Encountering, Positioning and Orientating my Queer “Self”
This paper seeks to experimentally innovate a new approach in bringing together standpoint theory and skin studies through the lens of Sara Ahmed, Donna Haraway and Adrienne Rich. In assembling new feminist theories on the body and physical space, I seek to demonstrate how we enter encountering moments with others and negotiate social surfaces through and on the skin. I utilise ‘queer lines’ throughout my paper to ask through an auto-reflexive manner from what location our writing exists in, and how its surfaces have wider implications beyond the “self” in the constant formation and continual deployment of identity.
standpoint theory; intersectionality; Donna Haraway; Adrienne Rich; Sara Ahmed.
“Our bodies are in truth naked. We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence … one [is] carried beneath the surface of a stream, is interrupted, torn, prickled and plucked at by sensations, spontaneous and irrelevant…”
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves
As Virginia Woolf likens the body as made up of shells, bones, and silence, I situate myself in theoretical contention to this silence. Modern life is abundant with all kinds of ephemera, as our bodies are constantly (re)moulded and remade through the sensations and the vibrations of the world around us. Situating our body is crucial in developing a mutual understanding of where we write from, and to who we write to. I would like to explore how we are map-makers of ourselves, how we are cartographers of a fleshy reality – a reality made tangible and authentic through the embodied processes of location and situation. In this expository and experimental paper, I aim to examine and tease out Donna Haraway and Adrienne Rich’s desire for a politics of location, positioning and situation through the lens of Sara Ahmed’s ideas of bodily surfaces, dermographia, and encountering social surfaces through and on the skin. I will self-reflexively push through embodiment theory, in an effort to disengage and subvert western ideological approaches to identity formation which privileges sight and the alienating gaze over actualised bodies and complex identities. I wish to probe out notions of “the body” and how touch—the act of touching and being touched—orientates us towards a feminist self-authorship. I seek to sew into standpoint theory threads of intersectionality which prioritises a mutually inclusive awareness of how race, class, sex, gender, and nationalities all weave together a fabric of self-knowing in relation to others. I take up standpoint theory and do not stand stationary with it, but rather I fluidly contextualise it with situated knowledges and beyond, in a hope to conceive of a world made authentic and accountable via a reciprocal relationship with language and self. Through this subversion, we can try to dismantle the hierarchical repressive tools which characterise the syntax of oppression.
While saying “I” may be important in recognising a sovereign and feminist selfhood, we need to recognise ourselves and our bodies in relation to others. As Adrienne Rich’s praxis teaches us: “there is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I’; there is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through” (1986, 224). I use the plural personal pronoun “we” with the intention to take responsibility for where I write from, and to demonstrate a worldly position which I can resituate myself within with others.
But first, a detour into the margins. Sara Ahmed critiques the assumption that personal writing within an essay is a “digression,” as if there is a “proper course” that must end objectively in the act of writing (2006, 22). Exposure to the prose essays of Adrienne Rich, Stacy Alaimo, and Donna Haraway has opened up new ways of writing and “becoming with a practice of becoming worldly” (Haraway 2008, 3). However, I do not wish to make this paper about me. Instead, I wish to find and locate myself in relation to material feminisms and embodiment theories, which in turn will allow me to write within and through critical theory. A blend of the creative and the critical can help formulate a worldly critique that is one marked by an affect/effect of encountering/accountability. On Rich’s notions of “I” and “we”, Mary Eagleton states that “from the encouragement to claim an ‘I’, a subjecthood, certain rights; to an awareness of difference … might be the next person’s further exploitation” (2000, 301). To embrace intersectionality and recognise the conditions from which we write from can open up a worldliness towards an ontological “struggle for accountability” (Rich 1986, 211). I account from where I source my research and engage with an assemblage of feminist theories in order to “find” myself and locate my queerness within the communal struggle against the neoliberal establishment.
Standpoint theory prioritises a communal relationship between the researcher and the researched. While standpoint theory may be considered outdated, it is still a useful theory as we can utilise it to critique notions of objectivity and in turn formulate an awareness of “how one’s thinking and acting is shaped by one’s standpoint and to practice self-reflexivity in the conduct of research” (Griffin 2017, 1). Susan Hekman revisits standpoint theory in her 1997 paper titled “Truth and Method”, in which she states that the theory “should be defined as a counterhegemonic discourse that works to destabilize hegemonic discourse”, and in turn succeeds in its feminist enquiries through critiquing what masculinist definitions of truth serve to the status quo (1997, 355). Adrienne Rich’s worldly and grounded attempts at pinpointing the geography of the personal body further entails struggling against notions of abstraction which standpoint theory aims to decentralise. Throughout history, the act of abstraction has “severed [reality] from the doings of living people”, which according to Rich, has been “fed back to people as slogans” (1986, 213). Rich’s theoretical possibilities allow us a “seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain and returns to earth over and over” (1986, 213-214). What is so revolutionary about this statement is that theory, a written language/word/speech act, is organic and living, like us. In her poem “Cartographies of Silence”, Rich ponders on the drifting nature of poetry. For her, a poem and its ensuring silence has:
a presence / it has a history a form / Do not confuse it / with any kind of absence … / How calm, how inoffensive these words / begin to seem to me / though begun in grief and anger / Can I break through this film of the abstract / without wounding myself or you[?] (1978, 34-37, 38-42)
Her poetics, as well as her prose, indicate an intense awareness of the fact that “language cannot do everything” (1978, 67). Her vision for a “concrete and everlasting world” (1978, 94) depends on breaking through abstract qualities of the self, and in turn embracing grief and anger as a valid form of past history – but not to let that guide our plans for a unified and reparative futurity. The ruptures within Adrienne Rich’s poetics are not unlike the ruptures we encounter in reality. Her poetics are not smooth, their surfaces are abundant in line breaks, and her enjambment breaks traditional convention to enunciate a reality made and remade through a continued emphasis on critiquing the far-reaching implications of oppressive heterostructures. Her theory has a fleshy reality, which can ultimately be of material use and gain to the people applying this stand-pointed theory. From there, a politics of love—a politics of reparative reading practices and techniques can lead towards a knowing position of encountering.
Seeing skin is not just a topical project, it is a deeply rich one that reaches further down through the layers of the metaphorical epidermis. Rich presents to us a history of wounds—surfaces made tangible through the embodiment that accompanies locating oneself in relation to others. For Rich, to locate herself in a body is “more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognising this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go” (1986, 216). Rich’s oppression exists on more than one level. The recognition of her location—her proximity to whiteness—has allowed her to see herself in relation to her worldly location – achieved through being aware of her privileges and oppressions. She wishes not to “transcend this body, but to reclaim it. To reconnect our thinking and speaking with the body of this particular living human individual, woman” (1986, 213). Through placing her body under public scrutiny, she is allowing us, as a collective “we”, to recognise that “far from being a tabula rasa, the body is already subject before birth to a range of cultural meanings” (Eagleton 2000, 304). Yet, as I will explore further, we can re-write one’s “self.” However much we try to break the mould imposed on us by a society willing to write our futures, there is always authorial tension in how we write our own feminist selfhood.
We subconsciously gender an author even before reading a text. We come to any piece of writing with a preconceived notion of what to expect based on societal expectations and internal recognitions. Through exploring authorial intent, Sara Ahmed proposes that “the woman becomes the text upon which the agency of the male author is literally inscribed” (2004, 126). Language is the medium of which we can articulate our ideas, art and meaning. If we “cannot choose to step out of language and somehow orient ourselves in the world without it—how in any case would such an experience be conveyed to others?” (Clark 2011, 54). Then, “language is form, language is letter … [yet] language is a very abstract operation, in which at every turn in the production of meaning its form disappears” (Wittig 1992, 66-67). This theory of dialectics writes against Rich’s desire for a language that is not abstract or fragmented to the point that the context—the horizon—is illegible. Yet materialist feminism encourages a grounded approach to language and writing. As Claire Colebrook writes:
“It is not that language mediates, constructs, or constitutes matter; for matter—what is—is that non-identity which has traditionally been confined to the signifier but which really characterises all that is. If there is a materiality, it is not that which is masked or hidden by language, for language itself is materiality, always relating to what is not itself” (2008, 72).
Language is fundamental to establishing identity; to enunciating that recognised “I”, that communal “we”. Language and writing can record materiality—a sense of being—in a way that leaves it unmasked and unhidden.
Even though the writers’ work is flat—lying horizontally on the surface of the page—differing readings allow a transference of the abstract back down to a grounded reality. I argue that the body itself is not just a text to be horizontally read in one particular way, flattened on a surface that can be traced on and repeated endlessly for mass consumption. The body is made and remade through acts of referencing and self-renewal, a feminist self-authorship is thus achieved via recognising my/our own way in which I/you inhabit space. Through the polysemic nature of citations and references, you begin to follow these intersecting lines of thought and theories that pass through our skin and into a collective knowledge. Standpoint theory can inspire radical and direct change by thinking through words as conceptual and physical sites reliant on where we are in the world. It is especially crucial in giving marginalised voices a platform to speak about their own material oppressions.
However, standpoint theory is not without its flaws. Marcel Stoetzler and Nira Yuval-Davis note that the eventual “emphasis on the importance of the lives of the most marginal elements in society can sometimes collude with the attempts of hegemonic centres to remain opaque, while at the same time maintaining the surveillance of marginal elements in society” (2002, 319). A politics of location can first appear to be a “commitment to global feminism [which can] easily turn out to be an act of Western imperialism” (Hinterberger 2007, 77). Intersectional theory has adopted a pedagogically important framework of “crucial black feminist intervention[s]” which challenges “the hegemonic rubrics of race, class, and gender within predominately white feminist frames” (Puar 2012, 50). While due emphasis on differing cultural perspectives of a marginalised lived experience may be helpful in critiquing the systemic cause of it, located knowledge may accidentally end up maintaining the existing oppressive conditions of capital. This is why intersectionality is imperative, as with equitable emphasis on the ways in which class, gender, sexuality and race can impact our lives as well as others, we can begin to perceive and then act on our perceptions based on a communal knowledge we have acquired, hopefully without appropriating other bodies for one’s own cause. This shared, stand-pointed knowledge forces us to embrace a practice of critique that emphasises embodiment, the body, but also the skin: the surface on which societal forces enacts itself on us. Audre Lorde presents to us a valuable critique of universal experience, and argues that “the need for unity” must not be misrecognised or “misnamed as a need for homogeneity” (1984, 117). Differences and understanding variable intersections are important in connecting “different” bodies towards a shared experience or cause. For Sara Ahmed, “the impression of a surface is an effect of such intensifications of feeling. I become aware of my body as having a surface only in the event of feeling” (2014, 24). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggests that fingers have their own authority, as phalanges can either manufacture or mould a textured reality (2003, 15). As I write and re-write this paper, differing paths open up for me. These sentences I articulate challenge me to reconsider the ethical implications of what I write, who I cite and who sights this. I become aware, à la Ahmed, of my body as intensifying external feeling through being aware of myself as attached and written by others.
Yet, through teasing out these ideas, language begins to coalesce into what Monique Wittig posits as “concrete matter to grasp hold of” (1992, 34). Even if read on screen or paper, we enter a “social contract” where languages are reactivated “in their arrangement, and in turn confers on meaning its full meaning: … rather than one meaning—polysemy” (Wittig 1992, 67). Literature, to borrow from Monique Wittig, is determined and written through both individual and universal points of view. Meaning itself is activated in various differing ways from where and when we approach the text. In Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Butler establishes an encountering moment in politics that prioritises love in the adversity to nation-building regimes of division. She states that “I cannot muster the ‘we’ except by finding the way in which I am tied to ‘you,’ by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you” (2004, 49). Our subjectivity is not singular, we are material beings who, even through fragmentation, find each other again and again via becoming vulnerable with others in a community. We can determine from this that writing is not a passive vehicle for ideas. It is witness to physical embodiment as much as we are shaped by what writing and what society has to offer. The skin in turn establishes itself as a site of encounter, where relationships are formed based on an active dependency of exposure to others and other bodies. However, according to Claudia Castañeda, the skin functions as a “border in the abstract sense, nor is it automatically a site of communication or mutuality”, instead, skin becomes a site of possibility in which the “nature of the encounter is established through the process of ‘touching’, one body in relation to another” (2001, 234). Possibility is the key word here, in that alternate futures can materialise through a process of worldly affect that is made possible through the act of writing. Sara Ahmed emphasises the body in her critique of the Barthesian dead author. According to Ahmed, Barthes’ critique suggests that “writing is written by no-body, no-body who is identifiable either as subject or body. This very detachment of writing from bodies is problematic” (2004, 123). Every act of reading is an embodied and gendered one: a gendered reading we subconsciously relate to with our preconceptions of the author. But then, are some reading acts more violent than others? Ahmed’s reading of Roland Barthes’ concept of the death of author is that the author is typically gendered as male, as the author is “sexed in the process of being positioned according to the enigma of woman-as-text, according, that is, to the demand both for interpretation and sexual identity” (2004, 130). Ahmed states in her monograph Queer Phenomenology that “cartographic space is, of course, ‘flat space’ that conventionally describes locations as determined by axes of coordination that are independent of one’s bodily location” (2004, 113). For us as readers, we are always aware of Judith Butler’s notion that gender is the “discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler 1990, 11). Unfortunately, in some cases the act of “becoming confirms nonbeing through how it extends the very surface of being toward that which it is not” (Ahmed 2006, 128). Our location in relation to the act of writing is of immense importance to formulating an identity – an identity precariously poised between politics and culture.
Utilising Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey’s concept of dermographia allows us to not only think about the skin itself but through the skin in how we embody ourselves. Ahmed and Stacey are wary of models of feminist embodiment that emphasise the body as the only objective perspective to write from. They state that “’the body’ has been elided, negated and devalued in masculinist thought [which can then] fetishise the body, can allow it to appear as if it is an object that could be simply missing” (2001, 3). In their book Thinking Through the Skin, Ahmed and Stacey approach “the body” in thinking about how we embody ourselves dimensionally and demographically through differing social functions. They introduce the concept of dermographia as a particular form of writing from and through the skin. They state that the “substance of the skin is itself dependent on regimes of writing that mark the skin in different ways or that produce the skin as marked” (2001, 15). In a turn towards a “writerly effect”, the skin itself becomes a by-product of such self-aware practices. Making the self and writing the self all involve the skin and its possibilities existing in a marked futurity. We begin to think of the skin not as object, but as an agential subject with limitless potential for making and opening up identities. Think, for instance, of the tattoo. This writing or art on the skin cuts into the skin, through past histories, yet opens a new future of possibility through self-signification. Through impressions on the skin, a story is written – a future narrative can come to fruition. As according to Steven Connor, the skin “is always written: it is legendary. More than the means of what we happen voluntarily or involuntary to disclose to sight, it has become the proof of our exposure to visibility itself” (2001, 36). Imprints then become, as Ahmed states in Queer Phenomenology, “dependent on past histories, which surface as impressions on the skin … emotions shape what bodies do in the present, or how they are moved by the objects they approach” (2006, 2). Of course, we must be aware that there are some lines and marks that refuse “to reproduce: the lines of rebellion and resistance that gather over time to create new impressions on the skin surface or on the skin of the social” (Ahmed 2006, 18). How does movement resituate the body—my body—as not just passive, but active? In the act of writing, am I authoring a truth through my self-touch? Every keystroke I pen now is dependent on a movement towards self-signification, and in authoring this I come into contact with moments of affect. These affectual moments I must deliberate on, and remove them occasionally to make for succinct writing. These darlings help me author that truth.
We must be sure to negotiate the problematic presumption that touch and contact can offer a positive and reparative dialogue between two or more parties. Ahmed notes that contact does not necessarily provide “a common ground; or if we share this ground, then we are also divided, both by what we ‘do’ and ‘do not’ come into contact with” (2006, 149). In suggesting that heterosexuality is a form of repetitive strain injury, Ahmed critiques the compulsory nature of heteronormativity by likening it as a contortion, as bodies “get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict the capacity for other kinds of action” (2006, 91). The failure to be “straight” in both the literal and metaphorical sense, distorts queer bodies in how they orientate themselves both physically and mentally. The heterodox society produces bodies that are deemed “straight” until, at a certain age, queer individuals can re-write and resituate themselves against the “straight” line of society. Ahmed here is drawing from the theory of a mandatory heterosexuality that appears in the work of Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Wittig writes heterosexuality “not as an institution but as a political regime which rests on the submission and appropriation of women” (1992, xiii). The body, especially the queer body, is but only a thing which wrestles with the epistemological violence that heterosexuality wages against us. To transform oneself from a thing with no agential power to an individual with queer layers of intersecting identities, we must think on and through skin – and recognise that we can author our own bodies through recognising our location to others.
Surfaces, places and environments are all experienced differently, and what is a familiar “contact” zone may not be viewed in the same positive slant to another. To locate oneself in “objective” knowledge means recognising a set perspective, through extending ourselves via other senses such as sight. It is important however to recognise instances of voyeurism in objectively “seeing” something, as Donna Haraway states that “vision is always a question of the power to see – and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualising practices” (1988, 192). This raises the question of the politics of sight and seeing. Who sees what and how is this optical information disseminated? If the “topography of subjectivity is multidimensional” (Haraway 1988, 193), then how do others perceive me? In The Waves, Virginia Woolf states that “my character is in part made of the stimulus which other people provide, and is not mine, as yours are … I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me” (2004 , 87). I draw from this quote as an example of how authors navigate a heteroglossia inflected imagination, in which a self is composed through and constantly remade by their interactions, patterns, and abstractions which an identity is focalised through. Heteroglossia denotes the phenomenon of multiple viewpoints and voices within a single text. Given the inherently multiplicitous nature of language, heteroglossia is language saturated with a “world view, even as a concrete opinion, insuring a maximum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life” (Bakhtin 1994, 74). Donna Haraway urges us to see critically, to be conscious of what we see even if this only gives a partial image, and to not make universalising claims when interpreting local epistemologies. As interpretation is always subjective to the individual making these claims from a certain position, “local knowledges” must be recognised for the vulnerable intentions that they present. Sight and viewing throughout history (in anthropology etc.) has been a project of “unregulated gluttony; all perspective gives way to infinitely mobile vision” (Haraway 1988, 189), which allow a devouring of marked bodies, the individual or groups being looked at. Thus, one would be consumed by the “cannibal-eye of masculinist extra-terrestrial projects for excremental second birthing” (Haraway 1988, 189). What Haraway aims to “expose” is that the projection of viewing others has always been marked by a “perversity” which has been moulded by the military-industrial complex, capitalism, and the legacies of colonialism. She wishes to disentangle the “dis-embodiment” which these doctrines force us to practice, and present to us a hermeneutic mode of feminist re-embodiment that prioritises a sustainable and situated knowledge. She encourages an orientation of “partiality and not universality” (Haraway 1988, 195), through which communal knowledge can resist dis-embodied binaries.
Surfaces invariably relate to touch. As touch itself “involves an economy: a differentiation between those who can and cannot be reached. Touch then opens bodies to some bodies and not others” (Ahmed 2006, 107). Touching is an intimate act, a social act that directs what other bodies can do. An intimate touch can ignite desire, a forceful touch can open up a relationship of grief or loss. Surfaces, as Ahmed explores, are reached in differing ways depending on our orientation to that surface and location. The human body can “’talk back,’ resist, or otherwise affect its cultural construction” (Alaimo 2008, 242) through mapping out a topography of the self that is individually written. Yet, “solid” interpretation and an identifiable queer identity are not always unified, as they are fragmented by cis-heterosexual societal forces. For Haraway, bodies’ “boundaries materialise in social interaction. Boundaries are drawn by mapping practices; ‘objects’ do not pre-exist as such … boundaries shift from within; boundaries are very tricky” (1988, 200-201) in that they are constantly being re-written. Placing a body within a fixed mapping process is counter-productive in visualising it as an embodied being. The body is as fluid as the social interactions which it writes itself in to, throughout and within. Haraway’s body/boundary distinction indicates “boundaries as specific kinds of location, as places where the spatial-temporal tension can be examined in its full complexity” (Kaplan 1994, 150). Alaimo and Hekman further state that the “materiality of the body [is] itself an active, sometimes recalcitrant, force” (2008, 4). In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler presents to us the body as a “variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality” (1993, 189). Through shifting in and out of gender itself, Butler and other materialist feminists present to us the body as a construction, and ask “how do we reconceive the body no longer as a passive medium or instrument awaiting the enlivening capacity of a distinctly immaterial will” (1993, 13)?
Through standpoint and situation theory, the body encounters its own skin in relation to the environment and society, which informs the way in which our bodies can be written inside out. Identities are tactile, they are formed through past histories and contextual significations of place, space and race. In recognising where we write from and how we live our lives, we can understand and re-write the topographies and geographies of our bodies, our skin and our “self” against the grain of the heterosexual all-seeing eye. Thinking about the skin in broader, temporal terms allows agency for not just one object, but an agency and a future for us that is not bound to any one subject. Our relationship gives metaphorical birth to new types of skins, geographies and maps, but these surfaces are written by ourselves through an intense awareness of our location and situation to others. The queer lines throughout this paper ask us, and in turn asks me, from what location our writing exists in, and how its surfaces have wider implications beyond the “self.”
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