∴ Eileen Boris
What does it mean to speak of feminist or/and queer revolution? Can there be a revolution worthy of that historic term that leaves in place the patriarchal family and its mode of social reproduction, that is, the heteronormative gender system and racialized gendered division of labor on a world scale? Or generates new forms of homonationalism and homonormativity that appear as nothing less than nationalism and hegemonic familialism in drag? How flexible are capitalism and imperialism when it comes to gender and sexual regimes?
As managerial or “Lean-In” feminism, associated with CEO Sheryl Sandberg, illustrates,1 neoliberalism has relied upon a reorganization of female labor power in its quest to feed the market, expand financial profits, and reinforce ideologies of individualism essential to both the myth of the market and processes of financialization. While some women go out to work, other women—often immigrant and from another racial or ethnic group—move home to work, but to not their own. They enter the homes of other women where they undertake the quotidian labors of cleaning, cooking, and caring for as low a wage as a female employer can get away with paying. Their labors, however, make her labor possible, for without someone generating use values, replenishing labor power, exchange value in the Marxist sense is impossible. In this vein, I’d argue that Leopoldina Fortunati only partially got it right: she forgot the domestic servant when parsing the parallel acts of the prostitute and the wife for the extraction of labor power, renewal of the wage earner, and the creation of surplus.2 Dividing womanhood by racialized class across nations, sorting reproductive labor by outsourcing physical and even some of the spiritual components of housework, allows some elite women to ascend the managerial ladder and become the men they always wanted to marry. Queer indeed!
Whether or not transformations are revolutionary or revolution generates transformative change depends on context or history. Today “The Sharing Economy,” represented by tech dependent businesses like Airbnb and Uber, exemplifies a revolution of service provision ignited by the shedding of employment under neoliberal economic practices that make sense with the time bind of dual breadwinner/caregiver regimes of social reproduction. When one founder self-referentially refers to “revolution” and “movement” to speak about Airbnb, however, he hardly has the shift in social relations that critics of inequality have in mind when deploying the same terms.3 Similarly, going out to employment, what was transformative for white middle class women who discovered they could reject marriage and motherhood because they could earn enough to live without a male wage, was not and still is not necessarily liberating for women from social groups who had no option but to generate cash for the family economy, though access to better wages could improve their lives within a system of stretch out, in which the dual breadwinner, female caregiver and the female breadwinner, female caregiver present variations on the norm for the advanced capitalist economies. The “personal is the political” and vice versa might be transformative on the individual level, but do not necessarily translate into social or political revolution. Indeed, neoliberalism has proven very willing to incorporate same-sex marriage and the pink dollar into its family and market regimes.
Nevertheless, Cesare Di Feliciantonio’s evocation of autonomist Marxist critique of creative labor, particularly as made by Cristina Morini, offers a crucial corrective. Incorporation is incomplete. First under post-Fordism and now in its neoliberal manifestation, “claims for equality, freedom and self-determination have been subsumed by capital,” however those “in a subaltern position,” that is, women, earn less; state, church, and family continue to police their bodies and social reproduction; and men in heteronormative living arrangements abdicate household labor. But the system is not all encompassing. Just as Judith Butler taught that reiteration of gender allowed for slippage and thus reconfiguration, so incorporation is never perfect. Liberation and subversion happen along with neoliberalization and commodification. Out of such variation come possibilities for change, for transformation if not revolution.4
As the editors of a special issue of Feminist Review on “Re-Imagining Revolutions” remind, revolution comes in multiple forms and not only as an explosion.5 Our study of revolution(s) partakes of the temporality under whose sign social transformation erupts: that is, we tend to seek lessons from the past and have difficulty in discerning the meaning of the present. The essays in this issue of Zapruder World, however, refreshingly provide a dialogue between recollection and presence, past and future, material and the affective.
The contributors display sophisticated analyses on whether transformation begets revolution, a reproductive metaphor that exposes how language itself maintains bio-power. The stories they tell do not comfortably sort into one grand narrative, nor should they. They evoke private knowledge and analyze political actions visible and partially hidden. Elena Biagini offers a declension history in which an oppositional lesbian revisioning of intimate life in Italy succumbs to the politics of same-sex marriage, but her essay engages in recovery of opposing positions that speak to the multiplicity of time and place and suggests alternatives for the present and future. Biagini complicates the relationship between individual rights and coupledom, liberal tactics and radical critique by highlighting the anti-patriarchal analysis of autonomous women’s groups that still celebrated individual freedom. On first glance, it appears that Silke Heumann recounts another tale of loss; the promise of the Nicaraguan revolution dissipates so that the Sandinista recapturing of government in 2006 represents a bargain with backlash. However, in this reconstruction the seeds of anti-feminism are there from the start, no more so than with the “after the revolution,” “protect the revolution through unity” and other discourses that displace challenges to male power and the heterosexual family to a time that never arrives, what I name “an afterwards.” Men in power claim that demands for reconfigured power relations between the sexes and challenges to hegemonic masculinity strengthen reactionary attacks against the left and thus must be dropped; Sandinista women and gays and lesbians in the movement self-censure, remaining silent or in the closet, internalizing such a framework least they become lumped with enemies of the revolution.
Some essays step outside of a rigid declension story.6 Norma Claire Moruzzi reveals the incompleteness of the Arab Spring and how it too is disappointing those who saw an opening to reorder the gender regime as part of a general transformation and democratization. Here the expectation of gender or sexual revolution was so fleeting that loss refers to the end of dictatorship, not the end of male power. Discourses of protection, appeals as part of the family and to male defense of familial honor, become a major form of appeal deployed by women against brutal attacks against their public protest. While an elegiac tone pervades Elisabetta Donini’s “ego histoire,” she constructs a portrait of science studies that refuses to merely see the field’s trajectory as merely a history of unfilled promise. Despite critiques of the gendered paradigm of objectivity and scientific method, a product of male dominance in the making of science, the feminist impact on science came from breaking down many of the barriers to women doing science. But women entered labs not of their own configuration but ones rooted in the gendered division between science (male) and nature (female) that developed with the appropriation of resources at the birth of capitalist accumulation. To her citation of Carolyn Merchant, I’d add Silvia Federici, whose Caliban and the Witch connects primitive accumulation, enclosure of the commons, and conquest of the Americas to the expropriation of women’s bodies and their sexuality for reproduction within marriage.7
Closer to a progress narrative, studies of the performative champion “the long-term strategy of the prefigurative construction of a better world in the here and now” what amounts to a living of the utopian in the moment.8 Emile Breton and her co-authors provide a narrative layered with the affect of hope. There is a promise of progress in so far as affinity groups practice the equality of the future in the now. In a parallel move, Dominique Grisard and Barbara Biglia read the choreography of the Pink Bloque dance group as destabilizing stereotypical gender that undermine the naturalness of femininity through “tactical flirting,” femme drag, and passing, the latter terms referring to assuming the guise of and performing the gestures of dominant femininity. For Valeria Ribeiro Corossacz, the continual struggle within Latin America for reproductive justice, in relation to abortion and sterilization, transforms feminism into a project of persistent transformation that maintains a revolutionary vision. Control over the body enhances individualism as well as undermines familialism. Particularly in nations where men’s power in the family and the church’s power in the state generate a matrix of domination, feminism remains utopic.
These articles further provide multiple ways to think about the transformation/revolution continuum. Geographies of sexualities place social movements in space; history emphasizes the dimension of time. Major U.S.-based queer theorists, such as Lisa Duggan and Judith Butler, offer these authors framing devices, but so does literature from Brazil, Egypt, and Italy that provides scholarly genealogies beyond the dominant Anglo-American ones. Gay villages or gayborhoods mark neoliberalism, as Di Feliciantonio sketches the impact of economic restructuring on the built environment, but non-normative sexuality undermines hierarchies of power when urban spaces make public what has been relegated to the private, even if their form is a commodified one. He adapts the Marxist concept of capital subsumption to escape dichotomous thinking that forecloses opposition within hegemony. By subsumption, he refers to “the ability of capital to penetrate intimate and affective parts of social life in order to make value of them, but without fully totalizing them.”9 In this way, Di Feliciantonio overcomes the determinism that theories of totality and reification court.
Peter Drucker most effectively shows an alternative way to apply Marxist theory. In Hemmings’ terms, his is a return narrative. He crafts a model analysis that connects sexual regimes to modes of accumulation but also avoids economism and Euro-centrism. His dialectic approach highlights the expansion of gay liberation, part of the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Fordist production regime began unraveling. Advocating sexual liberation, embracing drag queens and others deemed deviant, gay liberation rejected the homophile movement of the post-WWII years that retained male/female binary through continuation of the sexual inversion associated with the homosexual since the late 19th century. Similarly, gender queer and the queer have become the antithesis to homonormativity under neoliberalism, which in its assault on making a living has allowed for the reconnection of sexual and political revolution.
Drucker envisions a feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist future beyond the binaries, a dream of a polymorphous eroticism embedded in life as it could be lived truly free and truly connected. Grisard and Biglia embrace ‘dance’ as a metaphor for a parallel purpose: to underscore the struggle for “freedom of movement and expression often negated to women and non-normative subjects, the freedom to speak with their bodies or rather: to embody their messages.”10 But, as Drucker recognizes and Ribeiro Corossacz underscores, revolution requires structural change as well as personal transformation. That is why feminist and queer movements question the family and church, medicine and science. They have joined the poor of all types and racialized groups in protesting laws that maintain hierarchies and enhance the power of the state, including apparatuses of violence (police, military, and prison). Fighting discrimination in the workplace might allow for redrawing the boundaries between private and public, but the struggle over both production without changes in reproduction and divisions of labor in the nation without scaling to the global limits gender and sexual revolution, restricting the beneficiaries. Therein is the paradox: totality is impossible, but without totality revolution seems impossible. Herein is the opening: by destabilizing social reproduction and the gender binary, transformation can precipitate revolutions if not the revolution. Our deconstructions, our visions, can open up the process by which we will dream together. And in dreams comes change.
- Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013); see critiques by Susan Faludi, “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” The Baffler, No.23 (2013), at http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/facebook-feminism-like-it-or-not; bell hooks, “Dig Deep, Beyond Lean In,” the feminist wire, October 28, 2013 at http://thefeministwire.com/2013/10/17973/.
- Leopoldina Fortunati, Arcane of Reproduction (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1989).
- Brian Chesky quoted in Doug Heywood, “What the Sharing Economy Takes,” The Nation, January 27, 2015, accessed at http://www.thenation.com/article/196241/what-sharing-economy-takes.
- Cesare Di Feliciantonio, “Liberation or (neoliberal) freedom? Exploring the evolution of lesbian and gay urban spaces in the Global North,” this issue.
- Rutvica Andrijasevic, Carrie Hamiltion and Clare Hemmings, “re-imagining revolutions,” Feminist Review, No.106 (February 2014), 1-8.
- I am indebted to Clare Hemmings, Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory (Durnham: Duke University Press, 2011).
- Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 2004.)
- Emilie Breton, Sandra Jeppesen, Anna Kruzynski, and Rachel Sarrasin, “Feminisms at the Heart of Contemporary Anarchism in Quebec: Grassroots Practices of Intersectionality,” Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme, 29, no.3 (2012), 149.
- Di Feliciantonio, this issue.
- Dominique Grisard and Barbara Biglia, “Rethinking revolution: Queer-feminist inquiries of revolutionary strategies,” this issue.