I’m reading a lot about rape at the moment, which makes me an exceptionally cheerful person to be around. Specifically, I’m reading about rape in medieval romance, but it’s hard to separate that from contemporary debates about violence, and rhetoric, which seem to be everywhere at the moment. So, I’m writing this to try to set out some of my thoughts. I’m going to start by talking about an academic article and a medieval text, but I think what I’m saying isn’t just relevant to academia or medievalists.
The article that’s been nagging away at me is in many ways a great read. It’s amazingly detailed in its close reading; it’s full of insight about the influence of Biblical hermeneutics on medieval romance.* It’s also fifteen years old, so I am sure there are things that might have been written differently now. But, it bothered me.
The author, Monica Brzezinski Potkay, is talking about the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a romance in which a married lady exerts some considerable pressure on a man to sleep with her. She surprises him as he’s naked in bed, and – as Potkay points out – she draws on the romance convention of treating rape as a normal form of interaction between men and women to imply, archly, that he could force her to have sex if he wanted.
This is quite disturbing for modern readers. But Potkay’s point is not about the suggested rape – which doesn’t happen – but about the rhetoric of the romance in general. She makes reference to Saint Jerome’s predictably misogynistic comparison of a person interpreting Scriptural text to a man forcibly ripping off a woman’s clothing in order to sleep with her. This, she explains, is also offered as a mode of interpretation in the romance text, with the hero, Gawain, attempting to ‘interpret’ the women he meets through this form of figurative rape. Yet, the text performs a ‘critique’ of this mode of interpretation, empowering its female characters with the capacity to interpret for themselves. Thus:
“Sir Gawain can teach that men should acknowledge and beware the violence concealed in their own behavior, for that violence can be turned against them. The rapist can easily become raped.”
There are two things going on here. The first is the structure of the text, and the kind of interpretation it invites: this, as Potkay argues and as many people would agree, shows the women of the romance to be rather more skilled than the hero in controlling the twists and turns of narrative. The second, however, is that metaphor of rape. As a metaphor for textual interpretation, it has plenty of interest, and Potkay is, of course, doing nothing so crude as to think literally about raped women raping men.
Yet, still, that claim bothered me. The rapist can easily become raped. Easily? Raped? Well, no. In the space of that romance, in medieval culture, in modern culture, women do not ‘easily’ rape their rapists. Nor do I find it easy to imagine anyone would want to. There is a gendered structure to sexual violence, which is not easily flipped around, as if both men and women were equal. At this point, then the metaphor fails: if interpretation of a text is something that can be gender-flipped without unsettling the underlying gender hierarchy, then no, it is not like rape.
This is a point which, I suspect, plenty of queer theorists would find deeply crude and unsubtle. You don’t understand. She doesn’t mean it literally. She’s just opening up the transgressive possibilities of the text. The term ‘rape’ isn’t meant that way. It’s only rhetorically violent.
Yes: this is all true. But, it is also true that, in this article, the word rape has ceased to mean what it means. It has ceased to be a useful term for describing that act, and has instead become just one more way to imply that gender hierarchies can be playfully flipped over.
My title for this post might seem a problem to some. Rhetorical violence is, after all, difficult to separate from ‘actual’ violence: should we even make a distinction? After all, most people will know what it’s like to read something and feel a very real physical response to it: pulse leaping, hands shaking, the works. And it’s not just about personal responses: the very fact that a debate exists about whether there are ‘grey areas’ in rape, itself contributes to keeping alive the view that there are grey areas, and perpetuates rape. A conversation about whether or not women lie about rape gives rapists crucial cover to do what they do. And so on. These are not ‘performative acts’ of speech, speeches that enact what they describe, such as saying ‘I do’ at a wedding. But their consequences can be measured quite directly in the real world. And what is at stake, in some rhetoric, is not the fictional power structure in a medieval romance, but the real relationships between living people.
So, why distinguish between rhetorical violence and actual violence? My difficulty with Potkay’s article (and with this debate more widely) is that I know who is allowed to interpret text. If I say, this article is rhetorically violent, that it is using the concept of rape in a way that contributes to rape culture and makes it harder for us to talk about the gendered power structure behind the act, then I will be held to be ‘misinterpreting’. I will be told I do not understand the subtle nuances of Potkay’s use of the term ‘rape’ in this context. And yet, that’s not a criticism everyone is expected to take.
Something I have found difficult, recently, has been the response to the letter in the Observer about debate in universities, which I signed. It’s a tiny, tiny issue if you’re not in certain circles, and a rather bigger one if you are (as Mary Beard found out). I haven’t kept up with all of the responses, partly because there were many signatories (many of whom I don’t know personally, and some I’m proud to say I do know). But I have noticed that a common response has been to characterise this letter, and the debates it discusses, as literally violent. Not rhetorically violent, but violent in the way a performative speech act might be violent, or even violent in a direct physical sense. Discussing the Nordic model (the context here is sex work, if you’re not familiar), for example, is characterised as a form of violence that ‘endangers lives’ (I’m quoting Marika Rose, who spoke to me about this on twitter, but similar phrases were flying about everywhere). In this context, there is no ‘interpretation’ to be done: the gap between rhetorical and actual violence has closed up fast, for there’s no comeback to people repeatedly telling you there mere fact you have spoken, is violence.
Patently, these two attitudes towards ‘rhetorical’ violence should not be able to coexist. The one presumes the speaker’s perfect right to define the terms of debate, and to describe any violence in language as merely rhetorical, and therefore beyond the reach of critique. Thus, I am misinterpreting Potkay: violence is only rhetorical. The other presumes that the mere act of speaking is, in itself, actual violence, and no amount of interpretation can change this. In my experience, an awful lot of people seem to hold both positions simultaneously, and so the position from which we can speak becomes wafer-thin.
The result is the more general application of the specific problem Potkay’s article gives rise to. Just as, there, rape becomes something we can no longer properly name, something divorced from its social context, so too here, violence becomes impossible to pin down, impossible to name. And that means it’s impossible to fight.
* Monica Brzezinski Potkay, ‘The Violence of Courtly Exegesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, inRepresenting Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 97-124.
To be clear: I don’t believe (honestly) that discussion of the Nordic model does do violence to women. Nor do I even believe supporting it does violence to women. I’m not sure I’m right here, and I wouldn’t set myself up as such. But, I think my views here are less important than the shape of this wider issue of how we communicate about rhetorical and actual violence.