High dudgeon in the dungeon

So, Camille Paglia wrote a piece reviewing three anthropological works about BDSM: Margot Weiss’s Techniques of Pleasure (2011), Staci Newmahr’s Playing on the Edge (2011), and Danielle Lindemann’s Dominatrix (2012). I know all of these books and, while I may not agree with every point their respective authors make, I respect them. I’ve referenced Newmahr’s work in my own writing. I reviewed Lindemann’s book recently in the Times Higher Education* and my review of Weiss’s title should appear soon in New Formations.

Paglia’s position boils down to the following: gender studies methodology, which she summarises as an “insular dogma with its own priesthood and god (Michel Foucault),” fails these academic writers. By trying to make their empirical observations fit the orthodoxy, they do not do justice to the complexity of the material they find.  But boiling something down never yields an accurate enough account of it. It ignores the grittiness of all the constituent bits that went to make up the reduction. And, in this case, those “bits” are nothing more than nuggets of ad hominem vilification and a fair quantity of bile leveled against both the poor, misguided authors, forced by “political correctness” and evil academic orthodoxy to “bang the drum of a pretentious theorizing,” and Judith Butler, whose oft-quoted status in gender studies texts Paglia seems to feel is monstrously unfair. (Presumably she should be the default go-to authority?)

Many of Paglia’s critiques of the continental theorists she abhors are over-simplifications or instances of inaccuracy too. “Foucauldian analysis is based on Saussurean linguistics,” she writes. In fact Saussure is only one of numerous thinkers Foucault reacts to — and against — mainly in his earlier work. His later work on the history of sexuality, which Butler adapts, is in fact much more indebted to Nietzsche’s critique of historical method.  (And Foucault borrows from and builds on Nietzsche, rather than attempting “to rival” him, as Paglia bizarrely suggests later in her article.) Too, Paglia insists that the context of twenty-first-century late capitalism is a red herring  in trying to understand contemporary  sexual subcultural practices. “Poststructuralism is myopically obsessed with modern bourgeois society,” Paglia states. “It is hopelessly ignorant of prehistoric or agrarian cultures, where tribal rituals monitored and invoked the primitive forces of nature.” So, for her, the meanings of eroticized acts and practices are not dependent upon the historical and situational contexts they are located in, but are transcendental, ahistorical, spiritual experiences? This kind of  ahistoricism is wholly incompatible with the way I understand human subjectivity and communities as shaped by cultural change. But it also sits strangely in an article that elsewhere decries poststructuralism for paying insufficient attention to the material reality of history.

Over at Yes Means Yes, Thomas responded with an impassioned piece opposing Paglia’s article, which I enjoyed reading enormously. He writes: “Come again, Camille?  Am I to understand that everything you’ve concluded about us … no, let me personalize it. Everything you’ve concluded about ME and how I practice MY sexuality and what it means to ME, you’ve concluded without actually talking to any of us, or watching us do what it is that we do?”  His position, however, is not my position. I am firmly in the Foucauldian tradition of being suspicious of confessional discourse and the value of self-disclosure. I have never bought into the idea that drawing on people’s reports of their individual experience stamps research with a mark of authenticity. This idea presupposes subjects capable of transparently reproducing absolute truth in discourse. It is a model of communication which can too easily discount the role of cultural forces and influences on individuals, the power disparity between interviewer and interviewee, the inaccuracy of memory, the desire we have to represent the best versions of ourselves, and the workings of the unconscious.

Moreover, anthropologically studying non-normative sexual subcultures and practitioners isn’t my own particular academic bag either. I have devoted my more recent years to scrutinizing instead the norm, or more precisely normative reactions to the perceived “abnormal.” What interests me is not getting to the heart of “the truth of the BDSM experience” (or of any sexual experience), but rather asking why — in the service of whose interests — certain types of sexual practice and subject are stigmatized, pathologized, or disproportionately prodded to reveal truths. Forensically dissecting the rectitude of mainstream discourses is my own, self-appointed sex-critical task. And yet, somehow, the fact that I do not do quite the same kind of work as Weiss, Newmahr and Lindemann does not mean that I feel compelled to argue in public that they are misguided dupes. I respect a number of disciplinary and methodological principles and practices that diverge from those I use myself. I may engage in debate on points of critical and methodological difference, but I refrain from accusing academic peers of suffering from brainwashing and bad faith.  And I wonder why everyone, especially well-known, senior figures, with prominent public platforms, cannot exercise the same kind of ethical restraint.

*My review contains an editorial inaccuracy. Newmahr’s fieldwork was not carried out in San Francisco.

Some thoughts on words and power, prompted by recent debates in print and social media

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, […] how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writing is an inherently ethically charged act. Words are never neutral. Each time we exercise the force of our polemic and employ rhetoric to argue, persuade, or provoke, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves: what are the effects of our words likely to be, and who will be served by them? Of course there can be unintended outcomes. People read and interpret differently. Someone will always be offended. The meaning of words does not reside wholly with their producer. And yet, some effects are wholly predictable, aren’t they?

It is all too easy to use words against the marginalized and vulnerable (even if we occupy the position of the marginalized and vulnerable ourselves). The fact is that we all internalize the prejudices of the world in which we live. Slurs can be unthinkingly repeated by those of us who would rationally challenge the beliefs upon which they rest.* But the effects of slurs, whether intended or not, whether explicitly and maliciously written or carelessly and casually insinuated, can only be to perpetuate the status quo. Unless we are really happy with the system in which we live—a late-capitalistic hetero-patriarchy—we might want to think very carefully about any words we put out into the world that can have the net effect of shoring it up while pitting potential allies in discontent against each other. Context matters too. When a profit-making publication is paying a person to produce words, and when more money will be made out of perceived outrages committed, the onus on the critical writer to act ethically and deliver a message of social commentary without repeating society’s bigotry is all the more urgent. Yet even on our own blogs, on Twitter, in the free media that is the World Wide Web, how much more efficacious activism would be if we applied these ethical considerations to all our words.

Too often, sight of a potential common political goal is lost. Groups, self-defining along the lines of identity politics, engage in the much-discussed “oppression Olympics”, misdirecting righteous anger at each other rather than at the systems that produce and maintain the conditions of their shared oppression. A concerted effort on the part of a marginalized group, motivated by the passion of injustice felt, can be tremendously potent and have effects that are devastating. But what a waste of effort if such resistant, transformative zeal is misdirected, not at the institutions that perpetuate iniquity, but rather at a member of another group also urging change but using unwise words carelessly or angrily.

Writers interested in social justice need to think about strategies for promoting resistance and commonality. We need to avoid further dividing those who share an investment in challenging normativity, but whose approaches issue from (at once entrenched and precarious) exclusionary identitarian positions. A question to ask ourselves, before putting down words on paper or a screen, has to be: am I speaking truth to power or am I attacking those who are already disadvantaged by the system? This is not a matter of “political correctness”. It is, rather, both an expedient political strategy and a commitment to the ethic of avoiding causing harm to others. For, make no mistake, words can do harm.

*In cases where we are unintentional mouthpieces for a bigotry we do not believe in, but that is so prevalent in our culture that we soak in it and unwittingly reproduce it, we can respond responsibly and graciously when criticized. And we can learn from such criticisms in order to become better writers and readers. I try to do this. I will go on trying to do this.

On authorship and authority: Writing outside of the rules

A review of Meg Barker, Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships (Routledge, 2012), Katherine Angel, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, 2012), and their critical receptions.

September 2012 saw the publication of two non-academic books authored by writers from within the academy. While generically very different, both shared the aim of bringing critical scrutiny to bear on specific aspects of sexuality.  Also, both attempted to expound a broadly sex-critical perspective to a mainstream readership perhaps unfamiliar with the language and tools used in academia and in subcultural sexual communities to define and question sexual practices, identities, and relationships.

Social psychologist and sex therapist Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules describes itself as an “anti-self-help book”. It challenges the commonly perceived need for any strict rules to govern the ways in which we have (sexual) relationships, whether these issue from the heteronormative mainstream — obsessed as it is with marriage, the market, and monogamy — or from the codas of alternative subcultures such as queer, polyamory, and BDSM/ kink cultures. Written in a friendly, nonjudgmental, often lightly humorous style, it gently encourages the reader to rethink quite radically the ways in which s/he understands and conceptualizes romantic/ sexual relationships. In a particularly brilliant passage, Barker uses her experience of place and time to suggest analogously a different way of thinking about the value of maintaining constancy within relationships, and thereby to question the universal value of monogamy and life-time commitment:

I think about my own relationship with cities. When I moved out of London, for example, I found that London and I were much better together when we were in a long-distance relationship than when we rubbed up against each other every day. Consider times of day: I used to have a relationship with the time between midnight and two in the morning: a loose, rumpled time of fuzzy edges, drunken camaraderie with strangers and greasy gutters. We broke up and I hardly ever see that time any more, but I do have a new relationship with the time between six and seven a.m.: it is a sharp, silvery grey, raw and empty time, but I am growing to love it. (pp. 110-111)

Such passages are genuinely subversive in their at once light and suggestive, yet ideologically devastating, destabilization of the dogmas by which so many live — and suffer.

Unmastered, by Katherine Angel, who is a researcher in the History of Medicine at Warwick University, is a literary memoir that attempts to describe the tensions, paradoxes and pain faced by the first-person narrator who struggles to reconcile the embodied experience of heterosexual desire with feminist consciousness in a patriarchal culture. Mixing first-person anecdotes, some of them extremely intimate, with insights from feminist luminaries and critical theorists, Angel’s text goes beyond simple confessional discourse and contributes to a longstanding, polyvocal meditation about the place of desire, the body, and hunger in female lives:

When I was a teenager, when I was small, and feeling desire — an amorphous lust, targeted at no one particular thing, and perhaps in fact targeted at myself — I wondered: where were the hungry women? (p. 120)

Angel’s closest interlocutors in this “wondering” are not, in fact, the Anglo-American feminists she cites liberally, but French writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Annie Ernaux, Marguerite Duras, and Hélène Cixous. All of these writers foreground the female heterosexual experience in patriarchy and the perceived power and punishments of female embodiment and “hunger”. (Like Angel, de Beauvoir wrote of the experience of abortion, and Ernaux of the tension between overwhelming physical love for a man and ideals of independent womanhood.) And, in the case of Ernaux, Duras and Cixous, there is also a shared predilection for experimental prose form. The blank sheets peppered only with one or two words that characterize Angel’s text (“Fuck me. Yes fuck me!” gets its own page; as does “I am so fucking hungry!”; as does “Am I pornography?”) were an innovation of exponents of both écriture féminine and the modernist nouveau roman.

I’m interested in the nature of the critical response these books have received almost as much as I am interested in the books themselves. Critical response can be seen as something of a litmus test, not always of the quality of the works under review, but rather of the extent to which a given book and its author conform to or flout conventional expectations — both generic and gendered. In looking at reviews of the two books, I have been especially interested in how reviewers respond to these two female academics writing in generic modes that are not strictly their professional “territory”.

In the case of Barker’s book, her academic credentials are generally perceived as reinforcing the value of her contribution to (or, more properly, contestation of) the self-help genre. Michael Gratzke (himself an academic) writes in one of the first published reviews of Rewriting the Rules:

The author is indeed “a therapist specialising in sexual and relationship therapy”. (She is also a senior lecturer in Psychology at the Open University). The book comes – therefore – with excellent credentials. No online doctorates here. The author is a bona fide expert in her field, not a jumped up journo dabbling with people’s feelings whilst making a quick buck.

While it is no doubt the case that Barker’s sound knowledge of psychological and sociological relationship research enables her to distil complex theory and findings in an extremely reader-friendly way, the reviewer appeals to a model of authority that is quite out of keeping with Barker’s authorial voice, which deliberately and strategically undermines the value of those authority discourses that tell people how to order and organize self, sexuality, companionship, and desire. That even positive reviews of Rewriting the Rules seem unwilling to embrace this anarchic principle with regard to the role of authorship and authority is a testimony to the truly innovative nature of the project Barker is undertaking.

Angel’s roots in the academy, on the other hand, have been held against her by some critics who seem to feel that an academic has no business straying into literary writing. Talitha Stevenson, writing in The Guardian, opines:

Academics aren’t usually expected to apply themselves fanatically to writing well, but Angel, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the history of medicine at Warwick University, is not writing as an academic. As the climax to an anecdote “it was an afterthought. It wasn’t the main act. Or even an act at all,” employs the cheap adrenal thumps of advertising copy, or of Raymond Carver when he’d had too much to drink. And “Am I pornography?” is not an aphorism, even if it is printed on its own on a page. For ars this brevis, vita is not long enough.

The sneering contempt of the tone of this review suggests irresistibly the idea that toes are being trodden on, that labels are not being respected. The “rule” is that the literary writer is that professional who may legitimately, authentically, play with language, whereas the academic may only comment upon the “real” writer’s use of language. By juxtaposing Angel’s job title so ostentatiously with negative assessments of her book’s literary merit, Stevenson reveals her hand.

A more sympathetic and well-rounded review of Unmastered penned by Olivia Laing, also appeared in The Guardian. Laing acknowledges Angel’s position within the academy, but gives this a positive spin, hinting at the point I made above regarding the place Angel’s text finds within a broader genealogy of writing about desire:

Angel is an academic at Warwick University, a researcher in the history of female sexual problems. As such, her investigations […] occur within what is emphatically a larger conversation. She uses pared-down, poetic fragments from a multitude of fellow explorers – among them Woolf, Sontag, Susie Orbach, Havelock Ellis and Michel Foucault – as a way of building up a working map of sexual desire.

However, Laing expresses a single reservation about the book that I must admit I share:

Angel’s assumptions about sexuality tend toward the heteronormative and can on occasion feel a touch coercive. A statement like: ‘I was weaned on this – the hypostatised, brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman. So, by the way, were you’ might be true in terms of the dominant culture but elides entirely the subtle shadings of sexual difference. This is particularly odd when so few of the writers she draws upon […] can be categorised as entirely heterosexual.

I can imagine that many readers will find Unmastered’s overwhelming focus on white, middle-class, heterosexual, genital-focused desire and identity alienating — and these are precisely the charges that are often brought against Angel’s unacknowledged Francophone foremothers too. While I have no problem with a heterosexual female writer narrating the story of her desire, it is unquestionably significant in the context of examining the normativity of editorial decisions and publishing policy that it is this narrative of female desire, rather than a queer or otherwise non-normative one, that was chosen to be published and promoted by a major, mainstream literary publisher.

For myself, I found Unmastered most relatable and insightful when it dwelt not on the pleasures and problems of vaginal penetration, M-f bondage, or abortion — I have read of those before — but rather on the relationships of power, pleasure, and disavowal at work in professional life. Angel’s description of the jarring experience of sitting in academic seminars about pornography and being expected to reach easy answers about whether pornography is “good” or “bad”/ “educational” or “destructive”; and, moreover, being expected to divorce the emotional, physical, desiring self from the intellectual, cerebral subject of the academy is, for me, the book’s high point. This is a section in which something is beautifully expressed that I had undoubtedly experienced, but had never read nor heard articulated clearly before.

Both books provoked a great deal of reflection in me. I read Unmastered in September, and Rewriting the Rules in early October, and I have been mulling them over ever since, noticing the relevance of their insights to various current discussions and issues, and observing with interest their critical reception. In different ways, both Angel and Barker cross the threshold of the academy to spread the sex-critical word and, in so doing, they invite us to reflect not only upon the questions about sexuality and relationships that their books explicitly raise, but also on the multiple and overlapping roles of academic, author, and desiring self — roles that seem, in their interstices, to provoke consternation about the nature of epistemological authority and authenticity.

Meg Barker’s blog, in which she continues the work begun in Rewriting the Rules can be found here.
Katherine Angel’s author website can be found here.

The Subject of murder: Gender, exceptionality, and the modern killer

hi res coverMy book, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, which took me six years to write, and which has been in production for over 12 months with Chicago University Press, is finally available for pre-order, though it won’t be in the world until next year. It is a relative snip at $25 / £15.

You can pre-order it here and see the table of contents here.

This is Chicago University Press’s catalogue copy describing the book:

“The subject of murder has always held a particular fascination for us. But, since at least the nineteenth century, we have seen the murderer as different from the ordinary citizen—a special individual, like an artist or a genius, who exists apart from the moral majority, a sovereign self who obeys only the destructive urge, sometimes even commanding cult followings. In contemporary culture, we continue to believe that there is something different and exceptional about killers, but is the murderer such a distinctive type? Are murderers degenerate beasts or supermen as they have been depicted on the page and the screen? Or are they something else entirely?

In The Subject of Murder, Lisa Downing explores the ways in which the figure of the murderer has been made to signify a specific kind of social subject in Western modernity. Drawing on the work of Foucault in her studies of the lives, crimes, and legends of killers in Europe, Britain, and the United States, Downing interrogates the meanings of media, medical, legal and creative texts produced about and by murderers. Upending the usual treatment of murderers as isolated figures or exceptional individuals, Downing instead argues that murderers are ordinary people, reflections and symptoms of our society at the intersections of gender, agency, desire, and violence.”

I’ll hope to post more here on the sex-critical aspects of the book, which perhaps don’t appear obvious in the Press’s copy, in the run-up to publication. The book interrogates, in particular, how the  perceived gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and age of given killers determine the treatment they receive and the ways they are represented in the discourses produced about them. The more they deviate from the white, male, heterosexual default social subject (who is also the default “subject of murder”, since murder is a product of, not other to, society), the more aberrant they are made to appear.

Critical reflections on feminism, insanity, and the institution of childhood on the occasion of Shulamith Firestone’s death

Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist writer, died on 28th August 2012, aged 67. She is best known as the author of  the groundbreaking polemic, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), written when she was only 25 years old.

It has taken me more than a fortnight to complete this piece, which I knew I wanted to write as soon as I learned of Firestone’s death. I kept delaying, abandoning, and redrafting because my feelings and thoughts about her life, her work, her reception, and the gap she leaves in the landscape of feminism, have been hard to untangle and to articulate. And also because they matter so much to me. Firestone was — and is — one of my feminist inspirations; she was a sex-critical luminary and a queer thinker avant la lettre, shining the light of counter-intuitive insight on cultural commonplaces that pass as natural, and illuminating the obfuscating mechanisms of oppression that make them appear so. She grasped the harsh and unpalatable truth of the female condition in the culture in which she lived. She described — controversially — female lives and identities circumscribed and defined by the tyranny of biology (“maternal instinct”, compulsory pregnancy, childbirth, nuclear parenthood), and she was unafraid to speak against these shibboleths of femaleness and femininity, and to imagine alternatives to them based on the harnessing of burgeoning bio-technology.

The obituary of Firestone that first alerted me to her death appeared in The Villager. While, on the one hand, it acknowledges that her work was “pioneering” and “key” to the development of twentieth-century feminism, on the other it emphasizes, perhaps disproportionately, the idea that she “suffered from mental illness” throughout her whole life (citing her alleged paranoid-schizophrenia, reported by one of Firestone’s “few friends”). It makes much of the fact that her final years were characterized by solitude and poor health. (She was, towards the end of her life, reputed to be a recluse; her body was found in her apartment roughly a week after she had died.)* While these biographical facts are not irrelevant to a consideration of Shulamith’s life, the emphasis on them comes at a price — and at the expense of paying sufficient attention to the searing truth and import of her work. And this effect is not accidental or innocent. It is part of a common cultural narrative and a normalizing strategy, both of which I want to unpick.

Mental illness carries a huge and unfair stigma in our culture. Damningly, in the case of writers and thinkers, that stigma risks coloring perceptions of their work. And perhaps it is particularly true of female writers that their biography trumps and is used to explain away or downplay their achievements. (I am reminded of the recent cruel and loathsome Telegraph obit of Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, which criticized her for having written so frequently about mother-daughter dynamics given that she had no children of her own.) It is not wrong per se to record the fact that Shulamith Firestone suffered from mental illness. The danger lies in the probability that emphasizing this biographical detail will provide an alibi for those — and there are many — who would justify dismissing Firestone’s contentious political ideas as “mad”, “far-out”, “unrealistic”, and “delusional”. For patriarchal, heteronormative, pro-reproductive culture has a huge investment in reducing Firestone’s claims to the products of her alleged madness.

That women are trapped by biological essentialism and the myth of maternal instinct, that childhood is a state of humiliating indignity and the nuclear family a sadistic paradigm of ownership and control, are dangerous ideas that Firestone propagated. One would have to be mad to make such claims, the convenient line goes. For the natural and deterministic import of female biological reproductive capacity is an idea upheld (though with radically different ideological agendas) by both right-wing, God-bothering patriarchs, keen to preserve traditional gender roles in which women are nurturers and by certain types of feminist, particularly those in the Mary Daly mold, characterized by a belief in an innate, life-giving gyn-ergy unique to “biological” “women”.

Accusations of child-hating and internalized misogyny plagued Firestone’s reception in life. Yet Firestone was in so many ways more of a champion of those young persons lumped together under the class “child” than the most ardent proponents of the sentimental discourse of infantile innocence. “Childhood is hell [and] the result is the insecure and therefore aggressive/ defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child”, Firestone wrote in Dialectic. She railed against the abject status children are allocated in our culture. She railed too against the infantilizing, de-humanizing  misogyny of the fact that the “women and children are always mentioned in the same breath”. These groups are linked, she claimed, by nothing more than “shared oppression”, by the imperative to be “cute”, passive, harmless, and lovable at the expense of personal dignity and human sovereignty. Only in a post-patriarchal utopia, in which childhood and the nuclear family would be mere shadows of memories of a long-ago nightmare, could people of all ages and sexes apprehend the meaning of freedom.

In her novel Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler writes of her female protagonist — a mother — that: “The mere fact that her children were children, condemned for years to feel powerless and bewildered and confined, filled her with such pity that to add any further hardship to their lives seemed unthinkable.” Although Tyler’s middle-brow novel is far from espousing a radical feminist position, I immediately thought of Shulamith when I read that sentence. It is a truth, seldom expressed, but oh so powerful. I am not, and will never be, a parent, but I can remember my childhood and my own feelings of humiliation at having the patronizing label “child” and all that it conveys ascribed to me.  I can remember my indignation at my lack of personal bodily autonomy based solely on my age, a temporary, contingent condition about which I could do nothing. I can remember my resentment, too, at the presumption on the part of any (however well-meaning) adult that they had the right to condescend to me, to pat me on the head, to pinch my cheek, to talk about me in the third person, as if I was not there, to violate my boundaries in a myriad of small ways, to curtail my will. (And my individual childhood was far from traumatic in the greater scheme of things, and in comparison with so many others’. Rather, as Firestone wants us to understand, modern Western childhood as such, as a universal experience,is traumatic.) Yet these routinely degrading aspects of childhood are so rarely acknowledged, while the clichéd stereotype of a lost age of nostalgic bliss is taken for granted.  Firestone called for a world in which childhood was not a “hell” and the hierarchical nuclear family no longer the dominant form of social organization. To explain away such an unthinkable agenda on her part, many are more than willing to have recourse to her mental illness.

And yet, there is another discourse at play in discussions of Firestone’s work and her mental health — a stereotype too — that I realize I am skirting around. It is lurking in the background of what I am writing, and I am determined to push it to the surface, to make it explicit, and to refuse to indulge it. I want to defuse its potency by deconstructing the nature of the glamour it possesses. It is the ever-so seductive idea that only the mad person, the Shakespearean fool, the Romantic lunatic-touched-by-genius, the idiot savant, can articulate what the rest of us cannot — can see clearly (an ableist metaphor if ever there was one). Madness was lauded by Foucault in his earlier writings as the privileged voice of culturally disavowed truth. The label of “exceptionality” is routinely ascribed to those individuals who speak or act against the social order, and it seems like a magical thing — to be exceptional, different, above the common herd. Yet its effect  is often to downplay the fact that these exceptional individuals are members of a class and that the discontents they are able to articulate will also be experienced just as powerfully by those without a voice. It is deployed, in short, to de-politicize words and acts issuing from the margins, even by those admiring the mad genius.** For these reasons, I urge us to be cautious of attributing the brilliance of Firestone’s insights to her Romantic brand of  genius-madness, just as I would criticize those who use claims of her madness to invalidate her work. This said, I do think that any subject positioned outside of the norm (by dint of gendered, sexual, economic class-based, racial, psychological or neurological difference and disadvantage) is more likely to be able to apprehend critically the biases and instances of oppression that pass as neutral and that are largely invisible to those located at the unmarked centre. But I am determinedly reluctant to idealize madness, to transform Firestone’s (and any other person’s) suffering into a “gift”. I am more sympathetic to the idea issuing from anti-psychiatry that what we call madness is an adequate, if incredibly painful at the individual level, response to a cultural system characterized by inequalities and forms of violence that are symbolic, psychological, and physical. Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it best, perhaps, in opining that “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.

There are some social realities so painful and disturbing that they are commonly, and by silent mutual agreement,  silenced and disavowed. Daring to acknowledge them; daring even to speak out about the disavowal of them; daring, finally, to draw embarrassing attention to the determined collective cultural mental work put into maintaining the silence around them, call forth recrimination. Such truth-tellers are labelled troublemakers, dissenters, eccentrics, radicals and — as I have been discussing — are all too often characterized as insane.  Shulamith Firestone’s posthumous reputation risks being one of either dismissal as a deluded sick woman or hagiography as a mad genius, depending on the political sensibilities of the commentator. I want instead to see her work remembered, re-read, engaged with anew, and deployed as a devastatingly accurate social critique. We must not let either willful or well-meaning misrepresentation of Firestone’s work thrive after her death. An excellent recent collection of essays on The Dialectic of Sex, edited by Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford, which I reviewed in glowing terms for MAMSIE, constitutes a serious attempt to re-evaluate Firestone’s work and to highlight its relevance for the twenty-first century. I hope that the sad event of Firestone’s demise might prove the spur for more critical work of this kind. We simply cannot afford to ignore her message, to interpret it as a symptom of a past era of feminist idealism and extremism, or to employ with regard to it the convenient trope that it is merely the imaginative and extravagant product of insanity.

This post is for Shulamith Firestone, with love, and in the hope that she may rest in peace.

* Several other, more balanced and valuable obituaries of Firestone have since appeared. See especially those by Emily Chertoff for The Atlantic and Julie Bindel for The Guardian, which can be found, respectively, here and here. (I quite often disagree with Bindel’s politics, but her obituary of Firestone strikes me as a model of how to write about the loss of a valued feminist worker and writer without engaging some of the troubling discourses I have critiqued in this post and that Lincoln Anderson’s obit in The Villager liberally deployed.)

** A critique of the notion of the exceptional individual is one of the broad arguments pursued in my forthcoming book about the cultural function of murderers: The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (Chicago University Press, February 2013).