Women & Violence: A Special Issue

                                 Editor’s Introduction
                      Erin Wunker & Andrea Beverley

On December 7, 1989, I learn that a man has just killed fourteen women. The man, they say, separated the men and women into two groups. The man called the women feminists; he voiced his hatred toward them. The man fired. The women dropped. The other men ran away. Suddenly,

            I/they are dead

            felled by a

            break in meaning

                                            (Nicole Brossard, “6 December 1989 among the centuries”)

What does it mean to have a day of action and of remembrance? How are memories actions, and how does re-membering constitute a struggle to put meaning back together? Where does violence happen? These are questions that we asked ourselves and each other when we first began to envision a special issue of Hook & Eye that aimed to address both the on going culture of gendered violence against women and to remember the missing, the murdered, the hurt while trying to imagine our way into a more equitable future. In our call for submissions we stated that in Canada we live in a country in which violence against women is systematic, institutionalized, and pernicious: it happens on campuses, it happens in communities, it happens in this country every day.

We asked for submissions that would consider the double action of remembering and acting in the service of the future. We received submissions that address the visceral experience of fear and the pernicious ways that fear gets internalized and naturalized. We received submissions that address questions of empathy and witnessing, especially the limits of witnessing. In a culture of ordinary and extraordinary violence – where “ordinary” simply means naturalized – what are the ethics and responsibilities of a witness? Of a reader? As we began to form this special issue we recognized once again that the answer to the question “where does violence happen?” is everywhere. On this National Day of Action to end violence against women we remember, we witness, and we come together to act. Today, and everyday.

                                   Andrea Beverley

I sit at the front of the insular auditorium while my students write their final exam. He seems to be looking right at me every time I scan the room. He seems to be looking at me unabashedly. He seems to be looking at me with hostility and open challenge. This student has come to class three or four times over the course of the semester, always leaving at the break. He hasn’t handed in any of the assignments. I wonder idly why he has bothered to show up for the final. Then I wonder more pointedly whether there is some ulterior reason for him showing up for the final. Should I stare back at him? Should I pretend I don’t notice? Am I imagining this? Would I be less aware of the situation if we weren’t at the Université de Montréal in a class on literature and feminism?

Just in case, I glance over at the phone on the wall to my left. Just in case. If he springs up armed, I will spring up toward the phone and hope to reach someone in time. I think (am I extraordinarly morbid or do all parents think this?) of my two small children and how devastating it would be for them if I suddenly ceased to exist.

He is the first one to hand in his exam, the first to leave the room. So my worries were for naught. Worry even seems too strong of a word. It was a low-grade fearful musing, a dark meandering train of thought. That night, I tell my partner about it. He is disconcerted and shudders at the idea. And I don’t think about it again until months later when I’m reading the section on the Montreal massacre in Judy Rebick’s Ten Thousand Roses, a history of the women’s movement in Canada. And suddenly I’m writing this text here, the one you’re reading, in what feels like one long exhale.

This isn’t about my surly student. I have nothing against him. This is about the conditions under which – the world in which – it was possible for me to spend a good chunk of my exam supervision time wondering whether violence might erupt.

                      Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Sparse bouquets dot chainlink – an abacus
of lives. We are witnessing
a method of memory
in the human office. The crowd files
past the marginal presence of photocopied
pictures in plastic sleeves, some damp
teddy bears. We calculate how old
she would be, how many years since —
and momentarily consider human resources, the figure
of that girl, some wife, a neighbour we never knew.
We pay the minimum of attention, check
the accounting of debt and society
but too many images are degrading
on the fence: they occupy our minds, replace
the women we walk among. We avoid touching
trouble, prefer to promote the ritual, leave
the work to the workers. It’s dangerous
to recall the circumstances of being
what we are; we want things, want to count
ourselves out of this evidentiary job.

                   Ordinary Spaces
                    Kristan Newall

I turn in the stairwell to stop in at a women’s washroom before class. On the door, the blank, emotionless expression of a sexual predator’s police sketch accosts me. Deciding it can wait, I turn away and climb another flight of stairs. There, again, I’m faced with another door, and another bulletin: “DON’T WALK ALONE AT NIGHT.” It screams at me for attention, but I turn to the next flight of stairs before I can be told again of yet another sexual assault on campus. I have already seen this intimidating sketch in an email, already been given the advice over and over again, and I am tired of these warnings and commands being imposed on me at every turn. 

After the university frosh week rape chants and the recent sexual assaults, however, campus has been flooded with these messages. And not just bulletins, large signboards, flyers, security emails, and personal emails and calls from concerned family members assault us with commands: PROTECT yourself. WATCH OUT for each other. BE AWARE of your surroundings. TRUST your instincts. KNOW your location to call for help. DON’T walk in areas with low visibility. DON’T walk alone at night. DON’T walk at night. DON’T walk… DON’T…

The official university warnings, at least, don’t explicitly specify women as their targeted audience. But in placing the predator’s sketch only on the door to the women’s washroom and not on the men’s, the implicit message of all these warnings is clear: the burden is largely on women to prevent themselves from “becoming victims.”

Initially, I was glad, even reassured, that the university displayed such outrage and concern over the sexual assaults occurring on campus, but now I grow increasingly angry at every new piece of advice on personal security I see. The volume of advice and propaganda, by targeting women, places larger targets on women walking alone at night: they become more visible and out of place, easier to identify. With every new command not to walk alone at night, the target grows. And what girl or woman hasn’t been given similar warnings before? When possible, I do try to PROTECT myself, to WATCH OUT, to BEWARE, to TRUST no stranger. I KNOW all the advice. But I’m tired of walking in fear, so now I DON’T.

I no longer walk in fear, because fear doesn’t help. Fear only instills a further sense of victimization. Fear only creates different kinds of victims, victims of fear. This fear keeps women feeling vulnerable and dependent and perpetuates the idea of femininity as weak and fragile, which is a limiting and detrimental stereotype. When a woman has been told countless times to fear the rapist lurking in the bushes and begins to believe it, every face approaching in the dark resembles the sketch on the bathroom door. So she concedes to her fear and stays at home, or she brings a male companion, but statistically, home and the people she knows present more of a danger than the rapist lurking in the bushes. But a woman can’t constantly live in fear. And perceived fear created by the well-intentioned commands and police sketches of the rapist lurking in the bushes, rather than the reality of the danger, should not limit the amount and quality of her mobility.

I’m not advocating that women should completely disregard the advice to be careful. But take it as advice and not a command. We all have the right to walk in public places at any time of day, with whomever we want or no one. And someday, I hope, for every security warning, there will be a message advocating consent. And for every nameless face staring threateningly back from the doors of female washrooms, there will be assurances that women do have a right to mobility, the freedom to walk alone, and that the authorities and administration are working to make that right safe and free from fear for everyone.

                 For Ann (A Student Who Cannot Be Named)

                                       Tanis MacDonald


Because Layton wrote “To the Girls of My Graduating Class” and named Golda, Fruma, Dinnie, Elinor, plus the delicate trouble in their veins.
Because Roethke wrote “Elegy for Jane (My Student, Thrown by a Horse)” as his skittery pigeon, bewildered bird.
Because Poe said no subject was more poetic than a beautiful dead woman.
Because Yeats’ “Leda and The Swan” is a rape poem.
a sudden blow
Because she missed class last Friday while admitted to hospital 
the staggering girl
sat in the front row
put on knowledge
the indifferent beak
great wings beating still

           Sight unseen: re-membering the absent referent

                             Erin Wunker

Where does violence happen? This is one of the questions I found myself thinking about when I wrote this. Here’s the setting:
America’s Next Top Model (season 10): The contestants are taken into a meatpacking warehouse. They are told that they will be wearing bikinis made entirely out of raw meat: meat briefs, and a meat top or breastplate. The models smile benignly as they push large carcasses away from themselves, or straddle a bin of discarded animal parts. One model uses a meat hook on her breastplate and pulls herself seductively toward the camera.

It is unclear to me as a viewer what, exactly, the models are modeling. Whose flesh is for sale? Their own, or that of the animal draped across their bodies, whose bodies they drape themselves across? The relation between consumer and consumed is aestheticized, confused, and inextricably intertwined. The women and the skinned carcasses in the warehouse are subjected to the devouring gaze of the camera. They become only a body, and then, they become only components of a body. “Show us your bucket of bones,” one model is encouraged.
I want to build on Carol J. Adams’ connection between the slaughter of animals and the normalized gendered misogyny of everyday. What happens when we use metaphors in the place of description? Specifically, I am interested in whether or not we might consider language itself an animal, endangered by these power structures that poach it of its potential communicative power. Of course, here I too am using metaphor in service of a point. Speech act theorist J.L. Austin argues that to make an utterance it to perform an action. Rather than merely stating facts, for Austin, words and sentences do what they say in the act of saying it.
For example, to treat someone “like a dog” is a common enough phrase, but it is one that has always puzzled me. What confuses me is twofold: first, the general acceptance that the dog deserves—perhaps even desired—to be beaten; and second, that it is somehow right to beat a dog. A similar phrase, “beating a dead horse,” made its first appearance in 1872 and is meant to indicate futility, but consider the imagery it summons.
Adams is right; animals are excellent vehicles for violent (and socially acceptable) metaphor. Yet should anyone beat a dog or a dead horse in public, or have it be discovered that they did so in private, society is not quite as accepting. These are both literally dead metaphors: expressions that have been in circulation for so long that they no longer directly conjure images of what it is they refer to. Without the image—the marked term—we forget that words are tied to things, that text articulates bodies.
What is at work, then, is the function of the absent referent: “through the function of the absent referent, Western culture constantly renders the material reality of violence controlled and controllable metaphors” (Adams 54). The interstice at which animals and women meet, then, relies on collective cultural knowledge, as Keith Thomas observes, “once perceived as beasts, people [infants, youths, poor, racialized, women, insane] were liable to be treated accordingly” (44). Habitual speech-acts that normalize the brutal treatment of animals bleed into speech-acts that parallel brutal treatment of women, but because these speech acts are accustomed it is possible to be unconscious of the associations.
Language is not transparent. We know this, but we live with it. Celan thought about the dangerous thickets of language often, especially after the war.* This is just one of his observations:
reachable, near and unlost amid the losses, this one thing  remained:
language. This thing, language, remained unlost, yes, in spite of everything. But it had to go through its own loss of answers, had to go through terrifying muteness, had to go through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing talk. It went through and gave us no words for that which happened, yet it went through this happening. Went through and was able to come back to light…
Isn’t it jarring that Celan differentiates between language and “deathbringing talk”? Language, it seems, is a living being; or better, it is the connective tissue that animates our relatings. Celan’s suggestion that language enables humanity in humans is not a new one.
Indeed, just a few decades before the War, Freud suggested that the acquisition of language is the point at which a child enters the community of communication. For Freud, language is the crucible out of which human subjects emerge. In this view, language makes us possible: it is a passageway, a bridge, a foundation, and a connector.
But Celan frames language as somehow a different species from talk. For Celan language is a wildness, one of those uncatchable moments you hope for and fear when walking in the forest of your life. Talk, on the other hand, seems to no longer be feral. Talk is domesticated, commodified. Celan’s differentiation cracks open a space from which to consider the absent referent.
It you were to do a quick Internet search you would find that the absent referent itself is a slippery term. It hails from both linguistics and mathematics, and in both disciplines it indicates null, or nothing. The absent referent is both placeholder and blind spot. Its very existence acknowledges erasure. It is simultaneously present and absent.
Fascinatingly, in American Sign Language, if the referent of the sentence is absent it is common practice for the signer to gesture into emptiness. The absent referent embodies what has been disembodied. Language camouflages itself and talk takes its place. Extant power structures, always already gendered and raced, ensure and perpetuate blind spots.
Or, take for example the ubiquitous hamburger. Named for its place of origin rather than its make up, it has no linguistic markers that acknowledge that it is ground cow.**The process of processing is hidden by the ‘talk’ on the label in the grocery store. The name hamburger hides its reality (cow) from itself.
So too with the models in their meat bikinis. On the surface the wearing of raw meat strikes the viewer (& indeed the models themselves) as simply gross. But why? As one model notes, “I eat meat, why should I have a problem wearing it>”
I want to suggest that the meat bikini is metaphor working overtime. On the one hand, it is repugnant because its rawness reminds the viewer and the wearer that it was once a living, breathing, sentient being. On the other hand, or at the same time, it is uncanny because it reminds the viewer and the wearer of the model’s own status as commodity. The absent referent perfoems a double role as both a place holder and an unremarked, unsettling void.
“Believe me for meat and for myself,” say Gertrude Stein and Anne Carson. What does this mean? Saussurean linguistics has it that the word is made up of a collusion between the sign (a place holder) + signifier (another place holder waiting to be filled) which then results in the signified…so long as we all agree. Of course, signifiers themselves are slippery. There is no guarantee that what we mean will be represented by what we say. Understanding is something of a gentleman’s agreement.
If, as Adams suggests, metaphor is the vehicle that shuttles the animal out of sigh, then it is the image that facilitates the full metonymic sleight of hand. Like the  carnival game of cups and balls, metaphors hide the violence of what Celan has called “deathbringing talk” from our consciousness. We’re able to watch young women wear raw meat and vamp for the camera without making the connection that they are the flesh we consume. They are what we eat, metaphorically speaking.
*Paul Celan was a Jewish poet of Romanian birth. He was also a German speaker. After World War II, during which his parents died in an internment camp, Celan grappled with writing in German. His mother tongue had become the same language that was used to order the murder of millions, the murder of his mother and father. My real introduction to Celan’s language work is through Anne Carson’s stunning essay Economy of the Unlost. In this essay Carson considers (among other things) what a word costs, who makes money when words are economized, and what is lost when a word becomes bankrupt.
**Well, kind of. What we know now as a hamburger can trace its origins at least as far back as Ghengis Khan and the Golden Horde who, while riding for days, would tenderize their dinner meat between their saddle and their horse’s back. This more of tenderization was spread to Moscow where “steak Tartar” was coined (for the conquering army was known as the Tartars). From there steak Tartar was taken to the German city of Hamburg (thanks to port traffic between Moscow and Hamburg). The hamburger first arrived in America under the advertisement “steak cooked in the Hamburg style” in an attempt to attract the patronage of German sailors (Fitzgibbon).
Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory. 1990. New York: Continuum, 2000.
Austin, John L. How to Do Things With Words. Cambridge: Harvard, UP, 1975.
Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonedes of Keos with Paul Celan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Fitzgibbon, Theodora. The Food of the Western World – An Encyclopedia of Food from North America and Europe. New York: Quadrangle, 1976.
Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: A History of Modern Sensibility. New York: Pantheon, 1983.


Andrea Beverley is the FQRSC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. She has a PhD in English from the Université de Montréal. She teaches and researches Canadian and postcolonial literatures, always in relation to feminist theory. She has recently published articles in University of Toronto Quarterly and Journal of Canadian Studies.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner directs Thursdays Writing Collective and is coeditor with John Asfour of V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012), which was shortlisted for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award. She is also the editor of six books from the Collective, most recently The Stanza Project (Otter Press, 2013), an investigation of the intersection of architectural and poetic space. Elee’s poetry earned CV2’s 2011 Lina Chartrand Poetry Award and is published in journals and anthologies. www.thursdayswritingcollective.ca

Tanis MacDonald is the author of The Daughter’s Way (Finalist, Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian literary criticism) and three books of poetry: Rue the Day (2008); Fortune (2003); and  Holding Ground (2000). She is well-known as a reviewer and personal essayist, and is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her poem included here was first published in Contemporary Verse 2 32.1 (2009).

Kristan Newell was born in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia. She completed a BA with combined honours in English and Classics at the University of King’s College, and is now pursuing further studies in English at the University of British Columbia as part of an MA program.

Erin Wunker is an Assistant Professor (limited term) in the Department of English at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. She teaches Canadian literatures and cultural production, Canadian poetry and poetics, and is at work on a manuscript about the poetics of collapse. She is a member of the Executive Board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (www.cwila.com) and is currently chairing the Critic in Residence jury for 2014. She is a co-founder and weekly contributor to Hook & Eye, and with Dr. Bart Vautour she is the co-founder and co-curator of Why Does It Matter? (www.whydoesitmatter.ca)