Review of Fast Feminism
by Shannon Bell 2010; Autonomedia
Jill Morris, Frostburg State University
(Published: March 28, 2012)
The female phallus is not only exposed by a “turn of the speculum,” as it were, in Shannon Bell’s Fast Feminism, it is exemplified, hyper-masculinized and re-designated from Butler’s transferred phallus to not only an interior feminine anatomical and ejaculating fact, but to an entire philosophy of “fast-ness.” Bell develops Fast Feminism partially from the work of Paul Virilio, using dromology as a way to link hyper-masculinity with radical feminism. She continually links feminism with the extreme other—looking to the far opposite as a way to realign feminism anew. In this feminism that which is there first is that with power; thus Bell goes to many places first where other feminists might fear to tread. Bell characterizes herself as a post-pornographer. She does not tell us how to code women, she asks us to destabilize and change the way that we look at everyone (11). And so, upon reading Fast Feminism, one finds him or herself faced with feminism being used to defend the child pornographer, feminism used to mate with a robot device, feminism used to re-explore itself. Which is, of course, to say that the book is not for everyone. However, Bell performs the book outside of audience and script and it has, at last, found a long awaited publisher.
Bell finds feminism to be somewhat stagnant, and writes that it needs new “infusions” of philosophy from sources that are non-obvious and preferably unfeminist. For this work she chooses a site that she considers the most non-obvious of them all—the hypermasculinist work of Paul Virilio (12). Virilio theorizes that power is about being first and fastest—so Bell looks to take feminism places that neither feminist nor hypermasculinist have been before. Today’s feminism is, to Bell, much like the fortified city that Virilio notes has all but disappeared. Like the fortified city, Bell seems to suggest that this feminism too must disappear and we must instead take our feminism and make it transportable, moveable, and quickly into places it has never been before.
In an interview with Kim Sawchuck, Bell notes that she believes the Fast Feminist (FF) is an accident of Virilio’s speed theory: “For Virilio, the accident, although an unintended and disturbing consequence, is inherent in, and created by the very technology or system it comes out of” (para. 5). From within Virilio’s theory she sees FF as emergent when a feminist “critiques the world quickly and breaks intellectual scholarship” (para. 5), when she saves one man and saves the world, and when she makes her own theories take the body as the basis of the work—as Virilio does. The book moves quickly, as she promises, from topic to topic. She also saves for feminist critique that which we would not normally save within feminism—including a child pornographer.
She also claims influence from Stelarc, Levinas, Foucault, and Bataille—but performance artist Stellarc is, perhaps, the most influential of all of these. Virilio himself identified Stellarc as the “global prophet of posthumanism” (13) as he continuously allows his body to be a “host” for virtual entities like cyber computers. The Fast Feminist (Bell often refers to herself as FF throughout the text), copulates with computers, statues, and various other phalluses through the text, thus making those part of her body as well. Both FF and Stellarc are discontinuous cyborgs in the Haraway-ian sense, interested in interrupting and disturbing the normal order of existing with objects and bodies. They ground their philosophy in physiology—our interaction with ourselves and the world come to the forefront, especially in a sexual sense, through FF’s explorations in the text.
Although she claims these influences, I am left feeling that this book and the actions that preceded it are truly Bell’s and Bell’s alone—she is her own influence. The long development of the book leaves this one constantly crossing topics from her earlier Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body and even exploits from her own sexual past. As her philosophy is tied to her body and physiology, so is her theory—this is a text that could not have been written by anyone else and her own experiences influence her writings greatly. And so she chooses not to take the easy way out of ordinary feminism, and instead places herself in the hardest Otherings she can imagine: “It is not so easy to substitute one’s self for the pervert: the publically promiscuous bi-homosexual, the sadomasochist, the pedophile” (15). While we easily defend the other of race or sex, and we seek to redeem them in our philosophy, Bell is willing to take the step of attempting to redeem the other that we are often willing to leave Othered. This is, of course, exactly what she proceeds to do in one of her chapters.
Bell writes of John Robin Sharpe—infamous “child pornographer” from Canada, and the only person accused of child pornography to ever use the artistic merit defense in such a case. Because he was the first (and only) to claim that there is any artistic merit to child pornography, in this case written stories, his case attracted a lot of attention from child’s rights activists, anti-censorships activists, and sexual abuse campaigners. Sharpe fought these charges for seven full years and eventually all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court—and it was this extreme defense of his beliefs that made Bell interested in him (86). She is curious about her ability to use feminist theory to “save the ass” of the perverse other, especially one who is taking perversity to an extreme while keeping literary merit.
While Bell writes of Sharpe she slips into the third person, referring to herself as FF. She does this in the text in many places, nearly always when the Fast Feminist seems to diverge from Bell’s normal persona (or when she wants the Fast Feminist to be a different persona from her ordinary one). She claims that the Fast Feminist is the one that allied herself with Sharpe and not Bell as Bell. This dissociation on her part is deceptive. One reading might be that she does not want to claim this part of the text and others that employ the trope. Another might be that she wants the reader to be able to become the Fast Feminist her/him/zhir-self, which would be less possible if the first person were employed in the way it is elsewhere in the text. We are asked to become the Fast Feminist when we read the text, or to think of ourselves as the Fast Feminist, as an easier way to identify with those still othered by society—we can see through her construction that FF is a title and name to be taken on and discarded if and when we need it.
Bell sees Fast Feminism as a chance to “do theory dangerously” (89), a chance to give theory a true use value. Therefore, in defending the child pornographer she puts her professional credibility on the line, first in person in 2000 and now in text. Before the Supreme Court made their decision in 2001, she was able to spend time with the pornographer and read the unpublished works with which he was being charged. The excerpts and insights she provides of Sharpe cast him with the likes of William Burroughs rather than amongst kiddie porn fanatics. She shows his works cast the boys as having agency, as being powerful, and as ultimately being curious and explorative of their own sexuality rather than merely objects to whom sex happens. As Sharpe gives the boys agency, Bell returns it to him. Though the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him, and the defense he used no longer exists, the reader finds themselves questioning this decision, ultimately, even though the works in question bear titles like Boyabuse and feature young men cutting on their “peeny.” Bell also notes that his case is unique in that his works were shown to have literary merit in the courts; however, they were still deemed to be pornography: “In a sense, the Supreme Court’s decision applies a very postmodern logic: a written work can be child pornography and as a result inherently harmful and it can have artistic merit” (91).
Sharpe’s work, as she describes it, “falls just short of racism” (99). The boys are Other, often from other countries, other races, and his work forces us to face both the foreigner and the Other head on. It is, perhaps, in this spirit that Bell presents us with the Fast Feminist of Chapter 4. In it, FF travels to the Indian city of Varanasi where she seeks out the Hindu god Shiva (153). She explains that the world was created by Shiva’s ejaculate, and that Shiva is often represented as an erect phallus surrounded by a vulva (a combination that Bell dubs the “S(he)va”). She enters the city planning to have sex with S(he)va and does precisely that: “Monz and I entered the Holy City with a couple of strap-on harnesses, four phalluses, one pocket rocket, a flogger, sky-blue bondage rope and three blindfolds. We were taking cyborg sex to the root of gender: Shiva, the ancient mythic Hindu god/dess whose gender was iconographed through the holy city” (153). They take one of the Shiva phalluses (the Hindu term is lingam) into a boat, rowing it into the river, while FF made love to Shiva/S(he)va in the middle of the Ganges.
It is, at this moment that I pause—Bell writes that as she had sex with the statue (no doubt she would disagree with my failure to use fuck here, as the statue was too large to properly penetrate her and she sat upon it while having sex with her partner) she prayed to it that she be allowed to do “bio-gender terrorism” with it, that S(he)va needed to be “updated,” “contemporized,” and have its “sexual embrace” redone (154). However, despite her lyric prose, can we really move from this place before questioning whether this too is at the very edge of racism? Why is Shiva, phallic representations and stories aside, chosen as the God needing “updating?” Perhaps it is my white anxiety nudging me ahead, but what right does this white woman have to make a decision to “update” the representation of another race’s God/dess? Yes, this is a god for whom sex is most natural, and yes, Indian boatmen helped carry the lingam to the boat and took it out into the Ganges, but in a text that is, at least partially, about extreme dis-Othering, this almost seems to be an act of re-Othering. As she fails to take Shiva into her body, and instead plays around, on top of, and no doubt ejaculates onto S(he)va, this is not dis-Othering—this is sexual graffiti. She marks the Other without, I would argue, reintroducing agency.
Bell does not similarly fail to reintroduce agency in other areas, however. Particularly, her explorations of female ejaculation and the female phallus are notable, not least of all because of one-lines like: “Female Ejaculation: Same message, different medium” (71). Rather than claiming the phallus as an indistinct object that can be relocated in different bodies and body parts (for that matter) at different times, Bell locates the phallus as the “internal female anatomy that becomes erect when stimulated and ejaculates copious fluid” (71). If both women and men are capable of erection and ejaculation this reterritorializes and resignifies gender into what she calls “a thousand tiny sexes”—bazinga (71). In other places, however, she refers to her phallus as a “hard prosthetic cyborg cock” making herself “part woman, part silicone, part rubber” and “straps on the phallus to jack in to fucking” (34), calling out to Gibson and God.
In learning to ejaculate, FF found the phallus. The tissues she describes engorge with fluid that can be released before, after, and during orgasm. She details her work on getting “female fluid out there” through sex shows, ejaculathons, and photography. She also describes how in figuring out how female ejaculation works, has been hidden, and has been wrongly described as urine was closely tied to her own discovery of the hidden female phallus. The ordinary position of the speculum during a fairly ordinary gynecological exam hides the area that Bell rediscovers in her work. She writes of “turning the speculum” and using the technology that views a woman’s sex to rediscover a woman’s sex (57). In turn she has used this technology to show hundreds if not thousands of people what she theorized all along—the phallus is not really something that we only claim psychologically, but it is instead something that women—being Fast Feminists—can claim physically as well.
Female ejaculation, she writes, is about getting the body to interface with the environment, marking the territory, and being the territory of the ejaculator (35). How do we take this theory and use it to jack in, interface, and mark our territory through words instead of ejaculate, in the way that Bell succeeds in doing in Fast Feminism? Bell refers to herself as first and foremost a philosopher, but while Fast Feminism is a work of philosophy, it is also a work of performance writing. This book is experienced as well as read. She provides us with pictures of her acts, but in many ways these are not entirely necessary. The pictures prove it happened, but her descriptions are the actual destabilizing, performative act. Seeing is, in this case, unequivalent to the act of reading, breathing, and feeling with her in the text itself.
Even though Bell’s text is certainly not for every audience (not even every academic one), it could prove remarkably useful in rethinking online writing and embodiment. Every website, every tweet, every Facebook status update that we post is a form of performance writing. Bell has perfected the genre in this text, and while I wouldn’t recommend everyone write about the same topics she does, it is the way she writes and inter-nests self with text that is of particular interest to the online embodiment philosopher. She herself writes that: “FF feels at home with her cyber sisters because this remixing of homogenous gender codes is precisely what she does with her flesh avatar” (18). This Fast Feminism is a truly unusual and remarkable case of self projected through text and bears more study, more thought, and more direct application to cases outside of those that Bell presents us with in her book.
Bell, Shannon. Fast Feminism. New York: Autonomedia, 2010. Print.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Sawchuk, Kim. “Hypermasculinity, Ageing Bodies and Fast Feminisms: an Interview with Shannon Bell.” Wound no. 7. Nomorerepotlucks.com. 2010. Web. Jan 2012.
Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics. New York: Semiotext(e), 2007. Print.