John M. Carvalho
What follows is a summary of remarks I made for the Feminist Caucus Workshop on pedagogy at the 2015 meeting of the ASA in Savannah. I started by saying I do not consider feminism something I do in addition to philosophy, and I consider philosophy not already feminist as diminished in some respect. I quickly added this was a privilege I enjoy as a man, that this privilege is unwarranted, and that it is a shortcoming of philosophy as it is practiced that a man enjoys this privilege and women do not. My aim is to use my privilege to advance the cause of feminism while reminding my students of this bias.
Advancing the cause of feminism requires that we confront the rhetoric about "post-feminism." As the expression is commonly deployed, "post-feminism" commits two errors. First, it assumes that feminism is one thing when it is many. There are several different feminisms brought out nicely by those T-shirts reading "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" worn by so many different women (and some men). More specifically, there is a feminism that focuses on equal rights and a feminism that focuses on sexual difference, a feminism that focuses on epistemology and the feminism, inter-sectionality, that diversifies its focus to include the specific ways race and class, gender identifications and sexual orientations especially impact women. There is a feminism that focuses on theory. There is a feminism dedicated to practices in shelters for battered women, in rape and abortion counseling centers, in grass roots politics and public policy advocacy.
Feminism is everywhere, expanding into every aspect of our lives, and this in large part is what worries people and why they want to declare that feminism has come to an end. At this level, the "post" in the mainstream account of post-feminism represents the demand that women accept that they've come as far as they can, that they settle and leave well enough alone.
There is a second error committed by the common use of the term "post-feminism." It assumes that feminism is an historical anomaly or a natural tendency which has run its course. This assumption follows the narrative of feminism's "waves." There was the first wave of suffragettes which was as much about the end of slavery and universal suffrage as it was about women. There was the second wave of women fighting for the civil rights they should have won by becoming full citizens. And there was a third wave, which did not crash on all beaches, which questioned the assimilation of women to men and which questioned whether there was an essence to woman at all. A feminism so historicized has nothing to do with the will of women to assert themselves on their own behalf.
Following this history, some use "post-feminism" to describe a fourth wave of bold talk and actions taken by women for women on social media and in on-line journals like XO Jane, Jezebel and others. These women, it is true, are enacting their rights as citizens, questioning what it means to be a women in a world still dominated by men. These innovations are not part of a natural tendency waiting to be chronicled. They are part of a modification of human nature by women who are remaking the world in their own image. Still, it is not certain that this image is not borrowed from the world of men. This movement is exciting, but it cannot be all there is to post-feminism.
More promising is an advance on the second wave of feminism found in the writings of women who came of age in the 1970s and went on to form lives for themselves apart from men. In a review of two new books – Kate Bolik's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own and Meghan Daum's Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids – Vivian Gornick reviles the forty-two year old Bolik for harboring the idea that a man makes a woman's life complete and celebrates the authors collected by Daum for having the courage to make a life that puts themselves first.1 Gornick, a self-declared 70s feminist, recounts the struggles of women who rallied around the battle cry, "Marriage is rape, Motherhood is slavery," and ventured into an inhospitable world only to be thrown back by it into forced sex and enslavement, waking up in their forties and wondering, "How did I get here?" Against this specter of conjugal life, the women in Daum's collection stand out for Gornick as those who stuck to their convictions. This is a more encouraging model for post-feminism.
The approach advanced in the courses I teach follows a different model. Drawing on Hal Foster's "Re: Post," on the 'post' in postmodernism,2 I define feminism tactically as the tidy narrative of those waves whereby suffragettes became riot grrls and post-feminism as a break with that narrative and the ideology that makes feminism unexceptional, as nature running its course. If modernism, as Foster tells us, highlighted the crisis in art – in Joyce's Ulysses, Cage's 4'33", Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Malevich's White on White, and so on – challenging artists and critics to solve that crisis, postmodernism wanted to exacerbate the crisis, to make crisis the permanent condition of art. If feminism, then, highlighted a crisis in the relations between men and women, challenging a still male dominated world to solve it, post-feminism wants to exacerbate the crisis, to make the crisis permanent until it can be solved on terms that equally privilege women and men.
Post-feminism is not feminism as it has been defined by men but intensely feminist as defined by the words and actions of women representing themselves on terms they define. There will never be an end of feminism, and we can advocate post-feminism as the sign(post) of a continuous, critical play of forces that is of a benefit to every form of life on the planet.
This model comes into play in my course, "Philosophy of Contemporary Music," an upper-level elective I have taught continuously since 1988. I started out thinking I wanted to teach a course on music and noise, on bands that make or attempt to make noise as a form of music, Einstürzende Neubauten, for example, and Merzbow but also Skinny Puppy, Public Enemy, Throbbing Gristle, and the Ramones. Knowing the course would not succeed if I was not discussing music my students themselves were listening to, I asked them to make me mix-tapes with four or five tunes they thought I should hear. They made me hour long cassettes of their favorite music. Among those first cassettes one student, who went on to write an Honors senior thesis with me on "riot grrls," made a tape with the full roster of the Seattle label Kill Rock Stars: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, and other all-female bands, Babes in Toyland, Team Dresch, Fifth Column. I loved it and decided immediately to find a place for it in my course.3
The difficulty came in finding a philosophical basis for commenting on this music. I was already using Jacques Atalli's Noise: The Political Economy of Music to frame the course.4 The premise of the book, very broadly, is that the music we hear today is a simulacrum of the ritual violence it cost us to become civilized. That simulacrum has become, owing to the representation of music's form and recording technologies, de-ritualized and repetitive leaving us with the task of saving music by re-composing its ritual form and celebrating its creative potential. Atalli believed Mick Jagger would save music from mindless repetition. I use the course to explore the possibility that other forms of music succeed where the Rolling Stones, alas, failed.
We evaluate the success of rap/hip hop and electronic dance music (EDM) to respond to Atalli's challenge. Both largely fail though there is some hope for music made on the fringes of these genre, especially in the space where black women rappers square off against their black male counter-parts. Tricia Rose's Black Noise gives a helpful genealogy of rap from its beginnings in the Bronx, New York, up through its sexual politics, today.5 There is also a tremendous potential in music made by women to answer Atalli's dare following the positive picture of post-feminism described above. Following a thesis drawn by Joy Press and Simon Reynolds in The Sex Revolts, music made by women answers Atalli on at least two fronts.6 On one front, it responds to the patriarchy in the music industry by making music at all. Press and Reynolds present popular music as a masculine rebellion against domesticity and ask how women, as the domesticity men are fleeing, can be a part of that rebellion. They hypothesize that they can become one of the boys, thus confirming the sexual dynamic at the heart of popular music. Joan Jett is their example. We might consider Taylor Swift. Alternatively, women can adopt a position at the opposite extreme, as the essentially feminine, the woman wounded by rebellious masculinity, confirming, once again, the sexual dynamic at the heart of popular music. Their example is Tori Amos. A more contemporary example might be Adele.
On the second front, Press and Reynolds turn to Madonna's masquerade of masculine stereotypes of women. (It's hard to know who compares today.) They reject the critical potential of this model, in spite of Joan Riviere's "Womanliness as Masquerade,"7 claiming that it, too, capitulates to masculinist ideals, and I am sympathetic if not convinced by their arguments. Alternatively, Press and Reynolds consider the music made by riot grrls, Bikini Kill and that roster of female artists making music on the Kill Rock Stars label. They describe these women as "all fluxed up," refusing gender identifications which have been defined by men. In a section of their text titled "Lift Up Your Skirts and Speak," they invoke, without reference, Luce Irigaray's "When Our Lips Speak Together" from This Sex Which Is Not One8 In that essay, Irigaray, draws on the morphological symmetry of a woman's mouth and her sex to make the case for women speaking from the point of view of their sexual difference, a difference that cannot be reduced to a masculine mechanics or phantasmatics – "the horror of nothing to see" in Freud's notorious expression.
This post-feminist gesture exacerbates the crisis in the relations between men and women for the purposes of drawing critical attention to those relations. Sleater Kinney and Missy Elliot push this envelope today and, perhaps, also, Lady Gaga in the phase of her career when she performed as a male alter-ego, Joey Calderone, as a cyborg, an amphibian, a drag queen, etc. Gaga is especially interesting because young women are generally enthused and young men positively frightened by her. In any case, there is no doubt that women are at the forefront of the music industry today, and we owe it to ourselves and our students to find those women who advance the cause of women and the post-feminist agenda that complicates the relations between men and women in an industry, popular music, which has been routinely hostile to women.
1. Vivian Gornick, "Woman's Work: Two new books confront the legacy of the 1970s women's movement," BOOKFORUM 22.1 (Apr/May 2015), 16-17.
2. Hal Foster, "RE: Post," Parachute 26 (Spring 1982), 11-15.
3. See https://www.academia.edu/3027755/Philosophy_of_Contemporary_Music for a current syllabus for this course.
4. Jacques Atalli, Noise: the Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).
5. Tricia Rose, Black Noise (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).
6. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
7. Joan Riviere, "Womanliness as Masquerade," International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929), 303-13.
8. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.