During my college years at Oberlin, my ambivalent relationship to femininity solidified into a purely instrumental one. I wanted to look like a woman in order to appeal to the people I wanted to desire me, but I didn’t consider my appearance to be expressive of anything essential about me as a person. At the same time, I was surrounded by people who insisted that gender posed an insurmountable obstacle to mutual understanding between straight men and everyone else. Encountering Hélène Cixous in an English class during my sophomore year of college, I remember looking on in disbelief as my female classmates nodded with enthusiasm and something more, maybe relief, at formulations such as “Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” To nineteen-year-old me, the mere utterance of these words was a betrayal. My resistance to identity-based feminism came from many places, but perhaps most deeply from a fear that cultivating a self-understanding based on an inherently non-universalizable set of feelings and lived experiences—namely the feelings and experiences of being a woman—would prevent precisely the kind of recognition that the exhausting ordeal of feminine presentation was meant to facilitate. The only solution to this problem, I concluded, was to disavow identity altogether.
I arrived at graduate school wanting to read, talk about books and not get up for work in the morning: What did gender have to do with any of that? In my first year, I rolled my eyes at the attempts of my female departmental colleagues to hold “Women’s Teas,” events designed to cultivate female collegiality. When emails about “women in philosophy” appeared in my inbox, I deleted them without a second thought, aside from some confusion over how they’d gotten ahold of my email address.
During this time, however, I found myself confronted by a demand to assume my gender in contexts that I couldn’t as easily brush aside: in workshops and classrooms, first as a student, then later as a teaching assistant and teacher. One of the first times I TAed a philosophy class, the professor I was working with remarked on what a great choice I was for the position. When I asked why, assuming it had something to do with my work, the reply surprised me: because I was a woman of color, and it was good for students to see someone who looked like me at the front of the classroom in a field that struggled with diversity. I was crushed; my work in philosophy stood at the center of my self-understanding in a way that my appearance never had.
But he wasn’t wrong. Teaching is the academic counterpart of artistic performance. Standing in front of a classroom full of students, you are forced to appear before a group of human beings who are old enough to have a complete set of acculturated stereotypes but who have, for the most part, only just begun reflecting on them. A colleague of mine noted offhandedly that as women, we have only two pedagogical archetypes to work with—mother and lover, each authoritative in her way but neither one admired for her philosophical genius. When my anger subsided, I realized for the first time that I had no vision of what success looked like in my field for me as me.
At one point in I Love Dick, Kraus recollects her early attempts at inserting herself into the appropriate circles of cultural production in New York in the early Eighties. She coins the phrase “Serious Young Woman” to describe the blend of hyper-intellectualism and awkwardness that characterized her younger self: “I was a Serious Young Woman, hunched and introspective … an innocent, a de-gendered freak, ’cause … I hadn’t learned the trick of throwing sex into the mix.” In art (as in academia) you become successful by first appearing successful, and the way to appear successful is to pattern yourself after people who have already succeeded. But a problem arises for women trying to get ahead in fields where the vast majority of the available models of success are men. When you don’t want to look like a woman but you can’t look like a man, how are you supposed to present yourself?
The Serious Young Woman’s answer to this question is that you become as much of a man as possible; you de-sex yourself. But the disjunction between having a female body and performing masculine actions often results in making the Serious Young Woman unintelligible, such that she doesn’t show up at all. The young Chris finds herself in one such moment of phenomenal impotence during a performance piece:
At that moment she was a picture of the Serious Young Woman thrown off the rails, exposed, alone, androgynous and hovering onstage between the poet-men, presenters of ideas, and actress-women, presenters of themselves. She wasn’t beautiful like the women; unlike the men, she had no authority.
In passages like these, I heard an echo of my own desire to have a positive picture of how a successful female artist or intellectual ought to appear, rather than what kind of image she should hide behind. Toward the end of the book, Kraus provides one such exemplar for herself in the figure of painter, photographer and performance artist Hannah Wilke. One of the questions posed by Wilke’s work, according to Kraus, is: “If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal’ why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?” Wilke’s attempts to do so put both her body and her life on display; as a result, male critics accused her of an uncritical narcissism. Because Wilke’s art showed her naked body and she was an attractive woman, it must be a manifestation of her desire to be found attractive; because Wilke’s art showed scenes from her personal life, it must be a manifestation of her desire for attention.
These same allegations can, of course, be raised against Kraus, whose project in I Love Dick appears at first glance to be nothing more than an intellectually minded airing of interpersonal dirty laundry. But the discomfitingly gossipy aspect of the narrative acts in the service of a deeper artistic undertaking that is obscured behind Kraus’s use of real names and her curatorial presentation of the letters. These documentary qualities of the text can tempt the reader to reduce Chris Kraus the author to her title character, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Kraus is ventriloquizing not only her namesake, but also Sylvère and Dick—so much so that the content and title of “Dick’s” theoretical work belong to a novel that Kraus went on to publish herself after I Love Dick. Kraus’s layered, indirect discourse invites us to draw a parallel between the relationship of an author to her characters, and the way we project our fantasies onto the people around us. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that what is being shown is something more complex than the story of Chris’s “failed” erotic pursuit of Dick.
Discussing Wilke with a friend, the art critic Warren Niesluchowski, Kraus concludes that in the course of her work, Wilke became “a monster.” Warren agrees, but with a qualification: “Yes, she did. But of the wrong kind. Not a monster on the order of Picasso, or— (and here he named several other famous males). The problem was, she started taking everything so personally.”
Chris corrects him. What Wilke became was a female monster, and “female monsters take things as personally as they really are.”
What Kraus calls Wilke’s monstrosity resides in making her own inability to understand herself the central question of her work. When assessing her art Wilke’s critics were unable to see past their prejudices about the female desire to be looked at: “As if,” Kraus says, “the only possible reason for a woman to publicly reveal herself could be self-therapeutic.” They are correct to the extent that Wilke does not seek to impart knowledge that would clear up the ambiguity about what she is—there is no such piece of knowledge. But Wilke did not merely want to be looked at, either; she wanted to appear to others in the problematic and indefinite way that she appeared to herself. It is this sort of appearing that I take Kraus herself to have in mind when she declares her desire to “make [her] problems social.”
Kraus’s idea of monstrosity has deep resonances in the history of Western thinking. According to Sophocles, what distinguishes human beings from other animals is that it is not clear in advance what they are or what they are capable of. But this ambiguity is also what makes them deinon, a word often translated as “wonderful” that also means “terrible” or “monstrous” (the only English word in common use that preserves the root is “dinosaur”). This is echoed by St. Augustine’s repeated refrain in his Confessions that his self-searching is driven by the fact that he has “become a problem” to himself. Augustine’s line, in turn, is picked up by W. E. B. Du Bois, who opens The Souls of Black Folk by presenting the phrase in the interrogative form in which it has been put to him by white questioners: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
“Every question, once it’s formulated, is a paradigm, contains its own internal truth,” Kraus writes. “We have to stop diverting ourselves with false questions.” Kraus’s notion of monstrosity contains a proposal regarding the right kind of questions about identity. These are not questions with right or wrong answers. They are questions that appear and persist as questions. To present yourself as a question, the way Wilke tried to in her art and the way Kraus tries to in her book, doesn’t require a commitment to any specific identity or brand of politics, just a commitment to yourself. A commitment to find a way of showing up, however uncertain about what you are, in the places where you want to be seen.
Art credit: Jessica Ledwich
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This review appears in
issue 13 of The Point.
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