Thursday, 11 February 2010

Review: Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman

(From the forthcoming launch issue of Queer Minds. Should it ever actually come out, that is.)

Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman (London: Zero Books, 2009)

Where have all the interesting women gone? That’s the question Nina Power’s book sets out to explore, and does so admirably. It’s an important, wide-ranging question, and Power packs quite a lot into a short book – from pornography to Sarah Palin – and does so with angry verve.

As one might expect from a title that plays on Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Human, central to the broadside is the idea that a feminism constructed under the framework of neoliberal, capitalist democracy, speaking a language of ‘rights’ and ‘equality’, founders when it capitulates to the hedonistic rhetoric of contemporary culture. In other words, the change for which earlier generations of feminists fought has been construed simply as freedom – and generally the illusory freedom of choice between products, or the freedom to run for political office, or the freedom to fuck as one chooses. Many American reformulations of feminism sell it (and ‘sell’ is instructive) as a lifestyle choice that will improve the rewards that you’ll derive from your job and your love-life. That, I think, is inarguable, but the problem with that rhetoric is that it is driven so exclusively towards the rewards for the individual that the wider structural implications of feminist critique – which questions both the ‘individual’ and ‘reward’ as sound bases for an ideal state – go unmentioned.

This shouldn’t be news for queers. One of the strengths of contemporary queer culture is the strong current of radical social thinking and work that runs through it, which insists on seeing queer oppression as sitting at the centre of a nexus of wider, global structural problems. And that isn’t surprising, since to identify as ‘queer’ presupposes radical thinking about what sexuality might mean – a closer analogue would perhaps be the contemporary LGBT rights movement, which seeks for accommodation and assimilation. But to say that the queer movement is generally committed to political action would be mendacious: if that’s so, then it’s also committed to revolution under the banner of pleasure, and a pleasure often referred to as ‘authentic’.

We also have to acknowledge that there’s a nihilistic or at least apolitical component to a significant portion of current queer discourse, which wants to dance in the wreckage and fuck in the ruins. Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive is probably the strongest intrusion of the decidedly antipolitical formulation of queerness into academic literature, and his argument conceives of politics as universally driven by ‘reproductive futurism’, the spectre of the child for whom society must build a safe, sustainable future. and ‘we are no more able to conceive of a politics without a fantasy of the future than we are able to conceive of a future without the figure of the Child.’ Instead, Edelman argues that queerness is a negating, troubling drive that must refuse these forms of political order, and thus queerness in its strongest form demands a withdrawal from politics. It is a strong and brilliant argument, but for all its force and clarity, it strikes me as reliant on a faith in his axiom that politics must have at its centre the image of the human child. Power’s book is useful in pointing out that such a turn away from politics is both politically complicit and based on tendentious empirical grounds: in large measure, our dominant history is constructed as a tale of begetting and engendering – reproductive futurity! But this elides the alternative histories that one hears less about: Power’s final pages touch on other modes of communal political organisation that operated on other principles – the early radical kibbutzim are the chief example – one might also touch on the writings of early 20th century queer Fabians, or reach back to the radical sectaries of early modern Europe.

Yet the dream of living an alternative is not dead, as Power notes, but assimilated into the narrative of the liberal lifestyle as precisely that – a dream. Squatting and sharing housing are almost exclusively the domain of the young, and as such are linked into a process of maturing away from communal ideals and developing the sphere of the private as the unique preserve of ‘maturity’, and especially as a domain outside the political. Power’s message – and it is a message we need to hear – is that feminism establishes that the household is fully politicised, and needs to remain visible; part of that message for us might involve thinking how a nomadic, anarchic sexual-political identity is accommodated and neutralised by the institutions and structures is seeks to challenge.

The strongest chapters of the book, to my mind, are those dealing with the thorny question of pleasure: either with the repressive desublimation of pleasure in the vibrator-laden new feminism, or with the history of the pornographic image, or with the ‘revolutionary’ potential of sex as taken up by 20th century radicals. The examination of early pornography is a gem: revealing the ways in which the pornographic image encodes and structures desire, rendering sex a form of work. The argument here is less about the commodification of the body – and hence less to do with the plucked and enhanced bodies of porn workers, and the fiscal compulsion towards a faked, cold ‘enjoyment’ – and more concerned with the economy of the image itself. That is to say, reading the pornographic image is revealing because its dominant narrative (vulcanised, alienated, shaven and labour-intensive, obsessed with private, orgasmic teleology) obscures the story of pornography before the rise of the sex toy and the porn industry, which severs the link between the comical, communal, and imperfect body and sexuality itself. Contemporary porn is deeply, worryingly serious (in part a symptom of its alienation), and this exploration shows that it needn’t necessarily bear so pathological and taxonomic a relationship to actual human sexuality.

Power uses this to tackle the rhetoric surrounding sexuality that permeates much radical thought (‘sexoleftism’, as she calls it). As such, she echoes queer thinkers like Jonathan Dollimore and Leo Bersani (in Sex, Literature and Censorship and Homos respectively) in calling to account the notion that sex must always be necessarily subversive, liberating and radicalising. This is, I think, where her debt to Marcuse as a thinker is most apparent: a recognition that apparently subversive events are rapidly accommodated by existing political structures and prone to retain an air of danger (enough for political catharsis, at least) without having any significant impact either on subjective politics or structural political problems. No revolution ever started in a fetish club. The analysis of Otto Mühl’s famous sexual-communal experiment, which banded together under the sign of absolute promiscuity, thus severing the link between sex and the political structures of monogamy is telling in this regard: political hierarchies translated into the workings of pleasure and desire rendered it a particularly noxious failure (the attractiveness of social capital and position are part of the reason, but part of it, too, is simply that desire doesn’t arise equally towards all bodies, all people.) One does wonder whether Mühl’s commune – which was explicitly authoritarian in its structure – is the best community to use as a paradigmatic example; it strikes me that the resistance of desire to programmatic ideology is as strong even where that ideology is egalitarian and anti-hierarchical. This is where the parallel to Dollimore is notable – an explicit rejection of the idea that sex can ever be enough for a progressive politics, that to represent it as the central tool of a radical feminist or queer politics misses the fact that as often as sex is subversive, it is also abject, or boring, or diversionary. It is also historically located: what would have been subversively queer 30 years ago simply isn’t now.

The strongest response to this is to recognise – as Power does through her invocation of Shulamith Firestone – that feminism (and for us, the queer movement) has a far wider remit than simply claiming a place at the capitalist gentlemens’ club. Instead it has arisen out of a utopian impulse, which demands not simply equal rights in order to work merrily away, but to reorder the sicknesses and inadequacies of the neoliberal capitalist model which give rise to the problem in the first place. When we say that all politics is identity politics, perhaps it’s time to start remembering what that really means: that we have a etiolated, ineffectual and introverted politics of identity unless we recognise our sexuality and gender identity are the stage on which global and structural political problems are played out. Time to get three-dimensional again.

James Butler is a postgraduate student at Oxford University, a writer and an activist. He may be reached at

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Poetry enlarges life

In the preface to his excellent book on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Simon Critchley writes:

If I have a general cultural complaint it is that, first and most importantly, there are too few readers of poetry and, second but relatedly, too many of those readers are writers of poetry. It is the general conviction of this book that poetry elevates, liberates and ennobles human life and that the experience of poetry should be extended to as many people as possible. Poetry enlarges life with a range of observation, a depth of sentiment, a power of expression and an attention to language that simply eclipses any other medium. As I say below, poetry is life with the ray of imagination's power shot through it. It is my belief that a life without poetry is a life diminished, needlessly stunted.

Little there to disagree with, I think. There's a comic apologetic dance that readers and writers of poetry alike go through when talking about poetry, some kind of intuition that it's an antiquated or bourgeois pastime, that it is inconsequential or a harmless eccentricity, or that its sphere of effectiveness is diminished to a few thoughtful but impotent aesthetes.

This is partly so because one thinks of poetry as being either the rhythmic tapping-out of the banal or inaccessible and recondite shards wrung out of infinite complexity; and this is why John Betjeman and Geoffrey Hill are the twin inspirational spirits of contemporary dullness. One could be forgiven for navigating the poetry section at Foyles and thinking that Critchley's plea for poetry is the admirable formulation of an ideal cruelly flattened by reality.

Most readers not instinctively given to the vice of poetry would accord with Auden when he says, famously, 'Poetry makes nothing happen.' But that stanza, in a eulogy of W.B. Yeats, is as much a testament to Auden's own struggle with Yeats' ineffable music and barbarism as a dictum on poetry in general. What is not often recognised about that poem is simply how cruel it is – in eulogising Yeats, even imitating his distinctive meter, Auden belittles and negates much that Yeats believed about poetry, its ability to engender and capture worlds. It is a peculiarly English vice to be captured by the music but disown its sublimity.

(One of my favourite of Stevens' poems: To an Old Philosopher in Rome)