The Fire, The Fury, The Madness:
On the Inspirational Magnanimous Despair of Shulamith Firestone
Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex was published in America in 1970. It is the sum of a number of ideas she had been working on for at least two and a half years from October 1967onwards after co-founding New York Radical Women (NYRW). Ever since its publication, this hugely provocative, testing book has been often cited and commented upon despite being inaccurately condemned for its “white suprematicism” initially - especially by Communist Party hack, Angela Davis for stereotyping black males as rapists and black women as black sexpots. Times fortunately have changed and the book is now been given the recognition it deserves: Nina Power in One Dimensional Women (2009) praises Shulamith, and the book is mentioned by Tristram Hunt’s in his biography of Frederick Engel’s The Frock Coated Communist and also in his recent introduction to a re-edition of Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. (Though right to draw attention to the latter’s great importance and scandalous contemporary neglect, glamour boy Hunt has since become a Labour MP for a Stoke-on-Trent constituency. Not consigning of the State to “the museum alongside the spinning wheel and axe” here, Hunt adroitly dodging this central question in his exposition of Engels’s views!). Though never entirely forgotten, the reputation of Shulamith Firestone (or Shul as we have warmly come to call her) is growing in leaps and bounds. Her authenticity, sincerity and sheer rawness of her experience puts her into a different league altogether to that of English feminists of her generation like Germaine Greer, Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, Beatrice Campbell et al, who are quite frankly ridiculous and prurient in comparison. Regarding women’s potential, their outlook is pedestrian when compared with that of Shul, their lack of vision the equal of their lack of real hatred of contemporary capitalism and the irrevocable damage it is inflicting on every living thing. Shulamith Firestone is an overwhelmingly real person and the calamities that, as a result, have rained down on her contrasts with the conformist refusal of well known English feminists’ to risk anything that could harm their careers.
Not least what sets Shul’s outlook apart from middle of the road Anglo / American / Australasian feminists is her hoped for social utopia based on a techno-scientific mode of automated production she refers to as “cybernetic communism”- an unfortunate, dated term whose only relevance today resides in its veiled acknowledgement of the uselessness of most work which prevents the emergence of a truly human practise, embracing women as well as men. When this happy day dawns, and which also implies the end of consumerism, we will, according to Shul, discover a new, unrepressed sexual freedom that opens up the exploration of child sexuality, Shul glimpsing in “cybernetic communism” a means also of destroying the incest taboo. A word of caution, if you please, as regards her technophilia - never mind her ‘paedophilia’ that is as innocuous as Blake’s who has the child seduce the experienced parents in order to bring them back to an innocence at once sexual and social……………….
….As an American, Shul was exposed to the unmediated influence of the teachings of Norbert Weiner, himself the inventor of the term cybernetics, which comes from kubernetes which in ancient Greek meant ‘steersman’. The more Weiner found himself in trouble with a CIA increasingly frightened of its own shadow, the more his technocratic vision gained in ‘subversive’, counter culture, credence. In 1964, the fledgling Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS and rarely out of the headlines in late sixties America) brought out a manifesto entitled The Triple Revolution, with “cybernation” the first of the trio. This, the SDS argued, would power a revolution that would make Americans, and eventually all other citizens of the world, richer and freer. So it comes as no surprise that, as a rebel American, Shul should coin the term cybercommunism and be happy with it. Though it does not appear in Weiner’s lexicon it well could have, technological evolution obviating the need for a social revolution and which, in any case, was a fantasy as old as the industrial revolution itself. Though an apostle and assiduous promoter of the computerisation of post war technocracy, Weiner was well aware it had totalitarian implications and that, in the end, the tabs it would keep on us would outclass that of “Big Brother” any day. (Key in any name today and we are all potentially ‘the accused’ in this techno revisiting of Kafka’s, The Trial.) In reality Shul was blind to the potential for social control operating under the pretext of putting the ghost back into the machine via feedback loops, incorporeal lines of messages, memories, ‘free communication’ flows purportedly able to fatally undermine all hierarchal systems. As Shul says, “Machines thus could act as the perfect equaliser, obliterating the class system based on exploitation of labour” defining, “the new science of cybernetics” as “machines that may soon equal or surpass men in original thinking and problem-solving”. The normally rosy Ivy League academic Weiner was far less sanguine and feared the advent of intelligent machines, comparing them to the genies of A Thousand and One Nights which, once out of the bottle, could wreak unintended havoc.
With not one walky-talky machine even remotely able to pass the Turing Test, (which would demonstrate they are able to conduct a “meaningful, intelligible” conversation in the same way you and I can (huh?!!!!), it is obvious we still have miles to go. But however nonsensical Shulamith’s speculations are in this respect, in others they are provocatively exploratory and imaginatively constructed, despite there rose-coloured, techno-fix wrapping. This illusory universal panacea was a creature of its time and also tended to form the basis for the International Lettriste/Situationist critique of work and its immanent abolition – which, however for the latter, could not take place under capitalism because of the need to keep the 9 to 5 grind in place, without which all hell would break loose--- and utopia flower. Moreover the Situationists were rightly vituperative about cybernetics noting real time political economy was on the way to being ditched for some far-fetched notion of a cybernetic welfare state designed to cope with any contingency and enforce mediocre substitute satisfactions, manipulation being the key to achieving success rather than the traditional resort to brute force. Today any such ideas the system may still have about itself is even more risible and has been ever since the long post war boom ended in the early 1970s. Furthermore and regarding our side, as great as the reality of never work may have once sounded, equally there has been a recognition since then that not all work is intrinsically alienating and that a long dreamed of ‘apotheosis’ of non alienated work, beyond the domain of political economy and the need to valorize capital, is possible. Nonetheless even in these increasingly grim times in which humanity is more threatened by extinction than at any time in its history, we still have to strive for the collective enjoyment of the simple work needed to rebuild the environment from the bottom up and reclaim agriculture, both requiring the creative intervention of billions of people. The preliminary step involves the urgent necessity to (creatively) alter / destroy – courtesy of a wrathful collective individuality - all modern and post modern urbanism plus the endless new suburban hell bequeathed to us by the legion of deadhead architects and town planners backed up by a finance capitalism gone psychotic.
Radiating whacky, off-the-wall learning, some of which is inaccurate and some not at all, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex is inseparable from the exploratory, sanely ‘mad’ creative atmosphere of New York City between 1967 and 1970. Interspersed with the occasional delightfully crazy diagram, the city as it was then is the inspiring backdrop to the book’s contents. The New York vibe of these years was a buzz with open-ended, half-digested ideas, many emanating from Europe, though especially France. Wedded to a practical willingness to experiment and crash boundaries, the down to earth insights that were the result give documents from this exceptional period a unique personal feel that still can have a spell-binding effect all these years later.
Although there is much creative thinking in the Dialectics of Sex, it is also of its time, Shulamith Firestone running through arguments representative of early 1970s feminism. Freudian concepts like the Oedipus Complex, penis envy and the Electra Complex (however uneasy Freud felt about the latter) are arraigned, as well as the prevalence of the female nude in art, the conditioning of men by pornography (but not yet women), sexist language etc. The nascent gay movement is endorsed which would not have met with Betty Friedan’s approval: author of The Feminine Mystique, in which most of the above views are given their first airing, Friedan also feared “the lavender menace”. Given the benefit of hindsight, there is an innocence to the listing of ‘wrongs’ by SF for we are still some years away from the raunch feminist reworking of many of the above founding principles, a development that owes much of its force to the rise of economic neo-liberalism and the manufacturing of gender as production, at least in the west, becomes increasingly ‘bio’. Back in the heady days of the late sixties it was unthinkable that women would ever become the cat walk dressing of a proto fascist party committed to neo liberal extremes that receive their first baptism of fire in Pincochet’s coup of 1973 in Chile. Blind as the American Tea Party is to the lessons of history and the inevitable failure of all neo liberal experiments, sadly the corporate gender bias bequeathed by the early feminist movement that largely viewed emancipation as emanating from the State, almost guarantees that when Tea Party women are caught with their knickers down, exposés are given short shrift and condemned as ‘male’ prejudice, even misogyny. In fact such exploratory peccadilloes ‘humanize’ the Tea Party and can be worked on as a means of bringing it down to size. To condemn such exposés only reinforces the ugly hypocrisy the Tea Party clothes itself in, whilst avoiding the much more pertinent question of critiquing the gossip mongering the cult of celebrity thrives on.
In a way too it was easier in the late 1960s to critique men as the enemy because it still was largely business as usual with everyday institutions, especially the patriarchal nuclear family, then little affected by that shattering of everyday norms the late 60s was bringing on. A few years later and the picture would have been much more nuanced. Thus SF does not deal with (because historically she couldn’t have) the massive disintegration of the nuclear family (though she does prefix one sub-section with the line, “slow death of the family”) which was slowly but surely to become a nuclear family in name only. All marriages today are marriages of convenience in which the cost of form massively outweighs the bankruptcy of content, the nuclear family having become merely an assemblage of isolated atoms with no real centre. Lacking a functioning dining table and chairs, today’s unclear family is an empty hallway of adjacent rooms containing computers and TVs. And though Shulamith wrote at a time when single parenting was a straw in the wind, she did foretell the doom of the patriarchal family that would advance a step further forward with the growing incidence of single male parenting.
It would be harsh indeed to dismiss The Dialectic of Sex as a hotchpotch of ideas that have been hastily thrown together. Such a judgment says more about the shortcomings of the reviewer than it does the writer. In 1971 a blinkered, typically high handed critic, called the book “atrociously written” in the English Times Literary Supplement….It’s true, it is a splurge but one that overflows, Shulamith’s fired up imagination growing ideas like she was on a drug high. So it’s more’s the pity that from this scatter of tantalizing sentences some of her inspired new thoughts, port holes to the future, weren’t taken up and developed further. Showing scant regard for correct English, the default mode of this exceptionally clued in American then in her mid twenties, constantly challenges the niceties of academic discourse as if deliberately cocking a snook at her probably erratic university education, which she was too ‘brainy’ and true to herself ever to successfully acclimatize herself to. Flowing in all directions and never appearing to blot a line, Shulamith’s writing uncannily anticipates the unfettered (il)literacy of Internet 2 blogs that in any future uprising are destined to flow like molten lava. It has to be said we are frequently the butt of the stylistic accusations leveled at Shulamith and so it’s not to be wondered at that we draw strength from the fact her book is still making waves decades further on down the line.
Though in the last analysis SF is short on the basic essentials, her enquiry ranges far and wide going from discussing some of the ideas of Fourier, Marx , Engels and Freud through to those of more recent figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Norman O Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Phillippe Aries, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse including film makers like Antonio Antonioni and Jean Luc Godard……It is at this point we feel the tragic lack of a centre that could have pieced together all these disparate insights into a more meaningful whole. Having cited Godard, there is no mention of the International Lettristes anti films and the critique of Godard’s rubbish they implied. And what of Dada, Lefebvre, Breton, Debord… even the American Surrealists especially Franklin Rosemont?
An initial reading suggests Shulamith must have come from a line of radical Jewish New Yorkers possibly loosely affiliated to the American Communist Party. Nothing could have been further from the truth, Shulamith hailing from an Orthodox Canadian Jewish family who emigrated to the American mid-west in St Louis, Missouri. Yet somehow or another she did acquire a knowledge of ‘Marxism’ though one sadly skewed by simplistic CP dogma that keeps cropping up throughout the book. In the very first chapter we come across such sentences as the following: “Marx and Engels….attempted a scientific approach to history…..and which would lead to a communism in which government had withered away” (the ‘scientific’ mantra to one side and the darling of Communist Party ideologists everywhere, the use of the term government rather than state is particularly loose because it side steps the absolutely fundamental question of the withering away of the state. Governments come and go after all, and in between times an absence of government never implies the disappearance of the state machine which just carries’s on regardless).
Her summary of the thought of Marx and Engels is more of a reworking, and of its time as viewed through the perspective of the nascent feminist movement, than an actual précis. She says, for instance, these guys ascribed “the development of economic classes to organic (our italics) causes”. Well neither Marx nor Engels said anything even remotely of the sort, though it’s just possible that Shul, for whom the nuclear family was an anti-natural abomination, had taken to heart certain passages from Engels extolling the “naïve, primeval” character of “old traditional sexual relationships” as indicating an elemental force of nature and that, especially regarding the choice of terms, could well have been influenced by Schiller's, Naïve and Sentimental Poetry. (Engels was a member of the ex-pat Schiller Society in Manchester). Here is not the place to get into a discussion of Engels The Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State (1884) from which these quotes come, except to say it exercised an enormous influence on the women’s movement of the late 19th and 20th Century. His admonition, both to the rising women’s movement and to the social democratic political parties then getting into their stride, not to neglect the fundamental question of the State was completely ignored, though to the anarchists it must have looked like a back handed acknowledgment of what they had been saying all along, though with no anarchist able, thus far, to muster the historical material Engels was capable of mastering. But, in the end, Engels did pay court to the miserable illusions of social democracy, with results far exceeding anyone’s worst nightmares assisted by the proxy votes of jingoistic English suffragettes urging war, war, war, between 1914-16.
Certainly, however, there can be no doubting that Engels grasped, better than anyone then alive, that far back in the distant past prior to the birth of capitalism, women had played a much greater part in social rather than just biological reproduction than they did in the capitalist society of his day. Acclaiming the findings of the Austrian anthropologist Johann Bachofen and his historical account of the “mutterecht” (mother rule), fatherless Fred still tended to privilege motherhood, limiting women’s potential to the reproductive function above all else. What would have been the response of the 61 year old to the 17 year old Rimbaud’s desire in 1871 (the year of the Paris Commune) to break “the infinite servitude of women” so she can live “for and by herself” (a very Hegelian way of putting it we might add!) and become an imaginative adventurer into the ‘unknown’ where she will “find strange, unfathomable, repellant, delicious things”? One of utter bafflement, we suspect, Engels still some thirteen years away from even dipping into the anthropological source work - Bachofen, Morgan - that would shape The Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State. Had Shul known about Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny, (from which the above is quoted) we think she would not have felt the same need to amend it (sensing, perhaps, it contained a vision of experimental womanhood that anticipated her own), and caused her to fabricate a palimpsest of a famous passage of Engels substituting “the biological family unit” for “reproduction of the species”. In place of his “sexual-reproductive organisation of society” she wanted instead a much expanded notion of a social revolution that refused all stereotypes and labels and launched women onto the open seas of possibility for the first time. A rejection of motherhood was inherent to this liberatory vision awaiting a name, just as it played to an eco-conception of feminism then in the making that bent Marx and Engels to its ends, at least in the hands of Shulamith Firestone. Through questioning the “very organisation of nature” it changed a “fundamental biological condition”. This would be the guiding idea behind Carolyn Merchant’s, The Death of Nature and subtitled Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution which first appeared in 1980 and that broadly favours gender as the agent of social change as distinct from class struggle. Neither Marx nor Engels receives a mention, the final triumph of “female nature”. (Chapter 1 is entitled, Nature as Female) over the death-dealing hand of man, taking the place of the actual victory of “communism”.(It would be worth comparing this book with that of Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics that came out around the same time and that also arose out of a revolt that spilled onto the streets, though you would never guess it from reading the book. Rather than call for an anti-capitalist revolution, Capra urges us to take a great quantum leap sideways and change our perception instead. Both books are much easier to accommodate within mainstream orthodoxy than Shul’s challenging splurge that has vision stamped all over it and an irreproducible desire for fundamental change coursing through every line).
From the above, you would than expect Shul to come down on those passages of Engels celebrating the conquest of nature. However the girl is full of weird surprises and rather seems to approve of them. “The whole sphere of the condition of life which environ man and have hitherto ruled him now comes under the dominion of control of man who for the first time becomes the real conscious home of Nature, master of his own social organization.” Well, the definitive conquest of nature is as remote as it ever was, the critical factor nowadays being the immanence of catastrophic climate change which, once positive feedback kicks in, neither capitalism nor ‘communism’ will be able to do anything about, beyond engineering the climate of superdomes that will have become mankind’s final refuge and hell. The specter of Stalinism peers through Shulamith’s techno organicity: the control of nature`s forces including that of man was not only the omega of the materialists of the enlightenment, whose model was that of the natural sciences, but also that of Hegel’s, empirically meticulous, Philosophy of Nature, ‘the idea’ losing itself in nature until finally rescued by the controlling mind of philosophy rather than the practical hand of man. In a barely attenuated form, Hegel`s approach came to constitute the methodological cornerstone of Engels Dialectics of Nature, his holistic vision informing many a Soviet Union inspired ABC of Marxism. The history of that dire development is the history of the evacuation of the central concept of alienation from the corpus of Marx’s thought and has been used to justify all manner of wrong doing in the name of the workers of the world and the oppressed. Shulamith was entirely ignorant of this particular history and blind to the grotesque irony that turns providential scientific inevitability into the uncontrollable unleashing of nature’s destructive power, both formal and dialectical chains of causation generating the same inhuman monster at history’s end. And, since she did not come from a Communist party milieu, one can only speculate as to how these ideas might have become implanted in her. Student debating societies perhaps in which there was a heavy Maoist presence?
Her comments on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex continue in much the same vein, Shulamith viewing it as “a profound work” that pioneers a materialist view of sexual history and is, perhaps, “the definitive analysis” of “the biological contingencies of the human family”. Her chief bugbear is the “tyranny of the biological family” and the need to liberate women from the burden of child bearing arguing that “humanity has begun to transcend nature”. Thisimpacts upon the proletariat’s “seizure of the means of production” that now needs to be augmented by “the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction”. Fair enough, and Shulamith’s refusal to go along with the sentimental championing of the sanctity and mystique of motherhood that so many feminists were to argue was a biological need men could not possibly empathize with, is in advance of its time and cathartic. However, at this point, her unrelenting riff of the moment, “cybernetic communism”, puts in a baneful appearance: just as it was to be the cure for every other social malady, so “artificial [cyber] reproduction” would liberate women from the drudgery of motherhood. The history of such ideas, from Haldane’s test tube babies born into a genetically engineered miracle society of incalculable numbers of great scientists and artists to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is not that of the advance of libertarian thought but rather belongs in the subtopian archives of social control and asylum/prison roll calls of malfunctioning rejects. It is Shulamith’s great merit that, despite their packaging, she is able to imbue these dismal notions with genuine life. And it is her pick ‘n’ mix reading of Freud that allows her to do just this.
How much she went back to check on the genuine article is not clear. Probably, like most of us from that era, Shulamith’s sources were second hand, much preferring to read the utopian reinterpretations of Freud than suffer the bleak prognoses of the man himself. Nor does she fall into the feminist trap of dismissing Freud out of hand, a situation that was not put right until the publication of Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) by the former Maoist cheer leader, Juliet Mitchell. That said, Shulamith Firestone does not escape from a general tendency of the late 60s/ early 70s to set Freud aside in favor of Reich whose theories she does not subject to critical review, though they were as every bit ‘suspect’ as those of Freud. In fact her wish to end “sex distinction itself (where) genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally” is much closer to Freud than it is to Reich, who never once deviated from his trust in the primacy of genital sexuality. According to Shulamith we can only arrive at this beatific state of affairs through “a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems”. Phew! That is a big one! Yet, come the end of the day, one cannot help but feel she’s heading down the right road….
Freud (and to a lesser extent Marx) were not up to it for another reason because neither saw sufficiently clearly that the age of scarcity was passing and that technology was shortly set to turn into the horn of plenty. According to Shulamith “Marx could not take fully into account the future advent of cybernetics. Freud then did not have the mind bending knowledge of technological possibility that we now have”. In fact things were about to go into reverse as the earning capacity of the American male worker began to go downhill. In 1970 the male still tended to be the sole bread winner in American families. Here is not the place to exhaustively list the reasons behind this gradual collapse which also began to savagely erode the patriarchal nuclear family - (the rise of the Far East, the increasing costs of the social wage, the contentious decline in the rate of profit etc) - but the outcome is there for all to see: the press-ganging in droves of women into wage work to make good the short fall in the purchasing power of men’s wages. Early 1970s feminists, particularly in America, liked to belt out hit tunes from the Second World War such as Rosie the Riveter, the song that signaled the conscription of women into factory production, particularly armaments, though with no intention, for the most part, of ever emulating them. What this posturing did was make the early feminists into the ideological harbinger of this latter day process they also had little in common with, and precious little understanding of. Moreover the growing incidence of women workers, who now constitute the majority of wage workers, is itself an index of the growing casualisation of the work force which some recent observers like Nina Power refer to as the “feminization of labour” and that is anything but a victory for women.
Early 1970s feminism has been stood on its head in other ways too. From page 56 to 63 Shulamith discusses the ‘crises’ of specifically Freudian concepts like the Oedipus Complex and the related Electra Complex, a term that Freud disliked but which has since received greater acceptance. She views “the Electra Complex as an inverse Oedipus Complex”… requiring the elimination of “the family and sexuality as it is now structured” in order to “eliminate the incest taboo”. The term she insists on using is the “patriarchical nuclear family”. Though slick expressions like “girls on top” had yet to receive an airing, clearly the skids were under patriarchy and a reversal of, or rather interchangeability of roles, was beginning to get under way…….. Ms Firestone ruefully notes that women rarely left men – which may have been largely true then but is certainly not now. The male is singled out as the natural born philanderer though today the opposite is just as true. “Male sexual sickness” she describes as “the confusion of sexuality with power”, a pigeonholing that could apply, with equal force, to the many examples of raunch feminist empowerment cited in Ariel Levy’s relatively recent (2006) Female Chauvinist Pigs. Shulamith also insists - and let’s give her the benefit of the doubt - that men then were lacking in the caring dept should a wife or girl friend fall seriously ill. Well, we can mention a number of shocking examples to the contrary over recent years. And as for women being more in tune with their feelings - well, one of us has regularly attended a depressives anonymous group in London for close on two decades. For what it’s worth, women just to say outweighed the number of men whilst a similar group in Bradford was composed entirely of men, the majority former millworkers in their 50s and 60s. The school of hard knocks has taught us to instantly suspect the motives of anyone who flags the caring, touchy-feely virtues of women over that of men and that invariably it will shortly be followed by the rapier thrust of power that cuts the deeper because it pretends to be other than what it actually is. What counts finally is whose head is it on the block and the legacy of pain it leaves, a pain that is increasingly nowadays evenly distributed amongst the sexes.
However, Shulamith Firestone looks forward to the day when the narrowed down, primacy of genital contact loosens its grip and brings other factors into erotic play; “if sexuality were indeed at no time separated from other responses, if once included responded to the other in a total way that merely included sexuality as one of its components, then it is unlikely that a purely physical factor could be decisive”. This releasing of sexuality “from its straitjacket to erotise our whole culture, changing its very definition” will, according to Shul, bring about “an end to the incest taboo, through abolition of the family”. High hopes indeed but then the issue is left hanging in midair though its use potential was vast. What would she have thought of Lautreamont’s exhortation (and thank you, Annie Le Brun, for drawing our attention to it): “You must be able to look at a road like a woman’s vagina” that implies the environment, and our impassioned responses to it, can be rebuilt around this primordial unleashing of the erotic?. However she is well aware that a repressive manifestation of an expanded sexuality is ruling the day, Shul showing how indebted she was to Marcuse’s profound concept of repressive desublimation just as many of us, quite correctly, then were. That Eros could be the underpinning of a new, non repressive, totality is central to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and which is subtitled “a philosophic enquiry into Freud”. Quoting from Marcuse, it is the repressive utilization of the might of Eros in the service of capitalist accumulation that chiefly captures Shul’s attention, “the Reality Principle extends its hold over Eros. The most telling illustration is provided by the methodical introduction of sexiness into business, politics, propaganda etc”. The grip of this reality has gone from the vice-like to near strangulation and, short of a total revolution no one can escape its hold. By the by, perhaps we should point out that it is almost entirely due to Marcuse that the postulate of a “polymorphous perversity” that characterized the play of very young children prior to the repressive organization of sexuality around the genital areas, would be extended to challenge the domination of the Oedipus Complex.
Precisely because Marcuse stresses Freudian, therapy, indeed all therapy, to be “a course in resignation” and therefore part of repressive desublimation, Shul doesn’t knock him like she does Freud. It has to be said the most eye-catching emblazoning of Freud's reactionary practice was Nick Brandt’s graffiti on the plinth of Freud’s statue in Swiss Cottage, London: “My insights have spawned a monstrous repression”. The therapy industry then getting into its stride has since grown exponentially and forms an essential part of the most inventive, ingenious, resourceful, subtle, destructive totalitarianism the world has ever known. Having got up from the couch, therapy now revolves more around the cheer leading razzmatazz of the “life coach” than it does the draining reserve of the analyst, a development that also echoes the ultra capitalization of sport and aspirant dictatorship of sporting brands. What we need, more than ever today, is a refusal of anger management and all the other therapies of acquiescence and for us all to let rip, just as Shul counseled women to do “because there is no way to handle [women’s frustration], short of revolution”.
Holding up Phillipe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life as a book we should all read (as many of us indeed did), Shul argues you cannot “speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children, and – vice versa.” Summing up the book`s major theme that ‘childhood’ is a relatively modern development she goes on to say: “In the Middle Ages there was no such thing as childhood” meaning children way back then didn’t have an overweening dependence on their birth parents and were often reared by other adults. Armed with this background knowledge that could be turned to account in the contemporary world, Shul then launches an attack on modern schooling for segregating the world of the child, (that is little more than a commoditised item for the enforcement of happiness), from the adult world. Her prognostication is leave the kids alone: “the best way to rear a child is to LAY OFF”. Despite being a young school teacher herself, Shul’s message is unequivocal: if we are ever to escape from brainwashing then the only way is to be rid of school itself. An admirable sentiment and one that all who have experienced nothing but pain in the hands of educational establishments, a pain that continues to haunt a person decades later, can wholeheartedly identify with. However, “children’s liberation” occurring in the social void of capitalism quickly becomes the exact opposite of what was hoped would happen. Fucked up from the start by a brutal society, a feral servitude to capitalism is the awful outcome of this “freedom without responsibility”. Just over half a decade after the publication of The Dialectic of Sex there was a mass revolt in the mid 1970s by school pupils in the townships of South Africa. Incensed at the prospect of being taught in the hated Afrikaans language, many of the pupils were never to return to school, turning to crime instead - which would be fine if they all could be like Robin Hood and Maid Marion. This quickly proving impossible, for a few it would be the first step to becoming the Sheriff of Nottingham in reverse – or rather a drug baron. However for most it would be the short life of a thug hireling. When the inspired Shul wrote, none of these ideas she ran up the flagpole had been put to the test. When each issue is catered for in an isolated way without at the same time revolutionizing the totality of capitalist relationships, this kind of grotesque caricature is inevitable. Shul however lets the particular override the general and single issues relating e.g. to the specifics of ethnicity are highlighted and given special treatment, to the detriment of the whole. Little did she realize she was anticipating the fissiparous world of political correctness then, in 1970, just beginning to find its feet and that would seek in name to deliver capitalism from its earlier crudities, the better to mask the fact that it was hurtling towards utter catastrophe at break neck speed. Thus connectivity is lost when Shul leans over backwards to promote special interests at the expense of the whole and allows the different oppressions of women, blacks, children and workers to take over at the expense of a unified whole requiring a social revolution of everyday life..
Beyond these colonizing schisms there lies a free play, Shul embracing the idea without taking it that step further and seeing it in relation to an anti capitalist future. Had she glanced at our piece in the New York late 1960s street mag Black Mask that cursorily dealt with the free play of children, but that gave it a potentially wider scope by suggesting it should form a part - a joyful, winning part - of revolutionary strategy itself? Much in the same vein, Shul celebratesthe feral lives of poor marginal ghettoised youth roaming wild in gangs and whose members had been engaging in full-on sex from an early age. She amazingly rejoices in something most feminists, then as now, would have found abhorrent, and one cannot but wonder if somewhere along the line Shul had come acrossthe Motherfuckers defining model of ever widening inclusivity - “the street gang with an analysis”?
Today, of course, we simply cannot turn on sexual free-form like we once simplistically pretended we could, or even regard as it unrepressed. Increasingly taking over the world, sexuality has been split up into a ‘machined’ body shop of erogenous zones as on an assembly line, the right tummy tuck, the right boob job or enhanced prick, the spare parts of this whole awaiting a tumescent reassembly. As we become more narcissistic and unable to meet the exacting requirements of the advertised ideal we sicken, become depressed even die as a result of our failure to become the living embodiment of this ideal. As sexuality becomes increasingly medicalised, we are no longer the subject of advertising but its private patients. The sexual revolution was to be a communal act. Although it never was even remotely that, it was proclaimed as such by its leading ideologists and who were themselves the midwives of its seizure by capitalism from the mid 1960s onwards. Way, way before privitisation was to become an economic buzz word, Shul prophetically spoke of “the sex privitisation of women” a condition that has become increasingly gender neutral as we become trapped within our unlovely bodies and solipsistic hell, craving release from them as from a torture. This, combined with the extra hell of knowing, short of a total revolution, humanity is doomed, is the mass psychological basis of our desire to overcome our human selves in a post human future that is the undeclared aim of a heavily capitalized bio-tech industry.
Shulamith must have yearned to get out of teaching, the contradictions of her situation just too painful to bear. To make matters worse there was, throughout America, widespread criticism of the role of teacher some coming from high school students, several producing a magazine called Hey Teach. The sigh of the oppressed oppressor could never have been far from Shul’s lips. Crowded by mounting anxieties and probably agreeing with everything that was said about teachers, her thoughts become convoluted and almost unreadable. Superimposing her reflections on the Oedipus Complex on a sex/race Afro-American base that is probably derived from her reading of Eldridge Cleaver’s, Soul on Ice, and what we get is a complex beyond a complex, a duplex or doubling of perplexity. Impossible to make head or tail of, it just ends up being funny in an exemplary way: New York’s nutty finest. And so we need never have feared the contents of the chapter might not have lived up to the title: “The Racial Family: Oedipus / Electra, The Eternal Triangle, The Brothel-Behind-the Scenes”. Attempting to further elucidate her statement that “racism is sexism extended”, her Freudian drift turns into something like a stream-of-consciousness, this-is-what-I’ve observed analysis verging on the maniacal. Instantly kicking-off a heated controversy, one comes away with the impression there is something remarkable here, though what we aren’t quite sure of, and that it certainly didn’t warrant the immediate, nasty attacks launched against it.
Coming back to earth, Shul devotes a chapter of her book simply to “Love” that modern-day questionable love now denigrated as little more than a con game. Beginning with the rhetorical question, “Do we want to get rid of love?” alas she never sees this has already happened and had been put very succinctly by Vaneigem a few years previously when he wrote in his The Revolution of Everyday Life: “No love is possible in an unhappy world”; (by which, he meant the unhappy world of total capitalism, the observation more even more true of today than it was of the late 1960s). Yet Shul still can turn an excellent line: she claims “love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive” a fine observation that is almost a recognition of its universal failure for she then goes on to describe the moment of love nowadays as a “diseased state” “a holocaust” predicated on “unequal power”. Then, as now, the only solution is revolution, not a fanciful redistribution of power “because power and love don’t make it together”. Too true. The absence of love was to scar everyone irrespective of gender, the young Shualmith anticipating her, mine and your fate when she warned “And yet to live without love in the end proves intolerable to men just as it does to women”….
Discussing the history of American Feminism and its radical beginnings around the time of the American Civil War (1860-65) Shulamith stresses its anti family, anti church and, amazingly, anti state outlook. But from then on her historical acumen begins to fail. When tracking the relationship of later feminists to an increasingly conservative labour movement, epitomized especially by the AFL (American Federation of Labour) under the obnoxious Samuel Gompers, the Wobblies never receive a mention. Did she even know about them? And how come, after praising the English Suffragettes, especially the Pankhurst’s, she didn’t then go on to address the pivotal role the remarkable Sylvia Pankhurst played in helping shape the ultra left opposition to Leninism, an event of the greatest importance almost wholly overlooked by Anglo / American feminism for whom it has been of scant import - and not even that! Sylvia had broken with the suffragettes because of their support for the greatest disaster of all time, the First World War. Renaming The Women’s Dreadnought, Workers Dreadnought, she had published, in its pages, Reply to Lenin by Herman Gorter, the key document of the Dutch ultra left. This document, more than any other, had helped set in train the profoundly revolutionary notion that all vanguard parties and trade unions acting in the name of the proletariat, were no longer weapons of the revolution but rather organs of its suppression. Come what may, after this onslaught and historic turning point, Humpty Dumpty would never be fully put back together. However, well prior to this, Sylvia, now radicalized by events, had rejected any form of parliamentary tactic and entryism into the Labour party. Excluded from The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Third International, she had set up in 1921 a section of Gorter’s autonomous KAI (Communist Workers International) which, astonishingly, for the brief period it existed, would be the most numerous of all, bringing together strands as disparate as Stirnerite/Bakuninist shipyard engineers and a council communist current in a typically Brit non-sectarian mix. On the continent a similar rag bag of libertarian tendencies would have led to ‘principled’ schisms. In this nation of class alarm bells only the pulling of rank by ‘middle class’ revolutionaries can have a similar effect, the typically undemonstrative, hurt reaction that much more extreme – and final. But enough! Suffice to ask who says Britain lacks a genuinely revolutionary past? For fuk’s sake, femmes, wake up!
Though Shul, regrettably, is wanting on decisive matters like the above, it has to be said she is highly attuned to the way in which, subsequent to Sylvia Pankhurst’s great step forward, traditional feminism before long would be eclipsed by the rise of glamour. “In the twenties eroticism came in big” she says and everything begins to hinge around “love and marriage”, schmaltzy pop songs, broadcast endlessly over the airwaves, merely the recitative of this conformist trajectory. How this cheesy eroticism might morph, post the early 1970s, into a perverse prerequisite of feminine emancipation no one came close to predicting, nor divined how pornographic images, that formerly treated women as bits of meat, would be turned against men as some women came increasingly to see men in terms of prick size and staying power. The victimhood of early 70s feminism now stood on its head, it was all done in the name of female empowerment, an addiction to sex as powerful as a dependency on heroin (and just as destructive) coming to rule the lives of as many women as men. The whole business was so horribly rapacious and gross …and so unexpected….. Yet in Shul there are hints of the bleakness to come………..
At times she falls just short of “a theory of the spectacle” but then things somehow go awry and get lost. Take for instance a sentence like the following: “The perversion of image has so deeply altered our very relationships to ourselves that even men have become objects – if never erotic objects. (Again, even then the “sexual objectification” of men was certainly under way, though it had some way to go to begin to rival that of women. A line in men’s fashion items, “hi-tech smalls for male enhancement”, which marketers candidly describe as “frontal enhancement”, is now all the rage, M&S having invested heavily in the range. The company, Spanx, promises “to change the world one butt at a time” - a play, if ever there was one, on Marx’s famous exhortation. The company is run by women, who devised the line in men’s girdles- “mirdles”). But whatever Shulamith’s shortcomings are, out of nowhere there comes a sublime one-liner: “Boy-Image meets Girl-Image and consummates Image-Romance”.
Shulamith struggles to understand the decline and fall of art from the Romantic Movement onwards - and makes a touching hash of it. Her knowledge of the subversive moments, stemming mainly from France, driving this relentless disintegration and that went way back into the 19th century, was obviously extremely thin. The fact that she had recently acquired a degree in Fine Art (painting) from the University of Chicago would certainly not have helped her in this matter, determined as these academies are to rid themselves of any notions that might so much as hint at the supercession of art. With such a high stake in the exponential growth in the art business (which the present deep economic crises has barely dented), it was as unthinkable as politicians calling for the abolition of the State – a fact lost on Shulamith though just as important. Thus SF mistakenly regards these moments when art begins to disintegrate in the hands of its foremost practitioners as marking a retreat into the ghetto of aestheticism, with suicide the only way out of the impasse because it bears no relationship to what’s happening in the streets. Though true that an aggressively, finally even ‘street’, business-like genre of nothingness had by then begun to grow out of these moments of negation - and which shows no sign of abating, rather the contrary - Shul was blind to how what began as an esoteric venture could eventually turn into a recognisable act that communicates brilliantly and opens out onto the whole new world of total revolution. The real history of otherworldly (and otherwordly) symbolism is just such an instance, the ‘false’ here a moment of what, in the end, would be the true. And so the confusing outcome for Shul is to condemn the art of her time (and perhaps just a bit more) with one hand whilst with the other she writes about “the healthy selfish in art today”!
What, exactly, was that “bit more”? She did, for instance, note that the mid 1960s happenings in New York were neither one thing nor the other. Which is a good start. But how come, though she may well have glanced at Black Mask leaflets, and others of a similar stamp, handed out on the streets of the Lower East Side (where she obviously lived or at least close by) she makes no mention at all of Valerie Solanas in The Dialectic of Sex. They were after all both artists and she must been struck by The Society for Cutting up Men. Maybe her only way of dealing with this type of radicalism, which obviously she was just a step away from, was for Shul to pretend she was capable of repressing it successfully: as we, and others, wrote in a leaflet composed on the Town Moor in Newcastle in response to the shooting of Andy Warhol by Solanas The Death of Art Spells the Murder of Artists. And so when she condemns the “ponderous reviews [on Happenings] you get in Arts News” as all “a waste of time” we must treat it as symptomatic of her own fears that propels her to seek refuge in a half way house: “If these clumsy attempts are at all hopeful, it is only in so far as they are signs of the breakdown of ‘fine’ art…..The merging of the aesthetic with the technological mode will actually suffocate ‘pure’ high art altogether”. The latter could easily have been written by a Russian constructivist - Tatlin, for example – and again is open to the objection this is little more than redemption through technology, salvation at the press of a button, the manifest god of energy flows that heal…….
But then, Shulamith suddenly makes a surprisingly interesting, though somewhat confusing, contribution welcoming a “cultural revolution” predicated on “the elimination of the (sex) dualism “with the technological mode as male combined with the female aesthetic mode thus creating a higher order; an “androgynous culture”. This is a leap into the unknown and we can only wonder what does she mean by the “female aesthetic mode”: in so far as more men historically have been involved in the conception and making of technologies, to refer to the “technological mode as male” does make more sense….. But no matter. So let Shul fire off at will and see if hidden in this tangle there are real treasures of the kind utopian dreamers have a habit of burying deep within their texts. Immanent to the “merging of art and reality”, according to Shul is the disappearance of culture, only for her to then massively contradict herself, envisaging a “powerful new art perhaps arriving in conjunction with the feminist political movement”. Things get even more confusing when, returning to her leitmotif of an “androgynous culture”, she finds an anticipation of it in the recent past of high culture, claiming that “the greatest artists became mentally androgynous”. Citing individuals like Proust, Kafka and James Joyce, it is undeniably the case that the first and the last were pushing literary modes of writing to the point of breakdown from which no recovery was possible. And yet she seems never to have heard of Lautreamont who can be said to manufacture a dreadful, though ultimately superceding, bestiary all of his own making in which the anatomical characteristics that define the sexes and set then apart from animals, plants and the products of industry all become interchangeable and grotesquely malformed. Shul could not deal with this step beyond the former conservatism of androgyny (Lautreamont seems to be asking, “Why stop there”?) nor give any hints as to what it might mean. It is unthinkable that Lautreamont would ever have referred to himself as an artist. Artaud grasped this when he said Lautreamont’s icy letter to his publisher concerning The Songs of Maldoror, revealed an “epileptoid tremor of the word”, which suggests the future of writing belonged to an outpouring of ‘madness’ in which mental states take precedence over the act of writing. Falling through the safety net of art, that is what would happen to Shulamith Firestone.
Aware literary culture is declining; Shulamith welcomes its replacement from the arid perspective of McLuhanism. Hailing the growing hegemony of the visual media, Shul stops a long, long way short of taking up arms against the society of the spectacle and the critique of passivity in all its form it entails, beginning with the dismantling of manufactured images capitalism has become dependent on for its continued reproduction and capacity to sell itself. Worse still, she still hankers after the cloistered world of academia, believing it possesses pockets of autonomy it patently did not have. She wants to see an extension of “best departments of the best colleges” right across the academic world, because they in effect constitute “red bases” that pioneer the future revolutionary “life style of the masses”. Their biggest extension in the western world would prove to be setting up of the ‘popular’ University of Vincennes in the wake of the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France. Promoting democratic illusions of the worst sort, it derailed struggle rather than furthered it, causing people to lose their way in a maze of bookish radicalism that was anything but radical, come the crunch. Shul also envisions the setting up of a revolutionary system of skill centres that would aid the disadvantaged child with no formal training who may find it difficult to learn, say, an “advanced curriculum like architecture”. Again it just roles off her tongue as if unaware of the extent of the attack upon architecture and architects, an attack that had almost become commonplace in working class communities threatened with redevelopment in inner city neighbourhoods from the mid 1960s onwards. It didn’t take much either to move dialogue in the direction of the death of architecture per se, radical critiques of culture, in these all too brief, open ended moments, ceasing to be something of the preserve of a revolutionary elite.
Shul does not grasp that the beginnings of a total revolutionary critique, should one care to look beneath the surface of the artefacts, is to be found in romanticism at its very best. When Shul lambastes the movement, she fails to see that what she is attacking are the bourgeois stereotypes that laud romance, love and lust, which there is such a ready market for. This market capitalization of the superficialities of romanticism has, since the Second World War undergone an exponential growth. In step with the conservative romanticism of Barbara Cartland, and prurient bodice ripping nonsense of the likes of Rose Tremaine and Alan Titmarsh, there has grown up an ‘underground’ sex industry bigger than anything Hollywood has to offer and that leaves nothing to be desired – except everything, because the net effect of this sexual scorched earth policy is maximum de-eroticisation and that might even hide a decline in actual sexual activity. The latter development was in its infancy when Shul wrote. But even so she can discern in embryo what it would lead to. She speaks of how “eroticism becomes erotomania” where sex is “simulated to the limit becoming an epidemic unequalled in history” with men walking about “in a state of constant excitement”. (Except during prime time viewing, the sex is no longer ‘simulated’, the extra ‘excitement’ provided by ‘the real thing’ only adding to the conventional tedium of it all). Since The Dialectic of Sex was written, the blitz of sexualized imagery has become a unisex bombardment, directed at both men and women and from which there is no escape. Annie Le Brun’s description of this state of affairs can scarcely be bettered: “sexes enter each other and come - an overabundance of fluids, secretions, stickiness and discharges that unite, in their gumminess, the distressing unisex eroticism that is in the midst of transforming into a convivial cloning”. The Reality Overload (published 2000).
As we have brought up the subject of romanticism, for the sake of accuracy we urgently need to correct the mistaken impression that it was opposed to science. We need only mention the creative interplay between Coleridge and Humphrey Davy and the virtual one between Shelley and Michael Faraday, cut short by Shelley’s premature death. Who knows but Shelley might, early on, have grasped that electricity, in addition to being a source of energy, was also potentially an ‘informational’ tool. He did after all like to ‘electrocute’ himself, getting off on the change in his mental state it induced in him. We now know that computer terminals have the capacity to alter our neural networks and that, once hooked by their heart touching otherness, is nearly as difficult to let go of as a live high voltage cable. We can only speculate as to the impact Shelley’s imminent insights might have had on the rapidly evolving electricity industry. And let us not forget that the greatest of practical experimenters, Michael Faraday, was mathematically illiterate yet still able to say that he intuitively felt Clerk Maxwell’s equations, demonstrating the existence of the electro- magnetic spectrum, were right but wondering, at the same time, if a system of easily understood hieroglyphs might do the job just as well. Perhaps he felt his revolutionary drawings of force fields from the 1840s showed a credible way out, working drawings that would have excited any number of Constructivists in Russia over 70 years later. This ‘synergy’ was also apparent in surrealism and we need to be reminded that Breton was also a medical intern, his command of science evident in The Ode to Charles Fourier.
Plumping for the “Two Cultures” of C.P. Snow, then all the rage in the Anglophone world, Shul only demonstrates her ignorance of the rich, unexplored history outlined above. This only retards her critique of both science and art, terms that in the light of what has been sketched above need to be transcended as false opposites. What we don’t need are forums in which scientist and artist come together to correct the situation of mutual incomprehensibility Snow hammers away at. This false supercession exists in abundance already as scientists rally to the cause of art and seek to conceptualise their own product and as artists outwardly become more au fait with industrial techniques, though in reality (as small businesses) they get others to do their dirty work. When Shul wrote, this development was not even in its infancy and one cannot but feel that, as regards science, the ‘humanising’ aesthetic option came about because it was far easier one than having to bow to the full fury of social critique. Rightly, Shul finds occasion to mention the miserable bourgeois conformism of most scientists of her day and that was a major factor in sending many into the revolutionary camp. It goes without saying this unchallenged conformism is so much worse today than it was then. And yet Shul shows an uncritical reverence for the promise of abundance held out by the “the green revolution”,unaware that improved crop yields were dependent on cheap oil and the increased use of artificial fertilizers which eventually would become self-defeating, crops requiring an ever larger injection of junk just to keep up with last years harvest. She even goes one step further than GM food, speculating that the era of “totally artificial food production” is just around the corner!
But Shul’s willingness to open herself up to all manner of new discoveries in science and technology is commendable, her inchoate cut and paste a courageous dog’s dinner that`s far more likely to lead to a supercession of science and art than Snow’s arid dichotomies. Likewise her take on ecology is full of contradictions and strains credulity, arguing for a “humane artificial (man-made) balance in place of the natural one” in order “to replace the destroyed [our emphasis] ‘natural’ balance. Is she saying the eco systems we are going to put in place of the destroyed ones will be superior to those of nature because man made? Notice how she italicizes “natural”. Is this down to the fact that she has taken full cognizance of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach and his claim that nature in a primal state, uncorrupted by the practical activity of man, has virtually ceased to exist? Does she now want to complete “the Marxian project”, and ‘humanize’ nature completely? We can only regard this as an act of maximum hubris today. Whatever the case, she feared unprecedented famine and was won over to Paul Erlich’s recently published The Population Bomb. A fatally premature book that pandered to middle class insecurities and lined Erlich’s pocket because it did so, it predicted mass starvation by 1980 at the latest and the exhaustion of earth’s raw material a short while after. None of this happened on the time scale envisaged by Erlich.
And if today we are threatened by a comparable catastrophe, the science informing global warming is much more firmly grounded, the rape of the world’s raw material, especially the impending mining and drilling of Arctic regions, only set to accelerate the process. What the latter and the former have in common is a joint refusal to acknowledge that capitalism is essentially driving this process of mass extinction. And this time we are not so foolish as to kid ourselves that we possess the knowledge enabling us to construct a superior, made to order, nature like the one floated by Shulamith. What we are finding is that irreplaceable eco systems are beginning to acquire a market value for spivs to home in on in proportion to their fragility, inimitability and services they provide- and which is open to differences of interpretation by any crack-pot environmental economist that chances by, and who may easily conclude it is the interests of capitalism and nature to develop. Planet Earth now has a price tag thanks to TEEB (The Economics of Eco Systems and Biodiversity), a unit of environmental economists set up by the G8 summit in Germany in 2007 but which goes back to the Rio, Convention on Biological Diversity of the early 1990s and the Summit for Sustainable Development that met in Johannesburg in 2002. By subjecting eco systems to a cost benefit analyses, it is designed to “do for nature what Lord Stern did for climate change” (yer shittin’ me!), the UN intending to set up an “IPCC for biodiversity” in 2011. So have no fear, dear reader, all will now be saved! Nature is now set to become the final business plan, most helpful savings bank, lender and insurer of last resort, cash cow, commodities trader/hoarder and every other stock-in-trade of the financial pages - whatever the hypercritical claims to the contrary by the world’s ruler. Obliged to pose as conservationists, it allows them to wash their filthy hands of all responsibility when the final bubble bursts (for we are running out of bubbles in proportion to capitalism’s inability to valorize itself) and everything goes bang. The Nagoya conservation summit, convened in Japan of Oct 2010, signed a last minute declaration designed to secure the headlines it wanted. The Independent (newspaper) of 30th Oct 2010 duly obliged, announcing “a giant leap for the natural world-historic deal aims to halt mass extinction”. The declaration was never published, the world’s environmental ministers and other delegates from 190 countries, demonstrating a formal mastery of the performance arts that had been played out to near perfection in Cop15 in Copenhagen in late 2009 and which was a dress rehearsal for Nagoya’s even more blatant theatrical aping of action as real fires rage, not sport, across the World Stage. Shul lived in a world that had a unsophisticated, ‘productivist’, answer to a crises, roughly outlined above, that has been decades in the making. In the forty years that have passed we know we don’t, a non-negotiable utopianism of “let be” rather than laissez refaire being more what’s required .
Shul endeavors to get back to the roots of the desperate problems besetting us and asks what stops us from basically ever confronting them? She rightly concludes the repressive “components of the family psychology” has much to answer for in this respect. But, as ever, there is to hand a deus pro machina , the setting up of test tube baby factories offering an “an alternative to the oppressions of the nuclear family”. However there is more than meets the eye to Shul’s naïve techno-fix cure: she not only wants to be free of the nuclear family but also of the burdens of motherhood, nay, the very idea of motherhood as inherently oppressive and against the true realization of women. In speaking for herself, Shul was speaking for many other women in revolt against the notion that the prime purpose of women was to procreate. These still unsung women fervently believed that to give birth was a betrayal of the new woman, babies obstructing the release of women’s hitherto blocked up primal creativity. It was automatically expected of Arati, a childless Indian woman we know, that she would be there to look after the babies of other women. She deeply resented this assumption. Others argued that, in the past, many disregarded women had courageously refused motherhood, these objects of pity that had been “left on the shelf”, safely labelled spinsters and maiden aunts. One undomesticated Arab woman, another acquaintance of ours, would demonstrate what she would do to her unwanted child, feigning to wring its neck like a chicken. (Her idea of a genuine urban improvement was to have a pub and abortion clinic on every street corner, this Ranter-like notion unlikely to endear itself to the main body of puritanical feminism because of its implicit encouragement of casual sex. Though hating the very idea of sex herself, she still admired Marie Stopes, though not because she made family planning a reality but for the reason contraceptives meant it was possible thereafter to engage in safe, casual sex outside of the crushing institution of marriage).
It is the actual transition from capitalism to a new revolutionary society that to Shul is now the order of the day, a conclusion that is not that surprising given how charged with expectation New York was during the late 1960s. Even so she rightly deems you cannot draw up a blueprint for the future merely tentatively put down, here and there, a few markers. Necessarily lacking a prior model, what counts during these historically unprecedented moments is the dynamism of the situation, the capacity to act and reflect, that much sought after union of theory and practise. From grim experience, Shul also very well knew that the interrogators opposing your ideas, and who constantly badger you by asking: “What’s your alternative” aren’t really interested in your replies either: in fact it’s a tried and tested rhetorical technique designed to make you look a fool and a means of deflecting revolutionary anger. Whatever Shul’s sensitivities to the real ‘subjective’ minutiae of the transitional stage otherwise are, they can still show up dressed either in the most pedestrian, officious clothes or the most outrageous space suits. What are we to make of her system of licenses for the new “households”that will ensure stability amongst their members? Or her mystic faith in cybernetic machines that will do all manner of basic household chores- perhaps even peeling the potatoes!!!!!!!!! If only Shul had shown a basic grasp of the theory and practise of workers councils and what they meant in terms of the refusal of all leftist parties and trade unions. Of course we know the concept of workers councils is a deeply reductive one which, limited to its time, is of little relevance today – with the one proviso we must keep tight hold of the notion of popular power and direct democracy that, to the honour of the councilist tradition, it never once went back on. But, as things stand, Shul’s perceptions are vitiated by the even worse leftovers of traditional workers’ party vanguardism, Shul’s awareness of the history of the autonomous workers / non-workers movement never her strong point.
These crudities are leavened, if not altogether cancelled, by Shul’s inspiring notion of an end to sex dualism and a very daring excursion into the issue of child sexuality. That said, it is also clear that the central question of the eventual abolition of money is never gone into, Shul still running through the usual “socialist state” rigmarole with everybody in receipt of “a guaranteed annual income from the state to take care of basic physical need. These incomes, if distributed equitably to men, women and children, regardless of age, work, prestige, birth, could in themselves equalise in one blow the economic class system”. All very fine sounding but, as it stands, it is little more than a redistribution of private property not its abolition,or as Marx put it, “a community of labour and equality of wages which are paid out by the communal capital, the community as universal capitalist”…..Though ostensibly dealing with the transitional stage, Shul is also in considerable danger of falling into the social democratic trap of neutralising the class content of the state and giving it a trans-historical validity. The most vocal representatives of the women’s movement have never been brought to task over this recurring metaphysic but we could well be on the cusp of change, bottom women about to take issue with their politically opportunist top ‘sisters’. Should this happen Shul, unfortunately, will never be thought of as ever having prompted this essential, and much overdue, development. Just as her madcap transitional schemes of “work divorced from money and redefined” fail to recognize the origin of money in labour, so likewise Shul’s conception of the state is fluffy at best and not truly conscious of the fact that it arises out of the cleavage of society into classes. Hence the dynamic governing both the withering away of the state and withering away of money is absent in her work.
But forget these failings for the moment. The nuts and bolts of the transitional society to one side, it is also the moment of the most profound inner transformation of the human race and here Shul really excites. This is Shul uncut in lyrical overflow:
“What we shall have in the next cultural revolution is the reintegration of the male (technological mode) with the female (aesthetic mode), to create an androgynous culture surpassing the highs of either cultural stream, or even the sum of their integrations. More than a marriage, rather an abolition of the cultural categories themselves, a mutual cancellation –a matter-antimatter explosion, ending with a poof! Culture itself.
We shall not miss it. We shall no longer need it: by then humanity will have transcended matter, will have realised in actuality its dreams. With the full achievement of the conceivable in the actual, the surrogate of culture will no longer be necessary. The sublimination process, a detour to wish fulfilment, will give way to direct satisfaction in experience, as felt now only (sometimes) by children, or adults on drugs. (Through normal adults ‘play’ to varying degrees, a more immediate example – zero on a scale of accomplishment (‘nothing to show for it’) but nevertheless worth your while – is lovemaking.) Control and delay of id satisfaction by the ego will be unnecessary; the id can live free. Enjoyment will spring directly from living itself, the process of experience, rather than from the quality of achievement. When the male technological mode can at last produce in actuality what the female aesthetic mode had envisioned, we shall have eliminated the need for either.”
During such a transition we would be realising ourselves “simply in the process of being and acting” through “the elimination of sex class distinction altogether” so c’mon everybody, let’s rock!
Taking time out for a moment, it is legitimate to ask what is precisely meant by the transitional period. It must have a beginning, an end and a direction. As regards basic fundamentals we know what we want: abolition of the commodity, the state, wage labour. Though Shul was never clear on this score, paradoxically she was more perceptive on and receptive to the subjective drift of the transition than most. Her model (if we could call it that) is therefore extraordinarily lop-sided, crude on the one hand but also ‘mental’, as if granting a fine madness its long overdue rights and yet also anticipating the foul madness that was to shortly consume us all, a madness that much more intense on account of the augur of maximum fulfilment the revolution promised and which we believed was within our grasp. Are we right to regard the late 1960s as a transitional period that went off at a terrible tangent but which, for the brief time it lasted, threw everything there was into the melting pot?
Along with the Hippies, the Yippees, the Crazies, Shulamith Firestone mentions the Motherfuckers noting how they’d broken from traditional Marxist analysis, viewing the problem now so much “deeper than merely the struggle of the proletariat”. Such a ‘redefinition’ necessarily raises the question of a total revolution which Shul sidesteps, even opining that the Crazies or Motherfuckers were evolving towards the “apolitical” which was a misrepresentation, certainly of the best amongst them. The more coherent, imaginative aspects of these movements aspired to destroy politics and the state along with everything else contaminated by an alienated commoditization, the glamour / art industry very much a part of this contamination. All she could come up with was the suggestion these waning movements by 1970 needed the “feminist movement [as] the urgently needed solder”. But did they, and though the Motherfucker critique was failing it is extremely doubtful if feminism could have provided the new momentum? The times were changing fast in any case and a deep, long lasting reaction was beginning to take hold, the darkest of futures already casting its shadow over the present. Increasingly throughout the 1970s the feminist movement would be rent by schisms, whatever Shul’s hopes that radical feminism would succeed in conferring an egalitarian structure on the revolutionary movement simply because it questioned “the basic relations between the sexes and between parents and children (taking) the psychological pattern of dominance-submission to its very roots”. A laudable optimism indeed that completely failed to materialize, one expression of feminism, come the late 1970s, unashamedly glorifying sado-masochism. Ariel Levy notes how the feminist movement became split into anti porn feminists and those who, in the interest of freedom for women, thought “women should be free to look at or appear in pornography”, one woman shocked to find “that some women identified their sexuality with the S/M pictures we found so degrading”. By the time Sex and the City appeared on TV screens, feminism had become a complete, high end, life style package (“a woman`s right to shoes”) and the new womanhood a celebration of consumer inequality, the possession of a birkin bag conferring a controlling power on its owner before whom knees are instantly expected to crumple. Sex partakes of this addiction to belittling, consumer power, “sexual encounters often ending with someone feeling like a conqueror and someone feeling compromised” (Levy op cit).But then things tail off, Levy unable to situate this burning cauldron of torturer and tortured within the perspective of neo liberalism. Consequently the critical impact of Mrs Thatcher on ‘normalizing’ women’s ‘success’ and legitimating the right of women “to be deeply unpleasant, to be cruel, to be death dealing, to be egotistic” is never dealt with. (The quote is from the shameless feminist careerist Natasha Walter, who found it “cathartic”. The ego inflation of Thatcherite feminism needs to placed alongside that of the bubble economics of asset inflation, particularly housing, and the relaxing of restrictions on credit. Women, as a result, undergo an historically unprecedented market capitalization, “freedom for women” becoming identical with the unobstructed operation of free markets. But it is women themselves who have paid the heaviest price, and are the most fucked over, by this make-believe that crashed to its death in 2008. Meanwhile there has been a faint esurgence of early 1970s victimhood that pretends none of this ever happened but which, hopefully, is only marking time and is a prelude to far more radical – unisex - developments).
Shulamith Firestone was also brought low by the feuding that quickly broke out in her little circle of feminist stalwarts as the l960s drew to a close and that also marked an end to the revolutionary euphoria that had been building up since the middle of the decade. The argument was between those who favored ‘culture / reform’ and those who chose the path of revolutionary feminism (the Redstockings), the arguments for and against yet to penetrate the ever growing feminist upsurge throughout the world. The debate was anything but amicable and must have been a factor behind Shul retreating back into the role of artist (painter), a role she had all but of ditched. Wounding attacks upon her ideas became commonplace, accusations of racism especially hard to parry during that particularly racially sensitive moment in American history. Fast forward thirty years and she could well have faced a stretch in jail for giving encouragement to pedophiles, her advocacy of child sexuality to also involve adults should they feel inclined to participate and provided they were actively elicited to do so by the children themselves. Though Engels quite explicitly says in The Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State that “sexual intercourse between parents and children is still permitted among many peoples today” and cites several instances of it and what with child/adult sexuality also a premise of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, this shocking idea of Shul’s was nevertheless absolutely conditional on a non-repressive social revolution. However in Airless Spaces she remembers, in the autobiographical section on her brother Danny, who “meditated himself into suicide”, “playing with her brother`s circumcised genitals which were sweet and hairless and innocent-making them dance”. Come the1980s and Shul had completely cracked up, publishing in 1998 the above mentioned book, a haunting account of life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Andrea Dworkin before she died in 2000 was interviewed by the UK Guardian newspaper: recalling Shulamith Firestone she said she was, “poor and crazy. She rents a room in a house and fills it with junk, then gets kicked out and moves into another room and fills that with junk”. It is in retrospect an excessively cruel, dismissive remark from an opportunist who had done quite well out of her writings and forged a stupid alliance with the American right wing on account of its opposition to pornography.
And this is where it would have ended had we not picked up a copy of Airless Spaces ….. and then were blown away…….
Airless Spaces really does pack a punch.Searingly honest and superbly well expressed, it feels like the original template were blood-spattered medical prescriptions more than jottings thrown down in a cheap writing pad which Shul admits to mislaying, even losing. It’s more like a physical experience than a book: at one point we felt the blood was draining from our bodies, the book nearly dropping from trembling hands. That has never happened before. This book goes right to the heart, the succession of non-moralizing vignettes, detailing the lives of the so-called mad incarcerated in New York lunatic asylums over the last thirty years or so, as haunting as anything we have known. Impossible to put down, it is a book for the already tortured and built around details far removed from the general abstractions of The Dialectic of Sex.
The two books couldn’t be more opposed.The first is as upbeat as can be: the revolution is coming, after all. In the second everything has been destroyed, the revolution beaten and never to be mentioned. All that is left is a deepening nothingness at the end of which is a grim and lonely death. In this small, desperate corner of life described by Shulamith, the wider world of the last few decades is played out. Utterly sincere revolutionaries like Shul were overpowered by the craziness and plunged into complete despair which they had to mostly cope with in silence, for coping was their first priority. Barely affected by defeat, it was left to the recuperators, careerists, cop-outs, and assholes to make a noise and which if it sounded loud this was only because society had become deaf. Having blocked its ears against truth, what would it take for it to hear the cries of someone like Shul who found it an agony just to get from one day to the next? Worst of all it was of no account and therefore to be blindly passed over in silence as if wanting in ‘revolutionary’ content, testimony and strength of mind. Some time ago we put together some of the ‘crazy’ notes the Yorkshire miner, John Dennis, scribbled down when dying a broken, but still rebellious man. These we then uploaded on to the RAP web under the title of A Destroyed Yorkshire Miner which was sub- titled, The Slow-motion Suicide of John Dennis. This was met with a similar silence and incomprehension, like we’d done something that was neither in good taste nor in the best interests of the great miners’ strike of 1984/5, even casting a shadow over how it will be remembered by posterity. The latter-day Shul has been written out of history just as John has been. On the Good Reads, Shulamith Quotes, web no one but no one has seen fit to include any passages from Airless Spaces. It’s as if the woman is now an embarrassment. The point surely is to be able to combine the fore and after, the up and at ‘em with the terrible despair that was to follow. This more rounded, inclusive approach is the only way the complex realities of this appalling society, as lived by its most unyielding opponents, will be laid bare and from whose example and experience we can all humbly profit.
A prime example of Anglo/American empiricism, Airless Spaces has never been bettered. Shul lives the reality she is describing and from which there is no escape. This alone sets it apart from ‘radical journalism’, the chameleon-like reporter, ever lacking an authentic identity, taking time out to zip into another person’s skin in order to experience what things really are like at the sharp end. Knowing they can exit from this assumed identity at any time, especially when things really start to get rough, acting a part for a few weeks never gives them that cleansing knowledge they privately hunger for and that will rid them forever of the sham that is their own life, (e.g. the posh journalist’s Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain springs to mind, the blurb on the book’s back cover advertising her ladyship’s “determination to live and work on the minimum wage”!)
Moreover radical journalism always results in conclusions that are anything but radical and that opts to make a case for reform instead. This also has always been the bugbear of the best of thought-provoking and, up to a point, ‘challenging’ examples of Anglo/American empiricism from which revealing tidbits can be salvaged and placed within a truly revolutionary perspective, the most notable example, to date, being the Situationists recovery of Daniel Boorstein’s The Image. Though certainly never Shul’s intention, it does happen to be true of Ariel Levy`s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2006), a book that has never been given the coverage it deserves on account of its uncomfortable, highly inconvenient truths regarding the women’s movement. Unable to take “raunch feminism” that one step further into the airless spaces of “femme capital” and link it into an advanced critique of capitalism, Levy lamely concludes we need only say “no” to be rid of the bitch, the “raunch script” that is responsible for the “crazy feeling in our head”. The best of Anglo/American sociological empiricism (though it has to be said that best is largely American) tends to shadow rising revolutionary currents the better to derail them .This was as true of its hey day (Boorstein, Packard, Galbraith) between the mid 1950s and mid 1960s as it is now, though with women authors now swelling its ranks and actually producing the most personally felt works like, for instance, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile and Die. (This book describes her battle with breast cancer and the happy clappy therapists that tell her to keep smiling otherwise she will be guilty of triggering off the cancer once more). Shul’s relationship to ‘the facts’ is nowhere near as external as theirs, who write from the reasonably comfy position of academic, journalist, editor etc. These facts bear down on Shul like the weight of a mountain, crush her, and sweep her away. Writing from the perspective of a nobody no one wants to know and with little clout, also means she is not blown off course by empiricism’s final solution: reform.
As a taster here are two episodes, small, complete, unbeatable…
Airless Spaces begins with a dream hovering on nightmare making certain we know Shulamith Firestone has experienced catastrophic mental collapse; a breakdown, with hints, though only obscure hints, of a breakthrough somewhere distant down a long frightening line. Immediately it reminded us of the Unorthodox Nature Notes recently put up on the Dialectical Butterflies website as dreams figure quite highly in these ‘scientifically’ inclined observations, noting too in passing there is a long and profound tradition of this in the English language getting intenser during the Romantic Movement and brought to a greater awareness by Young’s Night Thoughts and De Quincey’s often long parentheses, and then somehow historically losing its way ……
Shulamith dreams about the sinking of the Titanic: “On the two top decks it was gaiety and mirth, with people dressed to the nines, eat, drink and be merry for soon we shall all die. [And then the ominous breaks through this ice flow] But a note of hysteria hovered in the merrymaking and here I saw strange goings on like in a Grosz cartoon”. What the dream’s manifest content might signify is never gone into. Is what she sees on the Titanic an orgy of capitalist consumption with death the only possible ending? A portend of the horrors to come, the sinking of the Titanic is our real time version of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. The Titanic dream is the FRONTISPIECE, followed by the HOSPITAL, then the POST-HOSPITAL, to LOSERS, to OBITS (for obituaries) and finally to SUICIDES I HAVE KNOWN. All these sections are headlined in capitals and mark, like the cantos from The Inferno, the descent into ever darker regions, each section relating significant episodes in the desperate lives of mainly poor American women, with the odd guy thrown in for good measure. Operating behind Shul’s back, is this a ghastly indictment of suicide capitalism? If so, it would have been better if she had been explicit about this, because otherwise it lends itself to an existential explication of horror, a sampling of Shul’s imagination in overdrive, which we doubt was ever her intention.
Down, down the ever darkening road of the corridors, the windows of mental hospitals are always closed in these airless spaces. Then there were the hated guards who “got brutal, all with merriment”. Ostensibly there to protect you, they were in fact treating you “like a leper” forcibly persuading you to look like a mental patient, one of the main functions of mental hospitals to hasten the onset of actual mental states. In these minutes from hell, Shulamith develops an astounding empathy with her fellow sufferers, her mental telepathy more a ‘negative capability’ for the insane than act of divination. Their neuroses are sometimes amazing and definitely enlightening – quintessential expressions of a capitalism gone mad.Take “The Forced Shower”, for example. Corrine is obsessed with chemical contamination seeing pollution here, there and everywhere with an intensity we – the general public – can only approximate to because our perceptions of it are dulled. Closely related to this is Mathilde who in a flash sees thecosmetic / make-up industry for what it is, her lipstick feeling like embalming ointment. Then there’s the woman who “masturbated against her broad right arm and moaned with or without the masturbation. She also cried tenderly from time to time” while nearby another woman (Leora) was chanting “Hare Krishnas, Hare Ramas”… “hard put to continue her chanting with this whole show going on”. And what of Rachel who chose always to enter hospital handcuffed and escorted by the police “sometime up to ten men at once” not because she liked it but “just for honour’s sake”. It would take two months to break her and for Rachel to start taking her medication, her unbowed resistance a form of survival, Rachel always very aware of just how long her Medicaid for short term hospital care would last. Like any shop floor worker who knows her rights, Rachel also knows they will not automatically be observed and still have to be fought for. Again we are made sharply aware that Airless Spaces is about the sufferings of the poor and forms of circuitous proletarian resistance which are never candidly described as that. Take Brian, for example: afraid of losing his disability allowance that gives him just enough to pay the rent, he applies for vocational training at the hospital. Lacking the maths and computer skills he is unable to hack it, buying time instead by applying for volunteer work. Brian calls the Pound and volunteers to walk the dogs feeling “even more compassionate towards them when he realized from the time they were brought in most of them had only three weeks to live”. He even manages to screw this up because “he wasn`t fast enough in decaging and leashing the dogs for a walk”.
And as for Holly, she just wants to sleep forever, counting it a ‘lucky’ day when she could sleep round the clock hoping then to sleep for the next 24 hours. Even this luck ran out: “While this lasted for many weeks as a good solution, the day came when her body could hibernate no more. Sleeping no longer felt good. But still there was nothing to get up for….” Shul wants to be able just to get to sleep but it is denied her. More, she wants endless sleep. As for Bettina, she’s found a viable nighttime substitute by imitating death – “And she began to concentrate on lying absolutely still as a corpse. This gave relief somehow”. Sometimes this obsessive insomniac “hardly remembered what she craved” just as we, having grown cold, sometimes forget that we once yearned for everything. Medication ceases to be effective, Shul able to reel off the names of drugs like they were old friends now become enemies: Ativa, Haldol, Trifliton, Depacote, Elavil, Lithium etc. Like personal acquaintances, these names mostly start with a capital letter….
Airless Spaces is less ideological, less obviously ‘feminist’ than the Dialectics of Sex and also far less literary, less bookish. Without need for further padding, her brilliant observations speak for themselves. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the states Shul describes might come to constitute a step toward enlightenment………
(This recent sign appeared above the doorway of a derelict property in Southend-on-Sea, south east England)
Despite the misery Shulamith has bravely endured and fought against since the early 1970s, a misery that has never once really let go of her, she comes across as a very dignified person who has maintained, even deepened her humanity, generously giving little presents to destitute people, and others, she has encountered during her agonising travails. These gifts are simple and touching - bunches of flowers, or clothing she has picked up that is still in reasonable condition and which she then hands on to destitute acquaintances to whom they are very welcome. When visiting Valerie Solanas, (who finally gets a mention unlike in The Dialectic of Sex!) Shul passes her an underground newspaper containing details on how to make free phone calls to Europe. Valerie is very grateful, despite having just pitched into her over The Dialectic of Sex. But Shulamith isn’t that keen on her either, objecting to her “matriachicalist theory” as “a glorification of women as they are in their oppressed state”. In fact she really didn’t go for Valerie’s shooting of Andy Warhol (which we and the New York Motherfuckers did) an odd reaction that is, most likely, attributable to her veneration of the role of artist. Still, no matter, because what does is the fact Valerie is now broken and desperately in need of help. From here on out she has nothing but sympathy for Valerie’s sad downfall and descent into panhandling , Shul slipping her quarters whenever she bumps into her on the streets. Her clothes gone and body “covered in sores and wearing only a blanket” as protection against the bitter New York winter, Valerie lives by begging. She travels the old trail to California seeking warmth, and little else, this time. But it is just too late, Valerie sadly dying of lung disease in a San Fran flop house.
Shul’s generous ‘trifles’ highlights what it’s like to be homeless, without a job and forced to live on the streets in America. Living in Europe, and provided we aren’t an illegal immigrant, we really have no conception what that’s like and for us it smacks of a return to the dark days of the 19th century. Down market charity shops in America are a matter of life and death and it doesn’t pay to be too fussy, Shul noting the sewing repairs on a pair of jeans are skew whiff, “wrong color, oversize and scrubby”. Some former patients are so emotionally paralyzed they have lost the ability to shop: rather than the refusal of exchange its like exchange is refusing them, they are so beautifully maladapted. This is Shul at her brilliant best: “Coming out of the hospital, she could not shop. It was more than just the surfeit of goods, which had always confused her. Even a shopping list did not help; she dropped her cart in the middle and fled. Her shelves were lined with missing objects she needed and almost bought.”
The picture builds up into one of unimaginable human loss, not just loss of purchasing power - though the unspoken moral is that they are both indissolubly bound together. In Shulamith you see someone desperately seeking genuine friendship and love; not that which passes for ‘love’ in this age of absence and the neediness that is its inevitable accompaniment that can’t get beyond “me me me” and that achieves its only mediocre satisfaction, and affirmation, dishing out gratuitous cruelty in revenge for ever mounting, unmet needs. This self love is not even a “kind of loving”, which at least contained an echo of genuine social love……..Shul’s life is the sum of one unbearable lost love after another which is then followed by the loss of friendship and that finally leaves her all alone, a prisoner of unsociable silence. At one point she plaintively cries out in the asylum “I didn’t have a friend I was speaking too.” In the “loveless hospital” what’s left of her family, her “more and more distant relatives” grow ever more remote from her (just as ours do!). Then the dog dies, loss now engulfing everything. She speaks of herself through the case of Marlene: “She leaned too heavily on her husband and lost him. She lost all kinds of friends…. Besides, she had lost her feel for the weather, and always wore the wrong thing ….. Her biggest trouble was she couldn’t care about anything and love was forgotten. That left getting through the blank days as comfortably as possible, trying not to sink under the boredom and total loss of hope.”………. And the yearning to be touched just one last time, that “touch of another human being”. ……. There’s Leon Feldsher on medication in a halfway post-asylum hostel, “guilty of being not really being sick, only unhappy. For which you didn’t get paid. Unhappy and unloved”. He asked the cleaning lady one day “will you give me a hug” and she did” – but only a hug. Suicide is never very far off. For many, however it is “no longer an option”: zonked out on medication unable to even arise from their beds, the praxis of suicide is denied them. Or else suicide is described as something like a serenely calming, definitive sedative, the means of “putting yourself out” (though that’s not quite how she puts it either!).
Shulamith’s proud, intelligent, striking face stares out at you from the back cover of Airless Spaces. The look engages you like she’s trying to fathom you out. No feminist cover up here, this woman is just so honest, freely admitting to wanting a boyfriend though knowing all she is ever going to experience is rejection and, like as not, always plumping for the wrong guy. It’s the sheer directness of Shulamith that is so gripping and that was already there, though not so strikingly, in The Dialectic of Sex. Almost thirty years previously, she had written “it is the love that makes the difference” adding elsewhere in the book: “All men are selfish, brutal and inconsiderate – and I wish I could find one”.
The relentless honesty and the sheer power of Shul’s portrayals of these ‘mad’ women and occasional man, make Airless Spaces, in many respects, a superior work to The Dialectic of Sex. Though less ultra feminist, we believe that it is also potentially more explosive. It would have helped, though, if she had inserted the incidents that she describes so memorably into a wider framework and been able to link these inner sanctums of horror to the horror of an outside world made by capitalism. In the Dialectic of Sex, Marx was frequently mentioned, in Airless Places he is mentioned but once. Indeed the one and only mention of Marx concerns a long comment on his supposed supreme love for his wife Jenny in a thousand page unpublished tome written by an old friend, and that irritated Shulamith so much she ceased reading the manuscript, only to regret it later. And as for capitalism, well, the monster receives one line and that almost in passing!
And yet Airless Spaces is an intimate portrait of how suicide capitalism has catastrophically messed up the lives of some people, mainly women, who are largely without means, family and friends - and often choose to remain that way. Their descent into hell can be explained: it is anything but random, the luck of the draw. These women are not in limbo - they can be historically located in capitalism’s purgatory. Speaking through a marvelously skilled interpreter of the mute like Shul, they address us directly, a constant reminder we have all been “suicided by society” (Artaud). And how much more immediately apposite Airless Places would now be, if only Shul had been able to tie in the long, drawn out agony of living under capitalism with the long, drawn out crises of capitalism as an economic system itself-the speculative booms, inflationary bubbles etc, which have increasingly typified western capitalism from the moment The Dialectic of Sex first appeared.
Shulamith yearned to form genuine relationships with filmmakers, photographers, poets, painters and academics, her creeping proletarianisation making not one scrap of difference, Shul never able to fully shake off her artistic pretensions. Become socially schizophrenic and continuing to look up rather than down, she failed to see they would not be the least interested in an aspirational bag lady nor in the qualitatively different way she chose to describe her experiences and that, willy-nilly, breaks through traditional literary forms. Everyone of her relationships turns into a disaster zone and maybe she seeks to exorcise the pain they left behind through invented personas like Sandra, Rozzie, Naomi, Elaine and also, surely, the above mentioned Pauline? Unable to speak about her hurt in the first person, she can do so provided the names are changed, and which affords some protection to her wounded soul, when she reaps the consequences of endeavoring to cop off with everything from creeps like the “profound poet” Jeremy Salsburg (which has to be Allen Ginsberg) to young Turkish filmmakers. Splendid though her rejection was, it didn’t go far enough. Seeming to idolize Salzburg/Ginsberg, her tone swings between adulation and irony, her adulation even so and very much despite herself, perhaps also a trifle ironic. She remembers “The Great Poet” being surrounded by acolytes or rather protégées as Shul politely chooses to call them, one female protégé annoying her in particular. Speaking in the third person she says “but this very protégé, so thin and fashionable and trendy, was what put her off and kept her at a distance”. Shul never was, nor ever could be, part of any modish cultural scene but she never really knew herself well enough to see that. Rejected by it, she would then blame herself, instead of using it as a vantage point from which to critique the entire cultural establishment.
Yet typically Shul’s description of the state of cultural anesthesia, the sheer meaningless of it all, numbness toward the written word, consumer electronics, her former passionate self now become an unfeeling blank, is without equal. In Emotional Paralysis she again speaks of herself in the third person: “She (‘she’ is not given a name this time) could not read. She could not write. She had been reading Dante’s The Inferno when she first went into hospital---but when she came out she couldn’t even down a fashion rag; the words bounced off her forehead like it was steel; she simply couldn’t care about the contents of any written material, be it heavy or light weight. Why? Why read it? Why absorb? This inability applied also to movies and video cassettes and computers and telephones, the latest amazing jumps in technology left her cold, and she could hardly turn on the radio, let alone program a VCR”. Rather than watch TV she preferred “watching the hands of the clock go round”. Artaud once said “all writing is pig shit” and to Shul it became “a dry fuck, every word painful and laborious. But like sex itself, even masturbation, it was the initiative that was most lacking”. “She was lucid, yes, at what price” and “love was forgotten”. Speaking about herself, Shul was also speaking about the gradual mortification of everyone with half an idea and who “hearing of a death-often wished they could trade places with that person”: le cadaveri excellenti, the first class survivors from the blank decades of the1990s and Noughties, had no need to pass through a mental hospital in order to touch absence.
And who was the photographer in the final section Suicides I Have Known? What Shul can’t help implying is that Yvonne committed suicide because she was unable take a straight photo and always had to art it up, this pathetic aesthetic reflex finally proving her undoing. Yvonne had been commissioned by the New York Times to take photos of Shuls women’s liberation group. When the photos came out in The Times, the women were aghast, Yvonne apologizing for being incapable “of shooting a normal journalistic picture”. A month and a half later she slit her wrists in a bath tub. Again there is the same conflicted reverence for the artiste, Shul excusing Yvonne’s zombie-like portrayal of the women’s group on the grounds “that she couldn`t help it”. Yet, try as she might, she can’t hide the fact she is also contemptuous. One night she had taken Yvonne on an ‘action’ to retrieve pay owed her by the boss of a joint on St Marks Place where Shul had been working as a waitress. Shul had thrown a glass of water in the guy’s face but she got her money. She acidly noted how Yvonne had “stayed outside the whole time, quaking for possible damage to her expensive camera”. Could she really have expected a famous photographer to behave in any other way? And yet Shul kept hoping and hoping and hoping……….. Little details like this say all that has to be said. Keep them in mind. And if you see it happening think here’s a traitor and prepare to go on the attack. Get them before they get you…..
Had she been able, when older, to enter into a serious relationship with a kindly someone from the bottom of the pile totally lacking in artistic affectation, and all the gentler and understanding for that, she may have spared herself an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering. It would have meant ditching her dreams of an ideal ‘arty’ relationship. By learning to accept what Captn Jean Luc Picard believed to be true -“all that remains is the possibility of communication”(with the necessary add-on, in this shit society - she may have come to recognize that today it’s the so-called non-relationships that still retain some viability, some chance of an open future. Moreover, it would have been all the better for Shul if, ceasing to be an painter, she’d gone on to become a painter and decorator and helped set up a women’s building collective, as many women in fact began to do in the early 1970s. Unable to take that course because of her artistic pretensions, Shul opted instead to work on collective street murals for a while, a halfway house which never affects a complete break with the now worthless and destructive artistic ego.
But imprisoned within the four walls of a an asylum and remote from the competitive raffle of the art world, Shul’s comments on music take five and step into other realms and really do cause a person to sit up and listen:“The point was that music is good for the ailing soul, especially for paranoia”. What ever can that mean? That it stops the feeling of being got at, of being persecuted? Reminding us of the biblical story of Saul and David the shepherd and harpist, Shul also intimates that the soothing effect of music is also a prelude to being taken over, David replacing Saul as King. Pauline is 82 and “suffering from something worse than infirmity” - paranoia. To ease it she listens to classical music which then loses its allure on radio station WISS as the programming is so ultra-colonised by advertising “aimed at the middle class” it finally becomes impossible to listen to. In the end, Pauline has to turn the darned radio off forever and “then she has just the drip-drop of the kitchen faucet to listen to, that couldn’t be repaired”. And yet it is the remedial effect of the “walls of sound” that Pauline had found soothing “washing over her – as the sound of ocean breakers”. Shul obviously finds this sad, but isn’t this the point at which the avant-garde (Mallarme, Satie etc) took off, music becoming three dimensional: a soundscape? Shul is obviously not up on any of this despite intuiting something of the kind, her razor sharp perceptions always running in advance of her theorizing. Rightly rejecting much modernism and post modernist installation, she continues to remain trapped within defunct concepts of art and which severely harms her critique of modernity and the capitalization of modernity as the avant-garde increasingly moves centre stage. We would all be now expected to fall on our knees before The Dripping Faucet installation.
What was Shul’s real aim in writing Airless Spaces? Though not a revolutionary tract whose mission is to assist in the destruction of capitalism, it is not a literary work either nor a series of psychological profiles such as a hospital shrink might concoct. The work defies categorization and though the form might sometimes remind one of Baudelaire’s prose poems, what she has done in this work of sporadically borderline literature, it transcends poetry and the novel without realizing it. The way she has lived her life, and feeling for the truth, made that happen despite herself. Though we cannot be sure if everything Shul is describing is real and actual, that does not mean it is fictional. At the request ofher publisher, Emily Bronte altered the end of Wuthering Heights in order to bring about an artificial reconciliation of Heathcliff and Cathy through their off-spring - a likely story; the fallout from a class thwarted love relationship such as theirs quite able to painfully rumble on down the generations. Herman Melville was also forced to do the same, otherwise Bartelby would never see the light of day, Melville rather letting Bartelby’s bizarre, reiterated refusals (“I prefer not to”) when asked to do something, speak for themselves, not deeming them in need of further clarification. If Shul seems to sweep literary conventions aside it is because she has no need of them, unable to see their point as life is just not like that. In Airless Spaces paragraphs break off and left hanging, lacking any further explanation or an ending. They just are.
Shul (‘Rozzie’) had been friendly with Myrna Glickman since her early student days, both of them coming from conservative Jewish backgrounds. Becoming a beatnik, Rozzie had shocked the “straight, bourgeois” Myrna “out of her mind”. Eventually, however, Rozzie recruits Myrna into her women’s group who by this time is working for Time mag and “as straight as ever”. Myrna then gets involved in the professional Women in Media group and typically turns on Shul and her group of dead enders, with the upshot she never sees Myrna again. Once more Shul is too forgiving toward those who hurt her and she absolves Myrna on the grounds that she was “timid and had a follower`s role in the supposedly leaderless group”. Shul is in fact hitting on class truths here, a subject she never really felt much for but at the same time lived as intensely as anyone, her assessment of Myrna a partial recognition of the far greater deference of the middle classes, who like nothing better than to obey even when protesting. All we do find out is that the “successful coup” launched by the media group is directed at ‘the organizing principles’ of Shul’s group. This hardly strikes one as a trifling matter, the question of hierarchical v non-hierarchical organization rightly seen as axiomatic - more so than at any other previous turning point in history. The fact that Shul refers to Myrna’s group as only “supposedly leaderless” lends weight to our guess. Though always a bit this way and that regarding the official media, Shul’s former, somewhat accommodating, attitude does get much more intransigent. Though she thought the Valerie Solonas of the ‘notorious’ though celebrated Society for Cutting Up Men had been egged on by the media, to whom she played, she was inclined to agree with Val that, on her release from prison, “the media mafia” were out to get her. Flash forward many years later and come the movie I Shot Andy Warhol, Shul explains “looks like the media mafia got Valerie after all. I didn’t go to see it”. However Shul has shifted her ground here: it is not the enmity of the ‘media mafia’ that finally destroys Valerie but its fatal embrace - a very different matter.
Lacking a theory of recuperation, Shul nonetheless really suffers its effects. And she really does suffer, like only a trusting innocent can. But that’s also what’s so lovely about her. The magnanimous Shul always turns her anger in over and takes it out on herself. Myrna Glickman rips the heart out of Shulamith sending her understandably crazy by reducing her ideas to some middle class play thing, part and parcel of the stifling bourgeois world. What Shul should have done was turn on the media group with a vengeance and taking the knife out of her own back stuck it in their fronts, turning the act of symbolic assassination that lay behind the painted smiles, denials, expressions of concern upon them and so teach them a lesson they shall never forget or ever really recover from. It can be done. If not, self loathing can take hold of a person, for the wait until they get what they deserve can be a long one. Shul opts for the latter, consoling herself that this so-called friend whom she never spoke to again, had a disastrous abusive marriage, Glickman ending up with a huge brain tumour that killed her. Poetic justice, well yes, but as “no one escapes” (Rimbaud) in the final analysis, it’s much the best option that it’s you, the revolutionary protagonist, who takes ‘em out. All heart and meaning every word, Shul was nothing like these bourgeois back stabbers, and turncoats. Migrating from one shit odd job to the next, from part time waitress to working on factory assembly lines, her life has been an utterly commendable one, Shul remaining true to her essential self throughout.
It is It is simply not true either to say that Shul was committed to a thoroughly proletarianised way of life. Rather she fell into it like she could do no other. But once there she showed no inclination to climb out. For a brief moment, her choice of ‘life style’ did overlap with early 1970s career-minded feminists. But it soon became obvious the sisters were not all in it together. In no time at all, most career minded feminists (and, it must be said, most of those who banged the drum were that) were seeking out comfortable niches in education, local government, community organizations etc, then really beginning to open up to women, the world of high finance, advertising, fashion, power dressing still some years away and essentially needing Mrs Thatcher to turn the weapons of early 1970s feminism against itself on every score but that of empowerment. Contrast this withShulamith’s searing, poverty-stricken, authenticity and there you have it. The good conscience of the women’s movement, she haunts its bad conscience that seeks atonement through raising her name ever higher. There is presently a book on the market retailing at a very pricey 55$ called Further Adventures of the The Dialectic of Sex. There is now money to be made out of her name and one can only wonder how much will find its way into Shul’s pocket? Not a dime, you betcha! To pay tribute to someone today is also to condemn an even grosser lack, Annie le Brun rightly pointing out in The Reality Overload how contemporary commentators, pullulating in the contemptible world of post modernism with egos and an arrogance to match, always consider themselves superior to the subject of their studies. This obviously was once not the case and Boswell’s reverent Life of Dr Johnson is there to prove it. Having raised Annie le Brun’s name, we can only wish Shul had some of Annie le Brun’s greater historical grasp and that Annie had been able to throw of the cloak of writer and sunk herself into the mire of everyday life to the extent Shul did. Now that would have been some coming together.
The poignant snippets of Airless Spaces make you want to cry; so well told, so sensitive to the shattering of human beings ……and potentially so pregnant with hope for the future, for Airless Spaces is an uprising in waiting of the dispossessed, penniless and those with souls that have been torn out and yet who still have what’s needed to create a new world. The spaces are so different from the easy street, “red bases” of late sixties campus geography: here the locus of the resistance of the insulted and injured has shifted to the mean streets, to lived in odd places, urban and industrial dereliction acquiring more of a human soul and richer ambience in the process, one that anticipated, by many years, the makeshift squatter camps and tent cities of recession stuck America. Unlikely ever to eventually fade from the scene, as they did in the 1930s, we must wait on their potential for revolution…….But, in the meantime, let’s at least place the brilliant corners of Airless Spaces within that potential perspective.
No doubt Shulamith Firestone has written much else beside (e.g. Pour L’Abolition de L’Enfance published in French speaking Canada) Probably most of her stuff has been scribbled down in scruffy notebooks which are mislaid, lost or accidentally dumped in the trash can along with sticky food wrappers….. as she faces yet another eviction …..
…….. we wish the heart-warming Shulamith Firestone well…..
Long live bag women – may they be vindicated one day!
A fulsome detonation by
Samia (the wonderful nutter) & the Wise Bros: November 2010