Tuesday 29 December 2009

Sharp Teeth

OK, so I decided to go with the medieval myth of the vagina dentata, recently resurrected by some bleeding awful z-grade horror movie, as the title for this post for no other reason than my original one wouldn't fit twitter. It makes no real sense and does little but allude to Zadie Smith (not a bad thing in itself).

The article I wrote for Year Zero tomorrow is a chastisement of the writing classes of the noughties. I ask, very simply, where did all the questions go? When I was a student in the late 80s and early 90s we took it for granetd that whenever we wrote something we were entering into some larger, complex powerplay. We assumed there was no such thing as neutral. It was the age where language was taken to be imperialist/patriarchal as a matter of course and if you wanted to write you had to justify every word you set on the page and explain why it wasn't simply perpetuating the imperialism/patriarchy.

Sure this often led to a combination of bizarro weird non-linear stylisation and the somewhat easier tactic of wwriting nothing and limiting oneself to chattering idly about theory (in the name of the class/race/gender struggle, of course). But there is something inherently good about not taking things for granted - about realising that one is part of a context, about placing oneself within larger discourses and, basically, thinking about the implications of what you write.

What I take issue with in that post is why so few writers question - PROPERLY question - the internet. What kind of a space is it? What's its power status? Where does it sit in the nexus of discursive strategies?

Anyway, having berated others for not asking questions, I thought I should post some thoughts of my own. Here they are - unrounded, probably not thought through. But they're a discussion starter at least. I'm happy to discuss in more detail in the comments.

I "grew up" studying Irigaray, whose main point about linguistics is that language is male - the qualities of western discourse embody maleness. Language is sex-power. For women to speak they must use a language that is male. Irigaray's own writing is a wonderful mix of theory and poetics as she tries to find a new way of writing that embodies the female yet cuts across the lies of the male (I hesitate when saynig "embody" because it implies essentialism, and "is Irigaray an essentialist?" is one of those string-measuring exercises of which linguistics is full.

It amazes me that more people aren't asking questions of the internet, and how it fits into this theoretical model. So I want to imagine what they might say, and relate it to teh politics of literature.

I have 2 points to make:

1. the internet feminises literature.

2. this is why the literary establishment greets web-based discourse with a mix of fear-conquer-laugh.

1. The Internet Feminises Literature

I am talking in Irigaray's terms. You will probably disagree and find the points overly Freudian. They start a discussion, though.

- webcourse (to avoid repeating web-based discourse endlessly) is fragmented (something Irigaray made steps towards with her incomplete sentences - she must go nuts for text-speak)

-webcourse is associative. It makes links rather than statements. It's unitive but not in a colonizing way - it brings things within a context organically

-webcourse is preservatory by nature. Its caches and dark corners are the marshes and forests that patriarchy could never expel from mythology. They preserve the monstrous and the outcast from deletion.

-webcourse never destroys, it builds on what has gone before.

-webcourse is nutritive - it feeds itself through cooperation and contact

2. No wonder "Literature" hates the web

You will generally find one of three reactions from the literary establishment to webcourse:

- fear - free content, the noise of universal subjectivity, lack of respect for experts, lack of quality control and gatekeeping - are these really treated very differently from the vagina dentata of old? No. Literature fears webcourse because it is different. Because it refuses to respect tradition. Because it is other...

- conquer - the web is great, but do it like this, that and the other. Brand yourself across media, use the web wisely. Use it if you must but use it our way!

- laugh - "you're a writer. Great! For whom do you write?" "Oh, AN E-ZINE"

Like I say, think of webcourse as feminising, and of discourse as patriarchal, and doesn't this suddenly fit?

And of course it's even more wonderfully subversive that this feminised webcourse uses imperialist technology - what I want to avoid owing to its awful Platonist associations is a spirit-body dualism that's hardware/cyberspace based - rather I'll say patriarchy created a space of its own, feminised culture found a way in, resisted, inverted, created an enfolded space of its own from, within, and independent of the oppressor's tools.

In many ways the webcourse debate mirrors the feminist debates of the 70s - you have people of all stripes from the separatists to the revisionists. One could argue that cultural flare-ups simply have a tendency to produce this kind of multi-polarity. Or you could argue that it's the SAME debate.

So where does this leave me, as a male writer? Well, women have been forced into discourse in order to be heard for centuries. If webcourse IS feminised I fail to see I'm in a position to complain. No, what I find exciting is the fact that webcourse might actually be something different. Something with its own set of rules. Something new and fresh and liberating.

Most of all, what I feel is a relief that I've started asking questions about what I write on line in the same way I've always asked them about what I write on paper. And excited that the two sets of answers may be different


  1. I agree with the analysis of point 1) In fragmenting snippets of discourse etc, but don't see that as necessarily feminine even if superficially it resembles earlier feminist forms of expression.

    In fact, I see the internet as potentially non-gender since people are bodyless on it and can take whatever form and gender they choose to present. The problem with some of the pontificating on language from the 80's is that remedies to male, bourgeoise Western European discourse, was encouraged to take all sorts of splintering forms, eg ethnicity, gender, class etc. Oh for the literature that attacks male discourse simultaneously on all fronts.

    And re vagina dentata, there's a discourse on it throughout my novel. There's an attempt at a female contemplation of coitus and post-coital relationship and in another novel, a wider inquiry into the politics of sex and reproduction and whether there is any point in either.

  2. Very interesting points.

    I have always explored the masculine nature of visual communication (the male gaze, and all) and women filmmakers needing to use that masculine medium to communicate their messages. I had never thought of written language in those same terms.

    The sad thing about our current society, though, is the lack of questioning of anything. I see so little critical thinking going on that I fear that the movie Idiocracy will come true.

  3. Marc, yes, this was intended to be a simplification (or I'd have filled half cyberspace - now there's something that needs theoretical analysis - the fact that we can never talk of the proportion of fulness of cyberspace). I agree that much feminism is very wanting because it refuses to give equal footnig to other fracture points. I have latched onto gender here because I wrote at length about race and clss a few months ago (from pitch to perpetuation of privilege). It's also what I studied. I'm fascinated by the way we conceptualise space, and what fills space - and as a writer I am amazed so little conceptualisation of cyberspace occurs. At work I see proposals for doctorates working on the internet and culture - and the lack of theoretical rigor amazes em. It's as though we have been sucked in by the sop that the internet is (sorry, this isn't intended to pick up your phrase) gender-neutral. Maybe it is. Maybe. But shouldn't we be asking the qeustion?!

    Jennifer - yes, I absolutely see it as part of a wider malaise - a very worrying one. I hope that the new decade will see a restoration of the critica thinking that seemed to be everywhere in the 90s but has disappeared.

    The male gaze of the lens - that's a fascinating subject - I remember when I was a postgrad Lapaglia was at her prime. Exciting times again - tehre's very little like that now - the one person I've come across this decade who excites me in that way is Rey Chow - but for all her amazing work on Chinatowns her theories are woefully simplistic (or rather underdeveloped)

  4. Male and female conceptions of space were something I explored in my theatre work.

    I share Jennifer's gloomy prognosis of a general lack of interest in pursuing any of these ideas outside of a few obsessive explorers like some of us

  5. I think I'm also saying that these are not new debates, just being grafted on to new media discourses. But if we couldn't successfully sort out a new language back then, with all the goodwill and intent and University tenures in trendy subjects, then what the hell chance have we now in this age of cynicism, disillusionment and disinterest? maybe the permutations of so many people contributing their thoughts online might mean we strike lucky through increased probabilities, but don't hold you breath.

  6. I totally get this and never really realised it before. Maybe this is why I don't like the internet writing scene as much? Too feminine.


    thanks for posting a thoughtful analysis.

    i'm coming from 100 different directions. the post-pre-post feminist feminism, and the anti-un-pre-post-post feminism. (ok, yes, i'm making fun of labels.) i'll keep it brief, or at least briefer than i usually would.

    nothing is more feminine than social media. it's the girliest of girly media and communication.

    but your post is about literature, a separate point. but the sharing of literature, and the sharing of thoughts about literature, and the sharing of feelings about those thoughts of literature and its writers is an inherently feminine concept realized to the nth degree.

    i'm not disagreeing with you at all. but the feminine has indeed *penetrated* the patriarchy of the technologics and girled it all up. Lacan would have been pleased at the indictment of male technologics by the feminine social media: something about hating on the scientists because they murdered nature to study it?

    to be continued.



  8. Hm. I'm sure the two are related, but I would have put it differently. Not in masculine/feminine terms, but capitalist/egalitarian terms. It's the marketers I see trying to nail everything down on the internet and make sure everything fits under a prescribed label. And that everything, above all else, can be bought and sold and have a dollar value slapped onto it -- like there's no other sort of value at all. Everything becomes a commodity.

    I see this restricting the freedom of the internet more every day. Or not restricting it so much (because I think someone is always breaking through those attempts at restriction). A new form of freedom bursts out (YouTube, Twitter), and instantly the marketers descend upon it and rigidify it and stomp the life out of it. So it bursts out again somewhere else.

    As I said, I'm sure there's a connection between my conception and yours. Though I don't necessarily believe that capitalism is a male/patriarchal endeavour (I know some horrifically mercenary women) or that a more egalitarian system is more intrinsically feminine. But I'm sure there are interconnections.

  9. I've never had any problems expressing in male driven terms. I think 'male' most of the time, and even though I'm terribly feminine on the outside in terms of how I look and how men perceive and relate to me, I've more of a masculine brain (that is, if you discount my lack of sense of direction).
    I've questioned the web, but have given way to the fact that there is no 'winning' position for any of us.
    You adapt or get out of the way, and I'm going no where. I shall be male when I have to be and female when it pleases me. :-)

  10. @Marc - I agree that getting people to question is a monumental task. I DO think the answers are independent of that questioning though. Webcourse either is or isn't feminising literature regardless of what we think about it or how we use it. And asking those questions may, i think, help us understand people's reactions to it, and may also open up new possibilities. If something IS a certain way, then how we use it is never simply a matter of imposing our own volition upon it - because the ultimate subject may not be us but the structure itself.

    @Sarah - that's probably why I like it :p

    @Jenn - yes, what I forgot to refer to in the post is the Derridean idea of double reading. The way attempts to impose structure/power always create resisitances. To the extent that the digital era is the apogee of the technologisation of the world (in the Greek sense of "techne" as mainpulation and taming by design and skill), cyberSPACE as an entity utterly independednt but enfolded within the heart of that technologisation may well be the act of ultimate resistance - which, of course, explains the fear-conquer-laugh reaction.

  11. @kashicat - yes, I was deliberately singling out only one strand of the argument for the reasons I gave in response to Marc. The "bursting out" language you use is a great way to eplain power dynamics in a Derridean sense (the double reading) - I used to explain it to my students using the analogy of a pie crust (food, of course!). The harder one presses on the pie crust, the more likely the gravy is to spill out somewhere!

    @Anne you seem to have a great knack of adapting in just the right way to the right circumstances

  12. Possibly a bit tangential to the gender debate, but any work set pre-internet days, even say 1980's, automatically becomes a work of historical fiction as it is so hard to match that world to our own contemporary one?

  13. Aha! Time and Space! Female and Male! etc etc etc. This "webcourse" takes place in a ubiquitous space, that is all places and none, all people and none; or, wel, maybe it isn't. You either have no idea where an idea comes from, or GPS coordinates down to the subsecond; the speaker is anonymous, or you know his/her most intimate life histories. The pendulum shifts, and I think we are moving more towards precision at the moment.

    But of this I am sure: "webcourse" defies axioms; it is idiomatic and it is pragmatic and it leaks like a sieve; it appears to align with the thoughts of Luce Irigaray and Donna Harraway more readily than those of Harold Bloom.

    And in a Derridean sense, as soon as you begin to tag a narrative with hooks for "deeper" meaning, it becomes meta-narrative. I have written before about movement towards pseudo-oral narrative, but I'm not sure if this is actually at stake here; we must become more aware of the *envelope* in which the story itself is delivered, whether it is voiced or not.

    Wish I had more time to follow this whole discussion - Happy New Year to all :)

  14. Happy New Year, Piers. I love the Derridean games - the way things constantly elude, the way categorisation insantly creates the uncategorisable.

    Thank you in particular for that first point - the infinite and the absolutely specific through GPS/IP address. I hadn't thought about that before - and of course that infinity/absolute specificity thing is absolutely fascinating - this year I came across Kyoto school philosophy for the first time, which opened my eyes to a huge number of possibilities in this area.

  15. Hey Dan, to see the world in a grain of sand and infinity in an hour...

    Imagine if you published a book of poems which could only be accessed using a GPS-equipped device, so that say all 36 poems could only be read at one of the poles, and a single poem could be read at each of the meridians around the equator.

    Or an anthology of poems that showcased local poets wherever you were... the hyperlocal web could get very exciting very soon.

  16. aha - yes indeed. I've been thiking for a while (itr's on my Crystal Kindles post I think) how cool it would be to combine geocaching and bluetooth to create some kind of local digital storytelling. The possibilities are incredibly exciting aren't they!