Wednesday, 4 April 2007


I loved loved Maira Kalman's column today. It began with a panel entitled, "Precarious." It said: "I am at a loss for words. Everything was not said. Things are Bittersweet. Bitter. Sweet."

That is my feeling in any given emotional situation, no matter if the talk lasts for one hour, five hours: "Everything was not said."

"What is this faint vision? This fragile fleeting memory?...Precarious."

The column ends with an illustration of a World War II poster, which said: "Keep calm and Carry On."

Probably they meant this in regards to air raids, the fear of air raids, the potential for attack. For me, who does not live in a time of air raids, who perhaps lives in a time of terrorist attacks, but in New York City, where we have no need to repeat such phrases to ourselves, because we automatically keep walking and carry on, for me, this seems more applicable to those situations where Everything Was Not Said.

Keep calm. Don't try to say it again. Carry on. Go forward, don't repeat the mistakes past.

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Monday, 26 March 2007

So Let's Talk about Communism

No, not really about communism, about those who write about communism, those who support communism. No, better yet, about those who write about those who wrote about communism, because therein lies the rub. I just read an essay by Clive James about Rilke vs. Brecht as Germany's greatest poets. While the essay contains many a trick of the tongue and fleet turnabout of words, on a first read this essay is problematic for caring too much about its own style and less about what it's actually saying. After all, what exactly does "The idea behind it is at least half right, although it would have no force unless it was partly wrong" mean? What idea isn't half right and partly wrong is a world without absolutism, surely without absolute truth, and most definitely without a poet who has ever managed to express anything quite nearing it?

This both isn't and is the point, because James takes a very Judt-ian route to then condemn Brecht for his writings for his support of Stalinism, praising Arendt's essay on Brecht, and wondering why Picasso himself has never been so censured. When I think of all the supporters of Stalin and of communism in the past 20th Century and how many artists and philosophers and writers we would have to throw in the bin.... Once again James misses the point that perhaps Brecht should be condemned for being a smarmy character himself and for writing simplistic poetry about the evils of capitalism, and less for his actual support of communism. Should he should be judged based on his "egomanic" shamanism? Perhaps, but only because it retrospect this part of his personality appears in his poetry itself. Until one takes a historian's view of his role as a supporter of communism (particularly one writing across the rise of Nazi power when the only other seeming hope truly were the communists in Germany...and I would take a communist in Germany, if not in the Soviet Union (being two quite distinct creatures), over a Nazi any day. But we have oft spoken of the power of hindsight, although even here I wonder if it isn't even hindsight but the blindness of one's own historical era, and the failure of one to even attempt to reach a hand into the past and uncover the cloudy framework behind a past intellectual's actions, that is at work here. In any case, like Merleau-Ponty, like Sartre (and I doubt we will stop quoting "Hell is other people" anytime soon despite his Stalinist support well into the fifties), judgment is not prohibited, but served with a trace of understanding would perhaps make the more sustainable critique.

Link here:

Monday, 19 March 2007

Why in the world do we dance?

No, but seriously. What is it about flinging our bodies in random directions? All we're doing is taking up more than our allotted space. Fling the arm out, push the ass that way, air grind to the ground? Joy joy joy joy joy?

Monday, 12 March 2007

Killing the Angel in the House

I love this passage from Virginia Woolf:

And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” And she made as if to guide my pen. I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself, though the credit rightly belongs to some excellent ancestors of mine who left me a certain sum of money—shall we say five hundred pounds a year?—so that it was not necessary for me to depend solely on charm for my living. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self–defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.

agency, history, circumstances: Woolf sums up all the issues in the potentiality of women emancipating themselves without the use of feminine wiles, that she is in a special economic circumstance which makes her more capable of turning around and killing the angel; at the same time, it is she who does so. She, as the woman, must enact her own agency and kill the angel with her own hands. To continue to rely on feminine wiles would mean that she had only ever achieved a false emancipation.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Quick Thoughts- MacKinnon

Following Catherine MacKinnon talk at Cambrdige University Gender Studies annual symposium, "Gender: The Future."

On pornography:
-she works in a very practical sphere and thus understand her complete opposition to pornography as an exploitative tool
-but, worried that this model doesn't work long-term on a theoretical level

-complete focus on pornography involving women (i.e. heterosexual or lesbian for heterosexual male eyes); what of gay pornography? are the men in these exploited?
-absolutist judgments on those who are involved in pornography: what about white, upper-middle-class students at ivy league/top tier schools who are creating their own pornography of their own will. and who is this for? just men or men/women? (the same might be said of young women who create blogs documenting their hookups/etc. I think the sentiment may derive from a similar place: begin with sex and the city, then embrace your sexuality, then write a blog about it, eventually it turns to free love and free sexuality (perhaps also a bit of nostalgia for the 60s/70s?) and next thing you know you have an ivy league porno
-MacKinnon made it very clear that her focus is on the effects, she's not basing her arguments on some sort of misguided morality (thus her issues with Muslim/Christian anti-pornography/prostitution arguments; and thus her work with the Swedish government to criminalize the johns and decriminalize the prostitutes/victims). But then where does this leave us in terms of non-real-life pornography: erotic fiction and cartoons.
-Why is this an issue? Because MacKinnon still argues that pornography desensitizes people (i.e. men) to real compansionship and intimate sexual encounters. Wouldn't erotic fiction essentially do the same? But doesn't this argument constrain the realm of sexual possibilites? Doesn't this argument in the end lead her to a moralist judgment on what type of sexuality is 'right' sexuality? What of people who enjoy BDSM--are they always those who were sexually abused as youth, is this sexual relationship abnormal/non-intimate and therefore illegitimate, or would she consider it a viable means of sexual expression. And what of femdommes? And let's be fair, power relations are constructed into sexual relationships, and while it is vital that they not result from misogynistic/abusive relations, to attempt to take all power out of all relationships would be to make sex always lovemaking. I.e. wouldn't we be losing a few possibilities for added excitement?

In conclusion: I fully support what MacKinnon is doing. On a practical level most of the women involved in pornography and prostitution (and in an ideal world I would absolutely love to see prostitution abolished as I think this industry in particular is driven by economic/race exploitation) are exploited, and she has made amazing strides in changing laws, preventing rape, defending the exploited. And I appreciate that she is aware herself that her actions are contingent on what the outcomes of these industries are. However, I think we also need to be aware that on a greater theoretical level, absolutely condemning pornography in particular is a moralistic argument.

To be cont'd (in a more coherent, articulate version)

Monday, 5 March 2007

A Feminist's First Outline

A 2000 word outline of the basics of the first chapter of my thesis on Helene Stoecker, German radical feminist, sexual reformer, eugenicist. Voila.

In the October/November 1926 issue of Die Neue Generation, its editor, Helene Stöcker published a posthumous article by Dr. Paul Kammerer, a well-known biologist who attempted to prove the validity of Lamarckian inheritance through his study of amphibians. Lamarckism, which argued for the heredity of acquired traits, was one of the earliest attempts to explain the transmutation of species, but had been rejected in the late nineteenth century by most of the German scientific community following Weismann’s germ-plasm theory and the rediscovery of Mendelian laws of inheritance in 1900 (Proctor 93-4). A month earlier Kammerer had committed suicide after an American scientist accused him of injecting ink into the foot of a Midwife Toad to demonstrate the inheritance of an acquired characteristic.

In a tribute to Kammerer, which appeared following his article arguing for the inclusion of biology in female students’ education, Stöcker praised Kammerer’s “epoch-making research” and argued that Weismann’s theories were the underlying rationale behind modern, conservative race theories. “According to Weismann’s theories,” she wrote, “the only way to eradicate those of inferior quality in the ‘Struggle for Existence’ would be through their elimination.” (Oct/Nov 1926). In opposition to this “egotistical fatalism” Stöcker praised Kammerer for scientifically demonstrating that the provision of healthy physical and intellectual conditions would ensure the health and ability of future generations.

Stöcker’s main biographer, Christl Wickert, has dismissed Stöcker’s use of a Social Darwinist language as merely “part of the discourse of the day” (Wickert 68). In doing so, Wickert is intent on discounting a linkage between Stöcker’s philosophy and the National Socialist fallout. However, in protesting too much, Wickert ignores the significance of Social Darwinism for the formation of Stöcker’s own social theory, and its development from the Wilhelmine era to the Weimar era when eugenics was increasing in popular legitimacy and Stöcker had become an iconoclast of the feminist movement.

To claim that Stöcker merely participated in the discourse is to overlook that she actively contributed to this discourse: for one, from 1904 she was a member, and later chair, of the Bund für Mutterschutz (BfM), an organization which used Social Darwinist language to argue for the support of unwed mothers and their children. The eugenics discourse would only become popular within the mainstream of society with the outbreak of World War I and the fear of population decline and degeneration. Further, Stöcker’s Social Darwinism was not a mere accident of historical place but has traceable roots in an intricate web of intellectual and personal influences which culminated in her use of Social Darwinism to advocate for the advance of women and the development of a new society. The incident described above reveals that Stöcker didn’t only use a eugenics discourse when handy, but that she thought deeply about the meaning of various forms of Social Darwinism for her philosophy. In this paper I will outline the web of intellectual influences, and this will eventually constitute the first chapter of my dissertation. I will then go over an outline of what I plan to do in the second and third chapters. Any and all feedback is welcome.

After Helene Stöcker first encountered Nietzsche in 1891, he became central to her philosophy of society and selfhood and to her promotion of a New Morality. Despite his sometimes negative comments on women, Stöcker used Nietzsche to energize a feminism focused on self-realization (Thomas, 91). She thus developed an optimism that society could form its own future, and she differentiated a radical feminism from one that argued only for legal equality by focusing on development instead of on the extension of the status quo to the other half of society. Women were to become aware of their potential identities through education, a freer sexuality, and finally, as Stöcker asserts throughout articles in the Neue Generation and in her description of a failed love affair in her 1921 novel, Liebe, in a deep, monogamous relationship with a man. Because sexuality played such a large role in this development, Stöcker’s Nietzschean philosophy promoted “an image of woman based essentially on her biological role” and thus became tied to Social Darwinism (Thomas, 91). Self-realization stopped being an end in itself, and instead became a tool toward the improvement of the next generation, which shifted the emphasis from the individual to the human race as a whole. However, Nietzsche’s fundamental emphasis on the individual helps explain why Stöcker never endorsed non-voluntary means. Nietzsche lay out the overarching framework for Stöcker’s social theories and gave her work a higher goal, and in fact a higher population, toward which to strive.

Alexander Tille, an extreme, negative Social Darwinist, who preached a German morality based on the teachings of Nietzsche, Darwin, and the monist Ernst Haeckel, and who saw the high mortality rates in London’s East End as a social curative, was Stöcker’s lover at the end of the nineteenth century (Weindling 192). Stöcker first knew of Tille as the author of “Von Darwin bis Nietzsche” and they came together over a shared passion for the philosopher. Tille’s emphasis on a combination of Nietzsche, Darwin and Haeckel’s monism must have made an important impact on the younger Stöcker. Stöcker particularly seems to have absorbed Tille’s emphasis on work as the backbone of a revolutionized society and the means by which one should judge a person’s worth. A person’s ability to do work is a theme that reoccurs in Stöcker’s writings, and provides a strong link to the importance of fitness and health. However, Tille was much more conservative than Stöcker (generational?) and didn’t understand her ethical attachment to the biblical Sermon on the Mount, though she had rejected all other church doctrine. Stöcker’s continued respect for the Sermon on the Mount reveals the importance of brotherly love to Stöcker and, along with Nietzschean individualism, helps to explain why she refused to endorse violent, non-voluntary measures.

Monist theories never explicitly promoted eugenics, though the Monist League did campaign for sex education and voluntary euthanasia, however the theory that both mind and body are one held significance for the application of Darwinist theories, suggesting that biology could be applied to diffuse areas of society, and helped propagate a theory of the social organism that was popular in Wilhelmine Germany. Thus, social behavior, psychology and art were to be explained along natural guidelines (Weindling 46-47). Early on, Stöcker rejected Church taught dualism and turned to monism, which further helps to explain why the spiritual and intellectual transformation necessitated a biological revolution to support it.

Neo-Malthusianism, a prevalent movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, provided a doctrine on how to achieve this biological transformation: social planning. Initially, Stöcker sought positive measures, such as better housing and motherhood insurance, to improve social conditions. However Neo-Malthusianism advocated the use of birth control to prevent overpopulation, which corresponded with Stöcker’s own focus on sexuality and the body. As a result, Stöcker advocated for the legalization of contraception, abortion, and in the BfM’s sexual advice clinics in the Weimar Republic, sterilization was used as a means to prevent children who were unwanted and who could not be cared for properly. In the early 1900s, Stöcker would begin to seriously study psychology and Freud’s theories, which led her endorse the idea that one’s education and upbringing left an indelible mark on one’s adult life (“Gewalt oder Verständigung, 233m). It was therefore essential that children receive proper care and nutrition. If parents were unable to make such provisions, Stöcker argued that children must be prevented, a stance that especially targeted the working class.

While much of the race hygiene movement during this time, and particularly during and after World War I, focused on the improvement and increased birth rate of the German race in competition with other European countries, Stöcker instead promoted a milder form of German cultural nationalism. Stöcker may have particularly been influenced by Maria Lischnewska, who worked in the BfM with Stöcker from 1904 to 1914, and who was a militant and racial nationalist. Indeed, according to Stöcker, Lischnewska was one of the few who supported Stöcker’s proposal to create a special commission to study the problems of love, marriage and parenthood in the Verbande Fortschrittlicher Frauenvereine in 1904, and she followed Stöcker to the BfM when the proposal was rejected (NG Oct/Nov 1924, 10/11, p321). Lischnewska was also a steady ally of Stöcker throughout the troubled period from 1909 to 1910 when many in the BfM’s regional groups, as well as primary member Adele Schreiber, attempted to oust Stöcker from her position of power. Such loyalty may have played a moderate role in Stöcker’s attempts to incorporate German nationalism into her ideology, although Stöcker never supported a militarist form and the two parted ways at the beginning of World War I, seemingly over Stöcker’s increased pacifist activities in the BfM.

These various influences, all of which would have impacted Stöcker from the last decade of the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth, culminated in a form of Social Darwinism with three key characteristics, which I will briefly outline. First Stöcker’s Social Darwinism emphasized the interconnection of mind and body. For Stöcker, self-realization was primary and biological fitness only a necessary step toward its achievement. However, in Stöcker’s novel, Liebe, the significance of the union of mind and body, and the effect of a sick body on the activity of mental development and scholarship become clear. Those who are sick cannot work, and those who cannot work cannot achieve. This interconnection also leads to a view of Motherhood, which posits that while many women may be biologically fit for motherhood, not all are mentally and spiritually suited to raise a child. Thus, Stöcker’s Social Darwinism focused not on quantity but on quality. She did not attempt to enter a population race with other nations, as she abhorred war, but instead wanted to create a German race which would produce high culture, ensure non-violence, and guarantee that all members of its society achieved to their fullest.

Secondly, Stöcker’s Social Darwinism advocated gradual development toward a universal utopia. While some Social Darwinists may have seen German culture as at the apex of evolutionary development, Stöcker believed Germans, and in fact the human race, still had much work to do. However, as seen in her discouragement following World War I, as well as in her insistence on Larmarckian heredity, which would allow reforms made in this generation to transfer to the next, her utopian future was not thousands of years off but could potentially be reached in a few generations. Thus she called for planned population politics, asserting that the ‘struggle for existence’ had been misunderstood; it was not a violent fight, but instead required cooperation and the education of the populace through propaganda. Stöcker’s use of propaganda, however, raises questions regarding the extent to which she was willing to excise all non-coercive means. Who was to be led to understand that it was better for them not to procreate, and in what manner? (discuss Wickert)

The question of propaganda and coercion then leads to the problematics of scientific uncertainty and ideological absolutism. While this is still a theme I need to explore, first findings would lead to the conclusion that in Wilhelmine Germany Stöcker emphasized individual responsibility and voluntarism, but following the war, with the expansion of statistical analysis, the assumption of objectivity, and the human devastation of the war, her insistence on an absolute ideology increased. Such absolute idealism, if one were to follow the rationale to its natural conclusion, would require absolutist measures. I am not suggesting that Stöcker ever advocated forced sterilization or contemplated ‘euthanasia’, but what has been missing from her biographies has been not only a study of the complex strands leading to the formation of her Social Darwinist ideology, but also a conception of how it developed and changed from Wilhelmine to Weimar Germany, and how it then interacted with the issues of the post-war and post-suffrage women’s movement.

Goodbye to all this?

Just read Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That"--her tribute and eulogy to her time in New York, which took place when she was young (her twenties) but which coudl not last into her thirties. In it, she discusses her obsesssion with the newness and fantasy that is New York if you're from the South or West, because Grand Central has never been anything but a symbol, Madison but another word for money. Oddly, for me growing up in a very sheltered center Connecticut, I feel the same. Probably because I never visited New York more than once or twice (one school field trip, once to see a show and visit Columbia) before I moved there for good (or at least four years, with now a year off, and then a return to all that next year). When deciding whether to go to school in New York, my image of the city was so superficial: in that dismissive, 'realist' way one can only have when one is dreaming to be sophisticated while in high school, or when one is truly sophisticated and inert as an adult, I thought only of New York as a place of cocktail parties, image, and masks. For some reason, I wanted to buy into this world, having already given up on this world when I was only seventeen.

And New York was wonderful. It taught me to see much more than the cocktail parties (I think I didn't actually attend one until I was twenty-two), into the beauty of a simple concrete sidewalk, a few steeple lights at night, the shifting clouds and starless nights above College Walk on a fall's evening, the rushed walking, and the fact that no matter how quickly one attempted to walk (and I was particularly good at the jab and withdrawal that a parry down a New York sidewalk demanded), we were stopped, from time to time, by a sight that pulled one's eyes from the greyness below to a sign, a grafitti, a man selling erotic books on 125th street at 2pm.

Have I ever cried in a Chinese laundry? No, I don't think so, though I have cried other places. My room is a prime location, the exit of a subway, the first entrance into the gates of Columbia after a long departure and the knowledge that one will never truly be back, the glimpse of my neighborhood bar--its bright sign under which I was kissed one night. Perhaps I cried more for the person than the city, but at the time they were all one in the same. Some say that New York is the place all those people who don't fit into their hometowns go to find solace. This was true for me, it was true for many of my friends. And I grew in New York. Eighteen to twenty-two are not years to be sniffed at, they are moulding years and now I sometimes talk in a New York rhythm, my words come clipped, my hands move roundabout, my hip juts to the side. It's not a foreign tongue, but I think I might be better understood this somewhere else than where I am now.

Sometimes I think I was more sexual in New York City. Maybe I just like New York guys better.

But then again, I am only twenty-three now. Perhaps my crying times have not yet begun. I am still young and enthralled, and I am far away from all this, and I long to return. And now, living in a slower town, where tea breaks are actually observed and night is not just an extension of the day's work, I have come to understand that New York obsesses a person, it embodies that person, and that person no longer belongs to anyone else but New York. I finally understand, being away from all that, that achievement and managing to stretch a day to fit a thousand things is not all there is to life, that perhaps one even accomplishes more when one doesn't have a city weighing on one's mind, when one has a little room to think. Someday perhaps I will even act on this gathered wisdom. But for now, I am still young, and in love and lust with New York.