Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Unmastered

[Katherine Angel. Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.]

This book is a meditation by an English academic on gender, power, and desire that I find intriguing in certain respects and troubling in others.

First, the good stuff. I like the topic, of course -- even if some of my own thinking-and-writing about things like the inherent sociality of our selves, and about sexuality, gender, and shame have receded a little to the background so that other areas of work might temporarily take priority, it is still a focus of ongoing interest for me. I am also very interested in thinking about different approaches to write our way from our own experience to broader insights about the world, and this book does that in a bit of a different way than a lot of writing by academics. It is more deliberately literary in its writing, for one thing, and it seems more interested in evoking the texture of certain specific circumstances such that problems of power and agency are made visible, rather than presenting a linear narrative or argument (though the author clearly has a perspective on it all as well). The book is a quickly-read series of vignettes, anecdotes, passages of memoir, fragments of analysis, and disjointed sentences. In taking this approach, it manages to richly draw out moments of the complexity of how power, gender, and desire have operated in her life, but do so in a way that also manages to cast light on such questions far beyond the single life being used as archive. And I think it works reasonably well, within the limits of its scope. And given that, I want to hold it in mind as I continue to ponder how I might wish to go about tackling a particular writing project of my own that would be quite different from this but that might benefit from it in terms of decisions about craft.

Another element that deserves admiration, both in this specific book and in memoir or memoir-based theory more generally, is a willingness to speak about things that are for many of us often shrouded in silence. At the most general level, this is about being brave enough to put self on the page in a reasonably open way. But I also mean it in a more specific sense. I particularly appreciate this book's deliberate work to make messiness visible and to keep from erasing the potentially shameful and contradictory elements of our desires, choices, and practices. Even granting that some level of self-editing -- some amount of pruning of the unruliness of self and life -- is inevitable even when a piece of writing performs the contrary, I particularly appreciate the work that she has done to hold open at least some of the contradictions of those moments to allow all of us to explore what they mean. Even at the level of journals that no-one else will ever read, even at the level of my own internal unwritten narrative of my experience, I often cannot stop myself from collapsing those contradictions in self-deceptive and ultimately unhelpful ways, let alone when I'm writing for public consumption. It is this book's holding on to messiness that makes it possible for it to reveal things (in the context, of course, of the showing rather than telling approach it takes to theory) about questions like, What does it mean for a desire to be the property of an individual? What does it mean to think of desire as socially produced? What does it mean if we don't want to want what we want, and really we want to want something else -- but oh my goodness we really, really do want it anyway?

For all that the book is clever and skilfully written, I'm not sure it is as substantive -- not as filling, not as satiating -- as it could have been. I mean, I appreciate that the breaks, the divisions, the blank spaces, were crucial to what it's doing, but they also mean that it ends up saying much less than it might have. I think I would have appreciated a bit of a different balance, with the text presented in a less aesthetically pleasing way but with more of it packed in. As well, the last chunk of the book -- perhaps the last third or so? -- felt different and a bit less effective. There seemed to be a bit more attention given to producing a book with a shape that might satisfy readers hoping for a clearer narrative arc, and a bit less attention to capturing the experience of power-laden moments. Even with these comments on the writing, though, I have plenty of respect for the writer's skills.

My biggest concern with the book is more of a political concern, and a depressingly common one at that. For all its rich evocation of power in the moment, it did almost nothing to challenge the tendency that it is so easy to fall into when we write from life experience, of theorizing only from where we feel friction in our journey through the social world and not where we experience ease. Figuring out how to push against this in a way that is effective and engaging is one of my key motivations for reading books like this, but in this respect at least the book was more of a warning than a source of strategies. In this book, the straight, cis, able-bodied, white, professional woman writes such that the only element of the social world that is consistently and thoroughly treated as relevant to how power and her desires are intertwined seems to be gender. Whiteness, middle-classness, able-bodiedness, even straightness are largely left unremarked, as if they don't have much to do with the shape and experience of her desires and how she navigates them. And I know this is incredibly common, I know that there are fundamental epistemological differences in how aspects of life in which we are privileged impinge on our experience as opposed to aspects of life in which we are oppressed, so I don't mean to single out this author. But there does feel like there is something particularly egregious about it when the focus of a privileged author writing about their life is desire -- theorizing how power works in the context of the orgasms of the privileged in a way that refuses to engage with the aspects of social relations that might tie that to how power works in the context of the oppressions and struggles and dreams and desires of the rest of the planet, and that would thereby show itself as part of a larger vision for liberation, is a problem, no matter how clever or well written.

So I'm glad I read it, and I certainly learned from it, but there are certain key ways that it was just not helpful in my journey to figure out how to write what I want to write.

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