Temporal Feminisms, Feminist Temporalities; Philosophers and Empaths

Janna Avner
May 24, 2017 · 8 min read
La Nature se dévoilant à la Science” (Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science) by Louis-Ernest Barrias.

By Janna Avner

Sometimes the only way to describe the paradox between self-understanding and alienated knowledge is to use metaphor: “and so a blue tentative latch between knowledge and feeling” describes the “scarab beetle” that holds up the “meat dress” on the woman statue described in Feminist Temporalities, Pelt v. 4., which is the prompt for the Organism for Poetic Research. The word “tentative” reinforces epistemological uncertainties therein.

We can see the draped cloth on the marbled statue of a woman above. It so clearly appears as tissue right? It is not; it is solid marble. The marble is also fleshy, a meat-cloth, manifesting and pulling itself from– while of– the body: “A sheet of meat or flesh….” The writer of the prompt speaks two-fold, of the skin itself and the clothes that rest upon the skin as one and the same; these materials embody a denatured center. The writer hints at the not-yet-expressed or disclosed symbols of the sexualized women’s body, in that the marbled statue depicts a bare-breasted woman displaying herself for a scientist.

This image as a focal point discusses the not-yet-disclosed (deferred) interpretation centered on the female form. It is the feminine form, which brings me to discuss the problem of “feminism” being an “-ism” at all: “Isms” are stable known bodies of knowledge, but feminism is anything but; it is a cluster of various harmonized and dis-harmonized conversations that aim to locate a woman’s place, her rights — whether God-given or empirically demonstrated — to exist on this planet, and to exist in relation to an idea of “man” as every culture distinctly knows that to be.

To understand feminism, we must first understand the definition of a woman, and with that the definition of “human” through which it is categorically understood. Here we might question the limits of this knowing, and revert to “common sense” expressed only through art, because through art do these kinds of definitions make a priori sense.

Feminism is not a “done thing” — which defines most temporal perspectives — despite what its related suffix “isma” suggests. I wish it were. Certain understandings of feminism stay in the body, and such bodily experiences are carefully described. Similar to this logic is permutational knowledge, or knowledge that works in a combination of understanding that considers order, and is based in time: “The skin senses both the duration of touch, that is the first instant when cloth touches it and the moment when the cloth is removed, but what is in between disappears. Or, alternatively, duration appears in its entirety.”

Experience felt in the body can present a paradox of feeling: it seems logically consistent, though it might not be, and thus it is “perversely, habituated to itself.” It is used to its own sense-making that is unavailable to the consistent observer. The “fact” of the “work” cannot exist if I do not accept the necessity of a paradoxical negotiation between “maintenance” and “abandonment.” As I said, feminism is not a “done thing.” This is especially so if an understanding of feminism stays in the body — within the poetics of and epistemological extent to which one can know anything at all.

What if feminism as a movement were to understand and improve on material consequences in a circulating economy, in how lives are transformed or not transformed by (more/ better?) public policy manifesting in haves, have nots, informed and misinformed, rich and poor? The feminism I look for in literature and culture envisions how lives are and are not transformed by its own tenants.

In this sense then, body-centered feminism cannot come to declarative statements. The writer of the prompt describes the phenomenological realities of the statue as “[i]t is like a blush,” not “[i]t is blush.” This language recalls Gertrude Stein’s experimental use of poetry, as her work opens language to demonstrative pronouns acting as subjects, as if they are objects to wonder about. As for me, I am afraid to make declarative statements as we’d limit the free associative play available for knowledge. Stein’s elliptical relation to time defines feminist temporalities to a “T:”

To explore the time-sensitive “movement” in Stein’s language consider any part of her small book of poems, Tender Buttons, though I will underscore the beginning lines of “A LONG DRESS” which is midway through the first section of this text titled “Objects:”


What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.

What is this wind, what is it. (17)

In the second and third lines which read, “What is this current. / What is this wind, What is it,” the term “what” indicates that these phrases might be questions, except that the lack of interrogative punctuation makes the subject of each sentence “what” and its subjective complement, “this current,” “the wind,” and “it.” Thus the pronoun “what” is presented as standing in for anything used in specifying something, because in most of Stein’s use of pronouns in Tender Buttons, the reference is almost always obscure, except for the titular subject (here being a “dress”). By placing “what” on one line, the next line, and then again after the comma, it literally “moves” through our act of reading the lines by “what” becoming the three different meanings, “this current,” the “wind,” and the indeterminate “it” (Stein 17). Ulla Dydo describes Stein’s grammatical units as creating “time” that is “‘followed and not surrounded’–that does not escape toward a vanishing point but is contained in surrounded circles, repetitions, and rhymes” (Dydo 96).

Gertrude Stein reveals her philosophical concerns by evoking objects as spatial. In Tender Buttons, space is imagined through descriptions of objects that redefine their concrete, “knowable” identities. Recalling Stein’s description of “A LONG DRESS,” I was lead to a conclusion that “what” can stand in for anything. This begs the question: how do we define and distinguish amongst its substitutes? If it is infinitely substitutive, then how can language be used to identify and distinguish objects? Perhaps Tender Buttons invites a new perceiving of identity, not so much as singularly understandable, but as experiences without obvious boundaries. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes that the descriptions in Tender Buttons were the beginning, as Gertrude Stein would say, “of mixing the outside with the inside and… in these studies she began to describe the inside as seen from the outside.” (Chapter six, Stein.)

Many writings speak certain truths through a framework not consistent with “action, state,” and “isms.” Time might be the most perplexing “thing” to think about. I question whether art accounts for to dismantle the power imbalances inherent to why feminism exists in the first place. Is it useful if not? Probably.

Psychological movement is not material movement, is it? Can I provide answers to statistics on the gender pay gap via Stein’s poetry? How can we arrive at conclusions in tangible ways that improve women’s lives and increase their likelihood of materially affected equalities and successes if we cannot make a declarative statement, if we’re enmeshed in the paradoxes of feeling versus knowing, or illusion versus empiricism, as though they are one in the same sometimes? We cannot bullet-point this practice as it is not concerned with how effects in time create bifurcated healthcare or school systems (for instance) that can disproportionately affect women’s and men’s education and equal pay.

People’s lives are disproportionately affected by the rules we’ve used (and grounded in very specific language) to define people’s relative limitations and extensions of themselves. My concern is for humanity, not the truth of sensation. It’s odd, isn’t it, that I find there could be a difference? Truth and theories on ethics reinforce one another, but at the end of the day, ethics is a human construct. All men and women considered equal is a fungible concept. In this way I am not a philosopher. I am an empath.

Art that unearths ephemera and temporality as felt experiences of reality, as truth itself is a sane acquiescence to form as formation, as relative to itself and thus philosophical in “nature,” if I can use that term. The understanding is there and not there, like minimalist artist Eva Hesse felt towards her own work. She described in 1968 letters the feeling of the ineffable: “I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions…It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self. It is something, it is nothing.

In the proposed temporality of these statements, negating my own thinking is almost a logical corollary. My writing here is temporal, as are the felt experiences reflected in the depiction of a statue made of flesh and marble, one in the same. Language is our tool and our weapon. Could dismantling and deconstructing ourselves phenomenologically make the reification and prioritization of temporal perspectives potentially dangerous? The portraitization of feminist paradoxes might blunt the efficacy of our instrument that is language itself. And whatever efforts that do come from this are to be only acknowledged by only ourselves, leaving us with a hermetic audience searching for truth — above anything else — in a vast number of people, globally even, who might not care.

I wonder what Alicia Eler, Jacqueline Feldman, Alison Greenberg, Kate Parsons, julieta gil, Samantha Culp, Jerry Saltz, Minhal Baig, Minhal Baig, Los Angeles Times, The Paris Review, Artsy, Louis Wheatley, and Rob Horning thinks!

Special thanks to Anna Moser.

Works Cited:

Bruner, Belinda. “A Recipe for Modernism and the Somatic Intellect in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.” Papers on Language and Literature. Edwardsville: Fall 2009. Vol. 45, Iss. 4; pg. 411, 23 pgs. Literature Online.

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University, 1970.

Dydo, Ulla and William Rice. Gertrude Stein: the Language that Rises: 1923–1924. Chicago, Northwestern University. 2003.

“Pelt v. 4 Feminist Temporalities.” Organism for Poetic Research: <http://organismforpoeticresearch.org/pelt-v-4-feminist-temporalities/>

Olson, Liesl: ‘An invincible force meets an immovable object’: Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago. Modernism/Modernity (Baltimore, MD) (17:2) [Apr 2010] , p.331–361. LION, Literature Online. < HYPERLINK ” HYPERLINK “http://lion.chadwyck.com/searchFulltext.do?http://lion.chadwyck.com/searchFulltext.do?” HYPERLINK “http://lion.chadwyck.com/searchFulltext.do?” http:// lion.chadwyck.com/searchFulltext.do? id=R04416180&divLevel=0&queryId=../session/ 1310844418_14844&trailId=13099EBB1F1&area=abell&forward=critref_ft>

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. OED Online. OUP. 1989. Web. 5 Oct. 2011

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook. Online pdf. HYPERLINK “http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0608711.txt” <http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0608711.txt> November 2006.

Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation.” Look at Me Now and Here I am. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971. 21–30.

Stein, Gertrude. “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans.” Look at Me Now and Here I am. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971. 84–98.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002. 17, 12.

Will, Barbara. Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University. 2000.

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