I’ve been with feminism for two decades. Where does it leave me?
Friends, employers, family, and so on, seem to have gathered enough information about me to have decided, to their satisfaction, that I am of a certain race, class, age, and gender. Am I not, after all, white, middle, middle, and male?
Of course at the literal level I put no stock in any of this. I’m pale this time of year, but every August my pelt is the same color as that of the “leader” my friends have chosen to conduct the latest wars in the wrack of the dune planet Arakkis. I suppose for comparison purposes we would both need to unveil our torsos at the same time (mine rich in vitamin D, his in history).
“Middle,” for its part, does not seem to describe my most significant relationship to bankers and the world of men, since at eighty-two years of age I will be past any sort of middle when I will have finished paying off the mortgage that I and my wife?if she is my wife?have contracted in whatever fit of nesting exuberance governed our actions at the point of contract. I can juggle four balls while riding a bicycle but on certain days my knee feels as ancient as I will when we burn our mortgage contract. Middle?
And “male.” What’s with that? Who gets to tell me I’m male? Pretty much anyone who has more power than I do, as it turns out. For example, anyone who gets to say that filling in my gender on a form is a required field. A field, in this sense, is a form of discipline.
The stock we place in sexual bimorphism?the belief that because certain species (ours, say) reproduce in pairs then therefore we should dedicate significant non-genital cultural space to celebrating their sex act?is a non sequitur and a delusion. Long sentence, but stick with it.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if feminism, which arose in part to fight the tyranny of this delusion, had come to have a part in fostering it?
If I have traveled this far with feminism, it has been to throw my lot in with those who have resisted essentializing notions of all sorts. Power is a kind of superstition that we buy into, and it typically exercises its dominion over particular subjects by isolating a few recognizable physical characteristics from among many and naming them, often unconsciously, as essences for adulation or attack. It’s random and arbitrary, but it has the appearance of being natural and true.
My friends, for example, chose their leader for absolutely racist reasons?“black” skin?as arbitrary as red noses or big ears, but to them the decision was natural. The cult of penises takes this bizarre practice a step further, since the organ is subject to a visual taboo and is typically kept pouched and more flaccid than skin yet it still manages to exert authority. As invisible as the old semitic storm god. Valorizing the penis as a cultural touchstone (whether you’re for penises or against them) takes essentializing obfuscation into the realm of mystifying religion. The penis becomes an invisible holy relic that has managed to puncture culture and hang on. No wonder American border guards?all power and no sense?want to get a good look at everyone’s equipment.
To the extent that feminism travels the road where essences are important, perhaps it is leaving me.
Of course, feminism is not all one thing. There are many feminisms. Where does that leave us?
Let us be clear about one thing at least. Gender is stupid.
Gender is, technically speaking, fucked up. Gender is like the Woody Allen joke where the women are complaining simultaneously about how bad the food is and how small the portions are, since we should admit that gender doesn’t exist but it still manages to be evil. There’s no such thing as gender but it continues to mess with us everywhere.
It might be worth mentioning a couple of parameters:
An American feminism that does not have at the heart of its life in the world the abandonment of two million genderfucked men in American prisons has left me.
On the other hand (are there just two hands?) an American feminism that does not have at the heart of its life in the world the children we bring into the world, but caves into corporatist nonsense about how we need daycare and more forms of institutionalizing of children, has left me. Parents need communities?uncles and aunts and godparents living close by who can help out?not more boxes.
When I stepped or limped off the tenure track to be with my children, I happened to have a dysfunctional leg for a weirdly gestational nine months. I typically spent my days with our youngest baby poised on my lap or crawling?the baby, but sometimes me?in the dust in front of our house. On occasion I would position myself on the sidewalk so that the women and men who were professors on their way to taking their kids to daycare so that, in turn, they could teach at the University of Illinois (in whose eastering shadow lay our house) would have to step over me. Dust?is this where feminism, in synch with certain demographic tendencies, was leaving me? Was I an apple dropped from the tree of carnal knowledge, changing from a man back to dust?
I was fat then with fellowships and honors, and even the money of an assistant prof hadn’t been so bad?my senior colleagues were retiring with 2-million-dollar packages and multiple houses. Remember houses? This was back in the days when American houses were worth something.
Was I white? Was I male? I flirted with the destruction of my career by tending so fully to babies. I was a good person, a lover of babies, but I was proud, and even the modest hierarchy of a second-tier, expensive private college was too much for me. I had been too long on the road, had seen too many things. If truth be told I had been touched a little in the head by the sun in my years of wandering, and I would have no man to rule over me, to use the words of the good book. My boss had been a big Russian weightlifter, and what little authority he could exert over me was proffered when we were naked and in the hot tub together, and he would show me what to do with vodka. I loved him then and love him still. At Princeton my handler had been a weightlifter, and we had made plans to change together the lay of the land in early American literature, but he died of AIDS, and much of my ambition was bound up with him and with his beautiful body beneath the sod. A barren-wombed high-caste Indian woman (or someone playing that part) appeared to have replaced my tasty Russian. Her edicts floated past me like lead balloons, and I turned to diapers, and to my old connections with the earth, the ground of being.
At one point in that town or the next?Durbanaster I called the succession of American college towns, Durham, Lancaster, Urbana, and such?I was dragged off to prison and threatened with ten years. The phrase “ten years” came close enough to “tenure” that I couldn’t help noticing it. Of course I’ve always had a bit of a mouth on me, and I’ve monkeywrenched stuff since I was five, and if they were to add up everything rude I’ve done, they could get to ten years, but they couldn’t think of any one thing with which to charge me, and they more or less let me go, promising to keep a close eye on me for the rest of my life, like they’d taken the place of my old semitic storm god. But on that particular visit to the inside, I was struck anew by how gendered the prison experience is.
Kids and convicts. Two classes of folks not keeping up with feminism. Are they even two classes? Aren’t all kids convicts these days? I mean, essentially? And aren’t all convicts infantilized by the prison-industrial system?
Feminist obsession with breaking the Fortune 500 glass barrier and getting into the corporatist action was never a pretty thing. Still for two decades I’ve felt there were reasons to hang on. But I think I’m no longer keeping up. I’m slipping backwards into my old dust. If there are many feminisms, is there one for me? I’m reading Judith Butler on dimorphism this morning, and loving it. She’s a feminist, isn’t she?
I don’t believe in labor, nor wives, nor in that cookie-cutter capitalist idea called equality, nor in my penis as a significant cultural artifact, nor leaders, nor God, nor nation-states nor prisons. Was my feminism merely a function of those things? Has it left me?
If I were to still be a feminist, I guess it would consist in a call to be open, not only to every type of sexual pageantry and performance, but to an incalculably large range of identities, many of which make no particular reference to reproduction or to the numerology of enticement and satisfaction.
Does it ever strike you how ridiculous it is that we dress up as “men” and “women” and go around acting like those are the only two options? Who says gender is even an important category? Why do we slave away at these distinctions, like we’re little worker drones who need to produce sex product? Fuck it.
As a thought experiment, start by imagining a world where mammals are dominated by trimorphistic reproduction (takes three to tangle), but finish?if there has to be any particular finish?without the domination of mammals, without the domination of particular numerical configurations, or indeed without domination at all, unless you’re sort of into that kind of thing.
If feminism is cool with this expanded vision, perhaps it hasn’t left me at all.
DAVID Ker THOMSON has been a street person and professor in roughly equal measure. He has a PhD from Princeton in early American literature. He hitch-hiked 35,000 miles while a teenager and several times that since. He has taught?on and off the tenure track?at Duke, McGill, and Franklin and Marshall College, and in other countries at the Universities of Essex and Texas, and has been a research fellow at the University of Illinois and Harvard. He lives along the south coast of “Canada” in the city of Toronto, has never voted, and spurns all leaders. This article was written while Thomson was teaching at the Bard College Language and Thinking Program last August (skin color has been adjusted for winter 2011). firstname.lastname@example.org