Conceptual Cluster 6: Chora

by bradyburroughs

women only

A spatial exercise in bodies that matter

In “Woman, Chora, Dwelling,” Elizabeth Grosz writes on Luce Irigaray’s interpretation of Plato’s chora and its culpability in establishing a binary power structure, resulting in the oppressive treatment of women and notions of the feminine in architecture and the built environment. Despite a tendency, mainly in Irigaray’s analysis, but one that remains unproblematized in Grosz’s writing, to essentialize the category ‘women’, connecting it to femininity and maintaining a female/male binary with the assumption of a heterosexual norm, I acknowledge and sympathize with the challenge she poses in her conclusion. However, for me, the category ‘women’ (and ‘men’) could be exchanged with any number of categories of identity that make up our shifting subjectivities within unequal relations of power.

“The project ahead, or one of them, is to return women to those places from which they have been dis- or re-placed or expelled, to occupy those positions- especially those which are not acknowledged as positions- partly in order to show men’s invasion and occupancy of the whole of space, of space as their own and thus the constriction of spaces available to women, and partly in order to be able to experiment with and produce the possibility of occupying, dwelling, or living in new spaces, which in their turn help generate new perspectives, new bodies, new ways of inhabiting.” (Grosz 2000 (1991), p. 221)

Following, is a brief description and reflection of an instance that occurred during my 20% seminar, which was a first attempt at “occupying new spaces to help generate new perspectives, new bodies, new ways of inhabiting.”

Stage: A seminar is staged in a streetfront office space with two symmetrical rooms, one empty with only a large Persian carpet, candelabras and an extravagant sweets table offering glazed cherry muffins, fruit and tea. The other room also has a Persian carpet, but is furnished with diagonal rows of chairs while a clothes rack and mirror stand at the back.

Scene: Part-way through the enactment of a fictive guided tour of a row-house renovation, through a series of four rooms, participants are advised that the second room is designated as a “women-only” space and that anyone who does not consider themselves ‘woman-identified’ at that moment should proceed directly to the third room and wait for the rest of the group there.

Action: In this instant, everyone participating in this fiction is forced to make an assessment and choice of their own sex/gender identification, something that is perhaps otherwise unreflected and/or usually taken for granted. Why did most of the participants who were typically considered female, either biologically or through their gender expression, choose in that moment to be ‘women’, where they had free access to the tea and cakes, but were also asked to serve refreshments to the ‘men-identified’ individuals? In turn, why did the participants who were typically considered male, either biologically or through their gender expression, not choose to test being ‘woman-identified’ in order to gain access to the sweets table?

Reflection: This was a critical fiction, a theater of sorts, the perfect opportunity to test a role other than your own. Several participants mentioned afterwards that this thought occurred to them later, even several days later. They felt an immediate discomfort in being confronted with a choice that is usually uncontested, not an issue. Suddenly, they were asked to make a choice, define themselves and in doing so, to determine which spaces were accessible to them, along with certain privileges (i.e. the sweets table). Likewise, the choices they made had immediate material consequences, and they felt discomfort either in being excluded from a space, or in being forced into the stereotypical role of a ‘woman’ serving the ‘men’ their refreshments.

As Judith Butler writes, “To problematize the matter of bodies may entail an initial loss of epistemological certainty, but a loss of certainty is not the same as political nihilism. On the contrary, such a loss may well indicate a significant and promising shift in political thinking. This unsettling of “matter” can be understood as initiating new possibilities, new ways for bodies to matter.” (Butler 1993, p. 30) In confronting the participants of the seminar with the matter of their own bodies and by using separatism as a design tool, this moment of the enactment raises a point of contestation, although deeply sedimented and overlooked, and points to the possibilities of further exploration.


Judith Butler , ‘Bodies that Matter’, in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, London: Routledge, 1993

Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Women, Chora, Dwelling’ in Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, Iain Borden, Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, London: Routledge, 2000