Francesca Lisette’s What I Want: A Manifesto for Revolutionary Tenderness


If critique is going to be total – if it is going to be worth doing without falling back into the reified position of self-satisfaction – it must be directed towards ourselves, also. We know this. We fuck up sometimes – a lot actually. I probably fuck up at least 100 times a day, & those are just the thoughts in my head, let alone my interactions with others. And the fucking up – irritating, embarrassing, time-stealing thing that it is – is a necessary part of the process, a necessary condition for continuing to learn how to do what you’re doing, and for discovering that you don’t know how to do what you’re doing until you’re doing it. I feel alienated when theory is used with the aim of ‘being right’ or ‘winning’ an argument, whilst failing to acknowledge that nothing’s been won unless conditions have changed, are changing. I think this can be a problem with identity politics also, as we’ve discussed. We cannot pretend that wielding rhetorical power, even if only in the process of argument, does not risk preventing others from adequately expressing their own opinions – this is structural oppression and the nature of power itself. I am intensely concerned with the idea of ‘having the ‘right’ opinions, especially on the far Left – and that not holding the ‘right’ opinions, even when expressed without antagonism, leads to exclusion anyway – cus it means you’re a liberal, or a hippy, or you haven’t read enough Marxist theory, or you didn’t understand the finer points of x. Which frankly is just imposing another hierarchy. And is often another way of telling the emotional, the sensitive, the weak, the feminine, even the doubting or the sceptic, to FUCK OFF, because those qualities have no place in OUR revolution.

I’m tired of the devaluing of emotional ties in political action, activism, discussion and theory, including left feminist theory. I’m not really talking about this beautiful oasis of community here, but I am talking about potential methodologies. I have to be honest now and say I hated that essay about blowing up your boyfriend in LIES. It’s not because I’m stupid or weak or romantic, [although I’ll admit at variance to be all those things] it’s just that I know the boyfriend is my projection so I’d just be blowing up an aspect of myself which is probably a better idea. I am my own worst boyfriend. Who  am I to generalise about the violence of an entire sex by blowing them up?

So, I’m interested in the genius of the space that hovers below identity, solidarity and ego. In reaching for an affective politics, I ask that we make ourselves sociologically weaker – that is, in the terms of Keston’s paper at Militant Poetics, MORE emotional, more supposedly FEMININE – and that everybody does this. I’m interested in intersubjectivity, in what we might mean or do to each other beyond our socially accrued markers, in the weirdness of being humans at this time now, in how we can be kinder to each other. I like to call this form of praxis ‘revolutionary tenderness’.

I want to say NOW that I have no wish to get rid of dissent or internal critique in place of an artificial unity or solidarity: that would be love founded on illusion, see my earlier point. Nor do I want to make this plea imagining that it will fall only to the women in our community to assume some sort of matriarchal, blindly benevolent role. Guys! (& not only guys, all of this applies equally to me!) We have a responsibility to seriously consider a feminist critique of action-based theories, the exclusions and reductions necessitated by programmatic philosophies, and how feminist and queer thought could affect your thoughts, relationships with yourself and others, and poetic work at the most cellular level. (My apologies to the men, women and genderqueers in the room who are already doing this, but Militant Poetics showed me that it still needs to be said.) This means being really attentive. If we want the revolution, we will have to surrender the privileges and comforts offered by gender (among other social markers of power) and accept, as women in any masculine sphere have for centuries, that a creative and balanced perspective is androgynous and perpetually adaptable, fluctuating, unstable.

This means actually changing the way ‘we’ do things – including writing papers, organising conferences, [which this conference, I believe, sets a great example for] socialising, thinking, discussing concepts such as action, environment, nature, revolutionary subjectivity AND collectivity – through self-reflection and awareness, so that this isn’t merely a rehashing of perspectives which correlate to a predetermined agenda about the conditions for revolution. (ie Hegel and Marx and Adorno.) It means slowing down and iterating what constitutes identity, instead of skipping those stages to an immediately dissolved collectivity. It means self-critique and self-acceptance and the willingness to change. It means existing within a perpetual present.

I think it is possible to create absolute awareness of privilege within our communities without blame culture, and with absolute responsibility and care for the unique (& as if it needed saying again, revolutionary) potential that exists within each of us.

Is tenderness passivity? No. It’s passionate action which is also full of care. I don’t want to repeat the violence of our oppressors in order to ‘win’. That would be a hollow victory – no victory at all, merely substituting one tyrannical regime for another of our own making.

Tenderness asks us to meet one another in an atmosphere of welcoming and love. For me it allows mistakes but not exclusion because we might not agree about some things. It asks us to shift our focus from negativity to one of appreciating what exists and admitting that we don’t know everything. Tenderness doesn’t have to be about ‘sex’ although that might be the fear behind the anger we are greeted with by cops: the absolute refusal of interdependence, the shutting us out as a foreign body. Isn’t this moment, in Timothy Thornton’s heart-stopping poem written 10th December 2010, one of revolutionary tenderness – ‘Can someone please put some towels down for the horses now, they’re getting iron dust all over the tarmac, said the street, and little bits of tarmac on their shoes’? He goes on to talk about massaging a cop’s prostate. I’m not suggesting we try such tender methods on our enemies. This is more like a request, largely to myself, to not create enemies of each other. To come to think and act like a collective body, caring for all the parts of itself, rather than trying to impose a homogenised way of thinking or acting on each other.

I don’t think that poetry needs to do anything. I think that the poetry we have written, are writing, will write, is extraordinary and earthshaking and lifechanging as it is. TRULY. And I also think that our political lives need to continue to evolve, to be productive, to be active, and that is already revolutionary practice. I have come to believe that ‘revolutionary tenderness’ signifies ‘the negation of the negation’. That is, the refusal of the shittiness of our present moment and the determined insistence on optimism and in doing so, making the future life we want live in our present selves. I believe that unless we treat each other with tenderness and care now the revolution won’t come. Tenderness isn’t always soft, it isn’t always kind or nonviolent – sometimes it’s a person screaming at someone else because it’s the only way they can be heard – but tenderness can make things clear. I want desperately to see things for what they truly are, and in this room it feels more possible to start building a world which supports the revolution coming into reality, more possible than it has ever seemed in my life before. Thank you.

  1. fostate said:

    sorry but this is just argh. “the revolution”?!?!?! Really? Now? how are going to feed and house ourselves. not in poems. um

    • Francesca said:

      err, what are you talking about? this essay is completely focused on strategy and affective politics, not poetry. it’s a way of speaking out against militant tendencies towards exclusion, hierarchies and absolute statements, which i had observed in revolutionary circles as well as poetic ones, and which deeply frustrated me. the final paragraph stating that poetry doesn’t need to change is a response to other more programmatic statements for what poetry can and should do in order to inaugurate the revolution: so your ‘understanding’ of my statement is pretty much the opposite of my view: i know we can’t feed and clothe ourselves in poems, that’s the point of building stronger relationships as comrades.

  2. piugpkuh said:

    There’s so much here that is clawed, resentful, vengeful, and absolutely not tender, and would not stand up to even the laziest analysis or debate, but then it is in part a self-serving argument against any intellectual or moral rigor. Will we also have to “will have to surrender the privileges and comforts offered by” the over-assured English middle class – rather than ‘revolutionary’ – subjectivity. And have women for centuries, really accepted that “a creative and balanced perspective is androgynous and perpetually adaptable, fluctuating, unstable.” When you’re oppressed you’ve “accepted” nothing about your situation, and adaptability is always about necessity, just for a start, and many women and feminists would take issue with the word ‘androgynous’ and your retrospectively cancelling the feminine on their behalf. What do you mean by those three words, concretely, they seem to be taken from 80s reductive (and therefore itself sexist) feminist literary theory that was and could only have been applied to certain writers. If you don’t want to ‘win’, what do you want to do? And why do you dictate that any violence necessarily has to be a mirroring of the violence of one’s oppressor’s; this is so only if its aim is injustice or oppression. Where do you expect to get without it? You really don’t want to be ‘right’ or to ‘win’ in this neo-liberal – you want to wait for all the suffering to stop until everyone has taken contemporary queer theory on board or until there’s some moral mutation of the species whereby everyone suddenly starts being nice to each other, maybe because they’ve read some ‘earthshaking’ poems (even though they had a print run of 200 and were anything but). This is also, despite itself, a manifesto for callousness. But the main questions is: does divisive language secret-policing, and the attention-garnering, sadistic, public humiliation of a comrade, that splits a conference in half in one stroke, fall under the rubric of ‘revolutionary tenderness’?

  3. piugpkuh said:

    Personally, I don’t see ‘theory’ being ‘used’ for much at all, not for any mind of praxis. But here, in any case, FL is talking about specific people, in specific groupings, accusing them of not wanting to change ‘conditions’ by which FL means ‘conditions’ within these groupings, not societal/economic ‘conditions. In other words, a grievance about a perception of being personally excluded or sidelined. Against those wrongly perceived as “wielding rhetorical power”: some people can indeed be ‘wrong’ about a particular thing, and it may well be a highly intelligent man or woman able to wield much rhetorical power that proves one wrong. This is not ‘structural oppression’: does FL want people to limit or hide their ‘rhetorical power’ to make her feel more secure: surely better to increase it to the limit point and to use it in the the interest, yes, of ‘power’ – when you’re on the losing side of a global class war.

    This anti-intellectualism is one of several points where FL reflectively, and no doubt unconsciously, repeats the dominant hegemony’s most beloved doxas. This brings me to the most disturbing thing about this tract: its profound anti-feminism and the way it denigrates women. It very clearly conflates the absence of a capacity for ‘rhetorical power’, reading’ Marxist theory’ or being able to understand the ‘finer points’ of a thinker with ‘the feminine’; what woman wouldn’t be offended by this? I don’t need to point out its absurdity: it would hardly be a shock to FL that some women take pleasure in these writers, teach them, and are as capable as men of ‘rhetorical power’, because she knows some of them, personally. Twice FL conflates being feminine with being weak, becoming ‘more feminine’ with becoming weaker, and even worse, being feminine with being ’emotional’. From a man this would, quite rightly, be regarded as the coarsest misogyny, and of course is wildly inaccurate. At the London conference, I saw no “privileges and comforts” of gender on display (though some of class certainly were); I found the atmosphere accepting and tolerant up to the point of its horrid disruption, and possibly the best (and best received) paper was given by Samantha Walton. This links to the idea of ‘violence’ in revolutionary activity, the ‘sensitive’ ‘the ‘masculine’ and ‘the feminine’, where again FL does an enormous disservice to women, – women during the Paris Commune, the Mexican civil war, the Spanish civil war – the list is endless. Revolutionary violence, like the capacity for rhetorical power or of ruthless analysis is not, and never has been, the preserve of men, just as ‘tenderness’ in any revolutionary grouping or event, has never been the sole preserve of women.

    As forthe asininity of living – like an unreflective animal – ‘in a perpetual present’, unaware therefore of history and futurity, and therefore suffering, and also, innevitably, without any true grip on what that present actually is – is beneath contempt, and I won’t comment on it. And anyway, those on the left are interested not in ‘iterating what constitutes identity’ – they’re interested in alleviating the sufferings of the poor, redistributing wealth, fighting very real, violent, poliede and state oppression, regulating business, preventing environmental depredation. Subject formation is interesting and important, but people are going hungry, et cetera.

    If FL is really hostile to negativity (and therefore change) and is for “appreciating what exists”, rather than the “ruthless criticism of everything existing”, then she is not of the left. Anything other than such ‘ruthlessness” (which let’s face it is nothing more than seeking the truth and trying to see the naked lunch on your plate) – this voluntary decreasing of one’s powers, this fleeing into Plato’s cave – is to live in a world of illusion, and works against the promulgation of any idea of ‘tenderness’. The ‘insistence on optimism’ mirrors hegemonic, spectacular thinking precisely. The ‘insistence on optimism I , in large part, what constitutes the ‘shittiness of the contemporary moment’. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and function of the negative going on here: the negation of of the negation doesn’t just stop there at some static ‘positivity’, it is an ongoing dialectic, an eternal bladed florescing on which the blood never dries and – whether you like it or not – leaving a pile of dead behind it: the restlessness of the negative. Being negative about negativity, is just another way of saying ‘stupid’ or, to be kinder, ‘blind’. Never has the population of the West been more cowed, more passive, prone, and given to voluntary subservience than at this point in history, under this present dispensation, this de facto state of corporate fascism. I therefore find the statement that ti is “more possible to start building of a world which supports the revolution coming into a reality” bizarre; such delusion aids nobody and is willfully purblind.

    To come back to ‘revolutionary tenderness’: at no point is there are clear definition of ‘revolutionary’, ‘tenderness’ or ‘revolutionary tenderness’ given, despite it being a ‘Manifesto’ on the latter. This is clearly a resentful, subtly smearing attack on specific, but unnamed individuals. As such, it is hardly itself ‘tender’. Almost everyone I know tries their hardest to make “the future life [they] want to live in [their] present selves” and show tenderness where tenderness is due. Revolutionary tenderness is actually all around FL. Benevolence, profound friendship, sacrifice, solidarity, generosity, tenderness have not been missing from the revolutionary left; to read any historical account of any revolution shows this – they have always and are integral to it even, and maybe most especially, at the “cellular” level. ‘Tenderness’ has not suddenly been invented by FL and to be frank, I’d be much more convinced of a commitment to it if an account of working voluntarily at a food bank or a kid’s breakfast club had been posted instead of this manifesto: people doing such things are instinctively showing revolutionary tenderness.

    • Francesca said:

      To ‘piugpkh’: you evidently consider yourself someone who knows me well enough to cast aspersions on my motivations in writing this piece, the people who I associate with, and my own political and theoretical experience, but everything you imply on those points is inaccurate. Withholding your name is a cowardly act, and makes it impossible to take the wilder imaginings of this rant seriously. So I am responding only to the parts of your argument that seem to be a wilful misreading of my statement.

      For a start: I hold no grudges or resentments towards anyone. This piece was written as an attempt to clarify my own thoughts and objections to many of the ways the people around me, of all genders, and I myself at times, have engaged in ‘militant’ political activity and conversation. You accuse me of wishing to ‘smear’ other people – and I really don’t know who you mean – yet ironically your response seems to have been written with the sole aim of publically smearing and discrediting me, by calling my reputation as a feminist and anti-capitalist into question.

      The ‘horrid disruption’ you refer to, the ‘public humiliation of a comrade that splits a room in half’ was me speaking out against a rape metaphor in that person’s paper. You evidently don’t consider sexual violence to be important, or the language or methodology we use to be something worth considering. As this is the case, I don’t think you can speak on behalf of feminists or the activists on the Left I know.

      There is no ‘smearing’ taking place, now or then, as I find disagreement and debate productive and helpful. My criticism took place within the specific context of that paper, and as far as I know that individual does not hold anything against me.

      There is nothing in my statement that devalues theory or the work of anyone who uses it. Indeed, I greatly value intellectual work by people of all genders, and I look forward to continuing to engage in study of Critical Theory and being part of reading groups. (I actually am one of the women who ‘takes pleasure in those writers’ and have been greatly influenced by them.) In fact, my statement follows Sam Walton’s paper at Militant Poetics in suggesting that we need a wider skill-set. We need to be able to engage with each other differently, and to take cognizance of the priorities of everyone involved, instead of limiting our understanding to certain set texts. However, I am against intellectual extremism which ignores emotional awareness and seeks to institute one hierarchy over another. I am against discrediting other people based on their lack of understanding of ‘the dialectic’, and I am interested in hearing what a range of disciplines and traditions may have to contribute to our thought and praxis.

      You have got the opposite impression of what my statement was attempting to communicate about the feminine, the queer, the weak, absence of rhetorical power and so on. The fault must lie with my paper, so I will attempt to redress that here. In short, a large part of continuing gender oppression of both men and women rests on the conflation of ‘emotion’, ‘weakness’ and ‘absence of rhetorical power’ with the feminine, leading people of all genders to reject those things. This statement proposes that we stop seeing those things as bad and reclaim them. By we, I mean all people. To me, that is a feminist project worth pursuing. I don’t see why or how it cancels out the work of ‘alleviating the sufferings of the poor, redistributing wealth, fighting very real, violent, police and state oppression, regulating business, preventing environmental depredation’. I think that the ability to use one’s emotions, and be vulnerable (which is the ‘strong’ side of weakness) will actually enhance those activities.

      This essay is titled ‘What I Want’ – it is an attempt to think towards revolutionary tenderness rather than ‘define’ it (as if I could) – and was intended to be a short statement lasting 4-5 minutes. What you close by suggesting is quite true, that working at food bank or a breakfast club are examples of tenderness, but I have frequently encountered objection to such kinds of charitable activism from plenty of people on the Left, so again, this piece attempts to counter that.
      We may simply disagree, and you may have to accept that there are a lot of other activists who feel the same way that I do. Certainly yours is the first negative reaction after a wave of support from both those who attended the conference and those who didn’t, many of whom said that this statement expresses things that they have felt. If your response was an attempt to excommunicate me from activist circles, be assured, I’m not going anywhere. See you at the food bank, or on the picket lines, or perhaps at the next university conference.

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