Threatening Ambivalence: Aliza Shvarts’s Disruption of the Patriarchal (Hetero)Normative
By Asam Ahmad
ABSTRACT: In April of 2008, Yale University’s Aliza Shvarts was accused of a sort of ‘insanity’ that made her unable to make sound judgements and jeopardize her own body for the sake of her art. This paper aims to explore the nature of Shvarts’ artistic project and understand the hyper-reactionary interventions that followed its appearance. I will argue that what caused this hyper intervention and the disciplinary actions that followed was more than just the project itself – it was the very ambiguity of the Event the project was presenting us with, its very refusal to ‘name’ the meaning of that event, and its threatening status in the (patriarchal) public discourse as a result of this ambivalence. In attempting to explicate the threatening (but emancipatory) potential of Shvarts’ insistence on ambivalence, I hope to demonstrate that the punitive measures incurred by Shvarts for refusing to name that ambivalence ["name that ambivalence" not idiomatic. could replace with "disambiguate" or "explain her performance" MH] and thus contain its disruptive potential reveals the ways in which the dominant patriarchal and heteronormative discourses circumscribe the female body and thus deny the autonomy of the female subject.
In April of 2008, Yale University’s Aliza Shvarts was accused of a sort of ‘insanity’ that made her unable to make sound judgements and jeopardize her own body for the sake of her art. As her senior art project, approved and guided by two senior faculty members, was about to be shown at Green Hall (part of the Yale campus), US media felt obliged to intervene, telling us what the project was really about, why and how it was so unbelievably shocking, and making sure to question the ‘mental health’ of the student who was presenting it along the way. What caused this hyper intervention and the disciplinary actions that followed was more than just the project itself – it was the very ambiguity of the Event the project was presenting us with, its very refusal to ‘name’ the meaning of that event, and its threatening status in the (patriarchal) public discourse as a result of this ambivalence. This paper aims to explicate the threatening (but emancipatory) potential of Shvarts’ insistence on ambivalence, and in so doing, to demonstrate that the punitive measures incurred by Shvarts for refusing to name that ambivalence and thus contain its disruptive potential reveals the ways in which the dominant patriarchal and heteronormative discourses circumscribe the female body and thus deny the autonomy of the female subject.
I. Discerning the Potential
Shvarts’ (forced) explanation of her project insists on ambivalence as a fundamental component of her artistic project. Here is the first paragraph of her statement:
For the past year, I performed repeated self-induced miscarriages. I created a group of fabricators from volunteers who submitted to periodic STD screenings and agreed to their complete and permanent anonymity. From the 9th to the 15th day of my menstrual cycle, the fabricators would provide me with sperm samples, which I used to privately self-inseminate. Using a needleless syringe, I would inject the sperm near my cervix within 30 minutes of its collection, so as to insure the possibility of fertilization. On the 28th day of my cycle, I would ingest an abortifacient, after which I would experience cramps and heavy bleeding.
These self-induced miscarriages gain their ambiguous and ambivalent status by Shvarts’ ingestion of the abortifacient near ‘the expected date of [her] menstruation’ cycle. The artistic piece itself consists of a giant cube covered with plastic sheeting onto which Shvart’s blood is plastered with Vaseline so as to stop it from coagulating. Onto this cube are projected images of Shvarts in her bathtub, collecting the blood as it is discharged from her body. As Shvarts herself notes, the ‘performance exists only as I chose to represent it’ – a statement which, unfortunately, will be flatly contradicted by the institutional intervention carried out by Yale’s administrative staff. What is important for now, is the very ambiguity that Shvarts insists upon and its isolation of ‘the locus of ontology to an act of readership.’ The artistic representation forces the reader to name the blood on display – and in so doing, to participate in the normative injunction to ‘literally construct bodies’ through the linguistically and politically ideological and authorial act of naming the blood (as either menstrual discharge or as the result of miscarriage).
Louis Althusser is helpful here in explicating the ways in which the body does not just come into being physically but is already ideologically and linguistically ‘pre-appointed.’ Noting the ‘ideological ritual that surrounds the expectation of a ‘birth,’ Althusser writes: ‘[everyone] knows how much and in what way an unborn child is expected: [...] it is certain in advance that it will bear its Father’s Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable.’ Even before its birth, ‘the child is always-already a subject (boy or girl).’ These ideological rituals ‘literally construct bodies’ – which is obviously not the same as saying that the body exists only as an ideological or linguistic construct. Instead, it points towards the ways in which no ‘subject’ is or can be formed outside of the patriarchal and (hetero)normative discourse which demarcates the space the subject will occupy, and that even before it is born, there are ideological, linguistic and even political demands that it must fulfill simply in order to be constituted as a subject. Shvarts’ refusal to name that blood then – as either menstrual or a result of miscarriage – deprives the ‘reader’ of the ideological need to partake in these expectant rituals, and requires the reader to locate the ontology of the act and the blood him/herself – to name it – and thus determine its coordinates within the normative discourse as either ‘just menstrual blood’ or the blood of the pre-appointed, ‘irreplaceable’ subject in Shvart’s womb. [I wonder whether this is a genuine or a false dilemma. It would seem possible to "name" the blood in several ways that the author fails to mention - why must the blood of an abortion be the blood of an 'irreplaceable' subject? Why should we even think that a fetus is a subject / person? MH]
Shvarts’ refusal to name that blood, her refusal to allow us to easily digest the piece by self-ascribing a ‘word to something physical,’ is what gets her into ‘trouble.’ The confinement of the ‘something physical’ outside of the linguistic order (and thus inside Lacan’s Real), gives us an idea of the troubling nature of ambivalence – particularly in relation to the female body – and the dominant discourse’s need to remove that ambivalence in order to stabilize and contain its disruptive elements.
II. The Insistence on Ambivalence
Coincidentally, Shvarts’ own explanation of her project relies most heavily on Judith Butler’s text entitled ‘Gender Trouble.’ Shvarts’ refusal to assign a word to the blood means that the performance (and the act itself) exists only as ‘copies of copies of which there is no original.’ Besides the obvious invocation of Derrida here, one should also note the analogy with Butler’s argument that gender is performative rather than expressive, that it is learnt (imitated, copied) rather than expressing ‘an internal core or substance.’ When Shvarts’ notes that ‘it is a myth that women are “meant” to be feminine and men masculine, that penises and vaginas are “meant” for penetrative heterosexual sex,’ she is implicitly trying to destabilize the (hetero)normative categorizations of gender and (especially) sex as ontological givens, as somehow tied together by some transcendental moment prior to the ‘sexed’ body. She is, in her own words, asking us to see that ‘normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form’ – a mythology that enables the ‘sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective[s].’
Butler’s reading of Julia Kristeva’s Abjection can help us make sense of this seemingly hyperbolic claim. For Butler, the body is not written upon as a ‘pre-discursive entity’ because the body itself does not exist prior ‘to its cultural inscription.’ Butler argues that we must reconsider the body’s status as a ‘blank page,’ as a ‘void,’ and as ‘the inscribed surface of events’ if we are to ‘truly’ emancipate ourselves from the heteronormative construction of a stable male/female gender binary and ‘the implicit hierarchy’ it maintains. In elucidating her argument, Butler notes that to maintain such discursive and ontological stability, the body as a ‘discrete’ entity must first be stabilized – and it is this very stability which Kristeva’s notion of the abject calls into question. Butler writes: ‘[what] constitutes the limit of the body is never merely material, but [rather] the surface, the skin [of the body] is systemically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions; indeed, the boundaries of the body become [...] the limits of the social per se.’ In Kristeva’s account, these boundaries through which the discrete body and the discrete subject are constituted require the ‘abjection’ of that ‘which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement,’ and for these abjections to be ‘literally rendered “Other”‘ in order for the body to maintain its status as a discretely demarcated entity and a discretely defined ‘self.’
Shvarts’ blood then, as it exists in the artistic installation, is so ‘threatening’ precisely because it threatens to disrupt the stability of these discretely demarcated entities; precisely because it refuses to abject or to name that which must be abjected for the normatively defined and normatively constructed foundation of the body as a discretely demarcated entity to be maintained. We can begin to see now why Shvarts’ makes the claim that these mythologies (of function) enable the ‘sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective[s].’ If the abject is that which ‘confounds [the "inner" and "outer" worlds of the subject] by those excremental passages in which the inner effectively becomes [the] outer,’ it follows that the repulsion, the disgust one feels in the presence of the abject is more than just a biological impulse or an ‘evolutionary’ function – it effectively locates the ‘mode by which Others become shit’ and ‘I’ retain my purity. Read in this way, Shvarts’ blood in the piece, its ambivalent, unnamed presence and its refusal to become abjected as simply a ‘natural’ biological expulsion, threatens more than just the public discourse and the political and normative conventions that accompany it: it effectively threatens us – threatens our constitution of ourselves as subjects and as discrete selves. It refuses to admit to our authorial intervention by its insistence on its ambiguous and ambivalent status, a status that is unable to be contained by the discursive fields which wish it to be absolved, disappeared, and denied.
III. Containing the Ambivalence
Thus far, I have tried to limit the discussion of this Event in the public sphere in order to explicate what Shvarts’ was trying to do and why it was so threatening to the public discourse surrounding it. It will be instructive now to bring into focus that (hyper) public reaction and the institutional interventions that ensued. Noting this reaction is instructive in different but interrelated ways: it can help us explicate what it reveals about the status of a woman’s body in our culture today, what the normative injunctions are doing here, and how the disciplinary, punitive measures surrounding the woman’s body function, holding it in place, and making sure it does not cause trouble.
Even a cursory glance at the media’s urgent need to name what Shvarts is doing makes apparent that, where Shvarts insists on ambivalence, the characterizations rush to get rid of it, to name her project as either ‘Abortion Art,’ a ‘Hoax,’ or a ‘Rant against the “Patriarchal Heteronormative.”‘ As I have been arguing all along, this immediately demonstrates that the act of naming is an ideological and political act: by containing the disruptive ambivalence of Shvarts’ project, the incitement to name illustrates the destabilizing potential of Shvarts’ disruption of the “Patriarchal Heteronormative.”
The installation was first brought to the public’s attention by the The Drudge Report website. From there it was picked up by various news outlets and discussed excessively in the blogosphere. This discussion was, alas, quick to follow in the ‘shocked-but-not-awed’ mould of the national US media. One website asked readers the question ‘How messed up is Aliza Shvarts?’ – with the only choices being: a) Very messed up, but about what I’d expect from an artist, b) Very very messed up, or c) Put-her-in-jail-messed-up. Conservative news outlets in particular were quick to emphasize the ‘shock’ of a woman performing ‘repeated self-induced’ miscarriages for the purposes of artistic commentary – but they were quick to transmute ‘miscarriages’ into abortions, the a-word having a particularly insidious tinge in American cultural discourse. Even The New York Times, which claims for itself the status of the ‘paper of record,’ sided with the Yale administrators in a lengthy article explaining how, ‘while freedom of expression is important in the academic world, so is providing guidance and setting limits.’ Mario Lavandeira, the owner of Perez Hilton, the popular gossip website, wrote a lengthy diatribe against the sanity of Miss Shvarts, replete with several adolescent ‘Ew[s]!’ and the mandated ‘humanistic’ interventions to ‘save her from herself!’
With this onslaught of superficial, hyper-reactionary characterizations of Shvarts’ project (and disturbingly, of Shvarts herself), the administrative staff at Yale University decided that ‘something had to give.’ That something, of course, was the questioning of Aliza Shvarts, which concluded with the demand that the project and its attendant concealment of what actually transpired had to be publicly divulged. It was thus revealed that Shvarts’ entire project was a ‘creative fiction,’ the redundant adjective inevitably required to quell even the most patriarchal of institutions. This intervention and the following statement released by the Yale administrators reassured all concerned individuals that they need not worry themselves as the sanctity of the patriarchal discourse had not ‘really’ been violated.
While this revelation is extremely unfortunate, as it takes away the initial force of Shvarts’ project, the hyper reactionary characterizations by the media and the institutional interventions by the Yale administrators unmasks an even more disturbing reality. By reacting so forcefully, by denying Shvarts’ right to her own privacy and her rights as an artist, the consequences which resulted from this public revelation reveal even more clearly the controls which the dominant discourse maintains on the female body and the female subject.
Even apart from the fact that only women can give birth to children, I suspect that, all other things being the same, this piece would not have roused nearly the level of frenzy it did or the incitement to disciplinary action it required had the piece been performed by a man. While we can recognize the real ethical concerns outlined by some in the media, it is important to note that what is at stake is Yale’s public disclosure of what actually transpired in the period leading up to Shvart’s public installation. Yale could have easily verified whether the project crossed any ethical boundaries, but instead they chose to publicly disclose the nature of the entire project. This explicitly tells us that the rights of the dominant culture to not be disturbed are more important than the female subject’s attempt to artistically explore why those disturbances are there as disturbances, and how and why they function in the way that they do.
Further, the normative and institutional interventions answer the question of the female subject’s bodily sovereignty explicitly in the negative: not only is the female subject not an equal subject – the female subject does not even have the right to her own body. As one feminist blogger sarcastically notes,
Ours is a quaint, superstitious culture with strict rules about where and when and why and how male and female reproductive materials may touch. There are different consequences depending on the sex of the parties involved. For example, there are no consequences at all for men (unless they are homos). But women sure have a lot of explaining to do if their genetic material touches someone else’s before they have secured the permission of a bunch of authority figures, such as the ghost of a dead Nazarene on a stick, their dad, their boyfriend, or the U.S. Government.
While we can have a laugh at ‘the ghost of [the] dead Nazarene on a stick’ or the characterization of our culture as ‘quaint’ and ‘superstitious,’ we cannot afford to forget that these differential measures and consequences, apart from being soundly unfair, are extremely destructive not only to the female subject but to our claims for being a ‘just’ and ‘fair’ society. Moreover, they reveal the ways in which our culture maintains its patriarchal and heteronormative stability by restricting different punitive measures for different subjects, and by implicitly demanding adherence to its prescribed ontological categories of being by reserving for itself the right to regularly ‘punish those who fail to do their gender right.’
Through an explication of both Aliza Shvart’s artistic goals and the punitive measures she incurred by refusing to ‘do her gender right,’ I have tried to show how the dominant patriarchal and heteronormative discourse maintain their stability and their inevitably sutured coherence. This dominant discourse maintains for itself the institutional, social, and even linguistic apparatuses which make sure that the female subject does not exercise her full autonomy as an ‘ego-driven’ consciousness or fulfill her rights as an individual subject. Certainly, I have not exhausted all of the ways in which and through which the female subject is interpellated, the ways in which even the right to her own body and its processes are denied, and the multiple ways in which this circumscribed space is continually being reinscribed for her. But I have also tried to show that, even as the dominant discourse shores up its discursive unity, structural cracks and possible openings for future interventions appear. Aliza Shvarts’ project may not be shown at the Green Hall because of her refusal to be denied her autonomy as a female subject and as an artist, but the consequences she has incurred and the singularly unfair judgements that have been passed upon her – by the public, by the media, by the institutions of which she is a part, and, of course, by the dominant patriarchal discourse – show us more clearly than perhaps ever before that the emancipation of the female subject remains an ongoing project, and that it is ‘the prerogative of every individual to acknowledge and explore’ not only the emancipatory potential this project contains for all human beings, but also to explore the ways in which we can, and indeed must, help bring it to fruition.
Edidin, Peter. Controversy Over Abortion Art. The New York Times. April 19, 2008. Accessed April 25, 2008. < http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/19/arts/design/19arts-CONTROVERSYO_BRF.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Shvarts%2C+Aliza&st=nyt&oref=slogin>.
Nizaa, Mike. Sticking to the Bit? Yale’s Abortion Artist. The New York Times. April 18, 2008. Accessed April 18, 2008. < http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/sticking-to-the-bit-yales-abortion-artist/index.html?hp>
Shvarts, Aliza. Shvarts Explains her ‘Repeated Self-Induced Miscarriages.’ Yale Daily News. April 18, 2008. Accessed April 18, 2008. <http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/24559>. Unless other indicated, all quotes are from Shvarts’ statement.
Daum, Meghan. It’s Period Art. Los Angeles Times. April 26, 2008. Accessed April 27, 2008. <http://www.latimes.com/news/columnists/la-oe-daum26apr26,1,2249073.column>.
Shvarts notes that her project is meant to be an ‘intervention into our normative understanding of “the Real” and its accompanying politics of convention.’ She is, of course, invoking Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic model here, and it is important to note the importance of ambivalence as a disrupting intervention into the seemingly smooth functioning of the Symbolic and Imaginary Orders. See, for instance, Leitch, Vincent. Jacques Lacan. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. 1278-1284.
Ibid, 2492. This has sometimes been read as if Butler is proposing that there simply is no body. Of course Butler knows that there is – but her account of the dangers of maintaining the body as somehow untouched by the discursive fields through which we access it underlines the problems of denying a ‘precategorical soure of disruption’ in our understanding of the body. Another way of saying this is that we must acknowledge and deal with the fact that we have no access to the body outside of the discursive fields of ‘intelligibility’ and knowledge which structure our thought and form the basis of all our emancipatory ideals (2490-92).
NA. Aliza Shvarts: Abortion Goo Girl Rants Against the “Patriarchal Heteronormative.” American Digest: Dispatches From the New America. April 17, 2008. Accessed April 25, 2008. <http://americandigest.org/mt-archives/bad_americans/abortion_goo_gi.php>.
Nizaa, Mike. Sticking to the Bit? Yale’s Abortion Artist. The New York Times. April 18, 2008. In the interests of space, I will cite the rest of the news sources in the Works cited page, unless two different articles are from the same source.
Drucilla Cornell’s reinterpreation of Derrida’s Law for a feminist jurisprudence is extremely instructive here. If the Law does not, and even cannot, ‘see’ the literal and symbolic violence it incurs on the female subject – indeed, if it cannot even recognize her as an equal subject under the law, what obligation does a woman have to follow that civic law when it denies or conflicts with her very subjectivity under the Law and as a human being? See, Cornell, Drucilla. Civil Disobedience and Deconstruction. Feminist Interpretations of Derrida. Ed., Holland, Nancy J. NA.
As the owner of the blog I Blame the Patriarchy writes: ‘Because Art is godly and dudely and should always be literally, unambiguously true, and literally, unambiguously devoid of the artist’s ladyparts (which two conditions are really one and the same); anything less shows a shocking disregard for human life, heterosexuality, the rules, the Lord, the exacting standards of misogyny uniformly and eternally endorsed by our august culture of domination, and those baronial Yale benefactors who happen to be anti-choice’. NA. She Couldn’t Just Sign It “R. Mutt” and Call It a Day? I Blame The Patriarchy. April 22, 2008. Accessed April 24, 2008. <http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2008/04/22/yale-art-hoax/>.
NA. Miscarriage Art Cube Provokes “Outcry.” I Blame The Patriarchy. April 18, 2008. <http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2008/04/18/miscarriage-art-cube-provokes-outcry/>.
Yale administrators demanded that, unless she sign a statement that her ‘performance [...] was a fiction that she had concocted,’ her project would not be shown. Shvarts refused. Kennedy, Randy. Yale Demands End to Student’s Performance. The New York Times. April 22, 2008. Accessed April 25, 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/22/arts/22arts-YALEDEMANDSE_BRF.html?scp=3&sq=Shvarts%2C+Aliza&st=nyt>.
Asam Ahmad (’10) is a Philosophy and Literature specialist at University of Toronto.