Orientations: Body, Space, Authority by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn her book Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed investigates how we orient ourselves in space with respect to tables – the tables around which we sit, at which we eat with friends and families of choice and birth, and at which we write. She describes moving into a new place and arranging the furniture. “After the kitchen, the room I hope to inhabit is always the study. Or the place that I have decided is the place where I will write. There, that will be my desk. Or it could just be the writing table. It is here that I will gather my thoughts. It is here that I will write, and even write about writing. … Making a place feel like home, or becoming at home in a space, is for me about being at my table. I think fondly of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. How important it is, especially for women, to claim that space, to take up that space through what one does with one’s body. And so when I am at my table, I am also claiming that space, I am becoming a writer by taking up that space.” (11) Ahmed goes on to discuss how certain possibilities are opened up, and others foreclosed, by the way we orient ourselves (or find ourselves oriented) to others and to objects. She describes the bodily postures that result from orienting oneself to the writing table – the way one might hunch over one’s computer, or find oneself with ink-stained fingers.

In a very different context, the queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid describes a scene from her childhood in Argentina. She kneels in front of a priest for confession. But instead of kneeling to the side, aslant, as she ‘ought’ to have done, being a girl, she kneels directly in front of the priest, as if she were a boy. Kneeling here too is a form of orientation, a form of direction, a bodily habit of becoming. “Kneeling is troublesome and it has a theological referent in the church’s also troubled waters of sexuality and power. A whole symbolic sexual order is obviously manifested in kneelings as positions of subordination and sites of possible homo- and hetero- seductions, because these are theologically distributed around the axis of the priesthood’s male genitalia. The priest’s penis carries the sacred connotations of the phallus as a transcendental signifier of the theological discourses to everyday Christianity, and kneeling is a liturgical positing designed to centralise and highlight this.” (The Queer God, 11) To kneel in the right (gendered) position in relation to the priest is also to kneel in the right relation to God.

Each time I go to the airport, I scan the different security lines carefully. If I can’t see a way out, a line with only an old-fashioned metal detector, I approach a TSA officer and tell her or him, “I’m going to need a patdown.” I cannot bring myself to go through the security machines that require hands to be raised up – in a posture I associate with early Christian prayer practices and with an iconography of worship and praise that belongs only to God. The bodied enactment of subjection to the all-seeing gaze of the state and to the dream of securitization (the idea that somehow we might protect ourselves, protect our futures) is too brutal in that position. The confrontation is too direct. Instead, I ask for a patdown – in public, but a human interaction nonetheless.

These vignettes are stories of taking up space, or not, of orienting the body in relation to a future, to hope, or to the sacred. To sit at a writing table is to become – or to be – a writer. To take up the space of writing is to claim a place. Ahmed’s story reminds us that the labor of thinking and writing is not – no matter how we often speak – disembodied. It has a material character. Ahmed discusses the way tables come to be through histories of work that become invisible to us – the hands that shaped the table, or built the machines that shaped the table, and that delivered the table into our hands. The work of thinking and writing requires “stuff” – material: books to write about and on and in, pens or computers to write with. Ahmed’s vignette draws our attention to the basic insight that we are not only always bodied beings. We become the bodied beings that we are as our bodies move in different directions along lines of attraction, repulsion, compulsion, and hope.

The other stories are stories of orientation to a legitimate authority – a hope of avoiding it by softening its harsh appearance in ‘freely’ choosing a patdown over a security scan requiring an arrangement of the body in a certain posture, and ‘missing’ one’s authorized religious position by accidentally kneeling in a direction not permitted to one. Each of these acts engenders a bodied relation to a type of religious knowledge. Althaus-Reid is told that she cannot receive the reproduction of authoritative church discourse directly from the priest – she is only supposed partake in it from off to the side. Instead, she accidentally places herself in a direct line, stopping the repetition of religious knowledge as it passes from male priest to male confessant. But although my avoidance of a particular form of bodied submission is intentional, and Althaus-Reid’s mistaken orientation to the priest was an accident, I think it is Althaus-Reid’s story that best describes the relation a feminist who writes might have to the reproductions and repetitions that have formed the traditions she seeks to understand, reshape, or abandon. To place oneself in line is not always only to submit. It is not always only to receive what is given to one. A feminist positionality might also interrupt the orders of reproduction and send them off in different directions. And sometimes that work is done while seated at tables.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 

Categories: Abuse of Power, Body, Christianity, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminist Theology, LGBTQ, power, Theology, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. “To sit at a writing table is to become – or to be – a writer.” That thought is where you begin and where you end and it is so powerful. I remember pictures of Emily Dickinson’s tiny writing table facing the window, so deeply moving those photos. There’s a very witty and wonderful essay too by Barbara Applebaum called “On Good Authority or is Feminist Authority an Oxymoron?” (1999, online). She describes having a “Dr.” in front of one’s name as “like a detached and ill-fitting appendage.” Yet she disclaims the tendency among “good girl” feminists of declining all orientations toward “power and authority.” She says that in order to author her works, Virginia Woolf speaks about having to kill “the angel in the house.”


    • P.S. I had to think this through, what Woolf might have meant. The “angel in the house” is compassion and caring for others. You can’t win a tennis match that way. But I would rather protect the angel than win the game. The angel is an angel, the game is just a game.


  2. Thank you for your post Linn Marie,
    I found it facinating! I was sitting down at my desk to work when I stopped to read your blog, and one of the first things I noticed was how much I was hunching over my desk, trying to bring my eyes closer to the screen. I have been thinking about this relationship to my desk a lot lately– mostly because it reminds me that I am getting older and really, need to have my eyes checked! ;) We definitely are bodies at these tables– I really appreciate your emphasis on the embodiment of writing!
    Just a side note: I was totally unaware that women are supposed to kneel differently in front of a priest! Wow. And, I too am uncomfortable in those machines at the airport– but when I think of putting my hands up and spreading my legs in that way, I think of being arrested or taken into custody by the police. It definitely feels like a submission to a masculinist authority.
    Thank you again!


  3. Yup. Interesting angle. Any new aspect of discussing the body and its role in feminism, religion and our struggle for complete realisation is useful.


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