by Adèle Haenel
[Feu! is Adèle Haenel's contribution to Elsa Dorlin's "abecedarium" of the same name, comprising fifty essays (and one comic) examining in each writer’s own words the feminist movement over the last twenty years. - C.]
The first step is to succeed in thinking of yourself as a casualty. Because if you think of yourself as a casualty, it means that you’re a victim of something and that the after-effects you bear are not the result of your character, but the repercussions of an assault. It radically changes the way you think and use your energy. It’s no longer about curbing your bad temper but about making sense of the significance of a symptom. This realization isn’t clear in an environment saturated with narratives where out of all the options available, none of them talk about the fact that an assault has repercussions. In contrast, the stories that are available are, for example, the consuming passion, the adolescent crisis, the feminine essence, the generational conflict. Each of these stories offers a key to understanding the world and emphasizes the way things are done. A man is in love? It’s because his soul is too big for him, you have to understand that he doesn’t know how to control himself. Teenagers are rebelling? You have to bring them to heel to show them who's the boss. Women have mood swings? They don't know what's good for them and they also need someone to be in charge. All these stories are so many ways of standardizing and interpreting the world in order to institute priorities. It’s in these explanatory fictions that we find solutions to the problems we encounter. And these explanatory fictions are shaped by and for a fundamentally inegalitarian establishment: the patriarchy. Patriarchy is a social and legal system founded on men’s possessing power to the explicit exclusion of women. It is also a system in which the masculine represents both the universal and the superior. Conversely, in this system, the feminine doesn’t count for much. And as a teenager whose individuality had been crushed by years of abuse, I didn’t have a lot to challenge this delimitation. It’s true, there wasn’t much left of me. I was surviving on the fringes of myself trying to make as little fuss as possible. Not only do the narratives of patriarchy structure the meaning of the world, but they also make you become a character who validates these narratives. Reinforced by abuse and under constant threat of exclusion, I was encouraged to submerge myself into silence. If you don't buy into the solutions they suggest, that is, if you don't take it upon yourself and keep your mouth shut, you’re pushed out, isolated, forsaken. Not only did I have to keep quiet, but I even had to bear the burden of not letting my story, my dirty story, be discovered. Let the silence be clean. The fictions of patriarchy are rallying cries that demand that you submit to the identities it proposes. As a teenager, at the intersection of all these narratives I was caught up in, none of them told me that if I felt bad, it was because I had been abused. I was incapable of thinking so, and besides, there was no one who would listen and no time to waste in understanding it. The risk that this abuse would be discovered and would give the men around me the means to ostracize me a little more or to break me even more was already at stake on the secondary market of patriarchy, heterosexuality. The abuse had been like training which entailed making me understand that I was not quite a human being. Subsequently, with regard to heterosexuality, I wasn't very demanding, it was good enough just being vaguely safe from abuse.
For a while, unable to love myself and terrified by the threat of exclusion, I sought refuge in an extremely gendered identity. I played the submissive girlfriend, the perfect daughter. It didn't matter that I was half-dead, it was even quite conveniently domestic. I was determined to show the men around me that I had learned my lesson; from then on I wouldn't pretend that my life was important and I would be committed to serving them. At the same time, while I was performing this docile identity, sheltered behind my bunker of femininity, I was already beginning to rebuild myself and I was sharpening my knives. Covertly, I started to do well at school again, covertly, I started to understand that I no longer wanted anyone to think for me, covertly, I started to feel my heart beat and my body live again. When I fell in love with a girl, and there was the possibility of escaping heterosexuality, I didn't hesitate for long and I left without a single regret. It was a real pleasure to abandon my little controller. Becoming a lesbian was liberating. It was a crucial point in my rehabilitation process. I was finally able to start inhabiting my body again as its rightful occupant. Also, for the first time, I was able to talk to someone who didn’t question the violence of what I had experienced. It wasn't an obvious path, but at least it was a way forward. An opportunity that allowed me to catch my breath and begin to feel that, as painful as my symptoms were, they were clues. Now I understood that if I had been assaulted, it was because there was a system that allowed that assault to happen, and so instead of using all my energy to hate myself, I was going to use it to change that system. Consequently, fire!
When we saw the emergence of the #MeToo movement and the thousands of stories of sexual assault surfaced, we could no longer talk about individual cases. We could no longer simply say that it was the work of monsters, of a few twisted people who were presented to us like the man in the dark alley in the movies. We could no longer ignore the fact that sexual violence was one of the most extensively committed crimes in our society. Realizing the extent of sexual violence was a necessary shock but, in itself, it is not automatically the way to change society. The risk with major issues such as sexual violence is that at the very moment when they become unavoidable, driven by revolutionary forces fighting for a more just society, their use is taken up by right-wing forces to defend exactly the opposite social vision. The confrontation no longer takes place around the term but within it. It all depends on how you look at it. The rhetoric of power seeks to habituate identities, and in the terms of the patriarchy this means that men and women are both irreconcilably different and complementary, since men are everything and women the opposite. According to this rationale, it’s not the political organization of men that is violent, but women who are victims by nature. Faced with this conditioned binarity, civilization would consist of arming good men to defend women against bad men. This conditioning, promoted by a significant proportion of films, tends to render political change impotent by locking us into a kind of fatalism, thus confusing the protesting forces. The problem is no longer the existence of an inegalitarian system, the problem is that there are bad leaders who must be replaced by good ones. From this perspective, taking sexual violence into account can be part of a rhetoric of power that tends to further reinforce the patriarchal order.
So, indeed, as far as my speaking out on Mediapart in 2019 is concerned, it is inevitable that, like any isolated event, it’s not enough on its own. Inevitable that there would be attempts at reclamation and depoliticization. For me, one way to fight against depoliticization is to claim my affinity with all victims and my inclusion in the particular history of the silenced. This is why it was important to thank those who had spoken out before me and to speak first and foremost to those who are a part of this history. Taking action as a victim of sexual violence and for all victims is not only a specific appeal made to a field of justice, it’s a revolutionary critique of patriarchal and neo-capitalist society. Neo-capitalism is an extension of the capitalist system, which is itself an economic regime in which capital, and the means of production and exchange, do not belong to those who actually carry out the labor. We bear witness to the fact that, in order to function, this economic system requires expendable lives, lives that are considered less important, the «ungrievable» as [Judith] Butler writes. We are an embodiment of the brutal fate this political system designates for the subordinate multitudes, and in this we point out that it is intrinsically unbearable and incompatible with the sovereignty of the people, in other words, with democracy. Moreover, I believe that these attempts at depoliticization consist primarily in isolating my case from the rest of the victims, judging that my speech, reasonably calm and articulate, differs in nature from those of the other victims, who would not have had the right tone, would have been too angry, too isolated, or too butchered to articulate their pain well. The government seeks to communicate through my case, at very little cost, on its action in favor of women, thereby seeking to enrich its rhetoric according to which the world in which we live is the best possible for women. It seeks to expunge anything that was anti-establishment from my speech. The part of my speech that was most objectionable to them was that it pointed out that behind its democratic veneer, the patriarchal capitalist system is fundamentally xenophobic. To put it another way: there is no solution to the problem of sexual violence in a capitalist framework, since it is inevitably racist and sexist.
Nevertheless, I feel that my statement on Mediapart has inserted itself into the gap between the benevolent discourse generated by the system and the unbearable reality that it concealed. It helped to root out the actual meaning of the official discourse as being at the service of a fundamentally anti-democratic political agenda. Anti-democratic in the sense that it cloaks itself in the values of democracy – such as equality and freedom – while making their actual implementation impossible. It’s this «seeing clearly» that I believe has been so liberating. Misdirection is a fundamental political tool for maintaining order, because once befuddled, you don’t know on which basis to ally yourself, or how to fight. This misdirection is achieved through a variety of techniques, of which discourse is only one element: denying facts, pretending to discover them, pushing them to the boundaries of normalcy, pretending to care about them, appointing ministers suspected of rape, talking about telephone lines, cutting budgets, criminalizing demonstrations, forcibly passing measures to cut budgets, talking about crop-tops, facilitating egalitarian forums, surrounding themselves only with white men, beating up protesters, etc. This confusion is meant to wear us down by making us believe that a dialogue is possible, and to position the fight on ineffective ground. So, when I spoke out, and even more symbolically when I left the Césars, the political agenda defended by the ruling class became very clear: they make the world a better place for a handful of the powerful, and allow themselves to tolerate the slaughter of others. It’s a political death project. Once the agenda becomes clear, you start to get carried away by the idea that another world is possible and therefore to organize and join the resistance. It’s not a matter of saying that we are right, it’s a matter of saying that we don’t have the same political agenda. The question is to know what we want to hear, around which stories, around which agenda do we want to build society?
Many of us have been cast out of the official happiness narrative as a result of our speaking out. Banished from our families, ostracized at work, isolated from our surroundings. The happiness narrative in the capitalist system may be morbid, but it is so richly nourished and pervasive that it’s not easy to feel justified in resisting it. It’s always readily available and we lack alternative narratives. This is why we need another way of telling stories, and even of recounting history itself. The political challenge is to produce different imaginations that make revolution not only welcome but also possible and desirable. We are not disconnected from our narratives, we are suffused with them, guided by them and we invent our lives by reshaping the available narratives. As oppression molds us, imagining a solution to our pain other than reversing the relationship of domination that oppresses us is a job in itself. Subjugation stupefies us to the point of making it impossible to think of a way to escape it. To succeed in imagining what doesn’t yet exist and thus making it conceivable is a creative pursuit which is for me one of the most powerful ambitions of political cinema. Before it can offer new narratives, cinema works at the level of definitions themselves and the obvious. The definitions it offers then allow us to read the world, to understand it and to see it. It’s not because we see an image that we understand it, it’s because we understand it that we see it. What we are compelled to understand by the word love, for example, plays a part in habituating us to tolerate the aggression and violence grafted into this definition. Succeeding in making visible what has been obscured by the conditioned hierarchy of perception is at the heart of the work of directing.
A far cry from the eroticization of domination, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a film that offers another definition of love, this time based on equality. Here, love is a covenant. The purpose of this covenant is to make the other person's life as fulfilled as possible and to explore a depth of experience with her that has yet to be reached. This thinking in terms of depth breaks away from the current paradigm that equates success with accumulation. It charts a course toward an existence based on the model of expanding vulnerability. We start from the principle that being vulnerable is a path, a learning process, and that being alive does not automatically imply that we are able to live our lives. This path can extend to the whole of society and serve as the central axis of a political agenda. To radically expel the xenophobic frontier mindset that pervades the capitalist world and suggest instead a political order whose goal is to make all lives lived to their fullest. Thinking in terms of sensibility, of sensuality is a whole new world. Although capitalism itself digs its heels in over its alleged inevitability, the world as it is is a possibility that has been realized. That is, a hypothesis that has the weight of existence and can be replaced. Human beings, such as they are, are shaped by a violent, predatory society, and it is possible to fight for a society that offers other models of individuation. What we are fighting against are not individuals, but modes of individuation. It’s not about purging, it’s about transforming. In contrast to the necrotizing and isolating individuation that capitalism offers us, fighting to enhance the scope of one's sensitivity is a revolutionary undertaking. This alternative purpose has begun to permeate the demonstrations and the way of life for many people in the world. It’s not only something we experience individually in a movie theatre, it’s an experience that we know is collective and that realigns us together on another political project. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu provides narrative elements that contribute to swelling this revolutionary wave that is not only organizing to change the world, but is already changing it within each of us. The collective and individual adventure is being woven into a global project that gives deep meaning to our lives. To struggle within ourselves against «those parts of ourselves that are tempted to play the game of the world as it exists¹» and to struggle in the world to make the lives of others as much worth living as possible. The struggle is no longer just necessary, it is also irresistible, because that’s where life is. It is a wave, an energy, a frenzy of thought that permeates all of us and carries us beyond happiness, toward joy.
Adèle Haenel is an actress at heart and a feminist and anti-racist activist in fact.
¹ Quote from Theodor W. Adorno.
[Please don’t repost this anywhere, in part or in whole. Feel free to reblog, or at least cite your source and provide a link back here. Asking permission would be nice in an ideal world, but I’m a realist - I know far too well how easy it is to appropriate stuff on Tumblr. I would be the first to admit that my translations are not perfect - there are some words and phrases that simply do not drop neatly into an equivalent in English, and I constantly fix typos and make changes or corrections in older posts - but they do take a lot of work and time. Thanks for understanding. - C.]
Massive h/t to @thexfridax, who purchased this publication and sent it to me. Ros, you rock!
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