Review: AFP, Motherhood, and Prince

Motherhood, pregnancy, and children have always been topics that make me exceptionally anxious and uncomfortable. I find it absurd that we still live in a society in which it is acceptable to ask people, based on our perception of their sexual organs, when they’re planning on having children. A society in which women are still often viewed as unfulfilled or monstrous if they have no desire to procreate. A society in which, for the most part, it is still viewed as a woman’s duty to have children, and yet the support available to mothers is laughable, and in which the teenage mother is a stereotype associated with lack of education and poverty. Moreover, the thought of giving birth, and subsequently being responsible for a defenceless young mind fills me with bottomless dread. At 26, I can barely look after myself. My sister, 24, has perhaps less desire to have children than I do. Why, then, would I pay money to get us both tickets to a sermon on motherhood, in London by the School of Life, on a Sunday morning?

One reason: Amanda Fucking Palmer. We’d both listened to a fair amount of the Dresden Dolls in our teens, and I’d listened to Evelyn Evelyn a few times, and loved her solo albums. But for both of us, I think, it wasn’t until she released The Art of Asking that we realised we’d stumbled upon something extraordinarily beautiful. Her unique style and methods of making art are so fundamentally a part of her, and she shares it all so openly and eagerly, that you can’t help but feel like part of something wonderful. So we trusted her to create something equally beautiful from something that we would usually avoid.

Still, as we queued, that anxiety was still there. My sister asked me what I thought would happen, what I thought Amanda would talk about. Behind her questions there was a sense of anxiety around attending a sermon about something that felt like a closed circle that we couldn’t, or didn’t want to, break into. The only thing I could say in response was that I don’t know, but it’ll be good, because it didn’t seem possible that AFP could suddenly turn into the figurehead for conservative family values. Her life has been unconventional and refreshing, as is her art, even her marriage. I couldn’t imagine her attitude to motherhood would be any different. And so we queued, we filed, we had our tickets checked, and we entered. The air was electric. Everyone was there for the same reason. And no one would be disappointed.

The first thing we noticed about the venue was its intimacy. The second was a keyboard front and centre on the little stage. I turned to my sister and we smiled at each other. Of course, we couldn’t expect AFP to give a standard talk without music; that would be absurd.

We found a couple of seats near the front, and on them had been placed an ‘order of service’, complete with hymns. I remember my sister becoming awkward at the sight of it. She’d hated church, and hymns were the worst part, being forced to sing something you didn’t want to, and don’t agree with. Hymns were also the part of church services that left me feeling most like an outsider. The rest of the congregation would seem to be possessed by some kind of divine peace, so in the moment, and I was left stranded on the outskirts, unable to feel he solidarity and comfort that everybody else’s faces seemed to suggest.

Our discomfort was cut short by an introduction to Amanda Palmer, if such a thing is possible, and we felt ourselves roused to excitement again. Then, from a little door behind the lectern, she emerged to raucous applause, holding Ash, to even greater applause, and followed by Neil, who took the baby and sat in the congregation to watch. The woman I was standing next to, (everyone was standing to welcome them), turned to me and said, ‘That baby’s already famous,’ and I smiled and agreed. There is something magical that happens when Amanda enters a room, and it happened in that moment. Total strangers turn to each other and start talking like old friends. We all feel safe. We all know that we are among friends we just didn’t realise we knew. We all know that even though we might disagree about some things, we are part of a community that she has created, and that we keep alive.

Amanda asked us to stand for the first hymn. I say hymn, it followed the layout of a sermon, so hymn seemed an appropriate term, but it was the song ‘Mad World’, by Tears for Fears. The lyrics came up on a PowerPoint, and we all sang. Whatever discomfort my sister and I were feeling before that dissipated entirely as we realised that we were singing something freely, together with a bunch of not-really-strangers and Amanda, something that resonated with all of us, and which set the mood for her sort-of-sermon perfectly.

After we were all seated again, Amanda shared with us a song she wrote and released a few months ago, called ‘A Mother’s Confession’, or to those of us already familiar with it, ‘A Mother’s Confession: a song with footnotes’.The footnotes, as she later explained, are integral to the song. Some of the specific details of the song were changed for artistic reasons, and the footnotes explain the reality behind the song, and the reasons for the changes. It is a piece that exemplifies Amanda’s uniquely honest brand of art making, and how she opens her life and her heart to the people she creates art for. The emotion was genuine, the story was perfect, and although specifically about new and uncertain motherhood, is a perfect metaphor for adult life. The refrain that recurs throughout the song is at once humorous and tragic, and she uses it to great effect in both instances. I won’t explain the entire thing here, you should listen and read for yourself, but the events in the song begin as little comic instances of watching the baby roll off a surface, or accidentally stealing a Chapstick that she forgot to pay for with her groceries, but they become more tragic as the song progresses, and the refrain morphs with the mood. The words are simple, but powerful. ‘At least, the baby didn’t die’.

By halfway through, I’m crying. A line in the song goes ‘I’m sorry that this story’s gotten long, and that everybody’s crying in this song’. And it wasn’t just the people in the song. Amanda was crying, I was crying, almost the entire congregation was crying. It was beautiful. And then, she made us a part of it. We as a collective sang the words ‘At least the baby didn’t die’, over and over with her singing above us, and it was magical. I think all of us were feeling the same thing. That sentiment, that whatever happened, at least the baby didn’t die, is how we get through life, with or without children. We don’t know what we’re doing, we question ourselves at every turn, but at the close of day we try to say to ourselves that it could be so much worse, that we’re still here, we got through it. And the way she closed the song with the group singing together is a reminder that we don’t have to go it alone. We can get through it with more joy together, if we share our lives with each other.

So far, so emotional. And she hadn’t even started talking yet. As she got up from the keyboard, Amanda spotted a few babies in the audience, and said hi to them. One, the tiniest baby she said she’d ever seen, was up on the balcony. To his mother, she asked, ‘How old is your baby? Have you dropped him yet?’, which drew laughter from everyone. I’m glad she asked that, and I think a lot of the mothers in the room were too, because it’s not something parents usually get asked, but it is something that happens a lot, and contrary to popular belief, is not the heinous act we think it is. It is human error, accidental, a mother’s confession. She did also ask the audience how many people had dropped their children, and a fair few people raised their hands, as did Amanda herself, which put everyone at ease if they weren’t already. She also said ‘fuck’ a lot. In front of the babies! Conventional motherhood be damned. Neil Gaiman described it as ‘Amanda’s favourite intensifier’ (from his Dresden Dolls review, found in The View From the Cheap Seats), and when you hear her say it, you realise exactly what he means. She uses the word with such pure joy you forget that people would usually respond with ‘not in front of the children’. There’s no malice or intention to harm, and everyone knew it.

The sermon proper was, in true AFP style, personal and honest, and she began with a personal experience that most people would have avoided like the plague, especially in a sermon about motherhood. She began with the topic of abortion. She related her own experiences with abortion, which she also shared a little of in The Art of Asking. It might seem strange, or even taboo, but she had good reason. She related times when she’d be amongst friends, and everyone would seem to skirt difficult topics, and she would barrel in with the topic of abortion. Because someone has to say it. And when someone does, a door opens, and there is a moment of empathy. As Amanda said, ‘if you say nothing, nothing happens’. The other reason she began this way, was because she has wrestled personally with the idea of having or not having children for years. She was very clear that it wasn’t the birth she was afraid of, but she didn’t trust herself to have a child, to keep it, to look after it. And she said she also realised, she would never be celebrated for an abortion. Which always seemed unfair to her. And it is. We will never be celebrated for making the brave decision, the decision to not have children.

Amanda went into some detail about why she was afraid of having children, and one of those reasons was that when you become pregnant, you realise you have to ‘swim in a pool of other people’s clichés’. People will approach you with their baggage. Some of these clichés included things like motherhood is a wonderful fairy blessing, or that motherhood is war, or that it’s the ultimate sacrifice. She did not dismiss these as simply clichés, though. She was adamant that she believed that in these people’s specific instances, all of those things were true. But think about it, they are all cultural clichés about motherhood. And she came to the conclusion that there is no truth about motherhood. You have to shed the clichés to have your own experience. And the same is true of life. There’s no manual, there’s no ‘how it’s done’. You have to feel your way, and wade through all of the endless depictions of what success looks like, or what happiness looks like, and build it for yourself.

The rest of her talk was about her personal experiences of early motherhood. I won’t go into detail, but it included things like her personal experience of childbirth, and the problems she encountered with the inevitable shift in communication with the outside world and how she faced those problems. It also included an amusing anecdote about flying with a baby (Ash has already been on a plane, a lot), and how she creates a community around the baby on the plane by introducing Ash to all the people in the seats around her. The thing that we all took away from it, though, was the point. And that was how she closed. The experience of having children, she said (I’m paraphrasing), reminds us that we’re all here together. Small people see our largeness and run on the assumption that we’re all here to help them. Babies are a fast track to common humanity. They remind us to show the strangers who are not really strangers that we trust them to be good.

It closed with another hymn; a tribute to Prince. Obviously, it was ‘Purple Rain’. It was another stand and sing together deal, except that this time, we got to be the choir. We sang the chords, and Amanda sang the lyrics. She played the piano. She made mistakes, and she acknowledged her mistakes with fucks and giggles, and it made us all remember that mistakes are part of being human, and that we should not be ashamed of them. And as we were singing, being together, and loving what was happening right at that moment, she said ‘Everybody look at the sky and think of Prince’. And we did.

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Letter To My Mother: This time it’s personal (and public)

I love you. I don’t recall ever telling you that. We don’t really talk about feelings. I’m not very good at them. That’s probably evident in my realisation that the only way I can actually express them to you is over a public forum, through an online intermediary. I made the decision to write this because I hurt. A lot. Being a person is hard. And because I want you and everyone else to know just how much you mean to me.

I spend a lot of time in my own head. So much so that I’m having therapy to help me deal with that. Which is messing me up something chronic. I cry a lot. I worry. I often hate myself. Sometimes I love myself. Mostly I love other people. But when I’m in my head, I often think about you. I think about how I never appreciated you when you were always there. About how I missed the opportunity to tell you every day that I love you. And not just as my mother. As a person. I love you as mum, and I love you as Stephanie. I spent so long being so caught up in my own mistakes that I never saw you as a person, as a woman, with thoughts and feelings. I just saw you as this parental figure. I thought everything you did was somehow aimed at me. That I was the only referent in your life. Which I suppose could be attributed to being a child, and then a teenager. But I want to take responsibility for that now. And I want to tell you that I’m sorry. And that you are wonderful.

I think about you a lot. I think about all the things you’ve given up for me. All the strength you have. How sometimes I saw you cry and that’s ok. I think about how you are now, and all the things you’ve achieved, and all the things you’re still achieving. I’m really very proud of you. I think about how I’d like to say all of these things to you, but it would probably just get awkward. We’d be standing in the garage late at night having a cigarette. Which is how I think I tell you things now. I miss that. I miss you. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for you. And I’ve never taken the time to tell you how much I appreciate that. I think I hope that you know it anyway. But I’ve decided that’s not enough. I need to make a public statement about it.

We’re not very tactile, you and I. We don’t hug much. I’d like to change that. There’s still time. You can communicate a lot of feeling in a hug. So the next time I see you, I hope that we do. I don’t have much else to say, it’s remarkably difficult to convey a feeling in words. I just really needed to say this. Because it’s been bothering me for some time now. I’ve not been the best daughter in the world, and for that I am sorry. But I just really need you to know that I do love you, unwaveringly, unconditionally, and forever.

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Relatability, Customer-Service Culture and the Sovereignity of Self: The case for empathy

I came across an article in the New Yorker recently entitled The Scourge of Relatability’ by Rebecca Mead, the basic premise of which is that ‘relatability’ of characters has become “widely and unthinkingly accepted as a criterion of value”, and considered a valid criticism of works of fiction. The problem with this, she explains, is that

to be ‘relatable’ expresses […] that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer

I cannot help but be reminded by these words of the consumerist, customer-service focused world that we seem to have erected around us. Working in the customer service industry, I see this kind of ‘accommodation’ occur on a daily basis. In order for companies to have any value today, they and their staff must prostrate themselves to the needs of the consumer, the customer. It is evident in television and media advertising, and is reflected in the neologism ‘the customer is always right’, which is ridiculous, not least because those employed by a company must by necessity know more about how that company works than any customer in order to be able to do their jobs effectively.

Personal gripes aside, this customer-service fueled attitude of picking and choosing what seems most convenient to our current situation, of companies appearing to mould themselves around the lives of their customers (although it could be debated how far those lives were indeed moulded by the self-same companies who appear to be merely providing a service), seems to me to be a bit of a pandemic. It has spread so far as to be internalised by current generations, who seems to be having something of an identity crisis (of a different nature to that expressed in my last blog post). They appear to be presented with a smorgasbord of characteristics before they have even developed the capacity to assign meaning, from which they can pick and choose, and drop and consume identities, which, while I’m all for the exposition of identity as artificially constructed, seems to have something of a consumerist taint about it. Even self-help manuals and Western adaptations of Eastern philosophy seem to carry a similar message when they tell us that we can be the best version of ourselves, the implication being that the ‘self’ is in fact empty (in a way that even psychoanalysts would shudder at), and simply needs to be filled by a conscious selection of personality traits, an implication which completely ignores the unconscious processes which work to formulate the subject. We are forcefed a buffet of personalities, and commanded to gorge ourselves on them, until, rather like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Lifenothing is left but an empty ribcage and a pair of confused, startled looking eyes, behind which there is no remaining essence of humanity.

Returning to Mead’s article, she contrasts the criterion of ‘relatability’ to that of ‘identification’, a process much more dynamic and active on the part of the reader. In the case of relatability,

the reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play; she expects the work to be done for her

whereas identification implies that “the reader or viewer is […]actively engaged with the work in question”. She likens identification to a mirror, and relatability to a selfie, a “flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism’. I think, though, that identification is rather more complicated than this, and if relatability is simply reflective, then identification involves a complex level of self-reflexivity, as one would find in the Hegelian dialectics. Identification is to relatability as a hall of mirrors or an infinite reflection is to a dead reflective surface. This is a self-reflexivity that involves its opposite, its antithesis, and Mead rightly links the process of identification with empathy, which has much wider socio-political repercussions. The rise of relatability is symptomatic of a rejection of empathy, and an embrace of the value consumer culture places on the sovereignity of the individual to the exclusion of all else, the exclusion of its other. Yet without the other there is no self, and can be no self-awareness, no reflexive self-consciousness. The ability to empathise with an-other is essential, at the very least in order to be able to define an individual as a subject and not a mere existence.

In every day life, I encounter a lack of empathy everywhere, and am often guilty of it, In the work place gossip runs amok like a decapitated chicken, with no regard for how the person being gossiped about might be affected. If you are different, you are dangerous, and while the other is always accompanied by fear, surely what makes us human is the ability to acknowledge the fear as a sign that we lack understanding of the other person, rather than assuming the other person has something in and of themselves to be feared. Empathy is essential to human relationships, and to ignore the need for empathy in favour of the sovereignity of self is to live alone. And nobody wants to be alone.

As an aside, for an interesting article about why empathy must sometimes give way to reason as far as global morality is concerned, see Paul Bloom, The Baby in the Well: The case against Empathy

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Anxiety, Solipsism, and the Void of Subjectivity

I have been wracking my brain for an appropriately critical blog post to act as a sort of initiation rite after New Writing South generously offered to include me on their Good Blog Guide (yay me), and have found myself unable to think of anything beyond paraphrasing existing critical work. I have, however, been somewhat more prolific in creative writing instead (one poem and a piece of flash fiction counts as more prolific to someone who has written nothing since being required to for a uni module), and in the wake of some pretty rough anxiety I’ve been having something of an identity crisis, so I thought I’d write about that. As a result, this post is likely to be a bit more emotional than it is critical, but hey, variety is the spice of life, as they say.

In personal memory I have never felt as though I had a particularly strong identity (although my mum tells me that when I was too young to remember I was over-confident and very headstrong. Oh how the mighty have fallen), and have always felt that other people seem to have something of a more fixed identity, or at least a few unwavering characteristics which they cling to that make them feel like them. I however, always felt sort of half-baked, with no real fixed set of identity traits; that I was a sort of freakish amalgamation of all the people I’ve ever known. My interests change dramatically depending on who my friends are at any given time, which makes it difficult to form a coherent idea about who I am as a person. For example, I never seem to be able to make a decision about what to do when in a group of friends, I just do what they do; when I had a friend who was a church-goer, I got baptised; when friends drink and smoke, I drink and smoke; and two friends I currently have are into varying degrees of metal, which has encouraged me to listen to the things they listen to, things I had previously had little experience of. Of course, these are things that happen to everyone, and don’t sound so out of the ordinary; to a certain degree everyone is influenced by the people who touch their lives, and everyone changes from one day to the next. Still, the notion that I am an empty vessel, waiting to be filled by other people’s tastes and mannerisms and speech fills me with an anxiety I am unprepared to deal with, an anxiety that peaks in moments of solitude, and which makes me feel like there isn’t really a ‘me’ at all, except when other people are involved. It makes me wonder about the nature of subjectivity, the construction of the conscious and unconscious lives we live, and where all this personality stuff comes from in the first place. This is also why Lacanian psychoanalysis appeals to me, as it explores the notion of the void of subjectivity, the idea that the subject is in essence an emptiness, a lack, which often begs the question, ‘if all subjects are a void, and if we are all subjects, then where does the plethora of characteristics with which we describe ourselves come from?’. It is a question not dissimilar to the physicists problem of the beginning of the universe, or the debate that surrounds the question of the nature of a text in literary theory; it plays with the idea that something can arise from nothing, that too much nothing (less than nothing), an excess of nothing, can be the birthing place of something.

Everyone (I hope) to some extent looks at those around them and thinks others’ lives are better than their own, that other people have a better sense of self, are happier, more confident, more fulfilled. This is, I think, a matter of perspective. As many a poet and songwriter has expressed, we can never see beneath the surface appearance of others, and so in many ways the feeling of incompleteness can be attributed to the gap between what is seen and what is felt. This is what Lacan describes as the mirror stage (which marks the entry point into the symbolic order, the ‘fall from grace’ if you will), the phase in which young children see themselves in a reflective surface, either a mirror or another individual, perhaps the mother, and the illusion of completeness presented by the body is at odds with the experience of gazing from inside one’s own head. The myriad thoughts and feelings therein (especially the painful ones) do not seem to be visible, or feel too sublime to be contained within such a small physical space. Thus the subject is split, decentred (with a little help from other psychoanalytic processes such as foreclosure and castration), unrecognisable to itself. Emily Dickinson put it rather succinctly some years before Lacan when she said,

And Something’s odd – within –
The person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?

(poem 410)

which on a side note is why I think it’s criminal that she hasn’t been counted amongst contemporary thinkers, and the lack of critical material about her work astounds me.

Thinking back to my personal experience, the upshot of this dilemma, and constant puzzling over who I am and trying to figure out that ‘unfathomable x’ that makes me ‘me’, is that I seem to exist in a constant state of anxiety, forever teetering on an unknowable precipice, unable to look anywhere, least of all inside myself (if such a place exists). It feels like being blind, like constantly circling some kind of traumatic kernel of infinite nothingness, and knowing that if only I could find the light switch, everything would be ok. The silence of solitude is deafening. There is an incessant roar of a thousand voices in my head, none of which feel like my own, but all of which feel unique to me, and I am unable to shake any one of them free. If I could only untangle the giant knot I feel like I carry within myself all the time I could think, I could exist, but trying to grasp any one thread only forces them tighter together.

This post hasn’t been up to my usual critical standard, but I hope that if you’re reading this, and any of it sounds familiar, you’ll know that it’s going to be alright. You’ll know that you’re not alone.

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Free Radicals and the Problem of Sexual Difference

As with all my blog posts, I had intended to write this one some time ago, but suffered a kind of malaise, and basically didn’t. Now, however, the time is upon me. I’ve been thinking about a metaphor to describe the reaction I’ve gotten recently from several people when I socialise with certain other people (in these cases the latter are male friends I’ve made and the former are, unfortunately, their partners). I’ve never seen myself as a threat to any relationship, and I’d certainly never break one up on purpose (unless it was unhealthy and abusive), and in all cases I have no desire to come between the two parties at all anyway. And still, I find myself viewed as some sort of threat. Please note that I am in no way claiming that this is exclusive to me, and that I am in some way special; I am fully aware that this is a culture-wide phenomenon; and as such this got me to thinking about it in terms of metaphor and analysis. As a short disclaimer I would like to add that I am in no way attempting to deride these reactions, and that I do understand these people’s emotional and psychical motivations for such hostility, I simply wish to attempt to shine a little light on the nature of this phenomena. I also do not intend to offend anyone, but alas, one can never (and perhaps should never) claim a monopoly over how one’s utterances are interpreted, and I have friends who are perfectly happy in relationships that I can only hope to one day achieve, this is just one single person’s perspective.

The metaphor that stumbled across me was this: for some reason, couples in our culture view single people (who are otherwise content to be single) as a sort of free radical. A free radical, in my limited scientific understanding, and as defined by the Miriam-Webster dictionary, is a particle with unpaired electrons, and as such is incomplete and highly reactive. In biological terms they cause a myriad of health problems and are extremely harmful, upsetting the equilibrium of an organism. They break chemical bonds and sever the connections between other, complete, particles, essentially ‘stealing’ something from them in order to be whole and self-contained. It seems to me that it is a symptom of our society that people (women in particular) are viewed as such (incomplete) when ‘unattached’; that is, threatening to the stability of existing relationships in both a personal and institutional sense; in a manner homologous to Christian Orthodoxy’s reaction to gay marriage. The fact that a person can be viewed as somehow completed by another person is, as far as I’m concerned, downright madness. That is not to say that relationships themselves are a bad thing, I’m simply highlighting the harmful nature of treating every person who lives differently to the apparent ‘norm’ as threatening. To explain why I think this view of ‘Two Become One’, to crassly drop in a Spice Girls lyric, is bonkers, I will turn to Lacanian theory (what else?).

The idea that two people can form a harmonious whole is predicated on the notion of binary opposites. Yin and Yang, Man and Woman, Black and White. It is a notion that states the existence of two particulars, the combination of which is complete in itself as a unit. There is no outside of this unit. I would first like to point out the mutual exclusivity of both the idea that ‘we, together, are whole’ and the idea that ‘my partner may cheat on me because he finds something in another which I cannot provide’. If a unit is whole, and something is lacking in one half of that unit, logic dictates that it will be provided by the other half, and therefore a relationship cannot be viewed as an uncomplicated unity of two opposing sides all the while cheating is viewed as a possibility.

Moving on to the theory proper, Lacanian notions about sexual relationships seem to indicate that,

Sexuality (in the ordinary sense of sexual relations with another subject, a partner, where the couple forms a complementary Whole) is a defense against the fact that the radical partner (Other) does not exist at all.

-(Žižek, Less Than Nothing,p. 775)

Or to put it another way,

There is, according to Lacan, no direct relationship between men and women insofar as they are men and women… They do not ‘interact’ with each other as man to woman and woman to man. Something gets in the way of their having any such relationship; something skews their interactions.

-(Fink, The Lacanian Subjectp.104)

This ‘skewing’ is a result of the psychical construction of the subject, both masculine and feminine. Rather than being defined in terms of a simple binary; active/passive, positive/negative; male and female are not defined in terms of each other. “Rather, each sex is defined separately with respect to a third term” (Fink, p.105). This helps to explain why biologically determined men and women often feel at odds with “socially defined notions of masculinity and femininity, and their own choice of sexual partners” (Fink, p.105). Just in case this is sounding a little bit misogynistic, I would like to add that Lacan does not define man and woman according to biological determination. As Fink says, “a great many biological females turn out to have masculine structure, and a great many biological males prove to have feminine structure” (p.108), which is one of the reasons I believe we need to sever the implicit connection between male-masculine and female-feminine.

This ‘third term’ can be thought of as both the interaction with the symbolic order or phallic function (which refers not directly to the phallic organ but to the self-alienation brought about by language), and the ‘Other’ (or Woman as Other), that supreme otherness which resists symbolisation. Lacan’s formula of sexuation refers to how ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, rather than being complementary, are two divergent ways of the subject being ‘incomplete’, ‘split by language’ or ‘barred’.

And so we come to differentiating between the sexes. In masculine structure,

the whole of the man falls under the phallic function,… is wholly defined by symbolic castration, that is, every bit of him falls under the sway of the signifier

-(Fink, p. 109)

In feminine structure, we have to refer to the logic of ‘not all’, “Not all of a woman comes under the law of the signifier”. This is not to say that some part of every woman does not fall under the sway of the signifier, but rather that feminine structure has the potentiality of “escap[ing] the reign of the phallus” (Fink, p.112). Woman can, potentially speaking, drop right off the symbolic scale, to relate to a point beyond symbolisation, that of the ‘barred Other’. It is important to note, however, that,

Woman is thus not somehow less ‘complete’ than man, for man is whole only with respect to the phallic function. Women are no less ‘whole’ than men except when considered in terms of the phallic function; women are no more ‘undefined’ or ‘indefinite’ than men except in relation to the phallic function.

-(Fink, p.113)

Thus ‘masculine’ elements are related to the symbolic, while ‘feminine’ elements are related to the Real, two realms which can never directly interact except through fantasy space, and Woman’s relationship to the real consequently means that there is no signifier of/for her, making her inaccessible to the symbolic order.

I could spend the next half an hour attempting to paraphrase the next paragraph, but as Deborah Phillips always says, ‘don’t reinvent the wheel’. So I shall leave you with the superior words of Bruce Fink.

Socially speaking, Lacan’s assertion that there is no signifer of/for Woman is, no doubt, related to the fact that a woman’s position in our culture is either automatically defined by the man she adopts as partner or is defined only with great difficulty. In other words, the search for another way of defining herself is long and fraught with obstacles. The Western societal Other never views such attempts very favourably, and thus the satisfaction which could be derived therefrom are often spoiled. Music, art, opera, theatre, dance, and other ‘fine arts’ are fairly well accepted by that Other, though less so when a relationship with a man is not proven primary. And whereas in the past, it was fairly well accepted for women to devote themselves to the religious life in convents, eschewing the defining relation to a man, today even that recourse is frowned upon, that is to say, the Other is making certain religious signifiers harder and harder to adopt. For while the relation to the [barred Other] may be established by encounter, that encounter can be facilitated or thwarted by the culture and subculture(s) in which a woman finds herself.

-(Fink, p.116)

And so, ‘indefinable’ woman becomes a threatening presence, for we live in a culture where to be unable to define something is not to know it, and we have a fear of the unknown.

I should mention, none of this is derogatory in any way. I am not saying that people in relationships are somehow inferior in their delusions. I mean, yes, technically the fantasy that “the couple forms a harmonious whole” is a delusion, but that very fantasy is what maintains us as functional. It is the barrier which protects us from the void of pure subjectivity, in which there is only madness and traumatic enjoyment (jouissance). In Lacanian terms, “love supplements the impossibility of sexual relationship” (Žižek, p.772), and the sexual relationship acts as a defense against the realisation that there is no Other (unsymbolisable big Other, not flesh and blood other) to love. It can be a beautiful thing. All I ask is that people be a bit more aware of the difference in psychical makeup, and their own jealous tendencies. It is unnecessary to view people who’s psyche differs from yours as a threat to your happiness. I suppose you could say that’s what I’m doing with this blog post, but I’m not trying to point the finger. For the most part, I think I hope that with these words I can allay some fears. I treasure the friends I have, and it makes me sad that some people are subjected to such violent negative emotion towards people like myself. At the risk of sounding wishy washy, if my friend(s) love you, then I’m pretty sure I could too, so give us a chance to get to know each other, won’t you?

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Some reflections from a year ago

So I haven’t blogged in a while, and I happened to get out one of my old notebooks today, and found an unpublished post already written, entitled, not very imaginatively, ‘Angry Blog About Dubravka Ugresic’. It occurred in a haze of rage after attending a seminar by Dubravka Ugresic, author of Ministry of Pain (2005) (the second link is to a well deserved Guardian review of the book). Don’t get me wrong, the anger I felt as a result of this seminar should in no way reflect her writing, Ministry of Pain is one of the most traumatic and engaging pieces of literature I have read, and I strongly suggest you read it. Rather, what caused the outrage was the disparity between Ugresic the person, and the author of her work. In all honesty, I haven’t read what I wrote since I wrote it, and am writing it here simply because it will be interesting to look back over my thoughts. Apologies to anyone if I seem overly harsh. So here goes (with some editing as I go):

Angry Blog About Dubravka Ugresic

So I attended an after hours seminar today, at which Dubravka Ugresic gave a talk entitled ‘What is an author made of?’. Her opening speech included some interesting (if unoriginal) points; including some material about all readers also “being translators”, and a rather Lacanian/Žižekian sounding reflection on how “every translation is not only a multiplication of misinterpretations but also a multiplication of meanings” [an observation which, actually, on second thought, is a lot more obvious than it sounds]. However, her arguments were seriously undermined by her answers to faculty and student questions. I want to take some of her statements, and provide some of my own analysis (or ‘translations’).

Firstly, she began her seminar by saying that she was going to read out a recent paper she’d written but decided against it for two reasons; the first being that it was too long (probably true); the second being that she had an ‘enlightening’ conversation with her taxi driver about what she was on her way to do. His response: “Literature is boring”. She then rewrote her entire speech based on this one man’s reaction. Now, I agree, that I probably would be hurt by this statement, but stop and think about it for a second. The man drives taxis for a living. I’m sure that many taxi drivers are avid readers, some even literary geniuses, but the profession itself isn’t exactly conducive to attending literature seminars. On top of this, Ugresic did something I consider to be the closest thing to a sin I believe in; she took one man’s opinion, and universalised it, setting herself up as the indignant, wounded party in a world unconcerned with literature. True, she’s had a tough life, I probably couldn’t live it, but still, the level of hubris this connotes is shocking. As an additional point, I would like to point out the stupidity of going to a university to give a seminar about literature to a bunch of literature students, (a seminar to which attendance, I might add, was optional), and assuming that everyone will agree that “literature is boring”. In my experience, when students find something boring, generally speaking, they refuse to turn up.

Then, while answering questions at the end, she began railing against this thing called ‘Twitterature‘, a movement which began with two American literature students at the University of Chicago which aims at the decanonisation of literature. These two students produced a book in which they condensed the plots of 150 canonical texts into a series of tweets. The example she gave was Anna Karenina, which read something like “Gosh, should I kill myself or shouldn’t I?” (which far from being the most amusing example is still pretty funny, and ironically, the only part of Ugresic’s seminar that got a positive response). But ‘NO!’ cries Ugresic, ‘This is not funny!’. Her reasoning: allegedly it only proves her assertion that the youth of today don’t read and have no interest in reading. Here, I think, is a major mistranslation. These two students study literature; one of them aims to be a writer, and to spend his days reading and writing (see hyperlink for quote), which would explicitly contradict Ugresic’s assumption, and that actually he has a great interest in literature. Moreover, in order to condense 150 canonical texts to tweets, surely one would first have had to read these texts? Additionally, the very name ‘Twitterature’ carries with it a sense of self-reflexive irony; a sense that while making fun of the texts in question they are also making fun of themselves (the word ‘twit’ in the first syllable attesting to that), and actually publicising these great works.

Moving onwards, but probably not upwards, Ugresic goes on to say that in spite  of globalisation , it seems to her that nations are disappearing (as her former Yugoslavia), but I can’t help but feel that it is because of globalisation that national borders are so fluid (the backlash of which we are of course experiencing now, with the crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, and Scotland vying for independence, not to mention the paranoia of the US: recall the epidemic of NSA bugging); cultures sharing information through global networking will inevitably lead to a bleeding of those cultures into one another.

The thing that really took the biscuit, though (apologies for the cliche, I wrote this a while ago when I was young and confused), was when she maintained her complaint that “no-one reflects on the contemporary period, it doesn’t even have a name; we got as far as post-post-modernism and that was it.” First of all, assigning meaning is a retroactive process, she alluded to that earlier when she referred to all readers as translators; an era, or a movement, cannot be defined by its contemporaries, but only as it comes to an end, and is seen in its (still incomplete) completion. This is an idea prevalent in trauma theory, trauma being something Ugresic is intimately familiar with. Second of all, I would like to refute the claim that no-one reflects on the contemporary era, for two reasons; firstly, that contemporary feminism reflects relentlessly on the modern age, as do thinkers like Žižek, and the Centre for research in 21st Century writings (C21 Writings). Secondly, for the reason that every contemporary reader is informed by the culture and ideologies surrounding her/him, and if every reader is by necessity also a translator, then it follows that every text is in dialogue with a contemporary readership, regardless of the time of writing.

Finally, I would just like to note my unease at her assertion that “there is something to be said for dictators; students should be taught how to read”; by which, she elaborated, she means that interpretation should be taught, not simply the mechanics of reading. Surely, one of the great things about literature is its multiplicity of mistranslations, and multiplicity of interpretations (paraphrased from the beginning of her seminar). The diversity of readership, united by the experience of reading the same text, which appears to all its readers in a different form is what is so beautiful about the experience. Otherwise, there could be no debate, there would be no growth, and I’d be out of career prospects.

Overall, I was rather disappointed, and as a closing note, I can only hope that something of what she meant was lost in translation.

Rant over.

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April 8, 2014 · 6:52 pm

‘The Stranger’s Child’: Feminine Space, Sex and the Subject

Before I begin, I should say that this post is going to be rather longer than my previous two, as it contains literary criticism and other psychoanalytic and philosophical critical material, but as it’s my blog, I make the rules.

To begin, then, this post is inspired by a seminar I attended at Brighton University in November 2013, entitled ‘”Middlesex will be all before us”: Englishness and queer histories at the periphery in Alan Hollinghurst’s fiction’, It was given by Dr Martin Dines of Kingston University, and discussed many interesting considerations about the use of decentred suburban English landscapes as focal points for queerness in their liminality. The main body of the seminar was not, however, what captured my attention, but rather, what appeared as a sort of footnote near the end, which is somewhat appropriate since footnotes also occupy a peripheral space in a body of work.

The content of this verbal annotation caught my eye (or perhaps ear) when the term ‘masculine conspiracy’ was used. It is possible that Dines was using the term somewhat facetiously, but that does not lessen its impact. Immediately, my feminist hackles were raised; something I often find myself battling with before I can make a calm, clear judgement about content, which is why this response is so retrospective. The gist of it was that queer fiction perpetuates the sort of ‘masculine conspiracy’ that occurs in Patriarchy with an emerging flipside of the misogynist ‘boys only’ attitude (I am in no way absolving many women of this same reactionary attitude). Certainly there are some details of The Stranger’s Child (Picador, 2011) which attest to this viewpoint; as Dines mentioned, Daphne (the disputed lover of fictional WWI poet Cecil Valance and wife to his brother, Dudley) is never quite able to penetrate the queer solidarity that appears between the men in the novel. Klara Kalbeck (a friend of Daphne’s mother, and an outsider, from Germany), is a constant nuisance; dressed all in black she functions like a black hole that demands attention, and is denied sentience as a character. She represents stale femininity, the dark underside of the masculine conspiracy. Even Daphne’s family home acts as a metaphor for paralysed feminine sexuality. The home is a space in which femininity reigns, and as such the act of observing the house is a masculine one. Thus, when Paul (Cecil’s posthumous biographer) visits the house, for research purposes, he finds himself paralysed by it, and must take pictures of it because he cannot process it in the moment. Its paralysis paralyses him.

One other example that Dines did not mention is a scene at a party, where Daphne, outside the house, is confronted by Eva, a mysterious(ish) designer whose purpose I still can’t quite grasp. This scene is heavily laden with lesbian imagery; Daphne imitates the masculine act of observation when she “turn[s] to look at the house”, and Eva, shivering, “pull[s] Daphne against her” (p.213). There is excessive sensual detail, hands against hips, around waists (p.214). Even this detail;

Eva was assessing her, through the fairy medium of the moonlight, one hand on Daphne’s hip, the other, with its glowing cigarette, running up her forearm to her shoulder, where the smoke slipped sideways into her eyes. (p.215)

It is a passage in which the female characters attempt to imitate the queer relationships that permeate the novel, and Eva’s attempts are necessarily thwarted by Daphne, despite her pleading for Daphne not to go inside, back to the feminine space.

All of these details seem rather like they were consciously placed to emphasise the uniqueness of the queer experience, through the sidelining of women that is the symptom of queerness, queer novels, and queer theory (although one wonders why write a novel about the queer experience if it is already familiar to the only people who could possibly understand, which indicates that those who have been sidelined also have the potential to engage in this experience). In all of this, I think queer theory as a discipline (and also many manifestations of feminism, such as Ecriture Feminine) overlook one tiny detail. A detail which makes itself evident in Hollinghurst’s novel (and, I think, any work created by a human subject), As an example, Dines used Daphne’s memoirs as an example of another place where she is undermined by all the men in her life, since she writes about herself constantly in reference to everyone else. I, however, put it to you that this is not a sidelining of femaleness, nor a ‘masculine conspiracy’, it is simply a human association, that is, a subjective association.

My reasoning for this is contextual. If one takes Daphne’s memoirs as an example out of the context of the rest of the novelthen certainly it is a simple case of men on top again, undermining the importance of female characters and femaleness. But to do so is to ignore the subtle nuances of the text, which, when taken into account, tell us something quite different, and actually, much more egalitarian than the still constant trend of social segregation between the sexes. The first counterpoint to the above argument is later in the novel when the narrative shifts to her perspective, and she muses that “now and then people gave her the most astonishing reports of what she had said, drolleries they would never forget” (p.497). While this could be dismissed as the fading memory of a senile old woman, when kept in context, it is extremely significant. What it shows is that if the sidelined ‘feminine space’ is inhabited by Daphne in her relation to others, it is also inhabited by those others in relation to her. The second example is later still, when Paul is in the process of writing Cecil’s biography, and he consults his diary, “a book in which the sparse record of his own life was now largely replaced by the ramifying details of others'” (p.501), which unmistakably shows that Paul specifically, as a male, can also inhabit this feminine space. A space which can better be defined as that of the barred subject.

And now I have the opportunity to do something I have longed to do on this blog since I started it; quote (lengthily) Slavoj Zizek (apologies to my sister for not putting the accents over the z’s. I don’t have a fancy Macbook and I know she’s a stickler for that). In The Metastases of Enjoyment (Verso, 2005) he talks about ‘feminine depression’ in David Lynch (p. 113-136, I urge you to read it), and how woman cracks the chain of cause and effect. She does this because “not all of the feminine enjoyment is an effect of the masculine cause”. ‘Not-all’ in the Lacanian sense that it “designates inconsistency, not incompleteness” (p.119), that is, the reactionary effects to identical causes may differ even though all positive variables remain the same. Similarly, in feminine depression,

the ‘normal’ relationship between cause and effect is inverted; the effect is the original fact, it comes first, and what appears as its cause – the shocks that allegedly set depression in motion – is actually a reaction to this effect, a struggle against the depression. Here again the logic is that of ‘not-all’: ‘not-all’ of depression results from the causes that trigger it; yet at the same time, there is no element of depression that is not triggered by some external active cause (p.122).

Furthermore, he says, “the elemental structure of subjectivity turns on how not-all of the subject is determined by the causal chain. The subject ‘is’ this very gap that separates the cause from its effect; it emerges precisely in so far as the relationship between cause and effect becomes ‘unaccountable’.” Because of this absolute negativity, “woman, not man, is the subject par excellence” (p. 122). 

‘Hold on, hold on; isn’t that simply an inversion of misogynist tradition? Men are not real people?’: Yes and no. And here’s why it’s not misandry. Again I will use Zizek (sorry Becka), to explain what I have tried to say for a long time, because he does it so much better, and even comes up with what I think could be the most feminist argument I have ever read, based on the words of a blatant misogynist, Otto Weininger. So here it is:

Apropos of the two asymmetrical antinomies of symbolisation (the ‘masculine’ side that involves the universality of the phallic function grounded in an exception: the ‘feminine’ side that involves a ‘non-all’ field which, for that very reason, contains no exception to the phallic function) a question imposes itself with a kind of self-evidence: what constitutes the link that connects these two purely logical antinomies with the opposition of male and female, which, however symbolically mediated and culturally conditioned, remains an obvious biological fact?

Good (looong) question. Ready for the answer?

There is no link. What we experience as ‘sexuality’ is precisely the effect of ‘grafting’ the fundamental deadlock of symbolisation on to the biological opposition of male and female. (p. 155)

Honestly, I got so excited when I read that that I scribbled all over my book. In pencil. Obviously.

Anyway, ultimately, my point is that a lot of critical discourse centres around this male/female opposition, which is unavoidable; what I reject is this grafting of male to masculinity and female to femininity. Of course this raises some interesting questions about sexuality (in the common sense of the term), I mean, how natural is it for anyone to only be attracted to one sex? Personally, I fully believe my ‘sexuality’ has been shaped by my experience, and my upbringing, and society, and all the choices I have made as a result of those factors and many more; they simply masquerade as ‘nature’ because they are so deeply embedded in my psyche. There are people who will disagree, but now is neither the place nor the time for that discussion, as I have run on too long already, but, for an interesting perspective on the recent explosion of ‘fluid sexuality’ discourse and type profiling see ‘”Scientia Sexualis”, Subjective Truth, and the Kinsey Type Profile’. In conclusion, if woman is the subject ‘par excellence’, and as humans we are all subjects, then it follows that we are all also women; male and female alike, there’s woman in there somewhere (and also man), and that, I think, is actually rather nice.

Thanks for reading. Page numbers are in brackets if for some reason you want to check my referencing. Read Zizek!

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