By Miriam Gabriel
Critique. Not the most comfortable of things to do, or to receive. Glorified as the prime tool of social liberation, demonized as the thickest veil of spiritual enlightenment, cited as a rite of passage in the epistemology of college essays, banned from households and work places towards figures of authority. It is either detached from flesh and blood as a cold, intellectual endeavor, or, perhaps out of fear for its power, contained within emotions reframed as disqualifiers: anger, ill will, separation, distrust. All the examples I just cited of how critique is valued or de-valued can be entirely false if your experience engenders otherwise, if the context(s) socially and subjectively you live in, or move across, describes critique differently. Enough flowery language for now. I want to dig in with you on what critique as a social practice can mean, not just what we are taught for it to mean.
And I know our digging will be in good hands when facilitated by a discussion with the up-and-coming luminous cultural critic, Vanessa Fisher. Now, by "good hands," I mean challenging, grappling, experimenting, author-including, rigorously-critiquing, socially-transforming, actively writing hands.
Vanessa has been a rising voice, across multiple reputed online and print platforms, on the experience of finding oneself caught at the crossroads of spiritual and political practice, both personally and communally. She will not give you a quick-fix reconciliation to resolve it all, such as the much complained-of phenomenon of "spiritually bypassing" the embodied issues of living in a political and economic context, or a denial of any usefulness to an intuitive, intensely subjective way of knowing as simply too mercurial for concrete transformational value for a society. As Vanessa details in this third installment of TLA Talks, she sees the mediation of these more-or-less two worldviews as a processural affair, requiring as much readiness for challenge, even conflict, as for accord or integration. One of the core channels doing the dance of this process is developing a keen sense of critique, of examining the underlying assumptions onto which we build the worldview in the first place, or continue to re-build it with our everyday reenactments of values, biases, and definitions.
Through this sense of socially invested critique, we delve into some important senses, or constructions, of being that Vanessa articulates implicitly and explicitly in her work. We explore the thought and lived processes of liminal space and identity, class and gender consciousness, and erotic ways of knowing. Along the way, Vanessa illustrates a way of engaging critique that challenges assumptions about what is usually associated with this word in the North-Eastern hemisphere. She describes how critique comes from a container of love and stake in a society's well-being, also how it is a form of creativity in its own right: of re-creating a culture without deceiving oneself to think that any re-creation is founded on nothing. Otherwise, the creation ends up being a diferently dressed reenactment of the limitations and injustices of the old. She also elucidates how women are usually discouraged from honing the sharp eye of a critic, an eye that can be equally visionary.
It would be of no surprise to Vanessa that visual artists like the women whose works I collage above are every bit as critical in their work as they are visionary. Both women, although well-traveled, lived quite a bit in the North-Eastern hemisphere of the planet. They are at least a century apart: Remedios Varo lived between 1908 and 1963, and Molly Crabapple, born in 1983, is a very active artist today. As the works I collaged show, they both employ an impressively succinct and creative sense of critique! While Varo's female subjects display both the domestic, or social, and archetypal, or spiritual, restrictions placed on women in her place and time, as well as visionary images of strong, aware, intuitively powerful women, Molly's subjects are increasingly becoming an embodiment of the second camp. They're more and more of the empowering embodiment of a painting, whether it is summarizing social systems or evoking protest-culture sentiments. There are two unique but overlapping processes of critique here: emphasizing sadness and/or anger, centeredness and/or spunk, what needs to change and/or what it is changing into, what the artist envisons it would change into.
Especially if you are woman or female-bodied, Vanessa would encourage you to re-examine if you have been brought up in a social climate that discouraged the importanc eof developing your sense of critical participation, in your language and expression and action, to be an agent of change in the world. While that may be at odds with a dampening standard of being "nice," it can be an integral tool to being compassionate. And to doing something about the social awareness that this compassion brings, for one's communities and across communities. After all, as Vanessa reminds us, critique has historically been the discursive practice of the underclasses of a society, long before Western academia took it on as the "critical thinking" standard of a solid, post-modern essay.
Do you want to hear any more of my particularly fancy-schmancy language today? Indubitably not! How about you join us for this podcased talk? I am beyond excited to introduce to you this writer and artist who, I must say, has been a consistently reassuring bedrock for finding my voice as a working-class book worm spiritual seeker who also really cares about doing social change work at every opportunity – even if it's after clocking out really late at night. And her writing is my favorite kind of bedrock, too: tremulous, slippery, bouncy, "shaking it up," amoeba-shaped, but shaped nonetheless, and exists. Portable, pocketable, ready for wear and tear. That's the kind of writing that carries you through a couple of footsteps until you know your way. It's the kind of art, language, and journalism I am proud to share with you. Thank you for joining us.
For more original works, philosophy, and poetry by Vanessa Fisher, please visit her home page, Poetic Justice. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter to know about her evocative, provocative projects!
For her Dialogue Series specifically, from her website, visit here.
For her most recent article on the Elephant Journal, please visit: "Spirit, Inc.: The Politics of Modern Spirituality and the Stalled Revolution."
For her earlier writing on the now archival Beams and Struts, be sure to stop by here.
As for the Beams and Struts piece of hers that found me, through which I found Vanessa, please visit: "Undressing Sex: Re-Imagining the Art of Female Eroticism."
Vanessa's new book, Integral Voices on Sex, Gender and Sexuality: a Critical Inquiry, co-edited with Sarah E. Nicholson, will be available by July 2014.