I will tell you things about myself, quite a lot of things, not because I think they are particularly interesting or worth knowing, but because so many women, cis and trans, don’t get to choose what to reveal and what to conceal about themselves in public. Their race, class, sexuality, forms of embodiedness, relationships with gender and religion are hyper-visible wherever they go. The most intimate parts of their family’s histories are trapped humiliatingly in official records and public archives, they are read like quote-unquote “open books” by those who merely pass them by on the way somewhere else, they are judged in under a minute, stared at for hours, touched, congratulated for their “bravery” in being themselves, their parenting is scrutinized, they cannot say, as I have every intention of saying: “I am here to represent myself through my ideas.”
I am a cis-woman, Jewish, white, hetero, a breastfeeding mother at present despite turning forty-six this year. My daughter is twenty-three. Her two brothers are thirteen and one. Out of my quarter of a century as a parent, about half was spent as a single mother. I am now in the first properly good relationship of my life.
We are first-generation migrants to Australia. I was fifteen when we took a plane to Melbourne—a plane, not a boat. During my first year in Australia, I wore secondhand black as a form of mourning. An ungrateful migrant. My engineer mum cleaned houses of rich women for us to get by. I never finished an Australian school. At the beginning, I was itching to get out and did have some far-reaching escape-Australia plans, but those were thwarted by my first pregnancy. Thirty years later, I have settled, more or less, which is to say more or less uneasily, into being a settler Australian.
I have no religion at birth or acquired.
I will rent for the rest of my life.
I have thought about money every day for most of my adult life with a heavy, pulling feeling sometimes in the gut, sometimes in the chest. I am what is considered “middle class.” I have been financially okay only since turning forty and only because of a job at a university, where I teach in the creative writing program. Academic jobs below the associate professor level are designed to feel precarious. I don’t know what it’s like at the top of the pyramid, but I can tell you that my recent financial okayness is infused with anxiety and a feeling of complicity, particularly because I am surrounded by brilliant people, mostly but not exclusively women, who work semester to semester and who are chronically exploited and underpaid and, worse still, whose brilliance is often perceived as a hindrance to the institution that half-heartedly half-employs them. Everyone knows what’s going on, and this collective knowledge makes little difference to the way things are. Their precarity is more precarious than mine, even if this isn’t a dick-measuring contest.
My partner took care of our son while I wrote this piece. We were helped by my auntie, who was born in 1937, and my mum, who was born in 1941. Until this year I had never paid another woman to look after my children or to clean my house, but this is because I have had my auntie and my mum helping me for twenty-three years and because I keep my house unclean. This year a young woman we love comes to look after Nico twice a week.
I have never, until now, written or spoken about feminism. Have never wanted to write or speak about feminism.
As my guilty pleasure, I watch, while cooking and cleaning, a Russian dating show called Let’s Get Married. I have no interest in marriage, except when it is denied to people for whom it is important, and I loathe the politics of this show, in which the word feminism is used as a joking reprimand at best and a synonym for the mass self-deception of the feminist West at worst. But I find it strangely energizing to tune into the world I come from, where a century’s worth of emancipation coexists with the most outrageously hetero-patriarchal ideas of what should happen in a family. A parallel world I would shrivel up and die in, but that had women fighting wars, flying into space, building planes and tractors, and also doing a lion’s share of housework, family work, parenting work, caring-for-extended-family work, emotional labor work, standing-in-queues-to-get-the-bread-and-milk work, and, importantly, looking-feminine-to-keep-their-men-from-straying work. I am interested in dunking my head in a bucket of cold water from time to time, in remembering how it might be otherwise.
I am white, which makes me invisible if I want to be—part of the furniture when it suits me, part of the center when I feel unjustly sidelined. I have benefited and continue to benefit from colonialism and racism. When I was growing up, I read books and saw films which made it easy for me to identify with the main protagonist. I am a cis woman. This world is built for me.
I feel fraudulent most of the time. I recognize that some of this feeling comes from being a woman. I talk to other women who feel it too. I fight it, especially when I am around senior male academics and writers who, for reasons I don’t understand, rarely, if ever, feel fraudulent themselves. I have learned from Maggie Nelson to remove instances of incessant apologizing from my professional emails. I am excellent at bluffing, and I will not be bullied. I don’t let myself forget just how low the stakes are at a Western university. But a part of that fraudulent feeling is not something I want to fight.
In a lecture on feminism, the Gomeroi poet and legal researcher Alison Whittaker talked about white middle-class feminists who like to heap praise on indigenous women writers as if consuming indigenous literature is a form of activism, as if being across the work of First Nations women is in itself a moral act. “We listen in silence,” Alison Whittaker said in the lecture, “astounded at how much labor we are still expected to give and how little is returned.”
I was haunted by the lecture. Haunting, Avery Gordon writes, produces a “something-to-be-done.”
This “something-to-be-done” is a decision to proceed by not pillaging the intellectual property of First Nations women and other women of color, by not picking apart their texts and speeches for insights or battle cries that might just give me a cloak of moral goodness, as if the act of public restatement of their words in my voice was not another instance of micro-theft.
Start again. Start with Marina Abramović and her partner Ulay and a performance they did called The Lovers, which is to say, start by rehashing an old story, about a woman who is now in her seventies, would you believe it, even though she looks half her age, and has the endurance of a young god despite being born in 1946, these are the facts, old story, old woman—we would call her older, not old, in our culture, but that’s the culture’s shop front; put your head in the storeroom and you’ll hear a different language. Note how old and white, conjoined, are the two ur-terms of derision thrown around on social media, as if they say everything that needs to be said, and while decasing the term white from its poisonous neutrality and slinging it as an insult, as a self-oscillating ball of sausage mincemeat, makes many kinds of moral and historical sense, please leave old out of it.
Old women. Old revolutionaries on once-galloping horses. Sooner or later such women might become farcical.
The old story (those old stories on once-galloping horses) takes place in the 1980s when Marina Abramović, born in Serbia, and her partner and collaborator, Ulay, born in Germany, were going to walk toward each other from the desert and sea sides of the Great Wall of China so as to meet in the middle and marry, not that either of them was interested in marriage. But love—they have been making work about it for a while.
Relation in Space, 1976—Two naked bodies run at each other and collide, again and again.
Breathing In, Breathing Out, 1977—Two mouths clamped together exchange one lungful of air. Until oxygen becomes carbon dioxide. Until the two performers come close to losing consciousness.
Light/Dark, 1977—Two people slap each other’s faces faster and faster. The performance will stop when one flinches. Neither one flinches. The performance stops when they can’t slap any faster.
Rest Energy, 1980—She holds the bow, he holds the string. They pull in opposite directions. If he lets go, she could be shot through the heart. Microphones taped to their chests transmit the sounds of their hearts beating.
An essay is not like a lecture. It is disinclined toward emitting authority, toward persuasion. It is not wound up oratorically. An essay is not like a lecture, although as Mary Cappello shows, we have forgotten what a lecture can be. Reclaiming the lectern, Cappello says, is a feminist project. Reclaiming—as in remembering the sweep and sting of the lecture’s history as a form, in the hands of Gertrude Stein, Audre Lorde, Roland Barthes, Mary Ruefle, etc. Or someone like Mary Beard now. “The lecture will have succeeded, if, like the essay, it cannot be summarized, but only experienced,” Mary Cappello writes.
An essay, which may or may not be like a lecture, can go in and out of the old story about a woman, not be done with it before making its move, confident that this kind of not-being-done-with is good for thinking, because thinking is rarely monastically single-minded or sequential, because thoughts do not need to have “happy endings.” The essay moves by sway and swagger, not always, but often enough. What it never does is march toward a preordained horizon. You cannot give an essay its marching orders.
The old story that set this essay in motion is taking place in the early 1980s. Actually by the time the Chinese government gets money from the Dutch government, which is using Abramović and Ulay’s project as a way to restore its “ties of friendship” with the Chinese, by the time an everyman local hero by the name of Liu Yutian walks the Wall—for that walk could not be done first by dirty foreigners—it is already the late 1980s and Abramović and Ulay’s relationship is dead even though she still has, she would later say in her memoir, a little bit of hope left. The new project is this: walk for three months from the east and west sides of the mountains, meet in the middle, break up.
Would this project have felt as vital if they met and married, would it have had as much to say about love? No, not to me.
I want to say—as usual, the woman hopes. I want to say—as usual, the woman is the one who takes the bad side of the mountain. The voice of my “heteropessimism,” as Indiana Seresin calls it.
Abramović is walking accompanied by soldiers, guards, interpreters; she wants to camp on the mountain, but it’s not allowed; she is forced to detour into villages, to sleep in women’s dormitories, to hold hands with other women as they squat collectively in public toilets, singing. This work is about solitude, but she is never alone. Her big Serbian nose is touched to enhance fertility.
Ulay is not alone either. The interpreter who walks with him is pregnant with their child. It is the interpreter Ulay marries the following year.
The photographs of their embrace ninety days later are devastating. Because of what is on her face and what is not on his.
You can look up this photograph. But perhaps instead I can take this moment created by the possibility of you grabbing a computer to look up a photograph, the moment of time literally made out of this possibility, to point you to two recent books on photography. One is Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography. The second is Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons.
Citation, Sara Ahmed says, is feminist memory. Citations are, of course, a complicated business. So is feminist memory. Or maybe it’s not so complicated. I would like to think that feminist memory is not celebrating or enshrining. It is not apologizing, justifying, discounting or smoothing out. It is keeping things on record alongside each other, in a state of tension or bewilderment or anguish or war if need be, all the questions, wounds, scabs, alive, pulsing, made visible. In this conception, my feminist memory allows me to remember, publicly and privately, the work of Abramović that remade the world for me as I also re-remember the indefensibly stupid, offensive things she said in her memoir about the time she spent with First Nations peoples in Australia. The two moments spur each other on, rather than obscure each other.
I am indebted to Hilary Mantel for her refusal of the geological metaphors of burial and excavation, which are commonly used to describe how memories are stored and retrieved. Instead, Mantel offers a vision of memory as “St Augustine’s ‘spreading limitless room’” or “a great plain, a steppe, where all the memories are laid side by side, at the same depth, like seeds under the soil.” I am suggesting that feminist memory can be a limitless room; it hasn’t been, it isn’t now, but it can be. Or maybe—it should be. I can walk across this limitless room toward The Lovers, past Abramović’s recent works, which I cannot stand, which Justin Clemens called, aptly, “museal auto-embalming glorifications.”
What I am trying to say is that feminist memory is not totalizing. It is an ever-expanding, dispersed, breathing archive of acts of remembering and re-remembering—remembering with, against, alongside, despite, in the name of, in the face of, in this space, in that moment. Acts of remembering and acts of refusing to forget. I believe in feminist memory as an antidote to the institutional memory of something like the Nobel Prize for Literature, which says we are sorry, but it is simply not in our purview to remember whether this or that writer denied this or that genocide, whether this or that writer wept in public for this or that genocider.
I am rehashing an old Abramović story because The Lovers, with its failures and secrets and incongruities, is one of the best pieces of art about love—or maybe about anything—I know. It is itself like a mountain on which you cannot camp or find a resting spot. It amplifies Abramović’s bad habits of making art that inserts itself into other people’s symbolic and lived worlds claiming an electric, at times transcendental, connection to some part of those worlds. It is a mix of occupation and self-erasure. It can be justly criticized till the end of time. It is also one of the great feminist works of the second half of the twentieth century. It is part of our heritage of what Jacqueline Rose called “scandalous feminism”—the kind of feminism that willingly goes toward and into the dark regions of the human psyche, unafraid of what it’ll find there. Scandalous feminism, Rose writes, “embraces without inhibition the most painful, outrageous aspects of the human heart, giving them their place at the very core of the world that feminism wants to create.”
Because, as Rose points out, to say that the personal is political, that old chestnut, is not just to put on notice in a pressing, public way questions and histories of reproductive rights, the consequences of the unequal distribution of visible and invisible labor, or the sometimes terrifying ways in which power gets encoded and enacted in sex, but also to de-sanitize the way the human interior, including the unconscious, figures in feminist politics. To allow a vision of the interior that embraces self-misrecognition and self-rupturing, as well as incoherence, unintelligibility, and a drive to self-annihilation. To allow that vision into our political thought.
I want to say—this work of Abramović and Ulay is a farewell to love that leaves no stone unturned.
No one is sovereign in love, says Lauren Berlant. In love we are undone by being constituted in relation to each other. In love our primary attachment is to our undoing. “To encounter ourselves as nonsovereign,” Berlant writes with Lee Edelman in Sex, or the Unbearable, “is to encounter relationality itself, in the psychic, social, and political senses of the term.”
These are the kind of fantasies that the nonsovereign bleaches out: mastery, control, autonomy, certain forms of knowledge, especially forms of knowing in advance. To regain one’s sovereignty, to wrestle it back, what fantasies must be forsaken?
Abramović is walking toward the end of something that matters the most to her, through a place in which she is an anomaly, a foreign agent. The walk requires from her an almost inhuman endurance. The meeting point is not a place of convergence or repair but of the final, self-administered cut.
When I say that this work is like a mountain on which you cannot camp, one of the things I mean is that if you are invested in the vision of art as a mechanism for producing compelling empathy, this walk gives you nowhere to go. You are not invited to imagine what it would be like to walk in her shoes. This kind of imagining is out of reach.
Abramović is walking toward the end of something that matters the most to her. I’d like to think of what I am doing in this essay as a form of walking to the middle of the mountain from multiple points; to the middle where it can get hard-core.
Don’t mistake this movement (downhill, uphill) for Sisyphean labor, a waste or an entrapment. Something vital is made possible by the thinking and not thinking of many things concurrently which an essay is only too happy to give home to, to incite, and that may look shapeless, indulgent, like an ice cream that’s melting too fast to be eaten in time, to be eaten at all. Something vital like a decentering of thought, and a certain kind of wildness. And walking is not marching, so there’ll be detours, slip-ups, “roadside picnics.” (Roadside Picnic by A. and B. Strugatsky: a Soviet sci-fi parable, a beacon of my adolescence.)
Thinkers like Jack Halberstam can take a racialized term like wildness, caked up in histories of colonialism, shake it hard and make it, with qualifications, into a term of sly vitality, but what I want to say about wildness is not even the first stop on these thinkers’ train. What I want to say is way too rudimentary. It is simply that my ability to think and to follow another in thinking falls away when the movement of that thinking and the language for it are overdetermined. My ability to think about being a woman, cis or trans, in this moment in time, or about feminisms, for example.
In a review of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow, Michael Hoffman writes, “He has gained for himself perhaps the greatest objective of the modern novelist: the freedom, in his next sentence, to say anything at all.” In overdetermined writing and thinking, you get the feeling that the previous sentence drags the next sentence in, that the previous sentence effectively writes the next sentence, and there is nowhere for the writer to go but into the next already prewritten bit. The same with thought. Instead of thinking, prethinking. “Sleepwalking” or “sleepwriting” could be another way of describing it.