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Affecting Others: The Passionate Feminist (A Fairy Story)

I’m going to start this entry with a personal anecdote because it touched me, and this, as I will argue, is part of my point. Sitting having tea with a former professor of mine the other day, she told me a fairy story which she had heard when she was young in order to illustrate a small, but not insignificant, story about being-with-others. The story tells the tale of a young knight who unknowingly falls in love with a fairy. The woman disappears during the night and always comes back disheveled and bearing traces of her adventures. He follows her into the woods one night and comes upon her in a fairy circle, whereupon he is told that because he has done this and violated her trust he has to give her up entirely. Walking home dejected, he sees a cloaked figure ahead of him in the road. The figure turns and it is the woman: he had to give her up to win her back.

While seemingly a very quaint and archetypal tale, the story illustrates a vital point, one which I think much theory has lost sight of. That is, in trying to master its objects, theory often reproduces the same divides it criticizes. It reifies the structure of binary oppositions that it seeks to undermine, leaving very little room for growth or contingency. So while it may be a necessary, and potent force, the theory we produce is not always palatable. Unlike the knight who loses the “fight” for love in a binary relation, only to win it back because he has grown, theory and correspondingly its practioners tend to embrace rather rigid formulae for their analyses. I want to suggest that perhaps we, as feminist critics, like the knight, need to give something up in order to win it back.

The Dali Lama came to UBC in September and spoke to a select audience. He called himself a feminist. Many celebrated this. However, he also said that “many feminists have too much emotion, and that he doesn’t like…” (September 28, 2009). This statement rankles as many as his previous statement enheartened. I am not a buddhist so I will not pretend to analyze the statement within its context, but I would like to perhaps infer that when he says emotion he means a certain kind of passion. Passion, as we understand it now, is, I believe, a kind of feverish identification with a particular affective state. It is, in all cases, exorbitant, overwhelming, powerful, and compelling. However, and this may seem rather facile for now, I think there is a kind of passion we can embrace as indeed rational in itself.

Anyone who has graduated from theory kindergarten will easily disassemble the claims I’m going to make as essentialisms, at the very least, but bear with me. I’m wondering why it is that passion has been characterized as “excessive” and used more commonly as a pejorative qualifier in relation to the affective states it describes. In other words, have we cordoned off excess in the same way we have cordoned off the subject? Radical feminists, those who practice a kind of reverse sexism have long been rejected by the movement at large, and I think largely for good reason, but not because they are passionate. Rather, because they are not being “rational” or perhaps more accurately reasonable. Reasonable is a good word to focus on here because it connotes a kind of moderateness, an Aristotelian mean, of sorts sans the classicist consequences. However, it also signifies a capacity for reason, but not necessarily the practice of it. Reason itself, on the other hand, recalls perhaps the most insidious and pervasive binary of all: logic and passion. I want to suggest that passion itself can in fact be reasonable; that is, capable of acting according to a logic or following a series of syllogisms. Passion, can be, in other words not restrained, but moderate and most importantly careful and caring.

I do not seek here to limit the rapturous and the sublime as impossibilities, but I want to suggest that passion, as a practice, is valuable when it takes its actions into account, when it makes a narrative of its feelings–the affects it discerns from others and the environment.(I borrow here from Teresa Brennan). The Freudian ego has long been touted as the mediator between the persuasive social conscience of the superego and the willful and desirous id. Really, this account of human subjectivity leaves no room for feeling: the ego is structured as a rational entity, one which carries out decisions according to their positive value to the subject. And this is my point, the ego is a primarily reactionary, and dare I say fearfully anxious conscience whose purpose is to preserve the status quo of the subject or advance its safety and prosperity. Are not anxiety and fear affects–and negative affects at that? Maybe then, when the Dali Lama says he does not like feminists who have too much emotion, we might understand that statement, not in its buddhist context, but as a maxim which warns against being possessed by the negative affects.

To bring this all back down to the ground again, in practice this would mean for feminism, a much more organic kind of theorizing, one much closer to the kinds of grassroots activism which brings communities together to form a common front. It means taking account of the affects in the air which carry us beyond ourselves, beyond the moment of feeling and into the uncertain future of anxiety. No movement which takes as its goal the furtherance of human rights and equality should embrace a modality which is fundamentally fearful.

Of course, there will always be some degree of the subjunctive in feminism, the “if’s” contain as much hope as they can fear. My point is that perhaps we ought to begin to let go of these structures of deconstruction, which have served us so well, in order to embrace the roots of our movement more firmly. Maybe we need to give up our objects in order to lose the fear and anxiety which colours our thinking about them. We need to let go of the self-centered and passifying affects of fear and anxiety in order to begin to analyzing our struggles in their moment. We need to mourn our relationships in order to re-order them; we need to feel others, rather than fear for them. This may mean giving up “women’s” studies, but certainly not the intent of feminisms. Maybe, just maybe, we need to let go of our’selves’ in order to realize just who and what has affected them and then, maybe then, we can begin to really affect the change we need to as caring and careful theorists….