Women have always needed the other person in order to “exist.” In real life, on the page, etc. Husbands, boys, fathers, men. He/him. The default higher power.
21 years later, Chris Kraus’s first novel, I Love Dick, still resonates in anti-phallic glory, full of the drive to exist against and in spite of the seed of the other person. Dick the man becomes Dick the vessel: good listener, excuse for a promise that highlights the way promises are first and foremost self-made. You don’t need the other person to be present or consenting or even real—you make the promise, you write the letter, you validate the art (life).
Is “all or nothing” ALWAYS a bad mentality? Are generalizations ever true?? Isn’t it precisely an all or nothing mentality that makes possible its own dismissal? Why must I ask so many questions?? Lock me up! [End with a smile and a gymnast’s salute]
If the history of (MALE) art is the history of men painting “flesh vases for their dick flowers” (Hannah Gadsby, hero and icon), then Kraus’s book turns dick flowers into word vases, all utility and worth extricated from the original biological apparatus as “dick”/Dick becomes nothing but a placeholder for better ideas. Fleshy bookmark. You lose one, you’ll find another.
In a moment of opinions had too strongly, or reactions performed with levels of emotion, a woman becomes diagnosable, if not criminal. Meanwhile a man—high expectations, stiff, hard-faced, demanding—remains just that: a man. This is the gender of subjectivity. Should he shed a tear or be assertively moved by something, we are now witnessing a range, a tender core within his macho report. Men are report cards, all faux objectivity and determining of another’s take-home value. Or else they’re book reports: summary, spoiler, digestible in that Spark Notes kinda way. Women are not digestible; they get stuck in the guts. On women, both tenderness and a solidified center only gets them into trouble, turning presence into hostility, need into difficulty. Either over- or under-nurturing. Women are always over or under everything because [choose one]: a) they’re sluts 😉 b) they’re outlets for excess—flesh vases, if you will; or c) in the event that a woman is the exact right amount of anything, she is probably a witch.
By placing Dick at the center of Chris’s world, the world soon spins around everything other than him: her emotions, desires, complications, contradictions, all the ways she second and triple guesses herself and the public spaces around her. A story that would have revolved comes instead to spin and intersect, cutting through layers of meta gesture and splicing different forms of communication: letters sent and unsent, faxes, secret faxes, dumb texts, smart texts, her perspective, his through hers, etc. As the opening address of one letter makes clear, people are so intertwined that there’s hardly any use in distinguishing between “Dick, Sylvère, Anyone—” (82). A total mess of subjectivity.
From page 241: “R.D. Laing never figured out that ‘the divided self’ is female subjectivity. Writing about an ambitious educated 26-year-old ‘schizophrenic girl’ in the suburban 1950s: ‘…the patient repeatedly contrasts her real self with her false compliant self.’ Oh really.”
The divided-divided self: the female drive toward composure, in the face of being constantly diagnosed.
Recently, I found myself in the role of Facilitator, only to be suddenly transformed into Student/Child. Of course the transition came at the precise moment that words fell from a gentleman’s mouth. He’d been expressing a moment of struggle with the rest of the class (how feminine). In my goodgirl/good communicator/good teacher instincts, I wanted to acknowledge, wanted to boost, I shouted “Yes! Ditto!,” and shared a bit of my own similar experience. It was a ledge I wanted to walk out on so as to model empathy, so as to reinforce an instance of (male) vulnerability, so as to be not just Facilitator but also Peer. Except once out there I turned around to find him standing back on firm ground, taking up the center of the room, suggesting that my own vulnerability must be a sign of my lack of experience—a.k.a. I’m young—as if I might only understand on the proverbial one day, a day with many days between today and then. It was a trap! What little authority I’d had from the start fled the room, Girl Authority being so very much like an animal I can only get close to through flattery and petting, or by talking to a feral world as if I’m its doting mother, the one responsible for cleaning up its shit. I stuck my hand in a dark box named “conversation” and got explanation splattered all over me.
It’s a pattern I keep coming back to: [lack of modeled vulnerability in social + public circumstances] + [feeling of responsibility toward modeling said vulnerability] + [total exhaustion at being among the ones whose vulnerability is so often used to diminish or otherwise falsely pinpoint them]. I’m working toward taking up more space, toward confidence, toward being heard, and I’m tired of being the good vulnerable quiet accommodating girl so long as these adjectives remain gendered and in opposition to that larger experience. If I try to solve the equation, here are some of the answers I come up with:
= Women and other marginalized folks are not RESPONSIBLE for educating the (predominantly cis/white/male) masses, OR
= Does being the change you wish to see in the world carry the same weight for all bodies? What happens when you’re a person who has spent most of your public life being seen as pure change, i.e. difference? OR
= Will men only learn from other men? Can the subaltern speak, etc. etc.
I am thinking in extremes, as anyone can tell. But Eileen Myles, who wrote the forward to the 2006 reprint of I Love Dick, once suggested that we go a good fifty years with NO men in charge of ANYTHING, and Valerie Solanas said we should cut men up, and extreme reactions are justified and full of sense when they happen in response to extreme social traditions. “Men are bad!” It’s not useful because it’s 100% true, but because of what it communicates, what it points at, the way it verges toward and swoops around similarly gigantic truths. If it were just pure exaggerated nonsense then it wouldn’t sound much different than saying, “women are bad!” You tell me whether or not you hear the differences.
Like the t-shirts that list each Beatle in an understated vertical stack, I’d like my own version that says:
Talk Back &
Analyze because I pay attention to things—rooms, people, the temperatures therein—and this sensitivity should not be abnormal. Talk back because when is it talking and when is it talking back? That’s the real question, Shakespeare. Disrespect because if having opinions or wearing the clothes one chooses to wear or otherwise being an individual person in the world is disrespectful, then I don’t wanna be respectful. Emote because I’m tired of withholding and moderating and composing for fear of being diagnosed.
Of course the “real” Dick was furious at his inclusion in Chris’s project. As art object, his identity is defined via association with a primary subject; he exists only in reference, in quiet, non-consensual allusion (the history of women). Making it impossible for HIM to be the PRIMARY subject. We know about Dick because we know about the woman’s interior landscape, which ultimately means that Dick, capital or otherwise, is not always the point. What a revolution of association, what a great way to begin filling up space with the softer parts. [Assert, emote, salute]
Sarah Cook‘s recent prose has appeared in So to Speak, Cosmonauts Avenue, ASAP/J, Bright Lights Film Journal, and at freelancefeminist.com. She lives and writes on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, where she works with homeless young people and foster kids.