The Contemporary Condition

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violette and Simone: Politics in the Encounter

Lori Marso
Union College

The biopic is most compelling when a strong narrative message is not imposed on a life. Life unfolds in response to the unpredictable, idiosyncratic occurrence tossed one’s way, and we, as individuals or collective, mobilize freedom or opportunity in the random events of life and politics. Violette, Martin Provost’s 2013 biopic about Violette Leduc and her encounter with Simone de Beauvoir, is a visceral and unnerving film about a difficult woman. The film reveals the anger, bitterness, rejection, sexual energy, and depression that saturated Violette’s emotional life, fueled her creativity, and dominated her writing. It not only illuminates an individual life in a non-narrative mode, it also tells the story of macro social forces. The complicated choices in presenting Violette’s life demonstrate how freedom is grasped and sustained. By the end, we see that the efforts of several people, most importantly Simone de Beauvoir, have combined to free Violette to live on her own terms. 



When we first see Violette she is smuggling black market goods at the end of World War II somewhere in rural France. She is living with the writer Maurice Sachs. When he abandons Violette for good, he sneaks out in the middle of the night hoping to avoid her desperate pleading. Maurice is depicted as a flamboyant gay man, and Violette experiences his lack of desire not as a rejection of her sex but a rejection of her specifically. When she hears him leaving and runs after him to claw at his back and beg him to love her, we get the feeling that this tawdry incident is but one in a long series of personal rejections. “Ugliness in a woman is a mortal sin,” she will write later, as well as remembering, “My mother never took my hand.”   

But Maurice Sachs did do one thing for Violette Leduc: he urged her to write. This is one of many encounters depicted in this gripping film that has no clear dramatic arc or formal structure. Unlike many biopics depicting the lives of women, Violette leaves almost every question unanswered.  Viewers themselves have to tease out the meaning and implications of Violette’s frustrated sexuality; whether she is depressed due to mental illness or what Ann Cvetkovich (2012) would call a “public feeling;” why she so urgently clings to every person she meets and demands that they love her; whether her ambivalent and confusing relationship with her difficult and narcissistic mother is the main or just one reason Violette sees herself only as ugly and unwanted, a bastard; whether her intense awareness of bodily sensation was her savior, awakening her to life’s pleasures and pains, or her curse, making her too sensitive, too easily harmed; whether writing was her true calling or merely a means for survival.  

At the heart of the film is Violette Leduc’s encounter with Simone de Beauvoir. Violette discovers Beauvoir’s writing by chance but subsequently seizes every opportunity to draw herself into Beauvoir’s orbit. Delivering black market goods to a bourgeois client, Violette discovers a book by Beauvoir on a table and slips it in her purse. The book is She Came to Stay, the bold story of a ménage à trois with a woman’s feelings, desires, anxieties, and emotions at the center. Seduced by this book and its author, Violette seems to feel she has found her everything in Beauvoir long before meeting her: soul mate, role model, lover, and friend.  

Several critics have noted that Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) is depicted as “stern” or “aloof:” Manohla Dargis (NY Times) says she comes off as “a cross between a dominatrix and a mother superior.” Beauvoir’s life and circumstances are indeed more orderly and disciplined, and one imagines that Violette would appear desperate and disheveled to her. After stalking Beauvoir, Violette shoves the manuscript for In the Prison of Her Skin into Beauvoir’s hands. Beauvoir firmly assures Leduc that she will indeed read it and such begins their relationship, and Beauvoir’s praise for Leduc’s writing: “You talk about female sexuality like no woman before you; with poetry, honesty, and more besides; Go further! Tell it all: trafficking, love lives, the abortion; you’ll be doing women a favor.”



To Leduc, Beauvoir is inscrutable. To Beauvoir, Leduc is an open book.  Beauvoir recognizes Leduc’s talent and the political and social significance of Leduc’s work for women and for the world (she promises that her own The Second Sex will appear with Leduc’s L'Asphyxie, or In the Prison of Her Skin, and people will see that the latter is the best example of the meaning of the former), while Leduc continues to flounder, complain, and rage against the world, seeing every single thing as a personal affront, especially the fact that Beauvoir doesn’t love her and nor does anyone else. Unrequited love and extreme poverty feed Violette’s insecurity and frustration. Never able to see society’s role, she understands her problems as personal idiosyncrasies. And indeed, she is difficult. Violette not only chooses the wrong partners; she also never seems to learn a lesson, to fully appreciate her benefactors, or to take anything in stride. In one scene, perhaps the best in the film, Leduc enters a bookstore to search for her book only to find a few copies hidden in the back. This is an amusing scene, one that resonates with every author as Violette surreptitiously places her book in a more prominent place. Rather than slink out of the store after asking about “Violette Leduc’s” book (pretending to be someone else), she exclaims that she certainly is “not a friend of Leduc” and screams at the clerk: “Come out and say it! It’s all Julien Green here!” 



Two things about the film are especially striking and original. One involves the centrality of the relationship between Beauvoir and Leduc and how it unfolded. No one except Beauvoir seems to understand or entirely sympathize with her. It is not even clear that Beauvoir sympathizes with her; she seems to find her exasperating, but still recognizes her brilliance as a writer and her experience as illuminating the lives of other women too. In short, Beauvoir sees the political in the personal. Leduc, too, with Beauvoir’s help, starts to see connections between her own and other women’s lives. Leduc comforts Beauvoir after Beauvoir confides that her mother has just died and she admits that though she felt only ambivalence towards her mother in life, her mother’s too-sudden death has affected her profoundly. Here we witness the risking of a dependent relationship between two women constituted by their ambivalence to their own mothers. It is to some extent a healing of prior wounds, and in another very different sense a manifestation not of the vertical mother-daughter bond but the horizontal sororal bond between two very differently situated women.  



Indeed, the themes of ambivalence, affinity, friendship, and bonds of situated oppression between women builds as one of the most affecting features in the film though it is never too obviously announced. The film also instances solidarity between women across class lines, something far from dogmatic to feminism although exemplary within it. It shows us how a comfortable woman allows herself to be drawn to one who is discomforting. We cannot know Beauvoir’s motives; regardless, the two women share an encounter, and their relationship changes history and each of them. The chosen episodes make it clear that Beauvoir’s influence on Leduc made her the writer that she was and helped Leduc to find the meaning in her work, her creative impulse, and even her afflictions. Because Leduc is always in the grip of extreme poverty, Beauvoir supported her with a monthly allowance; we feel the claustrophobia in Leduc’s apartment where she eats only potatoes, as contrasted with Beauvoir’s deep couches, good wine, and built in bookshelves. Beauvoir also read and edited all Leduc’s manuscripts; she encouraged her to travel, to feel and explore nature and the countryside; she paid for her stay in a mental hospital, visiting and sustaining her too; and always urged her to take up her pen: “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere; writing will!” In addition, Beauvoir wrote a preface to La Bâtarde (The Bastard), an act that may have been what finally propelled Leduc to fame in 1964. 

The film is also extraordinary insofar as the meaning Beauvoir gleans from Leduc’s writing, that a singular woman’s lived experience is important for all women, is felt as sensation revealed through language and image. Through Violette’s words we feel the physical sensation of love between young girls, of the sun on one’s face, of poverty, of her late term abortion and its aftermath, of having to fight and traffic for food during the War, of being unloved and unwanted, of never hearing god’s voice. We feel too, with Violette, how life is always too much, too volatile, too painful or pleasurable, simply too intense. The film makes one uncomfortable and yet it is deeply moving. The film’s techniques that depict sensations as lived through the body make it an experience to live through rather than a story to view and evaluate. 

Moreover, we understand each episode or encounter in Violette’s life as vitally open. We never know which way things will end up. If we are familiar with the life and work of Violette Leduc, we will already know she will find success rather than die in the mental hospital or kill herself in the countryside. Nevertheless, the film is able to keep each moment surprising and new. 



The film also resonates with several aspects of Beauvoir’s own depiction of how politics happens and how life unfolds. In The Second Sex and elsewhere, Beauvoir asks us to experience a singular life both as a singular life and as refracting social forces. At the same time that she illuminates and critiques structures, material conditions, and patriarchal fantasies that oppress women and deny freedom, she also affirms the struggle to live and thrive, the pleasures of nature or the beauty of a moment, and the surprising sources and locations of resistance. Beauvoir’s critical attention to affect, to bodily sensation, to the importance of feeling and emotions for politics, all are present, too, in Leduc’s account of her world—her experience of being female, lonely, and loveless. The film conveys not only how women’s lives are connected, but also how life and politics turns on the encounter—how we experience it, what we do with it, whether freedom is seized, affirmed, rejected, or simply missed. Violette Leduc encountered Beauvoir’s writing in She Came to Stay and seized onto it. Her reaction, to contact Beauvoir, and Beauvoir’s reaction to her, to acknowledge and encourage Leduc’s talent, made all the difference in Leduc’s life, and for the women who continue to read these women’s brilliant work. 

*Thank you to Tom Lobe, Bonnie Honig, Nancy Luxon, and Melissa Moskowitz for thoughtful comments on this essay.



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Diasporic Politics Boomerang

Bonnie Honig
Brown University

Israel cultivates support from outside. The Jewish diaspora is its lifeline. Many North American Jews are raised to identify with Israel, many go visit or donate money, some even learn Hebrew! (What more proof of devotion could you need?) But -- then if we criticize their "policies", Israel says "wait, why such a double standard for Israel? Why don't you criticize Syria, Libya, Iran?" The answer is: “Syria, Libya, and Iran didn’t ask us to plant trees in their soil for tu b’shevat (the holiday of the trees, chag ha’elanot). They didn’t send us tree stamps to lick onto sheets of paper to illustrate how many trees would be planted with money we, as schoolchildren, raised in the diaspora. They did not ask us for money to help build hospitals to care for their wounded. They did not enlist us as their diasporic support community and they did not encourage us to personally identify with them. Their bloodshed is horrific but it feels less like it is on MY hands...."
When I was growing up I attended Hebrew Day School, and for a year or two our teacher for Jewish Laws, Norms, and Customs (I think) was a man named Aggassi, I think, or Agas. I remember because Agas means “pear” in Hebrew and the man had precisely that unfortunately shaped body. So he stuck in my (otherwise terrible) memory.
  I also remember one lesson he taught. He was describing Moses praying on the mountain and said Moses miraculously held his arms up in prayer for 40 days and 40 nights (or something like that). My seat in the class of 20 or so girls was in the back row. I surreptitiously held up my arms to see what was so hard about that? The teacher saw me and chuckled at my scepticism. He asked me to come to the front of the class. Did I not believe it was difficult? That holding one’s arms up like that was a miracle? He said I should stand in the corner in front of the classroom with my arms up to see how long I could last. It wasn’t long.

I think Mr. Aggas(si) was a shaliach. A shaliach is someone who is “sent,” an emissary. He was sent from Israel to us, as were others, usually for 2-year terms, to live in our Jewish community. Shlichim (the plural of shaliach) led our youth groups, taught in our Hebrew Schools, served as counselors in Jewish summer camps, and lent support in synagogues and after school activities.
There was in my youth, as now, a vast and diverse system of shlichim, sponsored by a variety of organizations with sometimes disparate goals and ideals. But they all overlapped in their aim and methods: Israelis cycled in and out of our communities, breathing their enthusiasm for Israel into us, inspiring and inspiriting us with love for that distant land. They secured our affective support, loyalty, identification, donations and, often, a commitment to one day move to Israel, to become part of this great Jewish nation that sent us these young men. (I only knew male shlichim. Perhaps there were also women – shlichot?)
All that work, all that infrastructure, created a web of communities with deep affective and intergenerational ties to the Land and – for a long time -- unflinching support for Israel and its security ‘needs’. We learned a lot about Israel, but we hardly heard anything about displacement, occupation, Palestinian refugees. When we did hear something, it was said their crisis was manufactured by the unwillingness of other Arab countries to take them in and that they had left voluntarily, in any case. Not “our” concern. Israel was always precarious, we learned, but it had a promising virility (personified for us, tween girls, by all those male shlichim in their 20’s and 30’s), and a will to survive. We learned that we needed Israel and that it needed us. (Well, “she” needed us, is what we were actually told). We were both surrounded by enemies, after all: Israel by hostile Arab nations, and we by a pervasive anti-semitism that may have gone underground since Nazism but was always waiting to spring back up. Sharing a precarious existence, we were told again and again, we had only ourselves to count on and we needed each other to survive.
The shlichim were just one part of a vast array of messagings and messengers that impressed us into the fate of the struggling Jewish democracy in the Middle East. In my middle school context, no one entertained the thought of a possible conflict between those terms – Jewish, ethno-national state and a democratic state. I had to go to college for that thought to become a thinkable thought.
Why do I suddenly recall all this now? Because the affective machinery has malfunctioned. Affect has a life of its own. Once installed, it does not always obey the law, norms and customs to which some try to harness it. Even corporeal lessons can have a variety of impacts. Being made to stand alone in front of a classroom can return a child to the fold. But it can also habituate children to stand alone in front of others when situations call for it. That very devotion to the “Land,” cultivated with such care and detail in my own youth, is what forces many of us to stand apart now, to recoil and protest. As families do when confronted with violence committed by one of their own, we members of the cultivated Jewish diaspora now find ourselves split into two: loyal members of the fold and shocked critics. And we look uncomprehendingly at each other. This is not something new. It has been going on for over thirty years, for me. For some more; for others less.
What I have described here is just a piece of the puzzle. It explains why some of us criticize, confront, protest, and boycott in particular in response to what is done by Israel because (even if we have not been to Israel for decades, or never at all) we know, we know – because we were taught so well – that all of this IS being done in our name. We know, because as children we licked those tree stamps onto those sheets of paper every year for tu b’shevat and I, anyway, can still taste them.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Toward an Eco-Egalitarian University

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University
Neoliberal university presidents, corporate trustees, military research contracts, super-rich donors, the gang of five on the Supreme Court, hyper-professionalized administrators, the Republican Party, Fox News: the university faces a constellation of reactionary forces today. Such a neoliberal machine, with additions and subtractions depending on the target, has gone after organized labor, the news media, cities, racial minorities, the extant distribution of income and wealth, and now the university. The idea is to fold the university into an anti-intellectual agenda that disparages liberal arts research and teaching as it prepares students to forfeit critical skills and become cogs in a machine. There are forces within some universities that resist this machine. The recent rebellions at New York University, the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Texas are cases in point. These constituencies are to be celebrated, because the machine is primed to make us both discount their actions and forget them as soon as possible. Recently, for instance, nonacademic employees at Hopkins won an impressive wage settlement, but we have yet to hear the administration publicize or celebrate this sweet union victory.
There are also critical intellectuals in and around the academy who point out how neoliberal policies accentuate inequality, create horrible exclusions, foster disciplinary society, and create economies punctuated by periods of crash and burn. They also show how those who do not initiate such irrational policies are set up to become the victims after each crash. They see how neoliberalism has retained hegemony for over thirty years as states ignore the authority structure of firms, enact neoliberal policies, generate legislative vetoes of new ventures when neoliberals officially hold a legislative minority, and draw authority from the gang of five on the Supreme Court. There are many faculty and students prepared to resist the intrusions of the neoliberal machine into their colleges and universities, whenever the latter act as if the administration has a natural right to manage students and faculty and they have an obligation to obey blindly. We must thus celebrate those who have fought off coup attempts from the top, even winning sometimes. And we must laugh off attempts by reactionary faculty and administrators who pretend after each of victory that this or that change was in the cards all along, even without staff, faculty or student activism. Such propaganda is designed to deactivate senior faculty, demoralize students, and discourage younger faculty from joining the fray when the forces of anti-intellectualism, top-down rule, authoritarianism and vindictiveness intensify. Divide, demoralize, and depoliticize the rank and file to create maximum room for political rule from the top.
Resistance, then, is indispensable. But is it enough? Note that the neoliberal/corporate/administrative machine has a well worked out agenda to enact. Perhaps, then, we need to articulate a positive agenda too, one that links critical intellectualism to an eco-egalitarian organization of university life. One in which universities and colleges become vibrant centers that challenge the neoliberal machine by their very mode of organization. Today I focus on the economic organization of such a university.
Start with the adjunct world. The more adjunct faculty there are the fewer full time appointments are available to young scholars and the fewer faculty there are to be independent voices in the life of the school. The more the adjunct model threatens tenure the less willing some younger faculty members are to take risks in their research, teaching and college participation. The weaker tenure is the more powerful the neoliberal machine becomes. These are some of the reasons budget cutbacks have been used to create the world of the adjunct. So the university will gather together adjunct positions and create a smaller number of tenure track positions out of them, inviting existing adjunct faculty to become candidates and drawing upon the records they have already achieved in considering them for the new positions.
With respect to salary, all staff members in the university will receive a living wage, and their incomes and job security will grow as they continue to work. The faculty will initially be governed by a 2/2/1&1/2 model. The highest paid senior professor will make no more than two times the median salary of assistant professors; deans and provosts will make no more than two times the median salary of senior professors; and the president will make no more than 1 & ½ the median salary of deans. Perhaps this scale can and should be squeezed down even further. The key point is that with such a sliding scale a salary increase at any level will be marked by corollary increases at other levels. Equally important, a decrease at any level—to respond to a new budget crunch created by neoliberal adventurism and then passed down the line--will meet with corollary decreases everywhere else. After reducing the current proportion of administrators to faculty to an earlier ratio, any decrease in the size of the faculty will be matched by a corollary reduction in the size of the administration. As time goes by these differentials can be reduced further. The underlying idea, to paraphrase Rousseau, is that no one becomes so rich that they can buy another and no one so poor that they can be bought by another. Staff, faculty and administrators will all receive remuneration that enable them to participate effectively in the larger infrastructure of consumption. That means that the larger infrastructure of consumption, too, will need to be reconstructed.
Such policies mean that we are all in this together rather than encouraging a few to impose their imperial will upon the rest of us. Savings that accrue can be deployed to help students reduce the crushing debt they currently face, and the university will now be in a better ethical position to press the state for more support to reduce those pressures further. Deans and Presidents will feel more tied to the faculty than to high rollers outside it. They will come from the faculty and can return to it with dignity rather than having to forfeit a life of royalty. They are thus apt to feel more closely tied to intellectual life and to act with courage against the neoliberal machine when necessary. If they are forced to resign while fighting for academic principles they will return to the faculty as heroes, presenting living models of how to be academic intellectuals. All this will help to modify the ethos of performance and governance in the university, pulling it away from subordination to the neoliberal agenda and toward a critical education and student/faculty participation in governance.
Of course, some faculty and administrators will depart when such policies are established. That is okay. They will be replaced by faculty members and administrators who prize intellectual life and seek to work in a place in which the faculty has a major voice in university life. The arrival of new recruits will further amplify support for the new university.
The university will also become a model of eco-experimentation, as it divests both from using carbon based power and making carbon based investments. It will encourage faculty in the humanities, social sciences and sciences to purse eco-friendly research as it enacts several practical experiments itself. Again, all these things will require a shift in the internal governance of the school. In this way the university becomes a living model appropriate to the world of today and tomorrow, and some other institutions may even be encouraged to emulate it. We enact practices needed in the twenty first century.
 No president will be allowed to milk donors for huge donations to be used for that president’s “signature projects’ and new faculty appointments, unless those actions have first gone through the relevant departments and faculty assembly for review and acceptance. Such practices are based on the sound understanding that the most creative, educational and socially useful innovations do not come from the top. They flow up from intellectual ferment by faculty and students. The top down myth is merely a neoliberal strategy designed to centralize power. It has no basis in experience. The new practices will thus reflect the realization that the neoliberal model of university governance has been an abject failure. It has been installed not because of its success, but because of the constellation of power and privilege it expresses.
 There is much more to explore here. But perhaps we can close for now by posing an obvious question. Is not such a model of the university utopian? Yes it is. It is at odds with the existing hierarchy of power in a neoliberal society. But it is only utopian in that sense, not in the sense that the neoliberal project is utopian. The neoliberal model is utopian in that it can be imposed but has been proven to be top down, anti-intellectual, and at odds with teaching students to become critical citizens. That is, it is grounded in arbitrary power and privilege rather than speaking to the needs of university life and a democratic society. It is tethered to a boom and bust practice of economic life that repeatedly recoils back on low-income workers, urban areas, racial minorities, old people, schools, health, colleges, students, and universities, even though none of the latter have initiated these crashes. Presidents, administrators, trustees and faculty who still profess the neoliberal model should be ashamed of themselves.
Today the need is to move beyond the top-down utopia of the neoliberal academy as more faculty and students both become active inside the university and pursue alliances with workers, teachers, feminists, racial minorities, the unemployed, battle scarred and wounded soldiers, and other forces outside the university who have also been screwed over by the neoliberal agenda.
Does this mean, then, that we seek to politicize the university? No. That, my friends, happened a long time ago, though the neoliberal terms of politicization have not been publicized enough. Indeed, it is today considered insulting to the neoliberal machine to publicize this fact. It means that we must work hard to shift the terms of the politicized university.
Sometimes the thought of another possibility shakes up practical thinking, allowing it to fester and then to respond creatively to new threats, issues and opportunities as they arise. Make no doubt about it. The neoliberal machine has both eyes focused on the university today and we must have ours focused on the neoliberal machine.
 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Whose Freedom? Birth Control And The Enduring Fight Over Our Bodies.

Kathy Ferguson
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

Current attacks on access to birth control from conservative and religious sources often elicit disbelief from progressive women: we thought those battles were over. We thought we had won. A recent Planned Parenthood ad reminds us that it’s not the 1950s anymore: “It is unbelievable that in 2014 we are still fighting about women’s access to basic health care like birth control.” Progressive women often ask, sarcastically, if this is 1914, not 2014, as if the passage of a hundred years were a guarantor of progress.
However, a stronger grasp of the history of the birth control movement suggests otherwise: the anarchists and socialists who fought those battles in the early twentieth century would not, I think, be surprised that the issue is still with us. I imagine that Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Marie Equi, Ida Rauh, Crystal Eastman, Eugene Debs, Walter Adolphe Roberts, and many, many others working for access to contraception would know better, because they understood birth control as a central tenet of a larger struggle. Rather than looking at opposition to birth control as a lingering remnant of an otherwise settled past, the earlier radicals encourage us to see birth control as inextricably woven into other ongoing struggles for freedom and community. Rather than assuming progress and being repeatedly surprised at its absence, we could learn from earlier struggles to locate our understanding of birth control in a more radical frame.

 The anarchists and socialists who fought for birth control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not think they were winning a definitive war, but that they were engaging in a prolonged and messy set of battles in which victories came at significant costs. They understood that if women did not control their own reproduction, someone else would control it, since states, capitalists, churches and families have serious investments in controlling women’s bodies. It wasn’t just attitudes that needed to be changed, but also institutions. They fought for birth control, not as a private decision between a woman and her doctor, but as a potentially revolutionary practice that radically challenged prevailing power arrangements, including that of men over women, capitalists over workers, militaries over soldiers, and churches over parishioners.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby offers an unwelcome opportunity to think about birth control through an appreciation of its radical past. Many good questions have been asked regarding the Hobby Lobby ruling – why do for-profit corporations have religious rights? Why is men’s sexuality unproblematic, so that insurance coverage for Viagra and vasectomies is uncontested, while women’s sexuality is subject to scrutiny? Why are straightforward medical distinctions between preventing conception and aborting a fetus ignored or confused? Why do conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Rush Limbaugh decry recreational sex on the part of women but seem unconcerned that men might have sex for fun
While recognizing the legitimacy of these queries, I want to raise a different question: Why are we surprised? Why is our indignation tinged with disbelief: “How could this happen in this day and age?” Critics routinely call the decision “hopelessly backward” and accuse critics of wanting to “turn back the clock,” as though there were a single historical timeline that carries us forward unless someone pushes us back. This is an utterly inadequate view of history. Instead, we need to locate both our victories and our defeats within multi-directional and open-ended historical processes, not steps in a single unfolding drama. We won’t understand the tenacity of efforts to control women’s sexuality until we give up the comforting assumption that history is a story of progress, and look more closely at the stakes and the terms of political struggle.


Reclaiming our radical past

Linda Gordon rightly points out, in her landmark study Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, that the radical roots of the struggle for birth control are largely unknown today. The situation faced by women in the U.S. in the early twentieth century with regard to controlling their reproduction was dire. The main problem was not a lack of known birth control technology, since, as Gordon documents, ancient, effective forms of birth control were selectively available, but in the U.S. had been largely forced underground. In 1873 the passage of the Comstock Law, which criminalized sending “obscene” material through the mail, gathered birth control, sexuality, and radical ideas in general into its elastic net of prohibitions. During this time, various barrier and suppository methods, called pessaries, were known and available to wealthy women through their doctors, but largely unknown or unavailable to the poor. Diaphragms and condoms had to be smuggled into the U.S. from Europe. Politics, rather than technology, made birth control unavailable to most American women, and to change that situation political struggle was required. 
From a contemporary point of view, it is startling to realize that many anarchists and socialists placed women’s access to birth control at the heart of social revolution. We are accustomed to seeing the medicalized perspective – the claim that reproductive choices are questions of women’s health and should be left to women and their doctors – as the feminist position, the position we must defend. Yet, there is another set of feminist voices, radical voices, voices that aimed to free women as well as liberate workers, end war, and transform society. Jamaican writer Walter Adolphe Roberts championed birth control both to enhance women’s freedom and to advance the cause of social revolution. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman located women’s control over their reproduction as a central aspect of workers’ struggles and anti-war activism. They objected to Margaret Sanger’s strategy, which legitimized the birth control movement by aligning it with (mostly male) doctors, because Sanger’s approach removed birth control from the larger political context while giving power over women (including midwives) to doctors rather than to women themselves. Understanding these arguments can help feminists today to learn from our own movement’s past and perhaps to shape current reproductive struggles as steps toward more radical political change.

Anarchists and socialists who embraced birth control framed it as a revolutionary demand to include sexual and reproductive freedom as necessary aspects of social justice and individual autonomy. Controlling one’s own reproduction was part of transforming society. These progressive women and men integrated the liberation of women’s sexuality into their vocal anti-capitalist, anti-war mass movements. Just as capitalism sought to control the laboring bodies of workers, and militaries sought to control the fighting bodies of soldiers, so did patriarchal families, churches, professions, and governments seek to control the reproductive bodies of women. Restrictions on birth control, they concluded, served the interests of states by producing an endless supply of cannon fodder for imperial wars, the interests of capital by generating a reserve army of labor to keep wages down, and the interests of organized religion by maintaining women’s subservience and vulnerability within families and communities. A free society would be a society in which workers control their own labor, soldiers control their own fighting, and women control their own wombs. The radicals watched with dismay as their vision of a transformed society was displaced by the rise of a coalition between feminists, doctors and the state to privatize contraception as an issue “between a woman and her doctor.” Understanding the potentially radical implications of women’s reproductive freedom, they also saw that some kinds of birth control reform could reinforce patriarchy rather than challenge it.
Attention to these struggles can reframe contemporary debates over birth control. The Hobby Lobby decision and other losses for women are not temporary backsliding or inexplicable throwbacks to an earlier era, but instead indicate ongoing and predictable unrest over proper standards of sexuality and of women’s place. It would not surprise earlier anarchist and socialist feminists that the current Gilded Age, driven by neoliberal values and global corporate priorities, includes a resurgent war on women’s reproductive autonomy. These radicals would, however, likely recoil from the pallid notion that birth control is a “women’s issue” rather than a central aspect of a larger system of exploitation and control. A fuller grasp of our radical past can help us think of history as a dynamic network of shifting relations, operating at different paces in response to various challenges. The birth control movement then becomes a site of struggle, not an unfolding of a telos of development. We can look for the forgotten victories and lost possibilities of human freedom recorded there and bring those minoritarian views back into contemporary discussions. 

How can birth control be more radical?

How might a greater appreciation of birth control’s radical past change feminism’s present and future? Perhaps it could give us an alternative to being on the defensive: rather than asking for health care, we might demand freedom. Rather than seeing doctors as our main partners, we might see unions, antiwar groups, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, alternative spiritual movements and other radical communities as coalition partners. We can make common cause with others who are similarly disadvantaged by, for example, judicial rulings granting corporations personhood, defining money as speech, and attributing religious identity to for-profit businesses. We might become more bold, not more cautious, in our thinking and acting.
For example, feminists often stress the difference between preventing and terminating pregnancy in order to use opposition to abortion to promote acceptance of birth control. Abortion and contraception are two separate issues, we say. Hobby Lobby’s court arguments are invalid because they confuse technologies that prevent fertilization with technologies that remove fertilized eggs, we point out. We invite people who oppose abortion to agree with us about birth control because, if all women had access to birth control, there would be fewer abortions. Perhaps we need to stop concentrating on these arguments. Even though these claims are accurate, they don’t appear to be working. I suspect they give up too much. While clearly abortion and contraception are different, it is their common value to women who want to control their fertility that makes both birth control and abortion into targets of conservative wrath.
Also, feminists often stress the priority of the relationship “between a woman and her doctor” to discredit other possible relations, say, between a woman and her employer, a woman and her husband, a woman and her Supreme Court justices. Perhaps we need to stop doing that, too. Medicalization of contraception has come to be the progressive position, the position we have to defend. But that only happened because more radical, more feminist perspectives were sidelined. Maybe it’s time to stress women’s freedom – and access to affordable and high quality health care would surely be an aspect of that freedom – rather than women’s health as our primary goal. When Sandra Fluke bravely testified before Congress about the importance of oral contraception for treating health issues other than pregnancy, she was vilified as a slut and a prostitute anyway. So perhaps it’s time to demand access to the birth control techniques that we want rather than parsing our desires to downplay sexual freedom. Calling on the courts to consider the “plight” of women who use contraception for non-sexual purposes implicitly suggests that those uses are somehow more legitimate, that women who have a “plight” are more worthy of consideration than women who have a cause. If oral contraceptives were sold over-the-counter at affordable prices or distributed for free at clinics (like condoms), then women’s reasons for wanting them would be irrelevant and the opportunites to judge women’s sexuality might diminish.

Further, feminists sometimes speak of opposition to birth control as psychological, a question of men’s fears of women’s sexual autonomy. Joan Walsh of Salon.com writes of a deep fear of women’s freedom on the Right; Andrea Flynn of Alternet denounces the Right’s obsession with punishing women for having sex. I don’t disagree with either of these claims, but I want to push them further – opposition to women’s reproductive freedom is not primarily a bad attitude or emotional hang-up. The interests of material structures and institutions that distribute resources, organize labor, conduct war, and administer spirituality are fully in play. Birth control keeps coming back as an issue not just because men don’t get it, but because capitalism, the state, empire, war and patriarchal religions are still in power, and those institutions have an enormous stake in controlling women’s sexuality. 

Finally, feminists need to give up the comforting idea that history is on our side, that progress toward fuller rights and greater equality is written into the order of things, once we dispense with those irrational, wrong-thinking obstructionists. History, I think, isn’t on anyone’s side; more importantly, there are many histories, many trajectories, many different futures past. When feminists assure us, as Joan Walsh recently did, that “the right’s crippling panic over women’s autonomy will eventually doom it to irrelevance,” or, as Marcote commented, “the anti-sex argument is a losing argument,” we should question the implicit progress narrative folded into such guarantees. We are neither doomed nor blessed – rather, we have multiple opportunities to struggle for a better world and we should think carefully about their possibilities.

*My thanks to Nicole Sunday Grove, Jairus Grove, and Lori Marso for their help on this essay.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Extinction Events and the Human Sciences


William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University
                &
Jairus Victor Grove
University of Hawai'i 

Mill, Marx, Weber, Mannheim, Hayek, Keynes, Berlin, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Elster, Schumpeter, Rawls, Habermas, Shklar, Taylor, Strauss, Kateb… The canonical list could be extended. These are justly famous, Euro-American, mostly male, philosophical, social, economic and political theorists writing predominantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They disagree with each other about several notable things. Those are the debates we love. There are, however, significant affinities and complementarities between them occluded by those debates. Some humanist versions of postcolonial theory and feminism also participate in them. Whether they define humans as so exceptional that everything else fades into “nature”, or treat that nature as forming the background, natural context or staging ground of human action, or silently fold providential assumptions into the course of that nature, or treat humans as actual or potential masters of it, or combine some of these views into one synthetic picture, they tend to think of most nonhuman change as set on long, slow time. 

There is a sense amongst many in the human sciences ,even those who reject creationism, that the ‘chaotic earth’ is part of a primordial past. Not unlike the origin myth of Genesis the formative processes of upheaval that set the world in motion are thought to have congealed and cooled for the age of man. That asteroidal bombardment, ocean currents, symbiogenesis, plate tectonics, and the manufacture of the molecule O2 by early plants can be subsumed under the word “nature” is revealing. It may disclose the masters to be mistaken along a dimension that infiltrates the rest of their thinking.
The dominant tendency among them is to construe “nature” to change slowly unless and until “culture” becomes entangled with it and, often enough, to weave a cocoon around the human estate to insulate it from rapidly changing nonhuman processes. That was understandable for a while. As Elizabeth Kolbert and Michael Benton review respectively in The Sixth Extinction and When Life Nearly Died, even eminent geologists and evolutionary biologists pushed a version of gradualism for a long time. The seminal geologist Charles Lyell and the evolutionist, Charles Darwin, made fun of older theories of periodic “catastrophe”, as advanced for instance by that strange biologist Cuvier who Foucault found to be so mesmerizing. Echoing Kant’s postulates about human progress without radical breaks, they found no sharp punctuations in geology or biological evolution. They advanced their own theories against adamant opposition from some theological orientations. Did the hegemony of the theo/evolution debate drain attention from an equally important debate between gradualism and the theme of periodic “catastrophe”?
When Luis Alveraz and Stephen J. Gould challenged gradualist views, as late as 1980, the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” was ridiculed by many evolutionary biologists. That theory, now backed by a lot of evidence, contended that evolution could proceed gradually and then turn rapidly due to a major, sometimes exogenous event. If that theory turned out to be true evolutionary biologists would need to pay attention to geological change, astrophysical events, the changing pace and range of human migration, settlement and travel, and climate processes to study their own field. They would have to become transdisciplinary. That alone was enough to cause consternation in academic departments.
The claim was that dinosaurs had been wiped out suddenly 65 million years ago in the aftermath of a massive asteroid hitting Mexico. The impact, the global dusting, and the ensuing climate change destroyed these masters of the earth in a short time, setting off a new turn in evolution that favored mammals and other species. As late as the nineteen nineties an eco-friendly colleague strongly advised one us to drop Gould because the pros in evolutionary biology found him to be incredible. Today, of course, the asteroid event is supported by massive evidence and its effect on evolution now widely accepted. Things change rapidly sometimes in the world and in theory. Both the scope and speed of punctuation are pertinent.
We now know that there have been several extinction events The most devastating, when life itself came close to being extinguished, occurred about 250 million years ago. Over a mere 100,000 years about 90% of the earth’s species succumbed, with the rate and pace varying on sea and land. Why? That debate continues. Was it another asteroid? Few seem to think so. Was it a series of huge methane bursts from the sea, fouling the atmosphere and changing the climate? Perhaps. Other major evolutionary turning points are now under investigation as well, punctuated by a large series of “minor” events. One major extinction started around 450 million years ago, another around 200 million years ago, and, yes, another is rapidly underway as we speak. The last one is primarily a product of human activity, in which our modes of travel inadvertently carry bacteria, fungi, and other species into new environments, our modes of carbon extraction contribute to rapid climate change, and our break up of species migration routes block the escape of diverse species. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Well, what difference would it make to that diverse group of canonical thinkers listed at the beginning of this post if each had been impressed, at least on this score, with Cuvier over Darwin? If they both accepted evolution and stood Darwinian gradualism on its head? After all, most of these events happened long ago and many are set on fairly long historical scales.
Well, they and we might have become more alert to how a host of nonhuman processes including plant evolution, hurricanes, ocean currents, volcanoes, fungi transmissions, asteroids, bacteria, and animal evolutionary patterns, both follow specific trajectories of their own and periodically become imbricated in unruly ways with human processes of production, travel, faith, politics, investment, consumption, and war. We might have folded a sense of how interacting force fields set on different time scales enable, interrupt, turn and reshape our own trajectories of being. And we theirs.The twentieth century thinkers also might have come to terms earlier with how modern human practices can affect climate, help to acidify oceans, and serve as prime movers in extinction events. (The hypothesis of planet warming because of human action was offered as early as 1896) We might have explored the terms of our entanglements with a host of other active forces and micro-actants. We might also have sensed how the hotly contested ideals of radical individualism, national unity, productionist collectivism, market rationalism, providential theism, capitalist mastery, human exceptionalism, and organic holism may all reflect in different ways evasions of the planetary conditions of life.
Each tends to project a future of smooth possibility in our relations with the nonhuman world more than to prepare us to cope with modes of change and unruliness coming from multiple sites. It is difficult to imagine that thinkers engaged with the catastrophic tendencies of the world could sustain ideas about impersonal market stability or argue that ecological concerns were secondary or tertiary to real politics. We certainly would not lionize James Carville for insisting to a Democratic party at the tipping point of a new conservative era that “It’s the economy, stupid.” We might even have explored how the cultural hesitancy to accept the reality of a world set on multiple interacting tiers of time expressed a series of theistic and atheistic, conservative and liberal, demands for a world that was ours for the taking. We might have challenged spiritual denialism in the human sciences. Certainly, Nietzsche proposed such a course of action quite a while ago. 
Dominant modes of explanation, multiple spatiotemporal scales to engage in exploring an issue, problematical features of several western ideals of the good life, and the dubious standing of spiritual demands we make upon God, the earth, and/or the cosmos. Could they be interrupted by challenging both naturalist gradualism and human exceptionalism?
Should theorists and social scientists today drop the crew listed at the top of this piece? No, some of their insights remain. But we should not lionize them too much either or understand them simply in their “cultural contexts”. (The “we” is invitational.) We need, rather, to read them against themselves, with one eye on their assumptions, demands and affinities and the other on the predicament they have helped to bestow upon us. We may also read them in the company of "minor" thinkers who, though not perfectly prescient either, waged war against the dominant contests and the existential spiritualities clinging to them. Think, for instance, of Thoreau, Nietzsche, James, the later Merleau-Ponty, Val Plumwood, Guattari, Gandhi, Kafka, Rachel Carson, Bateson, Gould, Terrence Deacon, Whitehead, and Werner Herzog.
Rachel Carson Testifying Before Congress on the Dangers of Pesticides, 1962.
Yes, Marx’s theory of alienation reveals things about capitalist hegemony, the burdens of factory work and the commodity form. But we need to add the alienation from mortality, from interspecies entanglements, and from the shaky place of the human estate in the cosmos to the list. These modes of spiritual insistence can also surge periodically into the intercoded domains of production, consumption, investment, and voting. More of us need to pursue the transcendence of some modes of alienation and to transfigure others to help us affirm a world of becoming that is neither simply our oyster nor our staging ground. Certainly we might think twice before wagering a century and a half of industrial expansion and development in the hope of creating the conditions for a true revolutionary class. We need both to confront our contributions to the sixth extinction and to affirm the shaky place of the human estate on the planet as one of the conditions of being rather than seeking another world to be built on the ruins of this one.
What of Kant’s reliance on ‘nature’s secret plan’ for the self-organizing moral maturation of humanity. Despite the claims of contemporary philosophy and liberal thinking to be post-metaphysical have the cosmopolitans and neo-Kantian’s really rid themselves of this strong faith in providence? We do not think so. Even as most on the Academic left challenged climate deniers, not enough has changed in their own views of a human-centric world. Like their fellow travelers the Neo-Arendtians, they bristle at the idea of a world not for humans. If instead climate change teaches us, as Timothy Morton has argued, that this was never our world to begin with how confident can we be of moral theories hitched to a human separatism? It seems in an age in which thoughtless human globe trotting has spread fungus imperiling the existence of all amphibians we may want to hesitate before we declare ourselves global citizens. That global justice is no match for one of the more than 8,000 life ending near earth asteroids should give us pause. Certainly it should humble our sense of uniqueness among living things and maybe inspire a little creaturely solidarity.
Or take Geroge Kateb and Charles Taylor, the radical individualist and the neo-providentialist who disagree with each other so much. Is our place on the planet more entangled and fragile than either the atheist or the theist has so far projected? Is it time to challenge respectfully the patterns of existential insistence expressed in both versions of providentialism?
Our Pale Blue Dot.
Today perhaps more of us need to experience plants and other actants more through the eyes of Jane Bennett, capitalism through those of Gilles Deleuze and Eugene Holland, the shifting affective tones of human perception through those of Brian Massumi, species evolution through those of Elizabeth Grosz, Lynn Margulis and Terrence Deacon, the pertinence of Sophocles and tragic possibility through those of Bonnie Honig and Steven Johnston, the issue of sovereignty and tragic possibility through those of Mike Shapiro and James Der Derian, the pursuit of theopoetic pluralism through those of Catherine Keller, the event of the Anthropocene through those of Bruno Latour and Tim Morton, creative Bangladesh ecological practices through those of Naveeda Khan, the waxing and waning of Indian spiritualities through those of Bhrigu Singh, the thinking of forests in the work of Eduardo Kohn, the break up of Antarctica through those of Werner Herzog, and the relation between extinction events and existential politics through those of Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Benton and artists like J.G. Ballard who in 1962 wrote a novel called the Drowned World set in the aftermath of radical sea level rise.
Detroit Public School.
As The Dark Mountain environmental collective recently put it, maybe we should try to, “paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognize as something approaching a truth.” This seems to us what is at stake in a revaluation of our master thinkers. To take seriously the world at large is to theorize along side whales, trees, hurricanes, asteroids, the fleeting presence of iridescent frogs, minor human thinkers, other ways as well as forms of life all while not losing sight of the human estate we struggle to hold on to in the maelstrom of an expanding universe.
The frail heritage of gradualism and exceptionalism is not up to this task. The human sciences must no longer feed off the carbon remains of old emissions.