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Ellen Willis (1941 – 2006)


American essayist and critic.
Ellen Willis
My education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolutionaries. I learned that lesson well (though it came too late to wholly supplant certain critical opposing influences, like comic books and rock-and-roll). Yet the modernists’ once-subversive refusal to be gulled or lulled has long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, soft-minded, and cowardly — not to say smug — as the false cheer it replaced. The terms of the dialectic have reversed: now the subversive task is to affirm an authentic post-modernist optimism that gives full weight to existent horror and possible (or probable) apocalyptic disaster, yet insists — credibly — that we can, well, overcome. The catch is that you have to be an optimist (an American?) in the first place not to dismiss such a project as insane.
Willis quotes
My deepest impulses are optimistic; an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.
Willis
To say that historical conditions made personal life possible, and with it the self-consciousness that allowed psychoanalysis to emerge, is to tell half the story: one also has to consider that the erotic impulse, ever pressing for satisfaction, had something to do with making the history that encouraged its expression.




Willis Ellen quotes
Dylan is free now to work on his own terms. It would be foolish to predict what he will do next. But hopefully he will remain a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it. If the gap between past and present continues to widen, such mediation may be crucial. In a communications crisis, the true prophets are the translators.
Willis Ellen
The project of organizing a democratic political movement entails the hope that one's ideas and beliefs are not merely idiosyncratic but speak to vital human needs, interests and desires, and therefore will be persuasive to many and ultimately most people. But this is a very different matter from deciding to put forward only those ideas presumed (accurately or not) to be compatible with what most people already believe.
Ellen Willis quotes
There is a persistent myth that a wife has control over her husband’s money because she gets to spend it. Actually, she does not have much more financial authority than the employee of a corporation who is delegated to buy office furniture or supplies. The husband, especially if he is rich, may allow his wife wide latitude in spending — he may reason that since she has to work in the home she is entitled to furnish it to her taste, or he may simply not want to bother with domestic details — but he retains the ultimate veto power. If he doesn’t like the way his wife handles his money, she will hear about it.
Ellen Willis
Individuals bearing witness cannot do the work of social movements, but they can break a corrosive and demoralizing silence.
Willis Ellen quotes
There are two kinds of sex, classical and baroque. Classical sex is romantic, profound, serious, emotional, moral, mysterious, spontaneous, abandoned, focused on a particular person, and stereotypically feminine. Baroque sex is pop, playful, funny, experimental, conscious, deliberate, amoral, anonymous, focused on sensation for sensation's sake, and stereotypically masculine. The classical mentality taken to an extreme is sentimental and finally puritanical; the baroque mentality taken to an extreme is pornographic and finally obscene. Ideally, a sexual relation ought to create a satisfying tension between the two modes (a baroque idea, particularly if the tension is ironic) or else blend them so well that the distinction disappears (a classical aspiration).
Willis
By definition, the conventional wisdom of the day is widely accepted, continually reiterated and regarded not as ideology but as reality itself. Rebelling against "reality," even when its limitations are clearly perceived, is always difficult. It means deciding things can be different and ought to be different; that your own perceptions are right and the experts and authorities wrong; that your discontent is legitimate and not merely evidence of selfishness, failure or refusal to grow up. Recognizing that "reality" is not inevitable makes it more painful; subversive thoughts provoke the urge to subversive action. But such action has consequences — rebels risk losing their jobs, failing in school, incurring the wrath of parents and spouses, suffering social ostracism. Often vociferous conservatism is sheer defensiveness: People are afraid to be suckers, to get their hopes up, to rethink their hard-won adjustments, to be branded bad or crazy.
Willis Ellen
The notion that there might be any need for, or possibility of, profound changes in the institutions that shape American life work, family, technology, the primacy of the car and the single-family house — is foreign to the mainstream media that define our common sense. And so conflicts that cannot be addressed politically have expressed themselves by other means. From public psychodramas like the O. J. Simpson trial, the Lewinsky scandal and Columbine to disaster movies, talk shows and "reality TV," popular culture carries the burden of our emotions about race, feminism, sexual morality, youth culture, wealth, competition, exclusion, a physical and social environment that feels out of control.
Ellen Willis
Mass consumption, advertising, and mass art are a corporate Frankenstein; while they reinforce the system, they also undermine it. By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products…




Ellen Willis quotes
Individuals bearing witness do not change history; only movements that understand their social world can do that. Movements encourage solidarity; the moral individual is likely, all unwittingly, to do the opposite, for bearing witness is lonely: it breeds feelings of superiority and moralistic anger against those who are not doing the same.
Ellen Willis
The centerpiece of the cultural counterrevolution is the snowballing campaign for a "drug-free workplace" — a euphemism for "drug-free workforce," since urine testing also picks up for off-duty indulgence. The purpose of this '80s version of the loyalty oath is less to deter drug use than to make people undergo a humiliating ritual of subordination: "When I say pee, you pee." The idea is to reinforce the principle that one must forfeit one's dignity and privacy to earn a living, and bring back the good old days when employers had the unquestioned right to demand that their workers' appearance and behavior, on or off the job, meet management's standards.
Willis quotes
The will to power is the will to ecstasy is the will to surrender is the will to submit and, in extremis, to die. Or to put it another way, the rage to attain a freedom and happiness one's psyche cannot accept creates enormous anxiety and ends in self-punishing despair.
Willis Ellen
It’s not only corruption that distorts the utopian impulse when it begins to take some specific social shape. The prospect of more freedom stirs anxiety. We want it, but we fear it; it goes against our most deeply ingrained Judeo-Christian definitions of morality and order. At bottom, utopia equals death is a statement about the wages of sin.
Willis Ellen quotes
For a decade Americans have been steeped in the rhetoric of "zero tolerance" and the faith that virtually all problems from drug addiction to lousy teaching can be solved by pouring on the punishment. Even without a Commander in Chief who pledges to rid the world of evildoers, smoke them out of their holes and the like, we would be vulnerable to the temptation to brush aside frustrating complexities and relieve intolerable fear (at least for the moment) by settling on one or more scapegoats to crush. To imagine that trauma casts out fantasy is a dangerous mistake.
Ellen Willis
The goal of the right is not to stop abortion but to demonize it, punish it and make it as difficult and traumatic as possible. All this it has accomplished fairly well, even without overturning Roe v. Wade.
Ellen Willis quotes
More and more I am coming to the conviction that Roe vs. Wade, in the guise of a great victory, has been in some respects a disaster for feminism. We might be better off today if it had never happened, and we had had to continue a state-by-state political fight. Roe vs. Wade resulted in a lot of women declaring victory and going home. In the meantime we have been losing abortion rights on the ground, both in terms of access and funding and on the ideological and psychological levels.
Ellen Willis
For democrats, it's as crucial to defend secular culture as to preserve secular law. And in fact the two projects are inseparable: When religion defines morality, the wall between church and state comes to be seen as immoral.
Willis Ellen
The idea that lack of paternal guidance can explain today's masculinity crisis doesn't make sense. I suspect rather that underneath the sons' charge that their fathers did not teach them how to be men lies another, unadmitted complaint — that their fathers taught them only too well how to be men, and they are choking on the lesson. These men, as boys, faced the age-old tradeoff: If you undergo the painful process of renouncing the "feminine" aspects of your humanity and follow your father into manhood (and what choice do you have, really?) you will share in the spoils of the superior half of the race. Now, as men, they find that the spoils are far more meager than expected. No wonder they feel betrayed.


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