“Hannah Arendt, Feminist Theorizing, and the Debate Over New Reproductive Technologies”
Kimberley F. Curtis, Polity, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 159-187
Kimberley Curtis employs Arendt’s conceptual categories in The Human Condition to critically distinguish between scientific interventions that control fertility and those that endeavor to produce fertility. In doing so, she both offers an alternative to current feminist stances toward reproductive technology and contributes to our understanding of the relation between labor and action in the Arendt’s work.
Politically, Curtis responds to “liberal feminists” who tend to favor all new developments as instruments of choice, “socialist feminists” who also favor them in the broader context of their project of controlling nature through production, and “radical feminists” who oppose new reproductive technologies as instruments of patriarchal oppression. In contrast, Curtis proposes that:
[Arendt's] theorizing [...] powerfully embraces the need for control, which has been the cornerstone of feminist concern over reproductive technologies, while also offering some critical grounds for limiting the development and use of these technologies and practices.
Thus, Curtis adopts some of the enthusiasm of liberal feminists and some of the reservations of radical feminists. Socialist feminists, however, in her view make a serious mistake in their justification of their stance. She agrees with Arendt that nature must emphatically remain separate from human artifice. Arendt’s distinction between labor and work codifies this distinction. At the same time though, critics often over-emphasize the separation between the two realms. Curtis articulates her objection by eloquently linking labor and work to action:
To be fully human we must be, to some extent, subject to necessity's compulsion; we must feel its impact. Not to be so subject is to risk losing both the very capacity for action that makes us human and the hope for and renewal of the world it promises. There is multidimensionality to Arendt's conception of necessity that feminists (as well as most other students of Arendt) have largely ignored.
“Necessity” here corresponds to “labor” in Arendt’s schema. Rather than viewing the steps of labor, work, and action as a gradual progression toward freedom, Curtis proposes these terms as equally important “viewpoints.” The actor sees labor as an anchor and dead weight in light of his effort to start something new. Homo faber, the one who works to create a permanent world, sees the natural world of labor as raw material. Humans as laboring animals, Animal laborans, enjoy, at least to an extent, their immersion in natural life. Here, one might object that Arendt’s momentary praise of “the sheer bliss of being alive,” takes on an ironic tinge in light of her larger goal of defending action.
Curtis’s next defense of labor stands up better to scrutiny: she sees the darkness and obscurity that Arendt attributes to the realm of labor as a very important way of describing the “givenness” of existence. In protecting the private realm in this way, Arendt ensures a space between labor and work that allows the creation of different (at least potentially better) worlds in work free of deterministic forces.
Curtis then makes another argument that, in contrast to the previous one, emphasizes the continual pressure of the life of the body:
[O]ur very capacity for initiative is tied to this sense of compulsion and unfreedom. Without the impact of nature's compulsion bearing down upon us, we have no way of distinguishing between a state of freedom and one of enslavement.
Technology, in Curtis’s view, can ameliorate our sense of the compulsion of nature but must not go as far as to do away with it. With an apparent paradox, she ends with an appeal to a “conservative attitude” to protect the possibility of novelty:
[A] conservative attitude is appropriate here: one that protects the newness of the new from the impulses of those who come from an established world which to the new will always appear old- no matter how revolutionary no matter how much a part of creating conditions of new freedom those from that established world conceive their actions to be.
Returning, in conclusion, to feminist approaches to reproductive technologies, Curtis admits that this “conservative attitude” has been, and will likely continue to be, instrumentalized politically in favor of patriarchal and economic interests. In this light, she sees the need to reflect on these larger political forces with the goal of holding open the tension between freedom of reproductive control and the dangers inherent in technological worldviews that replace nature and the new.
One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.
A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.
It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:
Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.
What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,
Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.
Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.
The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.” In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.
It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.
If you are a political theorist or philosopher between 18 and 50, you probably had at least a passing flirtation with Slavoj Zizek. First of all, you can't avoid him. The man has written over 60 books in les than 30 years in addition to innumerable articles and interviews. Oh, and he has made two movies, including the humbly named Zizek! If you want more, there is the International Journal of Žižek Studies.
What to make of the literary, philosophical, and marketing phenomenon that is Slavoj Zizek?
John Gray tries to answer that question in this week's NYRB in what is one of the most engaging take downs of an academic star you will get to read.
Zizek is a pugilist and there is much to fight against. He well sees the hypocrisies and injustices of liberal democratic society. He begins with the premise that modern day liberal capitalism not only has won, but it is indestructible. It is not reformable. He does not see socialism as a legitimate alternative. He derides anarchism as conceding the power to those in control. So what does Zizek want? He wants to be in control. His is an unapologetic call for violent takeover of the state for the benefit of the dispossessed. If the state is violence, he insists, why not it be "our" violence. This is the reason for his support of dictators and tyrants like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chávez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees). What should we say to someone like Chávez? ‘No, do not grab state power, just withdraw, leave the state and the current situation in place’? Chávez is often dismissed as a clown – but wouldn’t such a withdrawal just reduce him to a version of Subcomandante Marcos, whom many Mexican leftists now refer to as ‘Subcomediante Marcos’? Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state.
Zizek's "full endorsement" of tyranny has won him many fans, including adoring youthful supporters. He played a bit part in Occupy Wall Street, largely as a internal critic of the anarchist tendencies of the movement. For Zizek, OWS was mistaken to refuse to make demands. As he writes:
The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.
Gray is reviewing Zizek's latest tomes, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, out this year, and Living in the End Times, from 2011. Less than Nothing is not a slim volume at 1,038 pages. End Times is a mere 504 pages.
Gray's review takes Zizek seriously as it should and quotes liberally from his works. Here is one example:
The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.
To which Gray's response is:
With its sweeping claims and magniloquent rhetoric, this passage is typical of much in Žižek’s work. What he describes as the premise of the book is simple only because it passes over historical facts. Reading it, no one would suspect that, putting aside the killings of many millions for ideological reasons, some of the last century’s worst ecological disasters—the destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union and the devastation of the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, for example—occurred in centrally planned economies. Ecological devastation is not a result only of the economic system that exists in much of the world at the present time; while it may be true that the prevailing version of capitalism is unsustainable in environmental terms, there is nothing in the history of the past century that suggests the environment will be better protected if a socialist system is installed.
Gray offers this summation:
Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.
There is little effort in Gray to appreciate the intensity of the struggle Zizek engages in. It is the struggle of those on the left who have come to see that they have lost and that the injustices they experience and know to be wrong are either not seen as injustices or are accepted by the majority of the people. Zizek's turn to violence is born of frustration and passion, both of which need to be respected and understood, even if his tyrannical fantasies must be called out and rejected.
If you want to learn a bit about Zizek or see how to take someone down gracefully in the NYRB, read Gray's review. It is your weekend read.