The Knife Reading List: Feminism, Postcolonialism, And Beyond


As you’ve probably gathered, we really, really like The Knife’s new album Shaking the Habitual. We’ve also very much enjoyed the interviews they’ve been giving of late, mainly because they’ve been talking a lot about all the stuff they were reading over the course of the album — basically, a whole lot critical theory in the fields of gender theory, postcolonialism, and intersectionality. These are fascinating topics to investigate further, although perhaps somewhat daunting if you don’t know where to start. But never fear, we’ve got your back with this essential reading list!

Judith Butler — Undoing Gender

Veteran feminist theorist Butler is the name that The Knife have been dropping most liberally in interviews. Her vast body of work is quite intimidating if you don’t know where to start, but this slim volume is a fine introduction to her ideas — it’s relatively accessible and does a fascinating job of deconstructing social conceptions of gender, as well as examining how these conceptions affect the way we live our lives.

Key quote: “Sexuality does not follow from gender in the sense that what gender you ‘are’ determines what kind of sexuality you will ‘have.’ We try to speak in ordinary ways about these matters, stating our gender, disclosing our sexuality, but we are, quite inadvertently, caught up in ontological thickets and epistemological quandaries. Am I a gender after all? And do I ‘have’ a sexuality? Or does it turn out that the ‘I’ who ought to be bearing its gender is undone by being a gender, that gender is always coming from a source that is elsewhere and directed toward something that is beyond me, constituted in a sociality I do not fully author?”

Judith Lorber — “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender”

A classic essay on the fluidity and arbitrarily defined nature of gender that crops up on all sorts of women’s and gender studies syllabi. We’re guessing it would have featured in the required reading for the gender studies course Olof took at the University of Stockholm — happily, you can read it online here.

Key quote: “Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology — female and male procreative differences. But gender and sex are not equivalent, and gender as a social construction does not flow automatically from genitalia and reproductive organs, the main physiological differences of fe­males and males. In the construction of ascribed social statuses, physiological dif­ferences such as sex, stage of development, color of skin, and size are crude markers. They are not the source of the social statuses of gender, age grade, and race. Social statuses are carefully constructed through prescribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation, and enforcement.”

Wendy Brown — Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory

UC Berkeley professor Wendy Brown has written extensively on the fields of political science, feminism, and postcolonialism, meaning that she’s very much up the Dreijer/Dreijer Andersson alley. This is her first book, a highly influential study of how gender has affected — and continues to affect — politics.

Key quote: “More than any other kind of human activity, [politics]… has historically borne an explicitly masculine identity. [It] has been more exclusively limited to men … and has been more intensely, self-consciously masculine than most other social practices.”

Franz Fanon — The Wretched of the Earth

Fanon’s study of the Algerian War of Independence is a key work in the field of postcolonialism. His writing has been adopted by plenty of other bands over the years — Rage Against the Machine were particularly fond of Fanon, using the cover of The Wretched of the Earth on the sleeve of Evil Empire, and he’s also been referenced by Linton Kwesi-Johnson and Gil Scott-Heron, amongst others.

Key quote: “The basic confrontation which seemed to be colonialism versus anti-colonialism, indeed capitalism versus socialism, is already losing its importance. What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”

Gayatri Spivak — “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

This is a particularly important essay in the field of postcolonial feminism — it discusses how the Raj-era British abolition of the practice of the ritual self-immolation of Indian women on their husband’s funeral pyres was done without any reference or consultation with the women themselves, and extrapolates this topic into a discussion of the paternalistic nature of colonialism. You can read it here. (The writing’s a bit impenetrable, to be honest, and there’s a fair bit of assumed knowledge, but it’s worth persisting with, because the ideas discussed are fascinating.)

Key quote: “White men, seeking to save brown women from brown men, impose upon those women a greater ideological constriction by absolutely identifying… good wifehood with self-immolation on the husband’s pyre.”

Chandra Taplade Mohanty — Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity

Also on the idea of post-colonial feminist theory, this is a collection of essays that deals with the idea of democratizing feminism, viewing its ideas from perspectives beyond those of well-heeled white women. This brings us neatly to the idea of intersectionality, which we’ll discuss next. (You can read “Under Western Eyes,” perhaps the best known essay in the book, right here).

Key quote: “Western feminist scholarship cannot avoid the challenge of situating itself and examining its role in such a global economic and political framework. To do any less would be to ignore the complex interconnections between first and third world economies and the profound effect of this on the lives of women in these countries.”

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw — “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color”

As far as we’re aware, it was Crenshaw who first coined the term “intersectionality” (although, being as we’re not gender studies majors, we’d be quite happy to be proven wrong here). In any case, this 1991 essay is a clear and succinct introduction to the concept — you can read it here.

Key quote: “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite- that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring differences within groups frequently contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that frustrates efforts to politicize violence against women.”

Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

Karin’s spoken in several interviews about how the line “I’m telling you stories, trust me” in “A Tooth for an Eye” is lifted from The Passion.

Key quote: Um, well, “I’m telling you stories, trust me.”