Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category
What does Judith Butler have in common with Ronald Reagan? How about Jerry Falwell and John Rawls? Cornel West and Milton Friedman? In his sweeping history of American social thought during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers argues that these figures share more in common than one might think.
According to Rodgers fracture or what he (less poetically) calls “disaggregation” characterizes the main currents of intellectual life from the early 1970s to our own day. He argues that a mid-century focus on the social power of tradition and institutions, whether economic, political and religious, gave way to competing models of social life that stressed individual agency, historical contingency, and the amorphous power of culture. Early on in Age of Fracture, Rodgers sharply contrasts the social thought of the Cold War and the period that followed in terms of human nature. Rodgers writes,
Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. (Rodgers, 3)
In economics, Rodgers argues, this transformation was especially acute and would have serious consequences for social policy and social thought more generally. As the repeated financial crises of the 1970s seemed to discredit the effectiveness of Keynesianism, a number of schools of economic thought stepped into the fill the vacuum (often with major funding from recently established conservative think tanks)—all with strong libertarian tendencies.
Proponents of monetarism, rational choice theory, and supply-side economics might have disagreed on certain principles, but all believed that the best economic outcomes were produced when individuals made their way into the open market without interference from labor unions and government regulators. Individualism ruled; deep notions of power waned. At the same time, social theorists started to blame the rise of an urban “underclass” on the very government agencies created to serve them (while downplaying years of de-industrialization, institutional racism, and declining tax revenues due to white flight).
One of the most striking contributions of Rodgers’ book, however, is to show that shrinking ideas of the “social” were not limited to free-market economists, but also characterized nearly every sphere of the period’s intellectual life. Across the era’s social sciences, Rodgers notes an interest in thought experiments involving game theory, prisoners’ dilemmas, and “veils of ignorance” (in John Rawls’ famous Theory of Justice) that showed little concern for context, history, and power. Attention shifted toward abstraction and individual choice. Legal originalists discounted centuries of jurisprudence and social context to uncover the “true” meaning of the constitution at its foundational moment. Meanwhile, leading economists believed they could ignore the legacy of the past and shepherd Eastern Europe into a capitalist future through “shock therapy.”
As the social movements of the 1960s moved forward into the 1970s and 1980s, Rodgers sees fragmentation across the board. Inspired by the New Left idea of participatory democracy, influential liberal thinkers embraced pluralism and communal participation, which served to downplay earlier visions of a national social contract and economic redistribution (on the right, many showed a similar concern for the well-being of “mediating institutions” supposedly threatened by an intrusive federal government).
Feminists who had once believed “sisterhood is powerful,” now debated the usefulness of the concept of “woman.” Did it risk further marginalizing the distinctive voices of black women, working-class women, and queer women? At the same time, influential black intellectuals in the United States and England such as Paul Gilroy, Cornell West, and Henry Louis Gates rejected one-dimensional understandings of a unified black experience—and instead called for an understanding of blackness that conformed to the complex legacies of life within the African Diaspora.
For all the commonalities Rodgers sees running through the period’s social thought, this is not a consensus history of the 1980s. Even with though he sees the pull of “disaggregation” leaving a mark across the period’s ideological spectrum, he remains sensitive to political conflict, for example, noting contentious battles over Central America, nuclear weapons, and social issues such as abortion.
Nor is Age of Fracture yet another declension narrative about irresponsible radicals and “identity politics” somehow bearing responsibility for the revival of the country’s political right. In fact, Rodgers sees a major difference between the social thought of the 1960s, which tended to focus more closely on the power of institutions and social forces such as the government, the military, and capital in shaping inequality, and the period that followed with its emphasis on fracture, agency, and culture. Rodgers also sees much to praise in social thought since the 1970s, particularly the way it has helped legitimize racial and sexual difference.
He does believe, however, that the era’s strong emphasis on culture, rupture, and agency has lead to a neglect of key questions about power and history. At the end of his chapter on race, Rodgers argues that the,
growth of more complex understandings of identity was also the retreat of history. A culture reshaped in the choices and present moment preoccupations of a market-saturated society had transposed the frame of argument. In a liberation that was also the age’s deficit, a certain loss of memory had occurred. (Rodgers, 143)
Is this really the case though? Is it true that thinkers such as Cornel West and Judith Butler really had less of a concern with institutions, history, and power than their predecessors? Or was it that they aimed to capture a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the way history unfolded, power functioned, and identities were created? No one who has read Foucault for a graduate seminar would be unfamiliar with questions of power and institutions—even though the answers he encourages might not be as straightforward as a Marxian or even an “interest group pluralism” reading of the concept might provide. Does a focus on everyday performances of power really have to come into conflict with one attuned to the power of history and institutions?
In addition, is Rodgers correct to lump most of the period’s social thought under the concept of disaggregation? Can we really see any commonalities between the interpretive strategies of an influential anti-foundationalist literary critic like Stanley Fish and a biblical fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell? Rodgers acknowledges that the period’s conservative thinkers (and many self-proclaimed liberals) tended to obsess over combating the moral relativism and multicultural fragmentation that they saw characterizing intellectual life. Conservative Christians, in particular, proclaimed a universalistic understanding of human nature and longed for fixed gender binaries totally at odds with celebrations of gender trouble or the indeterminacy of texts.
Rodgers argues, however, that even among the religious right and cultural conservatives, one finds dissension on questions of gender, free speech, and foreign policy. While this is surely the case (when was any social movement wholly unified?), Rodgers might have done even more to explain how evangelicals fit into his broader theme of fracture.
While some readers may take issue with the book’s conceptual preference for lumping rather than splitting (though Rodgers always does an excellent job describing particular ideas), others might feel that the question of causality is left too open-ended. If fracture characterized the age, what exactly caused it to break out? Rodgers notes the value of works by David Harvey and Frederick Jameson, which examine the economic roots of the “post-modern condition,” but rejects what he sees as the determinism implicit in such models. Rodgers believes that ideas about fracture often preceded economic change and helped condition responses to it. It’s hard to disagree with this point, but it’s not surprising that discussion has already begun over the question of causality and the book’s principal argument.
Whatever minor issues readers find with the book however, they are likely to be impressed by its scope, its analytical ambitions, and its sensitivity to nuance, not to mention its readability. For many years it will serve as a key reference point for scholars investigating particular questions about social thought since the 1970s. In addition, Rodgers implicit normative stance, which calls on scholars to engage deeply with history, institutions, and power—particularly when dealing with questions of inequality—rings very true today, as we continue to live through the legacy of the age of fracture that he describes so effectively.
In January 2009 the media midwifed a new hybrid species and dubbed it Octomom. Octomom was 33-year-old Nadya Suleman, a California woman who had an unknown number of eggs implanted using IVF and gave birth to octuplets on January 26, 2009, bringing her total brood to 14. Since then Octomom has never quite left us. Just last week she appeared on Oprah to talk financial difficulties.
Once it became known that Suleman’s octuplets, only the second set to be born alive in the United Sates, were no miracle but the result of an assisted reproductive technology [ART], that all her other children had also been born through IVF, and that Suleman herself was single and unemployed, a media storm blitzed its way through the nation. The public spiritedly lambasted Suleman as a selfish woman who had irresponsibly used ARTs to bring 14 children into a world in which she and 11.6 million other Americans were unemployed.
Yet just a decade earlier in December 1998 Nkem Chukwu became the first American woman to successfully give birth to octuplets. Chukwu also used IVF to achieve this feat, but the American public did not gnash its teeth at the announcement. Chukwu was portrayed as a tired woman in a wheelchair next to her husband, a woman who discussed how her faith in God had brought her through a hard pregnancy, and who explained that she had refused a selective reduction operation during her pregnancy because she “could not find such words in [her] Bible.” No one pointed out that neither could she have found “IVF” there. Chukwu sacralized the births: “I wanted to have as many babies as God would give me,” and in turn the media portrayed the pregnancy as miracle rather than monstrosity.
In contrast no mention was initially made of Suleman’s refusal to undergo the same selective reduction procedure. A bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania called the scandal an “ethical failure” and there were invocations only of Suleman’s obsessions, not God’s gifts. Of course Suleman embodied one of the media’s favorite objects of fascination and reproach: young, female, desirous, and with a body that performed feats unknown to natural woman. Like other media favorites, Suleman even got her own hybridized nickname, Octomom, but unlike Brangelina, the hybridity was maternal rather than romantic, interspecies rather than intra-; Octomom was part-mom, part-(marine)-beast, and implicitly part-machine.
Though at first the nickname Octomom seems to reduce Suleman to the sum of her eight kids, the focus on Suleman’s desire or “obsession” instead reduced her eight newborns to herself. The scorn heaped on Suleman’s actions carried the implication that the children should never have been born in the first place, a curious stance for a society obsessed with abortion, celebrity children, and big families like the conservative Christian Duggars and John & Kate Plus 8. But Suleman made no attempt to explain her extraordinary pregnancy outside her own personal desires, and she lacked the trappings—husband, comfortable income, religious belief—that might have normalized it socially.
As a result, Octomom became a symbol of selfish enhancement, artificial excess, and irresponsible motherhood, and a reproductive technology that has been used to conceive over 250,000 pregnancies in the United States since the early 1980s suddenly became the focus of intense public discussion, giving bioethicists a platform to point out that while IVF is widely regulated throughout Europe, the US federal government only demands that ART clinics track their success rates.
Was the reaction to Octomom merely symptomatic of society’s anxiety about the impact of new technologies on society, or was something deeper at work concerning our contemporary understanding of maternal agency? I think Carl Elliott’s Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream  is an interesting place to start thinking about the relationship between society, agency, treatment, and enhancement. Elliott theorizes that Americans’ obsession with identity and authenticity helps explain why Americans appear uneasy with enhancement technologies yet seek them in droves:
We need to understand the complex relationship between self–fulfillment and authenticity, and the paradoxical way in which a person can see an enhancement technology as a way to achieve a more authentic self, even as the technology dramatically alters his or her identity.
This authenticity often depends on the assertion of deficiency. By turning a characteristic into a deficit, such as the lack of social ease in those prescribed Paxil, an enhancement becomes a treatment.
Of course this construction of deficient or disabling conditions is an ever-evolving social process with consequences for a person’s understanding of his or her authentic self. Today social phobia is the third most common mental disorder in the US, but 15 years ago it was a rare problem. Diseases are not just culturally symptomatic, they are causal and therein lies the risk. Ian Hacking’s looping effect suggests that the identification of a disease creates the conditions for the manifestation of that disease in others. For instance the emergence of the idea of gender identity disorder gave people a means to conceptualize and reinterpret their experiences around a single idea, in this case a disorder with a surgical solution.
Elliott calls this semantic contagion, and while it is a more complex idea than the gloss I give it here, its relation to the idea of copycatting may help explain the suspicion and fear with which certain diseases or disabilities are approached.
In general, Elliott is sympathetic to those who make use of the possibilities of biomedicine like pharmaceuticals or sex-reassignment surgery to achieve self-fulfillment because he sees bodies, technology, and identity as co-constructive entities. He is even sympathetic to voluntary amputees, who want to cut off their limbs as surgical treatment for what they claim is a psychological condition, asking which is worse: to amputate your leg or to live with an obsession that controls your life. Elliott provocatively suggests that voluntary amputation is fair game in a world where you can “pay a surgeon to suck fat from your thighs, lengthen your penis, augment your breasts, redesign your labia, implant silicone horns in your forehead or split your tongue like a lizard’s.” Thirty years after the first test-tube baby, is Octomom just what society should come to expect?
In an America that takes its individual responsibility seriously and its babies very seriously, how a gestating mother behaves and what she ingests has become increasingly socially and medically monitored. Authors who have explored the construction of fetal alcohol syndrome or tracked the impact of obstetric tools like ultrasound have argued that this has resulted in the objectification and erasure of the mother, and her individual needs, as she comes to embody the potential life within her.
In The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery  Monica Casper traces the implications of what in the 1990s was the relatively new medical field of fetal surgery. In fetal surgery a woman’s fetus is partially taken out of the uterus, operated on, and, if it survives, placed back into her womb for further gestation. In 1998, fewer than 100 fetuses, all of which would otherwise have died in the womb, had been operated on. Only 35% of the fetuses survived the surgery.
Though the numbers suggest that most women will miscarry or choose to abort a fetus that is likely to die in the womb, Casper sees fetal surgery as contributing to the materialization of the fetal patient at the expense of the mother. The mother and fetus are first separated as subjects, and then one is given preference over the other. Pathologization in this case doesn’t result in the reorientation of an identity but instead in the creation of one subject and the erasure of another.
Casper obviously sees her book as a warning signal to women; they should be aware that in being made invisible, their agency risks obliteration. In becoming patients, fetuses problematically become persons. Casper surely uncovers a discursive realm, with very material consequences, that represents a serious threat to maternal agency. But does she overstate the extent to which the creation of a fetal patient necessarily erases the pregnant woman, or the extent to which such erasure necessarily threatens the woman’s agency?
If we take Carl Elliott’s biomedical world as our own, then bodies are frequently objectified and technologized for one’s own interests. Does the materialization of another subject through this technologization necessarily threaten those interests? I am not doing Casper, who recognizes that both fetal and maternal interests could be valued in fetal surgery and argues that the field is a ripe area for a women’s health intervention, full justice. But I do want to challenge the idea that invisibility, in the face of social and bioethical surveillance, is necessarily a handicap to a pregnant woman’s agency. In a world where increased biomedical capabilities has engendered a field of bioethicists, of which a substrata warn the public to value mystery in the face of mastery, do efforts to regulate maternal behavior in fact intensify when a pregnant woman’s own subjective desires and agency become visible? In other words, are pregnant women in fact more free because the gestating woman is absent from the sonogram?
The case of Octomom would seem to confirm the idea that unmediated maternal agency provokes surveillance and can even reverse a typically pro-life discourse (though not necessarily its anti-choice iteration). Obviously the media’s issue with Octomom was partly the abnormality of giving birth to eight children at once, combined with the perceived social disadvantage of the children as members of a 14-child family led by an unemployed, unmarried mother. I want to argue, however, that the intense media circus surrounding Octomom suggests that we, benefactors of the biomedical era, owners of our own bodies, who need merely pop a pill each day to prevent pregnancy and who can pull out a fetus and put it back in, whose obsession with identity grants us leave to do most of what we want with our bodies, have centered many of our anxieties surrounding the blurry divide between perfection and freakishness, human mastery and mystery, on the bugaboo of maternal hubris.
Yet how to explain the fact that most women who undergo IVF are not seen as hubristic cyborgs? In Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies  Charis Thompson details the small everyday negotiations that are made to normalize ARTs in fertility clinics. She argues that not just babies but parenthood is constructed in the reproductive clinic, and that we exist in a new biomedical era which requires us to reconceptualize objectification, agency, and naturalness. Rather than seeing a sharp division between personhood and non-personhood, for either the fetus or mother, Thompson sees many forms of fetal personhood that operate in direct relation to the mother’s own expressions of agency:
The clinics deal on a daily basis with human gametes and embryos, which function in this clinical setting as questionable persons, potential persons, or elements in the creation of persons. Embryos, for example, can go from being a potential person (when they are part of the treatment process), to being in suspended animation (when they are frozen), to not being a potential person (when it has been decided that they will be discarded or donated to research), and even back again to being a potential person (when a couple has a change of heart and frozen embryos are defrosted for their own use or for embryo donation.
As in Casper’s narrative, the pregnant woman still comes to embody the potential life attributed to the embryos, but Thompson asserts that this ontological change contains not just objectification but agency and subject-formation—a dense choreography on whose merits Thompson makes no explicit judgments, though she herself used IVF to give birth to her daughter. Just as Elliott’s voluntary amputees objectify their own bodies to achieve a more authentic conception of themselves, women using ARTs allow the medical objectification of their bodies in order to assume the identity of motherhood.
Thompson traces how the work done in reproductive clinics naturalizes kinship and procreative intent, smokescreening patients’ exceptional agency in selecting gametes with certain characteristics or constructing non-normative, and previously impossible, bio-social family structures. Significantly, of course, IVF actually has a high failure rate, and many women often require three or four rounds before an embryo implants, though this fact doesn’t necessarily obscure the appearance of extraordinary control, as the ambivalent reactions to the NY Times story of the Twiblings recently demonstrated.
Because of the costs involved, many of those who use ARTs embody a certain socially desirable profile: white, heterosexual, partnered, middle to upper class. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, there was a shift in focus from childrens’ to parents’ reproductive rights, corresponding to a legal trend protecting privacy in the bedroom. Infertility has become pathologized so that some states now mandate that insurance companies cover a certain number of treatment cycles. What were once called artificial reproductive technologies, denoting enhancement, are now called assisted reproductive technologies, denoting aid and treatment. Finally, the language of genes has helped reconstruct kinship ties whose traditional linearity can sometimes be disrupted by ARTs. A mother who uses a daughter’s egg to give birth to her daughter’s sister can focus on genetic kinship rather than processual kinship. An Italian-American woman can invoke the idea that genes code for race and ethnicity to seek gametes that appear to represent a specific group identity.
All these factors contribute to the strategic naturalization of ARTs. When the biological facts of parenthood are underdetermined—for instance when a woman gestates a different woman’s egg—legal, medical, and familial conventions step in to naturalize kinship. In turn, biological entities, like genetics, are used to substantiate the social. In this biomedical process neither the natural nor the social is essentialized—elements of each work together and contribute to a recognizable process of “family building.”
The irony then is that a woman can achieve a great deal of agency by putting herself at the mercy of medicine so long as the desire and control that technology grants her to achieve an exceptional, nontraditional pregnancy in form or substance, is mediated, normalized, and made invisible. And when other forces fail to naturalize an IVF procedure, abortion politics and its close companion, contemporary American religion, have a significant role to play in shaping public perception, as demonstrated by the Nkem Chukwu narrative.
Octomom incurred scathing public scorn and initiated a debate on the regulation of a reproductive technology that has been around for nearly three decades because Suleman made visible—literally embodied—the potential abnormality of ARTs and did nothing to mediate this abnormality through socio-naturalization or by deploying a supernatural discourse of God and miracles. Instead, Suleman’s story was told through the language of human “obsession,” “desire,” and “fixation.” As a result tabloids painted her as selfish and irresponsible, a drain on society’s resources, and the pregnancy as regrettable, the work of human hubris and misappropriated technology.
Ten years ago when Nkem Chukwu had her eight children there was no media storm; in fact the Chukwu octuplets were largely forgotten until Octomom. Nearly two years later, Octomom is still with us. An image of her very pregnant stomach photographed eight days before giving birth saturates the internet—in this photo both Suleman’s stomach and her face, which looks directly into the camera with a half-smile, are distinct and memorable. In October 2010 news sources began to report on the California trial of Suleman’s doctor for negligence. Paparazzi follow Suleman around and blogs speculate about post-pregnancy plastic surgery, the great symbol of American artificiality.
Childbearing in the US is tightly bound to narratives of self-sacrifice—whether it’s the mother who gives up drinking during pregnancy, her career to stay home, or her body to fetal surgery. And while we have reached a point where we endorse a normalized agency and right to parent that supports such sacrifices and naturalizes ARTs as treatments rather than enhancements, maternal self-interest must be mediated and muted, better off obscured than exposed.
Suleman was unusual in her use of reproductive technology to achieve an extraordinary birth, but she was also unusual because she made no effort to portray her pregnancy as natural, therapeutic, miraculous, or self-sacrificial. As a result she became an object of fascination, a much-photographed freakish symbol of hubristic enhancement. Yet the sudden public attention on the question of legal regulation of IVF thirty years after its American birth suggests that Suleman and her pathologized self-interest were also seen as potentially contagious. The border between extraordinary reproductive enhancement and typical treatment was a little too blurry. A fence had to be built, and the media have always been excellent fence-builders. They drew up plans and the easiest way to build it was to turn a woman into a cyborg.
What is it about the New Year, or 2011, that reproduction is suddenly becoming the focus of such media scrutiny? Could it have anything to do with the coming into power of a militantly anti-choice Speaker?
Cultural sniffer Ross Douthat has also noticed this trend and decided to add his two cents in a recent Times column. Mostly it’s a yawn-fest whose point of view can be most quickly summed up by the fact that he refuses to call embryos and fetuses anything except the “unborn.” But he’s really doing his best to do a nuanced analysis of
recent all the media representations of abortion ever and the adoption vs. surrogacy debate. I’ll hold back from line edits, but I thought I’d helpfully provide Douthat with some feedback on larger ideas that I think could use reworking.
1. The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion.
Ross, the recent, sanitized, and mainstream American entertainment industry is not comfortable with abortion. But watch a Paul Mazursky film from the late ’70s, say the really wonderful An Unmarried Woman, and you’ll find the 15-year-old daughter casually talking to her mother about helping to pay for a classmate’s abortion while they set the dinner table together. Note that this is the only mention of abortion in the entire movie. There’s no hand-wringing, abortion just happens to be embedded in the everyday.
2. MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective.
Is any media representation in the era of reality TV going to be anything but a “heartbreaking spectacle”? On the Real Housewives of New York being late for opening night at the Met is a “heartbreaking spectacle.” What network is going to air a woman self-assuredly and quietly going in for an abortion? In this case, and since you yourself say the American media is uncomfortable with abortion, should you really use a reality show as your only case study to show “how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution”?
3. Last month there was Vanessa Grigoriadis’s provocative New York Magazine story “Waking Up From the Pill“…
Hang on, just a quick word choice suggestion even though I know I said I wouldn’t line edit, but “provocative” doesn’t seem to quite capture Grigoradis’s story. Let me know what you think of one of the following instead: sensationalistic, outlandish, insupportable.
4. In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.
Though you don’t cross all your t’s, I get your underlying contention that it’s a tragedy that all these young, poor, unmarried girls now have the option to terminate their pregnancies rather than gestate for 9 months so that a wealthier, older, better-positioned, married woman can take their baby off their hands, and that now these wealthier women are forced to actually pay those women who now have a legal choice to act as surrogates or supply eggs for their (re)productive labor. I don’t have any real suggestions on this one, I just thought you could make that more clear.
5. This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.
Wait, I’m confused. For something you want to find so concrete (“unborn life,” not “a mass of cells”), I’m surprised that you’re abstracting here so much. Which life? Whose life? Is this the unborn life of someone who desires a child, or the unborn life of someone who doesn’t? I think differentiating between the two might help resolve this paradox.
Over at the excellent U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman has written a provocative post on the relationship between neo-liberalism and the “spirit of the 1960s.” Citing a number of recent theorists including Wendy Brown, Slavoj Žižek, and Walter Benn Michaels, Hartman argues that activists in the 1960s, with their demands for “public tolerance of things that were once intolerable, such as racial and sexual difference,” helped pave the way for “unfettered capitalism with a smiley face.”
Through the cunning of history, Hartman argues, capital has learned to thrive off of movements that “many thought was formed as resistance to capitalism, or at least, as resistance to the symptoms of capitalism: imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.” From this perspective, it appears that one of the most significant–but historically neglected–legacies of the 1960s was the way it provided establishment institutions multicultural ploys to feign progressivism while reproducing inequality.
While I think there’s something to be said for this view, especially the way that corporations and universities undertook the bare minimum of action to address the many grievances launched against them, it also risks downplaying the period’s genuine radicalism. As historian Jeremy Varon has observed, by the late 1960s activists tended to understand inequality as a total “system” perpetuated by the nation’s leading institutions: universities, corporations, and government each played a role in protecting the interests of patriarchy, racism, empire, and global capital.
In this era, groups such as the Black Panthers, the New York Radical Women, and even Students for a Democratic Society (and its various offshoots) demanded much more than diversity programs and corporate restructuring. This explains why the United States government saw the period’s activists, particularly the Panthers, as a major threat, and did everything in its power to destroy them (often breaking the law in the process).
On his larger point, I think Hartman’s correct to highlight capitalism’s newfound love affair with a United Colors of Benetton style of “multiculturalism” in the post-1960s period. These corporate reforms came on the cheap and did nothing to address the intertwined tyrannies highlighted by the late New Left: economic inequity, male privilege, black ghettoization, and American militarism. Today, corporations and universities–key institutional reproducers of social inequality–make use of the language of diversity to present themselves as the protectors of egalitarianism and social mobility. The fact that they get away with doing so—I think—says much more about the power of the American establishment than it does with the goals of 1960s radicals like Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Hayden, or Shulamith Firestone.
While American institutions might have found ways to co-opt much of the period’s dissent, this should not detract from the real gains that the era’s activists have won, even when up against some of the most well-entrenched and well-funded opponents imaginable. In the face of massive hostility, sixties radicals played a major role in electing the first generation of black political officials since Reconstruction, transformed rape and abortion laws to give women more control over their own bodies, witnessed the rise of the gay liberation movement, and helped launch modern environmentalism. While never as successful as their conservative critics claimed, the era’s radicals also transformed the teaching of American history–making the stories of the poor, of people of color, and of women, for example, central to the discipline’s mission. If the period’s activists failed to stem the rising tide of economic inequality in this country, I think that says a lot less about them than it does with the power of their opponents.
Which brings me to the Tea Party. Hartman concludes his post by asking whether he is “crazy” for sympathizing with Benn Michaels’ view that the Tea Party represents America’s only significant resistance to neo-liberalism (even if its members don’t realize it) because of its opposition to illegal immigration. Our own Wiz has already addressed many of Benn Michaels’ principal arguments here.
As for me, I don’t think that Hartman’s crazy, but I do think that describing a movement largely composed of affluent and well-educated white people, who attack undocumented workers (one of neo-liberalism’s chief victims) and call for the elimination of an already pitiable welfare state somehow “anti-capitalist” wishful thinking at best. (Whether or not the Tea Party has some legitimate grievances is another point entirely.)
What does all this all mean for today? As Wiz noted in his critique of Benn Michaels,“one of the main effects of neoliberalism has been to create a global working class that is increasingly female and people of color. So any movement which seeks to empower this new working class has to take issues of gender, race, and sex seriously.” Creating alliances among opponents of neo-liberalism, while recognizing difference, it seems to me, remains crucial to any movement that aims to achieve social justice. This, perhaps, requires honoring the best of what the “spirit of the 1960s”–at least its radical side–has to offer.
As I mentioned in my comment on Nemo’s original post, I think songs that seem to address more personalized themes, like gender identity, sexual fluidity, female empowerment don’t receive the same amount of criticism as songs/artists who appear to be addressing things that are viewed as larger, structural like the prison-industrial complex or geopolitics. Maybe because the artist is presumed to have more cred as someone who can assume a personal identity (as enraged woman or transgendered individual).
This is partly why I like Grizzly Bear’s cover of He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss). A Brooklyn-based band made up of straight and gay men, their cover of an overly-covered song is haunting and I think re-subversive because they aren’t really the people you’d expect to be singing this song.
There is a trio of female empowerment songs that might receive more lambasting, because they get caught up in a whole “female power” thing that male pundits take delight in mocking: Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and more recently Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It.” Of course the empowerment of these ballads depends on context. Single Ladies is a song about women holding men to commitment, explicitly marriage. Played at a conservadox Jewish wedding I was at last year the effect was muted. But if you were to visit a suburban Connecticut high school dance in the late 90s/early 2000s, a place where feminist was an unspoken or dirty word, you might appreciate the fact that it was something wonderful for a group of teenage girls, whose main media messages were perfect bodies and achieving male affection, to be able to hop around in a circle belting out “R.E.S.P.E.C.T./ Find out what it means to me.”
But to be honest I’ve never been one to really find my political messages in the lyrics of song. I read much better than I hear; I don’t digest the spoken or sung all that well (ask me to give you the lyrics of a song I’ve listened to a hundred times and I’ll come back empty). So for me music is more about the sense I get from it, the atmosphere it creates around me, the random thoughts it brings to mind. I discovered Antony and the Johnsons in college at a moment when I first started thinking seriously and began to be seriously bothered by gender and sexuality in society, binaries and restrictions. Coming from a very “normal” town the oppressiveness of “normality” and the value of fluidity and blurriness made sense to me.
Antony’s voice is gorgeous and, oh god, don’t kill me for saying this, it seems to perform yet subvert gender all at once. One critic described him as a white man who sounds like a black woman. There’s something of the cabaret in him, which reminds me of the time I was at Judson Memorial Church by Washington Square Park and a very large gay man got up on stage in something that wasn’t quite drag but wasn’t quite wasn’t and belted out a showstopper show tune in the middle of the church service. This is maybe the closest I’ve ever gotten to 1980s gay New York and I treasure the experience dearly.
On his album “I Am A Bird Now,” which came out in 2005, Antony’s lyrics explicitly talk about boys becoming girls, but it’s his voice that really blurs these lines and is the political message, a voice that is sorrowful/lamenting but also sounds otherworldly/betterworldly. Antony’s also been a popular success, winning Britain’s Mercury prize in 2005. It is very likely that he’s contributed more to everyday people understanding the humanity of transgendered and transsexual identities than a thousand copies of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body… which don’t get me wrong I love and is the way I first started thinking hard about gender ambiguity, since I’ve never been able to actually hold on to any of Antony’s lyrics beyond the fact that there’s a boy who wants to be a girl.
In any case, I submit to you Antony and the Johnson’s “For Today I Am A Boy”
A quick post to draw everyone’s attention to an absurd essay in New York Mag by Vanessa Grigoriadis on the Pill, which she claims has
“allowed [women] to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened).
Grigoriadis is skeptical of all these celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Pill. Weirdly the way she tries to detract attention away from the importance of the Pill and to question whether we should take so laudatory a stance of its impact on women’s lives, ends up giving the Pill too much significance in having determined the course of women’s reproductive lives today.
But before I get into that, a quick corrective to her assertion that “the whole point of the Pill from the beginning has been population control. Even though America was consuming more than 50 percent of the world’s resources in the late fifties (with 6 percent of the world’s population), eugenicist fears of the developing world’s excessive procreation ran rampant during the Cold War.”
While population control and eugenics are without a doubt part of the Pill’s history, Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormack approached Gregory Pincus at the Worcester Institute also in order to give more power to women to control reproduction. As books such as Lara Marks’s Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill, Adele Clark’s Disciplining Reproduction, and Andrea Tone’s Devices and Desires show, birth control has been about intention and planning, for bureaucrats and your everyday women and men alike, for many many years now. Oddly Grigoriadis cites Tone’s book to support her claim that the Pill was all about population control, and even discusses the various methods and contraceptives developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to prevent reproduction; yet this evidence of a long history of reproductive planning plays no part in her final argument about the impact of the Pill on women’s reproductive lives. She essentially argues that the Pill has allowed women to “forget” to reproduce in their 20s, hoodwinking them only to have them discover in their mid-30s that they no longer can. Then they’ll have to rely on [gasp!] new reproductive technologies: frozen sperm and eggs, IVFs, surrogate mothers:
That may be the world to which many are heading—even more medicalized and technologized, where all women freeze their eggs and submit to assisted reproductive technologies, and with it, more complicated choices and questions that bioethecists love to hash over. Even Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the Pill (before he became a Stanford professor, playwright, and sci-fi novelist), has suggested that all forms of birth control will eventually become obsolete and the Pill “will end up in a museum.” In his imaginings, girls and boys will deposit their eggs and sperm in a reproductive bank to be frozen at 20 or so and then get sterilized. They’ll want to do this because genetic diagnoses of embryos will become increasingly sophisticated, and no one will want to risk having a child with birth defects, let alone a child of an unpreferred gender or one predisposed to a hairy back. When these people want to have children, either one or six, at 30 or 60 years old, they’ll make a withdrawal from the bank.
Grigoriadis’s article drips with technological determinism and implicit cyborg nightmares. It bifurcates reproduction into the natural and the unnatural and hearkens back to a 1980s feminist narrative of medical and technological nightmares: women being taken over by mad scientists and madder science. It’s a “just say no” attitude that’s really silly when you get down to it and consider the way that technologies can be utilized by women to achieve greater agency and control in their lives. Women should obviously be aware of the effect of any drug on their body, and there is plenty to say about the type of information fed to women by pharma and reproductive clinics, but my generation is not unaware of health risks, particularly of the Pill, and in fact I don’t think the Pill plays nearly as large a role for my generation as it did for many of our mothers. Women are more likely to go on and off the Pill today depending on sexual patterns and partners, and condoms play a major role (likely more prevalent than for the generation above) because of multiple bedmates and STDs. First time users of the Pill are aware of the impact of the drug on the body — discussions of weight gain or mood swings and concerns about long-term impact were prevalent in college. And the “tick tick” of the biological clock is a trope that has never left our culture (and in fact has likely more recently entered it as women have put off pregnancy).
The Pill is not THE cause for women pushing off pregnancy into their 30s, and if the Pill were to disappear tomorrow, it would do little to change this reproductive trend (in part because there are plenty of other technologies to fill the Pill’s role, but also because there is a desire to be able to plan pregnancy). Career and waiting for the right partner were the reasons that women went on the Pill in the 1960s and 1970s and these are still the primary reasons many women will wait until their 30s to have children, even though there are fertility risks in doing so. Yes, the Pill isn’t a necessary good, and assisted reproductive technologies have their pitfalls and are not guaranteed to succeed. There is a lot to be analyzed in terms of the impact of assisted reproductive technologies on women, health, family units, kinship, and society, but in response to the fear-mongering tone Grigoriadis takes, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate their potential and wonder, allowing the infertile and those seeking to build alternative families and family structures to do so.
Listen, I’m all for treating our bodies well and I’m all for women seriously considering what they want their reproductive life course to look like (as we should seriously consider all major life decisions…?) but to propose that some constructed natural/artificial or human/technology divide is the grounds on which to impugn the Pill… is that really going to hold up in our increasingly biomedical age? And are those really the grounds on which you want to suggest that a young woman reconsider her use of the Pill?
I don’t really have too much to say about the recent episode at Yale where a group of Delta Kappa Epsilon frat boys marched through Old Campus where most Yale freshmen (half of whom are young women) live chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” I experienced some mixture of disgust, outrage, and weird disbelief when I first read about it: disbelief that a group of young (frat-boyish) college-aged men would so blatantly perform, publicly (though perhaps they felt safe under the cover of darkness?), all the worst possible stereotypes associated with young (frat-boyish) college-aged men.
But I found a recent anonymous interview that one brother in the fraternity, who did not participate in the rape chant, gave to Tracy Clark-Flory over at Salon really interesting, mostly because it revealed exactly how little at least the fraternity brothers (though in trying to absolve DKE, the guy indicts the entire Yale campus toward the end) seem to get what misogyny is and how permissiveness in language can allow for permissiveness in action. Take the following for example:
How would you describe the general attitude toward women at DKE?
The general attitude is as respectful as anywhere else on campus. I’ve heard more misogynistic comments elsewhere on campus than in the fraternity. That’s not to imply that people don’t make mistakes, but DKE is no more inherently misogynistic than Yale at large. Unfortunately, our thoughtless and offensive chanting last week leaves the impression that there are no differences between our words and actions — which is certainly untrue.
It’s interesting that the standard by which the fraternity would still judge itself, even after an episode that has sparked off some form of national or at least blogosphere outrage, is the Yale campus, without questioning whether those standards are high enough, or whether they really want to justify an act of groupthink with an example of groupthink.
The other thing that comes out of this interview is the fact that the frat boy admits this wasn’t an isolated episode: “This chant was said without thought in previous years on one night of the year,” and yet he also claims it was an anomaly: “This event is without question an anomaly.”
What was anomalous of course was that it was caught on video and posted to youtube. Were the men never called out on this before? Did they walk through the freshmen quad, chanting, militantly marching, without complaint before? It’s weird to think what will happen in the age of youtube, as people become more savvy, realize that there are cameras that connect to internet cables that connect to websites that will broadcast your most immediate, egregious action to the world at large. Will the eyes and voice of an outraged cybersociety “cure” an American society of such public performances? Will they just be driven to the basements of frat houses? And for that matter, what is a different segment of “cybersociety” saying about the chant? I’m too afraid to look right now, already pessimistic enough about things like “the eyes of cybersociety” and “yale frat boys” on this cold October day.