Alex has written a really fantastic blogpost on the tensions between immanence and transcendence in the Xenofeminist Manifesto. It chimes with something I’ve been thinking about recently, after spending quite a bit of time with Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. (I’m going to pull on this thread here, which may or may not resonate with Alex’s post — I cannot claim to be as well acquainted with XF’s named antecedents as she is.)
The sense in which “alienation” is used in xenofeminism’s self-described “politics of alienation” has been a sticking point for a few people in recent years — and Alex’s response to this handwringing is entertaining enough: “I don’t care enough to comment”. But I do feel like, indirectly at least, Alex has sketched the outline of a figure that these critiques always fail to see.
This figure emerges in the form of a fundamental tension, which Alex draws out as follows:
For XF, calls to nature are power moves — linguistic expressions of the will to power that inadvertently locks one into a prison — in which we “are told to seek solace in unfreedom, staking claims on being ‘born’ this way, as if offering an excuse with nature’s blessing” (Cuboniks 2015, 5). Appeals to nature — or more specifically, truth in nature — are “a retreat from what makes trans and queer politics more than just a lobby: that it is an arduous assertion of freedom against an order that seemed immutable” (Cuboniks 2015, 5). Here, nature is figured as a kind of limit which must be overcome — an order that can be overthrown or escape. This xenofeminism confronts a prison, sure, but prisons have outsides: they are escapable.
Yet while this XF is embedded rather neatly in the language of transcendence, hardly two pages later the manifesto shatters any illusion of transcendence or the possibility (possibilities?) therein. With a heavy dose of Donne Haraway, XFM reads: “‘Nature’ — understood here, as the unbounded arena of science — is all there is“ (Cuboniks 2015, 4). Where the previous XF almost yearns for a kind of innocence (though I’m sure no one will ever admit to it), this other Xenofeminism — where nature is not a limit but “all there is” — invokes Haraway’s unwavering refusal to tease out the organic and the inorganic: “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism” (Cuboniks 2015, 2).
This tension has led to a number of critics trying to tease out just what exactly XF is talking about when it talks about alienation. The first of these was Annie Goh’s for Mute magazine, which many found to be deficient in constructing a flawed history of the term’s philosophical uses. I’ve been nursing an argument recently that this article’s paranoic drawing of lines around certain senses of the term doesn’t get us anywhere because it misses out a central if silent reference: Lyotard.
Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy declares — controversially, of course — that there is a false tautology in most understandings of alienation in the present, as if the presence of alienation suggests there is some non-alienated region for us to escape to. But this position, more often than not, falls back on primitivist arguments of retreat. When dealing with something like capitalism, this kind of logic is never not reactionary. It also ignores the extent to which people — specifically, the modern proletariat — enjoy their alienation, complicating the entangled processes of desire and capitalism.
I’m partly interested in this because of my current research into adoption and surrogacy. Because, despite all the recent romanticising of familial abolition, I find it interesting that there is little consideration of how adopted children (broadly speaking — that is, whatever the circumstances of their births) are quintessentially alienated subjects. It seems to me that any focus on the politics of surrogacy, though still valuable in and of itself, can only ever have half of the picture if it refuses to consider the complex affects of alienation commonly experienced by those who are surrogates, who are born of surrogacy, or who raise surrogate children. This is because, no matter how emphatically the abolition of the family is called for, it nonetheless remains this oddly transcendental prison that we cannot see outside of.
This is intriguing for me in my research because I think it can be argued that most of the trauma experienced by those in the adoptive triad comes from the fact that they are outside of a societal limit of familial relations that are so abstract and yet so concrete. Each figure in this complex relationship is primed to escape the bounds of what we understand as a “family” but this very process of adoption and surrogacy exists in order to suture together some ill-fitting ideal. The resulting alienation occurs because, as we know, even though the nuclear family is a bygone category — with its failure statistically more common today than not — it remains a sort of transcendental institution that defines how we think about and imagine our domestic relations.
Mark Fisher wrote about this once, commenting on Beginning to See the Light by Ellen Willis, who mourns the extent to which the hippies, who were all for communal living, for a time, couldn’t get past the desire deep down to marry off and start a family. Mark writes:
The counterculture’s politics were anticapitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterizes as her “quarrel with the left,” yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organization.
Willis declares her generation naive to have thought they could have done away with the desire for the family so swiftly. Mark talks about how this is prevalent in even the most unlikely of places — as even children who have been abused and are the products of abjectly dysfunctional families still yearn for the ideal — and the Right arguably preyed on this in the 1970s. He continues:
Willis insists that the return of familialism was central to the rise of the new Right, which was just about to be confirmed in grand style with the election of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. “If there is one cultural trend that has defined the seventies,” Willis wrote, “it is the aggressive resurgence of family chauvinism.” For Willis, perhaps the most disturbing signs of this new conservatism was the embrace of the family by elements of the Left, a trend reinforced by the tendency for former adherents of the counterculture (including herself) to (re)turn to the family out of a mixture of exhaustion and defeatism. “I’ve fought, I’ve paid my dues, I’m tired of being marginal. I want in!” Impatience — the desire for a sudden, total, and irrevocable change, for the end of the family within a generation — gave way to a bitter resignation when that (inevitably) failed to happen.
Mark goes on to claim that the questions raised by Willis’s obituary for the counterculture — not least in its admissions of impatience — are explicitly accelerationist, at least when coupled with a necessary clarification of the term. He writes:
I want to situate accelerationism not as some heretical form of Marxism, but as an attempt to converge with, intensify, and politicize the most challenging and exploratory dimensions of popular culture. Willis’s desire for “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude” and her “quarrel with the left” over desire and freedom can provide a different way into thinking what is at stake in this much misunderstood concept. A certain, perhaps now dominant, take on accelerationism has it that the position amounts to a cheerleading for the intensification of any capitalist process whatsoever, particularly the “worst,” in the hope that this will bring the system to a point of terminal crisis. … This formulation, however, is question-begging in that it assumes what accelerationism rejects — the idea that everything produced “under” capitalism fully belongs to capitalism. By contrast, accelerationism maintains that there are desires and processes which capitalism gives rise to and feeds upon, but which it cannot contain; and it is the acceleration of these processes that will push capitalism beyond its limits. Accelerationism is also the conviction that the world desired by the Left is post-capitalist — that there is no possibility of a return to a pre-capitalist world and that there is no serious desire to return to such a world, even if we could.
Here we see Lyotard’s charge, that the oppressed might enjoy their oppression, landing perhaps a little too close to home — and we cannot deny that XF has always been, quite explicitly, accelerationism-adjacent, whether in Fisher’s sense or otherwise.
I’d argue that Lyotard’s challenge of total alienation isn’t just a huge factor within capitalist realism but also in what Helen Hester has called “domestic realism”. In fact, we might argue that (part of) XF’s sense of alienation approaches the family in much the same way accelerationism approaches capitalism. We cannot disavow everything the family produces simply because of the circumstances of their genesis — not least because the ideal of the family is the primary foundation we have for a communal form of living. In this sense, we can use it as a starting point, as any politics of surrogacy surely has to do by default in our present moment. But this position necessitates the inclusion of Lyotard’s own problematic — we have to then account for the ways that parents and their children actually enjoy the tortorous Christmases, the shit family outings, the passed-on neuroses, the genetic familiarity…
When XF calls for transcendence from nature whilst acknowledging its immanence, surely this is the battleground they are describing? The call for the abolition of the family, of gender, of domestic realism, cannot fall back on the fallacy of a non-alienated region to set up camp in.
And if alienation is all there is, then the only way out is through.