Twenty years ago I was a University student
fifteen years ago I was a Bachelor of Arts
ten years ago I was an art writer & friend of artists
two years ago I was a feminist…Now
I am absolutely nothing.1
Chances are you truly understand the chronological progression this straightforward piece of poetry takes to its ultimate conclusion. Its movement is almost insignificant. When Carla Lonzi walks in the room maybe time stands still from a dozen or so different points of view or maybe everything continues as though she were not even there. Here, in this picture, she looks light as a feather and solid as a bulwark against fate. The room she walks in dissolves into her. It is completely unfair that I am describing her in this way; I imagine this politically creative subjectivity that is Lonzi melting into that proverbial LSD trip effused over the 1970s like James Taylor marked for death, the technological maelstrom of sonic bliss sucking the cities away at last; ‘She liquidates professional positions, even political ones, because they are toxically compromising: anything that accumulates and shines, like an electric device, must be dismissed’.2
Anything that accumulates and shines for Lonzi must be dismissed because it is a distraction that subsumes a reality of the self under the categorical imperative to perform, to speak, to be known. In the international art world, Lonzi was a prominent art critic in Italy in the late 1960s, publishing a series of fourteen interviews with artists in a completely new format that diverged from the neat boundaries of a formal exchange, enabling instead a kind of radical personalisation, a technique of reflection and diffraction which would define the feminist autocoscienza (consciousness-raising) groups of the 1970s.
Resonance is an idea which was already structural to the very composition of Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) as technology…by creating a polyphonic effect…Resonance here is inscribed both in the magnetic technology of the tape, and in the way in which Lonzi’s cross-editing responds to certain semantic assonances among topics, words, sounds discussed with the artists.3
As the above passage indicates, stylistically, the way in which she represents artists though her writing is conflated with terms specific to music, to sound, to poetry, to words as they are spoken or reproduced as memories, references and cues bouncing off one another to create an overall resonant effect—or as Gertrude Stein has hypostasised, to a universal history that describes each one. As early as 1967 Lonzi was experimenting with the interpolation of subjectivities between artist and critic as ludic or organic. What is perhaps most interesting is how she was able to reconstitute almost the same attitudinal outlook or (non)artistic articulation of such male-dominated modern avant-gardists like Dada into theory driven enterprises like art criticism. More importantly, a certain artistic ethos intended to destroy art as work seemed almost repurposed into the idea of a revolutionary or radical kind of feminism.
It is not Lonzi’s title as art critic that is of interest here, however, but her rejection of it. No sooner had she begun in the 1960s than she had stopped in the 1960s.
It is fascinating to see how easily she abandons the positions of power she has attained through her writing.
It is the 1970s in Italy, and for feminism it is the time of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Leopoldina Fortunati and, in New York, Silvia Federici, all of whom were intellectual Marxist women part of the communist counterculture in Italy and prominent in the Autonomia movements and the Wages for Housework collectives. These collectives believed that housework and the raising of children are labours as integral to the success and failure of capitalism as factory work.
The ease with which she abandoned her theoretical privilege is puzzling when we consider the importance of her writing.
Lonzi arises as part of this context, forming Rivolta Femminile (Female Revolt) in 1970 with artist and friend Carla Accardi, while nonetheless consigning herself as a separate, independent entity whose relentless self-scrutiny became a form of defiance and withdrawal.
Lonzi in fact abandoned her profession as an art critic when she abandoned her illusion about the freedom of artists.
Before the nature of this renunciation is called into question it can be summed up in just four words: Let’s Spit on Hegel.
In Italy, July 1970 Rivolta Femminile was born with their first manifesto posted all over the walls of Rome. The manifesto declared ‘we spit on Hegel’, and soon after Carla Lonzi would publish her essay ‘Let’s Spit on Hegel’. What marks the heaviness and lightness of this invitation to spit on a significant philosopher of history?
An imagined conversation between Carla Lonzi and a student of history
To spit is to gather the saliva with the tongue and the mouth and to forcefully ejaculate it, is it not?
I prefer to think of it as taking aim with ones disgust.
It is a bodily act that is an expression of disgust?
It is a removal of something quite pure.
And in associating this act directly with the naming of Hegel, the philosopher of history, I assume it is no mistake that this expression is beyond language. It seems to contain a violent weight to its expression but also a lightness in its physicality. Is that how you see your radical feminism? An aggressively impulsive rejection of Hegel’s transcendental historicism? An absolutist display of will that has no need for diegesis?
What is named in the title of my essay is an instance of removal, a desire to get beyond a dialectic format, but its basis is language and not spit. I have no interest in evoking the problem of frameworks in order to highlight the impossibility of my kind of feminism. ‘Let’s Spit on Hegel’ is full of hope for the future of the woman subject. Its hope lies in the integrity of a refusal, a refusal which certainly has nothing to do with the ideological concept of equality with man.
This week’s topic in the Art History Honours class is feminism. After two students give their hour-long lecture on the subject, the professor discusses his own experiences with feminism. He remembers attending some kind of feminist convention as a student, and being stopped outside while the feminists discussed whether or not he would be allowed inside. After discussing Louise Bourgeois and a few other women artists and how they have been absorbed into the ‘institution’, he directs a question to the all-female art history class: ‘Is there such a thing as a feminist art, then? Has feminism failed?’ The all-female art history class is silent. I am also silent, I had not one word for him, I just remember cringing, on the inside.
We will abandon men to the depths of their solitude
A line among many that just hovers in Lonzi’s tract, nefariously, like an iron thump on her trestle table blaspheming against our oft-quoted philosophers who define the history of thought.
Philosophical questions do not amuse me, for I am a partisan of the wireless.
This idea of the impossibility of Lonzi’s proposed feminism is in fact very important—particularly as it defines the centre of any kind of radicalism. This impossibility is not a hindrance, of course, but a mode of life that is necessary to the project of feminism. In Shutup. Or Rather Speak: Diary of a Feminist (1978), the format of a diary, the locus of written self-reflection is given over to being feminist. But also the approach of shutting-up as speaking implies the ultimatum that woman must assume her own kind of transcendence, one not emulsified with the language man has used to criticise himself. Lonzi has said ‘Liberation for woman is not accepting the life man leads, because it is unlivable’. Carla Accardi eventually extricated herself because she believed her position as a professional artist was irreconcilable with the groups feminism.
The dream of being a militant, an intellectual, an accomplished person, a mother and a spouse as pathetic and dangerous needs to be the open secret that is told over and over again. Because without a radical change of perspective, women won’t truly have any other model for subjectivising themselves—no matter how rebellious and anti-conformist they are, no matter what their sexual preferences are.4
The group’s stance on art as work was very explicit—we were unequivocal on this point. A feminist cannot talk of feminism without making it real in her own life, this is the ground.
Often you are painted as someone who gave up or rejected certain things in your life, the big misnomer being art.
No I did not reject art. I was very much disillusioned by the world that had evacuated its existence.
You did not give up on art but you were adamant about its fullest existential element, and you conceived of this fullness of art as existing in the belly of a purely feminist movement. In your own words you said:
The future of the world is open: it lies in starting along the path from the beginning again with woman as a subject. The feminist movement is itself the means and end of any basic transformation of human kind. It needs no future, it makes no distinctions—bourgeoisies, proletariat, race, age, culture, clan or tribe. A new word is being put forward by an entirely new subject. It only has to be uttered to be heard. Acting becomes simple and elementary.5
Just a word and the word a movement.
Lonzi, in framing her rejection of Hegel introduced the notion of the unexpected subject: ‘We recognise within ourselves the capacity for effecting a complete transformation of life. Not being trapped within the master–slave dialectic, we become conscious of ourselves; we are the Unexpected Subject.’^6
The unexpected subject underlines her view that the existential element of woman lies beyond not only the prevarications of war and rationality—the way man has carried out his historical tasks—but even the proletariat–bourgeoisie divide. It recognises the extent to which the woman’s struggle is and is not the class struggle.
However, on the idea of ‘becoming conscious of ourselves’ there seems to me more of a tension that confounds the terms in which woman can perform all the subjective gestures that will enable her to conquer a surrounding space. It is something that the feminist-Marxist critic Frigga Haug has highlighted in her own experiences with consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s,7 and how to a certain extent the communication between women became a failure.
I watched a talk given by Jaleh Mansoor on YouTube. It’s called ‘The General Strike: Artist Talk on the Work of Santiago Sierra and Claire Fontaine’. In the discussion section she explains that Sierra is used in her address to pinpoint the inefficacy of making visible institutional inequalities, that the ‘making visible’ typical under the ‘rubric of social justice has done much to obscure the relation, the chain of mediation between work and its empirical reality’. The panel is discussing the notion of a silver lining being this impossibility of action. What is left is the necessity to withdraw, to subtract oneself.
…the special paradigm shift, if you can call it that, brought about by Claire Fontaine, is to see the readymade from the vantage of immiseration in which the readymade suggests less an easily recuperated vanguardist object, and more a hidden vanishing point that sets the terms for the general condition in which we now find ourselves: all of everyday life as a readymade…What Claire Fontaine does by locating the readymade is to explore the effects of subsumption on perception, on reception, on judgment and above all, on subjectivisation.8
Self-criticism must give way to imagination.
Hegel’s universal is inept. The feminine, as ‘the eternal irony of the community’, laughs at the aging thinker who is indifferent to any pleasure and only cares for the universal.9
…An impeccable looking man with a tuxedo jacket and striped pants enters carrying a headless dressmaker’s dummy. He feigns marriage, puts a bunch of artificial flowers at the dummy’s feet, sits down, turns his back to the audience and begins to speak.10
Where can the New Man be in all this?
We reject as absurd the Myth of the New Man.
We see her unspectacular,
her absolute refusal to indulge her own weaknesses.
Amanda Kouiroukidis is an independent researcher and writer based in Melbourne.