Exploding Appendix Questionnaire: Victoria Margree

The Second Rehearsal for an Exploding Appendix Manifesto
October 1, 2019
Exploding Appendix Questionnaire: Nick Hudson
December 6, 2019
The Exploding Appendix Questionnaire is an ongoing data collecting exercise that, drawing upon divergent public figures from different intellectual disciplines and artistic practices, seeks to create an ongoing and ever-expanding map of ideas. Through this ever-expanding map of divergent views, we seek a kind of dialogue that, in both its overlaps and contradictions, creates a kind of hive-mind, which, in turn, helps contribute to the intellectual unfoldings of Exploding Appendix’s overall mission.
For the Exploding Appendix Questionnaire, we have asked some of our favourite intellectuals, activists, artists, creatives and commentators to contribute to a series of 11 generic questions. The same generic questions have been sent to everyone, and what you read below is one response to this.

 

1. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Brighton. I’m interested in contemporary critical theory, especially feminist theory, and have recently published a book on the 1970s feminist Shulamith Firestone and her relevance today. I also work on the literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: I’m about to bring out a book on women’s ghost stories from 1860 to 1930.
2. What are your biggest influences in art, literature, music and cinema?
That’s hard to answer. I always find it impossible to say what are my favourite books, films, albums etc. It’s even harder to say what has influenced me. I suspect we aren’t aware of much of what influences us.
3. What, for you, is the purpose of art and culture?
Wow, another easy one! I suppose they serve a variety of functions: to entertain, inform, bring beauty, give form and sense to experience…
In my own work on literature I’m most interested in how imaginative fiction is negotiating aspects of the social and political world. So in writing about ghosts, for example, Victorian women are also writing about what it means to be a woman in a deeply patriarchal society: to be legally, politically and economically less substantial than are men; to be subjected to what Miranda Fricker calls the ‘epistemic injustice’ of having one’s perceptions and knowledge systematically discredited. This isn’t necessarily always the explicit purpose of the writers of these stories (I would imagine) but their narratives are registering, responding to, negotiating the contradictions of this predicament, nonetheless.
4. What makes something subversive?
I suppose I think of it as a kind of shaking up of the ground. When ways of thinking about a particular issue have become sedimented, subversive actions or ideas shake things up and show that there are, after all, other ways of thinking, acting or living – including ones that from the point of view of the existing consensus may seem shocking or outrageous.
But I think that also means that things are subversive in relation to a particular time and place. I have to be conscious of this in writing about the past. What was subversive in Victorian times is not necessarily subversive for us today, and there’s a danger of imposing our ideas upon the past. So it’s a good question – ‘subversive’ is a word we probably use too much and without thinking clearly enough about.
5. How would you approach the task of winning friends and influencing people?
I’m not sure that I do try to do these things. I am very interested in friendship, however – not just in having (good) friends, but also in thinking about friendship from a political and philosophical point of view.
In fact, my next project will be a book on friendship, written with my friend and colleague, Dr Michael Neu. We are interested in how neoliberalism inclines us toward instrumentalising friendship: seeing friends as people from whom we can get something that might help us in, for example, advancing our careers. We want to think instead about what social, political, economic conditions would have to be achieved in order to facilitate the development of non-instrumentalised friendships, where one cares for the other for the person that they are and for their own sake, and not (predominantly) for the sake of what they might be able to do for us.
6. What does individual freedom mean to you?
I guess I’m more interested in collective freedom; what needs to change about our world so that everybody shares in certain freedoms – freedoms from (hunger, violence, political persecution, for example) and freedoms to (receive the education one desires; form meaningful social relationships; migrate; maybe ‘flourish’ in Martha Nussbaum’s terms).
7. Is there, for you, a relationship between the personal and the political?
Yes, absolutely. This was one of second wave feminism’s crucial insights, that the personal is political: that what happens in the most intimate spheres of our lives is shaped by larger, structural relationships of power and inequality.
But there’s also now a danger of thinking that politics begins and ends with the personal; that political agency exists only in our buying choices, or the internet petitions we sign. We need forms of collective political action as well as these individual actions.
8. What is the root of society’s problems?
Massive economic inequality is certainly one of them. It’s obviously the source of all kinds of structural violence suffered by those at the sharp end of global capitalism, whose lives are rendered difficult and dangerous in the most appalling ways. But it’s bad for all of us, in all sorts of ways.
9. Will technology liberate humankind?
Not by itself, but I do believe technology can be used for progressive purposes. So we need to harness it for progressive political ends.
That’s actually one of the insights from Firestone’s work, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), that I find most helpful. She was arguing that reproductive technologies (contraception, abortion, even artificial wombs) could be seized by women in a feminist revolution, in order to give women historically unprecedented levels of control over their reproductive capacities. She took a lot of flak for that, from people who thought that technology was somehow inherently masculine, or from those who took her to be a technological determinist – someone who thinks that technology alone will save us. I don’t think either of those objections to her position are right (which is not to say there aren’t many other problems with her work).
What’s important for me are the questions about technology that Firestone prompts us to ask. Under what conditions is a particular technology operating? Who gets to control it? Whose interests is it serving?
But I agree with her that technologies fundamentally have the potential to help us with some of the biggest challenges we are facing: I’m thinking, for example, of green technologies that might present part of an answer to the environmental crisis; and of the role that technology could play in relieving human beings of difficult or dangerous forms of work (another of Firestone’s own concerns).
10. Do you have a vision for utopia?
It would be a more equal society; not riven by sexist, racist and class oppression; attentive to the need to sustain the physical world as being not only our home but the home of millions of non-human animals whose lives also matter. And I think that means it couldn’t be capitalist. Quite how to achieve this utopia is something I’m afraid I’m more sketchy about. But I can’t believe it is really beyond the collective ingenuity of human beings to achieve it (or at least something approximating it), if we are really serious about doing so.
11. Finally, where can people find more of your work?
At my University webpage (which includes links to on-line articles):
https://research.brighton.ac.uk/en/persons/vicky-margree
Thank you for inviting me to take part in this Q&A!