I learnt about the existence of Jonathan Dean’s new book Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics, from an interview with the author on The F-Word. That great group blog is one of its three specific subjects of study, the others being Women’s Aid and the Fawcett Society. Since I’ve just become a trustee of the latter, it seemed essential to lay hands on a copy. I blanched, however, when I looked at the price on Amazon – £54. £54! Luckily, as a member of the London Library I had a plan B, which was to get them to buy a copy (also fitting in with my ongoing campaign to ensure it has a good feminism collection.)
That’s a pity, for while this is clearly an academic book, with a conclusion dense packed with political theory that’s going to be accessible to only a few (I may come back to it if I can find a time when I’m less tired – a debate about Deleuzianism, “Lacanian theorists of lack” and post-Gramscian political theory” extending my knowledge of political theory into 21st-century debates with which I’ve not previously engaged), the bulk of the text, the study of the three feminist institutions, is perfectly readable, useful and well worth the attention of anyone involved in contemporary feminism.
That’s particularly because this is broadly a positive story. Dean sees a strong resurgence in UK feminism particularly in the past half-decade. He in part accepts the broadly charted narrative of decline up to that point, although he does see it as being based on somewhat simplistic and problematic definitions of what an authentic, radical, autonomous feminist movement is and might be, suggesting that there’s been too strong a focus on what the feminist movement of the early to mid-Seventies was as a perfect model, any deviation from which has automatically been defined as a decline.
Using radical as a term for demanding significant change, rather than the specifics of “Radical Feminism”, he finds elements of real strength and drive in each of the three institutions that he studies. He also notes that a more recent model for identifying an authentic political action, as advocated by Zizek and Badiou among others, which is “a ‘heroic’ conception … predicated upon sudden rupturing and clearly visible instances of political contest; anything else is implicitly viewed with suspicion and risks being cast as ‘inauthentic’.” Dean adds that this approach “betrays an almost theological – and undoubtedly resolutely masculinist – standpoint” and “a political purism which strikes me as ill-equipped to grasp the locatedness and inevitable messiness of processes of feminist political articulation”. (p. 170)
On Fawcett, he says:
“…there are two main logics at work within the organisation …At one level, the organisations is strongly underwritten by a political logic of claimmaking directed at political elites in which – one may argue – a more radical feminist critique is absent. However, by contrast, the eveness of this logic is undermined by a logic of radicalistion that has become especially apparent since late 2005. This logic of radicalisation… refers in particular to Fawcett’s recent efforts to cast their demands within the context of a broader intervention into the public gender debate, situated within a more forthright affirmation of feminism.” (p64-65)
On The F-Word, he finds that while it is open to criticism of being very individualised and lifestyle-focused, he sees an increasing trend over its development whereby “the self-identity as feminist need not occasion a drift into apolitical complicity with logics of individualisation but, rather, translates into a more engaged political awareness, feeding into increased radicalism”. (p. 162)
On Women’s Aid, he’s also broadly positive, but in a passage that I found very interesting, for it reflects much of the difficulties I have in engagements with much local “community consultation” (indeed a meeting I was at all this morning on the future of the King’s Cross area with Camden officials and local volunteers), Dean looks at, however, engagement in government processes is, for “Women’s Aid as expert” problematic.
“I want to raise the question whether the organisation’s enthusiasm for multi-agency work, coupled with its position as an ‘expert’ voice, renders them partiallty complicit with the logics of what we might call ‘interest group pluralism’. In a manner that may curtail the organisation’s vitality and radicalism. … interest group pluralism refers to a mode of governance in which various actors are engaged in processes of making political claims which are then adjudicated by the government apparatus, and is thus symptomatic of what Zerilli and Arendy refer to as the domestication of politics to ‘the social’. A further dimension of interest group pluralism, as Iris Marion Young has pointed out, is that it tends to reduce politics to a process of rule by experts who are delegated responsility for particular issues.” p. 121