Sunday, January 31, 2010

One-Dimensional Woman

One-Dimensional Woman, by Nina Power- a philosophy professor and blogger- is an incisive work of feminist cultural critique. Power’s book makes important connections between mainstream trends in feminism and contemporary capitalism and raises important questions. It also reminds me of The Baffler with its compelling use of academic theory for compact, lucid, trenchant and hilarious screeds against mass culture, ideology and contemporary capitalism.

An example of these elements can be seen in the way Power frames the underlying issues of the book:

“Did the desires of 20th century woman’s liberation achieve their fullfilment in the shopper’s paradise of ‘naughty’ self-pampering, playboy bunny pendant and bikini waxes? That the height of supposed female emancipation coincides so perfectly with consumerism is a miserable index of a politically desolate time. Much contemporary feminism, however, particularly in its American formulation, doesn’t seem too concerned about this coincidence and this short book is partly an attack on the apparent abdication of any systematic political thought on the part of today’s positive, up-beat feminists. It suggests alternative ways of thinking about transformations in work, sexuality and culture that, while seemingly far-fetched in the current ideological climate, may provide more serious material for a feminism of the future.”

Power moves to examine these issues from the perspective of two stated contentions: (1) “I contend that much of the rhetoric of both consumerism and contemporary feminism is a barrier to any genuine thinking of work, sex and politics…what looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles” (2) One-Dimensional Woman starts from the premise that we cannot understand anything about what contemporary feminism might be if we neglect to pay attention to specific changes in work and the way in which ‘feminism’ as a term has come to be used by those who would traditionally have been regarded as the enemies of feminism.” Both reflect the underlying viewpoint and methodology Power utilizes through out her work; post-humanist Marxism. (what I mean by this will become clear below)

The first few sections provide evidence of Power’s first contention. Her chapters on Sarah Palin and the Hawkish and Mawkish use of feminism to condone the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, show how this appropriation of feminism unites the “imperialist language of liberation with the techniques of war.

Her later chapters on labour puts forward a compelling counter-argument: rather then work liberating women, neo-liberal labour has turned the male and female workforce into behaving according to traditionally feminine character traits by annihilating the division between work and free time and forcing you to function in your every waking hour like a pliant, flexible, constantly networking constantly advertising, perky resume for your occupation.

Power further argues that this type of work has extensive consequences for how women relate to their body as well as feminist critiques based on the idea of objectification. Since, Power argues, your body has become has become a cv, “Girls Gone Wild” is paradigmatic of neo-liberal labour which has pernicious and insidious consequences for subjectivity. In work, then, you;

“give up something obviously crap in exchange for a kind of performance that reveals that there is nothing subjective, nothing left, hidden behind the appearance, that you simply are commensurate with your comportment in the world. You are your breasts.”

Consequently, Power argues that many contemporary women always already objectify parts of their body, viewing them as wholly separate entities. This causes here to raise the question “whether the language of objectification is still useful because it depends on a minimal subjective dimension which may no longer exist in the modern world with no separation between the private world and the job” So, that “if feminism is to have a future, it has to recognize the new ways in which life and existence are colonized by new forms of domination that go far beyond objectification as it used to be understood.” (here is the post-humanism, questioning whether a substance known as human nature exists below this colonization)

Power offers some of her own suggestions for the future of feminism through film. She proposes identifying candidates by offering the following grounds: does it have at least 2 women in it? who at some point talk to each other ? about something besides a man, marriage or babies? Which leads her to compare Sex and the City, which she characterizes as a sort of consumerist quasi-religious film about searching for “The One”, with Daises, which is of course amazing. She also advocates revisiting the potential of early pornography with its liberatory notions of bodies, sexuality and possibility as a contrast with the modern porn industry and the sexuality of hyper-capitalism.

She concludes, by restating the importance of feminism has for showing the connection between household labour, reproductive labour and paid labour and argues that contemporary feminism should re-invision how the three relate along the lines of Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.

In all, I found One-Dimensional Woman to be entertaining, provocative and illuminating. While it is true that the critique’s Power offers are far more fully fledged then her proposals (although to be fair this is a defect of the school of philosophy she is working in) and her targets only focus on what are perhaps the most egregious easy targets, I still find myself in full agreement with her contentions and premises and intrigued by her proposals. As Power uses a wealth of other scholarship, One-Dimension Woman is also a good resource for further reading.


Tobi Vail said...

sounds like a second-waver theorizing about a generation gap. while the so-called third wave does have its consumerist side, that's not all it is and much of its critique of the second wave was necessary, expansive and vital --especially insofar as it offers a (theoretically) more inclusive, less exclusive model--to retreat to The Dialectic of Sex is not a step forward, with its limits and flaws, though I agree, we do need a critique of capitalism...

That said, I'll check it out one of these days but I don't have much patience for high-theory at the moment.

What I'd like to see is a critique of capitalism in plain, everyday language. bell hooks comes the closes to that, but it's still unclear. I thought Michael Moore's last film would be helpful but it wasn't. I liked the movie but it didn't define capitalism!

Tobi Vail said...

Not to sound too negative, this sounds interesting Chris. I am just being reactionary, again!

Thanks for your contribution to the Bumpidee Reader.

I am just trying to be pragmatic and expressing a gut reaction here.

CO said...

thanks for your response. i love writing for the bumpidee reader and dig how yr reactionary negativy makes me think.

I don't know much about feminist theory, but I am interested in what you wrote, so can you answer these questions; what is more theoretically inclusive about 3rd wave feminism? what do you mean by high-theory? (is third wave feminism high-theory?) and while were at it where does bell hooks come closest to a plain everyday critique of capitalism and what do you think a plain, everyday language critique of capitalism would look like and focus on?

incidentally, perhaps i should have stressed that power's book only engages with mainstream appropriations of feminism and doesn't really engage with feminist theory, which is perhaps why the dialect of sex is presented as a radical alternative. altho there, to be fair to power, i should have stressed that what she emphasized wasnt a return to it but drawing on how it reinvisioned sex and the family for contemporary feminist theory to do so.

Tobi Vail said...

I don't know the answers to your questions off the top of my head, but maybe sometime in the future I'll sit down and think about them. I'm also gonna seek this book so that I can have a more informed opinion. Here's what I came up with briefly:

I actually don't think the wave theory of feminism is necessarily that useful, but was feeling lazy and generalizing.

At its best third wave feminism rejects the universalism of the category "woman" and upsets the gender binary. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought by Elizabeth Spellman (1988) was an influential text, as were bell hooks Feminist Theory From Margin to Center/ Ain't I A Woman and women of color anthologies such as This Bridge Called My Back and Making Face/Making Soul (both edited by Gloria Anzuald and Cherrie Moraga)...Angela Davis' Woman Race and Class was another late 80's book that was influential. Then there's Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, which takes a post-modern framework to destabilize gender as a category (not just questioning the usefulness of "woman", but challenging the whole framework)...the popular version of Third Wave is watered down, pop culture, knitting is cool/Bust magazine/burlesque/sex positive/identity politics that is compatible with individualism and consumerism and does not fundamentally challenge capitalism or necessarily include working class women/of color/moms/third world women/queer/transgender folks etc, instead it often reinforces patriarchy despite its "feminism".

How the one is related to the other is not unrelated to how Bikini Kill "influenced" the Spice Girls (not quite the right word, but you get my drift)

I still think that going back to The Dialectic of Sex would be a mistake, because if I remember correctly, that universalizes the category "woman" at its core (again, this is foggy in my brain as it's been 20 years since I read it)

By high theory I mean stuff that is written in a specialized language that needs a translator and can't stand on its own outside of a university setting. What I'm interested in is finding those translators. I don't oppose writing in a theoretical language, but I'm losing my patience with the lack of translators we have and the further I get away from my own college education, the harder it is to remember what all the terms mean.

I think that we urgently need a popular understanding of what capitalism is before the workers will be able to critique it. That is what I want from Michael Moore and I think in all of bell hooks writing, she attempts this, but it's still not solid. I can't do it either. I think this is the most important thing we can work towards as artists, as intellectuals, as activisits and as workers.

If we can't see and name these forces in plain language then how will they ever be dismantled?

CO said...


I didn't realize the third wave comprised what i would refer to as post-structuralist theory and bust, so i can see why you rightly question the usefulness of conflating it into a wave.

i also agree about the need for a popular understanding of capitalism. im in a rush so what follows probably wont make any sense;

i think there already is a popular critical understanding of capitalism but i don't think its understood as capitalism. what i mean by this is that people rightly feel they are alienated, dominated and objectified by forces they wrongly see as natural.

I don't think there is necessarily one way or one type of language to respond to this dilemna but think it might requires a number of different tactics and languages for the various types of workers that make up the capitalist division of labour.

in my world where i am currently teaching first year philosophy i try to do this by questioning their assumptions and using the language of high-theory. i hope this might cause the future professionals and middle class workers of the world to question the ideas they are brought up with, but i also realize using such a tactic is highly ineffective outside my world.

Regarding translation, at this point, I don't feel like I have enough of a grip on high theory to try translate it into plain language. I also question the usefulness of much of it, but do think the hegelian reading of marx provides a better description of capitalism then the mainstream understanding of marx. If I can come to grips with high theory and offer a critique of capitalism that fuses the hegelian reading of marx with the important points of the third wave and postcolonialism, then I'll feel like i've contributed something worthwhile to the world. but hopefully someone will beat me to it.

Tobi Vail said...

yeah, check it out: