Total Recoil:
Notes on the Body in Mark Fisher’s Feminism

I often wonder what Mark Fisher’s politics would have been like had he not died :/ Would he have pursued the anti-identitarian, accelerationism-adjacent fash-lite politics that is just normal today bc he helped invent it? Or would he have done smth else

Originally tweeted by Charlie (@BerlantBro) on November 3, 2021.

What has fueled a lot of my own work over the last few years — the introduction to Postcapitalist Desire being the most concise overview, or the introduction to Spanish k-punk if you want a less thorough (focused on k-punk anthology content only) but free version — is a general frustration with weird comments that say things like, “woah, who can know what Mark Fisher would even be doing now, honestly?”, when it’s all literally right there if you know how to use Google.

In the immediate aftermath of Fisher’s death, a few different people made the case for themselves. Jeremy Gilbert most notably wrote about what Fisher was working on, but it had the distinct palette of Gilbert’s own interests with Fisher’s more specific insights left to the side. I felt the best thing to do, as ever, was to just go back to what Fisher himself had to say. But people don’t, it seems, or don’t know where to start, so a bit of curation and contextualisation is clearly in order. I decided to do a bit of that work myself, if only because no one else was at the time, or what was being put out seemed woefully misleading or insufficient to me.

The Twitter thread above (since deleted) was the perfect example of why such work is needed, even now (five years on). It was so awful, I’m almost convinced it’s a particularly heinous troll — and if it was, it was very effective. Twitter got really mad at it, but the response was also heartening to see, with multiple references made to Postcapitalist Desire as a clear record that charted out, if not completely, at least in far more detail than the “Acid Communism” essay, where Fisher’s politics were situated (and where they were heading) at the end of his life. But still, the original poster wasn’t convinced. In a series of since-deleted addendums, they repeatedly focused in on Fisher’s anti-identitarianism, which they had apparently seen utilised by transphobes, presumably to denounce self-ID.

As cursed as this take was, it was quite well-timed. As I tweeted a few days before, I’d been transcribing a few additional Fisher lectures that I found on an old hard drive. They’re not really worth sharing in full — and the person who recorded them also doesn’t want me to — but they do reveal Fisher teaching things to his students that he might not be particularly well known for. The first recording I listened to is a case in point: it is a lecture Fisher gave on Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman.

Here we find Fisher talking about gender identity with an unusual frankness. To those really familiar with his work, it won’t be too surprising. He wrote on several occasions about his own sense of body horror — the horror of being embodied and of being gendered. Some early k-punk posts were very honest about experiences of sexual abuse Mark had experienced, for instance, and these experiences seemed to be at the heart of his own delibidinised and depressive episodes, circling a one-time identification with asexuality.

Though Mark wrote about this publicly in the early days of the blog, it still feels like an uncomfortable thing to speculate on any further, so I don’t mean to highlight this as saying anything concrete about Mark himself. But it does show how honest and transparent he was in questioning certain things.

This sort of critical questioning was always firmly embedded in his feminist and anti-capitalist critiques of society, which appeared frequently on the k-punk blog. He interviewed Jessica Rylan once, for instance, discussing the intersection of female embodiment and capitalist machinery (production and reproduction) — correction: this interview, which Mark hosted on his blog, was conducted by Nina Power; as ever, no accounting for her subsequent brain worms — and was later an early champion of the work of Gazelle Twin, whose 2014 album, UNFLESH, explored themes of pubescent androgyny and ungainliness as well as pregnancy and the prison of gendered existence, which Mark openly acknowledged really resonated with him. (See this great Quietus interview for more on that from Elizabeth herself.)

Suffice it to say that, throughout his life, Mark explored the outer reaches of what it means to be an embodied subject, from his PhD thesis to the limit-experiences discussed in the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism.

Many people mourn many different things about Mark’s work and its unfinished nature, but I personally think it is a great shame that he never got to experience the opening-out of our conversation around gender identity that has defined these last few years. I can personally imagine him being a staunch and vicious critic of British TERFs, and he would no doubt be deeply disappointed that a few of his former friends have gone down that bigoted path as well.

The lecture he gave on Irigaray in 2014 (as part of his postgraduate “Vocalities” class at Goldsmiths, University of London) is a good example of the sorts of philosophical position he held and shared with his students. 2014 was notably the same year Gazelle Twin’s UNFLESH was released and the course, as a whole, seems to openly grapple with the sorts of tension explored in Gazelle Twin’s music. Music-making is itself an often embodied practice, after all. Singing, in particular, is a sort of full-body activity that we nonetheless use to escape the body. The locality of the body is displaced as vocality escapes.

This always makes me think about Kodwo Eshun’s comment, which I’ve often repeated, in a reading group on The Weird and the Eerie held in 2017, talking about the vocalic bodies of various animals. The screams of vixens, for instance, terrify us, precisely because we cannot imagine the body that has made such a sound; the sound exceeds the bounds of (our image of) the body that makes it. The same is true, in my mind, of black metal vocalists, who attempt to embody the fury of the natural world precisely by exceeding the sonic bounds of their own “natural” or “normal” vocal palette. We might also note how one-time k-punk interviewee Jessica Rylan explored this through her noise project Can’t. The song “Crazy Cat”, in particular, feels like a demonic rendition of Long Nineties earworm “Smelly Cat” from the sitcom Friends, but here Rylan begins to embody a rabid cat herself, so that her vocalic body becomes less feminine and more feline as the track progresses and decays, with electronic distortion and screeching becoming disturbingly organic, like the growls, hisses and screeches made by upset cats themselves.

Despite all of this, and despite the advertised focus on the voice, Mark instead begins the discussion by addressing the tyranny of the body in contemporary culture, which we naturally want to escape. We often focus on that which is repressed, of course, but despite what we are led to believe, surely the body is to insisted upon. He notes, for example, that despite the many of the attitudes of the 1960s and ’70s that we have retained, the truth is that “we’re not in a society dominated by bureaucratic… attempts to control sexuality… We’re not in a society dominated by religion… We’re not in a philosophical environment in which Descartes’ dualism is promulgated… If you look at the wider culture, in what sense is the body repressed in our culture?”

He is challenged on this almost immediately. We clearly still live in a heteronormative culture in which a similarly normative body image reigns over us, making us feel bad about ourselves and effectively controlling what we are supposed to desire. Mark responds:

Well, I obviously agree with that. But I think that is a different issue from [the suggestion that] the body as such is repressed. I mean, physicality as such isn’t repressed – it’s insisted upon, isn’t it? […] We’re in a culture that overvalues certain forms of the physical – for sure! – over other forms. But that’s very different from saying the physical as such is undervalued. I just can’t really see how that plays out in a straight-forward way. I think it just was more straight-forwardly the case, in the Sixties etc., that there was something to rebel against there, in terms of the body as such. I think you’re quite right – it’s not that we now live in a wonderful time and any form of body is acceptable – I don’t think we’re in anything like that. But I do think that is a different set of issues from the idea that sexuality as such is repressed. I just can’t see how that stands up in our culture. I mean, yes, certain forms of sexuality are normative still – less than they used to be, possibly – but the idea that, somehow, sexuality is excluded, marginalized at the expense of the cognitive – I just can’t see this in late-capitalism myself.

Already, we can perhaps see the seeds of an anti-TERF position. TERFs, arguably more than any other vocal political group, insist upon the body as a defining part of a person’s subjectivity, — that is, as an identitarian marker for what you can and cannot (or should and should not be able to) do in our society. The apparently frivolous nature of gender as a topic for discussion lets them get away with this, of course. It is a position that would more readily be denounced as ableist or racist in any other context in which the body is insisted upon as a measure of your right and proper identity.

This isn’t a surprising position for Fisher to take. He was a passionate feminist. We’ve had this debate before — more than once, in fact. His feminism — and that of the accelerationist crowd in general — is so frequently displaced, despite it being so central to much of his (and their) writing. There’s also an argument to be made that Fisher’s feminism was, in part, influenced by Nick Land’s (which was likely, in turn, influenced by Sadie Plant herself). But Land has since reneged on that part of his thought, of course. Fisher never did. In fact, it remained central to his thought until his death.

If Fisher held an anti-identitarian position as part of this, it most likely came from a distaste for over-defining any subjective position whatsoever, precisely because it made you a bigger target for capitalist dynamics. (Deleuze and Guattari always advocated for “getting out of the face”, of course.) But that doesn’t mean he was against self-definition or description, rather he was critical of who we are defining or describing ourselves for. (Even in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, he denounces our tendency to essentialise other people, not any way in which we might try to self-identify ourselves.) He seems to ask: is it for our own benefit that we self-identify this way or that, so that others might see us as we are? Perhaps, but should we ignore the increased emphasis placed on self-identification and the ramped up individualism of communicative capitalism? This was Fisher’s concern — that we are simply prostrating ourselves before the gaze of the Big Other.

As such, I think that even attempting to fit this into an “anti-identitarianism” — even an unorthodox one — is misleading. His position was, instead, more akin to what we would now recognise as an anti-essentialism. He wasn’t against self-ID; he was against the individualising and essentialising tendencies of capitalism itself (discussed recently).

This may, of course, be an over-generous reading of his position, considered in the context of “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, first published in 2013. All the more reason why I perpetually insist that people read another essay. If his position at that time was just anti-idpol posturing, he had very clearly changed his mind no less than a year later.

Having argued that the body is insisted upon in contemporary society, Mark begins his lecture on Irigaray by introducing some of the writing that she positioned herself against, including the seemingly internalised misogyny of Simone de Beauvoir, who lashes out at capitalism as much as she lashes out at her own sense of a restricted subjectivity. Mark explains:

One of the things about Beauvoir, if you read it… And Beauvoir was a much better writer than Sartre… I think she’s just a much better stylist, much more composed, really. And you could argue that the major legacy of existentialism for our time comes from Beauvoir rather than Sartre, actually. […]

[W]ith Beauvoir, what’s interesting is the attack on cyclical time, and a loathing of female biology… One of the interesting things, I guess, about Sartre is his Cartesianism. He defends it! He will say, “I am a Cartesian.” Why? Because you are not your body… If you were your body, according to Sartre, then you would have a fixed essence in lots of ways. A key claim of Sartre’s is “existence precedes essence”, meaning you are not defined by any of the predicates that you have, and your body will be just a set of predicates for him, [a set of] properties. And what enables you to have choice is the basic structure of Cartesianism. The “I” that choses is not the “I” that, you know, can be described as a set of determinate properties.

In a way, Beauvoir takes this up with a hostility to the female body, which she thinks prevents her from having the same level of choice that men have. She thinks that men are freer from their bodies than women, and that’s why there’s this kind of loathing of the female body, as I say, in Beauvoir’s work.

This is what Irigaray rejects. This links, with Beauvoir, with this rejection of cyclical time. She thinks that, really, the time of freedom is a time of projects, which are open to the future, and where something new can happen, whereas historically women have been trapped in cyclical time, which is housework, basically. […] It’s the endless nature of it – it’s no achievement. […] Even when it’s done, you’re only back to zero. […] As long as there is life, there is domestic work to be done – and that is interminable.

Beauvoir links that, then, with the time of menstruation, which she sees as a prison of cyclicity, of the female body. Incredibly, if a man had written it, you’d think it was an incredibly misogynistic description of what it is to have a female body. And you can say that that is in fact misogyny. You could argue that is, effectively, [the perspective from which] she is seeing her own body from, as it were. The gaze she is seeing it from is, you could argue, “the male gaze”, to use Laura Mulvey’s famous term. And this is basically the base of Irigaray’s critique of this stuff. It’s not in the way that she rejects cyclical time… The key claim of Irigaray – which, in a way, follows on from a lot of what Beauvoir said – is this thing about the second sex, you could say. There is no sexual difference – this is the key claim of Irigaray. There is no sexual difference. Why? Because there is only one sex, which means there’s no sexes, really.

Why does she say that? Well, because the position of the universal is occupied by the male, but in a surreptitious way. So whenever we talk about the universal we really mean men. Men don’t see it that way… Or the dominant forms of discourse don’t articulate it that way. The point is, it’s normal and universal to be a man, it’s deficient and particular to be a woman – that’s Irigaray’s argument. This isn’t explicitly stated because, if it was explicitly stated, the whole thing would fall apart in a certain way.

One of the chapters of Speculum [of the Other Woman] is “The Eternal Irony of the Community” – a quote from Hegel – about women’s position in the community. Are women inside or outside of the community? Obviously, for Hegel, this was in the nineteenth century, when women didn’t have a public role, typically, yet they were necessary for the reproduction of the community on lots of levels. So are they inside or outside? What does that mean? And, of course, where is this question posed from? There is no neutral place to pose any questions about gender – that would be the position of Irigaray – and so everything is distorted by this… When you have binaries, it’s not that the terms are equal. The binary is hierarchized as well. So, you know, we have the distinction between male and female, but male is above female. For Irigaray, then, there’s a whole set of other things associated with this primary binary, and particularly of interest to us for this text is the distinction between matter and ideality.

This is 2014, let us not forget, one year after the “Vampire Castle” essay, when Fisher was supposedly in the thralls of anti-idpol mania. Admittedly, this could go either way. The different between a material body and an ideal body is a line that TERFs continuously scour into the ground before them. No matter how you may imagine yourself in your head, you can never change your biological reality.

And so, in the context of our contemporary TERF clusterfuck, we could argue that “gender critical” feminists are clearly on the side of matter, whereas trans people live in an idealised fantasyland. But Fisher shows how, since Plato, things have always been the other way round…

He explains:

Plato’s general theory, remember, is that the material world is a world of simulation. It’s completely opposite to our common sense now [but] Plato thinks that the physical world is fake. The real world is the ideal world, the world of ideas. So you’ve got the physical world, the copy of the ideal. Art, certainly like visual art or whatever, is a copy of a copy – doubly degenerate. So let’s say you’ve got a tree – a tree is a copy of an ideal tree; a painting of a tree is a copy of a copy for Plato.

This question of simulation becomes a big thing later on, with Baudrillard’s work, who was also part of the same era [as Irigaray] – this post-Sixties kind of theory – and that’s taken up by Deleuze in Logic of Sense – Plato and the simulacra.

Okay, so why did he think the ideal world is more real than the physical world? What’s better about ideas or forms [compared to] physicality?

A student suggests that ideas are “invariant”.

Yeah. He also thinks physical things are particular, and therefore limited in space and time, whereas ideal forms are not particular; they’re our definition of universal. How do you know what the chair is? Well, he says you can only know what a chair is because you’ve got an ideal form of a chair that you can refer to.

So how do we group together particulars unless we have an ideal? For him, the ideal doesn’t come from our minds, rather our minds have access to a real thing, which is the idea. And any physical thing is a degenerate version of this ideal form. The ideal form is invariant, eternal, not subject to change or decay.

The whole problem with TERF dogma is that it believes in this “ideal” form as a sort of text book representation of male or female bodies. It’s a kind of “scientific” ideal — which has its uses, of course — but which is clearly distinct from any social ideal, which even amongst cis people leads to forms of bodily expression that are vastly different (aesthetically at least) from some sort of scientific ideal.

This is a large part of the problem for Irigaray, and likewise Fisher. These ideals can be, by definition, ideological. Who produces them and for what purpose? For Irigaray, this makes Plato just one of the first step in a long line of patriarchal thinkers.

Okay, we’re back with Plato. We’re back with Plato because we’ve gone backwards in time to the so-called origin of Western philosophy – and the question of origins will make us think of Derrida straight away, and the problems of the concept of origin for Derrida – but also, for Irigaray, there is the association of origins with issues surrounding unbirth. And there’s a lot of play in this text about matter and the maternal – mater, matter, the relation between the two.

At the most simple level, then, this is a ready of Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave”.

He invites a student to recant the story, which we’ll skip over for now, but it’s worth taking a look if you’re reading this and you’re not familiar with the story.

This is a metaphor for enlightenment – literally. […] It’s quite rich and complicated. It seems really simple, to start off with, but partly what Irigaray goes into the kind of detailed architecture that Plato sets up. So let’s restage it.

On the most simple level, what [Plato] thinks he’s doing here, presumably, is a story about enlightenment – taken literally. What happens if you see light when you’ve been in the dark? It’s not like a smooth process of, “yes, I can see now.” If you’ve been in the dark and you’re subjected to light, it blinds you!

I think the genius of the last bit of the story is this thing about… It’s a bit like Nietzsche’s parable of the madman. When you are enlightened and you go back to those that aren’t, they don’t say, “thanks very much, let’s all go get enlightened now.” They say, “what the fuck are you talking about?” To them, he looks mad! Because this is the only world that they know.

[…] It’s partly, then, about this question that has been taken up by political philosophers since, which is why do people love their own subjection?

Has anyone seen the Zizek film on ideology yet? The thing about They Live that it starts with – just brilliant. Have people seen They Live? The John Carpenter film? If people haven’t seen it, it’s, in a way, like a Platonic model of politics, actually.

They Live is about a world in which aliens have taken over earth, but nobody really knows about it. The only way you can find out is if you get these special glasses. You put the glasses on and you can see the secret commands of the aliens, like “OBEY”, “CONSUME BLINDLY”, and you can see these alien skull-heads amongst the human population and all of that. But the most puzzling thing about the film – I remember when I first saw it when it came out – is this at least eight minute long fight sequence. It’s this insanely long fight sequence, where the lead character tries to persuade his friend to put the glasses on, so that he’ll see… [Laughs.] But this guy just refuses to do it! And I basically thought, “why don’t you just fucking do it?!” He literally fights as hard as he can to stop him from [making him wear the glasses].

[…] So Zizek says that this tells us, really, about the nature of ideology. He already knows what he’ll see when he puts the glasses on, which is why he doesn’t want to do it! So, on some level, I think you get the same thing [in Plato’s allegory]. They already know, in some sense, that the world they live in is fake. But then we have to go to Plato’s general theory.

Here we have the comments already quoted above, about how the material world is itself a simulation, with variants understood in relations to invariant ideals. The question becomes:

So how do we group together particulars unless we have an ideal? For him, the ideal doesn’t come from our minds, rather our minds have access to a real thing, which is the idea. And any physical thing is a degenerate version of this ideal form. The ideal form is invariant, eternal, not subject to change or decay.

What is notable about this, for Fisher, is that it positions Plato against philosophies of becoming, like that of Deleuze or Nietzsche or Bergson.

For Bergson, [becoming] was a positive; for Plato, it was a negative. In a way, there is a gnostic side to Plato, which is the denigration of the physical world, and the idea of the physical world as this realm of deception, decay, and temptation and lure – which the Gnostics [also] thought. It’s in Philip K Dick a lot as well, and a lot of things like The Matrix or whatever. You can clearly see there is something Platonic, in a way. A lot of Philip K Dick stuff is like that. The whole world is a kind of fake. How do we know what the real world is?

The further problem, however, which Philip K Dick demonstrates himself in his eventual madness — think VALIS — is that it is very difficult to actually live with these sorts of problems.

This was David Hume’s argument, right? Hume’s argument against all skepticism was, “this is just philosophy, you can’t live like this”. Hume’s argument against skepticism was put a rabid dog in a room with a skeptical philosopher and see what they do. If they run away from the rabid dog, then how meaningful is their skepticism? You can’t live it. You can think it, but you can’t live it. In a way, Kant develops from this thought – it may well not be true, but we have to live with it as if it is. We’re hard-wired that way.

It’s like that scene in Total Recall. The great scene of that [film] – I’ve seen bits of the remake, but it was just preposterous; why bother? The original one, with Arnie… For those who haven’t seen it, Total Recall is based on a Philip K Dick novel – a short story, rather – about a construction worker… There’s this industry where you can have a holiday by simulation, basically. You can programme in advance the kind of vacation that you want and you can have it in a few minutes. It’ll feel real to you, but it hasn’t really happened. So he [the construction worker] choses exactly the kind of woman he wants to have an affair when he’s there; he choses that there’s going to be some sort of Martian invasion, battles and all of this… It’s a great deconstruction of the rest of the film, because that’s exactly what happens throughout the rest of the film. We see this being selected… But obviously, with this being Philip K Dick, it becomes a bit more complicated than that, and it seems the other way round. Actually, these things that he thinks are a simulation are actually the real world, and this identity as an ordinary construction worker is in fact the fake thing. It’s just a form of cover.

But there’s a great scene in which they send in a doctor – they send a doctor into the simulation, a psychiatrist, who says, “look, err, you know, you know this isn’t real, and if you keep acting as if it’s real, you’re going to have a total breakdown, and that’ll be it, you’ll get trapped into this total reality and you’ll believe it.” But Arnie says, “why are you sweating?” and shoots him. [Laughter.] But it’s this point of schizophrenia, really. You know, if you treat the whole world as a simulation, what would that mean?

Of course, what happens with Philip K Dick is that you get levels of this. The first level: okay, we can all cope with this. The first level: okay, it’s a simulation with some real world beyond that. It’s when the second-level world also becomes exposed as simulation, or you have to choose between the two, that’s when we get into real problems. [Laughs.] We all sort of accept that our world is a bit fake, but when there’s two levels of simulation to choose from, and even that second level is exposed as well, that’s when we start moving towards madness.

[…] But all of this stuff is somewhat in place in the idea of the cave allegory, really. The thing is, with Plato, it’s a bit like with Descartes… What is a secure form of knowledge, given all of this? Like Descartes will say later, the senses are just inherently tricky. We know that they’re not true. We know they’re not true, and that’s what Descartes demonstrates. The demonstration is clear. We know that if we look at something, like a building far away, it ain’t that big really. We know that if we put a stick in water, it looks bent but it’s not really. We know, on the level of common sense – pre-reflective common sense and experience – we know that our senses don’t tell us what the world is really like. We know we can’t really trust our senses – not only that we can’t trust our senses, but we don’t trust our senses. We adjust for the way our senses work, otherwise we would look at distant buildings and pick them up. We don’t do that.

The question of the so-called rationalist tradition – of which Descartes and Plato are the major philosophers, really – given that empirical experience is not reliable, what do we use as a reliable form of knowledge? They want to say – Plato first and then Descartes afterwards – that science and logic and mathematics are secure forms of knowledge. Why? Because they’d be true in any possible world. You know, if you can say that a triangle has three angles that add up to 180˚, you don’t go look at triangles to prove that.

[…] Point being, you don’t go out and look triangles to establish whether that is true or not. You know, you don’t go, “right, I’ve found a hundred triangles now, all of the angles add up to 180˚, that means…” It’s exactly that you need an axiomatic definition of something, which is true no matter what. It’s the circularity of it that makes it secure. But the circularity of it also makes it useless, you could argue. You can’t use that, because it’s just self-referring, in certain respects.

But anyway, that’s why they turn to logic and mathematics. They feel they’re secure, and anything that has to do with matter is not secure. Because matter is this rotting… You know, becoming – a positive for Bergson and post-Bergsonian philosophers like Deleuze – is negative for Plato, because becoming equals transience… Becoming is a rotting for Plato, in lots of ways.   

So, straight away, there is a binary, a series of binaries, set up between matter and the ideal. And, for Plato, the ideal also has this colloquial sense, doesn’t it, of the perfect? It’s perfect because it is non-tainted by particularity. So, then, you’ve got another binary: the universal and the particular. So matter would be particular, the idea would be universal. And you’ve also got mind and body as well. The body deceives us – doesn’t mean to; can’t help it – the body deceives us, the mind can have access to truth.

Given this basic metaphysical and epistemological set of commitments that Plato’s got, this is the background to the allegory of the cave. So, yes, to go back to that, in the cave we have a group of men – and they are gendered, I think – facing away from the cave entrance. They probably don’t even know they’re in a cave. You know, the basic point in McLuhan: the one thing fish can’t see is water. Probably the most important things to us are the things we can’t perceive, because we take them for granted. This is, in a way, the thought of Heidegger. For people like Heidegger – and Graham Harman, who really follows this up – we can’t bring to presence the things which we may depend on, because we can’t see them.

Anyway, so they don’t even know they’re in a cave. That’s just how things are to them. But they’re chained up, they’re looking at the back of the room, the back wall, and so what they see is the reflections, the shadows cast by fire onto that back wall. This is a kind of stripped-back, allegorical representation of his theory. You don’t think the things themselves, you just see distorted and partial reflections of things.

Then there’s the escape into the light, which, as I say, is one of the best bits. What then happens – it’s unpleasant and traumatic to see the light! It’s not good. It’s not like you then go, “That’s wonderful, I’ve seen things… Come on, chaps, let’s get out.” “Okay, let’s go.” It’s not like that at all. It’s traumatic to see the light. Again, your body betrays you, in some ways! Your body is always tempting you into it – that’s Plato’s story. But there’s a distinct double […] there, you could say. Because enlightenment is also about the mind. It’s a cognitive shift that is traumatic. And, as I say, the resistance of the men in the cave to the idea that there’s anything out there is worth [their] leaving, that these chains are worth throwing off, again would be the work of the body. The chains [represent] the work of the body. The chains are the appetites. The body, which is telling us that that’s all there is, insisting on its dominion over us.

Here a student asks about the Freudian idea that men are always looking to find ways to return to the womb, to the comfort of the origin, which tees Fisher up perfectly for what comes next.

Yes. That’s Das Unheimlich, that’s the uncanny. He explicitly argues this – that the name for the female genitals is often associated with the homely or the home in men’s minds… But, as I say, her [Irigaray’s] relationship to Freud is a complicated one. She sees Freud as massively gendered, patriarchal, but then she [critiques Freud] and how she does that is by using Freud’s own method against him, by psychoanalysing Freud himself from a gendered perspective.

What are the telling images, or metaphorical or tropological commitments that Freud makes, which reveal the implicit bias? Because everything that’s assumed in that Freud essay that she reads is that the female is a dark continent, as he puts it in that essay. “What do women want?” The great mystery! Of course, who’s asking this? It only makes sense, in a way, to be asked from an implicitly male perspective.

What she’s reading, then, with a certain Freudian technique – she’s reading Plato as exactly this. This is a story about an ambivalent relationship to the womb, you could say. For Irigaray, on one level, this is a story about birth and the escape from matter and the mother, from the mater-matter-maternal. What Plato narrates as a story about the escape from the confining prison of shadowy, duplicitous materiality is, from another perspective, a highly gendered story about the escape of the transcendent male body from the dungeon of a gendered nature, where the womb stands in for nature in general and nature stands in for the womb. Matter itself is gendered.

For Irigaray – in Irigaray’s work – there’s a frequent concern: what are the alleged conditions for the so-called “autonomy” of the male subject? The male subject cannot tolerate its dependence on matter and on the mother. Its origins in the slimy dungeon of materiality are always to be repudiated. Yet, at the same time, there’s also a longing for return and reunion into the womb as well, and this ambivalence tells us the miserable, tragic story of male subjectivity since forever.

Her reading is, then, that we must see the very downgrading of matter and the upgrading of mind in terms of a gendered opposition, fundamentally.

We still see a potentially TERFy path opening up here, but Fisher shuts it down immediately, and it is from here that he gets to the crux of his argument — and Irigaray’s — which is, like Fisher’s own work, both positive and negative, pessimistic and optimistic, diagnostic and speculative.

The thing with Irigaray is that she’s accused often of being an essentialist. In positioning herself against Beauvoir – Beauvoir is saying there are all these features of female biology that are bad; it’d be good if we could get rid of them. Irigaray seems to be celebrating physicality, in particular in This Sex Which Is Not One, and there are also lyrical passages about female biology, about blood, milk, lips…

Lips are key for Irigaray. The phallic is about the One – the One, the unitary – whereas the female is about the disruption of the distinction between the one and the multiple for her. We can go with the image of the phallus, which is one thing, or there’s the vaginal lips – are lips one or two? She thinks that the distinction between one or two is much more problematic in relation to female biology than in relation to male biology. It’s reproductively problematic. Because of the question of one becoming two in relation to pregnancy, for example – the question of whether there are two beings, one being, etc., in this kind of relation. We can’t really say it is either of those two things. The way that counting – counting in terms of pre-existing unities, self-contained unities, is just wrong. That’s what she thinks. Yet, our minds are dominated by this kind of phallic, atomized form of counting and relating to the world. Her text, then, you can see as, rather than saying that female biology is x, y or z, it is an attempt to construct, in your imaginary, what female biology might be in a world in which there was sexual difference – because there isn’t sexual difference in this world, remember. In this world, there’s… It’s not difference if all kinds of gender distinctions are thought of as normal and deviant, or superior and inferior, where male is superior, normal and universal, and female is inferior, abnormal, etc.

In a world where there was actual sexual difference, that binary would not operate the same way. There might still be a binary, but it wouldn’t have that hidden, hierarchical weighting to it. So what would that be like? We don’t know. We simply can’t know what that would be like, but we can try to imagine it. In a way, we can see that Irigaray’s celebration of physicality, particular female physicality, her attempts to re-poeticise and lyricise aspects of the female body, are not final, definitive claims about the female body is like. They’re ways to think outside or beyond; ways to construct glimmers of this future where sexual difference actually exists.

[…] There’s a way that you can read it as very pessimistic, a lot of her work, because if we have to look 1000 years into the future to get to anything that might be able to shake this… It’s pretty bleak, in lots of ways. But she’s trying to have it both ways, in a way that we should probably support. She’s trying to say, okay, there’s a millennia-old kind of suppression that has gone on here… There were other forms of relation before patriarchy – she does say this in some of her work – but we can’t really get to those anymore. They’re so buried by this metaphysical, historical weight…

One of the tropes throughout her book is symmetry, and the question of asymmetry, really. Generations are held up, in some ways, as being symmetrical, but there’s also a weight… There’s a blind spot in this whole dream of symmetry, as she puts it. So yeah, in some sense, then, it’s imagining this future, but also trying to live it already, because another 1000 years down the track is very long… So yeah, she’s saying we don’t know [what that future will be like], but that doesn’t mean we have to stay where we are now. We can try to imagine what that would be like. There are different forms of imagination of what it would be like to live in a world in which gender wasn’t dominated by a patriarchal binary.

[…] You could say that, at least in the 20th century, we’ve moved to lip service towards equality… Lip service would be interesting given Irigaray [Laughs]… But that’s not nothing… The idea that, at least in theory, at least in terms of the eyes of the Big Other, we should be aiming for equality now… That is a shift. Because that before the 20th century that wasn’t even thought of… But we’re clearly a long way off… Irigaray isn’t so much interested in the brute sociology in that way. It’s more literary – a literary phenomenology of feminine subjectivity. This Sex Which Is Not One particularly imagines that through lesbian encounters, because a lot of Irigaray’s work, at this time, is concerned with this idea of “what do lesbians do?”, as posed by dumb heterosexuals, because they think that sex must involve the phallus in some way. In a way, her whole work is to show this whole poetics of encounters of women among themselves; to start to remove the female body from being a commodity, which she looks at in terms of Levi-Strauss – the origins of marriage as a kind of commodity exchange, women as objects of exchange amongst men… One of the interesting things about Irigaray’s work is its encounter with patriarchy as a single-sex economy (which is not the same as homosexual). In other words, she says that men are typically interested in other men – and not directly sexually necessarily, but that they hold the opinion of other men, or the esteem of other man, above that of women. And women are being used as a token within this struggle between men a lot of the time. So what would it be for women to remove themselves from this economy, where their value is determined by this all-male economy? If you read This Sex Which Is Not One, which is really easy to read, actually, a lot of it, and quite short as well… It’s really worth reading. These are some of the things she tries to play with there.

The move into lesbianism is partly, then, a move… Sexuality is never just about sexuality. It’s about imagining a world where men as the spare part, rather than the essential. And also, then, of liberating time… Instead of a climactic time, it’s plateau time. There’s a relation to a lot of the stuff that Deleuze and Guattari do. Anti-climactic plateaus. Also the de-localization of the libido – “But woman has sex organs more or less everywhere” is a line from This Sex Which Is Not One – rather than this localization of libido, which is typical of phallic sexuality, etc.

So I think, if we want to position this as a positive text, an attempt to imagine a thousand years from now, bleeding somehow into the moment, this is the negative text, which is about undoing the patriarchal heritage, particularly in terms of philosophy and psychoanalysis.

This is perhaps what is so disastrous about TERF dogma and its rejection of trans people. It may often affirm the experiences of lesbians in particular, but it remains trapped inside that “economic” binary, even in its attempts to cleanly negate it. A TERF’s abject distrust of trans people, and trans women in particular, comes from the way that trans people supposedly change the rules of (ultimately symbolic) exchange, which their “radical feminism” exists wholly within, if nonetheless using it to define itself in negative. TERFs fully embrace Irigaray’s pessimism, we might argue, whilst neglecting the future-oriented nature of her thought. As a result, they attempt to regulate trans women’s bodies anew, creating a moral panic, as if trans women are a cryptocurrency flooding the gendered economy. (I know many trans women who would likely adore that description, actually.)

Of course, this is not clear cut evidence of Fisher’s political allegiances. But Mark only ever taught things he was passionate about and believed it. You can hear that in his voice. Combined with the blogposts referenced above, on topics related to gender(ed) expression, or even blogposts not referenced, such as the few times he waxes lyrical about his love of glam and its attitudes towards gender — in terms that, admittedly, haven’t necessarily aged well — he was nonetheless clearly an ally. Anyone that uses his work to attack or undermine trans women has no idea, and anyone that downplays his feminism has no idea either.

There is more work to do in this regard — as ever. Fisher’s work is itself essentialised and twisted in obscene ways by critics and fans alike, and his feminism is one such topic that remains championed by his friends (and particularly the women in his life) but neglected by his readers. The above is only one part of that tapestry — and notable for being previously unheard / unseen — but despite its fragmentary nature, I hope it might serve as an introduction to Fisher’s feminism, and indeed to Irigaray herself, if you’re not already familiar with her either.

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