Monday, January 25, 2010

Elitism and one dimensional woman

I’ve been happy to see Nina Power’s book strike some blood, since this was what she was aiming at. Nothing is worse than missing the artery if you are trying to plunge in a needle. I’m a little less happy that the contretemps immediately got shunted onto a sideline about the issue of elitism, with Jessica Valenti attacking Power for elitism, and Power striking back to deny being tainted with that most monstrous vice.

I think it is symptomatic that as the distribution of wealth in the U.S. and the U.K. has become so monumentally unequal that it would make the slaves of Ancient Egypt gape, “elitism” has become a more common term of abuse. The same people who weep over the very idea that a man or woman who brings home the bacon to the tune of 300 million per year should have to fork over an extra 3 percent of that to the government (it is an oppression like unto throwing our successful entrepreneur into a concentration camp!) are also always ready to denounce elites. But who are these elites? Those who usually have enough cultural power to denounce a society that is so servile as to bow down before entrenched economic, gender and racial power.

Now, though I find the Power-Valenti argument off track, in one sense the question of elitism goes to the heart of Power’s attack on consumerism, which is that it offers false power, based on the reinforcement of a deeply passive attitude towards our present political, economic and cultural arrangements.

Feminism comes from many sources. One of those sources, in which Valenti operates, is accommodating to consumer society – with its affection for positive thinking. This affection has a long history in the U.S., going back, as Ann Douglas showed in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the twenties, to the convergence of various reform movements – including women’s suffrage – and the advocates of New Thought back in the nineteenth century. Power, on the other hand, comes from another strand of feminism, which mounts a fierce attack on patriarchy as the very template of consumer capitalism. This strand has an affection for the power of the negative. Now, the latter group are and have always been in minority – and in as much as elites are, quantitatively speaking, minorities, it is easy to elide the difference, which is a difference in social power. When the term elite is detached from its relationship to power, and is simply used to paint any minority critique of the social (which must necessarily forge its own vocabulary or be enslaved by the dominant concepts of the time), we are looking at a familiar ideological routine. You don’t have to be Adorno to notice that the simplest credit card form is more ‘elitist’ in using deliberately chosen esoteric concepts to mask entrenched power than the collected works of Alain Badiou – yet the credit card form, as well as all the esoteric, everyday documents by which the middle and working class signs away its freedom, gets a free pass.

I’m reminded of the way Tom Friedman – that paragon of neo-lib pundits – uses the word democratization – as in sentences like, ‘401ks have led to a democratization of the stock market.’ What is meant is the opposite of democracy – that is, a process by which concentrated private power is augmented against the rights of the average person. No doubt, to this mindset, the forced contribution of labor by the serfs ‘democratized’ the wealth of the nobility.

In the same way, Power, by criticizing the abandonment of the attack on patriarchy, becomes an elitist. The deep contempt for the theoretical base of feminism precedes its abandonment as a radical political practice.

And so the story would end – except that it doesn’t. Valenti is right to point out that she hasn’t abandoned political practice. She actually does quite a lot of it. Myself, I’d say that Valenti is working broadly in a liberal – not neo-liberal – vein, under the aegis of ‘softening of manners” and using the state to create reforms. It is the core of the liberal hope, going back to the Scottish enlightenment. It is one thing to take up rape as an exemplary instance of patriarchal power, and another to help find the funding for counseling rape victims and work on making police departments conscious of their very often horrifying behavior vis a vis same. In 1994, when Hilary Clinton went to a feminist conference in Beijing and sounded off, one could say – I’d probably say – that this was hot air. But in fact this had a very powerful affect on third world feminist movements. In Mexico, for instance, it is after that conference that the state was forced to start taking domestic violence crimes seriously, and changed the laws – not enough, not so much that domestic violence is still taken out of the context of ‘reconciling’ husband and wife, but enough that there are now shelters, there are now laws, there are now organizations, etc. Thanks to people like Valenti, this happens.

Valenti’s hope is, I think, that there is a lot more play in the institutions of the liberal order, the order that emerged in the Cold War, to satisfy the need for gender justice. Power’s book poses two questions. One is, how much has the compromise with these institutions cost? The second question is, how much real play is left?

The quarrel arises out of Valenti’s use of ‘accessory’ to describe feminism. That’s a telling metaphor, since the manufacture of accessories, shoes, purses, clothing, have been moved out of unionized first world factories and into maquilladora in the less developed countries. The structures in the first world have adapted – but was this a ruse, a shuffle of the sites of oppression in which the game seems to change, but the same group always wins?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Le ruban noué autour du cou de l'Olympia de Manet et les mules que ses pieds, aussi crument nus que l'est senti tout son corps grâce à l'ajout de ces accessoires, paraissent prêts à perdre.

- Michel Leiris

....

Amie

roger said...

l'ajout de ces accessoires have driven much ecological history, Amie. The beaver fur from Canada or the bird feathers that adorned late nineteenth century chapeau - and decimated the bird population of places like the everglades - these are frivolous things. Or, perhaps I should say that frivolous things aren't what they seem.

roger said...

By the way, I was reading Mors the other day, Leiris account of going to the Antilles, seeing Aimee Cesaire, and having a year in which he suddenly feels old - and it was pretty fascinating. The same complexes which come up about Haiti over and over again. Some of this Leiris sees - some, not. But - like all the surrealists - he definitely understands white privilege for what it is.

Anonymous said...

I knew that Leiris admired Cesaire and went to the Antilles, but don't remember Mors which I will have to read, thanks for the reminder.

And of course you are right about "l'ajout de ces accessoires" as drivers of history, so the least one can say is that strangely "accessories" are not merely or only accessories or frivolous?

There's been lots of ink spilled over Manet's Olympia, as if to blot it out or cover over the nakedness, deemed indecent. Right from its first exhibition in the Salon, when "it" was showered with insults. But I'm tempted to add a little, even if it is being foolish, irrelevant and anachronistic. After all, today one should really be writing about Trier and Antichrist.

The reiterated complaint about the painting of the woman spread out on the bed is that she is ugly and low, common and poor, she reeks of sickness and death. And there is not just one woman represented or figured in the painting, not just Victorine Meurent with the ribbon around her neck. There is a black woman offering her flowers. And there is a black cat.

Un chat noir, and you know what in French chat also refers to, as did Baudelaire.

Théophile Gautier who Fleurs du mal is dedicated to, wrote this about the painting: "Olympia ne s'explique d'aucun point de vue, même en la prenant pour ce qu'elle est, un chétif modèle étendu sur un drap. Le ton des chairs est sale, le modelé nul. Les ombres s'indiquent par des rais cirage plus ou moins larges. Que dire de la négresse qui apporte un bouquet dans un papier, et du chat noir qui laisse l'empreinte de ses petits pattes crottés sur le lit".

Baudealire alas never saw Olympia, he was too fatally sick. But Baudelaire did write a letter to Manet about it, in which he famously wrote, " vous n'êtes que le premier dans le décrépitude de votre art". However one interprets this phrase, in the same letter he also writes, "c'est vraiment un chat?"

A writer of the time, in the revue "L'Epoque" (an oppositional Republican journal) wrote about Olympia: "Peinture de l'école de Baudelaire, exécutée largement par un élève de Goya; l'étrangeté de la petite faubourienne[...] Son regard a l'âctreté d'un être prématuré, son visage le parfum inquétant d'une fleur du mal."

Amie

roger said...

I love that painting, and I love to think that Olympia was called 'ugly' - which is part of that fourfold space of the essay on laugher, I think. High Low/beautiful ugly. That I can't make it back to right now, unfortunately.

Still, isn't it time to remember all the peripheries - accessories - that end up in the metropole, no?
I've tried not to judge this question of accessories because, frankly, I don't have a verdict, Amie. Or rather, verdicts exhaust me, as we seem to have seized the power to pronounce verdicts to our heart's content, as long as we don't expect anything to seriously change in the little crystal ball we seem caught in.

But - to return to a space where verdicts actually move rather than stay in your throat and strangle you - As you know, accessories keep coming back as questions when the question is painting. For instance, Van Gogh's famous shoes.

roger said...

One thing we haven't mentioned here - in fact, I don't know how to mention it. Nietzsche's advice to wear gloves when reading the New Testament - it is a dandy's joke, I think. Gloves are another accessory. So what are we to wear when handling the stupidity, the utter stupidity, of the 'commission on the Hijab' that has solemnly given its opinion in France? Are they going to investigate the underclothing of nuns, next?
I suppose this is Sarkozy, 'reaching out' for those La Pen voters. The stupidity and pointlessness... j'en ai marre!

northanger said...

when you two speak french it reminds me of all the dirty latin bits never translated.

roger said...

ho ho ho. But you must admit, North, I'm a tireless translator! I'd guess - of the blogs I go to - that's my edge.

yoni said...

roger
i know its part of your blogging style, but it would be really nice to have you link to the arguments between valenti and power, for example, or any other references you point to that you pull out of the blue. as you mention in this post, part of your blogging style is to have this jumpy, ethereal quality about it (kind of memorias de bras cubas, right?) but since are, after all, on the interwebs, for those of us checking in at random times, links would be really helpful. i happened to know valenti was at feministing and tracked down her post, etc, but why make us jump through those hoops unless you have some mental exercise point to make?

roger said...

Yoni, sorry. I thought I was commenting on a well known flame war. That was laziness on my part, not etheriality! I'll put in the links.

roger said...

There, I put them in. Thanks Yoni.

northanger said...

add some "haiti" tags too.

northanger said...

"My bonafides"? give me a fucking break.

roger said...

North, I'll find you a good haiti source that doesn't involve me translating. A man has to to eat/or he'll end up on the street.

My news from haiti source doesn't do that I realize. But I will do this, o light of my life, because you commanded it.

northanger said...

i like your bonafides roggie. two big full fat ones! goes to show you don't need le chat to be a "real feminist".

yoni said...

sweet roger, thanks! in general you very rarely link, which i feel is part of your style, a kind of brusque "you should already be aware of this" mixed with a "sources aren't always important" pomo approach which i appreciate philosophically. practically speaking though, when one is traveling (as I was) and checking in with your site in an internet cafe to see a "real" interpretation of whats going on in the US rather than any actual news site (cf elitism of credit card apps vs foucault), links are highly appreciated!

Anonymous said...

North, to be fair it isn't Roger that quotes without translating, c'est moi. I'm the culprit in sneaking in the occasional quote in a foreign tongue or two sans translation. Maybe I should go back and translate the earlier quotes, but now the comments have sent me off on another track.

Roger, you had to go and mention gloves! I'm not going to comment on Nietzsche's remark about needing gloves to handle the New Testament - at least not directly. As your comment made me think of someone else whose texts are littered with gloves - Jean Genet.

I cannot remember all the references to gloves in the texts, but they touch perhaps on the questions in this post and discussions, that of accessories and play and institutions - and their limits.

Gloves as accessories to a crime. Or a "self" as a glove turned inside out. Genet writes of that, but in all the "references" to gloves in Genet's texts, I'm going to just mention one. From Olympia to the Olympics. Fun and games.

October 17th, 1968, the Olympic games in Mexico City. Tommy Smith and Juan Carlos on a podium for medals, raising their arms and their fists in a black glove. One knows that image. And one might even know that the OIC in keeping with the Olympic "spirit", gave them 48 hours to leave the Olympic "village". Probably a little less known is that because of the harassment and threats both of them and their families had to undergo on their return to the US as Olympic champions, the wife of Juan Carlos committed suicide. Probably even less known - or remembered - is that ten days prior to the Olympics, hundreds of Mexican demonstrators, mostly students, were shot and killed by the paramilitary in Mexico City. And the Games went on.

Genet refers to it in an essay from 1970, called "Angela and Her Brothers". A dated essay, as one might say. But what about a memory of dates, and the fun and games, theater and reality?

"The Panthers appeared in full glory in Mexico where, during the Olympic Games, two Black medallists saluted, on the podium, with their clenched fist gloved in Black."

Genet adds: "This is the image of them one must retain, but one must add to it that of an extremely dangerous reality."
...

Amie

Anonymous said...

I just noticed that I incorrectly wrote Juan Carlos when speaking of John Carlos.
Sorry about that. I'm an idiot.

Amie

roger said...

Amie, I've written about this before, but I've dined with some of the Mexican 68ers. In fact, I was going to put up a reminiscence of that for my January 1st post, but after I wrote it I thought, this is much too gloomy. Of course, since my complaints about the course of last year have been dwarfed by the earthquake in Haiti. Although the two are convergent - the worldwide incomprehension of the slump, and the seeming indifference to the destruction of Port-au-Prince. Of which - I think I've mentioned that the largest loss of life in one building was in a maquilladora for sewing clothes.

I am now rather interested in the fate of those athletes. I'm not really sportif in any big way, so I tend to forget athletes. I should look those guys up.

northanger said...

what is this thing w/ glove(s)?

Amie, loved Michel Leiris quote, you make me ache to be French (the practice of poetry enables us to posit the Other as an equal). this quote from Performing the Body Performing the Text may be on topic:

[the non-white woman is] castrata and whore…[her] place is outside what can be conceived of as woman. She is the chaos that must be excised and it is her excision that stabilizes the West’s construct of the female body, for the ‘femininity’ of the white female body is insured by assigning the non-white to a chaos safely removed from sight. Thus, only the white body remains as the object of a voyeuristic, fetishizing male gaze. The non-white body has been made opaque by a blank stare.

Anonymous said...

North, I can't in a comment get into gloves, but your link and quote about the "voyeuristic, fetishizing male gaze" reminds me that I mentioned gloves and Genet on an earlier post on Zona called "of freaks and men", where Roger writes of a film by Balabanov and brings in a quote by Rozanov.

Now there is something remarkable and unusual about Manet's many paintings of women - their eyes, their look or gaze. They do not have closed eyes, nor do they look aside. They look directly at the outside, and at who is looking at them, look at the looker without casting down their eyes, but meet their gaze, as if to say - without a word - I have eyes too and I can see you. The outrage at the paintings might just go to show that the "male voyeuristic" regard cannot abide, acknowledge or meet the gaze of women, meet their eyes.

Amie