Activated Negativity: An Interview with Marina Vishmidt
with Mira Mattar and Julia Calver
April 1st, 2016
Abolition of gender, in much contemporary theory, is envisioned as a crucial part of a general movement towards the dismantling of the capitalist relation wherein gender is a primary tool of domination. In this interview Julia Calver and Mira Mattar talk to Marina Vishmidt about the significance of gender abolition and what role the concept of a “subject” can play in the revolutionary feminist transformation of social relations.
They ask about self-abolition, in which the collective subject, in order to overcome that which subjugates it, must abolish itself. They discuss whether a strategic affirmation of gendered, raced and classed identities becomes necessary to the process of abolition, focusing on the abolition of woman. These questions are discussed with relation to feminist theorists, Monique Wittig and Carla Lonzi, who in different ways work with the dynamic of affirmation and negation, and the category “woman”. An analogy between gender and class is present in Wittig’s writing, women form a class, which must overcome itself. While Lonzi’s thought describes a transformed idea of woman, one distinct from that defined by patriarchy. In this interview both positions are challenged by contemporary theories such as communisation and afro-pessimism which de-emphasise identification, strategic or otherwise, with one’s subjugated position that forms a limit rather than a means of organization. In discussing what might be meant by an activated negativity and how negation and affirmation relate to strategy, practice and agency, this interview asks who is addressed by the theory of self-abolition.
Mira Mattar: First of all could you talk a bit about the history of the concept of self-abolition and its relation to gender abolition?
Marina Vishmidt: I initially came across the idea of gender abolition in the context of communisation theory, where it seemed to be very much in symmetry with the way the self-abolition of the working class was formulated. As soon as that analogy is established, the question of whether class and gender are similar or different kinds of social determinations, or identifications, comes into view.
Gender abolition also has a history in queer theory, including the work that often gets grouped under the “queer nihilism” rubric, such as Lee Edelman’s No Future, and probably also has a history beyond that, in for example, the 1970s’ communist gay liberation movements. In terms of “second-wave feminism” though, someone like Monique Wittig presents another position in the so-called dualisms of “socialist” or “Marxist feminism”, and “radical feminism” or “feminism of difference”. She sees gender in very similar terms to class. You can actually politically reject gender. Take for example her position that lesbians are not women because “woman” names a subjugated class in patriarchy. Gender, like class, is open to being challenged through a politics of collective self-determination or autonomy.
As soon as you start thinking of self-abolition and gender, all these histories and debates begin to come into play. Self-abolition is one way of approaching these debates, which have to do with tensions and relations between Marxist feminism and radical feminism, as well as questions of separatism and dis-identification that occur here. There’s also the question of what the status of “abolition” is in the strategic or theoretical context, how it travels from theory to strategy, or whether there is transitivity between theory and strategy that can be charted using this term.
MM: Regarding the slightly different strains of definitions — self-abolition, abolition of gender, abolition of women — are these important differences? I understand the abolition of women would be proposed as opposed to abolition of men, in that it is the subjugated category who must self-abolish, but is the abolition of men implied in the abolition of gender and of women?
MV: It’s the question of whether the subjugated term in abolishing itself abolishes the relation, or whether there needs to be another movement of relinquishing privilege or power within that. I think the hypothesis or argument for the self-abolition of the working class is that it abolishes the relation. So the self-abolition of women is probably modelled upon that. But because patriarchy, capitalism, gender and class don’t map cleanly onto one another, the question is to what extent can they be seen as parts of the same logic. Also, to what extent do patriarchal modes of domination and exploitation co-exist with capitalism, or exceed it in time and space? So it’s tricky to see whether or not the abolition of the relation in gender abolition is the same as the relation abolished in the hypothesis of the abolition of the working class, because they only look similar on a formal level. Monique Wittig imagines gender as class. That’s how she tries to resolve the problem. That perhaps is not as convincing today for various reasons having to do with shifts in class or left politics in the intervening three or four decades. I would then also think of an Italian Marxist feminist text from the 1970s, “Destroy yourselves as our bosses. Destroy yourselves as the inexhaustible vacuums of our domestic labor,” which is addressed to men.
So it seems as if the abolition of men is presupposed in the injunction to (self-) abolish gender. But because the abolition of gender implies the abolition of heteronormativity, and men are positioned as a dominant pole within that relation, then perhaps the abolition of gender doesn’t discuss the way in which male homosexuality and homosociality benefit from patriarchal relations. You then have to think about same-sex relations and see what structural inequities remain there, and see what happens to gender abolition once taken outside the heterosexual matrix. Are contemporary iterations of gender fluidity, non-gender or agender, abolishing gender on the symbolic or a cultural level? And how is that distinct from self-abolition on a more widespread or systemic level? Communisation theory envisions gender abolition as part of a general movement of the abolition of the capitalist relation, which isn’t valid unless it includes the abolition of gender, among other kinds of separations and forms of domination.
Julia Calver: Making a distinction between the subjugated subject and the relation is quite useful. The question of whether both are abolished is interesting.
MV: Yes, it can be surmised that the abolition of women has to presuppose an abolition of men.
MM: Sometimes the conversation around this makes me feel that it is the responsibility of women or non-men to abolish gender. Will something eventually be different for everyone because of work that women or non-men did?
MV: Yes, there’s the idea that feminism benefits men as much as women — or to some extent benefits men — but of course there are all the material benefits to male domination for men. To the extent that gender abolition removes the pressure to perform normative gender roles, it benefits both of the cisgender identifications, in a hetero-dualistic perspective. But whether it also implies a dismantling of the structure of privilege that reproduces those roles is a question, I suppose, of that larger movement just mentioned.
JC: Related to this idea of who’s doing the work of the self-abolition, there’s a line in your recent paper, “The Paradox of Self-Abolition” essay, Marina, which is about how a self-abolishing subject would have or need to have an agency that may be seen as an activated negativity. Can you expand on that term?
MV: The text came out of a workshop in Bilbao in November 2014 in response to an essay by Ray Brassier that was concerned with the paradox of self-abolition. He was reading Endnotes and trying to understand who would be the subject of the abolition, because if the subject is entirely constituted through capitalist relations where does the negativity come from? That is, the rejection of capitalist relations would have to come from somewhere other than the subject, since that subject is totally constituted by capitalist relations, at least on the level of formal logic, which is where this debate in some sense originates. He was trying to make an argument that this was an incoherent position. Participants in the workshop were trying to argue that you don’t need to read it in this logical, abstract way, but that you need to root it in some kind of social reality, social movement or social contradiction. Activated negativity comes from thinking how self-abolition can be grounded in some kind of material context, and how it can be a determinate rather than an abstract prescription.
JC: At the beginning of the essay, you set up the paradox as a way of thinking, particularly in the case of abolition, and ask how the subject is constructed given that it also wants to destroy itself.
MM: The affirmation/negation paradox.
MV: I was reading affirmation through Carla Lonzi and the Rivolta Femminile group, and how they affirmed woman as a subject of radical negation. They saw patriarchy and philosophy as being intimately or mutually constitutive, and this is explored, in an aphoristic mode in Let’s Spit on Hegel (1970). On the one hand there’s a kind of absolute radical negativity, on the other, there’s a kind of affirmation of this abstract subject of woman. Woman has different interests from other abstract subjects: youth, for example (always male youths supposed to collaborate with woman against the father). So there are all these other subjects, which are — in the way they are reproduced in the mainstream, leftist politics of the time — presumed as normatively male, and then there is woman, which has different interests from all of them. Woman is the only one who can really challenge phallocentric and western philosophical, political and legal domination. Woman is, in a way, the signifier that is used to establish the parameters of engagement in this project, and its claim on negativity. That’s one place where I saw this paradox: if you can’t affirm a subject, who is the subject of abolition? If you can affirm a subject as something self-sufficient, as something radically negative in itself, what kind of relation would drive that subject to try and transform her situation, or her situation as it implicates others? What of those who cannot be collapsed into the self-sufficiency of that abstract subject, a subject whose most important determination is woman, not class, or race? This abstract prioritization of “woman’s estate” (like the title of the Juliet Mitchell book) clearly became the primary debate within second-wave feminism. It is of course less abstract than supposed if what grounds those politics is only a white middle-class subject position. But it doesn’t mean there is not a distinct question of gender, as the trans-historical subjugation and exploitation of women shows. It is not simply one reified “oppression” among others, in the same way that no oppression can be understood without situating it historically and socially, whether as part of an overall “logic” (say, of capital), or in relation to other forms of social violence.
MM: In your essay you said it is not as if the self is abolished and a “new self” emerges, but rather that it’s a continuous process.
MV: Yes, Wittig would argue that self-abolition is a long process, punctuated by the strategic affirmation of a number of ultimately undesirable identities, which are dialectically sloughed off: each is “not-All” and thus does not complete a movement, either positively or negatively.
MM: Do you think that relates to the question of whether there is a difference between self and subject? As I understand it, at least from Wittig’s “One Is Not Born a Woman”, the self is that which has been, to an extent, produced, whereas the subject is the kind of active agent of self-abolition — she who becomes aware of how she has been interpellated and can thus act. Does this idea of self relate to the self of self-abolition in contemporary thought?
MV: I think the self in the term “self-abolition” refers to the activity of the subject or class itself as the only thing that can trigger the process of transformation or revolution. There doesn’t really seem to be an explicit concept of the self that is operating there. It’s a kind of trigger, like saying “auto-abolition”.
JC: I have a question about the seeming distinction between the way Wittig constitutes women as a class and sees a political struggle around that, and the ideas coming out of communisation whereby class identity might no longer be useful, or might not be possible to define. I wonder, therefore, whether you could describe how self-abolition still works in the case of communisation where we don’t have the class analogy.
MM: That class identities cannot be united under seems to, in communisation discourse, create a limit, which is in itself dynamic, or a dynamic.
MV: Class itself names the limit in communisation, in the sense that it’s no longer a positive identity, but it is where you are. It’s not something you want to identify with, but it shapes the circumstances — poverty or dispossession or precarity — which you struggle against. Yet, when it comes to naming class belonging as a positive political identity, this doesn’t really resonate with most people’s situation anymore. Thus, any movement of resistance with respect to state and capital, such as anti-austerity movements, even riots, etc., run up against this limit. Class actually functions as what they call an “external constraint”. It’s not something that is any longer a source of institutional, political or even affective identification.
JC: Can you give a quick sketch of why that might be?
MV: In communisation theory, class is experienced as an external constraint in the sense that people don’t identify with parties, or workers’ movements, or their work, which has, by and large, been so restructured and recomposed that it is actually hard to unite in time and space with people in similar circumstances: everyone is on different kinds of contracts, everything is quite individualized. There is a decay or disintegration of class belonging, on an objective and subjective level, so that when people struggle, they are no longer struggling to bring about the workers’ world where workers are running things. It’s more like they are struggling against the things that limit their lives to the extent that they see these as common or systemic problems, but there isn’t a struggle for something specifically. Having said that, which inarguably captures certain important features of contemporary experience certainly in the West and former West, that kind of argument or historical account can also misrecognize or totalize a lot about the present and the past for reasons of theoretical convenience.
MM: And that kind of disidentification (from class belonging) might also be applicable to struggles around gender and race.
MV: There’s definitely ways to try to bring them together. I think there are some quite good texts in the last Endnotes and the current one, particularly about race and the abject subject. A lot of the critical and theoretical discussion that has come about in the past few years at the instigation of Black Lives Matter movement, and well before that — what gets called "afro-pessimism", for example — deals with these questions in a number of really incisive ways.
MM: I’m interested in how questions of practicality i.e. what is to be done and how, with regards to abolition are asked and answered.
JC: Maybe I can pick up on that. It might be forcing it too far, but Mira and I did talk about the way in which certain questions like “who?” or “how?” seem to be almost prohibited in theoretical discussion. I don’t think that’s only because they seem to force a practicality onto the theoretical. The fact that they are a bit negated by theory makes them quite compelling to return to. I keep wanting to go back to try and find a way through. There was a line in your essay, Marina, where you did specifically ask the “who?” question: “Who is the subject that initiates and who comes out of the other side of abolition?” I felt like it addressed me in quite a specific way, in a way that I almost wanted to reject.
MV: I was thinking that the question is also put to me, or to the kinds of problems I’ve set up in the text: you can’t affirm women and you can’t exactly map gender onto class, but self-abolition still seems like a generative dynamic in the sense that it asks the question, or it should ask the question, “who”. Normally, the argument or premise of self-abolition doesn’t engage with that question except as a formula or a tautology, even when a process is indicated, and that is what I wanted to bring out in the text. The text is not really so much arguing as mapping positions. The question continues to hover over that mapping and it’s ultimately a question about whether abolition is an adequate way to conceptualize thoroughgoing social transformation or revolution. The question of “who” is connected to the question of abolition because abolition has this kind of Baron Münchhausen lifting-himself-off-the-ground-by-the-hair aspect to it. Is there something quite automatic or theoreticist about the whole concept of abolition as a way of thinking change? There is when it exists without the materialist thinking of negativity and composition that needs to happen to prevent this “logicist” framing of the question, which, in different ways, both Brassier and Endnotes were projecting onto one another’s positions. And also, given that the category of women is so much broader than “working class”, historically, terminologically and epistemologically, even if it is related (i.e. “woman” as the category of “reproductive (non) worker” in space and time), can the self-abolition of gender function the same way given gender itself is striated by race, class and many other social determinations?
MM: I remember you mentioning once before, in a conversation we had or a talk I heard, that perhaps abolition isn’t even a useful formulation. It’s interesting to hear you say it again.
MV: I think we do want to get rid of gender, I just wonder if abolition is the way to think about it because abolition as a term, as a category, has certain associations that are quite ambiguous. So on the one hand there’s something like sovereign power about it it’s like “I abolish slavery, here’s my emancipation proclamation” there’s something quite formal about it, something quite voluntarist. On the other hand, it seems to me you can’t really think about process within a category like abolition. Or maybe you can, but no one really has. Abolition kind of gets used as a catch-all phrase: “it’s fine because it will be abolished”. I’m not sure whether it’s always a very materialist way of thinking negation.
MM: In relation to what you said about sovereignty, isn’t abolition theorized as the only possible collectively?
MV: It does occur collectively, but as a term it doesn’t seem to bring anything specific to the thinking of collectivity. Or, abolition doesn’t itself seem to contain a thinking of a collective process more than an equally abstract term such as negation, overcoming or destruction. I still prefer liberation.
MM: Gender liberation?
MV: Perhaps just liberation rather than abolition, but probably more from gender than of gender, though this is not to say that the process of liberation or revolution might not transform the meaning and function of gender, which I believe is Silvia Federici’s critique of “abolition” as a principle or program.
MM: At least a kind of collectivity is more strongly implied in that word and suggests that that collectivity might continue, or have to, “afterwards”.
MV: Or, that something unknown has been found, rather than that something has simply been gotten rid of. Which is to say, our attention is drawn to the proliferation of mediations in the process of reinventing social relations, rather than only to the destruction of existing ones implied by abolition, which might leave us with an impoverished concept of non-capitalist life.
- Communisation is a strand of contemporary communist theory “which emerged from the post-68 French ultra-left; the question of gender and its abolition; the analysis of contemporary struggles, movements and political economy; the dynamics of surplus population and its effects on capital and class; capitalist formations of ‘race’; value-form theory and systematic dialectics; the revolutionary failures and impasses of the 20th Century.” Taken from: http://endnotes.org.uk/about
“Afro-pessimism is not a positive theory of black identity. Nor is it an affirmative philosophical movement of black subjectivity. Neither does it constitute a conscious and programmatic political position. And it does not attempt to grapple with anything resembling a single unified theory of white supremacy. Afro-pessimism is rather an informal tendency that could be designated as a constellation of theorists, ideas and artistic works ruminating upon the structural condition of black existence as indelibly marked by the residual echoes of the slave relation.” Taken from: http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wanderings-slave-black-life-and-social-death. For more, see the works of Frank B. Wilderson, III (in whose writings the term originated), as well as Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman and Hortense Spillers.
- Several Milanese feminist groups, “Destroy yourselves as our bosses. Destroy yourselves as the inexhaustible vacuums of our domestic labor”, 1976, see The New Inquiry, 21 May 2012, http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/s-a-o-b/destroy-yourselves-as-our-bosses-destroy-yourselves-as-the-inexhaustible-vacuums-of-our-domestic-labor/
- Marina Vishmidt, “The Paradox of Self-Abolition: a Mapping Exercise”, presented at Now You Can Go, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKykupDhX4k
- Ray Brassier, “Wandering Abstraction”, Mute, 13 February 2014, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wandering-abstraction
- Endnotes #3 http://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3
- The Endnotes text “Error” in Bad Feelings is an attempt to shift this discussion to a more pragmatic terrain. https://www.bookworks.org.uk/node/1870
- Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born A Woman”, The Straight Mind, 1981
- Marina Vishmidt, “The Paradox of Self-Abolition: a Mapping Exercise”, presented at Now You Can Go, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKykupDhX4k