Reading Alexandra Kollontai and Gerda Lerner, and countering Judith Butler (again)

What’s rolling around in my head…

  1. Alexandra Kollontai’s essay ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle‘ in which she makes the point that in modern society we have the idea of ‘possessing’ the lover.  This struck a chord with me.  Lesbians are affected by the notion of love as possessing and being possessed, while we also insist on and value our own autonomy and the autonomy of our partners.  Struggling with this heterosexual-patriarchal paradigm inflected with capitalist individualism, the idea of what a love relationship is and should be, we are faced with the need to invent like every other lesbian couple before us, a relation as free dykes – free autonomous female creators who are drawn to each other and feel strongly for/about each other, who deeply want each other’s satisfaction and thriving, and have to remember ourselves and our own needs and wants and moods and turning away and to respect those of our lover.
  2. Gerda Lerner’s book ‘The Creation of Patriarchy‘ is revelatory about the history of early patriarchy (focusing on ancient near-east and Israel, then briefly on Greece, as foundational to western culture), peeling down and adding back the layers.  But let’s look at how she answers the ultimate question about how it came to be that men were in a position to appropriate the sexual and reproductive powers of women, in the very first instance.  Women’s role in life-giving, as those who can bear children, means that if a society needs more children to have agricultural laborers in a harsh environment they are more likely to succeed if they regulate women’s sexual and reproductive power.  Not every society turns patriarchal (she mentions Iroquois as avoiding it); so it is historical contingency rather than causation that she maintains is the basis for patriarchy.  She can’t answer the question about how the initial shift towards disparity of power in favor of males was accomplished because there isn’t sufficient evidence – only to say that certain factors predisposed greater success in consolidation of wealth and power for those societies that developed this way, leading to patriarchy’s predominance – whereas there is good evidence for how male elites shifted more and more power away from women, in the stages that are recorded in writing.  It might be enough though, to say it’s contingent and, if the planet and humanity survive, it is possible to be vigilant about choosing equality of the sexes as a first principle for economic and political organization – with an edge towards women, ‘at least equality’ I have said elsewhere, so that we never go back.  Contingency means it is our hands.
  3. Some feminists have been discussing Judith Butler recently, and I was reminded of the terribly dystopian vision of social constructionism in Gender Trouble, which posits that men constructed language, sex and sexuality once and for all as patriarchy and all we can do now – the only kind of subjectivity and agency possible – is ‘parody or pastiche’ of sex roles and sex stereotypes.  I reacted strongly against this when I read the book, returning to my own body and knowing with every breath I am newly conscious of the world and the world changes as every subjectivity and agency is always changing and interacting in complex engagements.  I found an echo of this in Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, and think it it is even more strongly supported by Gerda Lerner’s evidence for the historical contingency of patriarchy.  We are not limited by patriarchy, patriarchy is limited by our capacity to choose and create differently having a consciousness of the terrible consequences of any encroachment on female autonomy, any suggestion that we are instruments for survival of the whole.

1 thought on “Reading Alexandra Kollontai and Gerda Lerner, and countering Judith Butler (again)

  1. Pingback: Self-authorship, mad pride, lesbians | tastethespring

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