Kategorie: English

Reading Social Reproduction into »Reading Capital« (Althusser)

One of the main problems with the disciplinary quality of contemporary academia is the way in which the fragmentation of disciplines carries over into a fragmentation of analysis. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned intellectual laborers everywhere, “interdisciplinarity” rarely succeeds in its aims, often remaining littlemore than the sum of its parts. Largely forbidden from the standpoint of today’s academia is an approach that totalizes and synthesizes, that addresses the global hidden domains of contemporary knowledge production and contemporary political action. While a theory of reading may not immediately seem to be the most obvious solution to the fragmentation of disciplines, it is clear that the concept of reading proposed by Althusser in Reading Capital is of enormous importance in the identification of “oversight” as a constitutive feature of intellectual practice—the identification of the process through which “one sees,” or understands as such. Any such attempt to identify what might be usually passed over in silence or simply missed is necessarily more open to criticisms along the same vein—this theory claims to identify the unconscious of the text but is itself unconscious of something else.

Yet for all the importance of Reading Capital in its attempt to identify the very way in which “incorrect” theories of reading have been unconsciously presupposed in earlier ways of approaching Marx’s Capital, it can certainly be said of the authors of Reading Capital that they too neglect, as Marx himself did, certain crucial concepts that in fact alter completely the way in which we might understand capitalism itself. While we might accept with Althusser that all readings are “guilty,” and not least guilty in the oversights of their own historical contingency, we might say that the time has come for a reading of Reading Capital that explicitly draws out the “absent” question of feminism. This is of course not to suggest that much work hasn’t already been done, both in terms of a feminist reading of Marx and a feminist critique or, more positively, use of the work of the various authors of Reading Capital. But there is much, positively, that can be done with the theory of reading presented in the text that allows for a more interesting double-reading of both Marx and Reading Capital. In this sense, then, the work of Ellen Rooney, which takes a polemical approach to the question of ideology, provides us with a useful model to ultimately move beyond the stasis of guilt. My brief chapter will attempt to adhere to Rooney’s description of “the irreducible difference of view, of terrain, that is reading,” an approach that “discloses double-reading as a hopelessly political and historical process, one that no text can escape, foreclose, or defend itself against.”1)Ellen Rooney, “Better Read Than Dead: Althusser and the Fetish of Ideology,” in “Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the Labor of Reading,” special issue, Yale French Studies, no. 88 (1995): 183–200. Rooney’s emphasis on the politics of reading informs here the suggestion that it is possible to read the gaps of Reading Capital as full gaps, rather than empty spaces.

This essay, while siding with the position that emphasizes the importance of Althusser’s theory of reading, seeks to examine both the possibilities the text opens up for a feminist reading of Marx via the use it has been made by feminist theorists since its publication, but also to point to oversights of the text itself, particularly concerning the concept of social reproduction. This latter point will be made of both Althusser and, to a lesser extent, Marx himself, based on a reexamination of feminist responses to Reading Capital and of my own argument in direct response to the text. The chapter will be divided into two sections. The first will examine previous feminist responses to Althusser and Reading Capital, particularly the work of Rooney, the second to identifying the conceptual areas neglected by the text directly. It is a short intervention into thinking about the limitations of the model of reading and the model of reproduction proposed by Reading Capital, but hopefully something minor will have been opened up here.

Feminist Responses to Reading Capital

The relative (or rather complete lack) of references to feminism, gender, or women in Reading Capital has nevertheless not prevented some feminists taking up ideas from the text, particularly regarding a theory of reading. Nevertheless, as Rooney notes, by far the dominant use of Althusser stems from a feminist rereading of his theory of ideology, neglecting the framework and resources of Reading Capital: “The reception of Louis Althusser’s work has fetishized his theory of ideology and virtually overlooked, left unread, his theory and his practice of reading.”2)Rooney, 183. It is this theory of reading that Rooney (and I too here) wish to resurrect, with certain feminist caveats. We can certainly find much evidence of Rooney’s claim as regards the use of ideology. Hennessy’s work in the early 1990s for example, makes a positive case for understanding Althusser’s ideas in relation to feminist standpoint theory, avoiding the pitfalls of a transparent appeal to experience without understanding the constructed aspects of subject positions: By “foregrounding the material and productive role of ideology in social arrangements, Althusser’s theory of ideology stimulated developments in postmodern Marxist and feminist formulations of the discursive construction of the subject.”3)Rosemary Hennessy, “Women’s Lives/Feminist Knowledge: Feminist Standpoint as Ideology Critique,” Hypatia 8, no. 1 (winter 1993): 14–34, quotation on 21. Gimenez in the 2000s gets closer to Reading Capital than other feminist readings, pointing to the usefulness of the methodological insights of this collective work for a sociological understanding of Marx’s methodology: “I have explored the relevance of Marx’s method as developed by Marx and elaborated by Althusser and Godelier, to identify the non-observable structures and social relations underlying the invisible patterns of interaction between men and women that place the latter in a subordinate position.”4)Martha E. Gimenez, “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited,” in “Marxist Feminist Thought Today,” special issue, Science and Society 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 11–32, quotation on 13n5. The work on ideology and the project of Reading Capital is thus seen as a useful supplement to a feminist approach that seeks to approach social interactions in a materialist way. But how might a return to the claims about reading be put in the service of a contemporary Marxist-feminist project?

Rooney’s work provides a highly fruitful way of understanding both how Althusser’s theory of reading is useful on its own terms (particularly for avoiding ideological conceptions of his own theory of ideology as she suggests happened in the reception of his work),5)Rooney, “Better Read Than Dead,” 183: “His theory of reading actually helps to resolve some of the very theoretical and political difficulties that many commentators on his theory of ideology find so troubling.” but also how the theory can be turned against itself, not merely for the sake of some of sort of twist-in-the-tale game, but as a genuine attempt to reinsert, to revive, a particular concept, namely reproduction, back into a Marxist and materialist conception of capitalism itself. She is, along the way, critical of other types of feminist attempts to “use” Althusser, particularly if their focus is primarily on the problem of ideology (she identifies “those elements within feminist and Marxist-feminist discourse that have found ideology a useful way to speak about gender and the Althusserian subject of ideology a plausible figure for woman.”6)Rooney, 192n12. We must understand reading here as a broader political process, not the bourgeois model of the individuated reader, sitting alone with a book. It is reading that permits access to knowledge, because it allows access to its own effect, however open-ended and historically specific that process is:

Knowledge is produced only as an effect of reading practices, and this most emphatically includes knowledge of ideology. Althusser’s theory (and his own practice) of reading makes it painfully clear that this is a task that we may very well fail (will repeatedly fail) to complete.7)Rooney, 186.

Reading is a “guilty, dynamic, flawed, open-ended, historically contingent, and wholly political practice of displacements reading as antifetishism.”8)Rooney, 185. What is clear about the Reading Capital project for all its confessionals, is its neglect, even relative to Marx, of the concept of social reproduction. Rooney touches on this when she notes that the stress on ideology as form, as eternal, serves to obscure the materialist emphasis on actual reproduction (in the broadest sense—everything it takes to keep capitalism going, from the reproduction of the species, to feeding, clothing, and healthcare, all the work that forms the backdrop to waged labor). By speaking purely of the reproduction of ideology we run the risk of neglecting the major processes that sustain capitalism: “The erasure of the feminine contribution to this process [the reproduction of labor power as such] is far from trivial; the history of Marxist feminist discourse on the family wage, domestic labor, and class itself is the arduous history of rethinking [the] proletarian and his children to the nth power.”9)Rooney, 190 Rooney argues that Althusser “ironically” was indeed precisely attempting to move away from such empirical questions in his discussion of ideology as a more psychoanalytically inflected framework for understanding the impossibility of getting beyond certain structures. But we can argue that the emphasis on ideology alone goes too far—a return to reading at least leaves open the possibility that we are reading from within antagonism, guiltily, problematically:

The articulation of an “unposed” or “absent” question, the question that the reading (the reader) establishes as unthinkable within the text’s own problematic. “Symptomatic” reading is precisely the production of this absent question, which figures the political and rhetorical relation—or more accurately, conflict—between a text and its reader, between readers, between positions. To read is to give form to this conflict, to pose the question that gives the problematic its structure. But the symptom is not something that afflicts only the texts of our opponents; our own symptom is visible as our guilt, the guilt that our reading will expose rather than conceal, the guilt that opens the text. Therein lies the very possibility of a politics of reading.10)Rooney, 187

Reading in this sense is unnatural. It cuts against Hegelian and biblical wholes, teleology, expressionist kernels. A feminist “reading” of capitalism is unnatural because it identifies both its own position as one taken against usual accounts of reproduction, but also because it articulates what is not said: the absent question of capitalism in this sense is the question of reproduction. It is reading conceived in the broad sense that, as Rooney concludes: “reading is risky because it is always a relation among readings and readers, a productive and political relation, but productive precisely in that it intervenes in the process of reproduction and thus cannot be guaranteed.”11)Rooney, 194 While Rooney precisely identifies that it is on the question of reproduction that the relationship between reading and ideology turns, there is much more to be said about what Althusser and indeed much of Marxism itself doesn’t say about the role of women and gender in the formation and perpetuation of capital. This requires a doubling, maybe even tripling of the reading (the absence within an absence within an absence), of rethinking countertraditions that have themselves become traditions.

The Ghosts of Reading Capital

So, guilty reading in mind, what unposed and absent question are we asking of Reading Capital here? We are perhaps dealing here with questions that are semiposed and barely answered on multiple levels. Althusser asks, in a discussion of the classical economists and Marx on the value of labor the following: “what is the maintenance of labour? What is the reproduction of labour?”12)Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière, Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016), 20 Althusser argues that Marx precisely sees what the classical economists do not see, namely that the entire terms of the question need to be altered: “Marx can pose the unuttered question, simply by uttering the concept present in an unuttered form in the emptiness in the answer, sufficiently present in this answer to reproduce and reveal these emptinesses as the emptiness of a presence.”13)Althusser, 21 Marx’s reposed question, based on a complete restructuring of the entire framework, is, according to Althusser, “what is the value of labour-power?”14)Althusser, 22 But while it is true that the classical economists obscured the question of labor, they at least raised in the abstract the question of reproduction itself, outside of the epistemological concept of production (the production of knowledge by different domains) that Althusser wants to interrogate. Oddly then, the vaguer question about how labor is maintained and reproduced might in fact be the harder one to answer, not because it is misposed, but because the level on which it is asked is frequently misidentified. Reproduction is a question often unseen precisely because it suffers from an overabundance of meanings. As Lise Vogel puts it in Marxism and the Oppression of Women:

Problems in defining the concept of reproduction derive from its wide range of potential meanings. Felicity Edholm, Olivia Harris and Kate Young suggest that three levels of analysis might be distinguished: social reproduction, or the reproduction of the conditions of production; reproduction of the labour-force; and human or biological reproduction. While the suggestion has been helpful, the issue of the relationship among the different aspects remains.15)Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2013 [1983]), 28.

A Marxist answer to the question of reproduction has to attempt clarity on this question. Althusser’s reposing of the ground of the classical economists arguably restricts the question of reproduction to the second of these aspects, reproduction of the labor force. But this is precisely to ignore all the work that exists in order to keep life going, waged and unwaged. The erasure and undermining of women’s role in this is a central feature of capitalism. As Silvia Federici puts it: “Through my involvement in the women’s movement I realized that the reproduction of human beings is the foundation of every economic and political system.”16)Silvia Federici, Preface, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, CA: pm Press, 2012, 2. “Reproduction” here should be read in the broadest possible sense as the “complex of activities and relations by which our life and labour are daily reconstituted,”17)Federici, 5. that is to say, everything that makes life possible in the first place and everything that continues to sustain it. Reproduction in this broad sense is where the contradictions inherent in alienated labor are “most explosive,” according to Federici.

In Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women, she describes the convoluted and intense struggles over determining whether unwaged or domestic labor produced value, and could therefore be considered “productive” or “unproductive.”18)Vogel, 22. The wages for housework debates raised the broader question of social reproduction and questioned Marx’s position on the establishment of the wage level. It seems that today at least two of the positions that were staked in this debate have some kind of strange genealogical resonance today. On the one hand, the autonomist Marxist idea that domestic labor creates surplus value, either “directly or indirectly” as Kathi Weeks puts it in her recent The Problem with Work, and the related claim that there should be economic recognition of the value this work produces, not in order to valorize housework as such, but to make a broader point about how the wage relation operates within capitalism, and how it depends on vast quantities of unpaid female labor.19)Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 97. As Federici puts it in Caliban and the Witch, summing up the earlier debates:

A social system of production that does not recognise the production and reproduction of the worker as a social-economic activity, and a source of capital accumulation, but mystifies it instead as a natural resource or a personal service, while profiting from the wageless condition of the labour involved.20)Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 8.

But how might we put Federici and others’ insights regarding the definition of reproduction in a Marxist-feminist way back in contact with the Althusserian project? A useful clue comes from a review of one of Althusser’s books, Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire, by Federici. The review is from 1969, slightly before we position many of the debates around social reproduction, but already Federici is very clear. She writes: “The question here is: how do we handle the past? If it is true, as Althusser reiterates, that prior to Marx every ‘production’ is merely ideological, why should we study it at all?”21)Silvia Federici, “Review of Louis Althusser, Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” Telos, no. 4 (fall 1969): 236–40, quotation on 237. Federici’s criticism of Althusser’s reluctance to historicize reproduction is crucial to the feminist attempt to move away from the kind of analysis presented in Reading Capital, and Federici makes it very clear that Althusser’s attempt to make Marxism a “science,” by appealing to forerunners in the shape of Montesquieu and others, is predicated on false, generalizing assertions: “Althusser fails first and foremost because he chooses only a part of Montesquieu’s assertions to constitute his theoretical ‘praxis.’”22)Federici, “Review of Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” 238.  What impact do these generalizing, non-or-ahistorical claims mean for any understanding of the relationship between production and reproduction, labor and sex? Federici claims that Althusser’s inability to determine what the motor of the dialectic might be for Montesquieu (for example, does law precede justice or vice versa?) leads to a curiously non-Marxist approach to the problem, and thus Althusser wastes “valuable space and ink on a problem which, for a Marxist, could easily find its solution in the 3rd thesis of Feuerbach.”23)Federici, 239. “Structuralist-Marxists,” of which Althusser is the leading light, suffer, thinks Federici, from reading everything “within their own context.”24)Federici, 239. . This closed reading is very clearly in tension with the model of reading complicated in the discussion of the topic in Reading Capital. Are there resources in yet another theory of reading that could reconcile the structuralist-Marxist and Marxist-feminist readings?

In the meantime, I am suggesting, via Federici and Federici’s reading of Althusser, that the question of reproduction, reposed by Althusser via Marx, does not solve the complex interaction between social reproduction, the reproduction of labor power and biological reproduction, and indeed, perhaps further confuses the question. In Reading Capital, Etienne Balibar devotes an entire section to reproduction, but remains strangely opaque on the relationship between these kinds of reproduction, all crucial to the reproduction of capital. In his analysis, there are three ways in which a theory of reproduction ensures a triple continuity: firstly, the link between different economic subjects, which in fact move together and are intertwined, where the parts of the whole are more than their sum; secondly, “the permanence of the non-economic conditions of the production process,” where law is especially singled out, and thirdly, reproduction that ensures the “successive continuity of production itself”25)Althusser, 426–27 , which is the basis for all the rest. It is on the third point that Balibar slightly mystifies the question, although unconsciously referring to it on another level:

Production cannot be stopped… it is the materiality of the elements which supports the continuity, but it is the concept of reproduction which expresses its specific form, because it envelops the different (differential) determinations of the material. Through each of the aspects that I have invoked, the concept expresses merely one and the same pregnancy of the structure which presents a “well-bound” history.26)Balibar, 425

Taking a quote from Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, Balibar agrees that “reproduction appears to be the general form of permanence of the general conditions of production, which in the last analysis englobe the whole social structure.” What Marxist feminists strove to do was to begin from this question of the “whole social structure,” but here Balibar points to this as a potential site of analysis before retreating back toward a more narrowly economic reading. Even in the section “The Reproduction of the Social Relations,” Balibar avoids the possibility of beginning with the discussion of what is at stake in the “perpetuation” of the worker, that “absolutely necessary condition,” as Marx puts it, for the capitalist mode of production to function:

The concept of reproduction is thus not only the concept of the “consistency” of the structure, but also the concept of the necessary determination of the movement of production by the permanence of that structure; it is the concept of the permanence of the initial elements in the very functioning of the system, hence the concept of the necessary conditions of production, conditions which are precisely not created by it. This is what Marx calls the eternity of the mode of production: “This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation (Verewigung) of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production.”27)Balibar 440, citing Capital vol. 1, 716

Perhaps what is ultimately missing in the entire approach or reading in Reading Capital is an openness to the question of what “comes first” and what is and is not “eternal.” Marxist-feminism, by opening up the question of sex historically and pointing out that reproduction can be understood “in the last instance” not only in an economic way, but in a way that takes into account the entire conditions for the “perpetuation of the worker.”

Coda

The concept of reading that Reading Capital announces is an enormously productive one for feminist readings of Marx that seek to supplement and expand on Marx’s analysis while not remaining hidebound by its gaps and absences. The closeness of Reading Capital’s “guilty” reading disguises what is perhaps most productive about its model of reading. As Vogel puts it: “Scattered throughout the pages of Capital, Marx’s comments on women’s situation, on the family, on divisions of labour according to sex and age, and on the reproduction of the working class have never been sufficiently appreciated by students of the so-called woman-question.”28)Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 62. What the discussion of social reproduction does is open up the possibility, once again, of a true meeting of Marxism and feminism to begin again to answer the complex questions of sex and value, and the relationship between structure and history, in the twenty-first century.

Dieser Beitrag erschien zuerst in Nick Nesbitt’s Anthologie The Concept in Crisis © 2017 Duke University Press. Online: Viewpoint Magazine, Nr. 5, Social Reproduction

Repost mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Autorin.

Fußnoten   [ + ]

1. Ellen Rooney, “Better Read Than Dead: Althusser and the Fetish of Ideology,” in “Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the Labor of Reading,” special issue, Yale French Studies, no. 88 (1995): 183–200.
2. Rooney, 183.
3. Rosemary Hennessy, “Women’s Lives/Feminist Knowledge: Feminist Standpoint as Ideology Critique,” Hypatia 8, no. 1 (winter 1993): 14–34, quotation on 21.
4. Martha E. Gimenez, “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited,” in “Marxist Feminist Thought Today,” special issue, Science and Society 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 11–32, quotation on 13n5.
5. Rooney, “Better Read Than Dead,” 183: “His theory of reading actually helps to resolve some of the very theoretical and political difficulties that many commentators on his theory of ideology find so troubling.”
6. Rooney, 192n12.
7. Rooney, 186.
8. Rooney, 185.
9. Rooney, 190
10. Rooney, 187
11. Rooney, 194
12. Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Rancière, Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016), 20
13. Althusser, 21
14. Althusser, 22
15. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2013 [1983]), 28.
16. Silvia Federici, Preface, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, CA: pm Press, 2012, 2.
17. Federici, 5.
18. Vogel, 22.
19. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 97.
20. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 8.
21. Silvia Federici, “Review of Louis Althusser, Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” Telos, no. 4 (fall 1969): 236–40, quotation on 237.
22. Federici, “Review of Montesquieu, la politique et la histoire,” 238. 
23. Federici, 239.
24. Federici, 239. 
25. Althusser, 426–27 
26. Balibar, 425
27. Balibar 440, citing Capital vol. 1, 716
28. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 62.

A Collaborative Glossary / From Where I Stand

From Where I Stand (FWIS) is a collaboration between Laura Kowalewski, Oona Lochner, and Isabel Mehl. They met in 2016 as PhD-candidates at the DFG Research Training Group „Cultures of Critique“ at Leuphana University. Immediately, they started a dialogue on feminist art/writing and the question of how to keep politically engaged practices political when writing about them.

The workshop series “Feminist Art/Writing: Genealogies, Subjectivities, and Critique” is the first collaborative project of FROM WHERE I STAND and is held in the context of the Research Training Group “Cultures of Critique” at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. For our first workshop, #1 Collaboration, we invited UK-based scholars Victoria Horne (VH) and Amy Tobin (AT) as well as Jessica Gysel and Katja Mater from the magazine collective Girls Like Us (GLU). The following ABC takes up some of the core terms and themes that came up in our discussion.

 

A – Archive

We always had an archival section in the magazine and we always try to play with it and to look for more and see what’s out there. In an interview with the caretaker of the Lesbian History Archives in New York [we talked] a lot about the transmission of the material and how to activate it. How do you make an archive come alive? How do you have people working with your archive? (GLU)

Our writing about feminist or women’s art/writing follows the idea to make and keep it visible. To fight for their place in the histories of art, but even more so, to make accessible their ideas and aesthetics to a community of like-minded art thinkers and art workers who will weave them into their own projects, ideas, and histories. (FWIS)

 

B – Body

The single, singular body as the very basis for a “we”. The female body has been judged in history, so we need to take back control of our bodies. We support and display bodies in their attempts to break free from descriptions and shows a variety of and reflection on sexualized, racialized or optimized bodies as well as the aging body. (GLU)

The Body
as Actor and Screen
as Medium and Reality
as signifié and signifiant
as Subject and Object
as Body and Mind
as interwoven with the World in Flesh
The Body
is the trigger of power relations and their opponent.
is a battlefield – for the struggle between mechanisms of power and techniques of resistance. (FWIS)

C – Community!

Collectivism is political and organized. There are rules.
Collaboration is more informal and transitory. It operates tactically. (VH)

The current visual culture of consumerism creates exclusion, uniformity and privilege. We want to radically shift this paradigm by building a visual language of inclusion, marginal voices and collective decision-making. (GLU)

We are a collaboration.
We want to build and be part of a community.
We want it to be rooted in sisterhood across all genders, classes, and ethnicities.
We have a long way to go and want to start here.
(P.S.: Working collectively also means dealing with money. Who gets paid for what and how?)
(FWIS)

 

D – DIY

For each issue we create a flag, often showing two circles in different sizes and a triangle – depicting the (naturally asymmetric) female body – supplemented by the GLU logo. This hands-on practice can be seen as homage to #Heresies magazine. #Heresies was a feminist journal on art and politics, published from 1977 to 1993 by a collective in New York and was often handmade because of a lack of resources. We support the idea of learning self-help and self-healing to break free from dependences. Watch out for our workshops on topics like DJ-ing for women or batik and tie-dyeing. (GLU)

We see the need for change in the global society and act upon it with our humble means. Aside from organizing our workshop series on feminist art/writing, we experiment with Wikipedia edit-a-thons at our university and with other ways to support a broader and de-professionalized/deskilled knowledge (production) on women and their achievements. (FWIS)

 

E – Ethnic Diversity

We highlight ethnic diversity by working with people and collectives like #Strange Fruit – a Dutch queer collective working on their double marginalization within both their ethnic and gay communities – or #Veteranas & Rucas – an online archive for a Latino and Chicano community of SoCal from the ‘90s and earlier – or a group of black gender nonconforming dancers performing inspired by Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa. (GLU)

As white women we are still struggling for a position and for strategies toward ethnic diversity. We feel unauthorized to speak for people of other ethnicities, but need to speak with them. We want to collaborate to learn and to exchange, without expecting to be a part of something we are not (en)able(d) to. (FWIS)

 

F – Forms

For instance Joan Braderman in the first [#Heresies] issues’ collective editorial describes being prodded by her “sister-editors” to write “something personal”. “They chided me my rhetorical style” she writes “and my obsessive? Academic? Commitment to making ‘complete’ arguments. ‘Who are you in all that,’ they asked.” She responds by listing the difficulties of “doing all the things that need to be done” from writing a dissertation to doing the laundry. (AT, paraphrased)

I feel that it is my commitment: to create forms that are maybe not in the world yet, but that give people opportunities to expand the way they can function or the way that they are: to find new forms where people can identify and be different. — fashion teacher Pascale Gatzen. (GLU)

We search for diverse forms to channel knowledge. The disruptions that may appear as purely formal can subvert a whole system of knowledge production. Knowledge can wear various coats. It can come across like a star-spangled sweater worn by Hélène Cixous or as an old cashmere pullover in camel or navy or black (Chris Kraus on the Semiotext(e) house style). Style can be Renata Adler-like: aphoristic and analytical, or cool and academic with Susan Sontag. And from time to time the forms need to re-mingle in the whirlpool of speaking to be re-used and defamiliarised over and over again. So that forms make us listen and not turn away. (FWIS)

 

G – Gentle Gender

From the 1970s on, the mother collective of #Heresies magazine prompted an exploration of the complexities of feminist political identification. It gave voice to women of different sexualities and constructed solidarity despite and through their differences. (AT)

When writing feminist art history, we must not only write the history of its women practitioners but also examine the representation of gender historically. In doing so, we are able to amplify our presently comprehension of sex and sexuality. (VH)

Gentle gender is a stance towards the inclusion of transgender/transbody people as well as a consciousness and acceptance of the many different expressions of gender identity that exist today. (GLU)

 

H – Humor

Humor as way to react to errors: When one GLU issue arrived with the folding hiding the portrait of an author partly, the next issue had a vagina in the middle spread, so you had to fold it open to see it. The interrelation between the haptic and the visual established a different, spontaneous form of interaction. (GLU)

 

I – Institutions

In and of itself, as we know, collaboration is not an unconditional instrument of institutional critique. … Feminists have framed their collaborative work as oppositional to art’s individualist ideology. The question for us, today, is whether collaboration still retains any transformative power upon a much altered institutional terrain. Collaborative practices may create pockets of resistance but can they change the terms of this system? (VH)

As collaborative group that began at university, we are facing the capitalization of creative and academic practices that turns collectivism into teamwork, solidarity into synergies and conflicting interests into win-win-situations. Yet, we want to stay optimistic and joyful about the potentials of collaboration: Using the institutional structures that serve us while struggling not to be sucked up into the neoliberal logic. Turning the pressure of precarity into parasitism. (FWIS)

 

L – Long-term

The writing of feminist history is a form of feminist maintenance – a maintenance of knowledge – which is significant, for, as Lisa Baraitser notes, “the word ‘maintenance’ contains within itself a dual temporal structure”. On the one hand, it refers to routine “durational practices that keep ‘things’ going”; on the other, “to maintain is also to keep buoyant”. So there might even be a form of collaboration across time, with artists and authors one has not met. (VH)

From the beginning, we discussed the durational options of From Where I Stand. We want to create a room of open exchange and of understanding. For that to come into existence we realized the need to think and feel about From Where I Stand as a long-term project. (FWIS)

 

M – Manifesto (Monica Bonvicini suggested at a panel the other day to from now on call it “Sheifesto”)

„Girls Like Us is more or less female. Girls Like Us talks to each other and asks questions about possible futures, ways of living and sharing. Girls Like Us is an investigation in the form of a magazine. Girls Like Us is a feast for the eyes. Girls Like Us loves reading.“ (GLU)

 

N – Network

We first organized a workshop on “Writing Feminist Art Histories” that later developed into a supportive and critical network of feminist researchers. It follows the history of feminist knowledge production (like in consciousness-raising groups, reading groups and other collectives from the 1970s onwards) and aims to discuss the difficulties and merits in encountering the mutable strategies of feminist historiography and to collectivise this epistemological challenge. (VH/AT, paraphrased)

We often asks artists that have a relationship, link or connection to their team and the upcoming issue to create something. We often work together with and present various female/feminist collaborations and networks like #Røst, #The Knife or #Hacking with Care. These collaborations often surmount long distances and function digitally and virtually. (GLU)

 

P – Polyphony

I have no doubt that “histories” can appear more inclusive and can suggest a plurality of experience that’s attractive to collaborative participants. However, the aim for my personal research is to comprehend feminist history in its totality – and this can be thought of as affirmatively countering the forces of fragmentation and dispersal that characterise neoliberal structures. (VH)

For us it is super important that different generations of women meet each other, learn from each other, transmit information and knowledge … we’ve been doing a lot of research also towards interfeminist collectives. (GLU)

We want to allow our assumptions to be questioned, our ways of thinking to be challenged. We want to learn to endure disaccords, hoping that a variety of voices will form into community whose knowledge production, while being expressly contingent, still dares to make bold claims. (FWIS)

 

R – Role of the Researcher

It is the role of the researcher to find voices that were left unheard, that are hidden behind the marketed and widely circulated canon, market mechanisms, and its exclusions and blind spots. It is the obligation of the researcher to dig deeper and to bring visibility to the yet unrepresented. (AT, paraphrased)

When planning our panel, we realized, and also addressed this during the workshop, that we were seven white women coming together to discuss forms of collaboration. As we are frequently irritated by white men who, without feeling irritated at all, still discuss “universal issues” between their “universal minds”, we do not want to stay at this point. Rather, we hope to establish within the framework of FROM WHERE I STAND a diverse community that will be a place of dialogue and collaboration. (FWIS)

 

S – Support

“Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves … the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.” — Sara Ahmed. Shared historical outlook – producing common ground / Not eliding differences but claiming commonalities. (VH)

Vigorously experimenting with the idea of how we as a community may support each other. (GLU)

Sitting the front rows when my friend gives a presentation. Sharing with my sister my knowledge, my resources and time as well as my honest criticism, my doubts and insecurities. Creating support structures between friends who could be colleagues who could be friends. (FWIS)

 

T – Trial and Error

Dropouts, failed groups and expelled members punctuate the history of sisterhood. How did these failures actually shape feminism, allowing it to expand, but also to maintain a twofold structure as an international network of support, comprised of small, intimate groups? (AT)

One person we interviewed was really disgusted by the layout we used for her name. She couldn’t read it. So sometimes, making a magazine, you don’t always make friends. You try, you really try with the best intentions. And before we print something we always send it to the people we interviewed. But sometimes we just miss. (GLU)

Let me fall, and let me cry over my pain before helping me back up and pointing to the bright side of my failure. (FWIS)

 

W – Work Modes

Collaborative work puts the individual under pressure; it requires some kind of dissolution of the ego. (AT)

People often ask, how do you work collectively? For us it’s a lot of online tools, working simultaneously. We try for every issue to meet physically at least once, but it’s really a lot over the phone and then we make these maps… each issue kind of kicks off by mapping. (GLU)

We are still struggling to find a rhythm. How many meetings does it take to make this work while juggling our various responsibilities? What can we do over the phone? And when we meet, can we really work over lunch? We’ve come a far way in figuring out modes of collective writing, of offering and accepting criticism. And it has only been a few months. Way to go. (FWIS)

 

Z – Zitations

Name your sources. Forerunners. Accomplices. The people you feel inspired by. Give credit to the people who enable you to do what you want. Be aware of whom you quote and what voices you help being heard. In her latest book, Sara Ahmed decided not to quote any white men. Although this decision is disputable, it stresses the still existent inequality in discourse. Would any white man explicitly give reference to the fact of not quoting any women?

Thinking is solitary, Ingeborg Bachmann said. And for this particular statement we might disagree with her. Thinking happens in dialogue. Thinking means telling one story, out of many possible ones. As Arundhati Roy put it in her famous „Come September Speech“, in 2002: “John Berger, that most wonderful writer, once wrote: ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.’ There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as a story-teller who wants to share her way of seeing.” (FWIS)

 

The collectives and collaborations that inspired our conversation were many, some of them are mentioned in this article:

#Heresies #Strange Fruit #The Knife #Veteranas & Rucas #Røst #Hacking with Care

 

 

The neoliberal economics of family life

The rapidity with which the Trump administration has set about dismantling what remains of publicly-funded institutions and facilities in the US begs some crucial questions: what was the prior state of welfare provision in American society? What battles have been fought on questions of social security over the last 50 years, and what was the public policy landscape that contributed to his victory?

Melinda Cooper’s new book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, plays an invaluable role in filling in this historical background from the 1960s onwards, outlining and explaining the forces that underpin contemporary anti-welfarism and the increasingly polarised nature of the USA.

Cooper documents the array of economists and public policy advisors from the Christian right, the harder edges of the neoliberal spectrum, and even some progressive democrats, all of whom have worked to undo a social security system that they perceived as inducing dependency, driving up inflation, and—with welfare payments in their pockets—freeing sectors of the unemployed from their obligations. Her painstaking account also throws light on the ways in which the right has succeeded in one of its key objectives by finding common ground between neoliberals—who typically endorse the singular freedoms of individual choice and personal responsibility unfettered by the state—and social neo-conservatives (many of whom it transpires were once on the left), who adhere to a more traditional or paternalistic notion of social obligations.

The effect of this consensus has been to reduce the legitimacy of government-backed welfare and social security provision by re-focusing attention on the family as the foundation of all social assistance. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize-winning economist, understood that this shift involved appealing to the ‘altruistic’ bonds of kinship so that the family unit undertakes what organized welfare systems might otherwise be expected to do. The love and emotional attachment of family bonds, he believed, leads people to care for each other outside of the market values that prevail in all other domains of life.

Feminists have long highlighted the effects of this philosophy in terms of unpaid domestic labour, but for Becker such labour is an exploitable resource that can be used to reduce the costs of welfare. Families should provide or pay for their own elder care, health care, and college education for their children. But how is this to happen when resources for most families are so scarce and wages are stagnating?  Becker argued that expanding access to cheap credit was the key, enabling people to purchase care while guarding against inflation.  Cooper sees this as a shift to ‘asset-based welfare’ or even ‘democratised debt.’ If low and middle-income families are enmeshed in debt from the cradle to the grave, their members are more likely to be beholden to each other.

This steering of the family into a pivotal place in the nation’s economy has not been without difficulty. It has been the method of choice on the part of the right as they seek to undo many of the gains which second-wave feminism set out to achieve in the US from the late 1960s. It is also the right’s answer to the dilemma posed by the un-viability of ‘moral majority’ nostalgia for placing women back in the home. As women maintain a steadfast presence in the new service-led labour markets, and as working class men’s skills are eroded and wage stagnation kicks in thanks to the monetary policies of finance-led neo-liberalism, the family must somehow cohere as an entity, as often as not through the mountains of debt they now have to accrue to cover the cost of mortgages, childcare, college education for their children, and privatised health insurance.

By appealing to the family as the moral base of all wider social values, a desperate horizon of respectability emerges. Unlike in more overtly feminist times, divorce and singleness reek of social failure, so there is a double bind: sheer dependency on each other for care within the kinship unit (especially in times of hardship or illness), and also a loss of status or social worth for those who fall outside of these familial networks of support. As Cooper shows, these strategies for shoring up the family as an economic unit were also focused directly on the management of the African American population.

Dating back to the right wing reaction against civil rights, the welfare activism of the War on Poverty, and the community engagement of the Black Panthers, the pathologisation of the black family deflected attention away from segregation and the pervasiveness of structural racism which reached into every corner of life, severely limiting the ability of black men and women to maintain their livelihoods—never mind settling down to the ideal of life as a nuclear family in the suburbs. What Cooper emphasises is just how wide the political consensus has become across the male-dominated political spectrum from left to right about the dangers to society that are apparently posed by a perceived loss of ‘family values’ through, for example, divorce and single parenthood. Feminism is also blamed for devaluing the meaning and quality of love.

Nor is it just economists from the University of Chicago like Becker who have led this charge. Cooper draws attention to the influence of European leftist social scientists such as Zygmunt BaumanUlrich Beck, and most notably the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. According to Cooper, Streeck implies that in its bid for equal pay and flexible working arrangements, middle-class feminism has more or less shunted working-class men out of their jobs, thereby depriving working class women of a reliable breadwinner and destroying the stability of the family unit. Even Karl Polanyi—currently  favoured by so many social theorists—took  refuge in a return to community and state protection in the form of the family wage and its associated securities.

Cooper includes Nancy FraserLuc  Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in her list of progressives who look to restore the family as the foundation of welfare. In one way or another all of these writers see the unsettling of the male breadwinner model and the battles fought by feminists to free themselves of dependency on male earning power as contributing to the social ills of today, including those wrought by neo-liberalism and its flexible labour markets. Fraser’s account of feminist complicity in this process is well known, though also hotly disputed.

Finally there is the sheer vindictive cruelty that Tea Party adherents and other far-right elements display towards ‘the poor.’ According to Cooper, the idea that the uninsured should be ‘left to die’ has earlier precedents. For example, neoliberal economists calculated that AIDs sufferers saved the state money by dying since many were poor and unemployed, and hence unproductive. And because the sexual behaviour of gay men who contracted the illness entailed a calculated risk, they themselves should pay the costs. Cooper gently chides the LGBTQ activist group Queer Nation in this context for seeking the safety and respectability of gay marriage as a way for loving couples to look after each other, and gain inheritance and property rights in the process.

Cooper’s book leaves us with a bleakly realistic account of the (often Christian) rightwing patriarchal forces whose resoundingly angry response to feminist and pro-welfare activism has sought to stifle the impact of the women’s movement from the 1960s onwards, especially in regard to economic, racial and reproductive freedoms. One might assume that similar ideas are at work in the Trump administration today. Under the weight of such antagonism the tenacity of feminism is nothing short of miraculous, and Cooper’s sombre analysis serves to remind the pro-feminist left and the women’s movement of how few in number we are, and have been.

However, against this background Cooper’s contribution leaves two questions unanswered.  The first is that, if the family unit is here to stay, what kind of feminist politics are required to ensure equality for all its members—for  women, grandmothers, daughters, young women and girls as well as men?

Second, as is so often the case, when the family becomes over-burdened and incapable of dealing with the crises such close quarters typically generate, how can we re-imagine ‘alternative kinship’ as a potentially-positive response? One of the most compelling arguments from feminism in the late 1970s was that bonds of kinship by no means guarantee love and protection. Instead, they may entail violence, misery and suffering. For many girls and young women at that time, being caught in a family-based trap of gendered assumptions and requirements regarding marriage and motherhood led to angry outbursts of feminist rage and the desire to escape the family altogether.

That rage led to a different focus on friendship, and on finding ways of developing female support networks. Since then, feminist and LGBTQ struggles have changed the way we look at kinship by including an increasing range of ‘families of choice.’ But as Cooper shows, what really matters is who picks up the tab for social reproduction, for childcare and education, and for what befalls us in ill-health, old age, and periods of unemployment. There are no equitable, healthy or sustainable answers to that question inside the family.

(Repost von Open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/angela-mcrobbie/neoliberal-economics-of-family-life)

Understanding Trumpism

Over 15 years ago I studied a local Christian right campaign against gay/lesbian rights in the Pacific Northwest for my book The Stranger Next Door. I spent a year interviewing people in a small timber community to try to understand why the issue of sexuality emerged there. They were white working and middle class people, mainly evangelical Christians.

I met people who believed gays and lesbians are sexual predators who were out to convert their children. Who considered teachers to be untrustworthy representatives of the liberal secular humanism, who were destroying the family. Who believed that multiculturalism is a bad word. And who saw themselves as victims. They felt that their power as Christians, small town Americans, and as white people, was slipping away.

After the book was published, I moved to New Jersey and focused my attention on other things. I assumed the world of politicized Christian conservatism had become increasingly marginal, and largely irrelevant to Republican Party politics.

But then came the Trump campaign. Even though Trump did not run as a Christian conservative, his campaign, and the issues it raised, echoed many of the themes I saw in my research in small-town America. His slogan “Make America Great Again” was tailor made for those sectors of society who believe their power is slipping away, who long for the “good old days.” Trump’s election prompted me to revisit my research on the rightwing, to try to make sense of the political universe we are now dealing with.

The fact that Trump seemed, at least during this campaign, like more of an opportunist than an ideologue fooled many of us. He may be an opportunist, but he has surrounded himself with ideologues, a governing coalition that reaches across the spectrum of the American right. It is an unstable coalition, as we’ve seen from the leaks coming out of the White House. But it is a ruling coalition that brings together different sectors of the rightwing. And it is important for us to understand it.

Analysts often divide the American rightwing into the Secular Right, Christian Right, and the Xenophobic Right. Collectively, the right stands for the reinforcement of racial, ethnic, class, gender, sexual hierarchies and the belief that these hierarchies are natural and/or God-given. But different hierarchies are of greater or lesser importance for different sectors of the American rightwing.

The secular right is mainly concerned with relationship between state and economy. It wants to unleash capitalism and minimize government regulation. The Christian right concerns itself with the relationship between church and state. It wants to fight against what it sees as the secularization of American culture. And the xenophobic/far right concerned primarily with preserving whiteness and national dominance. All sectors champion male dominance and white/Christian supremacy. Some do so very explicitly, others in coded ways.

Until now, the Republican Party has mainly drawn its leadership from the secular right. The Christian right has been a powerful presence during the past few decades, but mainly at the local and state level. And it has distanced itself from the xenophobic right, at least publicly. Trump is changing all of that.

Trump, the presidential candidate, was basically a “paleoconservative.” He adhered to the normal conservative triad of nationalism, free markets, and moral traditionalism, especially nationalism. He supported a strident form of anti-immigrant politics that veered into racism, an isolationist foreign policy rather than a hawkish or dovish one, and a deep skepticism of economic globalization that put him at odds with an important element of the business agenda. But Trump, the president, has assembled an administration comprised of a coalition of the secular, Christian and xenophobic right. Some say it is the widest rightwing coalition ever assembled by an American president. And it is far more radical than anyone would have believed after the election.

The Trump administration has welcomed Christian conservative influence (Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence). It has has placed white supremacists such as Steve Bannon—a former spokesperson for the so-called “alt-right.” That means that Islamophobia is likely to be central driver of foreign policy—hence the recent effort to implement a Muslim ban. For Trump’s different constituencies on the right, Islam is a perfect target, encapsulating beliefs in American and Christian superiority, evoking fears of terrorism, and playing into clash of civilizations-preservation of Christian nation; nationalism. It targets Jews in coded, less explicit ways.

In terms of Trump’s cabinet appointees, a Tea Party libertarianism is ascendant: a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in public education, a Secretary of State who believes that foreign policy should be run by Exxon, and so forth. They basically want to destroy the Federal Government. And despite all of Trump’s campaign talk about “draining the swamp” of crony capitalists, he has assembled a cabinet that is more pro-business than any other before it, and which includes Wall Street bankers and corporate globalists like Steve Mnuchin and Rex Tillerson.

I’ve heard some liberals reassure us, saying that in four years we will take back Congress and the Presidency. That’s too optimistic. The basic operations of our democracy are now under threat. What are we likely to see within the coming months? A massive attempt to roll back the last fifty years of liberal social reforms and an undermining of democratic institutions. The disruption and destruction of Federal government and privatization of many of its basic functions.

Will more moderate Republicans push back? Will mass mobilizations push Democrats to the left? Will apolitical Americans rise up when they realize they will lose health insurance and Medicare, and when they defund their kids’ schools? Or will they direct their wrath against the most vulnerable members of our society? The answer depends, in part, upon how quickly and effectively we can mobilize to defend the institutions that Trump is trying to destroy.

The Yale historian Tim Snyder, who has written extensively about the rise of fascism, says, “we have at most a year to defend the republic.” What we do in the next weeks and months is thus of vital importance.

Anti-feminism, then and now

Menace and the threat of violence have a particular address to women. Welcome to a new phase of anti-feminism.

When Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy we got a taste of things to come in the USA. Media mogul, showman and willing to play the buffoon but always with a sense of menace, Berlusconi was Tony Soprano in real life, a man to whom women were inevitably little more than a piece of ass. Remember that moment caught on film when Michelle Obama seemed to flinch with discomfort at having, diplomatically, to shake hands with the man?

Berlusconi objected, with his whole being, to the rise of independent women. He was a man who wanted to turn the clock back to a time when women knew their place and were subservient as mothers, grandmothers, mistresses and show girls. To any woman of my generation there was something familiar about this kind of older man, aggrieved because he could no longer pinch a woman’s behind with impunity.

When forced to interact with powerful women on the world stage such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlusconi became the joker, poking fun at her, playing like a schoolboy and pulling ‘funny faces’ behind her back as though she was nothing more than a nanny figure, in effect saying ‘don’t expect me to take you seriously.’

Confronted with the reality of feminist voices he adopted a classic post-feminist stance, insulting and reviling feminists as unattractive, old and disgusting while at the same time promoting unqualified and stereotypically glamorous women into positions of power across his own government. He also hinted at a new form of ‘mediated’ fascism—a love of being in the spotlight while making relentless denunciations of the left and populist claims to represent the common man, always willing to skirt close to the edges of legality.

Now, some years later, Donald Trump’s victory displays these same characteristics on a much grander scale. Trump’s unapologetic sexism seems to give carte blanche to an insurgent patriarchy which can now re-assert itself with confidence, having previously been seen as dormant—so look out Angela Merkel, or British Prime Minister Theresa May, or Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. Low level or ‘undiplomatic’ insults reflect a particular way of exercising power, a way of putting women in their place regardless of their party affiliation.

Since November 8 2016 many feminists have asked why so many white women voted for Trump. Is this indicative of women’s own misogyny? A good deal of ire has been directed at Hillary Clinton for espousing ‘elite white feminism’ while failing to connect with working class women across the United States. But large numbers of black and other ethnic minority women voted for Clinton, not just because of the racism shown during Trump’s candidacy but also because the fantasy of being a pre-feminist woman who is somehow protected by husbands or fathers and supported by a male breadwinner never had any traction with them—the racialized nature of the labour market rarely permitted a model comparable to this fantasy to emerge, so there was no thought of going back in time to being the archetypal 1950s housewife.

In any case, the argument that Clinton was out of touch with ordinary women voters who haven’t seen their real wages rise for decades still doesn’t explain why many of them were willing to vote for a man who is prepared to limit their rights to reproduction and thus impede their very ability to participate in the workplace on any kind of equal level with men. This phenomenon is only explicable if we take anti-feminism more fully into account.

Although anti-feminism is always changing its colours, it never goes away. As the writer and activist Susan Faludi documented in her important book Backlash, an angry oppositional movement of ‘moral majority’ adherents arose almost concurrently with the rise of liberal and socialist feminism in the USA. In my own book The Aftermath of Feminism I traced a later complexification of this backlash which seemed to have a less invidious, more progressive or even pro-women dynamic.

This movement entailed a new form of championing of women, and especially young women, on condition that they abandoned feminism as old hat, anachronistic and deeply unattractive—as something associated with old and seemingly embittered women from a past era—in favour of a ‘go-for-it’ pathway of female individualisation. This was the post-feminism of ambitious and competitive ‘Alpha Girls’ who could easily achieve their goals in the new meritocracy without the help of feminism.

During the period of Tony Blair’s governments in the UK this ethos pervaded political and popular culture. Feminism was put into cold storage as women were expected to be smiling and compliant ‘Blair babes.’ I recall this time well, when even female students who were otherwise interested in questions of work, employment, gender and sexuality nevertheless repudiated feminism feeling that they could do just as well without it. It was fashionable to affect a kind of ‘phallic femininity’ by acting like a young man, with a flask of whisky in the back pocket, happy to hang out in a lap-dancing club.

Nancy Fraser and others have accused some feminists of becoming complicit with the neoliberal order by advocating this kind of achievement-driven or ‘choice-based’ notion of female empowerment, a complex way of saying that they have sold out to capitalism by accepting a place in the sun that is offered to a select few. In the process, much of liberal feminism has morphed into a more overtly market-driven and competition-based idea of female success, though even this form of ‘neoliberal feminism’ may be anathema to the Trump worldview.

At the same time, there has also been a feminist renaissance that embraces many different types and forms of feminist campaigning and organising. The Everyday Sexism project is one of the best examples of how feminism has recently shown itself to be so needed. Equally important has been the web-activism of the last decade, like the F Word in the UK or the ways in which US feminists have galvanised to demonstrate against Trump’s infamous ‘pussy-grabbing’ comments. But what has taken almost all young and older feminists aback has been the level of abuse, violence and vitriol to which this new visibility has given rise.

Anti-feminism has now taken on a much more aggressive edge. This hostility has found a home on the internet, and it has moved from there onto the streets, as the terrible death of the MP Jo Cox has shown. Ostensibly Cox was killed because she aimed to stem the tide of hostility against immigrants and asylum seekers. But it also seems no accident that she was a woman. The catalogue of women campaigners, politicians and commentators who have received death threats that resulted in the need for police protection has risen steeply in the last 12 months. Sadly Cox didn’t get to the point of requesting that protection.

Menace and the threat of violence have a particular address to women, different from men who are squaring up to fight each other. Berlusconi belonged to the realm of the Godfather films in which women were slapped about for daring to confront the man of the house. Among his many statements in recent days, Trump has said, provocatively, that there is no need to be ‘scared,’ but the new backlash takes the form of an undisguised provocation to women who are willing to take a stance. The core of rights that were eventually won in regard to contraception and abortion are now more than ever before under threat. It is women themselves who will be forced to defend the freedoms which have had to be fought for from the early days of the ‘second wave’ of feminism.

We cannot yet tell how real this threat is, but faced by this latest backlash there’s an urgent need for women across the boundaries of class and ethnicity to take heed and find new ways of defending their rights, both for their own sakes and for their daughters as well as for their husbands, fathers and sons, for they also need to be reminded of how feminism has and will continue to enhance their lives.

Beitrag zuerst veröffentlicht auf opendemocracy.

Books That Matter: Twenty-Five Years of Gender Trouble

2015 jährte sich das Erscheinen von Judith Butlers Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity zum 25. Mal. Bereits im folgenden Jahr, 1991, erschien die deutsche Ausgabe unter dem Titel Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter. Mit Fug und Recht kann gesagt werden, dass Gender Trouble ein Meilenstein nicht nur im feministischen theoretischen Denken ist. Wir freuen uns daher, dass wir den Beitrag unserer New Yorker Gast-Blogger_in Claire Bond Potter aus Anlass des 25-jährigen Erscheinens reposten können. Er wurde zunächst auf dem Blog der Society for U.S. Intellectual History veröffentlicht. 


There are books that matter. Then there are books that matter more, like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990)1)dt. Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991. that marked its 25th anniversary in 2015. Dipping back into it now, Gender Trouble’s achievements were astonishingly broad, and reached into multiple disciplines. It collated and built on the growing importance of literary and cultural studies to emerging scholarship about sexuality and the body. It brought what was then loosely called “French Theory” to the notice of thousands of scholars outside literature. Many historians — still struggling to make women visible in our research — had seen little need to engage theory at all.

Gender Trouble put all feminist scholars on notice that gender was not just a noun invented in the 1950s to describe the sexed body, but a dynamic, “performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence.” This phrase simultaneously asked us to ditch identity politics, which had ceased functioning effectively at all in the 1980s, and, ironically, launched a new phase of gender identity organizing on elite campuses as students launched the early phases of what is now *trans scholarship and politics. My students at Wesleyan explained to me that they no longer had gender; they performed it (not precisely what Butler meant, but ok.) When emergent *trans scholars came to campus as “men” or “women,” my students rebuked them as essentialists (tiresome for the guests, I know: but who cares how students engage theory as long as they do?)

A quarter century ago, Gender Trouble compelled its readers to pay attention to feminism’s achievements and its flaws. It forced historians like myself to join a scholarly world where theory mattered so much one read it all the time. Gender Trouble was also famously complex, a few sentences lasting a third of a page or so, forcing historians to develop higher order reading skills. Critics made – still do make — bitter references to the difficulties of understanding Gender Trouble, imagining the reader’s failings as the writer’s flaws. (I will return to this later, but for now, let me plant the question: are complex syntax and dense prose criticized, except when employed by feminist, queer, and critical race studies scholars?)

Understood and misunderstood, as Gender Trouble circulated in seminar rooms and dormitories, it helped feminists of all ages imagine a politics and a scholarly perspective that transcended the struggles of the Awful Eighties. All of these conflicts centered “women,” not gender, although gender lurked in the background. Butler offered us a way out and a way in: feminism could be political without claiming to speak for “women;” it offered a route for everyone to enter feminist politics without the precondition of being women, or putting women at the center, as radical feminism had for two decades. This, in turn, offered feminist scholars the intellectual freedom to critically engage worlds beyond the edges of our own bodies.

Because of this, Gender Trouble remains a key text for understanding how feminism transformed the late twentieth century intellectual left. Queer studies, trans studies, cultural studies, critical race studies, and disability studies derive from many path-breaking books, scholars and intellectual traditions, but they are all the children of Gender Trouble too. Institutionally, this book also helped to fuel the emergence of American Studies as a site for theory production; and transform women’s studies programs into degree-granting departments that now incorporate the modifiers gender, feminist, queer, sexuality and *trans in their names.

A future Butler biographer will want to center Gender Trouble in the intellectual history of the women’s studies movement in which it germinated – only to participate in dismantling and reassembling it. After graduating from Bennington, Butler did her doctoral work at Yale between 1978 and 1984, as the first generation of feminist scholars were being tenured in American colleges and universities. In New Haven, these years coincided with the emergence of a vibrant cohort of feminist faculty, students and community organizers, including legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and historian Nancy Cott. Beginning with an introductory course taught by MacKinnon in the spring of 1977 faculty, graduate students and undergraduates worked together to build a feminist curriculum in an institution where misogyny that defied liberal solutions: for example, prior to a successful faculty vote on the women’s studies major in 1981, an anonymous flyer issued by “the Committee for the Ruination of Academic Programs” proposed its own major in “Grossness.”

Another intellectual hub that figures prominently in Gender Trouble’s genealogy is Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women in Providence, RI. Founded in 1981 under the directorship of historian Joan Wallach Scott, and in collaboration with literary scholar Elizabeth Weed, the Pembroke Center gathered some of the finest minds in the world to push feminist scholarship to the next level. Endowed by the Ford Foundation, a bequest, and three years of dedicated fundraising, the Pembroke Center became one of feminist theory’s most prestigious laboratories. There, structural analysis, post-structural theory, cultural studies and feminist politics came together to frame the field formerly known as women’s studies as inherently comparative and dynamic in its methods. As Weed put it in a short history of the Pembroke Center, the difference between the conversations at Brown and “those of other centers of the period can be encapsulated in the difference between thinking of women as the answer and women as the question.”2)Elizabeth Weed, Notes on Pembroke Center’s History: 1981-2011 (Providence: Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, 2011), 8.

It was one of Pembroke’s literary scholars, theorist Naomi Schor, who introduced Scott to Butler, launching a friendship and intellectual partnership that continues to survive and thrive three decades later.3)See Joan W. Scott, “The Provocations of Enduring Friendships,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, vol. 21 no. 2 (2011). Scott’s intellectual project had begun in the late 1970s when she and Louise Tilly had asked path-breaking questions about the effects of industrialization on European women. In 1986, Scott published the prize-winning “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” in The American Historical Review. “The work with Tilly very clearly began her influential argument that the collective subject of history could not be thought as uniform or homogenous,” Butler reflected in a 2008 essay; “and that the subject in question was riven by inequalities that were essential to its formation. Moreover, if one were to move from a consideration of the formation of the subject to an account of the transformative action of the collective subject, it becomes clear that, for Scott, opportunities for action are not determined but result from contingent and converging historical effects.”4)See Butler and Elizabeth Weed, Ed. The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism, Indiana University Press, 2011, 12.

In 1994, Gayle Rubin, one of Butler’s early intellectual influences, playfully crowned Butler “the Queen of Gender,”5)Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler, “Sexual Traffic,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (Summer 94), Vol. 6 Issue 2/3, 97. but if Butler was Gender Trouble’s author, Scott was its midwife. In 1987-88, Butler wrote the first draft of the book alongside a multi-disciplinary all-star cast of interlocutors in the “Gender Seminar” at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Scott had recently moved from Brown. For those without a copy of Gender Trouble’s acknowledgements at hand, Butler’s IAS colleagues that year included Scott, Lila Abu-Lughod, Yasmine Ergas, Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, Dorinne Kondo, Rayna Rapp, Carroll Smith Rosenberg and Louise Tilly.6)See the unpaginated preface of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

The impact Gender Trouble made on feminist scholarship also cannot be fully appreciated without situating it among other landmark books and articles informed by the new feminist theory, scholarship that made bodies, desire and sexual identity “the question” too. A brief bibliography would include Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” (1984); Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985), as well as the essays that culminated in The Epistemology of the Closet (1991); Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1985); Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-transsexual Manifesto” (1987); and a second article by Scott, clearly informed by Gender Trouble and by the ongoing process of producing feminist knowledge, “The Evidence of Experience” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1991.)

The success of Gender Trouble, and the emergence of queer studies as a field that was informed in no small part by her work, propelled Butler to prominence, end eventually, to an endowed chair at Berkeley. Today, the ubiquity of Butler’s work on college syllabi, and her staunch support of causes like Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, the anti-war movement, and Boycott, Divest and Sanction, make her an admired figure to many who have perhaps only have read about Gender Trouble. The phrase “Judith Butler fan” recently generated 484,000 Google hits that included blogs and tumblr sites completely devoted to her work.

However, what many admire have also made Butler an object of attack: Gender Trouble’s virtues have, since its publication, threatened longstanding assumptions about what academic work should be and do. In 1999, just in time for a new edition of Gender Trouble, Butler (in perfectly lucid prose) responded to these attacks with an op-ed in The New York Times that questioned the value of transparent writing. “Why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” she asked, noting that common sense prose was frequently neither true nor was it ethical.

Those of us who are celebrating twenty-five years of the trouble Gender Trouble made, and continues to make, know that making a commitment to the “difficult and demanding” is no small part of what intellectuals are supposed to do. It taught us to make a different kind of trouble than we were making, and it changed history. At the end of the twentieth century Gender Trouble was one of a dozen texts that announced the shape of feminist intellectual life after women’s studies. When the intellectual history of this movement is written, Judith Butler – and this book – will be at the center of it.

I would like to thank Judith Butler for a brief email exchange that verified several key dates, and supplied me with several articles that documented her friendship and intellectual collaboration with Joan Scott.

 

 

 

Fußnoten   [ + ]

1. dt. Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991.
2. Elizabeth Weed, Notes on Pembroke Center’s History: 1981-2011 (Providence: Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, 2011), 8.
3. See Joan W. Scott, “The Provocations of Enduring Friendships,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, vol. 21 no. 2 (2011).
4. See Butler and Elizabeth Weed, Ed. The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism, Indiana University Press, 2011, 12.
5. Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler, “Sexual Traffic,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (Summer 94), Vol. 6 Issue 2/3, 97.
6. See the unpaginated preface of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

Angela Merkel on Anne Will

On October 7th, 2015, 34 CDU politicians issued a public letter criticizing Angela Merkel for her refugee politics. This letter lists suggestions for handling the refugee crisis as well as articulates frustration with the Chancellor as a representative of their party who no longer seems to adhere to the political mission of the CDU nor to European laws such as the Dublin Regulation. The CDU is primarily made up of male politicians, but it is telling that not a single woman signed this letter. The authors are frustrated with a woman who has – as we would say in the Southern US – “gotten too big for her britches”, and this letter is a way to punish her publically for breaking rank. Let’s not ignore the fact that the mostly-male CDU is not restricted to voicing their frustration in writing: many are wondering if Merkel will lose her chancellorship because of this dissent.

On the same day, Chancellor Merkel appeared as a guest on the political talk show Anne Will. Sitting on beige, Bauhaus-style leather chairs in front of a live studio audience, Merkel spoke with Frau Will about the criticism from her own party and Merkel’s “plan” for dealing with the refugee crisis. Repeating over and over again, “We can do it,” Merkel insisted that her decision to open the borders and to continue to provide services for refugees was the right course.

Several reviews of the television broadcast, such as this one from Die Zeit, state that Merkel’s appearance was received positively by politicians. As the tagesschau reports, Sabine Rau, an ARD journalist, commented after the broadcast that this TV appearance was part of a broader offensive strategy to maintain control amid dissent within her party.

Maintaining control was clearly the Chancellor’s focus during the broadcast: often talking over Anne Will and refusing to buckle under pressure, Merkel seemed confident about both her political decisions and her position as chancellor. Precisely this confidence has irritated many over the past several months, especially after Merkel proclaimed the German borders open to Syrian refugees on September 4th of this year. With that step, the Dublin Regulation, which states that refugees are supposed to be processed in the country within Europe where they first set foot, was essentially null and void. Other countries, like Greece and Hungary, who simply sent refugees who wanted to leave towards Germany, are, however, also at fault for facilitating the transfer of refugees across European borders and the breakdown of Schengen and Dublin – that does not fall solely to the Chancellor.

What I find fascinating about these two media events: one, the frustrated letter from CDU politicians, and two, the broadcast interview on Anne Will, is the general lack of ideological difference between their positions. Merkel, for instance, emphasized in conversation many of the suggestions made by the CDU in their letter: strengthening Europe’s outer borders; providing Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Libanon with support for caring for refugees; speeding up refugee processing times. The ideological conflict seems to hinge on gendered visions of national strength.

That national identity is gendered is old news – just look at the language we use to describe our countries: patria, Mother Russia, Vaterland, motherland, etc. Beyond the simple gendering of the words we use to describe the homeland, what I see in the conflict between Merkel and the CDU are reflected in different conceptions of national strength in the face of a new global order. The CDU/CSU wants to believe that some show of physical and legal strength – a border fence or control, for instance – could solve the crisis. Fortification is a form of hard power typically exercised by male bodies with access to the public sphere.

Merkel was careful to articulate, both during this broadcast of Anne Will and during her radio interview with Deutschlandfunk on October 4, that she, too, is capable of exercising hard power. Germany has sent weapons to the Middle East, and she believes that economic development, especially for Turkey, will be necessary to stem the tide of refugees entering Europe. But Merkel rejects the basic refugee program of the CDU partially because she does not believe that fortification can be successful. With or without a policy of open German borders, people see Germany as a desirable destination. Irregular migration – across what the Chancellor acknowledges are porous inner-European borders – will persist with or without fences or border patrols. When asked by Frau Will if Germany should stop accepting refugees, the Chancellor replied: “How is that supposed to work? You can’t close the border. There is no stop to admission (Aufnahmestopp).” Whether this position is a feminist one is most likely up for debate – but the refusal to believe in a closed body politic, which in turn is a refusal to feed the specifically masculine xenophobia so common across much of the right-wing, from Viktor Orbán to Markus Söder (CSU) to PEGIDA demonstrators, puts Merkel in a different position.

The last question of the Will broadcast reflects this gendered and ideological difference: Frau Will asked the Chancellor if the Germany we know today will persist in the face of such massive, sudden immigration. The right-wing, of course, is convinced that it can’t – and the right-wing is primarily male. Fears of refugees, parallel societies, changing religious values and foreign rapists or criminals portray Germany as a nation not fit to face the challenges created by sustained global conflict. The attempt to fortify national boundaries and close the borders; to limit the number of refugees entering Europe and accelerate deportations – all of these purported shows of strength ultimately mask a limited view of a weak nation. Chancellor Merkel, however, was insistent: her “German” values: free speech, the social market economy, and freedom of religion, will not change, no matter how many refugees come. Her definition of national values are based on behaviors rather than background; on social interactions rather than social origins.

Whether Merkel‘s formulation of national identity is gendered is less clear to me: is inclusion in and of itself a “feminist” or even “feminine” value? Should this image of Merkel remind us of a national mother, bringing together her unruly sons (as we might interpret based on the somewhat positive reaction of the press to her TV appearance)? That might go too far – as would the reductive declaration that Merkel, through her stance on the refugee crisis, has become a feminist chancellor. After all, this is the political leader who declared that “multiculturalism has failed” and “we can’t accept all the refugees.” Whether or not Merkel has fallen into a trap by insisting that Germany can solve the refugee crisis, as Frau Will asked during the program, she has succeeded in reframing German national identity as capable, open, flexible and responsive. And that – for many – offers a new gendering of the traditional notions of Vaterland.

Womens‘ Working Lives in the ‘New’ University

Is there room for any women other than the "exceptional woman", let alone women with children, in the new hyper-stratified university?

A few weeks ago the prize-winning French economist Thomas Piketty was interviewed for the Financial Times for the regular ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview profiles which typically include a copy of the bill inserted into the text. However on this occasion it was not the very modest bill which aroused my attention (Piketty insisted, presumably to save time from his working day, on eating at a local café) but rather the overall account of his working days. He told the journalist that to be an academic one really needed to be buried away writing or in the library from 9am to 7pm each day. He also referred in passing to the enjoyable family life he had, as a 50-something French academic. This included a second wife along with two daughters from his first marriage, ‘the girls’. These unremarkable facts somehow got stored in my feminist brain, especially the idea of being totally alone and able to work uninterrupted for up to 10 hours a day. As an academic I could hardly disagree, this is indeed what is required to do the job properly, as a feminist I thought that this working day surely relied on high levels of unseen support to shop, cook, and attend to the various aspects of domestic administration so that bills are paid, food is bought, clothes are collected from the dry cleaners, parents nights are attended and so on. In this case one might guess that Piketty leaves his home at 8am and returns at 8pm, and has perhaps done so throughout his entire working life.

Meanwhile I was also reading, as it happened, the biography of another French academic Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. Derrida died aged 74 in 2004, he was generally hailed as a friend to feminism, but as his biographer described, his wife Marguerite (a psychoanalyst) looked after everything for the duration of their long marriage which included bringing up two sons, indeed Derrida had never once entered his local bank, he did not even know where it was. His wife obviously created a beautiful home which provided hospitality to many visiting scholars from across the world many of whom seemed to stay for weeks at a time. Even when on vacation Derrida expressed the need for time alone to work for several hours each morning followed by swimming and relaxation.

Given that women still bear the brunt of responsibility for running households and organising the school schedules of children and so on, the question I was asking myself was how can women academics ever hope to achieve success in their working lives when this kind of pattern is seen as not just normal but entirely unremarkable, especially in a sector deemed by and large to be well-disposed towards working parents? Deciding not to have children, and having a partner who is also an academic or at least very familiar with these kinds of schedules would seem like the obvious answer. But to concede to this demand would be to comply with some of the most retrogressive aspects of our sexually divided society. And university faculties need to be able to demonstrate to young people, male and female, that women can be just as inspiring teachers and researchers, and be able to live as enjoyable a domestic life as their male counterparts. If we do not actively endorse this principle then we may as well go back to how it was when I first went to university myself in 1969, with the assumption that the figure of the professor is male. In short female academics ought to be able to demonstrate to enthusiastic young women that it is possible to succeed and to have children. Otherwise feminism has failed.

Fifteen years ago, on the occasion of Stuart Hall’s retirement from the Open University I was invited to give a short talk as part of a day conference to mark the event. Where Stuart had been charting the move from Thatcherism to Blairism as part of a forming of a new right politics, what we now call neoliberalism, and where he saw the signs of this across the public sector including higher education under the guise of the ‘new managerialism’ I was at the time pre-occupied with how the new audit culture, and with what was then called the Research Assessment Exercise (now REF) impacted on young women in the academy who were trying to combine a career with motherhood. The RAE/REF introduced a rankings system whereby departments are measured and funds distributed according to the quality of the publications produced over a period of time by faculty. Alongside this there are other criteria that have to be met, including getting the research into the public realm and creating a rich research ‘environment’. In my talk I outlined the timelines for a ‘normal’ academic career through to post-doctoral research awards (perhaps aged 27) and then perhaps to a series of temporary posts (around the age of 28-33) leading, if all goes well and books and publications appear on time and grant applications are completed and the awards flow in, to a full time job perhaps aged 35. As it happens this is exactly the age I myself first was offered a full time job after 5 years of temporary jobs. Indeed earlier on aged 30 I had been lucky enough to get a full time post but it meant commuting weekly, a round trip of 200 miles, and I had a young child and a family life back home in Birmingham, so after a year I had to resign and return, with much anxiety, to the rounds of temporary posts until I was eventually offered another job nearer to home. It was precisely this kind of dilemma I remember discussing at the OU event, it may seem banal but the ideal career track in the academy especially one which carried all the laurels of prizes, awards, fellowships and a high volume of grants seemed to have been tailored around the image of the brilliant young man untrammelled by any of the fine details of domestic life. And if the young woman was to follow this pathway and plan the right time to have a child, then when would this right time be? The first few years of full time work (34-38) are marked by all kinds of expectations, and so it may be that just before getting to 40 having children could be embarked upon.

In the book Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall I unpicked these fine details of RAE culture with an additional question uppermost in my mind. It was not so much the fairly minimum exclusion clauses for maternity or career interruptions, permitted by the Research Assessment Exercise, more the whole new vocabulary which had not just descended upon the world of the universities so much so that it had become literally part of everyday life, entering all of our professional conversations and our day to day vocabularies. It felt as though we had become to define ourselves in these very terms. ‘Am I a 3 or a 4?’ Since then and in the last decade other academics have dissected this dispositif of ‘excellence’ . They have described how this means not just fulfilling endless benchmarks against a grid of criteria which include leadership and achievement in teaching, administration and management (ie setting up new degrees) and in research, scholarship and publication, but also keeping a strict diary of everything that happens, all events attended, all papers given, all targets met with students, all the citations, radio slots etc, these too should be noted to be duly referred to in all annual performance reviews which in turn are connected to promotions and pay increments. The self-promotional rhetoric which now wraps its way round academic self-description has also become what Wendy Brown, in her recent book Undoing the Demos describes as a normative aspect of this new political rationality. Indeed it is a mark of self-responsibilisation to assume this boasting kind of stance. It is not just the number of books written but the ranking of the journal or publisher, it is not just the grants awarded but the prestige of the funding body, and so on. There is a requirement to be exceptional, and I would argue that only a truly exceptional young woman, one who was also lucky in her life-planning with a partner could have children and could survive this new style of university governmentality without falling apart.

The point of these various instruments which shape the working environment is to introduce higher levels of competition in the expectation that this triggers economic growth, innovation and a more entrepreneurial outlook. But what they also do is pathologise failure, if one is not excellent then one can only be at best mediocre and at worst bad at ones job. Again for young women these benchmarking strategies are all the more pernicious since they add yet more layers to the already many varieties of self-admonishment which target female insecurities, if only to be able to offer implausible ‘solutions’ available through the consumer culture. Through their teenage years girls are constantly encouraged to be ‘perfect’ and this gives rise to the pernicious culture of self-beratement.

Apart from the more obvious feminist strategies which would involve trying to find collaborative ways of countering the excellence regime in the university, there are perhaps other ways of resisting these forces. For over a decade for example, while my daughter was at school, I myself stayed in a near to the bottom of the ranks former polytechnic, where I could pace myself, do research on my own terms and enjoy the teaching. As it happened this time in a non-elite ‘new university’ worked out well, and I never regretted being there. Alternately one could insist that the right to go-slow for particular periods of the working life need not mean the defeatism of the ‘mommy track’. Indeed if Richard Sennett is right when he claims that the modern work regime has a corrosive effect on the individual, then for women embracing the idea of ordinariness may be good for the soul, while letting go of the drive to succeed, or to get the perfect ‘balance’ in life and work, could mean inventing new ways of thinking about work which replaces the logic of the talent led economy with the more commonplace idea of a ‘good job well done’. Often I have thought surely it should be enough to spend a morning teaching, an afternoon doing supervisions and some marking of essays and then go home and switch off and enjoy the children or indeed grandchildren, and help with home-work rather than feeling the need to return late night to the computer and to the completion of yet another peer–reviewed journal article.

This article originally was published at openDemocracy’s 50.50 on August 10th 2015.

The Female Academic’s World of Love and Ritual: Women’s History and Radical Feminism

women

This post is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, April 17 2015, St. Louis, MO. The panel honored the 40th anniversary of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America,” Signs vol 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975). Organized by Marc Stein, the panelists included Farah Griffin, Mary Frances Berry, Suzanna Walters and Smith-Rosenberg herself.

I first encountered Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in 1978. I was twenty and a junior at Yale. My teaching assistant in a course on the history of the American West had passed it on to me, suggesting that I write a paper using diaries that women had written while traveling to California on the Oregon Trail.

I was an English major and had never been in an archive. When the archivist at the Beineke Library brought me these documents, part of the massive Coe Western History collection, she told me that I was the first person to have asked for them, a situation which is almost unimaginable in women’s history today. That afternoon, I experienced for the first time a sensation that returns with the same intensity every time I begin work in a new collection: the thrill of reading other people’s private thoughts.

I recently re-read “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” first in a .pdf, and then, searching through my own archives, a copy I had marked up as a young lesbian feminist in 1978. In addition to its path-breaking argument, the article maps, very clearly, what you must do to write good history. First, you must clearly state your epistemological stance. “I would like to suggest an alternative approach to female friendships,” I had bracketed these words in pencil and put two exclamation points in the margin, “one which would view them within a cultural and social setting rather than from an exclusively individual psychosocial perspective.”

Then you must characterize your data, and say why you have chosen it: ideally, your archive would be manageable, but heterogeneous enough to produce a generalizable conclusion. Writing against expert knowledge produced by men about women, Smith-Rosenberg proposed an intervention that was familiar to me from my radical feminist reading group: in this article, women would speak for themselves, teaching us something entirely new about the nineteenth century, and perhaps about ourselves. Letters and diaries “which were never intended to be published,” I underscored this with two lines, “permits the historian to explore a very private world of emotional realities central both to women’s lives and to the middle class family in nineteenth century America.”[1]

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg made the project of women’s history legible by weaving feminist insights into a well-known humanities practice. The article also spoke to me, as it did to many women, because I was coming out as a lesbian in a university where, except for my radical feminist friends, I was completely invisible as a sexual person and as a feminist, except to a small group of women who were struggling to understand our relationships with each other, and to feminist knowledge production, in the context of a male institution. Suddenly, after reading the article, I understood that the quasi-subterranean, erotic, often unfulfilled intensity of our intellectual and social relationships as young feminists was not exceptional, nor was it a sexual detour in need of correction. Our emerging identities were historical, in the most precise sense of the word: “The question of female friendships is peculiarly elusive,” I underlined on page three of the article; “We know so little, or perhaps have forgotten so much.”[2]

I cannot describe to you what a relief it was to be able to reconfigure my fraught intellectual present in relation to a known past. “Certainly Molly and Helena were lovers,” I circled, with more exclamation points; “emotionally if not physically.”[3] Of more importance in the long term, however, was that “The Female World of Love and Ritual” explained to me in plain English, as no one ever had, how good history was written. It caused me to “see” women in history, women who were already there.

This requires emphasis because I had embraced the task of this essay on the American West in the first place because I had partly grown up there. I had been raised on annual celebrations of Manifest Destiny, which erased people of color but featured white women quite prominently: Pioneer Days parades, monuments to missionaries wiped out by indigenous people, or memorials to migrants who took the wrong mountain pass, got stuck in the snow and, sadly, had to eat each other. As I spent one afternoon in the archives, then another, and another, I realized that the women on the Oregon Trail were, as Smith-Rosenberg wrote, “an excellent example of the type of historical phenomena which most historians know something about, which few have thought much about, and which virtually no one has written about.”[4] This is about as elegant a statement of the women’s history project, as it was conceived within 1970s radical feminism, that you will ever find.

I was, of course, a small fish in the feminist sea; the intellectual impact of this article, even when misread or over-interpreted, was already enormous. My work in the archives of radical feminists has revealed that nearly every activist kept up with the work of this first generation of women’s historians. I found an annotated copy of Claudia Koonz’s dissertation in the Kate Millett papers. I have found copies of “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in five separate radical feminist collections, as well as other articles published in Signs and Feminist Studies. Smith-Rosenberg’s insights were crucial to Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” As importantly, when feminist scholarship began to move definitively away from a movement context and women’s history became a multi-generational project, this article traveled in a way that few have. In a fall 2000, issue of The Journal of Women’s History, Leila Rupp spoke to its significance as “certainly the most cited article on women’s relationships.” She was guessing, of course: Google scholar did not launch in beta for another four years. But as of last week, this valuable online tool lists 1,670 citations. Remarkably, for an article published forty years ago, 49 of these are in in articles published in the last year.[5]

“The Female World of Love and Ritual” underlined the central commitment of women’s history to a feminist transformation of the discipline. “Is it not the historian’s first task,” Smith-Rosenberg asked, “to explore the social structure and the world view which made intense and sometimes sensual female love both a possible and an acceptable emotional option?”[6] The answer was yes. Those first fifteen years of citations reveal an all-star cast of historians or, as we graduate students called them in the 1980s, The Big Girls: Mary Ryan, Linda Kerber, Estelle Freedman, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Leila Rupp, Nancy Cott, and Ellen DuBois. Cook, Freedman, Rupp and anthropologist Esther Newton, like Adrienne Rich, took up Smith-Rosenberg’s invitation to write the history of lesbians as well. As Molly McGarry has written, “before the history of sexuality was fully constituted as a field of study, Smith-Rosenberg offered a deceptively simple but stunningly productive insight into same sex relationships.” Its arguments about white, middle-class women had even remained powerful for McGarry’s own twenty-first students “across boundaries of race and class, as well as time.”[7]

It is fascinating to me that this article, born in a radical feminist moment in which a great many women were contemplating sexual, political and social independence from men, has remained relevant in a way that the lesbian feminist politics that it emerged from have not. But I would like to note that, important as “The Female World of Love and Ritual” was to the emergence of LGBT history, that was not its only work. In fact, as radical feminism began to founder, it was used against that task: I would argue that Adrienne Rich, in attempting to make a transhistorical argument about the repression of lesbian relationships, undervalues Smith-Rosenberg’s most important claims about space: that women not only carved their relationships out of spaces constructed by patriarchal law, but were expected to maintain them as distinct homosocial realms. Similarly, in 1996, sociologist Mary Jo Deegan misunderstood the nuances of Smith-Rosenberg’s central claims when she argued that the women associated with the rise of the settlement movement and the birth of sociology at the University of Chicago in the Progressive Era were not erotic partners, but only loving friends.[8]

So while its significance to women’s history, to LGBT history, and to the emergence of queer and gender theory within history has been vast, in conclusion, I want to make another claim about “The Female World of Love and Ritual” and the political work it did to bring the insights of radical feminism into the historical profession. To paraphrase Deborah Gray White’s important review of sources in African-American women’s history in 1987, the creation of interest in historical subjects spurs the creation of archives; conversely, the assertion that there are no archives justifies a lack of interest in marginalized, or deliberately forgotten subjects.[9]

Prior to 1975, the work of feminist history – not infrequently done in a consciousness-raising context and enacted in the first women’s studies courses, had been to uncover and curate a lost women’s past and read it through a feminist present. Much of this work consisted of reinterpreting the central myths of women’s existence: witches, the Madonna-whore or Mammy-Jezebel complex, religious or racial beliefs that stigmatized women, or the structural theories of Marx and Freud. Productive as these inquiries were, they were often not evidenced-based, presentist, and speculative. They rejected “men’s knowledge” with a “women’s knowledge” that was perceived as true because, through their consciousness raising, women felt that it was.

In that context, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” was a kind of manifesto, and a template for how feminists could literally make history. Smith-Rosenberg signaled that feminist scholarship had matured enough to venture outside its interdisciplinary environment and make a claim on the disciplines themselves. It made a strong argument that women’s history would not just emerge from upending patriarchal ideology and false consciousness, but from feminist archival labor, applied theory, and historiographical method. Finally, with its rich citations to materials that had lain unused in manuscript collections, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” threw down a major challenge to those who said that women’s history lacked the archival basis to be a field at all.

The success of that challenge is why many of us do this work  today.

______________________________________________

[1] Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America,” Signs vol 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975), 2.

[2] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 3.

[3] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 7.

[4] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 1.

[5] Lila Rupp, “Women’s History in the New Millennium: Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s ‘The Female World of Love and Ritual’ after Twenty-Five Years,” The Journal of Women’s History vol. 12 no. 3 (Autumn), 8.

[6] Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” 8.

[7] Molly McGarry, “Female Worlds,” The Journal of Women’s History vol. 12 no. 3 (Autumn), 10.

[8] Mary Jo Deegan, “`Dear Love, Dear Love:’ Feminist Pragmatism and the Chicago Female World of Love and Ritual,” Gender and Society, Vol. 10, No. 5 (Oct., 1996), pp. 590-607.

[9] Deborah Gray White, Mining the Forgotten: Manuscript Sources for Black Women’s History,” The Journal of American History vol. 74 no. 1 (June 1987), 237.

Gay Marriage, in (Out)Historical Context

Dieser Artikel unserer neuen feministische studien Bloggerin Claire Potter erschien ursprünglich am 28. Juni 2015 auf outhistory.org. | This article by the latest feministische studien blogger Claire Potter originally appeared on June 28th 2015 at outhistory.org.

I am not sure that the recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges is a victory for love, which is often such a fickle emotion. Nor am I sure that it is a victory for respectability, or the children who need far more than respectability to thrive. But I am sure that it is a victory for equal rights, and that it offers an opportunity for our queer political community to move on other social justice issues. Marriage was never the be all and end all of perfect equality, as mainstream media and LGBTQ advocacy organizations would have it. However it was a clear sign of unequal citizenship, and a suppression of our right to have the families we want to have in the ways we want to have them. Or, I will add, to not have them if we so choose, and say why. LGBTQ academics who are vigorously anti-marriage might want to chew on this one as they take to Facebook to predict the End of Days: when it is actually a choice not to marry — to be plurally committed, to be polyamorous, to be domestically organized outside monogamous legal bounds — how much more powerful is that as a statement of your sexual politics?

I might add that it may be an important turn for national politics that LGBT families will fade in their significance as the GOP’s electoral wrecking ball. Those marriage bans had one role, and one role only by the 1990’s: to muster voter turnout through homophobic robocalls and the creation of moral panics. This wasn’t democracy, as gay marriage opponents are framing it, nor did such strategies support freedom of religion. They were cynical campaigns of terror against all LGBT people, and they were a form of voter fraud that sapped the energy of progressive organizers and required extensive disinformation. In response to this propaganda, activists dug in, and so did historians, writing a range of wonderful books that exposed official homophobia for what it is: unequal citizenship and an offense to the Constitution.

Thus, the decision in Obergefell is not only a victory for the lawyers, it is a victory of good history over bad history. Not surprisingly, Harvard historian Nancy Cott’s influential political history of marriage, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2002) is cited repeatedly by the majority: you can read the entire text of Friday’s decision here. Trigger warning, if you find sweeping scholarly generalizations traumatic: you will also see bad history and selective history on both sides of the case, a continual frustration for me even when I read SCOTUS decisions that I like. Generalizations about the histories of family, childhood and marriage offer a perspective on why first year students might come to college making arguments that begin with phrases like “For all of human history” and “Since the dawn of civilization.” If Supreme Court justices do it, why not eighteen year olds?

The histories of gender, sexuality and feminism are far more complicated than those Obergefell has employed, something we need to keep in mind as we celebrate this milestone.  Marriage is right for some people and not for others, but the past demonstrates that it is far from a uniquely perfect way for people to organize their lives.  All sorts of people, across time and space, have been differently married, happily unmarried, or have privileged different forms of social organization over monogamous marriage. Some people function within systems in which arranged marriage, not romance, dominate the process of creating a family. The unmarried or plurally married have often viewed (many still do) these domestic arrangements as crucial to their personal dignity (a keyword of Obergefell) and to their right to free expression. If it is perhaps technically accurate to say that, over millennia, marriage “has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, regardless of their station in life,” that promise has been but a promise, and it is one that is ever more fragile one in the United States in the face of persistent racism, sexism and social inequality. And I am not even going to begin to ask what Justice Roberts’ clerks were thinking when they let him go out there and rant, in a minority opinion, about the marital preferences of the “Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs.” For this they went to Harvard and Yale? Well educated conservatives can do better than that.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in history or cultural studies to point out that legal arguments and court decisions use all kinds of data oddly, sometimes risibly, and the narrative in Obergefell is no exception to the rule. Are LGBT folk likely to do better at marriage than straight people? No, but that isn’t what the Constitution requires of anybody. Has love won the day? Probably not: love is one of the more changeable emotions, a marriage destroyer as well as a marriage creator. Will children in LGBT families feel more secure? Some will, perhaps, but they would be wise to keep a suitcase packed all the same just in case. With a national 50% divorce rate that gays are sure to match eventually (indeed, one purpose that this decision serves is to permit gay divorce in all fifty states), children or adults in LGBT families would be fools to believe that the happy ending promised by marriage boosters’ most starry-eyed proponents is now theirs. Anyone who studies the history of childhood, or who has ever seen a joint custody agreement play out in real time, knows that co-parenting after a divorce, even when custody is not contested, is an economic and emotional challenge .

But the Constitution has won the day, and I’ll take it! For decades, achieving gay rights has been a process of accepting half-measures, concessions and small victories while I prepare to be kicked in the face every time a SCOTUS decision or a hateful anti-marriage ballot measure is pending. Structural inequalities need to be rectified wherever we identify them, and full citizenship rights are not to be sneezed at. Critics who are angry at the amount of queer funding that Obergefell consumed have a point. However, they may also wish to reflect on the fact that LBGT people didn’t start this fight: the Catholic Church, Protestant mega-churches, the Republican Party and cynical political operatives bankrolled by the radical right did (see, for example, Rimmerman and Wilcox, The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, 2008). To presume that crucial and underdressed issues — homelessness, poverty, health care, and the plight of queer youth — could be rectified as full citizenship rights for LGBTQ people as a whole were being retracted strikes me as fundamentally misguided, impractical and wrong.

Of course, we will also never know how a different LGBTQ national agenda focused on racism or economic inequality might have played out, because that isn’t the direction history went. Take a look at Timothy Stewart-Winter‘s wonderful op-ed in The New York Times, urging us to attend to social agendas that have stalled and been rolled back, even as the bans on sexual inequality have crumbled.  We are also looking forward to the November pub date of Katherine Franke‘s Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (NYU: 2015), which you can pre-order here. While you are waiting for Franke’s book to appear in your mailbox: for a bracing reminder of the feminist intellectual roots of queer studies, one that sketches a  history of why marriage is particularly bad for women within heteropatriarchy, go read Gayle Rubin‘s marvelous debut article “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex” (1975).

Getting the government out of the business of official homophobia is another important outcome of Obergefell: a new half-hour documentary, Uniquely Nasty: the U.S. Government’s War on Gays tells part of this story. By journalist Michael Issikoff and produced by Yahoo Viewfinder, it is available free on line. It will be particularly interesting if you are a political historian: the film begins with George W. Bush committing to gays in his party and then throwing them under the bus by using bans on same-sex marriage as a cynical get out the vote strategy. Couple this with David Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2004).

Finally, the Interactive Timeline we prepared on Marriage and Marriage Resisters in LGBTQ history is immediately relevant to debates between those who uncritically applaud the opening of marriage to all, those who have always opposed gay marriage, and everyone in between. This exhibit also includes the amicus briefs filed by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians on behalf of marriage equality.