You will have to bear with me, as this involves attempting to take up a thread that I may have lost long ago. Way the hell back in January this Eater interview with Nigella Lawson was making the rounds (three years after it was initially posted, I now notice), and it caught my attention. I have a lazy appreciation for Nigella Lawson, based almost entirely on the one time I caught her show like four years ago and was surprised by how engaging she is, and the casual way the camera moves around the space, but I haven’t watched it since, and don’t know her cookbooks, aside from passing impressions in bookstores.
The interview itself is interesting, if fairly superficial, but I think her take on the sexualization of her image is worth attending to. Elsewhere she has addressed this topic, as in the case of her notorious salted-caramel-facial cover for Stylist magazine, and perhaps what it boils down to is her dual insistence that sensualized and sexualized are mutually reducible ideas, and that male spectatorship is not the ne plus ultra of representation. “The male gaze is such that whatever is there is seen to be there for their benefit,” she state, “The fact that I’m fleshy looks somehow as if I am trying to display myself.” While this a more generalized sense of “the male gaze” that does not directly correspond either to Laura Mulvey’s original or revised use of the term to critique representation in narrative cinema, nor take account of the various formal strategies of visually representing women as implicitly sexually receptive, there is an important claim about female pleasure embedded here. When she says that, visual insinuations aside, the Stylist photo is about representing a sheer, unbridled appreciation of caramel, one might roll one’s eyes at what one takes an affectation of naïveté, but I think that might be missing an important point. Effectively she is insisting on not only the possibility, but the immanence of female sensual pleasure, represented in print / on television, that is not constituted for nor defined by a hegemonic male spectator.
I don not mean to suggest Nigella as a critical feminist icon, or that it is this easy to step outside the libidinal economy of patriarchy, but I think that taking such declarations of pleasure – arguably of agency – seriously, is part of the critical work of interrogating phallocentrism. To deny the relevance of the representational subject’s interpretation / experience is in a curious way to participate – actively – in their objectification, by foreclosing the possibility of a female pleasure that is not wholly interpellated and recuperated by the male spectator. By assuming the totalizing hegemony of the male gaze as that which organizes all representation and all looking, we render impossible the witnessing of a female pleasure-for-itself.
The reason I am coming back around to this now is that I see it as touching upon a larger issue of what we might call the reification of analysis, as it applies specifically to feminist criticism (but to which it is not exclusive, of course). I am reminded of this, if you will please forgive the incongruity of scale of importance, first by the debates over the recently-unveiled Bill C-36 which effectively re-marginalizes and stigmatizes sex workers after the landmark Bedford case which saw the existing laws around sex work struck down, and again by the undeniably more trivial apology from the dude who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”.
In the first case we have a set of laws that intertwines the ‘benevolent paternalism’ of the patriarchal state with the radical critique of sexual relations of second-wave feminism, appealing to both social conservatives and anti-sex work liberal feminists. In the second, we have a writer realizing that the critique he developed to foreground a poisonous trope of (male) screenwriting had in a sense lost its critical teeth and become at best institutionalized and merely descriptive, at worst a means of stereotyping and reducing otherwise complex female characters. Although in the case of the MPDG I think the author’s retreat was a little obsequious, lazy, and intellectually cowardly (in lieu of his almost post-feminist sounding apology it could have been an opportunity to critically reflect on questions of authorship, viewership, and the use and appropriation of the term), in both cases what we see is the calcification of a critical apparatus that comes to participate in the violence and the silencing that it was originally intended to interrogate.
With Bill C-36, the analytically and historically useful concept of all heterosexual sex under patriarchal capitalism being a form of violence, and sex work being merely the least adorned version thereof, no longer serves to denormalize asymmetrical gender relations, but instead has come to enjoy the status of evidence itself, a form of evidence that precludes actually listening to the voices of people involved in sex work. By way of the theory, we may take the structure for granted, the analysis becomes the object itself, the lived realities and analyses of those most directly concerned are occluded, incidental (The sex workers and those who work with them become another kind of impossible witness). With MPDG, Rabin recognizes that the term has ceased to be analytic, and instead operates as a placeholder for actual engagement with characters, texts, actual women as subjects (instead of getting into this, though, he says “This got out of hand, let’s not talk about it anymore”). This can be described as a reification of analysis to the extent that the analytic apparatus no longer helps us to engage with the world beyond its face value, but stands in / in the way, as something more real than the people, the voices, the pleasures, that are being disclosed, but which it cannot accommodate.
This kind of thing is a big deal in social science research and other academic fields, where it is has been in an unending cycle of getting hashed out since probably the 1920s, but it is also, or should be, a big deal in our day-to-day life. For all their reputation for being abstracted from the world, theory and analysis must be (paradoxically) both transcendent and immanent in, of and to the world. It perhaps sounds odd to suggest that tools for “problematizing” the world are about facilitating our engagement with the world, but it’s a hard world, you gotta get into it.