A few months ago my friend Jon and I were invited to give a session at ark books in connection to the Copenhagen Literature Festival (KBH Læser). The topic of the festival this year was “Growth”, in the broadest sense, and the event at ark books was named “Accursed Growth”. We were to speak about critiques of capitalist rationalist understandings of ‘growth’ and alternative notions of growth, drawing on Bataille, feminist thought and eco/plant life philosophy.
I took the chance to (among others) speak of Kathy Acker’s novel Great Expectations (1982) as a critical commentary on all forms of social regulation–capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity etc.–and the conditions these provided for sexuality and artistic expression in 1980’s New York. Acker openly and without shame plagiarises the title of a canonised novel by Charles Dickens: A book about the personal growth and development of an orphan named Pip, and how he encounters and reflects on questions of wealth and poverty, love and rejection, good and evil. Using this title can be seen as a parody of Acker’s own expectations for the possibilities of art and sexuality. Acker creates a collage around topics of sex, love, art and creativity, social unrest, feminism and porn. Both in form and content, it presents a critique of the established. The literary expression / the form / taking shape of a collage and plagiarised pieces, is itself a rejection of a conventional writing practice, of dominant notions of “good”, “productive” and “ethically acceptable” authorship and forms of “authority”, presenting a queer feminist alternative to the rules of foundational ethics, modernity and masculine conventions.
Acker critiques how some people and some forms of art are ascribed value, whereas others are not, and how those artists who should critique (or claim to critique) the system are prostituting themselves for the purpose of survival and thereby becoming slaves of the political economy / of capitalism. However, beyond the critique, she allows for something new to emerge. She mobilizes perversion, the amoral and dissident sexuality, as a path towards an alternative. She is not seeking to normalise anything (i.e. let the dissident become acceptable within the established order), but to give the rejected space so that it may provide a real alternative to the established. This does not mean, however, that she attempts at providing a definite end-point.
I think that Kathy Acker provides an excellent entry point for reflecting about what it means when critique or dissent becomes defanged or disciplined.
When critique becomes defanged
I distinguish between two forms of defanging (although I am sure there are many more). On the one hand, that which happens when capitalism or neoliberalism coopts activist critiques and through that ensures new avenues of exploitation. On the other hand, that which happens in the transformative dialogue between social activism and scholarly knowledge: Or when activism becomes disciplined.
Feminist social activism serves as an illustrative example.
Hester Eisenstein, for instance, has explored the relationship between Marxism and feminism in the context of the U.S.A, explicating the consequences of the transformation from labour feminism to a hegemonic mainstream feminism. This, she claims, has resulted in a feminism that serves the agenda of global capitalism and the white elite. It has abandoned structural questions of race and class and replaced it with an agenda of disciplining women for work and career, the war on terrorism and securing the future economic competitiveness of the nation state. To be feminist has been reduced to a right to compete.
Along similar lines, Nancy Fraser focuses on this development in the context of Europe, particularly of the U.K. She shows how the agendas of various feminist traditions have been coopted by neoliberalism and capitalism. Feminists have not been passive victims of this development but have contributed actively to it, she claims. Firstly, the feminist critique of the “family wage” based on a male breadwinner and female homemaker model has been used to justify a so-called “flexible capitalism”. This relies heavily on women’s labour (across class and race divisions) and has led to the victory of the “two-earner family” model across the western world. This has, by feminists and non-feminists alike, been recognized as “female empowerment”. The reality is, however, rather one of exploitation. That is, increased wage-gaps, decreasing job-security, declining living standards, increased working hours and stress to mention some. Secondly, feminism has also contributed to neoliberalism through replacing the critique of political and economic inequality with that of cultural sexism; meaning that questions of structural inequality became underexposed at a moment in history when they desperately needed to be flagged. Thirdly, feminists contributed to neoliberalism through a critique of “welfare state-paternalism”, which has since been converted by neoliberals into a war on the “nanny state”. This has justified the replacement of macro-structural redistributive efforts with micro-scale ’empowerment’ initiatives that in turn are used to legitimise marketisation and austerity measures.
In order to make sense of ‘defanging’ and the extent to which we can accept it, we must ask ourselves what the purpose of a social critique is.
Ellen Messer-Davidow, on the other hand, explored what happened to feminist activism as it became meshed with campuses, disciplinary associations and research during the 70’s. Feminists, having gained legitimacy within key disciplines, have shaped the production of knowledge and explicated the gendered nature of culture and society, and provided alternatives to that which would seem inevitable or unquestionable. In many ways it has been a success story. However, the academic institutionalisation and intellectualisation of feminism has altered even the most radical critiques. In order to ensure epistemic status it must legitimise and justify itself within an institution shaped by middle-class values of respectability and hegemonic notions of what counts as valuable academic work. It leaves it, to a certain extent, defanged.
With these examples in mind, one might argue that we would never get anywhere if we became paralyzed with the fear of being co-opted, disciplined, defanged. Does it not mean that the critiques are without value and did it not also bring with it some positive changes?
The purpose of critique?
It remains an ongoing discussion within social activist groups and among artists and academics whether any move towards a more just society can take place within existing institutions of capitalism and, connected to that, what is meant by inclusion (race, gender, sexual etc.) and at which cost are we willing to seek this.
In order to make sense of ‘defanging’ and the extent to which we can accept it, we must ask ourselves what the purpose of a social critique is. Is critique of the dominant or homogenous order–of e.g. gender stereotypes, patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, heteronormativity–done with the purpose of achieving acceptance and inclusion of that which “differs” i.e. broaden the scope of the homogenous order? Or may a critique rather be concerned with stepping away from that dominant order and establishing a community which is altogether different, which does not seek acceptance from or within established hegemonic institutions, which simply does not recognise the conditions for participation and acceptance that these represent? Or might it even be a bit of both?
The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing the rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to not pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them. Michel Foucault ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (1977)
Image: A collage with Maria Lassnig self-portraits: Man cutting himself in two / Sleeping with tiger / Self-portrait with rock lobster / Still life with self-portrait as glass sphere