The Expansive Feminism of Jacqueline Rose

The Expansive Feminism of Jacqueline Rose

Conflict Zone

The expansive feminism of Jacqueline Rose.


I can see, but not clearly describe, the patch of concrete, the base of the tree, the few brief seconds that the man and I struggled before my head hit the pavement. I spent the next week in bed with a concussion, staring at the ceiling of my hot bedroom, forbidden the use of words: no screens, no books, no stimuli. The nonverbal blur that followed was a time that passed as a smear across my brain. It soon came to feel like a muted extension of the attack.

When Sarah Everard was murdered in England in March, I thought about my experience again. It seemed to be the very kind of random violence against women that many saw in Everard’s murder: A woman walks home alone at night; a man she doesn’t know attacks her. Countless women took to social media to talk about their fear of such attacks, the admittedly useless strategies they employed to prevent them, and their sense that, at any moment, they could be next. And yet, as Charlotte Shane wrote in Dissent, something about this outpouring felt off. “Specific harm should be the issue,” Shane wrote, but “potential harm and ambient anxiety become the focus.”

After my assault, many friends and colleagues wanted to see it through this more general lens of violence against women, asking me clichéd questions, even what I was wearing. In the Everard case, a cop confessed to kidnapping, raping, and murdering her, which came as somehow not much of a surprise—in the United Kingdom as in the United States, law enforcement officers are chronic offenders when it comes to domestic violence (never mind what happens to the people they interact with). But the popular outcry after Everard’s murder, Shane and others pointed out, did not focus on the role of police (at least not until cops bore down on a vigil for Everard’s death) or on the high prevalence of intimate partner violence or violence against women of color (Everard was white and blond). Instead, op-eds and tweets and memorials spoke more of a broad fear of male violence in its “stranger danger” form. Many of the proposed responses—curfews for men, plainclothes cops in bars—were predictably punitive and generalizing: They neither addressed the specifics of Everard’s case nor offered resources to women who have suffered violence.

Discussions about violence against women are inevitably caught up in these questions of what women are, collectively, what the nature of the harm against them is, and which harms we are most inclined to amplify. The questions are often difficult to answer, since they exist at what Ann Snitow once called the crux “between the need to build the identity ‘woman’ and give it solid political meaning and the need to tear down the very category ‘woman’ and dismantle its all-too-solid history.”

That fundamental tension is present in the stirrings of backlash against the #MeToo movement, including among many self-described feminists. It is present in the fight for trans rights, in the arguments about girl bosses and “white feminism,” in the abolitionist challenge to responding to misogynistic violence with stiffer penalties and more incarceration. In her new book On Violence and On Violence Against Women, Jacqueline Rose takes up the particulars of what we mean by “women”—not so much in the sense of identity politics and the concerns about intersectionality that often animate such discussions but in the sense of examining the way in which the categorization of women as such has not only led to violence but is a form of violence itself. A thinker with an uncanny ability to write in a spirit of feminist solidarity without repressing either difference or discomfort, Rose has always been willing to investigate the darkest corners of the human psyche. Her 1991 book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath took up the mythic significance of the poet and her death, and her recent work has returned to the theme of women’s struggles with the violence both outside and within them, including Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, about the crushing expectations placed on mothers throughout history, and Women in Dark Times, which probed the inner lives of Marilyn Monroe, Rosa Luxemburg, and others.

On Violence and On Violence Against Women expands this concern into a global theme. The collection discusses gendered violence in a wide variety of places, from university campuses to the borders of the United States and Europe to post-apartheid South Africa. In between her case studies, Rose returns again and again to literature (from Virginia Woolf to the contemporary South Korean writer Han Kang) and to psychoanalysis, her favorite tools for processing the violence done to us and for confronting the violence within us. She writes beautifully, especially considering her subject, and offers penetrating insights into the effects of violence as well as ways to find inspiration in those who are fighting the structures that enable it.

For Rose, violence’s perverse quality of attracting prurient attention, of becoming its own spectacle, is one reason she thinks that to understand it, we must not just recite horrific statistics or dwell on any given act of violence for too long. Instead, we must add context to incident, examine all the structural and psychological factors at play. We must, as the second part of her title—“On Violence Against Women”—suggests, look more closely still at what is contained in the word “women.”

This demand forces us to examine the function that women have long played as scapegoats, how they have been expected to clean up the world’s messes—and how they have been punished, Rose writes, for the very fact of their and men’s vulnerability. When we view the violence in this light, we begin to see how the oppression of women must be at the forefront of any conversation about political violence, whether speaking of brute force or economic injustice (which Rose calls, quoting Rosa Luxemburg, the “quiet conditions…the skill with which capital cloaks its crimes”). But pressing on that word “women” also allows us to see the absolute instability of the categories of man and woman, victim and perpetrator. We can, Rose argues, battle the conditions that allow harassment, abuse, and femicide with the tools we have available—with political organizing for dialogue and education, funding for social programs, even with the law—but we must also recognize the darkest innards of our conscious and unconscious minds.

The fact that our political and inner lives cannot be separated, that political and psychic struggle can and should be one and the same, is a twist on the classic feminist adage that the personal is political, and for Rose, it also derives from her psychoanalytic method. Along with Juliet Mitchell, she is one of the foremost advocates for the relevance of Freud to feminism, and On Violence and On Violence Against Women draws from many of her earlier works merging psychoanalysis and feminist critique. In Rose’s view, psychoanalysis illuminates the violence of men’s and women’s “allotted sexual roles,” which in turn shows why we cannot simply equate masculinity with violence. Taking aim at radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and contemporary writers of the trans-exclusionary ilk, Rose writes that “even while calling out masculinity in its worst guise, we allow to individual men the potential gap between maleness and the infinite complexity of the human mind.” In a similar vein, she notes that “it is because trans women [pry] apart the question ‘Who is a real woman?’ with such pain…that they should be listened to.” Across several chapters, she uses psychoanalysis and writing on trans experience to show places where this “stultifying ideology” of what men and women are meant to be breaks down. Faced with the expansion and proliferation of gender categories, which some people have found threatening, Rose is exhilarated.

The spirit of Rose’s books is always capacious and generous—she lavishes praise on her peers and often discusses her admiration for young activists—but her analytical rigor is as exacting as her intellect is intimidating. (Janet Malcolm once said that Rose was the only interview subject who never forgot the artifice of their interaction, that they were “not two women having a friendly conversation over a cup of tea and a box of biscuits.”) In keeping with her commitment to psychoanalytic complexity, Rose offers no quick prescriptions or simple resolutions in her books, and the same is true of On Violence: She takes on #MeToo, campus harassment cases, trans-exclusionary feminism, and other subjects that have fed into the ouroboros of cancel culture discourse (which, as she dispassionately puts it, “can fairly be described as toxic”), and yet she is able to do so in a manner that is both searching and strongly inclined to side with the oppressed.

In fact, this is a crucial argument in her book. For Rose, part of the failure in how we speak about violence is that we often don’t speak of it at all. Confident in the ability of psychoanalysis and literature to lead us to a “radical understanding” of the other, and therefore to prevent violence, she insists that we need more open spaces for dialogue, for confrontation, and for reflection. To obtain those spaces necessitates political struggle and solidarity against economic injustice. Rose notes that she was drawn into involvement in South African politics by signing on to students’ demands for free education—something that she, as a white British citizen of an earlier generation, had fully enjoyed. The right to the life of the mind that Rose advocates passes through several others.

A recurring theme in On Violence and On Violence Against Women is derived from Freud. Power, Rose argues, is essentially fraudulent, and so violence often happens when that fraudulence is threatened. Women have historically provided a convenient target for “masculinity in a panic,” Rose writes, for the expression of “impotent bigness,” a term she borrows from Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition, Arendt argued that the ancient Greek city-state confined women to the home as a prerequisite for men’s political freedom outside it. For Rose, the violence we see today is still related to the expectation that women “clean up the world” and make it possible for the powerful (men especially) not to see its more sordid corners. When women fail to reassure men of their authority, they become the targets of violence, a violence to which men in power believe they are entitled.

Nowhere is this clearer than at the border. Migrant women, Rose writes, are caricatured, despised, or dismissed in Europe and the US by liberal and conservatives alike, turned into criminals in such a way that “lays bare the pleasure in sexual hatred, alongside the increasingly violent forms of inequality for which women have always been punished…. As if they were the cause of it all.” Women, and mothers in particular, figure prominently in contemporary border debates as objects of pathos and pity (think of the image of Maria Lila Meza Castro pulling her daughter and son away from a tear-gassing by border agents in Tijuana), although their absence is often just as notable. In all of the coverage of family separation, it is generally the children the media focuses on. But more often, migrant women are the targets of virulent, often sexualized revulsion from the right. In Mothers, Rose wrote about the British tabloids’ fixation on immigrant mothers receiving government help and on “health tourists” taking advantage of the National Health Service. Likewise in the US, there is a long history of fear and hatred of migrant families, a mix of misogyny, racism, and anti-welfare ideology that firmly attached to immigration politics in the 1990s. On top of that, women in immigration custody in the US and Europe have long been subjected to sexual abuse and mistreatment.

Rose’s line “As if they were the cause of it all” came to mind regularly when I worked as a journalist covering immigration and border policy, which always treats migrants themselves as the crisis, not the ordeals to which they are subject. Family separation was intended as a form of punishment to “deter” parents from migrating with their children, and that logic continues in the condescending, paternalistic rhetoric of US policy toward the southern border region, expressed in official speeches and in social media and radio campaigns telling Central Americans, “Don’t put your kids’ lives at risk,” as if those parents were to blame for the hardening of borders bought and paid for by the United States. In the context of migration, as in other realms of criminalization, “women are either being assigned punishing forms of human agency or being deprived of human agency altogether.”

To what end is all this obfuscation? The legal term for returning refugees to danger in their home countries is “refoulement,” which, Rose notes, is also the French word for the psychoanalytic concept of repression: Pushing people back to the place from which they fled is “an attempted cover-up, a way of pretending there is nothing ugly going on at either end of the journey.” This seems to me one of the best summations of what happens at the border, where state violence and inequality overlap in a fiction of fairness and law. But the key word there is “attempted.” The fact is, the cover-up is fairly easy to see through. It is hard not to see how borders are a kind of violence. Yet we often try to look away. As Rose writes, “there is a violence in the world which buries its own ruthless logic deep inside the norm.”

Moving between a psychoanalytic register and a geopolitical one can be jarring, and it occasionally makes Rose’s analysis of particular politicians or policies feel oversimplified. But for Rose, the two modes have to work in tandem: “reckoning with the violence of the heart and fighting violence in the world are inseparable.” Psychoanalysis, she argues, shows us that “in the unconscious and in their deeds, everyone is capable, even under duress, of being more flexible in their identifications, less obdurate in their hatreds, always potentially other to themselves.” Such a destabilization of the self (which, ironically, can also be the result and the cause of violence) is necessary for recognition, for the kind of empathy that forecloses future violence.

There are too few venues that allow that kind of reflection, and Rose’s examination of sexual assault on US campuses shows that institutions “can only do so much.” In the bureaucratic thicket of Title IX disputes, she finds that “sexuality collides with the law” in an unsatisfactory fashion. For her, the complexities of desire are reduced by the manner in which victims’ accounts are pitted against those they accuse, and the process—from the collection of evidence to the public way the competing claims play out—is not a substantial improvement on the court system for victims, even as advocates for the accused claim that it violates due process. Citing the feminist critics Jennifer Doyle and Sarah Ahmed, Rose notes that efforts to combat harassment often seem more about protecting the university’s institutional interests. It is rare that either side seems to feel that justice has been served, Rose argues, and most important, these efforts at legal redress have not reduced harassment on campus. What’s more, it seems to her that the focus on harassment has served, oddly, “as a diversionary tactic to help us avoid having to think about sex,” to avoid bringing “mental life, however troubled, out of its dark shameful corners and into the light.” As elsewhere, Rose expresses interest in those dark corners while holding the line that “harassment is unacceptable and must cease.” But the entire subject is frustrating to her, as the “only options available,” she writes, “seem to be too much legal intervention or not enough.”

The middle ground, where violence is held to account but not truly abominated, remains vague, though her chapters on South Africa provide the most illuminating examples of how communities may try to face violence down. In student movements like the decolonization campaign Rhodes Must Fall, which began as a demand to bring down a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Capetown, and Fees Must Fall, a protest against an increase in university fees that began in 2015, she finds “dialogue, workshop, debates” that, in her view, offer “a form of radical understanding that can be politically transformative.” Rose glimpses something similar at a 2018 gathering of survivors and perpetrators of apartheid organized by a center focused on historical trauma. The point of these encounters is not healing or reconciliation (“healing is an interminable process”) but an ongoing struggle with past and current injustice, combining introspection with “taking a political stand in the present.” It is in listening to these conversations about apartheid that she senses, contrary to her own thesis, that “thinking was not enough. Not that ‘feeling’ will do it either.” As elsewhere in the book, she finds inspiration in these moments when activism combines with vulnerability, in “political hope, grounded in brokenness.”

Violence is never over and done with, in other words. It may seem odd to insist that we think more about violence right now, when it is ever more visible in the daily conflagration of our news feeds, after a year in which Covid-19 and uprisings against police brutality laid bare structural violence. But as Rose noted in a recent interview, there is already, and always, an immense pressure to move on, to believe blindly in progress, in the vaccines, in the economic recovery, in reform bills, and not to acknowledge the ongoing violence of our time. Psychoanalysis shows us that “our minds are endlessly engaged in the business of tidying up the landscape of the heart so that, to put it at its most simple, we can feel better about ourselves.” In that process, we “make violence always the problem of somebody else.” This impulse must be resisted at the level of the individual, the community, and the nation. It is both challenging and a source of solidarity to recognize that violence belongs to us all.

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