I have this distinct memory of reading an essay by Nicole Brossard back when I was a graduate student. The essay, “Writing as Trajectory of Desire and Consciousness,” outlines some of Brossard’s key terms. Her title, she tells the reader, contains some of the words to which she returns and returns. These words — writing, trajectory, desire, consciousness — contain everything that gives meaning to her life. For Brossard, whose multiple subject positions are central to her decades-long career, writing is a “wager of presence.” For her, writing — from the position of woman, of lesbian, of feminist, of French speaker, of mother, of friend — is a risk one takes in the presence, as a means of quite literally bodying forth the future you wish to inhabit.
I love this idea. When I read it as a graduate student it absolutely cracked my world open. Here was a writer who could name her different identities, and then talk about how writing and talking and thinking about those different identities was an actual, proactive means of pushing against oppression.
I returned to this essay last week, when I was feeling the physical weight of misogyny in Canada, in academia, in everyday life. I returned to Brossard’s essay on Monday, when Jian Ghomeshi’s trial began and when I heard the news from my colleagues down the road that the administration had gutted their Women and Gender Studies Program. I returned to Brossard, as I return to Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed, Maggie Nelson, Sachiko Murakami, Dionne Brand, El Jones, (and the list goes on) because she articulates so clearly her own way through the tangled and oppressive inequities we each live through in our own bodies. She articulates her own privilege, and her own outsider status. She writes about how hard it is to name abuse, or misogyny, or racism, and then she continues writing.
The physical weight I was feeling last week hasn’t dissipated. Every time I go on social media, which I seem to do obsessively, I encounter either innumerable headlines violently questioning the testimony of witness #1 and Lucy de Coutere, or I encounter brilliant, but also unavoidably heavy accounts of women who have also had their experiences of gender based violences questioned. I feel the weight of my own responsibility to witness the hurt of others, and to use my training as a teacher and a writer and a reader of culture to try to articulate why we need to trust victims even when their way of surviving doesn’t look like what we have been taught to demand of them. I feel the weight of my own experiences of gender based violences — big and small, physical and emotional. It’s heavy.
Brossard talks about that bodily experience of heaviness. She calls it an effect of “ritual with shock”
…the necessity of ritual with shock is especially linked to a discomfort, a profound
dissatisfaction, a revolt against the monolithic patriarchal sense which seems to shatter fervour, aspirations, memory, and women’s identity. In your head words crash into each other: the word, woman, is thrown against Man, the word insanity against reason, the word passivity against violence, the word intuition against logic. Ritual with shock translates a conflict of values, repeatedly bumping into the binary, antagonistic, and hierarchical structure of misogyny and patriarchal sense.
Constantly bruising against the systematic oppressions of patriarchal culture actually changes how we move through the world. For Brossard, that realization is shocking. Turning the shock of recognition into self-sustaining and world-making energy is where the ritual comes in. She writes
When a woman invests a word with all her anger, energy, determination, imagination, this word crashes violently into the same word, the one invested with masculine experience. The shock that follows has the effect of making the word burst….Thus the word regard can change into vision, woman into lesbian, love into identity.
Remembering that Brossard wrote this in French allows us read more into that word “regard,” which in the French means “to look” and in English means “consider or think of.” Brossard carries that bruised language to another place and transforms it into the means by which women and others left outside the strictures of patriarchal culture can see and consider one another. What a thing, isn’t it? What a thing, to be able to carry language through to another place. What a thing to have been taught to read this way. I wouldn’t have learned to read this way without classes in feminist theory…
Here is what Brossard’s writing reminds me: It reminds me that we need to learn how to read context into events, and that language is itself an event. Take, for example, they ways in which many mainstream media outlets are questioning the testimonies of women. Take, for example, the way an administration guts a women and gender studies program without a thought to anything more than a budget line (or worse, that they did). Take, for example, the fact that we still don’t seem to have a public language to speak the nuances of experiencing gender based violence. Learning to read Brossard and other writers like her has given me some tools to name the micro- and macro-aggressions of living in a patriarchal culture.
It has given me the language to try and help my students learn to read context for themselves.