Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Notes on the Post-War Period

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique opens with her identification of a gap or lacunae in the dense network of discourse surrounding the household, a gap identified with the yearning of women. 

            “For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers.  Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.  Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents.  They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents….  A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity.  All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.” (Friedan 58)

             The unnamed problem discussed by Friedan is defined by its dialectical opposite, the utopian promise of an expertise created through a dense discourse of scientific and technical expertise, in the form of technical manuals, psychoanalysis, and social convention.  Friedan gestures towards an intense instrumentalization of the household through the construction of a dense web of discourse.  The care of the bourgeois family is mapped out in painstaking detail, through the minutiae of childcare, the management of resources, and most of all, the affective economy of femininity.  Friedan recognizes the intense social, political, and economic pressure being put on the newly reconstructed household, intuitively recognizing the radical shift in the economy of the family in the post war years described by Stephanie Coontz.  The figure of the mother can be found at the center of that nexus, linking shifts in political, social and libidinal economies.  Rather than following Friedan’s repressive hypothesis, I want to read the ‘feminine mystique’ as the symptom of the intensification of the body of the white mother, transforming her into the guarantor of the stability of not only the household, but the nation itself, linking to the creation of what Stuart Ewen calls consumer social democracy as well as introducing the working classes to the regime of sexuality.  These hegemonic structures along with the expansion and reintegration of the white supremacist order were intended to legitimate and reinforce the logic of capitalist accumulation.

            Within that economy, ‘expertise’ and ‘yearning’ are mutually constitutive, operating within a sort of dialectical relationship.  In her recognition of the dialectical relationship between ‘expertise’ and ‘yearning, Friedan implicitly develops a sort of class analysis, recognizing a common set of experiences between (white) women centered in the psychic, social, political, and economic structures of the household, which crossed ostensible class barriers.  The labor of the household becomes a central locus of complex set of techniques of population, legitimizing the Fordist regime of accumulation, and perhaps more significantly, operating as a locus meant to stabilize the social reproduction of the newly expand regime of accumulation.  In effect, the structures of affective labor and forms of consumption are central to mitigating the alienation of the workplace, continuing a regime of consumption, but perhaps more significantly, reproducing the population.  The mother becomes the focus for this web of discourse not because of irrelevance as Friedan occasionally thinks, but because these modes of unpaid labor are central to the regime as a whole.  That centrality, in turn, produces the modes of resistance gestured towards in Friedan's choice of language, 'yearning.'  Feminism becomes the primary, but not exclusive form of resistance to this regime. 

          In their work, Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue that the current regime of accumulation is increasingly defined by modes of affective labor.  I'm interested in exploring the role that feminism as a form of counter-conduct to Fordist capital and the various attempts to appropriate those forms of counter-conduct coagulate into the current regime of accumulation.

1 comment:

  1. Robert– I strongly recommend my friend Jane's book, related to your thinking here:


    xo s