“We’re in an unprecedented state of emergency—and emergencies can provoke pro found reassessments, drastic solutions . . . perhaps even bring about the birth of a new consciousness, a new language, and a new species,” announced Andrea Juno and V. Vale in their iconic collection of feminist voices, Angry Women.1 “The feminist project of liberation for all is enormous,” they continued; “it involves a total rethinking and remaking of history, culture, law, organized religion (preferably, its total abolishment), psychoanalysis, and philosophy.”2 The authors’ opening words were less introductory than catalytic: the hortatory invocation of a riot.
I was in high school when Angry Women was published. I bought it from a record store that stocked books from RE/Search and other alternative presses alongside vinyl records and skateboards. The Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle had recently shown the RE/Search photography exhibit, Modern Primitives, prompting the fury of then-Senator Jesse Helms. The National Endowment for the Arts was in the midst of a firestorm over artists Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, and conservative demands for censorship of explicit art seemed ascendant. Yet, seemingly in response, the first page of Angry Women offered an unyielding portrait of the performer Diamanda Galás. Teeth bared, a knife clenched in her fist, she leveled a feral stare, blood dripping from her chin.
The startling immediacy and fleshy abjection of that photograph provided an apt preview of the contents within. The participants—poets, musicians, academics, agitators, sex workers, pornographers, rape survivors—talked radical politics and laid their bodies bare in portraits tinged with ambiguity. Shot through the interviews was a concern with women as active subjects, those who contested maleness, straightness, whiteness, capitalism: the systems of domination that derogate beings into things. But even in the face of its violation and alienation, what remains so striking in Angry Women is the centrality of the body. The artists return again and again to the substance and feel of it, coring to the supposed root of physical difference. From there they sent out missives—grotesques steeped in blood, viscera, and vaginal fluids—to challenge any simple, univocal articulation of womanhood. The contributors demonstrate feminist practice not just by achieving subjecthood, but also by delving into objecthood, into the most carnal varieties of stuff. We know from recent critical conversations in speculative realism and material feminism that a thing might not be just a thing: it might be a dynamic, feeling agent—and a confluence of social forces. Here, too, a proposition starting with the material, with the whatness of body, can function as a path not to passivity but subversion, what Juno and Vale call the “shamanistic act” that revolutionizes the individual and re-ignites a broader political transformation.
The filmmaker Caroline Koebel describes contributor Carolee Schneeman’s work in terms that could apply to any of the book’s [End Page 201] experimental artists: an embrace of the body “underscores the conflicts within feminism and how, at the time, the exposed body posed an equal threat to women as to men.”3 But did the exposed body ever stop having such power? Certainly not now, when women’s self-exposure still rattles. How and to whom should women make their bodies visible and accessible—in the streets, via Instagram, on the cover of Vanity Fair? Is it possible to exploit one’s own image, even as critique or reclamation, when that image too will disappear into the maw of media misogyny and objectification?4 Karen Finley points to the dilemma of such exposure:
as soon as I (a woman) tried to [use my body in my art], the situation changed, because the female body is objectified. The men using their bodies are seen as “artists,” but for women a new element is introduced. . . . Women basically have to protect themselves against the male gaze which is always there.5
For those of us who make art that engages with the naked body, and who find ourselves on the receiving end of misogynistic taunts (dealt so casually in online forums), there is no clear solution to this problem of thingness. We are forced to recognize the limits of our control over...