The Speech of the Dispossessed

Women in Dark Times

By Jacqueline Rose
New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, 339 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz

Sometime in the mid-1980s, in the era of nuclear nightmares at the height of Reagan’s reign, I visited the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont—an old barn filled with puppets, props, and posters from the radical theater company’s decades of performances. There I first encountered Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish creator of Life? or Theatre?, a remarkable work of autobiographical art comprising hundreds of gouaches filled with images, texts, and songs. Salomon made the paintings in a frenzy of traumatized creativity between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France, where she had fled the Nazis to live with her grandparents. There she discovered a hidden history of family suicides, including her mother, aunt, and eventually, with Salomon in the next room, her grandmother.

Salomon died in Auschwitz after the Germans took France, yet Life? or Theatre? is much more than a Holocaust narrative, entwining the personal horror of a family story and the sociopolitical horror of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. At the Bread and Puppet Museum, I saw a series of paintings of Salomon’s paintings used in Margo Lee Sherman’s art and performance piece, Life and Death of Charlotte Salomon. Even in such mediated form, Salomon’s work stunned me from depression into hope with its insistence that beauty and insight can emerge from the most dire circumstances; that to speak one’s truth is not always enough, but is always something; and that wherever it leads, the struggle matters.

Salomon is one of the key figures in Jacqueline Rose’s new book Women in Dark Times, a passionate, powerful, and occasionally problematic manifesto for a feminism centered on a new articulation of what has become an old saw, “the personal is political.” Women in Dark Times is modeled after Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times (1968), a collection of essays on thinkers (both men and women) who grappled with the spoken and unspoken horrors of the first part of the twentieth century. Rose, in turn, presents six thinkers and artists, along with a collection of victims of honor killing and activists against it, as women “whose rage against the iniquities of the world meshes with their own darkest hours,” and who thus serve as exemplars for her vision of the radical possibilities of women’s speech in addressing our own dark times.

That speech, she argues, in a plethora of psychoanalytically telling images, gives access to the “gutter,” “landscape of the night,” “inner, private dimensions,” and “very dark places,” what is “beneath the surface,” “subterranean,” “at the very core of the world”—that is, to the individual and cultural unconscious. These depths must be exposed because of their imbrication in “the cruelty and injustice with which [the world] tends to go about organizing itself.” Her women in dark times, she claims, reveal—and understand—how the personal, intimate, and private are always connected to the political and public, exposing the insufficiency and violence of our public politics. They must be incorporated into a new public politics if we are ever to truly overcome—or even hope to overcome—the depredations of the modern world.

The so far unstoppable reach of those depredations—perpetrated by capitalism, war, racism and prejudice, violence against women and the environment—points, Rose suggests, to the limits of the enlightenment modalities of reason and law that thus far have been used to address them. She argues that therefore women, as feminists, must delve into the roots of those depredations, which lie in the passionate and unreasonable realms of the self, the family, and the structure of consciousness itself. They must not only embrace those roots but incorporate them into a politics that, rather than suppressing the “stubborn unruliness” and “messy uncertainty” that fundamentally characterizes humanity, will encompass those wild complexities, rejecting certainty and embracing unpredictability.

If this argument sounds abstract and theoretical, well, it is and it isn’t. Rose is one of the pre-eminent voices of British feminist and psychoanalytic thought, and her argument is based on a deconstructive understanding of how oppositions always contain each other, whether she is talking about the construction of masculinity around fighting off the threat of the feminine or the idea of honor, which always already contains its own undoing. So she is not arguing, in oppositional terms, that women are the victims of a battle that men are winning (she is assertively antivictimhood), nor that women can use their dark depths to topple the bright light of male supremacy (overdetermined imagery intended). Rather, she contends that the thinking of the women she discusses upends such distinctions and instead reveals how feeling, thought, and the domestic are integral to politics, whether politics is trying—and failing—to manage them (as in the case of rape and discrimination) or simply failing to substantively address them (as in the case of prejudice and war). But as these parenthetical examples suggest, Rose is not just engaged in an academic exercise: she is acutely attuned to and concerned with the actual violence faced by women and immigrants (she never mentions race in the American sense) and the terrors wreaked by nationalism and totalitarianism; her goal is to find another way—though she never explores the practical implications of basing a politics on unpredictability, an observation that is both boring and necessary to make.

Rose lays out her argument in a cogent preface and introduction, then further (and further—by the end, she sounds like an enthusiastic museum docent eagerly showing us yet another painting that proves her point) explicates that argument in a series of portraits of women who exemplify it. The first three chapters take on the socialist Rosa Luxemburg, Salomon, and Marilyn Monroe—all of whom, she claims, spoke the unspeakable of their personal lives and political moments (fear, incest, revolution, the plight of workers) and thus traced and challenged the effects of war, patriarchy, totalitarianism, and capitalism in twentieth-century Europe and, in the case of Monroe, the United States. The fourth chapter discusses victims of honor killing and the women family members and activists who give them voice, literally and politically. The last three chapters describe the work of the contemporary artists Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana, and Thérèse Oulton, whose sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, and paintings make room for the dispossessed—immigrants, Jews, women, the earth itself—to speak, while simultaneously asserting the power of liminal spaces and positions, thus instantiating the radical possibilities of women’s art.

The most intellectually engaging chapters are the ones about Rosa Luxemburg and honor killing. Luxemburg is Rose’s primary exemplar. As a woman, Polish Jew, emigrant, intellectual, and revolutionary, she was an outsider everywhere, which grounded both her rigorous analysis of capital and politics and her deep commitment to freedom of thought and feeling. Luxemburg’s socialism was based on radical democracy and the belief that individual consciousness and process mattered more than the party, regardless of the uncertainty to which they might lead. Hence her opposition to Lenin’s shift toward totalitarianism and, likely, her murder by a rightwing militia during the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin. Luxemburg, Rose convincingly claims, was “a genuine revolutionary” “who lived in every fibre of her being…the link between the mechanics of freedom and the unknowable processes of the heart.” Of course, there is the awkward fact of the early death she shares with Salomon (murdered at Auschwitz) and Monroe (whether suicide or murder, undoubtedly killed by society’s pressures), but of that Rose has little to say. What matters is what she stands for, not what became of her.

Women who die early are also at the center of Rose’s incisive dissection of honor crimes. On the one hand, she argues that by pinning honor crimes on immigrant communities, the European body politic absolves itself of its own complicity in violence against women. On the other, she questions the multicultural paradigm that allows immigrant communities to police themselves, with the result that women in danger are too often not helped and men who kill too often supported. While this is in some ways the most politically urgent chapter of the book, Rose also interrogates the very nature of honor, which exists on the fault lines between private/public (shame is the private made public through rumor and gossip); woman/man (the woman holds the family’s honor, which the man must but never can fully avenge); and personal/historical (the current prevalence of honor killings in Europe is inextricably tied to the pressures of migration on traditional communities). Her discussion ends up uncomfortably, if necessarily, between the rock of violence against women and the hard place of discrimination against immigrants, but in this case, at least, the material value of women speaking out about what is happening in their communities is indisputable.

Throughout the chapter on honor killings, Rose is scrupulous in giving credit and voice, through stories and quotations, to the immigrant women who are fighting honor killings. Strikingly, though, aside from a Toni Morrison quotation, they may be the only women of color in Women in Dark Times. If Rose has written a compelling brief for the power of women’s voices, the ongoing relevance of feminism, and the fundamental value of complexity and uncertainty, her vision of women and feminism is strangely monolithic (no feminisms here). Defining feminism as a way of seeing and speaking, she does not explain why women are the privileged subjects of this seeing and speaking until the book’s very last pages, when her psychoanalytic account of the primacy of sexual difference as the engine of male violence against women is too little, too late.

The last forty years of intersectional feminist, antiracist, and queer activism and thinking have more than established that gender is far from the only or even the dominant position of otherness, even for women. It must be asked, then, why Rose confines the power of seeing and speech to women. What about people of color, queer and transgender people, Jews? What about David Wojnarowicz, Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, and Essex Hemphill, to name just a few from the era when I discovered Charlotte Salomon? Surely this is a question Rose should at least address, even if she wants to stick with women. And surely, too, she does not mean to say that only white European and American women can enact her feminism; yet putting forward six such women puts forth a powerful message.

If she proffered a definition of women, or even a justification for locating her vision in women and feminism, this problem might not be so glaring. Instead, she states that “The fact that they are women is key,” but does not go on to explain why—or rather, she goes on to explain the experiences of suffering and agency her women share, but does not locate those experiences specifically in gender (one of several important terms missing from her index, and indeed rarely present in her text). Thérèse Oulton, the last woman artist through whom Rose explores her vision, questions such gendering: “Oulton is not sure whether the new aesthetic she seeks should be defined in gender terms: ‘It doesn’t necessarily belong to the male or female.’” Rose does not comment. I am writing after Beyoncé released her incendiary video “Formation,” in which a black woman speaks truth to the power of the American state, meticulously kaleidoscoping police lines and majorette lines, plantations and churches, Bill Gates and Red Lobster, wig stores and afros, in a simultaneous paean to black women’s lives and power and retort to the forces that work against them. On the one hand, “Formation” can be seen as yet another exemplar of Rose’s argument about the political power of women’s creative voices; on the other, it speaks loudly to complexities of identity and intersectionality that she never fully acknowledges.

Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor in Boston. A former professor of English and Women's Studies, she is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary(2011).

Women's Review of Books

Untitled Document

Women=Books Blog