Bovary Blues: Dispatch from the Virtual Site of (Post) Feminism’s Fourth Wave

January 30, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Virginia Konchan

 

“Feminism is  . . . just a gimmick to attract some voters who place gender above any other issue. Respecting the rules of the Money Power during a campaign means toeing the line of oligarchy while in power.   Neither men nor women benefit from this.  [Hilary] Clinton and her neoliberal allies are hijacking feminism and the rhetoric of diversity.”

 

—Pierre Guerlain, Truthout

 

“There is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I.’   There is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through.”

—Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”

 

The lampooning of Mitt Romney’s quip in defense to sexist accusations (“I have binders full of women”), aside, the fact remains:  the social status of women as “placeholders” or sex objects in the commodity market is subtended linguistically, and historically:   for a woman to define herself as a subject, not relationally as a wife, daughter, or mother, is to demand a changing of the guards in patriarchal lineage, wherein women are permitted to enter discourse only under the name of the father, or husband, as gatekeepers to signification as well as social recognition.  This antagonism is explained away by Slavoj Žižek as a means of condemning women so as to control the flow of “feminine excess,” threatening to destroy the masculine’s economy of lack (a woman’s performance of these roles for the male gaze or its representative prostheses—camera, video, canvas—the very source of phallic jouissance).

The prohibition against the a priori existence of women as volitional subjects (reproductive femininity as metaphysical and medical “problems”):  a black comedy, indeed.  The inadmissibility of female self-representation unless patrolled by a state-sponsored or private guardianship (marriage) is the subject of Lindy West’s hilarious riposte in Jezebel to the box-office film “Love, Actually”:  in West’s reading, the film accords a “27-word allotment” of speech to women, which character Emma Thompson exceeds.  “Hugh Grant falls instantly in love with Natalie, which is understandable, because she hasn’t yet exceeded her Love Actually attractiveness word quota (Twenty-seven. The quota is 27 words before you become Emma Thompson and must be destroyed.)”

 

Love, Actually

 

The 27-word allotment quip, along with Romney’s “binders” comment, however funny, provide an important metacommentary to post-feminism:  from gaslighting to statistical disproportions in the workplace and economy (documented at VIDA’S The Count), the gag rule of enforced silence is predicated on the objectification of women (dolls don’t talk, unless manufactured to do so):  all representations of female subjectivity not in service of the neoliberal male imaginary are aberrant misfires, and their authors must either be conscripted into un- and underpaid care work within the service economy, or (in First, Second, and Third Worlds), literally punished.

Rebecca Walker coined the term “third-wave feminism” in a 1992 essay:  since then, the Third Wave’s focus on inclusivity has steered second-wave feminism’s struggle against racism, sexism, and classism, toward an active embrace of pop culture and performance, embodied in Eve Ensler’s play and book The Vagina Monologues; the punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; the Guerrilla Girls; singers Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige, among others, and the women depicted in television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Girlfriends (2000–08).  Third Wave cyberfeminists communicate largely through e-zines, blogs, and social media, online feeds proliferating alongside books attempting structural treatments of extant “feminist” aims.   “By about 2000, questions of sexualized behaviour raised debate on whether such things as revealing clothing, designer-label stiletto heels, and amateur pole dancing represented true sexual liberation and gender equality or old oppressions in disguise . . .  [The Third Wave’s] greatest strength, multivocality, was attacked . . . Third-wavers countered this criticism by stating that the creation of a unified agenda or philosophy . . . was a goal that was not only unrealistic but undesirable.”     [1]

The vision of the Third Wave lay not in economic analysis, or activism, per se, but identity politics:   a privileging of diversity, statistical accounting, and aesthetic hybridity.  This rejection of hegemonic culture, however, considering that to divide and conquer is a militaristic strategy imposed from without, the absence of a cohesive vision or praxis, like the Occupy Movement, can potentially weaken a movement, returning us to the question of governance (long abandoned as desirable in a pluralistic democracy ruled instead, ironically, not by a free, self-sufficient citizenry but by mass media and neocon war machines).  Opinions vary on the demarcation between the third and fourth waves of feminism, and what constitutes the “fourth wave,” internationally:  the fourth wave, like the second, focuses on legislative rights, and statistical tracking (e.g. The Counting Dead Women campaign) but also online misogyny, economic parity, and, during the years after the 2008 financial crash and the coalition government, activism against loan predation (education, housing, credit cards), unemployment and under-employment, zero-hours contracts, bedroom taxes, damaging rhetoric against immigrants, the disabled and those who need support from the state. This new generation of feminists are tech-savvy and gender-sophisticated, in part due to trans-health initiatives (e.g. the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta) and trans-inclusive organizations like Third Wave Foundation (helmed by feminists in their twenties and thirties).  “Reproductive justice” is an oft-bandied term by fourth-wave feminists, as transgenderism, male feminists, sex work, and complex relationships with the media, spectacle culture, and identity politics structures this aporetic movement.

 

girls to the front

Anti-essentialism (the recognition that women’s condition is always at odds with women’s differences from one another, as well as their social and economic power), has become the backbone of postmodern feminism:  an academic discipline wherein the idea that subjects (genders, races, and cultures) share intrinsic qualities was exchanged for the “neither/nor” flux of postmodernity’s memes (multiplicity, catachresis).  Anti-essentialist feminism acknowledges difference, yet, the ontological disciplines contextualizing personhood (biology, psychology) have become increasingly irrelevant in post-humanist discourse.  Without the language to mark the difference of one’s body from other bodies, and the subtle conditions (social and epistemological) governing entry into discourse communities, it becomes impossible to articulate the “difference” between human branding and consumer choice, amid a glut of media blitzes offering opportunities for self-fashioning through purchasing power (the diet, fitness, salon, cosmetic, and retail industries).  The cults of personality, hipster cool, and “original” ideas:   priced (commodified), shelved, and sold.

 

glamor

 

In 2006, and 2008, Toril Moi published two consecutive essays in PMLA, and Feminist Theory, respectively:  entitled ““I Am Not a Feminist, But . . .”:  How Feminism Became the F-Word,” and ‘I am not a woman writer’:  About women, literature and feminist theory today.”  According to Moi, postfeminist culture gradually arose after the debates between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy Miller in the early 80s dismantled a coalitional feminism, and women’s writing and sexual difference as legitimized categories of scholarship and cultural practice.

Poststructuralism also worked to invalidate categories of difference, according to some:  in the 1981 essays by Kamuf and Miller, and their correspondence in 1989, Kamuf objects to the feminist “reduction of the literary work to the signature,” claiming an interest in women’s writing to be simply a feminist version of the liberal humanism Foucault had upended.  Miller believed that regardless of what Kamuf might consider to be theoretically correct, feminists still needed to work on behalf of women writers, otherwise these women would “soon be forgotten, lost to history.”  [2]   By the late 80s, Kamuf (a Derridean translator) had disavowed the word “feminist,” as referencing a closed system which inevitably would end up deconstructing itself.  Miller, conversely, still thought that feminism was politically necessary, but that identity politics had passed.  The path forward was unclear, and critical theory has since been marked by what Alice Jardine calls “non-knowledge”:  asignificatory terms (“non-narration,” “anti-lyric”), also in critical race theory and Lacanian philosophy (woman as “pas tout”), rather than an appositive definition of otherness (however unhelpful, as Judith Butler has argued, such resignifications can be, reentering as they do the undertow of negative dialectics).

Liberal and conservative feminists alike have been accused of essentializing the category of women, just as, in race theory, the accusation of “conceptual blackness” counters that of “conceptual whiteness.”  Neither Kamuf nor Miller exchanged gender-based politics for a class- or race-based feminism, and Marxist feminism dropped off sharply during this decade, though echoes of sociologist Christine Delphy’s manifesto (“women are a class”) reappear today, as women writers move beyond biological and gender essentialism, static genre definitions, and the high theory of écriture féminine, seeking new access points to postmodern socio-political discourse.  “I am interested here in new thought,” says poet Lisa Robertson.  “I am standing dressed in the skin of a sheep or a cow in the occidental forest. My name shall be she to them. It is a shame. It is velvety, voluptuous, and odorous . . . each thing’s hunger is my fate, is universe of the undiscussed.   My name shall be she to them, in grotesque, monstrous, most ancient mixture.   This is a class.”  [3]

Signifiying a movement, in language, or attempting to name a problem, may be recondite, but the struggles for equality, safety and civil rights persist:  complicity in pop culture through the desensitizations of post-ironic media (parodic and slapstick humor), can discharge tension, grief, paranoia, and shame, but perpetuate the underreporting of gender-based violence (a Daily Beast article states only seven percent of these crimes are reported):  the moral relativization of crime coupled with the literality of suffering.  The perpetuation of rape culture will continue for as long as the conversation is one-sided, with rape apologists such as James Taranto, Richard Mourdock, or George Galloway behind the mike (referencing Julian Assange’s sexual assault charges, Galloway argued that if the victim is asleep, it can’t be considered rape:  “This is something which can happen . . . not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”)

If women are only considered as moving parts (domestic workers, mothers, sex commodities) in a post-industrial assembly line, how can they experience themselves, or other women, as agents of their life, bodies, and vocations, unless precedents are set and laws upheld?   Because rape culture, like every cycle of violence, is perpetuated by silence, victim-blaming, and a lack of solidarity, support for women by women can be difficult to find in a culture where the consequences (from social stigmatization to murder) can result from speaking out against rape, misogyny, or hate speech, in, for example, the U.S. Military, where an increase of females in positions of authority has been countered, according to statistics released by the Pentagon, with a sharp increase in sexual assault.

 

Military

 

If the most powerful word in childhood and adult development is “no” (determining what one doesn’t want before developing preferential desires), how useful is an arsenal of “safe words” in sado-masochistic sexual relations, for a woman who hasn’t internalized her right to negotiate the social contract, see its terms as fluid and not compulsory, or decline to participate, at all?   Conscription into sexual and domestic slavery, as well as non-consensual sex, without language, isn’t, then, a question of complacency or complicity.  According to Catharine MacKinnon, Noam Chomsky’s “manufacturing of choice” is the sid pro quo of a woman’s initiation into capitalist relations of gender dominance (“more than one-third of all girls experience sex . . . under conditions that even this society recognizes are forced or at least unequal”):  the manufacturing not just of choice, but desire.  Robin West agrees, questioning how “liberated” is the seeming assent of 21st century women in coerced embraces of, say, domesticity (kitchen, child-rearing), when there doesn’t seem to exist viable alternatives, an outside to capitalism, or another opportunity for labor.   [4]

The culture industry makes a killing marketing sadomasochistic violence (from revenge porn to snuff films) as “sexy,” pumping out images of men as sexual aggressors tasked with “bagging” “having” “shagging” or “nailing” women to maintain social clout, and women, with demurring until the right suitor arrives, initiating only to risk the stigma of promiscuity were the date or relationship to become violent or abusive beyond her ability to identify (name) or control.  Celebrities and pop stars also deliver the message not only of consent, but enjoyment in playing the role of the subjugated:  Brittany Spears’ “I’m a Slave for you,” and Gaga’s “Do What you Want” (with my body), as stylized marketing ploys advertising the woman as penitent whore, as in Sade’s Justine:  a willed, even campy, prostitution of body and self.

 

gaga

The link between the erotic and the pornographic, performed or actual subjection, and pain and pleasure, is not a postmodern perversion, of course:  George Bataille, more than any other modernist, mourned the impossibility of thinking the un-representable (the “holy terror” as Jacques Rancière put it) except by recourse to images of torture and the erotic; Batailles’ Tears of Eros is a paean to Todestriebe (death drive), the “supreme atrocity of nonbeing,” and its transcendence, through art.

If a return to signifying terms (coalitional feminism, eco-feminism, eco-socialism, conscious/creative/cognitive/Bolshivek capitalism) isn’t the answer in resurrecting subject-object relations of mutual acknowledgment and reciprocity, rather than mutually assured destruction or annihilation, can it help?   The democratic dream of rule by the people or moral majority is myopic, to say the least:  as Alexis de Toqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, representational democracy can easily devolve into mob rule:  control by the moneyed elite, reducing the “other” to a wage-laborer, or tokenistic fetish.  Angela Davis argues for the creation and circulation of micronarratives, crucial to providing a dialogic structure for the survival of self, other, and community in protest against historical erasure:  heterogeneous “forms” of representation toppling the vacuous clichés and rhetorics (boosterism, aesthetic volunteerism) of free market capitalism.  [5]

 

Finding new forms of self-articulation outside of these donnés (necessary evils?) are key to exiting the maze:

 

“I love [Zaha Hadid’s] little manifesto ‘Randomness vs. Arbitrariness’ . . . “Randomness in architecture is a visual translation of pure mathematical order and thinking which is guided by logic, whereas arbitrariness has no underlying conceptual logic. . . . A catalogue exists from which they freely copy anything and apply it with little relevance to any situation. But in architecture our responsibilities are far greater: we must create a new dynamics of architecture in which the land is partially occupied. We must understand the basic principles of liberation’ (1982).”  [6]

Questioning the utility of a materialist theory of language, and an aleatory “aesthetic” as emancipatory, Robertson asks if we could differentiate, though writing, beginning with recognizing the difference between intentional, or intentioned (purposed for an other) forms.  How else, in other words, to transition from being an occupied “site” or essentialized collective to a signifying subject, then to recognize chance operations as a means (revolutionary and freeing) yet not a reified end-game in itself?   “Could we recognize that arbitrariness is not in itself liberatory? [ . . . ] How could a text partially occupy a site?”

The actual making of art defies the history of female as muse or amanuensis, whose goal is to accurately translate a male speaker (e.g. Vera Nabakov).  Mimesis, however, since Homer, can also be seen as a procedural stage or apprenticeship:   Mary Wollstonecraft was inspired by the male-dominated the French Revolution, Simone de Beauvoir adopted Sartre’s phallocentric categories, and John Stuart Mill attempted to provide a structural critique of women’s oppression.  “The point is not the origins of an idea (no provenance is pure), but the use to which it is put and the effects it can produce,” says Moi.  [7]

Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language, Prosperpine (1820), by Mary and Percy Byshe Shelley, The Speed of Darkness by Muriel Rukeyser (1960), Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich (1963), Plath and Sexton’s archaeo-mythologies, and works by Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Chris Krauss, Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Alice Notely, and many others, are powerful revisionist texts.  In theory, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray have reapproriated Derrida’s writings, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the literary theory of Harold Bloom, and Helene Cixous, the consequences of what she calls “death-dealing binary thought.”

 

quote

 

Shock can be used as political tool to anesthetize subjects, so as to smoothly “rewrite” narratives of place, origin, and criminal history:  or erase them all-together.   During a period of post-9/11 cultural paralysis, this subterfuge began, argues Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, with the reappropriation of language, perpetuating the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically.   Neoliberal aesthetics hasn’t helped, decontextualizing the subject from a frame, leaving said “subject” vulnerable to packaging and branding, as an vehicle consumption and cooptation in the legacy of Marx (claimed by Stalinist and Maoist régimes), Orwell, by neocons, and “feminism” by the Bush administration to justify its wars of choice.

Along with textual revisionism, erasure poetics can also provide a necessary ground clearing for the recovery of place (beginning with, as Adrienne Rich noted, a reclamation of the gendered, racial, scarred, female body by differentiating between “the body” and “my body” as a particularized, specific site) and post-colonial, post-imperialist history.  Collier Nogues sets her erasure poems in sites of recollection (her childhood spent at military bases in Japan):  poet Lynn Xu has spoken about her writing as shaped by her childhood in Shanghi.   Erasure poetics (the whiting-out rather than inscribing of the “trace”), unlike silence, acknowledges context:  the self as conceived, stabilized, through mirroring, then made, through overwriting, erasing, or succeeding a precursor’s frame.   (Derrida rightly cites writing as a “pernicious” pharmakon, both remedy and poison:  as an externalization of experience, writing requires citationality to shore up ethos, and any attempts at inscription, in the technocratic age, prompt issues of intellectual property and copyright, parasitism and plagarism.)

However we choose to reconcile with the paradoxical power and vulnerability of language, speaking cogently (or deliriously, as declared by the censors) is crucial to combat non-economic (sexual violence, sex trafficking, reproductive rights) and economic realities for women in an era of contingent labor (decreased wages and job security, declining living standards, unpaid overtime, exacerbation of the double/triple/quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households).   Uncritical consumption of neoliberal cant (brand yourself, or be branded, and buy, or die), using the rhetoric of female empowerment to justify exploitation, feeds, rather than helps dismantle, capital proliferative anti-logic:  Homo economius’ dog-eat-dog (Darwinian) “laws,” relegating exiled representations to the margins of the canon as minor or, simple inadmissible, as  “literature,” both in form (realpoetik vs. corporatespeak), publication, and distribution.  F@*$ the Bauhaus, in the words of Isa Genzken, German multimedia artist whose works explode notions of scale and perception (the word “no,” in its most eloquent form).

 

darwin

 

 

 

Notes


[1] Encylopedia Brittanica entry on Feminism, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/724633/feminism

[2] Toril Moi, ‘I am not a woman writer’:  About women, literature and feminist theory today,” Feminist Theory, vol. 9(3): 259–271, 2008, pg.

[3] Don Share, reposting of Lisa Robertson’s “Dispatch from Jouhet!,” Harriet, November 11, 2009.

[4] Robin West, “The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives:  A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory,” Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal 3 (1987):  94.

[5] Angela Davis, Truthout, May 6, 2013, “Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism.”

[6] Share.

[7] Feminist, Female, Feminine, The Feminist Reader:  Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, Eds. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London:  Blackwell, 1997), p. 4.

 

***

 

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace:  A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places.  Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, regular contributor to The Conversant and, in 2014, Jacket2, she lives in Chicago.  




Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #19 (Hurricane Sandy)

November 13, 2012 · Print This Article

 

Hurricane Sandy

I left New York City for Wisconsin just as hurricane Sandy was barreling up the East Coast, and I returned in the middle of the nor’easter that came to salt the wounds that hadn’t yet healed.

That means I was in Wisconsin to observe the aftermath of both the election and the hurricane. It was the first election I spent outside of New York in over a decade, and, despite being in a place that rallied behind a lesbian senator and prides itself on its artisanal cheeses and beers, the sense that I wasn’t in Brooklyn was palpable.

Romney/Ryan signs dotted most of the manicured lawns of the bedroom communities in Ozaukee County, one of the most republican enclaves in the state, indeed the country. Cedarburg, where I stay with my in-laws sits smack in the center of the county, and happens to be the place where John McCain and Sarah Palin chose to launch their 2008 presidential campaign, which didn’t even think about coming close enough to Brooklyn to see its forearm tattoos.

McCain/Palin campaign kick-off in Cedarburg, Wisconsin

When ensconced inside Cedarburg’s city limits one begins to understand why its citizens gripe about the federal government. Look around and you’ll see a community that seems from every vantage to have figured things out. Not in some kind of sinister, Ayn Randian, elitist disengagement either, but in a real, communitarian, bucket brigade, do unto others way. A way that leads many of those who don’t leave the place to wonder why a bunch of bureaucrats 1000 miles away should be shaking them down for money to pay for social and cultural programs that they manage just fine on a community level.

In Cedarburg, if you needed food, you could walk up to any restaurant and they’d give you a meal. That’s welfare. If you were sick, the doctor would see you. That’s medical care. If you were pregnant and 16, the community would politely shame you and gossip about you for the rest of your life, but would also see to it that your child was cared for. That’s social services. That’s also the police.

My dad-in-law – who happens to be named Sandy – is one of a majority in his community who if allowed would shrink the entire federal government into a 24-hour help desk whose phone number was buried so deep on the website that you’d have no choice but to use the on-line chat to reach them. But as he watched New Jersey and New York plunge into darkness and not immediately light back up, I watched his conviction waver. And as he watched his beloved Chris Christie lay olive branches in front of Barack Obama, I thought I saw a little pan-American Esprit de corps bubble up from inside and pierce his usually impenetrable exterior.

Seeing Christie and Obama together, he muttered, “This must be a dire situation because it’s not easy for someone that big to kiss an ass.”

Chris Christie and Barack Obama

We stayed up late talking about Jacksonian versus Hamiltonian democracy as the disaster unfolded over cable news. We didn’t agree on everything, but it was wholly amicable. I gave him a copy of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” which he didn’t immediately throw into the fire or back at me, a gesture as tender as a hug if you knew the man.

He liked it when I riffed about how the media’s job is to locate scapegoats where they can and to create them when they can’t. I did a shtick about natural disasters in Chris Rock’s voice and then played him Rock’s bit about why people blame music and video games when kids go on shooting rampages at public schools.

“What ever happened to CRAZY!!??”

“What ever happened to BIG, POWERFUL, IMPLACABLE, UNAVOIDABLE, NATURAL FUCKING DISASTER!!!?”

Chris Rock, “Just Plain Crazy”

He roared like a kid telling dirty jokes on the playground. He said all journalists were like hyenas but with less loyalty, and then told me an old one about a blind stewardess and a couple of donkeys for good measure.

Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to galvanize people.

The day after the election, I caught Sandy out in the front yard taking down the Romney/Ryan and Tommy Thompson signs. He like the rest of the town was emotionally hungover from the political orgy of the past few nights. In fact, earlier in the day I actually saw a guy crying at the gas station about the election. It could have been for other reasons, but I assumed he was pissed about either Romney or Paul or Tommy. After gathering and tossing the campaign signs in the trash we went inside where the 24 hour news droned on. It was Fox News and the subject was the fiscal cliff and the end of the Bush tax cuts.

Sandy  yelled over one the pundits, “BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID!!”

“Of the host’s hair?” I added sarcastically.

“Of the SOCIALISTS!!”

“You mean of our democratically elected federal government whose taxes are roughly a quarter of its gross domestic product?”

“A quarter given is a quarter wasted and redistributed!! Protect my shores, deliver my mail, and get the hell out of my life!! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out!!”

Hurricane Sandy was back and no bucket brigade could stop it.