The utter absence of Romanian feminism in the Academy as well as in everyday life has been one of the most surprising takeaways from living in Bucharest for the past year as a Fulbrighter. It seems Patriarchy has won the day through deployment of pressures both brutally institutional and unwaveringly individual. On the street Romanian women associate being called a “Feminist” with admitting weakness and the need for help. With the immovable metaphysical authority of the Orthodox Church backing it, Romanian Patriarchy quietly and efficiently continues its careful management of acceptable language.
What’s the problem? The problem is one of language. The phrase “Trauma Studies” has surreptitiously replaced the word “Feminism” in the Romanian Academy. Gained in this exchange is a vague feeling of victimhood with a need for unending and rigorous archival work, memory studies, and polite acceptance of the cultural conditions at hand. Lost—with the loss of the word “Feminism”—are the activist heritages and more importantly the performative capacities of the word to project group unity in the face of individual oppression. Women and men together—and apart—must learn to negotiate the complexities of how identity thinking and action both erases the individual and is made necessary by historical social injustice.
American Feminism demands that society treat women as the equals of men under the law. The difficulty with positing such a legalistic position remains that law bleeds in and out of other parts of the social architecture. The best trick Patriarchy ever pulled off was to make women believe they are equal to men since this makes women into gender-bound objects through the performative power of the word “equal”. To categorize women and men according to gender erases the individuality of both equally. Despite the paradox of losing one’s individuality to group identity in order to become freer, the social justice need for the work done by identity politics remains.
European Feminism demands that women look beyond gender expectations to become more themselves, more individual, and less beholden to the male gaze. Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” articulates this point bombastically enough: “Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not—seek within yourselves to find out what you are.” But of course any such interiority (whether at the end of a penis or vagina or anything in between) pulses stuck in the traffic jam between individual and society. These construction sites of gender make our society function … but at what cost and who pays for it? Can an individual take her own freedom or must a group give her that freedom?
The following call for papers nicely summarizes my experience in the Romanian capital:
“Over the last couple of years, new forces have gathered
to undermine women’s and feminist organizing in Europe
and Eurasia. The Orthodox Church has launched an
“anti-gender” campaign in Russia and Ukraine–with similar
campaigns in Serbia and by the Roman Catholic Church in
Croatia and Poland–misunderstanding gender and linking
feminism to anti-natalist and anti-nationalist projects.
Repression and violence, such as the harsh sentences for
Pussy Riot and violence at Gay Pride events, raise the
stakes. Implicit in austerity policies–cutting services that
more often help women while keeping low the taxes that
men predominantly pay–is a neomasculinism that once
again pushes gender equality off to until “later.””
Are immigrants better at putting deconstruction to work?
As an immigrant myself, I think I understand Jacques Derrida because he was also an immigrant. The immigrant experience—mine, to be sure—is one of becoming decentered and of finding one self in a foreign place where one has to introduce one self (and to be introduced) as a representative abstraction of another culture and as a brief (and textual) identity. If deconstruction acts as the de facto method put to work by many postmodern (or hipster) writers, then dislocation acts as a biographical trope for the radical multiplication of readings.
To strategically essentialize based on my experience, I would agree that ESL poets see and hear English from the outside as a strange and awkward medium because learning to communicate with a new language demands more sensitive attention to its materiality than it does for native speakers. The shock of the idiomatic phrase delights the foreign tongue because the foreigner hears (as does John Ashbery) in the wisdom of slang and clichés the horded culture of a people, a zeitgeist or an essence of a place in time, a myth of origin. The foreign poet takes delight in these loaded everyday dictums and listens with his tongue. (Tanta 29)
Poetry is dead. Rumors of poetry’s still being alive have been greatly exaggerated and greatly promulgated in the service of war profiteering. The future of poetry is Creative Nonfiction. Verse or the breaking of lines into discrete acoustic, visual, semantic, breath, or idiomatic units is as over—and as quaint—as the villanelle was to Walt Whitman. Having said the above, the quicksand of narrative with its immersive pleasures—readily commodifiable by glocal capital—stands bloated and waiting to be exploded by the raw teeth of form. Content comes and content goes, but only form will break the bones of our assumptions.
Musing on our mania for the new, Andrei Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) Codrescu’s critical observation points to the troublesome wedding between kinds of aesthetic progress (that feeling of forward motion in cultural time) and profit-making schemes.
Deconstructing the host language and host culture and host food ways, the newcomer waffles between acculturation and assimilation. In banal and extravagant ways the immigrant has to choose between remaining a kind of billboard for national excess and blending in. The immigrant poet has to choose between representing and ignoring her or his location-trouble. Somehow, the immigrant is forced to be hip in that she or he has to create a network in order to survive, to thrive, and eventually to erect a white picket fence around a set of habits commonly known as an identity.
Performing the categorical violence in deciding what’s hip and not hip remains today—as it ever was—relative to the degree of innocence afforded by various conceptual and material comforts. In the end, the choice of contemporary American hipster poets to be aware or innocent of the difficulties of mindfulness has got to be left with the individual.
Codrescu, Andrei. “The Poetry Lesson.” Princeton UP, 2010.
Tanta, Gene. Unusual Woods. Buffalo: BlazeVOX Books, 2010.
J=o=u=i=s=s=a=n=c=e Knows Best
PS: I misread “you” instead of the “I” you have. How does this change the tone of the text? How does this change the idiomatic expression itself: “I break for strangers” or “I will rock you like a hurricane” or “the children are our future”? How does this change the sense of a dialogue between a subject and an object of desire on the skintight highroad of language?
the words we use have a social effect
such as when a judge pronounces you “guilty” or when a matrimonial couple utters “I do” or when land reform protesters scream
On May 11, the following event will take place in Bucharest, Romania at the café called Tramvaiul Douazeci Si Sase:
Sweet Little Nothings: Contemporary Romanian Poets on Nihilism
Many recent poets have announced the death of postmodernism and the quick and subsequent births of Conceptual Writing, Fracturism, Flarf, Post-Avant Poetry, Slow Poetry, and so on. But is the age of deconstructing the metaphysics of history, god, and self indeed over in contemporary Romanian poetry? Otherwise put: what does it mean to write if nothing matters? What topics do self-conscious (and history-conscious) poets write about after the theory that the center does not hold no longer holds? Is Cioran still relevant when he claims that the most heroic thing for modern man to do is commit suicide? What kind of nothing do you believe in? What kind of nothing do your poems represent? Which nihilism represents you as a poet: Nietschean fecundity or confessional solipsism or another? Do you prefer to lose your past, your faith, your self in the infinite music of the void through Dionysian excess or in puritanical minimalism with its hidden Apollonian authority or in some other direction? How do your poems “take responsibility for their freedom” as Sartre put it? Camus found relief when the Sisyphean bolder was rolling back down the mountain. Where do you find relief? Is finding relief and closure why you write your poems?
This roundtable invites 5-6 poets to offer a definition and a poem showing what nihilism means to them and to their poems in 5 minutes. After these brief provocations, the audience is expected to harass the poets with questions about how Romantic (see John Keats’ negative capability) they still are to think they can live in OR represent the nothingness of being. Bring your potato salad. The objective of these brief presentations and hoped-for audience response is not to make moral progress toward a True contemporary Romanian poetry but to make aesthetic progress by becoming more self-aware of our habits of mind.
Images courtesy of: 1280 × 1024 - stilpu.org
A PDF version of the following post (with o so handsome formatting) is available for download here:
Our I First Our Looking: Interview with Performance Workshop participants at Atelier 35, Bucharest, Romania
The following interview is a performer-centered echo of a bunch of cool art students and Irina Botea (the organizer of the Dec 2012-Jan 2013 workshop) with whom I had wine in the back of the famed Bucharest gallery, Atelier 35. Spaces called Atelier 35, which are geared toward younger artists, dot across Romania and are used as outlets for formal experimentation. The outstanding fact about these spaces is that these, often centrally located galleries in urban centers, were used for the same purposes even during Ceausescu’s paranoid reign.
Because I enjoyed my conversation with the performers so much, I asked them the following question. Their email responses follow my question. What does your work protest? I ask this question because it seems the most basic and therefore most relevant question given the subject under consideration: the replacement of the beautiful patina of old windows all over Romania with hermetic modern and homogenous Termopane.
Allow me to rephrase the same question and add some context and nuance. In light of Adorno’s claim that art documents history (however much through the conscious or unconscious relational aesthetics of the artist-viewer encounter), what does your project-performance-discussion about old windows being replaced by Termopane document? If you don’t think this work (in its intention or in its effect) documents anything, what idea does the work decorate? If you don’t think the work documents or decorates anything, what does it do and how does it do it?
I asked the performers not to discuss the question or their responses before emailing me. Here is what 5 of 13 performers had to say:
“Our work is about how we relate to the artificial window, it’s about how our lives are influenced by it, about how we isolate each other from each other, how our lives become more and more artificial and “virtual”, at the same time, with the rise of new technologies. Before the change, the old window allowed a conversation or, better said, maintained a relation between the two spaces—the one that’s inside of the building (our private space)—and the urban space. Termopane cease this communication, take control, and create a cold wall between the outside world and us by promising to protect us from whatever is on the other side. But the unseen part of this protection is that it can easily turn to alienation.” – Kiki Mihuta
“I think that our work questions the termopane the window and everything that comes with (the termopane is not good or bad). This was a subject that we received during a workshop. We tried to understand what was going on. And I was amazed when you ask us about “protest” the first time over wine in the back of the gallery. I can see the need for the word “protest” once I think about the fact that currently we are in the middle of an accelerated form of capitalism that has put us in the situation where we are losing something every day. You win as much as you lose, but you don’t have the time to understand the loss. You see all over the word these small groups that can’t face the new and they get lost in it (I don’t want to be taken as a traditionalist). I am talking here about the glaziers (“Geamgii” in Romanian), the old glasscutters calling out their trade between blocs carrying the glass panes on their backs. After recognizing this larger context I simply ask myself ” Against whom would such a project be protesting?”” Ileana Faur
“First of all we do not protest against double-glazed windows. We started out by looking into what seemed like a trend, a fad even but we considered it with a friendly look and after weeks of intense discussions we gained some insights into the effects of double-glazing one’s house – some of them being on the one hand, isolation and its “by-products” (e.g., not being able to react to what happens outside anymore since Termopane create an almost soundproof house) and a deeper appreciation of the sounds in one’s own house on the other hand. Secondly, I strongly believe that we react, we reflect on something that cannot be overlooked since it has an impact on both our city and its inhabitants. And yes, our work does document this to the extent to which we acknowledge the existence of something that impacts us. This is reflected in our performance. – Delia Gheorghiu
“Our work focused on the impact of this replacement (of old windows with multiple-layer double-glazed windows) on the people who purchase them. In Romania, this transition is advertised and widely acclaimed as being more than just necessary – but the default upgrade, perfect for every house. While questioning this widespread idealistic belief that Termopane are the right (almost the only valid) choice, we pursued in deconstructing its “promises”. And since you referenced Adorno’s claim that art documents history, one of the key aspects this work documented is how the perfect isolation, the safety promised by the Termopane comes with an unexpected turn: isolation means protection, security, intimacy but it also raises questions regarding responsibility and anxiety. These new guidelines of the private space influence people’s social and psychological behaviors, by means of a rather unnoticeable slow process of adaptation.” Ioana Gheorghiu
“Looking back at the way the project developed and evolved from the beginning up to the present time, I can relate to it only as a work in progress. I do not think that the aim of our work was to protests against something in particular. As far as I’m concerned, I consider it to be an attempt at understanding the current situation and its implications: types of isolation, comfort zones, relation between public and intimate space, social interactions etc. However, taking into consideration the historical aspect, it is clear that the replacement of old windows with termopane began after the fall of the communist regime, which might lead to new ways of interpreting the current situation. As political factors have direct implications in the social sphere, the phenomenon can also raise questions regarding the consequences of political changes taking place in time and the way in which they affect the social behavior of inhabitants.” Raluca Croitoru
The philosopher and the poet differ in that the poet knows (rather she feels-knows) the closure that is the defining characteristic of a system is fictional (in more or less interesting ways) … a philosopher may intuit this self-blinding circuit of dialectical thinking as well, but it is the bane of her rigor. Of course there are poet-philosophers and this is not meant as an exclusionary provocation.
A system without a philosopher is like a spinster without her butterflies.
Thomas, well, whether thought makes a thing real or not depends on whether one feels-thinks that our very perception or thinking itself is a medium. If it is, it would seem that such porousness of being would precede language as a mediation of our experience.
Them’s the breaks: are we little perception centers whirring or are we little nodes of sociality cross-pollinating with words?
Scott, I don’t think there’s anything less poetic about gravitas per se than there is about coco puffs or butterflies. Pop culture syntax and content has its effects on us because of advertising (which is surrealism in service of capital).
Yes, Jane, but what if “progress” leads us to logical positions regarding nuclear bombs such as: Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)?
All philosophy is over (in the sense that all systematic thinking seeks knowledge of its own end in order to close the book on knowing), otherwise it is open to what I would call “collateral meaning” and this would make it proximal or poetic and not rigorous or scientific thinking.
Blake was wiser than most. But wisdom (perceived as a generic artifact) has its motifs and cul-du-sacs. Poetry insists on a constant revaluation of values. Poetry is in that holiest of lines of work: the seeking out and killing of idols.
It’s not that I disagree with your articulation or examples. I like both.
It’s that method (weather the dream-method of poetry or the fallibility-method of science) seems to be one’s only way to combat the totalizing instinct. Whether the totalizing instinct is negative as in fascist or racist or classist essentialism or positive as in “the Taoist way” or “the unified theory in physics” is irrelevant to the effect of totalization: erasure of difference.
And the liquidation of physical or conceptual difference is a problem for those who are different or those who think differently. Whole-istic thinking is tempting, as you point out. But, I would add, whole-istic thinking (history is a metaphysical category, after all) can be lethal as much as it can also seem to be necessary.
Jane, my goal is not to sound naive (all forward motion must be toward a better future and so on) or like a know-it-all (since I know nothing but I do enjoy thinking with people (that’s why I teach by asking questions)). It’s bad to be naive because it keeps us from asking the critical questions: what if I am that asshole who thinks everything is moving in the right direction when the effects of my positive outlook are sponsoring the killing of people? But that question and many like it are not enough if they lead to guilt-suppression mechanisms like recreational shopping (or donating or giving alms).
Yes, it is a violent world after all. But once we buy into the idea that we can know it “all”, the mystical function totalizes our potential experiences as this or that knowable purview. We know very little: this then, I claim, is the method both the man of letters and the man of numbers would do well not only to abide by but to use.
It’s a tough proposition because when a question is a demand, isn’t this when it becomes an inquisition? And that wasn’t a very pretty way to learn. I’m saying I don’t have the answers. I’m saying human enthusiasm makes me nervous. Asshole poets (citizens too) should take a basic ethics class, would be my response to your first question.