Feminism and Dying: Reading Sedgwick Pt. Two

Part Two: Feminism for the Men Who Love and Lose

This writing project, however brief and punctuated by long breaks, was taken on as a means of dealing with the effects of Sedgwick’s analyses on my own thinking about queer and feminist theories, and most critical theories alike. In particular, I see these entries as (sometimes disjointed) thoughts on what it might mean for me, a queer feminist with a nonbinary trans identity, to re-examine things, to look into the intensities I feel about my own work in activism and literature, and wonder as to how they have been shaped by loss, and the parallel loss sustained by another figure in my life: my father.

Love and Memory 

For Sedgwick, in Dialogue, her diagnosis was enough to challenge her beliefs in everything from paranoid reading to the affective turn in social theory. She focused on positive affects (joy) instead of negative ones (shame) as a means of addressing what happens to feeling in a culture that situates the self as unfeeling. She did this because, as she states later in Touching Feeling, finding joy and repair in criticism seems so much more pressing once she situated her life-line alongside her friends. She realized that joy could be a critical object, a partial object, and not something absconded by psychoanalysis, robbing joy of its authenticity. To feel joy. To love. That was what Sedgwick began thinking on when she realized that generations of queers whose lives were lost might never have known that. And generations of critics might never revisit it.

I want to ask a question that moves in two directions at once. It is the same question asked in different equations. How do we make room for men to feel something, anything, when feminisms could be read as foreclosing that space? When can we, or when do we, love the men in our lives? In this entry, I want to examine the nature of my father’s experiences with my mother’s slow death.

This entry will meditate on the strange effects of love on memory and life trajectory. Of the fact that he had a longer period of conscious time with caring for her. Of the experience of it in terms of love and the attachments he made to things like medicine, government, politics, sexuality, and gender identity. Of what it must have meant for a working class white hetero-male to see his lover dying. Of how this perceived inevitably led to a certain kind of dealing with the world, a certain genre of living that invites some form of recourse into feminist and queer thought. If only for the sake of understanding how these formative forces enabled a relationship between a hetero-father and a queer-child in the ways that it did.

Memory is strange, that “if not the truth, [memory] is also not a lie,” as Claudia Rankine puts it. Memory is somewhere in between–a re-connection to the historical self so that the present self can exist, persist, and be temporally coherent. We choose as to whether this inter-subjective exchange between temporally distinct selves is nourishing or harmful. So writing feelings and affects might not find the same kind of (approximated) empirical precision an analyst with transcriptions might have. All any of us can do with our memory, or the recollection of someone else’s, is apprehend the intensity of a memory in conjunction with all the strange webs and connections established in along the way to our ongoing present.

Love’s Not So Erosive Effects on Memory

My father was a military man. He grew up with a military father. It was a strict life. But from the stories I heard it was often brutal. Filled with his father’s alcoholic rage and abuse. Dad went through high school and quickly joined the Air Force. Fast forward a few years and the man meeting my mother–a mother who had a child (me) out of wedlock–was formed out of the fires of that kind of intensity. So I wonder whether I am exculpated from my judgments of him, of his rigid habits of heteronormativity, traditionalism, and that these may have been intensified by the feelings sustained during a life lived always adjacent to (perhaps fully saturated by) illness and its affects.

A memory: I remember once rummaging through various things in the living room. My mom hated when I would “rummage.” It wasn’t my stuff after all. It was a combination of things. But I remember once when I removed a card that my father and sent to her and it read something like “and all the blue out there.” I didn’t know what it meant. When she saw me “rummaging,” she remarked, “let me see what you go there.” And she explained. My father was in the Air Force, requiring some physical distance between the two of them. And his love captured her and “all the blue.” And I was transfixed. I still am.

I want to pause here and also wonder at the fact that this kind of imagining/remembering, one that is inspired by the emotion called love, defies what Berlant calls love’s immemorial effects. Love, normative love at least, is what allows for the convention of the “female complaint” to persist, “where women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” Normative love recruits people, mostly women, into arrangements and attachments that reinforce a code of quiet desperation because it romanticizes the past. It reframes history in such a way that those historical conditions are no longer remembers as conditions, just episodes on the path toward happiness.

Two Considerations

Here’s the first thing. I am feeling a more or less rich encounter with some kind of emotion–something like love, perhaps? And I am inhabiting memories that aren’t justifying repairing end of my relationship with my father, or the patterns of behaviors that got us to this point where we no longer speak. Rather, it has reopened those pathways to examine them and possibly repair them not because I want a traditional or normative kinship relationship with my father again. Not because having a relationship with him would fulfill a normative desire, to feel normal, like all of my other friends. It stems from a feeling that so many men in our lives–if only and maybe for a queer feminist like myself–are too often put at arms length. As if their masculinity is, in itself, toxic without any hope of redemption.

Perhaps I should feel privileged, however great or small, by the fact that such love flourished during times of her illness, when my mother was so weak she couldn’t leave the bed. When she needed help to the bathroom. I learned that love is not beautiful in the normative sense. Love is dark and impatient as much as it is light and kind. It is a relationship obtained among things, between intimate partners, that has a sense of stability. A stability, a ringing truth of something I didn’t, at that point nor since, fully understand. 

Here’s the second thing. If this feeling, this normative sensorium of intimate reciprocity, is always jeopardized by illness, what does this mean for the men who experience the other side of loss? What does this mean for a feminist point of view to incorporate those feelings? A queer point of view? Any of it? Berlant’s book The Female Complaint aims to reflect on the sentimentality of that complaint, of the intimate publics created in the name of hetero-femininity and the exclusionary practices such affective spaces invoke. And within these these intimate publics, also created by dominant feminisms, must they always prima facie excavate men from their genealogies? And which? Heterosexual men? White men? Or are they queer men? Hyper-masculinized or “machismo” men? Men of color? Transmen? Where they intersect? Are we always at a point of departure and not a point of arrival? That there are men who do the care-taking and the mending and the crying and the emotional labor that inevitably gets left out portraits of working class life. In that sense, I ask: where in the cartography of feminisms does love become the gift that keeps on taking from those we pejoratively “men”? When does this cartography take stock of the feeling (hu)man in any of its critical engagements? Because “every bad thing/ that threatens people I love,” Sedgwick wrote, is the dread of the double movement of cancer–from within to without. She wanted joy where she feared only dread would dwell.

And so if men are caught in this nexus of feeling where they are saturated by a culture of non-feeling and yet feel too much; if they are not welcome in feminisms’ pantheon and acid-wash of patriarchal critique; if, in the abstract, they are always easily making a life because their worlds have already been defined beforehand by their birthright of masculinity–if all this is true, when is it appropriate to love the men in our lives so they (and we) might learn to feel (our) joy? Or do they deserve even that?

End of Pt. 2


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