Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Nina Power admits that One-Dimensional Woman is “not a cheerful book”, but the experience of reading over the weekend was enormously cheering, in the spirit of Brecht’s bad new days or Adorno’s salutary negativity. It has been a long while since I’ve read a book which has been at once theoretically stimulating while at the same time offering a vivid and immediately useful re-orientation of my view of the social world. No paralysis of criticism here! Power, in her manifesto for a feminism that “takes the opportunity to shake off its current imperialist and consumerist sheen” and “once against place its vital transformative political demands centre-stage,” produces just that combination of thrilled theoretical challenge and recognition.
One-Dimensional Woman covers a lot of the ground of the contemporary in a very short time; what’s stuck in my mind is Power’s dissection of the ideology and gender politics of temping agencies and ‘feminine’ work. Power is fascinating on how
Young, single women are a key factor in the proliferation and success of job agencies, turning precarity into a virtue. One does not need to be an essentialist about traditionally ‘female’ traits (for example, loquacity, caring, relationality, empathy) to think that there is something notable going on here: women are encouraged to regard themselves as good communicators, the kind of person who’d be ‘ideal’ for agency or call-centre work. The professional woman needs no skills as she is simply professional, that is to say, perfect for the kind of work that deals with communication in its purest sense.
The demands of temping work and its carefully planned humiliations of interview and application – are you someone who likes to have fun at work? Are you ready to be a temping ‘angel’? do you give 110%? Are you looking for flexibility and focus? – will never feel the same again. It’s not a case of feeling better, as ‘consumerist feminism’ would have it, but of recognizing limits and loss. Negativity (“As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form”) offers more chances for real power than ‘empowerment’ ever will.
What oppresses women as women - and the forces with an interest in that oppression - ends up affecting all of us workers, too, which is why men have an interest in taking interest in – and fighting – these developments, and Power has a keen sense of how the war on women has wider uses for our rulers. She’s a careful reader of ideology:
The discourse of work as pure emancipation depends on blocking out class and age constantly. The menopausal unconscious comes back to haunt the perky young professional; the specter of the ex-worker at home looking after her kids angers the market even as it depends on biological reproduction to sustain its own future.
The wit, savagery and sophistication of One-Dimensional Woman’s negative and polemical sections help set up more utopian reflections on how feminism might renew itself, and proposes against the joyless, manipulative commodification and nastiness of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry lost histories of sexuality and sexual expression emphasizing human fallibility, bodily humour and openness, sweetness, relaxation and transformation.
On sexism and sexual exploitation, Power offers a richly suggestive aside: one of the problems with the idea of objectification is that it
“implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority, but it’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way we might once have understood it.
The blurring of work, social, personal and physical life is almost total. 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.”
Standing in for a lost legacy of transformative politics and utopian imagination – and initiating a renewal of that kind of thinking – this is a powerful manifesto for fighting these squalid times.
By the way, if you can at all afford it I think you should buy One-Dimensional Woman instead of getting a library copy: the work Zer0 Books are doing, and their commitment to work which is “intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist” is important.