Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Presentist" Some of the tangents from my reading of the criticism of Gilman

     Judith A. Allen's biography, The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism largely operates as an apologia for its central figure.  Within that process, Allen offers a substantial exploration of Gilman's political and literary work, linking her reform Darwinist analytical approach that runs through her sociological work with her literary works, particularly the utopias.  The best moments of her work put Gilman's work within the context of her times, both in terms of the larger intellectual, political, and social formation that she lived in, as well as her interpersonal relations.  However, this same approach leads Allen to a strange reading of the recent critical trend in Gilman scholarship, defined by the work of Gail Bederman, Alys Weinbaum, and Louise Michel Newman.

      The immediate point of conflict is contained in the evaluation of Gilman.  Allen wants to defend Gilman against the various accusations of racism and classism introduced by recent feminist critics, but there is also a methodological conflict as well.  For Allen, the various critics of Gilman fall into the trap of what she calls 'presentism.'  The various critics judge Gilman's works on the basis of a set of standards that are incongruous with the world that Gilman lived in.  She makes some interesting points in this argument, pointing out that Gilman avoided many of the static assumptions made by her contemporaries about hierarchical racial categorization.  It's also significant for Allen that Gilman's contemporaries, including critics such as W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells, didn't target her for criticism despite their focus on 'racial subjugationists.'  At the same time, Allen's definition of racism is limited, defining the term in purely genetic or hereditary terms, effectively ignoring modes of racialization that don't operate within those limited terms.  Perhaps more significantly, Allen never deals with the deeply embedded racial assumptions contained in Gilman's reform Darwinism, as well as her latent Lamarckism.

     But perhaps more significantly, Allen makes a substantial misreading of the revisionists that she is debating.  She is correct in diagnosing that her opponents are interested in the present, but not quite in the way that she assumes.  Rather than statically placing a set of present assumptions on the past, these thinkers are interested in posing the question, how did we get to the present that we exist in?  And perhaps more significantly, how has the feminist movement contributed to the reproduction of forms of racism, rather than opposing them?  Allen places the revisionists within the debate between the 'second' and 'third' waves of feminism, but I would argue that these works are more influenced by the interventions by Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  These works are historical in nature, but they are not 'historicist' in nature.  Instead, they offer an engagement with history that has a linkage with the concept of history taken up by Michel Foucault, and theorized by the literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his "On the Concept of History."  Benjamin notes in his oft quoted passage,

        "Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it "the way it really was."  It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.  Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger.  The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it.  For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes." (Benjamin 391)

     Within this context, we can see the 'revisionist' interventions as a set of interventions into the present.  Rather than operating within the historicist context of Allen, these authors attempt to shift the feminist movement of the present through a set of engagements with the history of that movement.  The moment of danger, 'the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes' is the way that the intertwined history of feminisms and racisms have shaped and constructed the institutions and forms of collectivity and subjectivity in the dominant structures of feminism.  It allows for a critical reassessment of current practices, as well as the sort of examination of familiar assumptions that Hegel puts at the center of critical theory.  On the other hand, we need to recognize a sort of pitfall in this approach.  To often academics have seen these sorts of interventions as a politics in and of itself.  No history is going to change social formations in and of itself, and those who think so are bound to end in either despair or self-deception.  Instead, we can think of these engagements as a sort preface to political engagement, a form of framing and conceptualizing projects and interventions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Short Piece on Judith Butler's Antigone's Claim

There is an interesting comment that is made within Talal Asad’s text, which I would like to read in relation to the work that we looked at in Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim. Asad notes, “Because they are progressive-minded (read: constructivists), these social theorists disapprove of any talk of ‘innateness.’ They also want to present struggle (resistance) and dissent (deviation) as normal to human behavior. But “normal” is notoriously ambiguous notion, including a descriptive statistical sense in which a distribution is normal and a prescriptive one in which being is being healthy, the opposite of pathological. Sliding between these two senses, the editors can assert that there is nothing in the agent “that has somehow escaped cultural shaping and ordering” and yet insist that “culture” can never be totally determining.”” (Asad 72)

In effect, Asad points to knot that is produced through certain conflicting demands on progressive understandings of the subject. On one had the thinker wants to avoid modes of thought that are linked with ‘innateness’ that is to say of ‘biologizing’ culture into fixed norms. They also want to recognize the normality of resistance and transformation within society. What seems to happen in the end is the return to a form of the liberal subject that slips through the back door. We are told that “culture” can never be totally determining” despite the fact that “there is nothing in the agent “that has somehow escaped cultural shaping and ordering.” Yet somehow we must have an element of an autonomous subject that can escape the inescapable.

I want to read Butler within this discussion. It is clear that she is concerned to avoid the sort of structures of ‘innateness’ that the thinkers that Asad discusses are trying to avoid. She looks at certain modes of structural anthropology and Lacanian psychoanalysis for these models of thought. In effect, she argues that these models operate within a certain ‘innateness’ of a specific formulation of the family structure. “Perversion” may produce the system, but it always acts on the outside of this system. (see p 76) There is a certain linkage that one can make with some of Clastres’ arguments concerning political anthropology. Both are, it seems, arguing against a certain teleological model of understanding structure. Clastres is arguing against the inevitability of a certain model of power and the state, whereas Butler is arguing against a certain innateness of the family model.

In invoking the statement, “But it’s the law!”, Butler is arguing that there is a performative element to the statement, and at the same time a desire for the normative structure. (see page 21) She points out some of the statements on the part of the Lacanian establishment against same sex marriage and child-rearing as examples of this. In effect, Butler argues that there already exists the material for the post-Oedipal family in the existing society. “What will be the legacy of Oedipus be for those who are formed in these situations, where positions are hardly clear, where the place of the father is dispersed, where the place of the mother is multiply occupied or displaced, where the symbolic in its stasis no longer holds?”

Butler reads the figure of Antigone within the terrain of this horizon, and not as a heroic transgressive figure, but as the figure of that is produced within this indeterminancy. She makes an argument for a sort of post-structuralist formulation of kinship. The modes of resistance that Antigone can enact are precisely those that are culturally determined to her. She is able to enact this resistance to power precisely through appropriating its forms. She confronts Creon by taking on his modes of public discourse and his gender. In effect, she acts within the forms of the law, but changes their meaning, and Butler refuses to read this within the field of consciousness as Hegel desires, instead she presents her speech as out of her control. Perhaps it can be read as a structural effect. “If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own laws. She acts, she speaks, she becomes one for whom the speech act is a fatal crime, but this fatality exceeds her life and enters the discourse of intelligibility as its own promising fatality, the social form of its aberrant, unprecedented future.” (82)

Monday, August 29, 2011

An interview with Mandy Cohen from the election struggle

I recently came across this interview with my friend and colleague Mandy Cohen, and thought it was worth putting up here. It is worth remembering why we went through that fight earlier this year.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tonight, We're Going to Party Like its ? (A Critical Reading of Jodi Dean and Slavoj Zizek)

       Over the past few year, there has been a sort of nostalgia for the party form entering the discourse of a select set of left academic thinks.  The most notable of those is Slavoj Zizek, but this phenomenon certainly isn't limited to him.  Probably the most recent concrete expression of this desire can be found in Jodi Dean's thoughtful talk, The Communist Horizon, but it also can be found in Zizek's recent polemic on the riots in England in far more simplistic terms.  Perhaps more significantly, these responses have found a fairly wide audience amongst those interested in the intersection of radical and academic discussions.  There have been fairly lengthy discussions of these works both on a variety of websites, as well as on Doug Henwood's Left Business Observer listserve.  I want to provide a critique of these engagements, in order to discuss some of the limitations that I see in this recent formation, focusing primarily on the more thoughtful engagement of Dean's, but also bringing in Zizek's more problematic formulation, as well.  However, I want to make it clear that this critique is made in a sympathetic light, at least to its sympathetic reception.  I want to use this response as a way of seriously pushing forward the discussion about collectivity, solidarity, and the construction of institutions pushed forward by these reconsiderations of the party form.

      Jodi Dean opens her argument with a brief sketch of the three dominant forms of contemporary left organization today, which she labels as anarchism, democracy, and liberalism.  She argues that these forms of organization are unable of creating strong forms of stable solidarity needed to challenge the powerful engines of expropriation and dispossession that define the contemporary regime of neo-liberal capital.  Contemporary democracy exists primarily to neutralize dissident voices, while liberalism and anarchism replicate the forms of individualization that exist at the core of the neo-liberal formation.  In this sense, Bhaskar Sunkara's critique is wrong in arguing that Dean's concept of 'communicative capitalism' is irrelevant to her larger argument. While I certainly agree with Sunkara's argument that Dean ignores the history of anarchism and democracy, I think Dean has productively captured a sense of the present moment, or, at very least, a particular present.  We can see that Dean is identifying that all three of these dominant forms of organization creation or conceptions of collectivity as symptoms of this new regime of accumulation, which might be identified in more conventional terms as 'flexible accumulation.'  Within this context, Dean can be seen in dialogue with the work of the Italian Marxist Paulo Virno, and the recent interventions of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri without necessarily accepting the optimism contained in the latter formulation.  (I would be interested to see what Dean would do with Virno's concept of the multitude, a conceptualization that sees that formation as the result of a failed revolution, defined by cynicism, opportunism, and fear.)

        At the same time, I think that Sunkara's historical critique points to some of the blind-spots in Dean's thinking.  Most notably, as Sunkara notes, "Dean can’t separate parliamentarism from democracy."  This perhaps is one of the areas where I still most profoundly agree with Hardt and Negri, despite other disagreements I have with the thinkers.  Democracy cannot be simply interchanged with the conceptual framework of liberalism.  Instead, the two frameworks, democracy and liberalism, are by their nature antagonistic, a fact that most historical liberal thinkers have recognized.  Our ability to collapse the two concepts together has depended on a lengthy and deliberative process, one that has been dedicated to the neutralization of any meaningful, participatory democratic framework.  While I agree with Dean that any belief that we can create substantial transformation through the ballot is illusory, I simply disagree that we could call such a system democratic.  There are also a set of organizations that Dean leaves out, trade unions, non-profits, etc., or a whole world of reformism that exists in a variety of states of moribund.  I suspect that Dean left these organizations out of the conversation because of the audience, but I would be curious how they would work within her framework. 

      Turning Back to the argument, Dean then argues that we need to return to the party form in order to counter the forms of individualization that define the contemporary moment.  We need forms and structures of solidarity that go beyond modes of localism, and that have a more substantial duree than the temporary formations that often define contemporary politics.  For Dean, this need is subsumed under the term, 'discipline.'  The party forms allows for and perhaps even demands that its participants think beyond the parochialism of the local to question on the terrain of the national-popular, and even the international.  At the same time, it creates a set of forms of solidarity that break away from the temporary arrangements of volunteerism.  Dean does a fairly good job of dealing with some of the most obvious critiques within the question and answer session, pointing out that organizations have the ability to recreate and reinvent themselves, that organizations have the possibility of distributing power within their structures as well as accumulating power, and pointing out the fact that much of the criticism of the party form operates within the logic of the red scare.  In short, Dean recognizes the modes of liberal anti-communism that haunts these critiques, both in the liberal and the anarchist forms of critique.

     At the same time, Dean's concept of the party remains an empty signifier, neither engaging with the history of the party form, as Sunkara points out in his critique, nor thinking through why this form may has lost its traction.  As Sunkara points out, the revolutionary party form is hardly extinct.  One can find versions of it in a variety of small sectarian formations such as the U.S. version of the Socialist Workers' Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party and larger version such as the Left Party of Germany, the UK Socialist Workers' Party, or the new anti-capitalist formation in France.  Sunkara wants Dean to distinguish her vision from these various forms of anti capitalist parties, but I'm struck by a different question.  If the party form is such a strong approach to organization, why haven't these various grouplets succeeded in creating new counter-hegemonies or historical blocks?  Perhaps more significantly, why has the party formed suffered such a decline, a decline that began long before the advent of our current neo-liberal formation?  Such questions would demand an engagement with the Leninist party form as a historical, rather than ideal social formation. An additional question might be posed, why does the only alternative to spontaneity (as it is currently envisioned)  have to take the party form?

      Turing briefly to Zizek's polemic, we can see a more pronounced version of some of the same issues contained in Dean's discussion.  So far, most of the critical attention paid to Zizek's comments have focused on some of the problematic language in his essay, focusing on his use of the word, 'rabble' and the way he gestures towards certain anti-immigrant tropes.  Without dismissing that train of thought, I want to follow a line of thought.  Throughout his comments, Zizek continually finds the protests wanting, lacking a sort of conscious political subjectivity.  Rather than reading the phenomenon a complex and dense network of actions, collectivities, linked together with a variety of communication strategies, Zizek can only read them in terms of negation.  This is not to entirely dismiss the range of critiques that Zizek brings into the second half of his essay, but to note in the case of the incidents in the UK, Zizek makes no particular effort to think through the political dimension of the riots.  Or perhaps to put it another way, Zizek's fixation of the revolutionary subject blinds him to engaging with the contingent and contradictory forms that proletarian revolt has actually taken over the years.

    Years ago, I found myself frustrated with a talk given by Michael Hardt.  Hardt insisted on distancing his concept of the multitude from the descriptive one offered by Virno, arguing that he and Negri were proposing a project, or perhaps, a potentiality.  Accepting that premise, I found myself wondering how were we supposed to move from the depressing reality offered by Virno to the new revolutionary assemblage.  Beyond a few references to 'Turtles and Teamsters,' Hardt offered very little.  I can't help but thinking that we have the same issue with this project.  Dean points to a real need in political organizing, and offers a useful symptomatic reading of the present, but I'm not sure how we get from A to B.  I think that one might identify a common theme within my critiques, and one that is not terribly new to the terrain of critical theory, the questioning of categories.  Dean (and, to a much lesser extent, Zizek) introduce a set of useful categories for engaging with the present, but leave those categories in a reified state.  We might ask along with Hegel, 'what is that is being glossed over in the contemporary forms of common sense?" and along with Marx, we might ask, "What is the history of struggle that animates the formation of these categories, and how does that affect our engagement with them?"

Addendum:  I realized that I left out something rather significant in my effort to work through Dean's text, which was a comment on Sunkara's intervention.  Although I don't explicitly mention it, I was strongly influenced by his argument, and I highly recommend reading his intervention.  

    

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Eaton Conference Talk on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland

I'm currently working on transforming this into my first chapter for my dissertation, and I thought that I would put this initial draft up to see what folks think. What is worth saving and expanding, and what should be gotten rid of? I was fairly happy with this as a talk, although it was not universally popular with the small crowd there. I believe the work was referred to as 'presentist', which I think means that it didn't as as apologia for Gilman. At the same time, I should note that I am not interested in acting in the role of the prosecutor, either. Rather I am interested in exploring her work as a sort symptomatic formation, gesturing towards the forms of expertise and institutional structures that would arise in the post-war period. Or perhaps more precisely, I'm interested in looking at the way that it aligned with the social forces of its time that would eventually form those policies. This is not to say that Gilman's vision aligns perfectly with what Friedman would call the 'feminine mystique.' After all, Gilman was working towards a end of the isolation of housework, but both her work and the post war period were interested in modernizing the household economy through a combination of technology and a grid of discourses of expertise. I think I will leave the conversation at that.

The reception history of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland fits nicely into a fairly conventional narrative of academic feminism. Gilman was significant not only for her fictional work, but for her substantial popular sociological work as well. Gilman produced several books and countless articles critically analyzing sexuality, gender, evolutionary theory, and economics. Gilman biographer Judith A. Allen noted that Gilman’s rediscovery by historian Carl Degler in the 1950’s and 1960’s, “appeared in the wake of widely lauded postwar feminist texts,” the English translation of De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1953 and the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. (Allen 6) Feminist scholarship of the 1970’s and the 1980’s saw Gilman’s work as a precedent for their calls for women’s liberation, tying into academic feminism’s cross-disciplinary effort to create a theoretical and historical archive for the movement. Herland ties neatly into those later collective feminist efforts. Originally published as a serial in Gilman’s monthly magazine Forerunner in 1915, the novel was only rediscovered in the 1970’s and was finally published in book form in 1979. The novel becomes one of many rediscovered artifacts during the initial phase of feminist scholarship of the 1970’s and 1980’s. In particular, the novel played a significant role in conceptualizing the subgenre of feminist science fiction, providing a significant precedent for the genre, linking it to the longer tradition of the women’s movement.

Gilman’s work also fit into the critiques posed by Black feminists and other feminists of color, beginning with the critical interventions made by the poet Audre Lorde, feminist critic bell hooks, and the later work produced by Gloria Anzaldua amongst others. This work challenged the assumptions of the primarily white academic analysis of radical feminism, focusing on the gaps, lacunae, and contradiction in their analysis of the category of woman. That work very easily implicates the work of Gilman, particularly through the assumptions implicit in her evolutionary, neo-Darwinian framework. As Allen notes, there have been, “intense debates since the 1990’s over Gilman and class, race, ethnicity, and eugenics, particularly as contributed by advocates of new race history, whiteness studies, third wave feminism, and antiracism.” (Allen xiv) Even as Gilman used this framework to critique the domestic structures of the household, she legitimized the larger framework of Eurocentric, white supremacy. That framework operates through a logic of what Johannes Fabian in his critique of anthropology calls the absence of co-evalence, the “persistent tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse.” (Fabian 31) Within that context, Gilman poses an evolutionary hierarchy of humanity, legitimizing and reinforcing the racialized categories of colonialism, along with a set of racializing assumptions about the working classes and new immigrants. However, the concerns about Gilman’s politics within critical studies of science fiction start earlier than that date. Joanna Russ’ 1979 review of the text brings attention to Gilman’s racism, and critiques its hierarchical, evolutionary logic.

My particular engagement with the work of Gilman is aligned with the emergent reassessment of her work. Gilman’s feminism is inescapably marked by the white supremacy and class politics of her time in ways that are not easily dismissed. My argument is that we can begin to read those aspects of her politics as congruent to her larger political aims, rather than in contradiction to them. As Allen notes, Gilman’s critique of the heterosexual institutions of sexuality and domesticity, are tied into her opposition of the provincial labor of ‘sex’, to the far more profound labor of ‘race,’ which derives from her Darwinist framework. This is developed in small section from her work, Women and Economics.

“Natural selection develops race. Sexual selection develops sex. Sex-development is one throughout its varied forms, tending to only to reproduce what is. But race development rises ever in higher and higher manifestation of energy. As sexes, we share our distinction with the animal kingdom almost to the beginning of life, and with the vegetable world as well. As races, we differ in ascending degree; and the human race stands highest in the scale of life so far.

When, then, it can be shown that sex-distinction in the human race is so excessive as not only to affect injuriously its own purpose, but to check and pervert the progress of the race, it becomes a matter for most serious consideration. Nothing could be more inevitable, however, under our sexuo-economic relation. By the economic dependence of the human female upon the male, the balance of forces is altered. Natural selection no longer checks the action of sexual selection, but co-operates with it.” (Gilman, Women, 37)

As Allen correctly notes, all references to race contained in Gilman’s work reference the human race, rather than any specifically, socially constructed category. But, that category itself is understood within the logic of an evolutionary hierarchy, moving from the primitive to the modern. Sympathetic critics have read Gilman’s work as an unacknowledged predecessor to Foucault’s critical analysis of sexuality, arguing that her construction of an analysis on the basis of the ‘sexuo-economic’ basis of sex and gender relations presages Foucault’s work within the History of Sexuality. (Allen 10) I would argue that, on the contrary, Gilman is better read is better read as contributing to the maintenance and intensification of that structure, proposing new and more efficient forms of reproductive labor. Gilman’s critique of the ‘sexuo-economic’ system is rooted in that evolutionary ideology, marking the conventions of reproductive labor as ‘primitive.’ The dependence of women upon men in this primitive system of ‘sexual selection,’ a category of evolutionary process that Gilman associates with conservation or the tendency “to only reproduce what is” disrupts the hierarchical evolutionary process of ‘natural selection.’ It’s difficult to avoid the similarity in this language to the various text examined by Foucault, focused on the instrumentalization of the bourgeois child’s body, regulating and shaping its reproductive energies.

I want to look at Gilman’s interest in domesticity, technological innovation, and the biopolitics of eugenics in relationship to the post-war formation of domesticity critiqued by Betty Friedan amongst others. My argument will be that, aside from the emphasis on collective motherhood, Gilman’s utopian conception has an uncanny resonance with the discursive formation of cold war domesticity, with its emphasis on expertise, reified notions of femininity, and whiteness. As Elaine Tyler May notes, the domestic sphere was seen a space to neutralize the class struggle of the previous era. Gilman similarly gestures towards the utopia of Herland as an escape from the logic of class struggle. Gilman also contributes to the process of the slow integration of the working classes into the discursive apparatuses of sexuality, a process beginning in the 19th century and concluding in the middle of the 20th century. Additionally, this process of integration of the working classes into the regime of sexuality ties in neatly with the attempts on the part of Fordist intellectuals to create what Stuart Ewen calls a social democracy of consumption, the attempt to incorporate workers into the system of industrial mass production capitalism as consumers, rather than simply as cogs. That project aimed to restructure the aspirations and desires of the restless and excluded working classes, while maintaining the larger apparatus of capitalist accumulation.

My particular engagement with Gilman’s novel is strongly informed by Phillip Wegner’s analysis of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards contained in his text, Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity and is largely complimentary to that argument. Gilman was strongly influenced by Bellamy’s work, and was briefly involved in the Nationalist movement that Bellamy created in the wake of the success of his utopia, Looking Backwards. In turn, that text informs the formal and political engagements of Gilman’s Herland. Both texts are written in response to the reorganization of American society in response to the rise of industrial, mass production, Bellamy’s text produced at the beginning of that process and Gilman’s text produced well into its formation. Wegner argues that Bellamy’s text argues, “the modern American nation state can be formed only through a collective act of forgetting, a breaking of the bonds of the past, and a reorientation toward a single future.” (Wegner 63) That process of forgetting, as Wegner notes, is crucial to the process of reproducing the imagined community of the nation. Bellamy’s text is able to imagine a new, more powerful nation arising from the current tumult of industrial class struggle through the erasure of the relations and means of production. Instead, we are offered a unified, middle class vision of the nation, built upon consumption based on the newly created department store. Wegner states, “The whole of society in Bellamy’s utopia thus has been transformed into a giant marketplace, occupied by a population that now functionally defines itself according to the sheer circular formality of the commodity process: the endless consumptions of fetishized goods, objects that magically seem to produce themselves, becoming a social end in itself.” (Wegner 80) Gilman’s work, rather than reducing the world to consumption, reduces it to the biopolitical realm of reproductive labor, focusing on motherhood and the raising of children, but expanding into the biology of animal husbandry and horticulture.

My initial impulse to follow this train of thought came out of my reading of a short article of Gilman’s contained in the 1980 collection, The Politics of Housework. Gilman’s article, “The Home: Its Work and Influence” poses a substantial challenge to the 19th century cult of motherhood, but that challenge operates through her evolutionary, Darwinist framework. Gilman poses a need to modernize the ‘primeval’ labor of the household with the new forms of expertise developed in the disciplines of ‘Household Science’ and ‘Domestic economics.’ Building on this new disciplinary framework, she proposes the sweeping away of the amateur, sentimentalized labor of the isolate household replacing it with newer, efficient, scientific procedures and techniques. Critic Sally Stein amongst others has explored the impact of assembly line production techniques on the conventional structures of the household, bringing not only the new technologies of the era into the house, but also the techniques developed in the Taylorist division of labor. The same forms of time-motion study used in the workplace to economize the movement of the worker were envisioned and implemented in the transformation of household labor, producing an instrumentalized economy of the household. Despite Gilman’s ability to shock sensibilities, her new experimental household built upon the techniques of domination and exploitation developed in the workplace, rather than challenged them.

It’s important to note that Gilman’s vision of the new, managed space of domestic and reproductive labor is not the privatized space of the household that eventually becomes the dominant post-war structure. Rather than translating the scientific management of Fordist modes of production to the privatized space of the home, Gilman proposes a far more direct model, proposing collective modes of daycare, cooking, and other aspects of domesticity. Unlike the later attempts to organize around the concept of wages for housewives who saw their campaign as a larger struggle to bring down the capitalist world system, Gilman was genuinely committed to these modes of collectivized, trained wage labor positions. However, her vision of modernizing the labor of the household presented a similar challenge to the erasure of that labor within the sentimentalized guise of motherhood. Although Gilman’s projection of the Fordist collective household draws upon and legitimates the apparatuses of expertise later to legitimate what Betty Friedan would later call ‘the feminine mystique,’ it cannot be read as a simple blueprint of the post-war economy.

However, the difference between Gilman’s vision of domestic and reproductive labor and the feminine mystique of domesticity blurs considerably as we enter into her utopian vision of Herland. The shift from the negative work of critique to the positive work of imagining an alternative society reintroduces the conventionality of reproductive labor and introduces a mystique of motherhood. It constructs this new model through a journey of intensive epistemological work, moving from the generic form of the primitive jungle, to the capture of the protagonists in the modernist Grecian city of Herland, and then to the enclosed space of the school house and the larger training space of the society. Within that explicitly epistemological framework, the reader is expected to follow the educational journey of the na├»ve male protagonists of the novel. However, satire supplements this educational program. As Joanna Russ notes, “There is the primitive delight of wish-fulfillment, i.e. escorting American men all over Herland (the book follows the classic Utopian pattern of lots of tours and discussions) and hearing the say, “Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Feminism is the hope of the world.”” (Russ 152) The end point of this pedagogical journey is marriage, created in the modernist terrain of the utopia of the city, rather than the primitive jungle of the old household.

To accomplish this work, Gilman’s utopia works through the convention of what Frederic Jameson calls world reduction. We are given glances of a large urban society, but are only given fragments of information about the structures of administration and production in that city. The initial description of the city combines the orderly fantasy of the garden city with the exoticism of ‘pre-Incan architecture in Peru, combining the clean lines of modernism with mosaics of monoliths. (Gilman, Herland, 35) During the return of the three protagonists to the city after an initial escape attempt, the narrative offers a brief description of the nation of Herland. “We rolled through many villages and towns, and I soon saw that the parklike beauty of our first-seen city was no exception.” (Gilman, Herland 44-45) But beyond the assurance of the nation’s uniform beauty, we are offered no information about administration or governance of the land beyond a brief reference to the coveted status of ‘overmother.’ Additionally, we have no way ascertaining either the modes or the relations of production of the land. Instead, we are given a world defined by the reproductive labor of domesticity. The walls of the household are broken down and the work of raising children, educating them, caring for them spreads across the nation of Herland as its exclusive project. Even the biological labors of breeding animals and the tending of gardens ties back into the central function of motherhood, operating as thin metaphors for family planning and the eugenics project. The nation becomes an overwhelming metaphor for the new household, redefined by the novum of a system of evolutionary rationality.


To define that system, the novel must first open in the terrain of the primitive. The group of adventurers, Jeff Margrave, poet and botanist, Terry Nicholson, who studied geography and meteorology, and the sociologist narrator, Vandyck Jennings began their journey of exploring, “the thousand tributaries and enormous hinterland of a great river, up where the maps had to be made, savage dialects studied, and all manner of strange flora and fauna expected.” (Gilman, Herland, 4) The narrative offers no more detail concerning the location of the utopian space of the narrative. Instead, the space is marked as the generic primitive, outside the maps, anthropology, and the botanical and the zoological sciences of Europe. The structure of this generic primitive defines the journey into the land of Herland, shifting from the predictable anthropological journey into the exploration of the novum of Herland.

“As we got further and further upstream, in a dark tangle of rivers, lakes, morasses and dense forests, with here and there an unexpected long spur running out from the big mountain beyond, I notice that more and more of these savages had a story about a strange and terrible “Woman Land” in the high distance.

“Up yonder,” “Over there,” “Way up”—was all the direction they could offer, but their legends all agreed on the main point—that there was this strange country where no men lived—only women and girl children.”

Had no one else gone? Yes—a good many—but they never came back. It was no place for men—that they seemed sure of.

I told the boys these stories, and they laughed at them. Naturally I did myself. I knew the stuff that savage dreams are made of.” (Gilman, Herland, 4)

The nation of women exists within this generic, primitive space, but it stands outside of its generic logic. The “strange and terrible “Woman Land”” could only be seen “in the high distance” of that primitive space. The ‘savages’ of Gilman’s narrative operate outside of the cognitive map of its modern other, unable to even identify its location outside of a broad sense that it sat above them, hostile and alien. The society of the ‘savages,’ returning to Fabian’s critique, operates in a different temporality of the modern society of women. The protagonists of the story laughed at the obscure narratives of the ‘savages,’ but they are equally implicated in the temporal critique of the narrative.

As the group prepared to discover the nature of the society, they speculated on the nature of the society.

“We talked and talked.

And with all my airs of sociological superiority I was no nearer than any of them.

It was funny though, in the light of what we did find those extremely clear ideas of ours as to what a country of women would be like. It was no use to tell ourselves and one another that all this was idle speculation. We were idle and we did speculate, on the ocean voyage and the river voyage, too.” (Gilman, Herland, 10)

Despite ‘airs’ of civilizational and disciplinary superiority, the men entering the utopian space of the community of women were no more able to predict or immediately comprehend what they would find than the surrounding ‘savages.’ The protagonists themselves were caught in the same ‘primitive’ logic of the surrounding villages. As the narrator notes, “We were not in the least “advanced” on the woman question, any of us, then.” The incomprehension of the ‘idle speculation’ of the narrators returns us to Gilman’s critique of the household economy, which was also defined as ‘primitive,’ in opposition to the modern forms of science and technology defining the rest of the society. The narrators must begin their journey within the terrain of the generically primitive precisely because they themselves are defined by the primitive state of the domestic labor of the individual household. The three figures could accomplish little more than the derided savage. However, this critique makes no effort to mark their dismissive assessment of the local population as skewed or biased in any way. Instead the critique embedded in the linkage between the two groups is grounded in the very binary between the modern and the primitive. The figuration of the generic primitive frames and grounds the critical framework of the narrative, its invisible walls enclosing the utopian space of the novel.

The movement into the utopian space of Herland immediately begins to challenge the expectations of the protagonists, shifting from the primitive to the intensely controlled space of the garden city.

“The road was some sort of hard manufactured stuff, sloped slightly to shed rain, with every curve and grade and gutter as perfect as if it were Europe’s best…. Here was evidently a people highly skilled, efficient, caring for their country, as a florist cares for his costliest orchids. Under the soft brilliant blue of that clear sky, in the pleasant shade of those endless rows of trees, we walked unharmed, the placid silence broken only by the birds.” (Gilman, Herland, 20.)

The movement from the space of the primitive to the country of women is not simply a shift in space, but is also a shift in temporality, moving from the generic space of expedition to the modernist space of ‘Europe’s best.’ The first signifier of this shift is the existence of the modern roadway, but the passage lingers on the description of the flora and the fauna of the place. The sign and seal of modernity is the ability to tend to the plants and animals, to shape them, and to construct a neat and orderly landscape, defined by tranquility and the sound of birds. The architecture was noted for its integration into this landscape. In contrast to the ‘offensive mess man made in the face of nature’ that defined the cities of California, the architecture complimented the natural surroundings. Modernity is then defined by the ability to shape biological material from the chaos of the primitive, and to construct architecture that blends into the modernized ‘endless rows of trees’ and carefully shaped and pruned landscape. In short, the modernity of Herland is biopolitical, not industrial. Just as significant, the land was described in terms of the household. “We felt like small boys, very small boys, caught doing mischief in some gracious lady’s house.” (Gilman, Herland, 20)

The narrative expands on the scope and intensity of that political shaping of life, or what Foucault called the shift from the sovereign act of ‘letting live’ and ‘making die’ to the regulatory act of ‘making live’ and ‘letting die.’ Through the educational process of the protagonists, we discover that the society regulates all aspects of life within their domain, selectively breeding cats to make no noise and to refuse to hunt birds, for instance. In addition, they had let several species die, including cattle, horses, and the domesticated dog. It’s difficult to avoid reading these moments within Jameson’s linkage of the utopian form with the Freudian reading of the daydream as a form of wish fulfillment. The narrative, after all, offers the fantasy of cats that don’t kill songbirds, an absence of the violence of dogs, etc. But focusing on that would miss out on the ability of the society to shape every aspect of life in its boundaries. Operating within an orthodox Suvinite framework, this biopolitical control is the novum of the narrative. Beyond those acts of making live and letting die, Gilman states, “They had worked out a chemistry, a botany, a physics, with all the blends where a science touches an art, or merges into an industry, to such a fullness of knowledge as made us feel like school children.” (Gilman, Herland, 65)

That knowledge of the sciences and the intense regulatory mechanisms of life that defined the society were directed towards the central function of the society, motherhood. The society was created out an elaborate history of a slaveholding, polygamous people, destroyed by conquest, during its decline. The women of the society took over when the slaves attempted to take over the society. After the slaves killed the remaining men, they were killed by the women. Shortly after, the women began to give birth by parthenogenesis, allowing for the society to continue. Motherhood is described in terms that would later appear in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

“Here was Mother Earth, bearing fruit. All that they ate was fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived—life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.

But very early they recognized the need of improvement as well as of mere repetition, and devoted their combined intelligence to that problem—how to make the best kind of people. First this was merely the hope of bearing better ones, and then they recognized that however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay later—through education.” (Gilman, Herland, 61)

The structures of the society are focused on the raising of children, and more significantly, all the needs and desires of the society are directed to this end. That work is collective and is the work of every member of the society. The utopian space of Herland may have shattered the binary of private and public, but it has done so by totalizing the domestic and reproductive labor of motherhood, leaving no outside to its responsibilities. Within that project, the society intensely controlled the process of who can and cannot have a child, banning ‘unfit’ mothers from having children. The society was defined by a Eugenics project of population control, as well marking the fit and the unfit. The intense control of the flora and fauna of the land is replicated in the control of the human society. The mystique enters into the picture explicitly through the universal consent to these policies, accepting the universal goal of motherhood and furthering the reach.

Despite the explicit Eugenic dimension contained in the social structure, the primary tool used to transform the society was education, as noted by the passage above. This pedagogical dimension of the society defines the majority of the narrative, following the protagonists of the society as they moved from the primary school of their initial enclosure to the secondary school or university of young women that they later graduate into. That process, which was ostensibly staged as an exchange of information, trained the protagonists into the logic of the society. They learned the language, the institutions, and the scientific knowledge of the society. That process of learning was defined by one on one education by a set of older women, labeled ‘Aunts.’ Later, the men learned from the women who they later married in a strange ceremony, publicized throughout the nation. This pedagogical process, ostensibly collective, was put into practice in a manner that was both individuated, and conventionally heteronormative.

That heteronormative process defined the telos of the process, creating a new form of the heteronormative marriage, directed towards the goals of the society. Rather than refusing the erotic as Joanna Russ’ reading claims, the narrative offered a new norm of heterosexual marriage, one directed towards synthesizing the ‘sex’ work of reproduction with the ‘race’ work of evolutionary transformation. That model failed through the limitations of the men of the narrative, but Gilman’s narrative continued in a sequel in which the women of the narrative moved out into the world at large, advocating the combination of eugenics and motherhood, mirroring the political work of Gilman herself.




Friday, August 19, 2011

notes concerning Foucault

      Fairly early in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Foucault links the the biological and the economic through the 'political economy of population.'  He states, "Through the political economy of population there was formed a whole grid of observations regarding sex.  There emerged an analysis of the modes of sexual conduct, their determinations and effects, at the boundary line of the biological and the economic domains....  In time these new measures would become the anchorage points for the different varieties of racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It was essential that the state know what was happening with its citizen's sex, and the use they made of it, but also that each individual be capable of controlling the use he made of it.  Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less; a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it."  (Foucault, 20)  My first observation on this passage is that the question of racism enters into Foucault's analysis much earlier than I had initially remembered.  It's difficult to imagine that it took so long to turn to the analysis of racism contained in his work, only entering into academic conversations with the printing of Society Must Be Defended and the work of Ann Stoler.  The second observation is that Foucault gestures towards something that I am having difficulty producing in my dissertation on reproductive politics.  Within this work, there is the tendency to work within one of two economies, either focusing on the biopolitical, focusing on questions of racialization and sexuality, or focusing on the question of consumption, labor and technology in the household.  But Foucault is gesturing towards the interconnection of these two issues, the question of population occurs at its boundary.  My research has found an interesting parallel between two phenomena, the narrative offered by Foucault about the introduction of the working class into the regime of sexuality, an introduction which is only finalized with the advent of 'late capitalism' and the creation of what Stuart Ewen calls 'the social democracy of consumption.'  Both find their focal point of the household, constructing intense networks of discourse based on new institutions and forms of expertise.  Unfortunately, there aren't many examples of how to link these questions together.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

incomplete notes on the concept of the proletariat....

       I've found myself in a bit on a bit of a tangent in relation to my dissertation project.  Needless to say, for those of you who know me, this tendency to fall into tangent is not precisely shocking.  My reading of Alys Weinbaum's Wayward Reproductions brought me back into contact with Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar's group of essays, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, which, along with an interesting talk given by Jody Dean on the concept of the communist horizon (you can see it here) returned me to the question of the concept of the proletariat.  I've been thinking about this off and on for any number of years, and Balibar's introduction returned me to some of those thoughts.  Balibar notes,

     "Alongside this, the emergence of the specific struggles of immigrant workers in France in the seventies and the difficulty of expressing these politically, alongside Althusser's thesis that every social formation is based on the combination of several modes of production, had convinced me that the division of the working class is not a secondary or residual phenomenon, but a structural (though this does not mean invariant) characteristic of present-day capitalist societies, which determines all the perspectives for revolutionary transformation and even for the daily organization of the movement for social change." (Balibar 2-3)

      Significantly, Balibar connects Althusser's concept of overdetermination with the history of racialization in the capitalist world-system.  That history according to Balibar can neither be dismissed as either a throw back to a former era as some conventional marxists attempt to argue nor as a superstructural phenomenon.  In effect, Balibar's argument follows the general trend of thought within the various schools of thought within historical materialism. Following Wallerstein's arguments, the forms of racialization simultaneously structure and legitimate the division and hierarchy of labor of that system.  Balibar is equally concerned with avoiding the neo-racist fallacy of transforming forms of racialization into a trans-historical phenomenon, and refuses to label the phenomenon as invariant.  In effect, a variety of racisms structure the class struggle, but that struggle continually mutates and transforms those struggles.

      As significant as that conversation is, and it is a conversation that I suspect that this blog will return to, I want to think about Balibar's comment in relationship to the concept of the proletariat.   There has been a tendency amongst contemporary (ostensible) historical materialist thinkers to conceptualize various notions of the proletariat subject.  This has come up in the work of Badiou, Zizek, and Gopal Balakrishnan, either as a presence or absence of a revolutionary subject.  But as Balibar implicitly notes, the proletariat is better understood as an assemblage or collectivity, one that is structurally divided.  Balibar follows up on this argument further in the text.

      "1.  Marx's thesis concerning the polarization of classes in capitalism is not an unfortunate error, but the strong point of his theory.  However, it has to be carefully distinguished from the ideological representation of a 'simplification of class relations' with the development of capitalism, and idea bound up with historical catastrophism.

      2.There is no 'ideal type of classes (proletariat and bourgeoisie) but there are processes of proletarianization and embourgeoisement, each of which involves its own internal conflicts (which I shall, for my part, following Althusser, term the 'overdetermination' of the antagonism): in this way we can see how the history of the capitalist economy depends on political struggles within the national and transnational space."  (Balibar 11)

     Capitalism is defined by the increased intensification of struggle between exploiter and exploited, but that struggle doesn't simplify as it polarizes, instead it mutates and takes on new and more complex forms.  Balibar takes the concept of the bourgeois and proletarian classes and turns them into processes, created through the fluid struggles of the field of class struggle that defines capitalist modernity.  When Balibar argues that "the history of the capitalist economy depends on political struggles within the national and transnational space", he also acknowledges that the terrain of struggle is defined by the ability of the proletariat coalesce as a collective assemblage.  That struggle is dependent on producing "an effective anti-racism", a way of restructuring racist social structures contained in the social formation.

     In a certain sense, Dean's talk becomes significant here.  Dean engages in a certain sense of nostalgia in her talk by referring back to the party form.  To be honest, the need to return to the party strikes me as a problematic formulation, both ignoring its failure and the critiques that are brought up by Anton Pannekoek amongst others, but it also returns the conversation to the concept of assemblage.  For Dean, the party allows for a form of discipline that creates modes of solidarity, or to return to my Deluzian appropriation, new forms of assemblage containing new capacities, new strengths.  At the same time, Dean doesn't engage substantially in the questions of racism and sexism that drive the critical work of Balibar and Wallerstein, favoring the expressive causality that seems to dominate amongst contemporary thinkers.  We need to return to the concept of overderermination introduced by Althusser.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Unpublished Review of the Letters of Rosa Luxemburg


“Red Rosa now has vanished too.
Where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life is about.
And so the rich have rubbed her out.”
--Bertolt Brecht, Epitaph, 1919

            Brecht’s short tribute to Luxemburg, written in 1928, during the crisis of the Weimar Republic, provides a somewhat apt introduction into the reception history of the Polish Communist.  The short poem places Luxemburg into circulation by taking her out of particular context, removing the rich legacy of her polemics, critical engagements, and speeches.  The circulated residue acts as a cipher, allowing for her appropriation.  The reason for Brecht’s obfuscation is fairly obvious, allowing him to negotiate between the expectations placed on him by the official communist movement and his fairly idiosyncratic Marxism, but the tendency to transform Luxemburg into such a symbol goes beyond the particular situation of Brecht.  Luxemburg has been taken up as a symbol for a multiplicity of movements, from critiques of the official Communist movement to feminist critics and activists and those looking for an anti-authoritarian past to redirect the New Left.  The original publication of the larger collection of Luxemburg’s letters themselves fit into the rising field of history from below and the early focus of women’s studies on recovering an archive of an alternative women’s history, frequently through letters, memoirs, and other previously private documents.  The current volume under consideration makes a similar claim, arguing that Luxemburg’s analysis and political legacy offers a powerful set of tools to respond to the contemporary political, cultural, and economic crises.  It opens a new fourteen volume collection promises to provide dozens of essays never formally published in English. The question is, does this claim hold weight, and, if so, does this volume offer the best entrance into her critical framework?
The new edition, which includes 246 of the some 2,800 letters contained in the German edition, captures a dense set of personal and political relations.  The vast majority of the early letters are written to Luxemburg’s lover and fellow party member, Leo Jorgiches, but the focus of her letters shift after 1905 to include a number of other figures in the Polish, German, and Russian social democratic milieu.  Those early letters engage with the often problematic and combative relationship between Luxemburg and Jorgiches.  Later letters engage with the fallout of their break up and her later relationship with Clara Zetkin’s son, Kostya Zetkin. But the letters don’t exclusively focus on her personal relationships, bringing in material from Luxemburg’s long running political association with Clara Zetkin, her often shaky relationship with SPD party leader Karl Kautsky, as well as a number of other significant social democratic figures.  The initial introduction argues that the current volume will give readers the historical context to understand the various more formal writings be presented in the future, therefore allowing for a deeper understanding on the part of contemporary readers.  Peter Hudis notes in his introduction, “We lose a great deal by reading Luxemburg’s works abstracted from the internal as well as external conflicts that she engaged in as she sought to chart an independent path on an array of political and economic issues.” (Hudis ix)  The current volume argues that it, along with the larger publication project, attempts to place the large volume of her work within the grasp of an English speaking audience, who previously could not access the previously untranslated and unpublished work.
            Luxemburg’s value as currency can’t be entirely disconnected from her own particular history.  Born in Poland in 1871, she spent most of her adult life in Germany after she had to escape Poland due to her involvement in socialist agitation, leading her to play a prominent role in both the Polish and German movements, as well as having an impact on the Russian struggles.     Luxemburg resisted the call for self-determination on the part of the Polish Socialist Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, arguing that such a call would benefit bourgeois nationalist movements far more than the nascent socialist movement.  She and Leo Jorgiches broke from the Polish Socialist Party to form another organization, which eventually became Social Democracy in the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, an organization defined by its simultaneously close and antagonistic relations with the Russian Social Democrats.  She also played a significant role within several debates of the Socialist Party of Germany, arguing against the revisionist theories of Edward Bernstein along with Karl Kautsky, as well as rejecting Kautsky’s criticisms of the general strike, and eventually against the party’s approval of war credits for the First World War.  That position led to her imprisonment and eventually to her part in the formation of the insurrectionary Spartacist League, which led to her assassination along with fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht in 1919.  Through these conflicts, Luxemburg was at the center of the main conflicts of the 2nd International, constantly challenging reformist elements within these movements as well top down approaches to organizing.
            However, this brief biography doesn’t give credit to her idiosyncratic role within the debates of her time.  Although Luxemburg accepted the basic Marxist framework of her time, which emphasized the inevitability of the proletarian revolution, she challenged the basic presuppositions of both the dominant strains of the 2nd International as well as the premises of what would come to dominate the 3rd International.  Additionally, her longer economic tract moved way from a number of orthodox readings of Marx’s critique of political economy, advancing and revising his theories concerning the question of social and economic reproduction.  She also rejected the premise of self-determination that would dominate the political logic of both formations.  Effectively, Luxemburg refused the common sense logic of both movements, which placed the site of struggle within the context of the nation-state form, gesturing towards a new, cosmopolitan form of struggle.  This position puts her out of sync with the long series of anti-colonial movements that defined the 20th century, which has led to some of the most severe critiques of her politics.  Additionally, Luxemburg refused both the parliamentarianism of the Social Democratic parties that came out of the split in the International and the vanguardist concept of democratic centralism that would come to define the movements of the Communist International.  Instead, her work continually emphasized the importance of the collective self-organization of workers.  Institutional structures such as trade unions and social democratic parties played a conserving and rearguard role in such actions, preserving the gains of collective action, rather than playing the vanguard role of such struggles. 
She notably challenges Lenin’s concept of discipline in her lengthy essay, “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy.”  She criticizes the concept of discipline of Lenin’s polemic, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, by opposing it with what she considers a genuinely revolutionary discipline.
 “We misuse words and we practice self-deception when we apply the same term – discipline – to such dissimilar notions as: 1. the absence of thought and will in a body with a thousand automatically moving hands and legs, and 2. the spontaneous coordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men. What is there in common between the regulated docility of an oppressed class and the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation?”

Luxemburg radically opposes the top down approach taken by Lenin, arguing that its organizational logic, its concept of discipline, draws on and uncannily replicates the structures of capitalist domination.  She opposes this with a concept of discipline that she links with class militancy created in the atmosphere of free association and self-organization.  This alternative version of discipline is dependent on a concept of organization based in experimentation, risk, and failure.  The revolutionary capacities of the proletariat are produced within this laboratory of experimentation, rather than through the guidance and dictates of a central committee.  It is this aspect of Luxemburg’s politics that constitutes the most significant aspect of her legacy, aligning itself with the participatory democracy of the New Left, and offering a substantially different vision of a socialist vision than the one offered by the tarnished vision of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.  The effort to resurrect Luxemburg’s legacy through the publication of this expanded edition of the letters can only be understood within this context.  If the publication of the initial set of letters was linked to the study of the subterranean documents of an insurgent subaltern in the history from below tradition and the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political’, than why begin the new publication of these new works with an expanded set of letters?
The new edition makes a number of claims for this choice, ranging from their literary quality to the theoretical and political questions that the letters touch upon.  But the strongest argument made concerns the context that the letters bring to Luxemburg’s political writings historically and psychologically.  While I agree with this basic premise, I’m not sure that the letters offer the ideal introduction to those internal and external conflicts.  The letters are certainly evocative at times and the complex negotiations and conflicts with her lover and partner Leo Jorgiches provide interesting material for feminist analysis.  However, the letters are fragmentary, often influenced by censorship of prison, and often assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader.  Certainly, the editors of the new edition provide footnotes for the letters and a glossary of historical figures and organizations, but this work cannot provide the context that one could find in a good biographical or historical survey of the period.  The current volume could have made up for this deficiency by including a historical sketch of Luxemburg, but aside from a short but useful history of  the publication history of the letters written by the editor of the German edition, Annelies Laschitza, very little is given on the history of Luxemburg or her times within the introductory material and certainly not a biography.
If the collection of letters doesn’t offer a useful introduction to Luxemburg for either a casual audience or an audience interested in getting to know her ideas, one could conceivably ask the question whether it has any value outside of the raw materials for historians, biographers, and critics of Luxemburg’s political and economic theories.  I’m tempted to accept that interpretation.  The focus on Luxemburg’s letters strikes me as another attempt to empty her of the particular analytical framework that defines her polemical and analytical works in order to circulate her within contemporary debates.  However, this transformation of Luxemburg into contemporary currency loses out on the density and complexity of her analysis.  At the same time, Luxemburg’s collection of letters resists this transformation into empty symbol.  While this material lacks historical context, it allows for an exploration of Luxemburg’s interpersonal relations that cut across the Social Democratic Parties of Germany, Poland, and Russia.  This deep interconnection between the various socialist and social democratic parties not only gestures towards the strength of the 2nd International, but also toward the porous quality of the now seemingly naturalized borders of the European nation-states involved.  It is a reminder of the relative novelty of the form, a form that Benedict Anderson reminds us has its origin in the 19th century.
The letters also deeply tie Luxemburg into the concerns and conflicts of her times through her personal, literary, and historical interests.  At a personal level, Luxemburg’s perspective on femininity troubles the feminist appropriations of her work.  As Sheila Rowbotham notes in her review of the letters, Luxemburg’s relationship to the nascent feminist movement remained detached and ambiguous, refusing the role of the ‘new woman.’  Her relationship to the patriarchal elements of the party was defined by complex negotiation, rather than rebellion.  The letters also contain a strong literary dimension to them, both in a complex series of references to novels and poetry, and their expressive quality.  Critic Walter Jens, referenced in the introduction, connects the quality of Luxemburg’s prose to the early expressionist work of Robert Musil and Rainer Maria Rilke, but the strong thread of 19th century romanticism, as well as the work of Goethe is a more likely influence on her prose style. Each of these introduces a dimension of interiority not contained in Luxemburg’s other work, a dimension that simultaneously establishes Luxemburg’s singularity, as well as mooring her to 19th century literary and personal constructions of the self.
The complex fragments represented by these letters become significant because they place Luxemburg in her time, and allow for a critical rereading of her polemical and theoretical writings.  Despite some of the difficulties with context, that exploration is worth the time, introducing a subjective framework for that work, continually returning that work to its time, despite its singularity.  However, they don’t provide a substitute for that work, which still provide the key to Luxemburg’s continued importance.  It gestures towards the trace of a historical materialist tradition that avoids the dual traps of reformist revisionism and the stagnant authoritarianism of what would become the Marxist-Leninist tradition.  For all of the literary quality of the collection of letters, it only hints at the analytical power contained in that writing, which reads in sharp distinction to the romantic and expressionist qualities in the letters.  Within the context of the contemporary crisis, the reprinting of her public and political work will be of far greater value than the current volume of letters.   
Works Cited
Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Print.
"Rosa Luxemburg: Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy (Part 1)."
Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 07 July 2011. <http://marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/ch01.htm>.
Rowbotham, Sheila. "The Revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg | Books | The Guardian." Latest News,
Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 07 July 2011.
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/05/rosa-luxemburg-writer-activist-letters>.