Thursday, January 18, 2007

Women, monsters, identity

Related to this post in which, after Ancrene Wiseass tipped me off via email, I directed reader attention to "the seam of skin and scales" by Little Light ("a crimefighting multiracial transsexual steampunk street medic who moonlights as a hereditary semiprofessional occultist and obsessive religion scholar"): check out "I am a monster, and proud" at a blog called Women's Space/The Margins.

Little Light is chided for using insights conveyed within a 1961 poem by Robin Morgan without acknowledging that work (from the comments: "It’s not going to do not to acknowledge Robin Morgan’s imagery, poem, and herstoric writings which invoke this same imagery, as though they didn’t exist.") To which I have to wonder: Read any Mary Shelley lately? Barbara Johnson? How about Gloria Anzaldua? Even Mary Baine Campbell (best known to medievalists for The Witness and the Other World) has a wonderful poem about the feminine and the monstrous in her collection Trouble. I'd even add Marie de France to the list, and while we're at it, why not Chaucer? It seems to me that a feminism of the monstrous is not an idea that arose at any one point and is thenceforth copyrightable, but that the intimacy of the identity categories is an insight that has been alive for centuries, reappearing at unpredictable intervals and in strange new forms. That doesn't diminish any particular version, but it does make questions of ownership and origin impossible to resolve.


Karl Steel said...

While agreeing with everything you wrote, JJC, I feel the need to point out that the comments thread over Women's Space/The Margins indicates that there's more at stake here than originality.

In the thread, Womensspace wrote:
I also think that given the ongoing tensions between radical feminists and transgendered persons and their advocates, it’s not going to work to fail to acknowledge Robin Morgan’s poem, especially in another poem which declares that it is time for a “feminism of the monstrous....I find the erasure of older feminists and their writings to be pretty horrifying, and so I have made it a priority in my own feminist activism to make sure these important writings are preserved and not erased, and that is also one reason I have blogged as I have....[moreover] I think it’s important for me to foreground this particular theme in radical feminism right now, particularly in that I’ve observed that we have been falsely and wrongly accused of calling transpersons “monsters.” We haven’t done that. That’s not true. The lies about radical feminists are going to come to a severe end, if I have anything to say about it, and I do have something to say about it, and plenty to say. All of us, as radical feminists, do have a lot to say about that. To accuse us of calling transpersons “monsters,” is to lie about us.”

Profacero wrote:
The point of interest in all of this is not ‘plagiarism’ but the erasure and often, misrepresentation of Morgan/things from that generation in some current feminist discourse.

That said, Womensspace also wrote:
I should also say that I do think little light’s poem is very beautiful, powerfully moving, which in my mind is all the more reason for us to have this discussion.

The overlaps between this discussion and our discussions here about time, memory, bodies, erasure, &c., is instructive, I think. Might also think about the shifting boundaries of the monstrous, as radical feminists--can we talk about radical feminism in the early 60s? I don't know--perhaps become less monstrous and transsexuals now begin to do the same cultural work of both occupying the outer borders of identity and springing up at the origins of normative identity to muddle its narratives of secure presence. Perhaps.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

You're right, Karl -- my post makes the original post and the comments it generated seem less nuanced than they actually are. They're very smart, and I can't disagree with a central point that is repeatedly raised: too often declarations of the new are really not so new at all, and do an injustice to their forebears by consigning them to oblivion. That's the erasure that gets worried about. But lets not erase ancient and medieval feminisms either ... some of which were indeed radical (even if hard to see unless certain texts are viewed askew).

belledame222 said...

That’s not true. The lies about radical feminists are going to come to a severe end, if I have anything to say about it, and I do have something to say about it, and plenty to say. All of us, as radical feminists, do have a lot to say about that. To accuse us of calling transpersons “monsters,” is to lie about us.”

oh hell no. HELL no. this is still fucking appropriation. The OP was NOT ALL ABOUT RADICAL FUCKING FEMINISTS. It was about LL's EXPERIENCE. Heart is trying, once again, to make it all about her and her Ideology, which just -had- to come before the person. Again.

"Lie about us." So send out the troops, right? Discredit and snark and throw low-down dirty crap ("he or she") and then backpedal like crazy ("very moving," that's lovely) when enough people call you on it. Spoken like a true Scientologist. Hey, Heart, you just proved that "lie" better than anyone else ever could.

belledame222 said...

and Morgan didn't invent anything either, and at some level i am sure Heart knows it perfectly damn well herself. it's not about literary "plagiarism," although that's a handy little clump of shit to throw if it sticks (oopsie, it didn't, on to the next tactic). it's -really- about,

"As a transwoman, Little Light is attempting to plagiarize Womens' Struggle. She [except Heart won't ever grant her the basic respect of "she," can't even spare a pronoun] is plagiarizing -our genitals.-"

Finally, there are important political reasons for my blogging about this. This poem that Robin Morgan wrote, “Monster,” was about the reaction of her small son to Morgan’s own genitals, the same reaction men and boys throughout the ages have had to women’s genitals (when they weren’t using women’s genitals for their own reasons). Women have been made, always, by men, to be monsters.

Yeah, Heart, I had lit crit too, i know from subtext, especially when it's as, well? texty as that. Transwomen like LL are "using women's genitals for their own purposes." (because there aren't enough Bits to go around, either, apparently). -That's- what's at stake for her here.

yeah, more "lies," i know. go ahead, then, Heart, prove me wrong.
"Severely." (oh mama!) Double dog dare you.

belledame222 said...

ehm. hi. nice to meet you. sorry to rant in your space like this. i'm just a tad cranky right now.

anyway, i liked this post, and i like your site. and yes, a few other people have mentioned Anzaldua, among others. My own first thought was John Knox, actually: "first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regime of women."

also, o, well, just about anything having to do with the "grotesque." fabulous monsters. Valle-Inclan. Carnivals. Shakespeare. Liminal spaces. Magic, rich and strange...

belledame222 said...

--oh, and that picture of Inferno below reminded me: hello, Bosch, and Breughel.

what I really loved about LL's post was that it was a -celebration- of "monstrosity" as much as anything else. the Morgan bit is all about "yeah well then fuck you, i -am- as Bad as you say I am." that's not at all what LL's getting at, seems to me; or at least, she doesn't -stop- there. That's the part Morgan and Heart and her ilk don't or won't understand. The pleasure of ambiguity. Of -exuberance,- not just defiance. It's perhaps a spiritual distinction as much as a political or aesthetic one.

Anonymous said...

Cookie Monster sad.

Sylvia said...

I came over after spotting the link at belledame's, and I agree with you and Karl. I'm not trying to distill this post as a complete attack, but her motivations for creating it put me off completely. Her discussion points are wasted because she shut down the conversation the second she described how women's movement birthed poetry and how others use women's genitals for their own agendas. She's using veiled words and references to ascribe malice and ignorance where there is none, and she's woven a straw man for her to attack as if it's legitimate. That's not fostering discussion. It's shutting it down.

Karma said...

I'm not sure where to direct this, but I would very much like to see the original source of the following quote -- I can't figure out where/who it came from:

"As a transwoman, Little Light is attempting to plagiarize Womens' Struggle. She [except Heart won't ever grant her the basic respect of "she," can't even spare a pronoun] is plagiarizing -our genitals.-"

I'm following this issue, although I haven't had time to find/read everything, but I suspect that this *right here* (and Karl's comment about "the outer borders of identity") are knocking at the secret heart of the matter.

Finally, can't believe nobody mentioned Cixous yet.

Eileen Joy said...

Imitation, appropriation, and outright stealing will always be among the legitimate forms of artistic creation--more often than not, a "tag" co-opted from a well-known source is meant to doubly signify [in one direction, to the source, and in another, to a different "target"--but only for those cultural elites "in the know"]. In modernity, we're much more concerned with the so-called infringement of others' intellectual property than they were in the Middle Ages; otherwise, Chaucer would have been flat-out of subjects to write about. It's the "spin" that accrues when the old material is picked up and "thrown" [pottery metaphor] differently that constitutes something "new." It would be great if everyone possessed a mind that could hold within itself a whole cultural history with every single citation and reference and occurrence of an utterance intact, but such will never be the case. Some things are repeated over and over again as if someone had just said them for the first time. The past doesn't matter as much as everyone thinks it does and it likely never will. We often say we don't want to repeat the past, but maybe the repetition of the past is a *good* thing: it's a kind of trick memory that can't really remember where it's been but keeps returning to the same place. What would it mean to write a history of *that*?

And another thing: isn't art supposed to be dangerous? What happened to that idea?

belledame222 said...

iucbaThe source of that quote? That was my slightly sarcastic paraphrase, but it's really not an exaggeration: viddy. From the Margins thread (linked above, in the OP here)

# Mary Sunshine Says:
January 19th, 2007 at 7:52 pm

For the record, I was just really offended to see little light’s page where (s)he (?) has thrown up all kinds of ancient female Goddess imagery and obviously done a makeover of Robin Morgan’s poem to try to present him/her/its self as a born-female.

These female power images have *everything* to do with female biological creative power: gestation, birth, and lactation.

That power is an essential and unremoveable part of those images.

The fearsomeness of female being is very much connected to these particular powers, amongst others.

Trannies really, really do need to realize that there are some lines they should not be crossing.

OK, fine, call yourself “she”, get your body hacked up (or not), get “recognized” as something or other. But you know what? Your imagined “rights” don’t exceed mine: my right to say “hell, no!” when you’re presenting yourself as what I *am* and you *are not*.

You *have not* almost died in childbirth. (I have).

You *have not* almost lost your newborn daughter in that process. (I have).

You *have not* lactated and nourished your own child from your own body. (I have).

These experiences of female power and danger have not been, and never will, be yours.

So back off with the imagery that suggests that they are.

Mary S.

belledame222 said...

oh yah, and: luckynkl, who's also posting at Margins, had recently, elsewhere (at another, more mainstream, large radical feminst-run board) referred to transpeople as men who were "nutjobs" who belonged in straightjackets, cited Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, AND Frankenstein (citing Janice Raymond, notoriously transbigoted radical feminist author whose works include a book called "The Transexual Empire"), insisted that transwomen should not be allowed to use the womens' bathroom in public because they were apt to attack women, and a few other choice, lovely things. some of the same cast of characters currently in that Margins thread were there are as well; she was the most shockingly awful about it, though, to the point where she raised rather a large hubbub. The fallout from -that- huge intrablog thrash (which eventually ended with luckynkl, Mary, and some others booted from the other board) led to some really valuable conservations, directly and indirectly, including some wonderful dialogues at Little Light's, which, thankfully, were -not- all about that ugliness, because you know eventually people had more personally important and constructive things to talk about. An ongoing dialogue connecting parallels between the experience of women of color, women with disabilities, and transwomen--especially women who were at a crossroads of two or more of those or others, multiple interlocking sources of oppression, started there and elsewhere (a radical woman of color called brownfemipower, most notably). That "Skin and Scales" post emerged from the constructive meeting of minds that was happening from that dialogue, and it was a joy to behold. It really, as LL noted, had very little to do with radical feminists per se, as LL, who is also of mixed-race ancestry and overall is coming from a very very different standpoint, experientially and philospophically, from Heart & co. (that much, they do know, but we'll get to that), really wasn't, you know, trying to make it all about radical feminists, much less Heart, or Morgan, whom she'd never read.

and in point of fact, Heart is correct in saying that it's not fair to lay it all at the feet of radical feminists, since not only was LL you know talking about -her own experience in the world,- in that post which included just a bunch of sources of awfulness directed her way, obviously, but there are a number of self-identified radical feminists who were as disgusted by what luckynkl said and all this shit going down as everyone else, including at least one who's partnered with a transwoman. So, there's that.

Still doesn't really get Heart and her faithful off the hook, though. And, if it wasn't about her/them before, well by golly I guess it is now, isn't it? Hey, better negative attention than no attention, I guess. Little Light's post -was- getting a lot of notice and commendation, perhaps more than Heart's ever gotten. And of course, you know, she's laying claim to Morgan's poem as well as her experience on account of -they- are both women and radical feminists (the latter would appear to be getting increasingly conflated with the former, for some people, i note).

"The great thing about believing everyone's out to get you is that eventually it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

belledame222 said...

by the way, you know, at one point during the heyday of this branch/wave of feminism, the 70's I guess, there was an idea floating about that in fact personal authorial claim to any piece of work was anti-feminist, on account of (as i understand it) it is pitting woman against woman, and thus reflective of both patriarchy and everything-is-competitition-and-individualism capitalism.
Phyllis Chesler talks about this some, I think, in "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" (for example).

Obviously Morgan can't entirely subscribe to this, or she wouldn't, like, have put her name to that.

But even without the overt tipoff that LL, "she or he" (in Heart's words--yes, Heart knows who LL is and has encountered her before, that was deliberate) is stealing not so much from Morgan, author, but from Morgan, Woman, and thus from Heart and every other "real" woman, I will note that Heart in the past had explained a piece/poem/essay of hers as being about her experience; about womens' experience. (not about trans anything at that point--she was talking about abuse). at the time, i had expressed unease with the apparent conflation of herself with "women," ("I'm cold--put on a sweater"), citing the response to that post of a friend of mine who noted that she herself had experienced similar abuse and yet had come to different ideological conclusions than had Heart. (which Heart never responded to, p.s.).

I think that it is key to understand this--that in fact this is a worldview which is -not- friendly to the individualistic standpoint, which is an unspoken given in a world where such things as copyright and (personal) creative ownership are taken for granted. Instead, she is really talking about: Class Woman, as opposed to Class Man, and putting LL emphatically outside the boundaries of Class Woman, or attempting to.

Eileen Joy said...

The embrace of a radical pluralism is certainly warranted in the case of this fracas between trans-gender individuals and so-called "radical feminists." I'm not sure I entirely like the idea of identities that have no "essential" components whatsoever [if even "chosen" ones], but the minute you start guarding the turf of that essential thing, someone will get hurt. I guess what I don't like in either "LL"'s original post and some of the responses to it, is the sheer anger and hostility. There is no loving element to this dialogue--it's just rage, and then ranting. This is where "history" can actually be problematic, and even dangerous.

belledame222 said...

I very much disagree that there is no love in LL's post. Anger is not mutually exclusive to love. As for the responses, many of them mine--well, no, I have no love for the people who were viciously attacking her, that's quite true, and I find no entry point for dialogue with them; but then, we've been through several rounds of this sort of thing, with some of the same people.

Anonymous said...

How does this work with ethnicity rather than sex? I am a white Jewish woman - when and how can I claim the identity of a native american man? When writing fiction, when studying history, when campaigning for civil rights, when claiming my roots, when claiming compensation... is a line ever drawn and if so how?

Eileen Joy said...

Belledame--I did not mean to disparage LL's post; I only meant to imply that anger [or any kind of aggressive move] as a form of politics makes me uncomfortable. Of course, anger can be *inclusive* and mutually productive with love, in particular moments, but in genderal, it can also devolve into a kind of hysteria that keeps repeating itself in unhealthy ways. And because anger can often be tinged with aggression, I generally have no use for it.

To Anonymous's comment regarding where we might ever draw the line regarding identities--ethnic, gendered, religious, historical, or otherwise--this is a deeply troubling and important question. There are times when it is critically important, for ethical but also political reasons, not to co-opt or appropriate another group's identity and/or history [i.e., it might be wrong for me to claim I have the soul/identity of an African-American and therefore share in their history of oppression], while at the same time, I think we really need to think more about the political [and even psychic] benefits of a radical pluralism in which everyone is "strange" to everyone else in a particularly unique way that makes group/tribal/nationalist affiliations either exceedingly difficult or only useful and practical in specific, contingent circumstances [legal, political, historical "memory"-wise, etc.].

For the M.A. class I am currently teaching on monsters and demons, we are reading some of Julia Kristeva's "Strangers To Ourselves," and I find these words apropos to this discussion:

". . . The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities. . . . Let us not seek to solidify, to turn the otherness of the foreigner into a thing. Let us merely touch it, brush by it, without giving it a permanent structure."

N50 said...

Anonymous was me - having trouble logging in recently.

The concept of 'property' might help here. Eg: in the news here is a man who claimed state disability benefits for years before being revealed as an exceptionally fit and semi-pro athlete (marathon runner). So he assumed the identity of disability in order to appropriate their property.

So perhaps it is 'property/properties' which we guard and where we draw the line when blurring identities and creating new ones? There is a difference between rhetorically assuming the identity of another (as in writing, imagination, art) and physically appropriating their properties to actually assume a new identity?

I have not thought this through properly - but I am sure that 'property' is at stake in all this somewhere.

Eileen Joy said...

N50--thanks for bringing in the idea of property/properties: that does seem like one axis around which the debate over essentialism versus plurality could be usefully further explored, and your anecdote from the recent news headlines is certainly apropos to the point I was trying to make. I guess I believe in what some call "strategic essentialism," which often are necessary for political purposes and/or to claim ownership of something "real," like property.

N50 said...

I hadn't heard of strategic essentialism before. But having looked it up - I can see it has some value. I just wonder whether it would help in the case we started with here - when the very definition of group seemed so contentious.