Review: One dimensional woman - Nina Power

Review: One dimensional woman -  Nina Power

Feminism is back, and a new book sets out to help prevent it falling victim to the mistakes of the past, according to Tom Jennings

Throwing the Babe Out With the Bathwater. Book review – Tom Jennings
The politics of feminism seemed by the 1990s to have lost momentum. Legal recognitions of theoretical ‘equal rights’ meant younger generations assumed that their lives would be less heavily constrained than their mothers’ – yet despite accelerations in fenale employment rates in all sectors and the growing sophistication of consumerist wish-fulfilment, individual and institutional violence against and marginalisation of women stay stubbornly prevalent, with today’s rapidly deteriorating prospects globally impacting disproportionately on them. Meanwhile feminism’s central debates remained vexingly unresolved – such as the disputed significance of pornography and media representation, with Andrea Dworkin’s interpretation of virtually all heterosexual practice as tantamount to rape, leading to support for right-wing censorship, counterposed to the laissez-faire embrace of diversity encouraging the practical exploration of possibilities for personal empowerment. Such impasses were reinforced by accusations that feminism had failed ‘women in general’ in favour of white, middle-class women pursuing and jealously guarding their own privileges – inevitably downplaying the significance of class and race in domination.

Nevertheless liberal democracy’s irrevocably broken promises precipitate systemic gender-skewed consequences at home and abroad – rape as military tactic, sexual slavery, migrant hyperexploitation – magnifying many issues that the supposedly uncool, outdated Women’s Libbers campaigned around. Mainstream political currents appear unwilling or unable to respond to such phenomena, prompting a plethora of organisational and publishing efforts by new feminist networks blending old hacks and young blood. Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009) is a welcome contribution to this recent resurgence – a short, cleverly structured, well-argued, and often extremely witty tract aiming to serve as a provocative corrective to some of its more simplistic and superficial variants as well as insisting on the necessity of historical and materialist analysis if worthwhile progress is to be made. Starting from Herbert Marcuse’s insights into postwar developments in consumer capitalism – where the marketisation of desire claims to satisfy human needs but actually imprisons ‘one-dimensional’ citizens more effectively in alienated relations – Power critically examines various popular (mis)conceptions of feminism to suggest “alternative ways of thinking about transformations in work, sexuality and culture” (back cover).

Observing wryly that, for some, “the height of supposed female emancipation coincides [...] perfectly with consumerism” (p1), the book’s first section problematises the ‘right to choose’ given the degraded language of official political discourse. A discussion of Sarah Palin harks back to Thatcherism and support for women in power, emphasising the inherent unreliability of ‘representation’ when ‘feminism’ is mobilised to support imperialist aggressions like the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. Racist bombast against the Islamic hijab then expresses outrage that women ‘choose’ to conceal their bodies and reject demands for compulsive display as precondition for acceptable public presence. Subsequent chapters represent the core of Power’s arguments about the feminisation of labour, where flexible, part-time, low-paid, precarious work uncannily echoes both the suffocating history of women’s domestic enclosure and the bright new future of informational and affective labour. Meanwhile personal identity shifts towards infinitely measurable visibility, classification and disciplining of characteristics and skills complementing fragmented remnants of subjectivity and desire matched to consumer products and lifestyle positioning.

With simulated appearance experienced as essence of self in this new cultural context, personal biography merely aggregates tastes and shopping habits coinciding with labour market career value as the active commitment to be and do whoever and whatever you’re told. Sexual subjectification supplants old-fashioned objectification, providing extra ammunition to demolish modern versions of upbeat feminist boosterism where feelgood individualism replaces struggle for substantive collective improvement. The argument is then extended to depictions of women in popular entertainment genres, which also largely boil down to the hard work of superficial self-presentation combined with rather ancient fantasies of romantic completion as the illusory pay-off. Discussion thus effortlessly proceeds to a consideration of contemporary pornography, understood as an epitomy of the relentlessly boring drudgery of industrialised labour posing as final fulfilment. Here, even more nakedly than in other realms of neoliberal misery, sexualised, feminised workers – irrespective of onscreen dominance or subservience – ‘freely choose’ to perform perfunctory service to the pointless extraction of surplus value.

Surprisingly, given its author’s historical enthusiasm, her only case-study comparison counterpoints modern hardcore’s grim pneumatics to the “anarchic charm” (p52) of early twentieth-century French vintage – with cheerfully imperfect casts, physical and behavioural heterogeneity and, above all, a preponderance of compassionate humour. However, she doesn’t interrogate its sex workers’ terms and conditions, upmarket screening sites or narrative relationships with contemporaneous genres like working-class burlesque (the latter excoriated elsewhere for its latterday middle-class pole-dancing manifestation) – let alone older French traditions such as porn’s intrinsic role in Revolutionary propaganda against clergy and aristocracy. Still, as in the other comparably truncated shorthand expositions, the conclusions reliably nail crucial points – in this case, that the political significance of pornographies can only be assessed in terms of the social relations accompanying their sexual contortions. Otherwise alternative moral absolutisms favour reactionary repression or the predatory free market (or both), either way inexorably leading to judgmental discrimination against those with least power to effect change – at the lowest levels of production and consumption not only in the sex industry but all other sectors reproducing capitalist society.

Unfortunately One Dimensional Woman fails to explore the prejudicial class-based criteria underlying such moral evaluations – in new and old feminisms and most everywhere else in the bourgeois ideological firmament – also prominent in present legitimisations of austerity.* This could have usefully informed the final chapters investigating earlier incarnations of sexual and lifestyle radicalism which tackled the connections between family, community and political change, but instead only an extended final quotation from Toni Morrison decisively makes “the link between sex and politics ... that capitalism needs to obfuscate in order to hide its true dependency on the ordering and regulation of reproduction” (p58). Even so this excellent book does succeed overall in making the case that, while a revitalised feminism stands a chance of re-establishing “the link between household labor, reproductive labor and paid labor, capitalism [along, we might add, with most purportedly anticapitalist ideologies] ... pretend[s] that the world of politics has nothing to do with the home” (p59).

* see Variant magazine, No. 39/40, 2010 (www.variant.org.uk). This also cripples two influential ‘new wave’ feminist books – Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (Simon & Schuster, 2005) and Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls (Virago, 2010; reviewed in Freedom, 17th July, 2010). For example, Levy misses the proletarianisation of the professions and its corollary ‘vulgarisation’ of middle class conduct – with ‘raunch culture’ parttly defence against alienation as much as crass consumerist response, yet still viewed with superior distaste. Similarly, among her massed ranks of dispiriting statistics on ‘the new sexism’ and ‘the new gender determinism’, Walter pays lip service to moralisation’s pitfalls but consistently interprets from exactly that perspective. So, for example, although many young women ‘might consider’ sex industry work or believe it to be ‘acceptable’ (cue shock horror), this might merely indicate realism about dire job prospects and a principled refusal to morally shame those acting accordingly.

For the implications of such class blindness see the work of Beverley Skeggs: ‘Respectability and Resistance’ [interview] (Redemption Blues, 2006 (www.redemptionblues.com); ‘On the Economy of Moralism and Working-Class Properness’ [interview] (Fronesis, 2008 (www.eurozine.com); Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable (Sage, 1997), and Class, Self, Culture (Routledge, 2004; reviewed in Freedom, 11th February 2006).

Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 1, January 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk