Not Weaving, Not Unweaving: Feminism, Fabrication & the Disruption of Intellectual Culture

When I learned that Helen Tartar, editor of Fordham University Press, had died in a tragic car accident, the first thing I thought of was the fact that my school’s (Drew University) annual Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium was only a matter of weeks away. I go to this conference every year, and I found it impossible for me to imagine the TTC without Helen in the audience, patiently knitting and listening while she sat through the extremely long and intense weekend conversation. I still remember the first time that I attended the TTC, as a new PhD student, in 2009. I saw this elegant woman in the crowd, quite obviously attuned to the intellectual discourse, yet simultaneously knitting this incredible and intricate lace garment. I found it oddly empowering. I was unsurprised to learn, over the course of time, what a subtle, elegant, and intricate critical imagination Helen had—as a thinker, and an editor. In a certain sense—though she was extremely kind, deeply unpretentious, and totally unassuming—you might say that she almost wore this on her sleeve. As an editor, she did so much to broadcast the kind of intellectual work that was being done at Drew. She started a series, to publish the annual proceedings of the TTC, and the kind of feminism that’s emerged from the ecosystem that is Drew University (deeply informed by thinkers like my advisor Catherine Keller, by Virginia Burrus, by Laurel Kearns, as well as former administrators like Maxine Beach and Anne Yardley) came through so well in powerfully simple things like the covers of these books. But over the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to articulate what it was that I found so oddly empowering when I saw Helen knitting in the midst of an academic conference.

On some levels, it’s obvious. I grew up in a family of women who sew. My great grandmother was skilled at making lace crochet. By the time I knew her, she had lost much of her hearing and much of her eyesight. But the home of my grandparents, and my own home, were graced with curtains she’d made decades earlier. The lace was thick, but the patterns she wove were large enough to filter the sun into speckled streams. My mother and I were both a little heartbroken when our crazy beagle, Teddy, chewed off the corner of one of these curtains so that he would have a small porthole to stick his head through, to stare out the window. I think either my mother or I might have cried. But who can really blame a dog for wanting a better view? My grandmother used to make these fantastic dresses for herself, and for her grandaughters. Living in an immigrant family (with seven children), who’d come to the U.S. after living in a displaced persons camp, my grandmother never had much money. But she worked as a seamstress and had enough to buy, periodically, some beautiful silky fabric for an elegant dress. And enough to keep a little bottle of Chanel No.5 on her vanity, for special occasions. She was glamorous, and I was in awe of her. One year, for Christmas, she made my cousins and I these velvety dresses in different shades of red. I felt like we were royalty. My mother went through a period in her hippy youth where she made all of her own clothes. And we still own some of the intricate and embroidered little garments that she made for me as a small child. I used her old sewing machine until I was in college, and I cried when it broke down. I did. I had to call her, thinking that I should ask for permission before I got a new one. She laughed, because it’s just a machine. But for me, there were histories bound up in the machine: ties to my past, to the women of my family who’d passed away and left me with their skills and sensibilities.

It’s weird, I know, for me to write about this at a place like AUFS. Even though I’ve written about things like Barbie before, I kind of feel like this is one of those places where I go to be a little bit more of a dude. But I’ve seen this blog billed as an “anomalous” space. So I’m just going to go ahead and anomalize a bit. Say what I want.

This past weekend, at the TTC, we ended up making a quilt for Helen. Read the rest of this entry »

A nation of Potiphar’s wives

In recent years, a reactionary discourse on rape has infected our political discourse. While American attitudes and practices on this issue have always been alarmingly inclined to naturalize men’s violent impulses and blame the victim whenever possible, the new wave of rape discourse inaugurated by Tea Party political candidates has in many ways taken things to the next level. What strikes me about these rape apologists is the fact that they’re clearly haunted by the possibility that a woman will falsely accuse them of rape — at which point their lives will surely be ruined as they’re hounded into prison and out of polite society.

In reality, any woman charging a man with rape faces an uphill battle, in which the trial is sure to devolve into a ritual public shaming of the victim for any sexual indiscretion — indeed any sexual desire — the defense can dig up in her past. As such, many victims choose not to press charges. Given these realities, the notion that anyone would make up a spurious rape charge as a way to persecute a man strains credulity. Of course, we’re dealing with people who create their own imaginary reality based on their insecurities and resentments, so the actual statistics have limited relevance for them in any case.

I was initially willing to entertain the possibility that the kind of false rape accusation they’re envisioning had literally never happened even once, but then my mind wandered to a famous biblical example: Potiphar’s wife. Read the rest of this entry »

Being a Woman in a Man’s Science Fiction Universe

Lately The Girlfriend and I have been watching Star Trek: Voyager, the first Trek series to feature a woman captain. The transition is different from the shift to a black captain in Deep Space Nine — whereas Sisko’s blackness (like Geordi LaForge’s before him) was glaringly never made a theme, at least until very late in the series, Janeway’s gender seems to be creating all kinds of neurotic symptoms as the series desperately tries to repress the flagrant sexism of the Star Trek franchise. In the first season, for instance, there were at least ten episodes that turned on whether the ship could widen a narrow opening sufficiently to penetrate it. If it happened once, I’d say that I’m reading too much into it — but it was used so obsessively that it’s impossible to ignore.

It’s gotten more subtle as the series has progressed, but the repressed sexism is still operational. This is most notable in the infamous episode Tuvix, where a bizarre transporter accident leads to the combination of two characters (Tuvok and Neelix, hence the name) into a single entity. This new character has his own personality and consciousness, and when they finally develop a way to separate Tuvok and Neelix back out, he strongly resists as he doesn’t want to die. Reportedly there are many fans who believe that Janeway is essentially a murderer for forcing Tuvix to undergo the procedure.

Now this moral dilemma at first appeared to be so convoluted that even an analytic philosopher could never have come up with it. Yet as I cast about for potential analogies, a significant one presented itself: namely, abortion. The most immediate analogy is to the possibility of an abortion to save the life of the mother (Tuvix at one point says he thinks of Tuvok and Neelix as his parents). Yet one could also say that there are echoes of more “optional” abortions where a mother’s life will be significantly disrupted by a child — because although Tuvok and Neelix are “dead” in the sense of no longer controlling their own lives, they are still in some sense “alive” because Tuvok shares their memories and their emotional responses to certain friends, etc. Indeed, it’s as though the issue of two people being permanently and irrevocably “stuck” with each other (as with a mother and child) and the issue of the sentience of the fetus are separated out, but in such a way as to exacerbate both issues. After all, Tuvix is much more clearly a full-fledged human(oid) being than a fetus is!

The fact that Janeway makes the final decision is also an interesting displacement. Neither Tuvok nor Neelix have any agency in the situation, but it is a woman who decides to terminate the “pregnancy” for the sake of the “parents.” She is at once the “abortion doctor” (since the ship’s doctor refuses to perform the procedure and she does it herself) and the woman making the decision.

I’m sure we could analyze this further, and I definitely don’t want to get into a discussion of abortion as such — but isn’t it strange that this convoluted, abortion-like scenario only comes up with a woman captain? And isn’t it interesting that some fans still regard Janeway as a murderer while giving a pass to, for instance, the war crimes committed by Sisko on Deep Space Nine?

Women’s awkwardness

It’s widely agreed that the lack of women’s awkwardness is a glaring fault in Awkwardness. I defended myself initially by claiming that there were not very many women characters or woman-centered shows that belonged to the contemporary “awkwardness trend,” and at the time that was true enough. If I were to rewrite the book today, though, I would not simply include the newer “awkward humor” explicitly centered on women, which has arisen in the wake of the trend I was responding to. Instead, I would have to place awkward entertainment in a broader historical context, which would reveal a shocking truth: women have always been awkward and have always been portrayed as such in American television. I mean this very precisely. “Girls” are not awkward, because girls have a set place — as the object of boys’ affections. Mothers are also not awkward, because they have a set role. Women, however, are awkward, and more radically so than any man could be. Career women, young women out dating, even young married women who are still feeling their way into the role and don’t have children yet — none of them have a place, none of them have a standard or model.

Women’s awkwardness seemed to be absent from the trend because women’s awkwardness has been a constant feature of the comedy landscape. Hence we can understand the reactionary character of Apatow-style men’s awkwardness — it is attempting to claim the comedic territory that has previously been identified with women. It claims there has been a reversal of power, such that women are essentially in charge and therefore in possession of convincing standards and norms. In this view, women are not afflicted with awkwardness, but are the cause of it. This reclaiming of awkwardness goes hand in hand with an agenda of taming it through domestication — a phenomenon for which women are also paradoxically blamed. It’s as though men were watching Sex and the City and felt jealous that they couldn’t experience the same insecurities.

Link Post: WIT Edition

Brandy (who also contributes to this blog) argues that white straight men have been missing the point (lately):

What might it mean to speak such boldness in our various communities? What might it mean to embody a joined boldness, born of intimacy? Does this mean arguing about whether we really are privileged or racist or sexist? Or, might it mean, as Dr. Jennings suggests, “becoming the common,” supporting and entering into community and solidarity with those who are oppressed.

“The ease with which arguments for gay marriage have found their historical analogy in comparison to interracial marriage has long given me pause.” From there, Amaryah unpacks the underlying racism in the theological unconscious of the rapper Macklemore.

E Lawrence looks at the implications of feminism for men and the possibility of a feminist masculinity:

Don’t expect feminist women to nurture-induct you into the world of feminism, especially if you resist it all along the way. Feminism is not about hating men, but neither is it principally concerned with saving men, and especially not on men’s terms.

After viewing the documentary How to Survive a Plague, Katie offers some powerful reflections on HIV/AIDS, embodiment, and solidarity.

Toni Morrison vs. David Brooks? I’ll take Morrison.

I could keep going, but you should probably just bookmark the blog and/or add it to whatever RSS reader you’re using these days.

Sexism and Star Trek

We still have a long way to go as a culture when it comes to sexism. Patronizing, objectifying, or otherwise stereotypical portrayals of women, for instance, abound in pop culture. And yet in my recent viewing of just a handful of original Star Trek episodes, I can’t help but think that we’ve made significant progress. A random sampling of those episodes revealed plots that crucially depended on sexist presuppositions — they would be incomprehensible if you didn’t presume that women were ultimately feeble creatures who are easily captivated by a display of male power. It’s not a character flaw of an individual woman, but the condition of woman as such.

In the episode that introduces Khan, for instance, the ship’s historian falls instantly in love with the villain and submits to his abusive behavior with little argument, agreeing to betray her crewmates. While she does rescue Capt. Kirk, she ultimately decides to go into exile with Khan. In another episode, an evil double of Kirk created by a transporter malfunction tries to rape a female crew member, a recurring character who by all accounts appears to be a normal adult woman — and later in the plot, she uses that experience as a jumping-off point for sharing her sexual attraction to him. Now I think that the latter plot would be considered far beyond the pale in contemporary culture, even for something like Family Guy. In the former case, it’s conceivable, but her behavior would have to be thoroughly explained — most likely through some type of explicit mind-control powers.

This is not to say that we’ve done enough or “arrived,” of course — it’s more to point out how deeply, incredibly fucked up things were to begin with.

Social constructs

One often hears people declare something to be “just a social construct” as a way of dismissing its reality or relevance. In reality, the fact that something is a social construct makes it infinitely more powerful and difficult to escape than if it were, for instance, a biological brute fact. We get around biological brute facts all the time. Social forces regulate our eating, drinking, defecation, urination, sexual pairings, etc., etc. Social forces can drive us to suicide — meaning they have overcome the most fundamental biological drive of survival. Biology isn’t infinitely pliable, of course, but it is hardly destiny.

Read the rest of this entry »

Zizek and “sexual difference”

I’ve long found Zizek’s development of the Lacanian opposition between the logic of the master signifier or constitutive exception and the logic of the non-all (or non-whole, as I wish he would translate the Lacanian pas-tout) to be a compelling and useful schema. At the same time, I’ve never really understood why he is so insistent on referring to this opposition as “sexual difference” or why it is necessary to refer to the master signifier and non-all as masculine and feminine, respectively. He uses many other examples that follow the same logic — in Less Than Nothing, the relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat is explained in these same terms — and it’s not clear to me why the gendered language should be privileged.

The best explanation I can come up with is his loyalty to the psychoanalytic tradition, where “sexuality” comes to name the fundamental derangement of the human animal (as opposed to any notion of a “natural” procedure of reproduction, etc.). And it’s possible that I’m being an overly squeamish feminist and not following my own rule that generalizations refer fundamentally to social forces rather than to the idea that “they’re all like that.” But still.

Any thoughts?

Domestic Violence and Psychology

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this year I’m spending my internship at a community mental health clinic in a rural setting. I have the opportunity to work with individuals who have been diagnosed with various disorders such as: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, depression, etc. Part of my work has also been conducting psychotherapy with individuals who are in abusive situations. On the weekend I work part-time at a local domestic violence shelter, which has been a real joy. Back in college I had the opportunity to work for two years at a domestic violence crisis center but I did not continue this work during graduate school. I am very excited to get back working in the field of domestic violence because it always been something that I’ve cared about both politically and personally. However, mental health and domestic violence sometimes have an antagonistic relationship. Many activists in domestic violence are skeptical of mental health because they fear that survivors of domestic violence are going to be pathologized and  that the reactionaries will use this to dismiss domestic violence. Some of this anxiety is understandable considering all of the idiots out there who have claimed that battered women (although not all survivors of domestic violence are women) want to be abused. Domestic violence workers counter that everybody is at risk for domestic violence (which is true) and that mental health professionals should recognize that the psychological and emotional issues of battered women are simply a product of the abusive situation.

This leads me to this weekend where I had the chance to read and reflect on David Celani’s text The Illusion of Love: Why the Battered Women Returns to Her Abuser (1994). Read the rest of this entry »

Forsaking Futurity and a Call for Feminist Theologies: A Response to Gender & the Studio, Part Three

Abstract: Rather than delve into the potential theo-logic of a Butlerian “constructivist” account of gender, this blog post proposes that we pause, and instead question the discursive operations undergirding the very idea of “the future of systematic theology.” The effort to secure the existence of systematic theology, I suggest, is idolatrous—rather, systematic theology needs to lose its own life in order to potentially save it, and can begin to move in that direction by attending to the concrete, historic, material, discursive realities of people’s lives, especially those on the underside. This “losing” is both practical and apophatic, in that it acknowledges that the task demands constant attention to the material realities of people’s lives and the discursive regimes that produce those realities, and that we cannot seek to grasp or claim or secure a telos or overarching discourse. I end, then, by turning briefly to the potentialities within a constructivist frame, and offering some suggestions for possibilities for Christian feminist theologies.

  Read the rest of this entry »

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