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Confused dilettantish nonsense
on 19 August 2011
Laurie Penny has been a near ubiquitous figure over the last year. Her status as the "voice of a generation" has seen her career blossom as she is consistently pulled in by the BBC and others to give opinion on everything from the situation in the Middle East to student politics; all this while others of her age group (she's in her mid 20s by the way) have been losing their jobs. Here she attempts to capitalize on her popular credentials by chancing her hand at some feminist theory on the DIY publishing imprint Zero Books.
In short, this is possibly the worst piece of attempted theory I have ever read, and its faults, contradictions, and sheer dilettantish gall are to such an extent that to cover it all would require a text the length of which would justify a book of its own. I will address only the main points which will help illustrate not only that Laurie Penny has no idea what she is writing about, but that her faults stem from the fact that she is ultimately a middle class opportunist flirting with the most superficial and bankrupt autonomist thought.
It's also worth noting that her trite blogger/journalist prose makes this a very painful read. Lines like "The ooze and tickle of realtime sex, which can neither be controlled nor mass-produced and sold back to us, threatens both capital and censorship"(pg16) might get Twitter buzzing, but in a monologue it just looks like nonsense. Her bizarre fixation on descriptives for bodily functions also offer up such pearls as "the eroto-capitalist horror of human flesh", "the panting border between dream and secretion", the "dirt and ooze of female power" and "the meat and stink of my body". Perhaps all this is meant to be arousing, but all she succeeds in doing is make sex appear like a scene from a Hammer horror film. You've got to laugh (after throwing up).
The central thesis of the book and the one which underpins the majority of her arguments is the claim that capitalism itself has a fear of female flesh. In order to address this claim it is necessary to read it metaphorically; capitalism after all doesn't think anything, its blind self expansion admits of no agency, certainly not one with an irrational fear of female bodies. Therefore in order to justify her claim Penny would have to demonstrate why the invisibility or the degradation of the female body was a necessary structural component of capitalist economy. She utterly fails to do this. Instead she takes this claim as given and proceeds to give us a break down of why advertising, the media (of which she's a part) and pornography are all ways in which this fear is manifest.
I'm in complete agreement that the representations of women in popular culture are unhealthy and predicated on consumerist rather than emancipatory values, however Penny's arguments are thoroughly confused as to the origin and alternative to these representations, and it is here that her essentialist utopianism comes in. There is a tension throughout the book between Penny's rejection of the images of women and female sexuality offered by contemporary capitalism and her continual references to some authentic experience of the body or sex that exists beyond it. She cites both Baudrillard and Lacan in her exposition; however, if Penny's intention was to evoke these thinkers to defend her theses then they were poor choices. Lacan's work in particular stands against such a reading. It is one of the most basic of Lacan's propositions that there is no intelligible experience of the sexualised body prior to that body's alienation within a system of signs. The signifier allows us to make reality intelligible but at the price of never being able to truly signify what we are or desire. In Lacan's terms this is called the barred Subject, or the subject of lack. All signs that we appropriate (or are sold to us) can never truly be the thing in itself and inevitably fall by the wayside as desire moves on to some other object.
In contrast, Penny's notion which continually appears and counts as one of her prime theoretical failures is that underneath all the signs, all the representations and narratives that we are pressured to appropriate, there is some real sex, some un-sublimated authentic sex involving your real body and real sexual identity. This is nothing but another version of the myth of origins positing a thoroughly disalienated self in some distant past where before we were corrupted by the temptations of consumerism we had full access to "sex and sublimity" (pg 16). It's a view that was thoroughly blown out of the water by Foucault over 30 years ago in his History of Sexuality. Penny offer a familiar story, ultimately reducible to religious motifs involving fall and redemption, not to mention the worst kind of utopian autonomous thought (Proudhon being an example). Of course all of this has little to do with materialism.
Indeed, her claim that capitalism runs scared from the female body would seem to be contradicted by pornography itself. Is it not the case that what marks out the ever expanding taxonomy of pornographic representations is an endless fascination with the materiality of the body? Extreme close-ups that appear more like gynaecological examinations, scatological obsessions and any number of genital combinations that test the capacity of the female body to its limits. Penny fails to notice that it's precisely this promise to "show it all" to leave no sexual possibility unexplored that leverages pornography's appeal as the sexual discourse without limits, that offers tailor made satisfaction to fit the polyphony of contemporary desires. The utopian myth of a real encounter with the body is a necessary component that gears pornography as a commodity to such an extent that it can elevate base bodily functions to the level of a sublime object.
Penny also exaggerates the role of pornography in forming a kind of new totality of alienation, one distinct from the "sweaty reality of sex" (pg 14). A more considered view would recognize that pornography is just one (admittedly quite prominent) narrative of sexual relations engaged in a battle of competing hegemonies along with other apparatus such as the church, the state, and numerous other representations circulating in cultural life, all of which vary across nations and ethnicities. After all even Mills and Boon novels are still going strong in 2011! That's not to disparage the claim that pornography has such a strong influence in western society today. I merely point out that the socially constituted nature of sexual practices is nothing new.
I will gloss over the chapter where she gives the reader a breakdown of her eating disorders as a teenager. This confessional style which while claiming not to glamorise such afflictions does in its form and style do exactly the opposite. This need to tell it all, to confess and leave no part of one's existence concealed is a symptom of the "I Tweet therefore I am" generation which knows no bounds between public and private and whose utterances have been reduced to an endless stream of banal confessions and commentary in sound bite form. This the latest incarnation of confessional discourse that again as Foucault points out has been at the base of power relations and the production of sexualities for near 300 years. The inclusion of this chapter seems designed to give a "realtime" example of how the "eroto-capitalist horror" blights the lives of women. Well at least if you're white and middle class, the demographic that predominantly suffers from eating disorders; a fact she avoids in favour of speaking from a position of false universalism. Eating disorders are a serious problem but Penny only muddies the waters. I will just add that in the book she claims that her problems began after the breakdown of her parents' marriage; not to labour the point but if I were her psychoanalyst I'd probably start there rather than with an analysis of consumer capitalism.
The most important point to make about this book is not that her theories are squiffy or that her style is like a dilettantish sixth-former; it's that from her autonomist utopian theory ultimately springs utterly bankrupt and conservative politics. This fact is made most clear in her discussion of domestic work and the exploitation of immigrants by rich families and employers. Incredibly she claims that the reason such exploitation exists is because men and women can't decide on who does the dishes! Men think it's a women role and those women then employ cheap help to do it for them. The demographic from which these theories emanate is made obvious by this quote: "of the women I spoke to who had found a workable solution to the sharing of domestic work in their household, 90% employed some sort of home help, from a weekly cleaner to a live in au-pair" (pg 60). A workable solution? A privileged middle class solution more like it. These are the people that Penny is writing about and for. This is further illustrated (along with a slavish elevation of lifestyle politics) when she writes: "I know plenty of young women my age, educated and emancipated, who view the baking of immaculate muffins and the embroidering of intricate scarves and mittens as exciting hobbies, pastimes which should be properly performed in high-wasted fifties skirts and silly little pinafores."(pg59) And also "How many times have you heard a home-based women say, her resentment tinged with a hint of pride, that her husband just can't take care of himself - or, if he sometimes deigns to do the dishes, that he's `well trained'."(pg58) Households on the lowest incomes can't afford to have women who stay at home and as for muffins and mittens this is little more than a projection of Penny's own privileged upbringing and environment. None of this has any theoretical value and belongs more in the advice column of Glamour magazine than what is supposed to be a piece of leftist feminist writing.
For the Pièce de résistance we have Penny's solution to the problem of domestic exploitation: "Men and women have been passing the buck for too long. We need to confront our own hypocrisy and find equable, less exploitative solutions to the dichotomy of domestic dysfunction, before more harm is done." (pg 62) That's right, middle class men and women have to sort out a cleaning rota and then there you have it, problem solved! A statement bereft of all class and economic analysis, blind to the fact that it is the economic disparity not the gender disparity that in the last instance puts people into servitude. This statement alone that apes the worst, most confused aspects of liberal thought should be enough to dissuade any left wing group from giving Penny a platform. Here she reveals her dearth of politics in one fell swoop.
Laurie Penny is not alone in being given a platform to spout this kind of rubbish. Since the economic crisis of 2008 a whole host of opportunists have appeared carrying what looks like a red flag but on closer inspection is just a large trust fund. Penny is unique in being quite so inept and yet somehow finding herself put before the masses as an authoritative voice instead of just a silly ill-informed one. Why do the BBC and media elite like to give her a platform? Simple, because she's one of them, an Oxbridge educated careerist who's slightly damaged and far more privileged upbringing makes her from the perspective of the ruling class a prime target to front the increasing waves of discontent sweeping Britain. The official opposition undermining every cause she champions without realizing it herself. That this was even published asks serious questions of the quality control at Zero Books. For anyone interested in the issues Penny fails to address I'd look to the dozens of far more consistent, informed and less self-serving writers out there; there are many of them.