Teaching an online course about a utopian manifesto from the 1960s is a brutally effective way to illuminate the dystopianism of the pandemic-stricken present, let me tell you. To be sure, great surges of love and rage have hit the streets again and again over the past few years, disrupting the unlivable, carceral, care-poor reality that is, for so many of its denizens, the United States. As these waves of abolitionism crested, for example in the summer of 2020, one could almost catch a glimpse of what it might have felt like in 1968, when everything seemed on the table; suddenly, the restraint of 21st-century radicalism was illuminated. It is especially instructive, I feel, to look at the utopias of that bygone, almost-revolutionary era right now, during the late-stage pandemic. The re-entrenchment of gender cynicism, of nuclear familyism, has lately crept up on so many of us, without us fully noticing.
An overwhelming majority of today’s babies are being shaped in drastic, unheard-of privacy; reproductive laborers are at a breaking point; meanwhile, trans people—and victims of domestic violence generally—are suffering in silence, staying in the closet, unable to flee. Who better, then, to pierce the surreptitious, mind-numbing normalization of all this, under both Trump and Biden, than Shulamith Firestone (a mere 23 years old in ‘68), with her scalding refusal of every “natural” premise of American society and her vision of a future in which children and adults together (having eliminated capitalism, work, and the sex distinction itself) democratically inhabit large, nongenetic households?
“Shulie” (as she was known to her friends in her youth), a Chicago art-school graduate and subsequent New Yorker, deemed the overthrowing of class, work, and markets to be a self-evidently necessary task, barely worth defending. What really interested her, instead, was the abolition of culture and nature, no less—starting with patriarchal “love” and its “culture of romance” on the one hand, and pregnancy on the other. Besides editing and producing the short-lived, self-published militant (and millenarian) women’s liberation journal Notes, Shulie cofounded several revolutionary groups—New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists—which sometimes carried out direct actions targeting, for instance, a Miss America pageant and a Manhattan bridal fair. She then published her book-length manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, through (controversially) a mainstream press. In it, she advocates for “the abolition of the labor force itself under a cybernetic socialism” and “the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women.” Ectogenesis—the machine uterus—is famously a part of this speculative picture. But above all, she contends, women must liberate children and themselves from the capitalist patriarchy—seizing control over technology, eradicating the tyranny of work, automating labor (yes, even reproductive labor, as far as possible), and shedding the incest taboo such that play, love, and sexuality might “[flow] unimpeded.”
While sharing several of Firestone’s feminist commitments, the philosopher Hortense Spillers was devastating in her takedown of The Dialectic of Sex’s failure to imagine nonwhite women’s liberation, as well as the contempt for Black nationalism displayed in Firestone’s regrettable Chapter 5. The chapter in question is titled “Racism: The Sexism of the Family of Man,” and undeniably, it deserves everything Black feminists have said about it. Despite having denounced Freudianism as “misguided” in Chapter 3, Firestone here disregards slavery, colonialism, and any historical-materialist basis for white supremacy, instead explaining it as a psychological and fundamentally “sexual phenomenon” that mimics the Oedipus complex. Black men are the sons in the American national family, she posits lazily, hence they are driven to kill the white man (Dad) and rape his white wife. In her deconstruction of the “myth of the Black rapist” in Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis politely summarizes this theoretical clusterfuck thus: “Firestone succumbs to the old racist sophistry of blaming the victim.” Spillers is less polite: “Is this writer doing comedy here, or have we misread her text?”
Alas, the presentation of racial stereotypes as psychological portraits of individual members of the so-called “Family of Man” is not intentionally a part of Firestone’s extensive (and sometimes excellent) comedy. Blind to both queer urban and nonmonogamous Indigenous lifeways, Firestone misses the fundamentally racial character of the production of cis-heterosexual gender in post-Reconstruction America, and the flaw is fatal to her whole project. She was not wrong, of course, that canonical Marxists and ’60s New Left “politicos” failed to attend properly to the spheres of sex/gender, baby-making, the colonially imposed nuclear family, and romance. But the horizon that so motivated her—the “explosion” of American culture in its entirety—is ultimately unimaginable without the abolition of whiteness, which she ignores. The twinned institutions of childhood and motherhood, upon which culture rests, according to her, were after all forged within white supremacy, as Spillers so aptly showed in 1987 in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” In other words, when Firestone talks about eliminating “the” sex distinction, she is eliding, under the sign of everywoman, what is really a multiplicity of racialized sexes and gender oppressions. Women do not all have the same gender. “The” utopia-bound dialectic of sex, if we should try to diagram it (as Shulie, believe it or not, did), is probably four-dimensional.
It is not up to me to excuse or “forgive” chapter 5. On page 1 of the text, however, if you do make it that far (knowing what you now know about the whole), there is a very compelling idea: namely, that the fundamental categories we use to think about historical change “are not big enough.” If we are generously inclined, The Dialectic of Sex can serve as a reminder that the wretched of the earth can and must harness science, remake nature, and unleash universal equality and joy. Technologies exist, Firestone plausibly affirms, that could—if the proletariat wanted—equitably distribute, reduce, and perhaps eventually dissolve the burden of drudgery entirely. She affirms up front her wish for a word more all-embracing than “revolution” for the playful, orgiastic scenario she has in mind. Preempting her aghast technophobic critics—who nevertheless (for 50 years!) have never deigned to see past her positivity vis-à-vis artificial wombs—Firestone declares straight up that an intensification of capitalism, namely “The 1984 Nightmare,” is highly likely if control over reproductive technologies continues to be wielded by the ruling classes and isn’t stormed from below.
The flawed Dialectic, in all its immortal exuberance, priceless drollery, and anguished seriousness, remixes Engels, Marx, Freud, Hegel, Beauvoir, and the kibbutz, combining high metaphysics—couched conversationally, almost as stand-up comedy—with the visceral phenomenological observations that “childbirth isn’t good for you” and “childhood is hell.” Immediately after its release in 1970, heartbreakingly, Firestone deserted the world of politics for good. Her big second book, intended to “lay the foundations of a powerful new women’s art—with the potential to transform our very definition of culture”—never arrived. Instead, in 1998, a follow-up text appeared at last: Airless Spaces, a tiny, fragmentary, despair-filled collection of stories about the psychiatric incarceration of Shulie and other inmates. Toward the end of that volume, under the heading “I Remember Valerie,” the author dedicates a couple of pages to a non-comrade—the “matriarchalist” Valerie Solanas, who “waxed paranoid” at her once long ago and had, she’d said, loathed The Dialectic. “It was many years before I heard of her again,” Firestone concludes. “Then it was just an obituary stating that she had been found in a San Francisco hotel dead of lung disease.” In 2012, Shulie died alone, too, in her apartment, still presumably waiting for the right term, more all-encompassing than “revolution,” to be invented.
Rereading The Dialectic of Sex over half a century after it was written, I am angered by its travesty of a critical race analysis and amazed at its silence on colonized, lesbian, gay, and trans people, the pioneers of struggles in and against the family. I am disappointed with its middle-classness and its disgust at the pregnant body; unimpressed with its conflation of femaleness and gestational labor; and embarrassed by its complete inattention to sex work, empire, disability, lesbians, and queer life generally. A disloyal daughter to all family abolitionists who came before me, I actually disagree with more of Firestone’s individual points than not. But I see something of my late mother in her biography, and I love—sometimes to the point of weeping—her book’s absolute negationism, its horniness, and its sincerity. I support utterly its program of doing away with marriage along with all forms of propertarian kinship. Through a wrinkle in time, I lay claim to Shulie, lovingly, irritatedly. I hold in my heart, without quite understanding it, her commitment to realizing “the conceivable in the actual.”
In an essay about another hilarious, well-read woman who died lonely and mad in her apartment—Marilyn Monroe—the artist Audrey Wollen writes about the gift she and her friends feel they received from Monroe’s brief, incendiary contribution to human history: “Tending to our impossibilities, we offered those around us both the negative, the zero, and its accompanying wish. That’s what Marilyn gave us.” Part of what Wollen is saying here, I think, is that the urgent destruction of this world, and the desire for a common life, are caught up in, well, a dialectic. And if so, then that is what Shulie gave us too, I feel: a literal map (“for that rare diagram freak”)—though it’s partly a joke—charting the way to a place where it would be possible to be a heterosexual feminist, a femme intellectual, and a comrade child.
Blind spots and all, Shulie Firestone merits revisiting in the age of coronavirus because she defamiliarizes (not to say guffaws at) the very building blocks of contemporary capitalism—notably the private nuclear household—that the experience of Covid-19 can, despite everything, teach us to call into question. While the sanctuary of “family” has on one level grown ever more invisible and unquestionable under the United States’ botched waves of quarantine, lockdown, and de-masking (which were themselves premised on the society-wide sacrifice zones of so-called care homes, not to mention global vaccine apartheid), the necessity of class consciousness, care revolution, and children’s liberation has also strained into view. Down with the chauvinist micro-nationalism of family values, said Shulie—which has been echoed by so many of us who discovered, via “stimulus” checks, that the sky does not fall when human survival is decoupled from the wage. Down with nationalism and the competitive micro-nations of family values, said Shulie: We are, transgenerationally, the makers of one another, the guardians of one another’s health, the intimate aliens from a future that now suddenly seems worth trying for.