That harassment is a form of control, and hence a form of violence, is not in question for Jacqueline Rose in her brilliant new essay collection, On Violence and On Violence Against Women (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30):
The aim of harassment . . . is not only to control women’s bodies but also to invade their minds. . . . Harassment is always a sexual demand, but it also carries a more sinister and pathetic injunction: “You will think about me.” Like sexual abuse, to which it is affiliated, harassment brings mental life to a standstill, destroying the mind’s capacity for reverie.
Indeed, the ubiquity of violence (and, in particular, violence against women) in contemporary times is such that it may be almost unbearable to look at clearly. Statistics cited by Rose are familiar and profoundly distressing—including Catharine MacKinnon’s observation that the number of people killed on 9/11 is almost the same as the number of women murdered by men in the United States each year. But Rose argues that it is only by really looking, and by properly attending to what we see, that we stand any chance of addressing the situation:
It is the central premise of this book that violence in our time thrives on a form of mental blindness. Like a hothouse plant, it flourishes under the heady steam of its own unstoppable conviction.
Though by no means her sole subject, contemporary South Africa proves central to her enquiry—a society that has, in its history, more in common with the United States than many Americans might care to acknowledge. As she explains, “it is the place where all these forms of violence—historic, intimate—coalesce and rearrange themselves, spread throughout the social fabric and intensify.” Rose investigates violence against trans women; the intersection of race and gender; violence, disability, and—that overdetermined word—performance in the Oscar Pistorius trial; and the particular violences to which refugee women are subjected. Throughout, she returns to Hannah Arendt’s concept of “impotent bigness” (more complex than it sounds, of course, but, as a particularly male problem, essentially as it sounds), and above all, given Rose’s background and interests, to Freud, who, like Marx, may yet have an important role in contemporary discussions about how to heal our broken societies. Because, as Rose says,
For psychoanalysis, nothing perishes in the mind. As subjects we are always haunted. Struggling for a suitable analogy, Freud compared the mind to a city whose layers of history all exist simultaneously, every earlier stage persisting alongside the later stage which appears to have buried it or left it behind. Seen in this context, psychoanalysis is a counter-history, channelling what we have repressed from the past forward into a future struggling to find its own knowledge.
Rose is British, which may partly explain her attention to South Africa, but her formulation pertains as well to the United States, where today we must confront—because “reckoning with violence has to be enacted over and over again”—slavery’s bitter legacy, and the long-disregarded oppression of Native Americans. What has been repressed must be unearthed: this psychoanalytic template, Rose suggests, even as she likens it to Ubuntu philosophy, may offer a possible path forward in these times of struggle and violence.
Rose turns also to literature—to the contemporary novels of Anna Burns and Eimear McBride, the work of Toni Morrison and Han Kang. She shows a marked preference for high modernist forms (the ruptured sentences of Burns and McBride, recalling Joyce, come in for particular praise), but above all Rose seeks the expression of the abundant complexity of human experience, an event’s capacity to contain wildly contradictory elements at the same time. Ideologies often fail to describe or allow for this multiplicity: for Rose, a workable feminism must account for life as it is lived, and literature, she finds, can do this. She seeks agency for women: “The fightback is in the words, in what a mind—the life of the mind no less—can do with its own history.”
Images, too, can act as a form of resistance: a record of violence, to be sure, but also of violence transcended. Rose’s essays brought to mind, at various moments, the extensive international photography project by the Swedish photographer Linda Forsell, “Cause of Death: Woman,” which provides testimony not only to the agonizing gamut of gender-related violence—from intimate partner violence to female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape, and murder—but also, deliberately, records women as survivors, joyful and even dancing.