Rebeka Põldsam: I want to reflect on the presentation you gave at the CCA, which I really enjoyed. You mentioned that Freud had said that women always suffer from the envy complex and men always suffer from the anxiety complex. Later that evening, I was asked if you were serious about women being envious and men being anxious. I assumed that you were being a bit ironic, and not completely serious. Please explain your comments a bit more.

Griselda Pollock: Well, the thing is, I came across this in a lovely book that was written about Anna Freud and I just was really fascinated. So that is my elaboration of the two things that Freud said: that “I could never persuade a woman not to want to be a man and I could never persuade any of my male patients to want to be a woman.” It seemed as if he was saying that it is not sexual differences that make men and women different, but in a sense that there are reasons under the present system, different psychic economies. What one is interested in is affect, which is reparative, to go back to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, as it is affect which evokes the destructive or a kind of blockage. The whole notion of castration, anxiety and the whole Oedipal edifice are built on this. It is operative to look at the evidence for this. For the danger is, whatever they say, that it becomes the absolute and only explanation of our passage to subjectivity. This means that women are inexplicable, right? So, I interpret the classics for the terms they lack. What I wanted to say is no, actually. It relates to something that Julia Kristeva says in her work. In her very Freudian and Oedipal way, she says again that women have a certain psychic elasticity regarding the feminine subject position because they know that the phallus is an illusion. It is an illusion of an illusion.

Yet every single male psychoanalyst says that women in analysis exhibit a phenomenon that the Freudians call penis-envy. Of course the feminists think this means that we are in some sense longing for what the boys have. Whereas what I was trying to say is actually something infinitely more liberating because it is the capacity to say I can be anything I would like to be. So it is a sort of different way of understanding femininity instead of everything that the Lacanians and Freudians keep telling us.

I’m interested in why women identify with that model, theoretically. What it might mean, if you took it seriously, is that envy is a really interesting emotion to have, because it does not contribute to the way we think of the feminist subject, e.g if we go back to Monique Wittig: “I’m a lesbian, which means I’m not a woman, because the concept of woman is colonized. It’s an economic and political and even symbolic state of subjection to a relation of dominance.” In Wittig’s view, you can not be a woman in relation to the consciousness of masculinity and dominance. So you have to imagine the field in which you are going to play. Certainly, there is a type of femininity but not femininity as we know it. Moreover, from the perspective of my work in which I try to make sense of Bracha Ettinger, we begin to conceptualize that there is more to subjectivity than just the specific feminine negotiations that seek reparations and that endlessly bring us back to the fear of what’s lacking. So, I’m really serious about it!

Anxiety requires foreclosure. From our (women’s) position, we can want what we want and exist in a different way. So if we begin to think that queer theory is the only way to try to undo gender, to get away from it, the problem that Wittig addressed, we can not remain neutral, which is masculine. We do not want to be the she of the phallocentric system. But we also do not want to say that there is nothing to be gained from discovering something about the specificity of the feminine. So, on the actual sexual body, Wittig rebuilds the lesbian body. It has very much to do with imagination, a way of understanding sexual desire that all women can support.

The question I ask myself is “What am I? What subject position?” That raises the subject of feminism. The idea that the woman is subjected: we accept that in feminist theory. But it becomes very complicated and problematic that we have got that sort of “I’m not a woman, I’m a lesbian” of the Wittig approach, which is a slogan on a t-shirt, with a slash through it: the self is open to this, but then it does not help us answer what feminism is. And I can mentally be a transvestite or a non-gendered thinker, without any catastrophic feelings, like “Oh, God! I’ve failed my femininity!”, right? Okay, now, some women just do not manage to do that.

I am sure that this wouldn’t appeal to some anti-feminists but, if we think of history from Joan Riviere onwards, the history of feminist struggles has been precisely women not identifying with woman, but with something they desire. They have found value in whatever it was in women’s thoughts, bodies and actions. They do not disown themselves, but they clearly exist in a complicated space which at the moment queer feminism is trying to speak about. I don’t know if this sounds crazy to you?

Rebeka Põldsam: No, it doesn’t sound crazy. I like it! But let’s also talk about masculinities in the present age of the crisis of masculinity. Manhood actually needs to be reworked, as the anxiety you mentioned for men gets its meaning from the system of the ‘envious woman’.

Griselda Pollock: You are absolutely right. We are in the process of thinking about it and in some sense dealing with masculinity. I said something yesterday at the presentation that kind of provoked an interesting discussion about the different psychic economies using envy for the feminine and anxiety for the masculine. We need to rethink masculinity instead of leaving it trapped in this anxiety. That is where, especially, I think the Ettingerian matrix provides a beautiful pathway because being in relation to the other in a way that is pre-gendered and non-Oedipal has nothing to do with masculinity, just with an already existing fantasizing self and a becoming self, in partnership with hospitality and compassion. What is particularly interesting here is that it allows us to think of ourselves in relation to difference, but not seen through the prism of the old form of differences of masculine and feminine, or the false desire for feminization or masculinization or whatever. It allows us to think there is a form of non-sexual eros. And I think masculinity can then re-think itself without anxiety.

Rebeka Põldsam: At the CCA, yesterday we discussed the possibility of a feminist discourse in different languages and the role of different translations. We ended up in a discussion where you said that feminist discourse doesn’t exist in any particular language. However, I would still say that not having native-language feminist texts or translations of even the most important feminist texts of the past 25 years has a strong impact on how we express ourselves. For instance, when I write an academic essay in English, it is much easier to sound serious and concise than when I write it in Estonian. I started to think about this more while I was studying at Goldsmiths, and the Italians, Germans and Chinese there had the same feeling. In English, I don’t always have to start from zero, as there already is a recognizable discourse in the way one uses the language, an acceptance of certain values. English really helps me to express myself, and I only have to give a few particular references so that my message is clear to my readers. On the other hand, when I write in Estonian as a feminist art critic, if I don’t mention the word ‘feminism’ in my text, nobody will read it as a feminist text, and when I do, then I’m perceived as a radical.

Griselda Pollock: That’s very interesting! Just let me clarify one thing about what I said about feminist discourse. It’s not that in some places it’s institutionalized and in other places it’s just marginalized. ‘Women’s studies’ doesn’t exist in Britain as an undergraduate degree programme. There are obviously women’s studies in different countries and we create our own sense of them by reading. There is a kind of networked feminist discourse and as you say it’s mediated through the English language. English is a funny language, because it is Anglo-American imperialism: a legacy of both the English and American empires. However, English has been made into a language used by so many people, so that everybody can communicate with each other, when otherwise they would not talk to each other. The Koreans and Taiwanese and Thai feminists can talk to each other not only in the same English language, but in a particular discourse, which offers some concepts to shape thought.

It has both good and bad sides because, in a sense, it’s very difficult now for anybody who hasn’t been introduced to a conceptual package. For example, in my MA course in Feminism and Culture theoretical perspectives, I provide my students not just with a pile of famous names but with a bag of tools to think with. We need a concept of the phallocentric or patriarchy, because it offers something that otherwise would not exist. Of course, if I speak as a feminist in English to an English-speaking community, the vast majority don’t understand what I’m saying. But here we can speak to each other. That’s a good thing about having a networked community, which is burdened by, but also facilitated by, not just a common language but also by the conceptual repertoire that a language contains.

One of the reasons that English is so dominant is that it has some 300 000 words in it, while French, for example, has 25 000 words. I think that the combination of Latin, Greek, French and Germanic languages makes English such an extraordinary tool to work with. So that’s one way of thinking of this question. I think that the problem of translation lies in the combination of our theoretical language and the language of everyday women. When I write my books, I know my sister won’t read them. Everybody says I’m terribly difficult to read, but I try very hard to write quite pedagogically. I try to always think of the reader as a first-year student who has never heard about the concepts, and I try to explain how these things work. It takes a lot of effort, and the concepts are still difficult, because there isn’t a standardised feminist discourse.

I think the main problem of language, translation and thinking is translatability. When I started writing with the journalist Roszika Parker, she said “In Old Mistresses, we’re not writing down anything that an intelligent 16-year-old couldn’t understand. And if you don’t understand it well enough to explain it to a 16-year-old, we’re not putting it in.” This is the reason why there is virtually no psychoanalysis in this book, because at that point I was acting as a ventriloquist in reading those texts. I hadn’t internalized them enough to make them my own. And I still heard in the back of my mind a little voice saying “I tell this to my students, but maybe I do not practice it myself.”

So, I think you’ve asked a really interesting question. When I was talking to Katrin (Kivimaa – Ed) earlier today, I was wondering if when people invite you to give a lecture they expect you to have written a lecture, to have done the work, sorted the things out to present it. But when you’re listening to a second language, it’s much easier to hear somebody speak than to listen to sentences being read out.

Liina Siib: When I talk to MA students about female artists and what it means for a woman to be an artist, I introduce them to feminist issues, which often sound clumsy when explained in Estonian. There seems to be a never-ending need to translate Western feminist thoughts into the Estonian context and language, to find the ‘Estonian way’ in speaking about it.    

Rebeka Põldsam: Overall, what is feminism to you?

Griselda Pollock: It’s obviously many things, but in this context feminism is a continuing conversation. Each of us follows her own line of thought and you have to realise how many people are doing that kind of work. You have to think about all of the generations that link us up, a sense of community. Then you go back and think ‘I know who I am’, and I am not just sitting in my study and feeling out of touch and anxious that I have to read so much more to keep up.