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On Natural and Femme Excess: An Insistence
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDFs of all issues and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
More than is needed is life.
—Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home
The femme can be distinguished from other modes of life by its excess. We rub red on our lips and paint our eyelids and grow out our hair and dye it and make it shine with nice smelling conditioner, and take time over this and our clothes, their colours, patterns, cuts, and wear hoops and scented moisturisers and other ornaments not only on our bodies but also our homes and other spaces which we decorate with mood lighting and embroidered throws and colour schemes and sentimental photographs. The food we make is flavourful as well as nourishing. We laugh extra hard at your jokes so you feel more at ease, and offer you a hot drink. We laugh too much, and our jokes are tear-jerkingly funny. We lard our communications with exclamation marks. We acknowledge birthdays, throw parties, comply with fancy dress concepts. We weep openly. We require that you reassure us that you love us and we exclaim our love for you. We hand make you cards. We are, as Hannah Black recognises, too much.
Femmes are excessive. We go beyond what’s necessary for things to tick over; more than what’s necessary to keep body and spirit going sufficiently to get to work and survive the day. That’s what it is to be femme.
I am not, it is vital to make this clear, talking about women. Women often engage in femme excesses but also often abscond from any or all parts of this, evade the demands of their gender, go on strike. The patriarchal injunction on women to perform the work of femmeness, whilst also despising femmes and disdaining our work, alienates us from this labour. Women in multiple ways can and must refuse it as an element of our liberation, going on years-long, even lifelong strike from femme. While femme affective and aesthetic labour pleasurably overspills the work society, the point blank refusal of any and all work – including femme – has its strategic role too. Even as women can go on strike, the butchest bloke can also be excessively caring; can absolutely, that is, be a femme. This also goes for women who do not moisturise, dykes, enbies and transmascs. Butch and femme are not opposites – butches are often affectively deeply femme, and the camp ones aesthetically, too. (It is, conversely, possible to wear a tea dress and not be thoughtful at all.) The gender binary is right to be threatened by the blossoming excess of the femme; we are too much, and too widely distributed across its borders, for it to account for.
Femme is a cluster of labours which are not equivalent in value and are not a gender. While femme aesthetics are (I would contend) necessary for human (and, as we will soon see, other-than-human) flourishing, no kind of life is possible without femme affects. I like the smell of your hair but we need your tenderness more. If you go on strike from one, let it be conditioner.
Perhaps painting a brief picture of femme excess’ obverse will make the femme easier to recognise. The antifem (I re-stress: who can be of any gender, any sexuality) dresses in a black / grey / navy / khaki palette, because they can’t be bothered. They don’t bother with drama (: the needs and emotions of others) and tend to just check out of all that really. They like minimalism, clean lines, just functionality. They turn on the ceiling light in the evening. You would definitely not call them if you were feeling sad. They drink Huel. Whether the antifem is repressed, on strike, or just tired, they mostly just don’t. Deviations from this austere regimen, impulses to take more care, are femme, which is why they make some men anxious. These men are right to be afraid: recycling is gay.
Given this, it is my fervent wish that a billion femmes bloom; that the dour cloaks of femmephobia (transmisogyny, homophobia, misogynoir, whorephobia, slutshaming) be cast off, and that lipsticked comrades leap forth, caring effortfully for one another looking hot af. Trans femmes, among the foremost pioneers of femme blooming, must be fêted for their generosity (and paid ample wages for transition, as Harry Josephine Giles righteously demands). Their refusal to keep hidden the gorgeous truth of their femmeness is precisely what’s needed. To anyone who has been told that the only way you’ll be taken seriously, tolerated, allowed to do what you want, be worthy of love, is if you tone it down – look around you! The ugly, suicidal world is in desperate need, above all else, of your beauty and of care. Of aesthetics and healing. Ornament and communism.
And not just the human world.
The word ‘nature’ has long been used to scorn and reduce to less than minimum the work (‘social reproduction’) of caring, decorating, and generally perpetuating human life, and to dehumanise the people who do it (and not in a pleasant, xenofeminist way). To slim down the excess of the femme to the austerity of the working mother.
In precisely the same way, ‘nature’ is used to gloss (/concrete) over the work (‘ecosystem services’) of human and non-human beings’ sustaining and general perpetuation of every form of planetary life. To slim down the baroque interspecies hyperfruition of life on earth to less-than-minimum levels, at which insects go extinct, climactic systems break, bioregions burn down and viruses leap gaily from species to species. The most geologically-significant instantiation of capital’s suffocation of life thus named ‘nature’ is colonists to Indigenous people, a legitimating ideological incantation that bundles their slaughter together with the forests, which the colonists clearcut, and mountains, whose tops they remove for mining. The word ‘nature’ glibly casts mountains, forests and Indigenous lives as excess to the requirements of capital.
At the same time as providing ideological cover for these crimes against life on earth, ‘nature’ also functions as a cypher for what we want, in that it points in the direction of something that exceeds capital. In the sensuous lie-zone of the commodity, ‘natural’ is a marketing caress-word for pretending a commodity is not a commodity. That is, isn’t a plundered lump manufactured with less-than-minimal regard for who and where is exposed to death at every stage in the production cycle, from resource extraction by disposable workers, through the trembling, carcinogen-ridden body of the consumer, to post-consumption ocean-dumping. ‘Natural’ coconut oil, we are told, will not break us out in a rash. We are led to believe that ‘natural’ foods will be less noxious. The self-care workload involved in ‘natural’ lifestyles is not compatible with forty-hour workweeks, or, perhaps, with wage labour tout court. Out in ‘nature’ – that is, outside of the surroundings most palpably built for capital – our mental distress recedes.
Whilst ‘natural’ is a term which in its everyday (however commodified) use gestures in the direction of capital’s outside, its everyday use simultaneously peddles a poisonous lie about what this outside is. A lie that makes femmes and (other) queers feel ashamed of ourselves, as we deviate from how things are ‘meant to be’ with our perverse desires, dissolute bodies and too much makeup. A lie that generates anti-human fantasies, a fascist ecology of population reduction and ‘returning to nature’. This lie is that nature is outside of history. That ‘natural’ means not only not capitalist, or even precapitalist, but primordial, essential, clean, unsullied, pure, healthy – the round blue eyes of the white supremacist glare at us unblinking.
Fuck that. Nature¹, when apprehended with proper scientific rigour, is a perverted and autohacking historical process of splicing and deviation. A process in which humans, and before us our evolutionary ancestors, have always messed in alongside our floral and faunal comrades, collaborators, cohabiters, antagonists and enemies, in order to shape grounds with which to flourish. The apocalypses loosely grouped under the rubric ‘capitalocene,’ which have been recently (since the sixteenth century or so) wrought by the interventions of some humans (the bourgeoisie) in nature, should not deter us from making further bold interventions. Collective wombs to liberate us from the violence of our reproductive systems – as Sophie Lewis helpfully advocates for – being one. Planetary rewilding in the service of building conditions friendly to life – the proletarocene – being another.
These urgent interventions into the historical process of nature will be distinguished from the ones which happened in the capitalocene by virtue of being directed by the needs and desires of nature (humans included). They will be the fomenting of multiple, joyful, excessive, different forms of lives. They will break completely with the strictures of the undead virus of capital and its genocidal-colonial ‘taming’ of landscapes constructed (murdered) as virginal, disobedient and voluptuous. Capital’s continued reproduction arguably requires the persistence of some form of quasi-intelligent life – whether on Earth or a terraformed Mars or asteroid terraria – in order to continue exploring avenues for profit.
But the gargantuan planetary efflorescence of rewilded nature that we need for our survival and want for our pleasure is nature in excess, nature with multilayered redundancies, nature radically untethered from the strictures of profitability. To draw carbon out of the atmosphere, halt the extinctions of our nonhuman fellows, and create a biosphere maximally conductive to joy will require vast, planet-spanning forests and bogs, great tracts where species of flora and fauna accrete thickly and wander widely as rivers do, as bears do, as herds of bison. A sprawling excess of nature, more species and variation and abundance and beauty than would have been necessary for the mere survival of the capitalist virus. Life.
By fervently fantasising a billions-strong and planetary-scale effervescence of femme and natural excess, I hope also to advance our collective visioning process for luxury communism; a visioning process at risk of being mired in unimaginative attachments to commodities and lost amongst mined asteroids (I confess to not having read Aaron Bastani’s recent book on the topic, which I am referencing here, its cover being too ugly; it is therefore possible that I am doing it a disservice, and the manner of luxury I advance is in accordance with it). With (amongst many others) Kristen Ross in Communal Luxury, Christopher Alexander et al in A Pattern Language and Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in their forthcoming After Work, communist luxury must be understood in terms of fabulously pleasurable infrastructures and not shiny things.
What an insistence on natural and femme excess contributes to our ability to envisage these luxuriant communist infrastructures is that the more-than-is-needed implied by ‘luxury’ are excesses of beauty, sensuality, care, soothing, woodlands, wetlands, whale and other other-than-human joy. Abundances of care and pleasure that preposterously overshoot what would have been necessary to merely reproduce labour power. A verdant debauchery of multispecies extravagance that’s ludicrously in excess of what would have been required for the continuation of three percent compound growth.
Life must undergo a proletarocene of planetary and psychic repair in order to be able to thrive with maximal luxuriance, and I do not believe we have a clear handle on the limits to our capacities to build the grounds for collectively luxuriating, for gossiping in velvet interiors, during this epoch of nurturing. To build, for instance, crystalline open-sided arcades snaking through our cities so the rain doesn’t ruin our hairstyles as we walk and cycle around after cars are gone; arcades ornamented with a tinkling arterial system of rainwater collecting channels and pipes to feed aquifers. To reduce every prison to dust, plough the dust under, let a forest plant itself there. To have erotic encounters with strangers in sleeper carriages on wood-panelled no-ticket trans-continental railways. To exercise, as Kay Gabriel envisions, our bodily autonomy to enjoy and be enjoyed in whichever gender we find most conducive to our pleasure. To skinny-dip together in detoxified waterways. To take psychedelics in rewilded mangroves. To eat together in stained-glass vaulted canteens as warmth creeps up through our slippered feet from the geothermal underfloor heating. In figuring our transition from being completely fucked to being well fucked, from airborne microplastics to intimate ambiences, from atmospheric carbon to aesthetic communism, from waste to luxury, we must insist upon natural and femme excess.
¹ Probably when we have overcome capitalism we will have no more need for the word ‘nature’, as the opposite which defines it will be gone. What I’m arguing for here is not necessarily a rehabilitative appropriation of the word from patriarchal supremacy and into materially-historicising hands. Though I would prefer this to jettisoning ‘nature’ altogether for the time being, the squabble is semantic and thus insufficiently interesting. Rather, I’m arguing for attending to the desires (for survival and for pleasure) clustering around the word ‘nature’, and articulating, affecting and amplifying them through our communism.
Judy Thorne is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Manchester. Her PhD is about utopian desire in a post-industrially rusting Greek city.