Monday, November 19, 2012

Good Housekeeping and WWII: a short analysis of an editorial

      In my continued research on U.S. domestic publications during World War II and the early post war period, I came across an interesting editorial in the February issue from 1942.  The editors wanted to explain their role within the war effort, to offer a legitimization of the publication within the context of the rationing and shortages in materials that would eventually define the domestic front during the war years.  Their explanations are worth a few remarks.             

                “Because it is the important home magazine in America, with the largest personnel and the most extensive mechanical and laboratory facilities for studying and analyzing the foods we eat and the things families live by, Good Housekeeping organized itself on Monday the eighth of last December in order to carry out the peculiar responsibilities which naturally fall to it.

                Every item of our apparatus and every operator there-of is now at our Government’s command.  Cheerfully we set aside our routine duties to undertake such emergency tasks as are assigned to us.

               There is another obligation that we will recognize: that of being anti-hysterical: of serving to the utmost of our means the daily requirements of the millions of women who will continue to seek from us the simple, intelligent ways of family existence.  We’ll take for granted that we are in for a long, hard war.  We expect temporary reverses.  We will know every second of the way what the outcome is to be.

               We will try to remember that entertainment and instruction and homely advice must continue as long as families are families, though they live through a war they did not seek, but which, being forced upon them by a staggeringly ruthless aggression, they will resolve in absolute victory.

                Toward that ultimate victory we pledge our every last resource.  We shall win—of that there is no remotest doubt.  And while we are fighting to win, we shall try to know that love will stay in our world: that little children will look each month for Mr. Disney’s cartoons; that mothers-to-be will seek each month the solid advice of Dr. Kenyon; that the poems Mr. Malone selects each month will satisfy an emotional longing; that life in American homes must go on and will go on; and that for the sake of the generations to come we must not lose sight of that—never, not for a single day, because it is that home life, and all it implies, that we are now defending.”  The Editors

      The short article immediately attempts to establish the publication as a technical and technocratic asset to the war effort.  Good Housekeeping can provide mechanical and laboratory facilities for the analysis of food and daily life.  It promises to take those resources and dedicate them to the war effort, presumably to come up with alternatives to materials that must be rationed, and to develop techniques that will come in handy for both the war front and the domestic front.  The rhetoric behind that shift of the work of the magazine from the private to the public sphere is curious.  It erases entirely the move to a consciously public identity through the naturalization of the tasks it plans to take on, "which naturally fall to it."  Rather than presenting this convergence of corporate and state interests as a shift to a wartime mode, it masks this shift within the private sphere, the magazine playing the role of domestic labor, of the sacrificial labor that normatively defines that sphere.

      The next paragraph is more interesting, continuing in the spirit of self-justification that defined the first paragraph, but moving from the technocratic space of abstract consumption and production to the intersubjective space of everyday life.  At the most immediate level, the publication offers itself as a solution to the hysteria  of women.  We shouldn't ignore the immediate sexism contained in that statement.  Its casual contempt and dismissal of the the emotional and intellectual capacities of women, but if we remain at that level, we miss out on the broader implications of the statement, which are just as troubling if more interesting.  Effectively, the publication is arguing that it plays a sort of regulatory and pedagogical role for the private sphere, teaching women how to handle any number of technical requirements of the household, and perhaps more significantly, how to negotiate the forms of affective labor that are necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the household.  In effect, it acknowledges the necessity for the modes of unpaid labor in the household for the success of the war effort, the maintenance and reproduction of the economic system, while masking that importance in the language of simplicity and the naturalization of the family and sex/gender system.

      The double work of that recognition and obfuscation continues with the next paragraph.  Family life is placed in both sentimental and banal terms.  The publication provides structures of regulation for all aspects of daily life, from the raising of children, courtship and marriage, and the fulfillment of a variety of emotional needs.  Sentimentality becomes the primary pedagogical mode of the publication, producing a generically accessible mode of instruction, naturalizing its structures, and making those forms pleasurable (to take a page from Ellen McCracken's Decoding Women's Magazines.)  The editors, in effect, argue that the structure of the nation is founded in the family, which in turn is structured and regulated by the work of Good Housekeeping.  The hubris is a little breath taking, but perhaps we should take it seriously, if only as a metonym for the larger public and private structures structuring and regulating the ostensibly private realm of the household.  The sentimental stories of the melodramas contained in the publication within this context are not simply fluff.  They become a regulatory mechanism, training and naturalizing an entire set of hierarchical expectations contained in the nuclear family of the middle class.  The stories construct a set of normative expectations, constructing the preconditions for identification through its forms.  

        A story, "Powder Room Blues" from the pages becomes an interesting example of this.  The narrative contrasts two women, one who accepts the conventions of domesticity, the other look to Hollywood and the public sphere for satisfaction.  The narrative is from the perspective of the first woman, who observes the trajectory of the second woman, as she leaves her successful marriage to become a part of the Hollywood publicity machine. The description of the collapse of the relationship gives a good sense of the narrative.  “It wasn’t hard to understand what was happening to Fred. He saw the rest of us building our lives around our husbands, working for a common good, and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t elicit the same sort of cooperation from Dee."  The expectations for the housewife to sacrifice her ambitions is naturalized under the name of cooperation, and breaking those expectations is coded as a form of selfishness.  The narrative then links that act of selfishness to loneliness, artificiality, and failure.  Dee abandons her husband, her child, and the safety of her suburban life, only to become a threat to other marriages as the other woman.  In contrast, the narrator successfully creates the conditions for her husband's immense success, playing the role of a genuine Hollywood mover and shaker in contrast to the forms of deception that Dee engages in.

       Any alternative to the feminine mystique becomes pathologized, and the cost of that pathology is spelled out in painful detail.  In a curious sense, the painful sense of restriction contained in this form has an analogy to the proscribed actions of the workers on an assembly line, and that harsh discipline plays the same productive role, to contribute to and expand the regime of the accumulation of wealth. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

On the industrialization of Housework

     Ruth Schwarz Cowan's More Work for Mother plays a significant role in thinking about the radical shifts in domesticity, particularly looking at the process of industrialization in the household.  She argues that our understanding of those shifts have been a 'victim of cultural obfuscation' due to the sort of popular romanticism of the home, which places it in opposition to the outside public sphere, a romantic notion embraced by conservatives and progressives for different ends.  Cowan proposes exploring this radical transformation, making the following argument.

    "Households did not become industrialized in the same way that other workplaces did; there are striking differences between housework and other forms of industrialized labor.  Most of the people who do housework do not get paid for it, despite the fact that it is, for many of them, a full-time job.  They do not have job descriptions or time clocks or contractual arrangements; indeed, they cannot fairly be said even to have employers.  Most of their work is performed in isolation, whereas most of their contemporaries work in the company of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other adults.  Over the years, market labor has become increasingly specialized, and the division of labor has become increasingly more minute; but housework has not been affected by this process.  The housewife is the last jane-of-all-trades in a world in which the jacks-of-all-trades have more or less disappeared; she is expected to perform work that ranges from the most menial physical labor to the most abstract of mental manipulations and to do it all without any specialized training.  These various characteristics of household work have led some analysts to suggest that housework (or the household economy) is the last dying gasp of feudalism, a remnant of precapitalist conditions somehow (miraculously) vaulting the centuries unimpaired, the last surviving indicator of what the Western world was before the market economy reared its ugly head.

     Perhaps this is true, but there are other sides to the coin; industrialized housework resembles industrialized market labor in significant ways.  Modern housework depends upon nonhuman energy sources, just as advanced industrialized systems do....

     Thus, even if the household is an isolated work environment, it is also a part of a larger economic and social system; and if it did not constantly interact with this system, it could not function at all--making it no different from the manufacturing plant outside the city or the supermarket down the street....

     Finally, both household labor and market labor are today performed with tools that can be neither manufacture nor understood by the workers who use them....

     In sum, we can say that there are three significant senses in which housework differs from market work (in being--most commonly--unpaid labor, performed in isolated workplaces, by unspecialized workers) and three significant senses in which the two forms of work resemble each other (in utilizing nonhuman--or non-animal--energy sources, which create dependency on a network of social and economic institutions and are accompanied by alienation from the tools that make labor possible).  If we take all six of these criteria and group them together, we will have a good definition of industrialization.  Then we might be able to see that, in the West over the last two hundred years, women's work has been differentiated from men's by being incompletely industrialized or by being industrialized in a somewhat different manner. (Cowan 6-7)

     Before we work through the productive aspects of the quote, I want to point to out the most significant problem of the passage, the binary between the commercial space of men and the household space of women.  On one hand, the industrialized workplace certainly hasn't excluded women.  One can look at the factories Lowell in the 19th century, the wartime workplaces of the United States, amongst other examples.  On the other hand, the isolated space of the household has contained substantial amounts of commercial, particularly in the form of home work, piece work taken up by immigrant wives to supplement income.  Perhaps to put another way, the farther we move away from white, middle-class households, the less this split between the public and the private works.  It works best during the 1950's, precisely because of the explosion of white middle class households.  (As many note, the post war period coagulates a white, middle class identity, at the expense of the African American portion of the population.)

     Once we move beyond these problems, the text provides some provocative approaches to understanding the structures of domesticity and consumption that increasingly dominates industrialized, mass production through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Cowan provides some useful evidence to critique the notion taken up by a set of conventional marxist thinkers and feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Despite the fact that household labor doesn't mirror the structures of mass labor found in the Fordist factory, it is in fact modern, industrialized work that appears radically different than previous household labor.  In effect, the structure of the household is radically transformed by the structures of industrialization as much as any other form of work.  Just as significantly, the entire process of industrialization cannot be understood without thinking about the role of the household as an aspect of that process.  We can think about this in a couple ways.  The first way of thinking about this relates to the question of consumption, one not fully taken up by Cowan, but dealt with in depth by Stuart Ewen in his critical work.   The household becomes the place that legitimates mass production through the consumption of what is produced, and by acting as a place of solace, providing a substitute to any meaningful voice in the space of production.  What Cowan makes us see is that it also shapes the way that reproductive labor occurs.  Although she gestures towards the critiques that label this form of work as 'primitive' or non-modern, the reality is that it is intensely tied into the forms of industrialization that were occurring throughout the system.  Just as the work of carpenters and other craft workers was being deeply reshaped, the work of the housewife was just as significantly transformed, operating in isolation, but, at the same time, deeply shaped by the social structures of industrialization.  We might even say that the feminist movement played a class role in bringing out the common experience of this isolated socialization. 

     What I want to bring to this conversation might be understood in a two fold process.  1.  I want to argue that despite what Cowan argues, there existed deeply embedded structures of pedagogy for this newly industrialized labor.  Most obviously, this training occurred in a variety of classes for immigrant mothers and wives, in classrooms focused on home economics and other disciplines, but that could be expanded to the informal space of domestic and women's magazines, which became the prime location to popularize the academic discourses of home economics and other engagements with the home.  It also produced a heavily edited and monitored collective space in which women could discuss techniques and approaches to child care, gardening, and other activities.  Housework could only be understood as untrained labor if these spaces as well as other formal and informal spaces are ignored.  2.  In some sense, the types of labor discussed by Cowan, rather than being primitive gesture towards the forms of labor found in the contemporary forms of post-Fordism.  As Paulo Virno notes, this era is defined precisely by the expectation that workers can operate within a variety of rules systems, take on a multiplicity of tasks, and most notably, invest themselves passionately in each of them.  Perhaps, instead of thinking of the walls of the factory falling down to envelope society, we can see the reproductive structures of the household falling down with the fights brought on by feminism, and that fight and more notably, its reaction, leading to a generalization of the reproductive role of the household throughout social structures.  This obviously needs more thought, and I probably will need to deal with the question of the counter-revolution within this process, but I think I will leave my thoughts here for now.  Hopefully, this isn't too repetitive. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Propositions in California: Revised

     After my foray into presidential politics, I thought I should continue this trend with some thoughts on the current propositions that are up for election in California.  Unlike the presidential election, those propositions have a much more direct influence on my life, and attempt to accomplish very concrete goals, both good and bad.  My positions aren't going to be that startling to anyone who knows me, and frankly don't stray very far from the positions taken by other groups, but, nonetheless, I thought it would be worth spelling out my thoughts in these matters.

     Proposition 30 is a compromise between Governor Jerry Brown's proposition to refund the state government and the proposition being brought up by labor unions and other progressive groups, called the millionaire's tax.  In effect, it took some of the regressive taxation proposed by the governor and combined it with the progressive taxation proposed by the millionaire's tax.  It's certainly not the proposition I would have wanted to see.  The notion that those who have hurt by the crisis should have to pay along with those who have benefited seems a little obscene to me.  However, our ability to freeze the cost of university and college education is on the line with this proposition.  Moreover, most of the taxation is progressive.  I have difficulty seeing anyone interpret the failure of this proposition link it to the sales tax, setting back attempt to reintroduce progressive taxation in the state.  Within that context, I think folks should get out and vote for this measure.  However, we shouldn't be deluded into thinking this will solve the crisis.  We need to also pressure the governor and the regents to prioritize public education.

     Proposition 31 is a little baroque.  No position

     Proposition 32 basically is a way to take away any political influence of unions from the political process, while continuing to allow the immense expenditures on the part of corporations.  The prop attempts to disguise this by stating it will equally disqualify union and business spending, but the truth is that it removes the funding mechanism that unions use to make political donations, while not challenging the main forms of corporate funding.  It should also be noted that union political donations are made voluntarily and aren't taken out of union dues.  As much as I get annoyed at the unions love of the democratic party, the big unions have been some of the biggest advocates for public education and the social safety net in the state.  Obviously, you should vote no on this.

    Proposition 33 is basically an auto insurance industry scam, one that they keep on trying to pass.  Don't vote for this.

    Proposition 34 abolishes the death penalty in California, while creating the conditions to put a lot more money in law enforcement.  It also changes the labor expectations of prisoners found guilty of murder, giving them the same labor expectations as other prisoners, expanding prison labor.  This reinforces a set of policies connected to the prison labor industrial complex, but it's not a substantial transformation.  Here's an article discussing why many death row prisoners are opposed, along with some prisoners' rights groups.  No position  (This is revised from a reserved yes for the measure.)

     Proposition 35 focuses on the question of human trafficking, imposing larger penalties on those who engage in these practices.  Sounds good, but the definitions presented in the proposition threaten to place these onerous penalties on sex workers and those who were victims of trafficking.  It also continues the erasure of the majority of those affected by trafficking, those who were transported for labor purposes.  Here's a decent article on some of the severe problems with the proposition.  Vote no.

      Proposition 36 is an attempt to modify California's three strikes laws, setting it up that one can only be imprisoned for life when the final accusation is a serious felony.  All the polling seems to show that this is not going to pass, which is unfortunate because the only problem with the proposition is that it doesn't go as far as to get rid of the entire edifice of the three strikes law, which has contributed to the explosion of prisons in California.  Voting for this won't get rid of the racist prison system, but it is a significant small step in challenging it.  Vote yes.

     Proposition 37 would require that the use of genetically modified organisms (gmo) must be labelled when used in food products.  I don't have the passion about this issue that other folks do, but it seems to make sense that folks can make informed decisions on what they eat.  I suggest folks vote yes.

     Proposition 38 is a competing tax proposal with prop 30.  It focuses its funding for K-12 education, with some money going to early education and some going to debt reduction, basically leaving us out in the cold.  It operates by increasing the income tax on everyone but those in the lowest tax brackets.  Basically, it takes the same perspective of prop 30, but taking a more regressive stance.  Folks should vote this down, and support 30.

      Proposition 39 basically cuts a bunch of loopholes for business who operate in a multi-state context, and sets up new sales tax expectations on how out of state businesses calculate sales taxes.  That money will go to clean energy stuff, specifically tied into creating new jobs.  Folks should vote for this one too.

Proposition 40 is another in a long line of redistricting proposals.  I don't have a position on this.

      In any case, I hope to move away from this shameful act of reformist deviation to discuss more meaningful radical organizing, but there seem to be a lot of folks wondering about this stuff.  I thought I would toss out my two cents on this.  To put it simply, you should go out and vote, but none of these propositions respond to the structural issues that have created this.  In order to do that we need organize a historical bloc that would begin to undo the last 500 years of exploitation and domination created by the world capitalist system.  No ballot measure will solve that.  Radical expectations met.  I'll leave it there.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

a short response to debates on Occupy

       At the height of the set of encampments and actions that made up the phenomenon called Occupy, there was an immense outpouring of celebratory articles and essays.  Occupy was the long needed response to the crisis, whether in terms of fiance capitalism, inequality, or a number of other social phenomenon.  At last the dam broke, and 'we' were finally acting.  Politics as usual was dead, or at least dying.  Several months later, with the collapse of the encampments and the shattering of the political alliances that produced the encampments into dozens of smaller projects as well as a lot of folks dropping out, we see the opposite response, a blistering attack on the phenomenon, most notably from Alexander Cockburn shortly before his death, and most recently from Thomas Frank, in the revived Baffler.  The same set of techniques and approaches to the political so often celebrated in those earlier essays and response now become the focus of attack, leaderlessness, the emphasis on process, critical theory, etc.  Frank, in particular, demands that the 'movement' look like the social movements of the past, movements that were not abject failures in the way that Occupy was.

       Both celebratory gestures and withering critique contain a common error of analysis, the homogenous Occupy movement never existed in the way that they imagined it.  Instead, Occupy was at best a structure of feeling, a resentment and the spark of hope that brought together a fairly strange assemblage of disappointed Obama voters, marxists, anarchists, Ron Paul supporters, conspiracy theorists, and others.  The movement not only divided on those ideological concerns, but substantially divided on regional concerns.  The movement in Los Angeles looked nothing like the movement in Oakland, which looked nothing like the movement in New York.  Different encampments formed and succeeded or failed depending a radically contingent set of circumstances, ranging from who formed the original groups to organize the actions to the responses of the police.  Furthermore, the most successful encampments were linked to earlier struggles, adding to the distinctions between the various actions.  Moreover, the inclusion of supporters of Ron Paul, David Icke, and others created antagonisms that made the typical divisions between radicals and liberals or anarchists and marxists seem fairly tame.  Those divisions within the multiplicity both made the phenomenon look so appealing, but also created the inevitable divisions that we now seen in the shattered projects of the aftermath.

     Ultimately, Occupy is better understood as a set of constitutive possibilities and limitations within the various fragments and groupings of counter-systemic movements within the United States, rather than as a movement in any meaningful sense.  To put it differently, it gestures towards a movement through a number of useful and problematic potential symbolic forms, rather than being that movement.  In a curious sense, we can see the history of our movements running through the vast horizontal network of assemblages that linked and broke apart within the past year.  Our ability to produce what Gramsci calls a historical bloc is dependent on our ability to recognize and negotiate this long and complex history of revolt and complicity, of resistance and compliance.  Mike Ely from the Kasama project has a useful way of thinking about this.  He notes that earlier socialist projects were often built on the notion of the new man, the subjectivity built out of the furnace of socialist struggle.  What we need to conceptualize now is the way that we can build a radically new society with the people that exist and the here and now.  Although I'm not sure that Ely would go as far as this, I think this means rejecting the notion of the revolutionary 'subject' altogether.  Radical transformation occurs through the creation of new assemblages, new organizations, new collectivities, not the fantasy of a sort of collective subject.  Those formations will be both remarkably new to us and very familiar because they will arise as a result of people who have been formed in the old social formations that map the terrain of struggle we live within.

     Our engagement with those phenomena should be less concerned with the notion of victory or defeat than the social possibilities and limitations that exist in our attempts to produce some sort of more substantial counter-systemic project.  That means getting a sense of the vast multiplicity of projects that occurred under the Occupy umbrella, from legal actions to home defense to occupations of space.  My suspicion is that there was a lot more going on than what has been reported.  It means talking about what succeeded, what didn't, and perhaps more significantly, how those various tactics and strategies can be built upon.  I largely agree with the analyses presented by Jodi Dean and other about the question of representation, and the political.  There needs to be more thought given to the question of representation that escapes the easy formulation of a refusal of the question altogether.  (This deserves a longer conversation, but I would recommend Jodi Dean and Jason Jones essay discussing the question here.)  At the same time, it would be a pretty substantial mistake to imagine Occupy in some sense constitutes the only spaces of resistance within the country,  As a lot of anti-racist activists pointed out, there were distinct limitations to who was represented in the movement, and how questions of racialization were approached in the movement.  We also need to recognize the need to keep the Ron Paul supporters, the conspiracy theorists, and weird monetarists out of the movement.  To draw on Dean's analysis, we need to draw divisions between our radical project and the racism and quackery of the right.  But all of this is contingent on recognizing the fissures and contradictions within the multiple formations under the umbrella of Occupy.  Until we do that, our understanding of the movement will be fundamentally mystified.