“I am woman hear me draw,” wrote Australian feminist cartoonist Judy Horacek in 2002, whose work draws attention to the capacity of cartoons to de/story masculinist versions of the world. Taking a critical autoethnographic approach, a series of black-and-white line drawings are explored in this paper as the kind of l'ecriture feminine (feminine writing) work that Hélène Cixous speaks of—writing that aims to release the subject away from the stagnant confines of phallocentric thought to create new forms of feminist post-academic writing.
As she sits down at her table, she tries to remember the moment when it all began, the instant when her hand picked up a pen and started to dream self and social worlds in black-and-white drawings. She stands outside herself and watches her hand, much younger then than it is now, poised in a pause before her ballpoint pen begins to flow across the page. Meandering circles and wandering lines slowly make their marks on the blank sheet of paper in her search to bring meaning to the here and now. She delights in the way her pen knows no bounds and she gives herself freely to its flights of fancy. With each movement of her pen, her heart skips a beat as she feels herself drawing ever so close and tracing nearer still to the secret understanding that speaks to her from just below the surface of the page. Her eyes are drawn to the shape that is becoming. Round face, round bun, round breasts. Thin neck, thin arms, thin legs. Big shoes, big eyes, big heart in the middle of a triangle dress. She has drawn herself. She looks at the woman on the page watching her watching and asks, not for the first time, “Who are I?”1 as feminist academic?
This essay is inspired by Australian feminist cartoonist Judy Horacek, whose 2002 work, I Am Woman Hear Me Draw, drew attention to the capacity of cartoons to de/story hegemonic masculinist interpretations of the world.2 Openly feminist, Horacek's drawings aim to represent the ways average people live and love in the world, and in particular, the experiences of women and alternative possibilities for who we might be. Responding to and extending Horacek's work, I explore the notion that drawings have to tell a story “otherwise” than patriarchy as a form of “post-academic writing”3 and consider the ways in which the arts and imagination breathe life into the experience of being and becoming feminist academic. Drawings are positioned in this paper as the kind of l'ecriture feminine (feminine writing) work that Hélène Cixous speaks of—writing that aims to release the subject away from the stagnant confines of phallocentric thought through the release of creativity.4 Cixous suggests that by writing herself and the body, woman and women will go right up to the impossible and create a “new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history.”5 It is this call for texts and bodies to take new flight to which this essay responds. Taking a critical autoethnographic approach, I “sketch” the ways in which drawing-as-writing the body might hold the possibility of disturbing and interrupting the “un-named hegemonic style”6 of academic research and writing practices, and create space for new ways of being and becoming feminist in the academy.
It is no accident that this essay sits within the folds of friendship alongside Horacek, Cixous, and Mona Livholts as a piece of critical autoethnography; it desires to mimic and pay homage to them all, yet knows always already that such yearning will remain firmly stuck in its place. In each of their work, I see the politics of positionality associated with critical autoethnography,7 continually en/tangled and explored poetically and performatively as an ethical responsibility for, towards, with, and among selves and others. Horacek does this by taking “everyday situations and making them strange”8 while Livholts provokes us to experiment with how this might become possible inside academic work as writing by stepping outside.9 Horacek and Livholts both foreground a way of working that looks to challenge the dominance of the status quo in our representations of selves and social worlds. In a similar way, Cixous insists that our writing must no longer be determined by the past and instead must seek to break up, to destroy, and to foresee the unseeable.10
She pauses her pen once more as she tries to remember another moment, the instant when she first read the work of Cixous. She is sure it must have been “The Laugh of the Medusa” she held in her hands because she feels as though she has always held this piece close.11 Why she read the “The Laugh of the Medusa” she cannot now say, but she knows for certain that on that particular day, her world and words turned as she began her becoming towards being a newly born feminist academic. She was rapt after reading the first two sentences: “I shall speak about women's writing, about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women into writing from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.”12 All of her critical autoethnographic sensibilities began to hum in tune with Cixous's personal-is-political-is-poetic writing as she read. She willingly allowed Cixous's words to lilt and jolt her backwards and forwards from the self to the social and back again. She was content to be provoked and evoked towards not only rethinking her place and position in relation to patriarchal power as a woman in the academy, but also being prepared to take up arms and fight against it in her own textual practice as an autoethnographer standing dangerously on the edge inside and outside of the institution. She knew that Cixous was not unproblematic—criticized often for being too essentialist, too maternal, too second wave, too creative—but she admired the fluid, feisty, and unforgettable way Cixous's words asked her to reclaim her woman's body and to think otherwise and elsewhere than patriarchy about the self and the social. Her heart lurched as Cixous asked her to imagine an academic writing life where l'ecriture feminine was possible. Without a moment's hesitation, she made her move and has never looked back.
D(raw): It Takes a Dead Woman to Begin
She came to death in 1995. Skeletal thin, her eyes are closed; the thought of opening them unbearable because it would mean looking at herself in the full expanse of herself, her flesh—a body of monstrous proportions she abhors. A heart hovers in the sky above her; open, full, and clear in its cruel and constant reminder that her shrunken and wretched body alone holds any promise of happiness. As she sits quietly, not moving, not feeling, not being; her dead heart keeps her company, waiting for her own mortality to arrive. I watch myself drawing her; with each stroke the “drawing feels death passing by.”13 The drawing wants to reveal the secret that sits nestled between the moments; it wants to trace “the quick of life hidden beneath the rounded appearances of life, life which remains hidden because we couldn't bear seeing it as it is, in all the brilliance of horror that is.”14 The drawing wants to “express itself before the word, first the cry, then the words”15 that I cannot say; the dark creep of shame in the shadows holding hands with the “militant male”16; the violent self-hatred and loathing that refuses me entry into the places that would give my breath life; the pills of sadness and loneliness I swallow to disappear my-body–my-self. The drawing screams a silent plea for love and understanding to take me away from the prison without end I found and willingly placed myself in. The drawing carries traces of tears and vomit and blood; and it's not entirely clear whether she and I might live or die.
At the passing of the in-between, there is “an instant of alteration that takes [me] by surprise”17 and I understand that in “in order to kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing,”18 it takes a dead a woman to begin.19 I descend/dissent to draw, to unbury and unforget until my fingernails bleed and the scars of my drawing-as-writing run deep in my hands because “drawing-as-writing… is the attempt to unerase, unearth and to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.”20
Black ink flows freely from my pen, circling and seizing the occasion to speak the possibility of becoming “herself the antilogos weapon [becoming] at will the taker and the initiator, for her own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process.”21 I watch the drawing that is without stop, and with each trace “I am another myself, the one in and on the other”22; a body that has come back from always, with eyes becoming more wide awake to the material, affective, discursive, and irrepressible dangers of drawing-as-writing.
The Dead Heads of Draw/War
I lean over and look closely at the newly born woman, the drawing now born. “What [am I] trying to grasp between the lines, in between the strokes, in the net that we're weaving, that we throw, and the dagger blows?”23 It's a picture of me-as-we-as-you-as-Virginia holding a beheaded Woolf: “not the person, but the precious in that person.”24 I smile; “[I've] just drawn an executioner.”25 My smile soon becomes a giggle, delighting in the secret movement between torment and joy this violent image seeks to grasp. I watch the symbols of the women tumbling out of the beheaded wolf's mouth, relentlessly fleeing, flying, and resisting capture. What was once a quiet chuckle, becomes a muffled chortle, soon a loud cackle, a thunderous roar, and then a raucous scream. “[A]t the moment, the drawing wanted to draw the body's pain and the head's mourning, there was a sudden rise of life in the executioner” and I was unable to resist.26 Is it a Medusa's laugh of the Cixousian kind that fearlessly asks, who's the monster now? “You only have to look straight on to see her, and she's not deadly. She's beautiful.”27 Damned if you do, damned if you don't but she has crossed the borders anyway, policed as they are by the big dick of yesterday, and shown them her “sexts.”28 She has taken by force the phallogocentric negation of woman and holds it in her hand; in an “explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed,” she has “won back her body.”29 This is what drawing-as-writing a woman's body will do.30
I watch my hand rising in agitation and my pen falls once more on the page with force, ready for combat. This drawing is a “live one: it's still running,”31 and her struggle in the war for liberation is not yet over. More dead heads overflow onto my paper. The first is placed in a box, the fate of this libidinal economy is sealed with a devaluation that seeks to destabilize the crush, control, and cruelty of the Cartesian split.
The remainder suffer a double end, bathing lazily in the white-supremacist-imperial-capitalist-patriarchal stream of thought and theory whereupon they were consumed quickly and without fuss by a large gold and silver fish, and then lured onto the line and dreams of a woman searching for creativity and other-wise.32 They did not die quietly and used the might of their phallogocentric stances to smash and crash around inside her drawing-as-writing woman's body to force her once more into subjugation. But she stands resolute and resistant, refusing to repent the drawing-as-writing freedom she has found.
I draw my hand off the page and try to remember, was it Monday or Tuesday when my academic work began to turn “to-be-in-the-process” of drawing-as-writing?33 And who is it who tells me that together we are on the move? “My [drawing-as-]writing watches. Eyes closed”34 as the sweet aromas of an orchard on a lazy hazy summer day waft and weave their way into my remembering. Cixous offers me the juicy slice of an orange she holds in her hand, and reminds me that drawing-as-writing in the feminine is “a place… which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system.”35
I hesitantly reach for another slice and she urges, “Shrug off the old lies, dare what you don't dare… rejoice, rejoice in the terror, follow it where you're afraid to go… take the plunge, you're on the right trail!”36 With each bite, the bursting citrus flesh cuts through to moments of being and I see clearly that drawing-as-writing needs to and could become a different kind of “rite/right”; one that does not seek to “master,” but rather, as Cixous contends, one that transmits, affects, “wakes the dead,” “reminds people that they once wept for love, and trembled with desires, and that they were then very close to the life that they claim they've been seeking while constantly moving further away.”37 I take the last slice of orange from Cixous and see now that in urging my drawing-as-writing body to take new flight, she has taken me “quite far from the peel of the world, in truth, but close to the center, just next to a nest of poems.”38 She has made return from afar, and without, possible. In woman's body, in woman's language, in woman's drawing-as-writing, it becomes imaginable to arrive at the impossible and reunite creativity with philosophy, theory, and analysis, while at the same time foregrounding an ethical and response-able yet resistant approach to de/storying hegemonic masculinist interpretations of the world. With the force of strokes, lines, curves, and crossings that live, laugh, and love us driving us to otherwise, from now on, who can say no to us?
I turn the page in my sketchbook and begin again. The pleasant taste of oranges lingers in my mouth and I am glad that I have followed Virginia Woolf's advice and un/forgotten that “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well [indeed, draw/write well] if one has not dined well.”39 The paper in front of me begins to expand and make room for that of my/her/our own. I imagine her drawing cartwheels on slips of paper, sketching faces and figures in the midst of attempting to come to a conclusion, and using words and imagery to “draw attention” to her woman's body writing herself.40
According to Woolf, drawing pictures, dining, looking out the window, and reading books on the shelf are all parts of the process of laying bare those thoughts and impressions that lead to thinking and writing.41 “The human frame, being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together,”42 she muses, can be made to cooperate and there should be no difficulty in attracting them.43 Here she is referring explicitly to dismantling the split between the mind and the body, the masculine and the feminine, the analytic and the creative. Reflecting more on the writing processes that enable her to become as “one,” she shares: “Every morning I write a little sketch… perhaps it might done in that way. A mind thinking.”44 Perhaps too, my/your/our might be done in that way, a body-mind-heart thinking drawing-as-writing-as-drawing ever so close to the post-academic feminist world to which I/you/we find my/your/our selves “forever on the way.”45
Drawing the Truth in Error
The night is waiting and senses that I am about to draw. It is quiet, my children and partner are lost in the darkness of yesterday's dreams and those of today that will sustain them tomorrow. But I cannot sleep; the sound of the wind outside matches my restlessness and allures me into a shared space of wide-awakeness. I look at the scraps of sketches scattered across my desk cascading onto the floor and I become “distracted, at these morsels of worry, these stuttered avowals of nothing, nothing clearly delivered.”46 I watch as the “true drawing escapes”47 from its secret moment; a woman who always wanted a room of her own but finds herself stuck in a chamber not of her own making. How did she come to be there and what is her heart doing outside?
She reaches for the door but it is locked; her heart calls to her from outside but she is stuck within. She moves her-body–her-self to another page only to find that he is waiting there for her, right where he has always been and this time he is ready. His large hands grab her roughly and stuff her into a small jar. One shove to cure the rot, another kick to take away the pain, and still more blows so she is forced to forget that the room of her own ever existed. Her-body–her-self breaking with no bend and the battle is lost. She is but a tiny ember in the darkest depth, barely breathing smoke, let alone a fire to raze the city, blaze the town and country, her cunt-free. Is it too late?
But wait, she hears the cries of another caught and captured in a cupboard at the back of the room not her/their own: “This is my cunt-ry and your drawing-as-writing is for you not me, so what about taking responsibility for tracing her/story in honesty?” I am desperate now to make reparation; to repaginate the liberation my drawing-as-writing seeks and claims. But the marks I make are clumsy, out of place. I am not comfortable sketching the in-betweenness of un/forgetting. The drawings-as-writings that emerge are not enough, not good enough—not as artlines, not as the heartlines I desire them to be.
I feel a thousand apologies for the crudeness of the lines, composition, and creativity falling from my mouth; “Sorry, I have never never taken art classes,” my voice stutters. “Sorry, I don't really know how to draw black-and-white cartoon style pictures,” I stammer. “Sorry, I simply had to clean up the messy edges of my drawings,” I admit ashamedly. From inside the glass jar, I look sadly to my sisters in the academy: “Sorry, I have an awful feeling I have let you down.” “Sorry,” I turn to my Yanyuwa family, husband, and boys, “I am just a white-settler-colonial woman after all.” Head down, heart on precarious ground, I move to walk away. The pull to repent is too strong and I cannot see the errors for anything other than “traces attesting to failure.”48
I pick up my pen and put the tip to the page. Black begins to bleed onto white; I have pressed too hard. I try to dab it clean but to no avail. There is now a big dark smudge interrupting the clarity that was there only a second ago and I attempt to merge its shape into something that has meaning. I move to sketch the past in the present; I want to trace smidgens of memories held impossibly somewhere in the in-between. The familiar curves and edges of my body begin to take shape.
A naive researcher. Trespassing blindly, heavily. Filled with right. Replete with privilege. Covered in coloniality. Ethnomusicologist and ethnographer. Recordings, notepads, cameras. Will you sing? For me now? Fires, dust, melodies. I want to. To know you. To know me? Who am I? You ask me? Hold my hand. Teach, watch, wait. Patient and generous. Travelling on country. Always on country. Words are written. Worlds in collision. Strangers become friends. Friends become family. Family becomes kundiyarra. Most necessary companions. A-mijii no more. Nungarrima and a-Yakibijirna. Newly born woman. Dance, dare, dream. Time passes by. Laugh, love, cry. Birth, death, renewal. A sisterhood beyond. And mermaids sing. As Law-full women (after Irene Watson).49 Forever a reminder. To be Law-full. On this country. In this country. For this country. With this country. A decolonial yearning. Can you hear? Will you un/forget? I stand back and consider the image I have drawn and I see that it is all wrong.
How long my hand, my pen, my/our/her-self body remained paralyzed, “frigidified,”50 and deposited in the “banks of lack”51 I do not know. The libidinal economists ruthlessly knock at the door of this drawing-as-writing room of my own and shout their insults:
Which castration [would] you prefer [today]? Whose degrading do you like better?…. Oh, what pwetty eyes, you pwetty little girl. Here, buy my glasses and you'll see the Truth-Me-Myself tell you everything you should know. Put them on your nose and take a fetishist's look… at your body and the body of the other. You see? No? Wait, you'll have everything explained to you…. Hold still, we're going to do your portrait, so that you can begin looking like it right away.52
In the pause that follows I see the “staggering vision of the construction [I am]”53; woman as the repressed of culture, woman whose lovely mouth is gagged, woman whose wind is knocked out, woman the labyrinth, woman the trampled space,54 woman who breaks “under the blow of the truth” and loses a life.55 With tears rolling down my face I stare at the inscriptions of flesh and a body laid bare scrawled on the pages in front of me, curving lines that curl their resistance against masculinist generalization, objectification, silencing, removal, and erasure.
I rip the monocles from my face; seething against the censoring of breath, body, and speech.56 To danger in drawing-as-writing the lines now fly from without and within; delighting in a subversive disco inferno up high and down below, which taunts and teases “in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ with laughter.”57 This drawing-as-writing woman's body is getting on going to “dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames… and cry, ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For [I am] done with this ‘[academic writing]!’”58
Drawing-as-Writing Without a Stop
Three sketches later I find that I am still “drawing without a stop,”59 searching, trying, trying again, to allow the work of feminist disruption and declaration in academic writing to be done. The pull to draw is strong and replete with knowing how “imagination breathes life into experience.”60 My pen smudges the neat and orderly institutional edge, distorts that dualistic sharp corner, and turns against the “pervasive masculine urge to judge, diagnose, digest name.”61 Over, around and upside down it goes, “[lurching lines], if only for a moment, out of the familiar and the taken for granted”62 and arriving to question anew outside in the open and otherwise-than-patriarchy as a form of “post-academic writing.”63
I begin to draw her once more. First the triangular dress, next her accentuated breasts, and then her thin legs and feet in chunky, sensible shoes firmly grounded. My hand moves to draw her head; circles upon circles become her face, framed by hair placed neatly in a bun. Her eyes begin to appear, wide-awake, and in this moment of seeing herself for herself, she takes back and returns to her body.64 I watch my pen shift to trace her newly born heart and hear drawing-as-writing become a voice that comes “very gently to meet [and awaken] our souls.”65 Her tongue listens to her ear's heart, which speaks her release from the stagnant confines of phallogocentric thought. “We won't advance backward anymore; we're not going to repress something so simple as the desire for life,”66 she whispers, and it is this “dialogue of hearts” I seek in drawing-as-writing.
It draws me in to love, to watch-think-seek and thrills in the ethical, wise, relational and loving politic it traces to entangle emotion, experience, epistemology, and everything to become otherwise. There are thousands of ways this might be done, drawing-as-writing declares: “Each body distributes in its own special way, without model or norm, the nonfinite and changing totality of its desires. Decide for yourself on your position in the arena of contradictions, where pleasure and reality embrace.”67 Through drawing-as-writing, I/you/we are approaching and coming in-between the un-named hegemonic style of academic research and writing practice, without a stop or fear of ever reaching a limit; this is that which we fear and that which we seek in becoming—truly, madly, and dangerously—a woman drawing-as-writing her body.