We all know how to recognize demons. The demonic voice has one overriding characteristic: he will always use the logic of the system against its structure. Thus, when a voice demands that women play their traditional role in the home, while manipulating the economy so that the median household, just in order to stay still, must throw into the pot 350 more working hours per year – which is the difference between the median household of 1970 and the median household of today – you know you have caught a demon.
Demons have traditionally loved to harrie women, so I was not surprised that the latest happiness survey (with all its iffy premises and methodology) unleashed a lot of demonic voices – from their corners in the press. Of course, since my work in progress is a critique of all these assumptions about happiness, I cast my eyes on the newspaper accounts and was rather happy to see them conform so exactly to my expectations about the total social fact of happiness. The failure to be happy, in the press, was greeted as a great moral default that could be laid at the feet of those whose answers were not satisfactory – who were not happy. And they were, in particular, women.
In the happiness culture, happiness is not only an emotional norm on the personal level, but a collective norm. It is what connects the subject to the total social project. And thus to be unhappy is not only a personal failure but a minor treachery. The pack of demons who go under the traditional values banner and the pack of demons who go under the neo-liberal banner could both, then, agree to hunt the women together. And they do enjoy hunting women, they always have.
Maureen Dowd, whose ears are pricked up whenever the demonic crowd howls, wrote a column about it in which, underneath the usual music about the grave failing of women, liberated women, in this here New World, there was a hint, a shadow of a dissent – as if the real question was not why are women so unhappy, but why are men not. Indeed, a closer examination of the norms around the happiness question should alert us to the connotation of success that hovers over it. If happiness is success, than to say one is unhappy is to say that one is unsuccessful. In fact, at the same time the polls consistently show wild degrees of success among men, especially white middle class men, who are the avatars of these men? They are an increasingly angry bunch of tv celebrities. Newspapers, with their casual, schizo flaneur’s juxtapositon of contradictions, will jump from how happy men are to how angry they are without blinking. But those who think happiness signifies a certain feeling, has a certain emotional valence, are going to have a tough time figuring out this combination of anger and happiness.
There's a nice post on this topic by a medievalist named girlscholar, entitled “House always wins”. I thought that it was of interest because girlscholar seems to accept the idea that happiness is a norm that one should strive for. That we should strive to have a happy life.
Her idea is that the opening of the public sphere to women, the feminist revolution, raised expectations that were disappointed:
“Now, imagine that women's** expectations of the limitless possibilities for their lives are thrown into contrast (a contrast that gets sharper as women age) with the realization that, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) all this, we're still expected to spend enormous amounts of our energy trying to be something we’re not: pretty, thin, young, compliant, non-swearing, perfectly-groomed, dependent, dumb, nurturing, self-sacrificing, quiet-voiced, unconditionally adoring, nonthreatening, patient, or simply never, ever angry. In other words: “feminine.” And the older we get, the more we realize that the house always wins in the end.”
This pretty succinctly expresses a thought I’ve seen expressed, especially by highly educated women in America, before. On the one hand, this has to be right. On the other hand, it has to be a half truth. It is at this point that a further, radical betrayal of the culture is required. I think the experience of women, in the public sphere in the developed economies, has given them every reason to doubt the very foundation of the house - that the house manufactured happiness is really an adequate norm for us on a personal and collectie level. That it gives us the scope and perspective with which to view - to judge -- a “life”.
Of course, the survey is superficial and from a certain point of view stupid. But it is superficial in a telling way. It is my thesis in my work in progress that the goal of living a happy life has given way to the norm that happiness is a form of success, or maybe is success period. One way of thinking about the question of happiness is to think of terms that are close to happiness that would separate it more from the total social fact that it has become. For instance, fun. Imagine a poll in which you asked people if their life was fun. I would imagine you would get a much more baffled, and diversely patterned response. Or pleasurable. Or delightful. The more you gnaw at the semantic cluster around happiness, the more you lay bare the normative presuppositions it hides.
I, of course, have been advocating the view that those presuppositions have a history in which alternatives to happiness were marginalized in the civic order over which happiness presides, conjoining the governors and the governed. In the process of that marginalization, happiness has grown into a monstrous thing that poses a very real threat to human life on earth. This doesn't mean that it was always a monstrous thing, or that we can tell a total history of it. Historically, one of the great liberating dynamics of the happiness culture was that it laid the foundation for destroying the system of dependency, that feudal remnant (to use feudal in the sense given it by the French revolutionaries) under which women were forced to live. But just as the capitalist system and the industrial system that grew up under the form of that culture are now rubbing against the limits of that form, so, too, is the liberated “feminine”.
Women have a special place in the history of happiness because, historically, they were at once marginal and central. Unlike race or class, women were distributed over the whole of the social sphere – and yet of course whatever position they were in, however they were defined elsewise, as women they were the object of the same gaze and judgments – which were, collectively, marginalizing judgments. This is, of course, patriarchy. And all that means is that women were peculiarly sensitive to the demonic voice – to the hunt that has for its object not only the humiliation and destruction of certain subordinate objects within the social sphere, but to make the victim's own actions the basis of her destruction. Happiness seemed to hold the demons at bay, seemed to provide the marginals, the natives, with a weapon taken from Behemoth himself, which is the necessity that happiness be collective. But, in these ill times, happiness has turned against the happy life, emptying it out of all depth and emotion, leaving anger and success as the man’s lot, and as the woman’s, a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with the future.
ps - I was going to do a whole post about this, but I think instead I'll just link. The first link is to the THE essay that Infinite Thought made fun of, here. And then there is Belle Waring's piece on this insanely stupid column, here. I thought of several cutting and clever things to say myself, but it is hopeless in the face of the moronic inferno, represented, especially, by the Mary Beard defense that this is satire - which is a defense that makes me think, oh Mary Beard. You have gone down in my opinion of your ability to judge a text - especially if you feel that to say what you really think would get your in trouble with the establishment. Sad, all the way around.
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