It’s a pleasure to read Liza Featherstone’s rant in The New Republic (November 4 2019) — that word qualifies as praise, not criticism–about, the eclipse of desire in contemporary feminism. Where did the libidinal politics of the second wave go, she asks, how and why did “agreeing to live the lives of unfree men” (Featherstone is quoting Germaine Greer, not exactly a political asset these days) become normal, and, even worse, normative? When did women settle for being less-than-lusty replicas of men bent to the corporate wheel, leaning into their white-collar work rather than exploring the rest of their lives, their bodies, their selves?
In classic psychoanalytic fashion, Featherstone doesn’t reduce the political dividends of desire to the consequences of sex as most of us understand and experience it: as “genital fun.” She’s interested in something “more broadly libidinal,” something more dangerous to order and to hierarchy of any kind. In short, she’s interested in what Freud called polymorphous perversity, or in what Hegel called, more simply, desire or passion. Of course, Featherstone writes, “sexuality must be rescued” from the carceral tendencies of our time, now institutionalized in Title IX procedures and validated by retrospective accusations of harassment, and even rape, made years after the fact. But, she argues, “sexuality” isn’t reducible to copulation, or touching. By Featherstone’s accounting, it’s a larger social force than that.
Therefore, she insists, there’s more at stake here than the legal standing or psychological meaning of intercourse, past or present, and she’s right.
Desire is a force of production–what we want or expect is no less structurally determinative than the state of the technological arts, whether on the shop floor or in the nether world of social media. It’s more base than superstructure: as human beings we’re desiring machines, as Deleuze and Guattari insisted. Because human sexuality is neither strictly seasonal nor merely physical, it becomes the setting for cultural performance–us moderns learned to kiss, for example, by reading novels or watching movies–and thus an ornate set of new expectations. We’re not bodies plus minds, not merely animals equipped with big brains. No: our minds change our bodies, so that we’re always playing a role, even, or especially, in the heat of the moment.
Moreover, the source of our desire is always already outside us, always propelling us into new social worlds. Andrea Long Chu is also right, then, in her new book Females: A Concern (Verso, 2019), along with her antecedents, Hegel, Kojeve, and Lacan, in proposing that we’re all females because that source is external. We all require a repository of recognition that is never what we take to be our original or inner selves.
Featherstone implores us to recover what I’d call the politics of desire–the kind that characterized the feminisms of the 1970s, the kind that was challenged by Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the 1980s, the kind that has hibernated ever since except in the precincts of queer theory and cultural studies. But given the differences in all the feminisms I have mentioned, in what sense is desire political?
To begin with, desire pushes us beyond what is, toward what could be. Politics as we know it is inconceivable in the absence of that urge. So conceived, however, desire is typically grotesque, as Mikhail Bakhtin would say, always debunking the court poets of capitalism by forcing us toward “the lower stratum of the body’s topography”–the bowels as well as the genitals–and letting us laugh at the high-sounding abstractions of existing power. That laughter, and the joy that follows, let us in on the joke we call the present, where the patriarchy is passing (dying, not cross-dressing) but male supremacy is not. And look at it another way, Hegel’s way, desire just is the self. To be yourself is to negate what you already are, and so to become something you’re not. You can’t help yourself.
Now transpose these thoughts from the key of the individual to the key of the social or the collective, and you are hearing the music of political mobilization. Also of modern feminism.
The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion has suggested that if memory is the past tense of desire, anticipation is its future tense. The grammar of politics needs both, but right now it needs more anticipation than memory, more Eros and less strife. But speaking of need: desire is typically depicted as the antithesis of reason because the wish cannot, or rather should not, be father to the thought. The firm distinction between what we need and what we want is based on the same calculus. But what if the realm of economic necessity recedes, what if we can produce all we need without more labor (not to mention capital)? Doesn’t desire then become the driving force, the regulative principle, of an entire civilization, in private and in public? What if maternal necessity no longer holds, meaning that child-bearing need not be assigned, exclusively, to female bodies? Doesn’t the scope of female desire–call it ambition–then expand to the point of explosion?
These are the latent questions in Featherstone’s essay. She begins and ends with the visionary Shulamith Firestone, precisely where Eli Zaretsky did in his seminal (!) 1976 work, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life. Both argued that the realm of necessity–paid work, and, less obviously, the unpaid labor of reproduction–was receding, and that the realm of freedom was expanding, as per Marx’s original formulae, so that the domain of choice, moral and otherwise, was becoming the prerogative of most people, maybe the real majority of us, people who didn’t yet know what to do with it.
Now we do know. We can reinstate the libidinal politics of desire if we want to. So says Liza Featherstone. I second her motion, with enthusiasm. My only caveat in endorsing her argument is that she seems to think that the provision of economic security (by whatever means) will guarantee an enlarged volume and a more variegated disposition of desire. That vaguely Marxist premise is what second wave feminism both posited and put to the test–that is, put in doubt.
Let’s keep it that way.
James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University- New Brunswick.