This post contains letters that 2 comrades wrote reflecting on the Journal LIES.
Princess Mob reviewed LIES here
EVERYTHING WE WRITE WILL BE USED AGAINST US
Nancy was reading LIES #1 and thought of her friend Nick’s thinking about love and the family, so she asked him what he thought of the journal. Here’s their letters to each other in turn.
I have been reading the Lies journal intermittently since you said you’d be interested in my thoughts about it. While you will see that I’ve concentrated on my criticisms of the Journal articles, I hope you appreciate my intention is to be constructive, to respond to your request in an attempt to develop our understanding and commonality – to help produce love. As you say, the Journal is “a provocative and important engagement within Marxist thought.” While I appreciated much of it, my main concerns are the use value of some of the provocations and the potential reinforcement of problematic areas of Marxist/militant thought.
As a provocation it clearly works and at times I wondered how much of the contents was in fact satire. For a number of the articles my general criticism would be that, as with much Marxist work, there is too much concentration on subsumption, the power of patriarchy/capital, and the resulting despair. Much of my own writing aims to counter/challenge this tendency. So here are a few thoughts about some of the articles.
Undoing Sex: Against Sexual Optimism
Unlike C.E., I’m not opposed to ‘sexual optimism’; I don’t think it’s ineffective, that it’s been totally appropriated or “defanged”. Of course this optimism does exist alongside shame and silence and can play a “part in the broader production of sex and gender.” However, I think it can be useful. This doesn’t mean I believe in an essential goodness to sex, nor do I wish to champion the “work of fucking.” Rather I want to help develop optimism in relation to the communist work of making love. C.E. says the object of the essay is “to disrupt the attachment to sex as it has lived in feminism and popular imagination.” However, while the essay contains some important critique of various understandings of gender and sex, it seems to me the author posits a limited understanding of both feminism and popular imagination.
For instance, there is much more to actions like Slut Walk than: “Using a rhetoric of personal agency, this sexual ethic of reclamation emphasises the ability of the individual subject to attain a non-alienated state, not even through especially political means.” And I know of no feminists who believe “All that is required is a lack of shame about sex and some control over how one wants to be fucked.” Or that: “We can gain liberation from what is ostensibly ‘our’ enforced frigidity and shame by performing whore instead of virgin, choosing a sexy outfit for our man as an act of revolution.” While actions like Slut Walks and much of the queer culture/praxis that C.E. highlights is problematic, it’s also problematic to deny the positive aspects of such activities. None-the-less, I agree with the argument that we must move beyond our selves, identities and our current subjectivities by continually embracing a process of becoming. However, this shouldn’t involve a rejection/destruction of everything that exists.
Where CE explains that: “Throughout all of this thought there remains a common thread: a faith in a good sex, a sex that is ‘just’ sex and outside of exploitation, being already manifest on earth or to be brought about by our actions,” I am reminded of my discussion of an ‘outside of exploitation’ in Live by the River. I realise that for many, sex is framed/experienced as inconsolable pain. However, there is more to our struggle than the ‘anti-project’ of “abolishing the present state of things”. Sexual liberation, like revolution more generally, will remain unfinished and we will continue to be involved in constant struggles, not aiming to reach “a state of nature just below the surface” but developing processes of becoming more liberated, and making more love.
C.E. poses an either/or argument that fails to recognise how actions that “engender a better quality of life or more agency for individuals or communities” can help to “crack the material base of patriarchy.” The argument that: “What drives us towards having sex, in the here and now, is something determined by the flows of power and economic structures that produce us as “women,” “men,” “trans,” “straight,” etc.” And that: “Alienated and proletarianised” we are faced with “an endless field of touch, affect, craving, survival, and power relations, produced and mediated by our material conditions,” overstates the power of patriarchy/capital and restricts our view of the proletariat and its power.
It was interesting to see C.E. explain that “sex must be understood as something inextricably determined by notions of value. In sex’s bluntest formation, some bodies produce value — be it babies, satisfaction, beauty, sense of self, etc. — and other bodies reap the benefit of such value in the exchange of sex. Sex is one moment, among many, that bodies become transformed into a substance to be “enjoyed,” that is, consumed.” As you may recall in my thesis, and elsewhere I have challenged the one sided view of value. Value cannot be understood in general. The multitude creates a variety of proletarian use values with class struggle over capitalist/communist value occurring throughout society.
Patriarchy has responded to challenges to sexual oppression by creating the illusion that alienated sex is sexual freedom. The relaxing of sexual repression, the freeing up of sexual mores, has also made way for sexual practices that mask a deeper repression – the repression of love making. This repression divides and separates the multitude, presenting love and sex as centred on ownership and control, teaching people to treat each other as possessions and commodities. But, as patriarchy and capitalism have turned love into sex, and sex into pornography, autonomous movements have responded by rescuing love from commodification, expanding its space, moving beyond patriarchal relationships. By practicing alternative ways of living in common, these experiments in loving show that people can resist and defy isolation, estrangement and impersonality and build togetherness, affinity and commonalities.
C.E. provocatively states: “There is then some truth in the phrase . . . that “all sex is rape.” Although going on to say that sex and rape can be different and modifying the statement to “rape is implicated in all forms of sex”. This provocation seems dangerous to me in at least two ways. Firstly, I think the majority of women see a clear difference between many sex acts and rape. To conflate them denies this experience and sends a worrying message to potential rapists. I am also reminded of the time I joined a women’s liberation march in the 1970s to be confronted by a prominent banner declaring ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’. If “there is no true absence of force, nothing to ‘consent’ to that isn’t on the terms of male power” and the “imagined integrity of the perfectly consenting subject amounts to little more than a regulatory principle of rape,” then all sexually active hetro men are rapists and this justifies the use of defensive violence against them.
According to C.E.: “The position of the feminine [is] she is fucked or beaten or ignored until she is crazy and like a crazy person believes in love” and then quotes Prakash Kona who writes, “the dispossessed of history are not guided by method but by madness; what will guide us is not an abstract longing, but the maddening, material, immediate need for something as impossible and otherworldly as liberation.”
At the end of the essay we have an admission of a tendency to violence: “Mostly I just hit and bite and scratch and get hit and bit and scratched but never ever with men.” And the desire for death: “Maybe it’s working because I know I’m not free and still want to die.” A vision limited to the hope that “I can turn my misery outward and feel like I have enough power to drag down something important with me.” An explicit lack of care about the position of others: “I imagine other people will do different things and say different things and justify their lives in different ways and I don’t really care. All I want for them is to destroy some things and not get in the way of destroying everything.” Only to realise at the end that: “‘Destruction’ isn’t quite right; patriarchy destroys enough and confusing destruction with communisation is deadly.”
Against the Couple-Form
This article sets the tone with the opening quote: “No more mothers, women and girls, let’s destroy the families!” Again, provocative, sure, useful, I don’t think so. I discussed the ‘destruction of the family’ strategy in my thesis and I still think we need to recognise the family as an arena of struggle and appreciate its use value to the proletariat, as billions of people already do.
I’m fairly confident that you, like me, don’t agree that: “The couple acts as a social form that requires women, in order to participate in whatever practice or domain they desire, to attach themselves to men via the couple mechanism.” And I’m pretty sure Sharon and Ella would find it reductive to argue that: “The couple mediates relations between women to the extent that they interact not to deepen their connection to each other, but to gossip about boys, to process their relationships with men, to trade technologies of femininity whereby they can improve their status with men. In this way, the couple-form haunts women when alone or with other women.” Although Cali may have more sympathy for this argument, given her recent experiences with a few of her high school friends.
It seems silly, or at best dated, to quote “Comrade Valerie Solanas [who] heeds the atomizing function of the couple: ‘Our society is not a community, but merely a collection of isolated family units. Desperately insecure, fearing his woman will leave him if she is exposed to other men or to anything remotely resembling life, the male seeks to isolate her from other men and from what little civilization there is, so he moves her out to the suburbs, a collection of self-absorbed couples and their kids.’” This is not to deny that many women stay “invested in the idea of romantic love as salvation, as the guiding principle against isolation and towards fulfillment.” Yet, many women have much greater understanding than this, while experiencing and hoping for genuine love. I was glad to see that Clemence X recognises that “dismantling the logic of the couple does not indicate distaste for love, but rather a critique of directing love towards a specific object.” Of course, I agree that: “To liberate love necessarily involves the abolition of patriarchy and capitalism” . . . “and the struggle against them will be a collective, historical project.” But I think it’s important to appreciate that ‘this project’ is already well developed and developing. We are not just confronted with a “pathetic, stillborn world.”
I much prefer Clemence’s suggestion to “make love” as a form of struggle than Solanas/SCUM’s idea of ‘couple-busting’. The ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’ was a provocation that suggested violence was necessary to destroy patriarchy. Clemence, like C.E., is unclear about love, at times advocating it, but finishing the article with “I strapped my boyfriend with homemade explosives and blew him up. His flesh spread everywhere. So did my affection. I’m sick of love. Let’s fall in politics.”
Letters to L: Paranoia and Visions
I can see why this article reminded you of my Japan piece.
“We know the radiation’s source, we know where the leak occurred. We can measure the levels at the site. But the further we get from the site, the more diffuse and dispersed the radiation becomes. We do not know how the force penetrates specific life-forms, how it alters their composition over time, how it contributes to a slow death years later. We know that there is a relationship between the radiation and the particular fates of those exposed – we can detect abnormal rates of illness – but we cannot trace it directly. Death and illness dispersed over time and space appear as purely individual destinies. This is the way that gender relations appear. Radiating, condensing, making ill.”
Yet, it’s important to remember that death, illness and gender relations only appear to be “purely individual destinies” and are often understood and experienced more clearly and collectively. “To embrace the gestures of the feminist” isn’t just “to live as a paranoid” because “the whole of society” doesn’t deny the truth of feminist perceptions. “The contradiction” isn’t only “a personal secret, something we must pretend not to perceive when in the presence of others.”
The affinity with my Japan piece stalls when I read the comparison; “There is no thing, no object called The Radiation that we can attack.” And: “There is no thing called Men that we can attack.” We further read that in response to male violence: “The beatings do not work, the accountability processes do not work, banishment does not work, forgiveness does not work.” Yet; “The fact that sometimes a woman chooses a violent response suggests that of all the impossible choices given to her, she has opted for the one that expresses the actual degree of hostility at the level of the social group – that is, the hostility of women as a group against the domination of men as a group.”
Describing the supporting connections of women as “sharing between the insane” in “terrible communities,” Sandovsky argues; “Brutally, we learn that in extricating ourselves from certain bonds we will make ourselves undesirable to men, and that this will make us utterly and finally invisible. We will lose many of our friendships with women. They will not want to be invisible, or undesirable. They will see how we look through the men’s eyes – ugly, hysterical, boring – and they will be repulsed. They will stop coming to our meetings. They will hate us much more than the men; we must be ready for that.” Although this is true, at times, we need to be careful about creating caricatures/generalisations of feminists, women and men. This really is paranoia and a sad vision of the power of women and the communities/safer spaces that women often build.
Women in uprising: The Oaxaca Commune, the State, and Reproductive Labour
There was much I appreciated about this article. However, again my concern is the idea encapsulated in the pull quote – “Then we were fighting two different fronts — the system, and the men inside our own movement.” Although this article acknowledges the problem within the movement was with “some men” and that some women ‘internalised patriarchy’ I feel it’s important that these understandings are more clearly articulated and explained. Not surprisingly I prefer the idea of fighting patriarchy than fighting men. This helps to remind me that men are different, their praxes/subjectivities are diverse and change, that women too can be patriarchal and that we need to empower people to create safer spaces for themselves and others and this involves trying to ensure that as much as possible conflict is centred on ideas and not people.
Since we are discussing workers inquiry elsewhere I will not respond here to Caring: A Labour of Stolen Time and I have only managed to read some of the Occupy article and haven’t yet had time to read the last few pieces.
Around the time I started reading Lies I also read Rebecca Solnit’s A Rape a Minute, a Thousand Corpses a Year. In the introduction to this powerful article on violence against women she says; “though virtually all the perpetrators of such crimes are men it doesn’t mean all men are violent. Most are not. In addition, men obviously also suffer violence, largely at the hands of other men, and every violent death, every assault is terrible.” Later in the article she asks; “What’s the matter with manhood? There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online and in the marches from New Delhi to San Francisco this winter. Increasingly men are becoming good allies – and there always have been some. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power.”
Solnit’s article is provocative, but in a way that I feel helps to build hope and common activity. Feminism is for everybody and violence is an issue we must all confront. However, there exist some sections of the movement of movements which seek to justify offensive violence. While there are no clear borders between different forms of violence I often use the Zapatistas as an example of defensive violence. Yet, when the Mexican Army went into their communities, killed unarmed people, tortured and raped, the Zapatistas stood firm to their strategy of non-violence. They fought with what they considered to be the best weapons they had, solidarity, the word, encounter, assembly, creativity and popular support. These are the weapons of constituent rather than constituted power.
I have also often referred to the work of Sara Ruddick, who explored the vulnerability of love and the loving interconnection of those confronting oppression in relation to the resistance to military dictatorship of Argentinean and Chilean women, the mothers of the disappeared. She highlights “the primacy of bodily life and the connectedness of self and other,” in a way similar to Hardt and Negri’s understanding of the common as a basis for resistance and alternative loving social relations. Fully aware that they faced rape, torture and murder by the regimes they opposed, these women shared their fears, made connections with others who shared these fears, and took collective action in affinity groups, publicly bringing “their bodies to bear against the state”. By resisting the violation of others’ bodies, these women politicised their loving relationships as their bodies became “instruments of non-violent power” that expressed “the necessity of love even amid terror”. As Ruddick explains, these women’s loving resistance was based on “common suffering” and on a collective concern for the plight of others.
I’m always wary of provocations that foster divisions and sectarianism and I reject the encouragement of offensive violence. Suffering, isolation, alienation and frustrations with attempting to go beyond symbolic opposition to the status quo can lead to a politics of despair, relying on provocation/violence. Love composes the multitude as a class, counters social isolation and powerlessness, and nurtures alternative relations, communities and movements. The praxes of love can include the couple, romance and the family, but is not confined to them. The reality and hope of moving beyond capitalism and of building lives in common, lies in love, in caring social connections, cooperation and mutual support.
Lots of Love
Gosh, I didn’t mean for you to spend so much energy on responding to me! While I feel guilty, of course I appreciate that you did. For now, I will just write about the first section of the Journal – C.E and CLÉMENCE X. CLEMENTINE´s articles and M Sandovsky’s Letters.
Satire or polemic, sometimes I can’t tell either. I think overall the writers draw some conclusions, or (despite efforts perhaps not to, actually do come to) suggest some strategies that I would problematise. While I think it’s completely fine that the writers made a collective decision not to spend their energies addressing men’s roles in class/feminist struggle, I came to thinking that perhaps flaws in their underlying and unaddressed conception of male subjectivity is the basis of some problematic conclusions – It leads to this “dead men can’t rape” argument. This offers little help.
When we come to the CLÉMENCE X. CLEMENTINE’s article on the couple form, we are told that women have practically no agency at all. Women’s relationships with each other, where they are acknowledged momentarily, are based entirely on gossip about men. I don’t have much time for any argument that renders people as desperate, helpless and singular subjects- and I think that’s where this article dangerously wanders, though I hope and assume that this was not the intention.
Perhaps you are wondering why I passed the journal on to you? Well to say a bit more on this, it’s rare that journals like this appear and that the collective is attempting a serious and ongoing engagement with Marx’s work is an effort that I respect. Though in parts of the journal I wonder if this engagement is sustained – I don’t see the point of picking bones with some notion of the true Marx, but rather I am interested in the novelty of this interpretation today.
So I want to mention some points that I think are useful. I think C.E’s ‘Undoing Sex – Against Sexual Optimism’ tries to make sense of where we are, and how we got here by engaging with and trying to understand various currents of feminism. But I think that there are some things that C.E doesn’t quite grasp in this piece. One person reading LIES with us made a useful comment, which I’ll paraphrase here – the second wavers lived a different time to us, a time of hope – it’s easy to critique them now, but we need to understand the context in which they were writing, when it actually appeared that things were changing. I’m not sure if it’s so useful to hold them responsible for capital’s response through neoliberal modes of governance.
I concur with C.E that it might be useful to “aim to reject all such valorizations of the subject, as in themselves good… In the history of US feminism, the subjectivities proposed as properly feminist have presented themselves as sometimes useful, but ultimately limits feminist movement must move beyond”. This conclusion, is a sensible contribution to a much-needed critique of identity politics, especially in queer scenes. It’s a shame that it is preceded by the critique of various actions, such as Slutwalk – which went as far as to conjure Sheila Jeffreys et al. to my mind, and as you say missed much of the positive aspects of these actions.
I think that the suggestion that sex itself is reproductive labour is worth thinking about. My mother would always tell me that to make a marriage work you have to put out once a week, even if you don’t really feel like it. For her, sex is part of the regular function of the household. Yes, I think we would agree that the class does things in its own interest and against capital’s interest- constantly, and as such, we work out ways to get laid and/or make love that suit everyone involved. To take my example, I can see that mum thinks that sex is in her interests and it’s ‘not that bad’. There is no outside in this case, no pure space where sex happens outside of the practicalities of her life. Of course, and I hope that, there are times when she really does feel like sex – but in these cases sex serves a double function. Whether we call those times of desire an ‘outside’ to capitalism (as I think you would), or an entirely common experience within capitalism that both enables us to function as labour, and at the same time is the stuff of our rebellions against our very existence as labour (as I would) – I think we are speaking about the same thing.
The positioning of consent within the social contract also stands out among the contributions of this first edition of LIES. Here I refer largely to the ‘verbal consent model’ that is held up by radical feminist and queer milieus as a solution to rape and assault. I agree that rape is a mechanism of appropriation but I don’t agree that it is the “foundational logic of all sex” – I find it near impossible to think this. But it is true to say that the potentiality of rape is in itself a mechanism of power. And thus, where consent fails (irrespective of the type of consent), a default power kicks in – and this is where rape and sex do come to exist on the same scale. And why would consent (in any sense) fail? Aside from the popular concept of rape as aberration (that it always happens in dark alleys perpetrated by psychopaths etc.) – consent can fail precisely because the very terms through which we know how to articulate our desires can also mystify the conditions that make us unable to speak/act. When talking with a comrade about this the other day, she said this to me, “almost all the sex I have had in my life has been like this. I knew somewhere deep down that if I said no, it would be awkward or my dissent would be ignored or I would lose his attention, and I felt that I should be ok with it, so I carried on… at the time I wasn’t aware of all this, but now, many years later I understand it”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a woman say words to this effect.
In part, I think I appreciated C.E’s article because I’ve spent the past year spent thinking about how it could be possible that a good friend of mine could have raped someone – and moreover, why it has been so hard for him (despite some genuine effort) to understand that these things don’t happen by “accident” in spite of “good intentions”. I want to throw out a moralistic position that tells us that only inherently ‘bad’ men rape. In part, I do this cynically because rape is not an aberration but rather it is status quo in our society and I personally find it unsustainable to hold the view that 1 in 3 men are ‘bad’ (though I’m certainly sympathetic with why some women come to feel this way). Most of all, I can’t take this position because it’s a particular power structure that enables an individual’s capacity to rape – and I know that both men and women resist this on a collective or social level.
Returning to CLÉMENCE X. CLEMENTINE´s article, ‘Against the Couple Form’ – I’ve certainly found that my relationships with men have opened doors, and when not in relationships with men; or romantic relationships that could be read or did not want to be read as a couple, more doors are closed. I don’t think this is necessarily about homophobia alone. Old friends stop inviting you to things because you don’t fit in with all of the couples. Back to my mum, who says that leaving my dad would be social suicide for her. I agree with you, the argument C X C makes in this article is reductive and certainly I see a common tendency that is actively pushing away from the world that C X C paints. I do, however, think that we should be careful when using counter examples to rebut critiques coming from already marginal positions. It goes without saying that we are very happy to see our loved ones living loving partnerships etc., but being able to appreciate this should not drown out our capacity to hear critical and dissenting voices, nor should it diminish a broader analysis we might draw around how these forms of relationships came to be dominant in some societies, and how transplanting these forms was part of Christo-colonial projects across the globe. Saying that “billions already struggle from the basis of the family” is reductive in itself. For one, I would argue that the family and/or the couple aren’t hegemonic entities, though it may be in the interests of capital to cast them as such. Secondly, the question on a social level should be, how much room there is to be other? To take an example, I totally support the demand for equal rights with respect to marriage, but we must ask why this is a demand at all. Everyone who I know who wants to get married and can’t because of Australian law says that it’s about their partner being able to make decisions on their behalf in the event of a health crisis, it’s about property, and/or it’s about mainstream society’s respect for their relationship. These desires are by no means trivial within current conditions. It is worth asking though, why is the (married) couple form the conduit through which these things can be gained? In these times, the State is not in the least concerned about who you are screwing, but whether your lifestyle enables you to be (re)productive in the interests of capital. We see this patently in the government’s double act of attacking single mothers welfare benefits, while introducing paternal leave.
And about the section of the letters that drew our attention: “There is no thing, no object called The Radiation that we can attack” and “There is no thing called Men that we can attack.” I think here the authors are struggling with the same things we are. On an everyday basis, patriarchy is carried out in the actions of individuals, but it is not the individuals in themselves that society should attack. While men are not individually responsible for patriarchy, surely they must be accountable for their actions.
“The beatings do not work, the accountability processes do not work, banishment does not work, forgiveness does not work.” Yet; “The fact that sometimes a woman chooses a violent response suggests that of all the impossible choices given to her, she has opted for the one that expresses the actual degree of hostility at the level of the social group – that is, the hostility of women as a group against the domination of men as a group.” I think this is an expression of frustration about the limitations of various organised responses to rape that happen outside of the State – I appreciate that Sandovsky doesn’t attempt to make any suggestions, and it’s overtly negative – and negative pretty much encapsulates how I feel about these things a lot of the time too. It’s safe to assume that the author is writing this to anarcho-feminist milieus across the US, Europe, NZ and here, perhaps also elsewhere where these various responses have gained currency among a small radical milieu. (As an aside, I completely agree that there is a sense here that feminists do certain activities or have certain haircuts – a caricature of this milieu at best, and a shallow class analysis at worst – I tried to overlook this because I also appreciate the collective ‘we’ that these letters conjure, the familiarity touches me). What comes across in this piece is the tangible anger that many women feel, and how we are constantly told to calm down because our anger is ‘unattractive’. If we are to open up more space, rather than constrain it, we need to find ways to express experiences of anger, sadness and craziness that result from the world we inhabit. Despite the endless difficulties of working out how come to some point of closure or resolution to the damage rape causes in individual circumstances – we are compelled to keep trying and this gives me hope. We must, and we do, in spite of the almost guaranteed probability that perpetrators can and will walk away. There is a broader commentary in these letters about justice that I think is refreshing.
I love how you finish your letter, I couldn’t agree more.
Lots of love,