Monday, January 17, 2011

More on Joanna Russ and The Female Man

      There's a curious quality to Joanna Russ' The Female Man that is worth taking a couple minutes to explore.  Russ' novel is famously one of the most famous, if not the most famous feminist science fiction novels in existence.  Russ was notably influenced by the rise of the radical feminist movement, and the novel is the most notable marker of that shift, although the influence can also be seen through her choice of a number of feminist critical works for review, most notably the work of Mary Daly and Shulamith Firestone.  In addition, unlike Ursula Leguin, Russ was interested in taking a role as a movement figure.  She contributed to feminist literary criticism with her texts, How to Suppress Women's Writing and To Write Like a Woman, and contributed propaganda for socialist feminism with her text, What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism.

     With that considerable legacy and the reputation of The Female Man, it's remarkable how little representation there is of  the women's movement in the novel.  As I noted in my earlier entry on the novel, The Female Man is structured by four protagonists, Jael, Janet, Joanna, and Jeannine, who are in reality, the same woman in four radically different world.  Within the ideological zero world of Joanna, the world that most closely represents the world of the late 1960's of the United States, the minimal representations of the women's movement are negative and indirect.  Primarily occurring within the depiction of the cocktail party that Joanna brought the utopian Janet to, the women's movement is brought up in the conversations within a set of predictable cliches.  We are offered narratives about bra burning, anger, as well as other predictable tropes, as Russ offers a sharp satire of the reception of the movement at the time.  But we aren't offered direct representations of members of the movement itself.

      When I initially thought of this notion, I had thought of it in terms of a clever analogy to the lesser known jazz collaboration between John Coltrane and Don Cherry, Avant Garde.  The analogy works through the fact that the reception of the two documents are defined by a delay between their production and their release.  In the case of Avant Garde, the delay in the release of the album, originally recorded in 1961 until 1966, shifted its importance.  Rather than sounding like part of the cutting edge of jazz, which it would have sounded like in 1960, its 1966 release turned the album into an oddity, curiously dated by the time of its release.  The Female Man had a similar history.  The novel was originally written in 1970, but only saw its official release years later in 1975, meaning that nature and size of the radical feminist movement had transformed substantially, and perhaps more significantly, grown considerably, between the time of the writing of the novel and its release.  After all, the production of the novel and the beginning of radical feminism were probably concurrent, both probably beginning in 1968.*  If the novel was written later, there may have been more material to engage in some form of direct representation.

      However, there's something dissatisfying in that admittedly attractive analogy.  The truth is other than in some of the work of Samuel Delaney, the engagement with the new social movements on the part of leftist and feminist science fiction writers tended to be fairly indirect, generally negotiated through the device of futurity, offering the results of a future revolution, a future apocolypse, or on the other hand, some form of alternative history as found in the work of Russ.  It's only later that the movement is dealt with directly, even with some distancing.  Obviously, I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the discipline, so I would be curious if anyone can come up with a challenge to this hypothesis, but in many ways, Sarah Hall's The Carhallan Army, titled Daughters of the North, is the first real engagement with the history of the conflictual nature of the history of radical feminism, capturing some of the excitement and urgency of the time period.  Perhaps, the reason for this is the simple fact that we have moved beyond a set of polemics around those movements to a new analytical engagement with the period, but that feels a little pat as well.  So, I'll toss it out to you.  Does this hypothesis work?  And if so, why can't we find a more direct engagement with the movement as such in the works of the 1970's?

*There are hints of the radical feminist critique before 1968.  I could give you the name of some of the essays if there is an interest, but the movement really launched itself at that time.  For more information, read Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism 1967-1975.  Echols produces a sympathetic, but critical analysis of the period, and I highly recommend the book.

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