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On Violence and On Violence Against Women
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (cloth)
In Women in Dark Times (2014), the British literary and cultural critic Jacqueline Rose proposed that one reason for misogyny is women’s “ability to force to the surface of the everyday parts of the inner life—its visceral reality, its stubborn unruliness—which in the normal course of our exchanges we like to think we have subdued.” Unearthing those unruly, visceral realities is the project of psychoanalysis. It is also Rose’s project as a feminist. “Psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but an analysis of one,” wrote Juliet Mitchell in 1973, in the canonical Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Along with Mitchell and a distinguished roster including Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jane Gallop, and Judith Butler, Rose is a seminal force in recuperating Freud for feminism and enriching Freudian theory with feminism.
Among the things that psychoanalysis and feminism share are the objects to which they return: sexuality and violence. Freud posited these as antagonistic instincts, sex and death. In her thirteenth book, On Violence and On Violence Against Women, Rose extrapolates from these two terms, and then flips the Freudian axiom on its head: behind sexual violence, she says, lies compulsory sexual difference. They are “blood brothers.”
To arrive at this provocative and generative thesis, Rose begins with some commonplaces of non-essentialist feminism, Lacanian feminism, critical race and masculinity studies, and radical queer and trans theory. The enactment of violence, particularly sexual violence, is gendered. Men commit most of it, and women and femmes are most often its victims. But violence has no innate gender—it is no more male than victimhood is written on the XX chromosome. Like Butler, Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig, bell hooks, or, for that matter, your average nonbinary-identifying teenager, Rose presents gender itself as violence—a mass “frogmarch” in two straight, separate lines.
Of course, the penalties of gender are not equally distributed. The classic feminist reading of Freudian castration focuses on the girl, who is forced to renounce the wild, open promise of childhood to “mature” into femininity, which is then enforced by a world of social restrictions. But, says Rose, psychic self-mutilation is not only for girls. Paradoxically, to assume the mantle of masculine power, the boy must amputate the frailty that makes us human, and human to each other. Seen this way, castration is “the axe that must fall for both boy and girl” on the way to gender “normality” and compulsory heterosexuality.
If femininity is an open wound, masculinity is chronic vertigo. As Lacanian feminists tell us, the lowly penis can never do the job of the all-powerful phallus. Rose adopts Arendt’s phrase “the impotence of bigness,” an apt descriptor for men in the #MeToo era, teetering between residual self-adulation and women’s ridicule, between enduring societal dominance and fear of professional demotion and social irrelevance. Enter the “blood brothers” violence and gender difference. “If sexual abuse is designed to remind the girl or woman of what she is,” writes Rose, “it is also intended to confer on the mostly male agents who carry it out a similarly fraudulent authority about a masculinity no less unsteady and unconvinced by itself.”
Those who can’t or won’t march in a gender-designated line are punished. Rose reports on the disproportionately high rates of sexual assault and murder of trans and nonbinary people, particularly among the most marginalized—people of color, street youth, sex workers, and prisoners. But there is no true “cis” gender, no perfect ease in one’s originally sexed skin. Trans is reviled not for its deviance, but because it speaks the anxious, repressed truth of “normality.” “For psychoanalysis, it is axiomatic, however clear you may be in your own mind that you are a man or a woman, that the unconscious knows better,” writes Rose. She quotes the trans writer and provocateur Kate Bornstein: “Everyone has to work at being a man or a woman. Transgender people are probably more aware of doing the work.”
If some of these ideas seem familiar, On Violence gives them intriguing new life. As always, Rose recombines the philosophical DNA of her greatest influences. For example, she teases out the Freudian and the feminist in Arendt, who famously snubbed both affiliations, and finds the “radical streak” in Freud. In this book she opens herself, born in 1949, to the challenges of the youngest activists, such as American and British student anti-rape feminists and the still-unfree “born-free” generation of Black South Africans. Although her moral position is unwavering, her psychoanalytic gaze prohibits the political pieties of the feminist, anti-racist, and anticolonial left, the expectation of virtue in the downtrodden and stunned silence in the traumatized. In some of its finest chapters, On Violence introduces a global shelf of novelists—including the Naga Indian Temsula Ao and the Irish Eimear McBride—who invent a language of violence in which, as McBride puts it, “pure is indivisible from its reverse.” Theirs is a kind of rejoinder to the feminist certainty that innocence lies a safe distance from guilt. “Violence,” says Rose, “is part of the psyche”—everyone’s psyche.
The carnage perpetrated by masculinity in hysterical self-defense is compounded by the anxiety of waning white supremacy. If you add the hidden injuries of ableism to this mix, you have the ingredients of the 2014 trial of South African Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend, law student and model Reeva Steenkamp. The trial exemplifies the thesis of On Violence and makes for a tour de force of Rosean psycho-political analysis.
At issue in the trial was not whether Pistorius’s acts resulted in Steenkamp’s death. He confessed that he shot four bullets through the bathroom door of his home; the bullets struck and killed Steenkamp behind it. In dispute were Pistorius’s thoughts and feelings—his motive, if he had one at all. Around these questions slithered phantasms of gender and race. Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner,” is revered for his physical prowess, courage, and discipline and rendered an image of heroic masculinity. Yet, in the trial, his defense feminized him to attempt to showcase him, preposterously, as the victim. Neighbors reported hearing a woman’s screams; Pistorius’s lawyers argued that they were his screams, their pitch heightened by fear. Evidence also suggested that the runner abused Steenkamp. However, the defense made the case that his disability, and the lifetime of indignities it attracted, made him psychologically an abused woman who finally snapped. Here is a man, writes Rose, “going to the furthest lengths he can go, including sacrificing the image of himself as a man, to make absolutely sure that no one hears the voice of a woman crying out in fear for her life.”
There was also another voice that remained unheard, both in Pistorius’s exculpatory narrative and in the rationale of the judge (a Black, disabled woman) in deciding he was guilty, but not of premeditated murder. The defendant claimed that he fired the gun (which he kept under the bed) in unthinking terror when he was awakened by the sound of what he thought was an intruder in the bathroom. But who was this intruder?
Rose focuses on the scene of the crime: the bathroom, “a place of purity and danger,” where the excrement of Black and white bodies in apartheid South Africa was obsessively kept from mingling. The judge dropped the charge of dolus eventualis, the determination that a “reasonable person” would and should have known that his act would cause injury. Of course, when Pistorius shot a nine-millimeter handgun at close range through a permeable door, he must have intended to kill the (presumably Black) intruder. “In the white racist imagination” the only Black African allowed in a white bathroom is a dead one. But Pistorius was indicted for the murder of Steenkamp; and, according to the judge, if he did not know that he was killing her, there was no malice aforethought. The Black body “slip[ped] syntactically under the bathroom door,” writes Rose.
In a companion chapter on South Africa, the inheritance of trauma, the imperative of remembering, and the role of justice in the “interminable” process of healing, Rose writes that she learned that “political and psychic struggle can be one and the same thing.”
Of course, she already knew this—it defines her work. But the political and the psychic, the concrete and the unconscious, can also struggle against one another, even when they share a goal. The core tension in On Violence and On Violence Against Women is between masculine violence on the ground, “a crime to be detested and cast off,” and psychic violence, which is genderless and must be considered tenderly.
“The best way for feminism to counter violence against women . . . is to speak of, to stay and reckon with, the extraordinary, often painful and mostly overlooked range of what the human mind is capable of,” writes Rose. Yet to cast off the crime is to risk perverting that psychological reckoning. When feminism “repudiates, renders unthinkable, shuns beyond the remit of the human. . . [it] finds itself replicating that part of the mind which cannot tolerate its own complexity. It thereby becomes complicit with the psychic processes which lead to the enactment of violence itself.”
This dilemma for feminism is also a dilemma for Rose. In her humanist vision, “the mind” includes the minds of men, who are also prisoners of gender and its potential resisters. But what if the man in question might be the perpetrator of sexual harm?
On Violence begins with a chapter probing the controversies over procedures to investigate sexual assault allegations on U.S. college campuses as an obligation of the Civil Rights Act’s Title IX. For facts and context, Rose relies almost entirely on one source: Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, by journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis. To demonstrate “sexual harassment in close-up,” the chapter’s title, Rose also adopts a touchstone of Blurred Lines, the case of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who accused fellow student Paul Nungesser of anal rape, then in protest of the university’s failure to find him guilty carried a mattress around campus in a performance that gained international renown. In Grigoriadis’s telling, Nungesser doesn’t get a break. He was “plotting,” hiring a “wily” lawyer and creating “quite a lovely profile” to show he was not a rapist. On the other hand, the accuser (about whom the author wrote glowingly in New York in 2014) was unimpeachable. For instance, Grigoriadis finds it “highly possible” that Sulkowicz’s text “fuck me in the butt” actually meant “Oh my god, i’m so annoyed,” as she claimed.
How do we know the truth? “Evidence is always key,” Rose writes. But in this sexually, politically, and racially biased terrain, it “is not neutral.” Of course it isn’t. That’s why diligent reporters, such as Cathy Young and Robby Soave in Reason and The Daily Beast, further investigated the case—and returned more skeptical, nuanced verdicts. Their skepticism is echoed by respected feminist attorney-journalists and legal scholars, such as Harvard Law professor Janet Halley, who document the overreach, denial of due process, and steep biases against the accused in what Halley’s colleagues, Jeannie Suk Gersen and Jacob E. Gersen, call the “sex bureaucracy.” In the Harvard Law Review, Halley warns of the perils of “governance feminists”—“advocates [who] turn their rhetorical tools and social-movement protest into institutional government,” like the Title IX bureaucracies. Prejudices about diverse cultural mores, drinking and drugs, and marginalized sexual practices reinforce ideologies about gendered sexual power and agency, resulting in the imposition of “serious moral stigma and life-altering penalties on men who may well be innocent”—and, I’d add, excessive penalties on those who are guilty, too.
Rose consults none of these critics. Instead, she states that cases like the one at Columbia transpire in “the murky world of sexuality where all bets are off, where desire and a change of heart can persist in one and the same breath.” “Someone has to decide” who is telling the truth—but it won’t be Rose. She simply states that Grigoriadis believes Sulkowicz’s version of the story, even though the accused man challenged it “down to every last detail.”
After swimming in the maelstrom of interpreting conflicting evidence of an offense that usually takes place out of sight, Rose reiterates the indisputable: if a woman says or shows she doesn’t want sex, it is rape. But what if the signals or the circumstances are inconclusive? This question lies at the vortex of feminist debates about rape. The courts say acquit. Much anti-rape politics says convict, or at least discipline or expel from college.
An increasing number of queer and trans activists and feminists of color who have experienced the ravages of criminal “justice” refuse this either/or approach. To confront interpersonal violence, they eschew policing and caging yet demand accountability and repair. In a brief passage, Rose links prison abolitionist activism to critiques of the Title IX bureaucracy that acknowledge racial bias, concluding that “no struggle for emancipation can afford to be co-opted by discriminatory and death-dealing state power.”
In South Africa Rose finds the roots of individual and state violence in the deluded belief that some people—Black men in particular—are predatory beasts. Carceral anti-rape feminism proceeds from a kindred belief: that men in general—and, not far from the surface, Black men in particular—are naturally, incorrigibly bestial. Rose rejects that essentialism. However, her enthusiasm for the U.S. anti-rape movement on college campuses works to minimize its carceral impulses and suggests that racist state institutions might be reformed to be less discriminatory. “Sexuality collides with the law. The only available options, at least to date, seem to be too much legal intervention or not enough,” Rose concludes without concluding.
In the United States, when sexuality collides with the law, the crash is fiery and sometimes fatal. In Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, Northwestern University media professor Laura Kipnis writes about Daniel DePew, a man lured to a hotel room by police, who egged him on to indulge in the fantasy of a snuff film involving the kidnapping and killing of a child. DePew was sentenced to thirty-three years for “a crime that never happened,” says Kipnis. Rose scoffs: “It sounded more to me as if he had been caught making a plan.”
In other words, Emma Sulkowicz might have entertained a fantasy of anal sex that she had no wish to fulfill in the flesh. But DePew’s fantasy—this monstrous specter that might appear in anyone’s unconscious, especially when aroused by an insistent interlocutor—is rational, intentional: “a plan.” It’s as if Rose has decided abruptly to toss out the delicate tools with which she sorts the vagaries of unconscious violence and reach for her gun.
Rose spends an inordinate amount of space rebutting Kipnis. It’s a weird choice of principle antagonist, since Unwanted Advances, like all of Kipnis’s polemics, is bent on outrage and impervious to inconvenient realities, such as the sexual abuse of power. She wins little respect even from feminists who basically agree with her. Nevertheless, instead of returning fire, two years after the publication of Unwanted Advances and soon after DePew’s release from prison, Kipnis, perhaps unwittingly, tipped her hat to Rose. In a detailed (and to me persuasive) account of the sting for The New York Review of Books, Kipnis describes DePew as “someone who’d always felt like a failure at masculinity, which loomed, grail-like and unattainable, in his psyche”—a strikingly close rendering of Rose’s wellspring of male violence, and also of those violent and universal human fantasies that will never be realized. DePew did realize them—consensually. The gay son of a homophobic father, he grew up to pursue adults-only S&M, in which he liked to play bottom. Federal agents dragged him into their scheme, without evidence of pedophilia, to build a conspiracy case against someone else. DePew served twenty-nine years, and then, a month later, died of a blood clot that had gone untreated in prison.
Perhaps, because she is British, Rose is unacquainted with the costly, baroque, and unremitting tactics with which the enforcers of U.S. sex law recruit otherwise law-abiding deviant thinkers into compromising, illegal positions. She may not know that child pornography convictions, with or without real children, carry longer sentences than physical child abuse. Of DePew’s three-decade incarceration, Rose states no opinion. As for unloosing the repressed in order to face down sexual violence, this is unwise in the United States, where every psychotherapist is a mandated reporter. If a patient divulges fantasies of harming a child, even to try to prevent realizing those fantasies, the therapist must construe them as “a plan” and report the patient to the police. College professors on most campuses are mandated reporters, too, who must inform the Title IX office of suspected sexual misconduct even if it is disclosed in confidence.
The Buddhist psychoanalyst and writer Mark Epstein has written that psychoanalysis is a methodology of understanding unhappiness, whereas Buddhism is a practice of attaining happiness. The same could be said of psychoanalysis and politics. One draws puzzles, the other works to solve them; one reflects, the other acts. Consonant with Rose’s gifts, On Violence and On Violence Against Women is more about how to think and feel about violence than it is about what should be done. If the sinuous thread of her argument gnarls when she moves from the consulting room to the street, well, she is not alone. Feminists, psychologists, educators, families, clergy members, and community organizers have been trying to figure out what to do about sexual violence forever, and so far no one has solved the problem. Perhaps because violence slides between the unconscious and the real, it will always be a subject of what the late, great feminist public intellectual Ann Snitow called “the feminism of uncertainty.”
It is possible that where I see a caesura between the psychoanalytical and the realpolitikal, where I imagine Rose retreating to the “murky” unconscious to avoid taking a stand, she is simply expressing political opinions with which I disagree—say, in the Sulkawicz-Nungesser case, where she proposes that history and ongoing inequality demand that the accuser be given more benefit of the doubt than the accused.
Still, On Violence and on Violence Against Women is a work of intellectual virtuosity and moral vigor. We would be wise to heed Rose’s exhortation “to hold on to two insights” at once: that “sexual abuse is real,” and also that “sexuality is aberrant. It is no man’s servant.” It can be no woman’s either.
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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