Cogut Institute for the Humanities

6. Feminist Criticism After Trump

What does feminism teach us about the Trump years and democratic life today? In this episode of Meeting Street, Amanda Anderson talks with political theorist and cultural critic Bonnie Honig about a form of politics in which misogyny is a central feature, the use of gaslighting and other gendered forms of shock politics in public life, and the politics of refusal.

Episode Transcript

Amanda Anderson: From the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, this is Meeting Street. I’m Amanda Anderson, the show’s host and director of the institute. On today’s show, we will talk with the political theorist and cultural critic Bonnie Honig about the critical need for feminist analysis at the present time, given patterns of political behavior throughout the Trump presidency. We will also discuss the role of feminist theory in the context of larger scholarly debates about practices of political refusal, which have been variously conceived, but fundamentally involve a rejection of business as usual.

Bonnie Honig is the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science here at Brown University. She has written numerous books on topics in democratic theory, including most recently Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair [Fordham University Press], published in 2017.

I’m excited to have her here today to talk about two new books of hers that are appearing this spring. The first, Shell-Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump, was published in March. The second, A Feminist Theory of Refusal, will appear in May. Bonnie, welcome to Meeting Street and congratulations on the two books.

Bonnie Honig: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.

Amanda Anderson: Let’s begin with Shell-Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump, which emerged out of a set of occasional and public-facing essays and includes new pieces as well. What was the impetus behind this collection of essays?

Bonnie Honig: The volume collects public writing that I’ve done since the election of Trump — since, actually, the day of his inauguration — and those public-facing pieces were really among the first public writing I’ve done as an academic. We usually write for more scholarly audiences. I felt compelled to do public writing during the last four or five years in part because, even though the public sphere’s instability under Trump was nothing new — there have been assaults on the publicity of democracy for a long time — nonetheless it felt like there was something especially destabilizing going on, and it was important to name it and keep track of it in terms of the public events I was witnessing.

So I took a chance, and I started writing more public material. And as things accelerated over the four years, I did more and more of it, and finally, I decided it was worthwhile to collect into a book form, because no matter what happened with the election — of course, in the end, Trump lost — nonetheless Trumpism would be a phenomenon that would be with us for a while, and the importance of a gendered angle of criticism should be preserved and hopefully extended. I thought if I put the book out, people would respond, criticize, extend, amend, engage in ways that we need going forward.

Amanda Anderson: That’s wonderful, and of course, feminist criticism is central to the analysis that you pursue in that book. And how do you think — more generally — how do you think a feminist method of analysis or interpretation is central to responding to the political and cultural context of Trumpism?

Bonnie Honig: So the way that I frame it in the book is that we do have one thinker of politics who’s very useful for a moment like this, and that is Naomi Klein and her book The Shock Doctrine [2007]. It’s because of her analysis of shock politics that I borrowed the term “shell-shocked” for my own title. However, as good as that book is, and I’ll explain its contribution in a second, it needed a kind of supplement or partner with a feminist analysis. Naomi Klein does not talk about gender as a part of shock politics in her book.

So what she does in her book is she gives us an account of how shock politics works or has worked in places like Chile, Sri Lanka, Argentina, and she’s talking specifically about neoliberalism in those cases. And she describes a process — a political process — through which citizens are deprived of familiar points of orientation and experience a kind of sensory instability. They’re no longer at home in their world. That’s the first step.

And the second is once they’re unguarded, they’re overwhelmed. Their senses are overwhelmed with stimuli. So one example that she gives is torture, which is a feature of this. Someone is isolated in a cell for a while and has no stimuli whatsoever and then suddenly bombarded with 24/7 lighting or loud music. And that creates a kind of readiness for compliance in very many people because you just lose all your bearings and then you’re overwhelmed.

The argument of Shell-Shocked is that that’s a very specific two-step that is familiar to women from gaslighting and is actually practiced in the movie “Gaslight” where first objects are removed from the heroine’s home and she experiences disorientation and desensitization. And then she’s overwhelmed by the husband’s anger and narration of false events and the rest so that she becomes weakened and prepared, as it were, for his assaults and evil intent.

So together the shock politics frame and the gaslight frame create a kind of political reading of a film that offers just one evil husband rather than giving an account of the structural work of gender within a patriarchal society.

Amanda Anderson: Yes, I’m really struck by the concept “gaslighting,” not only in your book where it performs a really important function, but it’s also a term that has made a lot of appearances in the press to describe the political situation. And it’s a term that, you know, was at one time really reserved for discussions of abusive personal relationships. So can you talk a little bit about how you bring that term into connection with a specific political analysis?

Bonnie Honig: I think the term has become popular and ubiquitous, as you say, partly because it’s really good to have a name. The word provides some orientation to undo or recover from the disorientation of gaslighting and shock politics. So having the name is the beginning, in a way, of recovering. The risk, of course, is that it becomes a name for everything, and then it suddenly loses its power.

But in my view, that’s a risk with all words, and if we tether the term — which is what I try to do in Shell-Shocked — to the movie, in other words, to its original cultural text, then it can provide a lens through which to analyze a larger politics of domination in which misogyny is a key feature. I think what the book tries to do is to make the claim that what we’ve seen in the Trump years and leading up to them, and that what we will go on seeing for a while with the insurrectionists, is a politics of domination in which misogyny is a central feature.

It’s not sort of a by-product or a side interest or a hobby of people who are interested in domination, but that the commitment to feminist criticism is to the centrality of gender to the analysis. And even though sometimes that proceeds by picking up on small details, those small details are assumed to be a way into this central dynamics of power that we’re observing. And the hope is that they can help us recenter or restabilize our understanding of what’s going on around us.

Amanda Anderson: Could you give an example of a moment where a certain analysis helps to reveal this particular function of gaslighting? I mean, there’s so many wonderful examples in the book, but I would love to hear you talk about one.

Bonnie Honig: Of course. The first one that comes to mind is the way that Trump used the story of Lisa Page. So Lisa Page was the woman at the FBI who had an affair with her coworker, Peter Strzok. The two of them were involved in the Russia investigation, and Trump turned news of their affair, which had nothing in particular to do with the Russia investigation or anything else, into evidence of a conspiracy against him.

And he put their affair into his act, which he took on the road when he had his rallies. When he spoke about them, he would talk about Lisa Page, he would always accent the L in Lisa. He would talk about her as Lisa, and he would talk about her and Strzok as lovers, accenting the L as well. Now, one of the things I talk about in the chapter where I discuss this is that L is also for “lascivious.”

And that in a way was the point. He was using the L as a way — and he was using Lisa Page — as a way to intrude into a private life for months, and intruding on it with his desire, intruding on it as a desiring male. And she was very rocked by this, as she said in several interviews. Every time her name came up, she would get more death threats and things like that.

But it wasn’t just about mentioning her name, it was about enacting a kind of moral insouciance and broadcasting to everyone that he could come into any room at any moment and take over the life of a woman without asking permission. It was a kind of performance of ownership and possessiveness. One of my students — I teach “Gaslight” in a class — and one of my students referred to the film recently as an act of “ontological dismemberment,” and that is what I felt as I watched him mock Lisa Page for months at one rally after another. A feminist analysist pays attention to the letter L.

Amanda Anderson: Could you just quickly gloss “ontological dismemberment”?

Bonnie Honig: Of course. “Ontological dismemberment” suggests a practice in which someone is taken apart, but not just metaphorically, but in a way that they lose their bearings, that they no longer feel their right to be in the world.

So in the movie “Gaslight,” for example, the evil husband who has nefarious intent removes objects from the normal places that they are in the house and then accuses his wife of stealing them or taking them. And as this happens, she’s not only confused, as you can imagine — this is someone with whom she thought she was in love, she still thinks she’s in love, and so her world is dismembered. It’s not just [that] a memory is questioned or a sensation is confused.

She ceases to be able to go on with a trusting relationship in the world. And that I believe is what the country, frankly, experienced under Trump for the last few years. There was a kind of dismemberment of what people normally took for granted.

Amanda Anderson: What is a viable political response to gaslighting as opposed to, say, the kinds of advice given in a therapeutic situation?

Bonnie Honig: It’s interesting because I find the movie a very rich resource, even though it’s just a movie, as it were. One of the things that’s important in the film is that there are other women around the protagonist — her name is Paula — and she turns to them several times asking, “Do you see what I see? Did you hear that?” You know, checking her senses with others.

One of the important ways to combat the sensory deprivation and destabilization of shock politics and gaslighting is to be with others together in common cause and to sort of resurrect some reality against which to be able to stabilize the world. There’s several examples in the book of people doing that. One of them is the example of two women who accosted Jeff Flake at the Kavanaugh hearing when Christine Blasey Ford was bravely testifying about events with which she had firsthand experience with Kavanaugh and recalling a sexual assault that occurred when she was a teenager and what it was like to live with the aftermath of that assault.

What happens afterwards, that we all saw on television — it was recorded — is that two women who were themselves sexual-assault survivors, Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila, who were there, tried to have a meeting with Jeff Flake. The only place they could catch him was in an elevator, and they did catch him there. They prevented him from closing the door on them, and they beseeched him to take seriously what it meant for someone to have been involved in a sexual assault — in this case, Kavanaugh — and to think about whether such a person ought to be a judge or in a position of any authority, much less a Supreme Court judge. They did it together.

Blasey Ford was there with other people helping her. Gallagher and Archila were there. You still have to be brave. You still have to speak up. You still have to risk exposure, but being with others and having that — what Hannah Arendt calls the plurality of the political realm — to support you, which means you don’t agree on everything, but you’re able to be together and see things from different points of view. That’s a necessary condition of political life, and that’s why the first move of the gaslighter is to isolate his victim, to prevent her from having any connection with anyone, and thereby to enhance his own power but also diminish hers. Our power comes from being together with others.

Amanda Anderson: Right. I think that’s great. I think that’s demonstrated in many places in your book. I also would say that I think that the kind of critical analysis that the book itself performs is also part of the necessary response to the situation of gaslighting in the political realm.

Bonnie Honig: Yes, of course, I agree. I think it’s absolutely important to do a kind of forensic analysis; to keep track of what’s happening, what’s changing; and to give readings of the ways in which the gaslighting is occurring to create texture where otherwise there’s just slide. And I think Amy Siskind decided early on during the Trump years to keep a list every day of everything that changed, or of everything that was unusual. And I think it was just called “The List” after a while. And it got very long very quickly, and she kept it up through the whole four years. It was a very impressive endeavor on her part and very public-spirited.

My way has been a little bit different. It has been to highlight things that are happening in public rhetoric and public imagery that we might not notice but are having a kind of effect on us. So like the accenting of the L, like the fact that Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila accosted Flake together and stood in an elevator door, which normally shuts automatically, but they kept it open.

There are a lot of other examples in the book too, like how Comey at his hearing, after he was fired as head of the FBI and he appeared in Congress, referred several times in the hearing to his wife. And I wondered why that would be. He kept making this joke about how he had to break a date with his wife to have this dinner with Trump. And I thought about it, and I realized that really all of the Trump-side Republicans who were criticizing him were referring to him as a girl.

They were saying: “He was weak. What was wrong with him? He’s the head of the FBI. Why isn’t he more of a man? Why didn’t he man up? If Trump was so bad, why didn’t he say something?” There’s a way in which they were arguing that he’d been unmanned by Trump and that that meant anyway, obviously, that he was lying. That was their most important point. And so there was Comey suddenly talking about making sure that the public knew that he was married, that he had five children. It was part of his effort to reacquire his authoritativeness to speak in public and to be believed. But in order for that to be, he had to be married.

So these are little telltale things that happened right in front of our eyes that most people are not commenting on and that to me tell a story of how we acquire authoritativeness in our culture: who’s believed and who isn’t believed when they talk about sexual assault, who’s on the receiving end of a dominative politics at rallies, and who’s enabled to speak back, and who isn’t. All of those things are the business of feminist criticism, it seems to me, and they require a kind of forensic reading. It needs to be shown.

Amanda Anderson: I think that’s an absolutely brilliant example, actually — the Comey example — and shows really well your amazing attention to detail. Let’s turn now to your book A Feminist Theory of Refusal. Can you just explain what this book offers to current discussions of what is called the politics of refusal?

Bonnie Honig: Sure. The politics of refusal has a lot of different strands in it, but I think the most powerful one is coming from Indigenous thinkers like Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson and many others. And for them, a politics of refusal is important because it involves withholding recognition from settler-colonial powers, by which they’ve been dominated and their tribes have been dominated for a very long time.

And what’s interesting to me about the particular Indigenous version of the politics of refusal is that it isn’t just about refusal. Refusal is a really important tactic or dimension of politics for them, but unlike others who think of refusal as something that needs to be not just a tactic but a political stance — never engage your opponent; never get sucked into their politics; don’t compromise on anything — in the case of the Indigenous theorists of refusal, what I especially admire is that the refusal is on behalf of a kind of sovereignty to come.

They remain very committed to the possibility of an Indigenous sovereignty that is always being practiced and being built in the hope of a future land claim, in the hope of a different kind of recognition for tribes. So very often the politics of refusal is just the refusal to engage because it’s compromising, or being made complicit somehow, to engage with your adversary. In the case of the Indigenous theorist, what I admire is this positive dimension, this commitment to a politics and culture that is practiced and enacted, of which refusal is a part.

So when I turn in the book to develop a feminist theory of refusal, the point of orientation for me in the book is an ancient Greek tragedy called “The Bacchae” in which the women refuse. They stop working. The king tells them to go back to work, and they refuse. Then they leave the city, in what looks like — in the contemporary theoretical arena, we would call that fugitivity. They go to have fugitive experiences outside the city, but they’re not part of the city. And then they do something really remarkable. Well, first, they kill the king, which we can talk about that more if you want, but they do kill the king.

But after doing that, they come back to the city, and they demand to be celebrated for their action. And they also want more than recognition. They clearly want to transform the city so that it’s more hospitable to the way of life that they’ve been exploring outside of it.

That demand — that the city take them back — isn’t granted at the end of the day, but the demand, it seems to me, is analogous to — not the same — to the Indigenous politics of sovereignty on behalf of which refusal is practiced by them. And it should be, I believe, an important part of any feminist theory of refusal as well.

Amanda Anderson: Thank you. That’s a wonderful answer. Is there a way to describe the relationship or connection between the two books that you published this spring?

Bonnie Honig: Yeah, it’s interesting actually, because it’s only in the Shell-Shocked book, which is — Feminist Criticism After Trump is the subtitle — that I thematize the question that you yourself have as well in your own work of the relationship between criticism and theory, what the differences between them [are].

In the other book, which is called A Feminist Theory of Refusal, I don’t develop that theme at all. But thinking about it afterwards, it occurs to me that the Feminist Theory of Refusal [book] does exactly what in Shell-Shocked I claim theory does, which is, it has a very expansive account of a particular normative obligation. So I think what’s important about A Feminist Theory of Refusal is that it argues in favor of the normative obligation to return to the city after the period of refusal has ended, for whatever reason — hopefully because the dissenting group has decided it’s ready to make its claim on the city.

So unlike a lot of theories of refusal, which are futurally oriented, a theory of refusal has at its center this normative obligation to bring the new form of life back to the city and make a claim on the city — not to abandon it, not to celebrate fugitivity in its place, but to partner those two things together.

The criticism book doesn’t make overarching claims about normative obligations. It’s very much in the weeds, and looking at ... I mean, in some ways the figure that I endorse as the figure for the book is Penelope, who in Homer’s “Odyssey” waits for her husband’s return, but does so as an independent woman, and one of the marks of her independence as she waits for her husband’s return and is nearly assaulted by suitors who want to take his place and who violently claim her, or try to, is every night she unravels a cloth that she’s been weaving during the day.

She’s promised the suitors that she will marry one of them when she finishes the cloth. She makes sure that she’ll never finish it by every night unraveling it. The way that you unravel a cloth is by finding its loose threads. So the figure that I have for the criticism book is less a powerful sense of normative orientation than an attachment to those forensic threads and a kind of development of the power to identify them, preserve them when necessary, and pull on them to let the whole thing unravel when that’s the right way to go. So somewhat different, I think.

Amanda Anderson: Yeah, though I do think that in the criticism book, I would also point out that there’s really powerful normative claims undergirding the, let’s just say, the analysis of misogyny, patriarchy, and gaslighting.

Bonnie Honig: Yeah, it’s true. I think the undergirding normative claims — since you see them I’ll be interested to hear if you agree — but I think the undergirding normative claims are the two postulates of Hannah Arendt’s account of democratic politics, which are equality and plurality. And any departure from equality is a loose thread for me in a democratic society, something that really needs to be attended to. It’s not to say that they’re all awful, nor that they’re all equally awful, but it needs to be attended to.

And plurality is the acceptance of a kind of equality that’s comfortable with difference. In other words, we are not all the same by being equal, but a political equality treats us all equally. And it’s just not possible in a society that isn’t accepting of feminism that we have achieved that. People sometimes have very strong commitments to not see things the way a feminist wants to see them.

And the question for writing both at the level of criticism and for theory is how to loosen the hold that some people have on their readings or the hold that the readings have on them and enable people to look at things in a new way. So that’s very much also an aspiration of both books that they share.

Amanda Anderson: Yes, absolutely. I’d just like to ask you, if you can give us a preview of what’s coming next. Are you working on a new book?

Bonnie Honig: I am working on a new book. I tentatively titled it “Politics After Doubt,” and it isn’t especially concerned with Trumpism but with this more general phenomenon of doubt. We now know to call it “disinformation.” Many of us didn’t know that term a few years ago. In philosophy and political theory, the problem of doubt is called “skepticism.” It’s just a problem of being uncertain. But, as I’ve just been sharing with you, I think the more important source of doubt now is gaslighting and the deliberate political creation of doubt.

What I want to do in the book is say more and develop, by way of different kinds of thinkers, a theory of how it is that we can return to collectivity after being subjected to doubt, after four years of “who knows,” “two sides,” “some people say,” “someone was just saying to me.” All of that disinformation is an effort to seed doubt and make us mistrust our senses and attenuate even our resort to common sense.

I think that democracy’s task is to assuage doubt by showing us what we can do together to increase equality, to lessen suffering, and broaden participation. So really the ambition of the book is to show how certainty can be a product of political action and not just its ground. It connects up to something that I say actually in the Shell-Shocked book, which is that we’ve been suffering from a kind of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result of the four years of Trump and that we need to replace it with a new PTSD, and this one is a Politics That Sustains Democracy. So the new book is an effort to elaborate on what that would look like.

Amanda Anderson: That’s wonderful, and I very much look forward to it. It really strikes me, across all your work, there’s a wonderful combination of really shrewd and hard-hitting analysis on the one hand — you know, textured by really thoughtful and sensitive readings — and on the other hand, a real hopefulness and a way to help everybody think about the ways in which we can move forward and act in concert. So it’s just really been a pleasure talking to you about these two new books. And I just want to thank you for being on the show.

Bonnie Honig: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Amanda Anderson: Bonnie Honig’s Shell-Shocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump was published by Fordham University Press in March of this year. A Feminist Theory of Refusal is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in May.

Meeting Street is produced by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University. Our shows seek to promote awareness of cutting-edge work across the humanities. You can find previous episodes on our podcast page.