Friday, October 9, 2009


David Lau's book of poems is Virgil and the Mountain Cat (UC Press). He is the co-editor of Lana Turner and teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College.

for Laura Martin and Johanna Isaacson


1. If feminism is not politically radical, I’m not sure what it is. The I’m-not-sure-what-it-is condition of the keyword today correlates with cultural feminism having become a certain kind of accepted norm far from its revolutionary heyday, characterized by what Alain Badiou calls a passion for the real. Overt discrimination against women still does occur, but cultural feminism has incorporated itself into every aspect of our lives—from mall, to military, to mega-church.

2. There is yet another problematic with more significance for progressives. Nancy Fraser recently argued in the New Left Review that a neutralized, quasi-reactionary form of feminism has become a integral part of neoliberal global capitalism—women form one more group of needy subalterns to be “represented” in our democratic markets when they are not, as in Afghanistan, an open justification for humanitarian militarism: protecting women in disparate countries from their barbarous men.

3. Democratic capitalism can obviate problems of a more modest feminism, like the one criticized by Fraser. To the extent that such problems dissolve through reforms to the law-business—witness Obama’s equal pay legislation—our amnesiac and atomized culture forgets about feminism as both a reformist and a revolutionary struggle, but not, I think, without having been fundamentally altered by a certain cultural feminism, as in the better and/or improving political situation for women today generally.

4. Actually existing anti-capitalists and radical feminists—we think the way to resolve fundamental questions of justice and injustice, the type raised historically and contemporaneously by radical feminism, is to abolish private property, to surpass and abolish wage labor, those two social mechanisms of unfreedom. And today, even as an unprecedented crisis of capitalism ensues, it is very difficult to see how something like a radical politics capable of challenging these sorts of structural inequalities could emerge in developed nations.

5. The lived history of global feminism in the past century is still very much a politically open horizon of possibility. It may still be the case, as Perry Anderson argued more than a decade ago, that with the collapse of socialism as a global emancipatory project, feminism as an emancipatory project remains viable for the left’s hopes of radical renewal on many distant and variegated fronts.


6. There was some notable controversy stirred up by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “Numbers Trouble,” which appeared in the Chicago Review two years ago. At issue was a seemingly simple claim made by poet-critic Jennifer Ashton that roughly half of all jobs, honors, and publications in the American Poetry World now go to women. Through some data collection from a variety of sources, Spahr and Young show that this is far from the case; especially when it comes to aesthetically progressive fora, mainstream po-biz having come closer to equaling things out.

7. Jennifer Ashton’s response to their criticism, also printed in the Chicago Review, was equally disabusing and nonchalant. Her claim about numbers, she now emphasized, was beside the point. She was angling after a contradiction emerging among aesthetically progressive poets and editors about the status of women as poets: “my argument was a response to the fact that the ‘innovative writing community’ on the one hand explicitly embraces the logic of poststructuralist and anti-essentialist feminisms of the 80s and 90s, and on the other spins out an implicit logic that makes women poets’ formal choices look like a necessary function of their situations as women.” This is an astute point. At the heart of contemporary radical identity politics there is a deep contradiction: hybridity, flux, experimentation, and play rule when it comes to the subjective (or with poetry, the aesthetic), until there comes a moment when one must essentialize identity strategically for politically representative purposes. And suddenly we are women, black, Chicano, gay, Asian; suddenly we are a certain kind of poet with similar identity markers. (The complement to Spahr and Young’s analysis in “Numbers Trouble” is Spahr’s splendid talk “The 90s,” where she explores the aesthetics of the dynamic experimental poetry breakout that took place during that decade.)

8. I am sympathetic to Ashton’s criticism as well as that of Spahr and Young. The point I would like to emphasize with respect to their discussion is an implicit point of Spahr and Young’s analysis, one that seemed deemphasized in much of the ensuing discussion and chatter.

9. The 20th century of American poetry will largely be remembered as the feminist century. The first half of the century saw women emerge as some of the leading poetic voices of the avant-garde: Moore, Stein, Loy, H.D. However we measure their politics today, these women remain fixed stars in the firmament, part of our age of poetic heroes. The postwar period of American poetry extended and continued this tendency, so that it’s possible to say today that American women poets lead the way when it comes of progressive aesthetics. (These are the numbers that emerge from historico-aesthetic scrutiny of the poetry.) The number of excellent poems and volumes by American women poets of neo-vanguardist stripes seems a testament to this changed reality; they are my referent.

10. The feminist project is still a vital one for American women poets in the new century (many of these poets, however, are in desperate need of radicalization, which the crisis and meltdown of our way of life may help accelerate). Witness the discussions, posts, and conferences organized around feminism. One of the (if not the) most interesting poetry conferences of the year, ADFEMPO (Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism), took place two weeks ago at CUNY in New York.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    I think what one has to look at is that women's unequal burden of work (unpaid and underpaid) will always serve as a kind of essentializing-peril, as does the kind of daily war against women that is sexual and domestic violence. Despite claims made by cultural-feminists, very few American women are free from either of the problem of unequal labor distribution or that of an unequal distribution of violence.

    Certainly women in American poetry are not free from either the experience of sexual and/or domestic violence against women or women's unfair economic burdens, though maybe a few have gotten themselves, at least temporarily, loose of this.

    This is my number$ trouble, finally, and one which Ashton overlooks.

    It is actually not too much of a contradiction to say "We are complex, with a complex and shifting subjectivity, but live in a culture which denies us this complexity, namely by subjecting many of us to economic oppression and violence, therefore we should work together to end our oppression." This working together can include cultural work, such as anthologies of women's writing, without making claims for some kind of any kind of essential sameness of women based on our biology.