Dorothy Allison, ‘When feminism exploded into my life’

Quote

When feminism exploded into my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality. It saved me from either giving up writing entirely, or the worse prospect of writing lies in order to achieve some measure of grudging acceptance. But at the same time, Feminism destroyed all my illusions about Literature. Feminism revealed the city as an armed compound to which I would never be admitted. It forced me to understand, suddenly and completely, that literature was written by men, judged by men. The city itself was a city of Man, a male mind even when housed in a female body. If that was so, all my assumptions about the worth of writing, particularly working-class writing, were false. Literature was a lie, a system of lies, the creation of liars, some of them sincere and unaware of the lies they retold, but all acting in the service of a Great Lie — what the system itself labelled Universal Truth. If that truth erased me and all those like me, then my hopes to change the world through writing were illusions. I lost my faith. I became a feminist activist propelled in part by outrage and despair, and a stubborn determination to shape a life, and create a literature, that was not a lie.

— Dorothy Allison, ‘Believing in Literature’, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 167.

Crossposted to Feminist Quotes

Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

In Search of our Mother’s Garden’s reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

A Personal Queer Theory Retrospective

Those of you who’ve been reading my various blog incarnations for a while will be aware that, until last year, I was pursuing an academic career.  When it became apparent that there were few diamonds in that mine (for me at least), I decided to rethink and stopped blogging while I sorted out my life. 

We will draw a veil over that period, but it took me until last month to finally get rid of all the files associated with the academic part of my life and I thought it would be interesting to look at the small pile of scribbled on photocopied essays that I’ve decided to keep from the files labelled ‘Queer Theory’.  

These days, I’m a lot more critical of queer theory than I once was.  Queer theory has been dominated by white, middle-class people and, at its worst, can be elitist, impenetrable, alarmingly divorced from peoples’ real lived experiences, as well as having a tendency to erase the specificity of lesbian experience.

Having said that, some essays still have enough importance for me to be prepared to carry them around with the rest of my belongings as I move from place to place.  In roughly chronological order of publication:  

Continue reading

Academic Texts Meme

My recent efforts at tagging have rebounded on me.  Irrational Point has honed the book meme and challenged me to list the academic texts (no set number this time) that have had the most impact on me.  Here goes:

1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, The Will to Knowledge (1976)

2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

3. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ (1980)

4. Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (1984)

5. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1996)

6. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life (2000)

7. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Ninteteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979)

8. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (1984)

9. Diana Fuss ‘Inside/Out’ (1991)

10. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

Ok, I re-tag Andygrrrl.

I’ve left off the academic books that I included in the book meme.

Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking Sex Class and Literature (1994)

What I have tried to do in my own life is refuse the language and categories that would reduce me to less than my whole complicated experience (213)

Skin is a compelling collection of essays.  Dorothy Allison shares with Joan Nestle an ability to make complex ideas and arguments accessible.  It’s interesting that both these writers come from poor working-class backgrounds and I suspect they brought their “no bullshit” attitudes with them into their feminism.  Allison is particularly good at getting to the heart of difficult issues.

She grew up in South Carolina, a member of what she calls “the bad poor”, the American underclass. She experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. She came out as a lesbian in her adolescence and and got to university where she became involved in feminism.  Since then she has become notorious for being on the “sex positive” or “pro-sex” side of the feminist “sex wars” (she was a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and has been open about her femme identity and interest in BDSM). She also writes fiction and poetry.

As you would expect, there are essays about sex and pornography in this collection, but I think it’s important that Allison is not simplistically reduced to the role she has been ascribed in the feminist “sex wars”.  The essays show her interest in a wide range of issues, such as class, lesbian experience, abuse, violence, creative writing and science fiction.

‘A Question of Class’

This is about how her experience of coming from “the bad poor” has shaped her politics. It explains a great deal about Allison’s uncompromising attitude and insistence on speaking out about the complexities of identity.  Where she comes from, not speaking out is fatal:

I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary (p. 36).

I can see why this essay is the first in book – it is the basis for everything that follows.

‘Public Silence, Private Terror’

Here she talks about her experiences of the feminist “sex wars” and the impact they had on her. It is unapologetic, but makes it apparent that she honestly didn’t foresee that speaking openly about her views on sex would get her into so much trouble with other feminists. She took the radical feminist incitement to women to talk about their experiences very literally and then got burned in the process of doing just that. You might disagree with her views on sex, but I think this is an important essay to read:

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last few years is how powerful is my own desire to hang onto a shared sense of feminist community where it is safe to talk about dangerous subjects like sex, and how hopeless is the desire.  Even within what I have thought of as my own community […] I have never felt safe. I have never been safe, and this is only partly because everyone else is just as fearful as I am. None of us is safe because we have not tried to make each other safe. We have never even recognised the fearfulness of the territory. We have addressed violence and exploitation and heterosexual assumptions without first establishing the understanding that for each of us, desire is unique and necessary and simply terrifying […]

As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don’t even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.

I do not want to do that.

I do not want to require any woman to do that.

I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman’s needs or desires. But over and over again I see us being pushed to do just that. (113 – 114)

‘Survival Is the Least of my Desires’

This is about writing as catharsis, something Allison seems to believe in very passionately. Some quotes:

I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough’ (217).

It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and re-examining it, recreating it in the story, and making is something different, making if meaningful – even if the meaning is only in the act of telling (p. 218).

That’s what I believe to be the important of telling the truth, each of us writing out of the unique vision our lives have given us (219).

Her essay ‘Believing in Literature’ is also very good.

‘Skin, Where She Touches Me’

I found this the most disturbing essay in the collection. It left me feeling shattered and emptied out and it took me a little while to figure out why. It’s about her relationships with two of the most important women in her life: her mother and her first lover.  Both of these women betrayed her in extremely painful ways, her mother though her inability to leave Allison’s abusive stepfather, and her lover by not caring enough to give up the heroin that eventually killed her, so both chose other things over Dorothy. But I think that what’s so disturbing about this piece of writing is the truth it expresses about the way women can have such complex and painful relationships in which we commit terrible betrayals and yet at the same time carry on loving each other because we do understand why it happened.  This is not something we like to talk about.

All in all, I found it by turns a difficult, challenging and inspirational read.

Judith Butler Post

A very good and interesting post about Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from Pink Scare: Butler, Structure and Subject

Butler‘s project takes its point of departure from politics: the aim of the book is, at least in one concerted sense (i.e. this isn’t an exhaustive aim), to critically evaluate the assumption among some feminists that a unified conception of ‘woman’ is a necessary condition of political action for feminists. The point of doing this, for Butler, is to locate ways in which the feminist project is in some ways complicit with oppression, thus enabling her to gesture at ways we might more effectively (and fully) resist or subvert the oppressive regime of sex/gender.

From Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek: Representations of Gender & Power in Science Fiction

I love the first three series of Battlestar Galactica and it has plenty of interesting things to say about gender. But in Season Two, the episodes ‘Pegasus,’ ‘Resurrection Ship Part 1’ and ‘Resurrection Ship Part 2’ offer a disturbing take on the question of what happens when women try and appropriate masculine prerogatives.

Adama is in command of the Battlestar Galactica, a military ship tasked with protecting a civilian fleet escaping from the Cylons, a race of machines who have destroyed the human’s home planets.  Adama is authoritarian, charismatic and highly honourable.  He does screw up sometimes, but his intentions are never in doubt.  He is a caring, if tough, father-figure to the people under his command and is much loved in return.  Now, I think Edward James Olmos is amazing, I love the character of Adama and it’s also great to see a Latino actor in such a powerful role.

But in Season 2, the show does something troubling with gender, providing Adama with a female counterpart, Admiral Cain, who commands the Battlestar Pegasus.  The Pegasus has been through the same experiences as The Galactica, trying to survive and evade the Cylons; and Admiral Cain is, like Adama, a charismatic leader, totally dedicated to her ship and the people under her.  Cain is played by Michelle Forbes, an actor I also like very much.

The Pegasus and the Galactica catch up with each other and despite the doubts of his friends and the President, who senses that something isn’t quite right about Cain, Adama (still a commander at this point) honourably hands over authority to her as his superior officer because he respects the chain of command.

As the episodes progress, it becomes apparent that while the Pegasus has been in the same situation as Galactica, it has followed a very different path. There is a horror story beneath the facade and its source lies in Admiral Cain.

Cain, it turns out, is pretty much a monster.  Her crimes include pillaging civilian ships for resources, then leaving them without defences to the Cylons, as well as brutally killing anyone who questions her authority.  Most disturbingly, in terms of the representation of the character, she has allowed, even encouraged, the gang rape and torture of a female cylon prisoner.

While on the surface of the narrative Battlestar Galactica seems to want us to believe that Cain’s gender plays no part in this horror story, the subtext strongly implies that her gender is crucially at stake.  After all, the main signifying difference between Adama and Cain is gender.

Cain has attempted to do the same things as Adama, but not only has she failed, she has turned into a monster in the attempt.  She is coded as a ‘bitch’, ball-breaker, sadist and the text hints (surprise! surprise!) a lesbian.  She starts hitting on Starbuck (another problematically masculinised woman in the series) almost as soon as she arrives and I’m told that the lesbophobia is brought out even more strongly in the BSG movie Razor. Adama has clearly made a terrible mistake in letting Cain take over because the chain of command is already unermined by the fact that she’s a woman and possibly a lesbian – unless the lesbianism is simply the logical representational result of her being a woman in power!

Probably inadvertently, the show says something interesting here about the cultural construction of male and female power and authority.  In the show’s representational economy, Adama is allowed power and therefore has no need to become a monster.  He certainly has the potential to be ruthless, but his assured position somehow makes actual brutality unnecessary.  In order to be equally powerful, Cain has to be a sadist and coded lesbian who uses men to sexually terrorize other women.

After Cain has been shot dead by the woman she “raped,” the President promotes Adama to Admiral, restoring him to his rightful place and making sure that his authority cannot be usurped like that again. The episode ends with an impression that the natural order has been restored.

President Roslin is also an interesting figure in the show.  She is powerful, charismatic and able to inspire devotion, but the price of this power seems to be a pathologization and hysterization of her body.* She is permanently weakened by the fact that she has cancer, is religious and has clairvoyant dreams and visions, all of which make her appear unstable.  Adama is close to President Roslin, but he does not share her beliefs and is not associated with the “irrational.”  None of this means that Roslin is necessarily wrong; indeed, she may well be right, but again the show seems to be expressing some anxieties regarding female/feminine power or, at the very least, ascribing certain kinds of power to women and other kinds of power to men.

Further interesting approaches to gender, race and power can be seen in the world of Star Trek.  On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean Luc Picard is presented as a kind of Daddy figure for the entire ship:  charismatic, assured, honourable, trustworthy, a showcase of traditionally masculine humanist virtue.

It is interesting to note that the representation of the franchise’s next male captain, Sisko, is a bit more problematic considering the actor is black.  Sisko has a lot of Picard’s virtues, to be sure, but he is depicted as slightly more unstable and “feminised,” in that he has an irrational side and becomes involved with the local Bajorans’ spiritual life, taking on a role of a spiritual leader, having visions and dreams.  But Sisko is also allowed to be a more emotional and loving character than Picard.  I’m not saying that one representation is “good” and the other “bad,” it’s more complex than that, but the fact that the producers cast a black actor and brought this “feminised” element into his character seems unlikely to be a representational co-incidence.

When they decided that it was finally time to put a woman in charge, the panicky depiction of Captain Janeway suggests that the writers found they could not simplistically slot a female body into a role traditionally ascribed to men.  If the show did not directly pathologize Janeway, the fans soon picked up on a pathologizing, hysterizing undercurrent, dubbing the captain as “bipolar” due to what they perceived as her erratic actions and violent mood swings.  I saw an interview with Kate Mulgrew in which she said that they were in such a panic about casting a woman in the role that they could not leave her hair alone and drove her up the wall by constantly changing it in the series.  Her feeling was that the producers were themselves a little hysterical about it all.  As far as I can remember, Janeway is hardly ever allowed to have a relationship in the series, whereas both Picard and Sisko are allowed partners.

I love and watch all of these shows and I’m not suggesting we should throw up our hands and swear never to set eyes on them again because they have some dodgy gender politics. They all have many more interesting things to say about gender, race and sexuality than I’m implying here and science fiction is pleasurable precisely because it engages with and reflects on society and offers us fantasies which tell us something about where we’re at currently.

And what do these representations tell us? Perhaps that we’re still struggling with the eighteenth-century enlightenment civil humanism which posited a distinction between (presumptively white) male and female virtue rooted in deep, internal traits belonging to masculine and feminine essences.**

* In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault argues that ‘the hysterization of women’s bodies’ is crucial in the development of ideas about ‘sexuality’: ‘the feminine body was analized — qualified and disqualified — as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality whereby it was integrated into the sphere of medical practices, by reason of a pathology intrinsic to it’ (104).

** Drawing here on Andrew Elfenbein in his book Romantic Genuis: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 22 – 23.

Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the workforce. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.

The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote:

“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.