In one of the first scenes of the recent Oscar-nominated British film Promising Young Woman, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) appears drunk to the point of incapacitation. Slumped in her seat in the corner of a nightclub, her head drooping, she is bundled into a taxi by an apparently concerned male stranger. He takes her to his flat, lies her on the bed, and begins assaulting her while she murmurs repeatedly: “What are you doing?” Once he has removed her underwear, her eyes snap open, and she sits up straight. “Hey,” she says, with perfect clarity. “I said, what are you doing?”
The revelation of Cassandra’s sobriety, and the immediate change of power dynamics in the scene, make for a satisfyingly pulpy twist. But, in a film marketed as a rape-revenge thriller, it’s also curiously moderate retribution. Cassandra does not challenge, punish or humiliate the multiple would-be rapists who take advantage of her beyond asking them this single direct question: “What are you doing?”
For Jacqueline Rose, though, this question is of paramount importance. In her new book, On Violence and On Violence Against Women, the literary critic and psychoanalytic thinker argues that “violence against women is a crime of the deepest thoughtlessness”; one that can only be combated by deliberately naming it, confronting it and thinking about it. She urges her readers to “stare straight in the eye of the perpetrator still at large who knows, but takes no responsibility for, what he has done”, but also to look inward and reckon with the violent impulses that live within all of us. Her title echoes Hannah Arendt’s On Violence (1970), and a quote from Arendt acts as a guiding principle for Rose’s book: “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think about what we are doing.”
The inside cover proclaims this book “a formidable call to action”; actually, it’s a call to thought. Over the course of nine standalone chapters, Rose makes the case that reaching a clearer understanding of violence as our own responsibility – not viewing it as a problem that only exists in the lives of others, glimpsed in gruesome news stories and global statistics, but an impulse that lurks inside us all – might help us to prevent it. The book aims to encourage her readers to “struggle against” violence and to understand it as an “inner force”.
Rose opens by describing a photograph of Donald Trump – surrounded by other “white men in dark suits” – signing an executive order to block US foreign aid for international groups that offer abortions, abortion counselling, or advocate for the right to seek abortions. “These men are killers,” Rose observes plainly. But not even “in their wildest dreams, I would imagine, does it occur to them that their decisions might be fuelled by the desire to inflict pain”. Because they refuse to see it, their own violence remains invisible to them; and so they are able to inflict it.
Rose sees male violence as motivated by men’s insecurity and fear of fragility: it is an “act through which a man aims to convince his target… that he is the one with the power”, behaviour she describes – quoting Arendt again – as symptomatic of “the impotence of bigness”. She persuasively argues that a delusional belief in absolute power and a shattering fear of its limitations are central to the worst tropes of masculinity displayed by figures such as Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Oscar Pistorius.
But she also sees this masculinity as fraudulent, a “stultifying ideology” that tells us what men should be, not what they are. “It is crucial”, she writes, that just as feminists reject the stereotypes of femininity foisted upon women, so too must feminists permit “individual men the potential gap between maleness and the infinite complexity of the human mind”, allowing them “the same internal breathing space”.
Many of these chapters began life as essays in the London Review of Books. Rose has drawn on an intimidatingly wide range of references and themes in her previous works, which have taken Sylvia Plath, Zionism, Peter Pan, Proust and, most recently, motherhood as their subjects. Here, Rose considers a diverse range of topics including sexual harassment on campus, the #MeToo movement, transphobic misogyny, the killing of the South African model Reeva Steenkamp by Pistorius in 2013, and the struggles facing migrant women.
In an essay on literary fiction, she rightly identifies the Irish novelists Eimear McBride and Anna Burns as today’s foremost writers of sexual violence. Another chapter compares sexual harassment, which she sees as a patriarchal tool used to reinforce the gender binary, with trans existence, which rebels against that binary. She is a daring thinker, willing to make bold statements and take imaginative leaps.
These disparate topics are linked by her belief that feminism can only counter violence if it is willing “to speak of, to stay with, and reckon with” the most vicious impulses of the human mind. Violence cannot be stopped as long as it “continues to be something which people turn away from, blot from their minds, prefer – at least as far as they personally are concerned – not to talk or think about”. For Rose, thought can be its own form of action: “political and psychic struggle can be one and the same.”
Here, Rose is specifically referring to psychoanalysis: if violence is enacted out of blind fear and shame, then analytic thought is its inverse, bringing “mental life, however troubled, out of its dark shameful corners and into the light”. The book’s bright red cover is unadorned except for a dramatic black diagonal slash – the stroke of a knife, or the annotator’s strike-through? – while her prose is cool and surgically precise, as she dissects masculinity with her own sharp blade. Throughout, the book’s most radical suggestion is that psychoanalytic concepts of the unconscious might play a useful political role in the day-to-day struggle for gender equality.
It’s a proposition that Rose makes very persuasively; and it’s true that a psychoanalytic framework can provide useful tools for approaching male violence. (I am reminded of the feminist psychoanalyst Harriet Lerner – mother of the novelist Ben – who responded to obscene, misogynistic phone calls by saying politely, “I’m so sorry, I can’t hear you. Could you say that again, and speak a little louder?” The callers, embarrassed by their own words, would eventually hang up.)
But there are limits to how far it might help women suffering the effects of male violence, both in an immediate, practical sense and in terms of broader structural solutions. We do not really expect the stuttering, defensive young men in Promising Young Woman to be fundamentally changed by the question “What are you doing?”
Rose at times acknowledges this. In one of three chapters on South Africa, at a conference at Stellenbosch University, where apartheid survivors and perpetrators gathered together to discuss the painful legacy of apartheid, she observes how it quickly became apparent that, in order for the country to begin to recover from these atrocities, “thinking was not enough”. Thought, and even genuine remorse, cannot enforce accountability or justice – only legislation and collective action can.
In chapters on campus rape and the trial of Pistorius, Rose is refreshingly alert to the problems of relying on flawed (not to mention racist and sexist) legal systems. She is alive to the hypocritical voyeurism of much writing on sexual assault: just as lingering shots in Promising Young Woman and the crime drama The Fall can be seen as complicit in the violence they depict, so too in critical writing is there “always a risk… of turning sexual violence into the crime we love to hate”. She also pays painstaking attention to the pitfalls of modern feminism: for example, the ignorance of those who alienate trans women.
[See also: A home of one’s own]
But I longed to see her unique mix of bracing scepticism and intellectual curiosity applied to large-scale political or structural possibilities. At times, in the face of so much pain and trauma, the gains can feel dispiritingly small: when Rose locates “hope” in the consulting room, or in the world of literary fiction, it is hard not to wonder where the marginalised women experiencing violence here and now might find theirs.
These are not questions any one book can answer. Instead, Rose offers a lucid and fresh approach to a problem that has no straightforward solutions. “Violence is not a subject,” she writes, “about which anyone can believe, other than in a state of delusion, that everything has been said and done.”
On Violence and On Violence Against Women
Faber & Faber, 432pp, £20
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism