Alterity, Misogyny & the Agonistic Feminine

Hieronymus Bosch, 'Garden of Earthly Delights' (detail).
Above: Hieronymus Bosch, 'Garden of Earthly Delights' (detail), via Wikimedia Commons.


Antigone: I stand convicted of impiety,
the evidence, my pious duty done …
Chorus: The same tempest of mind
as ever, controls the girl.[1]

Despite the fact that gender identities are in increasingly complex conversation with biology and cultural construction the reductive force of patriarchy, with its sidekick misogyny, remains the catastrophic constant. — S. M. Quant[2]


This essay is conjectural and conversational. Conversational with other texts, other minds; but also among the importantly divergent logics of poetry and discourse, discourse and exploratory essay. Decades ago, skeptical about the force of a strictly woman-centered feminist theory whose reactive stance seemed to corroborate the secondary status of the feminine in the age-old M/F binary, I was struck — in a sense, saved — by the realization of a gender and genre transgressive experimental feminine rooted in embodied female experience but integral to all struggles (personal, sociopolitical, ethical, and aesthetic) with the cultural coercions of an ubermasculine hegemony. At the time I was in the process of writing “Rethinking Literary Feminism: Three Essays onto Shaky Grounds” in response to an invitation from scholars Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller for their collection Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory.[3] A short version of the present essay (a continuation of that earlier rethinking) was delivered as a talk for “Constructive Alterities in Feminist Ecological Poetics,” April 9, 2016, a panel organized by Angela Hume with Brenda Hillman and Evelyn Reilly for Poetics (The Next) 25 Years — a conference sponsored by the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo.

Writing from the perspective of the modernist rejection of transcendental romanticism, Theodor Adorno noted that “the unresolved antagonisms of reality reappear in art in the guise of immanent problems of artistic form.”[4] The major “antagonism” of interest was between ideologically based “official thought” and the freedom and independence of mind necessary for creativity. Looking for a discursive form that could, like certain poetries, resist (in my view) implicitly masculine “official thought,” particularly in Germany, Adorno argued on behalf of the exploratory essay in the French tradition — oddly, without crediting either France or Montaigne. Nonetheless, his characterization of the essay has affinities with an agonistic poetics of the experimental feminine insofar as both are necessarily at odds with the patriarchal “law of the father.”[5] The productively contentious agency of the experimental feminine gives it a dialogic expansiveness that allies it with poethics of queer values and interventions, along with others cast into shadow realms of alterity by self-reinforcing cultural supremacies. The poethical wager that is Adam Pendleton’s “Black Dada” is a case in point.[6] What happens when you substitute “feminine” (or “queerness” or “Black Dada”) for “the essay” in this quote from Adorno’s “The Essay as Form”? 

Emancipation from the compulsion of identity gives the essay something that eludes official thought. … The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy. Through violations of the orthodoxy of thought, something in the object becomes visible which it is orthodoxy’s secret and objective aim to keep invisible.[7

In the midst of complex global crises, including dire threats associated with climate change; in recognition of a contingent futurity shared by all us creatures of the self-organizing genius of evolution; in grave, and necessarily humorous, consideration of our anthroposcenes, anthroposcenities; carried along by historical developments that continue to be dominated by default masculine values — I must continue to query what has been / is / can be the agonistic efficacy of experimental feminine dynamics. This question is all the more necessary to the extent that it eludes simple answers, even as it wagers on the constructive alterity of feminine agency. 

The consciousness that led scientists to coin the term Anthropocene is an ethically illuminated act of scientific poesis.[8] How should we construe the anthropos that is propelling earth’s biosphere toward possible catastrophe for our and countless other species? Anthropos, a male-gendered ancient Greek word now translated as “human” but originally, quite specifically, “man,” is a remnant of a time when men and women were considered members of different species. Woman, lacking logos (the rational principle), could not be a citizen of the polis. Her nature,like that of animals and earth, required taming, domestication — subordination to the rationally creative forces of masculinity. This is not just ancient history. Think of the struggle for women’s suffrage that continued into the twentieth century and is still far from a global right. All the while Alexander the Great remains a prototype of heroic masculine accomplishment: strategies of large-scale taming and domestication that require slaughtering hundreds of thousands and wreaking environmental havoc in order to create financial/political empires. One might reasonably feel that the anthropos in “Anthropocene” is still properly “man.”

Pierre Bourdieu coined the term habitus for the consciously and unconsciously supported status quo that persists in every society, often against that society’s own best interests. He came to identify the psychological and socio-political intricacies of the habitus with self-perpetuating masculine power.[9] In The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu describes in detail how beliefs connected with the dominance of male values are choreographed into the stance and movement of male and female bodies in relation to each other and to a natural world itself “naturalized” according to that cultural belief system. Although his analysis is primarily focused on the Kabyle, ethnic Berbers in Northern Algeria, Bourdieu finds the same phenomenon in European society, “as if the habitus forged coherence and necessity out of accident and contingency.”[10]

The habitus tends to generate all the ‘reasonable’, ‘common-sense’ behaviours (and only these) which are possible within the limits of these regularities, and which are likely to be positively sanctioned because they are objectively adjusted to the logic characteristic of a particular field, whose objective future they anticipate. At the same time, ‘without violence, art or argument’, it tends to exclude all ‘extravagances’ (‘not for the likes of us’).[11]

Might excluded “extravagances” include an excess of the feminine erupting beyond acceptable decorum, threatening the rule of masculine-defined propriety? This eruption happens frequently in Greek tragedy. In other contexts it’s been associated with the devil, witchcraft, perversion, feminism. In the US, feminism, after being reviled, went through a period of domestication — programs and departments in academic institutions where docile enough bodies could climb career ladders the better to never erupt again. Lately feminism has gone back to being widely reviled though less vociferously, subtextually. Generic male pronouns, for instance, are undergoing the return of the repressed in the moderately intellectual media. On the matter of grammatical habitus, Gertrude Stein is brilliant: “All these sentences are fruitful they may be included in embroidery.” And “A sentence is very manly they need not be nervous.”[12] Noting that alterity and alternative are cognate but not identical, for alterity to become alternative it must be agonistically transvalued and embraced. An agonistic feminine is a necessary extravagance for the ethos, logos, pathos of our culture to exceed the dreary fatalism of Man and His perpetual lust for conquest, Man and His self-aggrandizing orthodoxies.[13] What violence, art, or argument can help in our global labyrinth of complicit words and dubious values? Why is it that “Father Nature” and “Mother Time” just don’t sound right? Why is it that white male privilege is still the nefarious default?

Even before I mentioned “docile bodies,” you may have noticed how close Bourdieu’s “choreography” is to Foucault’s revelatory analysis of “methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility … coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it.”[14] Foucault claims that the intense focus on manipulating bodies for sociopolitical purposes was an invention of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French society in search of the “ideal figure of the soldier.” Although he enlarges the scope to include authoritarian pedagogy, the male micromanagement of female dress and demeanor, perhaps the most distinctive and universal signature of masculine power, goes unremarked. Not entirely surprising. Foucault’s privileging of the masculine in his readings of history, consonant with ancient Greek glorification of the male body and logos, can prevent him from noticing implications everywhere in his purview — in the positioning of the female on Greek vases, for instance, or the culture of Parisian couture. (Would the “Maid of Orleans” have been burnt at the stake had she merely heard voices, not refused women’s dress?) Nevertheless, Foucault’s docile body analysis is importantly instructive with respect to traditions of masculinity as power. Take the trajectory of “Man-the-Machine”: man designs the machine, runs the machine, becomes the machine. The feminine must in no way interfere.[15]

In his 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, Fillippo Tommaso Marinetti provides an advance release postscript underscoring the link between misogyny and violence:

We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.[16

Brief Post-Hellenic, Pre-Post-Futurist History of Being Sche 

Keywords: alteritas, alterity

Here are some “first usage” examples from the Middle English and Oxford English dictionaries — MED, OED. Together they construct a Garden of Etymologies yielding the originary female transgression against “the law of the father”: Male God, Patriarchal Man in His image. Many of us like to think sche revolted against enforced ignorance with her valiant act of curiosity. (Noteworthy coincidence? Curiositas became an official sin in the early Christian church around the time Augustine was struggling with his lust for women.) In entries below, “oþ” (the Middle English “thorne”) is pronounced “th.” 

c.1415. Alterity: oþerhed(e) (n.) Old English version of “otherhood” or perhaps “otherhead.” A state of being different from one another (existing between two beings who have been in harmony), a separateness; also, an otherness, a difference. (MED) 

c. 1425. Alteritas: oþerhed. from Speculum Sacerdotale: When he is ded, þenne owe belles to be rongen … for a womman twyes. Why? For sche made an alterite and an oþerhede in that tyme that sche made alienacion and partynge bitwene God and man. (MED, OED)[17]

1631. R. Fludd Answer vnto M. Foster iii. vi. 50 They are called Alteritas or Alterity, that is, composed of two. And the two are Male and Female, Adam & Eve. (OED) 

An additional (poetic) usage:

                  Keyword: wont 

Women whisper among themselves as industrious insects
are wont to do. Wont — chronically conjoined to yielding
and bestow.

yeldyng therof to the chief lordis dewe
as sche was wont all yeldyng to bestow
uthir service that on theyr frutys dew
was wont to fal his good dame
was wont to bestow the best roome
in here house on him who here did lay
his wonts uppon here yeldyng brestes[18]

The history of being sche, cont’d., 

Eve: beautiful woman —
I have seen her
when she was so handsome
she gave me a start,
able to write simultaneously
in three languages —
English, German and French —
and talk in the meantime;
equally positive in demanding a commotion
and in stipulating quiet:

‘See her, see her in this common world’,
the central flaw
(Marianne Moore, “Marriage”)[19]

And an update,

Naturally, I wanted to fuck her. So, by the way, would you.
(August Kleinzahler, from “She,” London Review of Books, July 27, 2017)[20

Does focus on anthropos, man, s(c)he, woman, female, male, feminine, masculine, nature, culture imply that this F/M business is primarily a matter of language? It does, because language is the most consequential form of human life in the biocultural world. Female/Male and Nature/Culture are venerable binaries daily negotiated in “metaphors we live by,”[21] and they are stunningly interrogated by Sherry Ortner in her 1972 essay “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”[22] The relevance of Ortner’s anthropological question endures globally in patriarchal societies where the female-identified, like nature “herself,” is treated as proprietary resource to be exploited/disposed of for the benefit of largely male values embedded in material and symbolic power structures. However, it’s important to keep in mind that binaries defined in oppositional terms are themselves naturalized constructs. I’d like to suggest a rethinking of Ortner’s interrogative hypothesis by shifting the focus from the biological female or male to the cultural dynamics of feminine and masculine. Keeping in mind that feminine and masculine character and behavioral traits are available to, expressed and performed by persons and poetics of all biocultural gender and/or genre variations. This distinction is to a large extent inscribed in our ordinary usage. It is for instance common to speak without contradiction of a masculine female or a feminine male.

There appears to be inherent antagonism in binary constructs, or perhaps it’s the other way around — a lurking binary in antagonistic dynamics. Antagonistic conflict is intended to end only when a designated victor and vanquished emerge, often just a bit before the contest begins all over again. “Truce” is a temporary cessation of the conflict — by definition, nontransformative of either side. This chronically repetitive dynamic is hardly a process of development. Binary terms — us/them, friend/enemy, neighbor/stranger, female/male, feminine/masculine — appear in ancient and contemporary documents and dictionaries frighteningly unmutated by historical experience.

Recent entry: masculine, adj. having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness. Antonym: feminine. (New Oxford American Dictionary, updated 2010, preinstalled in all Mac OS X operating systems as of 2017) 

Binaries assume the logic of dichotomy — rigidly static opposition that, despite cultural construction theories, casts feminine and masculine (traits in persons of every gender) into realms of would-be biological constraint. Masculine and feminine — like Molière’s prose and verse — are literally defined against one another. Hence, fear of the power of the feminine to create or uncreate the masculine contributes to the substrate of misogyny in male dominated cultures. The necessity of an “extravagant” agonistic feminine is clear. 

These considerations bring on a possible revision of Ortner’s hypothesis. Not to replace it — she is concerned with global, physically based and inflicted female subordination — but to explore a poethics of the agonistic feminine in relation to entrenched masculine power dynamics. Nature and culture — equally “naturalized” — are in fact interwoven in biocultural ecologies of complex systems dynamics. With the historical “Law of the Father” sacralized in major world religions that long ago inseminated secular assumptions, male-dominated cultures have contained (or tried to contain) the agonistic feminine whether practiced by Antigone or Gertrude Stein or Adorno’s heretical essayist (no doubt male) through ridicule, exclusion, and violence. That Stein is prominent in the modernist canon has not extinguished the ridicule her persona and work continue to endure. That Adorno doesn’t seem to have written in emancipatory heretical forms himself (unless one counts the aphoristic Minima Moralia) is instructive. It’s hard to enact transgressive values because the collective sociopolitical mind is poised to misunderstand and/or ignore or delete. That is precisely why inventions and uses of heretical forms are vitally necessary poethical wagers. 

One way to understand both the puzzle and the challenge that the F/M default poses is to recognize that an agonistic poetics involves not binaries but generative polarities. Polarities, unlike binaries, have “in-between” spaces that are energy fields. In the mid-twentieth century, a staple binary inscribed in the book of Genesis — order v. disorder — was transvalued by a new logic, that of Chaos Theory. Scientists redefined “chaos” as a dynamic exchange between polarities oforder and disorder, generative of constantly changing pattern-bounded indeterminacy that is central to every complex system — from weather and other turbulent patterns in our biosphere to history, economics, and the neurophysiology of the human brain. Disorder is no longer an unspeakable disturbance of logos. It turns out that, without its contribution to nature’s equilibrium, there would be no life on our planet. 

Is there any chance of a sequel with a swerve out of our agonizingly long, shockingly cruel F/M fairy tale? A new poetics of wishful thinking? A more complex plot in which planetary We agree to collaboratively renovate that gorgeously foreboding sunset screaming ANTHROPOCENE?

When the Fairy Tale Ended What Happened to Mother Earth? 

Jimbo’s Inferno, Canto xx

BYOB. Soon it’ll feel just like home. We’re a DIY
kinda place but intellectuals have nothing to fear.
Note Zeno’s redline arrow whiz out of framewhile
remaining smartly in place. Everything’s just as it
should be. Okay, three famous abstract nouns are
decomposing in the heat. No sweat. Just keep your
distance, turn up the A/C, pinch your nose. You’re
in luck. You have arrived in the knickknack of time.
All knickknacks 50% off — all applications for ex-
tended credit fast-tracked. Jimbo’s Inferno offers
more luxury benefits — yours to peruse from our
climate-proof VIP lounge — than any VIP club that
turned you down in that wretched life you clung
to far too long. We love you. You love us.
Love us or leave us — that’s the deal. If, of course,
thou canst find thy way.

What wounds I see upon their limbs
ancient and recent seared and gougèd in
if thou escape from these dark places
and come to rebehold the beauteous stars,
shall it yet pleasure thee to say ‘I was’
to feel thy mind incline …
(Dante’s Inferno, Canto xvi)[23]


Human rights and emancipation movements … [have] fought valiantly against industrial capitalism’s treatment of whole categories of our species as human sacrifice zones, no more deserving of rights than raw commodities. These struggles have … won major victories against the dominance-based paradigm — against slavery, for universal suffrage, for equality under the law … Karl Marx … recognized capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with ‘the natural laws of life itself,’ while feminist scholars have long recognized that patriarchy’s dual war against women’s bodies and against the body of the earth were connected to that essential, corrosive [philosophical] separation between mind and body — and between body and earth — from which both the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution sprang. (Naomi Klein)[24]

In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein criticizes the predominantly male geoengineers who pledge a fix for climate change that won’t dislodge any of our clearly implicated, heavily invested life-styles and habits. She quotes MIT marine microbiologist Sallie Chisholm on what continues to be (from at least archaic Greek and other ancient cultures on) our human proclivity to assume a feminized (passive, compliant) nature that is inevitably, if not easily, outwitted by the masculine genius of our technologies. It’s the Promethean scenario with Klein and Chisholm among contemporary Pandoras. Chisholm puts things this way:

Proponents of research on geoengineering simply keep ignoring the fact that the biosphere is a player (not just a responder) in whatever we do, and its trajectory cannot be predicted. It is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly microorganisms) that are evolving every second — a ‘self-organizing, complex, adaptive system’ … [whose] emergent properties … cannot be predicted.[25]

Klein comments,

I have been repeatedly struck by how the hard-won lessons about humility before nature that have reshaped modern science, particularly the fields of chaos and complexity theory, do not appear to have penetrated this particular bubble [of geoengineers]. On the contrary, the Geoclique is crammed with overconfident men prone to complimenting each other on their fearsome brainpower.[26]

Klein’s use of the word “prone” is almost amusing. She has earlier discussed Francis Bacon’s “vision of the Earth as a prone woman” and “James [steam engine] Watts’s triumphalism at having found her “weak side.” These are just a few examples among gendered metaphors we have lived by for millennia. Earth as “mother” has been both reassuring and troubling, particularly when in mythology “she” is furrowed and inseminated by the man with the phallic plow or, more recently, decapitated by mountaintopping machinery. Violence is commonplace on either side of the female-earth metaphor, as the myth of Persephone’s rape and interment starkly illustrates. Page duBois’s Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women is full of such examples.[27] Life on the body of our planet today is full of such examples: from the violence of deforestation, strip-mining, and fracking; to the drug-rape equivalent of chemical waste poured into streams, to the buried monuments of consumerism: enormous landfills seeping toxins.

On a global scale neither poverty nor climate change is gender neutral. Women tend to be economically destitute in most traditional and “developing” societies — cut off from control of the vital resources they manage daily for their families’ survival. Intimate experience with natural resources of their regions makes them experts on the inroads of climate change, but that knowledge remains largely untapped even as they are disproportionately vulnerable to increasing droughts, wildfires, and floods. UN Women Watch reports point out that, along with the children they are trying to save, women are most likely to die in natural disasters for reasons that touch every dimension of their lives. Traditional limitations in physical training compounded by dress codes imposed for the sake of modesty can fatally restrict mobility when trying to escape raging fires or rising waters. The male/female dynamic of it all is (should be) as alarming as the ancient entitlements of men to rape the women of their family or of the conquered territory. The gendered contours of climate change, along with genital mutilation, widow burnings, and honor killings, make Western women’s multitrillion-dollar compliance with male-regulated rules of attractiveness seem almost benign. If one forgets how the fashion industry’s profit margin depends on “third-world” paraslavery of girls and women who, out of economic desperation and in perilous conditions, make the garments, the stilettos, the plastic adornments, the cosmetics and facial cleansers whose byproducts come to adorn every landfill and contaminate the waters of the earth. As of June 2017 approximately 93.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs steering us down this absurd road to planetary ruin were men. Why does “Father Nature” not sound right? Perhaps for the same reason “Man and Nature” along with “Man and Wife” has had a long history of seeming just fine. 

She says, ‘Men are monopolists

of “stars, garters, buttons

and other shining baubles” —

unfit to be the guardians

of another person’s happiness’.

He says, “These mummies

must be handled carefully —

(Marianne Moore, “Marriage”)[28]


Comparing man and woman generally, one may say that woman would not have the genius for adornment, if she had not the instinct for the secondary role. (Nietzsche, “Apothegms & Interludes”)[29]

Man is the measure of all things, including woman.
(Addendum to Apocrypha, author unknown)

Ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian cultures have bestowed a potent legacy of alterities. Preeminent among them, from the patriarchal point of view, is the indelibly stained otherness (threatening unknowability) of the woman/female/feminine. Although the philologic of female alterity is dualistic and should, therefore, be reciprocal, it has been conceived as dramatically asymmetrical. “Sche,” Eve, the female, the feminine, the girl, the woman carrying both the child and the original sin, is alterity, not only in theological contexts but in philosophical traditions. Not surprising in Nietzsche, who generously distributed misogyny across binary sexes: “In the background of all their personal vanity, women themselves have still their impersonal scorn — for ‘woman.’”[30] But it is, at least initially, surprising in the renowned ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. 

For graduate students in literary and cultural criticism, Levinas is considered a source of primary importance for both ethical theory and the concept of alterity. Now and then I’m asked whether poethics is “Levinasian.” The short answer is no. The longer version is my strong disagreement with the ethical implications of Levinas’s asymmetrical formulation of feminine/female alterity. In 1946–47 lectures published as Time and the Other, Levinas locates “the feminine” as “absolute alterity” on a remarkable, quasi-deductive continuum the significance of whose arc begins with the overwhelming existential threat of death (the end of Time) for the male subject. It proceeds to recover “futurity” as an active accomplishment of “the father” throughuse ofthe embodied "feminine" as reproductive vessel. Levinas has a world view whose values are, like Foucault’s, found in masculine agency. The role of “the feminine” is remarkably, if not entirely, passive. Alterity is identified as the “mystery” of the feminine and the “mystery” of death in disconcertingly close proximity. The sole value of “the feminine,” is that it can be plucked from the shadows of its own alterity to facilitate an eros that enables survival of the male ego. That survival, which is in effect the reproduction of the male ego, is equated with the survival of civilization itself. Time and the Other might as well be titled “Civilization and the Feminine.”

[Note on language: Levinas in Time and the Other crisscrosses from a necessarily womb-bearing “feminine” to “feminine” as cluster of characteristic traits — what he calls “mode of being.” A question for French scholars of French philosophy: why not two words — femme (woman) v. féminin (traits)? (The word “féminin” that indicates gender in grammar is amusingly a masculine noun.) As I have indicated, I distinguish these importantly different ontologies by using different words — the biological “female,” vs. “feminine” for cultural traits, and forms of behavior strongly associated with the biological female but which can be expressed by persons of any gender. We need to consider how conflating “female” and “feminine”; “male” and “masculine” have perpetuated the invidious F/M binary.]

Levinas terms the father’s use of the “feminine” to activate paternity “fecundity.” Although fecundity unquestionably requires the sexual presence, if not cooperation, of the female-feminine, the creative force itself is not feminine. It is not her fecundity, not her maternity that Levinas is talking about. It is instead quite explicitly his paternity that ensures futurity via the birth of “the son” whose identification with the father makes the continuation of historical Time possible. The birth of the son, the legacy of paternity, bestows value on the feminine only as necessary “other” in relation to Man-and-God’s fraternal twin projects: Civilization and Time. Almost needless to say, this is a messianic vision in which the feminine will always be accessory to the great event. And of course the messiah will never be a woman. Levinas’s argument in his own words:

It is thus not according to the category of cause, but according to the category of the father that freedom comes about and time is accomplished. … I began with the notions of death and the feminine, and have ended with that of the son. … Plato did not grasp the feminine in its specifically erotic notion.[31]

Can it be that only the threat of death — the extinction of the ego of the father — legitimates the value of the feminine? That the sole significance of the feminine is as a vehicle of potentially messianic reproduction? That the feminine/female contributes nothing to futurity in its/her own right? The idea that “female is to male as nature is to culture” is deeply embedded in Levinas’s theologically based ontology of sexuality and gender. The Aristotelian prototype of a secular ethical domain — one that can benefit from cultural change — is missing. The feminine remains trapped in the mind of the “ancient misogynists,” rationalizing her subjugation with turbulent philosophical rhetoric. The fundamentally reductive import of passages like these are awash in phantom eloquence:

What is the alterity that does not purely and simply enter into the opposition of two species [male and female] of the same genus? I think the absolute contrary contrary (le contraire absolument contraire) whose contrariety is in no way affected by the relationship that can be established between it and its correlative, the contrariety that permits its terms to remain absolutely other, is the feminine.[32]

Is there any ethical thought in this characterization of the feminine, or is it purely theological? The cultural construct of the “absolute other” has always been a target of fear, rage, oppression, violence, erasure of independent recognition and agency. The “absolute other” is a problem demanding strategies of management and control which often lead to the violent banishment, occupation, or extermination of the “absolute other.” Docile and utilitarian bodies of women and peoples of color, a compliant natural world — these are the operational goals of unreconstructed (and white supremacist) patriarchal society. 

Simone de Beauvoir and other feminist theorists were outraged by Levinas’s treatment of the feminine, his frank assignment of helpmeet status to woman — ever ready to stimulate ejaculatory prowess and receive the sperm. Not to say that Levinas himself addresses the bodily mechanics of his metaphysical fable, an account arrestingly similar to Apollo’s in the Eumenides of Aeschylus: 

The mother is no parent of that which is called
her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed
that grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger she
preserves a stranger’s seed, if no god interfere.
I will show you proof of what I have explained. There can
be a father without any mother.[33]

In her critique of Levinas, de Beauvoir pointed to the complete absence of female consciousness or ego in his discourse “which is intended to be objective, [but] is in fact an assertion of masculine privilege.”[34] She and many other feminists derived energy from this and put it to use in revolutionary feminist analysis, de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex,the great pathbreaking example. Here is Levinas’s response to his feminist critics:

I do not want to ignore the legitimate claims of the feminism that presupposes all the acquired attainments of civilization. … In the most brutal materiality, in the most shameless or the most prosaic appearance of the feminine, neither her mystery nor her modesty is abolished. … [The feminine] is not merely the unknowable, but a mode of being that consists in slipping away from the light. … Hiding is the way of existing in the feminine, and this fact of hiding is precisely modesty.[35]

Levinas, to my knowledge, never disavowed this view of the feminine function consonant with most orthodox religious beliefs originating in ancient and medieval world cultures. There is always a primal asymmetry — only one “absolute other,” and that is woman. Levinas did, in a puzzlingly abstracted manner, address “maternity” in later work — without mentioning “woman,” the “feminine,” or the “maternal.” In Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, maternity is “the complete being ‘for the other’ … the very signifyingness of signification.”[36] In “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition,” there is a corporeal evocation of maternity, again with no woman on site: “But man is also the irruption of God with Being … Man is questioned at his judgment by a justice which recognizes this responsibility; mercy — the rahamim — the trembling of the uterus in which the Other (L’Autre) gestates with the Same, God’s maternity, if we can call it that.”[37

Some feminist scholars have attempted to defend Levinas against accusations of sexism by pointing to this odd “revelation” of maternity as metaphysical principle. Jacques Derrida, echoing de Beauvoir intentionally or not, responds by noting the masculine nature of philosophical metaphysics. In “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas” he writes that Levinas, abjuring the Greek and Joycean “feminine logic” or “woman’s reason” of Ulysses, is essentially a philosopher of the masculine mind. The Levinas text he mentions is entirely coherent with Time and the Other in that respect:

On this subject, let us note in passing that [Levinas’s] Totality and Infinity pushes the respect for dissymmetry so far that it seems to us impossible, essentially impossible, that it could have been written by a woman. Its philosophical subject is man (vir) … Is not this principled impossibility for a book to have been written by a woman unique in the history of metaphysical writing? Levinas acknowledges elsewhere that femininity is an “ontological category.” Should this remark be placed in relation to the essential virility of metaphysical language? But perhaps metaphysical desire is essentially virile, even in what is called woman. It appears that this is what Freud (who would have misconstrued sexuality as the “relationship with what is absolutely other,” TI), thought, not of desire, certainly, but of libido.[38]

Derrida, whose playful feints at philosophical orthodoxy I see as enacting an agonistic feminine poethics of the philo-literary essay, says on the last page of “Violence and Metaphysics” that “alterity had to circulate at the origin of meaning, in welcoming alterity in general into the heart of the logos” (153). He clearly sympathizes with Levinas’s view (borne, one hopes, of self-knowledge) that hypocrisy is “not only a base contingent defect of man, but the underlying rending of a world attached to both the philosophers and the prophets” (153). It turns out that there are many more in the room. Add poets, women, drag queens, the entire queer spectrum, and other biocultural barbarians to the cohort rending historical orthodoxies. If alterity is at the heart of logos — the multifaceted abundance of language as form of life — it must implicate all gender variants as primary subjects. The putative, tacitly assumed or strenuously theorized, equilibrium of masculine hegemony and feminine alterity — well-oiled mechanism of everyday life in most contemporary societies — must continue to be challenged, in the academy no less than in the marketplace of images supporting the habitus. Even as students of philosophy, literature, and cultural criticism (docile or done for in pursuit of graduate degrees) are sent to insufficiently challenged canonical figures for guidance. 

For the moment, however, I want to take up Levinas’s interesting assertion of the feminine as contrariety: “the contrariety that permits its terms to remain absolutely other, is the feminine.” He’s right on that point. The feminine is contrary to the masculine in its patriarchal and hegemonic forms. That is the alterity of the feminine. It is, however, in a reciprocally other relation to masculine domination. As such, feminine contrariety can be transvalued into the agonistic feminine, an active principle of ethical responsibility, biocultural agency. A formerly sepulchered feminine alterity empowers and transvalues itself into agonistic principle with real-world responsibilities, countering misogyny, racism, every sort of xenophobia, the pillaging of the planet. That is the ethical imperative not surprisingly missing in Time and the Other. The agonistic feminine as I’m suggesting it is not metaphysical; it is a fully embodied dynamic whose agency operates in a continually developing complex relation to the hegemonic masculine. That dynamic of gender/genre order-disorder has possibilities as conversational agon affecting the choreography in between F-M polarities. Might a frankly agonistic reciprocal alterity, with the creative energy it generates between (and possibly exceeding) polarities, become the beating heart(s) of a reconstructed biocultural logos?

Agon in Strange Parts 

Assertions and enactments of gender fluidity are the serious play of a biocultural agon whose F-M polarities/alterities, misleadingly construed as unassailable hierarchical binary, have been the ancient pillars of patriarchy. Neither the agon nor the fluidity is new. Apollonian-Dionysian and Yin-Yang dynamics have stirred crosscurrents in traditional societies for millennia. All the while the agonistic feminine thrives in multiple guises. The most culturally acclaimed initiated in male embodiments: Plato’s philosophical alter ego, the coy and playful Socrates who breaks out his female mentor Diotima in the Symposium; sixth-century philosopher-poet Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, pushing philosophy and poetry beyond the Platonic logos-versus-irrational quarrel into conversation with one another as “Lady Philosophy” and the Muses; Surrealists and Dadaists (and their progeny to date) interrupting logical constructions of “official thought” with dreamscapes, cutups, and other disarming forms; James Joyce’s Ulysses further feminizing The Odyssey in which heroes had been dissolving into tears since the Homers took their bardic show on the road:

Throwing his arms around his marvel of a father,
Telémakhos began to weep. Salt tears
rose from the wells of longing in both men …
So helplessly they cried, pouring out tears,
and might have gone on weeping so till sundown[39]

The sea level of the Aegean is rising with manly tears but father and son still have manly work to do. The narrative of the return of the barely repressed father must press on; there are Penelope’s suitors to be massacred. Brutality and emotional vulnerability are inextricably linked in the nature of man. In subsequent eras Greek tragedians will, for a while, explore this kind of complexity in the nature of woman. But what is perhaps of greatest interest concerning internalizations of the F-M agon in Greek epics and tragedies is the degree to which they have continued to puzzle modernist and contemporary scholars even as the hallowed Joyce created his erotic epiphany in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, ventriloquized by Himself, male author ejaculating a complex agonistic feminine, ending in Yes.

The greatest ongoing example of the agonistic feminine embodied as female author/persona may be the almost entirely disembodied Sappho. While we postmoderns have come to think that texts are the embodiments that make the difference, Sappho’s have been disintegrating from one culture and persona context to another in an irresolvable ordeal of transmission. An agon of neglect and censorship countervailed by curiosity, happenstance and — over time — a growing need for an ancient gender-fluid heroine. As embodiments of contingency and accident — not to say chronically interrupted intentionality — the fragment resurrected from ancient tatters, or created anew, is now revered (though not always acknowledged) as a poetics of the feminine. “Sappho” is the canonical urtext of silences underscoring alterity while rendering it benign. Are silences — rather than innate modesty, as Levinas would have it — the safest hiding places from misogyny? Would Sappho have become so beloved had she remained whole? 

It’s an excellent irony that composition by and despite assaultive and entropic contingencies transformed Sappho’s lyrics into a poetics that eludes official grammars — an agon of reciprocal alterity between female persona and the brutal exclusions of history. Gertrude Stein, agonist in her own right, has much to say about that sort of thing in her prose poem History or Messages from History: “Now think how is a history of think with them think with him think for him think for them think they were with him they thank and they thank him with them for him … What is history? They make history.”[40] Given a creatively collaborative reading poesis, the gravely beautiful fruits of Sappho’s indeterminacy, Stein’s brilliantly humorous play, each have — like the poethically driven heretical essay — the agonistic power to swerve minds out of gender/genre-normative geometries of attention.

I’m uncomfortably aware of having vaulted the Western canon from ancient to modern in a single paragraph absent many other cultures and times, many other mediums for the agonistic feminine from music to visual art. (John Cage, Nina Simone, and Kara Walker come immediately to mind.) A good deal of what is missing will, I hope, be heretically reconnoitered by curious poets/scholars. There is an immense critical and reparative project to be carried out in the habitus that unchallenged simply regurgitates its misogynist and racist histories. To paraphrase a host of would-be aphorists: all that is missing may be what matters most. From the future we must speak of this in new light. 

For now, having whizzed past centuries that might seem empty of the experimental and agonistic feminine were it not for “exceptions” like the 1651–95 appearance of Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico (Sor Juana, the “tenth muse” of other monsters[41] less visible), I offer a few more examples of the agonistic feminine at work in the early to mid-twentieth century. There is Marianne Moore, whose “Marriage” is crucial to this text; Mina Loy, the intellectually ambiguous figure whose submission to Marinetti in her Feminist Manifesto belied her innovative capacities and the tragedies suffered as a sche; Dorothy Richardson, perpetually in the shadow of James Joyce; Samuel Beckett’s generative shadows seeming to articulate his humorously paced self- and other-interruptions. 

In lectures, essays, and other discursive writing, Virginia Woolf was an activist on behalf of women’s rights. “A Room of One’s Own” is but one example. In her novels, there was also a complex poethics of the agonistic feminine that could be painful, humorous, or outright joyous. Take The Waves (1931), for instance, in which Woolf’s probable alter ego “Bernard” bitterly addresses the ruse of the conventional narrative plenum:

How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down so beautifully with all their feet on the ground! … How I distrust neat designs of life … I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin to seek some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably. Lying in a ditch on a stormy day, when it has been raining, then enormous clouds come marching over the sky, tattered clouds, wisps of cloud. What delights me then is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury.[42]

In the 1928 Orlando, which Woolf subtitled “A Biography” and dedicated to her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, there is a central event that literally requires breaking words, rendering them inarticulate (illegible) on the page. It occurs in chapter 3 as the context is prepared for Orlando’s stunning sex change — distinguished nobleman to noble, distinguished “lady of rank” — as instantaneous as a figure-ground shift. At the start of the chapter a violent revolution erupts in Constantinople, where Orlando is the British “Ambassador Extraordinary.” With the reliability of life’s uninvited contingencies, raging fires almost entirely consume the archive that might have served a future biographer’s desire to assemble a coherent account of the extraordinary (indeed!) transformation about to take place. The “biographer” must instead relate how the Records Office is rendered useless:

Often the paper was scorched a deep brown in the middle of the most important sentence. Just when we thought to elucidate a secret that has puzzled historians for a hundred years, there was a hole in the manuscript big enough to put your finger through. We have done our best to piece out a meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to make use of the imagination.[43]

Woolf does in fact use her imagination to reconstruct Orlando’s metamorphosis:

He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess — he was a woman. … No human being, since the world began, has ever looked more ravishing. His form combined in one the strength of a man and a woman’s grace. … The change of sex, while it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.[44]

Is it really so surprising that a merging of the agonistic feminine with the extraordinary masculine replaces M/F antagonism with comely F-M equilibrium? Or that it required trashing an archive — repository of official thought? (I do admit to being awed by Woolf’s devastatingly constructive imagination each time I read Orlando.) With official (patriarchal) dross cleared out, the thrilling event manifests in its perfectly ripened instant, calling all these centuries later for celebration. Perhaps with some intricately charred confetti? — “tantalising fragments which leave the most important points obscure.”[45]

More recent examples of agonistic poetics in dynamic fields between polar alterities include the work of Mahmoud Darwish collected in The Butterfly’s Burden; the experimental poetic essays of Édouard Glissant in Poetic Intention; Muriel Rukeyser’s Breaking Open; Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse; John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run; Peter Inman’s Written 1976–2013; Tina Darragh’s Striking Resemblance; Leslie Scalapino’s How Phenomena Appear to Unfold; Jena Osman’s The Network; Evelyn Reilly’s Echolocation; Amy King’s Slaves to Do These Things; Charles Bernstein’s “War Stories” and “The Ballad of the Girly Man” in All the Whiskey in Heaven; Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now; Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure. The list could go on with other works by each, and many more authors.


I believe I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: really philosophy ought only to be written as poetic composition.… I was thereby acknowledging myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1933–34)[46]

Western philosophy, from Plato’s somewhat caricatured legacy on, has consisted of language games with masculine-identified rationalist rules excluding all but epic poetic logics as feminine wiles. In ancient Greece the dangers of poetry were paradoxically associated with the great tragic dramas and the notorious “flute girls” of Athens — slaves trained to entertain at parties. Hence, the feminine in (post-presocratic) academic philosophy is and always has been agonistic. The more I’ve read Wittgenstein the more I’ve come to understand his refusal to comply with ordained philosophical rationalism as a struggle of and with the agonistic feminine at the heart of his psychological and intellectual being. He loved poetry but, conscious of his Jewish heritage, took contemporary characterizations of the “semitic races” as “unpoetic” to heart. (More about this later.) The poetry/philosophy agon is most apparent in his strangely beautiful Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (completed at age twenty-nine) — a numerically ordered, quasi-axiomatic progression of propositions demonstrating logical (and limiting) conditions for meaning (what can be expressed) in language.[47] They are also full of aphorisms —“The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy” (6.43) — as well as religious yearning, and, yes, poetry. The Tractatus axiomatically aims at what Wittgenstein characterizes in his preface as “unassailable and definitive” truth, but more strikingly arrives at a spiritual realization of the immense reality beyondlogical truth values, beyond philosophical language: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is mystical” (6.522). The final proposition of the Tractatus is: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent ” (7). What one can say is there is poetry in that very statement, and in what it implies. 

If the famous passages above sound a bit off, it’s because they are from the first (1921–22) English translation by C. K. Ogden, who strove to honor the “peculiar literary character of the whole” with a rendering “very carefully revised” by Wittgenstein himself. (It was Ogden who initiated bilingual editions in order to preserve the poetics and frequent colloquialisms of the original German.) The Ogden-Wittgenstein version was “superseded” in 1961 (ten years after Wittgenstein’s death) by a now standard translation for Anglophone academic use, aimed at making the philosopher’s thoughts more easily understood while sometimes subtly, sometimes radically departing from the poetics of the original. What that means is the agonistic rationalist/poetic dialectic throughout is to some degree silenced. In the early 1960s, when I began studying Wittgenstein as a philosophy student, he was presented as a “linguistic analyst” pure and simple: aesthetic and spiritual dimensions ignored or dismissed. His subsequent repudiation of attempts at “definitiveness” in the Tractatus, his performative challenge to the logical positivism of the incipient Vienna Circle — reading Tagore’s poetry aloud with back turned as the “positivists” tried to make sense of the Tractatus — were mentioned, if at all, only as anecdotes revealing his eccentricity. Philosophy departments, in defense of academic rationalism, have attempted to save Wittgenstein’s reputation as philosophical genius from himself. The fact remains that he was composing philosophy as prose-poetic form in the Tractatus, in parts of the Philosophical Investigations, and even in notes published after his death as Culture and Value and On Certainty. If models of a mathematical or philosophical poem are pre-Socratic, e.g., Pythagorean or Parmenidean; or modernist, e.g., Stein’s “Are There Arithmetics”; or contemporary, e.g., Oulipean or procedural and investigative poetries, the Tractatus can be read as a philosophical poem that fields tensions between rational-irrational, scientific-spiritual, masculine-feminine polarities. Wittgenstein’s fin-de-siècle, early modernist sensibilities are coherent with many post-romantic experimental poetries.

Rosmarie Waldrop’s, for instance. Her gravely humorous engagement with Wittgenstein adds new dimensions to the agon. One might call the resulting volume, The Reproduction of Profiles, a triumph of the agonistic feminine at sensual and intellectual play. For Wittgenstein the Tractatus had turned into an inadvertent logico ad absurdum. He had demonstrated with propositions like “The facts in logical space are the world” (1.13) how, and perhaps even why, what he most valued aesthetically, spiritually, sensually had no place in the severely limited world of unadulterated scientific method. In a sense, both he and Waldrop rectify the constraints of the Tractatus (which do contribute to its uncanny poetic force) with their generative deployment of what Wittgenstein came to call language as “form of life” — giving (and given) meaning by its uses in everyday experience. Waldrop, borrowing from the philosopher’s “language games” —from both the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations — tests implicit hypotheses with poetic actions that can swerve abstract ideas out of logical space into humorously inflected domestic situations. In the opening suite of five prose poems called “Facts,” philosophy tends to collide with blatantly common-place observations. Passages that mirror the notational form of the Investigations set metaphysics and epistemology in deliciously unsettling contact with concrete experience and seeming non sequiturs of intimate conversation. Here is the first:

I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn’t touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness.[48

And here is the third:

The proportion of accident in my picture of the world falls with the rain. Sometimes, at night, diluted air. You told me that the poorer houses down by the river still mark the level of the flood, but the world divides into facts like surprised wanderers disheveled by a sudden wind. When you stopped preparing quotes from the ancient misogynists it was clear that you would soon forget my street.[49]

After the Tractatus, Wittgenstein addressed the Oxbridge philosophical world with texts that refused the authoritative stance of a systematically assertive, internally coherent through-structure — the staple of philosophical argument. His interrogatively framed thought experiments are what have made the work so inviting; suggestive fragments (silences of other kinds) are productive of further thought. This approach was (can be, for any who try it) an unnerving departure from the masculinized objectives of consistency, coherence, conclusiveness, control — the QEDs that end conversations. In his preface to the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes ambivalently about the form his thought processes have taken: 

I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs. … It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. … After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination. — And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. … I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own. I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about.[50]

A poignant reminder of the kind of self-doubt instilled by deviance from the authority of patriarchal norms. Wittgenstein’s philosophical agon ultimately took the form of the thought experiment, de facto resistance to tightly argued rhetorics of persuasion. Yet he could not help judging himself by the academy’s criteria. Perhaps even more so by the harsh judgements of Otto Weininger’s influential Sex and Character which linked the semitic to the derivative — the uncreative and, of course, unpoetic; the homosexual to the feminine; the feminine to weakness of thought and character.[51] Wittgenstein struggled to respect the contributions he felt were possible despite his flawed character: “I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking, I have always taken one over from someone else ... What I invent are new similes.”[52] He came to understood his contribution to philosophy as clarification. In a statement I read as his philosophical poethics, he wrote “What I do think essential is carrying out the work of clarification with COURAGE: otherwise it becomes just a clever game.”[53]

Carrying out this work did require courage, given his tormented sense of harboring characterological weaknesses. Baptized in the Roman Catholic church and given formal instruction in that religion as a child (many relatives in his branch of the Wittgenstein family were Protestant or Catholic converts), it’s not surprising that Wittgenstein valued (secular) acts of confession, many of which he presented to friends. Hence, he confessed to being inadequate for the task of the more cohesive book he hoped to write in his 1945 preface, then withdrew the manuscript, already in production. It was eventually published posthumously. In 1947 he wrote, in a separate manuscript (incorporated, after his death in 1971, into Culture and Value), “Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.”[54] Nonsense, cardinal sin of feminine alterity.


Perhaps nothing foregrounds language as “form of life” more clearly than heretically courageous investigative poetries. Among poets engaged with the linguistic habitus of colonial power — official choreographies and grammars (secular and religious) continuing to enact violent historical logics — there is none whose work is more stunning than NourbeSe Philip. In She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Philip models a poethics of the agonistic feminine engaged with the perniciously embodied language games of racism and misogyny. As history parsed Sappho into fragments; as history parses certainties into thought experiments, essays, and poems; as history is infernally reenacted in the habitus — repository of all legacies; as history parses persons into docile/utilitarian minds/bodies; parses persons into bodies with hidden minds; parses women into cunts; parses the lot of it/us into property … what is one to do as a poet? NourbeSe Philip’s poethical agon (agonistic African-Caribbean-Canadian feminine) is an act of unflinching analysis and fiercely moving linguistic reparation. I suspend the work of this essay by turning to one of Philip’s poethical interrogations of the habitus in She Tries Her Tongue: an excerpt from a poem called “Universal Grammar,” whose poetics is often as much about the space around and in between the polarities words create as the words themselves. For that reason, I have drawn top and bottom page lines to indicate Philip’s placement of words in page space.




                as Sappho’s

tremble of tongue on the brink of


       (when the passage of sound is completely

        blocked a consonant is called)


tongue on the brink of


       (prefix — occurring only before vowels)



on the brink of


       (to strip or peel off (the skin) 1547)



The tall, blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned man is shooting 


tongue trembles

on the again and again

of forget









Parsing — the exercise of dis-membering language into fragmentary

cells that forget to re-member.
























raped—regular, active, used transitively     the again and again      against

women      participled into the passive voice as in, ‘to get raped’;      past

present      future—tense(d) against the singular or plural number of the

unnamed subject, man







when the smallest cell remembers—

how do you

how can you

when the smallest cell


lose a language


O homen alto, louro de olhos azuis esta a disparar

El blanco, rubio, alto de ojos azules está disparando

De lange, blanke, blonde man, met der blauwe ogen, is aan het schieten

Le grand homme blanc et blond aux yeux bleus tire sur

Der grosser weisse mann, blonde mit bleuen augen hat geschossen

The tall, blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned man is shooting

        an elephant

        a native

        a wild animal

        a Black

        a woman

        a child





Slip mouth over the syllable; moisten with tongue the word.

Suck     Slide     Play     Caress     Blow — Love it, but if the word

gags, does not nourish, bite it off — at its source —

Spit it out

Start again


From Mother’s Recipes on How to Make a Language Yours or

How Not to Get Raped.[55]


Note: A somewhat different version of this essay will appear in Poetics and Precarity, edited by Cristanne Miller and Myung Mi Kim (Albany: SUNY Press), forthcoming fall 2018.

1. Antigone, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff, in The Complete Greek Tragedies: Volume II Sophocles, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 190.

2. S. M. Quant, Manual for Desperate Times (Washington DC and Paris: Pre-Post-Eros), frothcoming.

3. Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994). I later included “Rethinking” in my volume of interconversational essays, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), along with further development of the idea of an experimental feminine in “The Experimental Feminine” and “The Scarlet Aitch: Twenty-Six Notes on the Experimental Feminine” (linked to Hawthorne’s protagonist, Hester Prynne).

4. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970, trans. C. Lenhardt from the second German edition, 1972, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 8.

5. As Jacques Lacan and others following Freud have aptly put it.

6. Adam Pendleton has drawn this charged phrase from Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” and recharged it in his own manifesto, “Black Dada,” to expand its generative possibilities into a complex working aesthetic that guides the investigative energies of his work. See Pendleton’s Black Dada Reader (London: Koenig Books, 2017).

7. Adorno, “The Essay as Form” (written 1954–58), in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 17, 23.

8. To mark a new epoch of disproportionate human effects on earth’s geology and biosphere.

9. See Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

10. Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990). See chapter 4, “Belief and the Body,” 70–79. All quotes are from book 1, Critique of Theoretical Reason.

11. Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, chapter 3, “Structures, habitus, practices,” 55–56.

12. Gertrude Stein, How to Write, preface and introduction by Patricia Meyerowitz (New York: Dover, 1975), 133.

13. Ethos, logos, pathos: Aristotle’s terms for the tri-partite dynamic equilibrium — of character, reason, and compassion (with its feminine associations) — that gives rhetoric both integrity and persuasive force.

14. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 137–38.

15. Foucault, 136ff.

16. Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 251.

17. Glossary notes: the “thorne,” þ, is the modern th, hence, oþerhed — otherhood, or otherness; þenne — then. Thorneless owe can be read as ought. I owe this and other insights into Middle English vocabulary, spelling, and grammar to colleagues at Bard, particularly Marisa Libbon.

18. Composed from OED usage examples beginning with entries for “wont.”

19. Marianne Moore, Collected Poems (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951), 69–70.

20. August Kleinzahler, “She,” London Review of Books 39, no. 15 (July 27, 2017): 34.

21. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) is full of examples of the way we daily rehearse the links between language and our necessarily physical experience of the world.

22. Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” in Woman, Culture, and Society,ed.M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 68–87.

23. “Jimbo’s Inferno” is part of my forthcoming Bosch Studies: Fables, Moral Tales and Other Awkward Constructions. The coda uses modified language from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1867 translation of Dante’s Inferno, widely available in the public domain.

24. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), epigraph to part 6 (177).

25. Quoted in Klein, This Changes Everything, 267.

26. Klein, 267.

27. Page duBois, Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

28. Moore, Collected Poems, 75.

29. The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 1954), 466.

30. Nietzsche, 455.

31. In Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (Oxford UK & Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 1992), 52–53.

32. Levinas, The Levinas Reader,48.

33. Page duBois alerted me to this passage in Sowing the Body, 33. She quotes the first four lines, to which I add the next three, from Richmond Lattimore’s translation in The Complete Greek Tragedies: Volume I, Aeschylus, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1959), 158, lines 658–63.

34. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York and Toronto: Knopf, 1993), xivn3.

35. Levinas, The Levinas Reader, 49.

36. Levinas, 98.

37. Levinas, 202.

38. Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” in Writing and Difference (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 320–21, n92. “TI” is Derrida’s citation to Levinas’s Totality and Infinity.

39. Homer,  The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Anchor Books, 1963), book 16, lines 253–61.

40. In Gertrude Stein: Selections, ed. Joan Retallack (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 264.

41. See Luis Felipe Fabre, “Sor Juana y otros monstruos/Sor Juana and Other Monsters: An Academic Paper in Verse,” trans. John Pluecker (Brooklyn, NY: Señal#1, Ugly Duckling Presse, with Bomb Magazine and Libros Antena Books). Señal#2 is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Enigmas. Experimental translations by Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal. Both published in 2015.

42. I quote more of this passage, with more discussion, in The Poethical Wager, 146–47.

43. Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1928), 110.

44. Woolf, 126–27.

45. Woolf, 116.

46. “Ich glaube meine Stellung zur Philosophie dadurch zusammengefaßt zu haben indem ich sagte: philosophie düurfte man eigentlich nur dichten … Ich habe mich damit auch als einen bekannt, der nicht ganz kann, was er zu können wünscht.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 24, 24e. I have slightly modified the English translation.

47. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1922). All quotations are from this edition and are followed by their number in the text.

48. Rosmarie Waldrop, “Facts,” in “The Reproduction of Profiles,”in Curves to the Apple (New York: New Directions, 2006), 5.

49. Waldrop, 6.

50. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, third ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1958), ixe, xe.

51. Otto Weininger, Sex and Character (New York: Howard Fertig, 2003). Originally published in German in 1903, this book was widely read in Europe (including by Sigmund Freud) in the early twentieth century. Among those influenced by it were James Joyce, Robert Musil, Herman Broch, and Gertrude Stein, who studied it during her writing of The Making of Americans. The book became notorious for its homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic promotion of the racial ideal of Aryan masculinity. I write about the puzzle of its influence on Stein in my introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

52. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 19e.

53. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 19e.

54. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 56e.

55. M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks,foreword by Evie Shockley (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), 39–41. First published in 1989 (Charlottetown, PEI: Ragweed Press).