glitzfrau: (linke emanze)
[personal profile] glitzfrau
On my holidays, I finished Eichmann in Jerusalem and moved on to How to Be a Woman. Oh, it's so tempting to say, from the sublime to the ridiculous, but unfair too. While I was reading Arendt, a sense of awe built up in me at her absolutely perfect prose, the flawless construction of her sentences and paragraphs and arguments; how every sentence answered the one before and raised a question for the next one to answer; how subtle themes ran through and were never dropped; how the level of argument was intellectually rigorous and yet completely transparent; how her incandescent anger was at no time in doubt but at no time overcame her prose. And that in her second language!

It is a perfect book, if you ask me. She considers and deals with difficulties for just the right length of time for the reader to understand and follow them, such as her elegant dismissal of the 'anyone else would have done the same' defence - you are not put on trial for hypothetical crimes that others may or may not have committed, you are being put on trial for these specific crimes to which you have confessed (so there, Bernhard Schlink). Others have been furious with the book, and I can see why: she's unstinting on the sarcasm, and considerably more scathing about the State of Israel than I expected, though she most definitely supports the legal basis of Eichmann's trial and execution. And her savage indictment of the Jewish councils of Nazi-occuppied countries makes difficult reading, and I don't know enough history to know whether she is right to accuse elders such as the esteemed Leo Baeck of complicity in genocide. But oh, so beautifully written, and a wonderfully clear introduction into the world of 1960s Holocaust philosophy that I need to dive into. Harrowing, obviously, but (and this is in no way a noble thing to be saying) I've read worse.

And so to Caitlin Moran's pop-feminist bible for our generation. Moran is funny, and smart, and bang-on my age, and is defending feminism in an accessible and lovable fashion, so it is mean to criticise too much. But oh, from the poised and pointed perfection of Arendt's prose to the jolly wobbly waffle of Moran's is a bit of a lurch. And, well. As I've said before, I'm becoming less interested in the cultural aspects of white Western feminism that she takes on, depilation and It bags and Jordan. It all seems a bit teenage, and it seems a bit too easy to bracket out, as Moran does, issues of violence and equal pay and serious discrimination from the start of her book.

It's not that I disagree with what she says, nor that I suspect she would take much umbrage were I to say (for instance) that actually, I don't think strippers are betraying the sisterhood, nor that fashion is a sinister sniper lurking ready to shoot feminism down. Moreover, she makes some very good points - she makes my point about Women's Work is Worthless, for one, namely that non-parenting work done by women might actually have some inherent value for the world at large, something I very rarely hear said elsewhere. I also liked her robust defence of paying cleaners against the anti-feminist sneerers (because why should a woman feel guilty that she is paying a woman to do her cleaning? why is it her responsibility to feel the guilt rather than a man's?) Her tales of motherhood and abortion are direct and more honest and moving than almost anything I've read.

But it's still chewing-gummish prose, ephemeral meanderings pumped out to pad a few simple arguments which are a bit difficult to pick out of the fluff. Moran rather artlessly dismisses all academic feminists as more or less irrelevant, and then goes on to hero-worship Germaine Greer and Zoe Williams, both of whom, besides being very funny journalists when they try, have a pretty damned good acquaintance with difficult but important French feminism and later gender theories. What's more, the book does read somewhat as a straight It Gets Better video. Oppressed by the Beauty Myth as a teenager? Sexually harassed at the office? Treated like rubbish by self-obsessed men in your early twenties? Don't worry! Get married to a lovely man and you'll be grand! Her husband really does sound lovely, and Moran is very talented, not at all privileged and has made her own happiness - but still, her story is hardly representative. There's absolutely nothing there about lesbian life, apart from a fig-leaf 'I'm not cool enough to be a lesbian, honestly' throwaway statement. I don't mean to sound like an earnest 1930s sociologist demanding a treatise on The Lesbian Problem, but an acknowledgment that we're feminists battling our own battles too might be nice. Equally, nothing on women of colour, nothing on women who stay desperately poor. And while I've come to most of Moran's own conclusions about high heels, shaving, porn and the rest, not all women and not all feminists will, but we all need to fight the real battles together, including, f'rinstance, this terrifying new abortion bill in the UK.

In short: Caitlin, I'll get drunk with you and Lady Gaga in a Berlin sex club any time, but I'll turn to Arendt for my hero worship, if that's OK.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 12:28 pm (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
Arendt's writing and her way of putting together an argument is so easy to read, she just leads you through it so skillfully.

I know in some of her English language books she thanks Mary MaCarthy for helping with the "Englishing", but I'm sure that the argument is all Arendt.

Have you read The Life of the Mind? It may not connect so much to your research, but I love it and have read it several times because there's so much in it, from the pre-socratics to Heidegger, that I always find something new. Most of my notes and underlinings are in the sections on Kant, but I recall that I used a library copy for a long time before finally buying it. Plus the whole distinction/intersection of thinking and willing was the background to my thesis.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 12:32 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
This is the first Arendt text I've ever read. I was inspired by the conference on testimony the other week, where Arendt seems to be coming back (hooray!) I think I would love to read more, so thanks so much for the Life of the Mind recommendation - I'll look forward to it.

Have you read Mary McCarthy at all? She seems such a significant figure for Arendt, yet *blush* I've never heard of her.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 12:41 pm (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
I only know her as Arendt's editor and colleague. I have no knowledge of anything else she worked on.

Arendt has been getting more attention over the last decade or so, I've even heard of students in International Relations reading her essays on the status of refugees and what it means to be stateless, which is of course a very current issue, but she's writing from a post-WWII perspective.

There's also a documentary of the Eichmann Trial, which I think uses archival footage provided by the Israeli courts, but it's editing is influenced by Eichmann in Jeruselum. It's pretty heavy stuff, and I stumbled across it on TV one night and was thinking "This is Arendt's argument" and was relieved when I saw the notes acknowledging her at the end.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 12:47 pm (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
I just clicked your link to the Judith Butler essay. That is quite lovely.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 12:50 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
It is, isn't it? Though Judith Butler isn't a tenth of the writer that Arendt is.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 02:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the0lady.livejournal.com
This is not to quibble with Hannah Arendt (as if), but I've just recently heard a very interesting program about the idea of the banality of evil.

The argument ran that the book coincided closely with Milgram's first and most famous experiment (the one where subjects were asked to administer potentially lethal electric shocks to people), and they both fed into a cultural narrative that owed something to late-stage behaviourism & blank-slatism in the sense that "anyone" could be evil.

Anyway, again I've no opinion of my own on this due to profound ignorance, but I found the next stage in the argument very interesting:

Basically, it turns out that Milgram ran a whole bunch of experiments based on that first one. In all of them except the most famous one, the rate of dissension among the subjects was much higher. Basically any small change in the set up reduced compliance: if the researcher didn't wear a white coat, if one other subject raised an objection (even if that first person didn't themselves refuse to administer shocks), and so on, people would grasp any small chink in the wall of authority to refuse to act unethically.

What the person in this program (I wish I could remember what it was - possibly a Philosophy Bites podcast?) then went on to conclude is that Arendt was wrong in the sense that evil is not banal, and Eichmann was not "just" a civil servant. He was a very particular kind of person with specific ambitions that interplayed with his sense of ethics in given ways - and even he described his own initial scruples that he then went on to disassociate from.

I've never read "Eichmann in Jerusalem" because I find it just too harrowing (I have very low tolerance for Holocaust prose), but I've grown up in the middle of this argument about whether the Nazis were different and especially evil, or whether this could happen anywhere to any people and be directed against any minority group. So it's an important work for me and I'm glad it's also a wonderful piece of writing... So thanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 05:11 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
Ooh, I think I heard that programme too, and thanks for refreshing my memory on it! You are right that the second stage of the Milgram experiment is very significant. I've read other articles (also, sadly, unfindable/namable) suggesting that Eichmann was in fact a convinced and passionate anti-semite, someone who wholeheartedly believed in the Nazi programme of murder rather than just a blank.

So yes, he was a very particular kind of person with specific ambitions that interplayed with his sense of ethics in given ways - and even he described his own initial scruples that he then went on to disassociate from. And Arendt says exactly this - she calculates that it took hiim four weeks to overcome his conscience about mass murder. I don't think that Arendt's argument is precisely that evil is always faceless and banal, indeed that phrase was just a concluding tagline to the book. It's more that the Nazi system was one in which you neither had to think very much nor hate very much in order to create untold misery on a mass scale, I think. She's not saying that Nazi evil was utterly banal and blank, more that Eichmann, specifically, was a man who seemed incapable of deep thought, independent judgement or profound emotion.

The most harrowing thing about the book, for me, was not the accounts of atrocities, but Arendt's pointing out that in Denmark, Italy and Bulgaria, hardly anyone complied with the Nazis' anti-semitic demands, and that consequently, hardly any Danish or Bulgarian Jews died. The lesson she draws is that, where people did decide to resist Nazi logic, overtly or covertly, the Holocaust did not take place; and that therefore, this could also have happened elsewhere. Again, it didn't, and there are specific reasons for that. But Arendt goes back to Kant to argue that individuals' inability to make a moral judgement was the failure that allowed the murders to happen.

I have Sem-Sandberg's novel about the Lodz ghetto to read next. I possibly may be mad. Wish me luck.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 07:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the0lady.livejournal.com
I don't know whether to agree or disagree with the "national trends" argument. It's all too confused in my head because of all the individual stories. In Hungary, Jews were strictly protected until the Fascists came to power, and then wham - all transported (and worse, I'll spare you). Likewise in Sweden there was no "popular" antisemitism but they transported the entire Jewish community in order to preserve their neutrality and avoid invasion.

The Netherlands has a rap for being free-thinking and anti-Nazi, but more individuals shopped Jewish families to the Nazis than almost anywhere in Western Europe - and the largest number of individuals who saved lives, sometimes many many lives at great risk to themselves, were Polish - a country steeped in Medieval antisemitism to this day. I do think that there is more in play here than the "intellectual hygiene", if I can call it that, of a society.

The way I see it, antisemitism is an insurmountable canker in all European nationalism, because from day one the Jews were a slap in the face to the idea that ethnic and cultural homogeneity is a necessary or good thing for a country to have. It's not solvable; to my mind the Germans lost more of their identity because of the Holocaust than the Jews did. You can be a very deep thinker, though maybe not a very empathic one, and see the logic of this "problem" and try to solve it because you believe in the need for national integrity. But the expression of these ideologies in action, specifically in the context of the Nazi occupation of Europe, is too variable: in Italy and France, the resistance movements saved Jews as an act of nationalist resistance to the Nazis.

I'm rambling, and should stop trying to make sense of the Holocaust. Maybe no Jewish person should ever try to do that, and we should all leave it to the likes of Sebald.

Re: novel: good, um, luck. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 07:41 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for this considered comment. You know much more about this than I do, and indeed, we all know more than Arendt did - there has been far more research done since then. I think Arendt doesn't have a particularly "thick" view of the connections between a person and their society; she reads the events in Denmark, Italy and Bulgaria as the product of multiple individual judgements to do the right thing, rather than having a sociology to explain the different interactions between individuals and the social events they are responding to.

And yes, you can most definitely be a deep "thinker" and see a "problem" with the lack of national homogeneity. I think Arendt's response to that would be, but you always know it is against the law to kill other than in self-defence. Your tawdry logic of national homogeneity cuts no ice with me. She's very idealistic, which is why I love her, and why, of course, she's open to attack from lots of nuanced arguments.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. You are wise.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 09:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the0lady.livejournal.com
Oh of course - as an idealist myself, I would be on Arendt's side of the argument! :)

That's a very good point you make about the things she might not have known; we - well, I - tend to think that everyone has always known everything about the full horrors of Nazism, but of course the immediate reaction of both Jews and Europeans after the war was to seize up in mute denial. Really the trial and Arendt's book were extraordinarily important in kicking off a lot of the popular discourse, which gives the book an added layer of value all its own, no? Hmm... On that view, I might be brave and read it!

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 08:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] whatifoundthere.livejournal.com
What the person in this program (I wish I could remember what it was - possibly a Philosophy Bites podcast?) then went on to conclude is that Arendt was wrong in the sense that evil is not banal, and Eichmann was not "just" a civil servant.

This reminds me a bit of... God, it's been so long since I taught this stuff and I only taught it once and it is WAY outside my expertise, so I'm almost certainly wrong, but was it Todorov? Whoever it was said something to the effect of, "all these camp memoirs prove that it is not easy to get people to break; in fact it is very very very hard to get people to break, which is why there needed to be LITERALLY A BIG FACTORY dedicated to making people into monsters; it does not come naturally to people to be monsters." I think he was talking more about prisoners turning on each other / signing up to be kapos than he was about the Nazi overseers, but the argument holds and has stayed with me. I'm not normally very optimistic about human nature but sometimes a wise, non-naive sort of optimism gives me pause.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 09:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] the0lady.livejournal.com
I'm sure we're not talking about the same thing, but this is very very interesting; it also chimes with some statistics I remember reading about how few US soldiers during WWII actually killed - they really had a problem with getting people to really mean it, and in fact most infantry soldiers would shoot at feet, or shoot in the air, and, as long as they could get away with it, avoided killing anyway they can.

Of course I can't remember where I read that now. I wish heads had bookmarks folders like browsers do!

It reminds me of something I heard back home in Israel about training for the special units like Navy Seals and SAS and all that lot. The reason their training is so physically and psychologically gruelling, and also long, is not just because of physical fitness and that, but because that's how long and hard you have to pressurise people for to dissociate them form social norms and replace their individual identity with a fierce group loyalty, so that they can actually reliably kill on command.

And yeah, it made me feel strangely better about things at the time, too...

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-31 07:23 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
Thanks for this. It is strangely cheering. But also depressing that people are prepared to go to such remorseless lengths to pressurise people to become killers.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-31 07:21 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
That gives me a certain amount of strength, too. But then I think of the Einsatzgruppen, and the Lithuanians and Poles who cheerfully took axes to their neighbours without anyone even telling them to. I think it's true that you cannot learn anything about human nature from the camps, other than that, as you say, in extremis, and after an enormous amount of pressure, people turn into monsters. But the Holocaust was about more than the camps.

Thank you for sharing that, all the same.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 02:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] braisedbywolves.livejournal.com
but still, her story is hardly representative

I don't think I quite follow this - or at least I don't understand what 'representative' would mean if her story has less of it than would a lesbian and/or woman of colour (which is of course not to say that a range of these stories wouldn't be better!)

I mean, it's neither good nor shocking that the first acclaimed-as-funny memoir/rant on feminism is by a white straight journalist with an existing profile, but it doesn't really seem to me to be Ms Moran's problem to solve (or at least, not one that she has to solve before writing the book).

In short: Caitlin, I'll get drunk with you and Lady Gaga in a Berlin sex club any time, but I'll turn to Arendt for my hero worship, if that's OK.

Everything I've read on this (including this article from The Aul' Sod) suggests that would be fine, that she is less trying to set her book up as the bible than addressing a gap in the market that she found herself in the right place to fill - and if it results in Newsnight calling her rather than Nadine Dorries when they need An Lady, then she's fine with that, too.
Edited Date: 2011-08-30 02:33 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 04:45 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
Yes, you make perfect sense! I think my problem is that I was oversold the book by the hype. What Moran has done is write a funny memoir with additional feminist rants: 'here's my silly life and here are the solid feminist lessons it's taught me'. But lots of people have been picking it up as 'Caitlin Moran's lessons are AMAZING! You will learn so much from them! Or at least they are so important that you need to know where you stand on them!'

Whereas, as you say, she doesn't have quite such lofty ambitions; it's a personal story. The format couldn't really be extended to address other experiences, but at the same time, it might be nice if she addressed women who weren't just like her some of the time. All the same, if she gets on the radio rather than Dorries, HOORAY.

(deleted comment)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-30 05:57 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
Yes, I tend to agree. Moran started out life horrifically poor, but doesn't politicise her background in any way.

(She also directly attacks Greer's transphobia and says she finds it unacceptable, much as she loves the rest of Greer's work, which is more or less where I am with her.)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-31 11:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] khalinche.livejournal.com
Yes, this was more or less my reaction to Moran's book too, although I had not read anything beautifully constructed and argued beforehand, so it didn't stand out in comparison. It's certainly gutsy and sometimes hilarious and has good messages, but ultimately feels a bit narrow and bodged together, like a collection of columns. For example, the stuff about fashion sits strangely with that gut-wrenching, powerful piece about giving birth to her daughters.

I like her conclusion of 'let's stop trying to BE the gorgeous and inspirational creature who is a muse for men creating things, let's DO things ourselves and forget about the woman-shaped silhouette we're supposed to occupy and just get on with things', and I like her gleeful indignity. It's a book that I am very glad to see young women reading (I was in a Prom queue behind a group of 18 year old girls talking about it, which was great) but there is, as you say, so much that doesn't make it in, stuff which isn't hers to tell. It feels like it should be called 'How to be a straight white woman working in the media in London'. Basically, I think she's telling her truth as hard as she can - very entertainingly, and very skilfully - but it's not everyone's truth, and as Mr Wolves points out upthread, that isn't her problem or her story. I'd like to see her book as part of the canon of early 21st century feminism along with other contributions that give a broader view.

The one thing that really jars for me, as opposed to forming part of her chaotic but likeable ramble through femininity, is her distaste for strippers. The story as she tells it, of sitting drinking free champagne in a strip club for hours for her legitimate and prestigious journalism job, then turning round and criticising the women on stage for the way they make a living...that left a very nasty taste.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-09-03 09:41 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
From: [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
Mi>The story as she tells it, of sitting drinking free champagne in a strip club for hours for her legitimate and prestigious journalism job, then turning round and criticising the women on stage for the way they make a living...that left a very nasty taste.

Yes, yes and thrice yes! And the way she calls the 'wrong' type of sex workers quislings. I mean, quislings. Not helpful, Caitlin. I mean, I could go a little further and call all women who sleep with men quislings, couldn't I? because they just encourage them! Or I could call Nadine Dorries a quisling. Except that she's not, because she's sincerely battling a hard fight in a hideously misogynist Tory party. It ain't easy, her anti-choice struggle. She's not a quisling; she's desperately trying to be right and can't figure out what's misogyny and what's not. The term's just not useful, Caitlin.

I completely agree with your assessment, is what I mean! And yes, her powerful pieces about birth, and about abortion, sit very oddly with the twaddle about fashion and her sisters. I'm not so sure that she's just telling her own truth, though - there's a chapter called 'Why not to be a mother', after all, in which she dishes out advice for people not in her situation. So a little over-stretched.

I just want Elisabeth Badinter to be translated, right now!

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