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Girl on girl

July 24, 2016

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

A Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop

58605   harry-dodge-2016_07    jane gallop

The Argonauts (click here) is not your usual baby book. According to Maggie Nelson’s faculty page at the California Institute of the Arts it is:

a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, sodomitical maternity, queer family, and the limitations and possibilities of language

Nelson is a lesbian-ish poet and writer. Her partner, Harry Dodge, a female to male transsexual film maker and actor. Her politics are far left – the anti-capitalist rhetoric sometimes grates – but she is a wonderful writer. Her subject is not just sex and babies, not even the complexity of human sexuality, gender roles and reproduction, although she takes the reader to some wilder shores. Nor is it even about individual complexity, how so many of us, can hold mutually opposing opinions at one and the same time. Nelson’s real subject is the difficulty of writing about all that. How it is impossible to put the truth about our feelings into words, but that still we must try. Words are the best we have. “Words are good enough.”

She describes caring as a step parent for Dodge’s son, and the conception, pregnancy and birth of their shared son, Iggy. The conception was of course complicated, but the rest was normal; spontaneous labour at 39 weeks, some unspecified pain relief, amniotomy at full dilatation and an unassisted vaginal birth. At six months Iggy “was stricken by a potentially fatal nerve toxin that afflicts about 150 babies out of the 4 million+ born in the United States each year”. She doesn’t name the disease; “I am not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin”, presumably that’s for her next book, but elsewhere we are told it cost $47,000 to be treated with an “infusion of rare antibodies harvested from other people’s bodies”. My guess is immune globulin for infant botulism.

But this is all background. The interest lies in dozens of loosely linked vignettes about life and attitudes in a fluidly gendered community in present day California. Here’s a few.

Nelson rages against the mother of a transgendered child, a pupil, likening the child’s sex change to a bereavement, until Dodge reminds her of her own fears about how he would change with testosterone.

Dodge explains that it takes a female to male transsexual to see the ways men acknowledge each other publicly; the nod as we pass in the street that women never make. Nelson notes that we presumably do it to reassure other men that we have no aggressive intent; throughout most of history a strange man was a threat in a way a strange woman rarely was.

She works herself into a lefty lather about being “forced” to work in a smokers bar, albeit long before she was pregnant, but admits to enjoying the company of the reckless smokers and drinkers she met there.

The sex seems to have been good. “You pretend to use me, make a theatre of heeding only your pleasure while making sure, I find mine.”

Most shocking is her description of an extraordinary attack (p 48) by art historian Rosalind Krauss on the feminist Jane Gallop. I don’t know anything about Krauss, but Gallop was to become famous with her controversial Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (click here). Nelson doesn’t mention that later book, although it’s surely relevant.

The seminar was at the City University of New York (CUNY) in October 1998. The topic photography. Gallop, a newlywed young mother, spoke of studying it from the point of view of the person photographed, illustrated her talk with slides of her naked self with her baby, and spoke happily and un-academically about sex with her new husband. “Heterosexuality always embarrasses me” notes Nelson parenthetically, but she is attracted to Gallop’s method, despite the tentative nature of her ideas and the incompleteness of her analysis. She is also attracted to Gallop, to her vulnerability, her unfashionable dress sense.  And then Krauss, sharp, classy, Ivy League, responds with, as Nelson recalls it, a vicious unsparing academic take down of Gallop’s temerity.

The lashing Gallop received that day stood for some time in my mind as an object lesson. Krauss acted as though Gallop should be ashamed for trotting out naked pictures of herself and her son in the bathtub, contaminating serious academic space with her pudgy body and unresolved self-involved thinking (even though Gallop had been perfecting such contamination for years).

The tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind – besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting.

Shocking, particularly for those, who in equivalent debates on birth itself, side with the Krauss’s of this world; rolling our eyes at soft midwifery-based mother and baby talk, when what is needed is manly science. Nelson describes how generally she also sides with the hard-edged academic. But …

In the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.

She’s right. Gallop can talk nonsense, e.g. this from her home page (click here) “[…] The project brings together crip theory, feminist aging studies, queer temporality, psychoanalysis, and anecdotal theory. I consider how disability that begins in midlife and/or the entrance to middle age are [sic] lived as a threat to one’s sexuality and one’s gender, but also how these perspectives can supply us with alternative models of sexual temporality.” Lord save us!

But, like Nelson, when she draws from personal experience – A Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment is just that – she writes beautifully. Accused by two female students with whom she had flirted, Gallop got off with a warning from her university, and then jumped into print with this book. It’s not just a defence of her own actions, but a closely argued claim that sexual harassment rules in university have gone too far. Not only are they impossible to police – people start relationships at work all the time – but they harm academic discourse. Flirtation brings energy and intensity. Without sexual possibility universities would be grey and chilling.

Only a woman with rock solid feminist credentials would dare make such a claim – sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious and ongoing problem. But Gallop goes further. She describes previous escapades where she as a student fucked her teachers, and other occasions when as a more senior academic she flirted with, and sometimes fucked, her students. Apparently none of them complained.

She argues that even if she had gone all the way with the students who complained, she should have had no case to answer, just so long as the students had remained willing, and she had not unjustifiably discriminated against them academically. She even protests at the students legal attempts to prevent her writing about the story. It’s a racy read – not the sex itself, albeit both straight and lesbian – but the thrill of a woman writing so openly. And on the substantive issue Gallop surely has a point, although the line between constructive flirtation and harassment is a fine one, and tiny misreadings of intent can easily cause trouble, even for a sophisticated navigator of these choppy waters.

I can’t hope to do justice to either of these two short and brilliant books, and not just for lack of space; my words are not good enough.

Jim Thornton

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