The Power of Language.

My computer is running very slow this morning so rather than fire up my thesis document and feel frustrated at the pinwheel of doom that keeps appearing I thought I would ramble here. This is a free-writing exercise so may not make sense by the end …

Part of my research involves the decoding of culturally loaded language. For example when someone uses the word ‘spinster’ what ‘extra’ meaning does that word convey? The OED lists spinster as

a. Appended to names of women, originally in order to denote their occupation, but subsequently (from the 17th century) as the proper legal designation of one still unmarried.

b. A woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid.

But if you describe someone as a ‘spinster’ today what images would that conjure up? It’s a very dated expression now, and one that you rarely hear in common usage and it is usually applied with regard to women who are elderly and unmarried.  But as recently as the 1950s magazines such as marvel were still using the term as a threat:ImageAs such it evokes nostalgia and images of pejorative female stereotypes; prudish, stuffy, old-fashioned. If one looks for synonyms for ‘spinster’ the tell-tale nature of them denote it as a negative label, one that diminishes rather than enhances a woman’s reputation;

None of the above inspire positive images. The spinster is also behind the mythologised/pathologised woman; the sinister crone, witch, hag, valkyrie, siren, all of which are deemed to be in league with the devil in order to undermine male potency with sorcery and trickery.

Whilst the spinster, as a label, is no longer common currency,  it was very much in use in 1911 and it was the task of journalists such as Dora Marsden and Rebecca West to generate debate about the destructive nature of such a label.  Through wit and parody, the writers of The Freewoman revealed the Nietzschean philosophy of ‘what Labels me, negates me’; for to be labelled as a spinster in 1911 meant you were viewed as an economic drain on society, a burden to your close family and undesirable and worthless. On the other hand you were viewed as naive, unworldly, unintelligent and prudish – you couldn’t win.

So why is it relevant to modern day life to be discussing such old-fashioned language? It would be reasonable to say that times have changed, things have moved on and terminology that was meaningful to those in 1911 no longer applies to us in the modern day. And in some ways this is true of us in the West but this culture of the unmarried women being of no economic value is still relevant to those in the far east. Especially when you witness the atrocities imposed upon China’s unwanted baby girls … These children are cast aside because they are considered culturally, politically and economically of less value than male children. The following videos are distressing and I should warn you, are not easy to watch.

The Dying Rooms 1

The Dying Rooms 2

The Dying Rooms 3 (unavailable because of copyright issues)

The Dying Rooms 4

It may seem a huge leap from spinster to the Dying Rooms but it is the fear of what these girl children will become – effectively the fear of them growing into unmarried burdens on their parents – that prompt ordinarily loving parents to dump them in orphanages and try for a son. For the Chinese, the Spinster is a modern day spectre that continues to haunt them.

Language plays an important role in how we view the world. To call another woman by a pejorative label, endorses a society that thinks less of its women than it does its men. To judge a woman on the basis of her sexual activity is just a stone’s throw away from calling a woman a spinster in 1911 – it’s using a different motif but its intention is the same; to keep women in their place. If you think this is just nonsense that men have it just as hard, then come up with a pejoration for a man, that is unique to men, that cannot be applied to a woman and that diminishes that man in the eyes of men and women alike. It’s harder than you think isn’t it? There is no male equivalent to ‘whore’, ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘shrew’ or even ‘bitch.’ Words like bastard and cunt are applied to both sexes without distinction and really don’t convey the same capacity to diminish as those thrown at women … it’s something worth thinking about.

Whilst we in the West enjoy a high level of equality, I would argue that it remains precarious and we should be vigilant. Our rights are precious and as such should be protected, because they were hard-won to begin with.


When is a feminist not a feminist?

I am always surprised by women who describe themselves as ‘not a feminist’ … because to me if you are a woman, how can you not be feminist? I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist, if I am truthful. It isn’t like a religion where a conversion or awakening was needed for the transition to take place. I was just raised to believe in the equality of women.

Notice I used the word equality there … not supremacy! Feminism isn’t about proving women are better than men — it’s about expecting to be viewed, socially, politically and economically, as equal to men. On the same level playing field. It’s about not being treated like a second-rate citizen or accepting a subordinate status.

It’s also not about blaming men for everything or putting men down. Any feminist who does that is as misogynist as any woman-hating man. Patriarchy is a word bandied about by many women as the root of all evil, but let us not forget that as many women as men supported patriarchy. It takes two to tango as the saying goes. Women have historically also been culpable of oppressing women. It isn’t about addressing a sex imbalance as a societal one.

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is something that both men and women participate in. – Ashley Judd


I found a great quote for a friend of mine who claims not to be political or a feminist (she is actually both) which said

A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men – Gloria Steinem

And for me that is one of the best definitions I have come across. It’s true that the label “feminist”has become pejorative for modern women who cannot identify with the militant, perceived as predominantly gay, feminist movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Many modern men, though, have little trouble in accepting the label, and will happily call themselves ‘feminist’ …

So why are modern women so sure that feminism is not something that should concern or worry them or that they cannot identify with? Should we be trying to rehabilitate the ‘label’ or are we working towards an era where labels seek to exist. As Soren Kierkegaard once wrote:

‘Once you label me, you negate me.’

As a scholar in feminism and gender studies I can see the damage that some schools of thought have done, building barriers instead of breaking them down. Feminism should be something that is accessible and that women of all sexualities, ethnicities, cultures and political persuasions can identify with. Yes, a lot of damage has been done, though arguably it was necessary for women today to be enjoying the rights that they do … so has our comfortable status (achieved by the previous actions of other women) made us, as women, apathetic to what are forebears suffered, that we may enjoy equality? (Though that equality is still often arbitrarily bestowed and not world wide – there is still plenty to be fought for, other wise there would be no need for demonstrations such as One Billion Rising.) Can it be argued that feminism has achieved so much that the fear of what previous generations suffered has receded into the annals of the past, and no longer motivates their children?

Is feminism a 21st century issue or a thing of the past? Is it time to redefine ourselves as humanists? Individuals? To forget the sex-divide? I fear that even though progress has been made, the attitude of a society that can still call its females things like ‘slut’ still needs to be changed. A society where a woman is still judged by her sexual history is still prejudicial. A society where the heterosexual norms are still given higher social status than the non-heterosexual needs to change … Any society that imposes judgements on the way a women dresses, and punishes them for non-compliance needs to reassess their priorities.  Whether that be in court after being assaulted or in the street for not abiding by an imposed religious or political dress code.


But what we forget is we ARE society. It’s not anyone else. It is each individual that makes a difference. The personal is the political and together, we can affect change. For the better. And maybe there is still a real need for people to be proud to call themselves feminist. I know I am. But even if you eschew labels … be the best person you can be, uphold the values that you value and fight, when necessary, to make the world a better place, regardless of what sex you are or what labels you hang on your sleeve.

And, just incase you were wondering,  THIS is what a feminist looks like … I hope you all have a feminist sort of a day!

Getting Crafty With it …

I had forgotten the therapeutic nature of crafting – so set aside a day this weekend to have a wee fiddle.

A friend of mine kindly loaned me her rather extensive stash of craft materials, departing with a wink and a parting comment of ‘I don’t mind what you do as long as you make me something!’ 


So I set to and made her a card … then I made another card for someone I know who was having a bit of a rough time of it, and thought – hey this is procrastination taken to a fine arty level FUN!

The project I was working on at the weekend needs refining and I doubt I am going to be making my fortune out of selling them to  gullible foo other folks, but I did find the process of creating something physical with my hands a great way of relaxing my mind and emptying it of all the circulating ideas that get so confused and tangled.


The problem with any such displacement activity is that you just want to to do more and more of it, especially as it brings with it a kind of zoning out peaceful trance like quality that is hard to attain when engaged in academic work! 


So what to do? Well perhaps treat myself to craft sessions every time I reach certain goals, like a glorified grown-up star chart! Whilst I can see to the outsider this seems like a ridiculous state of affairs, I will do what I need to do to psychologically get myself through this damn process, and if that includes treating myself like a reluctant toddler in order to get myself to do anything productive, so damn well be it! 


Who knows it might work!

The Textual Condition

Reviewing extant paradigms of textual interpretation can open some pretty interesting doors to theories that might otherwise have passed me by.

Discovering Jerome J. McGann has certainly helped me formulate a more cohesive argument regarding the interconnectivity of certain modernist Little Magazines.Image


This is because his work is not based on the hermeneutics of reading and interpretation but rather on writing and production. His ideas on how every text enters into a socio-historical context allows anyone working in literature to take a fresh look at old interpretation in a more materialist way. 


For McGann textuality is a matter of inscription and articulation, which is one of the basic arguments of my thesis and now I have a theorist which I can turn to for the kind of academic support that my argument was lacking. It is a wee bit of a breakthrough. I knew my ideas were sound, however it’s good to know that there is a respected academic out there who has given a label to the ideas circulating in my head, and a vocabulary with which to explain it. 


This will make writing the introduction a little easier in the long term and will help fill out the section I have in draft form on the importance of periodic coding! Hurrah for small break throughs!



This deserves a trip to Aberfeldy and the Watermill book shop … 😀 



Rationalising Your Social Media …

Doesn’t have to mean rationalising your friends!

Why does it feel like social suicide when you unplug from various social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter?

A couple of weeks ago it dawned on me just how unproductive my participation in Facebook  was. I was wasting far too many hours looking at a site which, in effect, rarely offers any new material and presents the illusion of being in touch with many ‘friends,’ when in fact it has the adverse effect of completely disconnecting you from reality.

No wonder so many firms have banned the site from their work computers – it is one big time drain. But how do you disconnect from it and retain some semblance of communication with all those lovely people who have you on their friends’ list?

Well here’s the truth – most of them are not your “friends” – the majority will be acquaintances – this is pure statistics. It is impossible to try to build and retain any kind of meaningful relationship with over 400+ individuals. If you were to even try, your entire day would be spent in merely saying hello to each and everyone – it’s a false sense of community that Facebook promotes to encourage the dissemination of advertised products.


I know I am not writing anything new here – we all know this already yet we still buy into it. You like something and everyone on your friends list is notified, and many of them will like it too, and the “likes” grow exponentially and so the whole thing is perpetuated ad infinitum!

It’s also not the first time I’ve taken this step – but  old habits die hard and it’s a slippery slope!

Why do you think the calls for a Don’t Like button are ignored – I mean no advertiser wants that option to be available do they? Who wants a “dislikes” viral circulating ad infinitum ?


Don’t be fooled – Facebook isn’t there to make you feel warm and cosy – it is there to sell you things you neither knew you wanted nor need! It can make you feel insecure and unhappy, by targeting its Ads based on what you update your status with or what you ‘like.’ If you don’t want to be bombarded with ads promising you the loss of 5 kgs of belly fat don’t like the Special K page.


Facebook, whatever the intentions behind its inception, has become a monolithic drain on our social interactions. I have imposed an electronics ban in our living room, because I had noticed that a complete lack of communication had developed as each individual sat scrolling and browsing and commenting and liking and posting … when there were real, breathing, living people, right there, next to them, with whom to actually talk! I know teens are anti-social but this has taken it to a  whole new level!


Now I have only two social media sites that I participate in – this one and my photo journal on Blipfoto. They’ve survived the rationalisation because I can control the amount of time spent on them far more easily and they can be useful for getting things off my chest or exploring pressing ontological  questions.

However, at first I felt adrift. I knew all my friends would be passing their days in idle banter, sharing things that made them laugh and having a great time.  But it’s amazing how quickly my day has adjusted to no Facebook, and my friends have too. Those who are clearly real friends have found other ways to communicate with me and I feel that relationships are strengthening as a result – we are actually talking to each other again. This is far more meaningful to me as a human being than any amount of likes on a status update!

I don’t blame Facebook or the internet for this development – it is how we use these things that makes the difference. I was recently sent a link to a fascinating panel on this very topic run by the Milken Institute – you may have to watch it in bursts, as it runs for over an hour, but it contains much food for thought on how the internet is affecting the way we think and live.

My advice for the day – unplug – even if it’s just for a few hours! You’ll notice the difference.

One for the Modernist scholars out there … interesting scope to this conference!

British Association for Modernist Studies

‘We Speak a Different Tongue’: Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890-1939


St John’s College, Durham University

“Maverick Voices and Modernity” is an international conference whose aim is to explore and reflect upon the wide range of writers that were caught up in the Modernist moment, but traditionally fall outside of what has been thought of as literary Modernism. Our event registers those individual voices that offer alternative visions and counter-responses to mainstream Modernism and often still remain in productive dialogue and tension with key aspects of established Modernism.

Deadline for abstracts: 1st March 2013.

Plenary speakers: Professor Chris Baldick (Goldsmiths College, University of London) and Professor Michael O’Neill (Durham University).

Call for Papers

With a focus on the fiction, poetry, and drama of the period 1890-1939, “Maverick Voices” registers the diversity of innovation beyond the traditionally defined boundaries of literary Modernism. Famously in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924)…

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