by Nour Almazidi
As one of Clare Hemmings’ students, I was very excited to pick up her newly released book after the LSE seminar she gave on Considering Emma Goldman (2018) and how to embrace, theorise and attend to ambivalence as a political and affective reality. This is a rich and meaningful book, both in its methodological approaches and interventions in contemporary feminist and queer inquiry. I have found the different ways in which Hemmings thinks through the figure of Emma Goldman, an often-exiled anarchist activist, to engage with urgent questions around sexual freedom, race and internationalism, the subject of feminism and revolutionary subjectivities that characterise our contemporary political moment to be very compelling.
Photo of Clare Hemmings taken by the author at the LSE seminar on 27/04 chaired by Jacob Breslow.
Hemmings navigates these concerns through three often interlocking archives: subjective, critical and theoretical. The subjective archive is that of Goldman herself; her writings, letters, actions and autobiography that are all characterised by a struggle over meanings of key concepts (gender, race, sexuality) at a particular moment of their revolutionary articulations. Hemmings then asks: what does it mean to include Goldman in a feminist or queer history without wanting to “clean her up” by ignoring the ambivalences and uncertainties existing within Goldman and her political thinking? The critical archive is one that is navigated as itself structured through ambivalence and is affectively engaged with Goldman. In the process, Hemmings explores how feminist theory seeks to mask its own ambivalence about unresolved questions around femininity and feminism. The theoretical archive includes a set of presumptions and practices that frame the contours of a feminist or queer project in the present and what can be included or excluded. This archive navigates understandings of what counts as “gender equality” (as well as how to achieve it), what “sexual politics” can or cannot include, and how we think through “race” in a contemporary political terrain. The three archives ultimately lead us to the possibilities of a fourth one: an imaginative archive that has yet to be written and is one that foregrounds the gaps existing in the archives we have been introduced to. The imaginative archive asks what it would mean to prioritise subjective and collective responsibility to imagine new ways of living and being that transcend “the deadening modes of representations we see around us” (2018, p. 8).
Clare Hemmings’ introduction of Emma Goldman is one that cites the dynamic and flirtatious nature of historical encounters and how this account is in itself one that is “affectively saturated and productive of its own passionate political desires” (2018, p. 2). And it is precisely through Hemmings’ account that we come to understand why is it that Goldman continues to be a captivating figure to think with and through. Goldman’s capacity to combine gendered and sexual politics with her revolutionary ‘panache’, and her commitments to living an anarchist utopia in the present make her essential for a radical political imagination. The themes of antinationalism and anti-authoritarianism, transnational social movements, race and racism, what sexual freedom might mean, critiques of femininity as both a complicit and productive site of transformation, all form an important part of Goldman’s thought, and they resonate powerfully with current unresolved struggles within feminist and queer theory, and activism.
The critical archive’s engagement with Goldman’s ambivalence is the site onto which anxieties central to feminist theory are teased out. Through starting from what is left out and what is denied, Hemmings locates the productive ways in which political ambivalence might be foregrounded by being attentive to the discomfort that comes with a feminist desire to position Goldman in ways that try to resolve her uncertainties on femininity, her disidentification from feminism, and her negotiations of race and racism. As Goldman does not articulate questions around race and racism in familiar ways to contemporary feminist theory, the critical archive tends to ignore the conflictions within Goldman by either understanding her to be inattentive to racism due to her privileging class hierarchy over racism, or instead positions her as a transnational feminist through emphasising on her border crossings and antinationalism. By doing so, however, we miss Goldman’s attempts to integrate class and race analysis, her analysis of overlapping modes of racial, nationalist, anti-Black and anti-Semitic violence, and the centrality of her commitment to expand understandings of race beyond kinship, nation and identity. All of which might help open up alternative approaches to understanding meanings of race and racism.
And whilst Goldman’s ambivalence about women’s role is the very site through which she develops persuasive critiques of women’s oppression as secured through capitalist and militarist exploitation, the archive has struggled with accepting Goldman’s antagonism of women, and her vicious characterisations of femininity. For Goldman, femininity is deeply flawed and is often actively complicit with political, social and economic forces. As Hemmings argues, however, rather than being hurt or enraged by Goldman’s critiques of the femininity’s ills, we might instead be able to rethink the existing ambivalence within feminism about femininity and recognise that it indeed remains unresolved.
Despite the investment in claiming Goldman as a (failed) feminist heroine, Goldman herself articulates her arguments by emphasising their distinctive difference from feminism. Hemmings argues that claiming Goldman as a feminist “may be counterproductive in bringing together economic and intersubjective understandings of how ‘gender’ works and might thus be transformed” (2018, p. 65). Attending to this ambivalence around disidentification ultimately brings us to questions around the relationship between subject and object of feminist theory, and it prompts a re-evaluation of how feminism is imagined in the first place. Hemmings’ earlier work in Affective Solidarity (2012) is valuable here, as she explores the effects resulting from an investment in overstating differences between a feminist and anti-feminist subjectivity, and what we might gain by expanding the different ways in which feminism can be inhabited. Thinking with Goldman challenges feminist assumptions that suture feminism to a feminist subjectivity, and further troubles the authoritarian gatekeeping of feminism. It is important to note that this is not a dismissal of the political value of feminist attachments or to conceptualise feminism as whatever one imagines it to be, but is rather a consideration of “whether its borders are necessarily best thought of in terms of subjectivity and attachment rather than political judgement and activity” (2018, p. 72).
I am further persuaded by Hemmings’ argument that when thinking in terms of affect, we might understand subjects’ dissonance with uneven power relations as “a mode of social critique in and of itself” (2018, p. 71). In thinking of dissonance-as-judgement, it is then possible to think through a disidentification from feminism that retains critiques of gender relations as “the result of complex set of negotiations all gendered subjects make and that cannot always be resolved” (2018, p. 75). In the process of exploring these themes with Goldman, feminist certainties are disrupted, and ambivalence is attended to as a productive site and a continuous political and affective reality that must not be brushed aside or obscured when intervening in gendered, raced and sexual meanings and structures. In challenging what we imagine as knowable and what we propose as certain, especially when uncertainty characterises our understandings, profound ambivalence animates political struggles. By embracing an affective politics of ambivalence where both psychic and social aspects of inequality are centred, and a political teleology is refused, the nature of inquiry can shift, and this is where we can note the important implications of taking ambivalence into account.
In many ways, attending to ambivalence within feminist political thought challenges rights-based frameworks that are centred around notions of increased recognition and “equality”. The question of equality is a heavy and contingent one, particularly when considering how the philosophical underpinnings and conceptualisations of women’s emancipation and gender equality are often saturated with problematically universalised Western norms, as echoed by postcolonial feminist theorists. The attendant certainties of such understandings might lead us to “overlook the ways in which equality might need to be understood rather more broadly” (2018, p. 67). Hemmings’ reading of Goldman reminds us of the political limitations of formal redress not only because of the difficulties of accessing those rights where they exist, but also because the assumption that such rights-based recognition would achieve equality for women to begin with must be interrogated. She instead emphasises a politics of intersubjectivity, culture, creativity and emancipation through relationality with others, and through committing to the responsibility to change oneself. And with Goldman and Hemmings too, I found the proposition to counter “equality” with “sexual freedom” to be an incredibly attractive and appealing alternative whereby sexual freedom is lived and acknowledged as a volatile site of struggle and ambivalence, but also as a site of transformation that necessarily foregrounds the relational and intersubjective aspects of revolution. In this sense, centring sexual freedom as essential to revolution means admitting its unpredictability and unresolvedness as this possibility that sexual freedom holds moves us away from the fantasy that the work is ever finished, instead it “centres power and anticipates difficulty and failure as part of the establishment of the ideal, rather than a sign of its loss” (2018, p. 70).
The question of affect as a question of knowledge and judgment constantly flows throughout the book, and its imaginative possibilities give us an insight into what we might gain from affectively committing to the continuous and complex struggle with the ambivalence of gender and its relationship to subjectivity, embodiment, and transformation. The recognition of our ambivalent struggles over gendered meanings and possibilities can allow us to embrace political feminist and queer thinking as always in process, ongoing, never fully achieved, and never finished.
Nour Almazidi is an MSc Gender alumna of the LSE Department of Gender Studies. She holds a BA in International Relations and Political Science from the University of Birmingham. Her work focuses on transnational feminist and queer political theory and activism. She can be found on Twitter @nuralmazidi