My Body Left the Academy – Feminist Theory from a Dropout

Someone I once regarded as close to me recently told me I was difficult to get close to. Which is ironic because throughout my life I have been perpetually engaged with the act of stripping—emotionally, mentally, symbolically, and more recently, physically. I’ve want to expose myself. I yearn for “transparency.”

When I look back on my life, most everything makes “sense” in the way that, though post modernism could render my life story seemingly contradictory, abbreviated, cut-up, divided into disjointed phases, my life could simultaneously—and this is the true postmodernity—be viewed as one long trajectory, a line … so that I could say, for example, that my stripping career began when I was 17, acting as the assistant minister in a Lutheran church … and this humble beginning has everything to do with my “actual” career now as a stripper on a bar obsessed with death. These have everything to do with what came in the middle, a series of experiences (what could be called or good or bad or neither) both on and through my own body; a short marriage with academia and a wild new love affair with performance art. These all have something to do with each other, and not in a way that need be interpreted with pity or negativity. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I realize I must not really know, what it means for someone to get close to “me,” I only know what it means to feel close to someone else, which actually has everything to do with how comfortable I feel exposing myself to another person and less to do with how deeply I know that person. After all, that is for him or her to decide. I can only decide how deeply they know me … and to think I could know how deeply I know them, well, that is pure vanity, egotism.

The person I mention, I wish I were still close to her. That is, I wish I still felt safe exposing myself to her. But I don’t. I only reveal myself to her in thick streams of one-sided confession, the contemporary written form we call email, which is perhaps more like a performance than reality. Though minimizing the difference seems to be my goal.

After all, performing exposure—the act of taking off one’s clothes, figuratively or literally—is just as interesting as “actually” exposing oneself. Because the audience still feels admittance into a secret world. In the case of stripping on a bar, the imagined secret world is sex. But the performance, for me anyway, is the fact that I am actually not at all exposing “myself”—or my secret world. And that is powerful, in the sense that, although I am “the seen” I still retain my own vision. I am seer.

From this vantage point, at appears that I cannot go back, at least not now for a while, to the theoretical roots that may have taken me here. Because when I read some of the philosophers with whom I can intellectually identify, and indeed I still do, I wonder infinitely, what they might think about the women they theorize if they simply took off their clothes and tried it for themselves. And saying that is scary because it could be vastly misinterpreted.

I write from the perspective of a feminist intellectual who cannot actually be a feminist intellectual, or at least not one alone. Because once I began to interpret feminist theory in the way that I believe it should be interpreted, right into my daily life, into the actuality of my own body, that required exploring the theorization of “women” starting with myself as one “woman.” And that necessitated seeing with the eyes of the many “women” who feminist theory would claim to be a salvation. And while I believe it can be salvation, to remain there, locked in my books, is, if I can use the word, immoral.

“The best theory makes personal experience and individual stories communicable. I think this kind of theoretical, analytical thinking allows us to mediate between the different histories and understandings of the personal. One of the fundamental challenges of “diversity” after all is to understand our collective difference in terms of historical agency and responsibility so that we can understand others and build solidarities across divisive boundaries” (Mohanty 191).
For all of my theorizing, I am here, right now, sitting on a hard wooden stool in a small gothic bar in Berlin Germany, writing with a stolen pen on a napkin. It is here that I get up on the bar every Friday or Saturday night, dance to three sets, two songs each, and strip my gothic clothes down to my regular tits and panties. Between my sets, I wait to dance, and I drink white wine, and I stare at fake skulls with snakes crawling out of their eyes. And sometimes I talk to customers, but I do not generally seek out conversation.

Sabine is one woman with whom I love to speak, she is a 40-year-old single mother who is at the bar almost every Friday. She always watches me with kind eyes. She tells me, “I’m not a lesbian, but I like you.”

Sabine and I speak about her 12-year-old daughter, who wishes Sabine were more like the other mothers, not a forty-year-old Goth with a heart problem. Yesterday they went together to buy Sabine’s daughter’s first bra. That is quite a simple act, but one that for me was touching, because it is much more powerful, in a sense, than feminist theory. Even though feminist theory would always be my reading of choice. If I were a writer, I would write feminist theory, because more of it needs to be written.

I think of Miss Manson, the other dancer who was working at this same gothic bar for a few months until she got fired. We were standing nearly naked in the dressing room together, and for some reason Miss Manson begins to tell me about how her boyfriend impregnated her two times, and each time beat her stomach so violently as to abort the child. She is still only 22.

“The habitual scene of the female body, say, draped on a car, is agreed to be misrecognized as “woman.” While the imagined “she” is read to mean “desireable” and is read to mean “I am what you lack and what you want,” she is simultaneously displaying “I am what you already are” insofar as she implies,. “I reflect you back to yourself as your own (culturally prescribed) desire” Here, “she” reflects the status quo of the prescribed desire of the veiled viewing self, “he” –or whomever stands in for “he.” Of whatever gender, as potential consumer.” (Butler as retold by Schneider)

But what happens when the woman has voice, has ability to talk back? There are times when the woman has an opinion and she does not call herself a performance artist, she merely calls herself a stripper? When she does not have to be anything “more” or “other” than a stripper? When she is on the bar and is consumed by capitalistic desire for a show? Somehow feminist theory, or some of it, anyway, denies the possibility of simple power or legitimacy in it not being theorized at all. Standing there as woman.

The feminists that I read and love advocate for feminist solidarity across borders built around the mutual admittance of difference … and for this, one must really know women, individual women, and their needs and desires. One must be close to them.

“I refer to this model as the feminist solidarity model because, besides its focus on mutuality and common interests, it requires one to formulate questions about connection and disconnection between activist women’s movements around the world. Rather than formulating activism and agency in terms of discrete and disconnected cultures and nations, it allows us to frame agency and resistance across the borders of nation and culture. I think feminist pedagogy should not simply expose students to a particularized academic scholarship but that it should also envision the possibility of activism and struggle outside the academy. Political education through feminist pedagogy should teach active citizenship in such struggles for justice.” (Mohanty 243)

I think of talking with men who regular at the cathedral, and somehow I think there is something to be said for class identification, because these men are perfectly aware of the ruse of the performance, and they come to expect the same thing from me every week, there cannot be so much excitement in seeing the same pair of tits all the time, any more so than there would be in seeing the tits of his girlfriend or wife, which is why I assume he came to see me in the first place – I provide a fantasy as I am not them.

But as regulars, I am no loner the dream girl indefinitely deferred, I am not the “vanishing point” of the infinite gaze. Once they have spoken to me, it is even more like reality, to know me, they have not acquired me, but they see me, they have spoken to me. We don’t have conversations that feel inherently unequal, on the contrary, I feel to be their equal, if not genuinely respected by them. I am asked about, I am greeted, like any normal person in any normal situation. This is a normal situation, except that it involves sex, which is the only reason why I feel compelled to explain myself. And this should be precisely the point, that the presence of sex flips everything on its head, at least theoretically.

I would dare say that I have been vastly more disrespected by professors in high-powered positions, than by the men who regular in my little gothic bar. And for this reason of course I have to maintain a healthy critique of the academy, an arms length away, because I can’t have really started learning about myself and body my sex, my compatriots, if I’d never left the academy. And yet I fear that I would never be accepted again into their ranks.

I wish that the academic world would take off its clothes and join us in the dressing room, just for a moment. I wish that women could start seeing each other, and if they can’t see each other, because of class or proximity or social circle, to assume the best in each other, to assume power, and legitimacy, and agency, and choice.

I wish that I were not sitting in another backstage listening to burlesque dancers crapping on the “Suicide Girls,” a group of tattooed, pierced, and fierce looking young women who have placed their pictures on the internet at a kind of do-it-yourself porn site. A group of Suicide Girls travel and perform a modern “burlesque” show, though traditional burlesque dancers would argue that what they do isn’t burlesque at all.

I know next to nothing about such things, nor do I ultimately care. What I care about is women loving each other, and what “feminism” is supposed to be about. And here I will quote an academic, who defines feminism as:

The dancers backstage with me feel empowered because of their otherness in relation to strippers or prostitutes—what they do as burlesque dancers is more respectable, or politically subversive—so they seem to imply, and perhaps much of it is. They claim that that they can “smell [the Suicide Girls’] cunt from a mile away.”

When can we be women who are strippers and porn stars and artists and intellectuals all at the same time without trying to position ourselves as more righteous or more or less dirty than each other? That can only happen when women begin to see their struggles as more similar than different.

I’ve critiqued academia since being a women’s studies and peace studies student at Berkeley. The purpose of my writing from Nicaragua was two-fold: it was an opportunity to tell the stories and share the voices of women living in rural Nicaragua and it was a self-critical look at how engaging in this kind of “anthropology” of women’s studies was in some ways inherently elitist. I later used my own body in my photography project to reflect how uncomfortable it felt to participate in such brief and almost one-sided relationships with those women. Yet the academy itself it built around such studies. This is precisely why I left it.

I ask myself these questions: What is the last piece of writing you read before leaving academia? (That anthropology is inherently unethical). What is the last place you lived in before leaving the united states? What is your final frontier, within that last context within which you swam? Where must you go next to push yourself further, or rather, to push yourself into another context? It is possible to do this, actually? Once coming to Berlin and two years later, here I am at my computer (one thing I retained) with Internet (a thing I signed up for, could not abandon) reading feminist theory (a thing I still love) communicating across the world (a globalization that is becoming harder to escape).

How do I stop committing anthropology – by placing my body in another context, the same way that Katherine Dunham did in her creation of dance … she learned the dances of the people that she was studying, and then she took that dance into her own body and created a new form of dance called the Dunham technique. This was a dipping into the context of another palette … drawing on a color previously unimaginable, but working within the limitations of a body that fundamentally she cannot entirely alter (there are some things we never leave behind, our vaginas, for example, though we can also chose to do this, but even if we do we still live with the memory of one).

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