By YANA LYSENKO
kitsch: How did you find yourself working in the Cornell English Department?
Masha Raskolnikov: I’ve now been here 12 years, which is such a long time. I was a grad student at Berkeley, and there was a job list, and in those days, it was fairly plausible to apply for 10 jobs, and have a reasonable chance of getting one of them. It was really thrilling to actually get the job, and I spent the first few years here pretty sure they had made a terrible mistake. But I feel like that’s how most women feel when they get put into any position of something resembling authority, or accolades. You feel like “I managed to fool them once, but they’ll figure it out soon.”
kitsch: You describe yourself as a “lesbian, Russian-Jewish, feminist academic.” How does that description apply to what you do?
M.R.: I do what I do partially because I believe in it so much. When I was younger I really thought that just the right theory, the right critique of popular culture, or the right critique of Chaucer would just bring the system which we call “patriarchy” crashing down, like a critical lever. I no longer have quite that faith. Today I was teaching Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and it’s a text that makes me feel tremendous hope. I remember believing “if people could just read this essay, we would have a better world.” For years I said having a job at Cornell means having a sort of bully pulpit — people will listen to me because I teach at an Ivy League institution and I can try to change the world from that vantage point. I don’t quite believe that anymore, but I still love it.
kitsch: How do you find a connection between medieval literature and female sexuality?
M.R.: The dumb way to talk about the medieval woman would be to say: “Hey, look at how oppressed they are. Let’s talk at length about their oppression.” And they are really oppressed, but if you just use medieval women to be smug about how far we’ve come, that’s just a very dull way to do that kind of scholarship, and that’s not what I do. I talk about very powerful women who were perhaps surprising in some ways but at the same time very common. In the Middle Ages, the woman was sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances, allowed to be the most powerful person in the room. Sometimes she could be the queen. So they were not always quiet. There were many women who made their living as writers and there are powerful women who were not of the upper classes who seemed to have pushed and gossiped their way into positions of power in an extraordinary way.
At the same time, there’s a fantasy that you go to the European Middle Ages and that you’ll get a completely isolated purity of whiteness with no contact at all with the world beyond that. Sometimes, as a teacher, I come across students who come in thinking they’re going to escape questions of race and sex because they’re taking a class on the Middle Ages and they think it’s going to be about the idealized white male. And I love that I can come in and change that.
kitsch: Since you were a student, how have things changed in regards to studying literature and feminist, gender and sexuality studies?
M.R.: I was an incredibly nerdy undergraduate, and I thought you needed to be really cool to be a lesbian. And I was too chicken to go to the lesbian support group because I thought everyone there was too pretty, and I would never fit in. I very much aspired to be gay, but I wasn’t sure I could actually manage to pull it off. I don’t think that’s how people feel about being gay now. Despite being super nerdy, I was also a peer sex educator for some of my time in college. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there was a god, and at the same time trying to figure out what made us come. Nowadays, you guys are deeply frightened by the economy in a way that kind of cuts your wings a bit. Students don’t let themselves have as much intellectual pleasure because they’re so worried about their GPA. At the same time, I was a student in a time when kids were being cut off by their parents for being gay, and I think it still happens, but maybe, hopefully less. And we experienced a lot of violence and danger in a way that I don’t think you guys do.
kitsch: You’re also teaching a class called “Body as Text: Pleasure as Danger.” Could you describe that course and what motivated you to teach it?
M.R.: The “Body” class is deeply personal, because it gets people thinking about their own bodies, and what it means for them to be human beings who inhabit flesh, and that’s incredibly important. It may be my favorite course. I sometimes teach about transgender identity in literature and transgender autobiography and self-representation. It has a unit on metamorphoses, a unit on racial science and a unit on the monstrousness of femininity. It’s almost nonstop fun for me. We talk about how women and their bodies and their smells are all on the verge of being monstrous in a sexist society. Women can be monstrous in a disempowered way. One of the main research topics I’ve been addressing recently is a critique of the word “feminization.” A lot of the time, when we say feminization, we’re saying that a male character is disempowered in this moment in a Shakespeare play or in a novel, and because they’re disempowered, we’re going to call it “feminization,” implying that a woman is always weak. So when I talk about female monstrosity, I’m talking about the sheer, raw, powerful female bodies themselves, and that’s a joyful concept. Part of the class is when we do transgender women, because that’s a form of empowerment that may not always be so obviously addressed. These women who are not considered female at birth achieve these great levels of female power. In the course, we read an academic text by a trans woman called “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” which is like a citation of the monstrosity discourse but for the purposes of theorizing the non-natural femaleness that this female asserts.
kitsch: How have students responded to this class? Are they used to questions of feminism, sexuality, and the body?
M.R.: I get a bunch of different students: Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies students who are very used to the kind of questions we raise in the course, English majors who are all over the place in terms of what they’re interested in, and I do get pre-med, non-English students, and I often teach to them in a certain way. My fantasy is always that I will make someone be a better, more compassionate doctor, or anyone who does something that I don’t do. That’s one of the great things about being a teacher. You have effects on the world that you don’t ever even know about. You just throw these things out there and you hope for the best.