One Dimensional Feminism Part 2: Where have all the flowers gone?

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One Dimensional Feminism, Part 2

Where have all the flowers gone?

A Tale of a (Lost) Passion

Oscar Wilde, writing in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, said, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”[1]

Preface: for Mary Daly in memoriam

I write this blog-essay on the occasion of the death (January 3, 2010) of my only Mentor, Mary Daly. And I wonder, is this the passing of the flowers of the utopian?

If Mary taught me one thing it was that feminism is a passion. By passion I do not mean emotion, but a whole world-view, an imaginary—meaning a sense of collectivity beyond the current scheme of things, implying DESIRE for a whole new world—and continuous NEGATION of that which-is.

When I first heard Mary it was in 1978. I was not yet 19, just “escaped” from family and home, another burn victim of that (family) system, with the scar-tissue all exposed and the mind-scape still clouded up from the fog-of-war called family. There were occasional clearings those days when the clouds would disperse, one’s personal pain slightly recede as the “noise of the world” (Carolyn Forche) rushed in. In one of those clearings was Mary Daly on a winter’s afternoon in the UMass Boston Women’s Center. A small group had assembled to hear her; most of us cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the Center. The words that zing across the decades are enough to catapult me today into feminist-frenzy:  “Do you want to wither away, or go out in flames?” She was goading, seducing us to be EXTREMIST for no matter how mincing our feminist steps, we would be trounced as “extremist” anyway. The fighting spirit transmitted there and then had the force for me of upticking those un-discovered serotonin levels without use of medication and flooding me with newly released endorphins: Yes, it was “religious,” but not in the sense of a conversion devoid of critical, bracing, lucid thinking. What was religious was the somatic—bodily as well as mental—arousal, a sudden sense of connectivity that was in this era (late seventies) still supported by the imaginary of the still-pulsing women’s liberation movement. The passion stuck as my life’s central animating principle and purpose. Mary’s gift at one and the same time now clarifies a specific loss:  where have all the flowers gone?

The loss of the flowers of the utopian defines today’s one-dimensional feminism, the loss of feminism as a passion in the sense of embracing and fighting for a whole new way of living on the planet—fighting for “the one country at which Humanity is always landing” (Oscar Wilde), but is now on the verge of extinction within a one-dimensional, flattening, squashing universe of discourse, feeling and action. For my lasting rage to deconstruct this “universe” and to re-ignite the passion of new generations, I have Mary Daly to thank. She gave me fever.  I’m here to say that, at age fifty, I have not recovered. So this, and more to come, is for Mary, with undying gratitude.

Writing on the wall

I have taught women’s studies for about two decades now. At the beginning of every semester, I use the same exercise. I prompt, sometimes goad the students to list “the worst stereotypes of feminism (or feminists).” It doesn’t have be what you think, I prompt, just what’s in the air, c’mon you can do better than that. What do they look like? Dress like? Smell like?  No, don’t try to explain or defend now—let’s just list them. I want the data to be “raw” which is to say uncooked by preconceived, pat interpretations that get in the way being caught in the fact[2]: Yes, this is what they think of us, you said it, not me.

After some halting first tries, and many pauses, the walls will list under the weight and tug of the professor’s mutilated hand-writing which crawls across the blackboard like something live—viral forms that slip between print and script and can not keep between the warbling margins. I like to think that the literal writing on the wall dramatizes the content: the usual army of such specters is unleashed. Extremist, militant, radical, shit-kicking, man-hating, man-like, mannish, castrating, ugly, dyke, bitch, butch—and last but not least hairy….The images are like animistic totems: What is the energy source of such transmissions in an era without a movement imaginary to support their existence (i.e. their active threat)? Why does “dyke” have currency in a world of  L-Word-tamed, shaved, plucked, waxed, wedded, civilly unionized, and long-haired soft-porn lesbianism?  What is the threat of “extremist” in at a moment when liberalism has gutted out almost any/every vestige of radicalism?  

Here we are in a women’s studies class that like every women’s studies class in the past eight years has issued the same pathetic response to my first day question: Who here is a feminist? The two or three (one or two) that raise their hands do so reluctantly, waggling the upraised hand to demonstrate their maybe yes, maybe no, I don’t know response. Outside as well as within the class-room, those who do identify most clearly and publically as feminist tend to associate the term with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (as in This is what a feminist looks like: Obama), or just as bad with DIY “do it yourself” repertoires of feminism as a life-style preference to mix and match with today’s flavor of the month style and attitude of “gender expression.” (see discussion of Manifesta below).

While I groan over the absence of radicalism in the world of U.S feminism, “militancy” rides on as an image of feminism—as such, as an apparently live-threat to be ritually trotted out (in Birkenstocks no less), ridiculed, and squashed by anti-feminist trash. Such trash as released by CNN in their recent (June of 2009) contribution to annual media post-mortems on the death of feminism (dating back to first year of the women’s liberation movement). Is feminism obsolete? [3] the chirrupy item goads, taking as its occasion some flap between Sarah Palin and David Letterman about something she said he said about her downs-syndrome child. This media-constructed-event led CNN, in this same fluff-piece, to announce yet another media-constructed event—namely the apparently red-hot debate among feminists about whether conservative women can be included as “feminists.” Leaving aside this non-debate, it’s revealing that the yeah-feminism-is obsolete comment box popped with its version of the same fantasy scribbled across my blackboard—the short-haired-militant-led gender-exclusive clubs following Hillary Clinton.   So, IS feminism obsolete?

Utopia in a certain slant of slur?

If insanity is expecting a different outcome to the same situation, every semester upon hearing the same stereotypes I have to face my own insanity afresh. While I can intellectually anticipate it, I repeatedly fail to “read” the writing on the wall. It’s always a blow, and I am always incredulous. The incredulity extends to my response—disbelief—that more students do not identify as feminists. My disbelief defies everything I actually know about the state of feminism today.

Then again the same situation does generate a new (if repeated) outcome by semester’s end—one that puts a different spin on the same words slurred across the first-day’s blackboard exercise. At the end of the semester my repeated question, Are you (now) a feminist?, fails to stir up more hands in the room. However, a new explanation is now provided: It’s not so much fear of feminism, some students say, but the feeling that I can not live up to thata flick of the eyes to the board where the first-day lists of negative stereotypes once swarmed.  With one gesture, the slurs have flowered backwards into the utopic meanings once hailed by a first generation of feminists, the second-wavers who claimed (for example) “dyke,” and “bitch” as proud symbols of feminist power.  When I follow the flick of their eyes to a recent past, I slide further backwards beyond the conventional temporal sequence and onto a shared existential plane of meaning. If this were a movie, a flashback would happen. The moment of  my own first encounter with radical feminism—and lesbians everywhere….would flicker on the wall.

I was their age upon entering the “women’s community” (still unspoken as the lesbian community it really was) in 1977.  At age 18, the frontal-lobe-not- yet-fused—o so tender—made a ripe palette for profusions of unwonted blotches and flowerings of color and noise as struck by the brush of/with this new world. Unheralded sequences were shocks that hurt and they were epiphanies. A first  sight of a shaved female head stunned, as did  hair on the female face, butch lesbians French-kissing on the dance-floor, the words “Lesbian Only” seemed holy, being ID-d as a dyke sent tremors down my spine in this rendition of The Lesbian Romance as lived out at ages 18 through 20. An apparition fleshed out both fed me and left me bereft, hollowed by new modes (post high school) of adolescent inadequacy. I WANTED to be a dyke, but I didn’t “look like one”.  While the body grasped at a world skittering from touch, the intellect forged itself on feminist radical ideas, hungry and hungrier. It was hard to not feel a sense of self as centaur-like with protruding, obtrusive brain, and of the body a  femmed-incompleteness (femme was unspoken as such those days—the ideal was androgyne everywhere). Dyke was the repository of a wholeness that eluded me.

Lesbian was imaginary—there was a feminist imaginary and this, Lesbian, was one of its (magical) signs. The current generation, bereft of this imaginary, is host to some remnant anxiety about “not living up to something” when glancing at the image of “feminist.”

In that anxiety is there maybe a trace-glimmer of the imaginary—the utopian?  Looking back at the blackboard now: Why that tangled thatch still bristling? Why does the term, “feminist” still give off that musky scent? While at age 19—and in the late 1970’s—I was seduced to track the smell, my students –pointedly beginning in 2000, 2001.. up until the present—have been entrained to step gingerly around it—or stomp on it. Awareness of the threat rumbled on some deep level, but in these dusty (if spectacle-ular) times of movement-less feminism, why (so these young women must feel in their guts) take the leap alone—why take that existential leap into political radicalism, and personal transformation, without an imaginary to support any such transgression that might call into question everything that-is?

Anti-feminism and feminism as a passion

What is the energy source of such transmissions? Part of the answer is that feminism, like anti-feminism (the signs bristling on the class-room wall), is not primarily a set of principles, ideas, and/or choices but is a passion, a whole-world view. These are Jean-Paul Sartre’s terms in his 1948 book, Anti-Semite and Jew. While the appearance of this philosophy text might make for a jarring entry here, consider again our hapless heroine, an out-lesbian-and-radical-feminist professor who one day when teaching the text in a Philosophy course (Existentialism) had this happen to her: Right after class one afternoon, the room cleared out by the bell, a student lingering behind the rest brings to the professor a course-text abandoned on one of the empty seats. The professor upon flipping through the book to find a name, finds this instead, in big caps scrawled across several pages: Don’t let a lesbian rape me with their vagina smelling fingers. (That symbolic order, lesbian, feminist still gives off that musk. What is the source?)

The slurred text made for what we educators call an excellent “teachable moment” since a better object-lesson for the philosophy within its pages would have been hard to find. The defacing words illustrated Sarte’s point that racism (anti-Semitism, and by extension, anti-feminism) is a whole world-view that is not simply in-the-head but is bodily, perceptual, and precedes its object.  If the Jew didn’t exist the Anti-Semite would have invented him, meaning that the Jew is the imagined object of a passion (hatred in this case) that however imaginary (“invented”) also exists as smell and taste, in a sensory as well as ideational tissue of “myths and anecdotes.” (Frantz Fanon speaking as the crushed object of the white gaze/passion:  I am woven “out of a thousand details, anecdotes and stories” [4].   Anti-semitism is a world-view because it divides the world up into evil Jew and good Gentile/Aryan. Anti-feminism—the world-view lurking within the demonizing stereotypes—divide the world up into evil lesbian-extremist feminist and good girl/good feminist (or good woman).

If feminism does not exist today, a masculine imaginary persists in re-inventing it. If we fail to invent ourselves—as a movement—they will still invent us, holding the signs of a former feminist imaginary hostage as slur-scare-terms. The ransom exacted is that  women abandon any such  sign as suspect—as a “negative” falsehood to flatten/flatter under positive-spin axioms such as “This is what a feminist looks like.” ,

The One-D Feminist and “The Democrat”

Back to the women’s studies class exercise:  When I refuse to allow the students to flatten the words into easily-dismissed falsehoods of feminism, it is because I want them to both draw back and move closer to the “vagina smell” of (the “passion” of feminism lurking within) the words crawling the walls.  The temptation for them is to act like what Sartre dubs “the Democrat” in his typology (in fact in our highly individualized, neoliberal culture, this temptation is a mandate): The Democrat wants to see anti-Semitic ideas as false “opinions;” the anti-Semite has applied false traits (e.g. “stingy”) to Jews who, like Christians, are also “human beings.” Christians can be greedy too, the Democrat says. Yes, but Sartre answers, there is no such phenomenon as “Christian greed,” as there is “Jewish greed.” The Democrat side-steps the reality that anti-Semitism is not an “opinion,” but a passion that projects an entire world-view, dividing the world up between the essentially, always already defiled Jew, and the always already pure Aryan.  If a particular Jewish person is greedy, it is part of the Jew’s nature, it is Jewish greed.

Like Sartre’s character, today’s Democrat in the form of a typical women’s studies undergrad (and like today’s Party “Democrats”!) wishes to see feminism (and lesbianism) as a life-style opinion/preference/choice thus sealing it off safely from the “false opinions” about feminists they see on the board. With the exception of that tremor of anxiety expressed haltingly by semester’s end, they don’t read the writing on the wall, the clear message in the stereotypes that mannish, lesbian, hairy etc. are projected by an essentialist passion that roots feminism in a whole-world view that threatens its own view of “woman” as for-men.  The “vagina smell” proves that a hatred of “woman” is as essential to the anti-feminist world-view.

Thus what I’d call the ethico-somatic sense of feminist—the moral/physical repugnance/attraction pulsing in all things hairy on the board—meets the more explicitly political category of stereotype: “extremist” “militant” “radical.” In concert, the two types of stereotypes demonstrate the fear that can not be put to rest by the Democrat: that feminism as a passion is also a whole world-view.

The temptation of the students, acting like the Democrat (today’s neoliberal individualist) is—in aversion from the dim awareness of feminism as a passion—to spurn the stereotypes as falsehoods and rid it of its dykey scent, rescue it as palatable for everyone. This is what a feminist looks like. Beneath the apparent plurality of the slogan lurks a rigid and passionate binary-opposition: This is what a feminist does NOT look like—NOT like the stereotypes on the wall. Not dyke, mannish, man-like, man-hater, bitchy, old, unattractive, and least of all hairy.

“Can I be a feminist and still be feminine?” a student’s earnest question nailed a crucial issue lurking behind all stereotypes in the ethico-somatic category.  But also the political: The desire to be pretty (appealing to men) and fear of losing male desire blends with the sense of feminism as a world-view that is indeed a threat to femininity (as Beauvoir put it, woman as being-for-other)—a threat that also promises that everyday life will not proceed as heternormatively usual.

Manifest(a)(n)ation of neoliberal feminism as a world-view

Can I be a feminist and still be feminine? The classic Democrat’s answer today is as follows:

“Maybe you aren’t sure you need feminism …or you’re not sure it needs you. You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are–but with a political consciousness.”

The quote is from a key Third Wave (and what I call One-dimensional feminist) text: Manifesta: Young women, feminism and the future (2000). Yes, the motivational-speaker-inclined authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards cheer on their potential recruits, Yes you can, you too can be both feminine and feminist: The fact that this avowal travels within the stock idioms of Madison Ave (as explicit as shopping, and white-weddings) will rouse socialists to track the consumerist metaphors to a consumerist causation, and thus to capitalism. But the consumerism here is an effect of deeper processes defining not only capitalism but also a neoliberal patriarchy.

Neo-liberalism: an abbreviated primer

A brief definition of neoliberalism is in order: neoliberalism describes an economic process whose origin most commentators date to the 1970s. As an economic process neo-liberalism includes the privatization of industry and institutions to such an extreme degree that the New Deal project starting with FDR but persisting through the seventies is gutted: social services, social spending are stripped; public spaces are divested and commercialized. Industry is outsourced to developing countries where policies of austerity (social adjustment policies that gut social spending, strip food-subsistence agriculture thus induce starvation, displace peoples from their land who are then funneled across municipalities and nations into the sex-trafficking and labor-trafficking industry) are imposed in return for debts hollowing the debtor-countries as a result of imperial practices imposed on them by the lending nations in the first place. Back in the U.S of A, unemployment, deskilling and the general impoverishment of the work-force results. Unionization is hammered almost clear out of existence—dealt most lethal blows during the eighties under President Reagan.  The economic policies of neo-liberalism move within and effect the ideology radicalizing the central tenet of liberalism, namely the individualist construction of the subject (the self). The neo-liberal subject is the subject of such ideological constructions as a “personal responsibility” approach to poverty that sinks the poor into the mythical morass of “their own” “underclass” “dysfunction” (welfare-queened)—a mythos conducted through an ideological and materially real matrix of social sciences, policy making, and media. The flip side of the personal responsibility paradigm is empowerment: the latter targets the middle class but spreads also to inducements to the lower-middle class, working-class and poor in various narratives of uplift promising social/economic and self-improvement through “miracles and mind-cures.” [5]

Neoliberal Patriarchy as female empowerment as (one-dimensional) feminism

One-dimensional feminism is that ideology and set of practices which arrest the passion of feminism within an imprisoning paradigm of empowerment. Thus the neo-feminist pageantry of not only brides in white, Calvin Klein shoppers, and stay at home mom feminists but pole-dancing, stripper, thong-clad neo-feminists claiming empowerment (ergo feminism) in their “life-choices.” The pageantry works as much for patriarchy as for capitalism.

Neo-liberalism is at least in part the ideology grown to accommodate (post)modern forms of exploitation and domination: capitalism and patriarchy require new forms with which to gain access to the bodies of others in order to keep its profits soaring. I will lift here from Carole Pateman’s inestimable critique of liberalism in a patriarchal world-order (her book, The Sexual Contract). Pateman’s main insight: the masterful conjuring trick of (neo)liberalism is in how it magically conducts new forms of subordination within its vehicles of “freedom.” Extending her ideas: thus we have an “empowerment”-paradigm that, directing the flow and range of practices presently considered female “life-choices,” somehow miraculously cohere with men’s desires and wishes (“stay at home moms,” “sexy” “beautiful brides in white”).

For the “trick” to do its conjuring, the subject (the human-being as positioned in this social order to both receive and interpret through all these ideological signals) must be made-over into a more extreme model of the liberal individual. A new principle of synthesis—mix-and-stir—comes into play. As signaled  by the Manifesta recruit-promo the subject of feminism is now a bundle of indifferently mixed, pre-fabricated life-choices; no priority is given to “political consciousness” which is now “with” any other life-choice like “shopping”. The mix-and-stir principle disavows the synthetic spirit (to get Hegelian here) of any radicalism, namely the spirit of a world-view—which is an on-going creation, not any fixed state of vision—through which all life-choices are continuously filtered and transformed.

To get the extent to which feminism as a passion has been flattened by current, neoliberal empowerment based feminism, imagine applying the Democrat’s discourse—as articulated in the above quoted passage from Manifesta—to a fictional recruit-poster for socialism:

Maybe you aren’t sure you need socialism …or you’re not sure it needs you. You work double-shifts without over-time pay, you are bone-tired from laboring, you pick up garbage from the highways and shop at Walmarts, a husky laborer in tough-man’s overalls, a triple-shifting mom in thrifty but stylish J.C Penney’s or Target lines of lady’s garb, or you scrub toilets, drive trucks, take care of other peoples’ kids and are not allowed to take care of your own without penalty from the state. In reality, socialism wants you to be whoever you are—but with political (socialist) consciousness.

My wager is that more readers, especially socialists, will register the element of (intended) farce—the parody of identity politic—in my re-write than will have immediately caught the inadvertent but just as hyperbolic parody in the Manifesta passage.  It is painfully laughable to think of socialism as 1, an identity-choice rather than a whole way of transforming the social order, and 2, as an identity containing exploitation (scrubbing toilets, etc) as one of its traits! Yet this is precisely how Manifesta and much of neoliberalized (often identified as “Third-Wave”) feminism presents feminism.

Synthesizing hatred

It is the anti-feminist, not today’s Democrat-feminist, who seems most clearly aware that feminism is (was?) a passion, and as such a whole world-view. The Democrat (neo-liberal) would like to avoid that conclusion with a mix-and-stir individualism that (following Sartre again) reduces a holistic hatred into a bundle of “opinions” or “traits” added on (as if extraneous to) the core, ideologically neutral,  “human being”: Be whoever you are.

In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre ridiculed this principle of synthesis as applied to the anti-Semite (by extension, we can think: the racist, the sexist, the anti-feminist):

A man may be a good father and a good husband, a conscientious citizen, highly cultivated, philanthropic, and in addition an anti-Semite. He may like fishing and the pleasures of love, may be tolerant in matters of religion, full of generous notions on the condition of the natives in Central Africa, and in addition detest the Jews” (8). [6]

When I teach this passage, it is difficult for my students to register its sarcasm. Why can’t an anti-Semite also be a good father? (Why can’t a feminist also like to shop?) The question is raised from a perspective that already reduces racism (anti-feminism, feminism) to an identity choice. So from that perspective why can’t we say of a murderous anti-feminist, for example, like the right wing man who slaughtered abortion-providing doctor, George Tiller, this past June (2009), that he also has some good traits?

Will we say of this murderer that

Mr. Roeder may be a good father, a good gardener, love chocolate ice cream, pay his taxes, bowls on Sundays, and in addition detests women and feminists (and blacks, Jews, Catholics, etc)?

Truthfully, if we are the “liberal media” we might as well say this. Unfortunately the truly “liberal” media also includes elements of the “alternative” “leftist” media—at least when the issue of feminism is approached by the latter. In concert with the mainstream media, alternative media resoundingly failed to connect the murder of Tiller with gender, let alone (anti)feminism.

To be fair, Liberals did not by any means espouse Roeder’s good qualities or present Roeder as a basically decent person with some murderous flaws. Some liberals did indeed track Roeder’s act to a whole world-view and passion: white supremacy. In which case the core anti-woman and anti-feminist passion of the act was neatly erased.  A prime example was provided by a liberal commentator, Fred Clarkson, who was interviewed on the Leftist radio show, Counterspin [7]. Clarkson’s completely gender-neutralized analysis was capped by his expressed dismay at what he considers the “exceptionalism” of the anti-abortionists: Why do they pick on abortion-clinics, why not dental clinics? Why not indeed? Gender thus absurdly (dis)appears as if an arbitrary element of anti-abortion attacks. The explicitly patriarchal world-view supporting such attacks is hidden in plain sight, as Sunsara Taylor points out:

“At its core and from its inception, the “pro-life” movement has been driven forward by biblical values that insist on the domination of women by men and that women’s essential role is as breeders of children. This has been true from the days of major clinic blockades where Christian fascist groups like Operation Rescue would lead crowds to pray for god to “break the curse of independence” on women to the most recent Supreme Court ruling restricting late-term abortion that claims to be “protecting” the interests of women by forcing them to have children they may not want. These forces have been brought into the ruling structures of society on all levels–and have much initiative in implementing their program.” 8

The Democrat/neoliberal leftist (and feminist)—like actual Democrat, neo-liberal Obama—often issues appeals to “pro-choice” activists to make “common ground” with anti-abortionists. The murder took place a few short days before the CNN fluff about feminism’s “obsolescence” and about 10 days after Obama delivered a speech (to Notre Dame) appealing to both pro-choice and anti-abortion contingencies to “tone down the rhetoric”[9]—as if minced appeals to “choice” by mainstream women’s organizations were made at the same fever-pitch as anti-abortion claims about murder and at times, the “holocaust” of the unborn.   The search for “common ground” (which might have something to do with the real, not media-invented, obsolescence of radical feminism) ignores the murderous anti-feminist, patriarchalist world-view that mandate forced motherhood—or forced sterilization—based on a fundamental view of all women as men’s subordinates—and racialized women as subordinates within a patriarchal system that is also white-supremacist. As Sunsara Taylor strikingly puts it, “common ground” with this contingent is “killing ground.” Her point could not be more chillingly supported as by the current move towards a “compromise” on a “health reform” bill in which both Senate and House have already agreed to retain strong restrictions on abortion. While receiving some attention in the alternative media after the Stupak amendment (see blog entry two), the chokehold on women’s bodies, women’s freedom, represented in the coming compromise is now, as of the date of this writing, all but unmentioned.

Young men picked them everyone….

Anti-feminism is certainly more attuned to the persistence of patriarchy than today’s one-D neo-feminists and liberal-leftists. In addition to such silencing measures as discussed above, the preservation of patriarchy and passion of anti-feminism is often hidden within plain sight of Leftist male “irony.”  A prime example here is ironist extraordinaire, Left journalist and co-editor of Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn. Nary a column of Cockburn’s on Palin passed without “tongue in cheek” references to Palin’s looks—“the beautiful, intrepid frontierswoman,” [10] the “Boadacia of the Backwoods” –and of her hair…he delectates “drowsy Sarah Palin getting that 3am phone call from the Situation Room, in charming décolleté, her hair down, snuggled under the soft mounds of grizzly pelt? . . . . Who would not wish to take off Sarah’s spectacles and liberate those rich, heaped-up tresses?”[11] Who indeed? Did Cockburn ironically jerk off to such images?[12] The clincher was the column where he noted that “Liberals, particularly women [were] maddened at the spectacle of attractive Governor Sarah.”[13] Cockburn is evidently the twin separated at birth of Rush Limbaugh who authored the lovely adage that “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.”

The two-headed monster of masculinist left and right: the words emit a passion capable of holding young women hostage to its world-view based on brute divisions between “pretty” women and dread “old” “unattractive” ones. The ransom price exacted is that any identification with feminism be modified by reiterated avowals of femininity and by demonstrated lack of passion/anger. What is mandated are repeated demonstrations by women that, if they call themselves feminists they are what Andrea Dworkin satirized as the “fun kind of feminist,” the kind who finds pole-dancing or stripping to be the ultimate empowering “expression” of her identity.

(Neo)liberalism keeps feminism on the leash of “identity.”   This is a feminism without antagonism. Antagonism implies political awareness that gender—the relations between men and women as presently organized in a patriarchal social order—are outrageously unfair, and represent (to put it mildly) a critical conflict of interests between the exploiter and the exploited. “Stay at home mom” is not so perky when considering the reality that women in the United States still do 70% of housework (40% of this figure are also employed full time).[14] One group benefits on the other’s loss, because the first group is appropriating the energies, time, bodies of the other group for its own gains. Free lunch all the time served by all the pretty ones in décolleté and flowing hair…spectacles removed, but not the spectacle that the Left as well as Right makes of feminism.

Negative Possibility: Put on those spectacles!

Political awareness implies that a gap opens between consciousness and itself—a space of reflection—so that the order that is “given” to us does not remain “given” in the sense of inevitable. The wall is no longer blank-faced but looks back at us with the squirming raw data of an anti-feminism that remains live in its ability to frighten women into complacency—a complacency re-presented as “empowerment.”

The gap in thought allows for negativity—a negativity in danger of extinction as Marcuse once wrote. He was referring to the loss of reflective thinking. Reflection is negative—it implies negation of what-is, aka critique. The common whine of men to feminists: “you’re so antagonistic; so negative” shows that men mind the gap, and quite well.

Empowering feminism

The extinction of the negative shows itself in neo-feminism’s compulsion to put a positive spin on itself and thus put out the remnant sparks flying from stale-stereotypes.  The thrust of this positive-ism is to convert us on the spot to a world-view based on “empowerment” which effectively masks and greases the persistent wheels of patriarchy and capitalism as the systems grind on in new and improved forms. Ideals of self-empowerment mystify the reality that patriarchy and capitalism in their neo-liberal formations remain structural and systemic, despite appearances (spectacles) everywhere of gender-neutrality and the neutrality of the ever “free” market.

The empowerment model of freedom takes both the bread and roses out of feminism, offering mealy versions of its flo(u)(w)er: super-refined of course, plastic, canned, potted excrescences of form as con-form to patriarchal convention although let’s call this conformity “female agency.”[15] Such “agency” is profitable—not only for capital but for what R.W Connell called “the patriarchal dividend”—“the advantage that men in general gain from the overall subordination of women.”[16] Who would dare deny that men get off scot free, and just plain get off from the claim so often heard from women today about their various fashionable practices inclusive of stripping, plucking, waxing, housework, prostitution, and gender itself: I’m doing it for myself (not men).

It’s all about freedom of expression…

As the ad for Botox tells us, in the warm assured tones of earthy over-forty actress Virginia Madson, “It’s [Botox] all about freedom of expression.” Can the claim be beat as an Orwellian Reversal that has so wormed its way into everyday discourse that the latter includes an empowerment feminism unlikely to register incredulity at the advertisement? As much as facial muscle, so has critical muscle been paralyzed by the current neo-liberalized, one-dimensional feminism. Reversals no longer have their capacity to shock; they are stock parlance of advertising-modeled public (and private) relations of communicative exchange.

They refer here to a range of “fashionable” practices that extend to re-designing their own vaginas and other modes of (self)mutilation. Thus in “empowerment,” we have the perfect ideological tissue for conducting such energy-transmissions of neoliberal patriarchy that can travel freely, openly disguised as the secret agencies of women.

True Falsehoods and False truths

The false truth of the writing on the black-board wall is that the stereotypes are just bad opinions or even lies. The true falsehood becomes clear:  the falsehood is a fantasy of a feminism without any friction with the world. Feminism without “negativity,” meaning without gender-antagonism. Gender is no longer seen as a site of struggle. Feminism becomes a frictionless screen of choices where the cursor-individual[17] might glide without any static interference in the program of “individual personal life.” Everything in personal life is now “personalized” after all—i-feminism [18]. On this screen the stereotypes lurk as dread-viral contaminants (with vagina smelling fingers about to creep out and get you) poised to shut down the entire system.

Presently contained by the passion and world-view of anti-feminism, might such stereotypes one day explode again as they did in The Woman-Identified-Woman: “a lesbian is the rage of all women bursting to the point of explosion”?[19] The line echoes Monique Wittig’s metaphor (for queer literature, but also the poesis of Lesbian itself; I will read it too as a metaphor for a radicalized feminism) of the Trojan Horse[20]: Enclosed within the sheltering walls of the city, the horse appears to be a gift—“They [the inhabitants of the city] want to make it theirs, to adopt it as a monument and to shelter it within their walls. . . .But what if it was a war machine?” What if this “gift” is an object that one day might explode, as if overnight pulverizing “old forms and formal conventions,” rendering the very (patriarchal/heteronormative) form of the city itself obsolete?

To date, the figure of feminism as war-machine[21] has been reversed—neo-liberalism (as ideology and structure) is the war-machine well-disguised as a gift—the gift of empowerment, fulfillment, the realization of a girl’s dreams, the cherished gift of “female agency”.   As if overnight such a “gift” has pulverized feminism, hollowing it out from within, to turn out its one-D rendition—rendering feminism in all its “negativity”—as passion and world-view—the object of planned (structured) obsolescence.


[1] Merle Hoffman uses this epigram in her response to On the Issues call for “Revolutions We Need” (Winter 2009). http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/2009winter/2009winter_publisher.php

[2] Phrase, “caught in the fact,” taken from poet Rosemary Waldrop, 1978, The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body, Columbia, MO: Open Places.

[3] Carol Costello and Ronni Berke, “Just Say’n: Is feminism obsolete,” http://amfix.blogs.cnn.com/2009/06/19/just-sayin-is-feminism-obsolete/

[4] Fanon, 2001 “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Race edited by Robert Bernasconi, Blackwell: 185.

[5] See Janice Peck, The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, 2008, for an outstanding analysis of the ideology of neo-liberal individualism as manifest and conducted through such franchises as “Opra.” She talks about the “mind-cures” and “miracles” that are peddled by this franchise.

[6] Sartre, 1948, Shocken, Anti-Semite and Jew

[7] Interview with Clarkson, June 5-June 11 edition of Counterspin. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3812

[8] “Abortion Rights Under Assault, Where is the Women’s Movement? The Deadly Consequences of Compromise”

[9] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104226887

[10] http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn09062008.html

[11] http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn08302008.html

[12] A 1999 headline in the Onion: “Ironic Porn Purchase leads to Unironic Ejaculation,” http://www.theonion.com/content/node/38979

[13] http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn09132008.html

[14] http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2007-08-28-housework_N.htm

[15] Mary Daly talks about “potted passions” in Pure Lust.

[16] R.W. Connell, 1995, Masculinities:79.

[17] Inspiration for “cursor-individual” is David Joselit’s notion of “Citizen-Cursor,” in Communities of Sense: Re-thinking Aesthetics and Politics, Duke, 2009.

[18] For i-feminism, hat tip to Miranda Fillebrown.

[19] Radicalesbians, 1973, “The Woman-Identified-Woman,” Radical Feminism. ed. Koedt et al. New York.

[20] Monique Wittig, 1992, “The Trojan Horse,” in The Straight Mind.

[21] Wittig was referring to literary works and queer writing. But her poesis inspires or me the figure of feminism as war-machine.

//

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8 responses to “One Dimensional Feminism Part 2: Where have all the flowers gone?

  1. Nice to read some good feminist theory/commentary. Looking forward to more.

  2. Thank you for this. My old heart is pumping again. I missed feminism at university,(it did not exist then) but fought with every male professor I had about male fantasies of women in the books we read. I had five of them gang up on me and say that if I did not write what they wanted to hear, I could forget my degree. I did not have the vocabulary of feminism and basically I was alone. I caved, while they gloated.

    When I finally found Mary Daly years later, I understood what had happened. Reading your post has been invigorating for me.
    I have noticed on the net, that there is an outpouring of grief and tributes to Mary Daly and wow, that has surely been helpful to me.
    Nobody I know has ever heard of her. Nobody I know ever questions their own belief system and where it came from. But, they all are so grateful to feminism, s0 that they can have jobs worry free of social justice or ideology. They are equal to men in their ability to exploit the other and not care.
    The other day I saw a women in a pick-up truck. ( When I bought my old toyota suv, I was told that it was a man’s vehicle), her bumper sticker said ” my other boy toy is at home.” Funny or sick? I guess she is a fun feminist, but I felt a little sick.
    It is nice to know that there are radical feminists still in academia, or as Mary said academentia.
    Rhondda

  3. I love your writing. Your painting of our current world. Mary did/does the same for me. I want to mark her yarhzeit with fire-performances and art and out-loud readings. Please feel free to get in touch with me anytime.

  4. Thanks for casting your thoughts in such a fine tuned way. It made me smile – not because it made me happy – but because your voice is so strong in this essay.

    Thanks
    Susan

  5. Excellent writing

    Thank you

  6. Brilliant and forceful. I think Mary Daly’s rep will grow and grow. Is this the passing of the flowers of utopia? I actually feel very hopeful, though I’m thinking of the long term. We have to keep reminding ourselves of the scope of the situation we find ourselves in, and it is interesting that you raise the utopian idea. We need utopian literature to help us imagine a future in which the situation is resolved and we are ourselves. Thank you very much for your work here.

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