WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH MATTER?

Ahmed’s criticism regarding biology’s discursive function in new materialist feminism is also true for matter: the very same dismissive and self-constituting gesture is at work with regards to the genealogy of historical materialism in feminist theory. Ahmed notes that, “the new materialism does not take as its point of entry a critique or engagement with historical materialism, which does not haunt this emergent field even in its absence.” Instead, as Ahmed writes, “the point of entry for the construction of this field is the critique of past feminism for not engaging with matter, as such.” I want to argue that Grosz’s work is in fact haunted by historical materialism, insofar as her new materialist feminism constitutes itself through a gesture that characterizes other feminisms not only as automatically anti-biological, but also as routinely anti-materialist. In The Nick of Time, for example, Grosz tells us that:

We need to return to, or perhaps to invent anew, the concepts of nature, matter, and life, the most elementary concerns of the cosmological and the ontological, if we want to develop alternative models to those inscriptive and constructivist discourses that currently dominate the humanities and social sciences, in which the transformation of representation is the only serious political issue, and where the body is of interest only in its reflection through discourse, its constitution in representation, or its mediation by images.

It is in the omission of historical materialist feminism, which sees the body and sexual identity as much more than simply an issue for social constructionism, that Grosz’s work distorts other feminisms’ engagement with matter. Since historical materialism locates the foundations of social relations in the economic structures by which humans collectively produce the material requirements of life, feminism is immanent to it. A critique of social relations produced by capitalism necessarily includes a critique of the gender inequality upon which those social relations depend. The long genealogy of this methodology, which has provided a crucial framework for analyzing the implications of the gendered body’s material position in social reproduction, also gets expropriated in the self-constituting gesture of Grosz’s new materialist feminism. I do not wish to represent Grosz’s work as an index of a larger trend in new materialist feminisms; this argument represents an engagement with one new materialist thinker and not a critique of new materialism tout court. “To make such an argument,” as Ahmed writes in her own critique, “would be to repeat the very gesture I am criticizing.” Still, although Ahmed draws attention to the large body of feminist work that engages with matter in terms of the biological, such as feminist science studies, missing in this process of making visible that which new materialist feminism disavows is a discussions of materialist feminisms that are invested in historical materialist critique.

As noted above, historical materialist feminism does not simply render the body a matter of discourse; rather, it is able to account for the ways that the gendered body is appropriated by the material (re)production of capitalist social relations. In her essay, “Against the Couple Form,” for example, Clémence X. Clementine explores the way in which the couple form—that social formation of sexual relations predicated on the heterosexual coupling of a man and a woman—constitutes one of the primary material bases for the reproduction of patriarchal social relations under capitalism. The form of the essay, and in particular the poeticism of the conclusion, “is not,” as the LIES editorial note says, “a detour from material relations, but a mode of their refusal; it is a practice of naming what is violent in these relations, of laying it bare and vulnerable to attack.” Clementine’s feminist work places the material reproduction of patriarchal gender relations within the apparatuses of capitalism, revealing the ways in which the capitalist mode of production produces, depends upon, and ultimately expresses in its material forms the structural oppression of women:

Flows of libidinal desire operate within and amongst broader social mechanisms, such that they help animate the dynamics of economic and political life. Patriarchy incessantly subjects these flows of desire to a system of organization, a logic that subverts the desiring flows against themselves. This channeling and organization of sex and amorous relations I will refer to as the logic of the couple—that which funnels, simplifies, and reduces amorous desire to the needs of patriarchy within the capitalist mode of production.

The couple form is the material expression of the interdependent logics of patriarchy and capitalism, and the mechanism through which the ongoing production of capitalist social relations is ensured to the detriment of all involved (including men), whose bodies are reduced to the same “mere abstraction of activity” as the worker depicted by Marx in the Grundrisse. But it is women, in their underpaid, unpaid, or invisible reproductive labour (both the labour of child birth, and the daily labour of child rearing, housework, cleaning, cooking and other domestic jobs), who lose the most under the logic of the couple. This does not indicate an absence of female agency, as women are constantly engaging in the reconstruction of social identities. Yet it also remains the case that, as Clementine rightly insists, “rather than an essentialist concept, the category of woman stems from a gendered mode of exploitation and relegates certain types of labor to a private, unwaged sphere.” The material expression of the couple form further expresses itself in the infrastructural forms that dominate the capitalist landscape. Clementine quotes Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto: “Our society is not a community, but merely a collection of isolated family units” that populate the suburbs; “a collection of self-absorbed couples and their kids.” In the master suite the couple procreates, and the children will sleep in their own adjacent bedrooms until they too enter the couple form and reproduce the process anew. In this material expression of patriarchy—extended into the suburban landscapes that house procreating couples—Clementine locates the centrality of women’s reproductive labour under capitalism.

Grosz’s new materialism insists on the permanence of sexual difference and the centrality of reproduction, and yet ignores the matter of reproductive labour. Reproductive labour is not simply a feminist ‘issue’; it is a central problematic for any feminist politics. Reproduction plays a pivotal role in Grosz’s evolutionary philosophy, and her lack of engagement with the matter of reproductive labour is structural, so her position is arguably not feminist. Regarding sexual difference, Grosz writes, “sexual selection entails that, from the ‘moment’ there is the human—and even long before—the human exists in only two nonreducible forms,” and that “this difference is not only irreducible to one of its terms, in the case of sociobiology its reproductive cells; it is also irreducible to any other level, whether cellular, morphological, cultural, or historical.” Under this binary division of sexual identity, sexual reproduction is the essential motor of biological evolution. Even as Grosz acknowledges that Darwin believes nonreproductive organisms can be explained in terms of “a shift from the survival value of the individual to that of the kin group,” her theory remains invested in the centrality of sexual reproduction, which of necessity dictates that at least a certain amount of women dedicate at least a portion of their lives to reproductive labour.

Grosz’s Darwinian feminism offers no possibilities, outside the vagaries of evolutionary becoming, for a more equitable distribution (or the abolition!) of reproductive labour as it currently exists. Historical materialism’s spectral presence becomes obvious when this inattention to women’s reproductive labour is read alongside her discussion of political economy, where she argues that economic systems, like biological forms, transform and evolve indefinitely according to automatic processes. Grosz writes, “each is a temporal system, directed always forward, becoming always more complicated as time progresses, but without being able to predict where or how,” hereby representing the historical trajectory of economic systems as quintessentially evolutionary. It is precisely here that a disavowed historical materialism haunts Grosz’s new materialism; it is the parallel between the form her argument takes about both political economy and the workings of biological evolution that creates this spectral presence. While Grosz claims to be describing how economic systems reflect natural processes of evolution, her description is actually a representation of the capitalist logics that dominate our contemporary world—a forward-moving system predicated on expansion and innovative restructuring that gets more complex over time—and certainly not all possible forms of political economy. Recapitulating capitalist logics in biological terms, Grosz unwittingly naturalizes, and thereby effectively depoliticizes and dehistoricizes, the operative logics of capitalism in a discursive move that has major repercussions for feminism, given that capitalism not only disproportionately exploits women’s reproductive labour, but in fact depends upon this exploitation for its processes of capital accumulation and surplus value production.

By all accounts, Canada appears to be devolving politically, losing rights and concessions for women. In 2006, for example, the Harper government terminated the national childcare program and introduced its Universal Child Care Benefit of $100 per-month for each child. Since then, Canada’s child poverty rate has risen to 15.1 percent, up from 12.8 percent in the mid-1990s, earning Canada a ‘C’ ranking on the Conference Board of Canada 2013 report card. In the UNICEF 2008 report on early child, Canada, along with Ireland, ranked the lowest of twenty-five developed countries, meeting only one of ten benchmarks. In light of Harper’s abysmal track record on women’s issues, relying on a new materialist feminist critique of the type Grosz espouses would perhaps constitute a reversion to the kind of cruel optimism recently theorized by Lauren Berlant; an attachment to a promise of political transformation that operates within, and fails to challenge, the parameters of existing political formations: “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” such as “a political project [that] actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” While Grosz locates a certain undefined power of transformation or becoming in the social/cultural world, whereby evolutionary processes respond to the social, those responses occur as random evolutionary experiments that are impossible to predict, and play out over vast periods of time. Even in dynamic interrelation with the cultural, change occurs within the realm of the biological, through a set of automatic mechanisms underwriting the process of political transformation, a process that is always already in operation and appears to require little cultural intervention.

Ultimately, Grosz relegates the immediate cultural work of feminism to the realm of the biological, leaving prospects for cultural transformation at the mercy of an impersonal and algorithmic process. As Berlant writes in The Female Complaint, “when politics is serious, it risks a loss of the ground of living in which people have come to know their competencies and their desires: fantasy, in contrast, is a zone of stop-loss, a demand for the ongoing present to be the scene of lived fulfillment.” A feminist politics that addresses the structural oppression of women exemplified in the matter of reproductive labour necessarily entails a radical restructuring of the economic and cultural order. Grosz’s work offers a potential means of reclaiming the biological from anti-feminist discourses of biological determinism, but her argument that Darwinian evolutionary theory can provide the basis for a transformative feminist politics is a dangerous fantasy, unable to account for the material conditions of women’s reproductive labour under capitalism. Though we should seek out new modes of feminist resistance where others have failed, we should not be so quick to dismiss existing forms of feminist critique, or we risk forgetting what matters in that work. ♦

 

Ahmed 32
Ahmed 32
Grosz, The Nick of Time 2-3
Historical materialist feminism has an expansive and vital history of engagement with the material consequences of gender inequality and oppression for the female body, particularly around the centrality of domestic and reproductive labour as they figure in the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and insofar as those relations are predicated on a gendered division of labour that disproportionately exploits women. In the 1970s, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James began to argue that, despite being unwaged, women’s reproductive and domestic labour is central to the process of capital accumulation, in that it is necessary both for social reproduction and for the production of surplus value. In “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” Dalla Costa argues that, “on a world level, it is precisely what is particular to domestic work, not only measured as number of hours and nature of work, but as quality of life and quality of relationships which it generates, that determines a woman’s place wherever she is and to whichever class she belongs” (19), a place capital dictates to women insofar as they are “transformed into a function for reproducing labor power” (29). James states in “Sex, Race and Working Class Power” that “our feminism bases itself on a hitherto invisible stratum of the hierarchy of labour powers—the housewife—to which there corresponds no wage at all” (14). Drawing on Dalla Costa’s work, Maria Mies notes that “the housewife and her labour are not outside the process of surplus value production, but constitute the very foundation upon which this process can get started. The housewife and her labour are, in other words, the basis of the process of capital accumulation” (Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale 31). More recently, Silvia Federici writes, “the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor” (Caliban and the Witch 16). See “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” “Sex, Race and Working Class Power,” Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, and Caliban and the Witch.
Ahmed 25
Clementine 46
Marx 694
Clementine 47
qtd. in Clementine 49
Grosz, The Nick of Time 67
Grosz, The Nick of Time 83
Grosz, The Nick of Time 33
Berlant, Cruel Optimism 1
Berlant, The Female Complaint 12

Recommended

The Latest

Two Poems by Faith Arkorful

"It’s hard to be swinging inside this prolonged episode of survival."

Call for Submissions

The Movement Issue “We move together, with no body left behind” – Patty Berne and Sins Invalid “I knew that going into this hike it wouldn’t just be a hike: There’s no movement in America for black women that’s just...

Our Sunday Links

A weekly roundup of links from GUTS

Cultivating Microbiopolitical Self-Care

on the symbiotic relationships we have with all kinds of microbial cultures

Saturn Return P.S.

Comic artists Cee Lavery and JB Brager on what they've learned in saturn return

Don’t Talk to Me #49

on a good day, we’d shop in the discount bins at Giant Tiger, store glowing ugly yellow, buy those knock off white Converse,  hundreds of bins overflowing with junk, thousands of plastic objects ready made to reach the sea, one day or...

Our Sunday Links

A weekly roundup of links from GUTS

Our Sunday Links

A weekly round up of links from GUTS