Reclaiming the L-word

PADKOS NO 15
A couple of us attended the launch of a new book recently. The book is “Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out In Africa” (Modjaji Books, 2011). Contributing editor, Alleyn Diesel, is the partner of former long-standing CLP Board-member Mary Kleinenberg, and the book itself is the first collection that I know about, of South African lesbian women’s stories, written and collated by South African lesbians. In itself that fact already says a lot about the silencing of lesbian voices and experiences in South Africa. Anyway, it’s a good book, and an important book, and you should buy it and read it – but Padkos is not here to advertise things! What we want to share in this edition of Padkos are some of the remarks that Diesel made at the launch (see attached) – firstly, because they are powerful and insightful on their own terms, and secondly because we are struck by parallels with our own emerging clarification about what constitutes liberatory politics. Here we have not tried to summarise Diesel’s comments, only to point to some of the ways in which they resonated with the rest of our work at CLP.

A starting point in CLP’s self-understanding of emancipatory praxis is the recognition that it never proceeds from the presumptive representation of other’s struggles, but only when those who are oppressed act and speak for themselves. We were struck how central this was in Diesel’s own thinking about the project behind “Reclaiming the L-Word”. Early on in her comments she says: “Men have in the past largely been the spokespersons, speaking for all of ‘mankind’, feeling completely comfortable and confident to do the talking, for, and on behalf of, women”.

As CLP we are clear that achieving freedom is made possible only in the disruptive actions of the oppressed when what is hidden is made apparent; what is silenced is given voice; what is invisible is rendered visible. Necessary though this moment is, it invariably becomes a lightning rod for the anger, hatred and violence of the world-as-it-is which the militant oppressed must face. Diesel notes in general that “persecution, legislation, being locked up as suffering from mental illness, and in some places, burning at the stake, stoning, and more recently in South Africa, ‘corrective rape’, have all been viewed as justifiable methods of containing and suppressing such sinful and subversive behaviour”. Later she comments at a more personal level that “I myself, for all my education and privileged life-style, feel extremely vulnerable for having taken a stand to write my story here”.

And of course, truly liberatory action MUST be disruptive of what is and of the ways things are – otherwise it offers nothing new! At CLP we have drawn on the work of Alain Badiou and others working in a philosophical tradition that marks out the properly political as always a rupture. But being so, it is always threatening and suspicious to those who would defend the status quo – or are at least who are more comfortable living under its tyranny than resisting it. Diesel rightly comments that, when lesbians speak as lesbians in a patriarchal ‘straight’ society, they experience reactions “of scorn, dismissal, of being branded as anti-social, sick, a danger to society – a perversion for which a cure must be sought… an unacceptable threat to patriarchal norms, to the whole fabric of an ‘ordered’ and secure way of life. Disobedient, aberrant – in need of serious discipline”.

Another element that characterises our own understanding liberatory praxis is expressed by Badiou as its ‘singular universality’ – that the historic place and agency where actually emancipatory action is possible is, on the one hand, always specific but at the same time, always universal in the scope of its truth. Diesel’s final comment expresses her admiration for all the contributors to the collection for “challenging all who read these stories to help build a more tolerant, compassionate world for us all”. Notwithstanding the laudable ‘rights on paper’ we are assumed to have in South Africa, freedom is still a struggle. As former Constitutional Court judge, Kate O’Regan, comments on the back cover of “Reclaiming the L-Word”: “rights are never finally won in legislatures or in court rooms. They are won by people exercising them”.

Read the attachment – A Diesel comments at launch of Reclaiming the L-Word

 

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