Existing while female

 

Space

 

The most threatening spectacle to the patriarchy is a woman staring into space.

I do not mean in the metaphorical sense, as in a woman doing astronomy or astrophysics (or maths or philosophy), though all of these help, too. Just plainly sitting, looking into some vague mid-point of the horizon, for stretches of time.

I perform this little ‘experiment’ at least once per week (more often, if possible; I like staring into space). I wholly recommend it. There are a few simple rules:

  • You can look at the passers-by (a.k.a. ‘people-watching’), but try to avoid eye contact longer than a few seconds: people should not feel that they are particular objects of attention.
  • If you are sitting in a café, or a restaurant, you can have a drink, ideally a tea or coffee. That’s not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your Martini cocktails or glasses of Chardonnay, but images of women cradling tall glasses of alcoholic drink of choice have been very succesfully appropriated by both capitalism and patriarchy, for distinct though compatible purposes.
  • Don’t look at your phone. If you must check the time or messages it’s fine, but don’t start staring at it, texting, or browsing.
  • Don’t read (a book, a magazine, a newspaper). If you have a particularly interesting or important thought feel free to scribble it down, but don’t bury your gaze behind a notebook, book, or a laptop.

 

Try doing this for an hour.

What this ‘experiment’ achieves is that it renders visible the simple fact of existing. As a woman. Even worse, it renders visible the process of thinking. Simultaneously inhabiting an inner space (thinking) and public space (sitting), while doing little else to justify your existence.

NOT thinking-while-minding-children, as in ‘oh isn’t it admirrrrable that she manages being both an academic and a mom’.

NOT any other form of ‘thinking on our feet’ that, as Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret (and Virginia Woolf) noted, was the constitutive condition for most thinking done by women throughout history.

The important thing is to claim space to think, unapologetically and in public.

Depending on place and context, this usually produces at least one of the following reactions:

  • Waiting staff, especially if male, will become increasingly attentive, repeatedly inquiring whether (a) I am alright (b) everything was alright (c) I would like anything else (yes, even if they are not trying to get you to leave, and yes, I have sat in the same place with friends, and this didn’t happen)
  • Men will try to catch my eye
  • Random strangers will start repeatedly glancing and sometimes staring in my direction.

 

I don’t think my experience in this regard is particularly exceptional. Yes, there are many places where women couldn’t even dream of sitting alone in public without risking things much worse than uncomfortable stares (I don’t advise attempting this experiment in such places). Yes, there are places where staring into a book/laptop/phone, ideally with headphones on, is the only way to avoid being approached, chatted up, or harassed by men. Yet, even in wealthy, white, urban, middle-class, ‘liberal’ contexts, women who display signs of being afflicted by ‘the life of the mind’ are still somehow suspect. For what this signals is that it is, actually, possible for women to have an inner life not defined by relation to men, if not particular men, then at least in the abstract.

 

Relations

‘Is it possible to not be in relation to white men?’, asks Sara Ahmed, in a brilliant essay on intellectual genealogies and institutional racism. The short answer is yes, of course, but not as long as men are in charge of drawing the family tree. Philosophy is a clear example. Two of my favourite philosophers, De Beauvoir and Arendt, are routinely positioned in relation to, respectively, Sartre and Heidegger (and, in Arendt’s case, to a lesser degree, Jaspers). While, in the case of De Beauvoir, this could be, to a degree, justified – after all, they were intellectual and writing partners for most of Sartre’s life – the narrative is hardly balanced: it is always Simone who is seen in relation to Jean-Paul, not the other way round*.

In a bit of an ironic twist, De Beauvoir’s argument in the Second Sex that a woman exists only in relation to a man seems to have been adopted as a stylistic prescription for narrating intellectual history (I recently downloaded an episode of In Our Time on De Beauvoir only to discover, in frustration, that it repeats exactly this pattern). Another example is the philosopher GEM Anscombe, whose work is almost uniquely described in terms of her interpretation of Wittgenstein (she was also married to the philosopher Peter Geach, which doesn’t help). A great deal of Anscombe’s writing does not deal with Wittgenstein, but that is, somehow, passed over, at least in non-specialist circles. What also gets passed over is that, in any intellectual partnership or friendship, ideas flow in both directions. In this case, the honesty and generosity of women’s acknowledgments (and occasional overstatements) of intellectual debt tends to be taken for evidence of incompleteness of female thinking; as if there couldn’t, possibly, be a thought in their ‘pretty heads’ that had not been placed there by a man.

Anscombe, incidentally, had a predilection for staring at things in public. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to the Vol. 2 of her collected philosophical papers, Metaphysics and the philosophy of mind:

“The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without realising it was philosophy, was perception (…) For years I would spend time in cafés, for instance, staring at objects saying to myself: ‘I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?’” (1981: viii).

 

But Wittgenstein, sure.

 

Nature

Nature abhors a vacuum, if by ‘nature’ we mean the rationalisation of patriarchy, and if by ‘vacuum’ we mean the horrifying prospect of women occupied by their own interiority, irrespectively of how mundane or elevated its contents. In Jane Austin’s novels, young women are regularly reminded that they should seem usefully occupied – embroidering, reading (but not too much, and ideally out loud, for everyone’s enjoyment), playing an instrument, singing – whenever young gentlemen came for a visit. The underlying message is that, of course, young gentlemen are not going to want to marry ‘idle’ women. The only justification for women’s existence, of course, is their value as (future) wives, and thus their reproductive capital: everything else – including forms of internal life that do not serve this purpose – is worthless.

Clearly, one should expect things to improve once women are no longer reduced to men’s property, or the function of wives and mothers. Clearly, they haven’t. In Motherhood, Sheila Heti offers a brilliant diagnosis of how the very question of having children bears down differently on women:

It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all (2018: 98).

Rebecca Solnit points out the same problem in The Mother of All Questions: no matter what a woman does, she is still evaluated in relation to her performance as a reproductive engine. One of the messages of the insidious ‘lean-in’ kind of feminism is that it’s OK to not be a wife and a mother, as long as you are remarkably successful, as a businesswoman, a political leader, or an author. Obviously, ‘ideally’, both. This keeps women stressed, overworked, and so predictably willing to tolerate absolutely horrendous working conditions (hello, academia) and partnerships. Men can be mediocre and still successful (again, hello, academia); women, in order to succeed, have to be outstanding. Worse, they have to keep proving their oustandingness; ‘pure’ existence is never enough.

To refuse this – to refuse to justify one’s existence through a retrospective or prospective contribution to either particular men (wife of, mother of, daughter of), their institutions (corporation, family, country), or the vaguely defined ‘humankind’ (which, more often than not, is an extrapolation of these categories) – is thus to challenge the washed-out but seemingly undying assumption that a woman is somehow less-worthy version of a man. It is to subvert the myth that shaped and constrained so many, from Austin’s characters to Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister: that to exist a woman has to be useful; that inhabiting an interiority is to be performed in secret (which meant away from the eyes of the patriarchy); that, ultimately, women’s existence needs to be justified. If not by providing sex, childbearing, and domestic labour, then at least indirectly, by consuming stuff and services that rely on underpaid (including domestic) labour of other women, from fashion to IPhones and from babysitting to nail salons. Sometimes, if necessary, also by writing Big Books: but only so they could be used by men who see in them the reflection of their own (imagined) glory.

 

Death

Heti recounts another story, about her maternal grandmother, Magda, imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII. One day, Nazi soldiers came to the women’s barracks and asked for volunteers to help with cooking, cleaning and scrubbing in the officers’ kitchen. Magda stepped forward; as Heti writes, ‘they all did’. Magda was not selected; she was lucky, as it soon transpired that those women were not taken to the kitchen, but rather raped by the officers and then killed.

 

I lingered over the sentence ‘they all did’ for a long time. What would it mean for more women to not volunteer? To not accept endlessly proving one’s own usefulness, in cover letters, job interviews, student feedback forms? To simply exist, in space?

 

I think I’ll just sit and think about it for a while.

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(The photo is by the British photographer Hannah Starkey, who has a particular penchant for capturing women inhabiting their own interiority. Thank you to my partner who first introduced me to her work, the slight irony being that he interrupted me in precisely one such moment of contemplation to tell me this).

 

 

*I used to make a point of asking the students taking Social Theory to change ‘Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir’ in their essays to ‘de Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre’ and see if it begins to read differently.

On ‘Denial’: or, the uncanny similarity between Holocaust and mansplaining

hero_denial-2016

Last week, I finally got around to seeing Denial. It has many qualities and a few disadvantages – its attempt at hyperrealism treading on both – but I would like to focus on the aspect most reviews I’ve read so far seem to have missed. In other words: mansplaining.

Brief contextualization. Lest I be accused of equating Holocaust and mansplaining (I am not – similarity does not denote equivalence), my work deals with issues of expertise, fact, and public intellectualism; I have always found the Irving case interesting, for a variety of reasons (incidentally, I was also at Oxford during the famous event at the Oxford Union). At the same time, like, I suppose, every woman in the academia and beyond with more agency than a doormat, I have, over the past year, become embroiled in countless arguments about what mansplaining is, whether it is really so widespread, whether it is done only by men (and what to call it when it’s perpetrated by those who are not men?) and, of course, that pseudo-liberal what-passes-as-an-attempt at outmaneuvering the issue, which is whether using the term ‘mansplaining’ blames men as a group and is as such essentialising and oppressive, just like the discourses ‘we’ (feminists conveniently grouped under one umbrella) seek to condemn (otherwise known as a tu quoque argument).

Besides logical flaws, what many of these attacks seem to have in common with the one David Irving launched on Deborah Lipstadt (and Holocaust deniers routinely use) is the focus on evidence: how do we know that mansplaining occurs, and is not just some fabrication of a bunch of conceited females looking to get ahead despite their obvious lack of qualifications? Other uncanny similarities between arguments of Holocaust deniers and those who question the existence of mansplaining temporarily aside, one of undisputable qualities of Denial is that it provides multiple examples of what mansplaining looks like. It is, of course, a film, despite being based on a true story. Rather than presenting a downside, this allows for a concentrated portrayal of the practice – for those doubting its verisimilitude, I strongly recommend watching the film and deciding for yourself whether it resembles real-life situations. For those who do not, voilà, a handy cinematic case to present to those who prefer to plead ignorance as to what mansplaining ‘actually’ entails.

To begin with, the case portrayed in the film is a par excellence instance of mansplaining  as a whole: after all, it is about a self-educated (male) historian who sues an academic historian (a woman) because she does not accept his ‘interpretation’ of World War II (namely, that Holocaust did not happen) and, furthermore, dares to call him out on it. In the case (and the film), he sets out to explain to the (of course, male) judge and the public that Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) is wrong and, furthermore, that her critique has seriously damaged his career (the underlying assumption being that he is entitled to lucrative publishing deals, while she, clearly, has to earn hers – exacerbated by his mockery of the fact that she sells books, whereas his, by contrast, are free). This ‘talking over’ and attempt to make it all about him (remember, he sues her) are brilliantly cast in the opening, when Irving (played by Timothy Spall) visits Lipstadt’s public talk and openly challenges her in the Q&A, ignoring her repeated refusal to engage with his arguments. Yet, it would be a mistake to locate the trope of mansplaining only in the relation Irving-Lipstadt. On the contrary – just like the real thing – it is at its most insidious when it comes from those who are, as it were, ‘on our side’.

A good example is the first meeting of the defence team, where Lipstadt is introduced to people working with her legal counsel, the famous Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott). There is a single woman on Julius’ team: Laura (Caren Pistorius), who, we are told, is a paralegal. Despite it being her first case, it seems she has developed a viable strategy: or at least so we are told by her boss, who, after announcing Laura’s brilliant contribution to the case, continues to talk over her – that is, explain her thoughts without giving her an opportunity to explain them herself. In this sense, what at first seems like an act of mentoring support – passing the baton and crediting a junior staff member – becomes a classical act in which a man takes it onto himself to interpret the professional intervention of a female colleague, appropriating it in the process.

The cases of professional mansplaining are abundant throughout the film: in multiple scenes lawyers explain the Holocaust as well as the concept of denial to Lipstadt despite her meek protests that she “has actually written a book about it”. Obvious irony aside, this serves as a potent reminder that women have to invoke professional credentials not to be recognized as experts, but in order to be recognized as equally valid participants in debate. By contrast, when it comes to the only difference in qualifications in the film that plays against Lipstadt – that of the knowledge of the British legal system – Weisz’s character conveniently remains a mixture of ignorance and naïveté couched in Americanism. One would be forgiven to assume that long-term involvement in a libel case, especially one that carries so much emotional and professional weight, would have provoked a university professor to get acquainted with at least the basic rules of the legal system in which the case was processed, but then, of course, that would have stripped the male characters of the opportunity to shine the light of their knowledge in contrast to her supposed ignorance.

Of course, emotional involvement is, in the film, presented as a clear disadvantage when it comes to the case. While Lipstadt first assumes she will, and then repeatedly asks to be allowed to testify, her legal team insists she would be too emotional a witness. The assumption that having an emotional reaction (even if one that is quite expected – it is, after all, the Holocaust we are talking about) and a cold, hard approach to ‘facts’ are mutually exclusive is played off succinctly in the scenes that take place at Auschwitz. While Lipstadt, clearly shaken (as anyone, Jewish or not, is bound to be when standing at the site of such a potent example of mass slaughter), asks the party to show respect for the victims, the head barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is focused on calmly gathering evidence. The value of this, however, only becomes obvious in the courtroom, where he delivers his coup de grâce, revealing that his calm pacing around the perimeter of Auschwitz II-Birkenau (which makes him arrive late and upsets everyone, Lipstadt in particular) was actually measuring the distance between the SS barracks and the gas chambers, allowing him to disprove Irving’s assertion that the gas chambers were built as air raid shelters, and thus tilt the whole case in favour of the defence.

The mansplaining triumph, however, happens even before this Sherlockian turn, in the scene in which Rampton visits Lipstadt in her hotel room (uninvited, unannounced) in order to, yet again, convince her that she should not testify or engage with Irving in any form. After he gently (patronisingly) persuades her that  “What feels best isn’t necessarily what works best” (!), she, emotionally moved, agrees to “pass her conscience” to him – that is, to a man. By doing this, she abandons not only her own voice, but also the possibility to speak for Holocaust survivors – the one that appears as a character in the film also, poignantly, being female. In Lipstadt’s concession that silence is better because it “leads to victory”, it is not difficult to read the paradoxical (pseudo)pragmatic assertion that openly challenging male privilege works, in fact, against gender equality, because it provokes a counterreaction. Initially protesting her own silencing, Lipstadt comes to accept what her character in the script dubs “self-denial” as the only way to beat those who deny the Holocaust.

Self-denial: for instance, denying yourself food for fear of getting ‘fat’ (and thus unattractive for the male gaze); denying yourself fun for fear of being labeled easy or promiscuous (and thus undesirable as a long-term partner); denying yourself time alone for fear of being seen as selfish or uncaring (and thus, clearly, unfit for a relationship). Silence: for instance, letting men speak first for fear of being seen as pushy (and thus too challenging); for instance, not speaking up when other women are oppressed, for fear of being seen as too confrontational (and thus, of course, difficult); for instance, not reporting sexual harassment, for fear of retribution, shame, isolation (self-explanatory). In celebrating ‘self-denial’, the film, then, patently reinscribes the stereotype of the patient, silent female.

Obviously, there is value in refusing to engage with outrageous liars; equally, there are issues that should remain beyond discussion – whether Holocaust happened being one of them. Yet, selective silencing masquerading as strategy – note that Lipstadt is not allowed to speak (not even to the media), while Rampton communicates his contempt for Irving by not looking at him (thus, denying him the ‘honour’ of the male gaze) – too often serves to reproduce the structural inequalities that can persist even under a legal system that purports to be egalitarian.

Most interestingly, the fact that a film that is manifestly about mansplaining manages to reproduce quite a few of mansplaining tropes (and, I would argue, not always in a self-referential or ironic manner) serves as a poignant reminder how deeply the ‘splaining complex is embedded not only in politics or the academia, but also in cultural representations. This is something we need to remain acutely aware of in the age of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-facts’. If resistance to lying politicians and the media is going to take the form of (re)assertion of one, indisputable truth, and the concomitant legitimation of those who claim to know it – strangely enough, most often white, privileged men – then we’d better think of alternatives, and quickly.