BY CHRISTINA CHALMERS, ROSE-ANNE GUSH, HANNAH PROCTOR AND AMY TOBIN.
Along history, forever
some woman dancing,
making shapes on the air;
forever a man
riding a good horse,
sitting the dark horse well,
his penis erect with
Muriel Rukeyser, ‘Along History’
When discussing the basis for this paper as a group we had trouble working through the problem of the ‘surface-level’ understandings of feminism, present meanings which barely skim the problems faced by many different groups of women and non-binary people today. When I think about feminist method I think about what feminism means: how its meaning has changed and how it now seems to roam around as an empty signifier or a lifestyle choice or mere discourse. There is a continuum of feminist events in the academy and the art world. This paper was written for one of them. While I am not against these events happening I also feel frustrated with the ways in which ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist art’ get called upon as fetishes and timely career boosting exercises. Is it just that it is in fashion? What content does it have, a surface with no depth? Has feminism lost its content and been reduced to discourse, action to appearance of action without consequence?
Our subject was our historical present, and the specificities of feminist struggles today. Could we point precisely to present struggles? Could we break away from the cynicism that confines generalised ‘feminism’ to this meaningless sheen, re-radicalising it? The temptation when looking to earlier periods of feminist struggles, groups and aesthetics, is to relativise their radicalism. The ‘re-’ of any reconstruction is always the action of a transplantation, severing a beating heart and re-sealing the arteries in a body that doesn’t fit. The 1970s were not just more ‘radical’, as some say, but were perhaps a ‘worse’ period for women? Women had more to fight for, perhaps? Reproductive rights? So-called ‘equal pay’? Anti-discrimination laws? Better attitudes towards housework (‘the new man’? A New man?)? None of us really believed this, yet found ourselves at a loss to pinpoint the hurts of our current condition, precisely, following the wounds. We nonetheless, unintentionally, unconsciously, see ourselves as having ‘progressed’ towards a better condition for women, despite much evidence to the contrary, including the worsening of rights and patriarchal retrenchment. It becomes harder to name the symptoms of distress, harder to name causes and differences. In that case, is ‘re-trenchment’ the correct name for this process?
The night after I wrote this, I dreamt we were a pack of women with knives, trying in panic to defend ourselves. It was a sign of our degeneracy if we had been wounded ourselves, gashes had to be hidden or we would become targetable, doubly. Who made the original cuts? One of us sat with a blanket around her neck, protecting a cut at the nape.
The things I’ve written about gender mostly cite the patriarchal canon. Yesterday I went to a reading, which was all revenge fantasies about killing men, more specifically male artists. It was an attack on canons and their reproduction. I hated it not because I don’t also hate those canons in some way, but because it seemed incapable of acknowledging what it really means or feels like to live in a patriarchal world. It didn’t acknowledge that revenge might also be wounding.
I have thought with friends explicitly and obliquely about the ways in which canons are constructed and maintained. We wanted to think about how women/female figures are written about and where they sit in the personal “canons” of our male friends, lovers, comrades and teachers. If the canon marks a rule or a standard, and is by definition based on an exclusionary principle for critically assessing taste - it also stands in for mythological values of truth and beauty held in place by masculine preferences.
I want to ask: how can we be consequential, intervene in, and act to transform the canon, rather than leaving it unscathed by merely ignoring it or attempting to step outside of it? What kinds of practices do we need to do this and where might they happen? Can they occur in the academy under its current industrialised conditions? Can we find an outside or should we consider that ‘[f]reedom from the economy is nothing else than economic freedom and remains restricted to a small amount of people and as a luxury.’
In practices undertaken in the name of feminism, I’m caught between the desire for vengeance and the suspicion of vengeance. What will vengeance leave me/us with? What will the mark of my rage do to the object of my anger? I have fought against vengeance and blindness, and I have tried not to be blinded in that process.
We had wanted to write against ‘re-constructive’ technique, or attempts by modern-day feminists to reconstruct experiences of past feminist struggles and aesthetics. For me this was out of an attempt to criticise methods of canon-re-formation, and feminist figuring, feminist posturing, which wanted to find women in a past they did not formally or recognisably already exist within. Work to reconstruct a history of women’s poetry, for example. Historical women are to activate a presence that is lacking in animation, gathered around the folds of historical costume. The argument was against the individualising tendencies of these lineages, and the way they were supposed uncomplicatedly to parallel a male lineage, different but equal in importance. To recognise the status of aesthetic conditions as much as achievements.
46—Fine art is the art of genius
Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as an innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may put it this way: Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.
Whatever may be the merits of this definition, and whether it is merely arbitrary, or whether it is adequate or not to the concept usually associated with the word genius […], it may still be shown at the outset that, according to this acceptation of the word, fine arts must necessarily be regarded as arts of genius… it may be seen that genius (1) is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given, and not an aptitude in the way of cleverness for what can be learned according to some rule; and that consequently originality must be its primary property. (2) Since there may also be original nonsense, its products must at the same time be models, i.e., be exemplary; and, consequently, though not themselves derived from imitation, they must serve that purpose for others, i.e., as a standard or rule of estimating. (3) It cannot indicate scientifically how it brings about its product, but rather gives the rule as nature. Hence, where an author owes a product to his genius, he does not himself know how the ideas for it have entered into his head, nor has he it in his power to invent the like at pleasure, or methodically, and communicate the same to others in such precepts as would put them in a position to produce similar products. (Hence, presumably, our word Genie is derived from genius, as the peculiar guardian and guiding spirit given to a man at his birth, by the inspiration of which those original ideas were obtained.) (4) Nature prescribes the rule through genius not to science but to art, and this also only in so far as it is to be fine art.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
I was thinking of things that hover just outside, perhaps tethered to Man, or constructing the link or relation between Man and nature, Man and culture. This thing seems to be amorphous, or everything other than the rule, the structure, the system, the cypher. Perhaps it gets trampled down by these things. By other relations that weigh heavier like a chain. Or series of chains, some rendered in filigree and others thick iron links, thicker than a wrist, an arm or a neck. And perhaps these chains are woven with ribbon, or made of flowers. Perhaps they carry medallions or medals, perhaps a locket or a pendant. And so they don’t always (just) weigh down, they divide, contain or tug in different directions. Now I wonder about their tensile strength though, because although we all carry the weight and are steered this way and that – physically and psychically – our wanderings look more itinerant, our climbs more ascendant and our pathways covered with a mysteriously welcoming fog. But I’m speaking of a feeling I once had, but no longer do. It has all cleared and now I see that the mountains, and the bonds and cords I wear are the supports and constraints that accompany the trek. The compass works but it doesn’t mean anything, because there is no forward or back. Sometimes it feels like fragments and detritus gather behind our wings, I know, but then it’s punctured by the grossest deceit or violent attack on one of our body. We might feel the pull, but we don’t know it and it’s difficult to find the right tension between the different ties that bind and hold us.
The fabric of existence, though, holds us together fast. And now I’m struggling with corralling the metaphors because it just gets too flat. What are the rips, tethers, fraying edges, obstructions and accumulations that cleave us? Sometimes the schisms construct and divide, they are hidden in plain sight, things we can see through, but not past. But sometimes they are loopholes. To live life in a loophole is a constant struggle or a perfection too hard to sustain. But sometimes it is the only option. We all know it, know of it. On the other side of the loophole is gravity, it’s not so hard and fast though and privilege makes the transition easier to navigate. It’s like learning to fly without falling, no, in fact it’s like learning to ski without breaking a limb. Paradigm shifts are exhilarating. Take what you will from this perilous, awesome, precarious, dizzying experience. Make its dazzling fall the subject of your work, make the depths of despair, of deceit, of societal inequality your own and couch it in an ethics of politics/ avant-gardism/ aesthetics/ communication. Let the ground fall from beneath your feet, look down, someone will catch you, or you will realise that you were never falling, that the glass is too thick and that the lift is on its reverse journey.
Yes the problem is that we experiment with ways to let what is outside and beyond in, and as the scales shift the necessary effect demands greater risk, or more underhand dealing. Everything feels precise and closed down, or else too loose, or louche or just plain wrong. There is a traffic in metaphors that has little logic in rule, imitation and originality. There is a consistent desire to situate and narrate through contradictions. We are all so interested in history, our immediate history, or our historical desires. I wonder if these interests or commitments to histories, disciplines and media, is something like ‘temporal drag’, even though the slipperiness of signs, of postmodern appropriation has been described as a shifting terrain of allegorical masks.
So far this has been a very silent response, but haven’t you heard the many conversations we’ve all had in the background? And can’t you listen for the terrifying mute screams and shouts that press upon us? That have too small thresholds of audibility, into already crowded ears, with already choked throats? Not hearing is the protective shield we invoke too often. I was wondering about listening as the tactic and the strategy. But it’s hard to reproduce a scream.
We recognise feminist histories as still present. They are not in a transposable or abstract or external space, mapped cleanly, with lines that could be projected. Instead, still suckered to and a part of our present psychology. Not only is it that people from the 1970s still exist. To “fill in the gaps”: what does it mean to do this? To suture the wounds. This is not just an imaginative exercise in the present, drawing on figures of historical thinking and ‘dialectical image’, the past flashing up, for example. This projective gap-filling would ‘re-attach’ us to the pasts of our present, presents of our past. The simplicity of this program seemed to lack a chapter in the psychology of present trauma, and the psychological act involved in filling these gaps.
I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives on the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration. It is a story predicated upon impossibility—listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved. Yet how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death… How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?
Saidiya Hartman, ‘Venus in Two Acts’
Hartman discusses the necessity of imagining the lives, feelings and experiences of people whose lives, feelings and experiences weren’t recorded: enslaved black women. Enslaved people’s lives were often only recorded as numbers in log books, wills and other economic documents kept by slaveowners but Hartman asserts that this reductive gesture shouldn’t be repeated by the historian just because that’s the only ‘evidence’ extant. Walter Benjamin says that 'to live is to leave traces’, but when people haven’t left traces they might need to be reconstructed or the enemy really will have been victorious. In 'Empire and Underworld’, Miranda Frances Spieler discusses the history of French Guiana in the 19th century, and similarly confronts the problem of writing the history of people - the slaves, convicts and political criminals who made up the majority of the population of that country - who left almost nothing behind. She describes a situation where the material remains of huge plantation houses do not exist even as ruins, where the jungle grows so fast that all evidence of the history of human agricultural practices and habitation has vanished from the land, where almost everything that can be known about the lives lived there needs to be intuited from the records of colonial law-makers in France who never set foot outside of Europe: ‘The instruments of social history do not work for people who are not members of society,’ she writes.
For Hartman a history of slavery has been written from the daily record of ferocious abuse. She asks how we might write and acknowledge our inheritance of the brutality that reeks from the records of plantation owners. Is it possible to liberate someone from their entrance into history only through the confines of their oppressors’ words? How to avoid rewriting the oppression? This violence is bequeathed to us. Hartman informs us that the girls’ lives and deaths that she wishes to narrate lay claim on our present. It is difficult to consider how the past archives and entombs conditions of barbarism without also considering our present, characterised by often forced migration and war. For Benjamin the moment of danger is held within the danger of conforming to the present, of giving in. This is the bad moment in psychoanalysis: acceptance of the present in order to strengthen the first ego, and merely forget the past. The moment that forgets diagnosis and only sees in the line of a trajectory. Memory does not exist in the form of monuments but rather in the subaltern memory of past conditions. In the dark matter. Destruction of our present conditions cannot consist, too, in the annihilation of what the present rests upon. I suppose I’m interested in thinking about how the past bears upon the future, because the present feels so difficult to manage, so set in the constraints we thought were evacuated or overthrown.
Collaborative writing was impossible, he said. Speechless. Perhaps it was with worry he was right. Or perhaps it was because the response could only be effective if it was silent or cacophonous. There was no real point in logic, in argumentation, in sentences one after the other. Just standing and knowing and being present. With no concern of fitting in, of citation, of legacies, of precedents.
Collaborative work has, of late, been so much about finding a rhythm, and/or repetition. We called it appropriation/research. But where do we move, taking one thing from one place and situating it in another? What do we find in texts, discourses and histories? Yes this has been. Yes it is, now. Yes it heals a fracture. Yes it disrupts knowledge. No it does not circumvent power. It’s not clear in which direction we’re headed. We spoke about futures or utopias, or feminism but we weren’t sure what fit so the words fell by the wayside and instead we sighed and asked ‘what is this all about?’ We want a new language. We’ve said it over again (again). The grammar is still wrong. Dissidence, heresies within the radical, the political, the anarchic are called conspiracies: whispered, unproven and all-over disruptive threats.
In 2010, a disgruntled student at art school, I became involved in student struggles and “obsessed” with communist texts and theories. I was young and thrilled by the way that students had smashed government buildings at Millbank. I encountered a man who called himself a communist without irony, at the time I found that strange and enigmatic, and soon after he and I began a relationship. My interest in feminist theories and practices were also introduced to me in a coherent way at that point as I experienced latent and manifest sexism within all of the groups and actions in which I participated. I found Silvia Federici, Carla Lonzi, the remains of Autonomia and the feminist groups and practices that split from different communist groups in Italy in the 1970s. I was attracted to these for their arguments against work and against a feminism that ruled by the mark of “equality”. In 2011, I started a once-monthly women’s meeting with a friend - for women who were involved in student and grassroots organising, where we aimed to discuss our experiences anecdotally. We tried to reconstruct a past method, without irony, but we were not in the same position even if we identified with consciousness-raising texts. We met at an anarchist centre in East London, about 20 of us each time for some months. After a while I felt frustrated by our anecdotal discussions that only seemed to scrape the surface of patriarchal structures with talk of everyday sexism and how to tackle it. That group was phased out. Another friend had started a materialist feminist reading group which also came and went and then we started another reading group in which we read together for some years.
These were the notes I made from our meeting together:
Objects as mementos
Mimesis as perpetuation or distinguishing?
Anti-echo - what is the anti-echo?
When did Melanie Klein’s son die?
Let’s not think about the death drive ever again
Feminism as a system of counter-history which doesn’t announce itself as a system, which fails to congeal into system but works concurrently to history, rubbing against its grain, denying. Negating the negator, the guy who negs, the guy who denies, the one licensed to criticise your perfection, who plays a game with you. ‘He’ is capable of knowing a depth you don’t, mediating a system of belief grounded in behaviours relating to gender. Are you a normal woman in a normal relationship with a normal man? Who is your arbiter? Even if you reject this image, will you be able to? Will you affirm a counter-picture? Or will you negate the perfected image? – you blunt it, imperfect and unprofessional, not adhering to your professions of beauty or acceptance.
The history represented here is the illustration of a philosophical ideal, the meshing of moments to prove a theoretical connection. It is as though a line could be drawn between past and present and pieces of a person’s life and work pegged on it; no exceptions, no change – theory looks nice – the similarity of item to item reassuring – shirt to shirt – shoulder to shoulder – an inflexible chain, each part in place. The pattern is defined. Cut the line and chronology falls in a crumpled heap. I prefer a crumpled heap, history at my feet, not stretched above my head.
“There is obvious and enormous difference of experience (between women and men) in the first place; but the essential difference lies in the fact not that men describe battles and women the birth of children, but that each sex describes itself.” (Virigina Woolf). It is the case, perhaps, that men have described both. If this ‘difference’ is unmistakable then the concept of equality is neither useful nor relevant. Such a concept presupposes ‘sameness’. It disguises ‘difference’. Similarity, not difference, expresses the contained of female within the dominant masculine modes of creativity. Any attempt to express ‘difference’ must cause opposition and therefore appear as the expression of a minority ; as is visibly demonstrated in this (‘Film as Film’) catalogue and exhibition.
Lis Rhodes, Whose History?
The master’s tools are taxonomy and containment. But the reality is much more like shadow play. And the shadow is a realm of containment, but also one of difference. What can be done in the shadows is usually more than can be achieved in the glare of the spotlight. But it’s the spotlit that we see and which crowds out perception and knowledge, often. When you stand in the spotlight you can’t see anything beyond its beam. Other existences continue and reproduce themselves in the shadows. To what extent is representation, self-representation and documentation a tool of political identification? Do images create continuities or disruption? The heap of history at her feet, like film unspooled, privileges the matter of the image against its representation. ‘Droppings of history’. Does this material provide a resource? Can we cut from it? Does she? I’m struck by the fact that Lis Rhodes used the projector as a light source and her own body as the screen and the matter for projection. Shadows, not images. I’m not sure how heavy the shadows are though. How opaque. Or how far they hold other things within them. The installations create a shadowland, or perhaps a metaphorical shadowland, or perhaps a manifesto for one. Denying the visual, showing up blindness and the limitation of sight reverberate from this work to Agamben’s image/idea of the contemporary, who revels in the darkness in the moment in which he exists. Always on time for an appointment that you can’t help but be late for. The appointment might be the point of representation, which is always belated because you can’t take a picture of the future. But perhaps you can speak from there. Spin out new narratives. ‘She looks up at the clock’… ‘She must make her living’. For Agamben the contemporary is the poet – fixed, sitting in the arched, cracked vertebrae of monstrous time.
On the 5 May 2015 I stood and read a manifesto with friends for an hour in the city. It was our manifesto and it was not. It was a translation and a repetition. Perhaps an echo, certainly a process of identification and recognition. A rooting in another history, as the present seemed slippery and intangible beneath our feet. Laura thinks through the contradictions of past, present and future settling around that text, and the politics of the manifesto-as-genre. We worried about falling into a rhythm and killing the power. Where does this appropriation take us? Did we fall into a litany, or repurpose it, creating a heresy?
The rhythm of the litany worked for Hannah O’Shea. In A Litany for Women Artists she sang the names of artists forgotten and left out of history. I was trying to think about what this performance meant. It borrowed a rhythm like that in the novel, but different: church over home. It has a material residue in this crackly recording, available online: names barely audible although the rhythm of the singing voice carries through. And it’s about canons, canon formation but resounds with absence, loss and mourning. Or perhaps it is celebratory?
I wonder about the gesture of simply inserting women in the past: does it really challenge how history or time is understood? It seems to place women in the flow of ‘homogeneous empty time’ rather than imagining another kind of time, whatever that would be.
I’m the woman never made a fool of
woman who hides her heart
woman hidden in long sleeves
sleeves of green & gold
I’m the woman shelved one night
I’m the woman waiting
the woman counting moments
a moment never existed & he walks in
I’m the woman who scribes this text
long after the animals lie down
Anne Waldman, Fast-Talking Woman
THIS IS ANECDOTAL
For some length of time I was both terrified and sort of obsessed with the stories of British activist women being forced into relationships with the police. There is no man with whom I have been in love, or at least in a relationship, about whom I have not thought that he might be a plain-clothes, undercover cop. Delusional? Cops and lovers could be the name of a film. How different is the man who would take information that I unwittingly give to him about political groups, actions or other people; how different is this imagined man from the boy at school who would convince me he fancied me in order to get me to take off my shirt, to sleep with me, in order to share naked pictures of me on the internet? In order to laugh with the guys about the dumb, naïve young girl. There is always the lurking suspicion that a man, humanised, the loved one, will turn back into ‘a man’, one of the guys. Sometimes, in the past, you have discussed your recently-exed boyfriends with female friends. They will try convince you that some piece of ambiguous behaviour is both suspicious and ‘male’. You shouldn’t believe his lies: he is one of the guys. You would like to believe otherwise, that he is a complex, sympathetic, specific person: perhaps never intended to hurt you. Your history together makes these possibly suspicious ambiguities the nuances of your particular relationship. You deeply distrust yourself, the surface of yourself, as someone potentially malign, influences you. You would like to trust yourself. But the counter-story is unclear. The messages are mixed up, contraband perhaps.
I hate heterosexuality. I worry about interpellation all the time and I hate that I seek affirmation from men on their terms. ‘Hey you!’ shouts the cop, the man, and what happens when you turn around? Sometimes it’s nice to feel adored by a man, sometimes men seem so caring - but is there always a violence lurking in that relation? Shouldn’t the demand be to go unrecognised?
This is anecdotal.
One thing that comes to mind about writing in this way is that I don’t have a reason to do it. It doesn’t comport itself as an argument and I don’t know how it would become one. What is confession? How can we be anecdotal and remain vigilant to structure?
Trust is difficult. I was eight years old when I found myself in a car with my father, he was driving us back home from a now-unknown event. (Why have I forgotten that memory?) I remember sitting in the car when my father told me that my mother had died. I remember thinking and then feeling rather than thinking that this meant that this person had ceased to exist in reality, that I could no longer speak to her and no longer touch her and she could no longer speak to me or touch me. I remember feeling rather than thinking a huge sensation that was crushing and desperate. I didn’t see her dead body, I didn’t attend when her ashes were scattered on Iona. I don’t fully comprehend now how much I did or didn’t understand then. I understand that some people thought that I must not see her corpse because that would become the dominant image inscribed in my memory. I don’t know if seeing her corpse would have helped me to mourn her, something I didn’t manage to do for another decade if at all. Interminable mourning. My mother hanged herself from the beam in my sister’s loft bedroom in the same town as her first husband had done the same thing one decade before her. She was undertaking self-hypnosis. The decade that followed was one filled with and fuelled by anger. Anger at injustice. Was this anger fuelled by my anger towards my now long-deceased mother whom I hadn’t yet mourned or towards my still present but emotionally absent father? To my father I couldn’t even utter my mother’s name. If I did it made him uncomfortable. A silent prohibition shrouded her name. My anger meant that my world, and the world with it felt like it could never be set right. All was irreconcilable. All is still irreconcilable. I still struggle to feel at home with that. Anger. Rage.
If you lose a parent when you are very young you find out later in life that it is impossible to completely recover from that loss: it is haunting and dominates aspects of other relations in insidious and unexpected ways. I told this to my father in an email quite recently and it took him a week to respond, and when he did the only thing he could say was that he was sad and that he had mostly forgotten. I am someone born of two people given by the terms: mother and father. I cannot escape this relation, or deny its importance even if I want to, even if I have tried to. The family persists.
The loss that I experienced aged eight, puts me in a relentlessly helpless position even while I sometimes often feel empowered, as one is/and I am persistently reminded throughout life that the person who was meant to keep me safe disappeared, and so lives on with that potential (the potential to disappear), as the object of that trauma is perpetually shifted onto whoever holds that position for me, the one who has encumbered that loss. I am the person who struggles to find distance to her past.
Two problems come to mind at the moment, i) my father has forgotten to remember, he has not managed any corrective surgery but instead has built walls and weapons that shield his fully fledged self-preserving ego from anything resembling difficulty, ii) these things mean something to me, but they do not really mark out the diagrams of the social reality that contributed to their cause. I speak here about myself and a structure through which I entered the world. But I could also speak about things that might contribute to action and change…? What would they be?
The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.
The liar often has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.
To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.
The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfil that desire. The complexity and fecundity of poetry come from the same struggle.
Adrienne Rich, ‘Notes on Lying’
In this text ‘Notes on Lying’, published in the American feminist publication Heresies in 1977, Adrienne Rich suggests that women in a patriarchal culture exist in a perpetual state of lying and being lied to. This is their form of existence, this is the boundary they must overcome, this is the bar to their exploration of full subjectivity. Lying subtends the female condition and, most crucially for Rich, obscures the ability of women to relate to each other.
Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.
Adrienne Rich, ‘Notes on Lying’
The unconscious wants truth, she says. What does that mean? If the unconscious knows no ‘no’ then surely in a sense lies and truth have the same status there? Why does lying disconnect you from the unconscious? I am a little suspicious of this formulation as though there is some truly true ‘woman’ located somewhere. Where would she be? Is she underneath, waiting to be excavated? How can women have a truth that is external to history and experience? And isn’t all gendered existence in some sense artificial? Or rather, truth and lies (or nature and artifice/sex and gender) can’t be so neatly disentangled. Who are women lying to here? To men? To each other? To themselves? What for? What about? And why do dreams want truth? Aren’t they concealing truth? Wouldn’t there otherwise be no distinction between manifest and latent content? This is why Freud says children’s dreams are strange because they are just transparently wish fulfilments. Nothing is disguised. Everything is manifest. What does she think the truth of a mind is? What’s the truth of my mind? Does she think I can know it? What’s so bad about lying anyway?
Psychologically the attempt either to do or to not do reconstructive work is complex. Much more painful than a simple new lineage, in all the affirmations of that kind of metaphor of new birth. I want to discuss it, then, as a psychological problem. I will call this psychological ‘problem’ a problem of gaslighting. A problem of abuse. This is a term taken from contemporary feminism (and 20th century psychologising) to describe abusive men who deny or negate certain aspects of a woman’s narrative, claims, beliefs, or statements in subtle and manipulative ways in order to erode her sense of sanity, clarity and self-confidence. The term derives from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband changes minute aspects and elements of his and his wife’s home, while at the same time denying to his wife that he has done so, in order to convince her that she is insane. She is lied to by him until she believes that nothing she experiences is real. Strange things happen, objects go missing or are mysteriously move around. He dims the lights in the house, and then convinces his wife that she is ‘imagining’ it. She ‘loses’ a brooch despite storing it safely in her handbag. A picture ‘disappears’ from the wall and he tells her she removed it. This libidinal space of the domestic scene, narcissistic projection of the husband, in which bit-parts of furniture and furnishing – lights, curtains, pots and pans, sofa, cups, clothes – became imbued with abusive significance, seemed important to me, as a way of approaching how we might consider the way that women relate to objects and commodities. That is, as always already traumatised by them. They are always already an object of knowledge and belief for men. They function as double synecdoches, of the wife’s body as controlled by the man, and wife’s body. These two objects are fought over. Gender confrontation is displaced onto small parts of the domestic scene.
This is certainly how I experienced the home I shared with a partner for five years. After we broke up I ritually destroyed the collection of particular utensils we had so painstakingly acquired - ladle, pasta server, spatula, fish slice - which were all imbued for me with the quotidian horrors of day-to-day domestic torment. Sometimes they’d fly through the air. And it really was the case that the objects drove me mad because it was impossible to know what tiny thing would next become cause for retribution. Something that was permissible on one day would become a major transgression on the next. He once cut my clothes in half with a pair of scissors and there were other things, worse things. My mother would call me crying and tell me to get out because she’d been there too. In the final scenes of Gas Light the wife taunts her husband while he’s tied to a chair but it seems as though it may be too late for revenge - she’s already been driven mad and there’s no coming back. I still flinch when men come near me in kitchens. I remember when I watched the Fassbinder film Martha it all seemed so familiar - like elements of a life I knew acted out as grotesque melodrama - the husband controls her diet and does not allow her to apply suntan lotion causing her to burn. He fucks her burnt body. He dictates her music tastes and disconnects the telephone. She is forced to recite an engineering handbook whereas I copied out long passages of text over and over and over again in a bizarre ritual of repentance (for what, I can’t recall). She is nonetheless constantly trying to please him and his attacks are often preceded by soft reassurances. He insists on his own vulnerability. Despite the film’s almost ludicrously stylised sadistic excesses, it seemed to me like an amplified version of my reality.
Can gaslighting perhaps become a concept of history? In this analogy, do women suffer the gaslighting of male histories, the men, the husbands? Or is history itself a gaslit woman, feminised, gendered female, traumatised? Does it provide a model for understanding how oppressive structures are produced and sustained? We encounter a very present situation of confrontation in trying to affirm or deny women of the past. We are not talking merely about a lack of representation or the fact that we are absent from or denied spaces of representation, though we have certainly had a good amount of that marginality too. We are talking of our psychological little men and our psychological big ones: which does not mean the manipulators are not also real (real as well as abstract). The problem with the term ‘gaslighting’ is that it describes a situation of exceptional abuse: the term describes individual conditions and relationships, not a general condition of gender per se. It is only a deviation from the norm. Or is it? At this moment, I think about how many women who were analysed, were also abused. What would ‘everyday gaslighting’ mean? How could we see the minute denials of men as merely a more generally accepted instance of collective abuse? How do we stop internalising these denials? Let’s not, in fact, call it ‘everyday’, let’s call it epic – cosmic, even – revisionism.
It got me to thinking again about progression, and about how a seemingly stable, equal and ‘un-historical’ surface, projecting a progression in rights for women, masks underlying historical trends. I have an image in my head, something like – to cite a cliché – Benjamin’s gathering heaps, the wreckage, a catastrophe, gathering under the wings of an historical angel, moving backwards rather than forwards – of all the regressions, violences and ‘barbarisms’ effected exponentially on women. That is, as rights increase or are maintained at the same formal level, changes happening outside the sphere of the state make it more and more possible to remove these rights wholesale, and at once, in practice. Or simply to ignore them. Rights increase but abuses multiply. That is, threats become more actually threatening. We can recognise that this is the case, but rarely do we notice how much it can effect a psychology. Let’s say the surface-level of abuse suffered may seem the same – perhaps the man is not abusive himself, but may threaten to abandon a woman – but is historically different, weighs more heavily historically. The content and the form. Underneath a level of painlessness, and superficial betterment, trauma gathers, heaps itself. Isn’t it only small signs, miniature domestic markers, that might signal any of this to us? And then we must muster the strength for our persistent denial of the denial. We look at our legal status, our formal appearance and we must agree, under caution of delusion, insanity or hysteria, that for enfranchised women things are not ‘so bad’. At least, we say, for ourselves. Well, in that case, feminism is just our milieu, our friends, our lifestyle, our culture, or our aesthetic. Or is it, still, something else? This is a level on which I want to talk about the difference between surface and depth. Not purely aesthetically or philosophically. The surface like a false insanity gas-lit into existence, which we must deny.
I am interested in performance and the idea that one might perform or re-enact traumatic situations as a means of gaining control over them. I am interested in the persistence of domestic objects and the fact that feminist art, writing and thinking often makes reference to these objects as metonymic. This often seems like a kind of vitalist substratum which one gestures towards as the realm of abstract ‘women’, but is incredibly internally and historically stratified. It is very hard to place or locate this stratification. Does manipulation pertain differently in a house full of adjustable gas lights or wide-screen televisions or leather sofas or velvet cushions or Ikea fittings or Fabergé eggs or diamond chandeliers or multiple-hundred-thousand pound Christmas-tree angels or Matalan office-work trousers or Primark polyester blankets? Or are these bought commodities in a husband-and-wife’s home all the same, objects nonetheless, all ideally exchangeable? Yet they exist as use values, not up for exchange, they are something used in the home. I think about re-contextualisations of housework as work by Italian feminists such as Mariarosa dalla Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati. I think about meals – food made object - Weetabix, coco pops, toast, salad, sandwiches, chicken soup, Sunday roast, lasagna, curry, trifle – as precisely what are not supposed to be: commodities. They are something more like a sub-commodity, its condition of productive possibility, beneath - or above - the commodity, more vital and naturalised as use-values than the commodity. Use-values purely, engaged in the reproduction of the worker and of capital, but not as exchangeable objects.
An image always stays in my head from an Italian feminist text, whose title does not. It is the image of the feminist movement – by which I mean in the Italian context, of education and activism – as that which broke down the walls separating women from each other. The walls were those of domestic households. This breakdown strikes me as important because it was not monumental, not very visible, not even actual – but nonetheless seems like the hardest work. And I’ve been thinking that it isn’t even symbolic. This came to a head for me when you said about the domestic has never been historicised. Because the thing is the transgression of the domestic is so often about traffic between spaces. This often makes up its history as a contingent site and conversely not one of occupation (except when occupation means keeping busy). But does the exposure of the home and its deep archaeology - rather than its destruction - suggest further breakdown of the walls that divide and map society? Or could it? Perhaps we haven’t dug deep enough, perhaps we cannot see. It seems like the limitations on thinking with and about the home and the domestic might be the site of political blindness.
“Oh let us come together!” Echo cries, “Oh let us come together!” Never sound seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods she hastens in accordance with her words, and strives to wind her arms around his neck. He flies from her and as he leaves her says, “Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms around me. Better death than such a one should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save, “Caress me!” Thus rejected she lies hid in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face with the green leaves; and ever after lives concealed in lonely caverns in the hills. But her great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up her skin, and all her lovely features melt, as if dissolved upon the wafting winds—nothing remains except her bones and voice—her voice continues, in the wilderness; her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear her calling in the hills, 'tis but a voice, a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.
In an essay by Anne Carson on women in myth she talks about porosity and penetrability. Women in myth are wet and polluted, she says. Women in myth confound boundaries and are themselves unbounded. ‘Woman is subject not only to incursion from without but to leakage from within and, for this reason, her very presence may pose a threat to the integrity of the house of which she is a part and the city that encompasses it.’ Echo dissolves, shrivels, melts, wastes away - as a voice living in the hills with no corporeal container Echo conforms with Carson’s characterisation of woman in myth as 'formless creatures who cannot or do not or will not maintain their own boundaries and who are awfully adept at confounding the boundaries of others’. But Echo is also bones which have turned to stone. She is not only an ethereal sound but is also dry, static, inert matter. This mythic woman wafts around as a reverberating sound in the wilderness but the stone bones also remain as a kind of monument to her rejected love. Her voice lives but her bones are dead. And maybe becoming stone cures her of the desire for caresses.
This process of withering has certain anatomical details; first, her flesh dries up, her humors vanish, and then her bones turn to stone – not the stone of a statue, but rather in general: rocks, boulders, mountains. The nullifying of her body is thus the definitive dissolution of a uniqueness that, as echo, Echo’s voice does not possess. Echo’s voice is, in fact, not her voice; it does not possess an unmistakable timbre, and it does not signal a unique person. It simply obeys the physical phenomenon of the echo, repeating even the timbre of the other’s voice. It is a mere acoustic resonance, a voice that returns, foreign, to the one who emitted it. The juxtaposition of Echo and Narcissus is therefore perfect. The absolute ego of Narcissus, for whom the other is nothing but “another himself”, corresponds to the reduction of the vocalic nymph to a mere sonorous reverberation of the other. The mechanism of repetition in the voice produced the annulment of uniqueness. The same mechanism of the eye produces in Narcissus an absolute duplication of himself. Lovesick for his own image, the beautiful boy dies, leaving the flower that bears his name. Echo instead lives on without a body and still functions as an acoustic mirror for the play of the voice that, from afar, returns through its own rhythmical extension.
Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice
It’s tempting to mess with Cavarero and think the male figure not solely as the locus of the objective mapping gaze, but as subject to the frame. Lock him in a perpetual mirror for eternity, and break the false image of woman. While she exists as a blank, nothing to see and everything to see, listening is tested. But really the echo is nothing in and of itself, only repetition with the aim to recapitulate Narcissus. Except in togetherness perhaps, when the echo resounds in or between corporeal bodies. In an earlier text Cavarero narrates the psychic dynamic of sharing stories between friends. She thinks of it like giving a gift. It’s weighty and heavy – a burden or a thing to be worked through. And Gayatri Spivak notes the weight of language in translation enforcing a colonial logic, disrupted by a return to glottal, carnal speech.
In an essay titled, “Ruin and Rubble in the Arcades” Esther Leslie asserts that in the 1980s and 90s, liberal feminism and cultural studies shifted the focus of feminism from that of production to that of consumption, and misread the figure of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur as a ‘postmodern (wo)man - as [a] positive role model.’ The function of this positive role model flâneur is his self-relinquishment to the ‘pleasures of consumption.’ Leslie instead argues that what gives Benjamin’s now retro flâneur gravitas is that he [sic] becomes subject to all of the contradictions of capitalism, precisely by his entrance into the market. What underpins Leslie’s argument on the reception by feminists of Benjamin’s flâneur is a Marxian argument concerning the radical breakdown of social forms under developed capitalism, in particular, gendered roles. She understands women’s roles in this new schema as being ‘classed.’Positively citing Engels, she describes women workers in this new phase as ‘unsexed’; capitalism exposes the lie that is gender. She quotes from Marx on the revolutionary potential of Capitalism’s new fracturing processes: ‘However terrible and disgusting the dissolute, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes.’She writes, ‘All become equal as sellers of labour power.’
Persons exist for one another merely as representatives of, and, therefore as owners of, commodities. In the course of our investigation we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.
Karl Marx, Capital V1
Leslie asserts that ‘in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, as in Marx, women are shown within commodity relations.’ The effects of this process are many. Leslie lists: ‘the radical transformation of family relations,’ as well as an ‘involvement in an absolute and deathly exploitation.’ She cites the drive of capitalism as contradictorily at once revolutionary-futurist and restorative-reactionary. Leslie identifies three key female figures in the Arcades who exemplify this: the ‘whore, who sells her body, the worker who sells her body/mind as labour power, and the mannequin, a super-consumer who models on her body the constricting grip of the commodity.’ And what happens to these figures on the new world stage of the metropole is their ungendering; they become thing-like, artificial, drawn into dead matter. In this world the utopian standpoint appears as woman’s escape from the ‘tyranny of nature and the burden of the biological.’ Despite the exploitation and immiseration endemic to capitalism, Benjamin celebrates modernity for aligning women with the inorganic and the commodified, and for thus untethering them from their reproductive destiny. Leslie writes:
In the form taken by prostitution in the big cities, the woman appears not only as commodity but, in a precise sense, as mass-produced article. This is indicated by the masking of individual expression in favor of a professional appearance, such as makeup provides. The point is made still more emphatically, later on, by the uniformed girls of the music-hall review. […] The female body becomes ornament, and in such fetishistic fragmentation, body parts are likened to alabaster, snow, jewels, minerals, and the body can, of course, be made equivalent to that is, bought for the metal of exchange: money. Such deadly inorganicism impersonates a more generalized social actuality, wherein the body is a machine for work, the machine-pendant described by Marx.
How do the deathly stone bones of Echo become the facets of women under capitalist social relations today? Do they speak to each other? Is this “becoming stone” related to escaping the tyranny of nature or succumbing to it?
Are women actually persons? How can women act, perform, or re-enact if they are not persons or characters? That re-enactment cannot take place, and a psychology able to take control of its past is confined to the terminal, absent space or is simply stillborn.
In 197X Rose Finn Kelcey lost her voice after a performance in which she was heckled by a male member of the audience.
I always thought it was surprising to find the word ‘echo’ in this passage from The German Ideology as it seems somehow to mediate between matter and the immaterial. Marx and Engels write:
In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.
The echo, like the mirror’s reflection, distorts reality - it is not an exact reproduction or absolute duplication.
Women’s material premise and distortion.
Round and round in my head I can see Katerina Gogou in Parangelia (1980). The opening scene in which she puts on and then takes off all of her make-up, in front of a mirror. She puts it on quickly, in a frenzy. Is she preparing to go out? As she comes to finish off her deep red lipstick, perfecting the smudged edges, she starts to cry. Angry, crying, self-hating tears, as though she had just been heartbroken, was trying to keep appearances together. Anger at a mirror, towards it. Watching yourself as the crying happens, upping the stakes, upsetting oneself further. I recognise this experience of crying in front of a mirror, with perfectly finished make-up on, ruining the effect. The scene is never explained.
For Freud, dreams distort, disfigure, dissimulate or disguise what is found to be repulsive: ‘Wherever a wish-fulfilment is unrecognisable and concealed, there must be present a feeling of repulsion towards this wish.’ The wish can only surface in the dream in a disfigured state. Making an analogy with the woman crying before the mirror may seem trite, imprecise or overly literal here (as though lipstick and mascara literally ‘dissimulated’ a face experienced as repulsive) but Freud ventures to find an analogy of his own from experiences of waking life: ‘Where in social life can a similar disfigurement of a psychic act be found? Only where two persons are in question, one of whom possesses a certain power, while the other must have a certain consideration for this power. This second person will then disfigure his psychic actions, or, as we may say, he will dissimulate.’ Perhaps this internalised first person (the powerful person/culture, the imagined man, the phantom in her brain) surfaces when the woman looks at her reflection in the mirror? Whatever she creates (makes up) will never be good enough. The powerful internalised ideal (abstract, ethereal) comes up against the material limits of her body (actual flesh and bone) but that actuality is encountered through the distorting surface of the mirror - an echo of her life process.
This paper was first presented at ‘Feminist Readings 2: Theory, Practice and Politics of Reading Today’, University of Leeds, 15-16 April 2016