The Lisa Downing Lexicon

Below are some of the original critical concepts that Lisa has introduced in her work that have become part of cultural discourse, used by other researchers, writers, activists and practitioners. 


Identity category violations

This concept, introduced in an article about right-wing women in 2018, helps to explain how common assumptions about “identity” may be unhelpful. This is particularly relevant in a cultural moment in which feminist and other left-wing movements have become increasingly focused on identity politics.

An identity category violation occurs when a person belonging to a given group displays views, beliefs or values that are at odds with the assumptions we have about people in that group (such as a lesbian feminist who holds far-right views; a child who commits acts of violence; an immigrant with anti-immigration views). The identity category violation shows up the instability of the system by which we think we can predict individual conviction on the basis of group belonging. 

The concept is part of Lisa’s broader critique of the identitarian turn in left-wing politics and theory. Lisa is interested in exploring both:

  1. recuperating a form of individualism that is ethical and distinct from neoliberal meanings of the term (See Self-fulness).
  2. returning to the class-based analysis favoured by earlier feminism and left-wing movements in place of the current mode of analysis based on identity categories than can often be divisive, competitive, purist, and hierarchical.

The concept of “identity category violations” also has implications for better understanding unconscious bias, since the assumption that we can “read” a person’s beliefs, values, political affiliation, etc on the basis of their belonging to an identity group is potentially reductive and harmful. This insight has been incorporated into training for psychiatrists via a new CPD module, co-designed with Dr Jonathan Hurlow, to help clinicians evaluate their own assumptions when implementing their PREVENT duty. 

From: “The Body Politic: Gender, the Right Wing and ‘Identity Category Violations’”, French Cultural Studies, 29:4, 2018, 367-77. (See the article here.)

Self-fulness

In Selfish Women (2019), Lisa rethinks and recuperates the concept of “selfishness” for women, moving it away from its wholly negative connotations by focusing on its potential to offer a new, individualistic feminist ethic. She argues that women have, throughout history, been discouraged from putting their self-interest first. 

She coins the term “self-fulness” to indicate a selfishness that is ethical and consciously arrived at. This distinguishes it from modes of self-focus that may be unconscious forms of obedience/ conformity (such as the commodification of self-care), rather than forms of resistance/ creativity. 

The neologism “self-fulness” was chosen for this new ethical concept as it is the direct antonym of “selflessness”, that which women have been encouraged historically to be and which is a “feminine virtue” we may wish to reject. 

From: Selfish Women (London and New York: Routledge, 2019)

Sex critical

The concept of “sex critical” was introduced in the inaugural post (27 July 2012) of Lisa’s (now dormant) blog of the same name. 

The concept attempts to go beyond the “sex-positive” / “sex-negative” binary that has shaped deep divisions in feminism since the 1980s “sex wars” to the present. It argues that a more helpful approach to sexuality for feminists would be one that turns a critical eye on all forms of sexuality and all pro/ anti discourses.

Lisa argues in the post that we should “eschew altogether the either/ or logic that the lexicon of ‘positive’/ ‘negative’ presupposes” and examine how “such language silences the questions that […] seem key: positive for whom? Negative in terms of whose ideological agenda and interests? The very notion that ‘positive’/ ‘negative’ can ever be universal qualities, that anything can ever be equally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for all groups and classes, [is] ultimately wrongheaded.”

From: “What is Sex Critical and Why Should We Care About It?” 27 July 2012 http://sexcritical.co.uk/2012/07/27/what-is-sex-critical-and-why-should-we-care-about-it/ 

(S)extremism

In recent work on women and extremism, Lisa has coined the term “(s)extremism” to designate the way in which “extremism” (of all kinds) is understood differently when applied to women than to men. 

The term refers to three interlinked concepts: (1) a form of sexism in cultural responses to outlier women; (2) the fact that these misogynistic responses are often predicated precisely on understandings of sex (i.e. they are situated on the politically contested ground that is woman’s biology as well as on assumptions about femininity and the nature of a ‘proper’ woman); (3) the question mark that hovers over the issue of what extremism is when linked to women. 

The concept thereby defines a specific understanding of extremism that is shot through with cultural perceptions about women, and coloured by structural misogyny. 

Lisa’s thinking on this concept has been developed via her praxis with artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos with whom she has collaborated on three exhibitions. In the article in which she explores this concept, Lisa discusses the first two of these exhibitions Echo Chamber (2017) and Shoot the Women First (2018).

From: “‘(S)extremism’: Imagining Violent Women in the Twenty-First Century with Navine G. Khan-Dossos and Julia Kristeva”, Paragraph, 43:2, 2020, 212-229. (Can be downloaded as a PDF for free here).