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Recreating Sexual Politics by V.J. Seidler

A review by Geoff Wade.

I found Seidler’s book interesting, wellinformed, controversial and lucid, if somewhat repetitive. The focus, largely, is on our inheritance of the metamorphosis that occurred in feminist (and other) theories during the heady days of the late Sixties, when notions of gender underwent a rigorous scrutiny, and ‘gender’ was redefined. This resulted in the proposition that our sex may be biologically determined, but our ‘gender’ (masculinity and femininity) is socially and culturally determined. Also – at least for many feminists – women are not just women, as opposed to being just men (men and women have more similarities than differences): they may also be rich or poor, black, Caucasian or Jewish etc.; they may be sexually experienced, or not sexually experienced; they may or may not be mothers, and so on. Such factors can at times override the fact that they are women; though not all feminists would agree to this, and Seidler acknowledges, “that there are deep divisions of sex and gender that cut across the class, race and ethnic divisions of capitalist society”. These priorities are then situational and dialectical. Connectedly, many modern strains of feminism cast doubt on the existence of an eternal human ‘nature’, or for that matter, consistently polarized male and female ‘natures’.

As feminists propagated – and acted on – these challenges, men had to re-think their social and domestic roles, their actual masculinity: hitherto conventionally accepted male and female roles – male and female natures – had to be rearticulated (or defended, as the case may be).

Seidler’s position on these issues is markedly ‘historicist’ (though his Marxism tends, in my view, to be erratic rather than flexible); humans and their experience of the world are dealt with by him in the context of historical periods and processes, particularly vis-a-vis ‘Late Capitalism’. In his analysis he draws heavily on the work of the ‘Frankfurt School’ of Lukács, Marcuse, Adorno et al., and of course on the writings of Marx & Engels. Several major themes and controversies are sustained concurrently throughout the book: the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’, as a dialectical configuration; ‘dualisms’ and individualism; ideology and morality.

The ‘personal/political’ syndrome forms a basis for much of the other discussions: “A different and challenging conception of […] politics was taking place in the 1960s […] This involved connecting the personal with the political […] It was a struggle to re-define our inherited liberal concepts of freedom” (p.7). That the personal is political became a battle-cry of feminism.

The ‘individual & society’ are re-introduced by Seidler (following Lukács) as a dialectical experience; now, the individual ‘subject’ is not simply something standing in opposition to ‘society’ – rather, there is no such thing as an individual constituted as a separate entity from his/her society. Nor is s/he totally a ‘product’ of that society: nature has a hand in things too, so there is a complexity of ‘nature/nurture’. Problematically, we must co-operate to survive, but at the same time society is – economically, and in terms of gender relationships – fractious and competitive. There obtains a struggle between social classes and there is the enigma of subject/object, in addition to the perceived tension between male and female ‘psyches’; continuously philosophers are preoccupied with the ‘Mind/Body’ division. In Marxist theory dualities derive ultimately from divisions within the processes of production, for example the diremption of mental and physical labour; the sexual division of labour; the loss of the ‘object’ by the worker, and the loss of control by the workers of their own bodies, which economically and creatively become the ‘property’ of another.

It is no accident then that the mind/body problem becomes a major feature of philosophy from Descartes onwards, or that it – and the search for the ‘lost self’ – has been an idée fixe of poets from the 17th century onwards; nor is it coincidental that dualities become one of the chief sources of the relatively new discipline of psychoanalysis; Seidler writes:

“Thinking in terms of oppositions has deep roots in bourgeois culture and thought. We are brought up to think quite easily and naturally that you [sic] are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ […] ‘worth something’ or ‘worthless’. […] so we are struggling to be ‘other’ than what our natures would be […].” [p.201]

Now this discursive excursion into dialectical and historical materialism may seem at first only contingently related to sexual politics,but this is not so, as Seidler acutely affirms:

“A starting point for many people’s involvement in sexual politics is the insight that the sexual divisions between men and women are not ‘natural’ in the ways we that we were brought up to believe. They do not follow directly from the biological differences, but are produced through the ways we are brought up to be, as ‘men’ and ‘women’.” [p.209]

And as I have just contended, and as Seidler argues, the sexual divisions are inextricably connected to other divisions engendered in capitalist society. Closely bound together then must be the dualities and social determinism itself; but as Seidler and many feminist philosophers note, the male/female psychic division is not peculiar only to the modern world. It is a fact that from Aristotle onwards, women have been associated with ‘nature’, the ‘body’ and unruliness (and in the Christian tradition: with ‘Evil’). Men on the other hand have been associated with Reason and stability, logical ethics, and ‘objectivity’; they are perceived in terms of economic skills and the ‘mastery of nature’, ergo the mastery of Woman! One deterministic feature of all this is that many facets of our thinking, our ideology, can be so deeply ingrained in practice that certain phenomena and attitudes are a sort of ‘second-nature’ (as Jean Grimshaw points out in her book Feminist Philosophers); prophecies become self-fulfilling; women are seen in ‘caring’ roles, and in terms of emotion they act out their expected subjective roles. Men, however – being associated with rationality – act out their objective roles. The outcome is a protracted psychological disaster: women are unable to realize their full potential, and through ‘false consciousness’ collaborate in their own oppression; men are “wary of engaging emotionally with other men, so that it is often easier to intellectualize [.. their], experience rather than share it” (p.13). As men, “We were brought up to kill our feelings […] so that we could survive as men. Often this means that as men we do not know what we feel” (p.37). This is because “Capitalist society expects us to minimize our relationships with children, with friends, with lovers” (p.21). We are then, as males, socialized to ‘fit’ the economic system in particular ways (women are regularly placed in similar economic/work situations to men, but they perceive – and are perceived – in a different way; the psyche thus becomes a different construction). Men (especially in the middleclass) are trained to organize themselves to ‘get on’ in a capitalist world; and male leisure and sporting pursuits generally mirror the odd and nocent mixture – those pathological impulses generated in the market place – of crass utility and manic individualism. Art, especially for proletarian males, is considered ‘soft’, effeminate and/or trivial. The outcome however can be paradoxical, as “men’s self-denial is both a source of men’s existential alienation, and part of the infrastructure of men’s power” (p.48). Disturbingly:

“We are locked into a competitiveness that can extend into the centre of our sexuality. So it is very easy for women to become ‘objects’. […] We get trapped into objectifying women, treating them as possessions that [in possessing ‘attractive’ women] reflect back on our sense of achievement.” [p 86]

As with commodities and institutions, women take on for us that ghostly objectivity known to Marx and Lukács as ‘reification’: the whole of life becomes for sale, everything external to us takes on a threatening ambience, albeit with a compelling attraction, but the promised objects nearly always elude our grasp (hence the gambler’s thrill undergone in the now fashionable ‘leisure pursuit’ of strolling around post-modernist shopping precincts gazing at unaffordable commodities, or appropriately shaped women in advertizing). Escape without revolutionary awareness seems equally to elude us, as “often we do not have a language in which to identify what is happening to us. We cannot change by acts of will” (p.22). The solution for Seidler lies partly in “a new vision of human relationships”; we must recognize when differences are constructed by human agency. The book’s utopian ‘moment’ along these line is on page 161. The problem for Seidler, and any of us thinking along these lines, is that we may have won the battle of theory, but the practice bit is not doing too well. Even ‘falseconsciousness’ is having a rather ‘bad press’ on the Left!

There are a couple of points about the book’s content that I just want to point to in conclusion, though there is unfortunately not enough space here to cover them substantially. Firstly, Seidler deals judiciously with theories of female ethics, and the ways in which women respond to traditional Judeo-Christian morality; there is indeed a thoroughly interesting and rigorous section on Kant’s ‘Moral Law’, but amazingly Seidler hardly refers to or quotes well-known feminist philosophers on these and other questions. For instance, Kate Soper, Mary Daly and Jean Grimshaw are not even mentioned, yet the first and last named of these deal substantially with Marxism, morals and the dialectics of gender relationships.

Lastly, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not Seidler is actually saying anything new, or even saying it in a new way (though it is a man who is saying it!). Nonetheless the book has important use-value. It is an excellent introduction to socialist feminism, and current Marxist and feminist views of gender; it is a treasure-house of theoretical reference points, but at the same time is limited in this because it by-passes major feminist philosophers and sociologists. Unfortunately there is also little discussion on the disputes within feminism on several issues, for instance taking the book in a broad sweep, feminists such as Sabina Lovibond or Kate Soper may find much to acquiesce in, whereas Mary Daly most certainly would not.

© Geoff Wade 1991

Recreating Sexual Politics : V.J.Seidler. pp432 pub. Routledge, 1991. HB£35 PB£10.99.

Geoff Wade is a student at Hull University.

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