Jacqueline Rose on women in dark times

Katrina Zaat & Ina Linge
February 17, 2015

For three decades, Jacqueline Rose has worked at the nexus of  psychoanalysis, literature, and feminist thought. She has written  critical monographs on Proust and Plath, reflections on Zionism and war  informed by Kleinian psychoanalysis, and, in collaboration with  Cambridge’s Juliet Mitchell, a groundbreaking revision of Lacan’s writings on feminine sexuality. She was resident in Cambridge in autumn  2014 as the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the Centre for Gender Studies, writing and lecturing on the subject of  ‘women and the abomination of violence.’

Katrina Zaat and Ina Linge met with Rose to discuss her most recent book, Women in Dark Times.  She describes it as ‘a series of love letters’ to exceptional women of  the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is also a clear-eyed  critique of the sadistic perfectionism to which women are held in  imperfect societies. Katrina’s and Ina’s reflections on the interview follow in the form of letters.


Ina Linge:

In your chapter on Marilyn Monroe you observe that  Arthur Miller realised men venerated Monroe’s sexuality as something  innocent and natural. And yet, over the course of their marriage, Miller  fell into exactly the same trap. Indeed, throughout the book you tell  us to be suspicious of “innocence”, “naturalness”, and “perfection.”  What is the danger of this “perfection” for women?

Jacqueline Rose:

I felt that Monroe was being asked to carry  the can for a post-war America that both wanted to believe it was  perfect and knew that it wasn’t. It knew it was already violent—not just  in a redemptive way, as in World War II, but with the beginnings of  Korea, of Vietnam & McCarthyism. Monroe was being asked to represent  a social and political illusion, and that’s why she excited the mania  she did. Women are often asked to carry the weight of what is wrong with  the social body. The danger is, first of all, that it is such a  punishing demand. Anything less than perfect and you’re hated. Monroe  knew about this, too. She said, “If they love you that much without  knowing you, they can also hate you the same way.” All idealisation is  punishing and sadistic. The second risk is that they’ll believe it  themselves. That slight outsider-ness of being a woman can turn from a  form of political irony and vision, as it is for Hannah Arendt, for  example, into a redemptive vision of womanhood, in which you think it’s  up to you to make things right.


I want to ask about the idea of creaturely life, which  comes up especially in your chapter on Rosa Luxemburg. You write: “You  can only be a genuine revolutionary if you are in touch with the  creaturely, microscopic cruelties of an exploitative, nature-blind  world.” So there seems to be an interesting tension: creatureliness as  being close to precarious “bare life,” but also as a starting point for  activity, a state full of potential.


Obviously Judith Butler has written about “precarious  life” and Eric Santner has written about “creaturely life,” so I want to  acknowledge a debt to both of them. But I was guided throughout this  book by the people I was trying to understand. My terms come more or  less from them. With Rosa Luxemburg, her interest in the subjectivity of  ladybugs and birds has to be considered alongside her critique of  [British astronomer] O.R. Walkey’s concept of infinity as a sphere. She  finds it fatuous, because it turns infinity into something  self-contained and manageable. Whereas, for her, the whole point of  infinity is precisely that there’s no bounding it or mastering it. Out  of that notion of an unpredictable and spontaneous universe, the logical  consequence arises of being connected to things you don’t realise  you’re connected to.

I think Luxemburg believed our main political task is to step over  into an understanding of people, things, classes, races, that are not  our own. She hated Polish nationalism, for example. But once you open  yourself up beyond the limits of identification, then there’s no end to  whom or what you might need to see yourself as. If you have the  capacity—and this is socialism, for Luxemburg—to identify across  class and national boundaries, then there will be no limit to what you  find yourself in touch with, even if it’s unsettling.


Could it be then that this “creaturely,” inner life is very close to the “dark times” of the title?


Well it’s a tribute to Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times [1968].  But I rapidly realised that it had other connotations, notably  psychoanalytic. On the one hand, it means the awfulness of the times for  women. I’m not sure if violence against women is worse now, but it’s  more visible. That may be a good thing—we’re talking about FGM, we’re  talking about rape as a war crime—but it’s a double-edged sword. The  visibility of it also invites the culture to normalise it through moral  outrage. As if outrage were enough. I think we’ve got to be very careful  with that. But the main argument of the book, I hope, is that there’s a  darkness to the human psyche. If you are not solicited by the dominant  rhetoric to make the worst forms of social and phallic  identification—i.e. if you’re a woman—then on a good day you will have a  certain access to darkness. You won’t have to wipe it out, you won’t  have to stamp on it, you won’t have to re-repress it in the name of some  harmonious form of psychosocial identity. The enlightenment project  demands that women be allowed to enter the corridors of power. Mary  Wollstonecraft famously said, “let us reason together”—which I don’t  discredit for a minute. But it can also be seen as an attempt to deny  the complexity of the human mind. “We will enter the citizenship of  reason.” It just doesn’t work like that. I like to think that the  wonderful women in this book demonstrate how important it is to be in  touch with something that is difficult and dark and torn. It’s not  precariousness, it’s psychic conflict. At my most affirmative, I like to  think this is what feminism has to bring to politics full stop. There  are all these blokes rushing around doing terrible things, driven by  unconscious fantasies and desires and forms of self-affirmation. I think  feminism should say, “One, that’s not who you are; and two, that’s not  who you have to be. Man or woman.” That’s what I want feminism to see as its gift.

Katrina Zaat:

In recent writings you’ve alluded to an  observation of Melanie Klein’s: that the presence of women reminds men,  discomfitingly, that they were once part of a woman’s body. As a  consequence, Klein says, the rivalry between men and women is more  “asocial” than rivalry between men, because it highlights the closeness  between the genders that men want to deny. I am also thinking about your  comment on the sexual assaults on protestors in Tahrir Square: that  “violence against women must not only be done, but be seen to be done.”  In light of these two ideas, I wonder if you could comment on the  internet trolling of feminists—the astonishing coprolalic excess of  these verbal attacks.


Mary Beard gave a wonderful lecture  about this in February. She talked about men’s rage in response to a  certain kind of articulateness in women. She’s been a real target of  this herself. But there’s something else to be said here: when women  step onto the public stage, they give the lie to the delusion that we  sublimate our bodies in the words we speak. What men see when a woman  stands up and speaks is a woman, with a woman’s body. They sexualise the  speaker, and then the awareness of bodily reality rebounds back onto  them. They really hate her for that. It makes it harder to sustain the  delusion that, in public speech, men are the masters of themselves and  everybody else. As for Melanie Klein’s observation, I just think it is  astounding. And “rivalry” is the key word. War in the changing  room—that’s what boys are meant to do. Men turning on women, that’s  worse. Because there’s no socially-sanctioned place for that aggression.


I understand your book as an intervention into the understanding of women as either victims or  free agents responsible for all their actions. Would you agree that we  need a more situated sense of women’s agency to understand our times?


Yes. Women’s agency comes out of their capacity to  negotiate the darkness of their own lives. Take Rosa Luxemburg: her  partner, [activist] Leo Jogiches, was ghastly by any standard. She  wanted a family and he wouldn’t hear of it; he wouldn’t walk down the  street with her; when she finally asked for the keys to her flat back,  he followed her around with a gun. She had warned him that his neglect  of the inner life, his obsessive focus on only politics, would destroy  both their relationship and their political ideals. After leaving  him, she describes lying on her bed and literally being able to see the  bruises on her soul. She says, “Those bruises are what gave me the  courage for a new life.”

The women in this book go looking underneath the surface of their own  lives and histories, to find what’s blocking them, but also to find the  resources that will help them defy their own predicaments. I do believe  that if you negotiate these things as complex aspects of your own  psyche then you will not have to subordinate other people to the project  of lying to yourself. Women are neither perfectly free agents nor  simple victims. In the case of the mother of [honour-killing victim] Shafileh Ahmed,  this gets very tricky. She allowed her surviving daughter to stand in  the dock for weeks, saying “My parents killed my sister.” She allowed  the defence to discredit not only the live daughter but also the dead  one. You can say she did it because she was dominated by a ghastly,  patriarchal husband, which is true up to a point. But then of course  you’ve made her a pure victim of her own life. You’ve taken all agency  from her. If you don’t do that, you have to explain how a woman  could possibly murder her own daughter. We have to just say, we cannot  square this circle. If you go for one or the other, you’ve dehumanised  her either way.


I want to take up this suggestive binary of women as  “victims” and women as “survivors.” Your use of it seems to explicitly  position your book as an intervention into current feminist debate.


I know one of the book’s most provocative sentences is:  “They’re never solely the victims of their histories, even if that  history finally kills them.” Charlotte Salomon would be the best  example. She certainly was the victim of her history, in that she died  in Auschwitz. But in the two years before that, living in the South of  France, she painted 1300 gouache paintings  in two years—that’s two to three a day—which told the double history of  the rise of Nazism and the devastating impact of that history and its  pre-history on her family. When she discovers that seven members of her  family  killed themselves, she says, “I will live for them all.” That  statement takes the worst of what has happened and incorporates it into a  survivor’s strategy. I think the book is her way of surviving. I see  her as an agent of her life over and over again.

Now, In relation to current debates in feminism, one of the people I  am taking my distance from—and she’s receiving fresh attention lately,  for good reasons—is Catherine MacKinnon. She’s been talking about  violence against women the longest and the loudest. When I decided to  research feminism and violence during my time in Cambridge, I thought, I  must read MacKinnon again. I hoped I would like it, but I  couldn’t bear it. I respect hugely the legal work she’s done, and her  demand for a different kind of attentiveness to women’s rights. But the  vision of women and sexuality that she produces as an effect of that—the  image of women as the permanent victims of their history—is one from  which I would seriously want to disassociate myself. When she says she  looks at the picture of a 9-11 victim and says, “I want to know who hurt  her before,” I think, that’s not all I want to know about that woman. David Simpson  has written brilliantly about the hideous affirmative sameness of the  life narratives attached to 9-11 victims, and I don’t want that. But  neither do I want, “who hurt her before?” Nor, with reference to the  archeologically retrieved bones of ancient civilisations, to make the  most important question: “Were women’s skulls, backs and legs cracked  and broken by blows?” I don’t think that’s ever the whole story. I don’t  want all the women in this book—the ones who’ve died—to be only  remembered through their deaths. That is a feminist point for me.


One pang that I feel when I see the word “survivor” being  used as you use it is that I want all these women to have lived to be  eighty, and to have been happy! I’m thinking, too, of the critiques of  the term “survivor” that Susan Sontag, and later Barbara Ehrenreich,  made in relation to the discourse of illness: that the woman with the  greatest will to live is the one who “beats” the illness, and what does  that say about the ones we have lost? I’m troubled by some of the ideas  that constellate around the term “survivor.”


Certainly, it’s tricky. I mean, for psychoanalysis,  everyone is a survivor of their own story because they can tell it. And  in the process of telling it, it moves. My favourite example of that is Christopher Bollas’  wonderful essay on incest. He writes that when somebody walks in and  says they’ve been abused, his heart sinks. Of course you believe them  and you feel tremendous compassion, but you also know it is all you will  talk about, over and over. His insight is that that’s what the abuse  did to the person. They were someone capable of reverie; capable of poïesis,  of moving around in their minds. And this brute reality came in, and  that’s all that’s left. Abuse shuts the mind by attaching it to the  moment of violence. So the point of the analysis is to allow the patient  to start letting their language and their thoughts move beyond the  occurrence of the trauma. And that, for me, is crucial in not getting  stuck in a rhetoric of harm, as if that’s the end of the story.

I know it’s tricky with Luxemburg, Monroe and Salomon, because they  all died before their time. But one doesn’t want to fetishise the  deaths—there can be a kind of swamping of the person by their death.  Still, of course, having worked a lot on Sylvia Plath, I can’t help  yearning to know what would have happened if she’d lived longer. If  Sexton and Plath had had feminism, they might have lived to be eighty.  But if you crush them into the final moment of their death, then you  take away everything that they were. You ignore everything that they did  with the suffering that, in the case of Sexton and Plath, was finally  too much for them. The whole of their poetry is their continuing work on  the project of survival.


Your book concerns itself with the limits of the  human—with the misfits, the aliens, the other. You write about the  darkness of women and you urge us to make use of it. Do you think that,  to some, this could be seen as a mystification? Critiques of Deleuze and Guattari’s  schizoanalysis come to mind. They have been criticised for glorifying  paranoia by using it as a model for their analysis, and thereby  alienating and denying the paranoid’s emergency.


I hope I don’t deny anyone’s emergency. I’m certainly not  in the business of denying psychic states that border on the unbearable.  When I wrote about Dora  a long time ago—it was a type of initiation rite for feminist  thinkers—and I was very concerned that we should not idealise hysteria  as a form of self-affirmation. It is too painful for that. But hysteria  may also be telling a certain truth. So that’s the line I want to walk.  I’m saying that the darkness that women are in touch with gives them a  certain insight, but I have no wish to deny the pain that is attached to  it. I said in the lecture that I do believe in heroism, but I don’t  believe in idealization. The question, of course, is whether you can  have one without the other.

The other thing I might say in answer to your earlier question,  Katrina, is that these women survive through our ongoing commitment to  them. I see this as one of the tasks of feminism—to keep these women  alive. But yes, I’ve been asked that before: aren’t you skirting  perilously close to the idea that women are the irrational, or  the dark, or the mystic? I certainly hope not, because when you’re  talking about psychoanalysis you cannot mystify any aspect of the  psyche. The point of psychoanalysis is to stop idealisation, because we  see it as punishing, as in the case of Monroe. I hope I’m not glorifying  or mystifying women—certainly I’m not relegating them into the category  of the irrational. I’m saying they have a certain kind of attunement to  something which all of us need, men and women. That’s the key.


Katrina’s Letter to Ina

Dear Ina,

I’m glad this book exists, aren’t you? I admire these women as  artists of their own lives. They stood up to totalitarian fictions with  such wit and subtlety. In a recent conversation  between Rose and Juliet Mitchell, Mitchell pointed out that second-wave  feminism was never about the exceptional women—the figureheads, the  stars—but about every woman. Mitchell suggested that Rose, in  this book, gets the wrong end of the ‘personal is political’ stick—that  she elevates (mere) personal details into political significance, rather  than showing how ideology works its brute force in personal lives.

In fact, I think Rose achieves both, perhaps especially in her  chapter on honour killings. Indeed, I see these two things as  dialectically bound together in the process of feminist  knowledge-gathering. I need to hear about ten thousand “isolated”  instances of violence against women if I am to understand the law of  violence on which this society runs. But it’s also my work as a feminist  to imagine a different world and bring it closer. In that imaginative  work, it helps to have the specifics of how a few very daring,  very gifted women risked their lives to defend a few truths they  considered important. I want the quotations and the anecdotes, the  glittering particulars. They are weapons forged by someone  else—Luxemburg, Salomon, Monroe—that I can now use.

Perhaps your politics are closer to Rose’s than mine are. I find  MacKinnon, for example, indispensable. She’s part of a strand of  feminism that identifies women as an exploited class, with men as the  beneficiaries. With feminism back in the public conversation, I think we  need this insight more than ever. It explains why merely pointing out  inequality doesn’t fix it, and why violence against women is endemic.  Hierarchy has to be reinforced—if not by perfect ideological control,  then by intimidation. As Rose said in her Djerassi lecture, patriarchy  is partially but not totally effective; which accounts for feminism’s  necessity, and also for its possibility. We work in the margin between  the total control toward which patriarchy strains, and the finite  control it actually has. With persistence, we can work it wider and  wider. But there will be a pushback.

I simply do not believe that spotlighting violence against women  reduces us to that violence. Telling the truth about the violence men  have done to me has not stopped me from moving around in my mind, as  Rose’s reference to Christopher Bollas suggested. It has made me more  intellectually agile, in fact—more committed; more usefully angry; more  curious about the experiences of others. As we share our stories, the  data points start joining up. A pattern emerges that links, for example,  Shafilea Ahmed, Jyoti Singh, Tuğçe Albayrak, Malala Yousafzai, the  Pussy Riot trial, the Isla Vista killings, the Montreal massacre, Cosby,  Polanski, Savile, Rochdale, Rotherham. We need some way to understand these situations that does not dismiss each one as a singular, exceptional depravity.

Of course, Rose acknowledges this, and she picks out her own pattern  from the noise. I love her insight that women are less forcefully  interpellated by the symbolic order (because we still don’t have the  status of full human subjects); and that gives us more freedom to work  outside its hypocritical values. I agree that this is feminism’s dark  gift. Women see—are forced to see—what the dominant culture can’t  bear to. I’m not so persuaded by the Arendtian/Kleinian idea she  advances, that what men fear most about women is the potential for new  life we represent. After all, women too old and too young to be mothers  are also feared. I think we are scary because we are exploited, and the  exploited are a time bomb (though they try to tell us that ticking we  hear is just our biological clocks). Perhaps our incapacitation by  child-rearing first exposed us to such forms of control. But it  continues now, far beyond biological exigency, because it suits the  status quo. An IUD costs five US cents to make, and $500 to buy in America. Women are dying in India because medically-unqualified butchers are performing mass sterilisations for cash. 80% of professors in the UK are still men,  which suggests that even the most privileged, educated women in the  world are held back professionally by reproducing. I don’t think all  this happens because our wombs are atavistically scary. I think it’s  because they’re the soft, pink bits where they can still most  effectively grab us and squeeze.

In her conversation with Mitchell, Rose explicitly distanced herself  from the radical feminist ‘women as exploited sex-class’ position. She  feels it has come to dominate over the insights of socialist and  psychoanalytic feminism. But I can’t think of a more plausible  explanation for the multiple disadvantages we still face. We are  subordinated—actively, systematically, all the time—because someone  benefits.

This doesn’t exclude talking about the exploitation of the poor by  the rich. Multiple hierarchies can co-exist in mutual reinforcement. And  it seems to me perfectly possible to square this with Rose’s  psychoanalytic reading of men’s fear of women. Oppressors fear the  people they oppress. Above all, they fear the suggestion that the  exploited group are out of control—that they have obscure,  unquantifiable reserves of power that might erupt at any time. We see  this in representations of women, of brown and black people, of Muslims.  Perhaps women’s subjugation is peculiar in that it is largely managed  through idealisation. “Idealisation is always punishing.” That  observation of Rose’s has stayed with me. I aspire to be a Lady  Lazarus—rotten, uncanny, out of bounds—to honour all the women who  resisted before. Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Emmeline Pankhurst. Mary  Jane Clarke. Charlotte Salomon. Rosa Luxemburg. Marilyn Monroe. Safia  Ahmed-jan. Konca Kuriş. Zil-e-Huma Usman. These women might not have  seen eighty, but they live on in our wrath and in our love.



Ina’s reply

Dear Katrina,

I remember a conversation I had with a past lover. They were the kind  of person who seemed familiar with the entire canon of gender and  feminist milestones and told me about local cyborg communes  on our first date. They were also, unfortunately, the kind of person  who seemed to think that sexual liberation meant that sexual partners  should be treated as accessories to one’s personal satisfaction. During  one of our irregular dates (commitment was profoundly uncool) we argued  about whether trigger warnings, consensus hand signals and autonomous  housing projects run by and for queers were a good thing. I said that I  found it important to acknowledge hurt and vulnerability. My lover just  said: then what? And I didn’t know.

I don’t think that I was wrong, but since our interview with  Jacqueline Rose, I also (rather begrudgingly) admit that ‘then what?’  may well be a useful question. I stand by my opinion that acknowledging  vulnerability and pain is an important step that puts into discourse the  physical, psychological and structural violence and abuse that women  disproportionally suffer from all over the world—but that has to be the  beginning of something else.

I appreciate the point Rose makes about the deaths of the women  discussed in her book: Do we want to remember them just by the way they  died? Of course that must be part of the story—we should not be silent  about the fact that Charlotte Salomon was murdered in Auschwitz, that it  makes a difference whether Monroe committed suicide or whether she was  killed or that Plath—to point towards Rose’s other important work, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991)—took  her own life. But I like Rose’s book for what it is: a series of love  letters to women who, despite their untimely deaths, led incredible  lives, an attempt to do justice to their personalities and actions.

As I understand her, Rose does not discredit the fact that agency—the  ability to rally, to counter-act, to demand change—can be born out of  discussions about private encounters with harm and violence, such as  Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project.  I understand her refusal to spotlight violence as an attempt to shed  light on that agency. One of the most striking aspects of Rose’s book is  this intervention into an understanding of women as either victims or  free agents responsible for all their actions. In our interview Rose  talked about the mother of honour-killing victim, Shafileh Ahmed. In her  book she also talks about Shafileh’s sister, Alesha, and decidedly  turns away from seeing her as solely the victim of, or complicit with,  her parents’ murder of her sister. She asks how we can think of women as  affected by their history but not merely the victims of it, even if  that history finally kills them. And in her discussion of Marilyn  Monroe, she does not trivialise her, like so many others would do, for  being a movie star, for being a part of the Hollywood machine that  subjected her to patriarchal exploitation. Instead, Rose focuses on the  critical potential Monroe had because she was deeply embedded in  Hollywood’s power structure. This situated sense of agency considers the  varying positions from which one can act and speak and offers an answer  to a fear ushered in by post-structuralism, that we are the helpless  victims of the cultural and social norms that pervade us, that  everything we do is out of our control. As you wrote in your letter, it  is in the margins between total and finite control that action can take  place.

I think this is where Rosa Luxemburg’s rejection of the idea of the  universe as a sphere offers a parallel to Rose’s feminist politics.  Luxemburg didn’t want us to lock ourselves up inside a closed, rational,  self-similar system—neither in our cosmology, nor in our politics. For  Rose, the mentality of victimhood is one such system. Luxemburg’s  creaturely affinities are turned outwards and towards a sheer endless  variety of life: the ladybug, the bird, the plant, the beast, the  buffalo, Mount Pele. Luxemburg’s attempts at identifying with those  radically other to herself bleed across species boundaries. Of course  you can never be the other, as Rose suggests Luxemburg tries to  be. But there is such potential in opening yourself up to this  otherness, which Rose sees also as a kind of spontaneity, an influence  on her messy feminism that has no sharp edges because it is absolutely  pervasive and unpredictable. To me, this is also what connects feminism  to other kinds of political discourses on race, ability, and  human-animal difference. This is where Rose on Luxemburg reminds me of  Donna Haraway’s politics of affinity that she laid out in her Cyborg Manifesto:  a feminist politics that bleeds across unsavoury boundaries, is partial  and without innocence. This is something that Monroe could certainly  agree with—she knew like no other that perfection and idealisation are  lethal to women.

For Luxemburg, the perfect revolution is not desirable: “The only  flawless revolution would be dead.” For Rose, there is a similar  principle driving feminism as a powerful form of social critique. I see  similarities with her piece  on the importance of literary criticism in which she says that “by  opening a text to the endless process of interpretation […] it prevents  us from thinking that the world can be made perfect by stopping it.”  This acknowledgment of the fortuitous loss of perfection and stasis is  one that I recognise in the darkness and madness that Rose ascribed to  women and, to me, it represents Rose’s incisive contribution to current  feminist debates.



All by
Katrina Zaat & Ina Linge