In Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, the third part of her “living autobiography,” Levy writes about an incident at a party where an older male writer blocks her way to ask if she doesn’t find her literary success “vulgar” and “a total bore” (251). Levy notes that this man’s education “had taught him to regard his own thoughts as monumental” and “he viewed every female writer as a sitting tenant on his land” (258). When I joined my department as a junior faculty member, the first event I attended was a graduate student meet-and-greet. I had landed a tenure-track position in a terrible job market, moved across the country, bought a house, and my father had died a year earlier. So, with all of that, maybe I was more vulnerable than I should have been. At the event, a senior professor raised his glass to me then leaned in close to say, “Just so you know, you are never going to teach poetry or creative writing in this department. Those are my courses.” Then he leaned back and shouted: “Cheers!” This cheesy performance was baffling. Contemporary poetry was my academic specialty, and if I was never going to teach it, why had I been hired? Why was I a “sitting tenant” on this scholarly patch?
Between the sharpness of the shock and the ridiculousness of the boast, I felt dulled. In the following years, I heard this man call more than one female writer a “bitch” in front of students. I eventually taught the courses he had been hoarding, and still do, but not until he retired, when I was called upon to revitalize courses that had been taught so disdainfully (“bitch!”) that students no longer wanted to
enrol in them. The strategy of openly mocking female authors, and with them, the students who admired those authors, resembled a scorched-earth policy so strongly that I could taste the ash. And that ash tasted like a lot of work for me.
When I presented this anecdote as part of a presentation, three colleagues from different institutions approached me afterwards to say this early-career bullying had happened to them. So, I don’t think this is a special story. But I’m with Levy, who notes that it’s such a common story that it shouldn’t remain a secret. With chagrin, I note that feminist work in our institutions has this kind of story as its bedrock: infuriating you’ll-never-believe-this-is-still-an-issue stories, and as I consider the damage that the overturn of Roe v. Wade will do in the country south of us, I, too, as in Ali Solomon’s recent New Yorker cartoon, want for my birthday that “the activism of my youth . . . not be all for nothing.”
In her 2014 book Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed notes that willful subjects—those who want change—often come up against willful objects “that will not allow willful subjects to carry out their will” (42). It’s popular to think of the neoliberal university as a willful object, as our institutions are heavily invested in keeping feminists and other resistors stupefied by feeding on our pain and exploiting our emotional labour. I don’t want to minimize the impact of this on living bodies, but I’m encouraged by the way Ahmed unpacks willfulness as the personal and social practice of intimate unreasonableness in the face of unhappiness and bullying:
Willfulness is used to explain errors of will—unreasonable or perverted will—as faults of character. Willfulness can thus be understood . . . as an attribution to a subject of will’s error. Willfulness and unhappiness seem to meet at this point, a stray point. This intimacy of willfulness and unhappiness remains to be thought. And to think that intimacy is to queer the will. (4)
I love thinking of craving feminist change at this volatile crossroads as productively queered. Ahmed’s intimate unreasonableness dovetails with the dynamics of envy and scorn, as Susan Fiske examines in her study of status, Envy Up, Scorn Down. Fiske looks at how meritocracies are self-perpetuating and self-congratulatory via the toxicity of compulsive comparison, and she notes: “scorn is an aggressive wish to banish the scorned other,” in which wish the “scornful power-holders are not only selfish but willfully clueless” (16–17). The scorners ignore and sneer at what they fear: change, difference, a world in which their thoughts are not monumental by default. But feminists stick to what causes us discomfort, as Ahmed notes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion: the “sticky sign” is “an effect of a history of articulation, which allows the sign to accumulate value” (92), though she also warns that “to adhere is not always to cohere” (98). Levy, too, warns that women will sometimes carry forward the work of scornful men, but that it is “filthy work” (255).
I can’t forget the students’ faces when my scornful colleague called feminist writers “bitches”: bemused at his mild cursing, surprised at his volatility, and nervous at the possibility of retribution, just as he wanted them to be. Those expressions stick to me, despite the time that has passed. There’s a fog of war surrounding our feminist scholarship as research practice, as pedagogy, and as day-to-day emotional labour, a fog that serves the institution’s willful cluelessness and refusal to read these actions as a feminist history. Those signs of our articulation, queered and sticky and earthy, make an archive: “desire lines, faint marks on the earth, as traces of where you or others have been. A willfulness archive is premised on hope: the hope that those who wander away from the paths they are supposed to follow leave their footprints behind” (Ahmed, Willful Subjects 21). I am one sticky bitch with big feet, all in for a feminist willfulness archive.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh UP, 2004.
—. Willful Subjects. Duke UP, 2014.
Fiske, Susan T. Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Comparison Divides Us. Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.
Levy, Deborah. Real Estate: A Living Autobiography. Hamish Hamilton, 2021.
Solomon, Ali. Daily Cartoon. The New Yorker, 5 May 2022, newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/thursday-may-5th-mothers-dayactivism.
Tanis MacDonald is the author of Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female (Wolsack & Wynn 2022) and five other books.
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