Ideas to Live by: A Conversation with Mari Ruti

MARI RUTI IS a Distinguished Professor of Critical Theory and Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Toronto. Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life is the first of two books she will publish in 2018. It’s her 11th overall, and the fifth since 2015 — which means that in the past three years alone, she has written about queer theory (in the Lambda Literary Award–nominated The Ethics of Opting Out), evolutionary psychology (The Age of Scientific Sexism), the Hollywood rom-com (Feminist Film Theory and Pretty Woman), all of which engage the Lacanian psychoanalysis at the core of her entire oeuvre.

Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings is both consistent with that canon and stands apart. It shares with Ruti’s other work the disarming lucidity that characterizes her writing and teaching, and her insistence that critical theory ought to directly address the contours of lived experience. But whereas her previous work has often centered on mapping out the intellectual connections between heavyweight theorists such as Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek, Penis Envy combines philosophical and autobiographical explorations. It’s not so much theory being applied to the real world, but rather — in a similar vein to “autotheoretical” texts like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts — holding ideas and life alongside each other, searching out what she refers to as “the art of living.”

Penis Envy opens with Ruti’s memorable first encounter with the Freudian concept. Reading Freud when she was in college, Ruti found herself in such visceral disagreement with the idea of penis envy that she flung the book across the room and declared the foundational psychoanalyst “a fucking idiot.” Revisiting the concept now, she concedes that it’s worth rethinking penis envy in ways that reinterpret it as a precursor to feminist politics and culturally produced “bad feelings.” Ruti’s intellectually generous approach is one of “thinking out loud,” drawing candidly on her autobiography — her difficult childhood in Finland; the strain of being a woman in academia; her urgent relationship to writing — and weaving these episodes together with her theoretical reflections. Ruti invites the reader into a conversation about our common vulnerabilities, with the idea that naming them might go some way toward making them easier to bear.

Penis Envy, then, represents something of a turning point in Ruti’s career. Speaking with Ruti over email, our conversation centered on how this intellectual shift informed her writing process: the questions she feels compelled to revisit, the psychic risks and rewards of creativity, what it’s like to write “autotheory,” and the question of how best to actually sit down and write.


TAJJA ISEN AND PHILIP SAYERS: In the introduction, you frame Penis Envy as a way of revisiting the questions — self-fashioning, singularity, creativity, desire — that have been central to your earlier work. At this point, how would you distill the question of what preoccupies you? How has the approach you’ve taken in this book changed the way you think about these questions?

MARI RUTI: It seems to me that life, generally speaking, is a matter of repeatedly returning to what doesn’t quite feel “done.” That’s why the repetition compulsion — repeating hurtful patterns of behavior that aren’t conducive to our flourishing — was an important concept for Freud. He understood that what most fascinates humans, at least on the unconscious level, are their failures. Buried in this compulsion to return to the site of failure is the wish to make things right, to ensure that this time, we won’t make the same stupid mistake. But of course we usually do.

For me, writing has been a generative way of coping with this tendency to repeat. I discuss bad feelings, traumatization, and other painful experiences on the written page in the hope that this keeps me from repeating them in life. I’m not saying I’m always successful. But understanding that writing is always an unresolved process — that I’ll never be able to exhaust a topic — has helped me come to terms with the fact that the same is true of life, that there are no definitive solutions or easy fixes.

What has always most interested me is what one might loosely call “the art of living”: living the kind of life that feels meaningful. The themes you mention — self-fashioning, singularity, creativity, and desire — are all subsets of this theme. It continues to be my main preoccupation. In Penis Envy, I describe a scene where, in 2016, I was standing in front of a mirror in a Harvard bathroom and realized that nothing about the bathroom had changed since I finished graduate school in 2000. It was I who had changed. It was a moment of recognizing that more than half of my life is over. So now what? How am I going to live the rest of it in ways that feel alive? The personal approach that I took in writing this book has made this question all the more urgent.

Your writing in the past has sometimes used examples from your personal experience to illustrate the real-life relevance of theoretical concepts, but in this book, it’s not just that there’s more of the autobiographical element — it often feels like the “bits of memoir,” as you put it, are themselves generating the book’s argument. One way to think about this approach — and you talk about this — would be to call it “autotheory,” after writers like Paul Preciado and Maggie Nelson. But there’s also a longer history of writers doing similar things: for example, you’ve taught Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus alongside Nietzsche, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. Thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde, and even Freud could also be on that list. How would you locate your own work in relation to that tradition?

With this text, I explicitly set out to write an autotheoretical treatise. All the authors you mention have been foundational to my intellectual formation, and what I’ve always admired about them is their dexterity in weaving the personal into their theoretical or philosophical reflections. Without Freud and Nietzsche, I wouldn’t be who I am. But the author with whom I feel a special kinship is Roland Barthes, the Barthes of the 1970s who wrote beautifully personal books, such as A Lover’s Discourse and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. I was also drawn to Maggie Nelson’s style in The Argonauts. Yet somehow I wasn’t entirely ready to produce something like that. The lucidity of my writing style — all my years of striving to stay pedagogical — got in the way; I wasn’t able to replicate her more elusive style. Moreover, it felt important to develop a distinctive voice of my own: what came out was a hybrid text that contains bits of memoir, along with a great deal of theoretical reflection and cultural critique.

As a kind of flip side to that question: you’re often especially critical of thinkers for whom there’s a real split between their radical theoretical positions and their privileged way of life. You give the example of a prestigious academic complaining that his hotel isn’t nice enough right before delivering a lecture critiquing neoliberal capitalism. Priyamvada Gopal has used the term “critique-washing” to describe this kind of thing: being vitriolic in your critique of hegemonic systems as a way to mask the fact that you benefit from those same systems. In contrast, you’re extremely upfront about this uneasy sense of complicity. How do you negotiate that dilemma in your writing?

I admit that, in recent years, my pet peeve with my field — progressive critical theory, defined here loosely as a mixture of continental philosophy, French poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory — has been its tendency to produce theoretical positions that sound radical and cool but are in fact completely unlivable. It’s like there’s this race to be on the cutting edge of the most extreme position conceivable. Yet most of the critics writing these treatises lead relatively normative, and often extremely privileged, lives.

But, frankly, intellectual generosity is a more comfortable style for me. Somehow I lost track of this around 2015, when I staged vicious critiques of some of the very colleagues from whom I’ve learned the most. I regret having done this: it’s not my place to tell anyone how to theorize. Still, in my own writing, I try to stick to ideas that I can live by. I like critical models that have real-life relevance.

One way in which this book seems especially current has to do with your critique of the crushing expectations that heteropatriarchy puts on women (to be adept in “the masquerade of femininity,” to be emotionally intelligent and sensitive to men’s supposed deficiencies), and the way that it lets men off the hook. A lot of feminist responses to talk of “the redistribution of sex” and “enforced monogamy” have made a similar point. Do you have a sense of why this disparity seems to be especially prevalent today?

This disparity has existed for a long time. And feminists have always complained about it. But now the problem has hit the collective consciousness of our society in ways that are making waves. If we stick to the North American context, one of the root causes of the problem is what I call “the gender obsession disorder”: the stubborn insistence on a clear-cut distinction between men and women. At the core of this disorder is the assumption that men are “naturally” more sexual than women and that women are “naturally” more emotional than men. Consequently, women end up doing more emotional labor because they’re expected to automatically know how to handle it — even though they have in reality had to go through a coercive process of social conditioning to gain the emotional intelligence that they may possess. Men, on the other hand, aren’t expected to pull their weight because they’re assumed to be incapable of emotional labor, like they’re expected to be incapable of doing the dishes without breaking your favorite plate. Sex, on the other hand, is supposedly “their” domain and the male sex drive is portrayed as a force of nature that’s in constant need of satisfaction. And depriving men of this satisfaction is presented as a betrayal of their inalienable rights.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter of my book has to do with the ways in which straight women are pressured to put up with their partners’ online porn consumption. I’m not making an argument about the morality of pornography or suggesting that it should be censored. I’ve always been a “pro-sex” feminist. But I think that we have reached a point where we have to admit that not all forms of sexuality are emancipatory. Most heteroporn, which is produced by multinational corporations, is a tool of what Foucault calls biopolitical conditioning: it teaches men that sex is — and should be — available to them at the click of the mouse. And if their girlfriend complains, too bad for her. She’s immediately labeled prudish, uptight, or anti-sex. So this is a situation where heteropatriarchy has reinvented itself to guarantee that men get what they want whereas what women want — in this case, porn-free sex lives — is deemed irrelevant.

Online heteroporn has changed the sex lives of millions of people, and while there are obviously women who happily participate in the phenomenon, my sense is that the change has been mostly at their expense. Not only does it make many women feel terrible about themselves when their partner prefers online porn to sex with them; women are also deprived of sex. The idea that women don’t need sex as much as men is a heteropatriarchal myth. And now that so many men are getting their sexual needs met online, women are left in the painful position of not knowing what to do with their sexuality. One option would be to join the porn consumers. But much of what’s available on the internet isn’t exactly female friendly. This is a topic that needs to explode on the social level, and soon, because it’s becoming too big a problem to hide. Too many women who are upset about it are afraid to complain. I think it’s high time to start complaining, and loudly.

One argument that emerges a few times in the book is the idea that, whereas consumerism is capitalism’s way of harnessing our desire for its own gain, writing (or creativity more broadly) can be a healthier or more authentic way for us to deal with our innate sense that we’re lacking creatures. Sheila Heti recently wrote a great piece in which she pointed out that shopping and writing are similar ways of articulating yourself by choosing things — products or words — but the way they make her feel is different in the end. Shopping makes her feel anxiety, and it’s never satisfying: as soon as what she’s ordered arrives, it loses its allure. But writing is more satisfying — maybe partly because it doesn’t promise once-and-for-all gratification of our desire. Our sense is that you’d agree with this. Why is writing a better way of responding to our lack and desire?

I agree with Sheila Heti. The most succinct way to explain the matter is through Jacques Lacan, who gives us two relevant concepts, namely that we’re all beings of lack and that we’re all filled with what he calls jouissance, an excess of drive energy. Lack causes desire and jouissance demands an outlet. Consumerism seems to offer a solution to both problems: you buy stuff to fill the void within your being and you exhaust yourself in the process. But usually the satisfaction that this brings doesn’t last. Writing, in contrast, gives you an endless resource for coping with both lack and jouissance. It doesn’t fill your lack in any definitive way, but words have a way of easing that sense of emptiness. And writing is an effective means of burning off excess energy: it both augments jouissance and consumes it so that it becomes more manageable. I don’t know about Sheila, but I feel the least anxious — the most “at home” with myself — when I’m writing. Both lack and excess jouissance recede so that there is space to just “be.”

Penis Envy is very critical of contemporary versions of love and romance. We were surprised by what felt like a dialing-back on the descriptions of love from The Singularity of Being. We’ve already touched on how writing and other acts of creativity provide a more reliable source of fulfillment. But do we always have to think of the two as separate? What if we think of love as a form of creativity — could it become something that might “enrich our existence” as sustainably as those artistic activities?

What may seem like a shift in my thinking about love is due to the fact that in Penis Envy I use a Foucauldian (biopolitical) lens to analyze love as a commercial enterprise whereas in my earlier books — such as The Singularity of Being — my lens was primarily Lacanian, with the result that my emphasis was on the transformative power of love, on what Alain Badiou calls the amorous event. I still believe in the amorous event. And I appreciate your idea that love can be a form of creativity, a form of artistic activity — an important part of “the art of living” that interests me. Your way of articulating the matter is one way to comprehend what Badiou means when he talks about staying faithful to the amorous event.

It’s true that one reason I thought that you might not like all aspects of the book is that I know that you’re in an exceptionally fulfilling and sustaining relationship. But my goal isn’t to disenchant love. It’s just that in Penis Envy, I examine how capitalism manages to turn love into a commodity, into the kind of “romance” that’s supposed to be safe and controllable. This, for me, is the very antithesis of the amorous event.

You’re very forthcoming in the book — generously, helpfully so — about your attachment to your “personal creation myth” and the fact that, as much as you might criticize the performance principle and the “good life,” you’ve also chosen productivity as a way of being. How do you balance the necessity of writing to live, and writing that brings with it ever more pressures to perform? Do you ever just want to withdraw from your professional obligations and merely write for writing’s sake?

My “personal creation myth” — the story of rising from the ashes that forms the backbone of the personal narrative that drives the text — is the thorniest part of the book. On the one hand, I’m critical of the American dream as an ideological ruse that places responsibility on individuals to succeed and brutally blames those who fall behind for not trying hard enough or performing well enough. This dream ignores the social inequalities that prevent many people from carving out livable lives for themselves. On the other hand, I can’t deny that the trajectory of my life has fallen within the parameters of the American dream: I grew up poor, in a house without running water, with parents who worked in low-paying and soul-slaying jobs, yet somehow I made my way to my current blessed life. There’s a lot of guilt I carry about this because I know that I was given the kinds of opportunities — such as a scholarship to Brown University — that my parents never had. So when I think of it, I cry, and I’m not sure if I’m crying because I made it, or because they couldn’t. And when I look at the ways in which many Americans are damaged by racism and other social impediments, I don’t know what to do. The one place where I feel I can perhaps make a difference is in the classroom, where I discuss structural social problems.

I’m extremely lucky that usually I get to write for writing’s sake. After my first book — which started as my dissertation — most of my writing hasn’t been out of professional obligation. So my “productivity” in the context of writing is more a matter of a personal compulsion: books sort of just leap out of me. They press on me. And they come out at different frequencies. I’ve written some strictly academic books, but I’ve also written “crossover” books — books that are aimed at both academic and mainstream readers. Penis Envy falls into this category.

The hard part is to ensure that the other obligations that are part of my job as a professor don’t close up the space of writing. There are long stretches when I can’t write because I have to attend to countless other demands. But when I hit a period when I’m free to write, I withdraw from the rest of life almost completely because the time for writing feels so precious.

Throughout the book, you offer a complex portrait of your relationship to the act of writing — as productivity, as pathology, and as living itself. You also suggest various conditions that make writing possible: cutting ties that feel “opaque,” decluttering one’s living space, forgetting the weight of the past. It was a surprising but illuminating moment when you admitted that only when you wrote those words — “lucidity, uncluttering, paring down” — did you see the connection between your life philosophy and your writing style. Now that you’ve found that connection, could you say more about this link between writing and paring down?

It was a surprising moment for me as well to realize that there’s a connection between my minimalist lifestyle and my lucid writing style. This realization made me even more determined to get rid of murkiness: no more ambiguous relationships; no more excess consumption of anything; no more clutter; and no more pining for a better life than the one I have because my life is better than I could ever have imagined. Giving up these other pursuits — and sequestering myself in an apartment with no internet access — creates space for writing, which, for me, for some enigmatic reason, feels like the key to my singular art of living.


Tajja Isen is a writer and voice actor. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as BuzzFeed, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, The Globe and Mail, and Catapult, where she is also a contributing editor.

Philip Sayers is a PhD candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto.