as that which is given, or as that which gives what is given its new angle. Whether the strangeness is in the object or in the body that is near the object remains a crucial question. It seems first that it is “him” that is disorientated, that “things” have “slipped away” because he is slipping away, or “losing his mind.” If objects are extensions of bodies, just as bodies are incorporations of objects, how we can locate the queer moment in one or the other? Later in the novel, the “inside” and “outside” do not stay in place: “The Nausea isn’t inside me: I can feel it over there on the wall, on the braces, everywhere around me. It is one with the café, it is I who am inside it.” (Sartre 1963: 35) Things become queer precisely given how bodies are touched by objects, or by “something” that happens, where what is “over there” is also “in here,” or even what I am in. The story moves on:

Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all….There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don’t know. Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding a doorknob (Sartre 1963: 13).

We begin with the “me” as the place where something happens, a little strangeness, awkwardness that emerges over time, as if with a life of its own. The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are the “point” where my hands meet with objects: where they cease to be apart; where they pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and the objects that it is near is also what brings those objects to life, and makes them dance. So “the doorknob” when it is being what it is there to do (allowing us to open the door) is that – is even “just that.” But when the door knob is felt as something other than what is it supposed to do, then it comes to have a tangible, sensuous quality, as a “cold object,” even one with a “personality.”

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I have been thinking more about feminist consciousness in relation to how objects come to life. Some objects that are gathered are gatherings of history (domesticated objects, such as doorknobs, pens, knives, and forks, but also tables, no wonder, no wonder I love tables) are in a certain way overlooked. Seeing such objects as if for the first time allows objects to breathe not through a forgetting of their history, but by allowing this history to come alive. Put another way: to re-encounter objects as strange things is not to lose sight of the history, but to refuse to make them history by losing sight. Such wonder directed at the objects that we face, as well as those that are behind us, does not involve bracketing out the familiar, but allows the familiar to dance with life.

Maybe in this chapter, I can write about feminism as a form of astonishment: a way of being struck or of finding the world striking.

We would not only be reflecting on the affinity that feminists might have with objects (we learn this from how women can be treated “like furniture” that is, by how women can be put into the background, or become things to be polished, shiny) though we might reflect on this. And we would not only be talking about astonishment in terms of positive feeling, or as the grasping of possibilities in advance of their loss, though we might talk of this. We would also be thinking of affinities between a body and things when a life is not working. When a body is not attuned to a world, things come into view that might otherwise be hidden. Usually affinity is thought in terms of attunement. But when we are not attuned, when things are not running smoothly, things can come alive. We can be struck by things. I am suggesting here a feminist affinity is possible in this moment of being struck or of striking; a quality can thus be shared at the very moment a body and a thing are not attuned. I need to do more work to explain what I mean here. I know what I mean here; but I need to do more work to explain!

In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I reflected on how domestic objects seem to acquire a life of their own, becoming menacing. (from pp.76-78)

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Take the film The Hours, based on Michael’s Cunningham’s novel, The Hours (1999, dir. Stephen Daldry), which takes its name from Virginia Woolf’s original name for Mrs. Dalloway (for a discussion of this novel see here). The Hours places three generations of women alongside each other, and follows their life on a single day: we have a fictionalized account of a day in the life of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) an unhappy housewife living in the 1950s as she bakes a cake and reads Mrs. Dalloway, and of Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) who is organizing a party like Mrs. Dalloway, this time for her ex-lover and friend Richard (Ed Harris), who is dieing of Aids.

I want to focus in particular on Laura Brown our unhappy housewife in the 1950s. It is a day, one day. It is her husband’s birthday; but Laura wants to stay in bed with the book; we imagine that she wants to be in bed with Virginia. Later, when her husband has gone, her friend Kitty arrives and asks her about the book. Laura talks of Mrs. Dalloway, as if she was co-present; as if she shared the same space, the same world. She says of Mrs Dalloway, “because she is confident everyone thinks she is fine. But she isn’t.” The story of Mrs. Dalloway becomes Laura’s description of her own present, what surrounds her, her life world. She identifies with Mrs. Dalloway through suffering, by sharing her grief, as a grief that is not revealed, as if to say: like you, I am not fine, like you, my life is about maintaining the appearance of being fine, an appearance which is also a disappearance.

What happens when domestic bliss does not create bliss? Laura tries to bake a cake. She cracks an egg. The cracking of the egg becomes a common gesture throughout the film, connecting the domestic labour of women over time. To bake a cake ought to be a happy object, a labour of love. Instead, the film reveals a sense of oppression that lingers in the very act of breaking the eggs. Not only do such objects not cause your happiness, but they may remind you of your failure to be made happy; they embody a feeling of disappointment. The bowl in which you crack the eggs waits for you. You can feel the pressure of its wait. The empty bowl feels like an accusation. Feminist archives are full of scenes of domesticity, in which domestic objects, become menacing.

In one very poignant scene in The Hours, when Laura’s family gathers around the table, having their own party with the cake she has finally baked, the promise of happiness is evoked. Her husband is telling their child the story of how they met. He says: “I used to think about bringing her to this house. To a life, pretty much like this. And it was the thought of the happiness, the thought of this woman, the thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea about our happiness.”

As he speaks, tears well in Laura’s face. Her sadness is with his idea of happiness, with what keeps him going, and the world it creates for her. Laura explains at the end of the film how she came to leave her husband and child: “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it; it would be easy. But what does it mean. What does it mean to regret when you had no choice. It is what you can bear. There it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I choose life.” A life premised on “an idea about our happiness,” for Laura, would be unbearable. Such happiness would be death. She does not leave this life for happiness. She leaves this happiness for life.

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The empty bowl that feels like an accusation can be the beginning of a feminist life. A feminist life can be how we get in touch with things. How astonishing.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2004, 2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

———— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

———— (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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One Response to Feminist Wonder

  1. Black Steve says:

    Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston have a fantastic book on wonder that might be worth checking out. In some ways it’s a straight up science studies/history of science text, but it also rigorously surveys how wonder as an affect and as an embodiment of affect (in objects) has been differently understood throughout history. One of the most useful insights for me was how wonder was variously tied to and uncoupled from a range of moral regimes. For instance, at different points wonder was seen as anti-intellectual, base and even blasphemous. I imagine that you could argue that in our age, some of those views are actually attached to feminist wonder by anti-feminists.

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