Thursday, January 15, 2009


In our conversation in the heart of the gurlesque in San Francisco, Joyelle said one of the most insightful things I've heard about gurlesque: It is the rejection of "empowerment."

I thought about this because of my comments below about this persistent obsession with activating the reader in "post-avant" theorizing. This is the democratic urge: we should all exercise our right to vote, we should all be active; passivity equals immorality.

(Also, see Aaron Kunin's essay in the forthcoming Action, Yes about models of citizenship and the gurlesque.)


Blogger mark wallace said...

To my mind, the turn you're talking about is intriguing but too slight, since it continues to participate in the main fetish of leftist discourse, which is the belief in the virtue of powerlessness, or at least the belief that the only thing that is wrong is to have power and use it.

What is usually called "empowering" tends to mean, in leftist discourse, the promotion of a group dynamic in which powerless individuals achieve power through group action, while as individuals they still don't have too much power, and shouldn't.

Celebrating empowerment and remaining powerless (i.e. passivity) are therefore just two versions of loving powerlessness.

I find that to be a problem, for instance, with all talk about interest in embarrassment in literature, which has come up on this blog, I believe, and certainly elsewhere. What most people want to see is the proper kind of leftist embarrassment, that is, embarrassment at our own powerlessness, foolishness, inability to control our urges, etc.

Coeur De Lion, for instance, as much as I like it, is never really embarrassing because the powerlessness (to control oneself, etc) it reveals is really, for much of the left, a virtue, and therefore not really embarrassing.

I can think of many embarrassing incidents that no one on the left in the poetry world would celebrate. A movie star like Hugh Grant, who is married, is discovered with a prostitute. That sure did embarrass him and harm his career, but it's an embarrassing use of power, not an embarrassing display of powerlessness.

Similarly, when the former president of American University is arrested and fired for making obscene phone calls from his university office, that's an embarrassment that nobody celebrates. Of course, he later writes a book mainly blaming his mother, which indicates that he understood that his embarrassment could become acceptable if it was a function of powerlessness rather than powerfulness. Not that anyone let him get away with that either.

Is there another approach besides endlessly fetishizing powerlessness and trying to push it to its limit in our attempt to find the most powerless of all? Wrestling with that question is one that would be more intriguing to me.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Now you're talking.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

But it also seems you are talking (and I could be wrong) about the rejection of things like revisionist history, which to my mind has often been another form of "rescuing poor misunderstood" women, and therefore denying, say, even the radical bitches of history the power of their choice to choose to be wicked, cruel, etc. instead of simply to die (either physically or emotionally) under the oppression of the patriarchy. It's a choice we may not like but at least it is choice, which is what this really is about, is it not?

Also, the choice NOT to choose, to remain "passive," or, to be more accurate, to give the finger to the illusion of true "choices" for women, is even more huge and crucial than choosing cruelty or manipulation. We equate passivity with weakness or "disempowerment" because it's seen as essentially female (and ties in directly to what happens to a woman's body during sex, or when pregnant), whereas empowerment is seen as masculine and "active". But passivity and the choice to not "empower" oneself or take action can often be a radical choice...particularly when the choices women have are all bullshit, and only give the illusion of real empowerment. I should probably give some real examples here, but I have to go, unfortunately...

2:48 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think poetry is incredibly powerful. I'm not sure what I've written that have given you another impression.

I'm not interested in empowerment (and here I suddenly realize I should probably point out that Joyelle's poetry has never been associated with the gurlesque, she merely made the observation) because I don't think it's a powerful use of poetry (well, in many cases it is, but not for me, not now).

I think empowerment writes poetry into the social order in a dull and ultimately pointless way.

What makes you think I'm even leftist?


2:53 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

What are the delineations of this anti-empowerment message? Specifically, could you speak to the implications (or lack thereof?) of an aesthetic which is, on the one hand, anti-empowerment, but on the other, certainly seems interested in its own propagation among the traditional channels of power (the MLA, for example).

7:27 PM  
Blogger Max said...

And I'm honestly not trying to provoke with that last post, Johannes. I really am interested in the delineations of the anti-empowerment thing, where the message begins and ends, and whether it is perceived as separate from the academic/intellectual capital of the aesthetic itself ... i.e. writing in a way that stresses an anti-empowerment message, but not necessarily extending that same message to attempts to ensure that the aesthetic gains footing in the usual channels of academia.

7:30 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Johannes, you can't seriously be asking why I think you're a leftist, but here goes. You may not be a communist, or even a socialist, but you supported and worked for Obama. Even if you supported Hillary Clinton in the primary, which I doubt, you're still in the left voting population of the U.S. Correct?

On a literary/academic level, your constant concern with marginalized discourses (you have attempted to link disability discourse, for instance, and whether convincingly or not, with discourse of the foreign/non-normative/non-expert speaker of English) marks you as a fairly standard leftist academic, not in a bad way (I'm a leftist too), but why try to deny what's totally obvious?

Kate brings up some interesting points here and some troubling ones. Certainly to call attention to or undermine the masculine/feminine binaries in the idea of passivity is worthwhile, but of course that's hardly new as a feminist point. That what we call the masculine are traits conventionally associated with power and the feminine are traits associated with the powerless is a long-running discussion, and one response is certainly to attempt to see the power in the term usually considered powerless. But that, of course, is an attempt to empower the term passivity, and so the opposition isn't between the passive and the empowered, but between the passive and a conventional notion of masculinist activity and, perhaps, progress.

The idea that empowerment is masculinist activity by definition is I think not just wrong but disturbing. In that account, equal rights for women, Planned Parenthood centers, Take Back The Night anti-sexual abuse marches, breast cancer awareness events, lesbian community and political activities and even poetry anthologies for women are all examples of women behaving like men? And the radical alternative is to reject all that and "allow" women to be wicked and cruel (as if anybody has ever been able to stop anybody from being cruel) in their dealings with others, and to admit that they often are, as if anybody has ever doubted it? In that account, any group activity or public social work by women is masculine and we need to remember the feminine value of thinking of women as bitches and mothers? I doubt very much that you or anyone else can really mean that as the supposed "new" alternative that you think that you're offering, so either I'm misunderstanding what you're saying (which is possible) or you're not saying it convincingly. Certainly there's value in expanding the range of what everyone thinks it means to be a woman, but putting it in the form of an opposition between passive and active just doesn't make much sense. Women who like to be active, in whatever way, are not behaving like men. It's that simple.

With his unending concern for corruption, Max of course picks up on the problem that promoting a press that believes in passivity is not really very passive. But of course that problem goes away if we acknowledge that the goal here is to empower the notion of passivity, and that passivity vs. empowerment is not at all similar to feminine vs. masculine.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think "empowerment" means something a little bit more specific than you (and Mark) take it to mean. To me it means something like the whole deal about having a career and having kids and being a "modern woman." Something that's been promoted as a form of liberation but is really in many ways not only difficult but a way of folding potentially problematic women into the social order.

That's also my problem with all the activating talk surrounding indeterminacy: we should all be so active and empowered, but first of all that's an illusion but also empowered to do what? To make the meaning?

I have no intention of becoming some kind of Bartleby *person* (though sadly, that is the kind of person I am on the whole). However I believe in the artistic encounter as one of radical passivity, and that in this moment of reception, the reader/spectator may indeed be activated in a more profound sense.

More later. I'm drilling holes in a wall.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

ALso, I think the Ugly Feelings link in the comments below ads an interesting take on leftist powerlessness.

9:50 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

But Johannes, to see the notion of empowerment as no more than a television ad for the modern superwoman is more or less to ignore the history of feminist activism in the U.S. It's not more specific, just incomplete. Should I take it then that the idea of the passive here is meant as an antidote to TV ad/Cosmo magazine cartoon feminism that says "You can bring home the bacon/fry it up in a pan/and never let him forget he's man"? In other words, that the idea of the passive being promoted here actively intends to ignore the history of feminism as relevant to the problems it wishes to address?

As to the idea that writing is "radically passive," that just seems odd to me, or at best something that's personal to yourself and not adequate as an account of how writing works. As far as I can tell, writing is an activity: you pick up a pen or type on a computer, etc. You may be sitting still, but you're still moving. I guarantee you that somebody who is not moving cannot write a word. But of course, I also think that watching TV (not to mention the many steps involved in having a healthy baby) is an activity too.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Mark I'm talking about the experience of experiencing art. And clearly I'm not saying we play dead.

11:12 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Well, I'll be damned if I know what you're talking about. But I'm having fun anyway, so thanks for the provocative prompts.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

And also, I clearly confused you with my argument drawing an analogy between gurlesque and passivity. The analogy I was drawing was between the active of the indeterminacy-equals-activity-
equals-good argument and "empowerment." Not the gurlesque and passivity.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also Mark, I don't know if you've noticed this over your time reading my blog but I'm not ever very thorough in my critical discussions. The poetry that interests me perplexes me, and so my posts tend to be intuitive spasms rather than thorough theories. How bored I would be if I understood art.

1:09 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I think the issue may be that some times your posts are very considered and thorough, Johannes, and sometimes you're just talking off the top of your head. But of course for me and others, who are only reading the words you've written, the degree of careful attention that you've given to what you're posting isn't apparent--we just see the words. So I'm aware that sometimes you're just thinking out loud but there's no way for me automatically to tell which times those are.

But that's not a problem for me. It's part of the enjoyment I get reading this blog.

4:20 PM  
Blogger et said...

Not to be a strident feminist or anything (as I think I've been called by Mr. Silliman) -- but it is Striking to me how men are taking over this discussion.

3:58 PM  

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