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.