Sunday, October 16, 2011

Follow-up to What Ever Happened to Modernism?, part 1: Shakespeare, Federici, & the devaluation of women

My focus may be shifting somewhat here, but I'm by no means done with literature or blogging about literary matters. Indeed, before moving on, I have some unfinished business to attend to regarding What Ever Happened to Modernism? As long as my essay about that book was, still I had to leave certain topics more or less unaddressed, or less fully explored than I had originally intended. (Isn't it remarkable what we think of as long anymore? As if the essay is anywhere near as long as a full-length essay we'd have read easily prior to the advent of blogs. Fact is, I'm just an amazingly slow writer, so the thing felt interminable. But I digress, even more pointlessly than usual.)

First, having re-read the post a few times, I now wish I had indeed written more about the historical "responses of artists to [the] situation" described by Silvia Federici (for those keeping score at home, I'm referring to the second block quote from Federici in that post, the one that ends with the reference to Rabelais), especially the stuff on Shakespeare I'd ambitiously hoped to include. The title to Federici's Caliban and the Witch, after all, is an explicit reference to The Tempest, a play which is also invoked by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their excellent book, The Many-Headed Hydra, in the opening chapter about the wreck of the Sea-Venture in 1609. They write:
The wreck of the Sea-Venture and the dramas of rebellion that played out among the shipwrecked suggest the major themes of early Atlantic history. These events do not make for a story of English maritime greatness and glory, nor for a tale of the heroic struggle for religious freedom, though sailors and religious radicals both had essential roles. This is, rather, a story about the origins of capitalism and colonization, about world trade and the building of empires. It is also, necessarily, a story about the uprooting and movement of peoples, the making and the transatlantic deployment of "hands". It is a story about exploitation and resistance to exploitation, about how the "sappe of bodies" would be spent. It is a sotry about cooperation among different kinds of people for contrasting purposes of profit and survival. And it is a story about alternative ways of living, and about the official use of violence and terror to deter or destroy them, to overcome popular attachments to "liberty and the fullness of sensuality".

We are by no means the first to find heroic significance in the story of the Sea-Venture. One of the first—and certainly the most influential—was William Shakespeare, who drew upon firsthand accounts of the wreck in 1610-11 as he wrote his play The Tempest. Shakespeare had long studied the accounts of explorers, traders, and colonizers who were aggressively linking the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas through world trade. Moreover, he knew such men personally, and even depended on them for his livelihood. Like many of his patrons and benefactors, such as the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare himself invested in the Virginia Company, the spearhead of English colonization. His play both described and promoted the rising interest of England's ruling class in the settlement and exploitation of the New World.
No doubt I would have skillfully summarized this material and artfully incorporated it into the essay. Anyway, my point here is not to damn Shakespeare by aligning him with the powerful, but to merely remind us that he was a real person with real interests, living in a specific time and place. In any event, while The Tempest may have "promoted the rising interest of England's ruling class", and indeed Shakespeare's own interests as an investor, the figure of Caliban has long served as a symbol for Latin American rebellion and resistance to colonization. Meanwhile, the figure of Caliban's mother, Sycorax, "the witch", has remained invisible, both in the play and to the revolutionary imagination, Federici says. In Caliban and the Witch, then, Federici places her "at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master's food and inspired the slaves to revolt."

Federici invokes Shakespeare again, in passing, in an extended exploration of the degradation of women that accompanied the transformation of the working class over the course of the 15th to 17th centuries, as part of a process through which women became defined as "non-workers", where any work they did out of the home was now called "housekeeping", and as such devalued, and "[m]arriage was now seen as a woman's true career":
This was for women a historic defeat. With their expulsion from the crafts and the devaluation of reproductive labor poverty became feminized, and to enforce men's "primary appropriation" of women's labor, a new patriarchal order was constructed, reducing women to a double dependence: on employers and on men. The fact that unequal power relations between women and men existed even prior to the advent of capitalism, as did a discriminating sexual division of labor, does not detract from this assessment. For in pre-capitalist Europe women's subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations.
Perhaps you can begin to see why I decided not to include this material. Just too much background to cover in order to get to what is really a supplementary point in the course of a review. (There's nothing stopping me here though!) Federici goes on to discuss changes in the family, which
began to separate from the public sphere and acquire its modern connotations as the main centre for the reproduction of the work-force.

The counterpart of the market, the instrument for the privatization of social relations and, above all, for the propagation of capitalist discipline and patriarchal rule, the family emerges in the period of primitive accumulation also as the most important institution for the appropriation and concealment of women's labor.
With these shifts in society, "the insubordination of women and the methods by which they could be 'tamed' were among the main themes in the literature and social policy of the 'transition'." With respect to social relations, "throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, women lost ground in every area of social life" including "a steady erosion of women's rights". Women were attacked and vilified in the popular and intellectual literature of the period:
Women were accused of being unreasonable, vain, wild, wasteful. Especially blamed was the female tongue, seen as an instrument of insubordination. But the main female villain was the disobedient wife, who, together with the "scold," the "witch," and the "whore" was the favorite target of dramatists, popular writers, and moralists. In this sense, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1593) was the manifesto of the age. The punishment of female insubordination to patriarchal authority was called for and celebrated in countless misogynist plays and tracts. English literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period feasted on such themes. Typical of this genre is John Ford's 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore (1633) which ends with the didactic assassination, execution and murder of three of the four female characters. Other classic works concerned with the disciplining of women are John Swetman's (1633) which ends with the didactic assassination, execution and murder of three of the Arraignment of Lewed, Idle, Forward, Inconstant Women (1615); and The Parliament of Women (1646), a satire primarily addressed against middle class women, which portrays them as busy making laws in order to gain supremacy over their husbands. Meanwhile, new laws and new forms of torture were introduced to control women's behavior in and out of the home, confirming that the literary denigration of women expressed a precise political project aiming to strip them of any autonomy and social power. In the Europe of the Age of Reason, the women accused of being scolds were muzzled like dogs and paraded in the streets; prostitutes were whipped, or caged and subjected to fake drownings, while capital punishment was established for women convicted of adultery.
No doubt most of this literary output was dreck; it's Shakespeare we remember. It's interesting, though, that it's his play that is dubbed by Federici a "manifesto for the age". Certainly the title seems capable of naming the age and what happened in it. But my admittedly hazy memory of the play has it as rather more playful and ironic about the "taming" attempted and (in the play) provisionally achieved. Perhaps this is one measure of Shakespeare's comparative "responsibility" as an artist? I'm reminded of a passage from Josipovici's chapter on Shakespeare in On Trust. He writes:
Where Marlowe had embraced the new powers given him by the Elizabethan state by placing on that stage men whose power over both their fellows and the audience depended on their rhetoric, men with whom we feel Marlowe the playwright identifies, Shakespeare, more realistic, more responsible, made his plays out of the recognition of the ambiguous nature of play. Marlowe, like Verdi, exults in the ability of the protagonist, through his voice, his speech, his song, to transcend reality, to give body to our desires, and we love him for it and pay to be thus transported. Shakespeare, like Mozart, never forgets the limits of that power as well as its dangerous ambiguity.
I was reminded of this passage, it's true, but I also had it readily to hand, since I've had it sitting in a draft post for, literally, more than three years, where I'd also stashed this sentence from “What was Chaucer really up to?”, a review by Josipovici of several Chaucer-related books, which is collected in The Mirror of Criticism:
The responsible artist is the one who is aware of the inevitable failure of all language, its narrow ideological base, and who uses his art to bring this out in the open.
The responsible artist. More responsible. I had had some notion, three years ago, of meditating on this idea, exploring its implications in the context of what we mean by the aesthetic, and by political or didactic art. (Perhaps Joanna Russ can help me here. But more on her later.) I didn't get far with it at all. Since that time, I've written a fair amount about the need to situate an artist within his or her political time and place, including the review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? itself ("Literature is not Innocent", I also blogged). But the question of what it means for the artist to be responsible, which may not resemble calls for what the artist should do, has eluded me. Perhaps, though I remain uncomfortable claiming that artists should be expected to do any given thing, it feels accurate to say that a responsible artist manages to avoid merely transmitting (or endorsing) the dominant ideologies of his or her situation, though it seems unavoidable that those will be reflected in the work, in some way. This ambivalence, however slight, perhaps, allows the work to become available to readers or viewers from outside that situation. Shakespeare's Caliban is able to find his audience. Which is probably a good place to end this post. Further examination of the responsibility of the artist will have to wait for another post. As will further follow-ups to the Josipovici review (which follow-ups should actually be more clearly literary in nature than this one ended up being).

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ethan on Caliban and the Witch

It should be obvious by now that I consider Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch an important book. What was the word I used in the last post? Indispensable? Yeah, that's right. Unfortunately, I've merely referred to it here and there, in glowing terms perhaps, but not in much detail. It deserves far more and better attention than I've been able to give it, both for its own arguments and for the other areas of study it points us towards (some already existing, cited by Federici, and some not, but suggested as questions left raised but unanswered).

This is why I've been so happy to see Ethan devoting time and space to the book lately. Not only has he excerpted several passages on his commonplace blog for your perusal, but he has stated his intention to write about each passage at his main blog, 6th or 7th. Unsurprisingly, the early results have been excellent. So this post exists mainly to tell you to go read, if you haven't already, Ethan's set of posts discussing Caliban and the Witch (as of this writing there appear to be four: one, two, three, four).


More Directions

A third event this past Spring helping to both focus and expand my reading and thinking was a much happier occurrence than the other two: a workshop I attended at the Free School here in Baltimore, led by Silvia Federici, titled "Feminism, the Commons, neoliberal violence and the eco-crisis" (see Federici's short essay "Feminism and the Politics of the Commons"). The workshop turned out to be an excellent, wide-ranging, though inevitably all-too-short discussion. Though it took place in April, I've only just now begun transcribing my notes from that day. I hope to be able to convert them into something useful for sharing here, in particular Federici's remarks about the Italian Wages for Housework movement from the 1970s. (New names added to the list: Leopoldina Fortunanti, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, Selma James [wife of C.L.R.].)

Though the workshop was not strictly speaking a discussion of Federici's indispensable book, Caliban and the Witch, I did take the opportunity to begin re-reading that book prior to the event. This was an altogether excellent decision on my part. First, doing so refreshed my memory of some crucial history relevant to modernism, providing me with material that I needed in order to finally finish my painfully long-gestating review of Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? This was an unexpected but wholly welcome development (I had more than once given up the review for dead). Second, I had inevitably forgotten many of the book's details, though I'd internalized some aspects of the contours of her overall argument. It's good to be reminded of the details too, especially in given all that I've read and learned since the first reading, making many of these details more meaningful to me now. Third, much like Rich's Of Woman Born and Ruddick's Maternal Thinking, Caliban and the Witch is a bibliographical goldmine, this time from a more specifically history of capitalism perspective, as well as feminist. Just tons of reading to be done.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Directions in Feminism

I've blogged in the past about wanting to read more deeply in feminism, but though I knew of some of the authors I wanted to sample, I have to admit that I was unsure of the direction I wanted this reading to take me. This had more to do with wanting to make the best use of my time, given my already existing concerns. And though I did intend to read such authors as Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly and Catherine MacKinnon (and still do), I somehow felt uncertain about the path I should take through the literature. I needed some help.

Then this past Spring, I learned of the deaths of two woman writers whose existences, not to mention their bodies of work, were previously completely unknown to me—Sara Ruddick and Joanna Russ. In March, Ruddick's New York Times obituary informed me of her classic book, Maternal Thinking, the mere title of which set off a series of hopeful connective explosions in my mind. I ordered the book immediately and read it greedily upon its arrival. Then I was intrigued by Ethan's May Day post remembering Joanna Russ, the feminist critic and science fiction writer whose fiction "was everything science fiction should be and very rarely is: experimental both in style and content, feminist, vicious, sure as hell not techno-utopian". I knew right away that I was going to need to read this writer, too (and I read with interest other memorial posts, for example by Matthew Cheney and, especially, Timmi Duchamp).

That I had never heard of either Ruddick or Russ, while frustrating, now seems weirdly appropriate, given the arguments Russ herself made about the exclusion, and disappearance, of women from male-written and -dominated histories and canons. A writer such as Emily Dickinson, for example, while certainly recognized for her greatness, and indeed canonized, is systematically isolated from her female literary influences, so that she is seen as odd, as having come from nowhere, relevant to no one but herself. In my own reading life, I have often meant to read more women writers, but I had great difficulty coming up with names to pursue or people to ask. When I did happen upon one I liked, she seemed to pop up, again, out of nowhere, connected to no one else. Or there'd be one name, or three, but they were still dwarfed by the number of apparently worthy male writers still and constantly coming to my attention. Some of this personal history was a function of my own now-eradicated desire to "keep up", and much of it, I am sure, was simply a function of being male myself. But even (especially?) as I focused more and more on modernism, here too, the writers I sought out and subsequently read were almost exclusively male.

While Russ emerges as a science fiction writer, and theorist of science fiction, of considerable interest to me, both Russ and Ruddick have emerged as vitally important feminist thinkers and all important pointers towards other thinkers and writers (this is true even though I've still, to date, read just one book by each of them; in Russ's case, it's the novel The Female Man, which includes an introduction featuring several fascinating passages from Russ's criticism, as well as material from interviews and letters: it is really this introductory material, along with certain portions of the novel, rather than the novel as a whole, which has made Russ seem central; Ethan's various posts on Russ, as well as our conversations, have contributed mightily as well). In Ruddick's case, I was attracted to her book because, as I've noted here previously, it was really the politics and practices of birth and of childcare that originally moved my feminism in a more radical direction. I quickly perceived that her project fit in with what I have been thinking, but which I have had difficulty articulating, in part because I've been extremely wary of coming off as the Man pronouncing on birth matters to women. That my thinking has been heavily influenced by the experiences of the women in my life, as well as their own ideas, has not removed this feeling of wariness and uncertainty. Ruddick, among other things, argues on behalf of a conception of mothering as a (non-automatic) choice to respond to the demand for care. That this demand is usually made of women, and responded to by women, forms a crucial part of the experience of women, while also, in a practical sense, pointing towards a certain kind of politics, in which care, and its demand, are central.

I think Maternal Thinking is a great book. As I said above, I read it with great excitement. Here, finally, was the book I'd been wanting to read, the arguments I wanted to know and expand on. By placing birth and care central to a political argument, but, crucially, without resorting to any kind of essentialism, Ruddick both made a lot of sense and helped solidify my own sense of things. Even better, it opened up a vista of possibilities for future reading and study, in feminism, philosophy, history, and science. Before long, I was reading Adrienne Rich's great book, Of Woman Born (itself a bibliographical goldmine) and Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body and The Flight to Objectivity (seriously, how could I resist a book by that title?? It turns out that book is not quite what my fevered imagination thought it would be. It's much better and more complicated than that. Incidentally, I had of course heard of Rich, though never read her poetry, but I'd also heard of Bordo, courtesy of Stan Goff, through whom I'd also learned some years ago of Maria Mies). Most of these authors refer in places to famous works by Barbara Ehrenreich & Deidre English (including For Her Own Good, a book I'd read years ago, but which somehow did not point me towards other reading), and especially to Evelyn Fox Keller's Reflections on Science and Gender and Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (the latter book being another Goff pointer). The list of authors and titles to investigate grows ever longer, yet is much more focused than before (and the intention to read Dworkin, Daly, MacKinnon, and others remains, but now I feel better about where to go, how their works will fit in with what I've already read).

Here, then, is a body of literature, a community of study and political activity, previously more or less invisible to me, self-described leftwing feminist white male of a certain age. (Check out the skimpy Wikipedia pages for most of these authors, too.) My plan is to explore some of these books and ideas in the coming months.

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

"Hey, didn't you used to have a blog?"

So BDR asked me recently. Indeed, it has been very slow here these last few months. But fear not! I've kept busy reading and thinking (though, alas, not actually writing) about a variety of bloggable topics, and I hope to soon be able to return some focus here. I'd spent a huge amount of time on my long essay on Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, an essay that was in many ways a culmination, however imperfect, of several years of thinking and reading. In a sense, that piece serves as an ending to one period of this blog and a beginning of, or opening onto, the next. My desire to complete it prevented me from working on much of anything else, but I also had trouble mustering the energy and concentration necessary to attend to even it for weeks on end. Hence light blogging. In truth, I've also been distracted by other things; blogging hasn't been a priority. Those distractions continued after the post went up, plus I felt some relief at having finally posted it, to the point that I lacked the will to post anything else for a while. Hence no blogging. But, without making any promises of frequency, I expect that to be changing soon.

However, at risk of some awkward bleggalgazing, as BDR calls it, though not of the "why am I doing this" variety, the truth is also that there's been something unsatisfactory about blogging for me. In part this is because I have all too often wanted it to be too many different things at once and have, one by one, simply failed to make it be almost all of those things. And I've noticed that in the periods when posting is slow here, I've nevertheless had countless items I've wanted to share, whether it be in the form of links or passages from books, but which I have essentially been unable to do anything with. I opened a Twitter account (God, that must've been two years ago) in part to keep up with some of the bloggers I liked who had also done so, not wanting to miss their interesting links, etc. For a time, I was using it to pass on links myself, though I was aware that not everyone who reads this blog had migrated to Twitter. And, it turns out, Twitter is an even bigger time-suck than blogs are (ignoring for now the shittiness of the interface). It quickly became overwhelming, much like my huge volume of RSS feeds, except that with Twitter you have to stay on all the time in order to make any sense of it. So I stopped using it, or checking it, except rarely out of bored curiosity.

So much for links. As for passages I wanted to share, long ago I started posting some here in entries marked "Noted", but I was never really satisfied with that either. They seemed to sit oddly in the mix of whatever else I might have up on the front page, and, of course, like any other post, they quickly got lost in the archives. Worse, many passages I held off on sharing because I thought they warranted a real post, with my own long-winded thoughts. Sometimes these posts actually appeared but usually not.

I still haven't figured out what, if anything, to do about sharing links. But I'm seriously considering following the examples set by two top friends of the blog, Stephen Mitchelmore of This Space and Ethan of 6th or 7th, both of whom have set up separate entities for the purpose of sharing quoted passages. Stephen's is a tumblr page, Of Resonance (the title continuing the Blanchot phrase of his blog's title), which he uses for literary passages, as well as short quotations and YouTube clips, among other things, leaving This Space devoted to his essays and reviews; while Ethan's is simply another blog, intended as a commonplace site. I'm more likely to do what Ethan has done, if not as comprehensively, if only because I can't access tumblr from work, and it would be annoying to be unable to access my own site. So don't be surprised if something like that appears in the coming weeks. In the meantime, maybe actual blogging will have resumed here?