Wednesday, September 1, 2010

FAST FEMINISM ~ Book review by Julie Clarke

FF is a post-gender provocateur, not so much a gender terrorist as a gender risk-taker going the distance with her body. FF's philosophy is lived. Actions count. One resists with one's body. (p.11)
Autonomedia, New York, has just published Fast Feminism the latest book by the performance philosopher and associate professor in Political Science at York University, Shannon Bell. The book contains 198 pages including thirty-one plates - six of which are close-up color photographs of Bell’s genitalia with or without strap-on dildo and harness or Magic Wand vibrator, taken during her masturbation/ejaculation performances. It may appear unusual that an academic is involved in public displays with highly charged, erotic content, however; Bell has been conducting workshops on the female phallus and instructing women on the art of female ejaculation for the past two decades.

Bell’s oeuvre follows a long tradition in performance art that includes: Vito Acconci's Seedbed (1971) in which he masturbated underneath a ramp at the Sonnabend Gallery, New York as people walked by above him, Valie Export's film Mann & Frau & Animal (1973) that shows her pleasuring herself in a bathtub, Annie Sprinkles' ritual magic masturbation performances, Elke Krystufek's 1994 masturbation performance at Vienna Kunsthalle and a public performance in the mid nineties by the transgendered academic and performance artist, Allucquere Rosanne Stone who stimulated the palm of her hand to produce an organism. Moreover, Bell’s performance is '…embedded in praxis’, and, indeed, like Stelarc 'The "I" of the text is a post-identity recognized by gait, movement and speed' (p.14).

FF is a confessional and articulate text that straddles academic writing and colloquial language; it draws heavily on sexual expletives to stress the sub-cultural activity in which her performance praxis operates ~

When she wants, she has the phallus ~ a hard prosthetic cyborg cock. She is part woman, part silicone, part rubber. She straps on the phallus to jack in to fucking: up your ass, in your mouth, in your cunt. (p.34).
Initially the reader is aware that Shannon Bell is the fast feminist for there is a photo of her on page six with the letters FF branded on her forearm; however as we make our way through the text the multiple characters mapped onto her academic persona take over and appear as fictional fantasy avatars—cyborg, phallic mother, Sadean woman, little girl, female Don Juan (p.23). It is in this way that she not only engages with the genre of erotic literature and French philosophical theory, but also with current discourse that surrounds the digital matrix and avenues for constructing alternate personae which erode gender binaries. Move over Second Life with your virtual characters and fantastic scenarios Bell is doing it in real life!

Bell states that 'Fast Feminism is a work of speed philosophy, pornography and politics…which applies seven tendencies of Paul Virilio's work' (p.12), however she also '…implements Deleuze’s imperative of buggering…Virilio's work' (p.13) to produce a new offspring. She does this by deploying '…the female phallus, performative action and perverse aesthetics', rather than military history, architecture and aesthetics – Virilio's critical domain. As a performance artist she is extremely influenced by Stelarc 'who premises his theoretical claims and philosophical pronouncements on his practice'. Bell explains:

Fast feminism is a contribution of FF’s body to philosophy. It is a pragmatic gesture in which "the idea is always in the act" of owning the female phallus, female ejaculation, redoing Sharpe’s Boyabuse narratives on two adult bodies, doing and writing female Bataillean sex fables, making post-porn images and contemporizing Shiva (p.173)
FF’s text is definitely Deleuzian. One idea begins and is shattered, only to be taken up in the next already somewhere else, free-floating and circulating. However, rather than 'buggering' the texts and producing a bastard offspring ~ an activity that Bell states as her intention throughout the book, Fast Feminism appears at least on the surface as homage to masculine writers. Texts by George Bataille and the Marquis de Sade collide and intersect with Emmanuel Levinas ethics of the other; the latter used in her chapter on the perverse aesthetics of the homosexual, pedophile, child pornographer and writer, John Robin Sharpe. I must say that although I accept Sharpe's erotic writings are situated within an established and honored literary genre I was uncomfortable with this section because I have raised a child and believe that children should be protected from those who may hurt or abuse them, which is not to say that I believe that everyone who writes about a particular subject intends to act upon their fantasies and desires. However, we are constantly reminded of the extent to which children are abused not only in our own culture but in places like South Africa, where child rape is increasing at a shocking rate and those affected are treated like outcasts. I was not surprised, given the politics, style and content of Bell’s book that FF might argue '…the possibility of ethical and cultural acceptability for written and visual representations of sexualized youth' (p.87) since her oeuvre promotes sexual self-expression.

I was less interested in the practice of female ejaculation and Bell’s manual of how to achieve it (which forms much of the basis of chapter two), than the writing itself and the various references to philosophical theory, performance art and politics of the body ~ '...she was doing femme and the only position for a femme is to be 'invaded, penetrated, split, occupied…' (p.138). When FF is meditating at a wake for Horsey—a dog that died because he could not digest a bone, she asked one of the participants at the wake to reach inside her vagina and remove the package of money she'd placed there as a donation. This action evoked Carolee Schneemann's 1975 performance Interior Scroll in which she slowly extracted rolled up paper from inside her vagina, whilst reading from a text that reflected the subject positions of both genders. Moreover, FF draws attention to the relationship between currency, the female body and the way is has been abused by others throughout human history. By branding her body Bell has created a living, breathing commodity. Likewise, the tattoo clearly visible on FF’s mons venus and the Star of David she has tattooed on her upper body becomes more potent if we consider Marina Abramovic's 1975 Lips of Thomas performance in which she used a razor blade to cut into a star shape already traced on her stomach ~ an evocation of female victims in Nazi concentration camps who were stripped naked, humiliated, raped, tortured, prostituted and exposed to medical experimentation, including forced sterilization techniques.

Throughout the text, FF’s technologically augmented body - strident and showy with her strap-on dildo and high speed vibrator initially appears in antithesis to the other, quiet, spiritual body image that she projects when she embraced the mythical Hindu god Shiva, the cannibalistic Aghori sect of India and Gunter von Hagen’s lined, wrinkled and plastinated Skin Man. However strange these apparently discrete but complementary images of the human/not-human, dead/undead, animate/inanimate appear, they do reveal the range of her adopted persona's and her engagement with what may be perceived as hot and cold aesthetics. She gives more than a nod to Stelarc's work with prosthetics and robotics. In fact, cold, hard surfaces, decay, deterioration and death are the nodes that connect the blackened, charred remains of a human corpse that Bell encountered in Varanasi, the black 551 tattoo that Bell inscribed on her mons venus in respect for the cadaver whose uro-genital region she dissected, the multi-limbed statues of Shiva as well as Stelarc's not-human, six-legged, walking robot Exoskeleton that Bell pleasured herself upon:

FF’s fetish was steel. She slid under Stelarc’s 600-kilogram robot to check out its sex organ. Her phallus contracted and kept contracting; she came. (p.175)
I applaud Bell’s exhibitionism and loss of control against the sleek body of a machine usually associated with masculinity and control, but with all the emphasis on sex and death her text also references the several, rather than the one, '…multiple, complex and contradictory subjectivity's are acknowledged…' (p.16). Better to run with the pack, which is dispersed and deterritorialized (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) than to remain the lone wolf. Take care of your self, but participate in the pack. Strangely enough, the machines that Bell fucks with can be dismantled and reassembled ~ they will not age, they will continue functioning; whereas, throughout the text she exposes and confronts the fragility of her own ageing flesh whilst entering ‘death time’ with her dying mother as well as in her latest performances in which the audience is confronted with Bell's 'old rag and ruin' (Bataille: Madame Edwarda, p.150):

When I do ejaculation demonstrations and nude public performances what meets the viewer’s eye is…an older, small, muscular femme body – a body that’s not supposed to be seen, nor up to until now to be sexual and sexualized. The obscenity is in the showing, the obscene seduction is in presenting a hypersexual older powerhouse femmly (female equivalent of a manly) body. Of course, one of my political commitments…is to queer the old female body, to fuck with the signs of aging while presenting them. Gesture, movement, style and body composition meet and meld with age spots, knee wrinkles, and sagging upper arm undercarriage. (p.21)
It is clear from this statement and from her photographs that FF is not an everyday example of an aging female body. Having never borne a child she does not posses drooping breasts, excess fat deposits, stretch marks, scars, sagging stomach muscles or the like. But she does underscore the fact that in our youth obsessed society, bodies that are old, diseased or less than perfect are generally encouraged to remain hidden from public view.

Indeed, a strategy against the aging body and diseased organs is the development within biomedicine of tissue engineered replacement body parts. Riding on the intrigue and possibility for experimentation as well as the resulting rarefied aesthetic that tissue-engineering offer, a number of artists have been motivated to move into the realm of creating bio-artificial artifacts. One example is Stelarc’s tissue-engineered quarter scale ear. Bell’s own foray into the laboratory also resulted in the construction and replication of particular body parts. Her tissue-engineered Two Phalluses and a Big Toe calls to mind Bataille’s text 'The Big Toe' in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. According to Bataille 'the big toe is the most human part of the human body' (20:1985) the big toe differentiates us from apes, since it enabled the human to walk upright or be erect. Bell’s tissue-engineered phallus invites us to think about human evolution in relation to the construction of sexuality and the immense impact that various technologies do and will have on the way we perceive ourselves and others in real and imaginary domains.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Fast Feminism and would recommend it to anyone interested in performance art, philosophy and sexuality. For more information about Shannon Bell and her book see:


  1. wow you are an exellent writer julie (its Ash here), ive only just now bothered to look at your blog, i forgot as i was reading it that it was you, and then said to myself 'shit, this is great writing'. its funny because i have an interest in this intersection between sexuality and performance too (ive even done a bit of it), ive been into Annie Sprinkle for years, an ex of mine got me a poster of her for my wall. ive only just began reading 10 minutes ago, so i might poke around and see what other paranormal paralells i can find.

  2. Thanks Ash, I'm pleased that you like my writing. It's the one single thing that people have said of me most of my life, that is, that I am an excellent writer. I definitely write best when I'm writing about a subject that I'm interested in and the intersections between the body and technology is a continuing area of interest for me. I saw Annie Sprinkle perform with a rather large dildo in Melbourne in the early nineties, can't remember the year, but I went with a young lesbian friend who lived in the block of flats where I lived in in Hawthorn ~ you know, the place where you visited me.