Sabotaging gender, feminism and capital

We share below an essay by a friend of Autonomies, a conference paper presented at the CIEG II International Congress: Gender, Feminist and Woman’s Studies: Reflexivity, Resistance and Action (July 24-26), at the ISCSP – Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas, Lisbon.

A contribution to the debate on feminism.

Sabotaging gender, feminism and capital

Carlos Jacques

A true community can only be a community that is not presupposed.

Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Language

… it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone.

Virginia Woolf, Orlando


We write under the sign of the mask.[1] In the carnival, the mask profanes seriousness.  It “is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself.”[2] It permits transition, transiting performance, metamorphoses, and the violation of boundaries.

In an “older” Africa, the mask called forth and incarnated primordial energies, vitalities, preserving and renewing communities from the usury of time.  The mask served to inaugurate new beginnings, profaning things past.[3]

Yet any profanation is serious, deadly serious, for domination can tolerate no play amid boundaries and borders.  The power of the modern State and economy demand transparency and the construction of disciplined and seduced subjectivities; shifting or unstable identities disturb order and social reproduction.  The knowledge and control of whom and what one is, grounds hierarchies, sovereignties and divisions of labour and consumption, in sum, human energy extraction.  To wear a mask then is to escape systems of control and reconfigure subjectivities.  It is to assume that politics and social reproduction are characterised by a war of positions, which may at times emerge as a war of movement, but at others, and more frequently, as underground warfare.[4] The mask is the guise of the dissident, the deserter, the saboteur, the rebel, the guerrilla; a “face” of the enemy of domination.

Patriarchy is a system of social relations built upon the oppression and exploitation of women.  It is a form of war against women, even in times of “peace”.[5] The mask is an instrument of subterfuge in times of war; it allows for a distance between one’s self (the aforementioned absence of conformity with oneself) – as socially identified – and one’s self – as autonomously and continuously created. 

The mask suspends historical time and administered space, recuperating potentialities lost to memory.  In the clinamen or shifts of new times and spaces, in their proliferation, the possibilities of free self-creation, outside patriarchy, open.[6]

“Radical political struggle today wears a mask”.[7] Refusing identity and recognition, it rejects political representation in parties and institutions (“We are nobody, and therefore no one can represent us”).  The agents of struggle, lacking individual identities, act directly, without mediation, and as equals, without leadership or exclusions, without hierarchies or sovereignties.[8]

Masked radical politics is an anarchist politics.[9];A masked radical feminist politics begins from the (patriarchal) place of “women” and moves beyond it.[10]

This essay is written in solidarity with the masked “women” of Chiapas and Rojava, with the masked “women” of Hong Kong’s rebellions against arbitrary authority (2014, 2019), with the masked “women” of Chile’s “Feminist May” against sexual abuse in educational institutions (2018), with the masked “women” of South Korea’s Womad protesting against spy-cam pornography (2018), with the cow masked “women” of India contesting their legal inferiority to the sanctified herbivore (2017), with the masked “women” of occupied Gezi Park, Occupy Wall Street, Syntagma Square, Puertas del Sol, Tahrir, with the masked Guerrilla Girls and Pussy Riot, with the masked of the Italian Tute Bianche, with the Black, Pink and Clown Blocs, and with the many, many more “women”, past and present, who donned a mask in the struggle against patriarchy.


… Witches, crazy, joyfully easy, hysterics, warriors, whores, tomboys, amazons, butches, virgins, warriors, vulgar, defectors, lesbians, trans, nuisances, pains in the ass, ball breakers, errant, pussies, intransigently feminists …We are … an insult to patriarchal society …

We showed up to stay, to suddenly burst, to unmask injustices, to unveil the absurd, to denounce the contradictions, the nonsense, the abuses of sexism … to evade the guidelines, the bosses, the fundamentals and fundamentalisms of neoliberal capitalism and its patriarchal order … to pierce from the margins and the cracks of machismo … to destabilise from concealment, from created and borrowed identities, to better reveal the features of gender inequalities and gender constructions, the material and symbolic violence that is on every corner, in every staircase, in each passage and in each corner of our port.

Las Choras del Puerto, Manifesto[11]

I. Virginia Woolf as Virgil in travels through feminism

Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Our concern with the mask in politics finds sustenance in Virginia Woolf’s essays on women.  If we recall the word “theory” in its original Greek meaning, then we may say that Woolf’s writings give us a way of seeing that reveals the role of anonymity and secrecy in the radical challenge to patriarchy.

To take on Virginia Woolf as one’s guide through feminism is however to assume, with her, that one will “never be able to come to a conclusion”, to a “pure truth” about the matter.[12]  Like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, our guide cannot take us as far as heaven.  “[W]hen a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth.  One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.  One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.”[13]  And this is perhaps even more necessarily the case when the speaker-writer is a “man”, one more man, one of “those gentlemen who specialise in women”.[14]

What limitations and prejudices I possess are far too numerous to cite, even if I could list them all.  I nevertheless share with Virginia Woolf the belief that women’s lives and accomplishments have largely been erased from history, because the latter is but the record of patriarchy (and we may add, if recorded history is in large part the chronicle of the doings of States, then patriarchy and the State share a common history), that women have suffered the violence of patriarchy in pain and frustration, that in its most extreme form, as testified to by the 20th century, patriarchy ends in fascism,[15] that it has however been women’s reproductive, social labour that has sustained patriarchy[16], its male and masculinist power and creativity, while generating and colonising female-feminine consciousness,[17] and that women’s freedom lies beyond womanhood, beyond “sex-consciounsess.”[18]

Virginia Woolf’s essays, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) already heralded a radical criticism of what will later and retrospectively be called “liberal” or “first-wave” feminism, while foreshadowing latter directions in feminist theory and practice, paths animated by an equally critical appraisal of “sex”, “gender” and “sexuality”, as concepts constitutive of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homo-lesbian-bi-queer identities; paths first illuminated by Simone de Beauvoir’s eloquent and telling affirmation: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”[19]

Woolf’s essays are monstrous.  They fit only uneasily into categories of feminist theory.  When one might be led to believe that A Room of One’s Own is an apology for the right of women to write, Woolf brings her essay to a close with the affirmation that she is “sick to death of the word” women, that “when a woman speaks to women she should have something very unpleasant up her sleeve”, and that “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else”.[20]  And in Three Guineas, she places “sex pride” on a long list of illusions of “unreal loyalities” (pride of nationality, religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, and the like) which seduce us into captivity; the comfortable captivity that depends upon the domination of others even more oppressed.[21]

Herein lies the fiction of legal equality with men.  If Woolf celebrates the right of women to work, to earn and possess wealth, it is because they are the conditions necessary for “independent opinion”, women’s still “most powerful weapon” under violent, capitalist patriarchy.[22]  But, this should not lead to the mistake of believing that they are sufficient.  “If we encourage the daughters to enter the professions without making any conditions as to the way in which the professions are to be practiced shall we not be doing our best to stereotype the old tune which human nature, like a gramophone whose needle has stuck, is now grinding out with such disastrous unanimity?”[23]  To seek integration as equals in patriarchal society is to feed the inequalities of patriarchy.  And it is to become a “patriarch”, that is, to have one’s subjectivity moulded by the norms and practices of patriarchal social relations.[24]  “In short, you will have to lead the same lives and profess the same loyalties that professional men have professed for many centuries.”[25]   And should “feminism” mean no more than to champion the “rights of women”, the “equality” of women’s rights in patriarchal society, then the word is “obsolete”, a “dead word, a corrupt word”, more harmful than useful, fit only for the pyre.[26]

Yet if loyalties to illusory collectives and identities are to be surpassed, what is to be made of the much vaunted praise of being oneself, as a writer, an artist, as someone who creates, in A Room of  One’s Own?[27]  It is not, we learn from Woolf, to be a woman or a man (“to praise one’s sex is always suspect”[28]), but to open oneself up to undivided desire and experience, to what, borrowing from Coleridge, she calls the “androgynous mind”.  “[T]he androgynous mind is resonant and porous; … it transmits emoti[29]on without impediment; … it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”[30]  The sex-conscious or identity-conscious mind, by contrast, withers and dries up, starved by its own one-dimensionality.  And the art, creations, – even politics – of such minds can only give birth to deserts.  The “I” through whom such artists-persons create casts everything about it in darkness, aridity, where nothing more can grow.[31]  And the same holds for a politics of identity.

In the absence of truth, the much cherished “I” of identity politics, feminist or otherwise, “is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being.”[32]  Such a politics then elevates a fiction into a descriptive and normative reality, forgetting that the assumed identity is but a fiction, and a dangerous one.

Instead of trafficking in illusions, Woolf offers her opinion on one modest point: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.[33]  It has been women’s unrecorded and unsung labour that has fed patriarchy;[34] a labour that has at the same time destroyed women’s creative potential.[35]  The need to work domestically (to assure social reproduction) and/or for a salary is a form of slavery.[36]  In a society of economic and political inequality, wealth brings a degree of freedom.  “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”[37]  Or as Woolf also puts the matter, and more bluntly, towards the end of the essay:

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.  Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.  And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.  Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.[38]

Confined and forced into the role of social handmaid, paid or unpaid, “woman”, “womanhood”, “femininity”, were in the process created, and functioned simultaneously and necessarily as the mirror images of men’s public superiority.  These concepts or categories do point to realities – “the accent never falls where it does with a man”[39] –, but not natural or metaphysical.  They are instead historical, yet no less psychologically or politically significant for that reason.[40]  If women are the mirrors in which patriarchy reflects and produces itself, women are equally possessed of a perspective or vantage-point that once rendered self-conscious as historical, reveals or unmasks patriarchy for what it is, a system of oppressive power.[41]

Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle.  And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly?  By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself.  By feeling that one has some innate superiority … over other people.  Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior too himself.  It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power. … Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action.  … That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men.  And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism.[42]

Men’s restlessness before women’s criticism, or just acting contrary to how they are supposed to act, has called for caution and great determination on the part of the “weaker sex”.  Above all, women have had to hide their creativity, to veil it under men’s names,[43] to steal time from daily work, to distil worlds from the minutia of domestic objects and gestures.  What they have lacked, and what they need, according to Woolf, is to escape, even if only temporarily, to “a room of their own”: to a space where they are no longer the slaves of “caring” labour, the quite sex, the mirror of patriarchy; to a protected space where they may carry their anonymity and have it serve as the fertile soil from which to be “oneself”.

I want to take the image of “a room of one’s own” as a tactical metaphor for political struggle, a metaphor for practices of dissimulation, escape and sabotage.  To “wear a mask” is to undermine the transparency that regimes of hierarchical power demand: disciplinary technologies are rendered inoperative by lines of flight from surveillance, apparatuses of control fissure against opacity.  A “room of one’s own” escapes from State-like seeing (to employ James Scott’s image of State power).[44]

In the Three Guineas essay, this politics of escape is given the form of a secret society called the “Outsider’s Society”.[45]  Unable to change or reform things from within, to work by means and ways and for goals contrary to patriarchy, it is left for “women” to work outside of “men’s” society.  They will nurture an indifference towards patriarchal forms or ways of life, to hierarchical and centralising organisations, to goals of power, wealth, empire, to the violence, domination and exploitation of patriarchal social relations.  What animates “men”, whether instinct or reason, can only leave “women” unconcerned: women’s “difference” from men arms them with distinct instincts and reason teaches them that they are “outsiders” in a male-centred society.  From this, certain actions and virtues must follow.  Patriotic jingoism, militarism, celebrations and displays of power, the exercise of domination over others, would find no fertile ground within the “Society”.  Instead, “poverty, charity, derision” and “freedom from unreal loyalties”[46] would flourish amidst relations of autonomous and equal mutual aid.

Woolf’s “Outsider’s Society” is an anarchist society, for only through free, horizontal, collective self-creation can patriarchal society be set aside.  The challenge in this instance is not one of confrontation, but of indifference, of a turning one’s back on patriarchy.  What appears to be passive is in fact active, for patriarchy is thereby left to die; those who appear to be outside, in fact touch what is inside, through the temptation, seduction, of more beautiful ways of life.

Yet precisely for what and how it is, the “Outsider’s Society” must be secret.  Due to the fear of those who govern within patriarchy and of the fear of those who are governed by it, the fear of loss for the first and the fear of humiliation, punishment and abandonment for the second, a public politics beyond patriarchy are impossible.  This is not ironically a difficult demand, because “women” are already largely anonymous within male society.  But creation by “women” under patriarchy demands a “room of one’s own” – “when women get together … they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print”[47] –, a mask behind which freedom is re-discovered and finds expression.

II. Feminists can only break the law

For there is no sex.  There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses.  It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.

Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind

In the history of modern women’s politics, the suffragettes of Britain’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) provide a powerful example of tactics elaborated at the threshold of exposure and clandestinity, legality and illegality, employed as a means to push government to legalise women’s franchise.  If the suffragettes did not ultimately challenge existing political institutions, their tactics of civil disobedience, arson, bombings and property damage called upon practices which could only be furtive.

The State, in response, and through the Scotland Yard, deployed an array of counter-insurgency methods that essentially involved “lifting the mask” from the suffragettes, that is, methods to make possible the surveillance and control of the movement, including the use of covert photography for the purpose of identification and preventative control.  Yet it was precisely at this same site of the production of surveillance photography that the suffragettes would develop modes of resistance to undermine the legibility of the photographic record.

In militant actions, hats, scarfs, the cover of darkness, could all serve to disguise facial identity.  Once arrested, suffragette activists, no longer able to mask themselves before a police camera, resisted by refusing to pose properly, by turning away from the camera, grimacing or contracting their faces, for example, thereby rendering the photograph less valuable or useless for vigilance and legal purposes.  The police would in turn be obliged to take covert photographs in prison, something that called for more complex technical and human means.  That the efforts were in part successful is confirmed by the photographic record.  But what is also demonstrated in this political struggle of concealment and exposure were the limits of photographic “objectivity”, as police regularly doctored the photographs, so as to produce the desired image of the suffragettes as criminals, whereas suffragette tactics contested the innocence of the law and penal institutions in the defence of patriarchy.[48]

The suffragettes’ resistance to surveillance and their broader practice of direct action, with parallel tactics of self-defence (e.g. jujitsu), points to a dimension of their early 20th Century political struggle that is often ignored, namely, that it was not just about the franchise.  The ways in which the movement engaged politically also challenged institutionalised politics of representation and expressed political agency that transgressed legal norms and practices, thereby shifting and erasing the lines of what was possible. To act at the threshold of legality and illegality is inevitably to don a mask, either literally (to escape control) and/or metaphorically (for what one does is judged to be incomprehensible).[49]  Escaping surveillance however reflects more than a practical concern: it questions the legitimacy of established powers, and accordingly, it equally refuses the illusions of institutional dialogue.  What the suffragettes’ politics traced, however unconsciously, however incompletely, was a way of life radically freed from patriarchy.[50]

This potentiality of the movement has been largely passed over in silence due to an excessive focus on the more spectacularly violent character of its actions.  But if these latter were “violent” – that is, the actions were direct and carried out without compromise –, it is because the suffragettes learned “in the flesh” that “the demand for a civil and civic equality cannot be addressed peacefully to the State because this latter is the principal instigator of inequalities, that it is vain to demand of it justice because it is precisely the first authority that institutionalises social injustices, and that it is thus illusory to place oneself under its protection because it produces or sustains the very apparatuses that render vulnerable, that it is foolish to allow it to defend us when it is precisely the State that arms those who beat us.”[51]

III. “Feminism is a revolution …”[52]

War is the motor behind institutions and order.  In the smallest of its cogs, peace is waging a secret war. To put it another way, we have to interpret the war that is going on beneath peace; peace itself is a coded war.  We are therefore at war with one another; a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently, and it is this battlefront that puts us all on one side or the other. There is no such thing as a neutral subject. We are all inevitably someone’s adversary.

Michel Foucault, Society must be defended

Resistance is often first born of indignation, a feeling that may spur active resistance, but which is also often forced “underground”, because no “public” channels for its expression exist.  The countless number of women who over the course of time challenged (and still challenge) the many differing and multiple expressions of patriarchy defy the historical record.  And if epics, sagas and chronicles have regularly failed to speak of this silent war, it has been because “the word” has been more often than not a man’s “word”.  Women have consequently acted in silence, hidden from the eyes of authorities, or in ways that have subverted and undermined the norms and practices of patriarchal sex-gender identity.

To laud disguise, dissimulation, sabotage, will however take many by surprise.  The apology for clandestine politics seems to carry us back to a darker time, to a time that pre-dates the consolidation of our liberal democracies.  And the latter presuppose a social contract in which each member of the social-political community is endowed with equal rights and obligations, and where injustices are to be overcome by the recognition of those who were formerly excluded or ignored to equal legal status.

I will not here undertake the task of rehearsing the long, critical history of the concept of the “social contract” (nor will I critically examine the more than dubious democratic nature of “our liberal democracies”).  I will simply take it for granted – this is one of my self-confessed prejudices – that it is an illusion, a political illusion which in part serves to cover over relations of oppression.  And with Monique Wittig, I will contend that it is for women to “tear themselves away” from existing “heterosexual social contracts”, “by running away … one by one”, as slaves formerly did in the United States, along the Underground Railroad, or throughout North and South America, escaping and creating maroon communities: in a sense, I want to say, collective “rooms of one’s own”, or archipelagos of “Outsider Societies”.

If the paths and spaces of escape are uncertain, they have always been an essential part of any resistance.  And the politics of States and of apparatuses of control can be mapped following the ways in which they create, manage and enforce spaces and subjectivities of inclusion (transparency, bio-politics, normalisation, citizenship, economic management, etc.) and exclusion (opacity, thanato-politics, classifications and control of deviancy, refugee/“illegals”/“homo sacer”, pillage/exploitation/“primitive accumulation”, etc.); what may be summarised by the expression, “the politics of capture”.[53]  From within the framework of social contract theory and politics, all of this is unthought and unthinkable.

As then a metaphor, the “social contract” hides another illusion, namely that of the possibility of complete and just recognition within a political community.

Recognition is always the recognition of an identity, expressible in the statement, “I am …”.  Such expressions may be employed in the most banal of circumstances: someone knocks on the door, asking “Mary, are you there?”, and you answer, yes I am; or, you meet an old acquaintance in the street who asks you, “Is that you John?”  In both instances – and we follow Louis Althusser here – someone is hailed, interpellated, there is the recognition, sometimes mutual, other times not, of a specific subject identity.[54]  Yet this recognition presupposes a mechanism, or ideology (to employ Althusser’s term), of social recognition, in which subjects or subjectivities are previously and regularly constituted as the types and individuals that they are socially recognised to be.[55]

There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.[56]

To speak of ideology and the interpellation of individuals as co-given is to state that individuals are “always-already subjects”, or that individuals independently of this ideological moulding are abstractions in relationship to who they are always-already.

[I]deology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects … : ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects. Hence individuals are ‘abstract’ with respect to the subjects which they always already are.[57]

Such that, for example:

Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration in which it is ‘expected’ once it has been conceived. I hardly need add that this familial ideological configuration is, in its uniqueness, highly structured, and that it is in this implacable and more or less ‘pathological’ (presupposing that any meaning can be assigned to that term) structure that the former subject-to-be will have to ‘find’ ‘its’ place, i.e. ‘become’ the sexual subject (boy or girl) which it already is in advance.[58]

Or again, this time distancing ourselves from Althusser’s language, the I-subject is constituted through a network of discourses and practices, overladen with relations of power.  Together, and through them, identities (sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, etc.) are constructed.  “Recognition”, in other words, “is not conferred on a subject, but forms that subject.”[59]  Such constructions then are never innocent or neutral, for relations of power, whether self-created or imposed (though usually a confluence of both), point to possibilities of domination and resistance.

We owe to Judith Butler the critical analysis of dissonance within Althusser’s account of interpellation and ideological constitution.  For any recognition, there is the possibility of misrecognition; for every interpellation, there is the possibility of a range of disobedience: refusal, rupture, escape, distortion, misappropriation, and so on.  In sum, identity construction and self-constitution is always ambivalent.  If one comes into discursive, social life through being hailed violently, one might “occupy the interpellation by which one is already occupied to direct the possibilities of resignification against the aims of violation.”[60]

If we are socially constituted as sexed and gendered (not to mention the so many other hierarchical identities of race, class, ethnicity, age, ability, etc.), this does not mean that we are first autonomous subjects, and then formed and shaped by our multiple roles and functions.  It is rather that we are both interpelled as a subject and capable of filling out and appropriating the “instability and incompleteness of subject-formation.”[61] This, of course, is the basis of Butler’s reading of gender as troubled, as performed, and of her critical evaluation of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality, as well as of practices of inversion or subversion (e.g. butch lesbians, drag queens and kings, and so on).

What I want to add to this is that the “troubles” of identification and recognition render any feminist politics confined to social-contract narratives of autonomous subjects, self-consciously self-possessed, deserving bearers of universally acknowledged rights, is wildly delusional.  Virginie Despentes’ words echo persistently in my ears, “Rape, it is civil war, the political organisation by which one sex declares to the other: I claim all rights over you, I force you to feel inferior, guilty and degraded”,[62] along with Wittig’s conceptualisation of male-female relations as relations of war, along with the overwhelmingly atrocious history of patriarchal violence that has been the fate of women in history, putting the lie to all of the ostensible celebrations of “womanhood”, in whatever guise.[63]

Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as a great as a man, some think even greater.  But this is woman in fiction.  In fact … she has been locked up, beaten and flung about the room.[64]

We are tempted by a conclusion, namely, that idealism haunts feminism.  Or, stated differently, and in the words of Silvia Federici, that one “of the main shortcomings of the women’s movement has been its tendency to overemphasize the role of consciousness in the context of social change, as if enslavement were a mental condition and liberation could be achieved by an act of will.”[65] Under this light, patriarchy is read as a result of ignorance and/or ill-will, and it is for “feminists” to enlightenment women and men of women’s rights and to advocate, “struggle”, for the enshrinement of these rights in law and their safeguard by available, legal means.  The underlying illusion of such a view is that already discussed above, in the criticism of social contract political theory.  In other words, the failure of current democracies, from a liberal feminist perspective, has been the failure to recognise and politically integrate women as full legal-political subjects, when recognition is itself a form of control within relations of power of inclusion and exclusion.  In a similar manner, both socialist feminism, in its defence of the integration (recognition) of women in capitalist wage labour,[66] and radical feminism, in its call for a separation – in all of its varieties – from patriarchy (recognition of difference), come to grief on the same idealistic reef, that is, the belief that women’s freedom from oppression is to be rooted in the inclusion or divorce of women, of female subjects, from patriarchal institutions and practices, when the categories of “woman”, “female”, and “femininity” are created within the very framework of patriarchal social relations.  The task of any radical feminism is not then recognition, inclusion or separation of women as women (which only perpetuates the violence of patriarchy in different ways), but the destruction of the social relations constitutive of “women”.

IV. Escaping the Hall of Mirrors

There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women.  There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.  Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.

Donna J. Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto

Althusser wrote that all ideology interpelling individuals as subjects is “speculary”, that is, it functions doubly as a mirror.[67]  The interpellated-subjectified individual mirrors the discursive-practical social construction of individuals, while social relations mirror the subjectivities ideologically constructed.[68]  To then contest the “mirroring”, the oppressive forms of subjectification, is to try to play with the mirrored image, to distort it, to hide behind it, thereby de-naturalising, profaning, transgressing expectations and norms.  If women “have served all of these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”,[69] then the emancipation of women, or the emancipation from womanhood, begins by undermining, if not shattering, the sexing and gendering mirror of patriarchy.

We share a strong affinity here with Alyson Escalante’s gender nihilism and her call for the simple destruction of gender identity.[70] And yet, such a position would be no less idealistic than “recognition” based forms of women’s liberation, for it ignores the stubborn fact that even if we come to see that sex-gender identities are constructed, conventional, and that they serve the ideological purpose of sustaining the oppression of women, in other words, if we discern that they are “false”, they will not thereby obviously vanish, for they serve, in addition to an ideological function, a material function as well.[71]

However overly simplistic, if not to say false, it is to separate “ideology” from the “materiality” of social relations, the distinction can serve a useful heuristic purpose, while simultaneously taking us back to Virginia Woolf’s modest point that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.[72] Money, for Woolf, translates into material independence, the very condition for freedom of thought and creation.  Labour, paid or unpaid, is by contrast slavery.  And if Woolf defends quite precociously “wages for housework”, it is both to shed light on the ignored labour of women that has been essential for the production of male-centred and male-dominated social relations, while seeking to frustrate those relations, for in her insistence that this labour be remunerated, she is in effect arguing that there is nothing natural in the fact that it is women who are forced into it.[73]

Marxist “materialist feminist” thought, and especially the “wages for housework” movement of the 1960s and 70s, coincidently echoes Woolf’s strident critique.  The source of inspiration for a great deal of Marxist feminism, and which is relevant here, lies in a passage of Frederick Engels’ essay of 1884, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State:

According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.[74]

Under capitalism, wage labour relations structure society.  Yet wage labour depends upon relations of social reproduction, “the complex of activities and relations by which our life and our labour are daily reconstituted.”[75]  Without the latter, the former could simply not exist.  And it was in this unsalaried, reproductive role, that women have been both confined and produced as “women” under capital; that the sexed and gendered identities of “men” and “women” were created materially and symbolically-ideologically.  What may then be more properly called capitalist-patriarchal social relations of capitalist-commodity reproduction are accordingly necessarily hierarchical and oppressive to those who occupy the position of “female”/”femininity”.[76]  And the possibility of radically reforming patriarchy within this context is impossible: capitalism is unsustainable without sexism (not to speak of racism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, etc.).[77]  The demand for “wages for housework” was a strategy to de-naturalise women’s gendered roles, to contend that social reproduction is a social responsibility and to contest the supremacy of capitalist-patriarchy.[78] “Our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market, for housework and factory work and office work to become “uneconomic.”[79]

V. “… the ego is by nature fugitive.”[80]

When I unify my consciousness under the title “hatred”, I add a certain meaning to them.  But when I incorporate my states in the concrete totality me, I add nothing to them.  In reality, the relation of the ego to the qualities, states, and actions is … a relation on the order of poetic production …, or if you like, a relation of creation.

Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transecendence of the Ego

In a passage quoted earlier from Virginia Woolf, she writes: “?I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being.”[81] The “I”, the “subject”, “identity” fixes the individual, makes the individual real, bestows being upon it.  Without practices of subjectification, we would in fact be nothing, that is, no-thing; nothing stable or restricted to clearly defined borders: nothing sovereign.  Instead, and this time I will refer to a literary work, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,[82] where she writes, when all “being and doing” evaporate, in the depths of solitude and silence, we reveal to ourselves what we are, fundamentally: a “core of darkness, something invisible to others”.  At the “surface”, we appear to others and to ourselves, captured and producing relations of mirroring recognition and misrecognition.  But beneath or behind the mirrors, in a “room of one’s own”, lies our “core of darkness” which we discover “could go anywhere, for no one saw it”.  Its horizon seems without limits.  “There was freedom, there was peace, there was … a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability.  Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience …, but as a wedge of darkness.”[83]

Without plunging into the depths of ontology or metaphysics, let us propose that Woolf’s “wedge of darkness” is an image of the subject as pure potentiality, as something which is capable of being without yet being it and with regard to which it is always more virtually.  The “darken ss” underlies constructed subjectivities, formed identities; it is the always overflowing potentiality that both renders possible and exceeds all actual identifications.  It does not pre-exist the latter, but nor is it equivalent to them.  It is the ever present moment-space that fractures or fissures, like a wedge, any fixed self-sameness, what Jean-Paul Sartre described as the negativity of freedom, and it is that which renders all identity performative, which is to say, open and ambiguous.

In Virginia Woolf’s literature, this darkness or freedom is revealed in moments when the “self” loses its hold upon what we can be, moments when our separation and alienation from the world and ourselves, as free and plural, weakens.  The moments occur in isolated suspension, solitude, somehow “outside” society – the everyday loses its hold upon us – in “a room of one’s own”.  The language of ecstasy would not be misplaced here, but only if stripped of mystical or religious connotations.  The moments do not guide one away from a false reality to the truth; they rather open up a horizon of perspectives formerly occluded by everyday experience and life (“Let us smash it by breaking a match. There—snap.”),[84] perspectives which unveil pluralities, animate and sustain transgression, creation, and the emergence of new worlds.[85]


What are masks if not a neutralization of the face? The mask will render the face inoperative, will undo the face, but in this, it shows or exposes something even more true.

Giorgio Agamben, Towards a theory of destituent power

… it’s ecstasy that matters.

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Giorgio Agamben, in an essay entitled Identity Without the Person, reflects upon the mask in the age of biometric identification.  Following G.W.F. Hegel, he states that the desire to be recognised by others is inseparable from being human, that it is only through the recognition of and by others that one may constitute oneself as a person.[86]

The original meaning of “person”, of persona, was however mask, understood as the medium through which an individual acquired a social role and identity; the necessary conditions for a free man’s legal and political existence.[87] In addition, the “person-mask” was the figure behind which the moral person was created.  The latter, modelled on the theatrical actor, was someone who was both identified with and who was more than her/his role.  And it was within this gap, this hiatus, that the moral person, the individual capable of creating herself/himself was rendered possible.  “The moral person constituted herself/himself therefore through a bond to and at the same time a divergence from her/his social mask: s/he accepted it without reservation, and at the same time, s/he maintained an almost imperceptible distance in relationship to it.”[88] Yet it was within this “imperceptible distance” that ethical life, anautonomous, creative way of life, was thinkable and possible.

According to Agamben, in the latter half of the 19th Century, policing technologies in Europe will develop in such a manner and to such a degree that in their wake, a decisive change will occur in the concept of identity.  The latter will no longer concern a person’s social recognition or prestige, but instead serve to point out the recidivist to police authorities.[89] Technologies of anthropocentric measurement, photography, fingerprinting, will transform identity into biological data which have nothing to do with social recognition.[90] “For the first time in the history of humanity, identity was no longer the function of the social “person” and her/his recognition, but of biological data that could have no relation with the latter.  Human beings removed the mask which for centuries had permitted recognition, to confide identity with something that belonged to her/him intimately and exclusively, but with which s/he could in no way identify.”[91] And while initially developed for delinquents, by the mid-20th Century, the technologies will be extended to the whole of everyone’s daily life.[92]

The consequences of this metamorphosis on the constitution of the subject are profound.  In reducing personal identity to biological characteristics – and the interpretation of sex, gender and heterosexuality will not be immune to these changes (e.g. the naturalisation and medicalisation of what will come to be designated “homosexuality” take place only at the end of the 19th Century) – the interval that made ethics possible and for which a mask-persona was necessary, is erased.  “If my identity is henceforth determined in the last analysis by biological facts which in no way depend on my will and over which I have not the least control, the construction of something called an ethics becomes problematic.”[93]

Within a generalised bio-politics, for a government of biological life, the reduction of human beings to naked life is now at the basis of the identity attributed to “citizens” by States.[94] And seemingly paradoxically, this same framework allows for a tolerance of masked forms of entertainment that are purely spectacular, incapable of generating any real spaces for self-creation.

What then remains of the mask as persona?  What survives of the transgressions enacted behind the carnival mask, when carnival is but one more “event” on the tourist industry’s calendar?  What still lives on of the masked African dancer who suspends historical time by calling upon the primal forces of the cosmos?  Has information and surveillance technology made Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” a pipe dream?  And what then are we to make of the masked politics, feminist and other, of the present?

Modern relations of power, or modern capitalist social relations, reduce increasingly vast numbers of people to mere biological ciphers, useful for the essential purpose of energy extraction (in reproduction, labour, consumption) and useless when expended.  Here, there is no place for masks, persona, ethics; these latter lose any real social significance outside of what can be bought and sold.  The masks of contemporary political protest have accordingly little to do with those of the ancient world.  And how could it be otherwise?  What they do point to, and here again Virginia Woolf illuminates a possible path, is to a new form of human social life in which we are neither a mask (a social or public identity constructed through relations of power, with freedom or autonomy lying in the hiatus between one’s persona and what renders it possible), nor bare, naked life (the object-target of bio-political and economic sovereignty), but instead life as desire uncoupled from identities, what Gilles Deleuze  called “desire’s variable field of immanence”[95], or what Woolf described as ecstasy.

If the mask and the face can no longer separated, then it is for each of us to choose which mask-face(s) to live.

Video: Black Bloc – A story of violence and love, by Noe …


[1] And the “we” is our mask to escape from the sovereignty, the tyranny, of the authorial “I-subject”. “Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other—outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women and wilderness, to be used as I see fit.” (Ursula Le Guin, “Women/Wildness,” in Judith Plant, ed., Healing the Wounds. New Society: Philadelphia: New Society, 1989. 45.)

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Trans. by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. 40.

[3] Jean Laude, Las arts de l’Afrique noir. Librairie Générale Francaise, 1966. 200-58.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971. 229-230

[5] Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed Books, 2014. 26. “The feminine condition, its alphabet. Always guilty of what is done to us. Creatures held to be responsible for the desire that they provoke. Rape is a precise political program: skeleton of capitalism, it is the raw and direct representation of the exercise of power. It designates a dominant and organises the laws of the game that allow him to exercise his power without restriction.  To steal, to take, to extort, to impose, such that his will can be exercised without limits and so that he may enjoy his brutality, without his opposite being able to express any resistance.  Joy in the annihilation of the other, of their word, their will, their integrity. Rape is civil war, the political organisation by means of which one sex declares to the other: I hold all rights over you, I force you to feel yourself to be inferior, guilty and degraded.”[My translation] (Virginie Despentes, King Kong Théorie. Grasset, 2006. 50.)

[6] “My new trans body is an empty house. I enjoy the political potential of this analogy. My trans body is an apartment for rent without any furniture, a place which does not belong to me, a space without a name.”[My translation] (Paul B. Preciado, Un apartamento en Urano: Crónicas del cruce. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2019. 227.)

[7] Thomas Nail, “Political Theory of the Mask”. The Medes, 2013.  (

[8] Thomas Nail, “The Politics of the Mask”. Huffpost, Jan 23, 2014. (

[9] “Anarchism … stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic , social, and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal.  Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage.  In short, it calls for free, independent spirits …” (Emma Goldman, “Anarchism: What it Really Stands For”, in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. 75-6.

[10] “I am not a woman. I am not a heterossexual. I am not a homossexual. Nora m I a bissexual. I am a dissident of the sex-gender system.” (My translation). Paul B. Preciado, Un apartamento en Urano. 26.

[11] Las Choras del Puerto, Manifesto (


…Brujas, locas, camboyanas, histéricas, warriors, putas, marías tres cocos, amazonas, marimachas, vírgenes, guerreras, chulas, tránsfugas, lesbianas, trans, pulguitas en tu oreja, palitos en tu poto, hinchapelotas, descarriadas, choras, intransablemente feministas…

Somos…un insulto a la sociedad patriarcal…

Aparecimos para quedarnos, para irrumpir repentinamente, desenmascarar las injusticias, develar los absurdos, denunciar las contradicciones, los sinsentidos, los atropellos del sexismo… para burlar los lineamientos, los patrones, los fundamentos y fundamentalismos del capitalismo neoliberal y de su orden patriarcal…horadar desde los márgenes y las brechas del machismo …desestabilizar desde el ocultamiento, desde identidades creadas y prestadas, para revelar mejor los rasgos de las desigualdades de sexo y de las construcciones de género, las violencias materiales y simbólicas que están en cada esquina, en cada escalera, en cada pasaje y en cada rincón de nuestro puerto.

[12] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929). Richard, Surrey: Alma Classics, 2019. 3-4.

[13] Ibid. 4.

[14] Ibid. 32, 36.

[15] Ibid. 123.

[16] Ibid. 104-7.

[17] Ibid. 89.

[18] Ibid. 123.

[19] Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sex II (1949). Gallimard Folio, 1976. “Despite importante differences, all the modern feminist meanings of gender have roots in Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that ‘one is not born a woman’ and in the post-Second World War social conditions that have enabled constructios of women as a collective historical subject-in-process.” (“’Gender’ for a Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word”, in Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 1991. 131). Interestingly enough, Virginia Woolf had already expressed a similar idea in a 1931 lecture given to the National Society for Women’s Service: “… what is a woman? I assure you, I don’t know; I do not believe that you know; I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill. What a woman is, [is] a discovery which you here are in process of making – a piece of very important knowledge which we shall owe to you.” “Speech to the London and National Society for Women’s Service” (1931), in Stuart N. Clarke ed., The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V (1929-1932).  London: Hogarth Press, 2009. 640-1.  And if de Beauvoir would not employ the word “discovery” in this context (because there is nothing to discover that precedes a “woman’s” doing or making, the word disappears from the shorter, published version of the speech.  See: Professions for Women in Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Penguin Books, 2019. 358.

[20] A Room of One’s Own. 133.

[21] Three Guineas. 205.  “You shall swear that you will do all in your power to insist that any woman who enters any profession shall in no way hinder any other human being, whether man or woman, white or black, provided that he or she is qualified to enter the profession, from entering it; but shall do all in her power to help them.” Three Guineas. 191.

[22] Ibid. 181.  “Let us never cease from thinking – what is this ‘civilization’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them?  What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?” Three Guineas. 187.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “You will agree that a battle that forces youth to spend its strength haggling in committee rooms, soliciting favours, assuming the mask of reverence to cloak its ridicule, inflicts wounds upon the human spirit which no surgery can heal. Even the battle of equal pay for equal work is not without its timeshed, its spiritshed …”. Three Guineas. 188.

[25] Ibid. 195.  The “professions have a certain undeniable effect ….  They make the people who practise them possessive, jealous of any infringement of their rights, and highly combative if anyone dares dispute them.  Are we not right in thinking that if we enter the same professions we shall acquire the same qualities?” Three Guineas. 191.

[26] “What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated. That word, according to the dictionary, means ‘one who champions the rights of women.’ Since the only right, the right to earn a living, has been won, the word no longer has a meaning. And a word without a meaning is a dead word, a corrupt word. Let us therefore celebrate this occasion by cremating the corpse. Let us write that word in large black letters on a sheet of foolscap; then solemnly apply a match to the paper.  Look, how it burns! What a light dances over the world! Now let us bray the ashes in a mortar with a goose-feather pen, and declare in unison singing together that anyone who uses the word in future is a ring-the-bell-and-run-away man, a mischief maker, a groper among old bones, the proof of whose defilement is written in a smudge of dirty water upon his face. The smoke has died down; the word is destroyed.” Three Guineas. 227.

[27] A similar refrain is echoed in the short story, A Society: “Once she knows how to read there’s only one thing you can teach her to believe in – and that is herself.” Virginia Woolf, Selected Short Stories. Penguin Books, 1993. 21. 

[28] A Room of One’s Own. 102.


[30] Ibid. 118.

[31] Ibid. 120. “What a fantasmagoria the mind is and a meetign place for dissemblables!” Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography. Penguin Books, 1993. 125.

[32] Ibid. 5.

[33] Ibid. 4.

[34] Three Guineas. 211-10.

[35] In her lecture to the National Society for Women’s Service, published with the title Professions for Women, Woolf personifies this destructive agency as the “Angel in the House”, which she as a writer, or for anyone who wishes to create, she was obliged to kill.  It is then that the question arises, what remains after the Angel is dead? “You may say that what remained was a simple common object – a young woman in  a beadroom with na inkpot. In other words, now that she rid herself of falsehood, that young woman had only to be herself.  Ah, but what is ‘herself’?” Well, not a “woman”, for no one knows what that is. Professions for Women. 357-8. See note 18.

[36] A Room of One’s Own. 26, 45-7.

[37] Ibid. 22.

[38] Ibid. 129-30.

[39] Orlando: A Biography. 215.

[40] This is a central theme of the essay, Three Guineas. See: 118-24; 132-3; 229-31.  With Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in the background, one is tempted to employ Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performative. “[F]or women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.” (Orlando: A Biography. 110).  And yet Orlando, having changed from male to female, and moving or performing both according to desire and/or circumstances, is freer than most in the assumption of her sex-gender identity. “She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device; the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally”. (Ibid. 153).  Though with him/her, the freedom is precarious, for the more she “performs” or acts as a woman, the more she feels that she becomes a real woman. (Ibid. 131-2) To keep reality at bay, is to profane sex/gender/sexuality, to understand them as play. And never “was any play so absorbing”. (ibid. 154). 

[41] “It is all an illusion (which is nothing against it, for illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world’s greatest benefactors), but as it is notorious that illusions are shattered by conflict with reality, so no real happiness, no real wit, no real profundity are tolerated where the illusion prevails”. Orlando: A Biography. 139.

[42] A Room of One’s Own. Ibid. 41-3.

[43] Ibid. 60.

[44] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

[45] Three Guineas. 231-46.

[46] Ibid. 103.

[47] Orlando: A Biography. 152.

[48] For a rich and detailed analysis of the Suffragettes’ resistance to photographic surveillance, see: Linda Mulcahy, “Docile Suffragettes? Resistance to Police Photography and the Possibility of Object–Subject Transformation”. Feminist Legal Studies. April 2015, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 79–99. The essay is also available on-line at:,L_Docile%20suffragettes_Mulcahy_Docile%20suffragettes_2015.pdf

[49] “When in 1910 Mr Birrell had his hat ‘reduced to pulp’ and his shins kicked by suffragettes, Sir Almeric Fitzroy commented, ‘na attack of this character upon a defenceless old man by na organized bando f “janissaries” will, it is hoped, convence many people of the insane and anarchical spirit actuating the movement.’ (Memoirs of Sir Almeric Fitzroy, Vol. II, p. 425.)” Quoted from Three Guineas. Note 12, 277.

[50] Elsa Dorlin, Se défendre: Une philosophie de la violence. Paris: Zones, Éditions La Découverte, 2017. 55-64.

[51] Ibid. 56.  Virginia Woolf’s perception of the suffragettes was ambiguous. Though acknowledging the enormity of the struggle for the women’s vote, she also thought – and we are tempted to agree with her – that the vote in itself was of little influence if it were not combined with wealth. In other words, for her, the “right to work” was of far greater significance than the franchise because it was, and is, she felt, wealth that determines social relations and politics in contemporary society. (Three Guineas. 129.) Furthermore, the franchise by itself, within a patriarcal society, did little, or nothing at all, to undermine patriarchy. (Three Guineas. Note 12, 277.) And in choosing to confront patriarchy head on, instead of turning one’s back on it, one might conclude that the movement was thereby forced to adopt “violent” means.

[52] “Feminism is a revolution, not a rearrangement of marketing guidelines, not a vague promotion of fellatio or swinging, it is not only a question of improving secondary salaries.  Feminism is a collective adventure, for women, for men, and for others.  A revolution, truly underway. A vision of the world, a choice. It isn’t a matter of opposing the small advantages of women against the small gains of men, but of fucking everything over.” King Kong Théorie. 145.

[53] The State remains the paradigm of the modern “politics of capture”. (See: Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political. (1932) Translated by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.  Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. (1934) Translated by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.) The State, however, is not an entity somehow divorced from the rest of society and acting upon it from some superior or external position. It is both constitutive of and constituted by social relations. “We are the State”, wrote famously, Gustav Landauer; a statement which resonates in Virginia Woolf’s criticism the distinction between the “private” and “public” spheres and of fascism as rooted in patriarchal, social relations. “Atmosphere plainly is a very mighty power. Atmosphere not only changes the sizes and shapes of things; it affects solid bodies, like salaries, which might have been thought impervious to atmosphere. An epic poem might be written about atmosphere, or a novel in ten or fifteen volumes. But since this is only a letter, and you are pressed for time, let us confine ourselves to the plain statement that atmosphere is one of the most powerful, partly because it is one of the most impalpable, of the enemies with which the daughters of educated men have to fight. If you think that statement exaggerated, look once more at the samples of atmosphere contained in those three quotations. We shall find there not only the reason why the pay of the professional woman is still so small, but something more dangerous, something which, if it spreads, may poison both sexes equally. There, in those quotations, is the egg of the very same worm that we know under other names in other countries. There we have in embryo the creature, Dictator as we call him when he is Italian or German, who believes that he has the right whether given by God, Nature, sex or race is immaterial, to dictate to other human beings how they shall live; what they shall do. Let us quote again: ‘Homes are the real places of the women who are now compelling men to be idle. It is time the Government insisted upon employers giving work to more men, thus enabling them to marry the women they cannot now approach.’ Place beside it another quotation: ‘There are two worlds in the life of the nation, the world of men and the world of women. Nature has done well to entrust the man with the care of his family and the nation. The woman’s world is her family, her husband, her children, and her home.’ One is written in English, the other in German. But where is the difference? Are they not both saying the same thing? Are they not both the voices of Dictators, whether they speak English or German, and are we not all agreed that the dictator when we meet him abroad is a very dangerous as well as a very ugly animal? And he is here among us, raising his ugly head, spitting his poison, small still, curled up like a caterpillar on a leaf, but in the heart of England. Is it not from this egg, to quote Mr Wells again, that ‘the practical obliteration of [our] freedom by Fascists or Nazis’ will spring? And is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity? And must not that fight wear down her strength and exhaust her spirit? Should we not help her to crush him in our own country before we ask her to help us to crush him abroad? And what right have we, Sir, to trumpet our ideals of freedom and justice to other countries when we can shake out from our most respectable newspapers any day of the week eggs like these?” Three Guineas. 175-6.

[54] Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, (1970) as Appendix 2 in Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Translated by G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso Books, 2014. 263.

[55] This is an operation that is equally at work politically, in the above mentioned practices of inclusion and exclusion.

[56] Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. 264.

[57] Ibid. 265.

[58] Ibid. 265-6.

[59] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge, 1993. 226.

[60] Ibid. 123.

[61] Ibid. 226.

[62] King Kong Théorie. 50.

[63] Global statistics on sexual harassment of women, rape and femicide render any other term than “war” to describe patriarchy’s violence against women an obscene euphemism.  See, for example, the following sources, among others, for such statistics:;

[64] A Room of One’s Own. 52.

[65] Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012. 55-6.

[66] For classical statements of this position, see: Clara Zetkin, ”For the Liberation of Women”, in Selected Writings. New York: International Publishers, 1984. 46.; Rosa Luxemburg, “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle”, in Selected Political Writings. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.; Alexandra Kollontai, “The New Woman”, in Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman. London: Orbach and Chambers, 1972.

[67] Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. 268.

[68] Though we have borrowed from Althusser’s reading of interpellation and ideological subjectification, we part with him on the idea that ideological construction is structured around a centre. “… all ideology is centred, that the Absolute Subject occupies the unique place of the Centre, and interpellates around it the infinity of individuals into subjects in a double mirror-connexion such that it subjects the subjects to the Subject, while giving them in the Subject in which each subject can contemplate its own image (present and future) the guarantee that this really concerns them and Him, and that since everything takes place in the Family (the Holy Family: the Family is in essence Holy), ‘God will recognize his own in it’, i.e. those who have recognized God, and have recognized themselves in Him, will be saved.” Ibid. In our view, ideology is woven and created throughout the woof and warp of society, without a centre or single ground.  As a consequence, it is neither ever fully coherent, fixed or total, nor sufficient to explain processes of subjectification which are equally or more dependent upon practices and affects.

[69] A Room of One’s Own. 42.

[70] Alyson Escalante, Gender Nihilism: An Anti-Manifesto. (

[71] Escalante’s reading of gender and anti-gender politics has changed since the publication of Gender Nihilism.  See her essay, Beyond Negativity: What Comes After Gender Nihilism? (

[72] A Room of One’s Own. 4.

[73] “… the world as it is at present is divided into two services; one the public and the other the private. In one world the sons of educated men work as civil servants, judges, soldiers and are paid for that work; in the other world, the daughters of educated men work as wives, mothers, daughters–but are they not paid for that work? Is the work of a mother, of a wife, of a daughter, worth nothing to the nation in solid cash? That fact, if it be a fact, is so astonishing that we must confirm it by appealing once more to the impeccable Whitaker [Whitaker’s Almanac]. Let us turn to his pages again. We may turn them, and turn them again. It seems incredible, yet it seems undeniable. Among all those offices there is no such office as a mother’s; among all those salaries there is no such salary as a mother’s. The work of an archbishop is worth £15,000 a year to the State; the work of a judge is worth £5,000 a year; the work of a permanent secretary is worth £3,000 a year; the work of an army captain, of a sea captain, of a sergeant of dragoons, of a policeman, of a postman–all these works are worth paying out of the taxes, but wives and mothers and daughters who work all day and every day, without whose work the State would collapse and fall to pieces, without whose work your sons, sir, would cease to exist, are paid nothing whatever. Can it be possible?” Three Guineas. 176-7.

[74] Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. (1884) (

[75] Revolution at Point Zero. 5.

[76] “The difference with housework lies in the fact that not only has it been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character. Housework was transformed into a natural attribute, rather than being recognized as work, because it was destined to be unwaged. Capital had to convince us that it is a natural, unavoidable, and even fulfilling activity to make us accept working without a wage. In turn, the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it, except in the privatized kitchen-bedroom quarrel that all society agrees to ridicule, thereby further reducing the protagonist of a struggle. We are seen as nagging bitches, not as workers in struggle.” Revolution at Point Zero. 16.

[77] “Capital’s use of the wage also obscures who is the working class and keeps workers divided. Through the wage relation, capital organizes different labor markets (a labor market for blacks, youth, women and white males), and opposes a “working class” to a “non-working” proletariat, supposedly parasitic on the work of the former. Thus, as welfare recipients we are told we live off the taxes of the “working class,” as housewives we are pictured as the bottomless pits of our husbands’ paychecks.” Ibid. 36.

[78] “If we start from this analysis we can see the revolutionary implications of the demand for wages for housework. It is the demand by which our nature ends and our struggle begins because just to want wages for housework means to refuse that work as the expression of our nature, and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.” Ibid. 18.

[79] Ibid. 39. If we have cited only the work of Silvia Federici, it is by no means to exclude other figures of the “wages for housework” movement, such as  Selma James, Brigitte Galtier, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, nor other Marxist-feminist traditions, most notably the work done by Roswitha Scholz within “value criticism”.

[80] Jean-Paul  Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego. (1936-37) Translated by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 89.

[81] A Room of One’s Own. 5.

[82] To justify my appeal to Woolf’s fiction, I can do no better than to cite her. Referring to the fact that women exist in the historical record largely registered by men, she notes that a “very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.” What emerges then are monsters of male imagination that have no existence in fact. Consequently, what “one must do to bring her to life was to think poetically and prosaically at one and the same moment.” A Room of One’s Own. 52-3. 

[83] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. London: Vintage, 1992. 58.

[84] Virginia Woolf, “The Moment: Summer’s Night”, in The Moment and Other Essays (1947). (

[85] If Virginia Woolf’s literary works elaborate profound reflections on the impermanence and plasticity of the self, among other things, perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the novel Orlando.  In the long passage that we cite forthwith, overlapping “selves” flow through Orlando with the speed of a moving car, each one but a different perspective on his-her experience.  The illusion is to think that amidst this profusion, there is a true self, the conscious self, desirous of control, when in fact this last is only one more self among others. And the art of life is measurable by one’s freedom to play with this multiplicity of possibilities.

Orlando’s experience-revelation of the self:

The Old Kent Road was very crowded on Thursday, the eleventh of October 1928. People spilt off the pavement. There were women with shopping bags. Children ran out. There were sales at drapers’ shops. Streets widened and narrowed. Long vistas steadily shrunk together. Here was a market. Here a

funeral. Here a procession with banners upon which was written ‘Ra–Un’, but what else? Meat was very red. Butchers stood at the door. Women almost had their heels sliced off. Amor Vin– that was over a porch. A woman looked out of a bedroom window, profoundly contemplative, and very still. Applejohn and Applebed, Undert–. Nothing could be seen whole or read from start to finish. What was seen begun–like two friends starting to meet each other across the street–was never seen ended. After twenty minutes the body and mind were like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a sack and, indeed, the process of motoring fast out of London so much resembles the chopping up small of identity which precedes unconsciousness and perhaps death itself that it is an open question in what sense Orlando can be said to have existed at the present moment. Indeed we should have given her over for a person entirely disassembled were it not that here, at last, one green screen was held out on the right, against which the little bits of paper fell more slowly; and then another was held out on the left so that one  could see the separate scraps now turning over by themselves in the air; and then green screens were held continuously on either side, so that her mind regained the illusion of holding things within itself and she saw a cottage, a farmyard and four cows, all precisely life-size.

When this happened, Orlando heaved a sigh of relief, lit a cigarette, and puffed for a minute or two in silence. Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, ‘Orlando? For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not–Heaven help us–all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two. So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one’s name) meaning by that, Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another. Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends. But it is not altogether plain sailing, either, for though one may say, as Orlando said (being out in the country and needing another self presumably) Orlando? still the Orlando she needs may not come; these selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own, call them what you will (and for

many of these things there is no name) so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine–and so on; for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his different selves have made with him–and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.

So Orlando, at the turn by the barn, called ‘Orlando?’ with a note of interrogation in her voice and waited. Orlando did not come.

‘All right then,’ Orlando said, with the good humour people practise on these occasions; and tried another. For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the nigger’s head down; the boy who strung it up again; the boy who sat on the hill; the boy who saw the poet; the boy who handed the Queen the bowl of rose water; or she may have called upon the young man who fell in love with Sasha; or upon the Courtier; or upon the Ambassador; or upon the Soldier; or upon the Traveller; or she may have wanted the woman to come to her; the Gipsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life; the Patroness of Letters; the woman who called Mar (meaning hot baths and evening fires) or Shelmerdine (meaning

crocuses in autumn woods) or Bonthrop (meaning the death we die daily) or all three together–which meant more things than we have space to write out–all were different and she may have called upon any one of them.

Perhaps; but what appeared certain (for we are now in the region of ‘perhaps’ and ‘appears’) was that the one she needed most kept aloof, for she was, to hear her talk, changing her selves as quickly as she

drove–there was a new one at every corner–as happens when, for some unaccountable reason, the conscious self, which is the uppermost, and has the power to desire, wishes to be nothing but one self. This is what some people call the true self, and it is, they say, compact of all the selves we have it in us to be; commanded and locked up by the Captain self, the Key self, which amalgamates and controls them all. Orlando was certainly seeking this self as the reader can judge from overhearing her talk as

she drove (and if it is rambling talk, disconnected, trivial, dull, and sometimes unintelligible, it is the reader’s fault for listening to a lady talking to herself; we only copy her words as she spoke them, adding

in brackets which self in our opinion is speaking, but in this we may well be wrong).

‘What then? Who then?’ she said. ‘Thirty-six; in a motor-car; a woman. Yes, but a million other things as well. A snob am I? The garter in the hall? The leopards? My ancestors? Proud of them? Yes! Greedy, luxurious, vicious? Am I? (here a new self came in). Don’t care a damn if I am. Truthful? I think so. Generous? Oh, but that don’t count (here a new self came in). Lying in bed of a morning listening to the pigeons on fine linen; silver dishes; wine; maids; footmen. Spoilt? Perhaps. Too many things for nothing. Hence my books (here she mentioned fifty classical titles; which represented, so we think, the early romantic works that she tore up). Facile, glib, romantic. But (here another self came in) a duffer, a fumbler. More clumsy I couldn’t be. And–and–(here she hesitated for a word and if we suggest ‘Love’ we may be wrong, but certainly she laughed and blushed and then cried out–) A toad set in emeralds! Harry the Archduke! Blue-bottles on the ceiling! (here another self came in). But Nell, Kit, Sasha? (she was sunk in gloom: tears actually shaped themselves and she had long given over crying). Trees, she said. (Here another self came in.) I love trees (she was passing a clump) growing there a thousand years. And barns (she passed a tumbledown barn at the edge of the road). And sheep dogs (here one came trotting across the road. She carefully avoided it). And the night. But people (here another self came in). People? (She repeated it as a question.) I don’t know. Chattering, spiteful, always telling lies. (Here she turned into the High Street of her native town, which was crowded, for it was market day, with farmers, and shepherds, and old women with hens in baskets.) I like peasants. I understand crops. But (here another self came skipping over the top of her mind like the beam from a lighthouse). Fame! (She laughed.) Fame! Seven editions. A prize. Photographs in the evening papers (here she alluded to the ‘Oak Tree’ and ‘The Burdett Coutts’ Memorial Prize which she had won; and we must snatch space to

remark how discomposing it is for her biographer that this culmination to which the whole book moved, this peroration with which the book was to end, should be dashed from us on a laugh casually like this; but the truth is that when we write of a woman, everything is out of place–culminations and perorations; the accent never falls where it does with a man). Fame! she repeated. A poet–a charlatan; both every morning as regularly as the post comes in. To dine, to meet; to meet, to dine; fame–fame! (She had here to slow down to pass through the crowd of market people. But no one noticed her. A porpoise in a fishmonger’s shop attracted far more attention than a lady who had won a prize and might, had she chosen, have worn three coronets one on top of another on her brow.) Driving very slowly she now hummed as if it were part of an old song, ‘With my guineas I’ll buy flowering trees, flowering trees, flowering trees and walk among my flowering trees and tell my sons what fame is’. So she hummed, and now all her words began to sag here and there like a barbaric necklace of heavy beads. ‘And walk among my flowering trees,’ she sang, accenting the words strongly, ‘and see the

moon rise slow, the waggons go…’ Here she stopped short and looked ahead of her intently at the bonnet of the car in profound meditation.

‘He sat at Twitchett’s table,’ she mused, ‘with a dirty ruff on…Was it old Mr Baker come to measure the timber? Or was it Sh-p–re? (for when we speak names we deeply reverence to ourselves we never speak them whole.) She gazed for ten minutes ahead of her, letting the car come almost to a standstill.

‘Haunted!’ she cried, suddenly pressing the accelerator. ‘Haunted! Ever since I was a child. There flies the wild goose. It flies past the window out to sea. Up I jumped (she gripped the steering-wheel tighter) and stretched after it. But the goose flies too fast. I’ve seen it, here–there–there–England, Persia, Italy. Always it flies fast out to sea and always I fling after it words like nets (here she flung her hand

out) which shrivel as I’ve seen nets shrivel drawn on deck with only sea-weed in them; and sometimes there’s an inch of silver–six words—in the bottom of the net. But never the great fish who lives in the coral groves.’ Here she bent her head, pondering deeply.

And it was at this moment, when she had ceased to call ‘Orlando’ and was deep in thoughts of something else, that the Orlando whom she had called came of its own accord; as was proved by the change that now came over her (she had passed through the lodge gates and was entering the park).

The whole of her darkened and settled, as when some foil whose addition makes the round and solidity of a surface is added to it, and the shallow becomes deep and the near distant; and all is contained as water is contained by the sides of a well. So she was now darkened, stilled, and become, with the addition of this Orlando, what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self. And she fell silent. For it is probable that when people talk aloud, the selves (of which there may be more than two thousand) are conscious of disseverment, and are trying to communicate, but when communication is established they fall silent. (Orlando. 211-16)

[86] Giorgio Agamben, “Identité sans personne”, in Nudités. Translated by Martin Rueff. Paris: Bibliothèque Rivages, 2009. 81.

[87] Ibid. 81-2.

[88] Ibid. 84. [Translation mine]

[89] Ibid. 85.

[90] Ibid. 87.

[91] Ibid. 87-8. [Translation mine]

[92] The police surveillance of the suffragettes, and their attempted resistance to it, takes on a more profound significance if read against the background of this change.  Following Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s reading of “bio-politics”, we can say of the suffragettes that they were among the first modern political movements to be classified and controlled according to biometric criteria.  And their resistance then to bio-political management was not only a tactic of dissimulation or subterfuge, to allow for militant action, but the outlining, in however embryonic a form, a politics, a collective life, beyond the mask-persona.   

[93] “Identité sans personne”. 90. [Translation mine]

[94] In part, it is in this context that the contemporay proliferation of State and para-State violence against those deemed “biologically” unfit to reside or belong to the body politic must be understood.

[95] Gilles Deleuze, “Désire et plaisir” in Deux Régimes de Fous: Textes et Entretiens 1975-1995. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2003. 120. [Translation mine]

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