Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes on One Dimensional Woman

Last week I read Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman, one of the very short philosophical works recently published by the Zer0 imprint. This won't be a proper review but rather various thoughts prompted by my reading.

I like Power's focus on work and the changes to work. And I agree with much of what she says about today's "feel-good" feminism, and in particular with her point that we need to address how "'feminism' as a term has come to be used by those who would traditionally have been regarded as the enemies of feminism". For example, those who defended the invasion of Afghanistan in the interest of "women's rights", among other allegedly Western values; also, the spectacle of Sarah Palin is relevant here, embodying as she does many superficial characteristics of mainstream feminism, namely the obsession with placing women in positions of power (Power spends a section discussing Palin in detail. I admit I don't find her terribly interesting as a figure. I am more interested in the implications of the widespread misogynist attacks on her from liberals—the "enemy women" phenomenon.). With respect to the problem of powerful women, Power notes the Margaret Thatchers and Condoleeza Rices of the world and observes that, "It is not enough to have women in top positions of power, it depends upon what kind of women they are and what they're going to do when they get there." I would go further and say that even that's not enough. What matters is the nature of the power and the structure of the system. Any woman who manages to rise to a position of power in such a patriarchal system as we currently enjoy is bound to perpetuate that system.

In my view, the best sections of the book are those dealing with pornography, if only because the section feels somewhat more fully developed, as writing; Power's great interest in the topic comes through. I have lately come around to an opposition to pornography on moral grounds—the moral questions being not in the area of sex itself, or nudity, or even representation or depiction, per se, but rather because of the common violence and depravity, not to mention the coercion and degradation. I am not a free-speech absolutist, and I see no particular reason to protect such garbage (but just try, on a website dominated by oh-so-sensitive liberal men, to even approach the topic that there might be something wrong with pornography; it's always a slippery slope to society inevitably being taken over by Christian fundamentalist prudes). Power helpfully re-frames pornography, just a little, criticizing the ahistoricist anti-porn arguments, for example those by Andrew Dworkin. Says Power:
[W]e might side with the anti-pornography feminists and argue that the genre is so irredeemably associated with violence and misogyny that we should steer well clear of it, and perhaps even campaign for its abolition. But what if there was another history of porn, one that was filled less with pneumatic shaven bodies pummeling each other into submission than with sweetness, silliness and bodies that didn't always function and purr like a well-oiled machine? The early origins of cinematic pornography tell a very different story about the representation of sex, one that suggests a way both out of the rubberized inhumanity of today's hardcore obsession, but also out of the claim that pornography is inherently exploitative.
Fair enough. My one quibble with this would be to suggest that arguments against pornography (mine at least, not to speak for someone like Dworkin, who I intend to but have not yet read) are themselves historically specific—they, we, are responding to what porn is, today.

The last pages of the book contain both the parts of the book I most agree with and disagree with. First, I really liked the bits on collective living and collective parenting. Power touches on the so-called teenage "pregnancy pact" from last year, pointing out the not-very-remarked on rationality of the plan itself, the plan to raise their children together. This leads right into an excerpt from an interesting interview with Toni Morrison, which includes the following:
Two parents can't raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child. The notion that the head is the one who brings in the whole money is a patriarchal notion, that a woman—and I have raised two children, alone—is somehow lesser than a male head. Or that I am incomplete without the male. This is not true. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn't work. It doesn't work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging on to it, I don't know. It isolates people into little units—people need a larger unit.
I also appreciated Power's brief discussion about alternative modes of living—her excellent observation that group or collective living arrangements are seen only as phases we pass through as young adults, to be abandoned when we truly grow up and start families of our own. I think she is right to bemoan this tendency. It seems to me that we should try to find ways to live together, sharing expenses and responsibilities, including child-rearing. (On a related note, this post on co-habitation at unreal a few weeks ago was of great interest...)

In this same section, however, Power spends a few paragraphs on Shulamith Firestone. I don't understand Power's fixation on Firestone, who she has written about a few times at her blog, and who she here calls "deplorably overlooked" (although Firestone's Wikipedia entry describes her as hugely influential in second-wave feminism, so I don't know how overlooked she actually is). "Cybernetic communism" is apparently Firestone's term for what she calls for: "the total emancipation of women (and men) from the shackles of biology via advances in contraceptive, reproductive technology and alternative models of work and social organization". This sounds appalling. There is no "total" emancipation from biology; nor should there be, in my opinion. The idea that contraceptive and reproductive technology will set people free is frankly bizarre. (It's possible I don't know what she means, but I get the sense it goes beyond simply birth control.) It gets worse. Firestone says that "Natural childbirth is only one more part of the reactionary hippie-Rousseauean Return-to-Nature." No, it is not. I suppose Firestone could have meant something different in 1970 by "natural childbirth" than I understand by it now, but I suspect not (and the Wiki-info seems to confirm my sense). What are the alternatives? Babies grown in labs? Even more widespread c-sections? The further increased used of drugs? (The latter two have certainly come to pass; I don't think that their cumulative effect has been positive.) I think the feminism that seeks to reclaim the arena of reproduction away from the male-dominated, patriarchal medical science is a much more fruitful tendency. (Firestone appears to want to transcend biology completely, but somehow via that same male-dominated, patriarchal medical science.) Later, discussing Firestone's ideas on sexual freedom, Power parenthetically says that "intriguingly technologism is the precondition for humanist practice". I don't understand this at all. Rather, I don't get why such a thing would be appealing. I know there is a tendency on parts of the left to fully embrace the technological future, as if technological change as we experience it were not a function of the hated capitalist, patriarchal order we supposedly oppose. And as if the technology we take for granted now can be maintained and fully dispersed in the face of global climatic meltdown. One doesn't have to be a back-to-the-land hippy to find this deeply problematic, at minimum. (And I've already argued, if incompletely, that the road to our current level of technology was unjustified in the first place, relying as it necessarily has on the systematic destruction of others.) I'm on record as against the telos of progress which is common in and out of the Marxist tradition. And I do not understand this need to transcend biology to such an extent as to somehow do away with pregnancy altogether. It could be argued, and I'm sure has been, that the ability to give birth is and ought to be a source of women's power. To toss that possibility aside in favor of notions of freedom defined by the patriarchy anyway strikes me as self-defeating. I would point to feminist insights in the areas of anthropology and biology, not to mention recent advances in the understanding of birth itself and childhood development, both also heavily influenced by the work of feminists, as very strong counter-weights to the kind of abhorrence of biology apparently reflected in work such as Firestone's.

I will no doubt return to such matters in later posts (for example, in the context of discussing Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism, which I also read last week), but I don't want this one area of apparent disagreement to dominate this post, particularly since it stems from only a few short paragraphs and since, on balance, I found plenty to like in the book and would recommend it as a nice, short inquiry into certain problems of present-day feminism.


jeffdavis said...

"There is no 'total' emancipation from biology; nor should there be, in my opinion. The idea that contraceptive and reproductive technology will set people free is frankly bizarre."

I don't see why it's bizarre. Contraceptive technologies like the pill have been profoundly liberating -- not "totally" so, agreed, but it seems clear that there is real emancipatory potential there. I agree with you that the science and technology we know today are the products and the tools of an unjust social order, but I don't think that's the whole story, and I don't see why their development and use necessarily perpetuates that order. It's at least possible to imagine forms of science and technology that don't rely on or contribute to oppression. You're critical of "babies born in labs" and "increased use of drugs" -- but are these things inherently problematic, or is it just that we're only familiar with them within a patriarchal context? I mean, in theory, in vitro fertilization techniques could be used to further the cause of lesbian separatism (for example), even if in practice it's mainly used today in the service of the nuclear family. The social processes that govern the creation and use of those techniques aren't neutral, but you could say the same thing about the social processes surrounding "natural" childbirth.

I guess I feel like you are relying on a (false) opposition between "natural" biology and "artificial" science and technology. Sure, maybe Firestone is too dismissive of the former, but I think you're too dismissive of the latter ("notions of freedom defined by the patriarchy anyway"). It seems to me that there are things that we can use to resist oppression on both ends of that spectrum.

Richard said...

"I guess I feel like you are relying on a (false) opposition between "natural" biology and "artificial" science and technology"

I suppose I knew I would receive this sort of criticism. I don't think I am, but allow me to address a couple of your other points.

First, yes, babies born in labs is inherently problematic. I mean as a general thing. I am not, for example, saying anything about premature babies who have been able to live who otherwise would not have been.

Also, I am well aware of the liberatory potential (and even actuality) of birth control (which is why I referred to it parenthetically in the way I did). I have no beef with that--except to note that the pill is itself not without problems: I know very few women, in my personal life, for whom the pill has not been linked to health problems of one form or another.

And the fact that some drugs are used some times is not a problem. The problem arises with the cascading interventions, which are often undertaken at the convenience of doctors rather than actual need (as are many c-sections; some c-sections are necessary for the safety of either mother or baby, or both, many are not).

My main problem with what I perceive to be Firestone's argument is summed up in a phrase attributed to her that appears on her Wiki page: "pregnancy is barbaric". Obviously many women--many feminists--do not think so, and in my view, have good feminist and good scientific reasons for not thinking so. To then dismiss the "natural" childbirth movement as "reactionary" strikes me as profoundly disrespectful. (Even if, literally, it is in many ways a "reaction" to the decades prescribed medical interventions.)

Shelley Ettinger said...

Maybe pregnancy isn't barbaric, but why in the world is the idea of alternative means bizarre? It's always been one of my fonder fantasies (and now I realize maybe it came out of reading Firestone back in the day), that we'll eventually arrive at the means to free women from the requirements of reproduction. Yes, the original division of labor has been misunderstood and misrepresented by ruling-class history and anthropology, because yes, women's role in the advance of the human race, of culture, agriculture, language and so on, was enormous, contrary to the usual image--but much (maybe not all) of the counter argument tying motherhood, that is, women's unique capability to give birth, to some special, better, higher type of being human I generally find to be romantic, condescending, unscientific. It's hard to be objective, you know, equally if not more hard for men as for women. Women have varied views on this, so much of it tied to our subservient position in society. We can say hey we're better because we give birth and feel a little better about the whole rotten mess of sexist society or we can, like me, hate how our capacity for maternity is such an inescapable, driving force in our lives and used so definitively to cram us into our social role. On the other hand, for a man to "not understand" the attraction of the idea of "transcending biology" must also, I think, have something to do with how men are not enslaved by it (by biology and what it means in culture and society) in the same way, can never feel the desperate anger, rage and frustration of it. You make interesting points against a fetishistic devotion to technological advances, but I don't think you have a good case for characterizing as "bizarre" the very idea of technological change in the area of reproduction and I'd guess that your repulsion has some subjective element to it as much as my attraction to it does.

Richard said...

Hi Shelley.

I know I'm not being clear enough on this. I can see I should have worded things more carefully. I don't find the idea bizarre. I can see why the idea would be attractive. But it strikes me as a dangerous fantasy. Dangerous, in part, because the system through which such a technological emancipation would take place is still the one we have now. And the idea strikes me as out-dated, given what has been learned in recent decades about pregnancy and childhood development.

You are of course correct that as a man I am not biologically at risk by pregnancy. This is why I am generally reluctant to comment on such matters, because the last thing I want to be is some guy telling women they need to have babies. (Which I certainly don't believe, I hope that's at least clear enough.)

You mention "the counter argument tying motherhood, that is, women's unique capability to give birth, to some special, better, higher type of being human I generally find to be romantic, condescending, unscientific" ...there is such an argument, but I am not making it. However, if we want to be scientific about things, I think we owe it to ourselves to be better informed on what goes on in pregnancy and in the birth itself. What I'm calling for is a) a truly scientific approach to birth and pregnancy which b) means, again, women having collective control over reproduction.

We are able to see that our history of technological advance, many of which advances at the time likely seemed relatively benign, or even as good in and of themselves, we are able to see that this has brought us to a situation where we are threatened with ecological collapse. We can say, "that's not technological advance, that's industrial pollution, etc", but they are intimately related. So it is with medical science. The technological advances in medical science do not exist purely for the health of the community. (For me, what is barbaric is births being scheduled for the convenience of doctors--that is, they are unscientific, even if high-tech.)

I'm sure I'm rambling. My apologies. My basic point is comprised of several variables. We live in a high-tech society. We live on the verge of ecological collapse. High tech relies on massive state infrastructure. Modernization has happened apace, with often little concern for--and usually even flat-out disdain for--pre-modern ways of doing things. That modernization has been usually, in large part, a war against women. (The emergence of the AMA as a medical governing body, for example, was in many ways explicitly at the expense of midwives and local healers, which for many decades meant at the expense of mothers and babies.) I don't see the benefit in refusing to admit that we are biological creatures.

I've probably said enough for one long comment. I hope I've at least shed a little more light on what I meant.

Richard said...

I would like to add, by the way, that several years ago, I think I likely would have had no problem with Firestone's ideas.

But in recent years, my friends have had babies, and we have had a daughter. One of my close friends, who is a mother of two, and a birth-instructor and doula, is a major influence on my thinking. As of course is my wife, Aimée. It is through talking with them, and learning about their pregnancies, and using a birth center over a hospital (after learning about hospitals, and how pregnancy is treated as pathology), and reading what I could, that has forced me to come around to my current way of thinking. It's about science, feminism, and control of life processes (political autonomy, if you will). For what it's worth.