One of the most common questions I get from my blog audience is, “What should I read?” This question is a reasonable one, considering that my blog, like the academic discipline of “theory” from which it attempts to distance itself, mixes and matches a vast array of disciplines and discourses, texts and concepts. One needs to start somewhere, to somehow get a handle on the thing. The underlying anxiety behind the question of the canon is the question of being and utility: What isfeminism? What is queer theory? What is philosophy? What are they, and what can they do?
Well, there are about as many answers to these questions as there are feminists, queer theorists, and philosophers, and each one will tell you to go read something else. In this recent post, I addressed the difficulty of defining and explaining feminism, but pointed out that one of the most important functions of discourses like feminism, at least from a conceptual perspective, is what I called “making-visible.” Making us aware of things we weren’t aware of, helping us see things we couldn’t see, enabling us to think things we couldn’t previously think.
If we accept this as one of the most important functions of feminism, then Adrienne Rich deserves pride of place in the textual pantheon. Rich was instrumental in helping us see: helping us see that patriarchy is not an inequality to be reversed by a relation of force to be subverted or mobilized, and, along with other brilliant thinkers like Barbara Smith and bell hooks, helping us see that “feminism” is not a sisterhood of women all fighting together for a common good, but a tenuous, fragmentary alliance of individuals with widely differing social and subjective positions and greatly varying relations to oppressive regimes. I have nothing to say about Rich’s poetry, but I can confidently say that reading her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” was a formative experience in my own intellectual journey, an experience which greatly refined my understanding of the subtleties and complexities of political struggle. Certainly, a great number of my favorite texts, including Sedgwick’s Between Men, are inconceivable without this essay.
I can’t give you the book, or provide you with a definitive reading list. Feminist theory is a swamp, and you’ll have to find your own way through it. But I can suggest this - if you decide to walk into the swamp, take a copy of “Compulsory Heterosexuality” with you. It doesn’t contain all the answers. But it will help make them visible.