Lisa Downing interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Lisa Downing gives us the deep scoobies about the problematic relationship between the aesthetical and the ethical, about Derrida, Levinas, Lacan and Foucault, feminism, queer theory, pornography, and post-modernism. She is intrigued by film director Patrice Leconte and the birth of necrophilia and other perversion-types in French literature of the nineteenth century. She gets jiggy about the death-drive and its importance to ‘shadow feminism,’ and the various images of Catherine Deneuve. She traces the way ‘queer’ has become a badge of resistence as she worries about the dangers of a Western supremacist discourse. Her new book is about murderers and how the idea that they are ‘exceptional figures’ has a deeply conservative function. All in all, this is one hell of a turgentimous blast.
3:AM: In Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters, you and Libby Saxton set out an approach to film analysis that introduces an ethical perspective developed from a postmodern theory challenging a dominant aesthetic theory largely formed by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy. Is it fair to say that a critique of Kant, Schiller and Hegel informs much of your critical work, (if not all of it) and if so, can you outline what elements of their beliefs are you challenging?
Lisa Downing: The problematic relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical in the contexts of cinema production and spectatorship is one of the central concerns of Film and Ethics. While acknowledging analogies between strands of pre-structuralist film criticism and Kant’s account of aesthetic experience as conducive to moral awareness, the book takes issue with a Kantian view of ethical subjectivity as rational, centred and autonomous, arguing that this is challenged by filmic investigations of ethical encounters. We harness the insights of thinkers such as Derrida, Levinas, Lacan, and Foucault, whose work constitutes a challenge to a classical Enlightenment view of aesthetics as sublime, or beyond ethical scrutiny, and who critique the dialectical model assumed to underpin both relationality and reason.
As to whether such concerns inform my critical work as a whole, it is certainly the case that I always attempt to challenge and upend discourses that appear to be disinterestedly describing the world, but that are in fact wholly grounded in historically and culturally specific hegemonic modes of thought. In fact, I return to Kant again in my most recent book, on the construction of the figure of the murderer. Kant argued that, where nature could be considered beautiful in her acts of destruction, human violence appeared instead as monstrous. However, a misreading of Kant in Romantic philosophy led to the idealization of the murderer as a sublime genius that has colored constructions of that criminal figure ever since. So perhaps an awareness of the problems resulting from such Enlightenment thinking does, at some level, shape my work as a whole.
3:AM: Your postmodernist aesthetics approaches film using the theories of Emmanual Levinas, late Derrida and the ethical dimensions of Lacanian psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonialism and queer history. Before discussing the “ethical turn” which your approach seems to embed, can you say how Levinas and Derrida and Lacan in the guise of Zizek are helpful in discussing film as you do?
LD: Libby Saxton and I were working in adjacent offices at Queen Mary, University of London in the early 2000s, and we were both interested in the broad idea of “film and ethics”, but we were approaching it from different philosophical – and, I think, personal – perspectives. And that led to some fascinating conversations that resulted in the book.
Where Libby engages specifically in all her work with those philosophies that foreground responsibility for the other, coming out of a Judaeo-Christian tradition (especially Levinas and Derrida), I am more interested in, and wanted to move the debate on to, the ethics of the self (via poststructural psychoanalysis and also Foucault). I wanted to see what it means to think about taking responsibility for one’s own desires and choosing to foreground desire as an ethical principle. I also wanted to find ways of asking what the limits of agency are for subjectivities that are not unmarked or hegemonic. Much ethical writing ignores the fact that one might be – in gendered, ethnic, sexual, class-bound, or (dis)able(d) terms – the presumed “other” of Western discourse. What does ethics mean if we don’t assume that the “I” is the fictional, unmarked, would-be neutral subject?
In short, Libby and I agreed that any discussion of the ethical with regard to spectacle has to be also political – to engage with social power. Political applications of Lacanian theory, such as those produced by Zizek and Zupancic, that take desire as a political category, but refuse to subject it to normalizing energies were useful, as was Foucault’s work on surveillance and the “docile body”, in helping me to formulate politicized responses to questions of viewers’ desires when confronted with ethically ambivalent spectacles – especially if the spectator is not assumed to be a normative “I”.
3:AM: Can you say what is meant by the ethical turn in postmodernity’s aesthetics? Is this in some peculiar way a rather conservative move? By this I mean that although postmodernists like Danto would say that the identity of art lay in the theory that inspired it, or George Dickie would say that it lay in the institutions that support it or Noel Carroll would say that it lay in the cultural traditions that support it wouldn’t they all have agreed that art was an autonomous realm. Surely this was one of the key results of the rejection of the German rational aesthetic movement of the eighteenth century that culminated (and terminated) with Lessing. Doesn’t assimilating the ethical with the moral fatally threaten this?
LD: The “turn to ethics” describes a current in poststructuralist criticism that is perhaps more strongly associated with literature and textuality than with art or the image. It is characterized by a rejection of the study of cultural products as self-reflexive and hermetic (the principles of structuralism). It re-figures writing and reading experiences as encounters with otherness, demanding a response that is ethical as well as emotional or intellectual. In a sense, then, Libby Saxton and I are expanding the scope of this debate by examining the possibilities of its application within the realm of film.
Throughout that book we insist upon the disconnect between morality and ethics, and foreground, as I have explained above, a concept of the “ethico-political”. I think, actually, that Foucault’s late work on ethics is useful here. He distinguishes, doesn’t he, those cultural and epistemic contexts in which “code” predominates from those characterized by “ethics”. The former presupposes moral edicts to which one must adhere, while the latter places responsibility for “good conduct” on the subject’s own negotiation of acceptable mores. If we abstract those models from an idea of civic organization and relocate them in the service of critical strategies, I would say I am very much more interested in ethics than in code/ morality. I think it’s in this way that one avoids the conservatism inherent in “the moral”.
3:AM: Isn’t there a contradiction in using both Zizek and Levinas, in that Levinas is all about responsibility to the other in any encounter, whereas Zizek (and Lacan) is all about denying any responsibility to anyone else in that encounter? I think some commentators have considered you as a reader of Levinas who reads against the grain. Is this right? Could you say more about your reading of Levinas?
LD: As I said above, it was a deliberate strategy to explore so-called ethics of otherness alongside ethics of the self, and to let apparently contradictory perspectives sit alongside each other, remaining in tension, rather than try artificially to integrate them. One of the reasons for this was precisely to avoid the conservatism of didactic or moralistic discourse. The book offers a range of ethically-inflected reflections on spectacle and spectatorship, rather than a single manifesto on “how to look”.
We decided that Libby would write the chapter on Levinasian ethics in the co-authored book. Any reading of Levinas alongside film inevitably demands a reading against the grain, given Levinas’s suspicion of the aesthetic and the visual realms as potentially violent. In her chapter on Levinas, I think Libby manages brilliantly to keep in productive tension Levinas’s resistance to the image with his suggestive and perhaps contradictory notion that ethics must be understood as an “optics”, a distinctly visual metaphor.
You’re right that in my writing about Levinas elsewhere, such as in the Film-Philosophy special issue on Levinas and film edited by Sarah Cooper, I have tended to read him deliberately against the grain or even to “pervert” him a little bit. This is partly because I think Levinas produces a theory that, if taken at its word and read faithfully, cannot be applied either to cultural/ critical products, or to human relationships.
“Absolute respect for irreducible otherness” suggests precisely, when literally interpreted, a sort of non-relationality, since any approach to the Other in Levinas’s terms can be construed as violence. The ethical-emotional world he describes is a fascinating one which, to me, suggests a lot of fragile human subjects suspended in space, each in their own hermetic bubble, absolutely unable to touch the other, all the while being impelled to be responsible for him or for her. It’s a beautiful schema, but it is hard to see what one can do with it. And I think it’s designed precisely as a thought experiment, not a workable ethical theory. It’s also designed, of course, to expose and critique the normativity and symbolic violence of phenomenology, in which the “other” becomes a mere object of “my” perception. It is ironic to me that those working in queer theory and critical psychology in recent decades have flocked to phenomenology as if it’s a radical new theory and consummately ethical. I feel a very strong urge to tell everyone in those fields to read some Levinas in order to relativize the insights of e.g. Husserl or Merleau-Ponty. And I think it’s there that Levinas is most valuable: in showing the relative and flawed nature of other would-be ethical discourses.
3:AM: In Foreclosed Encounters you consider how your approach might help a feminist response to pornography. Can you say something about this?
LD: This is an issue I’ve written about quite a lot. It’s an issue about which I am uneasy, and with regard to which I keep changing my mind. It’s a very fraught area since debate in feminist philosophy and politics on this topic is so extremely polarized between those pro-pornography, sex-positive arguments and the anti-pornography radical feminist ones. I reject the “either-or” absolutism of the two strands of thought, because I think each proceeds from false premises.
The liberal feminist, pro-porn position ignores valid critiques of the “liberating” value of sexual expression and representation, such as those that a Foucauldian perspective can lend us. The radical position, by contrast, seems lacking in nuance, in that it does not differentiate between contexts in which pornography may be produced and consumed, and it assumes that all pornography has only one, fixed meaning. Increasingly, however, I have some sympathy for the latter position, because I don’t believe that power operates wholly outside of hierarchized, oppressive systems (even though Foucault shows us that it can), and I broadly accept the idea of patriarchy as a descriptor for the organization of power relations, in gendered terms, in modern and even postmodern culture.
What I tried to do in Film and Ethics, is to argue that the excessive, frenzied focus on pornography qua category of representation may in fact, paradoxically, distract attention away from a clear analysis of the workings of power with regard to the regulation of sexuality. For example, the possession of so-called “extreme images” (BDSM images, simulated scenes of erotic death) is criminalized in UK law. Focusing on the danger of the category “pornography” in this case entails ignoring the ways in which certain subjects (BDSM practitioners, “perverts”) are being marginalized and, indeed, criminalized, while the vanilla heterosexual mainstream is ignored or even exculpated. For me, legal, hegemonic, heterosexual commercial pornography is much more ethically pernicious than niche kink porn, as it reifies and falsifies, by means of endless repetition, ideas of “normal” male and female sexuality, that are made in the context of a patriarchal and capitalistic society and reflect its fantasies and beliefs.
3:AM: Foucault is another figure who figures large in your work, especially in terms of an ethics of Eros. Foucault “re-eroticized the activity of the philosophical or critical thought for our times.” Can you say how Foucault’s work, in particular his History of Sexuality and its influence on the development of Queer Theory, involves consideration of the ethical implications for considering the power relations implicit in cinematic viewing? Again, he seems to a figure deeply opposed to the psychoanalytical model of desire that we find in Lacan and Zizek and someone whose theory you take to have ethical undertones. Do you see Foucault as, in respect of ethics, a figure close to Levinas, in particular in respect of the divinity of the other in his History of Madness, but also in his rejection of humanist conceptions of ethics, (“I think there are more secrets, more possible freedoms, and more inventions in our future than we can imagine in humanism”) and in his rejection, as with Badiou, of an ethics that is constructed through contrasts with others such as the pervert, the criminal and so on?
LD: I think there are definitely more resonances between Levinas and Foucault than are commonly perceived. Crucially, both refuse dialectical thinking, Levinas by insisting on the non-dialectical relation between two entities irreducible to each other (“infinity”, rather than “totality”), and Foucault by putting forward an idea of ethical transgression, or a limit experience outside of a dialectic, as “non-positive affirmation”.
I included a chapter on Foucauldian perspectives in Film and Ethics since, despite Foucault’s primary concern with the order of discourse rather than the visual, his understanding of the workings of power as panoptical and multi-directional seems to me to be crucial to ethical debate and a very suggestive way of thinking about surveillance and looking that are implicated in cinema. Moreover, I don’t know what a truly ethico-political theory without a concept of power would look like, and to this extent, Levinas’s more metaphysical ethical model lacks something, for me at least, that Foucault’s analysis of power relations can provide.
In my Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault, I focus more closely on how his work in the modes of genealogy and problematisation have given rise to some of the insights of queer theory that I consider properly ethical, including, as you posit in your question, his demonstration of how culturally reviled “others” (the homosexual, the pervert, the criminal) have been constructed by modern forms of individualizing and normalizing power. In seeking to question the ontology of identity, and locate identity-formation instead in specific discursive-historical contexts, Foucault enables us to understand how power is at the heart of the very mechanism of othering.
3:AM: You have written about French film director Patrice Leconte. You devote a chapter to discussing his films from this postmodern ethical-aesthetics perspective don’t you? I guess many of us are pretty ignorant about this director who seems to be a fascinating figure, happy to make popular comedy as well as cutting edge art films, critical of French film snobbery and generally somewhat destabilizing. Can you say something by way of an introduction and say what you find interesting about this figure?
LD: I wrote a director study of Leconte for Manchester University Press’s French Film Director series in 2004, and reprised elements of the argument made in that book in the chapter of Film and Ethics to which you refer. Leconte is, as you say, an intriguing figure, a chameleon of a director, who has made films in numerous different modes and genres, and whose work has often received a rather unfavorable critical response in France, though a few of his works – such as Monsieur Hire (1989), Ridicule (1996), and La Veuve de St Pierre (2000) – have been judged to pass the arbitrary “art film” test by the French critical institution.
My book on Leconte was very much an exercise in showing how any cultural product (regardless of its “brow-elevation level”) can be productively read in dialogue with questions that are central to philosophical enquiry, and can illuminate them. I find in Leconte’s cinema many of the same concerns that underpin recent debates in critical theory regarding identity, gender, power, and ethics. The method I employ resembles Zizek’s aim of finding in Hollywood cinema a “phenomenology of the Lacanian spirit, its appearing for the common consciousness”. I am doing likewise with continental thought and European cinema.
Also, to some extent, my reading of Leconte pre-echoes and resonates with very recently published work on the idea of queer failure by Judith Jack Halberstam. There is a vulnerability in the portrayals of masculinity in some of Leconte’s films, for example in his depiction of fragile, ageing, unattractive masculinity in a film like Tandem (1987) or L’homme du train (2002), that distinguishes his work from a mode of cinema-making that glamorizes its subject matter and shores up ideals of heterosexual masculinity. There’s something potentially queer in Leconte’s self-deprecating portrayal of the male, which is paralleled by his own ambivalent, fractured relationship with traditional notions of success. (It is indicative that his autobiography is titled Je suis un imposteur/ “I am an imposter”.)
3:AM: One of the received views about Leconte that you challenge is that he is fetishistic and misogynist. You disagree don’t you and think he’s more commenting on than endorsing these things?
LD: I think Leconte is certainly cleverer than some critics have given him credit for, and that, when he is at his best, there is something strategically hesitant, self-critical, and reflexive in the way that looking is carried out and encouraged in some of his films. This is especially true of Monsieur Hire, which I would describe as a study of the mechanics of voyeurism, rather than a voyeuristic film. Leconte uses the camera critically in this work to expose the power of surveillance and the multiple means by which the social demarcation of non-normative individuals is achieved. While I do have some reservations about the quality of some of Leconte’s films, I continue to think that Monsieur Hire is a brilliantly executed – and genuinely ethically insightful – film.
3:AM: You wrote about necrophilia in nineteenth century literature as a manifestation of extreme desire. [You suggest that it was a symptom and pervasive fantasy of modern subjectivity, a model of desire that conflicts with conventions of Freudianism, of nineteenth century literary scholarship and feminist critiques of a masculine morbidity.] Can you say something about this and its significance for understanding sexuality and gender in nineteenth-century France?
LD: That first book started life as my doctoral thesis. I noticed an inordinate amount of eroticized and aesthetic morbid subject matter in nineteenth-century literature and European art, and I was aware from my reading of historical tracts of sexology and alienism that the diagnostic category of “necrophilia” – along with other perversion-types – came into being at roughly the time that these creative works were being produced. (The term was coined by the Belgian alienist Joseph Guislain in 1850.)
The book has a tripartite argument. Firstly it shows the interrelatedness of literary/ artistic and scientific/ medical discourses in shaping cultural ideas of “normal” and “abnormal”. Secondly it takes necrophilia as paradigmatic for apprehending desire, in the psychoanalytic sense, in that it shows the futility, irrationality and excess of desire and its refusal to be reduced to a utilitarian principle of sexuality being for procreation. A further, third, argument of the book is that previous treatments of the nineteenth-century necrophilic aesthetic have seen it only as a misogynistic cultural symptom, ignoring somewhat the extent to which female authors and artists have also explored an eroticized relationship to death, the dying and the dead. I argue that the ascription of death-drive/ destructivity to the male and life-giving/ nurturing to the female is itself an example of a sexist, regressive discourse, relying on binary stereotypes and taking the female capacity for childbearing as essential to woman’s “nature”.
3:AM: Was it just in France that this model of desire was prevalent – you look at works of Baudelaire and Rachilde – or were there writers outside of France also working with the same model?
LD: This was not a purely French phenomenon by any means – though, as stated above, the perversion-type “necrophilia” was named by a Francophone Belgian and, of course, as a good Foucauldian, the context of naming has import for me beyond the superficial and can never be considered coincidental. But cultural transfer and translation between European and Anglophone contexts in the nineteenth-century meant that “the necrophilic aesthetic” was a cross-cultural phenomenon. American-born Edgar Poe is often considered the archetypal necrophile writer, but during the nineteenth century, he was much more popular in France, via Baudelaire’s and Mallarmé’s translations of his work, than in his native USA. And it was a French psychoanalyst, Marie Bonaparte, who “canonized” Poe as a necrophiliac writer in her study of his works, written in French. So national and linguistic boundaries have to be understood as permeable.
The limitations of the disciplinary organization of the University system, especially traditional institutions such as Oxford where I wrote my thesis, result in the production of these slightly artificial or skewed delimitations being placed on research. So I ended up overstating, perhaps, the French specificity of the nineteenth-century “culture of necrophilia” because I happened to be writing my thesis within French Studies.
3:AM: One of the things you argue is that necrophilia has not been properly analysed before. So it’s been called transgressive and a perversion and so on, but there’s been a failure of analytic attention. You are interested primarily in its aesthetic incarnations, and write: “the desire for the dead other (as the iconic proof of the other’s death), [which] would appear a more primary perversion than the other perversions described in literature because it plays out an underlying wish to return to what one never was, to a state of non-being”. In this are you challenging the psychoanalytic orthodoxy that dismisses the usefulness of the death drive and is it something that, once analysed, sheds light on aspects of contemporary aesthetics, especially film and documentary, where necophilia may still be a prevailing presence?
LD: I wrote that sentence a very long time ago! I was a much closer adherent of (Freudian) psychoanalytic method then than I am now. You are right that I was trying to restore the death drive to theoretical prominence within psychoanalytic theory, by reading the efflorescence of the nineteenth-century necrophilic aesthetic as a cultural event that can only be understood by re-focusing on Freud’s meta-psychological model of the tension between Eros and Thanatos. My critical focus has shifted considerably since then, away from thinking about how perversions might work and what they might mean, and towards interrogating the epistemological and political conditions under which such questions are asked.
The death drive remains, however, a metaphorical model for something that I consider crucial. It thematizes that counterintuitive pull against the positive/ positivistic. I suppose what I gained from working on the death drive for three years has been imported directly into my later work on anti-social queer and what Halberstam calls “shadow feminism”. The concept of death drive in psychoanalysis and the antisocial turn in queer theory are two models of – or names for – resistance to normativity, particularly normative ideologies of productivity, production, and reproduction.
3:AM: Are you theorizing aspects of perversion in order to get us to think about the difficulties of ethical engagement with difference? And in so doing, is this itself then an ethical motivation, which would make you a postmodern moral philosopher of sorts?
LD: This is very nicely put. I like the idea of being a postmodern moral philosopher – or perhaps a perverse moral philosopher. I have taken a deliberate (ethical, political) strategic decision not to focus critical interrogation on the meaning of the perverse or exceptional subject, but rather on those normative and hegemonic discourses that constitute subjects of perversion and exceptionality. It is broadly a move from psychoanalytic excavation of meaning to Foucault- and feminist-inspired queer theoretical destabilization.
3:AM: Your book with Sue Harris on Catherine Deneuve’s stardom is called “From Perversion to Purity”. Can you say what makes Deneuve of interest from your philosophical perspective, and perhaps give some examples to illustrate how you are thinking about her stardom.
LD: The book is a co-edited collection, so it brings together a range of perspectives and theoretical positions that – inevitably – do not represent uniformly my thinking about film or stardom, or that of my co-editor, Sue Harris. Broadly, Sue and I wanted to exploit the single star study to build on Richard Dyer’s assertion that stars are glamorous sites onto which normative ideas about gender, class, beauty, ethnicity and sexuality are projected, and which may function in ways that are alternately conservative (in their reconciliation of ideological contradictions) and subversive (in their failure or refusal completely to suture over these contradictions).
We argue in our co-authored introduction that Deneuve is an especially intriguing figure with which to explore this idea, in that her image has been used to exemplify apparently incompatible stereotypes of femininity: virgin and whore; pervert and venerable grande dame, showing up both the limited and polarized roles available for women in patriarchy, and the illusory and fetishized nature of “woman” as a fantasy of a masculine cultural imaginary.
Sue addresses this idea head on in her single-authored chapter, which treats the mature Deneuve’s roles in patriotic French heritage films and her immortalization as the face of Marianne in 1985. She argues that the material rewards and cultural capital that accrued to Deneuve’s enshrinement as a national institution paradoxically freed her to accept more unconventional roles in subsequent years (as an ageing and ultimately suicidal lesbian in Techiné’s Les voleurs, 1996; as a dowdy mentor figure to Björk’s tragic character in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, 2000); these are roles that would progressively undermine and demolish that image of perfect, establishmentarian femininity.
My single-authored chapter in that book is exemplary of one of my favourite exercises in criticism: the placing into dialogue of artists and thinkers operating from very different ideological orientations in order to point up unsung resonances between apparently incompatible discourses, and thereby challenge critical commonplaces. I write about Deneuve’s role in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in which she plays a sexually “frigid” young woman who suffers from psychotic hallucinations. I argue that, via its deployment of cinematic point of view, and our identification at numerous crucial moments with Deneuve’s character’s perspective, the film offers a critique of the dubious benefits for heterosexual women of the so-called sexual revolution.
Deneuve’s character can certainly be read, in psychologically normative terms, as a mentally ill victim, but equally she can be interpreted resistantly as (in Deleuzian terms) a figure of schizoanalysis, casting light on the sickness of her society. In creating this ambivalent female figure, I argue that Polanski makes a point similar to that of anti-pornography, anti-heterosexuality feminist Sheila Jeffreys. I take a sort of malicious pleasure in finding in the work of a director whose biography is so problematic for feminism a (probably unintended) radical feminist agenda. Again, it’s a sort of perversion of the common-sense reading of a given body of work or thought in the interests of forcing ethical or political reflection.
3:AM: Queer in Europe, the book you edited with Robert Gillett applies postmodernist queer theory to the political idea of Europe. Queer is “the obstreperous offspring, nurtured in the Academy, of the marriage between Continental philosophy and Anglo-American direct action… the counter-discursive gesture par excellence.” For those new to it, could you briefly say what it is and then say more about why queer theory is so attractive? Is it because it posits a freedom from identity imposition?
LD: I’d rather say what queer theory does than try to define what it is, since part of the agenda of queer is to challenge the status of ontology. At its best, queer operates both politically and intellectually to jam the machinery of (hetero-)normative meaning-production. It emerged out of grassroots AIDS activism in the 1980s, transforming the slur “queer” into a badge of resistance (an example of Foucauldian reverse discourse in action). In its academic forms, it built on the work of such thinkers as Foucault and Derrida, particularly in their challenge to binary and categorical thinking about sexual and gendered identities, sexual practices, and forms of relationality. And it considered for the first time the intersections between sex/ gender on the one hand and race, class, and (dis)ability on the other(s). By incorporating intersectionality into the study of sexuality and power, it effected a change from identity-based gay and lesbian studies and women’s studies to queer and gender studies.
That said, as a feminist appalled by the rise of so-called post-feminism, with no sign of a post-patriarchy in sight, I mourn the loss of women’s studies and feel that there is room for this disciplinary praxis to survive alongside gender and queer studies. Fundamentally, resistant, non-normative politics needs to be strategic, and sometimes queer offers the most efficacious strategic response to a given threat or crisis. At other times, we might need to march, provisionally at least, under a banner or a label, as Judith Butler put it several years ago in her essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” (1991). Queer can, and should, work hand-in-hand with forms of identity-based dissent.
3:AM: The book offers a survey of how various queer theorists have analysed their particular part of Europe. Could you say something about the overall picture that you glean about the state of queer in Europe. Is it a positive picture, or are there worries?
LD: I think there is a danger here of slipping into a Western supremacist discourse, where we worry about rights abuses in less “progressive” countries, implicitly assuming the ethical/ political superiority of where “we” are from. Robert and I were very aware of this danger while co-editing Queer in Europe, and worked to avoid suggesting the notion that some European countries are more “advanced” than others. In fact, a key facet of queer is the destabilization of the grand narrative of progress. Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of queer time characterized by “temporal drag” and Lee Edelman’s call for resistance to “reproductive futurity” both thematize this queer deconstruction of the ideal of “progress”.
That said, certain trends and events in parts of Europe are, of course, politically worrying. The Russian ban on so-called “propaganda of homosexualism among minors” and the preponderance of homophobic violence in Serbia discussed in our book by Nick Givens and David Nixon do not spell a happy picture for international LGBTQ welfare. Meanwhile, here in the UK, the very recent display of overwhelming parliamentary support for gay marriage, while undeniably a triumph for liberal notions of equal rights, strikes me as heralding a distinctly un-queer moment. Queer is about being disobedient. It is not a complete surprise to me that a conservative government should promote that most conservative, conformist, and un-feminist of institutions, and extend its reach to ever more citizens. Queer probably appeals to me because I am abidingly and obsessively suspicious of the institutions of marriage, the family – and reproduction itself. (But that may be the subject for another interview altogether.)
3:AM: Do you have a new book? What is it about?
LD: I’ve spent much of the past 10 years thinking about, writing, and then waiting for publication of, a monograph on the construction of the figure of the murderer as a specific type of modern individual. I noticed that in all types of discourses – criminological, medical, journalistic, legal, artistic – from the 1800s to the present day, the murderer is (mis)understood as ontologically different from the ordinary, non-murdering subject. It is an excellent example of Foucault’s theorization about the effects of the modern “specification of individuals”.
I wanted to write a book that showed how the subjectification of the “the murderer” has changed little in over a hundred years, and to argue that this “exceptional figure” serves a conservative function in modern culture that bears closer interrogation than it has commonly received. My contention is that we focus attention on the extravagant personage of “the murderer” as a way of distracting attention from the more mundane, everyday instances of actual and symbolic violence and iniquity that characterize our culture. So, the mystification and demonization of killers of children, such as Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who committed crimes in the north of England in the 1960s, allow us to imagine that the threat to children lies with rare monsters rather than at the heart of the nuclear family. And the media furore over children and teenagers who kill, exemplified in the recent high school shootings in the USA, diverts attention from questions about the violence of the institution of childhood itself, which turns underage human beings into abjected non-subjects; the possessions of their parents. It comes out on the 1st March.
3:AM: Finally, for the perverse readership here at 3ammagazine, are there five books you could recommend (other than your own which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) to help us understand more about your world?
LD: Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (1970).
I’m increasingly returning to the foundational texts of feminism. This is a brilliant, not nearly sufficiently widely read, radical feminist tract. It targets the institutions of motherhood and the family, biological reproduction, and childhood as the cornerstones of patriarchy. Firestone died last year. I hope to start a new book project on her work and that of proto-queer feminist Monique Wittig shortly.
Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004).
This is a polemical analysis of the pernicious discourse of “reproductive futurism”. It is probably the bible of anti-social queer. In lots of ways, it is a postmodern, gay male-authored version of Firestone’s book. It does not acknowledge its debt to her, but it should.
Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003).
This stunning first-person novel leads us on a journey alongside the mother of a child who grows up to be a high-school killer. I wish I were a novelist, and this is the novel I wish I’d written.
Joanna Greenberg, I Never Promised you a Rose Garden (1964).
This is a beautiful, semi-auto-biographical account of the writer’s treatment with the pioneering psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and the ambivalent pain of relinquishing schizophrenia.
Malcolm Bowie, Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction (1988).
Malcolm supervised my DPhil thesis at Oxford in the 1990s. He was one of the most brilliant humanities scholars of his age, and an inspiration for my generation. In his gift for the written word, his commitment to fostering interdisciplinarity, and his intellectual passion, he remains unmatched. He died in 2007.
Lisa Downing would like to acknowledge the help of Libby Saxton, Sue Harris, and Robert Gillett in preparing and approving answers to the questions on co-authored and co-edited works.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 1st, 2013.