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Friday, December 04, 2009

review of One Dimensional Woman

[Cross posted from News from the Zona]

La mère en prescrira la lecture à sa fille… -The epigraph of Philosophe dans le boudoir.

There is a story about the French feminist, Pauline Roland, that goes like this. In 1848, a faction of the socialist saint simonians had gathered together in Broussac, a village about 13 miles from Nohant, under their leader, Pierre Leroux. George Sand, who lived in Nohant, had been the one to persuade Leroux to move the village after Leroux had been officially exiled from Paris as a radical. Leroux, in turn, invited Roland to live in Broussac and assume the duties of a teacher. At the time Roland was being financially crushed under the burden of supporting her three children by her own labors; she did this because she had no intention of letting the fathers of these children intervene in any way in their lives. Thus, she felt that they had no duty to provide for the children – on the contrary. Paternity, she proclaimed, was a superstitious imposition. Another superstitious imposition, the monarchy, fell in France in 1848, and elections were subsequently held in, among other places, Broussac. Roland went to the town hall and tried to cast a ballot for Leroux, only to be refused admission. The story goes that when the police took her in for her attempted vote, she told them that she was “Marie Antoinette” Roland.

I think there is something deep about this story. On the one hand, Pauline Roland was a socialist. After her stay in Broussac, she returned to Paris and was an active member of the workers’ association that briefly sprang up in that city. It was for this subversive activity (as well as for “feminism” and “moral degeneracy”) that she was tried under Louis Napoleon and exiled to Algeria. According to the memoirs of a member of the printers union, Bosson, Roland had shrewdly sized Louis Napoleon up and was scathing about the way some union leaders – notably Leroux – were still unclear about Louis Napoleon’s intentions on the evve of the coup d’etat in 1851: “Pierre Leroux made an incredulous smile, he told me: I know my little Louis, he is incapable! Pauline Roland who was a frail creature, a mere breath, jumped about like a lamb: Your little Louis! But I love a thousand times more the butcher Cavaignac [leader of the reaction] than your little Louis!” [see Paul Chauvet]

On the other hand, as she knew – and as feminist historians from Marie d’Agoult to Joan Landes have noticed – the status of women worsened during the time of the French Revolution. The Romantic revenge against the women of the eighteenth century was codified in Napoleonic law. The great melody of equality, which found its voice in Olympe de Gouges and Condorcet, had its head cut off – for not only did Gouges, among other ultra women, go to the guillotine, but the culture of the salons, in which women, as Landes put it, could be the ‘adjuncts’ of power, was targeted for destruction by the revolutionaries and, to an extent, by Napoleon (whose vulgarities regarding Madame de Stael would have been looked upon as extremely distasteful under the ancien regime). By an irony of circumstances, Roland’s final trial, staged by Leroux’s “little Louis”, was less about her subversive activities than her shocking behavior as a wanton woman and a mother – which was exactly how Hebert had stage managed the case against Marie Antoinette in 1793.

‘Marie Antoinette’ Roland names, I think, the tension between feminism and the left. In the seventies, some feminists tried to straddle that tension by identifying patriarchy with capitalism. However, I can’t see this as anything other than a tactic of conceptual desperation, and certainly not a logical conclusion drawn from history.

The tension between a left that subsumes the historical female difference to reproduction (in keeping with a logic that can only see systems of production) and a feminism that often collaborates in its own narrowing to a series of consumer choice runs all the way through Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, which begins by asking: “Where have all the interesting women gone?” The book is in the fine tradition of the political pamphlet, which takes its first duty to be flinging some extreme truths in the face of the public. For in the pamphleteer’s soul, the truth is always and forever extreme. It is a genre that Power excels at.

The book is both a plea for a useable past and a summing up of the dreadful uses made of feminism in the 00s: the bad faith feminism that provided the cynical grounds for our neo-colonialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, shoulder to shoulder, of course, with Saudi Arabia, that paragon of women’s rights; or the extension of feminism to mean, anything connected with a powerful woman, however dubious her politics or economics; or the Sex and the City feminism that normalized the independent woman as a consumer of gourmet chocolates and a really really fun person who happens to be oh so charmingly for equal rights for women.

Right off the bat, I am predisposed to favor this book. It is not only that I am a fan of Nina Power’s blog, Infinite Thought. It is that I am an intellectual thief of that site. Her site, in many ways, taught me how to write my own blog. When I first starting reading Power, I had started my blog already. But I didn’t know how what tone exactly to take. Was I going to write small essays? Make a link machine for friends? Use it as my diary? Power was one of the first bloggers I read who had figured out the genre, at least to my satisfaction, and I took many of the things I wanted to do for most of this decade from Power’s stylistic suggestions. She had Djed the mix of the theoretical, the personal, and the colloquial that I knew, immediately, was what you could do with a blog. Later, her use of montage like use of shock or mock images, a la John Heartsfeld, was something I decided to slavishly imitate. I was a blogger with an unknown tropism, and Infinite Thought was my sun.

In particular, Power figured out how to lower the ego of the blog. Many blogs – and mine included – are long arias of me, which can get tedious over time. Power, however, uses language as something that she can stumble over, transforming egotism into slapstick. This isn’t British self effacement, but a sort of juggler’s fumble. All of those funny “erms” and curve ball rhetorical questions in her blog posts have a function. It is through these techniques that she establishes an intimacy with the reader – for the fumble is a hand outstretched. It is a contact. It is a gesture that reminds us of the author’s sovereign right to touch. Benjamin, in his essay on Leskov, speaks of the tactile moment in the story, when the storyteller touches the listener, puts his hand on the listener’s shoulder. That self-interruption, that way of making the language something that actually comes off the tongue and is thus heir to a death no word itself could feel, is an extremely subtle move in the internet world – it is a quick, golden flash – and you have to look for it - for mostly, on the internet, every intimacy has been mimicked to death, and the storyteller’s touch turns out to be the cold, cancerous hand of corporate speak, poking you in the eye.

Thus, I read One Dimensional Woman, Power’s first book, against her already pretty formidable output. Although the book sometimes jumps around “like a lamb”, betraying its blog origins, the extended meditation on pornography, sexpol utopias, and the contrast between radical feminism and what Power calls the current attitude of “deflationary acceptance” – the era of normalized feminism – is a continuous piece of cultural criticism of a pretty high order. I am extremely sympathetic to her viewpoint – I believe Power is advocating for the sociability of pleasure, or what used to be called “volupté.” Thus, she mostly avoids the pitfalls of the sterile opposition between pornography and erotica – and, though it may seem like an oxymoron, she calls for something like a Habermasian pornography (I never, ever thought I would put those two things together! The universe truly is the Library of Babel, and everything will eventually conjoin with everything else). This is a strength of her materialist and productionist viewpoint. The weakness, however, is that, while she does explore the history of dirty movies and the 80s drive, by some feminists, to ban them, she doesn’t explore the larger history of feminist strategies and the persistent fissure that exists between the left and feminism. McKinnon and Dworkin, after all, were by no means the first feminists to turn the movement into a fight against a social ‘vice’. Feminists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Anglosphere – and even in Mexico – were allies, for instance, of the temperance movement. They crusaded against child labor, and against prostitution. Against the lineaments of gratified desire, feminism has always adduced the social fact of systematic violence – of drunken husbands beating wives, of the degradation, illness, and early death endemic to the prostitute’s trade, or – in the case of pornography – of the purported link with rape. Jane Gallup has suggested that feminism is divided between bad girl and good girl feminisms. One can question whether even irony can rescue that division from an infantilizing logic to which it reduces the feminist dialectic, but it does, at least, provide us with a sense of how feminism is divided on the question of the sociability of pleasure. In a sense, the normalization of feminism in the 00s, against which Power directs her polemic, is a normalization of a kind of bad girl feminism. For what is the solution to male drunkards beating their wives? Woman friendly alcohol. Woman friendly cigarettes, woman friendly porn, woman friendly products and services – by a strange dialectical twist, the bad girl alliance with the lineaments of gratified desire has driven this feminism into an advocacy of the female subject as an equal consumer.

Here, I wish Power had been a little more panoramic in her vision of feminism – and had not dealt simply with the movement as though it had sprung up almost exclusively in the late 1960s.

Yet this might be asking to much from a book that is intentionally as short as a bullet. What I really want to say, watching Power aimi for the heart of the era of normalized feminism, is: Shoot Nina! Shoot!

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