A Darkening Hour: Jacqueline Rose, Southbank Centre, 11 October 2014

Jacqueline Rose’s new book Women in Dark Times is about permission. ‘What [the women discussed in the book] allowed me to think is that there’s the most intimate relationship between a critique of a certain kind of power and inequality, and an understanding of the kind of psychic subtext of who we are.’

In a conversation with Jude Kelly at the Southbank Centre, Rose talks in her usual vein about otherness and marginalised voices, about the women who aren’t heard in the same way, or not at all. Both Rose and Kelly agree on the need for feminist discourse to be central in elucidating power structures in contemporary society. ‘What each of those women do,’ says Rose of her subjects, ‘is to push further towards an understanding of women’s deep entrenchment in forms of intimacy which can be most enabling, and terribly painful.’

The women, who feature in the book that bears a homage to Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times, range across different times, countries and professions: Rosa Luxemburg, Marilyn Monroe, Esther Shalov-Gertz. When prodded on how the structure of the book came about, Rose talks about how there was an element of chance to the first thoughts behind some of the essays. Suggestions from editors were equally fruitful to leafing through a Vanity Fair piece about Marilyn Monroe’s new diaries at the hairdresser’s. Two lectures at LSE, one in honour of Ralph Miliband and another about gender, gave rise to her piece on Rosa Luxemburg.

When Jude Kelly mentions Slavoj Žižek’s recent statement about the necessity of a new master emerging, Rose responds: ‘Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be, for any of these women, a master. In fact, the master is, for all of them, the problem.’ In other words, a monolith of power is not an answer. Instead, it’s more of a tight-rope walk: ‘How do you allow for a protest against inequality while not feeling you have to relinquish the complexity of what it means to be a human subject?’

Allowing for this complexity means to listen carefully to women, for instance victims of honour killings. ‘The stories were absolutely remarkable,’ she says on not understanding the women through only their deaths but digging deeper. Heshu Yones, writing to her father, questioning his cruelty towards her before her death, says, ‘”Life being as it is, isn’t necessarily how it is. It depends on how you choose to look at it.” It’s as if she’s been reading a postmodern textbook.’ For Rose, naming honour killing as a ‘non-Western crime’ deflects from it. For her, our inability to engage properly with honour killings is indicative of not only revelling in a failure of multiculturalism, but also buying into the false idea of sexuality in the west as ‘something we control, possess, master, instead of sexuality being always the trouble that it is’.

Similarly, as the discussion turns to Marilyn Monroe, listening, rather than merely looking, is vital. Rose calls Monroe a ‘truth-sayer’ about McCarthyism and the Cold War around her. Very seldom listened to, silenced, for instance, in the cutting of her critical lines in the end of The Misfits, Rose states that Monroe was ‘meant to carry the perfectibility of the world,’ which the US aspired to after the Second World War. ‘”Be perfect,”’ Rose says society tells women, ‘so that culture doesn’t have to look at how it’s damaging you as women and how it’s damaging everybody else.’

It is surprising to recast Monroe as a hero of this discovery, but Rose is convinced. Monroe, who criticised Clark Gable’s not being able to hate, claimed that to eradicate hate means that you also escape love. This type of knowledge, of ‘the complexity of the psyche’ is, to Rose, not only dissent but an ‘antidote to the wrong kind of power.’

As Kelly states, not only economic equality but also the psychic and cultural issues around power are at stake for Rose, for whom the point is to dwell in the negativity and not shy away from it. The discussion constantly returns to power. Rose advances from Nawal el Saadawi in The Hidden Face of Eve: ‘Arab men cannot bear the intelligent woman because she knows that his masculinity is not an essential truth; she knows there’s something fraudulent about it.’ Similarly, a male control of women as honour depends on her being honourable, and therefore puts the man in a position of precariousness, because he needs her too much. And this leads Rose back to a feminist insight: ‘power is never more ruthless than when it’s fighting [against] losing itself’.

As Rose discusses identification with the feminine, she mentions the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s thoughts on the Freudian phase where a boy has to repudiate and forget his identification with the mother. ‘Culture won’t stand for that identification,’ Rose declares. She takes as an example Ed Miliband, pilloried by the press for this reason among others. ‘He’s not assertive, clear, knowing, and self-controlled enough. He stops, he thinks, he hesitates’, which is not the leadership we’re conditioned to crave, a leadership that ‘doesn’t give a trace of doubt’ over ‘what it means to possess your own power’. In a similar criticism of our contemporary culture, which is infatuated with staunchness, Rose calls ours a ‘CBT culture’, allowing very little psychic ambivalence and being ‘profoundly anti-analytic’. Perhaps the most vital undercurrent that Rose and Kelly unearth from this is in stating the radicality of ‘pausing for thought’. More broadly, there is a call for a humanities education, ‘which this government hates’.

Women in Dark Times looks at the complexities without necessarily offering new strategies. There’s a crystallisation of thought and a courage that comes from both expertise and having lived with these questions for a long timeEvoking a mistranslation of Julia Kristeva’s 1974 interview, ‘La Femme, ce n’est jamais ça’, Rose retranslates it as ‘Woman – no, that’s not it.’ She mentions a more ambivalent ‘double discourse of power’, a call for women to be the supreme ironists of power. Rose’s psychoanalytics go into the darkest places, where one might gain insights that offer an alternative to violence. How far? ‘Jusqu’à l’outrance – just a bit over the hill,’ she says, mischievously.

‘I think it’s absolutely central to feminism that we tear open the gap between the dominant mode of violent, self-assertive knowing masculinity and what many men actually feel themselves to be.’ When asked about the Microsoft CEO’s remarks on women’s asking for a raise being bad karma, Rose deems it equally chilling to Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto Lean In, which urges women to identify with power as far as possible, because, she says, ‘the system is intact in both cases.’ Instead her point is a more revolutionary one. ‘You get the power, and then expose it and take it apart. Don’t get the power and identify with it.’

The acumen is both of psychoanalysis but also of third wave feminism, as Rose gestures to Freud and Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter – the idea of holding in the ambiguity of multiple identities, also the ones that were discarded. ‘We’re not the identities we’re required to be; we have better ideas in our sleep.’