EVE KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK

RESOURCES CONFERENCES

Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl
Izzy Isgate

Good afternoon, I’m Izzy Isgate, I’m a PhD researcher in the Department of English and Related Literature at York (where I’m writing an ethics of Materiality), and I’m going to be thinking today with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’. I’m opening with song lyrics from Shawn Colvin’s ‘Diamond in the Rough’: 

As a little girl I came down to the water
With a little stone in my hand
It would shimmer and sing
And we knew everything
As a little girl I came down

But in a little while I got steeped in authority
Heaven only knows what went wrong
There is nothing so cruel than
To bury that jewel
When it was mine all along
I’m gonna find it.(1)

 1) Shawn Colvin, ‘Diamond in the Rough’, Steady On (Columbia, 1989).When Professor Jason Edwards asked me to position a paper on the ‘Masturbating Girl’ – on Valentine’s day (!) – any indignation that may have reduced me to my infantilised, and shaming, Catholically schooled guilt soon held out a promise of pedagogical pleasure. Poised on the edge of my seat, [as I’d like to think you all are now] as I stroked and gently tapped the keys whilst writing, thinking about how I might tease this paper out, tantalise it from its hidden place, I put my finger on the delight of what it might mean to stand in this academic space and publicly, somewhat onerously, own onanism. And so, if you receive this paper as purely pleasurable exhibitionism (someway enticed by Sedgwick’s provocation) then that is what the masturbating girl (and taking up her position) is want to do; she is as risky (or risqué) as she is reparative, opening and teasing herself to be disciplined. The masturbating girl is purposefully performative, and I suggest perfuse in her political potentially, not least because I delightfully position her, as a gesture to circle, circumnavigate, and so de-center the normative/normativising stance of critical theory, which has been so anxiously fixated with playing with its own phallus (from Freud to Lacan, even through Derrida and Butler) – and I take pleasure in defiantly reveling in pleasure’s disavowal from theoretical discourse.

I might call this paper ‘Intellectual Wanking: (I Know What You Did Last Term)’; the affective strategy of which would not only play upon the possibility of what Sedgwick calls ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading (Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You)’ – and I hope in some way that you all know that my paper is – but also to finger the disciplining, accusatory, occasionally wagging and pointed, finger from which we are increasingly under pressure in Arts and Humanities as a discipline, as research productivity and value is increasingly understood in terms of public engagement and impact. As Arts and Humanities loses funding hand over fist (and I’ll discuss the ethics of fisting another time), and sciences are prioritised, to attach value in terms of ‘productivity’/’re-productivity’ arguably becomes an anti queer move.

Indeed, I wondered how might I publicly engage with masturbation? As a fledgling queer academic who is constantly being asked to make my research fit for “Fun, Family Friendly Activities’, I am only too happy to point out the ways in which families aren’t always necessarily fun, and to suggest that masturbation could be, and indeed should be, fun for all the family.  

My refusal to participate structures me not only as the queer deviant, but also as the killer of familial (and re/productive) joy – the masturbating girl exposing herself at the family party. Insofar as she remains undisciplined, the masturbating girl defiantly spoils the fantasy of ‘productive value’, taking pleasure in pleasure, for her own pleasure’s sake. She therefore becomes ‘disciplined’ through the denial of her own body, incorporated into a teleological narrative through which her learning pleasures are re-inscribed as a stepping stone, en route, to a productive and re-productive future. Indeed, as we bring the privacy of intellectual work out in the public sphere, it threatens to expose the academic body that is arts and humanities as a pleasure seeking one. The recent critical turn towards trauma studies, holocaust studies, Arts and Human rights as disciplines, that are ever-so-pleased-with-themselves to legitimise the value of how arts and humanities research is done, I suggest is a turn away from and disavowal of pleasure – a critical oscillation that exposes its own masochism, which it then refuses to own.

Whilst Sedgwick describes the “highly relational but […] solitary pleasure and adventure of writing” as “mental masturbation”, as this panel from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) suggests, the performativity of knowledge also extends to the reading body. To position oneself as a researcher and a reader, immersed in the pleasures of texts – we might question whether ‘bookishness’, and the figure of the intellect, occupies a newly queer position – in terms of the psychosexual narratives of developmental stages, (like the queer subject) the ‘intellectual wanker’ is one who has not yet reached full sexual, productive, maturity. A scholar still looking to be schooled – a masturbating girl in need of discipline.

I am constantly being queried by non-academics friends (some of them scientific researchers), those in the ‘Human Fray’: “But, Izzy what do you do all day?” Often followed by: “also, working from home how do you get any work done?” The implication I take to mean, what with Internet pornography and a lot of, well, time on your hands – how productive could you possibly be?

I respond: I do take pleasure in my solitary research, being able to work from home so that I can read, write, and take occasional pause to stroke my pussy/cat. Positioned as the masturbating girl, the fruits of my pleasure’s labour are deemed to be unproductive; conveying an ideology that both overlooks what cultivating an ethics of self-relation might do, and any inter-relational transformative affect through my teaching encounters.

In these times of ‘austerity’- never so much have we wanted our Austen to be Austere (rather than, say, queerly ostentatious)? Austen’s masturbating girl, (who Sedgwick reveals as the girl being taught a lesson) still has something to teach us twenty years on. She comes again not only to throw into question the dialectics of pleasure and pain and what they reveal about our pedagogical practices, but to also ask: What is the value and impact of masturbation? Who will fund it? Is there room for pleasure in the academy? Publicly she incites the same “phobic narratives” as she did in the hands of Sedgwick, as accusations of pedagogical ‘corruption’, re-emerge in the recent press outrage at the Educational Secretary’s defense of “student’s right to study French Lesbian Poetry”, (one might think this discloses a panic about the French psychoanalytic feminist tradition, as much as it is homophobic, if only the press were that clever). Although she may be offered a moment of pleasurable pedagogy within which to find herself, heaven forbid the masturbating girl comes out of her closeted intellectualism, only to be find herself a lesbian! 

To conclude. For the masturbating girl, pleasure and its (disciplining) disavowal often come hand in hand, as a plethora of female masturbatory terms from ‘kitty whipping’ to ‘fingering the accused’ reveal. And so, to take in hand ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’ is not only to hold and caress, but also to discipline, revealing within it a pedagogical sadism through which epistemological thought becomes knowable. Within my own discipline, such strokes of pedagogical pleasure and pain are made implicit through the pleasures of the terms of ‘literary criticism’ (as much as the disciplining affects of ‘critical theory’ are rendered explicit under their own terms). Take for (one last frivolous) example: ‘Fanny Bashing’. You can imagine, reader, my anti climax to be coming across, the Jane Austen Society website, on “the most controversial topic on Austen” with a discretionary “warning [to]… read at my own risk”, only to find that the provocatively entitled ‘Fanny Bashing’ was a critical discussion on the idiosyncratic merit (or lack thereof) of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price.

To ‘masturbate’ is a term, that takes pleasure in its ‘mastery’ – the affective means through which we become pleasurably proficient and disciplined. As intellectuals who find thinking and writing both pleasurable and painful, as we are constantly reaching – clamouring to put our finger on that (seemingly elusive) climactic apotheosis [as I am now] – pedagogical masturbation becomes our own autoerotic s/m: the practice and means through which we crack our own whip. [We all know well the self-discipline yet expansive pleasures through which Doctoral research, books, and indeed conference papers, are produced]. 

And so, as an oscillatory gesture of pleasurable repetition – I will close as I opened, thereby leaving you with an opening:

As a little girl I came down to the water
With a little stone in my hand
It would shimmer and sing
And we knew everything
As a little girl I came down

But in a little while I got steeped in authority
Heaven only knows what went wrong
There is nothing so cruel than
to bury that jewel
When it was mine all along
I’m gonna find it

Izzy Isgate
Department of English, University of York