5 Books: Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh in conversation with Caroline Campbell's queer feminist Loiterbot, at the ICA, London

Girl Online is a book built on books, though its subject is the internet, which is itself not the tabula rasa hoped for in the 90s, but is partly built on books too, as well as a lot of other things that come from offline culture. It is a leaky space where offline ideas can be morphed and memed, but where meatspace oppressions can also be intensified.

Being a girl online can be an active critical and political stance, and every girl online stands on the shoulders of offline thinkers, writers and artists. So many support my work that it’s difficult to choose just five, so I’ve shamelessly cheated. As my thinking, like all of ours now, is hyperlinked, this has become my nature…

Lauren Berlant was a poet as well as a critic, and the best theory is like poetry, because it pays close attention to the words we use to tell what and how and where we are. Online, words often go unpaid, but are frequently rewarded in other ways, particularly emotionally (the like/heart/star of blogging, vlogging and social media). Berlant’s book, Cruel Optimism, describes how the narratives via which we have sought both financial and emotional rewards have become outdated (if they ever worked at all). As an alternative Berlant describes contingent narrative-making that takes place in ‘juxtapolitical’ territory, ‘without threading through the dominant political institutions’. This is my territory, and it is the territory of the girl online. This is why I write about Plato in terms of Sex and the City; Foucault in terms of ‘chicklit’, Adorno in terms of blogging, which are all important methods for, as Eve Kosofky Sedgwick wrote of another trivialised feminised form, ‘gossip’, “the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one's world,"[1]  I deeply regret that Berlant died in 2021, before I could send them a copy of my book.

I kind of hate the anonymous French collective, Tiqqun’s, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. The poet, Ariana Reines, wrote that translating the book ‘gave me migraines, made me puke’. ‘Kind of’ is one of my favourite ‘juxtapolitical’ ways of proceeding as a thinker: it allows me to think two different things at the same time, and see whether that thinking can work, and identify the pressure points where it ‘kind of’ does and ‘kind of’ doesn’t. The phrase also has a physical ickiness that twins with Reines’ reaction: squirming is an underrated critical position.

Tiqqun does a good job of outlining the effect of a pre-internet capitalised feminine mediated image on the viewer. Published in English in 2012, when ‘young girls’ were already everywhere online, the book sits more comfortably with its original French publication date of 2001, and the one-way street of film, TV and magazines. Tiqqun looks at the image of the young girl, but never attempts to look out from her standpoint.

It’s interesting that the book gave Reines acute physical symptoms. Though the collective admits that ‘anybody’ can be a ‘young girl’, it in no way ties the ‘young girl’ back to the bodies and minds (of all sexes, genders, ages and races, despite the young girl’s almost universal representation as young and white) that labour to inhabit that identity. Nor does it ask why. I wanted to think about the young girl from her own viewpoint. Inhabiting that identity juxtapolitically, can she avoid  Tiqqun’s identification of her as a war-machine of capitalism? Real human bodies (including those of girls online) are the opposite of capitalism though they are its material: they are not liquid, they wear out and decay. They are not always ‘young’. They are always engaged in what Berlant called ‘slow dying’.  

The internet’s ubiquity and anonymity means anyone, anywhere really can be a young girl in ways Tiqqun could hardly consider in 2001. The obvious frictions between most people’s lives and the young girl’s impossible ideal can expand the meaning of the ‘young girl’ in some radical ways. Sometimes these are recuperative, for example age and body-positive movements that seek to expand notions of ‘beauty’ but don’t alway attempt to tackle the problem with the binary of beautiful/not beautiful that beauty creates. Other frictions occur at the point the young girl is very obviously not what she appears to be online. One of my tasks in Girl Online has been to pay attention to this tension between online and off, body and image, and to the labour involved in making that leap.

Like Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick (Ngai is rightly first up in McKenzie Wark’s constellation of thinkers for the 21st century, Sensoria) the young girl appears to be a shortcut that circumvents labour because she is rewarded for ‘just being’, though she works all along at ‘being’ online, and sometimes that work is hard. The pressure to be a ‘young girl’ even exists in ‘serious’ literature. When I wrote Break.up, I didn’t mention the work I had to do to support the journey that formed the backbone of the book’s narrative, both domestic/family work, and paid work, and I was doing both every step of the way. This was because in many of the models I’d been given for creative non-fiction, the authors just appeared to ‘be’ and ‘observe’, without very trying financial worries or domestic responsibilities. Why did I bow to this tradition? Because I was learning how to speak about my life at all, learning how to find a platform. And from this platform I learned to write the parts of my life that seemed impossible to account for back into my work. Most of the best personal writing now makes sure the economics of writing are accounted for, and this even sometimes becomes their central subject. I like Anne Boyer’s work here, particularly in Garments Against Women, a series of lyric mini-essays in which the author thinks and works her way through bringing up a child alone, financed by a series of unrewarding office jobs while stitching together garments, and also works of art.

The internet altered the young girl’s position. Instead of being ‘produced’ by a patriarchal rosta of writers, artists and directors via traditional media, she took the means of production into her own hands albeit using modes of self-presentation that have also been used to oppress her. There is, as Audre Lorde wrote, “a difference between the passive be and the active being”. But can the master’s tools be used to dismantle the master’s house? Or even make it liveable, ‘kind of’, proceeding via Berlant’s contingent methods? When Lorde wrote those famous words, she was talking not about the ‘tools’ of popular representation, but those of academic criticism: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” The academy did not account for people like Lorde, or for many other kinds of people. It did not give a proper account of them. It used language in which it was able to speak of little but itself. Lorde’s ‘Masters Tools’ paper was given at an academic conference. She dismantled and rebuilt this imperfect platform into a space from which to speak. In Tiqqun’s work, when the language of the young girl is used, it’s never from the perspective of the young girl herself. Spoken of in the 3rd person the ‘young girl’ and the critic remain a binary. Lorde insists that we take account of difference. The girl online is one of the points at which the cracks created by the difference between media representations of ‘young girls’ and the people who inhabit these identities can do some constructive destructive work.

I am not a young girl, even as all the time I am. For a start I am far too old. I even came late to the house of criticism, and I got in through the kitchen window, or up the drainpipe maybe. I have learnt its language late too, and I often do not speak it as well as I speak the language of the young girl. In Girl Online I try to do something toward dismantling this binary, which is work and is also fun. Kind of.

5 (or so) books
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011)
Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, trans. Ariana Reines, (Semiotext(e), Intervention series 2012)
Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Belknap Press, 2020)
McKenzie Wark, Sensoria: Thinkers for the 21st Century (Verso, 2020)
Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women (Penguin, 2019)
Audre Lorde, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House” (1984) in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 2007)

[1] Sedgewick, Epistemology of the Closet, p. 25.