An Interview with Feminist Journal Hysteria

Becky Lamming

On the many types of feminism and why equality is a utopic but necessary thing to strive for.

Issue six of HYSTERIA magazine (photo by the author.)

HYSTERIA collects feminist voices from a range of demographics the world over. Through visual art, essays and interviews, their bi-annual magazine asks the important questions surrounding feminism today. HYSTERIA creates space for marginalised opinions and experiences online, on paper and in their launches. The collective isn't afraid to offend – opposing opinions are often printed in the same magazine issue, moving discussion forward at a rate that is hard to find elsewhere.

Begun as a sleek zine by students of London's SOAS University, it has grown in size and scope. The 50-strong collective spans the globe; readers and artists distribute the magazine to stockists on their travels. Thanks to fans and artists filling their suitcases with copies, HYSTERIA can be found in every continent.

We talked to two members of the collective, Ama Josephine Budge and Jago Rackham on the philosophies that inspire HYSTERIA's team and contributors.

VICE: What inspired you to start the magazine?
Ama Josephine Budge: It was started by members of The School of Oriental and African Studies Feminist Society about five years ago. HYSTERIA was never officially affiliated with the University, or the Society. We've always been independent and self-funded.

Jago Rackham: They wanted to make a platform for feminisms rather than a singular hegemonic Feminism, it wants to have a plurality of voices. We even publish things that completely disagree with other articles in a particular issue. One of the main reasons HYSTERIA was started was a feeling that there wasn't a highly critical platform acknowledging the valid multiplicity of feminisms.

An early Victorian erotic photograph. Part of the 'Arche-types' series by Agata Cardoso.

What formed your personal feminisms?
Jago: It's such a strange question to me... it seems like something that's always been there and felt very natural. I always had female friends at school. Then I went to an all-boys sixth form and there was this very systematic, very aggressive sexism and misogyny in a completely naturalised state. Then at University I came across more academic feminism, and began using analysis; that's the bedrock of my current position. But, more generally, I think that if you're not a feminist you can't call yourself a socialist or even left wing.

Ama: I'm half-Ghanaian, and even though I moved to Accra when I was nine, my community in Ghana was very removed from feminism so there was a loneliness and huge disconnect between my developing sense of racial identity and my very firm sense of feminism. HYSTERIA found me as an artist and I just fell head over heels in love with the manifesto. I realised this is what I had been looking for.

Often intersectional feminism means there's a brown person, a gay person and a trans person in the room and none of us really talk about anything important, we all just agree that we're feminists and that none of us want to offend anyone else. Being radical for me is about being able to ask questions, really explore ideologies and utopias and know that people aren't going to excommunicate you from feminism even if they think you're speaking feminist heresy. That's a huge part of HYSTERIA and why the collective feels like a personal investment. It's a community that's compassionately critical, intellectually loving, but it's also personally loving and that's rare I think.

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Jago: There's such room for confrontation. Like with siblings; you can argue as much as you want with each other, but that's accepted, it goes forward. In an organisation when there's a consensus, that generally means there's some sort of control being exercised.

Ama: We have google hangouts but I've been really fighting for HYSTERIA to have a physical space because so much feminism and activism happens in digital spaces where there's a lot of that catalysing energy that's dispelled. A guy slaps your ass on the street and it's the last straw of your day, and you come home and you write a Facebook status about it, people comment on it saying that's so shit and that's it.

Jago: That's your catharsis.

Ama: Whereas previously you might have gone to women's group and realised, 'It's not just me and my mates on Facebook, it's these other 50 women and together we can do something.'

Her/She Senses Imag(in)ed Malady, 1994 Blown Veins/Jelly Hand. Image by Angela Ellsworth and Tina Takemoto.

Can you explain Hysterical Feminism?
Jago: I don't think you can – and that's almost the point – it's supposed to challenge an idea of a hegemonic knowledge or argument. It expresses how a status quo, in the way you're supposed to approach knowledge, covers up a lot. It's also about speech acts, the way one's conditioned to communicate in a certain way, which excludes a lot of people.

The term itself comes from the idea of the hysteric, an ancient description that was given formal solidity in the 1800s. It's about the medicalisation of female emotion.

Ama: Women diagnosed with "hysteria" were incarcerated and studied in Pitié-Salpêtrière [hospital] in 19th century Paris. It previously was spiritual and tribal associations of women in heightened states, communing with the gods, medicine women, sacrificial virgins. Most cultures reference the hysteric in one guise or another. We reject the idea that HYSTERIA only references a white, European history or feminism.

Jago: Agata Cardoso wrote for HYSTERIA arguing that hysteria was an act of expression – embracing the hysteric, employing it. Moreover, it links to that old trope that the only sane reaction to the world we live in is insanity. I feel that anger and disgust and confusion should always be encouraged.

Ama: It's also the discussion. I feel an inner hysteria, an inescapable need to act, that sense of, 'oh my god, this is not okay, nothing is okay, things need to change' and focusing on that and knowing it's not something you can put away.

Naomi Klein writes about it in her book This Changes Everything on climate change and how people are looking away. We look at it for a bit and then we freak out and we look away again. For me, being in touch with my hysteria is giving up the ability to look away.

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Your most recent manifesto on your website contests classifications of discourse like "safe" and "private". How can feminists throw terms like these away?
Jago: The idea of a safe space suggests a space that is free from problems, free from power structures. It's a double move by the oppressive agency, it lets the guard down, it numbs you.

Ama: I'm also wary of lots of women of colour being in a room and that being the extent of their feminism. There's this narrative of "we've given them their space", "we gave them the town hall for two hours every Saturday so black feminism is covered and we're intersectional."

We need those spaces where we come together and HYSTERIA is that space for me. I would not say that it's safe because you cannot escape the world, and they create a vacuum of the positive work you could be doing in society and therefore actually perpetuate the norm. How those spaces need to operate is as a partial recovery from the violence of the world, not as an end-point.

Jago: The university's a good place to illustrate this: it often leads to danger going unaddressed elsewhere.

Words seem to hold a lot of importance for HYSTERIA – are they more powerful than images?
Ama: Text isn't more or less, it's different. There's a lot of power in having a three-page article that goes into depth about something that isn't openly discussed. It dares to speak the words that are not being spoken. HYSTERIA is an artwork. The text is as much a visual artwork as the conventionally visual art pieces. We spend a lot of time on font and layout, and we print pieces in different languages. Mandarin becomes a visual art piece for me because I can't read it.

Image via Agata Cardoso.

What's your favourite piece in issue six?
Ama: I love the cover, how it turns my stomach. I'm always drawn to the artworks in HYSTERIA. My favourite piece is by Guillaume Caron. It's just so strong for me, exciting, alive and visceral.

Yoga Liberation is an article I edited, talking about the forgotten Indian yogis who very effectively fought the occupation in colonised India. It's very political historically of course, but it's also about how co-opted yoga has become in the western world.

Jago: I like "Age Still Matters", which is about the way we don't really think about the elderly in our discourse, especially in this country.

You refuse to settle on a definition of equality. Why is equality a "continuous discussion"?
Jago: While you still need the term it can't be achieved, because it suggests a difference in people. It's an oxymoron.

Ama: I did a performance a couple of years ago exploring heteronormative relationships. The last line was "what if equality really is unachievable" – the propaganda that human brains are built for subjugation of the weak, not survival but domination. What's important is that we're striving and what's in the imagining of equality.

Jago: It's a utopic thing, but there's no harm in trying. Not trying's harmful.

Ama: People need to imagine more alternative realities. They believe that communism's a failed idea, that socialism is passé and anarchism is just "violent hooligans".

Jago: Capitalism now isn't thought of as an ideology; rather most people see it as human nature.

Ama: There's plenty of documentation of people living in non-hierarchical, equal, peaceful, communities. People would say that's not possible because humans are inherently violent and ambitious and evil – but maybe they're not and it's all conditioning...

You are invited to erupt with HYSTERIA at the launch for Issue six on Friday 28th August at Hackney Attic. Every launch is different but HYSTERIA promises it won't be easily palatable. Order a copy, follow them on facebook, twitter and instagram . Check out previous issues and submit your feminisms.

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