Tuesday, July 31, 2018

An Introduction to a discussion of The Female Man

I committed my first revolutionary act yesterday. I shut the door on a man’s thumb. I did it for no reason at all and I didn’t warn him; I just slammed the door shut in a rapture of hatred and imagined the bone breaking and the edges grinding into his skin. He ran downstairs and the phone rang wildly for an hour after while I sat, listening to it, my heart beating wildly, thinking wild thoughts. Horrible. Horrible and wild. I must find Jael.

Women are so petty (translation: we operate on too small a scale).

Now I’m worse than that—I also do not give a damn about humanity or society. It’s very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it’s true. For example:

My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-storeowner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The manager of the neighborhood is male.
My landlord is male.
Most taxi-drivers are male.
The designers of my car are male.
The factory workers who made the car are male.
The dealer I bought it from is male.
Almost all my colleagues are male.
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male.
I think most people in the world are male. (Russ 203-204)

Joanna’s declaration of war contained in the conclusion of The Female Man has produced a number of valuable symptomatic readings by critics, particularly in the novel’s initial reception. As Sarah Lefanu has noted, the particular section of the text has been labeled as ‘hysterical’, ‘angry’, defensive’, amongst other dismissals. (Lefanu 19) It’s also one of a small number of passages that have given the novel its reputation as a particularly violent text. As a number of critics[1], particularly Russ herself, have pointed out, the number of acts of violence are fairly limited compared to any number of contemporary science fiction texts. (Russ 144-5) However to remain on that surface level of analysis, one loses the ability to ask why the novel has produced these particularly errant effects. Answering that question involves a serious engagement with the political project found in Russ’s critical reading and rewriting of the literary conventions of science fiction, and with the form of the novel itself, an engagement that can only be understood within those literary traditions of science fiction. To put it another way, we need to read Russ’s work in the terms introduced by Sarah Lefanu in her text on feminist science fiction, In the Chinks of the World Machine, as “a part of science fiction while struggling against it.” (Lefanu 5) For Russ, the project of feminist science fiction is committed to bringing out the full potential of the genre, a potential found in its ability to estrange the ideological assumptions of the present by presenting a potential futurity.

The section of the narrative opens with a declaration of an opening, of a shift in subjectivity through what is declared a revolutionary act, the act of smashing a man’s thumb into a door. Even as the narrator, Joanna revels in the excess and violence contained in the act, and recoils from its potential consequences, she also declares the act as occurring for ‘no reason at all.’ Indeed, Joanna goes on to declare the action in line with the ‘petty’ nature of women’s activities, which ‘operate on too small a scale.” The text continues by connecting the ‘petty’ acts of women to their systemic occlusion from ‘society’ and even by implication ‘humanity.’ She marks that occlusion through noting the variety of occupations and social positions that women do not hold, positions that deeply shape the daily lives and horizons of expectations for those women. The productivity of the sexual contract, the construction of women as a sort of commons accessible to a cross class alliance of men is both deeply productive in its ability to harness and discipline the labor of women into a narrow set of reproductive tasks and a profound if implicit act of domination. As has been previously noted, the household as an institution has been consciously developed over the twentieth century, drawing from the models of industrial production developed by Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, but modifying them to deal with the contingent realities of the household.[2] Rather simply imitating the reform processes developed in the factory, the household is industrialized on very different grounds.

The work of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James in their pamphlet, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, published in 1972, can contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the occlusion of women from the public sphere of humanity and the modes of social reproduction and consumption in the Fordist regime of accumulation that depends on that occlusion. Through that analysis, we can begin to understand the productive element of the forms exclusion and petty domination that the text attempts to critique. We need to understand those actions within the context of the productive labor that women contributed to the maintenance of that system. Within the context of trying to understand the work of housewives to the social reproduction of Fordism, the authors challenge the limited notions of labor power contained in conventional Marxist analyses, insisting on understanding the unpaid labor of the household as playing a central role in the reproduction of surplus labor, noting.

The community is not an area of freedom and leisure auxiliary to the factory, where by chance there happen to be women who are degraded as the personal servants of men. The community is the other half of capitalist organization, the other area of hidden capitalist exploitation, the other, hidden source of surplus labor. It becomes increasingly regimented like a factory, what Mariarosa calls a social factory, where the costs and nature of transport, housing, medical care, education, police, are all points of struggle. And this social factory has as its pivot the woman in the home producing labor power as a commodity, and her struggle not to.

The demands of the women’s movement, then, take on a new and more subversive significance. When we say, for example, that we want control of our own bodies, we are challenging the domination of capital which has transformed our reproductive organs as much as our arms and legs into instruments of accumulation of surplus labor; transformed our relations with men, with our children and our very creation of them, into work productive to this accumulation. (James and Dalla Costa, 11-12)

The forms of informal social relationships that make up the ‘community’ including the domestic sphere are recognized as playing a significant role in the social reproduction of capitalism. On one hand, Dalla Costa and James recognize the intense political and disciplinary pressure put on the household, pressure designed to increase and intensify the accumulation of capital through the extraction of surplus labor. The household literally becomes the social factor, producing the crucial labor power needed for the entire system to work. The intimate relationships of the household, whether in the form of romance or raising children, are crucial to the reproduction of labor power, transforming the woman’s body into an instrument for the reproduction of capital. On the other hand, the varieties of forms of feminist activism are forms of resistance to that regime, whether they are recognized as that as such. The household is both a space of the social reproduction of capital, and a myriad of forms of resistance, both formally and informally. As such, the disciplining and reproduction of that workplace becomes a central concern, one that involves both private and public interests. The construction of conventions and norms of femininity becomes a regulatory mechanism and way of creating forms of consent for this necessary condition for the reproduction of capital. Despite the attempts on the part of a number of theorists to place the household economy outside the disciplinary and pedagogical apparatuses of the state and capital, we find an institution that is intertwined within the modern capitalist state as any other.

Although his work in not frequently considered helpful in the field of women’s studies, Marx’s description of the reductive qualities of factory labor can contribute to our understanding of this situation. The immense cooperative capacity of the factory, its power, is dependent on a reduction of the activities of the individual workers that make up that collectivity. Marx forces us to recognize the repressive violence contained in that process that reduces labor to an increasingly small set of rote, physical gestures. He notes, “Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost; at the same time, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity. Even the lightening of the labor becomes an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content.” (Marx, Capital, 548) At a surface level, Marx’s description captures the repressive nature of the disciplinary structure of the factory, the experience of physical, emotional, and intellectual pain produced by such an operation. He links that pain to a state of unfreedom, both intellectually and physically, marking the profound destruction of the potentiality contained in the body and the mind. Moreover, he argues that this act of violence is inescapable within the logic of the regime of accumulation that is capitalism.

But we have to understand that this particular repression is a secondary effect of capital’s domination. The primary effect is the unleashing the profound productive capacities of the factory in order to facilitate the production of surplus value. Anachronistically, the regime of accumulation produced by the factory is dependent on the production of the docile body of the mass worker. The analogy between the social factory of the home and the industrial factory has its limitations, in the forms of sociality contained in the respected locations, and the relationship each plays to social reproduction and production respectively, but the connection nonetheless allows for a way of connecting both to the expanded regime of accumulation, along with its costs. Moreover, each aspect of this regime can be understood as the result of the geometry of forces that might be reductively called the class struggle, the struggle between the complex and at times contradictory forces of living labor, and the logic of accumulation of capital, the geometry of forces, it might be added, that created the conditions in which women could be treated as a form of the commons by a cross class alliance of men.

Turning back to the text, we find a world in which ‘most people in the world are male.’ That world, the world of the public sphere, operates through the exclusion of women, who only make up 1/10th of that world. Similar to the world of the mass factory worker as described by Marx, we need to understand the acts of repression and exclusion that separate the public from the private, the domestic labor of social reproduction from the production of value in the public sphere. The small and petty act of shattering a man’s thumb acts as the rhetorical destruction of the distinction of the two spaces, of the act of enclosure that constructs that very act of distinction.[3] The act of smashing a thumb holds additional significance, referencing the legal structures of patriarchal violence legitimated by the American legal system, structures that were revealed as a part of the collective historical project that arose out of the radical and cultural feminist political engagements. In that context, Joanna’s act can be defined as an act of transgression, rather than liberation, a temporary respite from the tyranny of enclosure, and presumably the first act of many. After all, Joanna recoils from the very real consequences contained in her act, gesturing towards a continuation of the status quo. The text oscillates between these small acts of resistance and the expansive vision between a multiplicity of worlds, radically different social systems, containing radically different economic, social, and political forms. The act of shattering a thumb mushrooms into a shift from inactivity to activity, in the form of an implicit entrance into the women’s movement[4], disrupting the myriad of forms of common sense that produce the forms of common sense that allow for the construction of social hegemony.

That explosion of possibilities can only be understood within the horizon of the social movements that defined the time of the text’s production. The Female Man was produced between the years of 1969-1971 with an additional three years to find a publisher for the text. At that same time, we see the crystallization of a series of structural crises in the capitalist world system, transforming into what Immanuel Wallerstein argues constitutes ‘a single revolution.’ (Wallerstein 355) That revolution constituted a challenge to the U.S. hegemony of the world system, and a challenge and protest ‘against the “old left” antisystemic movements (Wallerstein 358). It shattered the world created by the failed and partial transformation of those previous social movements, and its mixture of social mobility and social control. In doing that, it ended a series of assumptions about radical transformation, and the role of minoritarian groups, moving from a conventional assumption that the problems of minoritarian groups would be resolved after the revolution. As Immanuel Wallerstein notes that after 1968, none of the minoritarian struggles “would ever again accept the legitimacy of “waiting” upon some other revolution.” (Wallerstein 363) The radical feminist movements that exploded globally were a prime example of that refusal to be put into the waiting room of history.

Reading both the polemical work of the period along with the retrospective historical analysis produced by Alice Echols in Daring to Be Bad allows for one to recognize the breadth and depth of that struggle. Thousands of formal and informal political circles formed and broke up in the period, meeting to engage in consciousness raising sessions, organizing protests, and challenging a variety of cultural and political organizations, ranging from conventional women’s magazines to countercultural institutions such as underground newspapers and a variety of new left groups. As Echols notes, radical feminists both challenged liberal feminism’s attempt to fight for formal equality within the contemporary structures of domination of the capitalist world system, and rejected the radical left’s placement of class as the primary contradiction, instead positing an alternative primary contradiction of women as a sex-class. (Echols 3-7) Despite the attempt to construct a united class project, radical feminism did not constitute a homogenous project, defined as much by its explosive conflicts, personal attacks categorized as ‘trashing’ by the movement, its multiplicity of political approaches, as much the movements commitment to unity. (Echols 51-101) Every attempt to construct a stable foundation for the category of woman translated into even more expansive conflicts and contradictions, even greater political and theoretical instability. At one level, we can understand this failure at a theoretical level, the inability to recognize the extraordinary historical contingency tied to the class category that radical feminists wanted to understand as a trans-historical one. One can turn to the work of any number of Black feminist thinkers to see those criticisms.[5] At the same time, this instability aligns with the very nature of the revolutionary project. Antonio Negri’s analysis of Marx’s Grundrisse offers a useful lens for this aspect of revolutionary politics through his critique of the dialectic along with his conception of class, a concept he draws from the work of Mario Tronti and expands upon.

Before we look at Negri’s critique of the dialectic, we should first turn to the concept of class, a concept central to radical feminism, through its construction of women as a class. The novel draws on the concept of women as a class and explores its potential construction as a central point of the novel, through the collective engagements of women from four very different versions of the Earth. Turning to Negri allows us to explore the idea of class composition, a concept that is referenced in the feminist turn to understanding women as a class, but is not theoretically developed. Instead, radical feminist take this category for granted, conceiving of it as a trans-historical concept, rather than one born out of a very particular history. Negri’s work does something very different, despite some of its limitations. Negri, following the work of Mario Tronti, conceives of class composition as a result of the terrain of struggle, rather than its cause. To put it another way, class identities are produced through the formation of working class institutions, cultural forms and common sense assumptions produced in the conflict with a variety of dominant institutions. Class identity is a result of a history of struggle, rather than a cause of it, and as such, is continually mutating into different forms as it breaks apart and coagulates together within the terrain of the class struggle.

This alterative concept of collective class identity is deeply embedded in Negri’s reconceptualization of the dialectic. Negri argues that the dialectic represents the struggle between labor and capital from the perspective of capital. Because of its need for the force of living labor, capital can never entirely succeed in what might be considered a complete victory, in the annihilation of the alterity of its opposite, is impossible. Instead, it draws on the logic of the dialectic, continually trying to come up with forms of mediation to neutralize this force, to come up with new modes of synthesis, which will accomplish the impossible, the incorporation of this alien force, the proletariat in its many guises. The logic of the force of living labor operates from a considerably different perspective, that of antagonism. Unlike capital, the collective assemblage of living labor can easily exist without the organizing logic of capital. Its project is defined by the multiplicity contained in the non-value defined as use value within Marx’s project, the dense thicket of needs, structures, and relationships that exist outside the logic of capital, but are necessary for its reproduction. Cleaver spells out the implicit telos of this alternative and antagonistic project in his introductory notes to Negri’s text.

The antagonistic logic of working-class separation reaches its conclusion as it explodes and destroys capital’s dialectic. It explodes all binary formulae, as Negri says, bursting the dialectical integument and liberating a multi-dimensional and ever-changing set of human needs and projects. (Cleaver xxvi)

If the dialectical logic of capital finds its highest form in the increasingly thinly mediated moments of synthesis, then the logic of its opposite explodes that binary into a dense and complex explosion of forces, a multiplicity that aligns itself with the form of non-value and refusal of equivalence contained in the category of use, that Cleaver describes us as “a multi-dimensional and ever-changing set of human needs and projects.” That explosion, the explosion of needs, desires that are linked into a set of new collectivities, new subjectivities are inextricably linked with a dense array of texts, taking the form of manifestos, theoretical analyses, rants, poetry, and fiction. Turning back to the radical feminist movement, we find alongside its political engagements a prodigious textual production, operating at the performative, critical, and analytical level to shatter the forms of domestic containment discussed in the previous chapter, to unleash the suppressed multiplicity disciplined in service of the accumulation of capital.[6] Joanna Russ explicitly embraces this revolutionary project in her text, the destruction of imagining its own obsolescence produced through the revolutionary transformation to come.[7] In order to make sense of how science fiction is brought into service of a revolutionary project, we need to shift from the broad historical conversation contained above, into the exploration of the formal qualities of the novel, that is, its strategies for estranging and dismantling the regime of domestic labor of the post war period, and the particular intersection of the discursive formations of femininity and sexuality that produce its infrastructure. To do so, we need to begin with a generic engagement with the novel, only to move onto the modes of temporality and subjectivity contained in the novel. Only then, can we appreciate the radical engine of destabilization contained in the text.

[1] For a longer discussion of this, see Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 1988). See Tatiana Teslenko, Feminist Utopian Novels of the 1970’s: Joanna Russ and Dorothy Bryant (London Routledge Press, 2003) for a feminist reading that replicates some of these assumptions.

[2] For a longer conversation, read Ruth Schwarz Cowan, More Work for Mother (New York: Basic Books, 1983), McHugh, Kathleen Anne. American Domesticity: From How-to Manuel to Hollywood Melodrama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, and Stein, Sally. ‘The Graphic Ordering of Desire: Modernization of a Middle Class Women's Magazine 1914–1939’, Heresies, 18, 1985.

[3] A more immediate reference might be the misogynist song by The Rolling Stones, “Under My Thumb.”

[4] See Lisa Maria Hoagland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement (Philadelphia: University of PennsylvaniaPress, 1998) for an example of this interpretation of the novel.

[5] See bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000), Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1984) are two early examples, but we can find a significant archive beyond these two texts.

[6] See, liberation now!: Writings From The Women’s Liberation Movement, Ed. Deborah Babcox and Madeline Balkin (New York, Dell Publishing, Inc,, 1971), Sisterhood is Powerful; an Anthology of Writings From the Women's Liberation Movement, Ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970)

[7] “Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers’ noses.

Rejoice, little book!

For on that day, we will be free. (Russ 213-214)