Out Like a Lamb: Day 17: Femme Sees, Femme Does

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Queer and trans politics are often tied into visibility, becoming politics not just of the body but of the eye in particular. Practices like “coming out,” staging mass public spectacles, and creating signals and fashions that allow us to more easily identify each other are all to some degree constitutive of this politics of the eye. Since our oppressions often revolve around being obscured from view, pressured into conformity with exclusive cis and hetero-norms, or transformed into empty spectacle by straight pornography and other media, wresting control of our own individual and collective aesthetic presentation is a way to create power for ourselves. Broad and deep social change requires other forms of action, of course. However, being visible on our own terms is a valuable and necessary goal if we’re going to reclaim public space in human communities for queer and trans people.

For me, femme is one of the most valuable forms of communal aesthetics. While it emerged in opposition to butch in the early and mid-twentieth century and continues to have a close connection with femininity as a whole, femme is not reducible to just a pole for either of these binaries. It describes a particular commons or reservoir of resources, a way of expressing ourselves for our own benefit. Femme involves individuals, and it is a means for individuals to express themselves, but it’s important to recognize that no one expresses themselves in a solipsistic void.

Doing femme, being femme, expressing femme–for me, these are acts that bring me closer to people, that make me more legible to those close to me. It’s a way of sharing myself, gifting myself, even, to ones I love and lucky people who see me on the street. Think of femme as a way of improving public and private spaces, of making our existence more beautiful! Of course, it does so using some of the tools and styles associated with womanhood and femininity, but when femme emerges in a more liberating, less confining world where genders don’t map onto binary notions, it can use those tools with an experimental and radical edge. It’s not avant-garde, and it’s not revolutionary–or it’s not necessarily those things–but femme is a term that captures my personal favourite attempts to make ourselves beautiful.

People who prefer masculine or butch aesthetics (since butch does not map directly onto masculinity as such), I suspect, experience similar pleasures. With that said, it’s true that masculine presentations are often seen as the default or preferred mode of expression in a capitalistic, cis and heteronormative world. Even within feminist circles, androgyny or masculinity might be preferred over femininity because the latter is more thickly “gendered.” Gender as a judgment or insult sticks much better to femme people than it does to those who present in a masculine fashion. I do not suggest that masculine-presenting people always or even mostly occupy an oppressive position over femme people, only that this dynamic, this was of seeing gender only in femininity, is a significant barrier to be overcome in our intimate and political circles.

As I continue to develop in my understanding of gender as a system of naming and classifying and my own position in that system, femme remains a touchstone. Though I recognize that being femme is, to some extent, the only way I can be perceived as feminine at all given my body shape and size, I remain attracted to it and excited to perform it in new and different ways.

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A Hundred Thousand Names: 50 Reasons to Come Out as Trans

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The transgender subject may derive the following benefits from disclosing their personal identity:

  1. Living an authentic and whole life
  2. Reducing the stress of hiding
  3. Being more productive at work
  4. Developing closer, more genuine relationships with colleagues, customers, and clients
  5. Being known for who we really are
  6. Having open friendships with other transgender people
  7. Becoming a role model for others
  8. Being more true to yourself
  9. Unloading the burden
  10. Living as you want to live
  11. Meeting other likeminded people
  12. Helping other trans people
  13. Feeling at ease with yourself
  14. Breaking down stereotypes
  15. Being a positive role model
  16. Being more productive at work
  17. Live openly
  18. Be honest with yourself
  19. Be closer to friends, colleagues, clients, and customers
  20. Alleviate the stress of the closet
  21. Change the misconceptions about whole, authentic individuals who live openly and are positive role models breaking down stereotypes about other trans individuals.
  22. Change your relationships
  23. Change your relatives
  24. Change permanently, full with friends becoming people
  25. Innate gradually alleviating community life



  26. Change an individual’s mind through a personal, whole, authentic, stress-free relationship that allows you to live at ease while feeling better and more confident in personal relationships with clients at work
  27. Get more attention from your parents
  28. Coming with old friends
  29. Others living closer
  30. Educating stress in individuals
  31. Develop able individuals with colleagues
  32. Possible of benefits openly in ways
  33. Simply meeting, hiding, sparkling
  34. Looking people in the eye with confidence
  35. Being a fetish category on the internet being open and whole about it.
  36. Unloading authentic fetish porn about people who live just like you
  37. Associate with clients at your place of work with confidence
  38. Show up to work on time without stress
  39. Befriend people who have whole lives
  40. Living and feeling more common
  41. Building changed populations after gender identities
  42. Liberal friends can feel better about their country
  43. Boss can feel better about his company
  44. Befriend other people who live the way you want to live
  45. It’s too difficult to hide any longer
  46. Spend the majority of your waking life as a whole person
  47. Timely living in the unbounded process of waking life
  48. Your health problems will be the health problems of a whole and authentic person building self-esteem in their waking life
  49. Unbounded euphoria, awakening
  50. Becoming an honest community closet model

Consider all applicable risks to your health, security, employment, self-respect, friendships, reputation, lifespan, pets, avatars, deities, and fragile egos before coming out.

This list brought to you, with some of my personal, authentic editorial changes, by:

Human Rights Campaign Visibility Guide

Human Rights Campaign Guide to Coming Out in the Workplace as Trans

Case Western University

LGBT Youth Scotland


In a hostile terrain, let’s just say a land where transmisogyny is custom and in many cases law, trans women/we are by default subterranean creatures. Our absence is presumed. When we make ourselves visible, or are made visible, we are swept into little niches where capitalism can process and rationalize our “irregularity.” If we remember that capitalism is a system  This happens both to us as a complex mass as well as to individuals. In one breath we can all be dismissed as irrational, perverse, unholy, unfit, having the worst qualities of “both” genders. But so many of us, doubly and triply for racialized women, are also an exotic menu item on porn sites, our bodies broken down and itemized for easy consumption. It seems like our visibility is at its most understandable to capitalism in those spaces, all of our autonomous bodies subordinate to the feast of flesh and gold.

Of course, our visibility––we give out awards for that!––is valuable for us. When we flash our true colours, we signal to comrades and friends. But, like sticking your head above a trench line, we make ourselves a target for enemies, busybodies, and just plain assholes. If all of us came out at the same time, given the same world we live in now, would we fulfill the liberal dream? Would we be able transcend the law that tsk-tsks Stay Quiet and with the next breath asks to See What’s Under Your Dress? Like all dreams, that one is bound to evaporate. Even the very existence of trans people, of trans women, is a historical process native to a particular space. Gender nonconformity expresses itself under a hundred thousand names across the world, many of them crushed under the heels of imperialist distortions. Coming out is not a cure-all, or even possible or appropriate for everyone, and the mantras about authenticity, role models, and fixing our relatives and friends should be replaced with commitments to destroying the basis of our oppression.

No matter how visible or “well-represented” we might be, it will always be in the context of a burning world until we overthrow it and build another one.

Chizuko Ueno: Nationalism and Gender

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Nationalism and Gender in many ways pivots around one event. The author, Chizuko Ueno, was attending a conference in Beijing on global women’s issues. When her time came to speak she argued that feminism needed to transcend national borders and forsake any investment in the state or nationalism. A Korean feminist, Kim Pu-Ja, responded passionately to the contrary:

“‘My country’s borders were invaded by soldiers from your country. You should not be so quick to say that we should forget national borders. Stating that feminism has nothing to do with nationalism is surely no different from the ethnocentric thinking of Western feminism.'”¹

Ueno’s basic political position in the book, as well as in her speech, is that when feminism is tied to the politics of the nation-state, the inevitable result is that women are misled into trying to fit themselves into “male” roles and moulds. This is because national and class politics have been historically and, she would argue, logically, determined by patriarchal values and viewpoints. An autonomous women’s movement, therefore, cannot be supportive of nationalist politics. The goal is rather to transcend the state, to operate outside of its boundaries and define feminist politics as gender solidarity regardless of nation.

Much of her argument is developed in dialogue with Japanese history, in particular women’s and gender history on the left and “liberal” positivist history on the right. On the far end of the right spectrum are the patriotic or “orthodox” textbook advocates in Japan who want to whitewash away Japan’s war history and promote a reactionary adherence to a (they hope) rearmed Japanese imperial state. Ueno dismisses these rightwing voices fairly briefly in a couple chapters, while engaging with them here and there in a dismissive fashion.

Her main dispute is with respectable academic history rather than the conservative revisionists. On the methodological level, she argues against the privileging of written documents over oral testimony, pointing out that the problems of selectivity and personal bias are applicable to written documents as well, including state or bureaucratic sources. Informing this conclusion is her position on history’s status as a field. Rather than a simple recounting of past events, she sees history as a reconstruction of these events in the present, inevitably serving present concerns and political goals. Interpretation and bias are inherent in the historical composition process. Moreover, she asserts that different groups of people can inhabit separate realities. Japanese soldiers and American citizens, for instance, have views of the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945 that she would deem them irreconcilable.

Most of the analysis in the book centres around the issue of “comfort women,” i.e. the conscription of women for sexual use by Japanese soldiers during the Asia-Pacific War (WWII in Eurocentric terms). Korean women, in particular, were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military. Ueno describes this system of sexual servitude in a multitude of ways, but her basic description is that of the “threefold crime.” The actual enslavement of women is the first part, the suppression and silencing of victims’ accounts with shame is the second, and attempts to impose historical denial on textbooks and official accounts––in effect, discrediting those who have had the courage to come forward and name their suffering––is the third. Far from a vestige of the past, the “comfort women” issue is an open wound  that demonstrates the politicization of history and its relevance to present state policy and feminist debates.

These debates notably include questions of nationalism. For instance, Ueno recounts numerous “feminists” who capitulated or even actively embraced Japanese fascism, even lobbying the government to include women in the imperialist war machine. Ideals of motherhood were also mobilized; since women could not be deified soldiers dying for their country, they were simply displaced by one. Others involved in the women’s movement celebrated the entry of women into “home front” work in munitions plants and other state jobs. After all, despite the fact that the Japanese state refused to outright integrate women into the armed forces for the most part, women were taken out of the home and participating in the labour force. She effectively demonstrates the problems of a feminist politics in thrall to the imperialist state, and it bears more than a bit of a resemblance to the mainstream feminist movement in the USA that agitates for women’s participation in combat and the invasion of foreign countries to “save” their “primitive” women from racialized male oppression.

Beyond this, she takes into account what she calls “reflexive” feminist history that tries to reclaim women’s agency in historical events. For instance, just as prominent members of the women’s movement in Japan were incorporated into fascist politics, ordinary women in Japan bore some responsibility for supporting the war on the home front. On the other hand, she mentions how the idea that every citizen in Japan shared equal responsibility can equally be used for regressive ends, as in the case of pardoning the Japanese emperor since he had no “special role” in Japan’s aggression. Everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Additionally, she notes, attempts to proclaim women’s agency in historical accounts can distort or exaggerate the real power dynamics of the situation, acting as though women might be to some degree immune from the motivations of circumstance or common sense. For instance, Ueno questions those who are too quick to render judgment of the women who vocally supported Japanese imperialism, recognizing the force of convention and questioning whether those who are making judgments in hindsight overestimate people’s ability to escape their historical position.

I would praise the majority of this book as being both revelatory for someone like me who is not yet knowledgeable about Japanese women’s and gender history as well as astute in its discussion of historical methodology. Unfortunately, the book loses me more and more as Ueno outlines what could be called her positive programme. Her argument, in brief, is that the state exists as the only body legally able to impose its will with violence. Citizen-to-citizen violence (defined as male and public, the violence of “civil society”) is criminalized owing to the disarmament of the population under capitalism. Meanwhile, private/domestic violence––mostly against women––has similarly been above/below the reach of the law in society. This is particularly so because of the way the marital relationship is essentially one of property and usage rights, whether sexual, monetary, or otherwise.

Thus both above and below civil society violence reigns unrestricted by law. Because of her pacifist position, rejecting all violence including self-defence, she defines feminism as the ideology for the protection of the weak rather than one of aspiring for women’s power or liberation. Not only nationalism but all what she calls striving for maleness should be anathema, and she believes that class-centred politics oppress women just as much as state/national politics, while rejecting the possibility of just wars or the justice of national liberation struggles/violent class struggle.

Differences in political line are one thing, but I have some actual logic difficulties with her conclusions for feminist politics. They seem to at least border on incoherence or the non-dialectical sort of contradiction where two irreconcilable things are held to be true at the same time.

“Feminism is not an idea that advocates that women should be powerful on a par with men, an idea I call a ‘catching-up strategy,’ but should be an idea that respects the dignity of minorities just as they are. I may be no match for a man in terms of muscular strength. I may not be able to make it through life single-handedly. But why simply because of this should I be forced to obey somebody else? It is feminism that has argued for this kind of respect for the weak. That being so, my answer is that there is only one possible solution for feminism and that is to aim in the direction of criminalizing all kinds of violence [emphasis added], regardless of whether is public or private. It goes without saying, that this also includes the criminalization of war.”²

This final paragraph concludes the book and leaves me scratching my head at its implications. On the first point about “catching up,” it is admirable that Ueno has criticized the notion that physical strength is all that counts and that women can be “strong” without being physically adept. She mentions, for example, women with disabilities who cannot play the “catching up” game. At the same time her statement here, in conjunction with her broader positive arguments, leans toward the fetishization of weakness and minoritarianism, fixating on the problem of violence while curiously letting the problem of power slip out unnoticed. Respect and protection of the weak––again, an important value, and any progressive movement where stronger members did not protect those who could not protect themselves would not be worth much. And yet weakness is worth nothing on its own, and cannot be counted a virtue.

Earlier, she also refuses the idea that the distinction between friends and enemies is valuable, refusing all recourse to violence in any situation whatsoever. And yet, she states that she wants to criminalize the use of all violence. The obvious question to raise is: on whose authority and with whose power would one enforce this idea? If war were made criminal within a legal framework––Ueno earlier questioned the efficacy of state legal frameworks in determining ethics, and rightly so––who would enforce such a provision? She rejects the idea of UN peacekeeping as another cover for war, but her specific use of the term criminalize implies the existence of some kind of apparatus for separating just and unjust acts, and empowered with the ability to forcibly disarm those who do not abide by the laws. In other words, Ueno’s feminist propositions appear to imply the prolonging, even the permanence, of state machinery. It’s utter nonsense, idealistic and moralistic in the extreme, taking the apparent high ground with only token consideration for its practical implications even in an ideal situation.

Were I inclined to be charitable, I could point out that there could be translation difficulties, and that the word criminalize was simply an incorrect or misleading choice of words. And yet what word could substitute to reconcile these vagaries and logical problems? To forbid? To abolish? To defeat? To undo? All of these restatements, though they do not carry the legalistic and statist connotations of criminalize, still beg the question of power. If the weak are to remain weak on principle, refusing to liberate themselves by any and all means necessary, what is to prevent them from simply being trampled forever and ever, amen? Ueno unintentionally demonstrates the inherent weakness of the pacifist position, which is that it achieves a moral bliss at the cost of embracing a politics of theatre and self-destruction, assuming the best of one’s adversaries and positioning all political contradictions as “differences” that can be negotiated and won through reasoning rather. Despite Ueno’s critical attitude towards human rights regimes, “modernity,” and state boundaries, her programme implies a kind of superstate authority imbued with an almost supernatural sense of justice and the ability to nonviolently prevent all violence. And her only response to this is that history teaches us that any time we legitimate violence it will be abused. And so we shall have it gone at the snap of a finger!

Notes:

1. Kim Pu-Ja quoted in Chizuko Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverly Yamamoto (Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne 2004), 143.

2. Ibid, 178.

Hisila Yami: People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal

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Author Hisila Yami, a women’s leader in the communist movement in Nepal

“Here it is important to make [a] distinction between poor women and rich women. I am not referring to those few super-rich women women who by virtue of being wives are wasteful consumers or very few rich capitalist women who compete with other rich capitalist men to exploit the working class…Here I am talking of poor working-women belonging to all oppressed sections of society…To be more specific, this book is about Nepalese poor women, poorest of all poor women in the world, who are struggling against poverty, rugged geography without basic infrastructure, [and the] discriminatory Hindu feudal state by participating in People’s War [PW] lead by Communist Party of Nepal [Maoist] since February 1996.¹

Women’s liberation is an essential task that cannot be attained by a subculture or a mere idea. A mere idea, no matter how popular or well-articulated, is nothing if not taken up in practice and transformed into a force in real history. This post is a book review and not a discussion of the rancid state of feminism in the grip of bourgeois identity politics. Nor is it a survey of more promising signs of revival and renewal that spring eternal despite the overall weakness of women’s movements (especially proletarian women’s movements advancing on women’s and class terrains) in North America. Still, the spectre of a possible Hillary Clinton presidency and the narrow opportunism of lobbying and reform movements in Canada hang over any discussion of feminism in my own historical moment. This is the air I was breathing when I came to read People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal, and it’s worth at least mentioning to clarify my response.

Yami, a leader in the Maoist party that waged People’s War in Nepal and won considerable gains despite the party’s later turn towards peaceful coexistence, wrote the essays collected in this volume over a long career of service in the party. All of them articulate a vision of women’s liberation in a semi-feudal social context, where capitalist development has been obstructed by imperialism and archaic social forms continue to dominate. Unlike in Canada where women can own property and are mostly not bound by religious and feudal patriarchal family structures backed up by legal repression, in Nepal these forms are still very much alive. In fact, the advent of capitalism in South Asia has even worsened women’s oppression from the old days of feudalism proper, commodifying their bodies and shackling a startling number of Nepali women to prostitution and wage slavery in addition to their burdensome responsibilities caring for children and households. Most of the essays explore this context in some detail.

Additionally, quite a few documents report on internal party surveys and investigations/criticisms of the party’s handling of women’s liberation. Women were enthusiastic soldiers and party members despite facing considerable challenges that male members and soldiers did not. Pregnancy was often devastating to a woman’s political career, with the usual physical burdens compounded by a lack of basic healthcare infrastructure in the country and semi-feudal ideological attitudes towards women that still festered in the party itself. Not to mention the ever-present threat of rape at the hands of the Royal Army, who used brutal sexual violence to enforce the monarchy’s reactionary rule. Yami’s work documents, at least partially, the party’s attempts to deal with the contradictions internal to the party as well as within Nepalese society and the means they used to try to overcome them in a progressive way.

Notably, the party had much more success in winning over women’s support in the countryside after launching their war against the state. She describes how the war transformed the women’s movement in the country:

“While it has shifted the geography of the women’s movement from urban centres to real areas, within urban areas, it has qualitatively changed the women’s movement from a feminist movement to a broad-baed women’s movement with class perspective as the key link. Today wider issues such as state repression on women, human rights of women, state repression on the masses, etc. are being focused along with other feminist issues…PW has also forced different women’s organizations to come under the same platform to organize protest rallies or joint press conferences against state repression, to rally against Beauty contests, etc.”²

One of the distinguishing features of the communist women’s movement in Nepal was its focus on struggling for increased unity between men and women in the party. One of Yami’s major concerns is what she calls “sectarian feminism,” which she identifies as a tendency within urban areas for women to join gender-based movements that lacked a class analysis or class politics. In the parlance of the left, this would be called identity politics. By focusing entirely on women’s identities as women, they tended to split off the movement from potential male allies and also ignored antagonistic distinctions between proletarian and bourgeois women. At the same time, Yami is careful not to liquidate women’s liberation into a class question. In her context, after all, the state was semi-feudal, and gender oppression was an objective component of the class contradictions in that situation––as it is in capitalism even at the centres.

As she puts it: “One should bear in mind that…postponing women’s issues at the Party level would hamper the proletarian cause in the long run, as women are the most oppressed fore among the oppressed classes and groups.”³ In other words, proletarian issues are women’s issues, and vice versa, and they are neither mutually exclusive nor simply to be dissolved in a class essentialism that will inevitably favour a male chauvinist line without a strong feminist struggle.

These insights represent real revolutionary experience, a valuable and rare asset in theoretical writings. None of the documents are technical manuals about the ABCs of how to manage the women’s question in the revolutionary movement, but they have an eminently practical thrust to them. For example, the chapter on women’s participation in the People’s Liberation Army (the armed wing of the party) discusses what women’s strengths are within the army, their ideological shortcomings, and the practical and political challenges they face in the PLA. Questions of how to nourish (physically and ideologically) women, how to maintain a dynamic unity between unity and struggle within an organization, how to deal with reactionary attitudes among the people––these are essential questions for revolutionary movements, and it’s refreshing to see them addressed by someone who has had real experience and insight into these questions. Particularly coming from a  context where most of the “hot-button” feminist issues have to do with language use and media criticism, I find these documents essential reading, worthy of serious contemplation.

Though it’s not the central point of the book, the author also digs fairly deeply into the Nepalese national question, both externally as it relates to Indian expansionism and internally as it relates to oppressed nationalities. It’s an excellent treatment of women’s issues as concrete instances that vary between national groups and social classes within those nations. It never abandons class politics but it articulates a definition of class exploitation that is not stereotyped or chauvinistic but as a social relation that is structured according to varying national, gender, and geographical situations.

Despite the fact that People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal makes no bones about being geographically and temporally specific, I believe it articulates a material advancement in Marxist feminism that ought to be taken seriously by the entire left. Places where rightism and identity politics reign need an infusion of revolutionary thinking, of revolutionary activity, and though we Westerners like to think of ourselves as being uniquely advanced on social issues, much of the most truly impactful work on women’s liberation has come from places like Nepal and India, where the reign of patriarchy is leagues harsher compared to the norm in a country like Canada. We’re held to account by books like this, shown that, even in harsh and repressive situations huge strides can be made if the conditions are right and the subjective will is strong. Our tasks are great, but women’s strength is far greater if only it can be unified and put to work on a mass scale and guided by politics that are neither identitarian nor class essentialist. Women are among the most repressed and exploited members of the proletariat, and it would be insulting to offer them movements that couldn’t advance women’s liberation on a class basis.

Notes:

  1. Hisila Yami: People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal (Janadhwani Publication, 2007), Preface.
  2. Ibid, 23.
  3. Ibid, 24.

Editor’s Note: Proletarian Feminism and Calvin College’s Anti-Choice Group

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Two weeks ago I published an article in my college’s student paper, Chimes. It was a personal intervention meant to give constructive advice to pro-choice students on campus as well as fortify their resolve in the midst of a hostile environment. The college and the church that puppeteers it are both committed to anti-choice politics, and in this environment the assumption is that everyone follows that political line. When my article proved that that was not the case, it touched off a minor firestorm on Facebook. “Respectable” people from here to Iowa derided me for writing the piece and attacked my editors at the paper for having the gall to publish it. Though the response was overwhelmingly negative in the comments section, I received thousands of Facebook “likes,” for whatever they’re worth, as well as much more meaningful personal “thank yous” from women on campus who had had abortions and others who were happy I stirred up the conservative hornets’ nest.

My article is linked here, and because of its brevity and overtly polemical tone should not be taken as a complete argument for a pro-choice position or anything like it. I would be more than willing to accept substantive criticisms, especially from sympathetic comrades. Among its many problems, it fails to address the fundamental theoretical basis of my argument, which stems from a class analysis of the situation. Divorced from a political party with which to affiliate and any practical basis for my analysis, I often slide into abstractions and at one point even use the dread word moral. I intended to use this as a provocation against reactionaries but accidentally implied that I believe that abstract morality has bearing on the situation. I repent for not emphasizing both the concrete nature of the oppression of women, particularly proletarian women. Because I am addressing an overwhelmingly anti-choice audience with the article, or at least ended up doing so, I did not put nearly enough emphasis on the way in which women were not all equally oppressed by anti-choice politics. Queer women, women from racial minorities, disabled women, and proletarian women are especially affected. This explains my accusation that pro-life morality assumes a primarily racist as well as misogynistic form when it becomes concrete, though this was misunderstood by most of the conservatives spewing bile at me.

While I do not want to get into the particulars of proletarian feminism as a developing political line–both because of my aforementioned lack of participation in practical work and a lack of space–I would like to refer readers to a few posts on the topic. Evaristo Marrero, writing for the estimable Maosoleum blog, summarizes some of the goals of proletarian feminism this way:

We need to reject patriarchal women’s emancipation, and struggle for proletarian feminism, for the reforms necessary under capitalism that weaken patriarchy, for the reforms necessary under socialism to overcome patriarchy, and for permanent cultural revolution until the overthrow of patriarchy.

Universal access to abortion is one of the requisite “reforms necessary under capitalism” that weakens the grip of patriarchy on women. Reactionary governments in numerous American states have imposed increasingly onerous restrictions on legal induced abortions, putting it out of reach for countless women for whom it is a necessity. Though the law protects abortions in theory, it is becoming more and more difficult for women–especially proletarian women, queer women, and women of oppressed racial groups–to gain access to basic services. The struggle against patriarchy must take an active character, and those of us on campus who oppose these restrictions as well as the “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that spread vile misinformation and specifically target underserved groups must recognize that the boundaries of the college are not the edges of the world. Though the institution is privileged and denies the greater community access to its space and resources, this is no excuse to carry on practical work only inside the college. This is developing into a tangent on the unfortunate split between academic spaces and others–and between mental and manual labour as well–so I will get to the central point of this post, which is to criticize a response from the Calvin College Students for Life published in Chimes this week.

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The picture that appears above their response article’s online version. They look like a Mormon extended family.

This article, written by two women named Sarah Weiss and Laura Wheeler,  runs through the expected gamut of pro-life deceptions. While taking a conscious stand for “promoting the inherent dignity and value of all persons,” they apparently do so in an entirely abstract fashion. Their weak-tea humanism is all about supporting “all human life,” which they in their infinite grace extend to fetuses. This is all despite their political position which robs women of basic agency. Don’t worry, proletarian women! Students for Life (S4L) is not a “political activist group” but instead a place where people just assume control over your body is off the table while thinking fuzzy thoughts about you. Charming. Of course, the unstated fact here is that S4L doesn’t need to operated in a militant fashion, and can hide behind a privileged mask of civility, because the entire community as a whole already agrees with them. Anti-choice activism has hegemony. It is institutionalized in their churches, pressed forward by those who harass pregnant people walking into clinics, and is embodied in its purest form by murderers who spread death and fear so that quaint little groups like this don’t have to. It’s wonderful that privileged women and men in S4L will be so civil and polite. After all, the curtain of niceness that stifles meaningful debate at our college and in our community will protect them much better than it will those who stand in solidarity with the 1 in 3 women in our country who will get an abortion at some point. Religious idealism and abstractions run so thick in the article that I would have to parse word by word to get to it all, and maybe even ferret it out of the spaces. Suffice to say that their ruling class ideology and concrete position blinds them to the concrete reality of the situation.

Sickeningly, they even attempt to take a moral high road, once again demonstrating that this ruling morality serves the ruling class. “We are a group that not only promotes life but speaks life as well. We are, however, willing and in fact eager to discuss our views with anyone who is interested, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with our convictions,” they write. Perhaps we should give them a blue ribbon for magnanimity.

I would not even be addressing this if it did not concern me personally. My own article is nothing spectacular, and contains numerous errors and omissions I am working with some comrades to rectify. As a person in a privileged economic position, attending the same private college as these two writers, I am in no position to claim revolutionary vanguard status. My mistakes are many and my complicity in oppression is a fact. It will continue to be a fact until capitalism is overthrown and patriarchy extinguished through cultural revolution. At the same time, I hope it is clear that the vague and ethereal “love” practiced by S4L is nothing more than a screen for reactionary politics and should be criticized as such. Despite my imperfections, I hope I have offered a strong criticism of this group, and I hope to offer a reminder to my readers that, no matter what words they use, anti-choicers perpetuate the oppression of women as a class.

Links on Proletarian Feminism:

J. Moufawad Paul: “In Defense of Proletarian Feminism” and Radical or Proletarian Feminism

Evaristo Marrero: “A response to the NCP(OC): Gender Whateverism is not Proletarian Feminism”

Anuradha Ghandy: “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement” (more of a critique of liberal, radical, and Marxist feminism, but still highly informative)

The Knife: Shaking the Habitual

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An analog thunderstorm, a full-blown, over-the-top extravaganza charged by static/electric strobes and proclaimed by booming thunder. A white hole has burned itself into the sky, leaving the ghosts in an apocalyptic frenzy. We all wonder at the sight of it: has the hour of salvation come? We can’t be sure because to look at the hole is to feel the sickness of burning eyes and a turning stomach. What could come through there: anything. What we hope: we dare not.

Zo Quivver and Quake performed a sold-out free show in the central plaza, using the white hole as lighting. I skulked near the back, dodging a few of the nuttier ghosts trying to devour the whole place before the end comes. I looked into eyes that had been bound into hell for a million years. Rims a mile deep ran under them, creases like crevasses, reminding me that I was, for all my tribulations, unbelievably lucky to have dropped in when I did rather than in the distant past.

Hopefully a kind of miracle will happen. Oh, did I write that we dare not hope? Well, I’ll keep my pen shut then.

Please bear with me. I have been lazing around these past few days listening to the new records that spill down from the tear in space. It seems that music is the first of the vanguard to arrive in this place. I cannot wait for the 16mm film reels.

One of the albums that I had been hearing about from my editor was Swedish electronic duo The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual.

***

Hackles are bound to prick up the moment a band tries to make “important music.” That phrase usually conjures visions of ham-fisted political lyrics, overblown earnestness, and artless pretension. Nonetheless, an even more insidious thought can often give rise to all of those images: this group is taking a position that might be contrary to some of my own views. We often feel that music should stay neutral. We want great music, not political commentary–especially if that commentary is going to unnerve us or brush us against views we find reprehensible.

Artists have a narrow edge to walk when engaging explicitly political subject matter. Instead of calling such music “political”–what music is not at least unconsciously political?–I would prefer to call it “activist.” The Knife’s new album, Shaking the Habitual, lays bare its activism for all to see. Its demeanor is ferocious, its music abrasive, and its lyrics, while cryptic, are unmistakably pushing the listener outside the music and into the world. The Knife has always harbored a certain wildness, but here they let it have a freer reign, clawing at the fabric of their extended songs (six of the thirteen tracks run over eight minutes) and providing a spontaneity only partially evident on their earlier work.

Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish brother and sister duo behind The Knife, came into the recording process with a mission in mind, and their use of chaos, paradoxically, is surgically deliberate. Armed with extensive reading that Karin, in an interview with Catch Fire, said included “Mohanty’s ‘Feminism Without Borders’, also Franz Fanon, Judith Butler, Foucault, Spivak and some of Wendy Brown.” Ideas about feminist activism, intersectionality, and other critical theory therefore underly much of the politics on the album. The first song offers a blistering critique of conservative politics: “Under the Sun /Look what we have got / And those who haven’t: bad luck.” The music arms itself, invoking dance as a weapon and accusing its unnamed enemies of rewriting history to suit their own purposes. Shaking the Habitual is designed to do just what its title implies: inject some instability into the artifice of modern society, whose oppression of marginalized groups depends on false certainties.

Along this vein, The Knife has also launched the album with a publicity campaign that has served to underline their commitments. Upon the launch of the record, the group posted a long manifesto on their website along with a comic strip parodying the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Rather than calling for the elimination of poverty, however, they advocate a plan to eliminate extreme wealth, noting how the afflicted ultra-rich are “caught in a vicious circle of wanting more and more crap–a circle that is very difficult to break.” While it’s hard to tell if any material good will come of these efforts, the band is at least opening up space for critical reflection, which is more than this tiger can say for most groups.

Though they lack a certain feline touch, the music videos also have much to recommend them. There isn’t room for much discussion of them here, but I may choose to revisit them individually later on:

Also see this interview with the band, made by Marit Östberg who also made the “Full of Fire” video.

Perhaps mirroring its overriding concern with human bodies and the politics of identity, the duo has opted for a mixture of organic and electronic instrumentation. The trouble on most of the songs is attempting to discern which is which. On the second track, “Full of Fire,” what sound like programmed beats clash against otherworldly noises, synthetic bass, and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s often distorted vocals. Everything is tipping off balance while Andersson sings “Of all the guys and the signori/Who will write my story/Get the picture, they get glory/Who looks after my story?” In the album’s moments of clarity, when the hurricane of sound quiets and the words pierce through clearly, the effect can be touching, even moving.

A major chunk of the album’s running time is taken up by instrumentals. “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” an aching, lurching twenty minutes of ambient drones recorded in a boiler room, resembles a kind of nightmare played in slow motion. “Oryx,” and “Crake” are harsh, wordless homages to Margaret Atwood’s work, and “Fracking Fluid Injection” opens up into a kind of glacial beauty, icy but somehow healing to witness. It, along with the beautifully passionate “Wrap Your Arms Around Me” bring The Knife’s humanity to the fore, allowing us to see a modicum of hope emerge.

The question could well be asked whether a group with such a pointed message should be cloaking it in music this challenging and esoteric. Similar complaints were lodged at Radiohead when they abdicated their status as the Biggest Band in the World to pursue more radically subversive sounds. It could well be that smuggling queer theory into a populist dance track may reach a wider audience than putting the same message in a ten-minute electroacoustic freakout. That said, I believe this approach offers more impact, drawing The Knife’s considerable audience deeper and more critically into a new perspective. It might not always work, but the alignment of the activist and the artistic on Shaking the Habitual meshes remarkably well. It’s a fraught journey, but one well worth undertaking. As, I hope, will be my journey to the skies. I can already feel that white hole starting to pull.

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