Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations
"Do you identify with up or down?"
Anonymous, in personal conversation, circa 1992
As a graduate student teaching my first solo course in Lesbian and Gay Studies in 1993, at a moment when "identity" was rapidly morphing into cross-gender identification, I told an anecdote I thought would illustrate this crossing: "I wear this T-shirt that says 'Big Fag' sometimes, because lesbians give potlucks and dykes fix cars. I've never done well at either, so 'Big Fag' feels more appropriate." A student came to see me in office hours, quite upset. She was in her early twenties, a few years younger than I, but she dressed like my feminist teachers had in college. She stood before me in Birkenstocks, wool socks, jeans, and a women's music T-shirt, and declared that she felt dismissed and marginalized by my comment, that lesbians-who-give-potlucks described her exactly, and that I had clearly fashioned a more interesting identity with her own as a foil. I had thought I was telling a story about being inadequate to prevailing lesbian identity-forms, or about allying with gay men, or perhaps even about the lack of representational choices for signaling femme. But it turned out that I was telling a story about anachronism, with "lesbian" as the sign of times gone by and her body as an implicit teaching text.
Momentarily displaced into my own history of feeling chastised by feminisms that preceded me, yet aware that this student had felt disciplined by my joke in much the same way, I apologized, and a long conversation about identification between students and teachers followed. But what interests me now is the way that student's self-presentation ruptured any easy assumptions about lesbian generations and registered the failure of the "generational" model to capture political differences between two women who had race, class, nationality, and sexual preference in common. The temporal incongruity of her body suggested that she simply did not identify with what I would have taken to be her own emergent peer culture of neopunk polymorphs, Queer Nationals, Riot Grrrls, and so on--nor with my culture of neo-butch/femme, consumerist sex radicalism. Her body's "crossing," then, was different than the gender crossings that queer studies was just beginning to privilege. It was a crossing of time, less in the mode of postmodern pastiche than in the mode of stubborn identification with a set of social coordinates that exceeded her own historical moment.
Let us call this "temporal drag," with all of the associations that the word "drag" has with retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past upon the present. This kind of drag, as opposed to the queenier kind celebrated in queer cultural studies, suggests the gravitational pull that "lesbian" sometimes seems to exert upon "queer." In many discussions of the relationship between the two, it often seems as if the lesbian feminist is cast as the big drag, drawing politics inexorably back to essentialized bodies, normative visions of women's sexuality, and single-issue identity politics. Yet for those of us for whom queer politics and theory involve not disavowing our relationship to particular (feminist) histories even as we move away from identity politics, thinking of "drag" as a temporal phenomenon also raises a crucial question: what is the time of queer performativity?
In formulating her landmark theory of queer performativity, Judith Butler's answer to this question seems to be that its time is basically progressive, insofar as it depends upon repetitions with a difference--iterations that are transformative and future-oriented. In Gender Trouble, an identity-sign such as "lesbian" is most promising for the unpredictable ways it may be taken up later. Repetitions with any backwards-looking force, on the other hand, are merely "citational," and can only thereby consolidate the authority of a fantasized original. The time of ordinary masculine and feminine performativity is even more retroactive: the "original" sexed body that seems to guarantee the gendered subject's authenticity is in fact a back-formation, a hologram projected onto earlier moments. The political result of these temporal formulations can be that whatever looks newer or more-radical-than-thou has more purchase over prior signs, and that whatever seems to generate continuity seems better left behind. But to reduce all embodied performances to the status of copies without originals is to ignore the interesting threat that the genuine past-ness of the past sometimes makes to the political present. And as other critics have pointed out, the theoretical work of "queer performativity" sometimes (though not always) undermines not just the essentialized body that haunts lesbian and gay identity politics, but political history--the expending of actual physical energy in less spectacular or theatrical forms of activist labor done in response to historically specific crises. (1)
Though "temporal drag" is always a constitutive part of subjectivity, exteriorized as a mode of embodiment it may also offer a way of connecting queer performativity to disavowed political histories. Might some bodies, in registering on their very surfaces the co-presence of several historically-specific events, movements, and collective pleasures, complicate or displace the centrality of gender-transitive drag to queer performativity? Might they articulate instead a kind of temporal transitivity that does not leave feminism, femininity, or other "anachronisms" behind? I ask this not to dismiss Butler's work--which has facilitated all kinds of promising Cultural Studies projects that depend upon the decoupling of identities and practices--but rather to use her to think specifically about the history of feminism, bringing out a temporal aspect that I think is often overlooked in descriptions of her important turn from performativity to what she calls the psychic life of power. As I will go on to argue, Butler does indeed provide a way of thinking about identity relationally across time, of "drag" as a productive obstacle to progress, a usefully distorting pull backwards, and a necessary pressure upon the present tense. But the form of drag I would like to extrapolate from her work moves beyond the parent-child relation that has structured psychoanalysis, and might therefore usefully transform a "generational" model of politics. For though some feminists have advocated abandoning the generational model because it relies on family as its dominant metaphor and identity as the commodity it passes on, the concept of generations linked by political work or even by mass entertainment also acknowledges the ability of various culture industries to produce shared subjectivities that go beyond the family. (2) "Generation," a word for both biological and technological forms of replication, cannot be tossed out with the bathwater of reproductive thinking. Instead, it may be crucial to complicate the idea of horizontal political generations succeeding one another, with a notion of "temporal drag," thought less in the psychic time of the individual than in the movement time of collective political life.
Recently, I encountered a video artist's recent meditation on radical feminism in which this project seems central: in Elisabeth Subrin's short experimental video Shulie (1997), a queer vision of embodiment intersects with some feminist concerns about generationality, continuity, and historicity. Some background: Shulie is a shot-by-shot remake of an unreleased 1967 documentary film with the same title. The earlier Shulie examined a then-unknown twenty-two-year-old student at the Art Institute of Chicago named Shulamith Firestone, who went on shortly after the documentary's completion to organize the New York Radical Women in 1967, the Redstockings in early 1969, and the New York Radical Feminists in the fall of 1969, and eventually to write the groundbreaking feminist manifesto The Dialectic of Sex in 1970. (3) Rather than reworking Shulie (1967) into a documentary that links the postadolescent art student with the pioneering radical feminist she became, Subrin restaged the original film and meticulously duplicated its camerawork, adding a montage sequence at the beginning and framing the piece with several explanatory texts. We learn that in 1967, four male Chicago art students were commissioned to portray the "Now Generation" of the late 1960s, among them Firestone. The title card reads "Shulie, © 1967," as if what we are about to see is the original film. But the 1997 video ends with a text explaining that it is an adaption of the 1967 film and crediting its makers, then announcing that Firestone moved to New York shortly after the filming to found the radical feminist movement and write The Dialectic of Sex. (4) The final framing text puts Firestone into a feminist genealogy, claiming that her ideas about cybernetic reproduction anticipated many postmodernist analyses of the relationship between technology and gender. Shulie (1997) also honors the way Firestone herself paid homage to her predecessors: The Dialectic of Sex is "for Simone de Beauvoir, who endured"; after Subrin's credits comes a dedication "for Shulamith Firestone, who has endured," perhaps more in the contemporary feminist political unconscious than on Women's Studies syllabi. Indeed, despite this evocation of a feminist legacy, Shulie (1997) consistently undermines the idea that an intact feminist world has been handed down from older women to younger ones. Further complicating its work as a feminist historical document, the video is also infused with the vicariousness and self-conscious theatricality that have become the hallmarks of queer cultural texts.
The montage sequence of the 1997 Shulie opens with a sign that condenses the eroticism of recent lesbian-queer revivals of gender play, and the historicism that is an often unacknowledged but constitutive part of queer performance. Subrin's first shot, lasting twenty-four seconds, shows a set of empty train tracks leading into downtown Chicago, a part of the skyline in the background. In the foreground, we see a shabby warehouse--itself an index of industrial capitalism now often located rhetorically in the nation's past. The side of this warehouse reads "New Packing Co." This sign acknowledges that the video itself is a reshoot, and alludes to the repackaging of collective feminist activism into individual, consumerist style in the 1980s and beyond. Yet in the context of a video about Second Wave feminism, the phrase also momentarily reminds at least some audience members of the central role that "packing"--the wearing of dildos--had as radical separatist feminism metamorphosized into the sex wars of the 1980s. Finally, the warehouse sign is the sign of an ellipse: Subrin has reshot a film that was never released because Shulamith Firestone asked its makers never to show it. (5) What the contemporary audience can see, instead, is a repackaging of feminist history's outtakes, which turns out to pack a punch.
This convergence of a decrepit icon of manual labor and a phrase that suggests style, eroticism, and consumer pleasures, prefigures the way that Subrin's remake eventually disorients the post-feminist "now" of its own moment. As the camera lingers on the "New Packing" sign, fragments of sound fade in: the clacking of train wheels, chants of "2, 4, 6, 8," a staticky broadcast of a black male voice declaring, "thousands of young people are being beaten in the streets of Chicago" as the camera moves away from the sign, revealing a recognizably 1990s Chicago whose streets look empty. While the image track accumulates shots of still buildings, deserted streets, and hollow underpasses shot in the present, the soundtrack spills forth more political detritus from the late 1960s: among them, a male voice demands, "Am I under arrest? Am I under arrest?," a crowd chants "Peace now," a warbling tenor sings "Miss America." Over this, sirens from the past sound an alarm that seems aimed directly at the current moment. The title card marks the beginning of the video's diegetic time and of its cinematographic merger with the prior film. Yet the first words of its interviewee, Shulie, undermine the soundtrack's prior suggestion that the Chicago of the 1960s may be a lost political utopia: "I don't like Chicago," Shulie begins, and anyone who has lived there understands the combination of hope and pessimism that she says the city inspires in her.
In fact, for Shulie, 1967 seems just as politically empty as the video's presentation of 1997. Within the diegetic boundaries of the video that follows the montage, even though the camerawork and action exactly follow the 1967 original, we see little evidence of the earlier period's activism. Instead of a documentary history of radical feminism, a biopic of Firestone's entire life, or an explicit comparison of feminisms "now" and "then," Subrin delivers a series of throwaway observations and incidents in the life of a depressive, very smart young Jewish female in her final year at the Art Institute. Listening to Shulie's commentary, which is startlingly a propos to our own moment, audience members are forced to confront the fact that the prehistory of radical feminism is very much like its aftermath, that we have a certain postmodern problem that no longer has a name--or rather, whose names are under increasing erasure. And Shulie is clearly a figure for Subrin; the videomaker herself is also a very smart, middle-class Jewish female artist whose prior work is about depression, and who had just graduated from the Art Institute when she began shooting. (6) History reappears as neither monument nor farce, but as the angelface of a twenty-two-year-old ("so young!" moans one of Shulie's teachers), a promise not yet redeemed for the thirtysomething videomaker, thirty years later.
Of course this video is completely different from a drag performance. If anything, the purportedly humorless radical feminist is the political subject-position that has seemed most at odds with the drag queen. But in its chronotopic disjunctiveness, Subrin's work does partake in a temporal economy crucial to queer performance and harnesses it to movements that go beyond the shimmyings of individual bodies and to the problematic relationship between feminist history and queer theory. Moving from an opening landscape that features the evacuated warehouses of 1990s post-industrial Chicago to follow Shulie through the junkyards she photographed in the 1960s, and ultimately toward the question of what Second Wave feminism might mean to those who did not live through it except possibly as children, the video partakes in the love of failure, the rescue of ephemera, that constitutes the most angst-ridden side of queer camp performance. As Andrew Ross and Richard Dyer have argued, the camp effect depends not just upon inverting binaries such as male/female, high/ low, and so on, but also upon resuscitation of the obsolete cultural text. (7) This multitemporal aspect of camp seems to inform Subrin's use of what she elsewhere calls Shulie's "minor, flawed, and non-heroic" experience at the Art Institute and even the video's willingness to redeploy radical feminism as a failed and yet also incomplete political project. (8)
Shulie's investment in cultural castoffs and potentially embarrassing prehistories resonates also with a crucial turn in Butler's work: not the turn from theatricality to material bodies that marks the movement from Gender Trouble to Bodies That Matter, but the shift from a non-narrative, futuristic model of "iteration" to a narrative, historicist model of "allegorization," in which the material by-products of past failures write the poetry of a different future. As Butler suggests at the end of "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" and amplifies in The Psychic Life of Power, normative gender identity may itself be melancholic, emerging when a subject is forced to renounce her desire for her same-sex parent and then compensates by assuming as her own body the one she has been forced to give up wanting sexually. (9) Preserving the lost object of improper desire in the form of a properly gendered subjectivity, the manly man or womanly woman is, as Butler eloquently puts it, "the archaeological remainder ... of unresolved grief' (PL 133). She goes on to suggest that drag performance "allegorizes heterosexual melancholy, the melancholy by which a masculine gender is formed from the refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love; a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the incorporative fantasy by which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but 'preserved' through heightened feminine identification" (PL 146). In this revision of the Oedipus complex, the lover's gendered identity takes shape not only through the melancholic preservation of the same-sex beloved as an object of identification (as in Freud), but also as the lover's outward inscription of the beloved onto her own body in the form of gendered clothing, gesture, and so on.
Though her focus here is not queer performance but heterosexual embodiment, Butler's use of the term "allegorize" in a discussion of how drag might expose the psychic machinery of normative gender identification is key, for allegory itself has an affinity with ritual. Both engage with temporal crossing, with the movement of signs, personified as bodies, across the boundaries of age, chronology, epoch. But to use an even more old-fashioned literary critical term, if drag works allegorically, normative masculinity and femininity might actually be symbolic in their attempt to fuse incommensurate temporal moments into a singular and coherent experience of gendered selfhood. (10) Turning identification into identity, ordinary gender must perforce erase the passage of time, because it can only preserve the lost object of homosexual desire in the form of the lawfully gendered subject by evacuating the historical specificity of the prior object. For instance, if I renounce my mother and wear her body as my "own" gender, I certainly don't wear it as she did at the moment of my renunciation, circa 1969. If I disseminate my mother's body in all its anachronistic glory onto the surface of my own, though, I don't look normative at all. As "Mom, circa 1969," my appearance writes onto my body not only the history of my love for my mother (or even the spending of her youthful body on the making of my own), but also at least two historically distinct forms and meanings of "womanhood." This kind of temporal drag uses disruptive anachronisms to pivot what would otherwise be simple parody into a montage of publicly intelligible subject-positions lost and gained. For many committed to both butch/femme and feminism, play on the flesh with prior, "tired" models of gender performs just the kind of temporal crossing that registers a certain queerness.
Butler's momentary reference to allegory also goes beyond psychoanalysis to commit to the culture-making work of queer performativity. For allegory is the form of collective melancholia. Melancholia is inward, and involves the preservation of the lost object as an aspect of one grieving person's subjectivity. But allegory traffics in collectively held meanings and experiences, pushing the melancholic's rather solipsistic introjection back outwards in order to remake the world in a mock-imperialist gesture: its narrative "cure" can never be merely personal. The primary work of queer performativity, rethought as complexly allegorical, might be to construct and circulate something like an embodied temporal map, a political archive for a contingent form of personhood.
This ethic deeply informs Subrin's casting and costuming in Shulie (1997), which insists upon the presence of a shared feminist repository in the 1990s queergirl. (11) Lead actress Kim Soss's performance of Shulie, and Subrin's direction of that performance, neither pass as perfect reconstructions nor explode into hyperbolic deconstructions. Instead, they traffic in the kinds of anachronisms that disrupt what might otherwise be a seamless, point-by-point retelling of the prior text. For instance, playing the part of Shulie, Soss wears a rather obvious wig and glasses that look contemporary. Some of the video's critics have also commented that the main difference between Soss and the Firestone of the 1967 Shulie is affect-a reviewer who has seen both works focuses on the contrast between Firestone's rather tortured emotional intensity and Soss's "colorless, guarded, emotionally vacant" delivery. (12) There are also several historically anomalous objects in the 1997 video, including a sexual harassment policy statement in the post office that Subrin used to remake the scenes of Shulie at her day job, a Starbucks coffee cup, and a cameo appearance by Subrin herself. But these anachronisms of costuming, affect, props, and character, which break the 1960s frame, do not function as parody. They are neither excessive nor particularly funny. They are simultaneously minor failures of historical authenticity and the sudden punctum of the present. The idea that Shulie's pigtails, wacky glasses, minidresses, and depression might be all that is left of the movement she founded is a sobering reminder that political contexts morph rapidly into commodified subcultures. Or perhaps it is inspiring, insofar as she looks a bit like a Riot Grrrl, that this movement has reinvigorated some important precepts of radical feminism. But the subtle 1990s touches work against the neoconservative tendency to consign to the irretrievable past anything that challenges a dominant vision of the future--and remind us that social progressives have a tendency to be too easily embarrassed by earlier political moments. Shulie's "now" clearly resonates with our own, and since hers was about to detonate into a political future, the video implicitly asks, why not ours?
In short, Shulie (1997) suggests that there are iterations, repetitions, and citations which are not strictly parodic, in that they do not necessarily aim to reveal the original as always already a copy, but instead engage with prior time as genuinely elsewhere. Nor are they strictly consolidating of authority, in that they leave the very authority they cite visible as a ruin. Instead, they tap into a mode of longing that is as fundamental to queer performance as laughter is. Reanimating cultural corpses, Shulie's iterations suggest, might make the social coordinates that accompanied these signs available in a different way.
This strategy both extends and modifies an earlier tradition of the feminist reshoot pioneered by artists such as Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger, who imitated high cultural masterworks or popular generic codes, forcing viewers to speculate upon what female reauthorship (for all three) or the insertion of a "real" female body into these frameworks (for Sherman and Kruger) might reveal about their ostensibly universal representational stakes. (13) Both Subrin and Firestone herself do the same for the documentary genre. The anachronistic touches which remind us that the Shulie of 1997 is not a historical documentary also temporally reframe Firestone's struggle to resist her position as a woman in the arts and to subvert the demand that she represent the "Now generation" of 1967, putting her instead into a dialogue with feminist artists who followed her. In a scene that sets the terms for her later critique of the representational politics of the "generation," Shulie takes her artwork into the painting studios at the Art Institute for a final critique. Though her paintings look expressionist and somewhat abstract, her five male teachers mistake her for a realist, insisting that several works "are what they are." They also turn Shulie into a documentarian, insisting that "the theme behind" all of her photographs is "the same, is your interest in people, and the lives...." This is a manifestly ludicrous assessment of even the most flatly "realistic" photographs, since the central object her art examines is clearly the male body: male nudes, seated figures, construction workers, little boys, and civil servants crowd her works. Even the 1967 filmmakers seem to catch this irony, for they shoot Shulie painting a male figure from behind the canvas, so that she seems to look back and forth at the camera as she paints, as if the cameraman himself were her model. (Late in the sequence, the "real" model finally appears.) Firestone thus explored the fragilities and cultural distortions of male embodiment long before "masculinity studies" hit the academy. And even the four male documentarians of 1967 seem to have realized that Firestone was clearly painting against the male gaze while a total of nine men looked at "Shulie." Her teachers do not seem to have been so bright. Dismissing this work with the male body and the male social subject as "grotesque," "a little on the dreary side," and "very indecisive," the art faculty pushes her toward filmmaking, claiming that cinema is a more direct treatment of reality.
The irony of this is palpable too, since Firestone is clearly already working at and in the medium of film by performing the part of the "documentary" subject Shulie, all the while undermining the assumptions behind the documentary genre. As if to contradict her professors' banal assessment of her artwork, the glimpses we can see of Firestone's engagement with the filming process stubbornly take issue with the idea that representations can ever be "what they are." She emphasizes her commitment to depicting and deforming the male body while she herself is framed both by the original male documentarians and by the faculty members who critique her, and it is unclear whether these male grotesques represent an act of revenge against patriarchal conventions of representation or her own gender-transitive self-figuration as male. She describes her decision not to photograph an elderly woman, stating firmly that "sometimes you just reach a point where you can't use people's situations as subject matter," which suggests that she herself may not be revealing much. And she offers only one coherent reading of her own canvases. "This is a civil service exam," she explains, and immediately links that painting to the very scenario she is in: " ... or any classroom situation ... a certain dehumanization and alienation that people have to go through in their work," linking the use of the female body in high art, her own position as a female art student in an all-male critique, and her status as the object of the documentary gaze.
Yet Subrin also refuses to simply reinstall Shulamith Firestone into a linear feminist art history. In a complicated and confusing scene that follows the art critique, Shulie herself goes on to explicitly repudiate the cultural logic of reproduction whereby "generation" is an unquestionable figure either for continuity or for complete rupture--and by repeating this scene, the 1997 video complicates the relationship between Shulie and her reanimator, younger and older, pre-feminist and post-feminist. In the 1997 version, Subrin (who plays the on-and off-camera part of the original documentarians), asks Shulie if her feelings of connection to outsiders relates "to this question of being a generation." Coming from a man as it did originally, this question would sound narrow-minded, for it misrecognizes as a generation gap what Shulie's artwork has already clearly rendered as a gender gap. But because Subrin herself takes over the documentarian's authoritarian, misguided voice, gender does not simply trump generation, linking women across time. The scene also captures the failure of two women to constitute a meaningful political cohort, of Second Wave and Generation X to merge smoothly into some timeless Generation XX. Shulie repeats the question about "being a generation" in surprise. The documentarian says, "I mean, this is something that's very strong among so many people your age, that they see themselves to be part, very importantly, a part of an important generation." Because Subrin's impatient voice comes from the 1990s, "your age" is ironic, suggesting her own slight irritation with "'60s radicals" as perhaps the most self-consciously "generational" cohort, paying wry homage to the fact that women from the "important generation" of the 1960s now make major decisions about the careers of women like Subrin herself, and implying that age is often simply a metaphor for institutional power.
But Shulie retorts, "Well, I wouldn't say that there are so many who feel alienated from it," apparently shifting the pronominal referent from mainstream society to the "Now generation" itself and thereby dismissing even shared outsiderhood as a form of groupthink. Here, she seems to hold out for a feeling of alienation that might lead to something besides a generation gap, as indeed the subsequent departure of many feminists from the traditional left acknowledged. The documentarian reiterates, "I'm saying that there are many who feel part of it, not who feel alienated, but who feel very much a part of it." "Oh," says Shulie, "You said that they feel part of it, and I said I didn't." The documentarian assents. "Well," Shulie says, apparently giving up on pursuing her discomfort with the idea of a collectivity whose main claim to politics is being born within a few years of one another or witnessing the same events together, ''Yes, you know. That's true." But she does not seem to mean this any more than she does when she gives up and agrees with the cruel dismissals of her work in her art critique.
This conversation about generations adds another layer of irony: though Shulie could not possibly feel a part of Subrin's generation, Sublin's address to the past suggests that Shulie might have done better "here." For Firestone's later insistence on cybernetics as the key to feminist liberation is more in keeping with the antiessentialist theories in which Subrin was trained in the 1980s and 1990s than with what has been critically associated with "Second Wave" feminism. Subrin, on the other hand, seems to feel herself more part of Shulie's "pre"-feminist moment than her own "post"-feminist one: there is something about the rawness of expression, the lack of terms with which Shulie has to think about her own experience, that the video captures as a mode of political possibility. B. Ruby Rich insists that Subrin's version of Shulie "completes a certain cycle: the first generation of feminist theory as revisited, fetishized, and worshipped by the new generation." (14) But I am not sure the language of worship does justice to the profound ambivalence of the video, which is as accusatory as it is reverential, as much about the lack of a genuinely transformed context for women born tnto the 1970s and 1980s as it is about an admiration for ideas that came earlier. If anything, Subrin refuses to fetishize, to disavow what is not present in her primal encounter with Shulie (at the very least, the "real" Firestone, a fully available past, a coherent origin for radical feminism, and an intelligible political doctrine) or to cover up that lack with the false totality of interviews with Firestone's friends or with her own voice-overs.
The conversation between Shulie and the documentarian about generations bridges a scene emphasizing the uselessness of the "Now generation" concept that the original documentary's patrons aimed to promote. Originally a 1960s "be-in," the scene was reshot at a demonstration against the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The 1990s demonstrators mill about, painting each other's faces and banging drums rather languorously, flanked by equally idle policemen. One wonders whether the original be-in was this lackadaisical, or whether the relaxed silliness of the 1990s version holds different promises than the original event. Shulie's voiceover suggests that the be-in, like the free-form demonstration Subrin substitutes, relied on the politics of "generations," whereby belonging to a specific historical moment--marked by age stratification, homogeneous fashion, a vague awareness of the politics they are supposedly there to contest, and indulgent supervision by the police--is somehow equated with doing something in it. As the scene rolls by, Shulie reiterates her feeling that she is not part of the very generation the documentary insists she is representing, "Well, I know that's not very hip. I'm sorry, it just happens to be true." The documentarian asks urgently, "Why? What's hip? What's your definition of hip?" Shulie replies, "To live in the now." "To live in the now?" the documentarian reiterates. "Where's that?"
This is perhaps the crucial Cultural Studies question--and the one Subrin is clearly trying to answer for 1990s feminism. In the video's only moment of genuine parody, Shulie replies by rattling off the mantras of live-and-let-Iive hippiedom. "Don't worry about tomorrow, live in the now....Life is fun, life is pleasant, we enjoy friends and drinking and smoking pot ... why should we worry about anything?" In the same breath, she emphatically rejects this outlook: "Sure, that's fine, good for them. I don't care. I want to give it some form." Here and in other parts of the documentary, she seems to be speaking only of artistic form: she says that "Reality is a little chaotic and meaningless, and unless I give it some form, it's just out of control"; she declares that "I hate any date that goes by that I haven't made some kind of landmark...I hate the shapelessness of it....It's not enough for me to just live and die; I don't like it enough." But it turns out that her interventions were already collective, political, and historicist, and not just individualist and aesthetic in the way her comments imply. For the documentarians of 1967 picked the wrong locale for "Now," and the "Shulie" character does not clue them in to what Firestone was apparently doing during the film's production.
In fact, Firestone seems to have hidden from the 1967 documentarians her activities with Chicago's Westside group, the first radical feminist group in the country (DB 65-66). These activities appear only in her vague statements that sexual involvements with men who agree with her on "these sorts of things" have not been a problem, and that men "don't agree with this, still." In both the 1967 and the 1997 versions, the question remains open whether the "things" in all of these statements were, at the moment of the filming, her individual pursuit of artistic or intellectual work, her private views about gender roles, or her activities in a movement. Even in the original film, the crucial political referent is missing.
Though she seems to be speaking the language of the alienated, resolutely anticommunal, formalist artist, Shulie also gives a clue to the historical method she herself employed a short time later and that Subrin herself reworks: she says she would like to "catch time short, and not just....drift along in it." And by the time Firestone wrote The Dialectic of Sex in 1970, she had fleshed out her relationship to the generational logic she resisted in Shulie (1967). In her manifesto, she describes "Woodstock Nation, the Youth Revolt, the Flower and Drug Generation of Hippies, Yippies, Crazies, Motherfuckers, Mad Dogs, Hog Farmers, and the like, who [reject Marxist analysis and techniques] yet have no solid historical analysis of their own to replace it; indeed, who are apolitical" (DS 44). To make alienation genuinely political, she insists, one must have a relationship to history. But The Dialectic of Sex is evolutionary, linear, and monocausal in a way that other feminisms have decisively rejected, for it narrates a history of gender as the foundational basis for oppression, one that predates class and upon which capitalism still feeds.
In a countermove, however, the Firestone of The Dialectic also disrupts the "revolutionary" presentism of her own feminist peers. She claims that that "feminism, in truth, has a cyclical momentum all its own" (DS 35). For Firestone, this momentum involves the freeing of women from biology by science, the development of political ideas from the sense of possibility engendered by technological liberation, and inevitably, a decades-long backlash that reduces those political ideas to a demand for equal rights rather than the remaking of social relations. While her biological determinism and faith in technology feel untenable today, her use of feminist history is more promising. She claims that the radical feminist position of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the "direct descendant of the radical feminist line in the old movement" and rehabilitates the very activists whom her own feminist peers rejected (DS 42). She describes the early American Women's Rights Movement (which she calls the W.R.M.) as a radical grassroots agenda bent on transforming Family, Church, and State, and eventually overwhelmed by the "frenzied feminine organizational activity of the Progressive Era" and the single-issue suffragists (DS 21). Of course this rehabilitation was in many ways no different from any back-to-the roots resurrection of lost political moments; Firestone merely asked her fellow activists to think in terms of radical and conservative versions of the politics that travel under the sign of feminism, rather than in terms of horizontal generational breaks with the past.
But in her sense of a disaggregated, cross-temporal identification, Shulie was not unlike the student who intervened upon my own complacent sense of a coherent political now. For she also avoided what Julia Creet has analyzed as the S/M fantasy of intergenerational contact between feminists, where outlawism is practiced primarily in relation to older women. (15) While this model was clearly informing Firestone's peers' rejection of the W.R.M., Firestone introduced a different politics of the gap: rather than the inevitable "generation gap" that supposedly aligns members of a chronological cohort with one another as they move away from their predecessors, she concentrated on the amnesiatic gaps in consciousness that resulted from the backlash to the first W.R.M. Elliptically relating the earliest W.R.M. to her own moment just as Subrin elliptically relates the moment preceding radical feminism to our own, Firestone let a former feminism flare up to illuminate the Second Wave's moment of danger, which was indeed played out in the reduction of radical feminism to the E.R.A. movement.
In an important point of contrast to Firestone herself, though, Subrin resists the rehabilitative gesture that would position the former as a heroic figure upon whom a better future feminism might cathect. For Subrin deploys the figure of a woman younger than herself, complicating that figure's situation earlier in time: in Shulie (1997), the elder is also a younger. Neither political foremother, nor peer, nor wayward daughter, Shulie, like "Now," is multiply elsewhere. This elsewhere is particular to Subrin's own moment and to the political context in which Shulie (1997) was produced and is currently received, in which the figure of the young girl illuminates so many 'zines, manifestoes, and other cultural productions. (16) The middle-aged Firestone has refused to cooperate with and so far will not comment upon Shulie, but Subrin's insistence on taking the younger Firestone seriously as a political thinker and an object of obsession, represents a commitment to the "girl" icon of her own contemporary political context.
The deployment of the girl in recent queer/ feminist videos, 'zines, song lyrics, and so on, implicitly critiques radical feminists' repudiation of their own 1950s girlhoods as false consciousness, allowing the politicized adult a more empathetic and even erotic relationship to her former vulnerabilities and pleasures: "girl" embraces an embarrassing past as the crucial augur of a critical, yet also contingent future. The "girl revolution" implicitly critiques any lesbian and gay movement politics that would disavow children's sexuality. Instead these works willingly expose the fantasies, desires, and sexual experiments of childhood, and seem to epitomize Eve Sedgwick's suggestion that a genuinely queer politics must refuse to abject even the most stigmatized child-figure from formulations of adult political subjectivity. (17) But the "girl" revolution also refuses to locate the "girl" as the beginning of either identity or politics; instead, she represents what Elspeth Probyn calls "a political tactic ... used to turn identity inside out." (18) The girl-sign acknowledges an uncontrollable past, the uncontrollability of the past, its inability to explain the present--and the promising distortions effected when the past suddenly, unpredictably erupts into the present forms of sexual and gendered personhood.
Yet the sign of the girl is more than just that of an individual woman's personal past or unruly unconscious. Refusing distance from the child-self becomes a means of critiquing contemporary public culture in the 1997 Shulie, in Subrin's other recent videotape Swallow, in the works she has produced with Sadie Benning, and in the 'zines and videos of the 1990s. (19) In these texts, "girl" is a gendered sign of longing for the cultural reorientation that Firestone advocated in The Dialectic of Sex and that the 1970s took more seriously than subsequent decades have: the constitution of children as members of a distinct public, whose socialization and demands might be thought collectively. (20) "Girl" productions often reference "Free to Be You and Me," Schoolhouse Rock, Head Start, Amy Carter, and other signs of a culture that was, for at least a brief moment, genuinely hopeful about the relationship between children and the mass media. Reappropriations of 1970s culture are more than mere nostalgia on the part of a cohort born after 1965: the dissemination of "girl" as a political identity implies that the liberal feminist turn towards rethinking the politics of bringing up baby might have represented a turn away from the broader social contexts in which parenting occurs. Texts operating under the sign of "girl" also speak insistently of a feminized, eroticized children's public sphere beyond even the most "progressive" productions made by adults for children. In a sense, the "girl" icon seizes the iconography of missing children and childhoods, which Marilyn Ivy has persuasively read as a sign of the privatization of culture, but uses it to disseminate children's and adolescents' public cultures. (21) The queer girl icon demands the transformation of sentimental love for the "inner child" into both an acknowledgment of children as sexual subjects and a collective reorganization of the conditions of childhood itself. In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone saw radical feminism as incomplete unless it included the political and sexual liberation of children, and Subrin's unsanctioned revivification of her elder in the form of a younger self becomes the sign that that revolution may indeed be in the works.
Shulie is not a child, yet her costuming and confusion contribute to a childlike aspect that the 1990s "girl revolution" has transformed into a body praxis at once allegorical and performative. The slogan of this movement might be "regress for redress": adults in kidwear, emotions as political expressivity, juvenilia as political tract. Neither is Shulie a sexual icon, yet Subrin's illicit recreation of her resonates with the slightly sadistic culture of queer fandom, in which stars' most vulnerable younger (or aging) selves become the nodal points for shared feelings of shame, defiance, and survival. (22) Finally, Shulie's status as not-yet-identified (as "adult woman," as "feminist," as "lesbian," as the representative or symbol of a completed movement) allows Subrin a point of entry into the contemporary moment in terms other than "post." Subrin's intervention offers a corrective to the idea that we can ever be in a genuinely post-identity politics moment-unless "post" can somehow signify the endless dispatches between past and present social and subjective formations.
Shulie's promise lies in what the language of feminist "waves" and queer "generations" sometimes effaces: the mutually disruptive energy of moments that are not yet past and yet are not entirely present either. Shulie in 1967 is a figure who has not yet entered her own "history." As such, she forces us to reimagine our historical categories, rethinking our own position in relation to the "pre-historical" rather than in relation to the relentlessly "post." The messy, transitional status of Shulie's thinking asks us to imagine the future in terms of experiences that discourse has not yet caught up with, rather than as a legacy passed on between generations. Reflecting on her own relationship to marxism in The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone writes, "If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution, we would use it" (DS 1). She claims the word "revolution" not as inheritance, but rather as a placeholder for possibilities that have yet to be articulated.
Queer theory has illuminated the ways in which conventional masculinity and femininity are themselves the "afterlife" of foreclosed same-sex desires. Shulie (1997) points us toward the identities and desires that are foreclosed within social movements, illuminating the often unexpected effects of such deferred identifications. The film ' animates melancholia for both a collective political past and an individual subject's child-self, suggesting that there may also be a productive afterlife to identities that seem foreclosed within the filmmaker's own present tense: second-wave feminist, girlchild of the 1970s, even student.
Subrin's "improper" attachment to the figure of Shulie suggests how contemporary sexual and gendered publics, in refusing to mourn properly and instead preserving melancholic identifications, might propel us toward a barely-imagined future. If identity is always in temporal drag, constituted and haunted by the failed love-project that precedes it, perhaps the shared culture-making projects we call "movements" might do well to feel the tug backwards as a potentially transformative part of movement itself.
UNIVERSITY OF CALFORNIA, DAVIS
1. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York, 1990). In the context of an argument that queer performativity represents the gay movements dismissal of an earlier left commitment to socialism, Sue-Ellen Case writes that "'performativity' links 'lesbian' to the tarnished, sweating, laboring, performing body that most be semiotically scrubbed until the 'live' lesbian gives way to the slippery, polished surface of the market manipulation of the sign" ("Towards a Butch-Femme Retro-Future," in Cross-Purposes: Lesbians, Feminists, and the Limits of Alliance, ed. Dana Heller [Bloomington, Ind., 1997], p. 210).
2. See Judith Roof, "Generational Difficulties; or, The Fear of a Barren History,"' in Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue, ed. Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan (Minneapolis, 1997), pp. 71-72; and Dana Heller, "The Anxieties of Affluence: Movements, Markets, and Lesbian Feminist Generation(s)," in Generations, p. 322.
3. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, 1970); hereafter cited in text as DS. On Shulamith Firestone's activities from 1967-1970, see Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis, 1989) ; hereafter cited in text as DB. For the purposes of clarity, I use "Shulie" to designate the fictive subject of both documentaries, and "Firestone" the historical agent beyond the 1967 documentary's imagination. Similarly, "video" refers to Subrin's production, and "film" to the 1967 original. Wherever possible, I have also distinguished between the earlier and later works with dates in parentheses. Shulie, dir. Elisabeth Subrin (Video Data Bank, 1997). Screenings or purchase of Shulie (1997) can be arranged through the Video Data Bank, 112 South Michigan, Chicago, IL 60603; (312) 345-3550.
4. Shulie (1967) was made by Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig. The earlier film remains unavailable for viewing.
5. Elisabeth Subrin, personal conversation, fall 1999.
6. Elisabeth Subrin's Swallow (Video Data Bank, 1995) concerns the links among depression, anorexia, the acquisition of language, and the experience of growing up in the context of 1970s feminism.
7. See Andrew Ross, "Uses of Camp," in his No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Cuiture (New York, 1989), pp. 135-70; and Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York, 1987).
8. Elisabeth Subrin, "Trash: Value, Waste, and the Politics of Legibility" (presented at the College Art Association Annual Conference, Los Angeles, February, 1999).
9. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Palo Alto, 1997); hereafter cited in text as PL.
10. The classic work on the distinction between allegory and symbol is Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, 1979); see also Walter Benjamin, "Allegory and Trauerspiel," in 17le Origin of Gerrnan Tragic Drama, tr.John Osborne (London, 1977), pp. 159-235.
11. Again, a few rather plodding remarks on terminology: neither "lesbian" nor "dyke" cover, precisely, the commitment to playing with age that, as I discuss further on, marks Shulie and many other recent cultural productions made by queer females. Yet "queer" remains frustratingly gender-neutral, and does not do justice to the specifically femme sensibilities also at work in some of these texts. Hence, some neologisms.
12. Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Remaking History," review of Shulie, Chicago Reader, 20 November 1998, sec. 1: 48-49.
13. See Rosalind Krauss, "The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodernist Repetition," in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York, 1984), pp. 13-29; also, more generally, see the early 1980s debates on postmodernism in the pages of the journal October.
14. B. Ruby Rich, Chick Hicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, N.C., 1998), p. 384.
15. Julia Creet, "Daughter of the Movement: The Psychodynamics of Lesbian S/M Fantasy," differences, 3.2 (1991), 135-59.
16. Needless to say, self-published 'zines move faster than academic publishing, but a representative sampling of mid-1990s girls 'zines can be found in A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World: Excerpts from the Girl 'Zine Revolution, ed. Tristan Taormino and Karen Green (New York, 1997).
17. Eve Sedgwick, "How to Bring your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys," in her Tendencies (Durham, N.C., 1993), pp. 153-64.
18. Elspeth Probyn, "Suspended Beginnings: Of Childhood and Nostalgia," in her Outside Belongings (New York, 1996), p. 99.
19. Judy Spots, dir. Sadie Benning and prod. Elisabeth Subrin (Video Data Bank, 1995).
20. For a seminal meditation on the politics of mourning for lost public cultures that also insists upon maintaining clear distinctions between generations, see Douglas Crimp, "Mourning and Militancy," October, 51 (1998),3-18.
21. Marilyn Ivy, "Have You Seen Me? Recovering the Inner Child in Late Twentieth Century America," in Childhood and the Politics of Cuiture, ed. Sharon Stephens (Princeton, 1995), pp. 79-102.
22. See Richard Dyer, "Judy Garland and Gay Men," in Heavenly Bodies, pp. 141-94.
*A Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Humanities Forum gave me much-needed time to produce this essay. Many thanks to Heather Love, Molly McGarry, Ann Pellegrini, and Elisabeth Subrin for their help along the way. For stern early interventions I thank the Faculty Working Group in Queer Theory at New York University, especially Douglas Crimp, Ann Cvetkovich, and Patty White. Any remaining errors or conceptual misfires, of course, I claim as my own.