Tim Cleary - Tracery


2016, bronze






Timothy Cleary’s sculptures are a blend of proverb, elegy, accusation, joke, and self-portrait. He lives in Hermantown, MN, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

The Dehumanization of Creative Writing in Undergraduate Education


Recently, there has been a dramatic growth in creative writing programs in higher education. According to data from 2009-2015 Associated Writing Program (AWP) catalogues, the number of undergraduate creative writing programs in the United States has increased from 313 to 720, a growth rate of 130% in six years.

At this time of rapid growth, many institutions are reexamining their goals for creative writing instruction, and this article discusses the underlying tension between institutional desires to make the value of creative writing instruction transparent in a quantifiable, data driven way, and individual desires to help students make meaning and value that engages, as Robert Penn Warren wrote, “knowledge of human nature, human needs, human values” (“Knowledge and the Image of Man,” 191).

This tension can be seen on the AWP website itself. In “Our History and the Growth of Creative Writing Programs,” a statement directed to a more general audience than other subsections of the extensive website, AWP makes several assertions similar to those of Robert Penn Warren’s. For instance, they assert that “Writing classes often demonstrate the efficacy of the human will—that human experience can be shaped and directed for the good: aesthetically, socially, and politically.” They argue that in addition to the study of literature, “In creative writing classes, students also analyze psychology and motives, the dynamics of social classes and individual, regional, and national beliefs.” However, on that same website, in the new “AWP Recommendations on the Teaching of Creative Writing to Undergraduates,” a culmination of several years of research, the AWP Board of Trustees articulates a much more quantifiable approach to undergraduate creative writing instruction, and one that sharply diverges from graduate writing instruction. They argue that “Whereas the general goal for a graduate program in creative writing is to nurture and expedite the development of a literary artist, the goal for an undergraduate program is mainly to develop a well-rounded student in the liberal arts and humanities, a student who develops a general expertise in literature, in critical reading, and in persuasive writing.” The recommendations focus on critical analysis of literature, isolating and emulating “craft techniques,” and “practice in writing.” In the 2,849 word document, the word “human” is altogether absent, as is “social” and “political.”

While the glaring absence of humanism in AWP’s recommendations for teaching undergraduates is striking, it is also understandable. Creative writing as a discipline is still fighting to be taken seriously in the academy. By focusing on an articulation of the quantifiable and transferrable skills that creative writing can offer, AWP makes the case that creative writing is complimentary and relevant to all undergraduates regardless of their disciplines. This, in turn, is helpful for universities currently struggling to justify the worth of humanities-based courses. While “human” is not a part of AWP’s recommendations, the word “craft” is one of the most repeated key words, occurring nineteen times in the article.

This focus on craft echoes the current language in most academic institutions. Taking a cursory look at top-tier creative writing course descriptions for undergraduates shows that “craft” is the most often-repeated key word. For instance, the first learning goal for University of Michigan’s Introductory Creative Writing course is: “To hone writing craft, style, and mechanics in at least two of the following genres: fiction, poetry, and/or drama.” The first sentence of Stanford’s Introduction to Reading and Writing Poetry explains that students “will write and read widely, exploring various aspects of poetic craft, including imagery, metaphor, line, stanza, music, rhythm, diction, and tone.” While University of Iowa doesn’t include the word “craft” in their undergraduate course description, they emphasize the workshop practice they made famous through their graduate program, and they currently subtitle their graduate creative writing courses “Art and Craft.”

“Craft” is inarguably a vital word in the contemporary creative writing classroom, however, it is also a word whose meaning has been recently radically altered and diminished. Originally, craft was synonymous with both art and intellectual power. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first accounts of the word occur in the late 800’s:


c893 1. Strength, power, might, force

c888 2. Intellectual power; skill; art

Now, due to radical changes in how many undergraduates are studying creative writing, who is teaching these courses, and how the university is attempting to justify liberal arts education, strength and intellectual power is no longer addressed as a craft-based goal. University of Iowa’s course titles that all begin “Art and Craft” most succinctly articulate the split. Stanford chooses to define craft in terms of specific literary devices, and University of Michigan puts craft in the same partition as grammatical mechanics.

Some might argue that this changed definition of craft is not that important, that students are learning the same things under different names. This new naming, for instance, is what University of Iowa is highlighting in its course title “Art and Craft,” and the program recently boasted writing teachers like Marilynne Robinson, someone who is very vocal about the need for students to experience the university as preparation for “citizenship and democracy” rather than training students to be a “docile, most skilled, working class.” Some might think that students are still learning fundamental lessons about the ways in which literature participates in social and political practices, that they are still learning to be sharp-minded and critical about the systems they operate in, and that they are engaged in a process, as the AWP “History and Growth of Creative Writing Programs” statement asserts, that can “demonstrate the efficacy of the human will.”

In some particular cases, this is probably very true. However, the reality is that not only has the number of creative writing courses for undergraduates radically changed in recent years, there has also been a large shift in terms of who teaches these courses and how much power and resources these teachers have. During the 1970’s, adjuncts and lecturers made up 20% of the higher education teaching force. Just forty years later, that number has risen to over 50%  (Gwendolyn Glenn, “Rise in Adjunct Faculty in High Education”). Combined with the graduate students who also teach university courses, the chances of undergraduate students taking a course with a tenure track professor who has sustainable resources, considerably more time to write and connect with other writers and their ideas, and who benefits from institutional respect, is very slim. For instance, in Fall 2015, 100% of the sixteen sections of introductory creative writing courses at University of Michigan (English 223) were taught by either GSI’s or Lecturers, 100% of the twenty-six sections of University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Studio Workshop (CW 1800) were taught by either GSI’s or Lecturers, and 100% of the eight sections of Stanford’s Beginning Fiction Writing (English 90) and the Introduction to Reading and Writing Poetry (English 92) were taught by Lecturers. While graduate students and adjunct lecturers are often excellent teachers who often make impossible sounding workloads and resources possible, they have little to no input into the ways in which courses are structured, administrative goals are established, and the ways in which their teaching is evaluated. What generally results from this situation is a system of university administrators establishing a long list of quantifiable standards for these teachers to demonstrate in order to keep their semester-by-semester jobs. The more their performance is streamlined, quantifiable, and easy-to-track for already over-worked committees typically outside the creative writing discipline, the greater the chances are that these instructors will receive future employment.

In the introduction to A Poetry Handbook, one of the most renowned how-to-write-poetry books, Mary Oliver advocates teaching creative writing in this limitedly-defined craft-based way, and her argument takes an alarmingly essentialist position: “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made. This is true also of painters, sculptors, and musicians. Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person . . . Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must be learned. This book is about the things that can be learned. It is about matters of craft, primarily” (1). Chapter titles such as “Imitation,” “Sound,” “Line,” and “Form” make clear that, to Mary Oliver, craft is a set of literary devices that does not extend to explorations of identities or socio-political contexts. She writes, “Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work—these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as inspired, get there” (18). Ironically, the same moves that most creative writing institutions are making to reduce the meaning of craft solely to mechanics and literary devices in order to serve a greater population is also a move that neglects to give students opportunities to seriously engage with intellectual issues they were not “born” for.

Establishing opportunities for undergraduates to explore craft in a fuller way that includes rigorous attention to the line, a background in literary devices, and connects this learning to larger contexts about what they are writing about and why would help all undergraduate students understand the social value of literature, and it would give them a responsibility to their craft that goes beyond themselves. In this digital era where the most creative experience many students get is crafting their Instagram account, helping students connect their writing practices to issues that go beyond transferrable skill sets is vital. The organization Voices of Our Nation (VONA) is an excellent example of what can happen when craft is approached in this fuller way. VONA was established in 1999, and allows all writers of color—from beginning to advanced—the chance to work together in multiple genres. According to their mission statements, VONA has three goals, and the first one is about craft: “In VONA’s multi-genre workshops, developing writers of color explore their craft in an atmosphere of support and understanding.”

Some might ask why craft needs to be accompanied by “support and understanding”? What do we need to understand and support about metaphor or word choice? In the recent book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, Eric Bennett explores the ways in which Cold War politics affected the creative writing programs at University of Iowa and Stanford, noting that America’s fear of totalitarianism and quantified systems that emerged from World War II, affected the creation of these foundational MFA programs. Students in these programs were taught that writing and the study of literature was necessary and urgent work that explored questions about human values in order to create a better world. Certainly, this vision for literature was steeped in romanticism, but it was also attempting to question institutional agendas of professionalization and the deepening of the university interest in creating students with specialized knowledge bases. Bennett articulates that one of his primary missions of the book is to make clear that approaches to creative writing and literary conventions which “go without saying — assumptions that are invisible because seemingly timeless — once emerged from contingent historical circumstances” (162). During this current time of dramatic growth in creative writing programs there is an alarmingly consistent new institutional assumption that the undergraduate study of craft can be separated from the human and socio-political world the students occupy. This assumption allows universities to frame the discipline of creative writing as a set of saleable skill sets, which they believe will justify the discipline’s existence in a 21st century climate where, because of high costs and often unmet (and unrealistic) pre-professional aspirations, the purpose of higher education is often criticized. The problem is that this new packaging does not articulate any specific goals or skill sets that will help students question and engage with the current socio-political problems they are facing, and to engage with these problems in the complex, individual ways that the discipline of creative writing has been historically meant to foster.






Julie Babcock holds an MFA from Purdue University and a Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois-Chicago. She is the author of the poetry collection Autoplay (MG Press, 2014), and her fiction, poetry and reviews appear in The Rumpus, PANK Magazine, The Collagist, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Indiana Arts Commission and is a Lecturer at University of Michigan.

Test for Issue Two


Notes on Pedestrian Ethics: an Airport Grotesque

“You’re the same kinda bad as me!”
-Tom Waits, “Bad as Me”


If we drove our cars like we walked down a crowded street, we’d all be dead. Stop and think, no, wait, please don’t wait or stop and think, learn to think and move at the same time, like you do when you’re driving your car— which you spent more on (yes I said moron) than anything you will ever spend in your pitiable life. I live and love and work in New York City, the world’s worst transgressor of pedestrian ethics, save that poor old New York City has an excuse: New York City got killed a long time ago by cell phones. Now the madding throng is struck even dumber by staring straight down, at the empty palms of their sweaty, empty hands. Like I said, if we drove our cars like we walked down a crowded street, we’d all be dead. Or there would just be fewer people.


Especially Florida. And New Jersey. Which could be good.


You should see the shitheads stop smack dab in the midst of such the smallest egress. Pause and check the weather, check the sidewalk without stepping, check the fair and saddened moments that surround you until your ultimate demise you godforsaken fool because you’ve stopped in the middle of 12 people walking briskly to attend to something, anything, other than your glacial maneuvers. On a second by second basis, the secure estimate would range somewhere between 500-1000 people making stupid moves as walkers down the street. Note the wide expanse three feet from you where you might pause and eat your empanada. You’ve stopped me in my ever precious 35 seconds of silence in order to look up at the sky on a tread as thin as half of your immense and overwhelmingly oppressive frame.

Please pay better attention as you walk.


Just a few simple reminders as to the definition of our subject matter as adjective: lacking inspiration or excitement; dull. Also dull, boring, tedious, monotonous, uneventful, unremarkable, tiresome, wearisome, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting, uninvolving; MORE.


A MACHINE FOR DISAPPEARING might well be the way our sorry ass country might do some good. Give us a MACHINE FOR DISAPPEARING to 39 stand up chaps and truly lugubrious gals (chicks) and we would triple the world’s productivity simply by aiming the gun at undesirables. Spend 1/3 of the budget on missiles for Syria’s disappearing on this newfangled machine and we win as a race of humans, death to those seriously deserving by dint of being in the way.


And the clowns move forward with the snow men.


Now I am unable to go about my urgent business being dull or boring, because you just got in my way. Now I am unable to be tedious or monotonous because your ass just decided to stop in the middle of traffic for absolutely no reason whatsoever and most definitely not because your dog had stopped to take a shit in the middle of heavy foot-traffic. I am unable to remain uneventful, unremarkable, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting or uninvolving because you had to pause on a sidewalk and check your pockets (which were still empty once you stopped moving, by the by). Actually, I can’t get by because you stopped in the middle of the skinniest passageway in all of New York City.


Mongolian font to be sure. Retarded as China, retarded as America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, as dumb as America in America. Mongolian as my hillbilly tattoo, got from my vice-rid hometown downtown whence the passersby are truly scary now. My hometown is a Mongolian football on the flat, middle American Mongolian horizon. A football full of beer with a platter of cheese-stuffed sausage and several dips for several bowls of heavily salted snack chips, my hometown. Most of it is made in China. There are no pedestrians in my hometown, however, they are in their cars, going to get more dip.


Hey lady now would be a good time to tell your kid to stop making that noise.


We give the average traveler very long shrift. Afraid to ask our slow-witted companions to lower their volume in a public sphere, we assume every jackalope at the gate is a first time traveler. The average traveler is a pedestrian and evidence of the lowest common denominator of human behavior.


AIRPORT GROTESQUE— Girdles avail for your obese subjects. If you are fat enough to require the lifting of arm rests at your airplane seat, you need to purchase two seats. Airports as Leisure Zoos. Airports most definitely qualify as pedestrian examples of etiquette.


Manhattan at Xmas as idiocy pure and simple. New York City as exemplary of pedestrian idiocy. Note for instance the Fifth Avenue clog about two weeks before Xmas. About a dozen blocks stock still, stopped to a stock still stand still. If a poor terrorist sleeper cell could’ve only had five simple office windows they could have doubled the amount dead in September, 2001. The sudden idiocy dawns on a fairly normally well heeled and level headed 50 year old father of two and absolute panic sets in, as in attack. Attack! But the terrorists are as stupid as the tourists, they, too, are staring at their cell phones.

This city is duly ridiculous. Propped on droopy sea scaffold rank with mildew.


An immodest proposition to be sure. If the selected few might waltz with gun-shod, bullet-shy freedom, offing those deserving of the simplest, unspoken codes, like don’t take up more space than you deserve, fat-ass. Gimme a gun like my American obesity deserves. The guns wouldn’t kill, but remove, revoke, make utterly certain those folks who are not intelligent enough to walk down a simple city street on their own two feet without ruining someone’s day for their brain dead disrespect of every other human being’s right to personal space do not deserve to remain on this place rent free. The peeve is for people who take up more space than they deserve. They should be eliminated along with child molesters, rapists and murders. Their violations are as severe. Maybe we could tax them special. The stupidity tax. Or better to simply eliminate them. Enough money in the world already.

But yet any airport gate provides ample evidence of our global idiocy en masse as pitiable specie. Pitting African against American, injury attorney against artisanal bourbon cooper, plumber versus highwayman with 12 string axe from Asheville, North Carolina, wrongly rerouted due to wind shear in Chicago, to this, your tent, your middle western tin can of discontent. My money is on the plumber. Only his toils match the bluntness of his tools, the bluntness of his intellect, the severity of his abler anger, his jagged, angular angst.

The blue of his collar’s sky matched only by the wideness of berth afforded his brighter brethren.


Trauma here we come.

One way to solve the population problem: make every airplane flight a death match. Every stroll to the corner store also offers endless arrays of small choices on the huge haul of vacating a gasping mother’s poor outer crust of pestilence, endless cysts— the pustules that are her overpopulation.

Your neighbor, she gobbles another garlic, pork tube. Now her breath smells like the crease between her pubis and navel. Clammy as yesterday’s ham, pungent as the rot of corpses all around. Pull up a flotation device, folks, come join the pageant. Snacks for sale— they make you smell. Flutes for fruits and never a tasty steward.


One who gets wise by way of Schlitz and macaroni and cheese can easily grow accustomed to vintage Veuve Clicquot and crepes galettes. Why does it not work backwards? The stronger specimen, accustomed to shark’s fin soup, cannot, somehow, get used to a sardine tin. The weak link tortures the high priest with his incompetence. The strong sort tortures the weakling by way of the temper’s tribulations.


Nothing is quite as appalling as the choosy eater. A grey and white and yellow plate— well done mush, in essence, drives me to spasms in any public place. My patience blanches watching a young woman carefully pick every green pea from her tiny platter of mixed-diner-vegetable provisions. Once at a museum reception I watched a man take a tiny bite of a blueberry. Picky is icky. I wanted to smack the chopsticks out of her hands. I wanted to slap the fruit out of his fingers. You are eating in public, act as if you had some manners.


Stop quick in the fairly madding throng. The lights are lit! 900 Strollers stick on the blue grease paint of sidewalk stuck by December sixty degrees of melting per minute. Trust me, I’m your alderman. Trust me, I’m your library, trust me, I’m your artisanal newspaper. Trust me, I’m about to slaughter you with the freedom afforded a righteous USA fan, through stink of pink tape. So many truly stupid people stroll our freest streets. Much population could be struck. Stricken. Stroked. As the DADAist said 100 years ago, get rid of 99% of Germany and we would be OK— in America, eliminate 99.9% and dig!


Why does a dog yawn when nervous? Does the canine brain require extra oxygen to process anxiety? Then why does the human feel the need to stuff some food substance into his regurgitation route whenever a television isn’t nearby? Is it the same reason given for the human who cannot but fiddle incessantly with a piece of plastic wrapping when sitting in a crowded but otherwise quiet public place? I prefer dogs. But my therapy dog needs a therapy dog.


How can the public announcement voice in an Asian airport requesting the presence of a dozen American passengers at the desk of the departing gate never have spoken a word of English in her life? Is it somehow a pre-requisite that the entire universe be so inconsiderate? When one is American, one thinks it’s just Americans who are idiots until he crosses a border. Any border, any time. We are not alone.


Density bespeaks idiocy.


Any human activity requiring a ticket automatically shaves off half of the bearer’s intelligence quotient and thus makes them a pedestrian. PhD’s disappear into thin air. Watch a seasoned, well-traveled, well-dressed man board an airplane, for instance. Once he’s licked the sickening syrup of anticipation from his sweaty face and stuffs the nearest dead animal into his gaping maw, he’ll drift toward sleep and snore all the way to Detroit, Phoenix, Dallas, Anchorage— burping up dreams in his oily bliss.


My family just took a luxury cruise. I stayed home, thereby dubbing my next essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’m Not Even Going to Try. Imagine all the pedestrians on that boat! I’d rather not.


Excluding present company (I’m alone), one isn’t particularly concerned with education, lest he call the smallest human decency, the sparest courtesy and dignity, the basest etiquette or the simplest animal shame an education. Cross your enormous legs you fat, stupid fuck and tuck that pudding-stained sweatshirt into your thread-barest sweatpants. You’re in public now; you should have left your diaper at home.


There is something to be said for the human being who understands how to carry himself in the public world. To wit— when you are walking in a crowded, narrow passage, don’t stop stock still. Step aside, and turn your head and then your body around and away to look for or at whatever you’re looking for or at. If you are passing in heavy traffic, don’t slow down. Once again, if human beings were automobiles we’d all be dead. Then animals would reign again and murder would be crucial to survival. The world could eat its own annoyance.


The poor soul borne of a moron begets another moron. This is not advocacy for murder or cannibalism (mind you, the Lord knows we have enough to eat if simultaneously thrifty and generous)— but if horses are glue and frogs become ink, can’t we find a way to make idiots into bullets? Can’t we find a double-duty, fool-proof way to protect ourselves from ourselves?


It seems all Americans in the airport are military today. Nothing against them— they too need to feed their spawn with the dead by killing sanctioned from on high. They will grow fat as saints, healthy as second-string basketball billionaires. Someone strong needs to protect us from China when that grave, grey nation comes a- calling for payback.


No, really, we all revel in eyeballing your extra 60 pounds of belly fat as you take up five seats for a nap at the overcrowded airport gate. We understand your sleep is needy, both beauty and brain, we’re tired too, but it must be exhausting for you eating that many inhuman meals in a single day. Please, snore a little bit harder for us, we can’t hear you clearly enough, can’t smell your rancid breath on our ways to Los Angeles, Stockholm and Guam.


Women are more important than men. In Tokyo— no cows, no fruit, no dirt and the old cigarettes teach the new cigarettes about flowers. In Seoul traffic cops wear helmets for good reason. I’ve never been to Norway, but their sneeze is Snorri Sturluson. We are told it is America’s fault for the globe’s demise. Until we witness a Lithuanian king drive through his reckless, crooked night, or a Mexican president sink like a shit-sack, or watch the Chinese learn how to drive. The world devours itself like the ancient symbolic snake— spineless, unaware and unscrupulous.


Pity the unpardonable sot who can’t sit still for more than a minute with only his thoughts, the poor, tortured troglodyte who must fuss with the vacancy in his overhead compartment for fear of the shifting contents within. The unforgivable cluck with no peace in his naked soul, no parcel of understanding of the joy of indifference, unaware as we prepare for our initial descent… I am not an angry man. Brace for impact. We are all exactly the same. Everybody’s empire is empty.




Born and raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Scott Zieher has published four books of poetry, as well as numerous books and articles on poetry, art and vernacular photography. He is co-owner of Zieher Smith & Horton, a contemporary art gallery singled out by The New York Times’ Roberta Smith for “their abilities to find young or underexposed talent.” This essay, a screed toward less humanity, does not reflect his general attitude, serving instead the smaller purpose of aiding the author in identifying his fears. Zieher lives and works in New York City with his wife and two sons.

Big Business & The Siren


Sirens change shape over time and sometimes even enter into Laughter.

When a Siren turns 16, two of her guardians, empty-handed and formally attired,[i] are given the opportunity to enter the Talking Institute for 3 hours to attempt to Graduate her—which is to say, to bring her out.  These two guardians—always blood relatives—are known as Big Business.

Big Business enters The Talking Institute with nothing but their own wherewithal and need of withdrawal.  Their formal attire makes them seem otherworldly to the Siren they intend to Graduate.  Formally attired in this way, they certainly don’t look like Greenpeace Wet-Nurses.

Many women in Big Business are willing to take off their dresses so as to resemble (as far as possible) a Greenpeace Wet-Nurse.  Indeed, there is a school of thought in which the only reasonable candidates for Big Business are topless women—preferably topless young women.

Every Talking Institute has its gates.  These gates open for Greenpeace Wet-Nurses when a Siren is young, and for Big Business later on, if a Graduation Ceremony is attempted.  So long as a Graduation Ceremony goes on, the gates of the Talking Institute stand open.

A Siren no doubt learns where the gates are when she is an older Baby.  She may hang around the gates, awaiting the visit of her Greenpeace Wet-Nurse.

But then one day—the day of her enrollment—the gates are sealed.  If the gates were a wound in the wall, that wound has completely healed and there is no scar.  And so then there are no gates.  There is no way in or out for 8 years.  Virtuosity is thusly sown in the speech of every Graduate.

Suddenly the gates open again.  The Siren cannot have seen this coming.  The Siren was probably starting to question the reality of the gates—perhaps they were just a dream?

Will the Siren hear the gates opening?  They open with very little noise.  Will the Siren hear Big Business entering into the Talking Institute?  Who knows how loud Big Business in The Talking Institute is going to be.

Big Business are allowed to choose the time for the Graduation Ceremony.  They do not choose the day, but they choose the time.[ii]

Just before a Graduation Ceremony, Big Business are brought by Game Wardens to The Talking Institute—specificly, to the gates.  When the gates open—and stand open—and Big Business first look out into The Talking Institute, they have no idea what direction they are facing and no idea where the Siren is.

Big Business is made up of some combination of the following blood-relations of the Siren: parents, siblings, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings of mother, siblings of father.  If there are more than two volunteers, the identity of Big Business is decided by the Siren’s mother.[iii]

Big Business is always diverse, i.e. made up of more than one volunteer.  Big Business only ever develops if more than one Nameless Soul in the Siren’s family is really invested in her potential presence in Laughter.

By far the greatest challenge Big Business faces is moment-to-moment orientation in time-and-space.  They have no compass.  They have only the sky, the ground, and the forest to work with.  Miles and miles of forest, miles and miles of sky.

The gates of the Talking Institute stand open throughout the entire Graduation Ceremony;[iv] Big Business may leave The Talking Institute whenever they like, but once they leave, the gates are closed and the Ceremony is over.  Game Wardens subsequently usher Big Business back into the realm of Nameless Souls, back into their homes, back into their beds.

Because the gates of The Talking Institute stand open for the entirety of the Graduation Ceremony, it is possible for a Siren to leave on her own, in an exploratory capacity, in a desire for escape, or for any number of other good reasons—even for no reason at all.  She may even be able to leave without Big Business knowing it.  In any case, no matter the reason or lack of reason, a Siren who leaves the Talking Institute is forever thereafter its Graduate, and may never enter again its gates.  Game Wardens immediately subdue said Graduate and prepare her for Despair, if not Laughter (for which she is certainly bound, but for which one cannot prepare).

The subdued Siren, rising aloft in Despair, is transformed: she is now a Dreamer, and she is brought to Laughter, where she lives out the rest of her days.[v]

When Big Business have been instrumental in increasing the number of Dreamers in Laughter, they are said to have been “successful.”  As such, each is subsequently known in the realm of Nameless Souls as a Big Wheel. 

Consider the shift from Business to Wheel.  Business—the established multitude, the sharing of purpose in the midst of the merely necessary.  Business is inherently and essentially plural.  They are a plurality, in this case, of tentatively allied social workers, or con-men, or stalkers, or hunters, etc….  A Wheel, on the other hand, is inherently and essentially singular.  Not Wheels, which could be useful, a vehicle… but Wheel—just one.  The Wheel exists in the space of theory; the Wheel, moreover, is the invention that makes vehicles (Wheels) (purposeful movement between here and there) possible.[vi]  The singularity of Wheel does not blind one with regard to plurality; rather, it shifts the location and the nature of the plurality, moving it from the chaotic exterior (salesmen and their products in endless flux) to the orderly and measured interior.  Wheel thus contains rather than participates in plurality.  Wheel is closed (perfection)—its rim attesting—and at the same time Wheel is open—its spokes attesting.

A Big Wheel is really something—that’s the point.  For this reason—and perhaps as a gesture of thanks—a Big Wheel is paid 5 times the average annual salary for the rest of his life.  There is expectation (but no requirement) of a memoir.  If a Big Wheel does not write (or co-write, if need be) a memoir detailing his experience in the Talking Institute, a feeling of disappointment is likely to attach to him.  Suspicion may also grow.  As in: what is he trying to hide?  If his Business partner has written a memoir, everyone begins to suspect that this must be a false account, else why would his partner withhold his own publication.  When neither partner publishes an account of the Ceremony, criminal behavior is presumed to have taken place, and both of the partners are felt to be a threat to the community in which they reside.

Every Big Wheel has proven himself capable of inspiring trust—and transformation—in the languageless mind of a SirenThis is more than most Nameless Souls can say.  

The transformation of Big Business into 2 Big Wheels has to do really with 2 things.  First, a plurality has been reduced (increased?) to a totality.  The many has been reduced (increased?) to the one.  Second, Big Business goes on in a Talking Institute, while a Big Wheel rolls in the realm of Nameless Souls.

Big Wheel is a hell of a help to any job application.  What a luxury to be able to put it right there after a legal name.  For instance, Henry Helmut Erickson, Big Wheel.  It’s akin to Dr., or Esquire, or Sir.  It is perhaps as prestigious as all of those combined.

His twin brother is a Big Wheel, whispers one of the whisperers.  Her husband was a Big Wheel.  Being a Big Wheel is a real honor insofar as it cannot be fabricated, i.e. one has either been in a Talking Institute or one has not.  And then, one has either succeeded in performing a Graduation Ceremony, or one has not.

When Big Business simply doesn’t develop, the gates of the Talking Institute are simply never re-opened.  The Siren for whom no Ceremony materializes is known thereafter as a Myth.  The Talking Institute she inhabits is known thereafter as a Reservation. 

A Myth is a grammarless woman living alone in the woods.




[i] Males wear black tie tuxedos, females wear ball gowns.  Males and females alike are bare-footed in The Talking Institute—bare feet and The Talking Institute are to some degree the same thing.  Big Business comes in softly, it might be said.  The females have nothing in their hair, and the males have nothing in their pockets.  The females and the males wear no underwear.  The formality of Big Business is completely superficial, and often is stripped away and abandoned to the wilds of The Talking Institute.

[ii] Big Business sometimes opts to have the Ceremony in the middle of the night.  Under cover of darkness, they hope to slip in and surprise their feral kin.  The plan is not without its faults.  For instance, how do they make their way into The Talking Institute in complete darkness?  And how are they to know where the Siren is sleeping, let alone find that place in the dark?  Their keen sense of smell?  And whereas it may be true that a Siren and Big Business are hidden from one another, on the level of the eye, it is also true that a Siren’s feral hearing may be better than Nameless Souls’ hearing, maybe much better.  How sleep impacts upon this potentially better (feral) hearing is not known but it is certainly one of the few truly indispensable questions.

[iii] If her mother is deceased, or refuses to decide, her father becomes the decision-maker.  If her father is deceased, or refuses to decide, her maternal grandfather becomes the decision-maker.  If her maternal grandfather is deceased, or refuses to decide, her paternal grandmother becomes the decision-maker. If her paternal grandmother is deceased, or refuses to decide, her paternal grandfather becomes the decision-maker.  If her paternal grandfather is deceased, or refuses to decide, her maternal grandmother becomes the decision-maker.  If none of these is able or willing to decide, then the family must simply forfeit the opportunity to enter the Talking Institute.  Big Business, if it is to come into existence, must be made up of two blood-relative volunteers from the Siren’s Nameless Soul family.

[iv] This is not to say that The Talking Institute ever stands open to the realm of Nameless Souls; no, the area in which Talking Institutes exist is a secure area.  No one is going in except for Big Business, and no one is coming out except for Big Business and, hopefully, a Talking Institute Graduate.

[v] A Dreamer’s very special relationship to Agony is immediately established upon her arrival in Laughter (this relationship is discussed below).

[vi] The unicycle is a vehicle, of course, but for practical use it is absurdly arduous.  As such, it seems to make the point more than it refutes it.




Joe Wenderoth has written any number of books, most of which are thought of as poetry.  Audio of his (including the award-winning podcast: About Brett Favre) can be found on Internet Archive, and video of his on You-Tube.  He teaches in the Creative Writing graduate program at UC Davis.

The Spiritualization of the Working Class

Real wages of American workers have declined since the late 70s (while wealth has been concentrated in the Ruling Class) yet there is no real protest. Why? Logically, union membership should be rising in response, but in fact it’s dwindling. What’s the matter with America?

The answer is a unique phenomenon in world history: the “spiritualization” of the working class. The New Age, which appears to be a peripheral phenomenon, was in fact central to this transformation. I will date the dawning of the New Age to the publication of Be Here Now, the all-purpose guide to enlightenment published by Baba Ram Das – as he was then called – in 1971. Early New Age followers were fond of saying, “I am not my body,” and though this formula could be described as “dissociation” from a classical Freudian viewpoint, it became prophetic. Much of the working class today does not reside in their corporeal flesh. Simultaneous to Be Here Now was the rise of the “Jesus freaks,” who gave birth to the current evangelical Christian movement, which emphasizes personal salvation, religious ecstasy, and apocalyptic visions. The End of the World is probably the main theme of recent American movies. The shrinking paycheck must not be resisted; it’s one of the signs of Jesus’ imminent return.

Millions of Americans – mostly male – live their true existences within the prismatic world of video games. Others find “avatars” – spiritual identities – through role-playing games, Civil War reenactments, busy online communities. They are not their bodies; they are mystic warriors temporarily trapped in (usually overweight) fleshly vehicles. Though the USA has lost every war since World War II, individual Americans have vanquished trillions of aliens, terrorists, vampires, demons.

Simultaneous to the dematerialization of American workers was the easy access to credit cards – what I call “spiritual money.” One need not work to have riches; one can have them for free and pay in some utopian future. Also a renaissance of drugs, from “mood enhancers” to “muscle relaxers,” from Prozac to Xanax to ecstasy, allow Walmart clerks to escape the drudgery of material existence, while listening to their iPods, which transform daily life into an endless action movie. Throngs of radical workers once filled the streets on May Day, demanding a better world. Now every day is a festival on Facebook.

What happens when an entire nation is “not their body”? Does the country become “not its geography”? No one knows. One truth is certain: today’s world can be better understood through game theory than through political science. Social reformers can’t push people back into their physical flesh. No one can be forced to re-materialize. Radicals and thinkers must accept this new spiritual reality, and fly alongside it.




Sparrow lives in a doublewide trailer in the hamlet of Phoenicia, New York, with his wife Violet Snow. His book How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization is forthcoming from The Operating System Press. He is currently running for President of the United States. Sparrow@Sparrow14 on Twitter.

Ellis Island

Zack Rafuls - Ellis Island

2014, plaster, paint, faux-metal hardware, and cast rubber



I think of my practice as textual, an amalgam of image, word, and gesture to be read as relational components in poetic rhythm. Central for me is the notion of ‘tracing’, taking form as both the literal, formal process and as a metaphorical anchor. Through an eclectic range of materials and modes of making, sources including modern literature, cartoons, art history, literal refuse, poetry, and commercial/industrial spaces are ‘traced’, retooled as narrative props, inspired by the idea of dramatic or filmic ‘scene setting’. Tracing in this context is the balancing act between hand and appropriated sign; between presence and absence; a cycle of extraction, consumption and regurgitation.




Zack Rafuls was born in Miami, FL, and lives in Nashville, TN. He received his BFA from Watkins College of Art, Design, & Film in Nashville in 2015, and in Fall 2014 studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as participant in the AICAD Mobility Program. Currently, Rafuls is co­director/co­curator of The Packing Plant, an artist­-run project space in Nashville. He has shown in both solo and group exhibitions in Nashville, and has exhibited nationally in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. His work can be viewed at, and more info on The Packing Plant can be found at

Anyone Can Do Math Research

First, I want to demonstrate the surprising applicability of mathematics to the physical world. Second, I want to convince the reader that most anybody is capable of doing mathematical research. We will attempt to accomplish both goals with the aid of an extremely simple experiment requiring only three sticks (or three pieces of uncooked spaghetti, three wires, three bottles, etc.). Here is the problem:

Suppose we find a flat surface, lay our three sticks end to end in a straight line, and then measure the total length spanned by the three sticks to be 3 feet. Given only this information about the total measure of the 3 sticks, we want to find out everything we can about the lengths of each of the three individual sticks.

Let’s address the most obvious question first, mainly, “Why is this stick problem supposed to be interesting?” Well, exactly because it represents a type of question that humans have been tackling since the dawn of scientific thought. It is related to questions like: “This stone is a mixture of an equal number of three different types of atoms. The total mass of the stone is two kilograms. What does this tell me about the masses of the different types of atoms mixed in the stone?” or “Given the total energy of a burst of light, what can we say about the energies of each individual wavelength in the light burst?” Indeed, in the case of a question about the weight of a stone, we can translate the question into one about 3 sticks by considering the stone to be the collection of all 3 sticks laid end to end, and the three different types of atoms of the stone to be the three individual sticks. We may now simply translate all questions about the weight of the stone’s atoms into questions about the length of our 3 sticks by replacing “weight” with “length” everywhere in the question. Thus, we can see that any techniques we develop for telling us about individual sticks can be used to tell us about individual types of atoms in a stone. All we must do is (i) translate the question about types of atoms in a stone to be one about sticks laid end to end, (ii) find out what we can about the length of any individual sticks, and, finally, (iii) translate the answers about the length of individual sticks back into statements about the mass of individual types of atoms. Similarly, we could use methods for finding out about the lengths of our 3 sticks to find out about the energies of 3 individual wavelengths making up a light burst when given only a single collective energy measurement. Furthermore, there is nothing really special about the number “3” in this essay. There could be any number of sticks, types of atoms, or wavelengths, as the case may be, and the same ideas would still work. This is the beauty of mathematical abstraction!

Having decided that there is indeed a point to contemplating our simple 3-sticks problem, we are free to labor on without fear of wasted effort. More specifically, we are now free to consider the previously stated question: “What can we tell about the individual lengths of our 3 sticks given that their total combined length is 3 feet?” As we shall see, the answer is “Quite a bit, assuming that you ask about the right individual sticks.”

Let’s begin by asking how long the shortest of our three sticks can be. We can help answer this question by imagining an extreme situation. In the most extreme case the shortest stick will have length almost 0 while the other two sticks make up the entire collective 3 foot length of the three sticks laid end to end. Clearly, then, the shortest of the three sticks can be arbitrarily small!

Perhaps the most natural next question is “How long can the shortest stick be?” This question can again be answered with the help of an example situation. Certainly it is possible that all the sticks are 1 foot long. In this case any of the sticks could be considered the shortest, so clearly the shortest stick can be as long as 1 foot. That’s OK, but is it possible for the shortest stick to be more than one foot long? Well, if the shortest stick is longer than a foot, then both of the other two sticks also have to be longer than a foot. However, if all three sticks are longer than a foot then their total length when laid end to end in a straight line must be longer than three feet! This is impossible since the collective end-to-end length of the 3 sticks is three feet (and no longer). We are forced to the conclusion, then, that the shortest stick cannot be more than one foot long because, if it were, the total length of the three sticks laid end to end would have to be more than three feet.

What about the longest of the three sticks? How long can it be? Well, similar to above, we can imagine an extreme example where two of the three sticks are mere specks. In such a situation the third stick must by nearly three feet long on its own. Therefore, the longest stick can be arbitrarily close to three feet long. How short can the longest stick be? Well, here we can again use the extreme case where all sticks have the same length of 1 foot. When this happens any of the three sticks can be considered the longest. Hence, the longest stick can be as short as 1 foot. Any shorter, though, and the three sticks together would have to measure less than three feet when laid end to end. Therefore, the longest stick must be at least one foot long.

This last realization brings us to our first point: Having performed only a few thought experiments, we have to come to a concrete conclusion about the real world. Any time three sticks laid end to end in a straight line collectively measure 3 feet in length, at least one of three sticks (i.e., the longest) MUST be at least one foot long! There is no getting around it — I dare the reader to try to violate this mental discovery in their kitchen with three pieces of uncooked spaghetti. You will fail! Mathematics — and, more generally, Thinking — can tell us about “the real world”!

The second point is this: mathematics and science are largely conducted in a highly abstracted language which can be difficult to learn. However, much of the real thought behind what mathematicians and scientists do is no more complicated than what we have just been using in this essay to discuss our three sticks. If you can read and understand everything written here, you can — with enough hard work and study — be a competent and productive scientist!

Ash 2

Shane McAdams - Ash 2

2015, ballpoint pen and resin on Ash




My work is concerned with landscape in its broadest and deepest sense. It’s about the world that stretches endlessly before us, offering the possibility to accept it either as an expanse of raw uninterrupted reality, or to idealize, embellish, and edit it as we see fit.

I grew up in the desert Southwest, ringed by a horizon interrupted occasionally by sandstone outcroppings. As a child I was visually taken by this sculpted topography, amazed when my father told me that the layered strata of rock had been fashioned by years of water and wind. My first creative interventions into this environment were crude: I pulverized sandstone blocks with a hammer, dug into cliff faces to excavate minerals, and dredged sand with magnets for iron dust that I cured into patties of iron oxide inside my father’s tobacco tins.

The physical sense of land and material has continued to guide my work, both as a symbol of process and as a source of content. I remain interested in how the incremental effects of time can create something more structured and unique than I might ever make with my own hands. My recent work merges competing formal languages: those things that look like nature, those that symbolize nature, and those which are nature. The form in this work is often analogous to the methods of its creation. The structures in them take root in the physical properties inherent within specific, mundane materials such as Elmer’s glue, correction fluid, ballpoint pen ink and plastic resin, whose limits are stretched by subjecting them to non-traditional applications. These applications generate complexity that belies the simplicity of their creation, and in the process unearths fundamental questions about what is natural and what is artificial.




Shane McAdams is a writer, curator, artist, and professor splitting his time between studios in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and Brooklyn, New York. He is a three-time Creative Capital, Andy Warhol Writer’s Grant finalist, and his work has appeared regularly in the Brooklyn Rail since 2002. “Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide,” his series of writings about bi-coastal commuting appeared regularly in Bad at Sports, and was a source of inspiration for the exhibition High/Low/Middle at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. He is currently a contributor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a curatorial advisor at the Selma Sadoff Center for the Arts. His artwork has been exhibited at Allegra LaViola Gallery, Marlborough, Chelsea, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Storefront, Bushwick, Scream London, among others, and has been reviewed in Vogue Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer and The Village Voice. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Marian University. His latest work, Splayed Oak, was on view at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University before going to the Schneider.

Quandaries of the Female-Feminist Masochist: The Erotics of Authentic Submission

In her book Femininity and Domination, Sandra Bartky writes a hypothetical example of a female-feminist masochist called “The Story of P.” P is politically and personally devoted to feminist theory and action, but she finds that in erotic situations, she enjoys being in the submissive position. This poses a dilemma for P because she believes that as a feminist her preference ought to be for equality and reciprocity in all things. She further worries that her submissiveness could spill over into other aspects of her life. P must ask herself if her masochistic tendencies are really an instance of internalized misogyny. I bring resources together from phenomenology and psychology to lend insight to the dilemmas faced by the female-feminist masochist. I believe that her concerns are even more complex than Bartky has articulated. Nevertheless, there may be a manner in which the female-feminist masochist can integrate these apparently divergent aspects of herself.



The Perks of Slavery

            In Being and Nothingness, Sartre draws on the dynamic found in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to describe the manner in which he thinks every human encounter enacts a struggle for power.[1] Within this conception, this struggle amounts to the attempt to secure one’s own being as essential by dominating the other. At least in Sartre’s account, slavery is not literal or historical; it is the condition of being dependent upon the gaze of another free self-consciousness. This is what one of my students once called the “Does my ass look big in these jeans?” moment. It presumes that each individual desires full self-possession; and indicates that one is powerless over how one is perceived by others, which is, in fact, a large aspect of oneself.

Paradoxically, according to Hegel, the slave has greater opportunity for self-awareness which occurs by seeing oneself reflected in one’s work on the material of nature. In Sartre’s account, the master’s position is also the place that one struggles to acquire, but to remain in the role of the lord would make self-awareness impossible. An individual can only overcome solipsism through the external perspective provided by another. The subject realizes that she is not alone in the world through the very visceral and immediate experience of feeling the gaze of others upon herself. Adequate self-perception requires the integration of this external view, even though it brings along with it the accompanying disappointment that one’s self- perception is dependent on others. Sartre deems these attempts at enslavement mutual, “moving and reciprocal” (475). Thus, everyone gets a turn at being both subject and object.

Sartre and Hegel affirm that power conflicts are pervasive in human relationships, and that experiencing the position of slave is vital to self-awareness. However, we also find that there is no room in these accounts for authentic enjoyment of, or rational consenting to, vulnerability and powerlessness. I find this curious given its central importance to self-consciousness. However, it is the existentialists’ claim that it is in bad faith to surrender to one’s own object-status because this amounts to a denial of transcendence.

Sartre’s appraisal of the conflicted nature of human relations leads him to conclude that human relations are inherently sado-masochist. However, Sartre deems masochism an inevitable failure (493). The masochist ultimately fails to surrender because she is asking to be tied up or held down. In doing so, she asserts her own agency in spite of immediate appearances. Take the trope of the type-A male CEO who hires a dominatrix to humiliate him on the weekends. His submission, as he is paying for it, is really a further assertion of his power. He has the power to get someone to dominate him although they may find it boring or even humiliating. In playing the weekend submissive, he compartmentalizes the desire to let go and have someone else take control. Perhaps this very compartmentalization is what enables him to retain the strong sense of agency that he has in his daily life.

Could we not make a similar claim about P? Perhaps her sexual submission actually contributes to her sense of empowerment in the light of day. In attempting to make herself an object she reaffirms her subjectivity, because she makes an object of herself instead of being objectified by others. That is she takes the perspective of the perceiving subject. She enacts a mock-surrender, remaining, in Sartre’s terminology, a transcendent object. Her body reveals that which eludes the objectifying gaze—her self-consciousness—and consciousness “makes the meaning and the unity of the body” (502). We are attracted to the consciousness that inhabits and is implied by the arm, the leg, the breast, the tattoo, the hairstyle and so on. When the masochist feels the sting of the whip, her consciousness becomes focused on this location. The lover brings about this result through knowing her as a subject and that this is what she wants. Yet, even as the lover imagines the masochist’s pleasure, she remains out of grasp. Sartre says “…everything happens as if I wished to get hold of a man who runs away and leaves only his coat in my hands” (511). The female-feminist masochist could well have that same realization—in her attempt to surrender, she finds herself still escaping capture.

We might say that the female-feminist masochist’s mind remains her own even when she is in physical bondage. The key evidence for this would be in her desire to submit. However, the missing piece in this analysis is a critical look into the context within which some women desire to be submissive. Sartre does not consider the difference that one’s social location makes in the significance of these power-plays and the manner in which our desires are trained. The male CEO and female masochist will typically differ in this regard. It is not so simple to assert that a woman authentically desires to surrender in a society that continually encourages her to do so.



Is authentic female submission possible?

            In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes that love equals total devotion for the woman in love, that “love for the woman is a total abdication for the benefit of a master” (683). This is the result of women’s particular situation; placed continually in a position of dependence, “she chooses to want her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her to be the expression of her freedom” (684, emphasis added). Woman seeks to elevate her lowly position through worshipping and serving a god; she hopes to find salvation under his approving gaze. Thus her self-abnegation is an attempt to salvage a sense of self-worth in a situation that provides limited opportunities for self-affirmation. Referring to Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir defines masochism as “to cause myself to be fascinated by my objectivity-for-others” (690, emphasis added). Thus on her account, a woman can come to value herself by seeing herself through the gaze of a worthy superior.

Beauvoir asserts that masochism is the route taken by the “unsatisfied woman” (693) and it will fail to bring true relief. The masochist takes revenge on herself for failing her lover: “she does not choose to revolt against him as long as she loves him; she revolts against her self. If he loves her less than she desires, if she fails to interest him, to make him happy, to be sufficient to him, all her narcissicm turns to disgust, humiliation, and self-hatred that push her to self-punishment” (692). All of this is predicated on the belief, and in some cases the fact, that man holds woman’s destiny in his hands; only he can determine if she has value. Thus Beauvoir finds the submission of the masochistic-woman-in-love to be, at best, a meager expression of freedom within highly constraining circumstances.

Certainly women’s situations have changed since the first publication of The Second Sex. Nevertheless, a great deal has remained the same, and perhaps taken on additional pernicious forms. Sandra Bartky argues that “women undergo a special sort of fragmentation and loss of being as women” (34), that women are estranged from their sexuality because they are culturally construed as inferior objects rather than as subjects. She is aware that many women actively enjoy their object-status, internalize the gaze of others, and joyfully self-objectify. However, she writes that “repressive narcissistic satisfactions [the fulfillment of needs that are produced through manipulation and indoctrination, that benefit a social order that seeks to dominate the subject] stand in the way of the emergence of an authentic delight in the body” (42). Bartky suggests that “women would be better off if we learned when to refrain from the exercise of [the right to desire what and whom we please]” particularly with regard to masochistic fantasies, and that “we struggle to decolonize our sexuality by removing from our minds the internalized forms of oppression that make us easier to control” (51).

It is beyond doubt that all of our desires are heavily constrained and arise within a culture that is obsessed with power, that is male dominated and is, moreover, a rape culture—a culture in which rape is not only common, but one in which our media and gender expectations normalize and even encourage sexual violence. This is a real problem as we can see the impact of the domineering male gaze everywhere. Gail Dines, for example, convincingly argues that mainstream misogynistic pornography effectively transforms its viewer’s desires for the worse. Mainstream pornography narrows our popular notions of the erotic and the beautiful. As Dines explains in Pornland: Porn portrays itself as being harmless fun that remains in the realm of fantasy, but its damages are cumulative: creating feelings of sexual inadequacy, setting up impossible standards for both men and women, limiting “our imagination and ability to be sexually creative,” leaving little room gender variation, and sometimes becoming an addiction (87).

Mainstream pornography is especially nefarious not only because it perpetuates the values of sexist culture, but because it cements sexist ideology in a way that gives intense sexual pleasure. It conflates sexism with sexiness, giving one an erotic reward for embracing misogynistic ideals—the humiliation of and contempt for women. Dines writes: “By wrapping the violence in a sexual cloak, porn renders it invisible…” (ibid). Women are not exempt from experiencing sexual gratification via internalized sexism; this is one payoff for identifying with misogynist culture. If the female-feminist masochist enjoys rape fantasies or similar displays of male dominance we must admit that this is strongly motivated by her culture.

According to Marxist-feminist analysis, the female feminist submissive experiences an alienation of her “labor.” In this case her labor is her erotic “work,” and work is understood as where she might find the exteriorization of herself, her powers, and her uniquely human capabilities. In such a case, the product of a woman’s labor—her erotic life and desires—may not be a reflection of who she is. Bartky suggests that the female-feminist masochist alter or resist her desires. This analysis seems to imply that there is a more authentic self that one might encounter outside of the structural powers that bear upon us all and thus harbors the utopian dream of escaping our social and political context. Furthermore, I think her suggestion risks a further sense of self-fragmentation, because it asks her to change something in herself that is the result of forces beyond her control. I argue that any authentic sense of self must be found within the current context, with the acknowledgement that it cannot be overcome by the efforts of an individual in a struggle for self-formation.[2] Nevertheless, as I will argue in the next section, it may still be possible that this subject can undergo some amount of voluntary change and self-integration.


What would authentic erotic choice look like?

            In his essay “Is it a Choice?” (in The Journal of Social Philosophy) William Wilkerson is concerned with the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. He challenges the popular assumption that we are simply “born this way,” and contradicts the false dichotomy between the idea that our desires are either freely chosen, or determined. He argues that knowing one’s own desires requires an act of interpretation and interpretation entails choice. As Wilkerson writes:


…interpreting [our] desires requires that we take an inchoate group of ambiguous desires, place them together into a complex, and consider them as a unified whole, and further that we compare this whole to available social and sexual roles in society, link those desires with other experiences like fantasies, pleasures, and so on, and finally come to believe that it means something enduring and lasting about myself (100-101).


For example, if I identify as heterosexual, but I enjoy going dancing with my girlfriends, I can interpret this as simply an expression of friendship. However, if in the future I later identify myself as lesbian, then I may look at my past with a revisionist lens; that which had seemed to be the significant will now appear to be less central and vice versa. This example is an oversimplification. Wilkerson states that our feelings are “an ambiguous mess of uncertain and frightening feelings, mixed in with the other desires, social messages, homophobic worries, and so forth” (104). Nevertheless, it illustrates Wilkerson’s point that our sexual orientations are formed through a pattern of interpretations that are subject to change. Moreover, it is in determining which erotic experiences we take as noteworthy, and which we take as inconsequential, and above all that we have some amount of choice in determining the meaning of our desires. Obviously, these choices are heavily constrained and motivated by culture and other factors. Nevertheless, there still remains a sliver of freedom within the realm of desire that is not to be discounted.

Wilkerson’s argument can be extended to consider what agency the female-feminist masochist retains. According to this line of thinking, she might harness the power of interpretation in order to co-determine the significance of her desires. She might ask herself “what does it mean if I enjoy the submissive posture?” This is not to say that she can thrust whatever interpretation she prefers upon the phenomena. An authentic interpretation would require consideration of the milieu that encourages and names such desires. However, this consideration already loosens the grip of cultural determinism. Although our desires may be trained and cultivated by cultural forces, the full meaning of these desires need not be foreclosed. Moreover, to interpret is also a manner of change. For example, if P comes to understand her desires in the context of a misogynistic milieu, then they lose the force of a desire that is understood as natural. It is not that P can now wield control over all of her desires; it is that now her changed understanding of those desires means that they no longer manipulate her so easily. While she may experience pleasure at the same experiences, their power to dictate her actions can perhaps be lessened.

Hegel can provide some support for the importance of interpretation to self-creation. According to Hegel, the slave (not the master) realizes her independence and creativity through meaningful work. We might argue that the work of interpretation provides a similar outlet for agency. A large part of what makes patriarchal culture so sinister is the hegemonic nature of its ideology. In addition to influencing our thoughts, feelings, and actions, patriarchy also tells us what to think of them; patriarchy strives to dictate our meta-thoughts and feelings (the thoughts and feelings we have about our thoughts and feelings). In recognizing and claiming some amount of choice in how to interpret her desires, perhaps the feminist reclaims some aspects of her erotic agency.

The work of interpretation might be viewed as the recovery of the perspective of the subject in the face of one’s object-status. In an existentialist framework, this is the work that centrally determines who we are. Feminist-female masochism could be viewed as a project of self-recovery in a misogynistic world. I don’t mean to imply that this self-recovery is a complete self-possession; this is an impossible dream. The female-feminist masochist who interprets her own desires is no longer in the position of one-only-being-looked-at (always being the object). Rather, she is taking a speculative view of her role in the subject-object dichotomy. She is observing the dynamics of the gaze, including her own place within it. She inhabits a subjectivity that is always already objectified, but is not limited to that non-perspective. Feminine masochism, on this view, could sometimes be an attempt at self-empowerment, albeit an attempt that strongly risks (and perhaps also actively affirms) misogyny. It is a strategy that perhaps recognizes her position in the patriarchy, while opening a space for resistance.



The Search for Reciprocity and Self-Integration

Beauvoir writes that

Authentic love must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other; neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world. For each of them, love would be the revelation of self through the gift of self and the enrichment of the universe. (706)

According to Beauvoir, authentic love involves a shift in perspectives that allows one to recognize both self and other as independent. The masochistic dependence of Beauvoir’s woman in love excludes this type of reciprocity. However, I will suggest that the female feminist may find such a reciprocal recognition even via encounters that appear to be masochistic.

In “The Alchemy of Male Desire” (in Fire in the Stone), Scott Churchill writes that in male desire “an identification with the female (or the one in the female role) can occur in which this Other is fully invested with subjectivity—indeed, where the female body and receptive role are taken up vicariously… that beneath the veneer of male arrogance is (sometimes? often?) ” the fantasy of submission, an unconscious desire to be passive, feminine (180). In a study conducted by Churchill (a psychologist) one case included a man describing an experience of bondage in which his female partner asked to be blindfolded and have her hands tied above her head. He was skeptical of this suggestion as he had never been interested in doing this before. However, he found that as his partner expressed her pleasure he began to feel it as well. Although his role was explicitly domineering, his greatest attention was focused on imagining what the experience felt like for her from her perspective. Churchill reasons that in this case, it is not the thrill of power over another that is exhilarating because “the very fact that the [submissive] partner is provoked into obvious excitement within the circumstances of the domination/submission scenario is proof of his or her complicity” (190). More importantly, however, Churchill proposes that identification with the submissive role allows the apparently sadistic male to temporarily inhabit his culturally forbidden and disparaged feminine side. In this view, reciprocity in heterosexual sex has little to do with who is on top and who is on bottom. Churchill writes “Mutuality occurs when one experiences the “for-me” of the other’s desires, as well as the “for-the-other” of one’s own desire” (197). Churchill agrees with Sartre that flesh meeting flesh is a touching touched that incarnates both bodies, “a double reciprocal incarnation” (508).

In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, a psychologist and couples therapist, has a similar analysis. She rejects what she considers an unsexy American tendency to extend the principles of democracy to all realms. She argues that individuals often use their erotic life to play out aspects of themselves that go unexplored in the rest of life. In one case, a man who is passive in his daily life enjoys being dominant in erotic life. In another, a woman who holds a lot of power and responsibility in work and family life enjoys letting go and having her partner take charge in the bedroom. In each case, the erotic provides a safe outlet for exploring and integrating an unfulfilled aspect of themselves.

Perel writes: “A lot of women find their desire for sexual submission hard to accept. But stepping outside of ourselves is exactly what eroticism allows us to do. In eros, we trample on cultural restrictions; the prohibitions we so vigorously uphold in the light are often the ones we enjoy transgressing in the dark…In the broad expansiveness of our imagination we uncover the freedom that allows us to tolerate the confines of reality” (59). She argues that there is liberty in experimenting with transgressive sexuality. In playing with the erotic roles (particularly when they are quite different from those we take on in everyday life) we find the possibility of integrating fragmented aspects of ourselves. Perel’s claim might be taken even further to state that the female-feminist might be even more inclined toward sexual masochism than a gender-conforming female. A feminist might find herself exhausted by the daily struggles against patriarchy and the attempts to be treated as an equal. Being sexually submissive might be a way for her to let go of control in a manner that is refreshing and relaxing. According to this logic and given the taboo against heteronormativity in their circles, it could be that feminists, both male and female, will find it especially erotically transgressive to submit to normative gender roles in their sexual lives. It does seem to be the case that erotic play can be a safe context in which to toy with norms and expectations. When there is safety and explicit consent [“You submit only as much as you’re willing; you dominate only as far as you are allowed” (Perel 68)] erotic power plays can perhaps provide an ideal opportunity to experiment with the structures that weigh so heavily on us in our daily lives.



[1] Sartre is also, as has been strongly demonstrated by Margaret Simons in various works, drawing on Beauvoir’s novel, She Came to Stay. However, in this paper I will focus on the more explicitly thematized accounts of Hegel and Sartre.

[2] That is, structural problems can only be overcome through collective efforts aimed at institutional change.




Sarah LaChance Adams is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. Her previous book publications include Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering (co-edited with Caroline Lundquist, Fordham UP 2013) and Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence (Columbia UP 2014). She has published articles on Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Bataille, Sartre, Hegel, and care ethics. LaChance Adams works primarily in feminist philosophy, ethics, existential phenomenology, and 19th Century German philosophy.