An Interview with Mari Ruti
Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings
In Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Cost of Everyday Life Mari Ruti interweaves theoretical insight, cultural critique, feminist politics, and personal experience to lift the lid on the prevalence of bad feelings in contemporary everyday life. Emanating from a playful engagement with Freud’s idea of penis envy, Ruti’s autotheoretical commentary fans out to a broader consideration of neoliberal pragmatism. She focuses on the emphasis on good performance, high productivity, constant self-improvement, and relentless cheerfulness that characterizes present-day Western society. Revealing the treacherousness of our fantasies of the good life, particularly the idea that our efforts will eventually be rewarded — that things will eventually get better — Ruti unveils the false hope that often causes us to tolerate an unbearable present. Public Seminar spoke with Mari Ruti about her new book. See the conversation below.
Public Seminar [PS]: Although you address this question in some detail in the introduction to Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings, can you tell us why you wrote it?
Mari Ruti [MR]: I wrote it primarily as a feminist critique of our so-called postfeminist culture. I wanted to show that heteropatriachy has not exhausted its momentum, but has instead mutated into more subtle and stealthy forms. I begin with Freud’s idea of penis envy to illustrate that — as offensive as this concept might seem — it is also a legitimate “bad feeling” in a world where having a penis automatically brings social, political, and economic benefits, at least for some (though certainly not all) men; in other words, penis envy — which I deliteralize and metaphorize through Lacanian theory — can be interpreted as an expression of a feminist consciousness regarding phallic privilege in our culture. Yet I also wanted to show that few people in our culture — men included — can live up to its neoliberal ideals of high performance, constant productivity, relentless self-improvement, and phony positivity. I wanted to show that the ideals that many of us subscribe to without a second thought are so impossible to attain that they generate bad feelings such as anxiety, depression, despair, and disillusionment. Moreover, the book includes autobiographical material — bits of memoir — in order to analyze the psychological and emotional damage that can result when trauma is intergenerationally transmitted. I also attempted to grapple with my complicity in the very performance-oriented culture that I criticize.
PS: Having just finished reading it and having tried to describe it to the various people I talk to about books, I found myself struggling to categorize it. It inhabits the borderlands, or overlapping space, between memoir, critical theory and, dare I say it, self-help? Did you have to write your way towards a new voice, one both within and outside the parameters of academic discourse? If so, what was that experience like?
MR: You are right that the book’s hybrid genre is difficult to categorize. I wrote it as an “autotheoretical” treatise that combines critical theory, psychoanalysis, and autobiographical material. Critics in feminist theory have historically often written in a personal tone, but what is deliberate about my voice in this book is that it interweaves the personal with so-called “high theory”: French theory that many have categorized as incomprehensible and that has in recent decades both transformed the academy and generated a great deal of hostility (even theory phobia). I have a history of making such theory accessible to non-specialists. Nevertheless, I had to push against the boundaries of academic writing — particularly in terms of bringing the personal into the mix — at the same time as I tried to find a voice that would not alienate non-academic readers, but rather show them that “theory” has real-life implications.
It is interesting that even though I have written a vehement critique of the self-help industry — in The Case for Falling in Love (Sourcebooks, 2011) — Penis Envy is not the first of my books to elicit the sense that a drop of self-help might be in the mix: The Summons of Love (Columbia UP, 2011) and The Call of Character (Columbia UP, 2013) have received a similar assessment. I do not mind this because the assessment is usually articulated in the context of appreciative emails from readers. Although I do not write books in the expectation that they will help people, sometimes this seems to happen anyway. When readers tell me that my book spoke to them on a personal level — say, about love, loss, pain, or survival — I feel like I have accomplished something worthwhile; it is the highest possible praise.
I suppose that what distinguished Penis Envy from my earlier crossover books is the personal component: it is a highly vulnerable book in the sense that it contains a great deal of self-revelation. For this reason, writing it was a more emotionally intense experience than the writing of any of my other books.
PS: How did the project evolve over time? Did your original idea go through many stages and changes? Can you describe them for us?
MR: Books leap out of me. I do not plan or develop them through stages. I never write an outline. A diffuse idea for a book sits in my mind while I am busy with other projects or responsibilities. I feel the pressure of this idea acutely when I cannot focus on it. As a consequence, when I finally have time to work on the project, it pours out quickly, within the span of a few weeks. This process is passionately concentrated: I feel like I cannot write fast enough to contain the ideas that gush out. The intensity of this process can be hard to manage and my first draft is invariably terrible — just embarrassing. But once the seeds of the argument are caught within the confines of the project, I calm down and slowly revise the text until it is ready to be shared. So, I guess there are two phases to my writing process: the initial dive into near-madness and the subsequent attempt to make sense of this madness.
PS: You have also just released another book, Distillations: Theory, Ethics, Affect. To what extent do these two books both depart from and converge with one another?
MR: Distillations — which, among other things, tries to reconcile Lacanian psychoanalysis and affect theory — is entirely different from Penis Envy. Where Penis Envy experiments with genre and the personal voice, Distillations is a strictly academic book that attempts to “distill” some of the main ideas that I have developed in my earlier books. Or, at least this is what is was supposed to do. The first half sticks to this plan, but in the second half new ideas drove me into new territories of thought. Distillations is aimed at academic readers whereas Penis Envy walks the boundary between the academic and non-academic.
PS: What’s next? Do you have other book projects in the works?
MR: I am currently in a cycle of collaborative projects, which is a new approach to writing for me. The projects in the queue range from psychoanalysis (Klein and Lacan), creativity, and Roland Barthes to gay men’s romantic relationships. My collaborators include Amy Allen, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Philip Sayers, Matthew Rodriquez, and Giora Ashkenazi. I want to note that, besides Allen, my collaborators are all ex-students of mine. The give and take of the pedagogical relationship often generates shared interests. But it is only now that I no longer need to worry about promotions that I have the privilege — and it truly is a privilege — to pursue such interests. This is an exciting way to transition from being a mentor to being a co-creator. As to solo projects, I am hoping to write a short sequel — I desperately want to write a short book! — to my Queer Theory’s Defiant Subjects (Columbia UP, 2017). Autotheory is also brewing in some corner of my mind. I am curious to find out what leaps out when the time comes.
Mari Ruti is Distinguished Professor of Critical Theory and of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of ten books, including The Summons of Love (2011); The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living (2013); and The Ethics of Opting Out: Queer Theory’s Defiant Subjects (2017), all published by Columbia University Press. Read an excerpt from Mari Ruti’s Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings here.