How does one use a book? We are well trained in how to read a book. We know how to interpret, decipher or clarify the content of the pages we read. But what about a different kind of engagement with a book? One less immediately oriented toward the satisfactions of comprehension and discernment and more oriented to use.
I am not thinking here of how a book can be intellectually useful–what it might contribute to current debates, what problems it might elucidate, what novel arguments it might forge. Important as all these goals are, this is not exactly what I have in mind right now. Des Fitzgerald provides a metaphor for the kind of engagement I am thinking of: how a book might be devoured (“I swallowed it whole”). That is, I am interested in how a book is chewed on and chewed up–how it is used–in the service of other projects. How it might be deployed (for better and for worse) for ends that it didn’t envisage. A necessary part of such use, it seems to me, is that the book will be damaged in some way. So one thought I have for the future of this book is not just how it is read but also whether or not it will survive the way it is used. What will this book (and the feminist theory it advances) look like on the other side of its use by others?
The readings of Gut Feminism that Amber Benezra, Des Fitzgerald, Harris Solomon, and Megan Warin have posted here provide me with the full happiness of recognition. Benezra accurately understands that the book tries to offer provocations (“stomach and mind were never not coentangled”) rather than solutions. Fitzgerald skillfully expands and elaborates the question of interiority in Gut Feminism (“What agencies, deeply interior to feminist theoretical and political work, have been made peripheral in the desire for conceptual purchase?”). Solomon affirms the difficult and indissoluble enmeshment of “friendship and emnity” by discussing what is, of course, one of my favorite movies (Heathers). Similarly, Warin has rightly identified that the “ambiguity of harm and remedy” is, for me, an aggressive and dissonant matter. All four writers show a strong command of the central ambitions of Gut Feminism, and this is immensely gratifying. As the author, there is something comforting in these readings and the recognition they confer. More specifically, it is encouraging to think that these readings might initiate uses of the book that I have not anticipated.
As Barbara Johnson notes in her beautiful reading of D. W. Winnicott, using people is a necessary condition for the emergence of the subject. We tend to think of using people as bad conduct (“transforming others into a means for obtaining an end for oneself [is] the very antithesis of ethical behavior” Johnson 2008, p. 94). Winnicott has been able to show, however, that the capacity to use objects (by which he means both people and things) is an important developmental accomplishment for the infant and an ongoing necessity for adult relationality. Winnicott doesn’t shrink from the fact that this kind of use is destructive: “the object is … excitedly loved and mutilated” (p. 99). Importantly, some objects have the seemingly magical capacity to be destroyed and to endure–they are able survive my consumption of them: “the properly used object is one that survives destruction” (p. 101). The analyst is paradigmatically such an object. I need to use the analyst (rage at her, love her, distrust her, leave her) and experience her survival of my use. Without this encounter, I will likely be “trapped in a narcissistic lock in which nothing but approval and validation, or disapproval and invalidation, can be experienced” (p. 101). For Winnicott, this part of the relationship between analyst and patient (I use her; she survives) happens to one side of the classical interpretive work that normal occupies an analytic hour. Object use produces a certain kind of encounter that interpretive work can approach but not fully enact.
My hope is that Gut Feminism might be a properly used object. As Benezra notes, this book doesn’t offer solutions for the problems of biology and feminism. There are no blueprints for a new feminist materialism. Indeed I remain skeptical about the intellectual value of clustering divergent projects together under rubrics like new feminist materialism. Such designations help order a syllabus or book series or conference panel, but too often (it seems to me) they narrow the interpretive work that can be done and they limit the kinds of uses to which our projects can be put. I hope that the thematics of negativity, noticed by all four of these commentators, will emerge as an invitation for the book to be used by the reader and in turn for the reader to be open to use. There have been virtuoso interpretations (especially in queer theory) of the negativity that constitutes sociality. The destructiveness championed in Gut Feminism is attuned more to the paradox of object destruction-survival: “Hullo object!” “I destroyed you” “I love you” (Winnicott in Johnson, p. 103). Following on from the endorsement of Hannah Landecker, I do indeed hope that this book will be thrown across the room, that it might be mutilated and loved (for one entails the other). My thanks to Benezra, Fitzgerald, Solomon, and Warin for finding something in these arguments that might render the book less like an inert object, and more like something to be used, and so make the book more transitional and fantastic than the author on her own is able to do.
Elizabeth A. Wilson is Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Sydney, and her B.Sc. in Psychology from the University of Otago. She was an Australian Research Council Fellow at the University of New South Wales prior to coming to Emory, and she has also held appointments at the University of Western Sydney, the Australian National University, and the University of Sydney. She has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2003-2004) and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (2011-2012). Her work explores how biological data, psychoanalysis, and affect theory can be used to foster conceptual innovation in feminist theory. Currently she is co-authoring an introduction to the affect theory of Silvan Tomkins (with Adam Frank, University of British Columbia).
Johnson, Barbara. 2008. Persons and things. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.