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Magazine

19 March 2018
Living a Feminist Life (*)

Sonia Fernández Pan

Joanna Russ observes that some events in our lives cause a fundamental alteration in how we understand and perceive our own past. This idea appears in the introduction to The Female Man,[1] one of the most scathing criticisms of the hetero-patriarchy that I have read so far. The fact that I took so long to discover it, bearing in mind that Joanna Russ wrote this peculiar piece of science fiction in 1975, is symptomatic. It is also meaningful that I should have come across it in 2017, a year in which feminism has been more present than ever in my life, to the point that it has become another organ in my body. When I speak of presence I’m not only referring to the number of times I’ve read, heard, written or pronounced this word since 2017. Nor to the task of identifying in my own life naturalised forms of misogyny[2] or unconscious practices of support to the hetero-patriarchy over the years. I use the term presence to refer, above all, to the practical, material and corporeal dimension of feminism through love and constant and necessary experiences of sorority and cares that prove the political nature of this friendship declined in the feminine that is also perfectly described by Céline Condorelli and Avery Gordon in The Company She Keeps.[3] A friendship between people, with shared concerns and problems.

If I characterise The Female Man as peculiar it is not so much because of its desire to be peculiar as of its unique dimension in a medium presumably aimed at producing new social imaginaries. But even science fiction, at least in its most famous examples, has forgotten to challenge or subvert the most basic structures of domination when it comes to thinking of (im)possible futures. One such structure is the hetero-patriarchy, a notion that my text editor insists on describing as mistaken, reminding me that the Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE, for its Spanish initials) recently decided to keep it out of its dictionary for the time being. Regulations come to the forefront when they deny their very rules. My text editor also tells me that the word sororidad [sorority] doesn’t exist in the dictionary’s seemingly neutral register of words. Yet, as pointed out in Material Feminisms,[4] the real isn’t always a product of language — it’s the inherent materiality of the body that enables the appearance of discourses, their survival and propagation. And yet, how can we question the gestures we use to continue to reproduce the dichotomy, not the difference, between language and reality, nature and culture, feminine and masculine?

The invisibilised materiality of discourses  – invisibilizada being another word the editor fails to recognise – brings me to a quotation I relate to Sara Ahmed, although I had come across it in many other bodies and in different versions before having read Ahmed. Feminism is a practice.  And just as I believe that ideas don’t belong to anyone even if they generate copyright, feminism mentions the provenance[5] of many of the tools I use to think, and in the best of cases, to act in consequence. Because not all ideas or all the people who have or transmit them play under equal conditions. I still find certain appropriation strategies a masculine privilege.[6] Recognition is a feminist practice,[7] because just as we are invisible in the work carried out by others, our work can also make other people invisible.[8] Thoughtlessness is here a justification, but also an alibi.

To reduce feminism to a discourse or to a movement, even when we use the term in the plural[9] to explain its diversity and abundance, is to restrict its huge transformative activity. The word itself, feminism, is exiguous. Eight letters to condense something that is uncontainable. A transformative activity that is inextricably tied to such vital situations and experiences that lead us to completely challenge certain beliefs we had thought were unmovable thanks to the authority of ontology and its persistence in determining things from a presumed essence. Several ingredients feature in Robin Zabieglaski’s recipe for feminist fermentation,[10] including the aforementioned personal events and a great measure of feminist theory. I’m afraid that the latter doesn’t make much a difference without the former, as proven by experience.

In this text, which is deliberately feminist, I too fall into the trap of prioritising discourses and proper nouns by legitimating quotes.[11] One thing I’ve learnt over the past few months is that you don’t become a feminist (only) through theoretical texts. I’ve been reading female authors for years with the strategic distance of an anthropologist, or with a scepticism derived from naturalised forms of misogyny. Nor through those vital events that lead to an ethical collapse of reality,[12] that usually result in a state of temporary depression rather than an active euphoria. I’m still wondering how we can recognise a permanent support network, even if its elements are temporary or intermittent; how we can recognise those people who help us improve our ways of thinking and living, whether by sharing practical or theoretical knowledge. How we can recognise those people who are there when work is arrested by life.[13] Or those who help us in very basic tasks that in principle have little to do with art or with an intellectual apparatus that forces us to appear in public as individuals and individually, instead of helping us think of ourselves as a system of interactions. Even art seems to prioritise sticks, spears and swords over and above the things that contain many other things, as suggested by Ursula K. LeGuin in The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.[14]

The right to be a killjoy, to be angry and learn to complain[15] is something for which I am indebted to feminism, to many feminists. And even though I understand the need for these situations from a strategic point of view, I also believe they can lead to unfair conclusions. The truth is that it isn’t hetero-patriarchy that makes you a feminist,[16] just as it isn’t an abusive partner or someone from your closest circle, an institution, a state or a social-economic system, as this would mean assigning these a positive impact they don’t actually deserve. Perhaps they raise your awareness and, at times, make you more radical, [17] given the polysemy of the term feminism. But however much it may contribute to the process, being antagonistic isn’t what makes you a feminist. Feminism spreads by contagion, like an organism that multiplies and occupies numerous bodies and situations. It is propagated by affirmation, transforming Sara Ahmed’s ‘killjoy’ into the ‘joyful insurrection’ described by Braidotti. Even if both positions are legitimately sustained by the differences revealed by the intersectionality[18] of the places from where we make our announcements.

What makes you a feminist is the force of feminism expressed through bodies and multi-directional attachments; through texts, analyses and shared theories. The people around you, those who devote their time, energy and efforts to the continuous practice of love, support and care, are the people who make you a feminist. And it is precisely from this practice that theories, quotes, conferences and fictional stories make sense. Because this is when they appear, neither before nor after. Realising that all the love, all the care and the support you had dedicated almost exclusively to one person thanks to the construction of romantic love[19] is multiplied and strengthened when you begin to distribute your affections and energies in a new way, towards more people and different places, is what makes you a feminist. An emotional habit that is not based on the establishment of bidirectional forms of mutual dependence but on the construction of a decentralised support structure, where generosity is stronger than the indebtedness implied by the care, is what makes you a feminist.

Realising that these are not the tools that dismantle the master’s house[20] is what makes you a feminist, and that furthermore they enable moments of utopia[21] in a reality that tells us the opposite. The transversality of a practice that acts as a real and effective alternative to the capitalist system is what makes you a feminist, which is something that most left-wing theoreticians don’t seem to have understood,[22] being as they are perpetually absorbed in the spectres of the past and the nostalgia for the communism that never developed. Seeing that the mistakes you make don’t lead to judgements of moral superiority but to moments of mutual understanding is what makes you a feminist. Taking part in reading meetings[23] where the theory is almost a pretext to be together in a different way is what makes you a feminist. Accompanied. Just as being surrounded by topless female dancers[24] on a dance floor, persuading you to do something like imitate and join them, which years ago you never would have thought you could do, also makes you a feminist. Or realising that it is easier to write a text when you start to point out the positive effects of the moment you are experiencing, rather than when you try to think or analyse from the point of view of a negative criticism[25] that for a long time made you believe it was proof of intelligence. Or recognising in your need the need to speak and the right of so many other voices to be heard. ‘It is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.’[26]

* In spite of the numerous quotes in this essay that tries to shed light on the people, references and situations that help me improve my life and thinking, it continues to produce the invisibility of many others who are present, even though they do not appear.

(*) I take this title from Sara Ahmed’s homonymous book. As she herself has observed, one of her intentions when writing it was to quote only women, as opposed to the academic logic of legitimating quotes in the masculine. She also notes that this didn’t entail much effort. I was introduced to Sara Ahmed by the numerous quotes and female authors Ania Nowak has shared with me.

[1] I discovered Joana Russ thanks to Agata Siniarska, who gave me a copy of the book as a present, sensing the huge impact it would have on me. Following the logic of the plot proposed by Julia Morandeira, I decided to give her this same copy of the book.

[2] With great doses of patience and affectionate didactics, Ania Nowak has helped me understand and analyse the misogyny inscribed in our bodies and which we reproduce.

[3] The Company She Keeps was one of the books that Eva Rowson brought with her during her artist’s residency in Barcelona. Ania’s desire to read it prompted Eva to organise a reading group, which held several sessions in different spaces, public and domestic, around the city.

[4] Although I was familiar with the work of Jane Bennett and Karen Barad, I discovered Material Feminisms thanks to Ania Nowak, who shared the PDF version of the publication edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman sent to her by Agata Siniarska on account of her choreographic research on the subject. At the same time, Lucía C. Pino helped me understand many of these theories from the point of view of the practical and literally material.

[5] The naturalised invisibilisation of certain people, tasks or roles in our profession and our projects featured constantly in my conversations with Eva Rowson. Our personal experiences, Eva’s practice of recognition and participation in a project with as many voices as lamusea are some of the sources of these notes.

[6] I came to this conclusion after reading the perceptive essay by Rubén Grilo Víctor, Marta, Marcia, Lorenzo, Inga, Han, Gillian, Brandon etc. from a feminist perspective I was able to share, enlarge and comment on with him.

[7] One type of ‘support’ is public recognition. To quote Sara Ahmed, ‘Too often support is given privately behind the scenes: support needs to be public so the one who speaks out is not stranded’.

[8] At a very inspiring lecture, Lúa Coderch observed that there were questions we didn’t always ask ourselves, and perhaps it would be worthwhile if we did. One of them was ‘Who becomes invisible as a result of our work?’. Before this recommendation by Lúa I hadn’t imagined myself in the opposite role, that of someone who makes other people invisible. Her lecture also proved how it is possible to talk from the sphere of feminism without mentioning it.

[9] The problem with such a general term that embraces so many perspectives has given rise to a number of other concepts (transfeminism, xenofeminism, ecofeminism, speculative feminism, to mention but a few) that are perhaps more able to emphasise the differences and nuances between theories, positions and practices. Thanks to Lucía C. Pino and Ariadna Guiteras, I have understood the importance of emphasising the said nuances. Carolina Jiménez has taught me the strategic importance of using a common denominator to connect them, and Julieta Dentone has taught me to expand the modalities of feminism that influence vital practices.

[10] Thanks to Regina de Miguel, I had occasion to learn of the project entitled Fermenting Feminism, curated by Laurent Fournier, in which she herself took part, through the homonymous publication that accompanied it. FF would become one of many references of lamusea.

[11] Sara Ahmed observes how the logic of quotes is based on authors who quote other authors who, in turn, quote other authors, and so on and so forth.

[12] Itake this expression from Ania Nowak, who used it to explain the consequences of interpersonal relationships based on abuse and inequality.

[13] Irina Mutt has often said that writing at a good time is different to writing when your cat has just died or you’ve split up with your partner. Recognition of the personal sphere causes discomfort in a professional system that silences the affections and care enabled by its contents and practices.

[14] During the process of lamusea, Eva Rowson shared with us this text by Ursula K. LeGuin that became one of the statements of the project and that Lúa Coderch also invoked in an encounter we recently organised.

[15] ‘Killjoy’, a term often used to define feminism, is the title of Sara Ahmed’s blog. And yet, as Irina Mutt recently said, patriarchy ‘kills the joy’ much more than feminism. I worked on the concept of anger with Valentina Desideri in the texts by Audre Lorde, and on the transformative potential of shame. The complaint has become a life project for Sara Ahmed. As she herself says, ‘When you expose a problem, you become a problem’.

[16] I am indebted to Carolina Jiménez for this reflection, who helped me approach this text in a different way and who always emphasises the affirmative strength of ‘posthuman feminism’ explored by Rosi Braidotti, and of Donna Haraway’s ‘trans-species feminism’.

[17] Over the course of 2017, ‘radical feminism’ would become an expression repeated in the media, often negatively, tacitly appealing to a ‘low-key feminism’ that is less annoying in the public sphere. I don’t believe in a radical form of feminism because I don’t believe in a partial form of feminism. If anything, the radicalism of feminism exists in so far as it tackles the root of the problems and conflicts posed by feminism.

[18] Gender, race and class are factors that emerge through intra-action, a term coined by Karen Barad.

[19] Ania Nowak’s research on love has opened up many new perspectives on the subject. She introduced me to Eva Illouz and her analyses and criticisms of hetero-normative romantic love in Why Love Hurts. The naturalisation of this kind of love has been – and still is – used as a tool for control and social domination over women, reinforcing male privileges and inequality in the domain of the couple.

[20] ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’ is a lecture by Audre Lorde that exerted a great influence on me. It poses the racial problem within feminism and is characterised by a style of writing that is not based on hermeticism as a form of authority (Lúa Coderch). Gelen Alcántara always refers to the problem of being a white female and dealing with texts by female authors of different racial backgrounds.

[21] Trying to live as if there really was a feminist utopia is an attitude suggested by Ania Nowak, although she can’t recollect where she first read the idea, which has been repeated by many women in my circle, such as Lúa Coderch, Carolina Jiménez and Tamara Díaz Bringas.

[22] In one of her lectures, Rosi Braidotti asked ‘What is left to the Left?’, and pointed out the ignorance of many Marxists today as regards feminism. The fact that they haven’t done their homework is what prevents them from recognising feminism as the alternative to capitalism they are looking for.

[23] The experience with the essay entitled The Company She Keeps, thanks to Eva Rowson’s proposal, has led to the reading group The Company We Keep, which meets in Barcelona and in Bergen (Norway).

[24] Ania Nowak acquainted me with Mia Von Matt’s Topless Radio Show on Berlin Community Radio, and with the ongoing photo series #toplesstheoryreading. Thanks to her and to Mia, I was bold enough to dance topless with them at a Berlin nightclub.

[25] Rosi Braidotti points out how we have naturalised negative criticism and how the latter is closely related to patriarchy, that privileges counter-analyses of affirmative proposals, often interpreted as ingenuous or naïve.

[26] I borrow this quote from Audre Lorde, thanks to a tweet whose authorship I forget.

 

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