During our recent festival, Whose London Is It Anyway? , artists occupied our windows throughout the month. Over nine hours in the windows, Mary Paterson worked on the following project:
Feminist critical practices – at Camden People’s Theatre
Initial thoughts from Diana Damian Martin
Edits by Mary Paterson throughout Thursday 26th January, in the window of Camden People’s Theatre
I wanted to begin with an extract from poet Andrea Brady, from her work Mutability. Having very recently become a mother [I find myself torn here: my instinct is to write, ‘Congratulations! I hope you are enjoying getting to know your baby. I remember those first few weeks of wonder and adoration, and the way your body adapts to holding and rocking and soothing. I wish you nothing but love and joy in those first few weeks, and it makes me smile to think of you and your new family.’ But I am wary of doing that. I’m scared of equating feminism with motherhood, or with biological reproduction. I’m scared of establishing this common ground – motherhood – between us, incase it excludes people who aren’t mothers.
On one hand, I want to write: ‘I have just walked past the hospital in which my son was born. I rarely visited this part of town for over a year after he we moved away (when we was a few weeks old), because I couldn’t bear to be reminded of either the independent, speed walking, driven person I had been before I got pregnant, or of the precious first few weeks of his life that I will never have a chance to relive.’ And on the other hand, I want to pretend that having a child is a neutral affair – like having a car, or having a holiday: a privilege and a choice, but not a fundamentally life changing experience. I was, of course, not a mother for a lot longer than I have been a mother, and I still want to roll my eyes when people talk about motherhood, as if they are letting the side down somehow – reminding the world of our biological determination, instead of our intellects.
I often think of a short story by Helen Simpson, in which a girl sitting her A-Levels walks down her street, thinking about all the women who live in the neighbouring houses, and being sure that she will never turn out like any of them. I read that story when I was in my early twenties and didn’t understand what the author was getting at; there seemed to be no point to the narrative – it was just a fragment of real life. In other words, that was how I thought. I didn’t know why women turned out as they did – domestic, small, beholden to other people. I wanted to be in the public domain – powerful, important, clever. I wanted to be like a man. I carried that ambition for years, and only let it slip away after my son was born (although I knew it had become stale and bitter long before; his birth was simply the moment I could acknowledge that it no longer means anything to me).
Now I think I understand the story better. It is about the conflict between an education which focuses on types of (public) success, and a lifetime in which community, friendships and family play the leading roles. The protagonist can see the conflict, but doesn’t understand that the women she derides for their public failures have chosen to care about other things. She doesn’t understand that it’s a choice, or that it’s possible to choose less public activities without having failed at more public ones. (Although, the fact that it is a choice between, and a choice, moreover, that men are less likely to face, is a big problem).
And yet there is still a part of me that thinks like the teenage girl: ignore the personal, the private, the domestic and the hidden if you want to make a stand in the public domain. Make a difference. Not at home, but somewhere else. Not with your friends or family, but with strangers.
Stop talking about motherhood (I think to myself, even when I find my mouth is open and out tumble words about my son), stop pretending that the things that happen in your small, unclean, domestic space are as important as the ideas being flung across the world by public people and institutions.
Stop bringing your personal experience into public discourse (I think to myself), as if that makes up for the fact that you do not really occupy public discourse or public space. Or that if you do, you only occupy it in a proscribed way, in service of other things: as a mother (you must have found, already, that being the mother of a young child on the streets of London is an even more public state of affairs than being a pregnant woman; people speak to you, touch you and your baby, give you advice, offer ‘constructive’ criticism, reminisce, help, intrude …), as a girlfriend or partner, as someone who’s decision to paint or not to paint her face screams about her inner life and her outer value. Or of the absence of any of these things.
Stop bringing your personal experience into public discourse as a mask for the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about (how could you, when you are so caught up in the private and the domestic and the unclean?). Stop pretending that your personal is political when, as the academic Gerry Harris has written, “not all of the personal is political in exactly the same way and to the same effect” (Quoted by Dee Heddon in Autobiography and Performance), and when your personal is so heteronormative, middle-class and urban (I think to myself, as I describe my son’s nanny as a childminder, to project a more accurate impression of our finances).
The blogger Glosswitch writes about bodies for a recent article in the New Statesman. She describes a similar feeling – that she doesn’t want to be a ‘Mummy’, even while she it being a mother to her children. So she started to write in order to escape her body and the role in life that it seemed to have determined for her. But instead of writing her way out of the body, she wrote her way into a different understanding of it:
“Instead I found something else: that bodies matter. Bodies that eat, sleep, care, clean, nurse, love and, yes, gestate. The world, and the sexism that pervades it, doesn’t make sense without them.”
She ends this article with a sense of ambivalence and pride that exactly describes my relationship to identity politics and the performance of identity in adulthood:
“Care work is not oppression; it is life. An end to gender roles does not mean we get to be the people we always knew we could be, all the time. All of us should be carers, whether we want to or not.
“It’s not a truth with which I am particularly comfortable. … Even so, I find that I, too, am one of “those” women. Female, a mother, a person, connected to other people. That is how it has to be.”
, and encountering a new set of identity politics and a very embodied poetics of care, Brady’s work stood out for me as encompassing a lot of aspects of feminist critique and thought, applied to the process of growth – Mutability follows a child’s arrival at language.
Mutability begins with birth, with this idea of being outside language:
To begin with an incident outside
language, beyond recollection,
enforces the solidarity of our work
to build up into sound. concussions
and a nozzle of oxygen to plead across
running like a horse, spare us
the knowledge that there is no knowledge
come rushing down, feral.
Effacing into perfect silence
the working tongue in a yellow corridor.
She goes on to speak of dark eyes fixing the borders of light and shadow, borders between bodies and identities, instinct and action. It’s a kind of critical writing that takes into account change and affect – in a way that I think is particular to what we might term feminist critical practice.
It’s useful to think about what we (you and I) might term feminist critical practices (and I think the plural is useful, too) as well as what we might recognise as feminist critical practices. These two actions (defining and recognising) might not be the same, and while we need to articulate our own approaches, I am also drawn to the idea of recognition as a different kind of …. what? A different kind of relationship, I suppose, between people who share interests without competing for terrain, resources or status.
Specifically, the relationship between embodiment, identity and critical approach –bordered by feminist discourse- as a constellation from which we might consider critical practice. I return to the body often because it is so rarely taken into account when thinking about criticism- and I want to think about ways to move beyond subjectivity, into really thinking about the role of the body within this context.
I often read and write about live art, where the body is very present: not only in the work, but also in the reception of it, and in the kinds of discourses that emerge alongside or as part of it. I am particularly drawn to this bodily writing, and the first text I think of is, of course, ‘Touching Feeling’ by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In fact, I have just taken a look at the opening lines of the book again, which I think are relevant
“[T]his collection of essays … represents a distinct project, one that has occupied a decade’s work, which has nonetheless, and with increasing stubbornness, refused to become linear in structure. I think it is best described as a project to explore promising tools and techniques for nondualistic thought and pedagogy.
“No doubt the ambition of thinking other than dualistically itself shaped the project’s resistance to taking the form of a book-length, linear argument on a single topic. A lot of voices tell us to think nondualistically, and even what to think in that fashion. Fewer are able to transmit how to go about it, the cognitive and even affective habits and practices involved, which are less than amenable to being couched in prescriptive forms. At best, I’d hope for this book to prompt recognition in some of the many people who successfully work in such ways; and where some approaches may be new or unarticulated, a sense of possibility. The ideal I’m envisioning here is a mind receptive to thoughts, able to nurture and connect them, and susceptible to happiness in their entertainment.”
The question, of course, is whether or not this approach to language and pedagogy can be described as criticism, or indeed whether critical practices can make use of this approach.
I’m also very interested in your desire to ‘move beyond subjectivity, into really thinking about the role of the body within this context.’ Do you mean the body as a shared experience? And if so, the shared experiences of a visible body (as opposed to a flaneur, for instance), or the shared experiences of the felt body, the affective body?
I have been thinking a lot about the formation of language and the relationship between critique and care (as opposed to critique and valuation). I think of Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation as marking an important shift in attitude, away from the destruction of that which is being critiqued – its endless fracturing- towards an attempt at making aspects of it visible, or present:
Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
So to what extent is the project of feminist critical practice a kind of cataloguing and developing of these lateral attitudes to discourse-making, interpretation and critique? And what is the public place of such a constellation? In what ways does it resist or appropriate collectivity, anonymity and other contemporary forms of political organisation? What should the ‘feminist’ pin onto this practice?
I have spent the last hour talking to Anna Minton about feminism, critical practices, motherhood and the city. Amongst the many things we talked about was language. Anna described the double-speak of urban developments – ‘affordable housing’, for example, which in fact means housing that can cost up to 80% of market rents, and which is still unaffordable to people on mid to low incomes. This relates to a long held interest of mine in the structure of language – its grammar and syntax, its spelling, as well as the etymology and new formations of words and meanings.
Anyone who writes anything knows that language is not a neutral tool, but a system that acts on experiences as it ‘puts them into words.’ This putting into words is complicated and simple. The words belong to other people, and they are the only way to communicate. They are shared but they are policed, and this policing is carried out by people who already have the power to speak and be heard. If enough people say ‘affordable housing’, for example, when they mean ‘unaffordable housing’ then it becomes impossible to use the words ‘affordable housing’ to mean housing that people can afford.
Something intangbile has shifted. Something has changed in the fabric of the air. Now, when the words ‘affordable housing’ are pushed into the diesel fumes above London, they leave a shape that is not their own. A shape that means capitalist dominance, private ownership, property as identity, value as money. A shape that does not mean ‘affordable’ or ‘housing.’ Language has created a new law via the performance of its duplicity in the mouths of people who lick it into unfamiliar smooth shapes with each flick of their tongues.
‘Interpretation’ could be this law-making. Or it could be the dissection of the law-making. In either case, and in my opinion, a feminist critical practice would use language to repeal laws, to soften the thickness of the air, to unstick words from their own performance, to shatter the assumption of linear meaning which underpins every aspect of (the english) language and to ask people to trace its broken edges until their fingers bleed.
I am being poetic. Deliberately poetic. Perhaps it is because the light is beginning to fade and my lit-up window in Camden People’s Theatre is becoming more visible, which in turn means that school boys are beginning to knock on the window and ask me to suck their cocks. So I am losing the patience that I find comes with doing things on my own terms. I wanted to be in public space, a no-longer young woman with no good reason to be here (or not). But it is, inevitably, uncomfortable to be noticed; uncomfortable to be reminded that a woman is still a girl is still a woman who is still intimidated by a 15 year old boy trying to impress his friends.
I break up language as a kind of defence. The same kind of defence as giving money to charity – all my money, more of it, pour it out of my overdraft leak it out of my fingertips signal it away from my phone – in the hope that me and my family will not be the ones who drown on boats in freezing water or feel our feet rot in the mud at the edge of the world’s sixth largest economy. It’s superstitious. It’s symbolic. But it’s also real.
A lot of contemporary thinking about politics places emphasis on visibility as a powerful tool, and I have some reservations about its efficacy beyond the conceptual realm, but ΩSontag’s essay, I think visibility gains a different meaning – a symbiosis between a mode of looking and thinking, and its articulation. Perhaps a feminist critical practice is one that always juggles multiple perspectives/vantage points?
Mieke Bal speaks of something similar when she talks about description as being a process through which a form of subjectivity is revealed, but something new is also constructed. I am interested in the inter-dependence between that new discourse that is created, and that which it is referring to – in a similar relationship between mother and child, between care, nurture and independence.
I have just been talking to Louise Owen about the cult of the individual (my phrase, not hers). She was talking about the ways in which neoliberal culture encourages people to pursue unrealistic, individualistic dreams: we strive for extraordinary success – a supernatural rise in money and fame, the apotheosis of our intrinsically deserving selves – achieved, paradoxically, by conforming to rigid standards of selfhood drawn along lines of gender, race and class. We talked about pole dancing and ‘natural’ childbirth as performances which have been re-styled in the language of women’s liberation, but which still sing the same old patriarchal tune (perform the whore for your husband; perform the martyr for your child).
Brady’s writing is not dissimilar to writing I have encountered that might encompass art writing, performative writing or different forms of critique- I am thinking here about the work of Maria Fusco, Helene Cixous, Mieke Bal or Caroline Bergvall (and how this spiders into different histories and narratives of art history too). In its emphasis of course on the form of poetry, and on the processes of early motherhood, it is suggestive of a mode of engagement that moves between identities, tones, styles and subjects, but maintains a commitment.
I love this phrase: ‘maintains a commitment.’ I love the way it is hanging at the end of a paragraph, like a burst of perfume left hanging in the air. But what does it mean? What does Brady’s writing maintain a commitment to? A commitment to movement, change, difference? A commitment to stasis, care, repetition?
Louise told me about an essay called NeoLiberal Newspeak by Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, which compares the words used to describe the market (good) and words that describe the state (bad). The state is described (among other things) as ‘closed, rigid, immobile, stasis’ and the market as ‘freedom, flexible, dynamic, self-transforming, growth.’ I have not yet read the whole article, but it has made me think about ‘criticality’ as defined by the academic Irit Rogoff:
“The more current phase of cultural theory, which I am calling ‘criticality’ (perhaps not the best term but the one I have at my disposal for the moment), is taking shape through an emphasis on the present, of living out a situation, of understanding culture as a series of effects rather than of causes, of the possibilities of actualising some of its potential rather than revealing its faults. Obviously influenced by the work of Deleuze, Nancy and Agamben, by their undoing of the dichotomies of ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’ through numerous emergent categories such as rhizomatics, folds, singularities, etc.’ that collapse such binarities and replace them with a complex multi-inhabitation, ‘criticality ‘is therefore connected in my mind with risk, with a cultural inhabitation that performatively acknowledges what it is risking without yet fully being able to articulate it.”
I wonder now if I have found it easier to seize on the elements of risk, complexity and multi-inhabitation in this definition of criticality (which Rogoff describes – not unproblematically – as the third in a continuum of cultural practices, preceded by critique and criticism) than the elements of rhizomatics and potential. I think of criticality as a woman (yes, it’s Irit Rogoff) standing on a floating carpet in the stairwell of an institution – neither welcome nor unwelcome, neither stable nor fatally flawed, trying to maintain her balance while, at any time, the rug could be pulled from beneath her feet.
But why all the movement? Why all the dynamism? Why all the risk?
Is it because I think of those qualities as more authentic than (for example) standing still, deep in thought, responding to an environment as part of a daily routine? Can there be a poetics of care in critical practices?
“’Criticality’ as I perceive it is precisely in the operations of recognising the limitations of one’s thought for one does not learn something new until one unlearns something old, otherwise one is simply adding information rather than rethinking a structure.”
Rereading this now, a different vision comes to mind. Instead of a woman surfing the cultural zeitgeist at the fringes of an institution, I am imagining a pot of soup bubbling on the stove at home. The soup has been made from all the old bits of vegetables that lost their first purpose a few days ago. Now they need to be chopped carefully and stirred into other flavours. The soup will stay on the stove for a few days more, as ladle-fulls of broth are taken out and handfuls of new vegetables poured in. The soup that I eat tomorrow will not taste the same as the soup that I eat the day after that. Always in process and always holding the promise of more, the soup needs to be re-tasted, re-seasoned and renamed each time.
In that way, Brady shows the extent to which (and there has of course, been much writing on this- Jill Dolan or Sara Ahmed, for example) identity politics are tied to both feminism and criticism. I am really interested in tracing the histories and lineages that might collide within this umbrella of feminist critical practice for this very reason – I think it might shed light on different ways in which feminist discourses within art, literature or performance, and theoretical discourses on criticism from within those fields, might intersect in productive ways.
Can we speak of a feminist critical practice without resorting to authority, to identity politics, to cultural or symbolic capital? If affect or sensibility enter the form and approach , can we move beyond writing about performance or art, to writing from those subjects? Can we enter the territory of the political, and how might we do that?
There is also a different dimension here, and that is to do with the relationship between public and private. I have been thinking a lot lately, due to my research, about the development of the public sphere in the 18th century (and its delineation as a very male, bourgeois affair as Nancy Fraser has argued), and the presence and role of women within these circles, be they literary or political. Even then, the relationship between public and private was very much being crafted, and delineated in relation to the domestic and the public – though this did not necessarily limit the participation of women until later on (and historians have argued that it was the presence and form of women’s engagement in these circles, be it through letter-writing or in the manner of their spoken contributions, that shaped a more gendered, but complex set of relationships between critique, male identity and authority) . To speak of feminist critical practice now is to also consider the borders between public and private, between active participation and authorship. I wonder what role collectivity and anonymity still play in this context
To me, the word critique is important within this, because it suggest an attitude, a judgment, set in a context that is almost in contradiction with the discourses normally attributed to it; critique is , to some extent, embedded in a patriarchal history, suggestive of authority, power structures and authorship – in some ways, very gendered. Reviewing is the case in point, not only because of those who perform it, but more interestingly, because of the form itself, and its relationship to both authority and authorship. I want to bring engage with forms of critical practice that dismiss this history of attitudes, and perform critical engagement in different ways- perhaps more slippery, more subjective, yet still taking positions, engaging, disseminating and proposing.
Can we think of critique as more fluid process, as a set of multiple positions in relation to something, as an attitude that is more interested in opening up discourse rather than pinning down value? Might this be what feminist critical practice invites?
I was thinking about what you said on motherhood and identity (and that fracturing of recollecting the personal, and its shadowing or place in the public); what we are thinking about here is not to do with those identity tropes, but with a collection of practices – and yes, I think the plural is important too. I remember reading the same article you mention earlier (about this very issue of binaries when it comes to discussing feminism and female identity, in close relation to professional or artistic practice)- I don’t think we should think of moterhood, or care, or the realm of the personal, as something in tension with (despite it being so, in the public realm), but in conversation – and moving beyond those tropes is an important practice in any form of criticism too. I wonder if what we are trying to find, or carve out, is both a space of independence and inter-dependence, in which various modes (formal, personal, political) can work with each other.
(I found it so powerful to consider motherhood not as a new identity, but as a process weaving into my life, as it was, slowly; I struggled with the idea of agency and limitation so much during pregnancy, but found it very different once I met my daughter – and the thinking we do together, and the changes that are slowly coming our way).
CPT’s season of work is focused on discussing the privatisation of public spaces, and I think what we are concerned with delineating here is very closely connected to those public/private divisions, in the same ways in which it’s impossible to escape identity politics when discussing contemporary feminism (I am thinking here about Hannah Arendt writing on the conflation of the social and the political – her mild conservativism which always seemed to me at odds with her belief in friendship and collectivity). To what extent are we connecting thinking on the nature of the public realm with such feminist critical practices? What might they foreground- the body, the affective, the subjective, in close relationship to critical thought, judgment, appearance?
I am very curious to understand how these modes of appropriateness have come to govern so much of art and critical practice; I’ve been reading lately quite a lot about salon and literary culture in 18th century England and Scotland – Susan Dalton’s book Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Sphere in Eighteenth Century Europe is particularly interesting. What is transpiring in my reading is the complicated relationship between regimes of visibility (what is appropriate in what realm) and the formation of cultural and professional identities. Women played an important part in shaping certain critical attitudes towards both political and artistic debate, but this has taken many turns since we first started speaking about public sphere and modes of collective debate. (I place particular emphasis on the collective and the public because I think the presence of bodies, and the opening up of debate, are very precious, and very much under threat by the increasingly neoliberal practices of fiscalisation and privatisation).
Of course, you see this in much discourse on feminist art and performance now (I am thinking, for eg, of LADA’s collation of arguments and practices in Are We There Yet?) and I wonder in what ways these two are related; where do we trace the origins of feminist critical practice (do we begin with Sontag, with Cixous, or much earlier than that? Do we look at art practice as a whole, or can we consider thinkers like Arendt? And of course, this does not have to be limited to women, so what might the fluid boundaries be? Are we looking at form – Lois Weaver’s longtable, for example, or French literary salongs? And how about the rich lineage of work and thought emerging from poetics, and activist practices?)
The final thought I had was to do with relationships to subject matter; writing itself as a space of debate, but one that is fuelled by relationships- to what I call the referent (that which we are being critical of, or writing from), to readers, to ourselveds, to form. So I am not sure if there is an ending, but there are many beginnings; maybe we begin with connections; or with care; or with friendship; or with thought.