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Marianne Morris on the Use of ‘She’ in Critical Discourse: Who exactly is this female proletarian subject?

By Harriet Staff


Some advance materials have been published in anticipation of the Poetry And/Or Revolution Conference happening in Oakland in October. The one we’re reading right now is Marianne Morris’s response (still in progress, we believe) to Keston Sutherland’s recent talk at the Militant Poetics Conference at Birkbeck (University of London) this summer. “I Can Haz New Aesthetic Order?” considers the newly prevalent use of “she” as a general pronoun and gesture at gender parity in such academic and poetic discourse; this fictitious female subject can also be found in Sutherland’s conversation with Joshua Clover in issue 5 of The Claudius App. Morris writes:

I want to raise questions about the use of feminine pronouns by male writers in critical and theoretical discourse (when a man refers to his default hypothetical subject as ‘she’) because I think it affects how we are heard and read by each other.

The use of the female pronoun in critical discourse is frequently done with good intentions, and may in some contexts have a positive impact beyond the merely symbolic. No doubt KS uses the feminine pronoun throughout his talk in the spirit of generosity and inclusivity. And yet, the female pronoun seems to create more animosity than feelings of solidarity amongst the female poets that I know on two continents. That is to say, the affects outweigh the intentions, and perhaps even do damage to the possibility of ‘being on the same page’ when thinking, talking, and writing together. In a bid to understand the source of the feeling of discomfort that arises, I have compiled some provisional hypotheses.


KS: ‘Reproduction at its most basic is what subsistence does for the proletarian subject. She eats to be recharged, to persevere in her subjection to exploitation.’

Who exactly is this female proletarian subject?

Men and women are exploited in different ways under capitalism.
The use of the pronoun ‘she’ here collapses gendered histories into an undifferentiated universal proletarian subject. In actual fact, the exploitation and control of women has historically been related to reproductive functions and her ability to withhold them, and associated with the enforcement of her passivity, the realms of the domestic, and the weak[er] of two possibilities which interact within an embedded power dynamic.

Or, a woman is not a subject. It seems too easy to re-write the history of active subjectivity and passive otherness such that it allows subjecthood suddenly, if generously, to be inclusive of women, with no redress of the processes by which subjects are delineated, or indeed of the order of language in which such categories are deployed.


As a consequence of any theory of the subject already having been appropriated by the masculine, an acceptance of the notion of female subjecthood silences the specificity of her suffering. KS valorises the voice which is silenced by the noise of the discourse here, by holding up the ‘weak subject’ as a necessary element in the thinking of ‘Marxist poetry’ – but still, she does not speak – or cannot, in this discourse, without subsuming to terms not her own. The story of her body is told, presumably, elsewhere. It appears in this theory of poetry as a hypothetical – in fact – other. What it says remains mysterious. Its suffering is mysterious.

Read the entire thing here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 by Harriet Staff.