A Feminist Style

What is the problem described today by feminism? A decade ago, a generation of women – now in our late twenties and early thirties – claimed it as a primary political identity, but no longer. Among young radicals in the Anglophone world, embarrassment at our proximity to something so easily co-opted by liberalism and neoliberalism alike issued in two concurrent desertions of the resurgent ‘women’s movement’ of the 2010s: one group jumped ship for an activist project motivated by the critique of capitalism, with which feminism quasi-geometrically ‘intersected’, the other went overboard for a distilled ironic nihilism. In both cases, podcasts ensued.

Where an identifiable form of feminism has clung on most tenaciously is in the commissioning and branding of cultural products. When it comes to the packaging of films and books by, about, or ‘for’ women, marketers’ lexicons have shrunk to two words: ‘timely’ and ‘urgent’. Feminism, in this register, designates any text or tale in which a woman might occupy a central position, or any project in which a role historically occupied by a man has been taken by a woman. Retellings of 1984 from Julia’s perspective, histories of art that apophatically emphasise the centrality of men in the field, films with titles that, taken together, sound like the garbled punchline of a mother-in-law joke: She Said, Don’t Worry Darling, Women Talking.

In such moribund conditions, it is unsurprising that Anglophone feminism’s last defenders have returned to the works of earlier icons as a way of reminding us that the term once evoked not just cultural form but political content. Behind this manoeuvre is a motivation that even its proponents find difficult to define: frustration at the lingering disadvantages of some aspects of the most ‘privileged’ versions of womanhood (white, wealthy, western); the dull compulsion of (often passive) misogyny that gives the second wave an aura of continued contemporary relevance. Absent any theoretical engagement with the totality of the experiences of women, qua women, by a new generation of political philosophers – feminist theory, where it is practised, tends today to tackle one aspect of women’s lives at a time (usually sex) – statements intended to demonstrate the vitality of feminism have increasingly relied for their evidence on the words of the dead. Sure she’s decayed, the exhumers confess, but in such style!

A few years ago, it was Catherine MacKinnon whose thought seemed to permeate contemporary glosses of women’s ‘situation’ – her established openness to trans identities made her seem au courant when compared to some of her contemporaries, and her legal scholarship suited the litigious aftermath of MeToo. But, being alive, MacKinnon proved hard to iconise – she has an unfortunate habit of continuing to speak and, inevitably, to say the wrong things (only to deny she said them…). What is more, legalism began to seem outmoded, as radical critiques of the form and function of the law and its agents entered wide circulation. The resurgent interest in legal activism of this period has since ebbed into a more literary form, the two modes united by their shared emphasis on testimony. As part of this shift, two figures have become the subject of notable renewed interest: Andrea Dworkin and Susan Sontag. MeToo’s impact is detectable not in any political transformation among the professional women who comprised its constituency, but rather in the desiccated dregs of a ‘feminist’ linguistic mode: a speaker who narrates in the first-person, invokes the literary and wants you to know of her pain.

The Dworkin revival began in earnest with the publication of a volume of her writing, Last Days at Hot Slit (2019) edited by Amy Scholder and Joanna Fateman, and continues via Pratiba Parmar’s documentary My Name is Andrea (2022), described, generously, by Amia Srinivasan as ‘almost schlocky’. The film is a travesty, objectionable even to those of us who disagree with Dworkin on most things, manipulative in the extreme in its use of its subject’s traumatic biography as a fast-track to her canonisation. But the simple fact of its existence, along with that of the edited collection, raises the coupled questions: why Dworkin, why now?

Andrea Dworkin, as Parmar’s film makes clear, suffered. While demonstrating at an anti-Vietnam protest in 1965 she was arrested and taken to the NYC Women’s House of Detention, where she was subjected to violent vaginal examinations that left her bruised and bleeding for weeks. In 1971, aged twenty-five, she fled her life in Amsterdam to escape relentless beatings by her then-husband, whom she had met through the city’s left-bohemian scene. These are the experiences that ground her work – her brutalisation by men in both the public and the private sphere. The central device of My Name is Andrea is to have Dworkin played by five different actors (to represent Dworkin at different ages), one of whom, early in the film, speaks Dworkin’s line: ‘I write my pain to symbolise all those other women’s’. This phrase captures the appeal of Dworkin’s work to the present iteration of Anglo-American feminism: the ability to verbalise individual suffering eloquently, and in so doing claim to speak and act on behalf of a collective – to make writing about oneself the central political act of one’s life. The film’s device neatly encapsulates the risk of turning to Dworkin for anything else: the flattening of all personal and historical particularity into a single narrative that naturalises pain as the universal birthright of all women. The five actors correspond only vaguely to Dworkin’s age through the film – symbolised mostly through changing hairstyles and bandanas. (The choice to have Amandla Stenberg, the only non-white cast member, portray a pre-adolescent Dworkin who is molested in the cinema is particularly dumbfounding, suggesting that experiences determined by race were movable trivialities when compared to the constancy of gendered oppression in 1950s America.)

A flood of critical reappraisals followed first the book’s publication and now the documentary’s release, unanimously expressing concern over Dworkin’s more extreme positions concerning penetrative sex, prostitution and porn, while singling out for praise a supposedly less contentious aspect of her work: its style. ‘What’s so exciting to watch, reading “Last Days”, is not her political trajectory but the way her style crystallized around her beliefs.’ (Lauren Oyler) ‘Her sensibility and her uncompromising analyses of intercourse and pornography are hard to prize apart.’ (Sam Huber) ‘The style is strident, enraged, and the conclusions are often stark, bluntly phrased, and difficult to read.’ (Moira Donegan) Dworkin’s books ‘contain certain truths’, writes Srinivasan: ‘she is one of the more under-appreciated prose stylists in postwar American writing.’ Of her own style, Dworkin said she aimed to write a ‘prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilising than battery, more desolate than prostitution, more invasive than incest, more filled with threat and aggression than pornography’. This latter quote abounds in the reappraisals of Dworkin, a way of explaining the limits of her political conclusions, of re-interpreting her contextual and situated diagnoses of the condition of American women in the last decades of the twentieth century as ‘experimental literature, cultural criticism, a strategic provocation’ (Fateman). This move accomplishes two things: it rebrands Dworkin’s ideological excesses and missteps as aesthetic, while offering contemporary feminism a way out of the hard work of following Dworkin’s attentive analysis of her own era – by imitating her style.

This style reached its formal and affective apogee in one of only three books (of twelve) by Dworkin not to be included in the anthology: Scapegoat (1999), which replicates a graphical method of argument she first deployed in Intercourse (1987) – equivalence via virgule. A glance at the contents page is enough to convey the approach taken by Dworkin and to clarify her political message too: ‘Pogrom / Rape’, ‘Zionism / Women’s Liberation’, ‘Palestinians / Prostituted Women’; there is a trans-historical parity between the oppression of Jews and women, which at points in the book also extends to black people and, on occasion, poets too. A short quote suffices to give a flavour of her rhetoric:

Swimming in the blood of her own body, in labor and in pain, the woman is a half-human who achieves her half-human fate in pregnancy and childbearing. The canal through which the infant is extruded is the man’s place of sex; he enters, not wanting blood to drown him or contaminate him or pollute him; the blood makes her dirty and threatens his pristine penis; this makes her an abomination.

The shock value of such passages, intended to reverberate in an instant from the particular to the universal, facilitates quotation and recirculation. Justificatory citation is almost always drawn from a novel or poem (in the following passage Dworkin quotes Tsvetaeva and Cixous) and so literary criticism becomes the means through which the world is to be interpreted. Such methods place a question mark over Dworkin’s posterity. Even were it possible to write a prose ‘more terrifying than rape’, should the goal of feminism be to petrify its opponents into mute submission, its evidential base drawn from literature? Ought it not attempt to root its arguments more clearly in facts about the world? 

Susan Sontag maintained a mannered distance from second-wave feminism during its peak, as Merve Emre acknowledges in her introduction to the new collection On Women (Emre seems to miss the joke, though, when she cites as evidence of Sontag’s commitment to the cause her self-professed, lifelong interest in three subjects: women, China and ‘Freaks’). The introductory essay makes much of Sontag’s timeliness – ‘What a relief to revisit the essays and interviews … and to find them incapable of aging badly.’ It’s true that Sontag’s ability to conjure a bad infinity of nuance makes it harder to disagree with the immediate arguments of her texts ‘on women’ than in Dworkin’s case, but this has less to do with the transcendental genius on display in the essays and more with the bagginess of the collection itself. At its centre are Sontag’s written responses to a questionnaire issued to prominent women theorists and writers, including Simone de Beauvoir and Rossana Rossanda, by the left-wing Spanish-language journal Libre. While the other essays in the book certainly fulfil the requirement of being about women (general – ‘The Double Standard of Aging’ – and  specific – the subject of ‘Fascinating Fascism’ is Leni Riefenstahl), this is the only chapter in which Sontag addresses the problem of how to speak politically of women as a group, of their variable priority in the political struggle in an era of class antagonism and decolonisation.

Of more historical value than this emporium of Sontag’s musings would have been the republication in full of Libre no. 3 (October 1972), in which the interviews appeared, so that they could have been read in the context of other prominent views on the question, from writers outside the Anglophone world. But this would have been to miss a trick in both marketing and critical terms. Sontag’s value here doesn’t really have anything to do with her feminism – whatever this word meant for her at different points in her life – it’s in the new collection’s ability to naturalise the position of woman as writer, and thus to make writing itself seem the very act of womanhood. These revivals have reduced both writers to equivalent absurdities: they have tried to make a style of Dworkin’s politics and a politics of Sontag’s style.

The current second-wave revival will surely not halt with Sontag and Dworkin; other authors will be unearthed from the canon in an attempt to fill lacunae in modern Anglo-American feminist thought. We should, of course, continue to read these antecedents, whose work illuminates historic stages in feminism – let us not throw a nursery’s worth of texts by Firestone, Davis, Beauvoir, Mitchell and more out with Sontag and Dworkin’s bathwater. But in substituting fifty-year-old theses for an effort to analyse present conditions – or face honestly the present difficulty of defining womanhood so that it might be articulated in something approaching a totality – we make the error of claiming as ‘timely’ a rhetorical mode that made sense under conditions of legally enshrined patriarchy, even as that particular set of circumstances has, in the USA, Canada, Britain, Ireland and the majority of contemporary liberal democracies, ceased to exist. Rather than engage in the task of describing the world anew, a world equally if not more complex in its social arrangements than half a century ago, this revivalism lulls us into a depoliticising stasis. Both Sontag and Dworkin excelled at deploying a confident presentism, the power of which rested on its compression of history. Woman is because woman was. But the historical value of their texts aren’t undermined if we make the simple point that things have since changed. Perhaps not consistently improved, for the vast bulk of us, but by no means worsened on account of being women.

Sontag and Dworkin shared a rhetorical approach formed in response to the particular, concrete situations of women they lived among, whose lives, along with their own, they were trying to describe. Their naturalising presentisms were a part of their (shared) political belief in the distinct category of experience of womanhood – a belief confirmed by the laws and social structures of their time (Sontag herself warned against the misuse of ahistorical truisms, in her reply to Adrienne Rich, included in On Women, ‘Applied to a particular historical subject the feminist passion yields conclusions which, however true, are extremely general’). Absent this context, armed only with celebratory introductions by literary critics, we’re left with the impression that there is an essential connection between three poles embodied by these figures: womanhood – suffering – writing. Writing, conveniently, then becomes the answer to woman’s politicised suffering. But to identify oneself as a writer in the age of mass literacy provokes the same response as identifying as a feminist in an age of legal equality between the sexes: aren’t we all?

Dworkin and Sontag’s shared emphasis on suffering animates a residual concern about the diffuse but ongoing predicament of what it is to be a woman, awareness of which makes one into a feminist. But is this all that feminism is? And if it has become such a negative political project, might we not want to pause to consider the ramifications of defining womanhood through not just the experience of suffering but via the constant verbalisation of pain? What, exactly, is the political programme towards which pain, as a collectivising experience, might lead us? The closest feminism has come in recent years to a mass mobilisation is in the domain of reproductive rights – no longer the terrain of one gender, but the grounds on which a person might be feminised, a verb which in contemporary usage means to exist at the sharp edge of precarity, removed from economic productivity, overwhelmed by the burdens of reproduction. A focus on the negative experiences of womanhood – however broadly and ecumenically defined ­– will yield a negative feminism: participation credentialled on the basis of suffering.

It cannot be overstated how deeply boring all this is. How unthrilling, how inessential, to how few urgent questions this seems to contain the seeds of any possible answers. As Dworkin said of porn (after her friend said it of heroin): ‘The worst thing about it all is the endless repetition.’ We’ve been here before, of course, in the past few years’ debate over Afropessimism. Similar risks adhere to a negative feminism: if the aim is to move from a biological conception of gender, as of race, to one that is socially constructed but no less real for it in its consequences, might it not behoove us to arrive at a category definition that does not condemn all those who fall within it to limitless amounts of pain? Feminism has no absolute right to existence. It must describe something about the world accurately for it to make sense as a political-philosophical position. And that description must contain within it verifiable truths about the current situation of women, or else it will be – only – a style.

Read on: Juliet Mitchell, Women: The Longest Revolution’, NLR I/40.