Irreverent Goddesses: Tantric and Flippant Feminisms in Dialogue
PC Flippancy is defined as a disrespectful levity or casualness, usually expected of a subject who is talkative and in the case of my poetics, is borne of a congenital lack of seriousness. That is not to suggest that the politics and subject matter, in this case feminism, is not of great weight, but that the attitude and response to it does not demonstrate the gravitas it warrants.
Flippancy operates as a tone of voice, an affectation, in part – a performance – of a constantly moving and faithless reporting of the unfolding feminist politics of contemporary London. The tone is realised through a first-person, who moves throughout the city, attending different events, writing highly subjective lyrics about the experience. Although not disassociated from emotion, flippancy is an attempt to demonstrate humility, the possibilities for bathos that refuses both heroes and idols. It is an attempt to articulate disjunctures and misfits within a category in which one ostensibly fits.
In The Promise of Happiness Sara Ahmed writes about the difficulty of being a feminist, and concludes ‘the history of feminism is thus a history of making trouble’, and my flippancy is an attempt to cause difficulty both within and without my chosen political category. Flippancy is also an assertion of individuality, or at least autonomy, despite my affiliation with a very specific collective. Despite feminism’s need for a united front, the politics benefits from a multiplicity of adherents, to avoid the development of an exclusive category. Ahmed writes that adopting positions ‘require one accepts that one’s own position might anger others and hence allow one’s position to be opened to critique by others’. The flippant speaker within my writing, while critical is simultaneously critiqued through its positioning in dialogue with wider-ranging feminism. This sense of mutual irritation and reciprocal troubling are vital to the progression of a movement that undergoes constant permutation to reflect social change.
NR You’ve just heard the argument against heroes and idols, but what about a little Goddess worship? Let’s throw humility to the wolves, puff up our chests and speak with booming voices. Let’s demonstrate our powers, tell the truth or shamelessly exaggerate, hold hands and sing or stand alone at the top of a mountain and scream bloody murder. The Goddess is a tricky symbol – she elicits a range of reactions, sending shudders and sparks through the crowd. She is an object of religious faith in a multitude of cultures, and yet she is ridiculous and blasphemous according to Abrahamic religious conventions. She is a clay figurine, she tickles the ears of male poets, she leads wild women to smear mud on their breasts, she resides within the modern girl, helping her to achieve domestic bliss… She is all of these versions simultaneously; your fingers get caught as you try to untangle her hair.
The epic trilogy Iovis is Anne Waldman’s meditation on the historical, mythological, and social institution of male power. Men are denounced and deified, but Waldman is no demure priestess, trembling at the feet of her gods. She smokes with the men, argues about politics and philosophy, and then channels that anger and sly pleasure into her Beat-Buddhist-feminist poetics. She is the Goddess you don’t want to mess with (and not afraid to say so herself), the frustratingly beautiful bellicose woman: ‘What is a hero in poetry? What does waiting in ambush mean? What are words for this battle cry? What are the anapests doing in my sleep? Why do I wake up crying every day and loathe the lack of courage that could change this. Women most of you O women unite.’
The Goddess and Western feminist movements converged explicitly in the 1970s, although the relationship between the Goddess and women is ancient and complex. The Goddess transforms across vast historical and geographical distances, she is whatever she needs to be for specific communities and moments in time. Fragments of myth and ritual stick to her skin as she rolls into the contemporary – Goddess poetics embraces, appropriates, and encourages women to reimagine themselves as everything and nothing all at once.
PC Anne Waldman sounds a lot like the woman permitted by the men; the exception that proves the rule; the token vagina in a phallic homosocial fray. I’m glad she got admitted though. It’s nice to have one woman there at least to represent us –-- Thatcher achieved a very similar thing.
So considering wild individualism and the self, it’s interesting to consider Eileen Myles’ position. In the promotional video for her poet’s novel Inferno (2010), she claims that ‘there’s nothing falser than Eileen Myles’, a statement that resonates with her career and practised poetics. Myles has spent a career writing with a lyric I, but also referring to herself in third-person, foregrounding self-referentiality and a hyperawareness of her performing subjecthood. The self, then, becomes a flexible construct with which a woman can play. As opposed to being constituted entirely by socio-economic and political context, the feminist poet can demonstrate knowingness in the ways in which the self is conveyed through text.
NR That’s nothing that Anne Waldman doesn’t know! She opens her exuberant poem ‘Fast Speaking Woman’ with a quotation from Arthur Rimbaud: ‘I is another’. She chants: ‘I’m the lonesome woman / the woman without a home / I’m the lithesome woman / the limber woman, the woman forbidden / the woman divided, the woman entangled / the woman caught between two continents / the woman dancing inside her house’. In performance, Waldman variegates – her voice, her hands, her face expressing each self that she has written.
PC I think ‘I is another’ is extremely problematic, because in feminism it can be misinterpreted as ‘I is the other’ --- I think in contemporary intersectional feminism, we no longer have a place for a woman who speaks for everyone, but want to create places so that every woman can speak. We set up a monolithic feminism with ‘I is another’, in the assumption that one woman can speak for every woman. What Rimbaud is attempting to communicate is a self-estrangement, similar to what Ahmed talks about when she writes that the participation in feminism leads to social estrangement, and as a result, at points, a position that makes one a stranger to oneself.
I find particularly in my work the ‘self’ is vital for cultivating a flippant tone that operates as a mobile critique of contemporary feminism. Rather than considering the body as central to the development of personality, a poetic voice is able to escape the unhelpful belief that biology is destiny. This separation between the physicality of a poet, and the ways in which they frame their speaking voice, also indicates an uncomfortable disjuncture that is central to the production of meaning. I like that my body might be present when my mind is elsewhere entirely, it allows for the cultivation of a disembodied voice that retains some distance from proceedings. So, to give you some examples… I’ve sat through so many consciousness-raising sessions in which I have to turn and tell the woman next to me she’s beautiful. Fitting for second wave, definitely, but in 2013 it makes the movement feel a bit like a self-parody. I’ve arrived at protests in which I’ve been one of six expected to sing carols outside Westminster. I think I’ve even been made to reach out and touch a sister, in solidarity.
Denise Riley, a feminist philosopher writes, ‘identity does not make for solidarity’ and in agreeing with her, I think the ‘self’ is a useful term for expressing that concept. To foreground the body and bodily experience perpetually, is to rest on essentialist narratives in which biology and chromosomes determine our futures and social standing. Really, what would Judith Butler say about that? It also allows for an exclusive feminism to be set up in which certain radical groups can legitimately reject trans women because they weren’t born women. Of course, I’m not saying the body isn’t important – but it’s flesh and bone. I find it ridiculous that women are judged to a prescriptive beauty standard, I think it’s horrendous street harassment occurs on the basis of looks – but I find that fruitful writing material. My self, the conscious socially constructed and responsive part of me, can use it --- my body, is just a lump of flesh.
NR It’s that ‘just’ I object to – just flesh and bone, merely a lump of flesh – you’re not saying the body isn’t important, but you aren’t saying it is. You are separating self and body, and reducing the body to the lesser of the two. You know when else that happens don’t you, when men and women are considered separately, and women are considered unequal. Or white and black, or heterosexual and homosexual, or able-bodied and disabled, or any other binary you can think of, however hackneyed and inadequate.
In the essay that accompanies ‘Fast Speaking Woman’, ‘“I is Another”: Dissipative Structures’, Waldman writes: ‘I am personally interested in extending the written word off the page into a ritual vocalisation and event, so that “I” is no longer a personal “I”. I enter into the field of the poem with my voice and body.’ Her arguments are influenced by Tantric philosophies, whereby self and body are not considered separately, because they must operate simultaneously in order to perform rituals. Drinking wine, eating meat, sexual intercourse – these pleasures of the flesh are Tantric versions of meditation, and these physical activities are as spiritually effective as more traditional, self-contained, mentally active forms of meditation. The ultimate goal is disembodiment, which is a release from the bounds of self and body, as embodiment necessitates both.
Of course, the female body is problematic; we are told repeatedly that we are weaker, we suffer more, we are the wrong shape, we can’t throw as well, we can’t think as fast. Specifically female bodily powers entail physical and social disempowerment, and many contemporary feminists would rather avoid the pitfalls of essentialism and biological determinism. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. When you look at me you see my face and body, when you hear me you hear my voice – these categorisations are useful up to a point, but they do not reflect lived experience – I am my face and body, I am my voice, I am my thought processes and the words I write down.
Images of the Goddess can be powerful tools. Tantric goddesses are depicted in all their bodily glory – they have thick legs, teenage waistlines, drooping breasts, hairy bellies, sweaty brows, fanglike teeth, wrinkled skin, green skin, black skin. Their physical variations reflect their different strengths, but whatever they represent they are depicted as defiant and proud. Waldman writes: ‘Biologically, women seem to have a ready access to a construct of multiple meanings, like a multifaceted jewel into which the light pours in from myriad directions and out into myriad directions.’ If we must divide ourselves – you can be two, self and body; I choose to be the innumerable points of the crystal.
Ok, maybe this is self-aggrandisement; but if we continue to think of our bodies as burdens, we will continue to feel bad about ourselves. The expression ‘divide and conquer’ comes to mind – we need to challenge the systems that have made us separate self and body, and realise that within ourselves, as within our social groups, we are stronger when united.
PC I disagree with you completely that my body rejection sets up unhelpful binaries. I think actually, that’s what you’re doing by having invoked them. I am not saying that we need to overlook bodily difference, but our biological dissimilarities are of significance because they have been socially constructed as such. If there were less political and social manipulation of the body, we might actually be able to transcend our corporeality, and be ourselves.
Considering this disparate sense of self and body, my work and the irreverence it practices is an inevitability of existing between and amongst multiple conflicts. While, like most feminists, I am resistant to categories particularly predicated on essentialist biological difference, I do think they have a use. I’ve met a number of people who are post-gender, post-sexuality but it doesn’t seem that the most progressive and edgiest members of societies disregarding categories has much effect. It is all good and well that a hipster in raybans says they believe sexuality is fluid when corrective rape still happens because someone else in the world is using the category ‘lesbian’ to name and locate others. Similarly, it’s really fucking useful when someone identifies as post-feminist or says they don’t believe in male-female categories when 2 women a week die at the hands of their current or ex-partner, one in three women will experience some form of sexual assault and worldwide there are 60 million girls estimated missing.
So it’s wonderful that I can sit here, having read Judith Butler, and tell you I’m so socially constructed that I’ve actually become a post-category feminist. It just completely misses the global scope of the politics and undercuts all of the gendered violence that does occur on the basis of assumed essentialist identities. Further complicating this, is that feminism is a category unto itself. Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness that ‘to be recognized as a feminist is to be assigned to a difficult category and a category of difficulty’. However, she writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion that ‘we can feel uncomfortable in the categories we inhabit, even categories that are shaped by their refusal of public comfort’. I think that is the best that we can offer categories at the moment – to be perpetual irritants to their stability and formulations.
I want to be difficult, and I want to trouble in all its Butlerian glory. I want my feminism to make people uncomfortable, I want my flippancy to be problematic for feminism and simultaneously, I want to feel discomfort as a result of my own privilege. I don’t want to be transcendent or glorious; I want to be the thorn in the side of a thorn in the side of society, which makes me a meta-thorn. I want to be disaffected and a form of disaffection co-existing in a lyric ‘I’.
NR I could point out that you have just said that you want to transcend your corporeality and that you don’t want to be transcendent in the same breath, but I’ll assume it was deliberate, an example of you destabilising your categories. Which I’m all for, by the way. There is an anecdote about a Tantric guru who would demonstrate the trouble with categories by meditating whilst holding sandalwood paste in one hand and faeces in the other. His friends thought he was disgusting and possibly insane, so he responded by eating the latter.
PC It was deliberate – but our use of the vocabularies here reminds me of a Mina Loy poem ‘Parturition’, where she writes ‘I must traverse/traversing myself’. Those two lines seem to say I must keep moving, having moved beyond what I am – which I think is a strong feminist polemic – and maybe what we’re both aspiring toward in different senses. I think the best way to question categories is through digressing and digression.
What are the implications of me bringing this anecdote into this room, in a discussion about contemporary feminism? Why am I – a second generation Indian who read this anecdote in a book about goddesses – telling you – the disaffected blonde who thinks of her privilege as an amusing anxiety? Now despite my involvement with Hinduism and your concern with the millions of girls missing worldwide, I don’t think either of us is claiming to do feminist work on a global scale.
But, I think this is where perhaps we can locate our conflict. You are working with what seem to be grand narratives; toying with the Gods isn’t the most humble of feminist positions. I am writing from the perspective of an individual within a specific scene within a limited urban landscape. You are applying your macrocosm to the microcosm of feminist poetics; I am attempting to use the microcosm of feminist poetics to understand how the macrocosm works.
NR To summarise: you perform critiques of current feminist trends; I perform cultural translations of feminist concepts. The feminism that we do is through our creative practice; the politics we enact is through our poetics.
What are we trying to do here, in this dialogue? We’ve gone through a few of the topics that have troubled feminists since the beginning – self and body, categories, politics. We’ve talked about ourselves and other writers, we’ve asked each other questions that we can’t answer, we’ve agreed and disagreed. Personally, politically, poetically we are different – the crucial point is that this difference does not represent distance between us, it represents the potential for dialogue. If identity doesn’t make for solidarity, where does that leave difference? Maybe we need reminding that we are equal but different, and solidarity is strengthened by diversity.
PC Placing the bathetic, troublesome flippancy in dialogue with the transcendent, glorious Goddess is an enactment of the ways in which conversation should allow for multiple political and poetic strategies to coexist. Feminism is strengthened by difference; our divergent poetics in conversation maintains openness to the other, which we believe is a radical political act.
 Waldman, Iovis, Book III, p. 721.
 Waldman, ‘Fast Speaking Woman’, Helping the Dreamer: New & Selected Poems 1966-1988, pp. 36-58.
 Waldman, Vow to Poetry, p. 194.
 Waldman, Vow to Poetry, p. 197.
 Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, loc. 946.
 Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p.151.