Monday, September 26, 2011

Women under capitalism

Silvia Federici, over pages 63 and 64 of Caliban and the Witch, lays out some premises:
  1. The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the "New World," were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and "accumulated."

  2. This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the "witches."

  3. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as "race" and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.

  4. We cannot, therefore, identify capitalist accumulation with the liberation of the worker, female or male, as many Marxists (among others) have done, or see the advent of capitalism as a moment of historical progress. On the contrary, capitalism has created more brutal and insidious forms of enslavement, as it has planted into the body of the proletariat deep divisions that have served to intensify and conceal exploitation. It is in great part because of these imposed divisions--especially those between women and men--that capitalist accumulation continues to devastate life in every corner of the planet.
Before I get started, I would like to point out that neither Federici nor anyone else is suggesting that the oppression of women--or even some of the specific forms of women's oppression as discussed here--is original to capitalism. Such an argument would be absurd. However, capitalism, as (so far) the most ravenously expansionist form that civilization has taken (exponentially more so than its immediate predecessor, feudalism), has intrinsically higher and different demands than previous forms, and as such its oppression of women has over the past several hundred years taken on newly specialized and in many cases more comprehensive forms. This is something that I will hopefully be covering in more detail in future posts. For now, this.

In I., Federici summarizes much of what she's discussed to this point in the book, which itself was in many ways a summary of the existing work done by post-Marxist* scholars on interpreting the "transition to capitalism." In this analysis, we can understand the "transition" as a deliberate series of actions by the powerful, not just in response to threats to their power but also in an effort to consolidate and increase that power: the use of the enclosure of the commons (and other methods of separating the peasantry from their land, as for example impressment) to weaken the ability of the commoners to resist and to force them into the new forms of labor; the colonization of Africa and the Americas. In other words, this analysis understands that capitalism cannot exist without colonies, that the riches of the capitalist depend not only on "visible" wage labor but on "invisible" non-wage labor, that the exploitation of the wage worker here-and-now depends on both the past violent theft of that class's means of subsistence and on the ongoing violent plunder of the colonies and the colonized. In other words,** this analysis dramatically expands, in both time and space, what is meant by "primitive accumulation"--it can now be understood as an ongoing process of what might in part be sardonically termed "outsourcing."

*I'm not using the term in any technical sense--I don't even know if post-Marxism has a technical definition or not, and I don't care to--because I have no patience for following scholarly leftist factionalism; it's one area where I revel in ignorance. I just mean researchers, writers, historians who have been influenced by Marxist analysis but feel that it is far from complete.
**And assuming I understand the terminology correctly, which I might not.

Having acknowledged this analysis, Federici presents the feminist argument that, though essential, the analysis is incomplete in so far as it overlooks the experiences of oppressed women and the role that this oppression plays in the maintenance of capitalism. Any analysis that ignores this and yet pretends to "universality" is woefully incomplete; even aside from the fact that, as I've mentioned before, women are half of the population, their oppression is every bit as foundational as (if not more so than) the other oppressions on which capitalism bases itself (not to mention that all of these oppressions are tangled together, and cannot be understood in isolation because they don't exist in isolation). Without the oppression of women, capitalism would be unable to function.

Federici lays out this argument (briefly, to be expanded upon throughout the rest of the book) in II. The phrase the transformation of the body into a work-machine is key. In the case of men, this means what we normally think of when we think of "work"--i.e., all aspects of our physical being had to be subsumed into the capitalist production process, and those that could not be thus subsumed had to be suppressed. It is the same in the case of women, but with them the focus is extremely different; it is this difference that Federici expresses as "the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force." What does she mean by this?

She is using the term "reproduction" in two senses here, the Marxist and the biological.* Under capitalism, women are subjugated to reproduction in both senses. In Marxist terms,** the "reproduction of the work-force" refers to the effort required to renew the worker's ability to work, day after day. The cleaning of clothes, the care of the home, the preparation of food. If all of these tasks seem to belong together under a common heading other than "reproduction," it is because they are what make up housework. The (unpaid) work, that is, of the housewife: women's work. Without this work, the wage work of capitalist production would be impossible.***

*It may be more accurate to say that she is expanding the Marxist definition to include the biological, but for convenience I will talk about the two meanings separately.
**Again, if I'm understanding correctly; I'm no Marx expert, as you can probably tell. If I'm misunderstanding or misrepresenting, let me know. My feeling, however, is that even if I am misusing terms my overall points stand.
***There are several seemingly strong objections to this argument, some of which I will address towards the end of this post.

The other sense in which Federici is using the term "reproduction" is, as I mentioned before, the biological--i.e., having babies.* Capitalists rely on others to create wealth for them--they need workers--which put another way means: capitalism will always need people, lots of 'em. On the other hand, it doesn't want too many people, because the masses of people, in addition to being capitalism's greatest resource, are also its greatest threat. Thus, the population must be tightly controlled,** which of course means that birth must be tightly controlled. The upshot of this is, unavoidably, "the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force." Women's control over their own bodies must be taken away from them--they must not be able to choose when to have children and when not to, because their own decisions may be at odds with the needs of capital.

*While I was away from the computer making myself lunch, Boorman apparently decided there should be a footnote here, and who am I to argue?
**As some book I read recently pointed out (I can't remember which, so I unfortunately can't credit--possibly it was James C. Scott's
Seeing Like a State), it is no coincidence that capitalism and the science of demography are of approximately the same age.

There is much that I could write about what Federici says at the end of II., about the "extermination of the 'witches'" being the method by which women were subjugated for the purposes of capital, but since that is the primary topic of Federici's entire book, I think I will wait and discuss that in future posts.

In III., Federici summarizes and builds upon all of this, incidentally refuting the standard argument of those who say (usually in bad faith, though sometimes with good intentions) that it is feminists who create an artificial division between men and women. It is the power structures under which we live that create these divisions, and feminists who describe and attempt to counter them. The argument that they are created by feminists is similar to the position of those who say that calling out racism is in itself racist, which is to say, it is nonsensical, a form of (as discussed in my last Federici post) directing the blame downwards rather than upwards.

So it is in large part this "accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class" that makes capitalism its profits.* Not only this, but they also help the whole system to be self-policing. It is well understood, in some circles at least, that the system of racialized slavery served to divide the once largely united lower classes into two mutually antagonistic groups, with the relative power of lower class whites over blacks serving to help the lower class whites to identify with the upper classes and to focus their often justified anger at their own situations down the hierarchy rather than up it. A similar end is served by creating a division between men and women, and specifically a hierarchy in which men are superior to women. The patriarchal family is a reiteration of the patriarchal system at large, with the husband/father as the boss--the owner--and the wife and children as the proletariat. If every working man--every wage slave--is granted his own realm of absolute authority, his anger at his own exploitation can be blunted, redirected.

*It is very tempting, but probably meaningless, to make an analogy to physical systems in which an energy imbalance in two parts of the system is made to do work.

I suspect that there's not really anybody in my teensy readership who believes either in the orthodox Marxist claim that capitalism is a progressive improvement over previous systems or in capitalism's definition of itself as such, both refuted in IV. As such, I feel no particular need to discuss that point in detail. However, in this little corner of the internet I do frequently see objections to the feminist analysis which, to me, suggest a deep-down, more than likely unwitting, adherence to the Marxist view that the capitalist imposition of wage work is in a broad historical context a form of "progress." These are the seemingly sound objections I mentioned above, and the fact that I'm getting to them now is a sign that this behemoth post is almost over.

So, to go back to the point about the reproduction, in Marxist terms, of the workforce being the unpaid responsibility of women, one might (and many often do) object that, well, things might have been like that once, but nowadays women are in the paid work force just as much as men, so women aren't really housewives anymore--this specialized, foundational oppression of women is a thing of the past, now, and capitalism is still steamrolling along just fine. Or one might also object that the housewife, as an exclusive occupation, is a phenomenon of the white middle class only, that in recent history at least black and other poor women have always been wage workers. Both of these objections are true, to a point (the second in particular is an omission of which many feminists have notoriously been guilty). However, even leaving aside the fact that the employment situation of black women has always been different from that of black men to the point of being practically incomparable, and even leaving aside the fact that to this day women reliably make significantly less money for the same work as men while simultaneously having more expenses in both time and money as a prerequisite for having these jobs,* it is still the overwhelming pattern that women, even when working as many waged hours as men, are still responsible for the majority, if not the entirety, of the non-waged reproductive work.

*I am speaking here of the larger requirements women in our society must fulfill in order to present a "professional" appearance, in terms of makeup, hair care, clothing, etc.

This fact is the inevitable, and desired, result of the capitalist division of labor along sexual lines, but its day to day reality is, unlike many other aspects of the global capitalist machine, something we ourselves can directly and concretely change. We might not be able to do anything directly and immediately about women's lower wages or loss of reproductive freedom (or, for that matter, the violence directed at colonial subjects overseas, though we of course should always be doing the long-term work of fighting all these forms of oppression), but right now, today and every day, we can fight the personalized form of women's oppression.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Petula Clark, "Downtown."
Petula Clark, "Ciao ciao."
Petula Clark, "Dans le temps."

Obviously they're the same song, with identical backing tracks,* which isn't the interesting thing here for me (especially since I've known "Ciao Ciao" since high school Italian class--the lyrics are completely different in meaning [as are the lyrics for "Dans le temps"], and quite good by the standards of the sentimental summer romance genre). This kind of thing is not uncommon for multilingual Clark, who was huge in France (and England) long before anyone in the U.S. had heard of her. She has French versions of most of her hits, from "Viens avec moi" ("I Know a Place") to "C'est ma chanson" ("This Is My Song"), not to mention French-language covers of English-language songs, like "Un jeune homme bien" ("A Well-Respected Man") and "Ceux qui ont un coeur" ("Anyone Who Had a Heart").**

*Except that I think the Italian and French versions are slightly sped up, though whether that's an artifact of the digitization or a deliberate thing done in the studio, I don't know. I only have the English version on original vinyl, so I can't compare directly.
**And, while I'm at it, there are her delightful French songs that as far as I know don't have equivalents in other languages, like the very yé-yé "Prends garde à toi" and the utterly silly "Ô Ô Sheriff," and of course there's also the wonderfulness that is "Chariot," later turned into "I Will Follow Him" by Little Peggy March.

But what's fascinating me is the backing vocalists--because I'm pretty sure, but not completely sure, that they're the same in each version, too. When they're led by Clark singing "Downtown," it sounds like they're saying "downtown," too--but when she's saying "Ciao ciao," they sound like they're saying "ciao ciao," and when she's singing "Dans le temps," they sound like they're saying "dans le temps." But if you listen closely (you can hear it best around 1:55 in the English video, 1:54 in the Italian, and 1:52 in the French), I think they're saying the same thing in each song, which is something like "Taaau-taau," and our contextualizing brains do the work of making them sound like they're saying the very similar-sounding words we find around them.

I might be wrong--sometimes I think they all sound the same, sometimes I think they're all different. But if I'm right--that's very clever!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Recent good stuff from other places

Two funnies:

IOZ responding to a ridiculous comment, the gist of which you can probably gather:
Lol executions lower the crime rate? Where? When? Also what is a crime? Also "animalistic"? What are you a fucking park ranger? You see a lot of cows murdering other cows?
The Other Elizabeff, of Elizabitchez:
'NO.' The most useful word anyone will ever learn. When you learn a foreign language learn NO first and leave yes for the advanced course.

And two not-so-funnies:

checarina at Shakesville of all places, in an uneven but sometimes great post on the unequal attention paid to the near-simultaneous executions of Troy Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer:
It should go without saying—though perhaps it doesn't—that I oppose Brewer's execution and find no joy in his death. I find it difficult to feel a great deal of sorrow about his death, but I interpret this as a failure of empathy on my part, not as any proof that he deserved to die.
And Abonilox, on death. I would quote an excerpt, but I would want to quote the whole thing, so just read it instead.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I've been trying to comment less on current events, in a feeling of what-do-I-know, but I do know that this is what murder looks like.

Alliances and obfuscations

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, pages 49-50:
Ultimately, this mounting class conflict [in the 13th to 15th centuries] brought about a new alliance between the bourgeoisie and the nobility, without which proletarian revolts may not have been defeated. It is difficult, in fact, to accept the claim, often made by historians, according to which these struggles had no chance of success due to the narrowness of their political horizons and the "confused nature of their demands." In reality, the objectives of the peasants and artisans were quite transparent. They demanded that "every man should have as much as another" (Pirenne 1937: 202) and, in order to achieve this goal, they joined with all those "who had nothing to lose," acting in concert, in different regions, not afraid to confront the well-trained armies of the nobility, despite their lack of military skills.

If they were defeated, it was because all the forces of feudal power--the nobility, the Church, and the bourgeoisie--moved against them, united, despite their traditional divisions, by their fear of proletarian rebellion. Indeed, the image that has been handed down to us, of a bourgeoisie perennially at war with the nobility, and carrying on its banners the call for equality and democracy, is a distortion. By the late Middle Ages, wherever we turn, from Tuscany to England the the Low Countries, we find the bourgeoisie already allied with the nobility in the suppression of the lower classes. For in the peasants and the democratic weavers and cobblers of its cities, the bourgeoisie recognized an enemy far more dangerous than the nobility--one that made it worthwhile for the burghers even to sacrifice their cherished political autonomy. Thus, it was the urban bourgeoisie, after two centuries of struggles waged in order to gain full sovereignty within the walls of its communes, who reinstituted the power of the nobility, by voluntarily submitting to the rule of the Prince, the first step on the road to the absolute state.
[Citation references Henri Pirenne's Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe.]

This passage describes a phenomenon I think most of us are familiar with, but perhaps in a historical context some of us (me, for one) might not have placed it in before. Anyway, it's always useful to be reminded of it. We're always told (with varying levels of directness) that we should point ourselves "upward" in our aspirations and allegiances, and "downward" in our hatred, blaming, and (again with varying levels of directness) our violence. And in some ways, it makes pragmatic sense to go along with this--as Federici points out, if the bourgeoisie hadn't aligned itself with the nobility, there's a very good chance that the lower-class revolutionaries would have been successful--i.e., that there wouldn't be a bourgeoisie anymore.

Of course, this pragmatism is a false one; if the revolutionaries had actually been able to enact a world where "every man [sic] should have as much as another," which they may have been able to with genuine bourgeois assistance (which would have also been, by its nature, anti-bourgeois assistance), I can't help thinking that not just the revolutionaries but everyone, bourgeoisie included, might be living better, fuller lives now. In Federici's account, the bourgeoisie's (and the Church's) alliance with the nobility abetted the creation of the absolute state; what might it do now?

Federici is talking about classes of people, but how do we learn from this and apply those lessons to our behavior as individuals? I don't for a minute fool myself that I, and most people who will read this, don't fall into any reasonable definition of "the bourgeoisie," but as individuals we can behave counter to the pattern of our class. Our actions determine whether we're the bourgeoisie in this case. When push comes to shove, you and me and others like us need to remember that our allegiance should always be to those with less power than us, not those with more, despite what short-term pragmatism might seem to indicate.

The first paragraph, by the way, describes one very powerful technique frequently used to mystify and dismiss opposition to the status quo, which is to call that opposition "muddled" or "narrow-minded." "Those silly peasants think that everyone can live like the King, how confused they are!" "Those feminists are only concerned with problems that affect women, not problems that affect everyone!" Sometimes these accusations can be accurate--for instance, I don't think it would be wrong to say that the bourgeoisie's allegiance to the nobility was and is narrow-minded--but whenever people start slinging these attacks, it's probably going to be useful to step back and really think about it, because they are a very effective way of confusing people into exactly the kind of wrong allegiances I was discussing above. With the two (cartoonish, but no less common for their cartoonishness) examples I gave, a moment's thought reveals the problems, i.e., surely no peasant thinks that everyone can or should live just like the King does, maybe I should try to see what they're actually arguing; obviously, any problem that affects half of the population cannot help but affect the rest--and even if it didn't, it's still a problem for a huge number of people!

(A reminder--I found Federici's book extremely important, so I'm going slowly through the quotes I copied onto my Commonplace blog and discussing each of them one by one. None of these posts is comprehensive in any way, nor is it intended to be--none of them will be comprehensive on the larger topic involved, on the subset of that topic that I choose to discuss, or even on the implications of the particular Federici passage discussed. Obviously. And if you want to see all of the quotes I copied before I discuss them, they're here.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

RIP Jordan Belson

I want to post an obit for him, but I have no words and I have next to no video. This youtube video edits down his "Samadhi" and accompanies it with the (pretty interesting) music that is the video poster's main purpose--it gives you a hint of what Belson was capable of, but not enough. Here is his "Epilogue," his latest work that I'm aware of, which, incredibly beautiful as it is, is not his best work. Watch it and remember that it's not his best work.

He was a great artist and he's dead now. If you can find more of his work (there is an excellent five movie disc that is worth whatever extremely high price you can find it for), try to encounter it.

Monday, September 12, 2011


In comments on my post about The Book of Genesis the other day, there was some surprisingly interesting conversation* about what The Bible is and how it got that way--essentially, about how it's an awkwardly compiled collection of a bunch of regional myths that we only pretend has any kind of a "plot."

*Surprising not because I didn't expect y'all to be interesting, but because I didn't expect anyone to be interested.

It's a fascinating conversation to have, and half of me wants to run off and look into the history of how what we think of as "The" Bible solidified, but the other half of me thinks that this is, well, only half of the conversation. In what follows please understand that I'm not criticizing anyone who took part in that conversation--quite the contrary!--merely trying to explain what I'm interested in. I'm certainly not comparing anyone to Kingsley Amis.

While I'm (again I vigorously emphasize) not comparing anyone to him, I mention him because I'm indirectly reminded of the bit in his abysmal survey of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, when he decries the state of The Novel in SF as he sees it at the end of the 50s:
An idea that will comfortably fill out a few thousand words will not do for a novel, or rather there will be an attempt to make it do by various kinds of padding. This can happen even when idea is not primary, as in the later episodes of [Pohl and Kornbluth's] The Space Merchants and in Pohl's single novel, Slave Ship, in which what are virtually two short stories, one about animal communication, the other about undersea warfare between 40,000-ton submarines, and both good, are bundled into one frame along with a lot of adventure stuff about a lukewarm war between the United States and the adherents of a new Oriental [sic, sic, a thousand times sic] religion. Similarly, James Blish's A Case of Conscience breaks apart in the middle, and one notes that the first and far superior half, dealing with a literally satanic utopia, was published earlier as a long story complete in itself. The economics of science-fiction writing are obviously important here, demanding as they do a huge output in a medium that calls for a sustained flow of novelties; it is no wonder if some of these get inflated to book-length. One hopes that as the audience for science fiction increases, and with it the author's remunerations, there will be less of this forced expansion, but I cannot foresee any change in the basic fact that this is a short-story or at any rate a long-story mode, with hundreds of successes in these forms as against a bare couple of dozen in the novel.
What Amis is describing is what SF people call "fix-ups," and I had a great line about how he doesn't use the word because he doesn't know a single thing about the field he's describing, but Wikipedia tells me that the term supposedly didn't become common until Peter Nicholls used it in 1979, and although I don't quite buy that, it kind of takes the wind out of the sails of my abuse.

Anyway, though Amis is wrong about almost everything else here (my delight in his prediction at the end being utterly wrong wrong wrong is the only reason I've ever found to be happy about the general decline of the short story in SF, and the concomitant rise of the intensely massive novel--which of course is frequently part of a trilogy or septalogy or Ongoing Cycle--but anyway, enough digressions), he is essentially correct in attributing the (real when he wrote) ubiquity of the fix-up primarily to economic concerns. However, his idea that these extensions or compilations are merely "padding," or that the disjunctions created by the process can only ever be "flaws," is silly, and misses out on one of the most beautiful things that happens in classic SF. Because the disjunction is key, regardless of prosaic questions of why it's there.

I haven't (yet) read the Pohl novels he discusses, but I have read the Blish, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. I find absurd the suggestion that Blish is not a good enough writer to extend a novella into a full-length novel without having it "break apart in the middle."

A Case of Conscience is a very peculiar book, and is the first of a very peculiar set of works that Blish insisted on calling a "trilogy"--which together he referred to as After Such Knowledge. The second book in the trilogy is his novel Doctor Mirabilis, an immaculately researched novelization of the life of Roger Bacon (which I recently attempted and will eventually re-attempt to read), while the "third book" is two fantasy novels, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment. Conscience is the only one of these books I've read as yet, but surely when faced with an author who insists that a novella-turned-novel, a biographical study, and two-novels-considered-as-one, none of which is directly related to the others (and all of which are even in different, though frequently linked, genres), form a "trilogy," we can safely say that this is an author who is interested in disjunctions.

Conscience does indeed "break apart in the middle"--the first half concerns a Jesuit priest who is part of a research mission on another planet, studying the intelligent aliens who live there, at first delighted with them, eventually deciding that they are the work of Satan. The second half concerns a member of the alien race, transported to Earth as an egg and hatched here, who through a series of bizarre, occasionally comic events, becomes a media celebrity along the lines of a Howard Beale, only more, I guess you could say, successful. The halves share characters, to be sure, and the Jesuit's story is a through-line that leads the book to its horrific, inconclusive ending, but the feel and focus of the two halves are completely different, enough so to make the reader quite uncomfortable.

This I think is Amis's problem, for it is abundantly clear that there is nothing he hates more than to be made uncomfortable. A Case of Conscience, as indicated by the name of the trilogy of which it is a part, and like much of the best SF, is to me about the problems caused by accumulating knowledge, and particularly about the problems caused by our inability to be sure if our knowledge is "true," is objective (or, to look at it another way, the problems caused by our insistence on believing, on subjective faith alone, that our knowledge is objective). To examine this concept in the falsely objective medium of the (heavily and coherently plotted) standard novel would be ineffective at best, and, worse, an inexcusably disingenuous bit of hypocrisy. And so Blish does not give us a standard, plotty novel, he gives us this disjunctive work, whose "break apart in the middle" is but one of many cues telling us that organizing our knowledge into the appearance of objective truth doesn't work.

I didn't intend for this post to be an analysis of A Case of Conscience. It was supposed to be an explanation of my attitude that, faced with a perplexing text, such as a James Blish novel or a book of The Bible, it can be fascinating and useful to examine the real-world reasons--historical, economic, whatever--that contributed to its being so perplexing, but what I tend to be more interested in is how the reader, faced with this text right now, deals with their perplexity.

Coming back to The Bible, millions and millions and millions of people care deeply about what it has to say, and I imagine only a small proportion of them care (or know) that the reason it says what it says the way it says it has this and that historical explanation--and even of those who do care (or know), only a small proportion stops there. These words mean something to people here and now, and while examining the history of The Bible is as genuinely fascinating as examining any other sedimentary deposits,* for me, it's not the primary interest.

*And I'm not being remotely sarcastic, no matter how much the thick layer of apparent sarcasm the internet lays over everything may make it seem like I am. And oh, how I wish that that disclaimer weren't itself so very ironic in the context of this post. Just trust me, I'm being sincere.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heaven and Hell

The second-to-last song on Dorothy Ashby's (probably) best album, The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby.

Wonderful as it is, for the most part the album has very few surprises; say to someone that you've got an afro-groove-jazz-pop-psych harp-centric album inspired by The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and they'll probably imagine essentially the album as it actually is, all the more so if the person is already familiar with Ashby's late-period albums.

One surprising thing (not that music has to be surprising) is that the album is, as far as I can tell, unique in Ashby's catalog for having vocals. I actually am not sure if they're by Ashby herself--I think so--but regardless, they're wonderful. They occupy a kind of middle ground between the style you usually hear singing songs so sentimental they have the word sentimental in their title, and the style of singers such as June Tyson in her work with Sun Ra (by the way, I didn't know the song at that link until I searched youtube for June Tyson to find a quick example, and wow). On this song they lean more towards the former (you can tell right off, with the peak on the word "soul" and the way she holds and releases the "l" in "invisible"), and if not for the surroundings, the lyrics, the subtle, stereo-panned echo, and the particular, peculiar but warm reverb, you might almost think the singing more showtunesy than anything else.

The big surprise on this song comes at the very end, when the production on the voice changes completely and suddenly--where before the sonic atmosphere was entirely 1970, all of a sudden the vocals hop to the other channel and seem beamed in from the 1920s or 1930s, with the tinny, canned feel peculiar to the singing human voice recorded in those decades--I think the singer even puts a little more warble into her performance, to match the popular style of that time--and it's just for one line. And not even all of it, because on top of this, as she holds the last note, a crescendo in her performance is exaggerated by the sudden laying-on of a quick burst of reverb-laden delay, staying in the vocals' new channel and then bleeding quickly back into the other, lending an almost futuristic feel to the very final moments of the song.

The upshot of all this is that I like it a lot.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Unlearning their history to learn ours

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation pages 21-22:
A history of women and reproduction in the "transition to capitalism" must begin with the struggles that the medieval proletariat--small peasants, artisans, day laborers--waged against feudal power in all its forms. Only if we evoke these struggles, with their rich cargo of demands, social and political aspirations, and antagonistic practices, can we understand the role that women had in the crisis of feudalism, and why their power had to be destroyed for capitalism to develop, as it was by the three-century-long persecution of the witches. From the vantage point of this struggle, we can also see that capitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power, and truly gave "all the world a big jolt." Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle--possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism "evolved" from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.
It is difficult to understand where we are today without also understanding our history--how we got here. The history most of us are taught, the history we receive passively (and some of us actively), is less than no help with this--even on those rare occasions when it isn't a pack of out-and-out lies.

There are three main methods that I can think of offhand that people use to lie about history without lying per se. Federici discusses two of them here (the third, which is to tell the truth about events but either to lie about or to not even mention reasons, she discusses implicitly throughout her book, and I might approach it more directly soon).

The first of these methods is to define history as exclusively the history of power, or the history of wealth, however you want to look at it. In this telling, the history of the "transition to capitalism" (a phrase Federici approaches skeptically, and I follow her example in using quotation marks around it) is the history only of kings and capitalists. We hear about others only as they appear to these kings and capitalists--as resources, as threats.

The second method is to treat what-happened as what-had-to-happen, to look at the past as inevitable. You do this partly via the first method: by ignoring everyone but the powerful, you ignore resistance to power, and therefore you ignore the alternatives, sometimes hypothetical, frequently (though usually briefly) concrete, that resistance offered.

Many people in our circles (the anarchists or whatever) have learned how to break down the walls built by these methods to different extents (and books like Zinn's People's History were a good first step to demolishing the first method), but most of us, myself as always emphatically included, have not learned this nearly enough. No matter how much we deny it, there usually remains a trace of the teleological in our approach to history, a sense of "this is the way things have to be, because that was the way things had to happen," which in its fundamental denial of the reality of how we got here leaves us unable to truly understand where we are, and how to get anywhere else. Similarly--and this is Federici's main but by no means only focus--many of us break through the narratives handed down by those in power to the hidden narratives of the relatively powerless--but only to a point. What many of us (mostly men, but some women too) miss is the role of women in our history, our shared history of resistance.

It is only when we knock down these barriers, not only the ones we've already demolished but the ones we don't yet realize are still standing, that we can move at all.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The weirdest thing I didn't know was in The Book of Genesis

Recently I've been keeping the Bible in the bathroom and alternating between reading it and some of the trashier literature I like to read (Star Trek novels, profiles of famous murderers, all of that stuff I should be embarrassed to mention here), very slowly, a page or three whenever I step to answer one or the other necessity of nature. I've never actually read any of the Bible before, except for a weird arty translation of Ruth in college, so it's been instructive. I figure every once in a while, when I finish a book (which I've been doing about once every two months so far, though I've only finished two so far), I'll post a little "who knew?" post about it.

So, the weirdest thing I didn't know about Genesis, aside from the fact that it was the chronicle of a family of assholes becoming bigger and bigger assholes throughout the generations, culminating in one of them enslaving all of Egypt for the Pharaoh, was that at least four times, a husband and wife will settle down in a place they haven't lived before, and the husband will think "Oh, my wife is so beautiful that all the men here will kill me and steal her away," so he'll pretend that they're brother and sister, but then all the men in the new place are like, "Oh, she's unattached" so they start sleeping with her (she, of course, voices neither approval nor disapproval of all this), and then the husband finds out, and says "Oh woe, you're sleeping with my wife" and the other men are like "Oh, she's your wife? Why did you say she was your sister? If we'd known we would have left her alone!" and then God has to forgive people all over the place, as he sees fit.

What's weirdest to me is that the entire sequence is exactly the same every time, and that it's not the same person over and over, nor is it different people every time (I think Abraham does it twice). If the details changed a little, or everybody just did it once and then learned their lesson, or if the same numbskull did it over and over again, then I think I could understand it, but none of those is the case.

Exodus coming whenever I feel like it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A women's "Bartleby"

Writing the other day about We Who Are About To..., and quoting Russ on "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as I did, made me connect those two stories in a way I hadn't before.

In What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici says, of "Bartleby" and of other works he finds cover similar ground:
In all these cases doing something other people seem to have no difficulty in doing becomes an intolerable imposition, not because it is fiendishly difficult but because it is so boring. And what makes a thing boring? That it is meaningless, and that therefore spending time on it feels as though it were robbing one of a portion of one's life.
(Thank you Richard for supplying the quote, since I had to return the book to the library; while I'm at it, thanks also to Richard for introducing me to exactly 1/2 of the writers I mention in this post [the two -icis].)

Obviously there is more to Bartleby's refusal than just this, more than just "boredom" (though boredom is by no means insignificant!) as Josipovici is surely well aware (he limits himself here to what is directly relevant for his study), but what he describes is still a deeply, explicitly political act, even if the mysterious motive behind it may not always be itself political. The phrase "robbing one of a portion of one's life," too, strikes me as being exactly the kind of stakes we're talking about here (I might even go so far as to remove "a portion of").

Not only that, but that phrasing, "something other people seem to have no difficulty in doing," puts me in mind of the experience many women report of the struggles involved in being a woman in our society--hence phrases such as "the problem that has no name." In large part this idea that other women "seem to have no difficulty" being the objects patriarchal/capitalist society demands them to be is an illusion created by the systematic destruction of women's social life, but internalized acculturation runs deep, and it is not entirely an illusion.

There's a passage in Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch in which she states one of her central theses, which is
that the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor.
Now that I've given all this background and quoted these quotes, I'm starting to feel that my point is pretty much self-evident, and I have very little left to say on the subject. My observation is only this: We Who Are About To..., being a story of a woman who refuses at all costs to have babies for reasons that are not her own, is very similar thematically to "Bartleby," the story of a man who refuses at all costs to do work for reasons that are not his own. In both cases the refuser instantly becomes utterly incomprehensible to the other characters in her or his story--not to mention the majority of critics who will write about the stories!

Without realizing it, I wrote about all this when I first approached Russ's novel here:
I have seen several writers say that We Who Are About To... is about how to die, and how to live, and this is true--very true. But it is just as much about the right to say no--not just in terms of sex, or reproduction, but to anything and everything that you want to say no to, to everything that needs saying no to--or even to things that you just don't feel like saying "yes" to right now, for no good reason. It's about the right to not agree, to walk away from your society, and your culture, and your existence--and about the impossibility of exercising that right even at the most extreme remove imaginable from all these things.
All that remains for me to say is that where Bartleby chooses what to do with his life, Russ's narrator chooses what to do with her life in her body; so it is that Melville's story is largely nonviolent and ends with the one character's death alone, where Russ's is constantly, increasingly violent, and if it cannot end with the uncomprehending other characters, for whom nothing seems to be an "intolerable imposition," allowing the narrator to live in that body as she must, it can only end with the deaths of every single one of them.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lying at the core

Just wait til you realize how clever that post title is!!

Joanna Russ, in her indispensable How to Suppress Women's Writing, has a tangent (and as always with Russ's tangents, it's so much more than just that) about Herman Melville and the silly things that can happen when critics fail--whether deliberately or by way of academic and/or privileged obtuseness--to consider social context:
I have read several pieces of criticism about "Bartleby" and although one of them compared Melville's position to Carlyle's Eternal No, not one of them began, "Did you ever work on an assembly line for ten years?" (Or in Woolworth's for six months or typing address labels for as little as one summer?) These questions are very much to the point... But then I worked as a secretary for three years and typed address labels for a mere six weeks--and that six weeks was enough to reveal Bartleby's situation to me as twenty years of reading literary criticism could not. (In a recent collection of Melville's stories, Harold Beaver sums up his remarks on "Bartleby" as follows: "Bartleby can never be wholly interpreted as either . . . Christ-figure, artist, or ascetic saint, nor is the story exhausted by such interpretations. At its root lies a theme more compelling than both: of the doppelganger . . . the figure of death . . . behind the green screen" of life. The actual nature of Bartleby's work--its isolation, its rote nature, its hideous boredom--and the social situation of employer-employee, as well as Bartleby's sitdown strike and the sentimental liberalism of his employer, are never mentioned.)
It was with considerable enjoyment that I recalled that passage while reading Adam J. Frisch's utterly pointless essay, "Language Fragmentation in Recent Science-Fiction Novels," in the utterly pointless book The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Myers. Here's how Frisch begins his second paragraph:
Lying at the core of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... is an examination of language and meaning.
Oh, how I hope Russ happened upon this essay; I imagine she would have very much enjoyed savaging it. (Hint: if you're talking about what "lies at the core" of that novel, and you don't talk about patriarchy, capitalism, or at least the dark side of technological progress, you've pretty much missed the point.)

Frisch follows up his, shall we say, startling intro by giving a quick summary of the events of the book: "small group of travelers accidentally marooned on an isolated planet," violence, yadda. He makes me cringe again by saying that the "unnamed narrator becomes more and more disenchanted with her fellow travelers," because a) she starts out pretty much as disenchanted as you can be, and, more important, b) she has reasons for being so disenchanted, which aren't mentioned here*; but OK, maybe Frisch is gonna get around to it, now that the summary's taken care of.

*And also c) Frisch doesn't seem to realize that "fellow travelers" is an inappropriately meaningful phrase for his purposes here, especially since the novel deals heavily in Communism, dissent, and the totalitarian quashing of dissent.

He soon makes me a bit more nervous by quoting a passage in which the narrator quotes Emily Dickinson ("I'm Nobody, who are you? Are you Nobody, too?") without recognizing that it is a Dickinson quote, even though I'm fairly certain she doesn't have a more famous line. (In How to Suppress Women's Writing, incidentally, Russ spends quite a lot of pages talking about how the reality of a continuity of women's writing--of woman writers influencing one another and communicating with one another--has been systematically hidden, so that writers like, say, Emily Dickinson appear to have come out of nowhere and to have led nowhere; but I'm not sure why I'm bringing that up right now.) He then goes ahead and says this:
But the narrator's companions are incapable of change because they are incapable of listening. They have been nurtured in a culture that is almost devoid of the ability to discriminate sounds. The narrator finds their music mere noise that "goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement." Thus, when the males in the group, in an assumption of atavistic roles, decide the women must bear children immediately to insure "survival," she feels threatened and attempts to flee.
Let me take a deep breath and take this slowly. First of all, the narrator's "companions" (poor choice of word, there!) are most certainly not "incapable of listening"; they are, rather, very capable of listening to themselves, one another, and the dominant culture from which they came and of which they are desperate to think of themselves as still a part; they will listen to anyone and anything who does not stand against all of this--in the context of the novel, anyone and anything who is not the narrator (and even there, it doesn't apply to music--at least not the same way--as they do listen to her sing). Second, and here is where Frisch throws all credibility away by being utterly wrong about something that's not a matter of interpretation, the "deedle doodle" quote is dialogue spoken by a small girl--one of the other survivors--describing the serial music she loves and wants to compose, emphatically not the narrator dismissing popular music. This is not presented ambiguously in the text. It is impossible to mistake this even at the briefest of glances at the page: it is immediately preceded in this first person narration with "Then she added," and is immediately followed by "'Uh huh,' I said." (Also, distinguishing "doodle" from "deedle" and then dying with excitement is obviously not something that one does if one is "almost devoid of the ability to discriminate sounds.")

And then the paragraph takes what is to me a completely incomprehensible turn. If you can explain that "thus" to me, if you can explain how what comes after it follows from what comes before it, please, please do. Because for god's sake, the narrator doesn't "feel threatened and try to flee" because these people who want to force her to have a baby can't discriminate sounds; she feels threatened and tries to flee because she is in imminent danger of rape and forced pregnancy. Another way of saying this is that, no, the narrator does not feel threatened, she very concretely is threatened.

Clearly, Mr. Frisch, you've never typed address labels for six months, if you know what I mean. Nor have you ever, ahem, listened to anyone who has, even when one has been trying to tell you about it for 118 pages.

By now it's pretty clear that Frisch is never going to get around to mentioning what this story is about. Oh, but wait! Do I see the word "patriarchy" comin' round the bend?
Throughout the novel, the narrator is desperate to communicate [True! I wonder why? -E]. When her fellow survivors cannot or will not listen, she turns to her imagined future listener, the reader:
"Speaking" comes from a different place than "breathing." You must understand this. Those marks, "-", indicate speech. Communication. You must listen. You must understand that the patriarchy is coming back, has returned (in fact) in two days. By no design.
Although the narrator at first attributes her desire to communicate to the return of "the patriarchy" (that is, to the group's rapid reversion to male dominance), her repetition of the phrase "I must" suggests that the need for communication may arise from each individual's perception of death's inevitability. "I must speak" becomes "I must die."
[Moment of silence.]

OK, so just on a functional level: "at first" she mentions the patriarchy, then she repeats "I must"? In the passage I read, she repeats "you must," not "I must", and then, after the second repetition, she brings up the patriarchy. Hey, it's almost as if she wanted to really emphasize that, listen up, this mention of the patriarchy is really important, so don't try to dismiss it with scare quotes and that very dudely "Oh don't worry, she said patriarchy but really what she's talking about is Eternal Existential Verities for Men" nonsense.

Yes. One of the many things this book is about is death, the inevitability of death, the necessity of death, and how to go about dying. (It's not exactly hidden; the well-known completion of the title phrase is the word die, and "About to die" are the first three words of the novel; the third sentence is "We're all going to die.") However, it is about death in context, in the specific context of patriarchal, progress-oriented society, which denies, defies, mystifies, and fetishizes death; the context we pretty much all have to live and die in. (Also, how the fuck do you get from "repeating 'I must'" to "see, she's really talking about death here"? Again, when the book's title and opening words form the clause "We who are about to die," you don't have to go looking for cryptic clues and acrostics to figure out that death is on this book's mind.)

Similarly, yes, by god, We Who Are About To... is in large part about the difficulties of communication. But to talk about this like it's an end in itself is absurd. Like, oh, OK, it's a book about how it's hard to talk to people; no shit, now what? Why is communication a problem? What is the narrator so desperate to communicate? If you read this book and then feel the need to put quotation marks around "the patriarchy," you're not going to get very far in answering that question. In terms of Frisch's analysis, you'd think Russ would have been better off printing a book full of a random assortment of words in no particular order; that would have been the meaningless, apolitical representation of "language fragmentation" he's so desperate to shape the novel into.

The two best things about the hurricane

1. After it passed, the Baronette and I went for a walk around the neighborhood--and so did everybody else. I've never seen my neighborhood with even a tenth that many people out and about.

2. With about half of the state electricitiless, it was dark last night. I could see stars! Not, like, all of them, but a hell of a lot more than usual.

Friday, August 26, 2011

This is no dream, this is really happening

CNN, State-by-state developments related to Hurricane Irene:

Rhode Island's Emergency Management Agency held a press conference on Thursday. Officials urged residents to put together emergency kits to tide them over for up to three days.There were no immediate plans for evacuations. Lt. Col. Denis Riel, spokesman for the Rhode Island National Guard, said personal preparedness is important. "It's not a matter of if it hits us it's when," he said.

Saturday's Newport Bucket Regatta, a yachting event in Rhode Island, has been canceled. A gala dinner was moved up to Friday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A letter I got today

Dear Ethan:

As Councilman representing [your ward], one of my main priorities is safety, especially your safety.

Recently, there has been an increase in crime in our neighborhood. Breaking and entering is on the rise; therefore, I would like to stress the importance of locking all doors. Be sure to secure your home and automobiles, and, if you are fortunate to have a house alarm; engage your alarm system in your absence and at night while sleeping.

Due to the importance of this matter, I will be conducting a neighborhood meeting on September 12, 2011, at [a local elementary school] from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm to discuss this safety issue and any other matters and concerns.

The area Crime Watch program has been successful and will continue to do well if we all contribute in any way we can in deterring crime in our neighborhood. Please continue to be observant and contact the police to report any suspicious activity.

Thank you for your help in making our community safe. If you need my assistance, please contact me at the council office, [phone number]. Also, please sign-up for news and events at [url made into a link automatically by Microsoft Word which is a bit useless in a printed letter].

[Rich white dude]

cc: [A bunch of cops]
I'm half-thinking about going and asking if he's taking any time out of his busy fearmongering, alarm system-advertising, and overemphasizing-of-dates-places-and-times schedule to, you know, do anything about the causes of those tiny actions that fit into his definition of "crime." The theft of huge swathes of people's ability to support themselves continues into its nth century of not prompting any important meetings at elementary schools.

By the way, the "area Crime Watch" that has been so "successful" so far in my experience consists of 1) a woman who has lived down the street from me for two years but who apparently doesn't recognize me following me at low speed (her in her car, me on my bike) for three blocks and around several turns before stopping and yelling "Where do you live??!!?!" at me and accusing me of being shady because I kept looking behind myself at the car following me at about ten miles an hour for three blocks and around several turns, and 2) our probably diagnosably sociopathic next door neighbor begging us to let him string a trip wire in our backyard so that if people come through it in the middle of the night he can catch them and beat them with a baseball bat. Given these encounters, I'm wondering if you understand why I'm made a bit queasy by Rich white dude's urging my neighbors to "contribute in any way we can to deterring crime in our neighborhood."

PS I wish someone would break into his office and steal from his semicolon and hyphen budget, because it's clearly overfunded.

Weird words

When I was younger--like, ten to twelve, say--I was perfectly aware of how the word enigma was spelled and pronounced, and of what it meant, but for some reason most of the time when I saw it written I would misread it as engima, switching the g and the i, pronouncing it en-JEE-ma. In my head, without realizing it consciously, I worked up a whole definition of engima based on the contexts I thought I was seeing it in, which was almost, but (in some way I couldn't define) not quite, the same as the definition of enigma.

I've been typing up some quotes from Maria Mies' fascinating Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale on my Commonplace (I'll get around to either discussing them or putting them in a digest here sometime around 2015, at the rate I'm going, but if you want to look at them now, have at it), and as I do it I'm starting to realize that in recent years I've been doing the enigma/engima switcheroo with the real word subsistence and the word-of-my-misreading-invention substinence, which of course means almost the same thing as subsistence, and almost the same thing as sustenance, but not quite the same as either.

My point? Why, you think I should have one?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

RIP Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford

Of course, I wasn't particularly aware that either of them was alive, but still. Jerry Leiber:

And Nick Ashford:

(That last one is on not just my short list, but my very short list of favorite Supremes songs, which for me is saying a lot.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

More on science fiction, from one of many possible thoughts on Frankenstein

One of the many fascinating things about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein is that it is (among other things) a woman's rejection, not of Romanticism in its entirety, but of the male-based subjectivity that is so central to the Romanticism of her contemporaries. By attacking the whole notion of the individual (assumed male) genius while leaving intact the awe of nature, the skepticism about science and rationalism, the intensity of emotion, Shelley creates something remarkably different from--and to me, both more interesting and more what you might call morally sound than--what we normally expect of a Romantic work.*

*Analysis of Frankenstein in and of itself isn't what I'm primarily interested in here, so I'm not going into the ways in which she does this, but treating it as a given. If you want further analysis of this, I would imagine that there are plenty of published works as well as high school and college term papers about it.

It's especially interesting (to me) to think about what this means in terms of Frankenstein's place as one of the founding texts of science fiction (and some would, not without justification, leave off "one of" and italicize "the").

While it would take almost 150 years for any significant number of SF writers to catch up to Shelley's distrust of the nobility of science, not to mention her woman's perspective (though on both terms there were always exceptions), the rejection of heroic subjectivity is, to my mind, central to SF, despite any appearance to the contrary created by the plethora of individual heroes in the history of the genre. These heroes are, almost without exception,* not so much characters--individuals--as stand-ins for what many (including me in my last SF post) call "the idea as hero." Indeed, it would be very difficult to have a literature where the idea is itself the hero without the rejection of Romantic subjectivity.

*At least in SF of the "classic," pre-1960s era; after about the mid-60s the story of SF gets way more complicated, sometimes for the good, sometimes not.

It doesn't stop there--the SFnal concept of "the sense of wonder," for one, though it is superficially very similar to the traditional Romantic awe in the face of nature, is in fact almost completely different in both content and impact, in a way that is difficult to explain if we don't take Shelley's rejection as foundational. There is much more that could be said about this, and about other aspects of SF that are hugely informed by her rejection, but this post is getting way longer than I meant it to be and I'm not finished yet.

One of the most interesting (again, to me) aspects of this is that Shelley's rejection comes largely out of her perspective as a woman--a perspective that is noticeably absent from almost--but not quite--all pre-1960s SF, and still absent from a majority of the mainstream of the SF of the 1960s and later. The genre is notoriously masculine--even, all too frequently, macho. But the fact that a woman's perspective is so foundational to the genre carries through strongly.

Towards the end of Joanna Russ's frustratingly short essay, "On the Fascination of Horror Stories, Including Lovecraft's" (as collected in the indispensable To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction), Russ describes a fan party she attended, where the conversation turned to favorite horror stories, and then to the implications of the appeal of horror and SF:
[O]ne very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and the alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest.
Unfortunately, as with so many of the countless fascinating points she raises in this uncharacteristically skimpy essay, she leaves it there. But the point is made, and taken--and recognized. I have seen numerous accounts of women saying similar things--and though I am not a woman, nor did I grow up in an environment that was at all oppressive (thanks, mom and dad!) beyond the general background radiation of our culture, I am queer and a general discontent who grew up in a heterosexist, conformist society, and what this unnamed woman and Russ have to say strikes a strong chord with me. On reading Frankenstein, I can't help but think that we all have Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to thank for this intrinsic subversivity,* indestructible despite the occasional best efforts of macho writers who wished it would go away. It didn't.

*Yes, I know, Firefox's spelling check knows, the dictionary knows that it should be subversiveness, but that word is wicked ugly to me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Enclosure, colonization, reproduction, and the subjugation of women

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, page 17:
This is what occurred in the 19th century, when the responses to the rise of socialism, the Paris Commune, and the accumulation crisis of 1873 were the "Scramble for Africa" and the simultaneous creation in Europe of the nuclear family, centered on the economic dependence of women to men--following the expulsion of women from the waged work-place. This is also what is happening today, as a new global expansion of the labor-market is attempting to set back the clock with respect to the anti-colonial struggle, and the struggles of other rebel subjects--students, feminists, blue collar workers--who, in the 1960s and 1970s, undermined the sexual and international division of labor.

It is not surprising, then, if large-scale violence and enslavement have been on the agenda, as they were in the period of the "transition," with the difference that today the conquistadors are the officers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are still preaching the worth of a penny to the same populations which the dominant world powers have for centuries robbed and pauperized. Once again, much of the violence unleashed is directed against women, for in the age of the computer, the conquest of the female body is still a precondition for the accumulation of labor and wealth, as demonstrated by the institutional investment in the development of new reproductive technologies that, more than ever, reduce women to wombs.
One of the things Federici does nicely here is to emphasize the way that in a colonial power (like the contemporary United States or the European countries of the 19th century) repression at home and repression abroad, though they take different forms, are parts of the same system. As she described in the last quote I wrote about, the "primitive accumulation" of capital that occurred in Europe primarily around the 16th and 17th centuries--the enclosure of the commons, the destruction of traditional modes of knowledge, the attack on the power of women, and so on, all of which is Federici's primary subject matter in the book--all of this is occurring, right now, in extremely similar ways, in the so-called "third world," because once you've subjugated and stolen everything from your "own" people, the next step is to do it to other people. I'm reminded forcefully of Derrick Jensen's argument that civilization, based as it is in the degradation of one's own landbase until it is unable to support its populations, is inherently violent--it always needs to expand, because once you've taken everything "your" land and "your" people have to give, you have to look elsewhere for more.

Of course, I'm making it sound like a linear process--steal everything at home, then steal everything somewhere else, then steal everything somewhere else--when of course it is not. The attacks on the lower classes in Europe happened at the same time as the colonization of huge swathes of the rest of the world, including among other things genocide of unmatched scale in the Americas and the transformation of the people of Africa into property that could then be stolen en masse (and, of course, the genocide that inevitably accompanied this). And, again, as Federici points out, the processes of enclosure, colonization, and theft are ongoing today. Whether with explicit military invasion or the machinations of the IMF (or both or more), most of the world is directly subjugated to international capital.

And here (in the US, where I'm writing from, but to my knowledge this applies similarly to anywhere inside the walls), processes similar in shape if not in scale--the militarization of the police, the slaveries of debt and the wage (made possible by that not-so-long-ago enclosure of the commons)--are in play. Also in play: women's bodies, and the struggle over who controls them.

Embarrassingly, I thought once upon a time that the struggle over reproductive freedom, though real enough down here at the bottom with the rank and file of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" groups, at the top was "really" about the fact that Roe v. Wade rested on an expansion of the concept of the "right to privacy." In other words, I thought that powerful people smiled on attempts to criminalize abortion as a step in the creation of a surveillance state. (I also thought that, by thinking this, I was being more clear-sighted than most people.) What I didn't realize was that this idea rested on three incorrect assumptions: first, that people in power care about laws and judicial decisions in any capacity beyond PR when necessary; second, that the surveillance state is an end in itself rather than one part of a multi-tiered system of resource extraction; and third, that power's interest in controlling reproduction started and stopped with Roe v. Wade (and, therefore, incidentally was only concerned with abortion itself). My introduction to anarchist analysis wiped out the first assumption, my increasing knowledge of class struggle and the true nature of civilization itself wiped out the second, and, the past few years of chipping away at reproductive freedom in creative ways while leaving Roe nominally intact wiped out the third. I started to think--my god, is this actually a case of people in power objecting to something on purely moral grounds?

Well, of course it isn't. By thinking so, I was without realizing it still thinking in terms of the first faulty assumption. When power makes laws against a certain behavior, they don't do it to keep everyone from engaging in that behavior; they do it to keep the wrong people from engaging in it. Making laws that restrict reproductive freedom will never stop powerful people from controlling their own reproduction--but it does take the reproduction of the lower classes out of lower class women's hands.

And why does power care about this? It's because the exploitation of a class of people isn't a one-time thing; it's an ongoing process which requires the ongoing reproduction of that class. Of course it is in power's interest to take control over that reproduction away from the people responsible for it, the people who historically used to have control over it--women. When the ruling classes, as Federici puts it, "reduce women to wombs," they do it to make sure that people get born at the rate they need.

Of course, after all these words I'm still oversimplifying this, and there are all kinds of quibbles and caveats that could be made, not to mention the fact that I've only--so far--looked at one aspect, the directly biological, of what Marxist analysis calls the "reproduction of labor." But the overall point is honestly kind of a simple one: power faced a crisis in the 15th and 16th centuries; it faced another in the 19th century; and it faces another now,* and it is reacting in very similar ways. One of those ways, indeed one of the pillars that capitalist power rests upon, is the subjugation of women.

*That the first two crises were caused in large part by popular revolution and the current one is caused more by the fact that power is almost done burning through everything this planet was generous enough to give us, is of course extremely important, but not right now for the purposes of this discussion.

More coming; if you want to look at all of the quotes I pulled from Federici's extremely important book before I get around to discussing them, they're all on the Commonplace.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trivial observation

People travel a lot in 19th century novels.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Of limited interest, very long, written for my own entertainment; feel free to skip

For reasons unrelated to what I usually write about here, I've been reading a lot of science fiction criticism lately. Some of it has been great (Joanna Russ*), some of it has been entertainingly awful (the dunderheaded blowhard Kingsley Amis**), some of it has been so unrelated to what I'm interested in as to be, through no fault of its own, just kind of dull (Algis Budrys***), and then some of it has just been utterly, unredeemably awful. I give you M. Keith Booker's Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964.

*Whose critical ideas are not quite what I would have expected from reading her fiction, in a fascinating way.
**Who, just as an example, in his
New Maps of Hell blithely states as if he were unaware of saying something remotely controversial--or just plain wrong--that H.G. Wells' writing is entirely apolitical!
***Even though his
Who? is one of my very favorite novels. His understanding of what he did in that book is very different from mine.

After an absurdly lengthy introduction (taking up well over 15% of the book) that consists of nothing other than a bunch of utterly standard scene-setting about the social milieu of the American 1950s (McCarthyism! Fear! The nuclear family! The Bomb!), material I literally cannot imagine any potential reader of this book being unfamiliar with and to which Booker adds less than nothing, he finally gets around to discussing SF and makes a big hash of it.

He introduces this section on Asimov by asserting that that writer is a "notoriously bad stylist." This is admittedly a very common view among those who don't read much SF (and among those unfortunate SF fans who, I can only surmise, have far too much of that silly literary jealousy that still taints so much of the SF world), but it would be nice if, just once, a critical study that explicitly intends to take the SF of the 50s seriously would dare to, you know, like the SF of the 50s, rather than condescend to it. Booker makes matters worse by saying that Asimov's style and plotting in the Foundation trilogy reveal the work's origins in "fanzine culture." First, it is quite a shock to me to learn that Astounding (now Analog), where all of the stories that ended up being "fixed up" into the trilogy were originally published, and which is one of the best-known, longest lived professional SF magazines, is a "fanzine." This is not an insignificant mistake. For another--again, stop condescending to the field. Though the phenomenon was largely over before I was born, the SF fanzines were to all appearances the home to fantastically brilliant writing far more often than not.

Anyway, after ensuring that no one could think for a moment that he respected the work he's discussing, and after discussing the technology-boosterism of Foundation (which is of course present in the books, though I strongly disagree with Booker's interpretation of it), Booker gives us this, which I am quoting at length from pages 32-33:
A similar pro-technology theme was central to Asimov's robot fiction, including such novels as The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957), which combine science fiction with detective fiction. In such works, Asimov addressed a number of issues related to artificial intelligence long before it became a technological possibility, again ultimately endorsing robots as aids to humanity.

Asimov's famed Laws of Robotics presumably ensured the benevolent nature of his robots, though even he occasionally depicted renegade robots, as in The Caves of Steel. Thus, his robots represented particularly comforting visions of Otherness: easily distinguished from human beings, but entirely pro-human in their behavior. Such useful, but lovable, machines would eventually culminate in the charmingly chubby robot of the Lost in Space television series of the mid-1960s. Other science fiction writers were not necessarily so benevolent, and writers such as Dick, in works such as Dr. Futurity (1960), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and We Can Build You (published in 1972, but written in 1962), would eventually extend the robot theme in the postmodernist direction of android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans by all but specially trained experts. Such creatures, of course, precisely reversed Asimov's assurances, blurring the boundary between the animate and the inanimate and introducing the frightening (especially in the 1950s) possibility that technology might advance to the point where we cannot tell ourselves from our own machines.
On reading this, I feel the urge to congratulate Booker for having read someone else's facile criticism of Asimov, and also to ask him if he's ever read any Asimov.

I have few major objections to the first paragraph, though I would argue that what Asimov "ultimately endorses" in the robot novels is the attitude of making the best you can out of uniformly unbearable options rather than all technology all the time (after all, it is the high technology of industrial civilization that has led Earth to the crisis it finds itself in in the novels), though I freely admit that even Asimov might possibly disagree with me there.

But after that, sheesh. First of all, the Three Laws never "ensured the benevolent behavior" of the robots; from the very beginning the whole point of the robot stories was to find ways that the Three Laws, which were constructed to appear as a foolproof method of ensuring the harmlessness of the robots, could be logically shown to fail. Second, I challenge Booker to find me even one "renegade robot" in Caves. Seriously, just one. Booker first underestimates Asimov by suggesting his portrayal of robots is simple-minded, then underestimates him again by suggesting he cannot even stay mildly consistent to his supposedly simple-minded vision.

Third, the robots have never been uncomplicatedly "comforting"; though Asimov does indeed tend to fall on the side of "it's silly to be afraid of these things," they are always presented as problematic, controversial, and uncanny. On this point Booker is not so much wrong as overly simple-minded, possibly as a result of assuming, as I have mentioned, that his subject is similarly simple-minded.

It continues. The next clause, the "easily distinguished from human beings" one, makes me wonder if he has read either Caves or Sun at all, considering that one of the two main characters in both books is R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot who looks exactly, and acts almost exactly, like a human. And this is not a small point--major plot developments in both novels depend precisely upon most people's inability to distinguish him from a human. To complete Booker's sentence, Olivaw is indeed "entirely pro-human" in his behavior; however, the way in which he is so is, importantly, as perceived from a robot's perspective and, again, far from "comforting."

Suggesting that the Robot from Lost in Space--or anything having to do with that show, for that matter--is a "culmination" of Asimov's work is tantamount to slander, as well as ignoring the obvious fact that that robot is plainly a dumbed-down version of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and nothing else.

As far as the comments on Dick go, I would argue that he is, in the end, if anything more "benevolent" than Asimov, but that is a probably contentious opinion, and I suppose I cannot fault Booker for disagreeing. However, the idea that Dick "extended" the idea of robots, while true, is not true in the way Booker suggests, for as I have already mentioned, Asimov's robots are frequently "android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans by all but specially trained experts," which experts as a matter of fact make explicit, pivotal appearances in both Asimov novels under discussion. Again, I can't help but wonder if Booker has even bothered to take the most cursory of peeks at the books he's discussing.

The "observation" of Dick's "blurring the boundary between the animate and the inanimate" where Asimov supposedly failed to gives me the opportunity to point out that, throughout this whole "analysis," Booker misses completely the fact that what Asimov did in his robot stories was to present, and then problematize, the concept of tools that were also characters (without bringing in the complicating issue of real-world slavery, i.e., tools that are also humans, which we can regard as a strength or a weakness as we please), thus enabling him to seamlessly dramatize the traditional SFnal concern with "the idea as hero," as countless commentators have put it. (This concern, incidentally, seems to be one of the things that presents non-SF readers with the most difficulty when approaching SF, and I suspect that that is one of the problems here.*)

*I have a theory, which I can't figure out where to place so it's gonna go here, that the only reason Booker ever thought about SF in the first place was Fredric Jameson's praise of cyberpunk, and now that baby's all grown up and trying to think for himself he doesn't know how to.

Finally, where previous points caused me to wonder if Booker has deigned to glance at Asimov's books, the end of this passage makes me wonder if he's even bothered to read his own book. After listing Dick novels published in 1960, 1968, and 1972, he then discusses their concerns as being particularly topical in the 1950s. Note again the dates of publication of the books listed. Even if we grant Booker the "long fifties" of 1946-1964, which I am eminently willing to do, only one of the three books listed was published in this period. One out of three ain't bad, I guess?

(I need hardly mention that "the frightening...possibility that technology might advance to the point where we cannot tell ourselves from our own machines" is everpresent in Asimov, though from a different point of view than it is present in Dick. Speaking of that difference, throughout what I've written here I have not meant to suggest that there is little difference between Dick and Asimov; the difference is of course huge. It also happens to be completely unrelated to what Booker seems to think it is.)

After I read that section, I decided that this book would not be important to me and that I would just skim through the rest to see if he said anything interesting about other books I was familiar with, upon which I found that Booker, in his slavish devotion to dogmatic, prescriptive, predictive Marxism, thought it was a good idea to analyze the wonderful Clifford D. Simak's beautiful agrarian SF, practically unique in the field, for signs of the author's affiliation as either "left-wing" or "right-wing," inevitably leading to Booker's dismissal of him as "muddled." This to me was the ultimate, unforgivable example of sheer stupidity and voluntary incomprehension (i.e., he's anti-capitalist, but he's not a utopian Marxist, so he must be a stupid mess!), and I decided that no, I was not missing anything by not reading another word.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Boorman after dark

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sometimes I laugh out loud just to crack my face

Enjoy: Chumbawamba's "Rappoport's Testament: I Never Gave Up"

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stolen context

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, page 10:
By the end of 1986...I left Nigeria, in body if not in spirit. But the thought of the attacks launched on the Nigerian people never left me. Thus, the desire to restudy "the transition to capitalism" has been with me since my return. I had read the Nigerian events through the prism of 16th-century Europe. In the United States, it was the Nigerian proletariat that brought me back to the struggles over the commons and the capitalist disciplining of women, in and out of Europe. Upon my return, I also began to teach in an interdisciplinary program for undergraduates where I confronted a different type of "enclosure": the enclosure of knowledge, that is, the increasing loss, among the new generations, of the historical sense of our common past. This is why in Caliban and the Witch I reconstruct the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages and the struggles by which the European proletariat resisted the advent of capitalism. My goal in doing so is not only to make available to non-specialists the evidence on which my analysis relies, but to revive among younger generations the memory of a long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving this historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths.
I quote this little bit of Federici's introduction because it brings up an extremely important point, what she refers to here as "the enclosure of knowledge," what I described a few hours ago in conversation with the Baronette and my parents as "our hidden shared history" and as "stolen context."

Most Americans, I imagine, if they think about capitalism at all, think of it as a pretty good thing--we've been trained pretty well to associate it with "freedom," whatever that is. In the even unlikelier, rarer situation where we think about it in relation to feudalism, the system that preceded it, we're most likely to think of it as an improvement. Feudalism, we feel, became untenable, its cruelties unbearable, and it was replaced by the more enlightened system of capitalism. We think this because the more accurate history, that capitalism was developed by the powerful in response to (for a time very successful) anti-feudal struggles on the part of the powerless--i.e., that capitalism was in fact created as a bloody, intercontinental counter-revolution--this history has been concealed from us.* Our knowledge of where today came from has been stolen. Without this context, most of us are utterly unable to figure out what the hell is happening.

*Not to mention that the counter-revolution is of course still actively ongoing today, part of which is what Federici is referring to when she talks about Nigeria. Without the context of our own past, it is harder to understand what is happening elsewhere in the world, and harder not just to feel but to recognize the urgency of solidarity.

The Baronette told me about an article she read (I don't have a link, but I'm sure if you throw a brick you'll hit an article like it) criticizing the rioters in England for looting "the commons." That businesses of any kind--and chain stores, no less!--can be referred to as "the commons" with a straight face is a sure sign of how completely they have disconnected us from our history. To me, "stealing" from a corporation is one of the most noble, not to mention pragmatic, acts available to us in our circumscribed lives. But I am only able to think this because I have been made aware that once upon a time--not that long ago, relatively--things were different. Once you're aware of that, you can realize that it is the corporations who have been stealing and continue to steal from us, not vice versa.

More on this, and on Federici, hopefully to come.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A question in a tangentially related context

As we enjoy the leisurely day off from work The Baronette has been granted in celebration of horrible screaming mass death, I'm also pondering this:

Which is more decadent: to be decadent and unaware of being so, or to be decadent and aware of it?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Crock Pot King

In general I have a hard time being interested in reading the crusty fathers of anarchism,* but I recently attempted to read Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, with the thought that, being a biology book with political implications rather than explicitly political, and being on a topic that hugely interests me, it would be, well, interesting.

*The mothers would be a different matter, if I would ever get around to them...

Not only was it not, it was also startlingly clear (and in retrospect, I should have expected this) that Kropotkin was a, y'know, European nobleman. Is all of his stuff like this? Why do people like him? It was just plain icky to read! I only made it about 75 pages in and called it quits.*

*After reading what I'm about to discuss, I found myself with little stomach for what would have been the next two sections, entitled "Mutual Aid Among Savages" and "Mutual Aid Among the Barbarians,"** which of course contrast with the shared title of the final chapters, "Mutual Aid Among Ourselves."
**No I don't know why barbarians get a definite article and savages don't.

Here's a bit from shortly before page 75:
All that natural selection can do in times of calamities is to spare the individuals endowed with the greatest endurance for privations of all kinds. So it does among the Siberian horses and cattle. They are enduring; they can feed upon the Polar birch in case of need; they resist cold and hunger. But no Siberian horse is capable of carrying half the weight which a European horse carries with ease; no Siberian cow gives half the amount given by a Jersey cow...
So we will note here that the "quality" of the animals under discussion is judged solely on the basis of their utility to humans, and not to the animals themselves. Eating Polar birch and resisting cold and hunger sounds like a pretty good life for a horse in Siberia! But since they can't carry as much as other horses, an ability totally lacking in any purpose for the horse itself, pragmatic or recreational, Kropotkin judges them evolutionarily inferior. I mean, !!?!?

Unfortunately he continues, removing as he does the "sub" from the scientific racism subtext:
...and no natives of uncivilized countries can bear a comparison with Europeans. They may better endure hunger and cold, but their physical force is very far below that of a well-fed European, and their intellectual progress is despairingly slow.
Ha ha ha! Hey, Kropotkin, let's drop you alone in an "uncivilized country" in the cold and see how your wealthy Russian gentleman's style of intellectual progress helps you have a good time. Here also, though he does not state it explicitly, he is still considering the beasts of the field in terms of their use to people like him; for with neither the physical force to perform endless slave labor nor the "intellectual progress" to participate in the mummery of western civ, your average native is just going to go to waste, living a life of their own choosing and maybe even enjoying it, shudder to think.

Then there's this on the next page. For context, he's talked about ants farming aphids before, and he just loves how they've tamed the wilderness they live in! They're almost as good as people!
Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. In the great struggle for life--for the greatest possible fulness and intensity of life with the least waste of energy--natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible. The ants combine in nests and nations; they pile up their stores, they rear their cattle--and thus avoid competition; and natural selection picks out of the ants' family the species which know best how to avoid competition, with its unavoidably deleterious consequences.
Note please that the aphids are completely left out of this consideration. (I should note before I go on that from what I understand of it, using the word "farming" is misleading in the case of ants and aphids, who seem to have a much more, OH HO!, mutual relationship than that, but within Kropotkin's text he approaches the phenomenon, though he doesn't put it in these terms, as being entirely exploitative.) Yes, the ants have it good, in Kropotkin's telling of it. They keep their stores of aphids around to supply them with all the sugary shit they want! Freed from the labor of gathering food, they get to relax and spend their time developing a life of the mind. They don't compete! They cooperate! Liberté, égalité, fraternité! And (again, in Kropotkin's skewed accounting of the ant/aphid relationship), as with the human bourgeoisie, it appears that it's equality for me and not for thee, and as a matter of fact thee hardly existeth. Kropotkin's interpretation of the ants and the aphids is remarkably similar to your average civilized man's attitude towards all of the labor we, especially since the 1600s or so, "outsource" to slaves and colonies and wage workers and women and immigrants and so on--remarkable perhaps especially in how equally unaware Kropotkin (like your average bourge) seems to be, for all his anarchism and supposed sympathy for the lower orders, of the injustice in both situations.