Saturday, October 06, 2012

Utopian thinking and the impotance of shaking things up

Kathleen Geier had the following to say in her obituary of the "radical feminist" Shulamith Firestone, R.I.P. 09/02/2012:

Like all the best radical thinkers and visionaries, Firestone is valuable for busting ancient paradigms, burning through centuries-old intellectual debris, and opening one’s heart, mind, and imagination to new ways of thinking and new ways of being. "Agreeing" with the ideas or the analysis presented, or fussing about its feasibility, isn’t the point. By questioning everything you thought you knew, and broadening your horizons to wide new vistas, you see the world in a new way, and you come away with a greatly expanded vision of human possibility. In a society in which the boundaries of political discourse have become so painfully pinched and narrow, and where, to quote Fredric Jameson, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” that is no small thing. For how can we ever come even one step closer to creating a brave new world if we let despair drive us to abandoning the project of envisioning what such a world would look like?
This has the great value of Utopian thinking, one not appreciated nearly enough generally. On the other hand, there are no shortage of warnings about the dangers of Utopian thinking, especially about the kind that addresses real problems of inequality and injustice in ways that may discomfort the wealthy and the comfortable.

On the other hand, plainly destructive Utopian thought like that of Ayn Rand or Ron Paul's goldbug segregationism or Christian dominionist theocracy regularly find wealthy patronage and are treated as entirely respectable and sensible even by people who should know better.

One of the impressive things about "neo-orthodox" theologian Karl Barth's Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (German original published 1947) is that he looked carefully and appreciatively at the influence and innovations of theologians of whom he was very critical, like Friedrich Schleiermacher and David Strauss. But he also analyzed relatively minor and even obscure figures like Johann Tobias Beck (1804-1878) and Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880), who may have bordered on being cranks but who made important and relevant contributions to the understanding of the Christian religion in their time.

Emily Chertoff gives a somewhat longer description of how Shulamith Firestone managed to be influential even though her larger vision did not survive its encounter with political and social realities in Eulogy for a Sex Radical: Shulamith Firestone's Forgotten Feminism The Atlantic Online 08/31/2012. She presents Firestone as a nearly-forgotten prophetess, of sorts:

Firestone, whose death was reported yesterday, will not receive a fraction of the encomia Gurley Brown did after her death earlier this month. Why? Both women were feminist pioneers. Both wrote canonical feminist texts that became bestsellers when they were published about a half century ago. Both shaped absolutely the ways we think about gender, education, and the family today. Both put sex at the center of their analyses.

Yet Gurley Brown became one of the most successful magazine editors of all time. Firestone became a hermit and suffered from mental illness. She'd been dead for a week when neighbors found her. But her reclusiveness isn't the only reason we don't remember her.

Here's the main reason. Firestone wanted to eliminate the following things: sex roles, procreative sex, gender, childhood, monogamy, mothering, the family unit, capitalism, the government, and especially the physiological phenomena of pregnancy and childbirth. She wanted to mechanize reproduction -- gestating fetuses in artificial wombs -- and raise the offspring communally, treating them no differently from adults at the earliest possible age. Sound crazy? It was certainly extreme. But it's surprising how many ideas that are now starting to gain currency can be found in kernel form in her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex.

When parents choose to raise their children gender-neutral, a lot of that's Firestone. When we hail advances in artificial reproduction, we're seeing developments that Firestone championed decades ago. When writers theorize about the end of men, they're tearing whole pages out of Firestone's book. We know how Gurley Brown influenced us. Yet we know nothing about Firestone.
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