I CAN HAZ NEW AESTHETIC ORDER?
a partial response to Keston Sutherland’s talk http://militantpoetics.blogspot.com/2013/05/keston-sutherland_28.html on “revolutionary subjective universality” at the Militant Politics and Poetry Conference at Birkbeck in London, May 18, 2013 / a partial other thing
I want to disclaim any intention of this being an attack on Keston’s poetic project. My desire is to address the sphere of community – i.e., within the and/or of “poetry and/or revolution”. I should add, also, that much of what I am saying here is OLD, or rather, is part of a long-term struggle.
I want to raise questions about the use of feminine pronouns by male writers in critical and theoretical discourse (when a man refers to his default hypothetical subject as ‘she’) because I think it affects how we are heard and read by each other.
The use of the female pronoun in critical discourse is frequently done with good intentions, and may in some contexts have a positive impact beyond the merely symbolic. No doubt KS uses the feminine pronoun throughout his talk in the spirit of generosity and inclusivity. And yet, the female pronoun seems to create more animosity than feelings of solidarity amongst the female poets that I know on two continents. That is to say, the affects outweigh the intentions, and perhaps even do damage to the possibility of ‘being on the same page’ when thinking, talking, and writing together. In a bid to understand the source of the feeling of discomfort that arises, I have compiled some provisional hypotheses.
SHE, THE PROLETARIAN SUBJECT
KS: ‘Reproduction at its most basic is what subsistence does for the proletarian subject. She eats to be recharged, to persevere in her subjection to exploitation.’
Who exactly is this female proletarian subject?
- Men and women are exploited in different ways under capitalism.
The use of the pronoun ‘she’ here collapses gendered histories into an undifferentiated universal proletarian subject. In actual fact, the exploitation and control of women has historically been related to reproductive functions and her ability to withhold them, and associated with the enforcement of her passivity, the realms of the domestic, and the weak[er] of two possibilities which interact within an embedded power dynamic.
- Or, a woman is not a subject. It seems too easy to re-write the history of active subjectivity and passive otherness such that it allows subjecthood suddenly, if generously, to be inclusive of women, with no redress of the processes by which subjects are delineated, or indeed of the order of language in which such categories are deployed.
- As a consequence of any theory of the subject already having been appropriated by the masculine, an acceptance of the notion of female subjecthood silences the specificity of her suffering. KS valorises the voice which is silenced by the noise of the discourse here, by holding up the ‘weak subject’ as a necessary element in the thinking of ‘Marxist poetry’ – but still, she does not speak – or cannot, in this discourse, without subsuming to terms not her own. The story of her body is told, presumably, elsewhere. It appears in this theory of poetry as a hypothetical – in fact – other. What it says remains mysterious. Its suffering is mysterious.
- The exploited and paralysed subject, she, ‘must be made eloquent’, he says. Perhaps another way of thinking of this would be to make possible the conditions in which the weak subject can begin to speak, inarticulately if necessary. Such conditions would demand the fundamental undoing of even the most radical traditions of critical theory constructed upon and within the discourses many of us are comfortably eloquent in. Such an undoing would need to go far beyond the changing of pronouns (and venture into breaking the habit of conceptualisation? Or of fluency in the hypothetical?).
- As a call for the overcoming of trauma and the ‘ideological coercions and repressions…insecurity, fear, anxiety, terror, forgetfulness…[which] function to keep someone paralysed,’ this paper makes an important point. It is all very well to say that a woman can now be a subject, that history will allow her to step in and assert herself, but if the mechanisms by which she is made to believe in her mysteriousness are not made transparent, this becomes possible only in private space, and falls prey to the ‘self-expression’ that is often a sitting duck within established aesthetic orders.
FOR EXAMPLE, THE POINT OF REVOLT
KS: “The subject must exert itself such that it is itself at full stretch, so that it can somehow endure the temporal extension of the point of revolt.” [note: the expression ‘point of revolt’ is quoted from Hegel]
A female subject under capitalism is subject to phallic order and currency—that is to say, an economy built on the understanding of subjectivity as male and otherness as female, of action as male and passivity as female, of strength as male and weakness as female. Proof that this cannot be glazed over with pronouns even emerges in KS’ paper, under the banner of ‘the point of revolt’ – the force, the action: the sharp end. [Hegel, incidentally, described the clitoris as ‘inactive feeling in general’. Just saying.]
The ‘point of revolt’ is phallic, ‘temporally extended’ through its hardening, reinstated again and again.
Penile extension, depth.
The subject, already classified as a ‘she’ earlier in the talk, is vulval. By which I mean that, by ‘exert[ing] herself’ to accommodate, to ‘somehow endure’ the [penile] extension of revolt, she mimics a vagina (which, on arousal, elongates to accommodate the depth of its lover). Under the terms already set up, the subject is indeed female, but in a phallic order. She is active in ‘exerting herself’ to the full inverse shape that will receive (and endure!) the ‘point of revolt’, a great phallus extended and reiterated, over and over again, ‘for a long fucking time’, by the linear world and its ability to be measured. Perhaps we remain at ‘the point of revolt’ because the power of the female sex has to be conquered over and over again. When woman is asserted again and again, she still does not constitute ‘women’.
This subject is projected in order to be possessed, in order that the point of revolt can penetrate and overthrow her – ‘her’, this word that implodes.
The woman arbitrarily placed here, within the ‘she’ and ‘her’ of the ‘proletarian subject’, is the mirror of the first subject, the male order that conjures her. The proletarian subject is thereby denied her otherness, the mystery of her body, her unique loquaciousness, her verbosity, her trauma – the very language that might be expressed by the ‘weak subject’, if it were not already precluded from speaking by the fantastic nature of its subjective status. How can the ‘weak subject’ speak if she is not a subject, and if her language is not reasonable, does not extend, does not accommodate.