In the luxury of time afforded by the holidays (when one is far from their families), I have set myself a feminist curriculum, which has meant reading Shoshana Felman’s Writing and Madness and Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty in tandem. What these two treatises share (among other things) is a formal concern around the approach of their subjects. For Felman, she wonders if there is an inherent connection between literature and madness. For Nelson, she wonders if cruelty is necessary for the production of knowledge. In both, a sort of triangulation between an area of concern (literature, knowledge), a method of production (madness, cruelty) and the beholder (us as readers, thinkers, viewers, participants).

What about these kinds of moves that take a subject and propose the necessity of something that, at first, seems utterly distant or, at least, not clearly connected? In these cases, I am struck by the coincidence of putting an ideal in relationship to something mostly undesirable. Who would wish for madness or ask for cruelty? (Well, the sadist, but then the cruelty looses a bit of its charge by virtue of the invitation.) And yet, who would not seek knowledge? Who would pass off literature?

Of course, there is no purity. Not in our ethics, not in our logic, nor in our intimacies. Understanding the terms in either of these dichotomies cannot be done without nuance, which means admitting interdependencies that spill out of identity per se to messily implicate other (related) ideas and realities. To apprehend literature or the production of knowledge is to construct a framework with many holes for those aspects of understanding beyond our own capabilities and which simultaneously accounts for the not yet articulated. And yet, these frameworks are to look closely, to listen carefully, to respond, however inadequately. This is Felman’s argument, I think, when she explains that “the literary thing is always, whatever knowledge tries to master it, the residue of explanation, the excess, or the remainder of interpretation” (260). And this is Nelson’s argument when she, after Barthes, suggests that, “a paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses. It signals the possibility–and sometimes the arrival–of a third term into a situation that might otherwise appear to consist of but two opposing forces…insofar as certain third terms–however volatile or disturbing–baffle the oppressive forces of reduction, generality and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness” (268-269).

As part of my feminist curriculum, then, these women reinforce the intellectual necessity of not-knowing yet trying anyway. Another way (and in my own skewed context) these women suggest that the sweetness of feminism is engaged conversation. And this, I like very much.


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