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.