LIES: RADICAL FEMINISM IS [NOT] SEX

 

 

 

There is a new journal out. It’s called LIES: Journal of Materialist Feminism. It’s great. It’s interesting. It’s challenging. And I think you should read it.

 

‘LIES came out of our experience within struggles. The story of the journal is the intersecting narratives of our involvement with the occupations and strikes of recent years and the gendered fault lines that emerged within them. We met in the midst of these activities. We felt the need to organize autonomously as feminists. We started reading groups, held summer camps, met friends in other cities, and developed forms of mutual aid and solidarity. We did not want to go home, or maybe home suddenly felt like a more hostile place. Things got harder. But the more we read and wrote together, the more we desired a means to devise a theory and politics that is inchoate but at least our own. This journal is that: a way to communicate, to be overcome by the feminist commune, to survive with lesser pain or better pain, to become a more precise and effective force’ (LIES editorial collective 2012: 12).

 

This recommendation comes with a number of qualifications, however, because I do not share their approach to a number of key points at issue. It is, nevertheless, a great read and provides much food for thought. LIES makes a significant break with a number of familiar strands (or streams) of radical feminist thought. It also happens to be beautifully written, complete with citations and proper referencing! There are even moments of brilliance – not necessarily of ‘theory’ but communication. These essays communicate something urgent and important about the contemporary/current experience of (radical?) feminist women on the left, in the United States and also, I suggest, Australia.[1]

A few qualifying thoughts:

Firstly, I am not a materialist. An understanding and appreciation of the material conditions that characterise and shape the lived experience of particular people or aspects of the population is admirable, important and great. I tend to take more of a feminist-cognitive-anthropological approach to this issue or area of concern, however. Material things and conditions are only part of the story. Culture exists in the material world of ‘things’ but it also exists in our heads, or ‘minds.’ Much of the explanatory force of social reproduction lies in the ‘hows and whys’ of the way we learn – the way that we internalise certain associative understandings, how these come to be imbued with affective and motivational force and thus enacted and reproduced over time. The following alludes to the point I’m trying to make and to my general approach-of-thought on such matters:

 

‘A cognitive theory alone is not sufficient to explain either cultural stability or cultural change. One the other hand, it is a necessary part of any such theory, and one that has been overlooked in the dominant anthropological discourse. This “overlooking” – indeed, more active “erasure” – results from the confluence of several historical streams. It falls naturally from the dualism dividing the collective from the individual that is pat of our intellectual inheritance, and it is fixed in the modern disciplinary boundaries that define the turf that anthropologists and sociologists defend from incursion by psychologists and biologists. In the recent past of our discipline this territorial boundary marking was particularly evident in the symbolic anthropology of influential spokesmen like Schneider (1968) and Geertz (1973). “Though ideational,” Geertz declared of culture, “it does not exist in someone’s head (1973:10). The stream of though that separates individual from society is sometimes also joined by another one, equally deep in Western philosophy and folk theory: suspicion of peculiar entities like another’s thoughts and feelings that cannot be seen or poked with a stick.  This behaviouristic bias may be another factor that lay behind Geertz’s preference for analyses of the “hard surfaces of life” (Geertz 1973: 30) rather than something presumably softer, like ideas and feelings, that lie underneath the surface.

 

Most recently a new generation of cultural anthropologists has critiqued symbolic anthropology soundly for its characterization of culture, and especially non-European cultures, as unchanging and monolithic. The new preoccupation is with the shifting and inconsistent forms that culture can take. The irony is that by not questioning the symbolic anthropologists’ rejection of the private, psychological side of culture, the new generation is left without a convincing theory of either stability or change. How can actors invent, negotiate, and contest their cultural worlds unless they have internalized motives for doing so? And motives do not change from moment to moment: at its most absurd, this view makes culture change seem no different than changing clothes.

 

It is time for us to confront the contradiction in the definition of culture we have inherited as meaningful, symbolic, signifying, conceptual, and ideational, but not to anyone in particular, that has distorted the analysis, and required circumlocutions in the analytic language, of so many anthropologists over the last two decades. It is time to question the idea of culture as invented, negotiated, and contested by human actors strangely lacking in any long-range purpose behind their creative and transformative efforts. It is time to say that culture is both pubic and private, both in the world and in people’s minds. By bringing the knowing subject back into social process we can better account for what we have learned about culture so far and begin to develop a deeper understanding of the problems that still elude us’ (Strauss & Quinn 1994: 295-296).[2]

 

Secondly, the idea of ‘not-man’ is an important break from prescriptive conceptualisations of ‘woman,’ ‘women,’ ‘feminine’ and the like. However, to the degree to which ‘not-man’ derives meaning and significance from its opposition to – i.e. contra ‘man’ as a category of persons defined by their biological/anatomical/physiological features or characteristics – it continues to play into and reproduce delimiting and ultimately divisive gender dichotomies.

What is the substantive content of ‘man’ in terms of biology and physiology? It is not completely clear. (Though, admittedly, I have only read the first three essays!) Can a man (by anatomy, i.e. someone with a penis and testes, etcetera), who does not identify as queer, trans or cis, ever be ‘not-man’? If the answer is ‘no,’ then it seems that this distinction prescribes and therefore delimits categories of gender, and gendered subjects/subjectivities, in exactly the same way it claims not to be doing (at least for ‘not women’). This objectification and ‘staving off’ of ‘man’ is something that I am uncomfortable with and something that I find problematic in the essays that I have read.

Thirdly, the critical focus on ‘patriarchy’ as the historically significant forms of inequality and oppression is great, strong and impressive. My personal default approach is to see ‘patriarchy’ and patriarchal relations as but one significant, institutionalised form of systematic discrimination that leads to historical patterns of inequality, asymmetry of power relations, oppression, and so on. Patriarchy is not a ‘thing’ in itself – it is not in a cloud hovering above Cincinnati – it is an historically salient form or pattern of asymmetrical power relations (about which a great deal more could be said, but another time). This is not to suggest that the LIES collective does not recognise this fact. It is more a matter of focus and preference as regards terms of debate. Again, my default approach is to foreground the injustice of all forms of discrimination – any and all historical patterns of inequality, asymmetry of power relations, oppression and so on.

Anyway, enough with the caveats and qualifications. I look forward to hearing what others think. The first three essays are as follows and can be accessed/downloaded via the hyperlink: Editorial note;  Against the Couple-FormAgainst Sexual-Optimism. The rest of the essays can be found (as one-giant-document) on the LIES website, which is here.

 

 

 

 


[1] Hence the moving-images above. The voice-over text is taken from the essay ‘Against the Couple-form,’ which is included in Volume One of LIES.

 

I should note that my intention is not to suggest that the spaces, places, events, people and/or social relations depicted in the video are in any way representative of those addressed and critiqued in the voice-over text. I am not actually sure that I can satisfactorily articulate why it is that I thought this particular combination of moving-images was fitting and/or leant itself to the voice-over text chosen.  Suffice to say that these moving images were all recorded over the course of one weekend in the company of good friends and lovely people. It just so happens that myself and a number of friends were actively thinking and talking through the essays, issues and ideas included in the first Volume of LIES. The band performing in the video is The Fighting League, for anyone interested.

 

[2] Strauss & Quinn 1994, ‘A Cognitive/Cultural Anthropology’ in Assessing Cultural Anthropology, edited by Borofsky, McGraw-Hill, New York.

 

This quote is kind of floating out of context here, but it also accounts for the various forces or patterns of social reproduction over time. Unable to stop myself, I have included another excerpt: ‘The durability of schemas for individuals has consequences for the stability of schemas historically, that is, their reproduction from one generation to another. First of all, when people enact the patterns they have learned, they recreate the public world of objects and events from which the next generation learns. . . . Of course, the durability of cultural understandings depends as well on social forces such as the workings of power and the inertia of institutions, but the cognitive-motivational story we have outlined cannot be ignored as part of a theory of social reproduction’ (Strauss & Quinn 1994: 291).

 

 

 

 

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