Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Decoy posted by Richard Seymour
For about three decades (I guess) there has been a fruitful engagement with the question of 'the nation' and nationalism from radical and marxist critics - people like Benedict Anderson, Tom Nairn, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Gellner, Gopal Balakrishnan and so on. Yet, with the honourable exception of a few, like Partha Chatterjee, there has been little effort to integrate a 'gendered' interpretation of the nation. This is odd. As Nira Yuval-Davis points out, women "reproduce nations, biologically, culturally and symbolically". This isn't an optional extra, something that nation-states can rather live without. The "imagined community" is itself reproduced in the locus of the household, the first scene of socialisation and individuation, as much as in the print, visual or internet media. The "mother tongue" is taught there. Indeed, nationhood is often spoken of in the tropes of family, the household, and parenthood: the ‘motherland’ or ‘fatherland’; the homeland; the national ‘family’. Angelika Schaser's study of the patriotic German women's movement in the 'Second Reich' remarks that for many Germans, national feeling was itself "an extension of family feeling". The familial trope, as Anne McClintock points out, has several uses: it sanctions a national hierarchy as at the same time an organic unity, and it offers a "single genesis narrative" for the nation. It has also had its extension in the colonial metaphor of a "family of black children ruled over by a white father". And, to avoid any confusion, I'm using 'gender' here simply in the way that feminists usually do: in Yuval-Davis's terms, gender is a "mode of discourse" relating to groups of subjects whose social roles are "defined by sexual/biological difference". Gender is not biology, and it is not destiny. It structures social life, but only to the extent that it is reproduced as a discourse.
Practically every new nation that was founded denied women citizenship rights, specifically the suffrage that was allotted to males, always with an apparatus of gendered 'role' allotments. I take most of my examples here from the Kaiserreich (Germany 1871-1918), because that's what I'm studying - but also because it is a fascinating example in itself. In Imperial Germany, as Schaser puts it, "the nation-state was composed of male individuals". Only men had the right to vote and bear arms, men were in executive control of the family, men had superior education. Women belonged to the world principally through the family, while men accessed the world through a variety of vital channels. The ‘natural’ boundaries for women were drawn around the three ‘K’s – Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen and church). Under the Civil Legal Code (initially elaborated in the 1870s, but finally made law in 1896), married women had no say in child’s education, and all property or money in marriage became the husband’s responsibility. The code states: "the husband takes the decisions in all matters affecting married life". The practise of abortion carried a 5 year sentence, and woman suspected of prostitution had to undergo examination by the ‘Morals Police’ (Sittenpolizei), while male clients faced no such humiliation. The state placed the full responsibility of the consequences of sexual interaction on women, while apportioning the full ownership of its benefits to men. Aside from that, the prohibition on abortion can be seen as an effort to exert strict control over the reproduction of society. This, of course, is not unknown: in the Soviet Union, which was the first country to legalise abortion in 1920, abortion was outlawed again in 1936, at the height of the mass deaths from famine and repression, and only legalised again in 1955. In Israel, as Yural-Davis - herself an Israeli dissident - points out, abortion rights are severely restricted and rather controversial with the right-wing, in part because of the 'racial' or - to put it more euphemistically - 'demographic' struggle with Palestine. She also recalls that females who chose sterility were upbraided by for inviting "national death" and "race suicide" by one Theodore Roosevelt (this at a time when the United States government was practising a crude form of eugenics). 'Race', of course, with its trope of extended family, of blood-lines and originary human communities, of purity and decadence, is the sina qua none of a highly gendered nationalism. The raciological dimensions of nationalism were to become even more apparent in the Third Reich, but then again they were hardly suppressed in an America that had recently wiped out the indigenous population and had enforced white supremacy as the political code of the southern states. In fact, I'm tempted to push the 'race' angle even further here because it's well-known that the more conservative elements of oppressed groups internalise the discourse of their oppressors. Isn't it the case with certain forms of Islamism that they accept that theirs is a problem of sustaining the 'race' against attack by Western society, in which they must maintain strict heterosexist patriarchical family norms? Hence the homophobia, the carefully defined place for women, the conservative moralising about drugs etc? Anyway, Imperial Germany's draconian criminalisation of prostitutes can certainly be seen as a reaction to the dramatic rise in that profession during the latter half of the 19th Century, but that itself was in part a consequence of urbanisation, industrialisation and the fluctuations of German capitalism. Once again, conservatives feared decadence in the ‘race’, of both a medical and moral character. Gendered laws were therefore partially about conserving German society even as it went through a process of traumatic 'modernisation'. In respect of family life, the Civil Code had rolled back some previously regressive local laws, which feminists had campaigned against: it removed the right of men to physically punish women or determine when children should be weaned. Yet it also allotted most parental rights to the father – the control of the child’s financial affairs, its education, the choice of profession, the choice of marriage partner. Once again, once notes two different affirmations here. On the one hand, conservative moralism held that it was motherhood was a woman’s assured place in society, the naturally endowed condition, and on the other it was prepared to seriously reduce their power to carry out that task. On the other hand, for the sake of race survival, the state was concerned to ensure the reproduction of strict patriarchical norms through successive generations.
Well, these policies were nothing more than natural, 'common sense', a function of Geschlechtscharakter (the character of the sexes), in which a system of binary oppositions sustained the sexual division of labour in the household and the nation. For example, Meyer’s Grosses Konversationslexikon (1904) described the following distinctions between male and female: “in the female, emotion and sensibility, in the male, intelligence and thought predominate; the imagination of the female is livelier than that of the male, but seldom achieves he heights and boldness of the latter”. Similar oppositions also emerge in dictionaries and encyclopaedias from 19th Century Germany: ‘male’ power versus ‘female’ beauty; ‘male’ volatility versus ‘female’ inwardness; ‘male’ loudness of desire versus ‘female’ quiet longing; ‘male’ acquisitiveness versus ‘female’ preservation; ‘male’ public life versus ‘female’ private life; ‘male’ activity, willpower and bravery versus ‘female’ passivity, weakness, fickleness and modesty; ‘male’ rationality versus ‘female’ emotionality; ‘male’ doing versus ‘female’ being etc. (Karin Hausen, ‘Family and Role Division’ in Richard J Evans and W R Lee eds, The German Family, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1981: 51-53). When the German League to Combat Women’s Emancipation (or Anti-League) was formed in 1912, it deemed the project of equality between men and women "an attempt to do violence to nature, which has clearly segregated the proper realms of both sexes everywhere and has ordained a strict division of labour": these dichotomies operate to naturalise a social state of affairs. The salience of the private, inward and domestic in the production of ‘feminine’ tends in two directions, reinforcing an ideal of family-bound behaviour as well as obedience toward the patriarch. For, what the Anti-League objected to was not simply the limited and tentative demands raised by the moderate Bund Deutscher Frauenverein (BDF), but the very idea of women’s activity beyond the household. Their entering the realm of power-broking and conflict was itself the perversion of a ‘natural’ order of ‘female’ sensitivity, emotionality, delicacy and so on. The Anti-League here forcefully articulated a hegemonic norm of Wilhelmine Germany. Political passivity was requisite. Only in 1908 did women gain right to join political party or even attend public meetings, in all states of empire. The right to vote for Reichstag elections was not secured until 1918. It took, in other words, the defeat of a neurotic, unstable, patriarchical capitalist hierarchy groaning with paranoia and insecurity, by socialist revolutionaries. It took the defeat of an empire burdened with an outlandishly expensive and insular aristocratic military caste, saddled with hypertrophic militarism and paraphilia (the uniforms, the medals, the symbols) at whose apex was a man whose very status could be rocked by the mere suggestion of association with homosexuality. (Wilhelm's friend, the musician Philip Eulenburg, was alleged to have been engaged in such a triste, while there is ample evidence that his 'Liebenburg Circle' was a homoerotic 'Mannerbund' in the fashion suggested by Nicolaus Sombart. As Sombart himself puts it, the German ruling elite was existentially bound to its commitment to 'premodern' solutions, unable to deal with challenges rationally - preferring to demonise problems and plot bloody civil war to defeat them. The consequences were "neurotic": the "hypertrophy of the superego as an internalised factor for social control" in which the superego is monarchical, masculine, militaristic; the censorship of the id, protecting the ego from its drives, which are "canalised and limited to that minimal sexuality necessary for reproducing the species" so that both sexuality and the female are repressed; the id is experienced as a constant threat, and its demands manifest as political programme. The superego’s injunction not to absorb these demands produces a repressed, "squashed" ego, prone to "distorting visions of anxiety". For the male seeking to escape this dilemma, the Mannerbund - whether that sodality be a ruling circle, or whether it be the army - is one mode of escape.)
What the duck is for
As Zillah Eisenstein points out in her new book 'Sexual Decoys', the dilemma is different today. The ruling class has become more apt at manipulating both 'gender' and 'race' roles. For although the United States has its fundamentalist revanchists who would dearly like to make Kaiser Wilhelm look like a liberal, and although the GOP tries to satisfy that constituency as part of its electoral coalition, there is universal suffrage for both sexes, gender roles are more varied, women may take up more roles in the military and in government, and many formal impediments have been removed. Even as Bush promotes 'chastity' and non-contraception in AIDS-rich countries, even as his right-wing supreme court appointees continue to oversee the rollback of abortion rights (incidentally, all GOP presidential candidates publicly favour repealing Roe v Wade, including Rudi who would be 'okay' with it), the administration cannot dispense with its purloined 'feminisms'. Bush's administration has promoted women, and Condoleeza Rice has been one of its most aggressive and prominent members. Laura Bush has been pressed into the service of 'liberation' for women in Afghanistan, even if the US's main allies in that country are warlords known for their brutal treatment of women. Similarly, in the military, women's roles were revealed in Abu Ghraib where Brigadier Karpinski and Lyndie England took the rap and the heat for the state violence that they had helped perpetrate. What is their role here? Precisely, that of the decoy.
For, it is not good enough to say, "Bush lies, we know he doesn't really care about these things, why waste time dissecting it?" It isn't coincidental that, precisely as black women in America catch the flak for its ills (as per that disgusting phrase "welfare queen") at the same time as they experience the worst of them (poverty, infant mortality, preventable disease etc), the frontwoman for Bush's racist and patriarchical programme of conquest is a black woman. Similarly, as Eisenstein goes on to argue, the role of the Englands and Karpinskis is precisely to mask the masculinism and women-hatred that is central to America's own hypertrophied militarism. It isn't a huge secret that women in the US military are being raped more and more frequently by their male counterparts, or that the US military relies upon the services of sexual slaves wherever the park up. Similarly, Hilary as a frontwoman (or Obama as a frontman) for a party devoted to capitalist-imperialist interests, would be a well-timed pitch - coming as it does when the Democrats have demonstrated their unwillingness to break with the Bush-led imperial mission in Iraq, much less Afghanistan, Somalia and beyond.
This decoy is a symptom, a distraction, and a warning. It signifies, on the one hand, the total paucity of resources available for truly creating equality of even the limited, liberal-capitalist variety. It also diverts fire: precisely as a certain amount of sexism was relied upon when England and Karpinski were made patsies for Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, the Bush administration is happy to rely on racism and sexism drawing criticism toward Condoleeza Rice (she looks so evil, after all). Oh, and also a bit of snobbery too, if you fancy a giggle at Bush's malapropisms: anything to keep your eye off the dollars. Finally, it says that someone means you harm. The classical wooden duck decoy, supposedly designed to lure real ducks out in front of a gunman who would then happily plug away at the innocent little saps, is now car boot sale material. They have better ones to catch you with.