Erin Hortle is is a Tasmanian-based writer of short fiction and essays. The Octopus and I is her debut novel.
What does feminism mean to you?
For me, feminism is rooted in three key things: justice, love and hope.
Feminism began as a social justice movement – women fighting for rights and justice – and this imperative is still necessary. Despite decades of cultural shift, the residue of the hetropatriarchy clings to our social institutions; although cling isn’t quite the right word, is it? It doesn’t reflect the way that residue squats at the heart of institutions, stubbornly holding structures that perpetuate inequalities and tacitly permit violence in place. I’m thinking here about the wage gap (about such things as the fact that capitalism, which on a very fundamental level is a system in which value is equated with capital, does not value female-dominated industries, such as industries of care); I’m thinking about how inaccessible paternity leave is for many men and the impact this has on establishing gendered dynamics in homes, in the workplace and in life outcomes (for example, that women retire significantly poorer than men); I’m thinking about the inexcusable rates of domestic violence; I’m thinking about the fact that girls are brought up to take it for granted that it is not safe for them to walk through a park at night. These issues are injustices, caused by our social structures. It’s feminism’s job to dismantle these injustices via acknowledgement, criticism and protest.
Love is the reason this work – of acknowledgment, of criticism, of protest – is so urgent. Love and dignity. Love for ourselves, for other women, for queer and non-binary people: love for everyone who is and has been at various times restricted, confined, diminished and undervalued by the rigidity and inherent biases of the system. We fight for justice for ourselves and for others, so that everyone can live a rich and dignified life, free of violence or the threat thereof. (I suppose I should throw boys and men in the mix here, too: I do think it’s important to remember that men are produced by the system, and that while it does privilege them, at times it also limits them in so many ways [again I’m thinking about paternity leave, I’m thinking about the insidiousness of cultures of toxic masculinity]). Love isn’t just a reason, though, it’s an action. Feminism is also about building communities and the act of propping other women up – of being there for them, of using whatever influence we have to carve out a space where other women can flourish.
If feminism is driven by anything, it is by the hope for a better future. Often, feminism manifests itself as an act of criticism – because often it is. But I think the thing that perhaps isn’t foregrounded enough (and the reason why some people so misunderstand the impetus of feminism) is the fact that the purpose of that criticism isn’t only to critique, but to shape a better world. At its heart, feminism holds a vision of a better, more inclusive, gentler future in which all people can flourish. The challenge is getting there.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?
Yes. Reading Elizabeth Grosz’s ‘The Future of Feminist Theory’ (from Becoming Undone). I think up until I had read this chapter I had been bumbling about in criticism, and while I must have known the purpose of it all, I was so caught up in calling shit out – that fight for justice – that I hadn’t really paused to contemplate the truly revolutionary and utopian potential of feminism. Reading this chapter opened my eyes to it in a way that shifted something very fundamental in me. For Grosz, the project of feminism isn’t just to provide a social response to the patriarchy; its also a provocation for women, for people, to find new ways to create a world in which the masculine doesn’t stand in for the universal human and in which female morphology, experience and thought are not erased. For Grosz, feminism isn’t so much a critical project, but a creative one: ‘At its best,’ she writes, ‘feminist theory is about the invention of the new: new practices, new positions, new projects, new techniques, new values’. That kind of creative potential is both daunting in its vastness, and the most exhilarating notion ever, and ever since reading this chapter, I’ve been pondering: but how?
·How has feminism informed your sense of body and self?
Irigaray suggested that sexual difference is the threshold concept of our age (although I suspect this is in the process of being supplanted by the Anthropocene and all the thinking it demands – but that’s a detour too long and windy to wander down here), that grappling with differently sexed morphologies underpins everything. What this means is that the body is caught up in politics in insurmountable ways.
This is something I’ve really tried to think through in The Octopus and I, whose (human) protagonist, Lucy, struggles to make sense of her body, post double mastectomy. Her struggle is two-fold: her (‘natural’) gendered body is torn apart, and so she is in a position where she has to figure out how to remake it, but she also has to figure out how to be in her new body, how to interact culturally and sexually in it. What becomes apparent to her is that she can’t just slide back into her old gendered subjectivity, not so much because of her body, but because of her intensified awareness of it as gendered, and so her awareness of its position in a gendered system and her participation in that system. As I was writing, I was thinking a lot about Butler’s work on performativity – this idea that we perform our gender and that those acts of performance (re)produce not only the gendered system but our subjectivities and our bodies in the process. What I really wanted to do with Lucy and her experiences was figure out a way to cleave her gendered body from the system, whilst maintaining her sense of being a woman, her heterosexuality and her desires. I was trying to create a subversive femininity, I suppose.
These things: gender as a system or structure, bodies and selves – they are so inextricably linked. I guess the way that feminism has informed my own sense of body and self, or subjectivity, is by bringing my awareness to this. I know that I am a participant, and yet I think the system is problematic. So what do I do? I don’t want to simply reject the feminine, as if it’s something lesser or embarrassing, because that act of rejection or dismissal in itself tacitly reproduces hierarchies of value that run to the core of the system. But at the same time, the feminine is bound up in that bloody binary. So what do I do with my body and my self? Sometimes, I find this train of thought paralysing when it’s directed inwards, at me, and I think this is what drove me to write Lucy: I wanted to figure out a way out, a way to pull away from the structure and all that it holds in place.
What place do you think feminism has in shaping the way we evolve our relationships with animals and the environment?
It has a fundamental place. Absolutely fundamental.
The animal has so often been co-opted by conservative thinkers as a tool to argue that a patriarchal status quo is ‘natural.’ This has been the object of critique for many feminist theorists. For example, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Donna J Haraway extensively critiqued the ways in which certain scientific studies in the twentieth century ‘enlisted’ monkeys and apes ‘as natural objects unobscured by culture… [that] would show us most plainly the organic base in relation to which culture emerged’. One such study, conducted in the 1930s by Robert M Yerkes, involved an examination of the socio-sexual lives of chimpanzees, which was framed as an ‘effective demonstration of re-creating man himself’ (Yerkes qtd. in Haraway Simians). Yerkes observed that the dominant males allowed food and ‘privileges’ to the female chimpanzees who were most ‘sexually receptive’ (Haraway, Simians). Haraway notes: ‘to Yerkes that economic link of physiology and politics seemed to have been scientifically confirmed to lie at the organic base of civilisation’. Yet, as Haraway points out, ‘that these “natural objects” were thoroughly designed according to the many-levelled meanings of an ideal of human engineering has hardly been noticed’ — or had hardly been noticed, up until the point of Haraway’s writing. In summary, her critique revolved around the fact that these chimps were positioned by the researchers as ‘proof’ that a capitalist and patriarchal status quo was ‘natural’ for humans. Thus, in one fell swoop, Yerkes (the supposedly objective scientist) white-washed the complexities of chimp sociality, neglected to attend to chimp sexual pleasure and thus, ignored the fact that sexual pleasure itself is a force that has the capacity to produce sociality (rather than simply act as a by-product of it). Moreover, he framed evolution in a problematically humanist and speciest light, and he sought to use this framing as a means to further subjugate women and crusade against homosexuality, which, incidentally, was the direction his career ended up taking him.
This kind of thinking, which so often morphs into reductive evolutionary psychology wank-fests, reveals that the animal, as a concept, is a tool that has been historically wielded by the patriarchy to essentialise all sorts of problematic ideas about the ‘nature’ of gender and sex. And this kind of thinking does both humans and animals a disservice, particularly women, LGBTIQ+ people, and female chimps (and females of other species). But how different would Yerkes’ discussion have looked if instead of focussing his attention on the ‘dominant’ male, he considered the way the females chimps cared for one another, and sought out sexual pleasure on their own? (Female chimps are known to masturbate.) Feminism prompts us to critique conservative logic and reductive and destructive attitudes to the natural world, and to ask these sorts of questions of animals in a way that allows us to attend to the true complexities of the more-than-human world in a manner that evolves knowledge, rather than reducing it.
Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?
I mean, there are so many, but I’ll throw out a few in clustered themes: if you are interested in the body and subjectivity, and you haven’t yet read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts then you should; they might not provide you with answers, but they’ll move you in ways you might not be able to understand, and get you to think. If you’re interested in thinking about motherhood in nuanced and drastically varied ways, then you should read not only The Argonauts but also Donna Mazza’s Fauna, Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. A compelling novel that explores grief in the wake of a miscarriage, bodies (human and nonhuman animal), desire (human and nonhuman animal), art and science is Amanda Niehaus’s The Breeding Season; if you haven’t already, read it. And if you get on a roll with reading about the nonhuman (or you want to), check out Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey if you haven’t already, and I suspect you should also read The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean Mackay; it’s currently on my to read pile, so I can’t quite give it a proper endorsement just yet, but I’m so excited to read it. Also on my to read pile is Come: a Memoir by Rita Therese, which I’m equally excited about.