Monday, January 14, 2013

Another short essay on Joanna Russ: Biopolitics and The Femle Man

      I've been rereading Joanna Russ' The Female Man, while working on a substantial rewrite of an earlier paper that I want to turn into a dissertation chapter.  Within that context, I came across a fairly interesting passage that I had previously given very little thought, one that links the text with a very problematic biopolitical thread that can be found in feminist utopias, one that I had previously thought was left out of her work.  The relevant passage occurs in section viii of the first section of the book, which gives a brief historical sketch of the world of Whileaway,

      "Humanity is unnatural!" exclaimed the philosopher Dunyasha Bernadetteson (A.C 344-426) who suffered all her life from the slip of a genetic surgeon's hand which had given her one mother's jaw and the other mother's teeth--orthodontia is hardly ever necessary on Whileaway.  Her daughter's teeth, however, were perfect."

      This comment along with the obsessive concern about IQ in an earlier section point to a moment that the focus on social construction is briefly undone, and the eugenics of earlier feminist science fiction and utopias enters back into the picture.  If the initial conceit of the book is that the four characters, Janet, Jeanette, Jael, and Joanna are all the same individual within different social settings, the radicality of Whileaway can no longer be understood within the transformation of social structures, but in some sense draws on the eugenic construction of its subjects, placing it closer to the work of Herland than I'm sure Russ would have liked to be associated. 

       At the same time, a reasonably observant reader of the text could note that the description of Whileaway oscillates between satire and idealization, that is, between the world as a sending up of earlier traditions of science fiction that Russ thinks rather poorly of, and the radical possibilities contained in rereading, rewriting, and drawing from those traditions, in order to produce the type of cognitive estrangement that the genre has the potential of producing.  I would largely agree that one is not being a terribly attentive reader if one ignores Russ' satirical engagement with the history of the genre, but I would point out that it's a satirical engagement that papers over the racial implications in those utopian traditions.  This point is reflected in her own critical rereading of her review of Gilman's Herland, which notes the ways that she minimalizes the racism in that novel.

      To move on from this very particular moment in the novel, albeit one that gestures towards a set of significant contradictions in the text, the more I work through questions of social reproduction the the 20th century of the United States, the more I'm convinced that the question of racialization has to be put at the center of the forms of reproductive labor in the household, and more specifically the ways that those forms of labor are organized and valorized.  If the first half of the century is defined by a variety of attempts to incorporate new immigrants and elements of the working class into the dual regime of sexuality and consumption, those attempts simultaneously consciously worked to integrate these groups into an expanded whiteness, that only worked through a series of brutal acts of exclusion that denied the humanity of large sections of the world.  The civilizing discourse of Gilman, the settlement house movement, theorists of mass consumption operated on the premise of a sort of racial uplift, one that largely drew from the now discounted evolutionary theories of Lamarkian selection.

      These points are probably most substantially developed by Michel Foucault in his, History of Sexuality, Volume 1, but several essays by Etienne Balibar do a good job of expanding on this in a number of essays in the text co-written with Immanuel Wallerstein.  There have been a number of substantial feminist critiques of Foucault based on his presumed discounting of sexual difference, and I would certainly accept that the intense weight put upon women in the bourgeois project of sexuality is not taken into account.  The figure that is utterly erased from the text is that of the mother, but at the same time, Foucault's reading of sexuality as a both bourgeois and racist project only just recently seems to be incorporated into contemporary feminist work.  This is not to say that feminists have refused to confront racism, but all too often its taken as a separate issue to the questions of sexuality that they are taking on.  This erasure all too often leads to the inability to recognize the way that a biopolitical project that's deeply embedded in the logic of the formation of race haunts the history of the twentieth century.

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