Feminism, a counterpoint: On bell hooks’ ‘Feminism is for Everybody’

Since the blog ‘A Year of Feminist Classics’ started their monthly online reading group last year, I’ve tried to follow a few of their books that I could find easily. In this post I will consider Feminism as construed by bell hooks in the book ‘Feminism is for Everybody’. In particular I will frame her understanding of feminism in a way that is completely antithetical as a response to social and cultural inequalities to my favourite social thinker: Theodor Adorno

bell hooks defines Feminism essentially as a commitment to the end of sexist oppression. This is such a vague definition it allows for a variety of feminisms. One of the overriding themes of hooks’ book is that there are different kinds of feminisms within the unitary aegis of the label ‘feminism’. Once the influence of some feminist ideas and social and legislative reforms came to pass, a counter-discourse, or several counter-discourses emerged to critique the former reformer feminists as disingenuous and appealing to their sense of priviledge. Priviledge and the appeal to priviledge is something I don’t quite understand in this literature, but it serves as a way of pointing out how one form of oppression may take place even in a critical discourse.

There are at least three ways in which my experience of reading hooks’ ‘Feminism’ is utterly different to my ongoing read of Adorno. Firstly, Feminism, much like Liberation Theology or the committed socialist Marxists, consider activism and social reform as essential to the movement, as well as the ‘theory’ that underlies it. Secondly, feminism is distinctly optimistic. Thirdly and finally, feminism, according to hooks, has a commitment to accessibility in terms of the understandable nature of the ideas and proposals addressed, and in co-opting all people (women across all divides and men).

Feminism as praxis; Adorno as theoria

Feminist movements, feminist literature and feminist ideas, in its 19thC inception through to today emphasise activist activity. To call for the end of sexist oppression is to call for a state of affairs in the world. Feminism shares much with Marxism in that it calls for action and change, as well as a theoretical understanding of the world (cf. Feuerbach’s 11th thesis).

Action is important, because what is wanted is a better world. This may seem obvious to some but one must appreciate that there are many who are invested in the status quo for a variety of reasons. It would seem according to hooks, that there is a certain amount of division of labour within the feminist movement, there is a place for all levels of activity, from theorising in the academy, to large scale reform and grassroots movement. hooks calls for feminist television channels and radio for example. Since the book was written in 2000, I wonder what the author would think of Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Feminist Frequency’ or the influential role of the bloggosphere.

The role of praxis seems almost entirely absent in the work of Adorno. Adorno is committed to the analysis of culture and the way in which the oppressive nature of capitalism is maintained through mass media (the culture industry). By contrast to the likes of Horkheimer or Mercuse, Adorno seems distinctly committed to the all encompassing influence of capitalism in such a powerful way that the reform towards more egalitarian relations is increasingly difficult to achieve. Adorno is, as I would bluntly put it, a Marxist without the communist revolution. It is very much in following his intellectual forebears Weber, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, pessimistic.

Optimism versus pessimism

Feminism strives for a better world, and it should be said that the conditions have vastly changed in the reform of the social, legalistic and economic conditions of women. hooks points out that these changes for women should raise the question ‘changes for whom?’. For example, the place of contraceptive measures has liberated the sexuality of many women in allowing them to be more forthcoming about their sexuality, but this is only for a section of the female population for whom contraceptives are affordable or culturally viable. Even when advancing the dialectic of feminist critique through class, ethnic and lesbian discourses, reform is implicitly implied through advancing the feminist conversation. Inherent to the feminist cause is the possibility and actuality of social change towards the elimination of sex based oppression.

This is an interesting counterpoint to Adorno, who leaves very little in the sense of social and economic reform. There are glimmers within Adorno’s thought to suggest that there is a limited possibility for social criticism in culture, and even though Adorno addresses a largely different discourse to gender inequality, he hardly thought that radically positive change would happen in the condition of capitalism. Adorno takes an almost Kantian turn in looking at the conditions of possibility when it came to the mass media, and in looking at the conditions of possibility for the subsuming of culture under capitalism, also sets the conditions for its downfall, and such conditions are far too tight to give much optimism about change.

The role of accessibility

The most amusing aspect of comparison is accessibility. There are two senses of access that hooks considers. Firstly there is the accessibility of understanding, that feminism as an idea is presented in simple readable language that people can understand whatever their education level is. hooks even suggests the importance of audiobooks for promoting the message to the non-literate, I’m quite a fan of the audiobook as a medium. hooks insinuates at various points that while the presence of feminist academics is a great way of establishing institutional status and credibility for the movement, there is a risk of alienating their materials in the technical jargon and difficult language of the academic that prevents the ordinary person from reading and understanding it.

I have a few things to say about the importance of certain insights from feminist theory, namely, the role of sympathy, and the benefit of gender reflexibity on the history of philosophy or the methodological insights that can come from a gender sensitivity to the construction of knowledge, but I’ll leave that to another post perhaps as that is not confined within hooks book. To be an intellectual within an activist movement means to communicate to an audience who has a set goal for a concrete outcome, as such, communicability is vital. Accessibility is deeply linked to activism. I have noticed on the occupy websites for instance that one of their ground rules is to aim to communicate in a way that is understandable for many people.

What of Adorno on this regard? Well, Adorno is notoriously difficult to understand and I think that is what motivates much of the criticism from many later people to call him ‘elitist’. Adorno’s alleged elitism comes from the influence of philosophy and social theory; psychoanalysis and serialist modernism. To understand Adorno’s critique of society means that it would help to also understand expressionism. Were it not for my interest in Kant, sociology and the music of schoenberg, as well as my cultural outlook that despair is the most fundamental expression relevant to the contemporary world, I probably wouldn’t read Adorno. I hardly keep accessibility in mind when I am familiar with many of the authors and ideas that he refers to (but not all, it should be said).

Adorno writes as an academic. Adorno even acknowledges his priviledge as an academic author in the essay “Free Time”. There comes a point in understanding an issue where it is necessarily complicated, and being impenetrable to the general public seems a distantly difficult goal. This is of course, the goal of anyone who tries to publically promote an academic discourse, many do so by glossing over certain things or just getting to the punchline. For many issues this is not very easy. I wonder if there is a link between his pessimism of social change to the difficult way in which he writes.

hooks uses accessibility in a second sense, in trying to get more people involved with feminism and that they can see it as something relevant to them or something that they can contribute to. One thing that I find interesting about hooks’ other sense of accessibility is something I did not suspect, namely men. Men are apparently important to the feminist movement. hooks states that men can help in a few specific aspects, through activism and through their everyday understanding of the world through gender (for instance, if they are involved with the upbringing of children or engaged in relationships with women). As a man reading this book, seems to me that it is important to be self conscious of gender, not only in observing it in the world, but in one’s own behaviour and beliefs.

Final Remarks: other aspects of feminism

In self-reflection, we need to take account of our own internal sexisms, this may be learned or developed. Sometimes the perpetrators of sexism are themselves women, and the battle to eliminate sexism may involve confrontations with women upholding patriarchy. Reflexivity is a crucial aspect of the movement, and I would say further, any activist cause. Consciousness raising is a related and important aspect of the feminist discourse. In identifying and calling out instances of patriarchy or the cultural assumptions present in culture, we may discover the underlying values and ideology of the discourses in everyday life and the mass media. Consciousness raising is an aspect of the feminist cause that is perhaps the most understandable to a wider audience, for instance noticing how children’s products are marketed differently between the genders, or how toys for children reflect cultural assumptions such as the passivity of females and the activity of males.

One ongoing theme of my own thought is the important role of pessimism, both in the sense of (a lack of) positive social change as well as in the Schopenhauer sense of an ethical insight to frame one’s life. My growing interest in feminism comes from consciousness raising, but it may stop at the way it conflicts with my pessimism. In emphasising the activist component of the feminist movement, hooks frames the disagreements between feminists as a dispute on the way to achieving the shared goal of eliminating sexist prejudice. Certainly more can be said on the theoretical import that feminism might bring, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post. I find it really refreshing and challenging that feminism for many people is an activist cause rather than an armchair pursuit. Many feminist identifying groups have been very good at the DIY punk style ethic of activism. But will it stop me from being a pessimist? I’ll leave that for future posts to try and work that one out.

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