By Kyla Wazana Tompkins
So I’ve been paying attention to the most recent intergenerational ideological feminist-queer wars (OMG Germaine Greer! nobody should protect your hate speech!) with some exasperation, no little tiredness, and a sense of deja-vu all over again. I remember during the last two rounds of ideological wars—the race wars and the sex wars—that I was on the angry/wounded/not-yet institutionalized side of the issue, and I then sounded a lot like the generation coming up now, a generation who are doing a lot of the necessary and exhausting push-work around trans, disability, trans of color and gentrification issues. Now I’m that cliché—the tenured Women’s Studies professor—I’m on what sometimes seems like the other side of things. It’s better than still being poor, but it kind of sucks to lose the high moral ground, that’s for sure.
I count myself among the people who have a lot of learning to do around trans politics. Three internet explosions have seemed to unfold in the last year between trans folks and (largely white, often lesbian, sometimes large-R Radical) feminist structures: the Paris is Burning social media explosion last summer; the internal battles and the letters addressing the Midwives Alliance of North America in relation to their new trans-inclusive policies; and then closer to home for me, the blogs and facebook battles about the October 2015 Killjoy Kastle Lesbian Feminist Haunted House in Los Angeles and in Toronto a few years ago. A lot of the time, I’m trying to just shut up and read and listen and learn from the new work and the activists in the field. I have a reading list I’m working through. I wonder at the energy it takes to mount a work of art, or organize a political statement, and I wonder at the level of rage and vitriol that our era’s comments-section politics seem to provoke.
My first understandings of queer and feminist politics came through exposure to early radical/liberal feminisms in the 1970s. You can see some of that moment in a film my mother, Lydia Wazana, made with our then-roommate Kay Armatage (Armatage went on to herself become a Women’s Studies Professor).(1) The film, about lesbian writer, journalist, and dance critic Jill Johnston, depicts Jill Johnston’s trip to give a lecture at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1975 (at the time still a small child, I’m not in it, a fact I still can’t forgive). There’s a lot to say about the limits of Jill Johnston’s feminism: the biological essentialism that underwrites her idea of womanhood as a stable category; her tracing out of gender identity through a kind of operatic Oedipal model; her temperamental diva behavior; and the fact that once the film was finished she publicly disavowed it and refused to allow it to be shown in the US. Much of this history is taken up in performance scholar Sara Warner’s article about the film.(2)
One thing you can’t say about Jill Johnston is that she wasn’t what was then called a “ball-buster”: a take-no-prisoners, man-hating dyke (her own term and also the term, hilariously, that she uses to describe herself and Germaine Greer – on whom more below – on the occasion of a shared trip to a strip club in London). There’s even a key scene in the film when she gets really mad at a man in the audience and gives him an intense ball-busting dyke response to what simply seems to be his presence. She says: “Like, I feel a hostile male element in here and it’s bothering me…I don’t mind guys being here but I feel a hostile male element and, um, that’s making me, that’s making me agitated.”
When the young man attempts to engage her she explodes at him: “You better get the fuck out of here or I’m going to kick you right in the balls and get you out of here so fast man…. I don’t like your generalizations, man….So sit down, shut up, or get out. I feel a hostile male vibe in here, and I don’t like it….You don’t feel it and I feel it. You feel something different than I feel!”(3)
I want to linger here , for a second, with the shape and form of Jill Johnston’s anger. It rolls out, as she allows it to, across the lecture room where men and women are sitting on the floor listening to her speak and engaging her in conversation. Her body language is aggressive and her voice is harsh: she points at the young man, threatens him in one of his most intimate and vulnerable (but also simultaneously erogenous and then for so many anti-violence radical feminists, dangerous) body parts. So precisely aimed, pointing her finger at him, her anger is set off by the young man’s putative hostility, which she characterizes as a kind of diffuse “vibe” and as a “hostile element.” Her anger is powerful, taking its authority from a gendered affective form that coincides with the politics she has been called to the University of Toronto to lecture on, but also from her well-documented willingness to be outrageous.
Feeling is the fuel that drives our political engagements, as Lauren Berlant and so many others have shown. But emotions are, as all know, felt and apprehended only through their historically-possible legibilities. Here I want to deploy what I think is one of the most profound insights that Berlant’s Cruel Optimism affords us: that thinking with affect allows us, as readers and critics, to listen to political formations – to the event – before we can name what they are.(4) An emergent formation, in Raymond Williams’ words; capacity in Deleuze’s terms; potentia for Spinoza. Something is happening
What was going on, we can now say in retrospect, in the fall of 1975 in a room in Toronto with a bunch of men, women, feminists, lesbians, and lesbian-feminists getting together to talk about what they would probably call Sex,what we now call Gender, was a conversation about what must have then felt like a shaky theoretical formation: lesbian feminism, or perhaps just feminism, or maybe both: the difference is still being worked out in their discussions. As the film shows us, it’s a conversation that was then stuck in the mire of pressing and unanswered questions like:
What does it mean to be a woman?
How can we be different kinds of women?
What does lesbianism have to do with being a woman? With feminism?
What do men have and what do men get (own or apprehend) that we don’t?
Johnston’s answers to those questions align with much of the big-R Radical Feminist thinking of that moment: an anthropological ahistoricism that locates femaleness in relation to a mythical collective matriarchal tribal formation, in which self realization – something yet to be gained by women – is achieved through identification with what men have: individuality. Women, Johnston attests, have to get that individuality by rejecting their tribal – read, actual – mothers. And of course, as she said in her debate with Norman Mailer, a few years before coming to Toronto: the revolution would only happen when all women were lesbians.
From the perspective of feminist and queer theory in 2015, forty years later, Johnston’s ideas might sound pedantic and dated. And, as contemporary trans politics, trans activist history, and woman of color feminism tells us, the binaristic answers that emerged in that moment – there are only men and only women and out of that only patriarchy – were limited, hurtful, and exercised an exclusionary violence that has left and continues to leave deep scars in the consequences of feminism’s own limited and violent disciplinary formations. And if you have seen the video of Sylvia Rivera being pushed off the stage by Jean O’Leary (linking here to activist, historian and author Reina Gossett‘s Vimeo page) or if you read Germaine Greer’s outrageously violent and offensive attacks on trans people, you are only beginning to get the span of radical feminist abusiveness to trans communities. (Although if a recent Advocate article is true – if – we are also only beginning to get at the suppressed stories of alliances between these putative enemies.)
Jill Johnston’s ball-busting outrageousness can’t really be treated as a gesture isolated from a politics that had terrible consequences. But I do want to make a plea for a return to thinking about this period of nascent second-wave politics with something other than pure dismissal or defensiveness, or even nostalgia. And picking up Berlant’s argument, I want to suggest that one way to do shift the conversation might be to just sit and listen to the affective form of these two politics-in-emergence.
For instance: contradictory and illogical (“there’s a vibe”), vague (angry at “generalizations”), Johnston’s performance makes sense as a form of incipient political feeling, one without a sufficient logic to ground it. It is bound to the deep solipsism of liberal individual feeling (“I feel it and you don’t feel it”) while it also tries and somewhat fails to act as a communal interpellation, against which or with which the listeners in the audience are necessarily trapped into responding, although obviously with some ambivalence: one woman in the audience calls out, exasperated “Oh come on!!” It is unclear who is the audience member is talking to: maybe the whole room, maybe Johnston alone. Both of these speakers reach out to each other, or someone, and don’t quite connect.
I’m reminded here of Agamben’s phrase in Means Without End when he says: “In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record that loss.”(5) I find Johnston’s rage – and indeed many of the images in that film, of women dancing together, hanging out, talking – to be deeply beautiful, to be awful, and also to be something admirable. I admire her anger as an artifact of a time when lesbian presence – ugly, monstrous, furious, righteous – had a new currency or traction in the world by the simple fact that it had never been made visible in that way before. I understand Johnston’s outrageous theatricality as a gesture that is deluded in understanding itself to have not already been recuperated by power, to have been enabled by her whiteness, her celebrity, and the very basic exclusionary violence of the terms within which feminism understood itself at the time (just recall Jean O’Leary saying with contempt: “that man” Sylvia Rivera). But I also understand it to have been flawed, unfinished and tentative.
Is it possible to hold all of those phenomena at the same time? Which is to say, is it possible to relate to lesbian and feminist history without deploying the basic Oedipal (Electra?) drama against the past that Johnston herself advocates? Do we always have to murder our mothers? These are questions that came to me recently when I was volunteering as a “Killjoy” professor at Allison Mitchell and Deidre Logue’s Killjoy Kastle Lesbian Haunted House event in Los Angeles. (6)
For days a debate had raged on the Facebook event page about the “Ball-Busting room, a room in the installation that some trans women and trans people have long found, and still do find, transmysogynist and violent. Accusations flew; flame wars started and sputtered out; people were “called out” – such wistful performativity in that phrase! – or just flat-out called names.
The Killjoy Kastle walks participants through a series of rooms meant to represent both the past and the present state of lesbian feminism, in its academic and cultural formations: a room full of hanging tampon/boxing bags labeled “Racism” and “Colonialism” and so forth that you are meant, as an intersectional feminist, to battle through; doorways that look like the Vagina Dentata; a Labia/Library full of Gender Studies classic texts in which actors hold a “riot ghoul” dance party; a Daddy Pen (prison holding cell for imprisoned trans people and sex workers); a crypt for dead lesbian organizations. Each of these demonstrate artist Allyson Mitchell and her partner and collaborator Deidre Logue’s signature maximalist aesthetic: a combination of DIY-craftiness, Dadaist object-orientation and high-allegorical feminist performance.(7)
In the Ball-Busting Room, the room that has attracted quite a bit of controversy, two actors smash plaster trucknutz ™ into smithereens while the “Demented Women’s Studies Professor” who is guiding visitors through the Kastle intones:
“Here we find the ball bustas hard at work—they can hardly keep up with the demand for their ritualistic ball smashing. These sweet hearts got tired of the old adage “ball busting dyke” and decided to just go for it full time. The balls, naturally, are symbolic of one of multiple interwoven oppressions emerging from the rule of white patriarchy—looks like they really are just a symbol though, judging from that pile of rubble.”
In a string of vituperative arguments, commenters on Facebook testified that the ball-busting room “triggered” them, that it felt hateful and violent towards trans women, that the threatened violence towards male genitalia was and is a kind of violence towards trans women’s embodiment. There’s no point in arguing with someone else’s experience of a particular art installation. That experience is just as true as is the intentions and experiences of the artists and organizers of the event. But what seemed unutterable in these conversations is this: that many of the critiques of the Killjoy Kastle are deeply forgetful of the work that so many of those big-R radical and lesbian cultural feminists did.
I say this as someone who yelled at and protested white radical feminists, including my own Women’s Studies professors, as someone who sat at Camp Trans and marched with the first trans march at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (and then never went back for a bunch of reasons that had to do with the whiteness and dumb gender essentialism of the place): we really owe those women a lot. And at the same time, it would have been so much better if that generation had moved out of the way faster, if they had listened harder, if they had dealt with their racism, their homophobia, their deep failures of imagination around sex, around gender, around class. Both of those things are true and somehow, in relation to the accusations of transmisogyny that floated around the Killjoy Kastle, not to mention the gleeful celebrating of the final closing of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, it seems impossible to say those two things at once.
Another way of asking this question is: are the critiques of the imperfect politics that emerged from the radical feminists’ essentialist definitions of woman themselves fueled by a certain kind of misogyny? Is the consequence of that misogyny yet another erasure of lesbianism from the horizon of queer politics? And also: is there another way to go about this?
Perhaps the answer lies in the idea of triggering itself. If trauma is the suturing of the past to the present, and a trigger is the affective, that is physiological and psychic, re-experience of that trauma, isn’t a triggering incident – like the Killjoy Kastle – exactly the opportunity to confront the history that is brought forward? Of course trigger is not an uncomplicated word and its use is meant to index psychic pain. Ironically enough, we owe the very popularization of “triggering” to the work that radical feminists did in shaping various anti-violence movements, as well as in developing feminist therapy protocols for sexual violence survivors. We could further argue that the very term “trigger” – as traumatic memory locked in the body as well as psyche – sits very comfortably next to the essentialist understandings of body and identity that we now seek to exceed. How then are we to think, as queers, as feminists, as trans peoples, with this political moment? Is there a productive way to work with the trigger formation in this historical moment without conceding to all of its problematic underpinnings?
Another irony then: if the person who is being triggered is actually the person who cannot separate the past from the present, they are also the only person who can do the work of resolving that trauma. And this is where I return to this recurrent intergenerational drama that we, as feminists and queers, are engaged in: The activists that are busting up queer and feminist politics these days have something to say—obviously they know that and don’t need me to say it—but they, and thus we, are also in the middle of a political movement in formation. Older, institutionalized, empowered, whatever your position —you (I) need to step aside and listen and witness. You (I) need to not foreclose those politics because they are furious and hurt and (sometimes) seem inchoate. Fury is the point: inchoate fury is the affective crossroads at which the articulation of political injury and opposition finds itself before it has a chance to be recuperated into the legibility that is power.
I’m trying to make more of that statement than the pedantic gesture it seems, on first writing, to be. What I mean, more clearly, is that the larger concatenation of cross-generational arguments happening in separate queer and feminist spaces in this moment, such as trigger warnings, call-out culture, trans gender/TERF/radical-R lesbian ideological battles signals a larger sense of a politics-in-formation that is remapping queer/trans/feminist/twenty-first century body politics along newly-charged neural, physiological and affective lines. Many others have said this before: the question of shifting somatic formations within our current microbiopolitical moment is all over the pages of feminist and queer theory.
Thus perhaps what feels, at least to those of us teaching in the academy, like a precious moment of heightened individuation within a monetized education system (sometimes driven by an untenured academic and student-affairs precariat whose very economic survival depends on the production of crisis as well as symptom and accommodation management) might also be productively understood as an emergent and important collective political formation. And that rather than turning our noses up at this moment, at the language of triggers and call-outs, now might be the time to think more deeply with the shape – with the gift really – of queer and feminist intergenerational anger as it returns to us again, in accusations of historical and ongoing trauma.
I realize I’m collapsing a number of movements into each other here – disability politics, trans politics, academic institutional politics, activist rhetorics – in such a way as to occlude each of their particular trajectories. As indeed, I am collapsing many forms of early radical feminism. But I’m more basically making an argument here for a form of political thinking that might work along two different historical trajectories: more generously towards the past and more deeply in the now.
Thus without dating myself too radically, I also want to say something to the coming generation about the past: I want to tell you what I miss about radical lesbian feminism, the white and the non-white versions. I want you to know that despite having fought cultural feminism—having hated its racism, its femme-phobia, its profound allergy to women of color, our ways of being in the world—having hated radical feminism’s failure to theorize and enjoy aesthetics, having chafed against its doctrinaire limitations, that nonetheless I miss the utopian, counter-identificatory spirit of cultural lesbian feminism very much and I recognize that the energy of that movement gave birth to me and many women like me. Whatever lesbian and cultural feminism missed, it had a kind of energy that believed that revolution was possible. Separatism, with all of its limitations, inspired people to go out and build stuff, bookstores and “womyn’s land” and bars and women’s centres and rape crisis centres and shelters and, you know, a lot that is now gone. It failed, or it didn’t survive, or it persists in fortunate and unfortunate ways, in ways that should be grievable. One of those fortunate ways might be in the similarities between lesbian-feminist anger then and queer-feminist anger now.
To forget that imperfect work and those imperfect politics is a form of misogyny that needs to be considered alongside transmisogyny as a real and ongoing formation. As work by Elizabeth Freeman and Juana Maria Rodriguez shows us the lesbian is always the drag on the future, the lesbian always escapes representation, the lesbian, especially the femme, is always the woman who is left behind.(8) Do we have to keep doing that too? Do we have to keep unciting lesbians and lesbian feminism from the daily work and theorizing of queer life? Similarly, do we have to continue foreclosing the politics that are yet to come? What if Jean O’Leary had welcomed Sylvia Rivera onto the stage and handed her the mike? What if the National Organization of Women hadn’t excluded lesbian politics from their agenda? What if the Human Rights Campaign actually took up racism and poverty as key problems for queer survival? They didn’t and so far they haven’t. But they still could.
In the ball-busting room of the Killjoy Kastle, I can hear in my head the ball-busting dykes of my childhood and my teens and twenties, the old-school women who got the shit kicked out of them by cops, who were raped and abused and fired, and who drank and loved and fought like fuck to have the right to really love other women in the ways that they wanted to. The ones who showed up to listen to Jill Johnston, to puzzle their ways towards collective political theory. For some trans peoples “ball busting” is a negation of their embodiment and gender complexity, and it directly attacks their right to live in female bodies that continue to have penises and testicles, for instance. Now that I’ve had my eyes opened by that conversation, that’s what ball-busting will be for me too. But also: remembering “ball busting” is also a way to remember how much those feminists and dykes suffered and created and how much I exist because of them. Those structures of feeling need to exist next to each other because they are historically linked; the failed utopias of the one molding the inchoateness of the next.
When we dream of a totalizing politics, and when we dream of spaces that might manifest those totalized politics as whole and healing formations, we will always be disappointed. But somewhere inside the utopian imaginings of wounded political formations and the righteous and inchoate fury that emerges from their encounter with the dystopia we actually live in—a dystopia often formed by the utopian thinkers that came before—is a politic we really need to hear. As painful as that encounter might be I want to be sure to remember that it is also important and necessary to the possibility of feminist and queer futures.
(1) Kay Armatage and Lydia Wazana, directors. Jill Johnston….1975. Canadian Film Distributors Film Centre, 1977. Film available for purchase here: http://www.cfmdc.org/node/757
(2) Warner, Sara. “A Gay Old Time: Jill Johnston October 1975” in Affect/Performance/Canada: New Essays in Canadian Theatre, ed. Erin Hurley (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2014).
(3) Here’s my mom on the context of the conflict: “Jill…gave her lecture at U of T which was also filmed. The guy that she yelled at was there to be obnoxious, his friend is the guy leaning on the wall smirking. They came in off the street and of course Jill didn’t need much to take them on (if you remember the Norman Mailer affair).” Email exchange, December 10, 2015.
(4) Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
(5) Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). 53. Agamben wants to loosen the notion of the gesture as a “the crystal of historical memory.” He writes: “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” In this way, the gesture becomes less of a performative ideal and more of “a movement that has its end in itself.”
(6)”Killjoy” is a term coined by Sarah Ahmed. See Ahmed’s blog for an explanation of the term.
(7) All Killjoy Kastle photographs credited to Deidre Logue.
(8) Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Juana Maria Rodriguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures and Other Latina Longings (New York: New York University Press, 2014).