Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Utopian Trace in Charles Dickens' Hard Times: A Utopian Studies Conference Paper

      Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is not traditionally read within a utopian framework. The scholarship on the novel tends to focus on the generic conventions of realism and representations of the working class. The only reference to utopia in the scholarship comes from Leona Toker, who reads the novel as a critique of utopia, placing utilitarianism into the camp of utopia. I want to pose a counter-reading that places its focus on a series of liminal moments in the text. The novel continually gestures towards the fantastic, whether in the form of imagery on carpeting or the pulp literature consumed by the working classes. These traces of the fantastic are a threat to the advocates of utilitarianism, who attempt to suppress them from the school room and daily life. These attempts are shown in a comic light, revealing a narrow-minded literalism on the part of school teachers, but these liminal forms of art and literature also gesture towards the possibility of a world that operates on a different logic than the ‘hard facts’ of the factory town. I read these moments in the text as a utopian trace in the text, gesturing towards the forms of cooperation between working people that life in the industrial town depends on even as the dominant structures of the town attempt to suppress it. The traces of the fantastic take the form of a series of novum in the Blochian sense disrupting the daily life of the instrumental life of the factory town with a range of fantastic alternatives.

      It would be a mistake to see the utopian impulse as a central feature. Instead, the novel provides a sharp critique of the narrow instrumental reason of utilitarianism through a contrast of the many foibles of the middle-class citizens of the city of Coketown, contrasting them with the quiet dignity of the working-class victims of the industrial city and the carnival performers who try to avoid that life. The narrative follows the utilitarian Mr. Gradgrind as he moves from the reform school of the beginning of the novel to the upper reaches of parliament by the end of the novel. At the same time, it maps the effects of his education reform by showing the foundering of his children as they attempt to create lives for themselves without any real moral or ethical compass. It mirrors those problems by following the life of factory hand, Stephen Blackpool, who is unable to escape from his unfortunate marriage to his alcoholic wife, who shows no interest in either her husband or escaping from her condition, to marry his love, the devoted Rachel. In each case, the ‘muddle’ of family relations stands in for the ‘muddle’ of social relations that define Coketown as a whole.

       Leona Toker’s essay “Hard Times and a critique of Utopia: A Typological Study” attempts to frame this discussion as precisely a critique of utopianism by framing the reform work of Thomas Gradgrind as a kind of utopian schema of improvement. Within this context, Thomas Gradgrind is presented as a principled reformer, one that allows his schema of improvement to blind him to the complexity of human existence. Because of that, his utopian schema becomes a dystopian reality for those who must live within it. Toker then places the book within a long tradition of anti-utopian literature that present the utopian and dystopian as two sides of the same coin, looking particularly at the work of Adolous Huxley and George Orwell. Utilitarianism in this context stands in for any program built on a set of abstract principles that are placed in effect within a society. However, while the text emphasizes Gradrind’s obsession with calculation and abstraction, there is little sense of Gradgrind as an individual who has any real interest in the improvement of the society that he lives within. Instead, Gradgrind’s work is continually focused on improving the efficiency of the system as it exists. Rather than showing an obsession for creating a new set of abstractions designed to create a better world, Thomas Gradgrind accepts the world as it is and refuses to imagine any possibility of it working differently. Gradgrind is certainly engaged in a project of the kind of reductionism that defines what James C Scott would identify as a high modernist impulse, but that impulse isn’t directed towards social transformation which is at the heart of the utopian project.

      Katherine Kearn’s “A Tropology of Realism in Hard Times” might be a better place to begin an examination of the utopian impulse within the work of the novel. Her text argues that Thomas Gradgrind’s demand for a world based on facts and his desire to suppress a web of activities placed under the term ‘Fancy.’ For Kearns, Fancy then stands in for sexual pleasure and a constellation of other activities tied to the pleasure of the text, a continual excess of language that spills over and challenges the narrow logic of realism. For her, it represents ‘an opposition between the Hard Times consistently brings the reader to share in the deconstruction of its stated "realism," whose utilitarian surface yields throughout to those alternative and ineffable truths produced by the artist's "mute Hands," which do not tell but only feel and make’ (Kearn 859). The text continually exceeds the conventions of realism linked to the instrumental reason of capital, delving into the terrain of unconscious desire, which is ‘felt but not told’ through its figurative languge. Even though, Kearns’ analysis is framed within the trajectory of a deconstructive approach to the text, the analysis is not unreconcilable with Bloch’s theory of the utopian trace. The critique of utilitarianism opens an abundance of small possibilities, traces of the possibility of another world, another logic, and created by drives that are exogenous to the logic of the system that they live under.

      The utopian trace is initially gestured towards through the interaction between the daughter of a circus performer, Sissy Jupe and her future guardian, Mr. Gradgrind at the school that Mr. Gradgrind had organized to enact his utilitarian principles.

      ‘Girl number twenty,’ said the gentleman, smiling in the calm strength of knowledge.
       Sissy blushed, and stood up
      ‘So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’
       ‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl
       ‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’
       ‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—’
       ‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’
       ‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’
       ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.
       ‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’ (Dickens 13-14)

       At its most immediate level, the passage is a critique of the utilitarian classroom and its desire to reduce the complexity of human life into a table of facts and figures. The classroom is immediately marked as a disciplinary space, a space that both demands obedience from its subjects and transforms the complexity of life to a series of rote answers. Earlier in the novel, the space is referred to as dictatorial. Within Dickens’ own sentimental economy, the utilitarian reform school takes the form of a bully that destroys, rather than builds the subjectivity of the children who enter its classrooms. The disciplinary lesson takes the form of a rather one-sided debate over how one should decorate one’s home. The two instructors fail to bully young Cissy Jupe into rejecting the representation of flowers as an acceptable decoration for one’s living room carpet for the simple fact that actual flowers would not be found on a living room floor. It’s hard not to see Dickens’ satirical tendencies within this exercise of reductio ad absurdium. Articles of daily life are suddenly presented as threats to the very fabric of reality as a virtual form of madness that could turn the world upside down.

       At the same time, the passage introduces a significant opposition that defines the rest of the novel. The reductivist world of facts is place in opposition to the world of ‘fancy’, a world that must be destroyed. The world of ‘fancy’ disrupts the world of facts by contradicting them. It points to a world where ‘foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery’ and random quadrupeds roam the walls of suburban living rooms. ‘Fancy’ within this context points obliquely to a world where the facts of utilitarian life are contravened, and the possibility of another life is pointed to. This opposition is only intensified when the book turns to the education of the children of Mr. Gradgrind and the term fancy which creates the conditions for another world is then connected to the world of the fantastic, whether in the form of folk or fairy tales or in the figures of a variety of monsters. The narrow and reductionist nature of their education, one that focused on the world as it exist and requires the exclusion of monsters who disrupt the inevitability of Coketown.

       The question of fancy is then picked up several pages later in one of the many authorial interjections in the novel, framing its qualities in relationship to the working life of the many hands who produce the abundant wealth of the community.

       Is it possible, I wonder, that there was any analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds? Surely, none of us in our sober senses and acquainted with figures, are to be told at this time of day, that one of the foremost elements in the existence of the Coketown working-people had been for scores of years, deliberately set at nought? That there was any Fancy in them demanding to be brought into healthy existence instead of struggling on in convulsions? That exactly in the ratio as they worked long and monotonously, the craving grew within them for some physical relief—some relaxation, encouraging good humour and good spirits, and giving them a vent—some recognized holiday, though it were but for an honest dance to a stirring band of music—some occasional light pie in which even M’Choakumchild had no finger—which craving must and would be satisfied aright, or must and would inevitably go wrong, until the laws of the Creation were repealed? (Dickens 30)

       Fancy within this context takes on another shape, one of simple relief and relaxation. It becomes an escape from the ordinary monotony of daily life, an escape from toil and monotony of factory life. The drive towards also powerfully reflects the fact that the life of utilitarian reason, while producing so much for the middle classes has produced ‘nought’ for the masses of workers who have produced that wealth. Fancy not only represents a form of escape, but a demand as well. It represents an attempt to create a meaningful life within a life that is primarily defined by rote repetition. That meaningful life is then constructed out of the detritus of industrial production, forms of popular music, what would in the future become pulp literature, and dives and dancehalls of the city. It would be easy to reduce these pleasures to simply a precursor to the forms of mass entertainment that would define the era of Fordist production, and to an extent, this material does presage that moment, but it also represents a powerful demand, a demand for a world that focuses on use rather than exchange and the desire for a life that is meaningful for its participants. These two points continually exceed the commodity forms associated with them.

       The novel then interweaves this critique throughout the novel, returning to it in its interstices, frequent authorial interjections, and pronouncements that differentiate the novel from most of his work for many critics. The novel pairs the search for pleasure with the search for a meaningful life. The search for pulp literature doubles with the search for genuine meaning at the library, a preoccupation that continually flummoxes the Thomas Gradrinds and Josiah Bounderby’s of the world. At the same time, Dickens respect for the demands of the hands, the working people of the imagined Coketown does not extend to political organization. If the ascendant bourgeoisie are rebuked through the paired figures of Josiah Bounderby and Thomas Gradrind, the novel equally rebukes the attempts on the part of radical workers to organize through the figure of Slackbridge, who mirrors the bombastic rhetoric of Josiah Bounderby as a sort of debased copy of the first figure. The novel is committed to the dignity of the hands but rejects collective political action as the product of demagoguery that matches or even exceeds the demagoguery of the factory owners such as Josiah Bounderby. The novel oscillates between the quiet commitment of the hands to a collective dignity and mutual aid and a political discourse that only manipulates them.

       Even as Dickens repeatedly rejects the self-organization of the hands as a meaningful solution to the muddle that is identified by Stephen Blackpool, the text refuses to resolve the contradiction through traditional devices of reconciliation such as marriage. The narrative ends with the betterment of two of the characters, but it also ends in the mutual death of Josiah Bounderby and his laborer, Stephen Blackpool without resolution. The satirical tone of the rest of the novel takes on a rather different tone with the death of Mrs. Gradgrind, the long-ignored wife and mother of the Gradgrind family, a lightly comical character up until this point. Mrs. Gradgrind’s final speech immediately expresses a submerged critique of the philosophy of her husband. She asks for pen and paper to write to him, to tell him that there is something that has been left out of his system of knowledge. She notes, “‘But there is something—not an Ology at all—that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now. But your father may” (Dickens 194). The speech returns to the earlier opposition in the novel, between the na├»ve ethical system of Sissy and the systematic knowledge of Thomas Gradgrind. Returning to that opposition, Mrs. Gradgrind affirms that Sissy’s beliefs contains something in excess of what is contained in Thomas Gradgrind’s narrow worlds of facts, but she can’t put a name to it. At the same time, she recognizes that the organized knowledge might be able to provide that name.

      Mrs. Gradgrind then makes a final attempt to put down this knowledge in the form of a letter. The effort fails, but the language describing that failure is highly evocative. The passage reads, “It matters little what figures of wonderful no-meaning she began to trace upon her wrappers. The hand soon stopped in the midst of them; the light that had always been feeble and dim behind the weak transparency, went out; and even Mrs. Gradgrind, emerged from the shadow in which man walketh and disquieteth himself in vain, took upon her the dread solemnity of the sages and patriarchs” (Dickens 194). The message takes the form of a trace of ‘figures of wonderful no-meaning’ that take a form that ‘matters little.’ That trace in turn gestures towards a set of possibilities that were always ‘feeble and dim behind the weak transparency.’ But nonetheless, they constitute a trace of a possibility of another life, one that must be gestured towards, even as it. That sentimentalized trace mirrors the death of Stephen Blackpool who similarly gestures towards other possibilities even as those possibilities are not grounded in the conventional notion of marriage and reproductive futurity. They constitute a refusal of closure or reconciliation even as that refusal is grounded in the figure of the muddle rather than any political formation.

       That trace is in a sense a product of the tension between the novel’s desire to recognize the inner life of the working people of England in the novel, to ‘give them a little more play’ to draw on the language of the novel and the phobic response to worker self-organization. However, rather than reading this tension as a failure of the novel, the tension produces a rich sense of symptoms in the series of authorial intrusions and side comments identified by Katherine Kearn. That tension is not resolved and unlike so many industrial novels, there is no effort to suture together the class division through the act of marriage. That lack of resolution also refuses to accept the illusion that the social problems of the novel are somehow resolvable within the confines of the society as it existed. Fancy or Fantasy become a sort of gesture towards a different world, even as it draws from the detritus of the old. Its ineffable nature exposes the limits of that vision even as it gestures towards a novum that cannot be reincorporated into the existing system.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Short Posting on The Handmaid's Tale

      I found myself thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after a brief interaction at a talk at the recent Utopian Studies Conference last weekend. Like the last conference I attended, the conference went well and the panel focusing on feminist utopias and dystopias might have been my favorite panel of the conference. About half the papers of the final panel I attended focused on the novel and the recent HBO adaptation of the novel. The papers by Claire Curtis and Kate Meakin critically examined the adaptation and the way it diverged from the original material of the novel. In both cases, the presenters were critical of the adaptation and particularly its transformation of the originally white nationalist republic of Gilead into a more integrated if equally patriarchal construction. The second presenter, Kate Meakin, went further to explore the way that those troubling aspects of the tv series translated into the recent protests in support of women’s rights that appropriated the image of the Handmaid. She noted that it was particularly problematic to embrace the phrase, Make Margaret Atwood fiction again when the policies being protested had a long history in the oppression of women of color. Far from being a product of Margaret Atwood’s imagination, most of these policies had been enacted to restrict the reproductive rights of women of color, a point that Atwood herself makes in the novel itself.[1]

        In the comments section, I brought up the issue of the protests and noted that the protests tended to ignore the larger framing of the novel, one in which the Handmaids are in some sense relatively privileged in comparison to the women sent to deaths in the colonies or the African-American population who were almost certainly exterminated within the framework of the novel. The panelists were rightly critical of my poorly chosen framing of the analysis. Privilege is certainly the wrong word to use in conjunction of a population who must face the sort of intense domination and sexual violence that the Handmaids face, but the comment does gesture towards the nuanced manner that the fictional republic used to avoid the construction of a rebellion in the form of a ‘women as a class.’ The narrative marks the forms of resentment that create divisions between the Handmaids and the Marthas as well as the even wider gulfs between these figures and the various wives within the republic, who themselves are divided by class within the white republic. At the same time, those figures are incorporated within the republic even as they are systemically excluded from its public sphere distinguishing them from the women who are exiled to the colonies, the Jezebels on the margins of the society, and the populations exterminated by the regime.

       One of the most powerful aspects of the book is the way that the book explores this dense disciplinary network of surveillance through the interior voice of the Handmaid, Offred. As Atwood notes in her earlier comments on the novel, Offred isn’t a rebellious figure and is a figure that tries to survive in the society as it exists, even as she tries to find a way out of it. Atwood goes even farther, referring to the character as a ‘coward.’ As one of the panelists, Claire Curtis, noted, the desire to survive within the book and the show often comes at the expense of others. For my interpretation, the desire to survive also involves a need to engage with the rules set that is created by the Gilead Republic, an engagement that unavoidably involves a degree of internalization of those very rules. The figure of Offred becomes the vehicle to explore this deeply ambiguous mixture of a desire to escape, to rebel against the republic and at the same time, the perhaps even necessary complicity with that oppression both against herself and other populations.[2] The resentments over the small differences in the regime’s treatment of different groups of women and the slights from other women are richly represented in the figure. It also captures the way that the threat of exile or death becomes another way to get the wives, handmaids, and marthas to perform the role of enforcers of their own oppression.

       In this sense, the novel provides a much more thoroughly developed feminist analysis than I had previously given it credit. The Gilead Republic operates through a mixture of direct and indirect patriarchal sovereignty and, at the same time, the deployment of the techniques of sexuality that Foucault discusses in his first volume of The History of Sexuality. This combination winds up taking the form of a sort of diffused panopticism, which in turn leads to a kind of internalization of the logic of the regime by the women who live within it. That internalization doesn’t take the form of some sort of blanket brainwashing, which would have brought the novel into the kind of broad satirical critique that one gets from The Stepford Wives. Instead, it entwines that complicity with the very real and understandable desire to survive. In this sense, the republic succeeds by producing a sort of stasis, shifting the antagonism of the women of the society from dominant structures of that society to each other. In this sense, the disciplinary mechanisms of the society diffuse antagonism and allow for a functioning system. Most of the women within the novels are aware that the society is oppressive, but at the same time are far more consumed by the micro-conflicts between the various groups of classification set up by the republic. The disciplinary mechanisms operate through a process of individualization, depending on often deeply personal apparatuses of control, as well as the construction of a grid-like pattern of intelligibility, creating groups with their own functions, rights and responsibilities. Difference is both manufactured at the behest of patriarchal power and at the same time meaningfully creates differences within those dominated groups, inhibiting the possibilities of rebellion.

[1] Interestingly, Atwood has herself strongly embraced the structure of the protests as well as played a significant role in structuring the new television series. In this sense, we’re returning to the book to not only critique the reception of the novel, but the revised authorial interpretation of the work

[2] The paper by Claire Curtis particularly focused on the question of survival and the implications of the protagonists decision to survive on those around her.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

An Introduction to a discussion of The Female Man

I committed my first revolutionary act yesterday. I shut the door on a man’s thumb. I did it for no reason at all and I didn’t warn him; I just slammed the door shut in a rapture of hatred and imagined the bone breaking and the edges grinding into his skin. He ran downstairs and the phone rang wildly for an hour after while I sat, listening to it, my heart beating wildly, thinking wild thoughts. Horrible. Horrible and wild. I must find Jael.

Women are so petty (translation: we operate on too small a scale).

Now I’m worse than that—I also do not give a damn about humanity or society. It’s very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it’s true. For example:

My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-storeowner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The manager of the neighborhood is male.
My landlord is male.
Most taxi-drivers are male.
The designers of my car are male.
The factory workers who made the car are male.
The dealer I bought it from is male.
Almost all my colleagues are male.
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male.
I think most people in the world are male. (Russ 203-204)

Joanna’s declaration of war contained in the conclusion of The Female Man has produced a number of valuable symptomatic readings by critics, particularly in the novel’s initial reception. As Sarah Lefanu has noted, the particular section of the text has been labeled as ‘hysterical’, ‘angry’, defensive’, amongst other dismissals. (Lefanu 19) It’s also one of a small number of passages that have given the novel its reputation as a particularly violent text. As a number of critics[1], particularly Russ herself, have pointed out, the number of acts of violence are fairly limited compared to any number of contemporary science fiction texts. (Russ 144-5) However to remain on that surface level of analysis, one loses the ability to ask why the novel has produced these particularly errant effects. Answering that question involves a serious engagement with the political project found in Russ’s critical reading and rewriting of the literary conventions of science fiction, and with the form of the novel itself, an engagement that can only be understood within those literary traditions of science fiction. To put it another way, we need to read Russ’s work in the terms introduced by Sarah Lefanu in her text on feminist science fiction, In the Chinks of the World Machine, as “a part of science fiction while struggling against it.” (Lefanu 5) For Russ, the project of feminist science fiction is committed to bringing out the full potential of the genre, a potential found in its ability to estrange the ideological assumptions of the present by presenting a potential futurity.

The section of the narrative opens with a declaration of an opening, of a shift in subjectivity through what is declared a revolutionary act, the act of smashing a man’s thumb into a door. Even as the narrator, Joanna revels in the excess and violence contained in the act, and recoils from its potential consequences, she also declares the act as occurring for ‘no reason at all.’ Indeed, Joanna goes on to declare the action in line with the ‘petty’ nature of women’s activities, which ‘operate on too small a scale.” The text continues by connecting the ‘petty’ acts of women to their systemic occlusion from ‘society’ and even by implication ‘humanity.’ She marks that occlusion through noting the variety of occupations and social positions that women do not hold, positions that deeply shape the daily lives and horizons of expectations for those women. The productivity of the sexual contract, the construction of women as a sort of commons accessible to a cross class alliance of men is both deeply productive in its ability to harness and discipline the labor of women into a narrow set of reproductive tasks and a profound if implicit act of domination. As has been previously noted, the household as an institution has been consciously developed over the twentieth century, drawing from the models of industrial production developed by Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, but modifying them to deal with the contingent realities of the household.[2] Rather simply imitating the reform processes developed in the factory, the household is industrialized on very different grounds.

The work of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James in their pamphlet, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, published in 1972, can contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the occlusion of women from the public sphere of humanity and the modes of social reproduction and consumption in the Fordist regime of accumulation that depends on that occlusion. Through that analysis, we can begin to understand the productive element of the forms exclusion and petty domination that the text attempts to critique. We need to understand those actions within the context of the productive labor that women contributed to the maintenance of that system. Within the context of trying to understand the work of housewives to the social reproduction of Fordism, the authors challenge the limited notions of labor power contained in conventional Marxist analyses, insisting on understanding the unpaid labor of the household as playing a central role in the reproduction of surplus labor, noting.

The community is not an area of freedom and leisure auxiliary to the factory, where by chance there happen to be women who are degraded as the personal servants of men. The community is the other half of capitalist organization, the other area of hidden capitalist exploitation, the other, hidden source of surplus labor. It becomes increasingly regimented like a factory, what Mariarosa calls a social factory, where the costs and nature of transport, housing, medical care, education, police, are all points of struggle. And this social factory has as its pivot the woman in the home producing labor power as a commodity, and her struggle not to.

The demands of the women’s movement, then, take on a new and more subversive significance. When we say, for example, that we want control of our own bodies, we are challenging the domination of capital which has transformed our reproductive organs as much as our arms and legs into instruments of accumulation of surplus labor; transformed our relations with men, with our children and our very creation of them, into work productive to this accumulation. (James and Dalla Costa, 11-12)

The forms of informal social relationships that make up the ‘community’ including the domestic sphere are recognized as playing a significant role in the social reproduction of capitalism. On one hand, Dalla Costa and James recognize the intense political and disciplinary pressure put on the household, pressure designed to increase and intensify the accumulation of capital through the extraction of surplus labor. The household literally becomes the social factor, producing the crucial labor power needed for the entire system to work. The intimate relationships of the household, whether in the form of romance or raising children, are crucial to the reproduction of labor power, transforming the woman’s body into an instrument for the reproduction of capital. On the other hand, the varieties of forms of feminist activism are forms of resistance to that regime, whether they are recognized as that as such. The household is both a space of the social reproduction of capital, and a myriad of forms of resistance, both formally and informally. As such, the disciplining and reproduction of that workplace becomes a central concern, one that involves both private and public interests. The construction of conventions and norms of femininity becomes a regulatory mechanism and way of creating forms of consent for this necessary condition for the reproduction of capital. Despite the attempts on the part of a number of theorists to place the household economy outside the disciplinary and pedagogical apparatuses of the state and capital, we find an institution that is intertwined within the modern capitalist state as any other.

Although his work in not frequently considered helpful in the field of women’s studies, Marx’s description of the reductive qualities of factory labor can contribute to our understanding of this situation. The immense cooperative capacity of the factory, its power, is dependent on a reduction of the activities of the individual workers that make up that collectivity. Marx forces us to recognize the repressive violence contained in that process that reduces labor to an increasingly small set of rote, physical gestures. He notes, “Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost; at the same time, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity. Even the lightening of the labor becomes an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content.” (Marx, Capital, 548) At a surface level, Marx’s description captures the repressive nature of the disciplinary structure of the factory, the experience of physical, emotional, and intellectual pain produced by such an operation. He links that pain to a state of unfreedom, both intellectually and physically, marking the profound destruction of the potentiality contained in the body and the mind. Moreover, he argues that this act of violence is inescapable within the logic of the regime of accumulation that is capitalism.

But we have to understand that this particular repression is a secondary effect of capital’s domination. The primary effect is the unleashing the profound productive capacities of the factory in order to facilitate the production of surplus value. Anachronistically, the regime of accumulation produced by the factory is dependent on the production of the docile body of the mass worker. The analogy between the social factory of the home and the industrial factory has its limitations, in the forms of sociality contained in the respected locations, and the relationship each plays to social reproduction and production respectively, but the connection nonetheless allows for a way of connecting both to the expanded regime of accumulation, along with its costs. Moreover, each aspect of this regime can be understood as the result of the geometry of forces that might be reductively called the class struggle, the struggle between the complex and at times contradictory forces of living labor, and the logic of accumulation of capital, the geometry of forces, it might be added, that created the conditions in which women could be treated as a form of the commons by a cross class alliance of men.

Turning back to the text, we find a world in which ‘most people in the world are male.’ That world, the world of the public sphere, operates through the exclusion of women, who only make up 1/10th of that world. Similar to the world of the mass factory worker as described by Marx, we need to understand the acts of repression and exclusion that separate the public from the private, the domestic labor of social reproduction from the production of value in the public sphere. The small and petty act of shattering a man’s thumb acts as the rhetorical destruction of the distinction of the two spaces, of the act of enclosure that constructs that very act of distinction.[3] The act of smashing a thumb holds additional significance, referencing the legal structures of patriarchal violence legitimated by the American legal system, structures that were revealed as a part of the collective historical project that arose out of the radical and cultural feminist political engagements. In that context, Joanna’s act can be defined as an act of transgression, rather than liberation, a temporary respite from the tyranny of enclosure, and presumably the first act of many. After all, Joanna recoils from the very real consequences contained in her act, gesturing towards a continuation of the status quo. The text oscillates between these small acts of resistance and the expansive vision between a multiplicity of worlds, radically different social systems, containing radically different economic, social, and political forms. The act of shattering a thumb mushrooms into a shift from inactivity to activity, in the form of an implicit entrance into the women’s movement[4], disrupting the myriad of forms of common sense that produce the forms of common sense that allow for the construction of social hegemony.

That explosion of possibilities can only be understood within the horizon of the social movements that defined the time of the text’s production. The Female Man was produced between the years of 1969-1971 with an additional three years to find a publisher for the text. At that same time, we see the crystallization of a series of structural crises in the capitalist world system, transforming into what Immanuel Wallerstein argues constitutes ‘a single revolution.’ (Wallerstein 355) That revolution constituted a challenge to the U.S. hegemony of the world system, and a challenge and protest ‘against the “old left” antisystemic movements (Wallerstein 358). It shattered the world created by the failed and partial transformation of those previous social movements, and its mixture of social mobility and social control. In doing that, it ended a series of assumptions about radical transformation, and the role of minoritarian groups, moving from a conventional assumption that the problems of minoritarian groups would be resolved after the revolution. As Immanuel Wallerstein notes that after 1968, none of the minoritarian struggles “would ever again accept the legitimacy of “waiting” upon some other revolution.” (Wallerstein 363) The radical feminist movements that exploded globally were a prime example of that refusal to be put into the waiting room of history.

Reading both the polemical work of the period along with the retrospective historical analysis produced by Alice Echols in Daring to Be Bad allows for one to recognize the breadth and depth of that struggle. Thousands of formal and informal political circles formed and broke up in the period, meeting to engage in consciousness raising sessions, organizing protests, and challenging a variety of cultural and political organizations, ranging from conventional women’s magazines to countercultural institutions such as underground newspapers and a variety of new left groups. As Echols notes, radical feminists both challenged liberal feminism’s attempt to fight for formal equality within the contemporary structures of domination of the capitalist world system, and rejected the radical left’s placement of class as the primary contradiction, instead positing an alternative primary contradiction of women as a sex-class. (Echols 3-7) Despite the attempt to construct a united class project, radical feminism did not constitute a homogenous project, defined as much by its explosive conflicts, personal attacks categorized as ‘trashing’ by the movement, its multiplicity of political approaches, as much the movements commitment to unity. (Echols 51-101) Every attempt to construct a stable foundation for the category of woman translated into even more expansive conflicts and contradictions, even greater political and theoretical instability. At one level, we can understand this failure at a theoretical level, the inability to recognize the extraordinary historical contingency tied to the class category that radical feminists wanted to understand as a trans-historical one. One can turn to the work of any number of Black feminist thinkers to see those criticisms.[5] At the same time, this instability aligns with the very nature of the revolutionary project. Antonio Negri’s analysis of Marx’s Grundrisse offers a useful lens for this aspect of revolutionary politics through his critique of the dialectic along with his conception of class, a concept he draws from the work of Mario Tronti and expands upon.

Before we look at Negri’s critique of the dialectic, we should first turn to the concept of class, a concept central to radical feminism, through its construction of women as a class. The novel draws on the concept of women as a class and explores its potential construction as a central point of the novel, through the collective engagements of women from four very different versions of the Earth. Turning to Negri allows us to explore the idea of class composition, a concept that is referenced in the feminist turn to understanding women as a class, but is not theoretically developed. Instead, radical feminist take this category for granted, conceiving of it as a trans-historical concept, rather than one born out of a very particular history. Negri’s work does something very different, despite some of its limitations. Negri, following the work of Mario Tronti, conceives of class composition as a result of the terrain of struggle, rather than its cause. To put it another way, class identities are produced through the formation of working class institutions, cultural forms and common sense assumptions produced in the conflict with a variety of dominant institutions. Class identity is a result of a history of struggle, rather than a cause of it, and as such, is continually mutating into different forms as it breaks apart and coagulates together within the terrain of the class struggle.

This alterative concept of collective class identity is deeply embedded in Negri’s reconceptualization of the dialectic. Negri argues that the dialectic represents the struggle between labor and capital from the perspective of capital. Because of its need for the force of living labor, capital can never entirely succeed in what might be considered a complete victory, in the annihilation of the alterity of its opposite, is impossible. Instead, it draws on the logic of the dialectic, continually trying to come up with forms of mediation to neutralize this force, to come up with new modes of synthesis, which will accomplish the impossible, the incorporation of this alien force, the proletariat in its many guises. The logic of the force of living labor operates from a considerably different perspective, that of antagonism. Unlike capital, the collective assemblage of living labor can easily exist without the organizing logic of capital. Its project is defined by the multiplicity contained in the non-value defined as use value within Marx’s project, the dense thicket of needs, structures, and relationships that exist outside the logic of capital, but are necessary for its reproduction. Cleaver spells out the implicit telos of this alternative and antagonistic project in his introductory notes to Negri’s text.

The antagonistic logic of working-class separation reaches its conclusion as it explodes and destroys capital’s dialectic. It explodes all binary formulae, as Negri says, bursting the dialectical integument and liberating a multi-dimensional and ever-changing set of human needs and projects. (Cleaver xxvi)

If the dialectical logic of capital finds its highest form in the increasingly thinly mediated moments of synthesis, then the logic of its opposite explodes that binary into a dense and complex explosion of forces, a multiplicity that aligns itself with the form of non-value and refusal of equivalence contained in the category of use, that Cleaver describes us as “a multi-dimensional and ever-changing set of human needs and projects.” That explosion, the explosion of needs, desires that are linked into a set of new collectivities, new subjectivities are inextricably linked with a dense array of texts, taking the form of manifestos, theoretical analyses, rants, poetry, and fiction. Turning back to the radical feminist movement, we find alongside its political engagements a prodigious textual production, operating at the performative, critical, and analytical level to shatter the forms of domestic containment discussed in the previous chapter, to unleash the suppressed multiplicity disciplined in service of the accumulation of capital.[6] Joanna Russ explicitly embraces this revolutionary project in her text, the destruction of imagining its own obsolescence produced through the revolutionary transformation to come.[7] In order to make sense of how science fiction is brought into service of a revolutionary project, we need to shift from the broad historical conversation contained above, into the exploration of the formal qualities of the novel, that is, its strategies for estranging and dismantling the regime of domestic labor of the post war period, and the particular intersection of the discursive formations of femininity and sexuality that produce its infrastructure. To do so, we need to begin with a generic engagement with the novel, only to move onto the modes of temporality and subjectivity contained in the novel. Only then, can we appreciate the radical engine of destabilization contained in the text.


[1] For a longer discussion of this, see Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 1988). See Tatiana Teslenko, Feminist Utopian Novels of the 1970’s: Joanna Russ and Dorothy Bryant (London Routledge Press, 2003) for a feminist reading that replicates some of these assumptions.

[2] For a longer conversation, read Ruth Schwarz Cowan, More Work for Mother (New York: Basic Books, 1983), McHugh, Kathleen Anne. American Domesticity: From How-to Manuel to Hollywood Melodrama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, and Stein, Sally. ‘The Graphic Ordering of Desire: Modernization of a Middle Class Women's Magazine 1914–1939’, Heresies, 18, 1985.

[3] A more immediate reference might be the misogynist song by The Rolling Stones, “Under My Thumb.”

[4] See Lisa Maria Hoagland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement (Philadelphia: University of PennsylvaniaPress, 1998) for an example of this interpretation of the novel.

[5] See bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000), Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1984) are two early examples, but we can find a significant archive beyond these two texts.

[6] See, liberation now!: Writings From The Women’s Liberation Movement, Ed. Deborah Babcox and Madeline Balkin (New York, Dell Publishing, Inc,, 1971), Sisterhood is Powerful; an Anthology of Writings From the Women's Liberation Movement, Ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970)

[7] “Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers’ noses.

Rejoice, little book!

For on that day, we will be free. (Russ 213-214)