Tag Archives: feminism

Graphic Details Programme out Now!

The programme for the conference Graphic Details: Communities of Experience it out now. Organised by Sarah Lightman and me, it will take place on Wednesday, 12 November at JW3 in London. Click here for tickets and details about how to get there.

The conference is based on the first touring exhibition of comics and cartoons by contemporary Jewish women, whose autobiographical comics confront issues personal and global. The event brings together academics and some of the artists whose work is exhibited, thus offering a unique opportunity to discuss and explore the diverse body of works by Jewish women today.

Participating artists include Sarah Lightman, Miriam Katin, Diane Noomin, Corinne Pearlman, Ariel Schrag, Ilana Zeffren. Plus there will be a special Laydeez do Comics evening session featuring Nicola Streeten, Janis Goodman, Denise Torrance, and Sam Cowan!

Please spread the word! Looking forward to seeing many people comics lovers as well as those with an interest in autobiographical narratives and contemporary culture at the event.

3 November 2014.

NB: This post was amended on 12 November 2014 in response to a demand by a participant who withdrew from the event and asked for their name to be removed from all publicity.

 

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6 Feb. 2014: Nazi Laws and Public Feelings

I’m currently grappling with the question of how to attend to the relationship between law, politics and everyday lives and feelings in the past?

There now exists a considerable amount of cultural and critical scholarship on the shape and shaping of ‘public feelings‘, especially in the present-day U.S., and about what Sara Ahmed has called the Cultural Politics of Emotions. These insights, in different ways, follow in the feminist tradition of challenging the divide between the public and private, the personal and the political.

Photo-0525This article on the ‘Nazi murder law that still exists‘ indicates the importance of such modes of inquiry even as it shows that the law can provoke public feelings that do not address the full extent of systemic injustices. The broad content of the article – that some of the legislation introduced by the Nazis has never been revoked – was not new to me. However, I had previously only looked at the legal history of Paragraph 175 and its variations, which criminalised homosexuality and remained in West Germany’s Criminal Code until unification in 1994 (I’m showing a movie from 1919 about the impact of this law next week. For more info click here).

It is disturbing that  – so many years after Nazi rule has come to an end – people who are tried for murder in the German courts are still subjected to laws that were introduced by a regime which actively pursued hate, discrimination and inequality, and which killed millions of people. Stephen Evans, the author of the piece, points out the gendered effects of the Nazi murder laws, which distinguish ‘murder’ from ‘manslaughter’ via a definition of ‘the murderer’ ‘as someone who killed “treacherously” or “sneakily” (“heimtueckisch” in German):

‘This means that a man who beats his wife over many years, finally killing her, is less likely to be convicted of murder, with a mandatory life sentence, than to be convicted of manslaughter, which may mean only five years in jail. The argument is that there was nothing “sneaky” or “treacherous” about the killing – it was frontal and direct and might have been expected.’

The article gives examples of how some convictions under this law caused public outrage in Germany, but it appears that these public debates largely focused on the individual cases rather than the fact that Nazi laws remain in place in contemporary Germany.

Aside from drawing attention to the very real legacies of Nazism and its twenty-first century presence – how can a state work through its past if its institutions retain the values of an atrocious regime? – these debates also raise questions about the role of the law in historical research. In the history of same-sex sexuality, which is the concern of my current project, changes in legislation – such as the introduction of Paragraph 175 in the newly formed German Empire or the Labouchere Amendment in Britain – clearly impact on individual lives. But my work on Hirschfeld’s private papers and public work has already taught me that the relationship between legal and political developments and ‘felt experience’ is fraught. For laws, while helping to define the conditions of possibility for individual and collective existence, only ever tell part of the story of what it feels like to live at certain moments in time.

This is why, for me, the tools of literary analysis and cultural criticism are so important. As verbal and visual representations are our bridge between the imagined and the real, paying attention to the narratives that shape a historical archive provides access to the lives and feelings of the women and men who inhabit it.

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30 Jan. 2014: Race. Sexuality. And The Same Old Gendered Order of Things?

I’m just beginning to read Chandan Reddy’s Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the U.S State (2011). The book critiques the way neoliberal societies (here: the U.S.) construct narratives of freedom around rights and anti-hate legislation that perpetuates state violence. Reddy ‘argues for modes of critique from the perspective of queers of colour, modes consciously and formatively tied in to critical ethnic studies. We might say,’ he writes, ‘that race is the political unconscious of sexuality, in its current mode as an amendment to twentieth-century orders of legitimate violence’ (p.17).

I have not yet read my way through the full extent of Reddy’s thought-provoking study, but I am particularly interested in exploring how his U.S.-focused insights translate into German and English contexts. For thinking about ‘race [as] the political unconscious of sexuality’ undoubtedly opens up important new perspectives on the relationship between colonialism and the political rights campaigns of early homosexual activists such as Magnus Hirschfeld, and it also raises fresh questions about the relationship between race and sexuality during the Nazi regime, and its legacies.

As always, I am also interested in locating questions of gender in these debates. Given Reddy’s focus on dismantling deeply entrenched power structures, I was taken aback to find that he uses the abbreviation ‘GLBTQ’ when discussing sexual subcultures and politics. In my experience of sexual debates in the U.K. the abbreviation is usually rendered ‘LGBTQ’. I too use ‘LGBTQ’, putting ‘lesbian’ first as a deliberate feminist challenge to the male primacy within patriarchal language.

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So why is ‘GLBTQ’ still in use? A quick internet search brought me to GLBTQ.com, an ‘encyclopaedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture’. In 2003, someone questioned the abbreviation on the site’s discussion forum, receiving the following response:

‘The G, L, B, T, and Q in our name are meant to convey a sense of unity while recognising the distinctive characteristics of the many groups that comprise our community. The order in which the letters appear is arbitrary, and is not intended to convey any historical or other priority for any particular group.’

This reply seems to me misguided. For the order of these letters is not ‘arbitrary’, but the product of a cultural unconscious that renders women second to men. Language and the unconscious have their own contingencies, of course. Could the use of GLBTQ versus LGBTQ be culturally specific, with the former more frequently used in the U.S.?

Feminist debates about language may not be particularly fashionable at the moment, but the question of where women – and gender – are located in political, socio-cultural and theoretical discourse remains absolutely central to any critique of power.

4 January 2014: Magnus Hirschfeld

Why turn to Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) to reexamine the difficult aspects of modern queer history and culture?Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 10.12.40

Hirschfeld is a well known figure, especially in the German history and historiography of sexuality, and he continues to inspire a number of German sexual reform organisations. My own reasons for turning to his work are, however, emphatically not about recuperating him as a ‘role model’ for queer activism. Like others, Hirschfeld was not free of the prejudice of his time. While his achievements should not be diminished, I think it is equally vital to pay attention to the norms that underpinned his thinking. For if we want to understand how prejudice is perpetuated and how norms work themselves into basic assumptions about what it means to be human, then we need histories that are attentive to the often paradox and difficult aspects of the queer past.

My project examines how violence, death and suicide shaped modern queer culture. Hirschfeld is of interest to me because his many activities place him at the centre of modern sexual politics. He was a sexologist and homosexual rights activist who, in 1919, founded the world’s first Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin. He is best known today for his concept of ‘sexual intermediaries’ (sexuelle Zwischenstufen), the idea that there exist infinite variations in gender and sexuality, and for his campaigning for the abolition of Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality. Hirschfeld is also remembered as one of the first transgender theorists. At the same time, however, like so many of his contemporaries, he promoted eugenics, pursuing the problematic belief that humans could be ‘improved’ via carefully managed reproduction, a belief that seems to jar with his equality activism and anti-racist politics.

ImageHirschfeld’s political activism, his Jewishness and homosexuality made him a target for rightwing attacks from the 1920s onward. In May 1933, while he was in exile, the Nazis destroyed his Institute and burnt many of its books in the first of the infamous book burnings.

While Hirschfeld’s activities were shaped by the German contexts in which he mainly worked, he also forged many international connections. I am particularly interested in his hitherto under-examined contributions to British and U.S. culture. Hirschfeld not only travelled regularly to the States, where he gave popular lectures, but he also collaborated with, for example, English sexologist Havelock Ellis, wrote about writers such as Oscar Wilde and himself entered literary history via the work and private papers of figures such as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

While Hirschfeld’s main influence was in the male scientific and artistic circles of his time, he also collaborated with leading feminists such as Helene Stoecker, with whom he worked at the Institute, and the writer Franziska Mann, Hirschfeld’s sister with whom he wrote a pamphlet about women’s suffrage. These collaborations offer new insights into the – often problematic – intersecting histories of feminist and gay politics

Hirschfeld’s work, then, provides insights into the role of sexology in the international literary and political reform cultures of the early twentieth century and it helps us understand better the transnational contexts that shaped modern sexuality debates. Most of all, however, his writings contain an archive of little known writings on verbal and physical attacks on homosexuals, writings that document the range of difficult experiences that shaped modern queer life. Over the course of the project, I will research, collate and critique this material – and publish my findings here and, ultimately, in book form.