If the contemporary portrayal of womankind were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man – probably in that order. Of course, no one has to believe the TV shows, the magazines and the adverts, and many don’t. But how has it come to this? Did the desires of twentieth-century women’s liberation achieve their fulfilment in the shopper’s paradise of ‘naughty’ self-pampering, playboy bunny pendants 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.
The book takes its title from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book One-Dimensional Man. In it, Marcuse attempted to analyze the nature and extent of contemporary ideology – the ways in which the modern day subject was not the free and happy individual of capitalist society, but labored instead under the illusory freedoms of technological domination. The ‘one-dimensional man’ of Marcuse’s title is fully immersed in the promissory world of liberal democracy and consumerism and yet ‘the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.’ 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 that would break with the ‘efficacy of the controls’ that Marcuse identified. What looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles.
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 (see the section ‘Hawkish and Mawkish’).
The main part of the book deals with changes in work and the socalled ‘feminization of labor’ – as well as the constant pressure to be self-promoting and available for work. This is of course something that affects men and women alike, but in subtly different ways.
This is not a cheerful book, by any means, but at its heart lies the conviction that women and men have the inherent ability to be something more than one-dimensional. It looks for utopian intimations in alternative histories, particularly in relation to pornography and to various forms of collective and social living.
It tries to avoid straightforward assertions of blame – of capitalism, of women themselves, of forms of feminism that do little to address the real questions – because it is never as simple as uncovering a ‘better’ mode of existence behind the illusion.
Such forms of revelation presuppose that the writer is somehow in a privileged position vis-à-vis the dumb, unenlightened masses. People are not stupid, and they know when they are being treated like idiots. It is also clear, unfortunately, that ideology runs deeper than the hopeful might have previously imagined. It is not merely a question of turning the tables or changing the language. As Paolo Virno puts it:
It would certainly be more comforting to assume that the illusions current today are the product of media propaganda and that they can therefore be refuted by means of a patient pedagogical project of clarification. Unfortunately this is not the case. There is a material basis for ideology, an objective foundation that reinforces and reproduces deception.
This ‘objective foundation’ is real, and disheartening, but doesn’t completely exhaust the field of the possible – there are battles still to be fought, and won. Many of the tactics of feminism thus far – rewriting cultural histories, reclaiming the body, occupying ‘male’ positions – have had significant effects, but have not been able to touch the basis of the problem at hand. The current ‘material basis’ of ideology has managed to (temporarily) make classical forms of organization (trade unions, protest groups) seem unnecessary, outmoded and impossible, all at the same time (at least in the more affluent parts of the world). This short book is an attempt to try to identify some of these material obstacles to equality, even – especially – when we’re supposed to think that everything is just fine.
ISBN: 978-1-84694-241-9, $14.95 / £7.99, paperback, 81pp
EISBN: 978-1-78099-737-7, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook
Author Bio: Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s On Beckett and his Political Writings. Nina has published widely on topics including Iran, humanism, vintage pornography and Marxism. She is the author of the blog Infinite Thought.