Left theory’s response to the feminization of labor has been to cry for mommy
Virginia Woolf pointed out in A Room of One’s Own that, for most of history, if a piece of writing was signed “Anonymous,” its author was usually a woman. Recently, however, we have noticed that more and more unsigned publications coming from the left are written in what sounds like a male voice. From the boy bandit aesthetics of the anarchist magazine Rolling Thunder to the Guy Fawkes masks and Internet vigilantism of the hacker collective Anonymous, the protagonist of contemporary radical politics styles himself as a him.
In some cases, anonymity itself, which was supposed to express solidarity, abets sexism. Take Tiqqun. Founded in the late 1990s and dissolved after the 9/11 attacks, the French journal of radical philosophy attracted media attention when one of its founders, Julien Coupat, was arrested in November 2008 in connection with plans to sabotage the TGV train lines.
Semiotext(e) published translations of Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War and This is Not a Program between 2009 and 2011, and the anarchist press Little Black Cart books distributed Tiqqun 1 and Theory of Bloom in 2011 and 2012. Though their cops-and-robbers bombast sometimes raised our eyebrows, we read these with interest. Then, late last year, Semiotext(e) put out its next Tiqqun installment. Enclosed in a bright pink cover, and bookended with what looked like low-grade xerox collages of glossy magazine ads and soft porn, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl confirmed all that we had begun to suspect.
Theory of the Young-Girl opens with a 10-page excursus sketching the “total war” that contemporary capitalism wages against anyone who dares oppose it. Echoing the work of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Tiqqun argues that capitalism compels individuals to internalize its imperatives to live (and thus consume) in certain ways. Because the entire conflict is invisible, Tiqqun professes that “rethinking the offensive for our side is a matter of making the battlefield manifest,” revealing the processes by which contemporary society compels us to commodify even our intimate lives. Where can they best expose the front lines where capitalism is waging its invisible war? The “Young-Girl,” a figure Tiqqun invents to play both the exemplary subject of and the agent reproducing this system.
Tiqqun claims it has lady members and seems eager to reassure us that it does not hate us. “Listen,” Tiqqun writes. “The Young-Girl is obviously not a gendered concept … The Young-Girl is simply the model citizen as redefined by consumer society.” When early 20th century capitalism realized that, to reproduce itself, it would have to colonize social life, it particularly targeted the spheres of “youth” and “femininity”: the young, because they needed and wanted things, and did not yet work; women, because they governed social reproduction, i.e., had and raised kids.
The majority of what follows consists of a Situationist-ish collage that, in a series of vacillating typefaces and font sizes, presents the Young-Girl as a scapegoat as much as a victim.
Deep down inside, the Young-Girl has the personality of a tampon: she exemplifies all of the appropriate indifference, all of the necessary coldness demanded by the conditions of metropolitan life.
In love more than anywhere else, the Young-Girl behaves like an accountant.
There isn’t room for two in the body of a Young-Girl.
It appears that all the concreteness of the world has taken refuge in the ass of the Young-Girl.
There are beings that give you the desire to die slowly before their eyes, but the Young-Girl only excites the desire to vanquish her, to take advantage of her.
Like the nice guy from your grad-school program who tries to cover up his hurt feelings by concocting a general theory that explains why he never got a text after his one-night stand, the book portrays the Young-Girl as vain, frivolous, and acquisitive. She serves the traditional female role of reproducing the population and social order, but here, the social order is corrupt. Therefore, Tiqqun suggests, their intervention requires an ironic performance of misogyny. The question remains: Why is misogyny their only option? And why are so many thoughtful people ready to accept that a layer of irony suffices to turns hateful language into the basis of a sound critique?
We believe that Tiqqun has mistaken its object. The real enigma of our age is not the Young-Girl, who, we submit, has been punished enough already for how commodity culture exploits her. It is, rather, her boyish critic. Forms of crypto- and not-so-crypto misogyny have proved startlingly persistent not just within the radical left but also in the bourgeois-left spheres of cultural production: the publishing world, the museum, and the humanities departments of liberal-arts universities. We propose that a particular type is responsible for perpetuating such bad behavior. Call him the Man-Child.
It is not that we cannot talk Tiqqun talk. Look:
The Man-Child has two moods: indecision, and entitlement to this indecisiveness.
The Man-Child tells a racist joke. It is not funny. It is the fact that the Man-Child said something racist that is.
The Man-Child wants you to know that you should not take him too seriously, except when you should. At any given moment, he wants to you to take him only as seriously as he wants to be taken. When he offends you, he was kidding. When he means it, he means it. What he says goes.
The Man-Child thinks the meaning of his statement inheres in his intentions, not in the effects of his language. He knows that speech-act theory is passé.
The Man-Child’s irony may be a part of a generational aversion to political risk: he would not call out a sexist or racist joke, for fear of sounding too earnest. Ironically, the Man-Child lives up to a stereotype about the men from the rom-coms he holds in contempt: he has a fear of commitment.
The Man-Child won’t break up with you, but will simply stop calling. He doesn’t want to seem like an asshole.
He tells you he would break up with his girlfriend, but they share a lease.
The Man-Child breaks up with you even though the two of you are not in a relationship. He cites his fear of settling down. You don’t want marriage, at least not with him, but he never thought to ask you.
The Man-Child can’t even commit to saying no.
Why are you crying? The Man-Child is just trying to be reasonable. This is his calm voice.
The Man-Child isn’t a player. Many a Man-Child lacks throw-down. He puts on a movie and never makes a move.
Is Hamlet the original Man-Child? No: the Romantics made him one.
Just as not all men are Man-Children, neither are all Man-Children men.
Lena Dunham may be living proof that the Man-Child is now equal opportunity. That is, the character she plays on Girls is. A real man-child would never get it together to get an HBO show. As we watch Hannah Horvath pull a splinter out of her ass, we wonder: Is this second-wave feminism? Or fourth? It is no accident that Judd Apatow wrote the scene. The mesh tank Dunham wears over bare tits is isomorphic with the dick joke.
The hipster and the douchebag may be subspecies of the genus Man-Child.
If the Man-Child could use his ironic sexism to build a new world, would you want to live in it? Would anyone?
We could go on like this. Others have. Since Theory of the Young-Girl appeared in France in the late 1990s, the Man-Child has wandered far afield from the barricades, turning up more and more often in the mainstream liberal press. When Hanna Rosin published her widely discussed Atlantic essay and subsequent book, The End of Men, proposing that “modern, postindustrial society is just better suited to women,” she inaugurated a genre. A spate of articles lamented how the “mancession” was discouraging even nice boys from fulfilling the roles traditionally expected of them—holding a job, taking girls on dinner dates, eventually choosing one to marry, outearn, beget kids with, etc.
“The End of Courtship,” which the New York Times ran in January, is exemplary. “It is not uncommon to walk into the hottest new West Village bistro on a Saturday night and find five smartly dressed young women dining together—the nearest man the waiter,” its author concludes. “Income equality, or superiority, for women muddles the old, male-dominated dating structure.” Meanwhile, an online panic-mongering industry thrives by offering more or less reactionary advice to female page-viewers about how to turn whatever romantic temp work comes their way into a long-term contract.
Mancession Lit portrays the Man-Child as pitiful, contrasting him with women who are well-adjusted and adult. But it rarely acknowledges the real question that this odd couple raises. Namely, are women better suited to the new economy because they are easier to exploit?
In the mid-1970s, Italian Marxist feminists attempted to integrate an account of “immaterial labor” into their critique of capitalist society. They argued that when a shop attendant smiles for a customer, or a teacher worries too much about her students, or a parent does housework, they perform real labor. No accident that their examples came from spheres traditionally occupied by women. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt later used the phrase “affective labor” to describe the emotional exertion that white-collar jobs increasingly require. Employers in economically dominant countries now primarily demand “education, attitude, character, and ‘prosocial’ behavior.” When job listings ask for “a worker with a good attitude,” what they want, say Hardt and Negri, is a smile.
In the culture sector, economic precarity constantly reminds employees of their expendability and, therefore, the importance of their investing affect in their workplace. To gain even an unpaid internship or a barely paid entry-level position in journalism, publishing, museums, or higher education, dedication is a must. Many jobs that used to be meal tickets for starving artists are now considered covetable and require “love.” A college freshman recently told us: “I have a passion for marketing.” A journalist friend recounts how, when she was still in college, a magazine editor approached her at a party with the line: “Yo, you should be my intern.” We imagine her smiling, as if to flatter his delusion that there were any print-media jobs still worth sleeping your way into; in any case, she did get a gig there.
Women’s long history of performing work without its even being acknowledged as work, much less compensated fairly, may account for their relative success in today’s white-collar economy. This is, at least, the story of the heroine that the new Mancession Lit has created. Call her the Grown Woman. A perpetual-motion machine of uncomplaining labor, shuttling between her job and household tasks, the Grown Woman could not be more different from either fat-year brats like Carrie Bradshaw, or Judd Apatow’s lady Man-Children. The Grown Woman holds down her job and pays for her own dinner. The Grown Woman feels like a bad mom when she sees the crafts and organic snacks that other moms are posting on Pinterest. She wonders whether feminism lied to her, but knows she will inherit the earth. Could this be because she is better than the Man-Child at performing what current economic conditions demand? She is certainly more practiced. Who among us hasn’t faked it, if only to make him stop asking?
Tiqqun knows and says what the Lifestyle section does or cannot: Today the economy is feminizing everyone. That is, it puts more and more people of both genders in the traditionally female position of undertaking work that traditionally patriarchal institutions have pretended is a kind of personal service outside capital so that they do not have to pay for it. When affective relationships become part of work, we overinvest our economic life with erotic value. Hence, “passion for marketing.” Hence, “Like” after “Like” button letting you volunteer your time to help Facebook sell your information to advertisers with ever greater precision.
In the postindustrial era, work and leisure grow increasingly indistinguishable: We are all shop girls now. From this “feminization of the world,” Tiqqun writes, “one can only expect the cunning promotion of all manner of servitudes.” At times, Tiqqun speaks of this exploitation sympathetically. More often, however, they blame the Young-Girl for opening the floodgates by complying with her own exploitation, thus making it easier for control capitalism to make her attitude compulsory for everyone.
Though its anxieties are of the moment, Tiqqun lifts its language from a long intellectual tradition that uses “woman” as shorthand. You can trace this line to Goethe’s Faust and the “eternal feminine” or Friedrich Schiller’s “Veiled Statue at Sais,” where “a youth, impelled by a burning thirst for knowledge,” pokes around Egypt looking for a busty sculpture of Isis that he calls “Truth.” Nietzsche continues using “woman” as a metaphor for the metaphysical essence that philosophers looked for beneath the surface of mere existence. But he borrows the language of his predecessors only to show how their quest failed—proposing, for instance, in Human, All Too Human that “women, however you may search them, prove to have no content but are purely masks.” Nietzsche’s point is that the woman called Truth was always already a cocktease: Nothing except existence exists.
Tiqqun offers an edgy update to such misogynist metaphors deployed for the purposes of demystification. At times, it speaks longingly of women who have not been utterly corrupted by capitalism. But when it learns what it knew all along—there is no outside; all human relationships have become reified—its disappointment at finding no one authentic to grow old with intensifies its vitriol. “It wasn’t until the Young-Girl appeared that one could concretely experience what it means to ‘fuck,’ that is, to fuck someone without fucking anyone in particular. Because to fuck a being that is really so abstract, so utterly interchangeable, is to fuck in the absolute.” Tiqqun’s language may be obscene, but its point is nothing new. The failure to see women as “anyone in particular,” or as subjects endowed with their own ends, has allowed men to fuck women over for centuries.
Tiqqun can insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Young-Girl is “obviously not a gendered concept” because it knows that we know that it knows this. Tiqqun uses works of Continental philosophy in the same way that schoolyard bullies use in-jokes: as passwords that grant access to a protected inner circle. Tiqqun assumes that readers will assume that writers so well versed in texts that have spoken truth to power could not really hate women. The prestige of the theoretical vocabulary that Tiqqun’s members have mastered bolsters their credibility.
At the same time, Theory of the Young-Girl adopts a playful pose that prevents real Young-Girls, or any Grown Women who might find time to read books published by Semiotext(e), from calling them out. Because Tiqqun’s collage does not attribute sources, we can read any given passage in disavowing quotation marks, as a lightning bolt of original insight, or as both. Publishing anonymously is only a backup measure for evading responsibility. Lift out any one line to object to it—“Wait a minute, how has all the concreteness of the world taken refuge in my ass?”—and you would be sure to look foolish, even if you did know whom to ask.
Theory of the Young-Girl shares a rhetorical strategy with texts that have been far more widely diffused and discussed. Their quips about tampons and Young-Girls’ body parts, which they insist are “not gendered,” resemble the cringe-inducing song about seeing actresses’ “boobs” that Seth MacFarlane wrote for the Oscars and Daniel Tosh’s much-discussed off-the-cuff rape joke. In each case, a speaker insists that he is not saying what he says. If we accept a standard definition of verbal irony as saying one thing while meaning another, the comedians and Tiqqun both appeal to their identities to control the contexts in which they are understood. Claiming that its mastery of the misogynist philosophical tradition entitles it to do this, Tiqqun steps into what looks a lot like an old-fashioned patriarchal role.
Even when adopted by radical theory, this knowing posture is conservative. Knowingness is the attitude that allows sexism to persist in progressive institutions that you would expect to know better, precisely because you would. When casual sexism pervades leftist theory, one assumes it is ironic; when progressive institutions ignore gender politics, one assumes this is because struggles for equality have already been won, or must be deferred so we can attend to more pressing political needs. Intellectuals tend to show class allegiance, bracketing or ignoring casual sexism in their own circles. They project misogyny outward, onto Middle America megachurches and racialized others, or onto the powerful men that pander to those masses.
When we look at the comment sections where men fantasize about violating and decapitating female bloggers, or OkCupid diaries where they rant about dates who spurned their sexual advances, we recognize immediately that the Nice Guy doth protest too much. Typos make it easy to call a sadsack sociopath a sociopath. But we imagine that our male colleagues at cultural institutions are aware of how women have been exploited historically.
So when one asks whether we would like to co-author a paper, undertaking all the translation for it because he does not “do languages,” we try to shake it off. He cannot really imagine that we spent years of our adult lives mastering foreign words and grammar just so we could do the tedious housework of gathering sources while he takes credit for the conceptual heavy lifting. (Even his verb choice—“do”—makes it sound like this was a hobby, like tourism, as if we just happened to get off on playing with textbooks.) When the co-organizer of an exhibition calls to ask, on a few hours notice, whether he can borrow sheets for the futon on which he volunteered weeks ago to put up a visiting artist—it was just coincidence that he called us and not Patrick or Andrew, right? We want to believe this. And yet, we look at the female faculty who seem to participate in every committee and conference and supervise over half the dissertations in their departments, and we feel afraid.
The figures that Mancession Lit presents as adversaries are in fact symbiotic. In institutions that reward competence with more unpaid labor, the Man-Child needs the Grown Woman to take care of him, and she needs him to need her. Man-Child attitudes, of the kind Tiqqun adopts, perpetuate the “feminization of the world” in the places where we most ardently hoped to find alternatives. Even the messy style of Theory of the Young-Girl ends up creating more unacknowledged labor: the exegesis it requires. In his glamorous obscurantism, the Man-Child cries for a dutiful interpreter to come and tidy up.
In many radical political groups in the 20th century, sex and gender were treated as issues for “after the revolution.” Tiqqun regards matters of “personal identity” as secondary to a generalized process by which capital shapes individuals. When we accept the knowingness that the Man-Child trades in, we put off thinking about how differences of gender, sex, and sexuality operate in diverse lives. That sort of thinking takes work, work that many of us would often rather avoid. Because utopia never arrives, this labor gets passed on to the exploited, who do not have the choice of temporarily ignoring the question. In many workplaces, including academic departments, this means that race becomes the “job” of people of color; sexual politics the “job” of people who are female and/or queer and/or transgendered.
We cannot refuse the hard work of thinking about difference, nor can we step into the Grown Woman role that late capitalism has devised for us. We cannot finally embrace the Man-Child; he is inertia itself. But we can look for new figures. Perhaps irony felt like a vehicle for radical critique in the late 1990s when Tiqqun was writing. Then, bullish readers who were confident that the West had reached the end of history needed to be shown all the shortcomings and hypocrisies of their golden age. Now, translated for the postcrash era in which everyone sees how badly our social contract has been broken, the gesture feels like a cliché designed to help its speaker avoid responsibility and risk.
Tiqqun resembles the mainstream Man-Child to the extent that everything that it does is a delaying tactic, a way of putting off the future. The rhetorical strategy of Theory of the Young-Girl is to remain undecidable: Its self-ironizing speaker refuses to settle the question of whether the book is in fact sexist or just impersonating someone sexist in order to make its point. The trait that everyone has recognized as endemic among men, and many young women, of our generation is indecision.
Both postures spring from a fearful refusal to take a position, to make a choice among alternatives that feel compromised. The bourgeois Man-Child who refuses to “grow up,” refuses to mate, and refuses domestic labor resembles the radical who wants to bide his time until capitalism collapses from within. Perhaps the most extreme example of Man-Child politics is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which proposes that doing nothing might be the only way left to save the world. And yet, it is hard not to see these apocalyptic scenarios as cop-outs, typical of the compensatory fantasies of a disorganized left that, having given up on actually existing politics, daydreams about nature’s taking over where it left off.
Doing so, Man-Children overlook the fact that social reproduction—the work of having and raising kids—is not mere replication. It can be creative. That is, it might offer opportunities for social transformation. What would Preliminary Materials for a Theory of Motherhoodlook like? Maybe instead of more smarter-than-thou critiques, we need more imagination, more courage. In place of obscurantism, clarity and organization. In place of indecision and irony, a praise song and a program. Tiqqun is at the tail end of a radical tradition that has largely exhausted its usefulness.