Volume 1 Coda: Misogyny, Heteropessimism and Anaesthetic Feelings
Updated: Jul 17, 2023
I recorded this interview with Samantha Pinson Wrisley at the end of 2022. We'd just wrapped up volume one of the podcast and Daz and I deliberated for ages about where to place it and how to edit it down to a bite-sized chunk. After much back and forth, we elected to publish the whole thing more or less as we recorded it and to let it stand on its own. It is a longer discussion than usual but we decided we needed to keep the interview in its entirety because Wrisley's answers are like intricate, conceptual braids: in turning them into snappy sound bites, we lost the connections and deeper layers of meaning in the discussion. Wrisley’s work is not easily reduced to summary because it runs counterintuitive to contemporary political thinking on the topic, while maintaining a commitment to liberation. The work is both psychological and sociological. Meaning it is neither crudely individualistic nor generally social. Wrisley is interested in that intersection, in the traffic between the self and the social.
Their research on misogyny focuses on the feeling of hating women, and on articulating how those feelings shape relationships and social worlds. A feelings-based approach to thinking about misogyny sits in an awkward relationship with existing theories of misogyny that focus more on the manifestations of the feeling as actual gender-based violence or the discrimination we call ‘sexism’. If we think about misogyny as a feeling instead, they claim, we will find new ways of dealing with the more pernicious and dangerous manifestations of this kind of hatred.
I was first alerted to the work of Samantha Pinson Wrisley via a tweet from Elizabeth A. Wilson. Wilson is a famous theorist who researches how feeling and embodiment connect with feminist politics. One of the key ideas throughout Wilson’s work is that the connection between the political and the affective is quite messy and that we must be able to deal with the feelings that run seemingly counter to the political vision of our work: “A feminist theory that tries to apprehend the harms that are native to its own conceptual and political actions is a more robust endeavor than one that tries, vainly, to make itself pure of heart” (Gut Feminism, 2015, 166). We need to be able to deal with feeling whatever it is and we cannot make straightforward or categorical assertions about what feelings do in the world. Feelings are strange, their consequences diverse. They are, by definition, intuitive, but also they can seem counterintuitive and they can certainly be counterproductive and conceptually vexing.
I was especially motivated to interview Wrisley following my reading of their article “Feminist Theory and the Problem of Misogyny” (2021). The article opens with a rethinking of how feminists seek to understand and respond to misogyny from the perspective of misogyny as the feeling of hating women(rather than manifestations of hatred, like violence and sexism being labelled as misogyny). As Wrisley says in the interview, she became something of a “linguistic purist” insisting on a very narrow and particular definition here. For me, the article provoked the desire to bring together Wrisley’s specific thinking about misogyny and feeling with the provocative, but kind of small and underdeveloped idea in the original Asa Seresin article “On Heteropessimism”: “If “heterosexuality” becomes shorthand for misogyny, the proper object of critique falls from view.” It turned out that by the time I approached Wrisley to chat for the podcast interview, she had already joined those dots. Her PhD, which was awarded in 2023 subsequent to our interview, is titled “Misogyny, a condition: Feminism, Heteropessimism, and the Self”.
One of the key ideas that Wrisley’s work develops is that heteropessimism is an ‘anesthetic affect’. We learn through Seresin’s thinking on heteropessimism, that even though it appears to be critical of the status quo, heteropessimism is a cynical attitude, anticipating a mediocre experience of the status quo but “rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality”. In other words, heteropessimism is not a desirable state nor is it a viable liberatory politic, but instead an “anesthetic feeling: a feeling that aims to protect against over intensity of feeling and an attachment that can survive detachment” (Edelman in Seresin, 2019). This means it is a feeling that mutes other feelings, helps mitigate bigger or more overwhelmingly negative feeling. The mechanism of heteropessimsim’s anaesthetics is that if we expect our partner to disappoint in certain ways (e.g. the seemingly banal and benign cliches of the lazy husband who watches the game instead of helping around the house and the nagging and overly emotional wife) then the bigger problems of one’s life and relations (material and existential connected to a primary relationship) can be ameliorated with this kind of sense that this mediocrity and disappointment is to be expected. It’s a way of managing expectations by keeping them very low. There’s also something very conservative about this as it does not seek to repair, change, or even hope that things could be better. Wrisley’s work on feeling probes this further by examining the affective tension between the hatred of misogyny and the anaesthetics of heteropessimism.
The fact remains that heterosexuality exists within both a patriarchal and a misogynistic culture. So there are more serious dimensions and side effects of het-pess’s anesthesia. In Wrisley’s work, the consequences of widespread heteropessimism are examined for their connections to misogyny, which are less banal and more pernicious. Samantha looks at how this same (or adjacent) feeling tangles with misogyny and forms part of the rise of transphobia, incels and the manosphere. The interview is at once provocative, as it resists straightforward answers, and in my view is also radically, albeit critically, compassionate. At the end of our chat, we explore how we can integrate some of these sensitive ideas and approaches in the future, and I certainly feel compelled to try. Take a listen here.