Thursday, October 6, 2011
What makes a subject maddening?
Since he was summoned, I’d like it known that I attempted to play the “Believing Game” with a couple of these readings, and still find myself irritated and wanting to kick something. On the other hand, one of the readings made me literally hop out of my chair and cheer a little, thus the subsequent desire to write poetry. Given our previous discussions on “felt sense,” I feel justified in reflecting in the way that I actually experience texts, i.e. by noting that I often respond in my body first, and then find a narrative/discursive medium through which to interpret and then express that. We respond chemically/emotionally (though the latter designator is, in my opinion, just another discursive, interpretive narrative) to that which pushes against our values, more complex versions of lizard-brain fight or flight responses, activating the sympathetic and/or parasympathetic nervous system, and etc. We usually “intellectualize” these responses away, covering them in academic, logical sounding words. I can do that, too, but feel more free to discuss the actual reactions that I have, given that Gendlin’s “felt sense” has been previously invoked.
Elizabeth Flynn’s “Composing as a Woman” drives me insane. I can’t stand that article, and I even tried really, really hard. I’ve read it before, and every time I read it I hate it a little more. (It’s my third time. Next time I’ll drink wine first.) I find myself feeling irritated, annoyed, alienated, angry – things that I don’t feel too often, but do experience regularly when I read some forms of essentializing “feminist” pedagogies or theories, typically those that are sometimes categorized as Anglo-American feminism. I find them simplistic, exclusionary, sexist, alienating….. It is why, to this day, I have a hard time self-identifying as “feminist,” even though technically I know that I probably am. I just can’t identify with something that I feel excludes me every time I read it; by theories such as these, I am not a woman, and many men I know are not men. The only other writing that leads to this type of angry reaction in me is that which is 1) written by men but is equally sexist and 2) texts that advocate violence to children. They give me the “I want to kick something” feeling. They do not represent me.
Flynn claims that “composition specialists replace the figure of the authoritative father with an image of a nurturing mother” (423). What about the nurturing fathers? What about the authoritative mothers? Why are all the women compositionists listed (thirteen of them) associated with their reproductive capacities (foremothers)? And only one man (Britton) has contributed to this “feminization” of composition. Why is that “feminized?” Why not “humanized?” Both males and females lose out on that which is marginalized – on the care, nurturance, safety, etc., that is associated here with one sex. Similarly, not all women hold these values or character traits. What about the men who love and support, and the women who are not made that way? Are those men feminine? Those women masculine? Why are universal human needs, actions, and ethics gendered? Is it a “good idea” that they have ever been? Is it a “good idea” to continue to perpetuate this?
It was 1988. I get that. But I still can’t excuse it. I was alive in 1988 and only eighteen years old and already knew better. I was aware of what the cultural storyline told me to believe, and still managed to reject it, in myself and in others.
Once upon a time, I was called upon to give a presentation about feminist pedagogies. I did not sign up for this task; rather, I was ill the day that topics were chosen, and this one fell to me by default. I enjoyed extremely the other two theorists I covered (Jarratt and Rhodes) but had a hard time “swallowing” this one. For demonstration purposes, I tested Flynn’s hypothesis that “if women and men differ in their relational capacities and in their moral and intellectual development, we would expect to find manifestations of these differences in the student papers we encounter in our first-year composition courses” (427). Of course, looking for them, they were surely found, especially in the sample size of FOUR papers that were analyzed for this essay.
It was 1988. I remember the bar scene from those days, and IMO men really were more sexist then, really were more apt to be in the “typical male” mindset. I get that. I still balk against the generalization and all of the differently gendered voices it excludes, including my own.
Flynn asserts: "If women and men differ in their relational capacities and in their moral and intellectual development, we would expect to find manifestations of these differences in the student papers we encounter in the first-year composition course" (428).
To test this hypothesis in nearly as rigorous a manner as she herself did for the article, I handed out two student essays from a first-year composition course with all gender pronouns removed. The assignment was a personal narrative and a pre-cursor to learning to “do” empathy as a discursive action, thus it asked students to identify the needs (ala Maslow but more granular ala Rogers, Rosenberg, etc.) they were trying to meet by attending college. In learning to identify common, universal needs within themselves, they would later be able to look for the attempts to meet these or other needs in the actions, choices, and words of others as a way of understanding and empathizing, even in the absence of “agreement” with those choices.
Which paper was which? If Flynn was correct, the female writer should have written “of interaction, of connection, or of frustrated connection” and the male writer “of achievement, of separation, or of frustrated achievement ” (428). Was this the case?
Not even remotely. About half the class guessed with the gendered expectations and were incorrect; the other half knew me better and figured I would throw a curve ball with the exercise. The female student wrote about meeting needs for intellectual challenge, achievement, exploration, independence, whereas the male student wrote about the social and connection needs he hoped to meet by coming to college. What would Flynn have done with these papers? (Other than not include them in the research for this essay.) Would they have been overlooked? Or somehow interpreted differently in order to fit into the gendered model?
It was 1988. I get that. But it still pisses me off to be confronted with it. Why can’t we care about connection and achievement? Why can’t we want to interact and be separate at times? To me, these (and other) gendered desires and behaviors fall on a spectrum that is independent of sex (which is not binary anyway). There are plenty of men who are nurturing; there are plenty of women who are competitive. There is also the reverse and everything in between.
I can’t stand binaries. They do not represent me.
I will not long dwell on Schell (or continue to rhyme) but the same dynamic irritates me in this essay as well. Why are “caring” and “equity” placed in opposition? I love my students and I love to teach, therefore I do not care about my own well-being? Why are these things automatically paired together? And what of the men who care about their students? The tenured faculty who have “an ethic of care?” Why is care a gendered liability?
And worse: Why is an ethic of care defined as “a process of ethical decision making based on interrelationships and connectedness rather on universalized and individualized rules and rights?” (75). This goes back to Kohlberg’s (sexist) morality scale mentioned by Flynn, as these are the two criteria that supposedly separate men and women, with the male ethic (human rights) coming out on top in his (sexist) model. This model is no different and no less sexist – it just switches the binary while leaving it intact and unquestioned.
Why are these in opposition to one another? Are not universal human rights but further and further generalizations and inclusions of interrelationships and connectedness? Cannot an ethic of care be extended indefinitely? Infinitely? To have one without the other is to miss the picture of “care” or compassion in the first place, to parse it out and apply it selectively. That is not an “ethic” of “care,” but yet another example of exclusivity and exclusion.
I find this disheartening.
Schell asserts: “My research reveals that a pedagogy based on an ethic of care is simultaneously empowering and disempowering; it offers psychic reward whiles exacting a distinct emotional and material prices from women workers” (83).
Why does it offer “psychic rewards?” Because caring for people feels good. Oppositional relationships – regardless of gender – do not “feel good” to people. They are stressful, annoying, fraught with insecurity. Human beings are social animals. We produce awesome chemical combinations when we are nice to each other, and really crappy ones when we are mean. We cannot, chemically speaking, produce them both at the same time – the same receptor sites are used for both oxytocin (blissful, connection chemical) and cortisol (stress chemical), thus if we are all stressed out and angry, we are not also feeling love and connection – we are not chemically able to.
But why would this keep me, or anyone, from insisting upon fair working conditions? For one, if I feel “an ethic of care,” and if I believe that this care can extend indefinitely, than am I not included in that care? Might not my “maternal” (ack – that hurt me to say, even in quotes) concern be likewise directed at myself so that injustice to me was just as intolerable as injustice to anyone? Why is an ethic of care put in opposition to standing up for one’s rights? With “just saying no?” Is it really such a stretch to see these dynamics as being included within an ethic of care rather than opposed to it? Is that binary between self and other so ingrained in this culture that people – even really, really smart ones – can’t see past it?
I find this disheartening. I can’t stand binaries; they do not represent me.
If queerness is an impossible subject for composition, then whatever I am is not even a subject to be rejected by composition. I don’t even have a word. No one throws rocks at me because I don’t exist. I see the world through two eyes always – one in the individuated subject-position, the other from a position of hybrid subjectivity where “identity” is fluid and combines with other subjects in contingent spaces to form larger identities where these oppositions of “self” and “other” merge into meaninglessness convention. Both eyes see all the time, and only one of them can speak. The other has no words, no discursive field from which to borrow meaning in this culture. None.
I can’t stand binaries. They do not represent me, but they do constrain my language.
I write sometimes as my other me’s, bending and expanding language in ways that my mother wouldn’t recognize, that my gradeschool English teachers would find disorienting and discomfiting. How do I/we speak from margins beyond words? Occasionally, someone understands my dance, but only when I wear a costume.
Alexander/Rhodes asserts: “Sex, especially non-normative sexual relations, is never ‘appropriate’ in the classroom. It disturbs our composure. The parallel tongues of school and sex can only exist if they promise not to touch” (179).
I have a sexual identity, one that is likely as central to my existence as to anyone, but it remains always unexpressed. I can’t even say, “Oh, I’m a ……” There is no name for what is in my closet, there are no words for my identity.
What do you do? they say. I write. I dance. I dance about writing about fucking about dancing. Sometimes I get paid. Most of the time I don’t. Occasionally, someone recognizes me from a different context – Didn’t you hit me once? In public? Very, very hard? Why yes, that was probably me. I only hit people for charity, though – all proceeds went to AVOC for AIDS research. I did it as a service to the community.
Tell that to my maternal instincts, my “feminine essentialist nature.” It makes me want to bust out my stompyboots, the ones with the roofing nails sticking out the sides, and stomp around in my bigdiscursiveboots.
But I won’t. Instead, I’ll learn their language, I’ll drink their koolaid, I’ll go to their cocktail parties, and sip their wine. I’ll dismantle their binaries one. assumption. at. a. time. until these paradigms lie in dust, made out of the words that fell apart.
Hybrid Subjectivity exceeds the composed self, exceeds the idea of “self,” and at the same time makes it allinclusive. These are not margins; this writing space is allpervasive – they just can’t see the marks on the page yet.
I will explode your world from the inside. Because I’m you. Because we are simultaneously all the same and completely, uniquely different. Both eyes see at once. In stereo. In hyperstereo. Your individuation, my individuation – what’s a few electrons between friends? We’re exchanging matter all the time. Were do your neurons begin and mine end? Ah, well, now that is the question….
Dark matter: the neuroglia of the cosmos. We are apparently soaking in it, all the time. What do they do, those supporting cells and atoms of the universe? Are they just holding it all together? Are they the “parlor maids” as scientists used to believe? Or are they the vessels in which consciousness occurs? Are they thinking the thoughts that think they are thinking? Are they thinking me? And who/what is that, exactly? We’re exchanging matter all the time…
I can’t stand binaries. They do not represent me – they are not even shaped the right way, like shoes constructed for somebody else’s feet. These gloves are not made for human hands and yet we shove our hands into them everyday. I write with mine, forcing my thoughts into words, dissecting my body into gloves, leaving prosthetic fingerprints. I am darkmatter and I fill the margins, spilling over onto the paper, standing on both sides of all boundaries. Tell me that is me. Tell me that is not me. Tell me that is not not me. Tell me….
Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. "Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition." JAC 31:1-2 2011.177-206
Flynn, Elizabeth. "Composing as a Woman." CCC 39.4 (Dec 1988): 423-435.
Schell, Eileen E. "The Cost of Caring: 'Femininism' and Contingent Women Workers in Composition Studies." Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words. Ed. Susan Jarratt and Lynn Worsham. New York: MLA, 1998. 74-93.