Towards a Feminism of the Void

Void

 

In October 2015, Audrey Wollen posted a picture on Instagram with the message ‘a PSA brought to u by ur local chapter of Female Nothingness’. The picture comprises a black and white composite image with the words BEWARE MALE ARTISTS MAKING ARTWORK ABOUT EMPTINESS/NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU/GIRLS OWN THE VOID/BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!! next to crudely crossed out images of a John Cage manuscript, and works by, amongst others, Yves Klein (Le Vide (The Void)), Bas Jan Ader (Broken Fall (Organic). Amsterdamse Bos. Holland 1971) and Robert Barry, (Inert Gas Series: Helium. Sometime during the Morning of March 5, 1969, 2 Cubic Feet of Helium Will Be Released into the Atmosphere, 1969).[1]Wollen’s piece, alongside her ‘Sad Girl Theory’ (where she states, and I agree, that ‘the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance’[2]), is brilliant, both for its immediately blunt but recognisable vantage point, its militancy and its humour. ‘GIRLS OWN THE VOID’ – but what, we might ask, pushing past the humour, does it mean to own (the) nothing? A nothing that is possessed and taken away at the same time. Wollen’s synonymy – emptiness, nothing, void – and the defensive possessive ‘BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!’ posits an ironic essentialism on two levels: the very idea of owning nothing, and the idea that ‘girls’ have a privileged insight into the nothing by virtue of being ‘girls’. It is precisely the sort of joke/non-joke that cannot be fully articulated, because it takes place on the very terrain of representation itself, which is also where sex and language do their obscure work. In this sense the joke morphs into something much more serious, revealing once again, that all jokes are acts of aggression, even in defensive formation.

Does feminism have any objects it could call its own? Is the void an object, and if so is it an object, or perhaps ‘the’ object ‘of’ feminism? The spatial dimensions and possessive relations of feminism are so overwhelmed by context: if feminism is first and foremost a way of looking at the world, then we perhaps cannot really say that some objects are feminist, but rather only that there is a feminist perspective on objects. This idea of feminism as a perspective grants it (problematic) vision but not ownership. If feminism is a way of looking at the world that tells us more about that world, and that explains how the world works, and even how the world is seen, and whose vision dominates and whose does not, can we also regard it as something that persists in objects in the world? The critique of objectification, sexual or otherwise, is now regarded in many ways as passé, as a kind of common, and slightly dull, knowledge: ‘of course women’s bodies are objectified!’, ‘Objectification happens all the time!’ Then there are ways of thinking about what it means to resist as an object, to assume the power of the object. As Linda Stupart puts it, ‘to replace the distanced objectivity of critical distance with an empathetic exchange of ethical aesthetic objects … What happens if we treat ourselves – our bodies, our history as well as our ‘I’s , as malleable structural frames, which are grounded on every utterance – as material?’[3] Or as Hito Steyerl puts it, more bluntly: ‘How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things?’[4]

But why are there so many question marks here? We are asking for a reply which we do not hope to actually receive. Unlike Wollen’s statements ‘GIRLS OWN THE VOID’ and ‘BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!’ we are in a strangely tentative world when it comes to thinking about objects, things and feminism, being neither subjects nor objects, but rather uncertain positions and unstable relations. To fully side with the object is to embrace ‘bad faith’, as in Sartre’s example of the woman playing coy on a date, pretending that her hand is a dead thing, not (yet) wanting to own the subjective (and in this case, sexual) dimensions of the situation. Yet to be fully a feminist subject seems too optimistic: part-Kantian, part-Marxist, anti-Patriarchal, all-knowing? To be the kind of subject that embraces its object or thing-hood cannot help but wrestle with its own constitutive paradoxes, to be an object that thinks of itself as an object…in 3-D, but not inert, ‘there’ but autonomous, the thing-in-itself without holes…

I want to take seriously Wollen’s VOID, regardless of how she meant it (and perhaps it was meant as a serious joke in the first place). I want to begin from the premise that feminism’s object is the nothing. This is not merely from a delight in paradox, though there is that too, but because I think feminism forces us to rethink what the conditions for the possibility of thinking objects at all might be. Kant’s attempt to undermine Hume’s fragmentary empiricism in The Critique of Pure Reason forcibly leads him to posit the transcendental necessity and unity of thinking objects: we are object-representing beings. The subject’s ability to synthesise objects under categories gives us the ability to identify objects outside of use in space but also to identify our body, which then becomes a strange double, or even triple-object: that which is and isn’t an object, that which we can perceive but also feel, that which we can see bits of but also sense at the same time. That which has an inner feeling of unity – at least sometimes – but that which also provides the basis for any understanding of objectivity as such. But both the object-in-itself and the self-in-itself, and the body, in Kant, remain fundamentally unknown. We are, as Nietzsche, jibing at Kant puts it: ‘unknown to ourselves, we knowers: and for a good reason,’

To think from the standpoint of the VOID then is to begin from what looks like incompleteness but which is fully real. Extending Wollen’s arguments against male artists making artwork about nothingness, we could also indict many of the philosophers – the Ancient atomists for their separation of atoms and the void, Hegel’s dialectical negation, Lacan’s void as the ‘thing that is closest’ and Freud’s unconscious. When Deleuze and Guattari try to overturn this legacy and labour of the negative in favour of a positive intellectual history of plenitude and affirmation, we could say that they perversely simply replace one version of male ownership with another. And then we could also say BEWARE MALE PHILOSOPHERS MAKING PHILOSOPHY ABOUT EMPTINESS/NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU.

But haven’t we always been positioned on the side of the void? Women are always described that which lacks (reason, a cock, strength), but this always of course depends on how you define (reason, a cock, strength) and the material conditions that require the production of (reason, a cock, strength). It is tempting to go full-on non-strategically essentialist here, if only to enjoy the annoyance that would follow: yes, it’s all about the nothing, fucking come on then, so what! What would it mean to embrace a feminism of the void? A feminism of emptiness, of nothingness, of absence. If subjecthood is denied or given in such resentful, impoverished ways (‘well I suppose you count as human, but never forget it’s of quite a different kind!’), and objecthood is maybe just a little bit too static, then what about all the space in-between, all the non-things that cannot be seen, could we see and think from there?

This strategic nothingness could be militant: an edict against men speaking and working on the nothing, a boycott of claims made about visibility, about the idea that lack is somehow lacking. A revaluation of void-values, in which void-reason (the standpoint of the nothing) trumps paltry, stuff-reason, where a cock is merely a cigar, and where a cold, empty place is instead a place of great comfort (if the rectum is a grave, is the womb a tomb?). Void-feminism is all-embracing, seeing as there is no need to ‘lean in’ if one is already in an abyss, and the abyss cannot stare back at you if you are it. Not only would void-feminism refuse recognition and representation, but it would refuse the conditions of possibility of these structures in favour of, well, simply not caring about these things at all, and just getting on with whatever you feel like, in the void, from out of the void, in the loving arms of the void…

Aye, here’s the rub … You cannot be alone with the void! You are not allowed! They will try to take even that away from you! Whoever they are: agents of the visible, colonisers of the void, externalising forces. You are neither allowed subjects, nor objects, nor nothing! So somewhere on the edge of the void, then, rope around your waist, whether you asked for it or not, peering over, a hair or eye-lash falls in, the void gets a piece of you, now you have become one with the void…

To ‘void’ something is to declare that it no longer stands. This could also be part of a feminism of the void, in the sense of no longer standing for ‘it’, where ‘it’ could be any number of things that one objects to. It could be a renunciation of all the contracts we never signed but nevertheless find ourselves party to – compulsory heterosexuality, the regime of the visible, being treated poorly on the basis of resentment and anger that we have no ability to stop. Is a feminism of the void a kind of separatism? Perhaps of a kind – a separatism from the full, but I imagine it operates in the gaps of this fullness, rather than at a distance from it, because that distance is, for now, or perhaps, always, foreclosed.

[1] Thank you to Chris Van Eeden, via Linda Stupart, for identification of the majority of the images in Wollen’s piece.

[2] http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/28463/1/girls-are-finding-empowerment-through-internet-sadness

[3] http://journalment.org/article/rematerialising-feminism-things-us-and-them

[4] http://www.e-flux.com/journal/15/61298/a-thing-like-you-and-me/

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