Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.
Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.
Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)
As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.
I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.
So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla Benhabib, Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.
I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.
What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”
I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”
I was rewriting my biography last week, amazing how many hours can be spent on 240 words. I realised that it’s been a while since Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan, has been one of the foci of my studies. China’s still there, mediæval northern European / germanic history has sprung from nowhere to rout swathes of interests, as has Islamic history.
A big one right there, “Islamic History”. What does that even mean? Well, my interests in China did and do have a component that’s concerned with the borders, not China proper, occupied China, whatever we might agree in the future is the term for Tibet, Xinjiang, even the provinces like Guangdong and others, which could be regarded as discrete countries, and in that Islam plays a role, either in Xinjiang as the eastern-most region of Central Asia, or in Guangdong as the port on trade routes that saw significant Muslim presence. Then there’s my Central Asian / Afghanistan interest, obviously Islamic (as well as Buddhist and others), which in the past few years has slid more consciously over into an interest in Iran, thanks in no small amount to Najmabadi. And then there’s whatever is in Berlin, which reaches out to Germany, and across Europe. A history of any of these is inextricable from a history of people who also happened to be Muslim, whether immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or locals (not sure how long you have to be a descendant for before you’re a local; that’s the conversation we’re having right now).
So I’m vaguely defining my current interests and studies as Northern European & Germanic mediæval, Islamic, and Chinese history, with an emphasis on women’s roles and representation. Which sounds like a whole tanker of “What the Fuck?” but if there’s one thing I do even if I don’t consciously trust my doing, it’s have seemingly wildly divergent interests that are in actual fact deeply intertwined. (And yes, my love of hoonage is not incommensurable with this.) And it’s people like Najmabadi and books like Islamicate Sexualities that help me understand this.
And what a book. If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of works mentioned which go onto my Must Buy! Ned Cash 4 Bookz list, this one will bankrupt me.
I was watching the première of Pitch on the weekend. It’s a Fox TV series about a young black woman who becomes the first woman to play for a Major League baseball team; a serious drama marketing campaign equivalent of the “You Never Lamb Alone” ad (“What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!”). I have zero interest in baseball, but there I was watching it when for a split second the camera cuts to close-up pan the grandstands and it’s totally “What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!” cos there’s a woman standing wearing a long white hijab in a crowd that’s multicultural as fuck. I don’t know if this is representative of an average baseball crowd, my feeling (informed only by unintentional slopping around the edges of US sports culture) is that American baseball has one of the whiter sports audiences, not NASCAR, but over that end of the spectrum. What that image is about is desire — even if it’s primarily driven by marketing and money. In combination with casting a black woman as a rookie Major League player, it says, “We see you and we want you here.” And again, even if this is cravenly driven by money, we see ourselves in this and once we are visible, we can decide how to interpret our image. And if we don’t see ourselves, we’re nothing.
And how, Frances, does this relate to Islamicate Sexualities? Same weekend, watching the second episode of High Maintenance where the first story is about a young South Asian student living in Brooklyn with her religious aunt and uncle, negotiating that while wanting to get blazed on the roof. The first essay, also the introduction goes between Orientalism, homo-nationalism, queer colonialism, mediæval history, post-colonial theory, to sketch out a broad proposal for how we might talk about sexualities, and by extension identities, for people living in and coming from Islamicate regions, cultures, and/or backgrounds. And talking about ourselves, not being talked about.
Somewhere recently I said I was only interested in reading works coming from this perspective, that the issues and questions around desire, identity, self and community would only find partial, incomplete answers in feminism/queer/whatever we’re currently calling it that was located within an Anglo-Euro-American (throw in Australasian) historical frame of reference, a reference that’s inherently white. Or to put it another way, we’re not going to find an answer to colonialism from colonialists. This is something I think has become unambiguous from living in Europe and Germany, where not only is there an unwillingness to regard immigrants of how ever many generations distant as ‘German’, we’re not even at the point of admitting this a fundamental problem. My reading of works like Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany played a big part in beginning to understand this and formulate my thinking, as did more recently Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. I’m reading writers like these substantially because they’re the only ones prepared to address these issues.
Islamicate Sexualities was published in 2008, emerging from a seminar held in 2003. That’s a generation, a lifetime ago, the seminar a few months older than 4Chan; the book barely younger than tumblr. Yeah, I’m talking about 4Chan and tumblr. If you want to understand how transgender/transsexual/trans people (I mean trans women here) and identities came over the last few years (call it a decade) to where they are now, places like these (along with LiveJournal, and probably MySpace, but that’s all been lost) are critical. And how fast this is moving means a book like this is going to miss a huge part of the conversation as much as it retroactively informs and predicts. (And as for why our part of the conversation is only recently tipped the queer/cool meter, that’s the history of Anglo-Euro-American feminism/queer right there.) I’ve barely read the first part, so I’m not pre-emptively criticising it here, just pointing out its age, how things have changed in eight years, and what that might mean for a prospective reader.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
I fucking loved the shit out of this book. Hated the ending.
Let’s get the ending over with, otherwise it’s gonna hang around like a dead thing. It’s the ending you write when you don’t want to make an already heavy book a morality story, when you don’t want the reader to leave going, oh, it’s about this and means that, and here’s the resolution, and it’s poetic and all works out somehow. It’s a Greg Araki Totally Fucked Up, or Doom Generation, ’90s nihilism ending which Nevada didn’t need because it was already about something and had committed to saying that something. It’s the ending that happened because it needed to finish somewhere without going on to a third part, and with a second part that only half-worked and didn’t leave many other options.
Anyway, fuck the ending, this is one of my books of the year. I said to Dasniya last night, while hobbling on crutches, I have a book I want you to read. I say that a lot, or, you should read this book. This time I said, this one I want you to read, it’s not like the others, it’s important.
Who the fuck is Imogen Binnie? Why am I reading non-Skiffy fiction? And why am I swearing so much? Last question first: because I just read Nevada and it was like reading a story of me. Middle question: because it’s Imogen Binnie. First question:
So there’s this blog called keep your bridges burning that I’ve been reading for, I dunno, at least a couple of years, I have a feeling since early 2011, or maybe the writer had another blog before that and I jumped over from old to new. Anyway, of all the trans(*) inter queer feminist blogs I read (many) or have read (many many), this one is one of the best. I will always read whatever turns up in my feed from there. And every so often I’ll be reading something somewhere like PrettyQueer or Autostraddle somewhere else and there’ll be a piece that I’m like Whutthefuck? Who is writing this shit? (yeah, I actually do have conversations in my brain like that; it’s pretty adolescent up there. And, positive use of word, ‘shit’), or a comment or something and it turns out I’m back at those bridges again. And then there was this book, which I definitely read about on bridges at least early this year, and then forgot. Probably. And then I read about it somewhere else and thought hey that sounds kinda good and so obviously, cos I’m a bit slow it took me a while to work out the author is one in the same: Imogen Binnie.
I decided to add it to my most recent pile, not fitting in at all with the fantasy reading or the China stuff, closer with Julia Serrano, but really, no idea over here. And I started it and got through the first page or so of choking sex and thought yup, ok, I’ll deal with this one after some escapism.
To be honest, I wasn’t so enthused by that first page or two. I read a whole shitload of Gay and Lesbian Fiction in my teens and early-20s, almost all of it is utterly, utterly, horribly bland and mediocre and middle class white American dross of the ‘like I give a fuck?’ kind. I don’t, which is why I read skiffy. Reading pile depleted, I was up to Nevada and really, truly prepared to give it the best shot I could, after all, the blog, the author. I got through the first couple of pages and I was like, fuck! yeah! and read the shit out of it.
What else do I say? It was like reading part of me in my teens, the drugs, homelessness, euphoria and terror, the blankness when I was looking at myself, the anger also, the inability to even think coherently of my own identity, bound as that thinking was to some pretty odious language (substitute essentialist lesbian feminism in the second half of the book and it’s a good fit), the getting past that and finding still more blankness and inability, more anger, and the relief from that in books and riding my bike; being alone because I was and am best on my own.
I thought also a lot of people might not get anything from this, because it doesn’t speak to them subjectively. And I thought of me reading feminism in my teens, Daly and those other essentialist crypto-nazis, and that I’d not read bell hooks then because somehow I couldn’t see the relevance of a black American woman to my life in the Antipodes. Or perhaps even to feminism. Perhaps it takes discovering you yourself are not entirely white (and that the category ‘white’ is itself a racist construct, empirically without substance) to attain the subjectivity necessary to understand that reading someone like hooks is critical precisely because you can’t anticipate your own biases and prejudices. Equally possible is that I’m remembering my previous encounter with hooks entirely falsely. Supposing I am not then, reading Nevada should form a triumvirate with Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl and Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. And some bell hooks. Make that a quadrumvirate.
In the late ’90s there were these two books published, sort of semi-fictional autobiography written by a supposed HIV+ trans kid called JT LeRoy. I read those like I did Nevada, though with some distance; the world wasn’t the same, but it was still nice to read something that felt like parts of me and my life. Then it turned out JT was a middle-aged woman in NYC and we were all being bullshitted. A lot of pissed people, and a lot more scepticism since then when it comes to reading autobiographies or semi-fictional works. There’s the thing with bell hooks again. We need our own people; we need to say things for ourselves and not have white, male-identified, hetero- and/or cisnormative loudmouths shove their way in and take over. Like the way punk got taken over. Like the way gay, lesbian, queer got taken over. Lately I’ve been thinking the way the Voguing renaissance has been taken over by gay boys and cis women, and the trans women have been thoroughly pushed off the stage. Imogen Binnie is one of our people, and if you give a fuck at all about what it’s like to be a trans woman, you’ll read the shit out of this book also.
The reasons why I read sci-fi over all other forms of fiction have something to do with how it can help me regard myself and the world, given that there is a certain political and philosophical position underpinning the stuff I admire. Generally this is not the case for any other fiction, genre-based or otherwise, I think precisely because that underpinning is absent or secondary as a component in these other fiction forms. I read Nevada then, and find it something of a sci-fi work, because it embodies a political and philosophical position comparable to that of sci-fi (ok, let’s be clear here: I’m talking primarily about Banks, Miéville, and Stross); because I have to read it doing some heavy thinking. I also find it pretty confronting, and while I can’t bugger off like Maria with a stolen car and a sock full of smack, I am thinking, still thinking.
Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body is one of the few crucial texts on identity that I’ve read, along of course with Judith Butler (take your pick, though Undoing Gender is rather fine), and she is sadly one of those writers who publish very infrequently. Sex/Gender – Biology in a Social World is only her third, and I was dead excited when I saw it. Less than excited now I have it on my shelf.
I bought it at the same time I did 2312, and if you averaged the pages and prices of both they were pretty reasonable. 2312 was around 12€ and has 500+ pages, which leads one to the conversation of why Routledge is publishing a thin book (barely 120 pages of actual text), in a not especially small font, and similarly thin cover for something around 25€. Part of a “series integrating science and culture” it seems. Well, ok, I’ve blown greater sums on thin works that have been worth it, however painful the extraction of euros has been, so I was looking forward to some juicy, heavy evaluations of the subject covering the last 12 years since Sexing the Body was published.
More disappointment. Perhaps it will pick up in subsequent pages, but a sixth of the way in I can say this book is at most aimed at first-year university students who are not majoring in Gender Studies, Feminism or any other similar humanities field. Perhaps it’s aimed as an intro text for biology students to get a handle on the subject, but this certainly isn’t the follow-up to Sexing the Body I was hoping for, nor, I suspect, will it provide much in the way of new ideas or information for anyone even moderately reading in these fields. Which makes me feel this is a slightly misleadingly presented work.
All this not to say for anyone wishing to get a concise grasp on identity (and nailing such delicious things as to why, for example, the division current theoretical division of identity into sex and gender is at best specious), and is prepared to front up the euros will probably find it worthwhile.
It’s not often I’m taken with glee to read of the death of someone. During the years I’ve blogged, many of the writers and philosophers who have had the greatest influence on me have died. Often, I feel their deaths bode ill for a world greatly in need of such thinkers, I wonder where such new voices will come from, though I know equally, looking across the books arrayed on my desk, many of which from writers long having exited, that they will come, are already here, and I shall delight in them also.
But to feel satisfaction, joy even at the death of one who is a writer also, a feminist even, who equally had a profound influence upon me, surely that is a rotten thing?
I want to say, “The bitch is dead! That vile, nasty, hate-mongering, small-minded shrew has gone. Better for all of us though if she had thirty or more years ago”.
I have a weakness to be easily led, impressionable, likely to be swayed by arguments when I don’t have the courage of my own convictions. It gets me into trouble and perhaps is why, contra that, I tend towards the opposite; distrustful, skeptical, likely to use large hammers to muse upon small problems, likely also to spend days reading on a single sentence someone might have uttered in passing, so I can begin to have an opinion. Wary always of fascism of thinking and doing.
My introduction to feminism came at the end of what is posthumously called the second wave. I think. It’s all confusing for me, and really, I reduce it to this: before and after Gender Trouble. Certainly there were things afoot before Saint Uncle Judith published what was really only meant for a few people to read, and luckily for me in the course of reading it, I had friends who could split hairs over the French feminist philosophers, whom I’d call to ask notoriously dumb questions about Lacan. That book though changed much, though not enough.
There are still others I shall delight in their deaths: Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond, others less so because they have become irrelevant. Still hateful and causing harm, but anachronistic and laughable, deserving of scorn and ridicule, not of serious debate.
Feminism though, because of its so easily led fascination with essentialism, a crypto-religious and uncritical adoration of Woman counterpoised against Men, rooted in some asinine pseudo-biology, lapped up the rotten phobias of such woman (including the thankfully dead Andrea Dworkin) and found an ideal marriage with political lesbianism to spawn such repugnant ideologies as radical feminist lesbian separatism.
Feminism as it was in this guise had far more in common with nationalism than any movement of liberation and human rights.
For me my early adventures in feminism were in this. Obviously, it didn’t go well. Feminism was then extremely tangled up in defining what was woman, and by extension, who was not. And just because you were a woman didn’t necessarily mean that de jure you were.
It is because of such women I find myself deeply conflicted to call myself feminist. Too often I find such hate-mongering that I would like to think Judith drew a line under has resurfaced. There are plenty of women who still whole-heartedly ascribe to such statements calling for the erasing of a class of people, that against any other group would be cause for immediate and swift condemnation at the least. That feminism as a whole – and I do find the relativist dissembling of counterclaims that there are many feminisms does feminism no favours – is so lacking in some indefinable regard as to not stake its own claims upon some inalienable rights and vociferously and unequivocally condemn such writers, for me at least means I always am suspicious, always waiting for the resurgence of separatism and hate.
A road that shouldn’t have been gone down. Feminism from that era, of which I caught the tail end and was soundly wrung out by, reminds me now of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The speak bitterness campaigns, the condemnations, the destruction of individuals because they weren’t the right kind of feminist, the right kind of lesbian, the right kind of woman. It disgusts me now.
Perhaps though we should celebrate, be thankful that what these people believe in is a dead end, that queer and trans happened. That isn’t enough though. The difficulty of looking at one’s own unsavory past is always the stumbling point that breeds cynicism and allows for the possibility of more of the same.
So. Who have I been thinking upon while writing this? Someone who is a liar, a hatemonger, a segregationist, an advocate of genocide, a feminist.
Personally, I find the first the easiest to denounce someone on. To fabricate or falsify with the aim of advancing your agenda is simply unacademic and the author deservedly should be publicly exposed and hounded out of university life. The others though are less easy to deal with.
A woman who banned men from her university lectures, who publicly discussed the “decontamination” of earth through a “drastic reduction of the population of males”, who aligns herself with Janice Raymond’s claims that, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies…”, this is feminism as it was done by Mary Daly, and is still done all too often.
I’m not sure of the trail that led me to spending some of an afternoon reading interviews with Judith Butler, I mean I could go through the history in my www browsing and describe a literal path, but mmm… that was just the links I clicked or searched for, not what I was thinking. It was though a journey though, or maybe an inadvertent summarising of queer and feminism as it found itself in the early ’90s. Or really, the ’80s.
Most of this stuff I read after the fact, Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin possibly representing collectively the autocratic policing on desire, and the sexless, bitter dead-end of radical feminism, Mary Daly and Janice Raymond (among others) and a similarly hostile biologically-founded essentialism all-together signifying more than a decade wherein gender and desire were impossibly politicised. It reminds me of Cultural Revolution ‘speak bitterness’ campaigns, self-criticisms and being sent down to reform through labour for not being, in this case lesbian feminist or womyn-identified enough.
And so after the fact again, alway late I am, maybe off somewhere thinking too much and so I miss everything, I was handed Judith Butler, and fell into the giddy world of ’90s queer theory, identity politics, cultural theory mmm… fun reading. Diana Fuss, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, also writers I’ve yet to read, but whom I seem to have been influenced by via some osmosis, Kate Bornstein, Judith Halberstam, Matt Bernstein Sycamore, Leslie Feinberg, oh so much to read and soon. I feel I’m about to be seduced away from Central Asia by a bunch of queers.
I was reading some articles I’ve read about or absorbed quoted paragraphs from for years but never got around to, and mostly to do with the feminist-trans issue that is as hostile as it is boring. You can read about it elsewhere, other than to say the kind of feminist and queer and lesbian I like to hang out with thinks, in the words of Leslie Feinberg, “Who cares what anybody’s got between their legs?…”)
And Judith. “The Body You Want: Liz Kotz interviews Judith Butler,” Artforum 31, no. 3 (November 1992). I had a moment where I gasped in pleasure, after reading Undoing Gender and thinking so much of that was such a progression of ideas from Gender Trouble, and then here not two years after that was published, she talks about Hegel and desire and I thought, oh all that time you were thinking this… “And what I wrote on in Hegel was desire, and the relationship between desire and recognition, and whether desire was in some sense always a desire for recognition. And I think I’m still writing about that.” (Then I thought, “Oh… I have to re-read Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter again.”
All though reading these papers today I was thinking how far we’ve come, though I suppose it has been nearly twenty years since Gender Trouble was published, and maybe 14 since I first read it. But something’s changed, in the last year or so, returning to all this writing that for a time seemed hopelessly contrived, over-simplistic, or just co-opted by a sanitised mainstream gay attitude or equally proscriptive queer politic, and it’s as if, oh being late again because I was off staring at clouds or day-dreaming of ponies in Afghanistan… it no longer feels so unrealistic or utopian.