On November 8, 2017, I attended Alice Walker’s keynote address for Stanford University’s Contemplation by Design week. Contemplation by Design is a “campus-wide, multidisciplinary program designed to encourage all members of the Stanford community to enjoy the power of the pause for the purposes of re-establishing balance, tranquility, compassion and energy to support our creative excellence” (“Home”). I have enjoyed attending the keynote speeches for this event every year since I started at Stanford. This year, I walked away primarily reflecting on the tension among respect, contradiction, and accountability.
A short way into her speech, Walker told a story about Native American activist Dennis Banks who worked exhaustively throughout his life for the rights of his people. She illustrated the level of desperation he felt by describing how he tried to repopulate his tribe by having many children, joking that she didn’t think “all of the women were very happy” about that. This statement is overtly sexist with undertones of racially-based rape language, implying the women didn’t consent to being impregnated, as well as implying Dennis Banks was a predator.
Yet, the audience laughed.
I remained silent, struck by how casually Walker had made this comment and how easily and uniformly the audience had responded. I find it hard to believe people didn’t recognize the joke as problematic. If asked individually, I’m fairly confident the majority of audience members would say they are not sexist people and would identify Walker’s joke as clearly derogatory. I feel that people attending a “contemplation by design” speech tend to be ones who’ve reflected upon sexism in other contexts. Why, then, did everyone laugh?
My first thought is people laughed out of respect and admiration for Walker. People laughed not because they thought the joke was funny or wanted to endorse its ideas, but because they respect Alice Walker. They felt the pressure to be a good audience member, which required them to perform the expected response of laughter in a moment intended to be humorous. My second interpretation of the audience’s laughter builds off of the incongruity theory of humor. The incongruity theory suggests that people laugh when they perceive something incongruous, “something that violates [their] mental patterns and expectations” (Morreall par. 48). People laughed because deep down they realized the joke was sexist and this clashed with their expectation of what a feminist like Walker would say.
Regardless of why people laughed, they did laugh. How, then, should we approach Walker’s statement from her speech that “we have a responsibility to keep entertainers honest” by encouraging reflection? It is difficult to hold people accountable when our immediate response is to laugh at their incongruences (whether because we admire them or we see their blunders as unexpected). Our immediate response is not to challenge their statements or ideas, even if they are harmful to perpetuate. Where does that leave us as a society? Walker says (and I agree) that we all have a responsibility to highlight problems. However, we seem to feel we have a stronger responsibility to show loyalty to people who we otherwise see as upstanding, or we simply find ourselves laughing at the awkwardness of the moment. I suggest the solution lies in the embrace and expectation of contradiction.
As is theorized by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle in their book Awkward Politics, a way to approach feminism is by acknowledging and examining “awkwardness.” Awkwardness can be defined as the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in many modern political acts as a result of technology and the transnational reach of ideas (Smith-Prei and Stehle 15). I would like to extrapolate this method to include how we approach people as well. People are “awkward” all of the time. Walker’s joke is a perfect example of awkward; she is a feminist making a joke about rape. The person and the presentation clash. Due to technology and transnationalism, we are more aware than ever of these clashes, both people’s successes as well as their flaws. If we were to acknowledge the contradictions of good and bad remarks, of healthy and harmful ideas in everyone, we would free ourselves to critique the different issues we have with people’s actions and words, without dismissing the people themselves.
This frame of thought is exemplified in Brittney Cooper’s essay titled “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” Cooper critiques bell hooks for calling Beyoncé a terrorist. She also critiques Rev. Sekou for defending bell hooks, conflating Beyoncé and Obama and calling them both embodiments of neoliberalism (Cooper par. 4). As she explains why these assertions are problematic, Cooper clarifies that her critique “ain’t about disrespecting elders, but rather about saying that elders, especially elders as astute and insightful as bell hooks, don’t get a pass for making whack-ass arguments” (Cooper par. 6). This is crucial; being famous and well-respected does not excuse a person’s statements. In fact, the wider a person’s audience, the more accountable we need to hold them because their words have such a broad reach. That being said, Cooper’s reminder that “Beyonce is a human being, not just an image or an icon,” can also apply to bell hooks and Alice Walker. Their problematic statements can also be seen as “evidence of both struggle and process” (Cooper par. 36). Recognizing this awkwardness allows us to critique individuals (even those we admire) without disregarding them as people or invalidating their other ideas. This is why we must embrace and acknowledge contradiction in everyone.
Cooper, Brittney C. “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” The crunk feminist collective, 20 May 2014, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2014/05/20/on-bell-beyonce-and-bullshit/
“Home.” Home, contemplation.stanford.edu/.
Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Nov. 2012, plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/#IncThe.
Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward politics: technologies of popfeminist activism. McGill-Queens University Press, 2016.
Annina Hanlon is an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is majoring in Psychology, with a specialization in Mind, Culture and Society. She is especially interested in issues regarding race and gender, and how work done in academia can intersect with and impact these issues in the “real” world.
Carrie Smith-Prei | Maria Stehle
@BetülUlusoy und @KübraGümüşay: Wie erklärt ihr euch die Vereinbarkeit von Eurer pro- Erdoğan- und pro-IGMG-Gesinnung (Erdoğannahe Organisation in Deutschland), die ihr seid Jahren in diversen Eurer Tweets und Postings offensichtlich (Ulusoy) und teilweise durch die Blume (Gümüşay) ausdrückt, mit eurer Aussage, dass ihr “Feministinnen” sein wollt und für Frauenrechte kämpft? […] Feminismus […] bedeutet […] nämlich: neben der Bestrebung nach der Beseitigung von geschlechtsspezifischen Ungleichheiten im eigenen Leben und Gesellschaft vor allem der kritische Hinweis auf patriarchal-frauenfeindliche Strukturen in der eigenen Community – ich kann solche Tendenzen bei keinem von Euch erkennen.
—(Lady Bitch Ray, excerpt of her Facebook posting July 19, 2016)
[I]n den letzten Tagen versuchte man mir Anhängerschaft zu verschiedenen Parteien und Organisationen anzudichten. Mich enttäuscht der Argwohn, das Lagerdenken und das Unvermögen Differenziertheit zuzulassen. Doch das sagt viel aus über unser Jetzt. Unsere Gesellschaft. Uns. Deshalb, einmal für alle. […] Ich bin weder pro dies, noch pro das. In meiner Person und Arbeit vereine ich mehrere Identitäten und Ideale, die in allen politischen Lagern der Türkei (aber nicht nur dort) auf die eine oder andere Art und Weise anecken, wenn nicht gar fundamental widersprechen. […] Statt in Lagern denke ich in Solidaritäten.
—(“10 Punkte, einmal, für alle.” Ein fremdwörterbuch, Blog by Kübra Gümüşay, posting on July 27, 2016)
Ehrlich gesagt finde ich Deine Stellungnahme vom 27.07.2016 zu meinem Posting, falls man diese überhaupt als an mich gerichtete Antwort betrachten darf, ziemlich schwach, liebe Kübra. Es ist eine schwammige, in Harmoniesucht getränkte Wir-haben-uns-alle-lieb-Haltung, mit der Du keine Antworten auf meine Fragen gibst. Du beziehst wieder keine klare Position in solchen Blogs und Beiträgen – oder besser gesagt nur allgemeine, doppeldeutige Botschaften. Ist das Absicht, Naivität oder politische Strategie?
I don’t know. […] Aus der Position einer alevitisch-muslimisch sozialisierten Deutsch-Türkin der zweiten Generation heraus, die mit keinem Verband, Organisation oder Institution (außer Universitäten und Hochschulen) verbunden ist: Ist es Absicht, dass Du – obwohl Du Dich aktiv in IGMG- und AKP-nahen Kreisen bewegst – spezifische Themen in Deiner anti-rassistischen und feministischen Agenda bewusst rauslässt? An welche Themen ich da denke: Erdoğans Frauen degradierende Politik in der Türkei, die Ächtung von Homosexuellen in der Türkei, die dortige Hetzjagd auf LGBTs und Transgender-Menschen, die Lage von Aleviten und Alevitinnen im Besonderen, konkreter: die Vergewaltigungen und Folter von Kurdinnen in Cizre und Muş-Varto in diesem und letztem Jahr, (natürlich immer aus kritischer Perspektive), Etwas allgemeiner: Die Folter von IS-Kämpfer*innen von Jesidinnen?
—(Lady Bitch Ray, excerpt of her Facebook posting in response to Kübra Gümüşay’s Blog, July 29, 2016.)
These are excerpts from a social media debate triggered by a posting by Lady Bitch Ray, stage name of academic-artist-activist Reyhan Şahin, on her Facebook site, a debate that addresses Muslim feminism, feminist positionality, and feminist politics more generally. Her first posting was inspired by the failed military coup in Turkey and by her longstanding suspicion that some Muslim feminist activists, specifically Kübra Gümüşay and Betül Ulusoy, who are active mainly in the digital realm, hide their association with orthodox Muslim organizations and might support (aspects of) the pro-Erdogan government in Turkey; in the public sphere of Germany, these digital activists feature themselves as anti-racist feminists who are also devout Muslims, but, according to Lady Bitch Ray’s argument, they take a different tone when speaking to the Muslim community. Lady Bitch Ray’s postings triggered many responses: some were in favor of starting the debate, others were openly hostile; some accused her of being divisive and playing into the hands of racist white mainstream feminists, others praised her courage to speak up as a Turkish-German academic in a complicated political debate.
One of the key complications of the debate is the manner in which it uncovers the potential for siloing within the contemporary landscape of feminisms in Germany. The social media debate between Şahin and Gümüşay inspired Sineb El Masrar to publish an article in in taz that states:
Wenn sich weiße, nichtmuslimische Feministinnen dem Diskurs zuwenden, gilt dies als selbstverständlich. Vor allem wenn die neue Generation der sogenannten Popfeministinnen der alten Riege Kopfschmerzen bereitet ob ihrer Positionen zu Prostitution, Porno und Islam. […] Die irritierten Reaktionen [auf die Debatte zwischen Lady Bitch Ray and Gümüşay] – übrigens auf beiden Seiten – offenbarten, wie viel Unkenntnis und Uneinigkeit beim Thema ‘Islamischer Feminismus’ noch immer herrscht und dass sachliche Kritik innerhalb postmigrantischer Gruppen zum Teil als Verrat gilt. (Sineb El Masrar)
El Masrar shows that Muslim feminist of color in Germany navigate an almost impossible range of political currents. Şahin as a scholar, and, in a rather different way, Gümüşay as a journalist, are not only aware of these currents but also try to make them useful for their respective causes and positions. Their different approaches and strategies are clearly born out of different political positions, something apparent even without their having to assume membership in any particular organizations. Traditional notions of the descriptors conservative, right-wing, racist or anti-racist, even feminist, however, do not seem to adequately describe the terrain.
The various layers of this brief example speak directly to questions of position, voice, and appropriation of certain voices for certain causes, all of which is heightened in the age of digital media; it also speaks to the politics of racialization and to anti-racist activism and to debates about religion and Islamophobia. Moreover, fostering a politics of solidarity, albeit differently and maybe ironically, is the stated goal of both Gümüşay and Şahin. While feminism has certainly come to the forefront of conversations around anti-racism in Germany, increasingly since the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne (prompting Die Zeit to ask in a January 18th discussion between Christina Klemm and Sabine Hark: “Sind wir über Nacht zu einer feministischen Nation geworden?”), the public entanglement of race and feminism has also further complicated the increasingly contested definition of feminism, including what individual feminists looks like, say, and represent. These questions are at the center of debates about feminist activism today: voice and appropriation, the politics of digital activism, race and religion, the true form of feminism, and the meaning of feminist solidarity. If traditional binaries do not appear to trigger a productive political debate, one can either try to find positions outside of these binaries (which is what Gümüşay stands for) or insist that confronting these tensions is the only way forward (as Şahin seems to suggest), even in a seemingly unproductive debate that threatens to backfire. Said differently, this position argues that we need to go for and to the political impasse and cause trouble.
Indeed, these questions are “trouble” and, as we call for in our book Awkward Politics, citing Donna Haraway, we need to “stay with the trouble.” For (white) academic feminists, however, this seems to be a difficult demand. Why does staying with the key issues of this debate seem like too much trouble? And is there a point at which we (white) academics ourselves become (too much) trouble? Beyond being specifically about the current situation in Turkey, Germany, and Europe, this debate raises a more theoretical question about patriarchy and complicity, about populist appropriations of feminism and right-wing populism, and about (the limits of) global feminist solidarity. In this discussion, both, Gümüşay and Şahin, are “willful,” as defined by Sara Ahmed:
To affirm willfulness does not mean prescribing a set of behaviors […] as if they are an appropriate or necessary way of doing politics. […] Willfulness could be thought of as a political art, a practical craft that is acquired through involvement in political struggle, whether that struggle is a struggle to exist or to transform our existence. Willfulness might be thought of as becoming crafty. (133)
But does Ahmed’s concept of “willful obedience” (137ff) also describe parts of Gümüşay’s political craft? Her insistence on her Muslim identification, on her veil, is, in most situations, a willful act. In others it might be willful obedience—and this is precisely what Şahin seems to point to: that there is a politics of willfulness that changes according to context and that this, precisely, is where we need to carefully and self-critically examine our solidarities. Gümüşay calls for solidarity, for listening and for telling our stories, for open communication (see her blogs and lectures on video), but she refuses to engage directly with Şahin’s questions. Again, is this a willful political act of evasion or is it a perpetuation of power structures in a political sphere that is constructed as “elsewhere” (in Turkey, maybe, or within certain communities) but that is, in fact, also always very much “here” (in Germany, in the US, globally)? The answer to these questions depends completely on position, but due to the political urgency of these questions, relativism cannot be an option. A simple posture of “well, that depends” is an expression of privilege (and not an option for Şahin, for example). Solidarity appears selective, then, and becomes part of a questionable political power play.
Added to Gümüşay’s willfulness is Şahin’s own, as Lady Bitch Ray. On January 15th, 2016 an interview with Şahin was published in the online edition of Die Welt in which she claims the mass sexual assaults that happened during as well as the racists responses to the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne stand in for a national problem that should prompt Germany, and German feminism, to redefine itself:
Deutschland hat gerade viele Baustellen. Vor allem bezüglich seiner Selbstdefinition als Einwanderungsland und mit dem Umgang mit ‚anderen’ Menschen. […] Wir brauchen eine Neudefinition des Deutsch-Seins. Daneben entwickelt sich der Medien-Feminismus in Deutschland zu einem mit Wasser aufgeblasenen Kondom, der, wenn er platzt, nichts außer stinkender Plörre hinterlässt. Ich finde, wir sollten auch über einen klügeren und wirkungsimmanenten Feminismus sprechen.
Here she criticizes not only the racist and anti-Islamic images that are associated with the violence against women on New Year’s Eve, but also the media culture that allows for and promotes such racism and violence, a media culture equated with Medienfeminismus that presents feminism as harmless and easy to consume. In this interview, Şahin utilizes playfully pornographic language—the marker also of her music and fashion creations, other writings, and popular Bitchsm seminars—that underscores the normalization of violence and consumption: “Ich würde alle Männer auffordern, von nun an 69 Klitorislängen Abstand von Frauen zu halten und einen höflichen Umgang einzuschlagen, wenn sie sich entscheiden, mit einer Frau zu sprechen. Und ich fordere mehr Raum für vaginal-votzige Selbstbestimmungsrechte und weniger Schwanzimperialismus.”
Her sexualized and very physical word creations, here and elsewhere (also in the debate discussed here, for example when she opens the July 29 posting on Facebook quoted above with the demand: “Pussytionier’ Dich!”), function not only as communicative tool but also as material that can be reconfigured, thereby gaining body, oversized and excessive. The suggested “69 Klitorislängen Abstand” in this interview excerpt, is of course a reference to the Cologne mayor’s remarks in response to the New Year’s Eve events that women should remain “eine Armlänge” from strangers at all times, which sparked the digital campaign #einearmlaenge that preceded #ausnahmslos. The excessively extended body part—the 69 clits—of Lady Bitch Ray’s comment points toward the ridiculousness of one-arm’s-length; the clits and the arm function as indexes for the violence of sexist and racist culture while also highlighting feminist political wilfulness as an of aesthetic disturbance. Ahmed opens her 2014 Willful Subjects with a reading of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “Das eigensinnige Kind.” The fairy tale tells of a child who never listens to its mother and even in death extends its willful arm out of the grave. Ahmed uses this story to speak of willfulness or the willful as part of feminist, queer, and racialized existence. Here, the material is willful; the pornographic words are on bad behaviour, naughty. Ahmed concludes her book with the following:
When arms come up, they disturb the ground. Can we learn not to eliminate the signs of disturbance? Disturbance can be creative: not as what we aim for, not as what grounds our action, but as the effect of action: disturbance as what is created by the very effort of reaching, of reaching up, of reaching out, of reaching for something that is not present, something that appears only as a shimmer, a horizon of possibility. (204)
In Lady Bitch Ray’s interview, the clits become these arms, they are raised #einearmlaenge to point toward a creative process of assemblage that here and in the example of the debate is made possible in the digital sphere. At the same time, they point toward possibilities for utilizing the methodologies of digital feminism in the non-digital world. In digital feminisms, a whole host of themes as cultural forms founded on exponential difference collide, awkwardly: present and future, race and anti-racism, consumerism and critique thereof, nation and internationality, body and material. These collisions can be thought of as assemblages in which, to quote Puar, “[c]ategories—race, gender, sexuality—are considered events, actions, and encounters between bodies, rather than simply entities and attributes of subjects” (52). Assemblages “de-privilege the human body as a discrete organic thing” (57); when the human and identity or subjectivity are no longer privileged sites for analysis, the body is expanded to include all forms of matter, material, and institutions, and urgent themes rise to the surface. Puar writes, assemblage is about,
design, layout, organization, arrangement, and relations—the focus being not on content but on relations, relations of patterns (Phillips 2006 , 108 ). […] Concepts do not prescribe relations, nor do they exist prior to them; rather, relations of force, connection, resonance, and patterning give rise to concepts. (57)
In many ways, assemblage is also about deviance (see Heather Love, “Doing Being Deviant”), discipline, and control; thinking “the intertwined relations of intersectionality and assemblages […] can help us produce more roadmaps of precisely these not quite fully understood relations between discipline and control” (Puar 63). Both, Gümüşay and Şahin try to not only uncover the process of assemblage but also to take control of the female body as assemblage; relations of force assign their bodies a place within patriarchal concepts (in Schwanzstrukturen, as Şahin would describe them) but their visibility as willful, deviant, and feminist, produces relations of connection and resonance.
Moreover, that the debate began on the official Facebook page of Lady Bitch Ray shows the willfulness of the aesthetics in that disturbance. The platform, which itself is highly commercial and driven by individually tailored ad revenue, and the page, which carries all the markers of Lady Bitch Ray’s sexualized, irreverent, and poppy visual language, become a further component assembled onto the question of race, power, and solidarity, one that spurs on perhaps unexpected, vitriolic, or confused affective responses in a broad range of participants. Thus one manner of addressing these political questions is by looking at aesthetic forms and their affective resonance (aesthetics as defined in its broadest sense as the way in which we address our relationship to the world around us; affect as what happens in us and between us in our confrontation with that world), which might help to politicize this trouble. Lady Bitch Ray works with hyper-visibility and awkwardness (as we describe in Awkward Politics) and Gümüşay “confronts the relationship of her work to the public by challenging a particular form of visibility and by resignifying the limits of the political” (Weber 3). Both approaches represent and also confront an impasse, the impossibility of situating the racialized, sexualized, gendered body in any sphere outside of the realm of power politics and violence. The digital realm, however, opens up different sets of relationships between forms of violence, bodies, aesthetic forms, and social realities.
In our work on digital feminisms, we think through the digital not only for its distribution of feminist topics, but also for the fundamental restructuring of the material culture of feminism, with broad-reaching aesthetic, affective, and political implications. We engage in theoretical thinking about the material culture of digital feminist work, the aesthetics of feminist protest in the digital age, and the consequences of digital feminism for contemporary antiracist, feminist, and queer theory and methodology. When we speak of digital feminisms, we reference feminism as an ongoing process of continual becoming, one that also contains its histories and futures. Digital spaces are places of political collaboration or community building as well as spaces of divergence, deviation, and transition. A definition (and dismissal) of digital feminism that focuses on activism powered by social media and ignores the theoretical and methodological possibilities that digital feminism might offer is short sighted. In their introduction to Digital Anthropology (2012), Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller discuss how the digital intensifies the dialectical nature of culture. The digital is made up of binary code, 0s and 1s. Thus, it creates a dialectical system of differences that expand and reproduce themselves ad infinitum and at breakneck speed. The 0s and 1s in the code represent simplest and most abstract thought, as the infinite possibilities for the production of differences cannot be conceived of conceptually. Horst and Miller warn that while this description of the digital seems idealistic, as it could suggest the potential to lead toward a new equality and openness, this idealism is deceptive; gender parity in most digital cultures and arenas is a long way off.
This understanding of the dialectical nature of digital code, a code founded on difference, can be extrapolated onto an understanding of new cultural forms made possible in the digital sphere, but also those communities, cooperations, and collaborations—even the contentious ones—arising there. Assemblage helps us to get at the materiality of digital feminism as a coming together of bodies of all sorts that hold gendered, racial, ethnic, national, or economic meanings, a coming together that can only be read as an event of identity, one that continually constitutes itself anew, much like the 0s and the 1s of the digital code. In their writings on digital anthropology, Horst and Miller emphasize that the important relationship between the digital and the material allows for a different approach to normalization. They explain this as the tendency to quickly accept new material cultures of the digital as “normal.” In digital feminism, this normalizing tendency is political, the politics of which become apparent as an aesthetics of disturbance. That disturbance is willful.
In the example of the debate sparked by Gümüşay and Şahin, it is precisely the pushback against the normalizing tendency of media discourse—that which at first appears contentious or shocking becomes quickly subsumed by the constant barrage of images—that acts as a disturbance, one with aesthetic dimensions. At the same time, it would seem the more personal attacks between the two would also ask after the normalizing tendencies of cultures of violence, of the control of the body, and of the unilateral desire for fixed political (feminist) definitions and allegiances. All of this is slippery in the digital. Digital feminisms offer strategies for creating willful disturbances also in the non-digital world by developing connections and new discourses through assemblage. These strategies include hypervisualization, cooption, quotation, flattening, disappearance—all as a disturbance of the social order, of the (digital) dialectic of difference. Specific themes and images leave the digital arena and appear again, synchronized to the quickly changing tempo of their political aims. But while oriented toward futurity, this does not mean that digital feminism is ahistorical. Instead, it offers new forms of engagement that ask us to change our political reading habits and our community-building strategies.
If there is only space for antagonism, we are in a realm where we cannot reassemble zeroes and ones in new contexts. We freeze. There is, however, room for the creation of new reading habits and new strategies of community building. If Gümüşay is supporting a violent regime in parts of her work, then there has to be room for feminist critique without dismissing her anti-racist and feminist work in Europe. What one might want to call a queer reading of our digital-material realities implies that we can question solidarities in one space while, at the same time, we may foster solidarities in another. To act as (digital) feminists, then, means to welcome critique when we use gendered and racialized tools for power and control, or when we see them in use, but it also means to call for willful solidarity when we face these very tools together.
Ahmed, Sara. “A Willfulness Archive.” Willful Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
—. “Willfulness as a Style of Politics.” Willful Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Alaimo and Hekman 120-54.
El Masrar, Sineb. “Frau muss genau hinschauen.” Taz, August 6, 2016. Accessible at: http://m.taz.de/!5324213;m/
Haraway, Donna. “SF: String Figures, Multispecies Muddles, Staying with the Trouble.” Keynote Lecture presented at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. March 24, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1uTVnhIHS8.
Horst, Heather und Daniel Miller. Digital Anthropology. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012
Gümüşay, Kübra. ein fremdwörterbuch. Blog Posting “10 Punkte, Einmal, Für alle.” July 27, 2016. Accessible at: http://ein-fremdwoerterbuch.com/2016/07/10-punkte-einmal-fuer-alle/
Lady Bitch Ray, official Facebook Site, postings July-August 2016.
Love, Heather. “Doing Being Deviant: Deviance Studies, Description, and the Queer Ordinary.” Differences 26.1 (2015): 74-95.
Puar, Jasbir. “I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess: Becoming Intersectional in Assemblage Theory.” PhiloSOPHIA 2.1 (2012): 49-66.
Şahin, Reyhan. “Frauen werden behandelt wie verfügbares Frischfleisch.” welt.de, 15 Jan. 2016, http://www.welt.de/regionales/hamburg/article151041833/Frauen-werden-behandelt-wie-verfuegbares-Frischfleisch.html. Accessed 25 Aug. 2016.
Smith-Prei, Carrie and Maria Stehle. Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism. McGill-Queens UP, 2016.
Weber, Beverly. “Kübra Gümüşay, Muslim Digital Feminism and the Politics of Visuality in Germany.” In Feminist Media Studies. Digital Feminisms: Transnational Activism in German Protest Cultures, edited by Christina Scharff, Carrie Smith-Prei, and Maria Stehle. Spec. issue of Feminist Media Studies 16.1. New York: Routledge.
One Year Later / Charleston Strong
Mary Catherine Lawler
Being in Charleston one year after the shooting at the A.M.E. Church has been surreal in that superficially everything runs business as usual, but traces of memorialization are visually present throughout the city (and a remembrance ceremony and a memorial concert across from A.M.E. are scheduled for tonight).
Symbols of the slogan “Charleston Strong” appear throughout the city – nine doves – for the Charleston 9 shot dead last year – form a white palmetto tree against a dark blue rectangle, a clear parallel to the South Carolina state flag.
While brunching at Toast on Meeting Street, I noticed a staff member wearing the same design on the back of his Charleston dark blue t-shirt. Little and big signs like this in the big little city seemed to point to a universal cognizance and recognition of the tragedy in an everyday manner.
In returning from Fort Sumter, however, I saw the larger scale and passed through the affective borders of the space in front of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Calhoun – a plethora of flowers accumulated at the foot of the church’s steps, sweetgrass crosses woven and attached to the wrought-iron gates, dark blue and white flag displayed.
Two white men stood holding a printed banner with the Charleston 9’s photos and names – the banner read “say their names” / “Charleston 9” / “never forget” – while black congregation members sharply dressed gathered nearby. Across the street, setup for an evening concert in memory of the nine had begun, white ribbons fixed to white chairs, speakers plugged in and tested.
Even on the highly commercial King Street, known for mid- to upscale shopping, a shop window featured posterboard backing a newspaper cutout of the Charleston 9, adorned with sweetgrass roses and partially framed with a notice that prayers were with the A.M.E. Church.
While it’s unnerving to walk through a “nice neighborhood” like the one in which the A.M.E. Church is located and think that someone could walk by with a weapon and into a church full of people like those next to you on the street, at the same time it felt good to see both black and white members of the community expressing solidarity in Charleston identity. Much work must still be done in terms of gun laws in the U.S.; perhaps Charleston can be a source not only of race discourse, but also of gun violence going forward.
Here the Charleston City Paper article – “Mother Emanuel: One Year Later”.
Signing off from the Holy City.
Pride Month, Flag Day, and the Heteronormative Laugh of Dismissal
Mary Catherine Lawler
Republican Fundraiser, Media Sensationalism
Last night I attended a fundraiser for a state candidate campaigning here in South Carolina. My parents had been invited and I attended, half-disturbed, half-fascinated, having decided that as long as none of my money contributed via my presence, I was ok with observing a different political culture.
I’m trying to process what’s happened in Orlando and how it’s been dismissed that the shooting took place at a gay nightclub. People are stocking up on guns and yelling on Fox News about Muslims and I’m scared for the LGBTQ people I know.
European Crises – Europe Crazies: Futures, Racism, and a Different Kind of Silence
At a children’s birthday party in a park, I suddenly found myself in a conversation so uncomfortable that I longed for an interruption: for one of our children to call for me, for my husband to need my help, for any of the other guests coming over to say good-bye. This is a rather uncommon feeling at such a party, where, usually, I long for a few minutes of uninterrupted adult conversation with parent friends that I had not seen in a while.
But: the party was almost over, most guests had left, and most children were peacefully playing at the playground after having consumed cake, cupcakes, and strawberries. A bit to the side, I got caught in this conversation with a father, a man I had not met before the party. One of my friends introduced him to me as a scientist from France, who, as my friend insisted, also spoke German. His German was better than my French, I admit, but the easiest way to communicate would have certainly been in English. And, unfortunately in this case, since this allowed for a much more elaborate speech, he switched from his rather broken German to English after I asked him if he was considering moving back to France—or might I have said “Europe”? He answered that he was not sure since the current situation in Europe was so bad. I was not sure how he meant that and I was still not sure exactly what he meant when I finally managed to, however awkwardly, leave the conversation. I listened (see previous blog posting “When to Shut Up and Listen”) but my silence was born out of confusion, which, I believe, he took as ignorance and possibly even interest in what he had to lay out for me. He insisted that the whole idea of the EU was orchestrated by the US. That I should simply look at all the positions the US took vis-à-vis the EU in the past, say, five years, it need not be more than that, and convince myself that this was true; that the EU is, basically, the extended arm of the US. Sure, he admitted, European countries were good at waging wars against each other. I chuckled and said, yes, Germany certainly was. And he quickly stopped me to point out that no, no more talking about the past. He corrected me: we are not guilty of the past—while I had not even spoken about guilt—and that this was about the future. If he were the French president tomorrow (I chuckled again, but his face remained serious), within 24 hours, he said, France would leave the EU. He argued that the structure of the EU was not clearly democratic or participatory, and I agreed, but suggested that maybe it was also because people do not appear to even care to vote in EU elections. His more pressing issue, however, so it seemed, was the fact that the nation-states just needed to make their own decisions and mistakes, in their interests and with their own futures in mind.
Why do I think and write about this anti-EU rant and this, not just man-splaining, but lecturing posture of a man whose name I do not recall and who, most likely, I will never see again? I have not done the reading or “research” into the US positions on the EU that he assigned to me so that I could, as he suggested, “form my own opinion.” I am, however, involved in a research project on European film; we are looking at intimacies on screen, mainly between non-legal or migrant characters and European citizens, to argue for moments that allow an imagination of alternative futures for, in, and beyond Europe. I also presented talks related to the so-called “refugee crisis” and the general perception of Europe in crisis that considered gender, media perception, and political appropriation for right-wing political causes. But somehow, his tirade caught me off-guard and I did not engage; I listened, I asked some questions: probably not the right ones and certainly not provocative ones, since I had no interest in trying to persuade this man who clearly thought of himself as rather persuasive, and: I was not interested in a political argument at a children’s party. I also kept wondering: is my affective attachment to the idea of Europe simply very “German” of me? If this were the case, wouldn’t that confirm his argument, that, in some way, above all, it is all about national belonging and national “characteristics” albeit, in this case, learned and historically determined ones? He tried to persuade me by approaching me as “a German” by absolving me of any sense of collective guilt and by asking the rhetorical question of why the Germans should pay for Greeks’ laziness. Wouldn’t I agree that this makes little sense? I am not sure what, according to his opinion, the US interest in this example would be and I certainly think there are many German interests involved in keeping Greece in the EU and in the Euro-zone, and these reasons are certainly not primarily altruistic ones. I did not engage him about on the question of Greece. As I carefully pointed out that, despite what he appeared to see as the US pushing the EU to accept Turkey into the union, Turkey had not (yet) joined the EU, he ignored me. Turkey is EU’s Other and the EU’s buffer zone. Turkey is a NATO country. Turkey is a very complicated country. Turkey and Germany, well, have a complicated and intricately interwoven past and present, and, in the current refugee crisis, Turkey is a key player. And so is Greece. I did not push him, again, maybe because I just wanted him to stop talking about this. And maybe because I was I afraid to find out what really was behind his rant. That, possibly, this is all about keeping the “wrong” people out of Europe and protecting or luring back the “right” ones?
So, right there in this park in a university town in the US, the question of reading the “crisis” became central. Whose crisis is this? A crisis that might prevent a highly educated, clearly patriotic, ex-pat of France from returning to France while many refugees from Syria, Africa, the Middle East, are stranded in camps somewhere or drown in the Mediterranean Sea trying to enter the EU. And right here, under the large Oak trees on the side of a playground, the kind of unique racism of Europe can be voiced as a politically persuasive argument: it is just about our future. Leave the past behind, genocide, colonialism, etc… and move on, think of the future. Let the Others of Europe, of the other Europe, outside of Europe, make their mistakes and let us (in this case the French, but this could easily be the Germans, the Britons, etc…) make our own decisions about our futures. Who are these French people and whose future is this? The future of the people who live in Europe or of the people this European, French-man, thinks should live in Europe and decide on Europe’s future?
“Almost Nothing is Not a Pussy” –@look_at_this_pusssy
Mary Catherine Lawler
The LA-based Eva Sealove and Chelsea Jones started Look at This Pussy, affectionately abbreviated as LATP, as an in-joke, but their co-founded instagram account has blown up to over 7.600 followers. Re-envisioning the every day in terms of the yonic rather than the phallic and shattering the idea that only phallic shapes, symbols, and signifiers are visible Sealove and Jones provide a new lens for the everyday, working in what they call “visual euphemism” (Dazed).
Engaging in this “visual and textual project”, the BFF pair post vaginas seen in architecture, clothing, food, plants, cats and caves (ha ha), public art, advertisements, and other sources and exposing these shapes previously thought “unseeable” or “nonexistent” vis-à-vis those resembling the male anatomy, Jones and Sealove train their instagram followers and their larger audience to look for and recognize the female form in everyday objects and animate life. They also receive many submissions from fans and incorporate the most unique and crazy of them into their social media account.
Featured online in for example Dazed, Wut, Bullett, and Paper, Sealove and Jones have attracted significant attention with a new perspective that is “militantly anti-shame” (Sealove in Bullett interview) and all about “peep[ing] the puss” (Paper). The Fusion article on the 20-somethings even coined a new German word for “vaginal doppelgängers (or, voppelgängers)” – for the snapshots. In using pictures of simulated or recognized vaginas, the pair additionally enjoy the benefit of dancing around most – though not all – censorship.
In response to the question/request to “[d]escribe the perfect pussy”, Jones answers “I think that all pussies are perfect, in being un-perfect. I don’t think the ‘perfect pussy’ really exists. My pussy, your pussy, everybody’s pussy is fucking perfect” (Bullett). Also, when asked which pussy is their favorite, both replied that each has its own unique merits.
Though unfortunately both have received some pushback (“please stop sending us pictures of your dicks” – Sealove, in Dazed, the ‘it’s-a-vulva-not a-vagina’ terminology debate, and accusations of being anti-trans and essentialist), the yonic-seeking duo, Sealove and Jones, have over 7.600 Instagram followers convinced – “almost nothing is not a pussy”. They push for self-acceptance for women and a broader understanding of the difficulty of existence as a woman, while arguing for de-mystification – not, both underscore, de-sexualization – of the female form.
For more LATP, don’t miss Sealove and Jones’ podcast, which will be released on May 1, 2016, called ‘Do What Feels Right’.
Musical Cliteracy: The Clitoris and Womyn’s Herstory
Mary Catherine Lawler
Dorian Electra and Refinery29’s music video on becoming “cliterate” touches on Freud, Master’s and Johnson, and why women were tortured and killed for being “witches” (read: engaged in sexual pleasure).
While the pastiche pop, over-the-top aesthetic calls to mind a Barbie dreamhouse vibe and ’90s style, with props like a hot pink plastic flat clitoris held up by a carefully poised clear plastic hand, the retro feel infuses the video with a historical distance to the present that forces the viewer to think about how the clitoris and female pleasure are categorized and discussed today.
By making visible a part of the body normally hooded from view, Refinery29 and Dorian Electra expose the patriarchal discourse around the visibility of pleasure and gender. Additionall
When to Shut Up and Listen and When to Speak Up: Reflections on Collaboration, Race, and Activism
Listening can be a very comfortable activity; to sit, stare, and nod, either knowingly or empathetically. But, and I know I am not the first person to ask this, what are the politics of listening? What makes listening comfortable and when does it get uncomfortable? When and for whom does listening mean feeling impacted and affected? There is a similar dynamic in speaking: to speak means to have the word. But to speak can also be uncomfortable, can mean that one will either be or have to make uncomfortable, take a risk, or risk confrontation. The question I am asking is not just, as Spivak so famously phrased it, if the subaltern can speak. I am asking who can speak comfortably and safely and who takes a risk, and who can and who has to speak rebelliously (Judith Butler) or willfully (Sara Ahmed), who chooses and under what circumstances do we get to choose the voices we speak in. Thinking about the work of scholars like Spivak, Butler, and Ahmed, for me the politics of listening and speaking offer a productive avenue to confront what is often referred to as privilege. People who find themselves in a privileged position can practice this kind of safe-listening and safe-speaking, which, of course, corresponds directly to their physical safety. What this also means, however, is that, often by pointing out their own awareness of privilege, people practice a strange form of privilege; they solidify their privileged position by retreating into comfortable listening or they feel entitled to speak, yet again, since they have acknowledged their privilege. My suggestion is that rather than talking about privilege, we talk about who is talking about what and who is listening to whom, or who is, or should be, talking to each other. Why, for some people, it feels safer to shut up while for others, remaining silent becomes a threat. And yet, sometimes, not speaking can be an act of resistance. This means that we also need to talk about why and when people, either choose to or are forced to, remain silent.
There can be strategic silence, of course. For example, not the violence and abuse itself, but the media discussions about the crimes committed on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, show these strategic silences on all sides of the discussion: while some claim that a focus on sexual harassment of women by groups of men obscures the fact that the men harassing women on a central square in Cologne were not white German men, had migration backgrounds, were recent refugees, and/or Muslim. Others claim that the focus on the ethnicity of the men obscures the fact that such sexual violence is common and also commonly committed by white men, but when white men commit it, it often remains unreported. In Germany, notably the hashtag #aufschrei (outcry) has already attempted to make the sexual harassment and the sexual/sexist violence that women are subjected to on a daily basis visible when it was launched in 2013. In response to Cologne and the media responses to the Cologne attacks, a new hashtag was launched, #ausnahmslos (without exception), which calls for action against sexism and racism, without exception.
As with a lot of online activism, people who sign petitions or use hashtags find themselves in the company of often unlikely and sometimes unwelcome allies. This phenomenon is one aspect of what Carrie Smith-Prei and I describe in our book Awkward Activism: the unpredictability of digital activism, meaning that it can and often is appropriated for other, and certainly unwelcome to some, causes, that it attracts trolls and can be used against the initial cause, can lead to the argument that such activism is ineffective. We strongly argue against this critique, but admit that when it comes to political effect, we face a new kind of unpredictability, which can be so confusing that some people respond by being silent. In some cases, this is as a response to the silencing people experience themselves, which is part of this unpredictability; but it can also be a, and may I say privileged, form of retreating into silence. This is related to a certain kind of silence common to academics: they retreat behind their need to research a subject first to write about it and behind their insistence that academic writing cannot and should not be journalistic. Facing the complexities of today’s world, we cannot afford to hide behind textual analysis without also always considering context (of who speaks and who listens, of who and what is meant to silenced, and of what might happen next). We also cannot claim that we can understand that context without listening and collaborating; we cannot claim that we can speak in a singular voice. And regardless of how many voices speak, we will make mistakes. We will find ourselves in a mess. We will talk and listen und understand the mess, collaboratively. And then we will get ourselves in a mess yet again.
What, among many factors and as many voices since then have pointed out, turns talking and writing about the sexual violence committed on New Year’s eve in Cologne into such a messy, difficult, and political affair, is that “Muslim” is a racialized category and that we are talking about race; and that women’s bodies once again have become a political tool for many different sides of the messy debate about race and racism. Additionally, women with migration background, non-white women in Germany, are not part of the discourse. The fears—or panic—of refugees from war-torn countries, mainly Syria, focuses on young male migrants while images of children and mothers trigger empathy. Female refugees, the mothers, sisters, or daughters of these presumed sexual predators once again appear only as silent victims. In the face of these complexities, we—and this “we” refers to middle and upper class white women—shy away from the mess and: we either remain silent about certain aspects of the issues at hand or we might even righteously claim that political correctness needs to be put aside when we are confronting violence against women. Again, this shying away from acknowledging that this complicated mess is rooted in our positions of speech, in our feeling of entitlement or our desire to stay out of trouble, to stay safe, in our inability to confront the politics of silence and speech. Positions of white feminists have far too long relied on othering and racism, on racialized constructions of victims and perpetrators as well as of oppressed other women, and on racisms.
For a week in January, when the attacks in Cologne and their aftermath were still hotly discussed in the media, Reyhan Şahin was visiting my home university in Knoxville. And it is our listening to each other, in Reyhan sharing some of her new songs, her research, and her writing, in us listening to her talk, in our conversations with students, friends, and colleagues, but most importantly, in our talking to and with each other, which sometimes included me translating, my children’s German-English code switching, as well as the food we ate and the tea we drank together as we nursed our colds, that I found a voice to write this research blog. We must not fall silent in the face of the complexities of today’s world, the overlapping, intersecting, or assembling forms of violence, oppression, and injustice. We can speak politically when we listen to and speak to each other (see also Beverly Weber’s work on Spivak). I am writing because I am reflecting on what Reyhan and I talked about, but also on what remained unspoken, and why. I am writing to trigger responses from others and to kick-start a popfeminist academic blog. Popfeminism – a word I use in my research also to describe Reyhan Şahin’s work as Lady Bitch Ray. Now, Reyhan told me that she does not identify as popfeminist even though many journalists and researchers, including myself, describe her work as popfeminist. Popfeminism, she said, is a white term. There is hip-hop feminism. There is a new song about Cleopatra and a song about butts, coming out on Reyhan’s next album.
So, for me, listening is one part. Even if – or exactly because – listening makes one feel awkward and questioned. But when, for example, Reyhan and I jokingly referred to Reyhan and/as Lady Bitch Ray as our research subject, we took pleasure in blurring boundaries between researcher and researched, between personal conversation and friendship and academic rigor. The dynamic of the native informant, who has to speak truth to power, whereas I, as the white female researcher in a secure academic position, can listen and nod and then write something and publish it, is and remains the so-called elephant in the room. Again, this is not just a reason for me to shut up and listen. It is also the very reason why we need to listen and speak, in discomfort, but also with joy, as a form of connection, collaboration, as a killjoy and as a boundary-blurring willful subject (to return to some of Ahmed’s terms).
#askeljames or, Q & A and literary antifeminism
Mary Catherine Lawler
EL James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, was catapulted to success by the incendiary interest in her triptych of Twilight fanfic qua BDSM fantasy. The BDSM community was understandably upset by James’ lack of respect for mutual boundaries, safety, and caution, while (wo)men* everywhere wondered how a thinly veiled abusive relationship could pass for romantic (as long as he’s rich and hung, he can hit me, stalk me, and isolate me?).
James’ dead horse-tired plot of a virgin (of course, the female protagonist) meeting a dangerous and sexually experienced man who introduces her to technology (wow, a laptop!), patriarchal condescension (he acts without permission both in and out of the bedroom), money (sex for things – prostitution?), and, of course, sex, is only marginally better than Stephanie Meyer’s lackluster Twilight, featuring paper-thin character Bella (no talents, no interests – a canvas for YOU!). At least main character Anastasia Steele (a shade of grey, get it?) can do something – write. She’s an English major and does land a notable publishing job post-graduation, although hubby-to-be Christian Grey then buys out the company “to keep an eye on her”.
Readers (presumably) chimed in during Twitter’s Q & A , asking sarcastic advice and rhetorical questions, referencing allusions to Meyer’s Twilight, and pointing out how poorly the event itself went (not as predicted, to be sure).
One Twitter-literature user posted a reference to George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones‘ character Ramsey Bolton, a sadist and sociopath, linking EL James and Fifty Shades of Grey to larger literary culture, but at the same time underscoring the unquestionably negative drive of character Christian.
The ironic tone in these posts point to the clarity with which readers recognize verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in the poorly written three-book saga.
As we see here, Twitter as an online platform provides both the means to open up a discussion and also the potential for it to go off-direction, veering off course and dragging all skeletons out of the closet. Intent and reaction misalign here as users simultaneously wield humour and critique to express the affective repercussions of simplistic, sexist, gender-normative storylines such as James’, and to tell the author that her writing is “fifty shades of fucked up”.