Emblemization and “Difference”
While many feminists have put forward an emblematic reading of the massacre, other feminists have long argued that this is a reading that prioritizes identity politics and gendered power relations at the expense of recognizing complex identity formations and inseparable relations of power—such as “race,” class, and sexuality—which shape the meanings of gender for women (in life and in death). I recall, for example, Marusia Bociurkiw, who was writing before the emblemization of the massacre had settled into a stable practice but who was anticipating, even then, the paradox of positioning these particular deaths as a “national tragedy.” She observes:
Without diminishing the horror and waste of these women’s deaths, and the unimaginable grief inflicted upon their families, friends, and lovers, it is important to examine the dynamics of the response. The deaths of 14 white, relatively privileged young women was recognized as a national tragedy, while recent police shootings of Black people have been dismissed either as an accident or a necessary evil. Meanwhile, poverty, that insidious hired gunman of the state, stalks women daily. (Bociurkiw 1990,9)
Caffyn Kelley, writing some five years later and in reference to a Vancouver – based monument project to memorialize the women murdered in Montreal, further complicates the issues of remembrance and identity. She writes:
The names inscribed on the monument will not be the First Nations women of the neighbourhood who have been murdered in back alleys and beer parlours, left to die in garbage dumpsters or thrown out of hotel windows. In this neighbourhood where women are six times more likely to be murdered than in the city overall—10 to 20 times more likely if they are between the ages of 20 and 45—the monument will be inscribed with the names of fourteen, white, middle-class women from four thousand miles away. (Kelley 1995, 8)
Counter to a straightforward emblematic reading of the massacre, then, Bociurkiw and Kelley, among others,11 gesture to an understanding that recognizes resemblances and differences between women (and between acts of violence). While this reading is important for how it complicates an emblematic reading that traces a single line between the massacre and “violences against women,” it nevertheless faces an unresolvable contradiction as a practice of public memory. This is because the reading of resemblance and difference must simultaneously accept and refuse the massacre as emblematic. In other words, we are dealing with a position that argues for recognition of the massacre’s partiality within a structure that depends, for its intelligibility, upon seamless symbolic substitutability.
In the resulting ambivalence and difficulty of this position, it is perhaps not surprising that critiques of emblemization, by feminists and with regard to women’s lives, are largely absent in tenth anniversary popular media coverage of the massacre. I would argue that, in the emblematic narrative binding of “fourteen women murdered by Lepine” to “women subject to men’s violence,” a reading of differences between women risks destabilizing emblemization and its memorial-pedagogical force. When emblemization (which, to recall, was initiated as a feminist response) has taken hold in public memory as a counter-narrative to “Lepine as a madman,” I suspect that to risk its reading in more complex terms may be regarded (at least by those invested in this narrative) as risking its complete undermining. Nonetheless, this is an issue that should, I propose, continue to draw feminist attention.
In contrast to this lack of attention in the mainstream media, questions of emblemization, identity, and difference continue to be at the forefront in tenth anniversary reporting with regard to the memorial positionings of Lepine and, concomitantly,“men.” While an emblematic narrative normalizes Lepine as enacting a prevailing practice of men’s violence against women (albeit more drastically than is typical), such normalization is by no means secured in public memory. Upon studying the daily newspaper coverage of the tenth anniversary, I was surprised to come across repeated phrases that trouble, if they do not subvert, the apparent acceptance of the argument that Lepine did not act in a social vacuum. He is described, for example, as a “crazed young man” (Globe and Mail editorial, 6 December 1999), “wretchedly angry and broken” (Herman Goodden, London Free Press, 8 December 1999). In this coverage, Lepine was a “disgruntled loner…[who] roamed the school” (Thanh Ha Tu, Globe and Mail, 7 December 1999), “striking blindly at women he did not know” (Charlie Fidelman, Montreal Gazette, 6 December 1999), “fired by a pathological hatred” (Hamilton Spectator, 3 December 1999). Repeatedly, the killings are described as a “senseless horrific act” (Linda Williamson, Toronto Sun, 5 December 1999), “cruel and senseless” (Isabelle Hachey, La Presse, 6 December 1999).
In rereading these phrases, I am not interested in entering into a discussion of the usefulness of a psychological versus a sociological interpretation of Lepine and his actions; rather, what I want to underscore is the continued ambivalence within an emblematic public memory regarding Lepine. On the one hand, his act of murdering fourteen women in an engineering school is now predominantly remembered as being connected to the daily and more insidious violence committed against women; on the other hand, Lepine as a person continues to be distanced from “normal men” through the deployment of a psychologizing vocabulary (“deranged,” “crazy,” “disgruntled,” “loner,” “pathological”). When there are no actual diagnoses of Lepine available,121 am left to wonder at the adoption of such language and what it suggests about the difficulties, admittedly profound, of coming to terms with the legacy of the massacre as an act of violence supported by dominant relations of power that privilege the lives (desires, needs, rights, etc.) of men over those of women.
Such difficulties can be traced further by looking at how men respond to the pedagogical address to remember the massacre as men, who, in those emblematized terms, are aligned as guilty by association.13 For some men, emblemization produces a corresponding position that “accepts” this guilty charge: this stance is most commonly represented by those who take up subject positions offered through the discourse of the White Ribbon Campaign. This campaign represents a coalition of men, formed as a response to the massacre, who organize and speak against men’s violence against women. Jack Layton, then Toronto politician and now leader of the New Democratic Party
and co-founder and president of the coalition, states: “We need to have men denouncing violence against women; men who are admired like athletes, heads of enterprise and union officials. These are the people that other men respect in daily life” (quoted in Isabelle Hachey, La Presse, і December 1999, translation). Counter to this memorial positioning are men who refuse the terms of emblematic identification for men, arguing that “[the massacre] was perpetrated by one man…Lepine doesn’t represent all men. Many of us refuse to wear the white ribbon each year because the campaign is always posited in terms of male violence against women, ignoring the fact that twice as many men are murdered in this country each year as women” (Herman Goodden, London Free Press, 8 December 1999).
The following comments by a psychologist are more nuanced than are those that appear above, but they risk leading to similar refusals on the part of men to bear witness to a massacre that rests, in part, on the presumption of men’s privilege and a concomitant right to enact violence:
That tragedy [the massacre] psychologically injured hundreds of people… .Students, male and female, thought their last hour had arrived. But the boys [sic] were not listened to, in terms of what they had lived through….We have to teach men and women that they can be victims of violence, injustice or a lack of understanding. If we want to sensitize the population to victims’ experiences, we have to recognize the victims, regardless of their gender. (Odette Arsenault, quoted in Sophie-Helene Lebeuf, Le Devoir, 6 December 1999, translation)
While Arsenault registers the traumatic resonances of the massacre (and this is important), her comments reflect an ambivalence in which gender is either fully explanatory of differential relations to the killing or a worthless limit. In this, she risks collapsing a myriad of experiences of harm, anxiety, and distress into a single narrative of victimization—a narrative that cannot maintain a distinction between the women murdered and those who witnessed their deaths (whether women or men).
While it is beyond the purposes of this chapter to explore the terms upon which men might develop and/or sustain complex memorial relations to the event of the massacre and its legacy, I argue that emblemization severely limits such terms. As the previous comments illustrate, in its binding of “men” to Lepine emblemization constitutes, unsurprisingly, a dichotomy of memori- alization within which men are positioned—and must position themselves— as either recognizing (taking in, accepting) or refusing (disregarding, ignoring) a social alignment with Lepine. This creates a fraught ambivalence in memory as a public domain, leaving those men who do feel a relation to the massacre with little to rely on other than guilt and shame. Moreover, shrouded by
Plaque—Ecole Polytechnique, Montreal (with permission of Sharon Rosenberg).
this ambivalence, there is slight reckoning in public memory with the massacre as a difficult return, a loss that was motivated by gender hatreds but that cannot be faced within the binds of identity-based resemblances. I further consider the problems raised by these bindings in the following section.
Anti-Feminism as a Difficult Return
I want to look again at the pedagogy of emblematic public memory, but this time through a different lens. Specifically, what I think warrants our further consideration is how anti-feminism is displaced by an emblematic narrative. What repeatedly occurs is a not inconsequential slippage in the naming of the dead from “feminists” to “women”—a discursive shift that, however inadvertently, turns memorial attention away from Lepine’s declaration that this was an anti-feminist slaying. Rather than being simply a matter of attention to detail, I suggest that emblematic memory partially constitutes this turn away from anti-feminism as a reading of the killings. These comments, from tenth anniversary reporting, are indicative of the discursive slippage that I am referencing:
It was the last day of classes before exams. “Men on one side, women on the other!” yelled a gunman. “You are a bunch of feminists!” Fourteen young girls are dead without knowing why; without knowing either that after their deaths— by their deaths—they would become symbols of violence against women. (Louise Leduc, Le Devoir, 6 December 1999, translation)
In official statements out of Ottawa yesterday, Marc Lepine’s violent act was cast as a symptom of widespread violence against women. “It is important that we honour these young women,” said Hedy Fry, Secretary of State for Multicul – turalism and the Status of Women. “The senseless loss of their young lives has become symbolic of the experiences of all women whose lives are shattered by deliberate acts of gender-based violence,” she said. (Luiza Chwialkowska, National Post, 7 December 1999)
These 14 women died simply because they were women. (Claire Roberge quoted in Clark Campbell, National Post, 6 December 1999)
I am underscoring such comments neither to suggest that the murders were not an act of violence against women nor to unhinge the categories “feminist” and “women”; rather, what concerns me is the absent presence of antifeminism in the constitution of this public memory of the Montreal massacre. A decade after its occurrence, I find myself asking: “What are the risks of basing the legacy of the massacre on this absence? Why is the massacre not remembered as an anti-feminist slaying? What difference would that make to the massacre’s memory and what constitutes its legacy?”
As I contemplate these questions, I remember how feminists and feminism were positioned in the wake of the murders. As Heidi Rathjen, a student at the Poly and on campus at the time of the shootings, recalls: “Feminists got a really bad rap out of what happened at the Polytechnique. I mean, people were telling them to shut up before they had even begun to say anything. There was a mass denial of what had happened.. .and part of that denial was to blame feminists” (quoted in Chun 1999,124, emphasis in original). In commenting on Rathjen’s observation, Chun argues: “The logic ran something like this: if feminists had not talked of gender difference, none of this would have happened—look, even now they can’t even shut up, no wonder Lepine was driven crazy!” (125). While such sentiments are not widely repeated in current memorial discourses, they are not entirely without representation. For example, in response to an eleventh anniversary faculty-wide email announcement of a memorial activity on campus, a University of Toronto professor wrote:
It is obvious that the point of this [memorial event] is not to remember anyone. The point is to use the deaths of these people as an excuse to promote the Feminist/Extreme-left-wing agenda. It is no different, and no more justifiable, than when organizations such as the Klu-Klux-Klan [sic] use the murder of a white person by a black person as an excuse to promote their agenda… .Please do NOT respond to me complaining about this message….Ifyou are offended by this message, this is nothing compared to how offended I am by this “memorial.” (Charles Rackoff, email correspondence, 5 December 2000, emphasis in original)
Taken together, what these comments by Rathjen, Chun, and Rackoff underscore is a particularly troubling logic pertaining to the contemporary public memory of the massacre. On the one hand, feminists are to blame—both for the murders and for continuing to signify the murders as a site of remembrance-activism; on the other hand, anti-feminism is rendered largely invisible—either as a reason for the killings or as a force shaping counter-memory. What is striking is that anti-feminism does not disappear in this logic at all but, rather, functions as a structuring presence that cannot be readily discerned; for it is only through this circuitous route that feminism can be blamed for the murders, when Lepine himself testified to anti-feminist motivations and gunned down fourteen women whom he constituted as feminists.14
While a lack of memorial attention to anti-feminism cannot be fully accounted for by the (now) wide appeal of an emblematic interpretation of the massacre, I maintain that the force of the emblematic narrative, with its concomitant constitution of anti-feminism as an absent presence, signals a particular ambivalence with regard to the memory of the massacre and its legacy. Far from questions of memory being settled by a broader social “acceptance” of emblemization as the interpretation of the massacre, the repeated displacement of anti-feminism signals a set of deeper questions. What would it mean to bear these murders as anti-feminist, particularly for those of us for whom this naming—feminist—however fraught and complex, continues to compel our interest, commitment, energy, and identification? Are current socio-historical conditions insufficient to “our” bearing this loss? More specifically, if, following Butler (1997, 167), we understand “psychic and social domains [to be] produced in relation to each other,” then might it be argued that feminist discourses of men’s violence against women have constituted a late twentieth-century social domain in North America that allows for a grieving of the women lost but not of feminists lost?15
While it is largely beyond the scope of this chapter to meditate on such disturbing questions, tenth anniversary reporting offers some hints as to their pertinence. For example, references to the next generation of women engineering students suggest that they may experience the (anti)feminist legacy of the massacre as, at best, a disagreeable inheritance. As Andreane Meunier, an engineering student at the Poly in 1999, comments, “Sometimes we feel like saying, ‘Stop talking to us about it,’we want to live normally” (in Isabelle Hachey, La Presse, 7 December 1999, translation). “Normal,” in this instance, appears to rest on a distancing from the massacre—a distancing that, at its most pointed, refuses to address its public memory either as an identification with the victims and/or with feminist struggles against violence and/or with antifeminism as a particular force, or at a minimum, as an understanding of oneself as coming after the dead, as having inherited their deaths. After ten years of public memory, what I hear in this student’s comment is a sense of exasperation at this inheritance, at the continuing difficulties of constituting oneself as “just another engineering student” within the domain of the Poly. Rather than read this exasperation as an individual problem, I propose reading it as constituting a pressing question of cross-generational public memory.
How might this memory be sustained in the face of the ambivalences traced above? As Jane Davenport notes in her tenth anniversary report in the Montreal Gazette, “Ten years later, a new generation of female students at Ecole Polytechnique politely but firmly shrugs off the feminist label Lepine tried to impose on them” (5 December 1999). In addition to gesturing to issues of generational difference, this comment is noteworthy for its repetition of a logic that conflates feminism with anti-feminism, so that what is being “shrugged off” is not only Lepine’s deployment of “feminist” as an accusation but also any possibility of taking on “feminist” as a relevant and productive subject position. This is a stance that is perhaps more broadly signalled by the following observation in Le Devoir: “Other than those who took an active part in the commemorative activities (such as student representatives, or others), youths in their early twenties were quite scarce at yesterday’s ceremonies [in Montreal]” (7 December 1999, translation). While we cannot know to what extent such responses are connected to the ambivalence with which (anti)feminism is rendered in public memory of the massacre, it bears emphasizing that it is time to grapple with the recognition that anti-feminism is not outside of that memory but, rather, is an ambivalent marker of its very constitution.
In stark contrast, anti-feminism is a marked presence in tenth anniversary reporting, which generates from a proximity to the murders—a proximity that may be geographic (in that the news reports are in Montreal dailies), relational (in comments made by family members of those murdered), or the result of having been named by Lepine as a target (the key figure here is Francine Pelletier). The following comments are illustrative of this marking of anti-feminism as crucial to the memorial legacy of the killings:
“A man appeared in a classroom. He separated the men from the women, and he screamed that they were feminists. How could it be any clearer?” asks Therese Davieau. (quoted in Leduc, 7 December 1999, translation)
Some have accused feminists of trying to appropriate the event. Wrongly so, says Claire Roberge [stepmother of Genevieve Bergeron, one of the murdered
women]. “The massacre was addressed to them. The man who murdered our girls screamed ‘I hate feminists’ before he started firing. For me, feminism doesn’t mean taking men’s place, it’s placing women by their sides. That’s where our girls were!” (Sophie-Helene Lebeuf, Le Devoir, 6 December 1999, translation)16
So in this case [the massacre],it was not just another [act of] male aggression… he was picking a whole new category of women, that was the scary, scary thing, that anyone now, even the strongest ones. the new women champions could also be vulnerable. (Francine Pelletier on Newsworld Reports, 6 December 1999)
In the city of the murders, for those related to the women murdered and/or named as intended victims, I propose that it is far more difficult to emblemize the massacre, to produce the women murdered as “symbols” or “tragic representatives” of a broader violence against women. Symbolization requires a distance or a difference (geographic, relational, emotional) that was not readily available for those who felt themselves “appointed” (Felman and Laub 1992,2-4) to remember the massacre one woman at a time rather than as a collective representation of women. Fran^oise David, president of the Quebec Federation of Women, offers some support for this interpretation: “It was difficult for feminists to work on this [characterizing the event as an act of violence against women] and be respected in terms of public opinion… .In other provinces in Canada, it was quickly interpreted [in this way], but we were so caught up emotionally here. Quebec had a much more difficult time” (quoted in Jane Davenport, Montreal Gazette, 5 December 1999).17