Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Missing Grantchester

This week I am missing Grantchester orchard in Cambridge. The walk through the fields, along the river, the green deck chairs, the lawn under the trees, the scones and clotted cream and strawberry jam and English afternoon tea...

Photo: wjmarnoch

Photo: wjmarnoch

Photo: KK07

Photo: gasindius

Friday, July 25, 2008

The body in the pulpit: écriture féminine and female clergy (Elaine Lawless)

So I am reading about gender. Right now I'm trying to understand écriture féminine.

Ecriture féminine has evolved into its own brand of feminist poststructuralist/literary theory - primarily associated with the French feminist "holy trinity": Hélene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Ecriture féminine is sometimes translated as "writing the (female) body". It's based on the proposition that forms of patriarchy have systematically repressed, invalidated or ignored women's experiences. In particular, a connection is drawn between experiences tied to women's bodies and to texts. Ecriture féminine is expressed e.g. through modes of bodily praxis or modes of writing (women's or men's) that pinpoint a certain unease with prevailing social relations, challenge them and alter them.

I have just read an article by Elaine Lawless on women clergy in the United States ('Writing the body in the pulpit: Female-sexed texts', Journal of American Folklore 107:55-81, 1994). She argues that even just the presence of a female minister in church can at times act as écriture féminine. She focuses on the figure of the woman pastor in the pulpit: a female body, heavy with allusions, covered in vestments, heavy with religious meaning and authority. This female body might pose certain threats - threats to theological ordering, to fixed gender roles, to the perception that God can only be understood through and in human male terms.

Seeing a female figure in the pulpit can also suddenly raise the question of gender and sexuality in the lives of the congregants. Lawless argues that male pastors in the West have for long been associated with a certain degree of asexuality. But when a woman steps up to the pulpit, she suggests, it becomes much more difficult for congregants to regard her as asexual - especially if she has been or becomes pregnant - and this in turn raises the question of bodily experience and sexuality for them inside the church, rather than outside it: "At the very best, the woman presents a dilemma in that she forces a confrontation with sexuality for everyone involved" (p. 62). In this way bodily experiences - female, male, human - can suddenly be included more visibly in the religious space.

While Lawless presents very interesting ethnographic material, I'm not sure I agree with her that female ministers or pastors cannot be perceived to be asexual in the same way as many male ministers. I agree that the female body comes laden with sexual signification. But it also seems to me that in some instances female ministers can take on - or be placed in - the same apparently asexual role as some of their male colleagues.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New project

I have started organizing a set of folders with archive material that I collected four years ago, and have not really looked at since. The material contains notes, correspondence, manuscripts, minute books, articles, meeting reports, etc etc, from some of the so-called "mission feminists" in early twentieth-century Norway. And today I have spent some time collecting together books from our shelves that I want to read (or skim...), articles on gender and Christianity that I've been saving, stray references that I've noted down on green post-its regarding this project.

This is an anthropological project again, or more precisely historical anthropology. My specific case study is a network or movement of women who were active as part of the Norwegian Mission Society in the first decades of the twentieth century. They managed to secure the right for women to vote within the Society, they managed to get a woman formally employed at the headquarters of the Society in Norway, and so on. I'm interested in how they blended gender and theology - sometimes they would use what was perceived as "feminine" traits (e.g. feminine piety, an emphasis on intimacy) in order to try to get their will, at other times they would use theological arguments (e.g. related to Jesus' conversations with women).

Over the next months I'll try to carve out time to read about gender and religion. I always like this phase of the research process.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Eucharist and expenditure

A few weeks ago Ben Myers over on Faith and Theology posted a quote from a new book by William Cavanaugh, Being consumed: Economics and Christian desire. Cavanaugh comments on one of the tensions that should strike him and others who take the Eucharist in our society:

We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts; the stories overlap and compete... (2008:89)
This reminded me of Derrida's essay "From restricted to general economy", in his Writing and difference, in which he critiques how systems of meaning are made to make sense. A system based on Hegel's philosophy of forward movement, for example, has to be made to make sense by silently repressing various "blind spots". Such a blind spot, Derrida suggests, is

the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity - here we would have to say an expenditure and a negativity without reserve - that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or system. (1978:327)
In other words, they can no longer be determined as negativity in the Hegelian sense of a negative move that fits in with the overall positive thrust of history. The expenditure that Derrida speaks of is of a more "radical" kind; a kind that does not fit in, that plays itself out without reserve. This is the "blind spot" of a Hegelian system within which elements must be made to fit.

I wonder if the Eucharist might be seen as such an expenditure and negativity without reserve, no longer determined. Its symbolism draws on the received tradition that here was a God who chose to try to engage with human beings by dying. Of course, it is possible to interpret this in a Hegelian spirit and to see it as simply one move in a cosmic Christian narrative that will end in a new heaven and earth. But perhaps it is also possible to interpret some of the pull of the Eucharist as a drawing towards just the moment of death. The ritual offers the possibility of pausing at the destruction: an "irreversible expenditure" that does not make sense within our normal economies.

Derrida too goes on to mention the relation to alterity (e.g. God) as an example of something that can destabilise our restricted economy. God is an absent presence, an impossible presence. This is especially clear in the Eucharist, which claims to offer an impossible presence - body and blood in bread and wine - as an impossible gift - freely (Or not so freely? Hard to tell with the Eucharist).

In any case, all that to say that the quote from Cavanaugh made me think...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Taking up room and filling space (Juliet Miller, Louise Bourgeois)

The last two chapters in Juliet Miller's The creative feminine and her discontents focus on the work of two artists: Cornelia Parker and Louise Bourgeois. I like so many of the works that she discusses, especially of course Parker's exploded garden shed ("Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View").

But I was particularly struck by some of Bourgeois' pieces. "The Destruction of the Father," for example, is a large open mouth-like cavern, filled with smooth forms that might be teeth. In the middle is a table with smaller forms on it.

For Bourgeois, it harks back to memories of childhood dinners that were ruled over by her father in a nervous and stifling way. In her later imagination, she tries to break with the claustrophobia of those dinners by reconstructing it: this time, in her art work, the father is thrown on the table, dismembered, and devoured - creating a different and more disturbing form of claustrophobia in the viewer. Bourgeois rekindles the memory and embodied experience of having to perform "nice", as a girl and young woman, and in this work, as Roger Cook says, "Louise is determinedly not nice" ("Critical essay", Harvest vol. 45, 1999:150). Instead she creates a space for her rage and violent feelings.

"The Destruction of the Father" was made in 1974. Two and a half decades later, Bourgeois made the three towering steel constructions for the opening of the Tate Modern in London, which she named "I Do, I Undo, I Redo".

Each of the three constructions had a set of steps and mirrors at the top, and visitors were invited to enter into them. The coupling of love and destruction - "I Do, I Undo" - were here followed by the possibility of reparation, "I Redo". But, as Juliet Miller points out, the most powerful thing that the towers communicated was their enormous size and the way in which they filled up the space. Miller argues that historically and culturally in the West, "femininity" and being a woman has been associated with making and containing space, such as in the home, rather than moving into, filling out or affecting space (p. 30-31). Bourgeois' sculptures then are also interesting in the way they challenge what it means to be a woman: "Here was a woman taking up room and filling space with a freedom and abandon not usually associated with the feminine" (p. 117).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Have you destroyed anything lately? ("The Creative Feminine and Her Discontents", Juliet Miller)

I came across Juliet Miller's book The creative feminine and her discontents: Psychotherapy, art, and destruction when I read Michèle Roberts' review of it in the Guardian. I went ahead and bought the book, and have since thoroughly enjoyed reading through the thoughtful, provocative and stimulating chapters.

One of Miller's central themes is that "to bring something new into being something else has to be destroyed" (p. 12), and I like the way she discusses different ways in which destructive and aggressive drives can productively be given more room in our lives (and especially, in terms of her argument, in women's lives) - not in order to act out the violence against others, or to turn it against oneself, but rather to use it in order to gain freer and more creative expressions.

Quote for today:
When Marion Milner discovered in A Life of One's Own that she was terrified of the force of her internal patriarchal God, this cannot all be explained by her introjects of patriarchy but also, as with Matisse and Freud, as an expression of her fear of the creative archetype in all its uncertain raging power. Dionysus, as the embodiment of energy and new life, can also be raving, fearsome, and out of control. However, to be creative the archetype has to be engaged with. For women, disobedience of the patriarchal strictures against creating may be a beginning. Disobeying God, as Eve did, could be understood as part of the powerful side of the feminine archetype that comes into play when one point of view is too rigid. (p. 14)

I like the ambiguity of this brief passage. Miller seems to be drawing connections between the Christian patriarchal image of God on the one hand, and a powerful creative archetype on the other - and then the tricky question is whether this powerful divine creativity can actually be engaged with.