Gender Trouble 2017, Comedy Edition

by Katrin Trüstedt

"Next time Feminism will not be a tragedy, but a comedy"

—Carla Lonzi

IMG_7031Kottbusser Tor, Berlin. On the second floor of one of the large buildings surrounding this place you can currently find yourself in an exhibition by Ariane Müller and Verena Kathrein on comedy and feminism, entitled "Then I would like to make a happy end for once." This seems like an apt title for the end of this year. It has been a particularly intense year in many respects. Among other things, it has been particularly intense in terms of gender relations. There has been wide-spread outing of sexual harassment and sexual violence of all kinds and degrees. There have been various forms of criticism of this outing. There has been backlash. And there have been discussions about the nature and the future of gender relations.

The danger at this point, it seems to me, is that of reaffirming and hypostatizing the very gender categories that have been at the heart of the problem in the first place. The suggestion, for instance, that men, per se, are predators, that it is the very nature of male behavior to be sexually transgressive and aggressive; and that woman are, per se, victims, and dependent – such suggestions are in danger of reproducing the very problem they are addressing.

Acts of sexual harassment including many of those that have been outed in the past couple of months seem to show, on the contrary, that something like masculinity is not a given, but in need of constant performative reestablishment. To come back to something like a "primal scene" of the current developments – the Weinstein case, and in particular one piece of "evidence" that is out there, namely the audio from a wire tap – it seems like the masculinity in question here is in rather desperate need of violent performance with elaborate arrangements. Trying to bully Ambra Battilana Gutierrez into joining him in his hotel room by repeating what a powerful man he is, appears on tape as a pathetic attempt to performatively produce manliness as power. Not only does the repeated claim suggest the lack of what this performance is intent to prove ("I am a powerful man"). It also exposes the very need of this position to be performed, enacted, and reaffirmed by its other. Needing the woman to feed back to him what a powerful, powerful man he really is, he also needs to emphasize how powerless she is by contrast in this situation ("you don't want to ruin your friendship with me for five minutes").

Admitting to having grabbed her breasts ("I'm used to that"), he attempts to reduce her to her body and an object of sexuality (which may also be visible in his repeated stressing that "it will only take five minutes"). Ultimately, when this attempted performance fails, he is trying to control the performance itself: "You are making a big scene". While all she does is saying "no" in various forms to his different attempts, and thus exactly refusing to engage in any kind of scene or performance, this refusal itself apparently threatens his attempted performance to a degree that she appears as the one acting, doing the performance ("making a scene"). This re-description of her "act" is, of course, in line with a long tradition of marking female performances as hysteric. But it connects with this "tradition" in a peculiar way: the notion of "making a scene" is linked to the art of theater and points to the uncanny force of performance to organize the public sphere.

What happened to Ambra Battilana Gutierrez was an attempt to reduce her to a certain sexual role, to being a female, to being dependent, and to being a victim, in order to perform masculinity as dominance and power over her. Now, in order to address such a constellation, one needs to speak in the terms generated by this violent performance. One needs to speak of female and male behavior, of victims and perpetrators, of who is powerful and who is dependent. But in using these terms in a substantialized way, there is a danger of reproducing exactly what one wants to problematize, criticize, and put into question. While such terminology is unavoidable in addressing the situation, it is also the result of such performances in the first place, and so part of the problem.

Performances, as Derrida and Butler have shown, are not stable or fixed, nor are they able to produce anything that remains unquestionably stable or fixed. Performances, even the ones that sustain something that seems so essential to us as gender, can always fail, and usually, almost regularly, do. Their failure is not only a way of their falling short of their supposed aim or missing their point, but also a source of their potential for renewal and transformation. This specific case, however, displays a peculiar failure of a performance to account for its own vulnerability and to open itself up to the possibilities of transformation. A gender performance of the Weinstein type is a demonstration of power and independence that requires its contrast with a dependent position and thereby paradoxically becomes dependent on its acknowledgement by the dependent position. The performance of masculinity as power and dominance reveals itself to be desperately in need of its other and hence as exactly not powerful but rather dependent, undermining the whole endeavor it aims for. The re-assertive violence of such a pathetic performance seems to be fueled by this very structure.

Instead of just plain "manhood", "male behavior", or even "toxic masculinity", what we witness seem to be precarious performances of masculinity: travesties of a certain notion of masculinity that are supposed to make up for or cover the absence of any substantial masculine identity. Violence here appears as the misguided reaction to the failures and insecurities of performance that ultimately eludes control.

Such violent attempts at control have a long tradition. Of course, there are other ways of dealing with the precarious nature of performances that have an equally long history, even if they may not be as prominent or formative for our social power structures. Among them are comedic practices in which the going awry of gender and other role plays allow us to not take the respective (gender) performances too seriously. Never pure, ever changeable, such comedic practices do not make claims to prove an essential substance, do not assert an ultimate identity once and for all, but affirm the precarious character of performances.

At Kottbusser Tor, in the exhibition alluding to a "happy end for once", two women happen to be talking in a staged living room, while Fulvia Carnevale and Judith Butler are lecturing on a screen next door. With its Flokati rug and the peculiar orange lamp, it is the quotation of an Italian 70's living room and evokes the practices of autocoscienza, introduced in the 1970's by philosopher Carla Lonzi in Italy – practices of women meeting, exchanging stories, jokes, and performing reenactments of their everyday experiences in order to renegotiate their gender position in a certain community or commonality that is neither the grand public stage nor a merely private context.

By participating in that exhibition at the very end of 2017, are the two women I see actually performing autocoscienza? Are they performing a particular kind of "femininity"? Are they quoting it? Parodying it? Reenacting reenactments? Contrary to the acts of sexual violence that are on display in the Weinstein audio, what distinguishes these practices is precisely the way in which they persevere the ambiguities pertaining to all performances, gender or otherwise.


Ariane Müller / Verena Kathrein,

Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard University Press, 2015)

Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella ovvero Divertimento per li regazzi (nottetempo, 2015)