Hypermasculinity, Ageing Bodies and Fast Feminisms: An Interview with Shannon Bell – Kim Sawchuk

Kim Sawchuck: This is Kim Sawchuk, sitting in the kitchen with the lovely and charming Shannon Bell of York University, the author of Reading Writing and Rewriting the Prostitute Body and Whore Carnival and who’s got a third book coming out, a single-authored monograph called Fast Feminism.

Shannon Bell: I have “FF” branded on my arm. The book ends with FF being branded. Branding for me is about power and ownership. ‘FF wanted the actions and the events she’d lived in the now to be always there with her. FF had the letters FF branded onto her right arm, and with this action she owned Fast Feminism.’ Fast Feminism has taken forever to come out. I’ve had more trouble with this book than with any book I’ve ever written. Perhaps because it is authentically perverse.

Sheva Phallus - Shannon Bell

KS: So what is the main premise of Fast Feminism, and why is the book called Fast Feminism?

SB: I have been working with the concept of fast feminism for some time, since 2000. Feminism has always been lacking one of my favorite characteristics: hypermasculinity. I always think of myself as very hypermasculine, in a muscular femme body. I wanted to bring together unlikely suspects – ground a feminism in previous feminisms, but also in my favorite theorist of all time, Paul Virilio. I wanted to bring feminism together with both speed and his later work, the accident.

I’m claiming that fast feminism really is the accident of Virilio’s speed theory. For Virilio, the accident, although an unintended and disturbing consequence, is inherent in, and created by the very technology or system it comes out of. How is Fast Feminism both the likely and unlikely accident of speed theory? An accident of any system, whether that system be ecological, technological or philosophical, is the unknown quantity inherent in the original substance. Where is fast feminism inherent in Virilio’s speed? Three locations: The fiercely courageous speed style that profoundly critiques the world quickly and breaks intellectual scholarship. The recurrent messianic moment that Virilio never fully hides: “if you save one man, you save the world”. And, in Virilio’s positioning of the body as the basis of his work: “I am a materialist of the body, which means that the body is the basis of all my work”[1]; “when I talk about speed, I am talking about bodies.”[2]

The other hypermasculine work I ground fast feminism in is the pragmatic techno-philosophy of the international cyber-robotics performance artist, Stelarc, who Virilio identifies as a global prophet of posthumanism. There are two aspects of Stelarc’s philosophical reflections that directly impact fast feminism. Stelarc always premises his theoretical claims and philosophical pronouncements on his practice. For Stelarc, “the idea is always in the act.” New thought is grounded in action and physiology. And, of course for Stelarc the carbon body has been obsolete since the early 70’s. If the body is over, gender is outdated, a worn concept that doesn’t match reality.

What happens in the text is an accident of gender in a way, the older female body comes in really strong, because, let’s face it, I’m 54 now and fast feminism was first written in my 40s. It covered everything up till then that I’d done. I just kept adding to it. Finally one of the things I had to address was doing performance – nude performance and sexual performance –in an older female body, which I’m really trying to politicize. I’d like to read from that text.

KS: Why don’t you.

SB: “I’m no novice fast feminist. These days when I do ejaculation demonstrations and nude public performances,” and I just did one last week, “what meets the viewer’s eye is not just a small, muscular femme body, but an older, small, muscular femme body – a body that’s not supposed to be seen. The obscenity is in the showing. Of course, one of my political commitments, having as my modus operandi a politics of affect, 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. It doesn’t matter how many years one has worked out, or how long and how hard each time, time will get you. Perhaps that is why time is my most worthy and best-endowed seducer. My mother died with my eyes held by her gaze. Time leaves no gender, no flesh, just pure intensity.”

KS: That’s an eloquent reflection on the ageing female body and on witnessing the death of someone you deeply love.

SB: Although I’ve worked really hard to redefine an older female body, ageing still gets you. At a certain point you can say, “Yes, that’s a very interesting older female body,” but it’s still an older female body. I messed around with Botox at one time, but now, I find wrinkles on a female face really interesting. Working with the signs and processes of age is political. I’m doing that in Fast Feminism.

KS: You’re working with yourself as a kind of “figure”?

SB: I’m working with myself as the heroine, and the fast feminist hero. When FF is there, it’s usually all about sex. FF is quite a good sexual adventure. There’s also the philosophy of fast feminism. The intro chapter sets those both up: FF’s escapades and the linkage between pornography, politics and philosophy. So I’m using Virilio, Levinas and Bataille to situate it, and of course Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

KS: What else does the book address?

SB: The first chapter is on the female phallus and situates it in terms of theoretical work on the phallus, but also the showing of the female phallus. Female ejaculation is linked with the female phallus. I’ve done a number of different performances and workshops on how to ejaculate, what it is, the power it gives you. Chapter 1 is quite a lengthy chapter, and it talks about how female ejaculation has exploded into a sub-genre of pornography and is never going to disappear again.

KS: And you are one of the pioneering – you are the pioneering person…

SB: Well there’s three of us who were female ejaculation pioneers, Deborah Sundahl (editor of On Our Backs), Annie Sprinkle and myself. We’re all still teaching. I just did a workshop at Come As You Are sex store (Toronto). Now I start off with a 40-minute ejaculation demonstration using sex toys and giving precise technical instruction. I am all about the technology of ejaculation, the power and skill; this has always set me apart from the other teachers. For me it is an acquired skill that a female body in control can choose to do or not do. The seminar is for men and women; it works really well. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, the audiences have gotten super-great.

KS: Enthusiastic? Intimate?

SB: Enthusiastic and the experience is very cool. I put the speculum in sideways, so you can see the erect female phallus, while I’m masturbating and ejaculating. Sometimes I accidentally ejaculate on their shoes because they are so close; the people attending are really wonderful. So it’s always exciting for me to do the workshop.

KS: Let’s go back to the philosophy of fast feminism. If I want to be a fast feminist, what do I have to do?

SB: It’s a fairly open and inclusive category. It addresses people who are in control of their actions, as either dominant or submissive – I actually wrote Fast Feminism as something of a submissive. I purposefully wanted to do that, and I’m a pretty good submissive because I’m highly performative. The philosophy then is that the female phallus – and it’s a queer phallus – is that part that has been repressed in the female body and female anatomy, but has now been conclusively identified in dissection. I did dissection on the urogential region of a female body. You can see the erectile tissue in the genital region, it’s really quite amazing.

In the next chapter, “The Perverse Aesthetic of an Infamous Child Pornographer: John Robin Sharpe ,” I covered the one and only artistic merit child pornography trial in the world, which was in Vancouver: the trial of Robin Sharpe. I covered it as a journalist. I also enacted almost everything Sharpe wrote about after hours with Sharpe himself, with me in the position of man and him in the position of little boy. I write about that. Robin actually taught me everything I learned in terms of the techniques of sadism. This is there in the book and that’s what kept killing it.

KS: Killing it in what sense? Because no publishers wanted to touch that subject?

SB: U of T accepted it. It had gone out to international reviewers and got really good reviews. U of T accepted it at their Friday meeting of their academic editorial board, some 18 people. The president of the press, however, cancelled it on Monday because of the Sharpe chapter. It was the only book he’s ever pulled. What makes the chpater really important, is it’s the only place where we hear testimony of the two defense expert witnesses, English professors James Miller (University of Western Ontario) and Lorraine Weir (University of British Columbia), The fourth chapter is a Bataillian piece I did using excerpts of Bataille’s writing to feature the women’s bathhouses that I’ve been at in Toronto.

The last chapter, Chapter 5, is a segue to my newer work, which is on robotics and tissue engineering. I write about issue-engineering Two Phalluses and a Big Toe. In this chapter, I also seduce two of Stelarc’s robots – I have sex with Exobot and the Muscle Machine much like Sacher-Masoch in Venus in Furs.

I did a tissue-engineering art residency with SymbioticA in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, Perth, 2005. SymbioticA was the first research laboratory to allow artists to engage in wet biology practices in a PC2-certified Tissue Culture Laboratory.

My project Two Phalluses and Big Toe was part of Tissue Culture and Art Project’s Wizard of Oz Programme. As an update of the ‘heart, brain and courage’ motif in the original, three performance artist-philosophers who desired to grow a new organ did so in Perth: Stelarc worked on his ear; Orlan, her skin; and as for me, I fabricated a phallus or two. Two Phalluses and Big Toe relics[3] were shown as part of the Festival Break in Ljubljana in November 2005. Two Phalluses and Big Toe implements Martin Heidegger’s approach to art as a means of ‘revealing’ new entities to ‘unconceal’ truth.[4] It functions as a comment on Lacan’s claim that ‘no one can be the phallus’[5] by showing that the phallus can be (alive) with no ‘one.’ It biotechnically realizes Bataille’s “Big Toe” as a site of waste and dirtiness and the organ which marks us as human

One of the phalluses is a female phallus in order to show how similar female and male phalluses are. The female phallus originated from an alginate mold of my 7-inch (17.7 cm) erect internal phallus. It was modeled using dentist alginate mold, shot into my pussy and removed really fast. Using AutoCAD, we reduced the objects in size to 3.5 centimeters. Then we did a 3-D printing of the objects on a wax block, produced silicone molds from the wax models and made biodegradable polymer structures in the silicone molds. The polymers were removed and kept sterile in an ethanol solution until it was time to seed them with cells in the bioreactor. All three partial life objects were grown from HeLa cells, an immortal cell line originating in 1951 from the cancerous cervical cells of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African American mother from Baltimore.

If you put something in a bio-reactor, the biggest you can get is 3.5cm because it just breaks apart structurally. A bioreactor functions as a body in which the necessary nutrients (Fetal Bovine Serum, Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium, penicillin and glutamine) keep the cells alive. The cells adhere to the polymer structures. Rotation of the bioreactor ensures more even cell growth on the polymer structure that over time will biodegrade.

Once the bioreactor started rotating, the spinning made the three organs come together as a neo-sex organ that we’ve never seen before and that will never be seen again.

KS: Has it survived?

SB: No, and that’s the other thing, the core of this little bioreactor was contaminated, the pink medium that turned yellow like urine within a four day period. I’ve got a whole series of images of the process and demise which I exhibited as documentation along with the relics.

KS: Fast feminism is grounded in a praxis of some sort?

SB: In my practice as a performative philosopher. I don’t write about anything I don’t do.

KS: Also, it’s a very interesting take on the idea of experience, which is a feminist category. Again, although you can’t ever fully understand the experiences that you’re experiencing, trying to write out of that is the challenge. So when you talk about taking Virilio to another object, is ‘the object’ we’re talking about sex and gender?

SB: Yes. Sex and gender. But I was trying to do something that wasn’t obviously sex and gender. Because they become cliché categories as soon as I say them.

I don’t know about your experience but – I actually think it’s really hard to interest people in gender right now. And gender in a sense is over. But to say it’s over, it’s like saying the body is obsolete. I argue, also using Haraway, that gender is obsolete. But it’s mostly obsolete for those people who are not persecuted for their gender.

If you are persecuted for your gender, it’s not obsolete; it becomes a highly contested category. Having been almost beat up once for being a gay man, and having wimped out and said “No, no, no, I’m a girl,” and then it all being okay…. I’ll never forget that. I was on that borderline where I could do that, but had I been presenting as any more masculine, I would have been beaten up.

All of a sudden you realize the stakes in gender performativity especially for people not playing the right gender game in a society that expects that you’re going to. You can end up dead, really easily if you’re in a traditional society, or you can get beat up and killed for not passing as the gender you’re living. So I still say that gender is highly contested and politicized.

KS: I want to go back to that, because there are interesting contradictions or tensions in your work here. You insist on the materiality of the body – and your body – as it changes and shifts right now. At the same time, there’s the invocation of Stelarc’s work and idea that the body is obsolete. But is it? You’ve started with this very very very powerful and strong reflection on the processes of aging, in relationship to your own performance and practice, in sex practices. Talk to me about this contradiction. What’s the relationship or the tension between the obsolescence of the body, and you and your aging body.

SB: The real question is, when you bring in age along with the body and gender, how does that manifest as a female body? I think I can answer it now, but I think to really answer that, I would have to really answer that I would have to wait about 15 years because I know something else will shift.

What I notice shifting now is a real embracement by others of what I am doing as a feminist performative sex philosopher in a way that I wasn’t happening when I was younger. Honestly, now there’s a real embracing by both young men and young women, without any sort of sexual overtones. Regardless of how hot I’m presenting myself, and believe me I’m always presenting myself hot, you’re no longer objectified in the same way you were. You get to be idolized a little bit more, for doing so good as an older woman, but you know that’s going to drop off.

I’m actually really thinking on it, because I was with my mom as her body was dying. I was right there and at a certain point gender’s not particularly important. As Derrida says, gender breaks away at death – and post-death, it breaks away too. As you’re dying… as the body is breaking down, it actually can be breaking down from the inside, gender is just dropped off.

I spent a lot of time – when my mom was in an assisted care place – I spent a lot of time with old people. And women live longer. So all of a sudden, you’re with a lot of old women for a long time, and they’re in their 80s and 90s. One of the things you really notice is that the fetishization of the female body is gone. It’s really interesting to spend time around women at that age and to realize that it’s not such a stretch now. The last 15-20 years just went like [snaps] a blink, because we’re all so busy and we’re all doing interesting stuff. It’s really not a stretch to go, “wow, that’s going to be me.”

KS: And me, soon.

SB: Yeah, it’s not going to be me down the line, it’s going to be me soon. It’s odd, because on the one hand, we can keep the flesh body alive longer and all that and enhance it and do all these things. It is obsolete on this hand; on the other hand, as Virilio says, it’s the most important object of analysis.

KS: Sure. Do you want this manuscript to be over? Are you tired of it?

SB: There’s two things: in its new form, I’m not so much tired of it, I’m actually excited by it again because I have this fabulous editor, Erika Biddle, with Autonomedia. She really brought it to life, and it’s been all updated, so it’s actually current. I’d like it to be out, and I think the irony is that Fast Feminism really has taken about 8 years.

KS: Yeah, exactly. We know how – I know and you know – how the publication process can work. It can be extremely slow. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing because it reminds us that it is still part of that moment.

SB: Yeah, so I’m actually more excited about it now maybe, oddly, than I’ve ever been – but for different reasons: that it does come out when I’m old, I’m mature, as a mature thinker, like I’ve got one more year. I’m a total philosopher king. You get to be a philosopher king when you’re 55, so yeah… I’m so ready for it! [laughs].

But the other thing is – what I really learned from the book – that I only want to do theory that has got a concrete object. And so I decided that I wanted to start filming, and doing video, and imaging philosophical concepts. I have used Heidegger to shoot 40 days of surise and sunset in the Judean desert, Husserl to video caves blindfolded and most recently (just finished last week) Virilio’s concept of the Vision Machine to tie a HD videocam on a camel saddle and make the camel the videographer. I am excited about Fast Feminism and I think it’s time for it to come out … and I’m actually quite interested in the process – the anger is gone.

KS: But does it still have its edge?

SB: It’s got a total edge, but it’s got a different edge, yeah. I still get angry, but the anger that was initially motivating the text is gone; there’s something else.

KS: It sounds more like it’s a reflection on your relationship to feminism over many many years, which I think is beautiful.

SB: It’s true. We’ve taught feminist theory, we’ve all probably been hired as feminists: as feminist theorists, as feminist scholars. It’s always informed our work, regardless of what that work is, and that’s the way it should be.


[1] Virilo says:
The body is extremely interesting to me because it is a planet…. There is a very interesting Jewish proverb that says: “If you save one man, you save the world”: that’s the reverse idea of the Messiah: one man can save the world, but to save a man is to save the world. The world and man are identical…
[T]he body is not simply the combination of dance, muscles, body-building, strength and sex: it is a universe. What brought me to Christianity is Incarnation, not Resurrection. Because Man is God, and God is Man, the world is nothing but the world of Man—or Woman… to separate mind from body doesn’t make any sense. To a materialist, matter is essential… I am a materialist of the body, which means that the body is the basis of all my work. [Louise Wilson, “Cyberwar, God and Television: An Interview with Paul Virilio” in Digital Delirium, eds. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1997), 46–7.]

[2] Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Crepuscular Dawn, trans. Mike Taormina (New York & Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002), 56.

[3] The Phalluses and Toe relics consist of the original mold of the male phallus (dildo), female phallus and big toe, 3.5 cm 3-D plotter wax molds, negative silicone molds, biodegradable polymer structures, and the two tissue-engineered phalluses and big toe fixed and presented in Petri dishes. The relics were exhibited under a Plexiglas dome. Accompanying the relics were two sets of continuous image loops documenting the tissue engineering process. The first loop documents the process up to putting the Two Phalluses and Big Toe in the bioreactor. The second loop presents the putting of the Two Phalluses and Big Toe in the bioreactor, the contamination of the bioreactor, and the death of the Two Phalluses and Big Toe.

[4] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings, ed. David F. Krell (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1993), 165.

[5] Lacan, op. cit., 281–91.

Shannon Bell is a performance philosopher, fast philosopher who lives and writes philosophy-in-action. Her five books include Reading, Writing and Rewriting the Prostitute Body (Indiana University Press 1994, Japanese trans.2000), Whore Carnival (Autonomedia 1995), Bad Attitude/s on Trial, co-author (University of Toronto Press, 1997), New Socialisms co-editor (New York: Routledge 2004), and Fast Feminism (Autonomedia 2010). Bell has been researching ‘extreme’ art for a book Art and Time; this research was funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Bell is currently working on video imagining philosophical concepts. Bell is an associate professor in the York University Political Science Department, Toronto, Canada. She teaches modern and postcontemporary theory, fast feminism, cyber politics, politics of aesthetics and violent philosophy.

Kim Sawchuk is a Professor and feminist theorist writing, teaching and researching in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University, Montreal. She is the Editor of the Canadian Journal of Communication, and the co-editor of five collections including When Pain Strikes, Wild Science: Reading Feminism, Medicine and the Media. Embodiment, USED/Goods and The Wireless Spectrum. She is currently researching the history of one of the first anatomical atlas produced and published in North America, Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy as well as conducting research (with Dr. Barbara Crow) on the use of digital technologies by those who are 65+.