“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political”: on feminist genres of expression

The other day I was talking with a friend who does a lot of art writing. Gabby was nervous about a text she had just submitted to a “serious” art journal. Worried it was “too personal,” she anticipated disapproving notes from her editor, a VERY SERIOUS LADY. I get it—art writing is notoriously detached and prone to posturing—but I also felt a bit of, “REALLY, is this still a thing!? We still have to feel self-conscious about making work that’s “too personal?”

I had just finished reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother (2012), a totally shattering account of the artist’s relationship with her mom, heavy on childhood gay shame and told against the backdrop of psychoanalytic and feminist theory. In it, Bechdel reflects on beginning her career with Dykes to Watch out For (1987–2008), a comic strip that represented her world but was at arm’s length from autobiography. Later she transitioned to working on explicitly personal material through her memoirs about her mother and father (Fun Home, 2006). She credits this transition to the influence of Adrienne Rich:

The question of “writing the self” is of course an old debate in feminist theory. Our French sisters—Cixous, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray—were all about l’écriture feminine, taking a poststructural approach to following the gendering of texts and language. American lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Rich told us about feminism by telling us about getting cancer, embodying the sting of racism, feeling ambivalent about the motherhood we’re supposed to love without question.

So if we already know all this stuff about women’s genres as bound up with autobiography, why the renewed interest in this debate right now? This is the question that’s been guiding a great deal of my reading over the last six months. I’m especially curious about framing this question in relation to media.

At the end of February I had the chance to help some super smart women—cheyanne turions and Hazel Meyer—throw together some readings for an iteration of the salon-style reading group, No Reading after the Internet, hosted on the occasion of Hazel’s exhibition No Theory No Cry at Art Metropole in Toronto. The centerpiece of the readings was Kate Zambreno’s “semiautobiography” Heroines (2012), a non-fictionish, experimental text that offers a speculative history of the wives of modernism—Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and others—set against Zambreno’s reflections on being the precariously employed academic wife of a tenure-stream research librarian. Zambreno writes with impunity about the necessary messiness of telling our stories; the body and the psyche figure prominently, and crying, sweating, avoiding the shower, getting our periods, or dealing with a rash are all valued epistemologies for communicating our emotional selves. Alongside Heroines we read selections from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). The reading group took place at Art Met; we sat amongst the work and began the reading by listening to Hazel talk about her practice, which is very much engaged with these questions about thinking through the body, the messy self, and the inseparability of emotions and politics.

As a blogger—Heroines began as online writing—Zambreno is interested in how her access to a network of other feminist writers, and her own publishing platform less bound to ideologies of genre, alters the experience of being a woman artist, but also raises totally unresolved issues from modernism such as “what is the work? Who is the author?” (282). She writes:

“Online we negotiate and navigate what it means to be a writer, for some of us what it means to be a woman… . Yet of course many of us don’t write every day. That’s why I think of this form as a form of l’écriture feminine: a rhythm of silence and raw emotion, these fervent utterings… . A dialogue, a communication: the Internet. So intimate. These writings are the shudderings of the ego and lamenting the wound. We blubber and ooze. Texts that are raw, vulnerable, bodily and excessive. Sometimes freaking out in public. We are naked, like Karen Finley. My blog at times feels like a toilet bowl, a confessional, a field hospital” (286).

For the last couple months this blog has turned into a series of images about feminism and computing or the Internet. This is partly about me being too preoccupied to do much writing, but it’s also a way of reflecting on Zambreno’s suggestion that networked computing is a key moment for feminist modes of expression. Now that we write or make art online we are simultaneously freed up from the isolation imposed by the gendered political economy of print publishing or art criticism, but also acutely aware of how some of the problems faced by the ladies of modernism stay the same across media forms: for example, women’s work can now be dismissed because it’s “just on tumblr.”

Computers appear often in Bechdel’s reflections on her process in Are You My Mother. Bechdel at her desk working on a series of macs over a twenty-year period is a backdrop that’s easy to miss in the text because it’s so quotidian; but then attention to the ordinary is sort of key to this whole question about feminist genres.

On that note, I’ll end this with an image from Are You My Mother.

Feminist Computing #3: Alison Bechdel’s macbook pro with ergonomic stand:

“Swimming is just an extension of breathing; this is how I keep my head and heart well”

Last week I read Ann Cvetkovich’s new book Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), half of which is a memoir of the two years during which she finished her dissertation and started her first job. I loved it for many reasons, some of which are intellectual engagements. But I think what will stick with me most from this book are the parts about swimming.

Cvetkovich writes about swimming as a “utopia of everyday habit”: a repetitive, physically engaged practice through which we build new worlds that show us ways out of political depression, via ordinary, everyday routines. The full text of Cvetokovich’s mini-essay on swimming is here (PDF).

Swimming is something I’ve always loved and have always done, but swimming lengths became a regular practice a few years ago when I was getting over a running injury. I think a lot about why I swim, and, unlike the other activities I do, it has very little to do with “getting exercise.”

For me, the pleasure in swimming comes from having to move in and out of the world. Underwater there is a singularity and a solitude that is utterly unlike the aloneness I experience at my desk, facing a word document like this one. I’m so physically engaged in moving through the water well, and with rhythm, that I let my mind wander. The nagging voices of imposter syndrome, an overdue article, a stack of marking, or a proposal I’m nervous about are quieted by the ways in which my body has to be completely engaged. And then I come up for air, in the world and aware of others in the pool for just long enough before I’m back with the quiet. In this way, swimming is a repetitive break with the pressures of capital and the thousand tiny anxieties that can make this kind of job hard to bear.

This oscillation is one of the meditative aspects of swimming that Cvetkovich expresses so well:

“Swimming is just an extension of breathing. I can keep moving without really thinking about it or exerting a lot of effort. Moving lets me off the hook a little bit. I can space out and let my mind continue with its obsessions because my body is carrying on, and carrying on without me. Exercise becomes an opportunity for sanctioned dissociation, and swimming is such a graceful way of moving that it seems okay to let my brain do whatever it wants. I’m sealed off from the rest of the world in the womb-like space of the pool.”

My friend cheyanne, who I’ve had the joy of swimming with in lakes, pools, and quarries, has written of swimming in a similar way. Hers is also a love story, charming because it’s so simple—sort of like swimming:

“I once fell in love with a person from Hawaii, a child born into water and who, to this day, is happiest there. In an attempt to conjure their love for me, I taught myself to swim, experimenting with how to orchestrate my breath and my body in tandem. It has been a while now since then, and I am still in love, and these days we swim together. Something beautiful happens in the space between taking breath in and bubbling it out underwater. It’s simple and yet it requires all my attention. In that precise focus, my mind is still. This is how I keep my head and heart well.”

Hot Tub Methodology

Over the last month I’ve been doing a lot of reading on feminist research methods for my dissertation proposal, working in that way where you’re gathering yourself for something but aren’t really sure yet about the practical steps you’re going to take to accomplish that thing. Patti Lather’s Getting Lost (2007) has been especially important. I’m always grateful when a book of theory comes into my life at just the right time to offer not just an intellectual engagement but a kind of self-help. Lather is so good on theorizing how to turn the vulnerabilities and imposter feelings that come along with social research into ethically engaged research design.

Dissertation Proposal Step #1: start writing group that meets in change room at Y.

From “Plateau 8: Naked Methodology”

My interest in nakedness comes from the very material practice of time in hot tubs that has characterized Chris [Lather’s co-researcher] and my methodological wrestling in our study of women living with HIV/AIDS. Grounded in the hours spent in my co-researcher’s hot tub where we discussed the project, my interest in nakedness also comes out of a small research retreat in Wisconsin when this project was at its beginning. There, structured around each of seven women having two hours of “exquisite attention” for her work in any way she wanted, I stripped and sat in a jacuzzi in a bathroom surrounded by six dressed women who fired questions at me about the ethics and politics of what I was undertaking.

As was evident at that session, such work pushed a lot of buttons for those invested in the politics of knowing and being known. This is as it should be. While naked methodology became a situated practice toward an ethical encounter with the women in our study, it is not about presenting myself as transparent, vulnerable, and absolutely frank. Based on Nietzsche’s strong thesis that every word is also a hiding place, an apparent nakedness is but a mask that conceals a will to power. Any illusion of presence unmasked is interrupted by the difficult task Nietzsche invites us to: not to unmask and demystify but, rather, to multiply perspectives toward an affirmation of life as a means to knowledge without guaranteed. This is a rigor of staging and watching oneself subvert and revalue the naked truth in order to learn to live without absolute knowledge, within indeterminacy.



Finding more a more modest “so what”

“Many works in queer studies end with a bang by imagining and describing the new social forms that supposedly emerge from gay male orgies or cruising escapades or gender-queer erotics or sodomitic sadism or at any rate queer jouissance of some form or another.”

– Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (2011: Duke)

Coming across this passage made me laugh out loud because I’ve also been reviewing my comps annotations this week and so many them end with something like, “[author name] concludes by describing how [insert their theory] offers new [horizons for, forms of, ways of imagining] [the social, relationality, history].

Rationing My Book Darts

I have these really beautiful bronze book darts that Dylan and Bridget gave me for Christmas. Later my friend Brendan gave me a package when he came back from a trip to Montreal and I added those to my collection. They are from this stationary shop in Montreal but I think you can also get them elsewhere. There is nothing about them that I don’t love.

Maybe some people use these as their main book annotating device but I feel like they are very precious and so I use them sparingly, according to the instructions printed on the back of the package: “An exact linemarker for any line worth finding.” I try to limit myself to one, sometimes two per book. I like the idea of coming back to a book when I’ve mostly forgotten the details to see which single annotation I put above all the others by marking it with a metal dart instead of just a pen.

This one is from a few weeks ago (comps reading):

The dogged, defensive narrative stiffness of a paranoid temporality, after all, in which yesterday can’t be allowed to have differed from today and tomorrow must be even more so, takes its shape from a generational narrative that’s characterized by a distinctly Oedipal regularity and repetitiveness: it happened to my father’s father, it happened to my father, it is happening to me, it will happen to my son, and it will happen to my son’s son. But isn’t it a feature of queer possibility–only a contingent feature, but a real one, and one that in turn strengthens the force of contingency itself–that our generational relations don’t always proceed in this lockstep?”

– Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)