Please be aware that the essays for Writing Gender #2 contain discussions and personal experiences that some readers and trauma survivors may find distressing.
Writing Gender #2 seeks to explore how writing plays a significant role in making visible acts of cultural, physical and gendered violence against women and trans and gender diverse people.
Our broader aim is to explore such writing within contexts of cultural safety and healing, and the vital necessity of articulation, including the power of trauma-informed narratives to engender greater public awareness and instigate social action. Many of our writers also reflect on, and explicitly narrativise, the potential toll of this repeated re-visiting of traumatic experiences through writing, especially in public and private spaces. We repeatedly ask: What happens when trauma is the conduit to writing in the public sphere? What new kinds of violence can occur when trauma is mobilised through writing for public consumption?
Donna Abela will lead a conversation on these themes between Mykaela Saunders, Eloise Brook, Eda Gunaydin and Amani Haydar on Friday 9 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.
It’s all happening very quickly. Work passes by in a blur. I barely have time to read. When I do, it’s on a deadline. I swallow knowledge without chewing and then I spit it back up just as fast. I turn it over in my mind exactly once, flipping it onto its back, and then throw it back out into the sea. Just last week I went to a meeting of a critical theory reading group I’m in: I read the book, entitled For a Left Populism, by Chantal Mouffe, a prominent post-Marxist, in the two hours beforehand. During the meeting I mention, sheepish, that when I was younger I was a post-Marxist. That is, I found it conceivable that material determinations could not a priori be privileged over others: that the class structure did not pre-exist the social, or that domination could be formulated in terms other than class terms. I scoffed at class reductionists who failed to realise that there would continue to be misogyny, violence against women, or unequal distribution of social reproductive labour under communism or socialism. Such a post-Marxist was I that I would often anger my former partner by insisting that I wanted to name my firstborn child – whom I don’t have time to conceive, birth or raise – ‘hegemonise’, a term that crops up often in this particular niche of academia. I don’t want to name my child – who doesn’t exist because I don’t have time to make them – hegemonise. I was only trying to goad my partner, thought it was funny. With a straight face, I’d insist: ‘C’mon! You have to admit, it’s an original name. No one else will have done it before.’
During breaks, which are brief, and go by in a moment, I check Twitter. Someone has written: ‘the academic urge to coin a term’. Aurelien Mondon, a scholar of populism, jokingly writes, in response: ‘What I refer to as ‘term-coining’ in an upcoming paper’. The exchange gets lost in a churn of content, but I dig it up later, now, in the midst of writing my PhD thesis, which claims to provide a novel contribution to blah blah, and wonder whether we, whether I, need to catch a breath and slow to a stop.
I have already said this before, as have others. But it bears repeating. Elsewhere, when reviewing Alana Lentin’s 2020 book Why Race Still Matters, I agree with her critique about the way we fetishise novelty in academia, although her insights can be applied to many other arenas:
Academic publishing and trends in scholarship are increasingly coming under fire for their endless ‘turns.’ The intellectual environment shifts like the weather, with new research agendas blooming and waning in the form of a series of short-lived trends. A premium is placed on novelty – new concepts, unique coinages – in a fast-paced, profit-driven publication environment. Why Race Still Matters provides a potent rejection of this ‘churn and turn’ model, making clear that we need not turn away from such an old and well-mined concept as race, but must instead turn towards it in all that we do. For example, I admired that rather than proposing an entirely new definition of race, Lentin instead adeptly synthesizes Alexander Weheliye, Stuart Hall, and Barnor Hesse, paying tribute rather than seeking to erase the knowledge that precedes her, and demonstrating that thinking about race is often a collective, and not a competitive, act.
I’m coming down on new knowledge only because I see it as embedded in the circuit of capital. If capital strives to accumulate, then this drive towards accumulation has only accelerated in the neoliberal era: humans, goods and services, and financial products all move at a speed heretofore unprecedented in the history of human existence. David Harvey writes:
[Neoliberalism] holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market. This requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse and use massive databased to guide decisions in the global marketplace. Hence neoliberalism’s intense interest in and pursuit of information technologies… These technologies have compressed the rising density of market transactions in both space and time. They have produced a particularly intensive burst of what I have elsewhere called ‘time-space compression’.
The circulation of knowledge, which necessarily utilises these same technologies – social media, or online and traditional publishing platforms – has also, I think, sped up. I have already made this comment about what happens when we write trauma in the digital sphere: that we risk performing a danse macabre, cha cha cha, feeding disclosures into the mouth of a beast who, even if we feed it subversive content, will only want to be fed more. Since then, I have watched something in the order of thousands of TikToks that feature amusing sound clips splicing together story after story of trauma. Each one is its own unique, if no longer private, tragedy.
I do not want to exchange stories in the neoliberal marketplace that demands from its participants something hot, fresh, new, consumable, and designed to break down quickly. I don’t want to say any more what happened without speculating about why. I wrote my first book like a manifesto: I felt keenly all the things that ailed me, and I wanted to diagnose, rather than merely represent, this pain. It is an account of intergenerational trauma that draws its gaze, always, back to class, that is, the simple insight that material inequalities produce the majority of violence experienced by the oppressed; and, further, that this material inequality is itself violence. I continue to write essays, but they may never say anything other than this: they will just hold up this insight and turn it around, helping it to catch the light from different angles.
In my critical theory reading group, we discuss Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job. In its pages, Mueller reflects on the proliferation of new machines as technologies of control. He concludes by reflecting on the degrowth movement as a potential circuit-breaker for this dynamic: that rather than pursuing endless capital accumulation, or convincing ourselves that liberation will be found in that thing we invent next – that the solutions we seek for modern problems lay just over the horizon – that we focus instead on maintaining, repairing and tending to what we have now.
To bring these insights to bear on the knowledge economy, I’m looking around now for what ideas we have that might not need replacing. What if – and I’m not saying I believe this necessarily – Marxists had society pegged, had accurately diagnosed much of the nature of the struggle that faces us today already? What if First Nations knowledges on this continent, far older than the Enlightenment knowledges we try to supplant over them, have already supplied all the insights that we need? Understandings of gender, for example, were more expansive in the pre-colonial period than they are now.
Chantal Mouffe, in her book, argues that what hamstrung the left, starting in the 60s, was its inability to take on board the diverse demands of social identity groups and other types of new civil rights movements – including those from second wave feminists, LGBTQIA+ people, Black people and people of colour – whose demands were and are not formulated around class. I cannot speak to the totality of this statement, but I can comment on how I write, and live, my own social identity as a queer woman and woman of colour: that, to borrow from Stuart Hall, these are the modalities through which class is lived. When I write gender, I write class. That is, I am attentive to the underpaid and unpaid reproductive, social, domestic and other labour that individuals socialised as women are expected to perform. When I write about the legacies of intergenerational trauma as they centralise upon me and my family, I write class, because poverty is both in and of itself a source of trauma, but also the reason these traumas have not been redressed adequately. When I write about fucking women, I write class: that stepping out of the heteronormative contract that characterised a previous relationship has been a form of class suicide; I am now left me open to estrangement and disinheritance from family, increased surveillance by the state, and a reduced earning capacity. I am attentive to knowledge, which may seem banal, but needs to be repeated, that trans people are at greater risk of violence from the state, and that their risks of poverty and suicide are higher. Stateless women are dual victims of patriarchy and the state, whose face is male. Intersex people have their bodies sometimes mutilated and always controlled by the twin forces of the family and the state, and can find themselves locked out of marriage, employment, and adequate healthcare. If you think that my writing about class is boring, I cannot be sorry. I don’t have the time to be sorry. I have a world to win (with a wink). I am attentive to knowledge that may seem banal.
If we started from this place – from the contention that the newest is not the most radical or revolutionary, that the arc of history does not bend towards gay feminist luxury space communism, but might equally bend towards girlbossified neoliberal pink fascism – I think, then, that our task as thinkers and writers might alter. If we paused to let ourselves chew on what we already know, I think we’d have more time to act, as well as develop a healthily diminished sense of our own importance. I don’t believe there is anything that only I know. I don’t believe there is anything that only I have experienced: trauma is one of those things that makes us feel alone, but also alienates us from others. But inside our unique trauma there lies the possibility of collectivity: my story is, in fundamental ways, not dissimilar from others, and I consider this to be a salve.
While touring my book, panel members and audiences have asked how I approach writing trauma. And I have synthesised a response that you may hear me repeat many times: that at first I started writing my little stories and essays because I was searching for a witness. But instead, somewhere along the way I realised that what I wanted was to make others feel witnessed. This radically altered my orientation towards the world, and the way I communicated the story of my trauma to others: what I am doing is witnessing, staring, even, slack-jawed, wide-eyed, outraged, and taking notes, and connecting dots, and asking what we are going to do about it, out here, in the world.
This is not an anarcho-primitivist, traditionalist, nor far-right position. It must be acknowledged that, currently, these are the intellectual strains who have this market cornered: ‘reject modernity, embrace tradition’ kind of shit. I almost want to say that I am a neo-materialist, but that’s only because I found it after cycling through several posts. But materialism is as it ever was, and always will be: there to be picked up, adopted, as if it were a tool laid upon the earth and taken up back up after a brief rest.