Whispers in the Margins

On Gossip as Democracy’s Most Fertile Contradiction

Abstract: ‘How come “gossip” has turned from a word of friendship and affection into a word of denigration and ridicule?’ activist and writer Silvia Federici asks in Witches, Witch-hunting and Women (2018). In this essay, I follow Federici and other feminist scholars back to the historical meaning of gossip as companionship. There is an increasing interest in reviving the forgotten figure of the female friend and her promise of bonding and belonging. This essay attempts to reflect on this search and all the contradictions it faces. It argues that Federici’s forgotten ‘friend’ should be praised not for paving the way to a new, feminist and solidary democracy but for forming contradictions that rebel against any purely positive idea of a solidary democracy.

Keywords: Gossip, democracy, friendship, Derrida, Federici


When writing an essay on gossip, you will always miss the mark. Turning whispers into written words means taking away their most characteristic feature: they are not to be pinned down, but to be softly—and surreptitiously­—passed from ear to ear. It is like trying to ‘elucidate what’s funny in a joke,’ as literary scholar Patricia Spacks writes.1Any effort ‘risks destroying what the explanation purports to clarify.’2 So when Italian-American activist and writer Silvia Federici traces ‘gossip’ back to its historical meaning of ‘female friend,’ I wonder how I can get closer to this forgotten friend without paradoxically pushing myself further away from her as I go.

Federici writes that deriving from ‘God and sibb (akin),’ ‘gossip’ originally meant ‘godparent,’ or in a wider sense, a companion in childbirth.3 Since women usually gave birth ‘surrounded by other women, with men rigorously excluded from the chamber of the delivering one,’ the term started to signify female friends and female friendships in general.4Nowadays, the word’s meaning is described as follows: ‘conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true.’5As Federici observes, ‘“gossip” [has] turned from a word of friendship and affection into a word of denigration and ridicule.’6

How could we start to explore this ambiguous heritage of the word ‘gossip’? Should we, as philosopher Simon(e) van Saarloos whispers, understand gossip ‘through gossip’? ‘Through whispers, through what is not written down’? Or should we, as historian Bernard Capp proposes, read against the grain of official historical documentation? In When Gossips Meet, a book on the history of gossips in early modern England, he dives into personal notebooks, court cases and wills in order to find traces of these largely undocumented mid-sixteenth to eighteenth-century gossips. Capp stumbles on apparently trivial, but in truth very telling, acts of kindness: women helping each other during illness, standing up for each other in court, sharing the secrets of the village… Some of these traces have been woven into this essay as audio-fragments, softly interrupting, perhaps even undermining, its written form at various times. There is a rising interest among feminist scholars in the figure and practice of gossip as a way to initiate one’s search for ‘a redefinition of the community bond.’7 This essay attempts to reflect upon that search and all the contradictions it faces.

From Female Cooperation to ‘Malicious Talk’ 

Derrida shows in The Politics of Friendship that community bonds are usually defined not by the figure of the female friend, but by the figure of male friend—the brother. ‘[D]emocracy,’ he writes, ‘is rarely determined in the absence of confraternity or brotherhood.’8 The book exposes some implications of this idea of democracy-as-brotherhood (an idea reflected in the French national motto ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’). Most distinctive, and most interesting for the purpose of this essay, is that political fraternisation, the establishment of political ties and friendships, cannot be determined in the absence of enemisation.

At least that is what philosopher Carl Schmitt, who is central to Derrida’s exploration of the politics of friendship, believes. Schmitt argues for a determinate opposition between friend and enemy, believing that we are always in need of reference to a possible enemy in order to distinguish our friend; always in need of a possible war to speak of our community.

Schmitt draws on Plato’s distinction in his Republic between polémos (actual ‘war’) and stasis (mere ‘uprising’) to develop this argument. He highlights what he claims Plato, in his reflections on the Republic, considers impossible: an actual, public war that Greek people wage on themselves. Naturally, Schmitt understands Plato to say that, as ‘brothers’ in the public sphere of the Republic, these fellow citizens are only able to enter into an—you could say innocent—‘uprising.’9 His interpretation allows him to specify his opposition between friend and enemy as one that exists on two separate levels: the public (and political) and the private (and personal). This means that even though I can privately hate my public friend (my brother, my fellow companion), I could never wage an actual, political war on him. But Schmitt’s reading is too simplistic, Derrida argues. If one reads Plato thoroughly, and reading texts thoroughly is what Derrida demands, internal war is not ‘simply outside of nature,’ but rather a sign of a sickness, a ‘pathology of the community’ no less ‘natural’ than brotherhood itself.10 The walls put up by Schmitt between the supposedly ‘private’ and ‘public’—and between the ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’—have now become ‘threatened, fragile, porous, contestable.’11

With this destabilisation of oppositions, characteristic as it is to deconstructivist endeavours such as Derrida’s, we enter uncomfortable and dangerous territory.  Having lost sight of the clear and distinctive figure of the enemy, having lost ‘the whisper of [this] fiction,’ a quick and simple answer to the question ‘who are “we”?’ becomes impossible.12 Any answer must be endlessly suspended. And this suspension, Derrida writes, is experienced as a terrifying, ‘unheard-of violence.’13 Therefore, ever since ‘after the fall of the Berlin wall’ or ‘the end-of-communism,’ which left us ‘parliamentary-democracies-of-the-capitalist-Western-world’ ‘without a principal enemy,’ we’ve been looking for new enemies to reconstitute who we are, desperately holding onto the fiction of a negative to outline our positive.14

Can our current designation of figure of the ‘gossip’ as a mere backbiting, untrustworthy woman who sows discord be understood to be one result of this on-going search for ‘new reconstitutive enemies’? Let us follow Federici to the female friend that ‘gossip’ once signified.

In her work, Federici points to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, and how the role of the woman was redefined in this period. While she endorses Marx’s reading of this transition, she very much challenges it as well. Federici criticises Marx for being too focused on the male labourer alone, largely neglecting the changes that were brought about in a woman’s life at the time. Convinced that ‘Marx could never have presumed capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women,’ Federici lets a history of gossips unfold.15 Her genealogy of ‘gossip’ subverts the Western ‘history of brothers that has been told to us for thousands of years’ by Marx and many others.16

As at the end of the fifteenth century, the first capitalist tendencies such as privatisation of land started to show. It was women who collectively led the peasants’ rebellion, striving for a society based on equality and solidarity.17 Federici shows that such revolts were oppressed by, among others, the introduction of the ‘witch’: an enemy-from-within, strategically introduced to diffuse protests and disintegrate the proletariat. In medieval societies, Federici writes, women—‘gossips’—would meet up in the commons or in taverns on a daily basis, washing clothes, spinning, tending to animals, harvesting and raising children together.

To secure a smooth transition to capitalism, however, women had to be forced to take on new roles as solitary ‘housewives’ with the reproduction of capitalism’s workforce as their only responsibility. Anyone who resisted this new role was deemed suspicious and risked being accused of being a ‘witch’: a devilish, absolute enemy.

A painting by Pieter Bruegel captures this transition quite well. It is called Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) (see figure 1) and depicts a scene in which many of the Dutch proverbs prevalent at the time, and still today, are brought together.

Figure 1: Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1559).

In the lower middle of the painting, you find two women spinning together (see figure 2). They depict the proverb ‘One winds on the distaff what the other spins,’ illustrating the activity of ‘sharing gossip.’ Interestingly, this picture shows how ‘gossip,’ as in women’s gatherings and their conversation over the sharing of tasks, started to become suspicious. Notice how the younger woman suspiciously holds her hand next to her ear: what malicious secrets is she telling the older woman sitting next to her?

Figure 2: Detail of Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). The proverb ‘One winds on the distaff what the other spins,’ illustrating the activity of ‘sharing gossip.’

While Federici’s analysis of ‘witches’ and witch-hunts deserves much more attention,18 I limit this essay to discussing the following three aspects. Firstly, accusing women as ‘witches’ meant accusing them as public enemies, enemies to the health and economics of public brotherhood. After all, refusing to accept isolated reproductive labour as their single role supposedly threatened the public growth and stability of the capitalist nation. Secondly, this entails that the figure of the ‘witch’ had to be able to be publicly identified, explaining the distinctive features we still ascribe to witches in fairy tales today: they are female, either ‘old and ugly’ or ‘young and seductive,’ poor, mischievous, and often live in excluded forests far removed from the city.

Thirdly, witch-hunts must be seen as part of a wider strategic endeavour to redefine not only the role of the woman but also her relation with other women. Gatherings between women, gossips, were seen as posing a threat to the patriarchal world that was being installed. Accordingly, women were discouraged ‘from spending time with their female friends’ and even ‘instructed not to spend time at the window or at the door.’19Terrified of being accused of witchcraft themselves­—and hence, tortured, drowned or burned—women started to denounce each other, ‘friends turning in friends, daughters turning in their mothers.’20 ‘It was in this context,’ Federici writes, that ‘gossip’ started being signified as ‘malicious talk’ that happens behind one’s back.21

 From ‘Malicious Talk’ to Feminist Counter-discourse 

Today, when we hear that someone softens their tone of voice, our suspicion grows. In saying that ‘it’s rude to gossip,’ we are trying to control the uncontrollable circulation of information whispers set in motion. In ‘Gossip as a Counterdiscourse,’ Mary Leach argues that such tendencies to control paradoxically trigger a very loss of control. She draws on Foucault’s observation that Western culture, ‘because of its logocentric structure and the consequent value it attributes to scientific knowledge, has actually become logophobic in that it fears spontaneous production of knowledge and is intent upon monitoring the extent and the kind of discourses that are allowed to circulate.’22For (poststructuralist) feminists, Leach argues, this is ‘a most fertile contradiction.’23It seems that what was meant to oppress gossips’ threat—their exclusion to the margins—is at the same time what sustains it. Excluding gossip from the institutionalised realm of ‘“rationality” and “literalness” of speech’24will push gossip only further into the fertile realm of the ungraspable. In Capp’s When Gossips Meet, one can find a similar productive paradox. Capp shows that precisely because female ‘structures of friendship and informal exchange’ were marginalised as ‘a social and economic nexus outside male knowledge,’ they became uncontrollable and started to pose a threat to the patriarchal world.25

This position in the margins of institutionalised discourse ensures that the practice of gossip can never ‘serve as a complete counterdiscourse.’26 It will always remain in a state of ambiguity.27Threatening borders between ‘counter’ and ‘official’ discourse, it subverts our distinctions between ‘private’ and ‘public’ as well because what is deemed to be a private figure that practises private talk meant for private ears is at the same time thought of as a threat to public—and logophobic—culture. From the perspective of the brotherhood, we must on the one hand exclude the figure of the gossip as an ‘enemy’ to the stability of that fratriarchy, but must on the other hand include her as our wife, our mother, our neighbour, our friend. Her position is puzzling: she is necessary to sustain the reproduction of democratic brotherhood, but at the same time poses a threat to that same fratriarchy.

It is also important to realise that the ‘gossip’ cannot be taken as a mere positive figure from the perspective of a prospective sisterhood or sorority.

 This idea deserves some attention. Efforts in positively reviving the idea of gossip as being ‘about bonding and belonging’28 risk perpetuating exactly those mechanisms of exclusion feminists (should) aim to critique. The idea of democracy-as-brotherhood undoubtedly involves some mechanisms of exclusion: it rests on a notion of friend as one’s ‘natural’ ‘double,’ and of course as ‘male.’ But the same counts for the solidarity within gossip networks, which, as Capp remarks, ‘could be accompanied by a far more aggressive stance towards outsiders.’29Promoting solidarity, whether in terms of brothers or sisters, always comes along with the exclusion of ‘others.’ In the introduction to The Politics of Friendship, Derrida asks: ‘What happens when, in taking up the case of the sister, the woman is made a sister? And a sister a case of the brother?’30Striving to be taken equal to the brother, feminists have been exposed to running the risk of making the gossip a case of the brother, a case that reproduces the very same and problematic mechanisms of exclusion.

Yet instead of simplifying gossip’s aims for solidarity, shouldn’t we let ourselves be mobilised by its contradictions?

Sister Outsider

‘Including may dictate forgetting’31—and striving for female solidarity may dictate forgetting differences, conflicts and contradictions between women. Such insights into the phenomenon of intersectionality introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw resonate with the work of Audre Lorde, self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet,’ who titled a collection of her essays and speeches Sister Outsider (2007). Lorde’s paradoxical title can serve to remind us that rather than attempting to unmask the figure of the ‘gossip’ only positively, only as the identification of a long-gone female friendship of sisters, we should hold on to the contradictions she poses, be aware of the ‘outsiders’ she might create.

This brings us back to Derrida’s endless book-long suspension—the suspension of any answer to the question, ‘who are we?’ At the centre of it, Derrida places a paradox that reads as follows: ‘Oh my friends, there are no friends.’32It is a quotation of a quote: Derrida quotes Montaigne (mis)quoting Aristotle. The original formulation must have been something like: ‘He who has many friends does not have a true friend,’ implying that true friends are few in number. For Derrida, this textual element, this misquotation, is interesting not only because this slippage presents the inherent indeterminacy of meaning, but also since it presents us with a paradox: while the presence of some friends seems to be implied (‘oh my friends’), it is rendered impossible at the same time (‘there is no friend’). It seems that the friend Derrida calls out for is still to come. In his book, Derrida explicitly does not call for identifying what, or who, is lingering in the margins of the brother. Someone could be coming through the door any moment now, but it’s our moral obligation never to have her be identified, let alone identified as a mere ‘case of the brother.’

Derrida’s demands are reminiscent of one of Lorde’s most well-known declarations, which is that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ If we keep using the master’s (or brother’s) tools and terms such as ‘bonding,’ ‘belonging’ and ‘community’ in our attempts to escape brotherhood, we will never succeed. We will only once again build a democracy based on the same binary oppositions that constitute the brotherhood. Instead of praising gossip for promoting a new way of knowledge, and a new way of democracy, one that is solidary and supposedly free of exclusions and contradictions, we should consider it as a tool that continuously whispers the impossibility of any such democracy. Gossip is democracy’s most fertile contradiction. Destabilising the oppositions between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy,’ and between ‘public’ and ‘private,’ it poses a threat to any simplistic conception of democracy and gives us a feeling for a more true and paradoxical conception of the nature of democracy and of democratic knowledge-production. It brings us closer to the ‘sister-outsider,’ the ‘community-without-community’ and the ‘relation-without-relation.’33

When Leach writes that gossiping helps address the patriarchal ‘system’s chronic inability to recognise a state of flow, fluidity, incompleteness, inconclusiveness,’34 I agree with her. Yet I add that celebrating gossip as a discourse that playfully defies rigid documentation should also entail celebrating gossip as a figure that cannot be concretised. One may still be tempted to follow Capp in his search for the gossip, and find traces of her in the pubs where she secretly spends her evenings, or in the neighbourhoods where she is busy sowing strife and building ties. I know I was tempted; I even asked some of my friends to record them for me. But these traces will not lead us back to a lost sense of sisterhood; rather, they are frustrating yet fruitful reminders that the female companion feminist discourse is looking to celebrate cannot be pinned down. Federici’s forgotten ‘friend’ should be praised not for paving the way to a new, feminist and solidary democracy but for forming contradictions that rebel against any purely positive idea of a solidary democracy.

Marsha Bruinen

Marsha Bruinen recently graduated from the Research Master’s in Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where she also completed her bachelor’s in Philosophy (both cum laude). Previously, she finished the four-year Fine Arts programme at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Her previous education and current involvement in art—as a critic for and editor of Metropolis M, a bimonthly magazine on contemporary art—have directed her research interest towards the philosophy of art and culture and its intersections with social and political philosophy. In her rMA thesis, she developed an Adornian defence of the ‘age of apology’.

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Capp, Bernard, When Gossips Meet – Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Derrida, Jacques, The Politics of Friendship. London: Verso, 2020.
  • Federici, Silvia, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women. Oakland: PM Press, 2018.
  • Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2014.
  • Leach, Mary, ‘Feminist Figurations: Gossip as a Counterdiscourse.’ In Working the Ruins:  Feminist Poststructural Theory and Methods in Education. Edited by Elizabeth A. St. Pierre and Wanda S. Pillow, pp. 223-236. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007.
  • Saarloos, Simon(e) van, ‘Revisiting Gossips with Simon(e) van Saarloos.’ Het Nieuwe Instituut. May 21, 2020. https://soundcloud.com/hetnieuweinstituut/revisiting-gossips-with-simone-van-saarloos. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer, ‘In Praise of Gossip.’ The Hudson Review 35, no. 1 (1982): pp. 19-38. 
References
↑ 1

Patricia Meyer Spacks, ‘In Praise of Gossip,’ The Hudson Review 35, no. 1 (1982): p. 21.

↑ 2

Ibid.

↑ 3

Silvia Federici, Witches, Witch-hunting, and Women (Oakland: PM Press, 2018), p. 35.

↑ 4

Ibid.

↑ 5

Ibid.

↑ 6

Federici 2018, p. 40.

↑ 7

Mary Leach, ‘Feminist Figurations: Gossip as a Counterdiscourse,’ in: Elizabeth A. St. Pierre and Wanda S. Pillow (eds), Working the Ruins:  Feminist Poststructural Theory and Methods in Education (London: Routledge, 2000), pp.223-236; p. 226.

↑ 8

Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 2020), p. viii.

↑ 9

Derrida 2020, p. 90.

↑ 10

Derrida 2020, p. 90, p. 92.

↑ 11

Derrida 2020, p. 88.

↑ 12

Derrida 2020, p. 77.

↑ 13

Derrida 2020, p. 83.

↑ 14

Derrida 2020, pp. 76–77.

↑ 15

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2014), p. 13.

↑ 16

Derrida 2020, p. ix.

↑ 17

Federici 2014, p. 22.

↑ 18

I have discussed Federici’s philosophy, and her work on historical witch-hunts specifically, in more detail in a (Dutch) essay published on the website of Metropolis M some time ago: https://www.metropolism.com/nl/features/42403_een_heksenjacht_over_de_werkelijke_betekenis_van_een_veelvuldig_misbruikt_begrip.

↑ 19

Federici 2018, p. 40.

↑ 20

Ibid.

↑ 21

Ibid.

↑ 22

Leach 2000, pp. 223–236; p. 230.

↑ 23

Leach 2000, p. 230.

↑ 24

Leach 2000, p. 225.

↑ 25

Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet – Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 64.

↑ 26

Leach 2000, p. 231.

↑ 27

The recent rise and increasing influence of so-called ‘gossip’ or ‘juice’ channels on social media prompt us to question whether, in some way, gossip hasn’t by now become part of official discourse.

↑ 28

Capp 2003, p. 57.

↑ 29

Capp 2003, p. 59.

↑ 30

Derrida 2020, p. viii.

↑ 31

Ibid.

↑ 32

Derrida 2020, p. 1.

↑ 33

Derrida 2020, pp. 80–81.

↑ 34

Leach 2000, p. 231.