Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Red Women/Women to Read - Marking International Women's Day

My mother, Lavinia, was a feminist.  She used to tell me a story about sitting in either the Bailey or the Coffee Inn, two cool joints in Dublin in the late 1950s or early 1960s, with a female friend.  They were talking books, I'd say.  Some godforsaken eejit leered down at them, and asked, with a condescending smirk: 'Do you ladies always conduct your conversation on such a high intellectual plane?'  I like to imagine them telling him to fuck off, but more likely they smiled patiently, and waited till, finally realising he hadn't a hope, he drifted away.

In my mother's day, feminism was called 'Women's Liberation'.  What a pity that the more open, forceful, and yes, utopian, language has been left behind!  Lavinia was an early member of the Irish Women's Political Association.  She was quietly but formidably articulate on the issues of family planning, divorce (she was a 'separated' single mother), and abortion.  The books of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Simone de Beauvoir lay around the flat.  She read Nell McCafferty and chuckled wickedly.  I imbibed that atmosphere.  At some point, with that combination of honesty, pomposity and a little precociousness of a clever kid, I told an old friend of my mother's, Mary, that I was 'a male feminist'. I was probably about 12 at the time.

Later, in my twenties, I was trying out ideas for myself, and at one point, I argued the case (as I thought) against women's right to determine the fate of their own bodies in the context of pregnancy.  Quiet but steely, Lavinia put me right in a few seconds.  A more loving parent could not be found, but she knew what she believed in, and she wasn't going to sit and listen to bumptious male twaddle from anyone.

Later on again, Lavinia took adult education classes, a certificate at UCD, and then did a postgraduate diploma at WERRC - the Women's Education, Research and Resource Centre, one of Ireland's first women's studies programmes, set up by Ailbhe Smyth, a truly radical Irish feminist.  My mother was not particularly confident returning to an academic context in her sixties, but she was determined.  With Ailbhe's support and inspiration and that of her colleagues, my mother got her diploma, and her flat filled up ever more with feminist writing, women's history, pamphlets, women's fiction.  In college, I had got uppity again, and gave her books by Toril Moi (Sexual/Textual Politics), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (their wonderful masterpiece The Madwoman in the Attic) and Mary Ellmann (the brilliant and hilarious Thinking About Women).  They were all devoured.

After Lavinia's death, I read Beauvoir for the first time, and was and remain a convert.   Last year, through the good offices of my comrade Sinead Kennedy, I met Ailbhe Smyth to discuss Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, and had the chance to remind her of how much my mother had enjoyed learning with her.  Ailbhe herself remains a beacon of courage and principle to us all.

The first International Women's Day was celebrated 103 years ago by Russian revolutionaries.   Here is an essay from that time by Alexandra Kollontai, posted now by Jacobin, explaining the impulse behind it:

The Meaning of International Women’s Day

And here is a Verso/Guardian list of reading for International Women's Day.  It's at least less in thrall to (neo-)liberal feminist goals such as professional success, prestige, power and wealth than today's Irish Times list of Irish female 'role-models'.  How anyone could see Samantha Power, theorist and jurist of liberal imperialism, as an example for young Irish feminist women is beyond me. 

Happy International (Working) Women's Day!


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Without Hope, Without Fear

The great Baroque artist Michele da Caravaggio is said to have lived by the motto, 'Nec Spe, Nec Metu' - 'No hope, no fear' or 'without hope, without fear' - a distinctly Nietzschean maxim for this most contemporary of painters.  Caravaggio had, as far as we know, a famously turbulent and chaotic life, moving between the stars of wealthy patrons and the gutter of crime and the demi-monde.   But he produced along the way in fleeting moments some of the most 'modern' and brilliant paintings that European culture has ever seen.  He died young in 1610, in mysterious circumstances, still suffering grievous injuries from an attempt on his life just a few years before.  He and his work flared out with a suddenness and intensity that have rarely been matched.

It's a fair leap between Caravaggio and the steely tough-mindedness of Mike Davis, but it may be that they share the same challenging motto.  Mike Davis is surely one of the most remarkable historians active today.  Of Irish and American provenance, he has been a major figure of the activist New Left.   But he has also been one of the finest urban and radical historians of the last several decades.  His history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, is a scholarly book written with the mordant eye and wit of James Ellroy.  His preoccupation with disaster and its representations has seen him chronicle catastrophes both cultural-fictional, and global-historical, and has even reached out beyond the limits of the planet, with a wonderful essay in the New Left Review some years ago on theories of 'coherent catastrophism' and the earth-system - a dramatic and enthralling survey of research which suggests that the Earth's geological, ecological and even human history may have been decisively shaped by extraterrestrial forces in the shape of comet and asteroid hits.  Buda's Wagon is a history of the car-bomb, which opens by reminding us that the original of the form was not deployed by Shia Islamists in West Beirut, but by Italian-American anarchists striking at Wall Street with a horse-cart packed with explosives in 1920.

Ever since his Prisoners of the American Dream (1985), Davis has been a significant writer about American politics and the working-class.  Here is an interview where he speaks both of his own background, and about the current presidential nominations race.  He is grimly clear about the forces arrayed against working Americans and their political expression - as egregious and hypocritical in their Clintonite form as in that represented by the rightward swing of the GOP - and about the wider implications of such struggles beyond the United States: ' "Hope" is not a scientific category', he notes.  But we must 'Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight absolutely'.

A New Electorate: Mike Davis on Clinton, Trump, and Sanders