By Janna Avner / Edited by Anna Moser
Sometimes the only way to describe the paradox inherent to self-alienation is to use metaphor: “and so a blue tentative latch between knowledge and feeling” describes the “scarab beetle” that holds up the “meat dress” on the woman statue described in Feminist Temporalities, Pelt v. 4. The word “tentative” reinforces ontological uncertainties therein.
We can see the draped cloth on the marbled statue of a woman. It so clearly appears as tissue right? It is not; it is solid marble. I’ll take on the role of the statue to empathize with this call’s perspective, to understand it as if it were talking about my own body. After all, “she [perhaps the statue] studies the way the light moves through a window.” Though I am dealing with material scarcities and not enough time in the day, I managed to carve out that “window of time” for myself so I may consider what the window as a framing device means.
As objectified mother-earth, the statue, titled Nature Revealing Herself Before Science, by Louis-Ernest Barrias (1899) represents what women were symbolically considered to be at the time of its fabrication: the marble that constitutes my body is wrapped in flesh, a meat-cloth, manifesting and pulling itself from—while of—the body. The call speaks two-fold, of the skin itself and the clothes that rest upon the skin as one and the same; these materials define a denatured center, a self-alienation. My marbled body was carved by and for someone else.
This experience presents a paradoxical feeling: if I thought of myself as marbled stone, my feelings do seem logically consistent, though they might not be. They are just “perversely, habituated to [themselves].” Convention makes paradoxes go away. This experience is used to its own sense-making though it is unavailable to the consistent observer. It’s as if the observer is not always present for the feeling: an issue with the experience of any stimulus. It wears me out, I become desensitized, I don’t notice it. The “fact” of the “work,” which is self-awareness, cannot exist if I do not accept a negotiation between “maintenance” and “abandonment.” My understanding of myself as a marble object molds to my interpretations grounded in time. Thus time in this instance is the relative order in which I comprehend a subject, here the subject is myself. Like sensation, time is as ephemeral as the feeling of abandonment.
Such paradoxical experiences are carefully described with profound, irreconcilable results —deciphered as permutational knowledge—which are considered because they are ordered. What I mean is that forms (the statue, me, language itself, time) mold to their time-sensitive interpretations. They are not understood through arbitrary variations, but through deliberate reasons grouped in non-standard combinations of information (think about the format of the call, as various strongly associated thought-modes), and are revealing because they embody such deconstructed knowledges; body-centered feminisms expose the fissures and complications of processing observations.
In this sense then, body-centered feminisms cannot come to declarative truths, but rather to accurate, permutational and temporary ones. For example, the call hedges when it describes the phenomenological realities of the statue: “[i]t is like a blush,” not “[i]t is blush.” These qualifiers remind me of how the poetry of Gertrude Stein turns demonstrative pronouns into subjects, as if the pronouns are objects (forms) themselves to wonder about.
To explore this time-sensitive “movement” in Stein’s language consider any part of her small book of poems, Tender Buttons, though I will underscore the beginning lines of “A LONG DRESS” which is midway through the first section titled “Objects:”
A LONG DRESS. What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is this wind, what is it.
In the second and third lines which read, “What is this current. / What is this wind, What is it,” the term “what” indicates that these phrases might be questions, except that the lack of interrogative punctuation makes the subject of each sentence “what” and its subjective complement, “this current,” “the wind,” and “it.” By placing “what” on one line, the next line, and then again after the comma, it literally “moves” with—responds to—the act of reading by transforming itself into three different meanings, “this current,” the “wind,” and the indeterminate “it.” “What” takes on those different identities.
Gertrude Stein reveals her philosophical concerns by evoking objects without specific boundaries. In Tender Buttons, space is imagined through descriptions of objects that redefine their concrete, “knowable” identities. With Stein’s description of “A LONG DRESS,” I was led to a conclusion that “what” can stand in for anything. How do we define and distinguish amongst its substitutes? If it is infinitely substitutive, then how can language be used to identify and distinguish objects? Moreover, what is this demonstrative pronoun, as a thing? Well, it is not actually a thing or a form, it is an embodied formation. It is used to describe a thing forming itself into something else because it is ruled by the context that is the completed thought.
Many writings like Stein’s speak to certain truths through a framework not consistent with “action, state,” and “isms.” Feminism as an “ism,” is meant to be a done thing. It’s not but I wish it were. I believe it ought to be: the feminism I look for in literature and culture envisions how lives are and are not materially transformed by their own tenants. I think of my own material needs: food, water, shelter, education, protection. Until the latter half of the 20th century, women in the U.S. were legally barred from many educational opportunities. We’ve since changed the law to do away with this inequality.
How can we improve women’s and men’s lives and increase their likelihood of material equalities and successes if we cannot make a declarative statement, if we’re enmeshed in the paradoxes of feeling versus knowing, or illusion versus empiricism, as though they are one and the same sometimes? Wasn’t feminism invented to change the rules, which we cannot do without using the language of rules? We cannot bullet-point the call’s feminist practice because it’s not concerned with how effects in time create bifurcated healthcare or school systems (for instance) that can disproportionately affect women’s and men’s education and equal pay. The call questions the nature of time itself, which is ignored by people whose lives are at stake. Time becomes “of the essence” and “waits for no one.” There are no “windows of [free] time” here. People’s lives are disproportionately affected by the rules we’ve used (and grounded in very specific language) to define people’s relative limitations and extensions of themselves. My concern is for humanity, not the truth of sensation. It’s odd, isn’t it, that I find there could be a difference? Truth and theories on ethics reinforce one another, but ethics is a human construct. All men and women considered equal is a fungible concept. In this way I am not a philosopher. I am an empath.
Stein was a philosopher, a truth seeker. She would sacrifice ethics for knowledge. Stein scholar Barbara Will points to countless examples of her deep friendship with Nazi sympathizer Bernard Feÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale under the collaborationist Vichy regime. In Tender Buttons, Stein’s use of language to pull apart ontologies to their bitter and displaced centers is staved off from other elucidating deconstructions of content that she might have written about instead. Bound by the ethics of domesticity, of the warmth of houses and rich foods—that which she strongly itemizes in Tender Buttons—Stein saves face throughout her career by writing poetry that is not overtly about politics, but about poetics within social contexts. In Tender Buttons she nests with her partner, Alice Toklas.
Art like Stein’s, like this call, unearths ephemera and temporality as felt experiences of reality, as truth itself. It is a sane acquiescence to form as formation, as relative to itself and thus philosophical in “nature,” if I can use that term. The understanding it brings is there and not there—as it transcends its own rules and permutations. Minimalist artist Eva Hesse might have thought similarly towards her own work. In letters Hesse wrote in 1968, she described the feeling of the ineffable: “I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions…It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self. It is something, it is nothing.” In the proposed temporality of these statements, in what I am called to do, negating my own thinking is almost a logical corollary. My writing here is temporal, as are the felt experiences reflected in the statue made of flesh and marble, one in the same. Language is our tool and our weapon. Could dismantling and deconstructing form (ourselves) make the reification and prioritization of temporal perspectives “good” but not good enough? Exclusively speaking through the temporal nature of feminist paradoxes might dull the efficacy of our instrument that is language itself. We need a common language with those who do not think the way we do. Whatever efforts that do come from our thinking are to be only acknowledged by ourselves, leaving us with a hermetic audience searching for truth—above anything else— in a vast number of people, globally even, who might not care.