somatophobic feminism I

Dying was the best piece of publicity Shulamith Firestone ever generated. A name I did not hear much in 2012 seems to be making a comeback in 2013. I could not grasp what made her so rehabilitatable at first. “Radical feminism” is almost a slur nowadays, while hissing at and even physically attacking “radfems” is quite  nearly applauded on the left. So when Laurie Penny tweeted about how fond she was of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” I had to finally raise my hand and ask why. The most memorable chapter I could recall was Chapter 5, “Rasicm: The Sexism of the Family of Man” which was one of the more shockingly racist things I’d ever read from a second wave feminist. Penny said her favorite was the chapter that comes after, on love, and that she could effectively divorce the underlying premises from the previous chapter. How? Even within that chapter we find abhorrent essentialism, totally unhelpful analysis based more on Firestone’s own life than on conditions women face.

The underlying theme to Firestone’s work – and part of why I think it’s been rehabilitated – is a very vicious somatophobia (fear of the body) that complements contemporary racist and classist feminism very well. On request, I emailed Penny to ask her what could be gleaned from such a feminism – she has not responded. This destruction of the female body – either from thinking sex work is “just like any other job” or from the surgical/chemical feminism that holds hands with liberal trans feminism – is rooted in a dangerous essentialism. The woman is unable to escape her body, therefore she must destroy it. Reminders of her body, e.g. birth, menstruation, voluptuousness etc, are considered traumatic.

Masculinity is being able to transcend the body by immersing oneself in the “world of the mind”, by utilizing technology, by challenging the mystification of the body, of reducing people to individuals and individuals to their individual parts. Federici writes on surgery theaters of the late middle ages, of women being cut open and their mysteries being laid bare as a kind of terrorism and disciplining of the female sex. The mystical experience of pregnancy and birth reduced to organs, the rearing of children (reproduction of labor force) reduced to individual events and biological needs, schedules and regimins. In Firestone’s technofetishistic fantasy of babies grown in vats and raised by the state we have made quite a leap. The oppression of woman under capital is found in her body that betrays her by swelling large with children, by losing its perkiness with age, by gaining wrinkles around the eyes. The betrayal trans people describe in the process of puberty is the same betrayal women face as they go through puberty, as they age. The solution to this oppression posited here (with Firestone) is to embrace the flesh and conquer it and shape it to our will using technology and surgery. By embracing  masculinity-through-technology we too can escape our oppressive bodies. The hate is turned inward, festers like an ulcer. We blame ourselves, our lack of spirit, our lack of ability to change our own situations. It is atomizing and alienating.

In this, liberal and pink feminists willfully ignore the forces that assign such values to the body that make us hate them. Infuriatingly, they say there is nothing to be done about this. They say that men will always want to buy sex, they say that women are programmed in their brains to be the way they are, that gender is an essential biological condition as opposed to a system of active oppression under capitalism.

Birth is a powerful thing. Reproducing society is essential to our continued existence. There is no shame in breast feeding, no shame in menstruation, no shame in pregnancy or varicose veins. These are positions of great power for women, it is male technofetishism and capitalism that have turned these things into cause for shame and weakness. That Shulamith Firestone hates the body, hates weakness in the self is understandable, considering the pain that women go through on a daily basis in being women. However, she is misdirecting her hate and fear, putting the blame on women themselves. Her essentializing logic is dangerous, and the fact that her ideas have once again found traction in a “new generation” of “feminists” is troubling indeed. I hope that women are critical when they read these works, that they critically ask their friends to what end they are fascinated by fantasies of birthless, bloodless womanhood. We must make a decision of what we wish to transcend: capital or the flesh?

Further reading:

3 responses to “somatophobic feminism I

  1. Penny is right about Firestone’s logic shifting. Her chapters on love and romanticism and love being the flesh culture consumes are not bound on biological determinism that some of her previous work is, in fact they are absolutely true under capitalist patriarchy and not remotely autobiographical. She makes the mistake of envisioning the dialectic of sex akin to the master-slave dialectic in Marx. Where one must be eliminated. That being women’s biology.

  2. I agree with JC about the structure of the book: as I read it the chapters are related through a central spoke but not dependent on each other. The people I know who’ve liked the book are (white) politically left women who have been attracted to the chapters on love and romance, which they find resonates with their personal experience. And that’s a perfectly legitimate way to feel; the book is not without insights and correct observations, and if you haven’t encountered them before, you’ll naturally love the book for that. And the polemical, militant writing style is certainly fun to get on board with. But I would not want the book to become a major reference point because of all the things you mention.

    I agree the book is solipsistic. There is an internal confusion here, a genre-muddling. Like, if she had just written a book about her own experiential horizon and the sexism therein, that would’ve been fine. But instead she writes a book about universal history, except without doing any of the research that that ought to require. I made a similar comment yesterday on Twatter about (a certain) discourse about neoliberalism: “this armchair generalization of indiv MC imperial core experience onto world history is part of a grim intellectual tradition.”

    I associate the book with the sub-genre of philosophy that includes Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s ultra-condensed and mythicized history (“Since the dawn of time, …”) that retrojects contemporary existence into a basic structure embedded in early human culture. The projection of (a particular kind of) family structure onto all of historical life, ontogeny recapitulating psychology, or (as with Neech) sociology recapitulating psychology–in an unmediated way, by taking the one scheme and just changing the zoom level on the lens–it’s not really any more sophisticated or illuminating than what you could find in an average newspaper pundit’s column. You could just as easily make up a different story.

    The embrace of sexist essentialism, the view that women are naturally oppressed because they are physically weaker than men and tied down by child-rearing, requires a suppression of evidence of the contingency of the arrangements that justify themselves with that logic. Firestone does this in one paragraph in the first chapter, where, alluding to Mead, she dismisses “anthropological sophistries” that point out exceptions to global patriarchy. F’s suggestion is that these exceptions are just that, and do not disprove the generalization, which is based on the idea that the emergence of patriarchal arrangements independently across most cultures evidences a biologically-based tendency for culture to develop along lines that favor the strong. With this suggestion SF positions herself as a clear-eyed, hard-nosed realist who is saying, “What if the masculinist claims about nature are true? What, then, does liberation look like?” I can see two responses to this. One would be to dispute her anthropological generalization about the balance of evidence. Another would be to say that it doesn’t matter–that the tendency for the class of stronger people to want to assert their dominance through mediated social arrangements need not require the negation of physical asymmetry but only the renegotiation of social arrangements. In other words, even if the anthro claim is true, so what? Does that explain abortion bans, prostitution, pay gaps, gendered division of labor, etc? Couldn’t we imagine a society made up of tube babies and women with equal muscular strength to their husbands’ where all of these things persist? Why does the genealogical claim, even if true, necessarily describe the contemporary causes of these things?

  3. “ontogeny recapitulating psychology”

    i mean phylogeny!!

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