Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Notes on feminism and reproductive power

In part addressing my recent entry on technology and the classless society, Peter Frase (previously unknown to me) has written a post called "The Dialectic of Technology" (which also appears at the Jacobin site, here). Frase writes from a very Marxist perspective, which is helpful. I find much to disagree with, but it's useful to find such a perspective so clearly laid out. He begins by invoking Shulamith Firestone, author of the feminist classic, The Dialectic of Sex. I'm going to use this post to riff on the Firestone reference (which is really only in the first paragraph); I hope to have time to write about the rest of Frase's thoughtful post at another time.

Firestone first came to my attention via Nina Power, through both her blogging (from which she seems to have retired and deleted most of the archives) and her book, One Dimensional Woman. Readers will recall that I wrote about Power's book just over two years ago, including Power's use of Firestone. I don't intend to repeat what I said in that post about Firestone. I will say that Power's use of Firestone did not make me inclined to read Firestone's book. The ideas about biology and technology as presented by Power strike me, still, as altogether unappealing and, oddly, retrograde. I do, however, now plan to read The Dialectic of Sex, primarily because of what Adrienne Rich says about Firestone in her classic, Of Woman Born. In her chapter "Alienated Labor", amidst a discussion of "natural childbirth", Rich writes this:
Shulamith Firestone, as an early theorist of the contemporary women's movement, was understandably skeptical of "natural" childbirth as part of a reactionary counterculture having little to do with the liberation of women as a whole.

Firestone sees childbearing, however, as purely and simply the victimizing experience it has often been under patriarchy. "Pregnancy is barbaric," she declares; "Childbirth hurts." She discards biological motherhood from this shallow and unexamined point of view, without taking full account of what the experience of biological pregnancy and birth might be in a wholly different political and emotional context. Her attitudes toward pregnancy ("the husband's guilty waning of sexual desire; the woman's tears in front of the mirror at eight months") are male-derived. Finally, Firestone is so eager to move on to technology that she fails to explore the relationship between maternity and sensuality, pain and female alienation.

Ideally, of course, women would choose not only whether, when, and where to bear children, and the circumstances of labor, but also between biological and artificial reproduction. Ideally, the process of creating another life would be freely and intelligently undertaken, much as a woman might prepare herself physically and mentally for a trip across country by jeep, or an archeological "dig"; or might choose to do something else altogether. But I do not think we can project any such idea onto the future—and hope to realize it—without examining the shadow-images we carry out of the magical thinking of Eve's curse and the social victimization of women-as-mothers. To do so is to deny aspects of ourselves which will rise up sooner later to claim recognition. (pp. 174-175)
This still wouldn't be getting me any closer to reading Firestone, except that earlier in the book, Rich had allowed that Firestone has, with respect to advances in birth-related technology, "observed that the possibilities are terrifying if we envision the choice of human types, gender, and capacities being controlled by patriarchy." This, and Rich's claim that Firestone's work includes, among other things, "powerful analysis of the nature and extent of patriarchy", have moved me closer to wanting to read her for myself.

Anyway, it's the stuff I don't like that is relevant here. Frase calls The Dialectic of Sex one of his favorite Marxist-feminist writings because of two things it does "exceptionally well":
The first is to extend Marxist analysis into the realm of sex and gender by simply taking Marx and Engels’ own framework to its logical conclusion, which they themselves were too blinded by the patriarchal assumptions of their time to recognize. The second is to see modern technology as an indispensable element of women’s liberation, going so far as to argue that “Until a certain level of evolution had been reached and technology had achieved its present sophistication, to question fundamental biological conditions was insanity.”
It should be clear that I think it's bonkers to "see modern technology as an indispensable element of women's liberation". This is in part because I see "modern technology" as inseparable from the society that produced it, and I have seen how the "advances" in modern birth-related technology have eroded both the choices available to women and the health of babies and children, our reliance on medical doctors and technology eroding the very ability for women to make informed decisions. Women are all too often pushed into interventions that are convenient for their doctors, and lucrative for insurance companies, rather than in the mother's or child's best interests. The decisions available to women and families are unavoidably "controlled by patriarchy". Introducing further and further interventions, and even removing birth from women altogether into the realm of machines and other advanced technologies is, first, not good for the well-being of children (so often an afterthought in the radical imagination, when it is, of course, the most important subject there is), and, second, not going to do anything to effect the liberation of women. What I see as indispensable to women's liberation is the retaking of reproductive power by women, organizing society around that power, that labor, rather than around production.

In another article at Jacobin (the back page article here), Frase writes about "working time and feminism", correctly focusing on time and unpaid labor, in the reproductive arena, paying much-needed attention to the problem of men being willing (or, rather, unwilling) to do a larger share of unpaid, reproductive labor (noting that, in countries which offer substantial family leave for male and female employees, males are considerably less likely to take the time off). Interestingly, in a separate post at his blog, Frase admits that he wished he'd spent more time discussing the nuclear family in that article, and by excerpting a paragraph from an LRB essay by Jenny Turner, ends up quoting some of the same Toni Morrison (again, by way of Nina Power) lines that I do in my review of One Dimensional Woman (note, also, that in this post, I take issue with Power's version of the Marxist assumption that "entering the workforce" was somehow "liberating" for the mass of women; here I'm grateful for bell hooks and other feminists of color who have continually reminded us that black women, and poor women, always worked outside the home, along with their unpaid work inside the home: it only came to be seen as liberating when middle/upper middle class white women did so). Morrison says, "Two parents can't raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child." The thing about capitalism is not only are we alienated from our labor, we are alienated from each other. Community is difficult to build or sustain, so the prospects of a community raising a child is daunting. As Morrison says, the nuclear family "isolates people into little units—people need a larger unit." And they need time to attend to those things that matter most, which are reproductive in nature. Without time, without larger units, one or two people are forced to try to do everything themselves and to make compromises in the areas of food, health, shelter, compromises which we ought to be working towards making unnecessary, or even unthinkable.

Let me return to Frase's praise of The Dialectic of Sex. He says that Firestone "extend[s] Marxist analysis into the realm of sex and gender by simply taking Marx and Engels’ own framework to its logical conclusion, which they themselves were too blinded by the patriarchal assumptions of their time to recognize". I find this interesting, because I've long felt that the feminist critique of Marxism, taking the critique of capitalism to its logical conclusions, is not only utterly necessary, but foundational. But my key figures are feminists such as Maria Mies and Sylvia Federici, authors of, respectively, Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour and Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. I wish I had written here more systematically about these books, since they couldn't be more important. I had intended to blog Mies' book, chapter-by-chapter, but failed to do so; the best I did was to offer a brief excerpt (here; that excerpt I had intended to in part comment on the discussion that resulted from my review of One Dimensional Woman) and to use part of her argument in my review of Roberto BolaƱo's novel, 2666 (here). In Federici's case, I still intend to transcribe my notes from the Federici-led workshop I attended last Spring, and I did fairly effectively deploy her arguments from Caliban and the Witch in my review of Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? (here, see also a follow-up to that review here, also heavily relying on Federici's book; incidentally, I think the points raised in that Josipovici review are essential to this conversation, though all too often they are isolated from it). Anyway, Mies follows the logic to the very end and concludes that subsistence should be our focus (indeed, most of her subsequent work has been on "the subsistence perspective"). It's frankly difficult to argue with her. Federici, among many other things, brings our attention to the many powers women had in the pre-capitalist world, powers which were systematically stripped in the development of capitalism, and which had to be so stripped, in order for capitalism to unfold. Though I now fully intend to read The Dialectic of Sex, I believe Marxists, indeed all of us, would be much better off pursuing the arguments of Mies and Federici and the like, rather than in engaging in fantasies of technological liberation.

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