Habemus PM; or, irritation after the EU referendum

Naomi Schor:

Viewed as congenitally (rather than culturally) particularistic, the woman artist is doubly condemned to produce inferior works of art: because of her close association with nature, she cannot but replicate it. (11)

Wouldn't her time be better spent replicating human life? is the suggestion implicit in the ideology Schor is describing here.1

In my last post—over two weeks ago now, since the EU referendum decimated, among other things, my ability to write—I pointed to Barbara Johnson's speculation about the antagonism between female art and maternity. "It is as though male writing were by nature procreative, while female writing is somehow by nature infanticidal" (38). Not, obviously, that mothers don't write, or that maternity is not indeed the condition of writing for some. (It is.) Rather, the prevailing ideology that men produce, women reproduce imposes this suggestion on works of art by women regardless of the actual conditions of their production.

In the ongoing saga of confusion and despair that is British politics, there was a bright spot of clarity when Andrea Leadsom, the underdog Tory MP standing for Prime Minister, intimated that the frontrunner (and now, apparently, our new PM as of Wednesday) might not really care about the future because she didn't have children.

Those of us who were questioning everything, as we first felt unhappy that David Cameron was resigning (??) and then somehow wanted Theresa May to replace him (???), at least knew what to think about that. Copies of Lee Edelman's No Future were waved. (Granted, that book is pretty much some 70's feminist witch stuff with all the women mysteriously removed, but it's still a stylistic delight, among other things.) The irony of it all is that May and Leadsom were actually equally committed to crushing the young with economic inequality and debt.

I'm not a poet, and this has come to be important to me. I had a conversation with Anne Boyer about this, how a woman can be forgiven for being a critic, but not for being a poet. As a critic, "you can be Hermione Granger," is how she put it—a grind, that slightly irritated copyist of others' words that Ngai describes in her chapter on "Irritation." Even Hermione Granger is a potentially infanticidal witch, but you see where this is going. Being a critic means you might stay under the radar, working a kind of "unconscious fastidiousness," as Moore puts it in "Critics and Connoisseurs," the care an animal takes with details, not because he is an artist but because he is of nature. (She is talking about a swan that is pretending not to care about snacks, but totally cares).

Rather outrageously, Moore often does speak of her own writing as a kind of naturalness: "My own fondness for the unaccented rhyme derives, I think, from an instinctive effort to ensure naturalness," she claims ("Feeling and Precision," 398). Instinct? Naturalness? In Marianne Moore? Again, as D. A. Miller writes of Austen (another spinster), the disingenuous deflection of style is a disavowal of any need for a queer refuge, a disavowal of any tendency to be unnatural and thus somehow a license to be precisely that.

It's no accident that style's opposite is "nature." To be "woman" is to be "of nature" (as Schor, among so many others, points out), but to be a stylist is, as Joseph Litvak observes, to be against nature, the sexual sin contra naturam (Litvak 4, Daston and Vidal 235).

Where does the female scrivener sit, perched on the boundary between copyist and artist? Almost aggressively posing as a copyist, and taking time out, too, to be a critic (as Moore did when she edited the Dial from 1925 to 1929), sometimes pretending to be an animal, fastidious but unconsciously so, Moore nearly pulls off the balance, "creepy to behold."

But that note of irritation gives things away, I think—admits to gender's violence.

The final two poems in Mia You's sequence "Harvard Wives" do something similar, though in much different ways. "After-Dinner Games" recounts the history of the college-educated Harvard wives who, at low pay, processed the astronomical data at the Harvard College Observatory at the turn of the twentieth century, and later, in the 1960s, staffed its photo reduction lab.(Naomi Oreskes points out how scientific desiderata like objectivity, when performed by a woman, simply led to her disappearance from the record: an "objective" woman could be made out to be a mere copyist of nature, a technician or instrument or indeed "computer.")

The succeeding poem takes the form of a thank-you note, veering between form letter and confession. The note thanks the husband's colleague for a dinner party, opening with the formulaic warmth that typically marks these missives ("We are so moved you included us," but only I the wife am writing this obligatory note about how moved we are).

Soon we get down to brass tacks:

The question is: Do I thank you? I mean, do I appreciate your company? ... After all, we paid a babysitter $16/hr so that we could attend your dinner party , and I don't spend that kind of time and money on enjoyment anymore. (43)

That "$16/hr" opens up the layers of irony in this act of emotional labor. It's not a vast sum as wages go, but it's paid for work that the letter-writer usually does for free, and only so that the letter-writer can do another kind of unpaid work, act the part of "wife" at a husband's colleague's home while thinking about the mortgage.

The two poems point to the "Harvard wives" as copyists, whether working as scientists reduced to underpaid and unrecognized "computers" or as professional wives who, when not engaged in the direct reproductive labor of minding the children, are wheeled out as props for a husband's career. Whether "processing" data or performing the script of being so moved by a husband's colleague's invitation, it's another's words and another's selfhood being circulated by a woman's body and moving lips.

That demurral: I didn't enjoy it. It moves us not.

Is it the demurral, the irritation, that seems witchy? Contra naturam? Or can we pay it off with some younger or poorer woman's labor at $16 an hour?2



1 I take "woman" here as a social category into which one is conscripted, not as an essence or identity. "Woman" as a category is the reproductive class, and must respond to questions of reproduction broadly conceived, whether or not a body so gendered is physically able to bear children (regarding which we might note how reproduction became an election issue for Theresa May long before Andrea Leadsom even brought it up).

2 Silvia Federici points out how idle it is to try to answer these questions by policing women's "feminist choices," as long as the realm of reproductive labor remains the responsibility of women (73).



Daston, Lorraine, and Fernando Vidal. The Moral Authority of Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Federici, Silvia. “Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor.” In Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, 65–75. Oakland: PM Press, 2012.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “Marianne Moore as Female Female Impersonator.” In Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist, edited by Joseph Parisi, 27–46. Studies in Modern Literature, no. 109. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press, 1990.

Johnson, Barbara. “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion.” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (April 1, 1986): 29–47.

Litvak, Joseph. Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Moore, Marianne. Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924. Edited by Robin G. Schulze. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Moore, Marianne. “Feeling and Precision.” Sewanee Review 52, no. 4 (December 1944): 477–507. Rpt. in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, edited by Patricia C. Willis, 396-402. New York: Viking, 1986.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Oreskes, Naomi. “Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science.” Osiris, 2nd Series, 11 (January 1, 1996): 87–113.

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 2007.

You, Mia. I, Too, Dislike It. California: 1913 Press, 2016.

Posted 11 July 2016.