November 25, 2020
From Mute
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Responding to Annie Goh’s critique of the Xenofeminist Manifesto ‘Appropriating the Alien: A Critique of Xenofeminism’ and Sophie Lewis’ recent assessment in Red Pepper, Jules Joanne Gleeson takes another look at the academic publishing phenomenon: Is there more to rationalism than Richard Dawkins, and have either Xenofeminism or its critics fully grasped Marx’s conception of alienation? Interrogating the presuppositions of competing anti-humanisms her analysis brings us back to trans communities’ practical strategies of disalienation that turn scientific rationality to emancipatory ends

Xenofeminism Was The Future

At this point, no one can fault the Laboria Cuboniks collective’s Xenofeminist Manifesto as failed provocation. Since the Manifesto’s publication in 2015, responses included a string of symposia, art installations, panel discussions, dedicated podcasts, and an official ‘zine translating their text into German. The text has appeared on countless reading lists across humanities and cultural studies courses, elicited innumerable blog posts and social media citations, and infused especially the work of many younger queer scholars, artists and activists with a newly articulated exuberance.

While many such movements in the history of thought prove to be passing fads, even four years after the Xenofeminist Manifesto’s release, two of feminist theory’s rising stars — Annie Goh and Sophie Lewis — have been drawn to respond to the tendency.

At once the Xenofeminist Manifesto can seem like the most and least dated text in recent feminist history. On the one hand, 2016’s revival of fascism in the form of the alt-right saw ferocious use of memetics and other innovations promoting in-group identity formation. The Xenofeminist Manifesto’s use of the ‘accelerationist’ trappings devised by Dark Enlightenment intellectual Nick Land (and unwisely adopted by other leftwing theorists) was criticised heavily at the time of its release. But since 2015 a furtive network of pseudonymous Twitter accounts and shortlived cultural spaces have arisen to develop ‘unconditional accelerationism’ as a lively esoteric fascist movement (known as ‘u/acc’). Coinciding with this, far-right leaders have come to power in a global electoral trend that shows no indication of slowing. This revived state of both para-academic intrigue, and overt populist nationalism, can make the Manifesto’s extended flirtation with a fascist thinker seem downright crass.

But at once, the insurgence of a transphobic feminism over the past three years has severely shaken British politics (leaving much less of an impact elsewhere). This development was co-morbid with an intensification of the violence faced by trans people worldwide. Nationalist, clerical and chauvinist movements have made attacks on ‘gender ideology’ central to their platform. In the United States and Brazil, the increasingly pro-trans feminist movement has been powerless to prevent femicide against the most vulnerable trans women. Nevertheless, the number of out trans people seems to be ever-rising internationally, with trans culture becoming a mass phenomenon across an unprecedented global scale. Gender positions which were formally subjugated under colonialism have also made great strides towards legal emancipation. The Xenofeminist Manifesto was unusual at the time of release in fully integrating transfeminist perspectives, and at points seems to provide a pre-emptive strike on the emergent ‘gender critical’ tendency.

This cocktail of the outmoded and timely, the ill-advised and the prescient, makes it all the more important to examine why the Xenofeminists provided an outlook at such ferocious odds with itself.

Xenofeminism Is A Mess

The most striking feature of the original Xenofeminist Manifesto is its heavy stylisation: the original website was filled with strobing flashes and colourful visual clutter seemingly designed to discourage the reader from continuing, even as it evoked the unmistakable ambience of Web 1.0.[1] The text itself is no more forgiving. Political writers are often encouraged to make their insights available to as broad an audience as possible, and avoid phrases intelligible to readers without specialised training. Instead, the Laboria Cuboniks collective opted for a barrage of reference points, provocations, sweeping statements, and inscrutable asides.[2]

It seems clear enough that a large part of the lasting appeal of Xenofeminist material is exactly this challenging quality of the collective’s prose. The medley of influences provide not so much a ‘polyphonic’ approach to theory, as a cacophony. And the use of a pseudonym (even if it was short-lived, and all the original authors are now identified) provided a collective vox for six likeminded theorists. Given the knowingly contentious character of their arguments, it also ensured that their collective positions cannot be brushed off as guided by personal idiosyncrasies.

In subsequent interviews, the collective revealed their Manifesto was originally written in a shared Google Document, edited simultaneously from three continents and five time zones. This was not much of a surprise.

To respond appropriately seems to demand a mixture of wry gameness, and a capacity to read an enormous output of material from the collective’s various writers. In other words, to be sharp enough to distinguish between the numerous (seemingly conflicting) operative components that make up the text, without seeming too easily trolled. While the document makes no reference to Chan culture, it is highly reminiscent of those image boards: at once bombarding the reader with a disjointed set of provocative referrants, while seeming to brush off overly emotional reactions as missing the joke.

Unfortunately existing criticisms have often restricted themselves to honing in on only the most obvious dubious elements of the text, especially its heavy borrowing of phrasing from Nick Land. As an upshot of this, many of the Manifesto’s more interesting influences have largely been passed over. For instance, the following passage considers the distinction drawn by other (Anglo) social theorists between gender and sex:

…Sex and gender are exemplary of the fulcrum between norm and fact, between freedom and compulsion. To tilt the fulcrum in the direction of nature is a defensive concession at best, and 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. Like every myth of the given, a stable foundation is fabulated for a real world of chaos, violence, and doubt. The ‘given’ is sequestered into the private realm as a certainty, whilst retreating on fronts of public consequences. When the possibility of transition became real and known, the tomb under Nature’s shrine cracked, and new histories – bristling with futures – escaped the old order of ‘sex’. The disciplinary grid of gender is in no small part an attempt to mend that shattered foundation, and tame the lives that escaped it. (0x0B)

This passage deftly applies a previously quite arcane set of arguments introduced to social theory by British thinker Ray Brassier. During his research into intellectual nihilism, Brassier had delved through the cohesive work of the late Pittsburgh-based philosopher Wilfrid Sellars.[3] Sellars was a determined critic of empiricism, which he saw as stymied by a phenomenon dubbed ‘the myth of the given’.[4] Much like continental philosophers who define themselves against ‘foundationalism’, Sellars saw empiricist thinking as built atop constantly shifting sands. Empiricism was ever restless in its efforts to assert itself a secure footing, that it could only ever picture.

But neither Sellars, nor the philosophers he had inspired such as Robert Brandom and John McDowell, nor even Brassier had evidenced any extended interest in questions of gender. As such, this fleeting passage from the Manifesto attempts an operationalisation of analytic philosophy that is truly innovative, before abruptly moving on to the next provocation. (Probably leaving those readers not already extensively versed in cutting edge social theory none the wiser, in their wake.)

This is only one example of the intriguing breakthroughs achieved by Xenofeminists, which feel at once fresh, and easily overlooked. Similarly, the inter-connections of XFM and Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto or Sadie Plant’s ‘Cyberfeminism’ had remained relatively neglected until the more recent readings by Goh and Lewis, thanks to the document’s more provocative reference points. After four years, this can not be tidily attributed to inattentive readers: the choice of style by the Laboria Cuboniks was to produce a text which was both impressive, and hard to follow. This is fitting enough for a document designed to snag in the mind of academics. But it also inevitably resulted in an undue level of confusion, and many of the text’s most incisive insights being lost in the swamp.

It is hard to be a skilled troll and a good teacher – at least at once.

Xenofeminism Is A Humanism

While obviously intended as a jarring medley of dissonant components, a clearly agreed upon point for all the Xenofeminists is that their new strain of feminism was to be a ‘rationalism’.

Rationalism is among the most diverse signifiers in the history of thought. It can refer either to a belief in reason as such, or to accounts of humans which define them as uniquely reason-giving creatures. It can signal either an opposition to vulgar empiricism (as with Sellars and Brandom), or to ‘superstitious’ and religious thinking. It is also often treated in opposition to scepticism: rationalists are those who give reasons, whereas sceptics are those who seek to pick them apart.[5] But the Manifesto is lacking in exploration of what they mean by the term, or its history. The strongest hint of the exact flavour of rationalism the Xenofeminists are interested in developing is a troubling one:

What requires reengineering are the memetic parasites arousing and coordinating behaviours in ways occluded by their hosts’ self-image; failing this, memes like ‘anonymity’, ‘ethics’, ‘social justice’ and ‘privilege-checking’ host social dynamisms at odds with the often-commendable intentions with which they’re taken up. (0x0D)

This passage is jarring for lining up as equivalents a commonplace activist practice (‘privilege-checking’), and an entire field within philosophy (‘ethics’). The term ‘meme’ in this context is redolent of the use by an eccentric school of evolutionary biology, most associated with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins sees Darwinian processes as dualistically divided between genes (biologically encoded inheritable traits) and memes (which he uses expansively to cover all units of cultural exchange).

So for instance, a raven is genetically predisposed to have black feathers, a beak, and so on. But its genetic code contains no disposition to cool off by rolling down a snow-covered hill, with this behaviour instead being ‘memetic’ (with this behaviour spreading from one raven to another, as they teach each other by example). With the typical callow ambition his intellectual career has been characterised by, Dawkins quickly enough began applying this distinction as a ‘master concept’ to understand human behaviour. This produced a non-dialectical view of human societies, which attempts to purify the study of genetics from any soft muck of the social — in garish jargon, cultural contexts are rechristened ‘memeplexes’.

As Terry Eagleton has noted, this had the convenient bonus of allowing Dawkins to bypass decades of research into cultural anthropology, which he has overlooked with the same stubborn commitment to ignorance displayed towards professional theology.

Memes as a foundationalist Darwinian concept were then developed by other ‘New Atheist’ true-believers, including Dan Dennett and Susan Blackmore. A comparison of the use of so-called ‘memetics’ in the Xenofeminist Manifesto to a speech by Susan Blackmore makes the commonality unmistakable:

All kinds of infectious memes thrive in religions, in spite of being false, such as the idea of a creator god, virgin births, the subservience of women, transubstantiation, and many more. In the major religions, they are backed up by admonitions to have faith not doubt, and by untestable but ferocious rewards and punishments.[6]

In both this passage and the Manifesto, memes appear as a ‘low’ form of cultural exchange, and are associated with a viral metaphor (‘infectious’, ‘host’). Unspoken, but quite plain, is an agenda of associating the religious, and the animal. Just as the Xenofeminists twin ‘privilege-checking’ and ‘ethics’, Blackmore ranks ‘a creator god’ alongside ‘the subservience of women’. (In light of this, it’s surely remarkable that states that sporadically suppressed religious practices, such as the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, did not immediately enjoy a greater breakthrough in feminist emancipation).

A forgiving reading would parse this overlap as merely a coincidence: by 2015 the term ‘meme’ had developed a new fully fledged meaning in internet humour. This meaning of ‘meme’ referred not to Darwinian evolutionary theory, but to a fecund form of cultural production characterised by its incessant reiterations, and in-group centered humour. But this interpretation is confounded by Xenofeminist Lucca Fraser’s speech during the Laboria Cuboniks’ roundtable at the ‘Question of Will’ conference, Bratislava.[7] Here Fraser explains that the meaning of the term ‘meme’ was not the more casual usage, but was indeed directly drawing from the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.[8]

In other words, Xenofeminism is as much informed by racist anti-humanist philosophers like Nick Land, as from the very worst form of humanism available: the ‘secular humanism’ of the New Atheist movement. This naturalistic tendency was also known as ‘scepticism’. (That the movement did not see any issue with declaring themselves at once rationalists and sceptics demonstrates their level of engagement with the history of thought.)

What we might call the ‘crypto-humanism’ of the Xenofeminist Manifesto (notably not developed in most subsequent interventions by Laboria Cuboniks members) has a good reason to hide its face. Forged at the high tide of the War on Terror in the mid-late 2000s, the New Atheist movement defined itself against ‘superstition’, twinning all the defects of the world with primitive belief systems. This view of ‘humanism’ proposes atheism as the apogee of human thought. It attempts to bracket the bulk of human suffering as examples of primordial, pre-rational impulses. This casts into a new light the Manifesto’s cryptic opposition to ‘illusion’ (0x09).

Helen Hester has said that the original intention of the Laboria Cuboniks collective was to ‘strip Accelerationism down for spare parts’. This instrumental approach to theory is reminiscent of an interview where Gilles Deleuze paraphrased Proust: ‘treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat.‘[9] Unfortunately the role of the eliminative approach to thinking drawn from accelerationism seems to be more embedded like a shard of debris in the eye of the Xenofeminists, limiting their field of view permanently.

The Xenofeminists’ primary influence Left Accelerationism aggressively defined itself as against a ‘folk politics’, a pejorative term bracketing everything from the esoteric communist magazine Tiqqun to the ‘Slow Food’ trend.[10] ‘Folk politics’ as characterised here was defined as overly concerned with the local and anti-hierarchical. The term also bears a striking resemblance to the term ‘Folk Psychology’ (or FP), a pejorative used by the obscure school of Eliminative Materialism. Eliminative Materialists argue that all approaches to human behaviour which do not make exclusive reference to brain activity can be characterised as mere ‘folk psychology’. (In this way, Eliminative Materialists bracket everything from historical research to using terms such as ‘fear’ and ‘hope’ as a single error, best discarded.) While clearly not adhering to this philistine perspective, Sophie Lewis correctly observes that as one branch of Accelerationism the Xenofeminists seem to share this same smearing impulse.

It’s entirely unclear how one could hope to draw a conception of the cultural typically advanced by New Atheists or Eliminative Materialists, with one of the opposition to ‘givens’ suggested by Brassier, and other contemporary critics of empiricism. Concerning the ‘Myth of the Given’, the New Atheists are not only believers, but full-blown fundamentalists. They oppose their naturalism to a vaguely sketched ‘supernaturalism’.

The Xenofeminist Manifesto declares: ‘We want superior forms of corruption.’ (0X0C). I should think we can do better than Richard Dawkins.

Xenofeminism is Alienating

Ultimately, every emancipatory abolitionism must incline towards the horizon of class abolitionism, since it is in capitalism where we encounter oppression in its transparent, denaturalized form: you’re not exploited or oppressed because you are a wage labourer or poor; you are a labourer or poor because you are exploited. (XFM 0x0E).

That XFM places class abolitionism as the central strategic proposal for its political strategy is misleading: despite this surface level commonality with commnunist theory, we should not take this to be a Marxist text.

The ‘pro-alienation’ position of the Xenofeminists can only be made sense of as a contribution to discussions of technology informed by Martin Heidegger. The use of technology (and tools) was built into Heidegger’s famed ‘ontology’ from the ground up.[11] In the view developed by Heideggerians (who since the 1940s have included a dispiriting number of leftwingers) alienation is usually counterposed to authenticity. The provocation of the Xenofeminists is primarily a response to this line of thinking.

For instance the following passage from Helen Hester’s Xenofeminism introduces term ‘xenofam’, as opposed to the ‘biofam’ as one example of the school:

favouring outward-looking solidarity with the alien, the foreign, and the figure of the stranger, over restrictive solidarity with the familiar, the similar, and the figure of the compatriot.[12]

In other words, Xenofeminists accept the view of alienation and technology proposed by Heideggerians. They then simply attempt to reverse it: to side with the rootless, wandering cosmopolitans whom Heidegger himself saw driven from public life under National Socialism. But even as a correction, this is a deficient and limiting view of both technology, and alienation.

The meaning of ‘alienation’ as it appears in the Xenofeminist Manifesto is baffling for those schooled primarily in Marxism. For Marxists, alienation is not an indication of a life drained of authenticity, but a relational feature of class domination. Marx took the conflict between master and bondsman found in Hegel, and applied it to the pressing social conflict of his era: the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

The Marxist view is certainly not that the proletarian was being stripped of her ‘authentic self’ by the bourgeouisie’s exploitation: it was only through the relational conflict between the two that either prole or bourger exist at all.

To be alienated according to the Marxist view is to be deployed as the means for another’s end. In terms of the workforce, this means to work for the end of those extracting the surplus value produced through that work by profits. To be ‘pro-alienation’ is in this sense simply incompatible with a politics that seeks to abolish class society, and its inevitable exploitation. To be a ‘class abolitionist’ (as the Xenofeminists claim to be) can only mean to oppose the alienation which is intrinsic to the exploitative processes of extraction that defines capitalist relations.

This view of alienation can easily enough be extended to include forms of domination that appear in other forms across class societies: misogynistic violence in households or on the street, racialised police campaigns, border patrols, disabled people being required to account for themselves to the state prior to receiving support from it, and all the rest. These struggles are both formed by their own histories, while also being a constitutive feature of every capitalist society.

It is much more difficult to extend any ‘left Heideggerianism’ (whether reversed or not) to serve emancipatory projects in any concrete way, as I will demonstrate through considering the question of trans healthcare.

Xenofeminism is Romantic

When evaluating the Xenofeminists on transfeminism, I feel a certain urge not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Transphobic feminist theory has flourished in recent years, and by comparison the resolute pro-trans stance of the Laboria Cuboniks’ output is refreshing (consistent with its troubling of fixed identities, the Manifesto was originally billed as ‘transfeminism’, although the majority of its authors were cisgender). In distinguishing between ‘the cis from the real’ (0x0F), the XFM provides a point of departure that is resistant to the foundationalist resurgance that has shaken British feminism in recent years.

It is however possible to accept someone as a comrade in a shared and urgent struggle, while finding the exact contours of their thinking not especially helpful. It’s hard to make sense of the circumstances that trans people face in attempting to emancipate ourselves, without deploying a much more old fashioned view of the term alienation than that deployed by the Laboria Cuboniks collective.

I’ve engaged previously with this aspect of the Laboria Cuboniks’ work, in my history of ‘gender abolitionism’.[13] Here the collective fared relatively well, explaining that a universal revolutionary drive was required to avoid gender abolitionism simply becoming an overblown pretext for basic misogyny. This abolitionist element of the Laboria Cubonik’s first intervention was further developed by Helen Hester in her book Xenofeminism (although the Manifesto’s call for ‘race abolitionism’ is not dealt with in the book, perhaps wisely). Hester treats trans healthcare drives as a key example of ‘radical amateurism’, alongside pioneering efforts by cis women to control their fertility.

The Xenofeminists are a widely read set of thinkers, but their engagement with trans theory appears to circle around one particular writer: Paul Preciado.[14] Preciado’s Testo Junkie originally framed his use of the eponymous sex hormone as a political and artistic experiment, although he has since come out as a trans man.[15] This is an adventurous and strident account, which understandably found traction among the Xenofeminists.

The risk of picking a figure such as Preciado is that his writings bear only tangential relation to the broader reality of trans communities, and their determined effort to effect survival in the context of a hostile society, and often actively disruptive state.

While no trans person can be reliably treated as a ‘representative’ of their social position, Preciado’s 2013 book is an unreliable point of departure for grasping trans politics. Use of exogenous sex hormones as it appears in Testo Junkie is framed either as personal project of mastery, or understated – with interviews supporting the book seeing testosterone being described as the ultimate ‘party drug’. Preciado oscillates from a grandiose historical vision of society’s evolution into what he calls the ‘pharmacopornographic era’, to an intense confessional account of his personal endocrinological experimentation. Although I have no wish to pick transitions clean of their intrinsic romance, the humdrum reality of accessing a steady supply of hormones suitable for a trans body is perhaps more prosaic, and certainly more collaborative.

Due to the widespread displays of medical incompetence by professionals providing trans healthcare, DIY circles have arisen (both on and offline) to provide community-run centres for accessing Hormone Replacement Therapy, and other specialised support. At their simplest, these services can provide references to medics who have proven themselves respectful and proficient in servicing the unique needs of trans patients. More elaborate groups provide extensive repositories of relevant empirical research most medics tend to overlook, instructions for self-administration practices (especially injections), and up-to-date guides for directly acquiring required medication from online pharmacies.

Just as importantly, these communities share their experiences and results, gathering an unparalleled collection of clinical data that would in many cases go otherwise discarded. They also allow for a unique form of consciousness raising, as often harrowing experiences of medical practice are shared on a regular basis. Across time, these outlets allow the least scrupulous practicing medics to be much more easily avoided.

These circles are primarily not inspired by utopian visions of infinite intensification. Resources providing indispensable information are instead often administered by middle aged professionals, as a labour of love. Relevant studies are compiled, contact details for competent doctors (a rarity) are shared, and ‘off topic’ contributions are ruthlessly pruned. Very often these communities are thoroughly permeated with exactly the ‘essentialism’ and ordinary thinking that the Xenofeminists seem so eager to distance themselves from. It’s hard to imagine a greater disconnect between the giddy style of the XF Manifesto, and the dry, statistic-oriented and often bossy style with which trans DIY spaces are generally focused, and administered. More than once, I have found my threads in these groups locked or deleted, after moderators found their line of inquiry ‘too philosophical’.[16]

To call this ‘radical amateurism’ is quite correct (even if many of those centrally involved do have relevant training: as registered nurses, healthcare researchers, or biochemists). But it’s much harder to connect the work done by these circles to any ‘gender abolitionist’ project. And impossible to see anything in common between the earnest compiling of research papers and experiences, plasma levels and ‘results’, that predominates in these groups, and the idea of sex hormones as party drugs. If anything, these circles appear to be taking the collection of clinical data and development of new treatment schema considerably more seriously than our doctors.

Instead, what draws together the otherwise disparate demographics that define the operative circles of autonomous information sharing is a shared struggle against the alienating circumstances of contemporary trans healthcare. In brief: doctors generally have one idea about what trans healthcare should look like, while trans people have developed our own. Whereas professional medical practices have often clung to outdated approaches, and blatantly disregarded the responses of trans people under treatment, DIY circles have developed new approaches fully informed by shared experience.

In contrast to everything we now know about human endocrinological variance, medics treating us are often wedded to a strict and ‘one size fits all’ approach to treatment.[17] In some countries such as Japan and Finland, trans healthcare still includes sterilisation as mandatory for those undergoing state sanctioned gender and name re-registrations. This was far more widely true within recent living memory. I write from Austria where – until a human rights court ruling earlier this decade – those wishing to formally ratify their transitions were required to drop trousers (or lift skirts) to prove to a certified medical professional that they had undergone SRS. In Britain, Gender Identity Clinics previously insisted on a course of ‘Real Life Experience’, where trans people were expected to tough out a period of living full time as a trans person, prior to receiving medical treatment. More recently, surface level reforms have done little to veil the total meltdown caused by austerity, with 2-3 year waits prior to treatment becoming normalised. Securing safe and effective healthcare via the NHS has proven especially difficult for non-binary and BME trans people.[18]

Fundamentally, the medical profession has not broken from a conception of trans healthcare as stripping us of our original sex, rather than aiming to bring us in line with the equivalent norms of a cisgender person in our position. In many locales doctors use anti-androgens known for permanently damaging side effects to further this end.[19]

In other words, a gendered form of domination plays out during trans healthcare. Those privileged by the existing division of labour work to impose their formally agreed upon ‘best practice’, while trans people (and our few auxiliaries within the profession itself) work to generate new best practices more appropriate to our varied needs, and informed by the true breadth of available clinical data. This is a relational struggle all the way out – as much concerning the integrity of medical professionals’ identification as experts, as the wellbeing of their transgender patients.

The Xenofeminist Manifesto does not use the word ‘resistance’, and only once uses the word ‘communities’ (although ‘microcommunities’ appears another time, disparagingly). However, the reality of trans healthcare is primarily that of activity that occurs by autonomous communities seeking to mitigate, avert, and reverse the damage done to our lives by a medical establishment. Medics typically wish to bring us in line as a managed population, whereas we seek to live our lives on our own terms. If we win out, which is never guaranteed, we never do so truly alone. As such, recent trans theorisation by myself and Mijke van der Drift has identified communities as playing a central role in the realisation of trans lives.[20]

In other words, our efforts are exactly not strategies of ‘self-alienation’. We do not win out by embracing or celebrating our domination, we do not defeat medicalisation by submission to it. We are struggling against our bodies being used as a means toward the ends of the medical establishment, and state. We exist at a fracture point of the division of labour: overseen by ‘experts’ who seem to know little, but assert themselves over us with great insistence. Our communities, as dull and as riddled with run-of-the-mill ‘essentialism’ as they might seem to social theorists, are not docile. They resist the alienation that class society foists on us. Communities are our means of surviving the clinic.

So Sophie Lewis is correct in their rejection of the Xenofeminist’s view of alienation and technology:

given the right conditions, technologies help us to collectively remake the nature of our bodies in such a way as to disalienate.[21]

Pending communism, the correct conditions will always include autonomous community action, actively resistant to the binding strictures of the medical profession. Transitions require us to overcome alienation, they do not celebrate it.

Xenofeminism is Predictable

Inspired by hacker culture, the Xenofeminists found an ‘exploit’ in social theory’s carapace: even a muddled and Dawkins-inflected vision of political movement can gain traction so long as it sounds the correct notes on certain topics. The worst that could be said of the Xenofeminists is that they chafe at the outer limits of existing social theory, without ever truly escaping its orbit.

At this point, I should turn to the extended criticism of the Xenofeminists by Annie Goh.[22] As she puts it, Goh’s argument is in part ‘associative’. Treating primarily the Manifesto rather than subsequent material, Goh skillfully traces the polyvalent uses of ‘xenos’ by the Laboria Cuboniks collective. She holds them to account on the association their use of this vocabulary inevitably draws with fascist theorist Nick Land, who cluttered his idiosyncratic writings on cybernetic culture with the prefix ‘xeno-’ freely. Goh goes further than most commentators in also examining a piece co-authored by both Land and his CCRU collaborator Sadie Plant, who (unlike Land) remains widely respected in cultural theory. Clearly Goh is correct in arguing against this conjuring of a malign spirit – Land’s intellectual career seems to have flourished in light of the attention brought to his career by leftwingers. Cagey defences that these theorists were solely interested in ‘early Land’ have become increasingly flimsy, since the still-living thinker has sought to reclaim the critical term ‘accelerationism’ for his own neo-reactionary ends. Those who were expressing enthusiasm for accelerationist thought circa 2013 have since been somewhat hapless in the face of Land’s revived output, especially his increasingly explicit advocacy of ‘Hyperracism’. Surely other Deleuzians were available.

Goh is also quite correct to challenge the overblown interpretation of Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ that Xenofeminism seems to draw from Accelerationists, which she fairly characterises as ‘quasi-Marxist’. For all the emphasis placed on this text by their canon, Accelerationists have been much too quick to forget, or deny, that ‘[The] Machine presupposes a mass of workers’.[23]

However despite ‘Appropriating the Alien’ being a pointed critique, both Goh and the Xenofeminists appear to share a great deal in common. In fact, Goh’s philosophical account and that of the Laboria Cuboniks collective seem to align themselves exactly where the Xenofeminist Manifesto goes most awry.

Subtly, and while asserting the ‘diversity’ of the relevant thinkers, Goh frames decolonial analysis as unequivocally opposing the Xenofeminist Manifesto’s called for a renewed feminist rationalism. This offers only a partial view of anti-colonial thinking. Rational defences of human dignity were as much enlisted against colonialism, as in promotion of it. Many of the authors of the anti-colonial canon were explicitly humanists: Frantz Fanon, CLR James, and Edward Said each made these commitments instrumental to their thinking.[24] Developing an anti-racist political conception of the human was also a prominent concern for US black thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois,[25] Dalit movement leader B.R. Ambedkar,[26] and South African anti-apartheid campaigner and theorist Steve Biko.[27]

Goh considers the Xenofeminists treatment of this complex issue to be inadequate: ‘flippantly asserting the existence of “non-Western” or non-European reason and rationality in xenofeminism appears like an after-thought’. However the contrast she draws passes over the full scope of disagreement in play amongst revolutionaries opposing colonialism, both now and in the past. Many of imperialism’s most resolute and creative opponents historically have not seen themselves as equally opposed to rationalism. Nor is their thought reducible to criticism of modernity, serving as much as its immanent rearticulation. And this remains true today: contemporary anti-racist thinkers such as Lewis Gordon and Marilyn Nissim-Sabat have attempted to develop, rather than correct, these humanist origins, and resistant traditions.[28]

There was never an era where reason was truly the toy of colonials. Rationalism has been contested for as long as humans have offered each other reasons. This means we can only treat any anti-colonial opposition to rationalism as a political or strategic commitment — it is not a given.

Goh’s opposition of rationalism with anti-colonial theory elides the discontinuous content of anti-colonial rationalists’ politics, and their legacies, with the stifling norms of contemporary critical theory. This is not an unusual stance: the explicit rejection of this humanistic heritage of earlier anti-colonial theory has become a 21st century commonplace. The humanism of the anti-colonial movement’s history has too often been cast as a naive defect, to be corrected by contemporary scholars.[29] This tendency is far from exclusively decolonial, and seems equally typical across social theory. Scepticism is regularly treated as the purest, or only, source of insight. Too often, today’s left theoreticians of whatever school collapse political radicalism with methodological structuralism.

But this specific commitment on Goh’s part leaves her offensive against the Laboria Cuboniks blunted: there is no need to reject rationalism as such to challenge the Xenofeminist Manifesto. As we’ve seen, their exact understanding of the rational seems to rely on a particular, eccentric variation of it (informed by new atheist ‘memetics’). And such an offensive seems especially unlikely to gain traction against a document that openly calls for ‘corruption’. If indeed modernity itself is epistemologically riddled with imperialist logics, this would surely seem to let the Cuboniks collective off the hook for selecting openly muslim-baiting intellectuals such as Dawkins and Land, over the many rationalists (historical or contemporary) who are politically anti-racist.

What if the dissolution of the 21st century’s colonies requires another ‘new humanism’?

Goh’s own affiliations are clear in her account of alienation as used by Marx:

Marxist flexes, where more alienation leads to freedom, give rise to a third set of conceptual difficulties. The alienation (Entfremdung) of the labouring worker as a relation of un-freedom which Marx diagnosed in his early work alludes to the inhumanity of a continuing process of dispossession. Yet by the time the Communist Manifesto was written, Marx had already begun to denounce alienation as ‘philosophical nonsense’, recognising its rootedness in Hegelian humanism and its inability to account for, or address, the material conditions of labour under capitalism. Although later Marx continued to toy with similar ideas, albeit framed as objectification (vergegenständlichen) within political economy there is no viable correlation to the XFM’s enthusiasm for alienation.

This account is a familiar rendition of the traditional Althusserian position on Marx’s intellectual development. This account depicts Marx as initially overly invested in Hegelian language, and then ‘maturing’ out of these youthful dalliances into a drier and more ‘scientific’ form.[30] Engagement with Hegel’s metaphysics is cast as a puerile folly, which he shed prior to writing Capital. Unfortunately, this perspective has retained a stubborn grip over social theory, even as it has come to be accepted by fewer and fewer Marx scholars.[31] To read mainstream social theory, one would be unaware that each of these teleological claims concerning Marx’s career stand refuted. [32] Indeed, one might be unaware that Marxism had a set of humanist traditions at all. [33]

Today, Louis Althusser’s grasp seems easier to denounce than to truly loosen.[34] With elaborate anti-humanisms such as Nick Land’s on the rise, there is a pressing need for more, and better readings of Marx.

Xenofeminism Is Paranoid

The scepticism Goh evidences towards the philosophical and rational seems an exact match with the Laboria Cuboniks’ writings towards inquiry informed by any trace of religion: ‘Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology – the sooner it is exorcised, the better.’ (0x01). Each of these passages is distinctively eliminative: it posits that disciplines within the humanities (philosophy/rationalism and theology/essentialism) are intrinsically suspect, and implicitly proposes that thinking is best done once purged of them.

Despite their overt dispute, Goh and Cuboniks make the same error. Rather than seeing rationalism as a contradictory mass of traditions, each unfolding historically, ever contested, and from which we should the sift revolutionaries from the eugenicists, they treat it as an ideal which is either desirable (XF), or suspect (Goh). In the process Richard Dawkins and Raya Dunayevskya, Dan Dennett and Lewis Gordon, Steven Pinker and Edward Said, Susan Blackmore and Gillian Rose, Christopher Hitchens and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Frantz Fanon and Carl Benjamin, are mashed together into an unconvincing medley. This approach cannot hope to refute or vindicate rational explanation. This is critical theory without critical distinctions.

This shared approach between the Cuboniks and Goh places all too much weight on what the late Eve K. Sedgwick termed ‘paranoid readings’.[35] In that mode of thinking – which Sedgwick contrasts to reparative readings – the role of the theorist is to sniff out the suspect traces of undesirable elements. Having done this, the offending articles are to be ‘exposed’.[36] Both these critiques rely on a bracketing of veins of thought as tainted, in the process threatening to trigger a continuing cycle of confusion, and excessive excision. Doubtless the more exuberant Xenofeminists are already penning dismissals of Goh as displaying decolonial thinking’s underlying ‘irrationalism’, that will in turn elicit charges that these responses reveal Xenofeminism’s ingrained epistemic chauvinism. All of this leads us far away from the point. While defining oneself negatively is an inevitable facet of being a thinker, it will not suffice for resolving the tangled questions under discussion.

For the Xenofeminists especially, this opens up an unavoidable tension: at once celebrating corruption, and denouncing ‘the infection of purity’ (0X10), and ‘muck of immediacy’ (0x01). At once denouncing theology, and calling for an exorcist (0X01). Unwittingly mingling apophasis and positivism as clashing colours. Contradictions are an innate quality of any successful movement, but at points the Xenofeminists appear to strain themselves into outright incoherence. This is a rationalism that falls short of giving reasons.

Neither the Xenofeminists nor their critics have escaped the prevailing norms of social theory. In truth there is no one rationalism, just as there is no supreme form of reason, just as there is no comprehensive logic. Must the highest form of critique always be scepticism? Why should we reject either rationalist inquiry, or theological speculation? Is sacrificing anything not always an admission of its worth?

While less pronounced in later works associated with Xenofeminism, the 2015 Manifesto stands as a testament of cultural theory’s persistent conflation of radical politics, and eliminative logic. Repair work must begin here.

As communist politics are warped to the very limits of recognition by the 21st century, the call for a flourishing and blossoming that defines the Xenofeminist Manifesto is welcome. But we need to move beyond either accepting its terms, or denouncing its corruptions. The reasons it offers us are not only suspect, but insufficient.

What if social theory offered more than vying flavours of anti-humanism? What if our logic could express the wriggling queer forms that are now hatched nightly, by the desperate and the very online? What if we had a rationalism as weird as our everyday conditions?

In memory of Madi Boscolo: always a cybergoth, never a goddess.

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a historian, bisexual and Londoner based in Vienna. She co-founded the Leftovers communist discussion group. She writes about embodiment, ethics, endocrinology, and other messy processes — her work can be read here

Footnotes


[1] This was not a display of contempt for those with sight or reading related disabilities: a much more accessible .txt version was also included.

[2] Both in approaching the Xenofeminist Manifesto as a manifesto, and in grasping the ‘Neoreactionary’ influences which threaten to dominate it, I am indebted to Elizabeth Sandifer Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays on and Around the Alt-Right (2017). As Sandifer introduces has it: ‘The visionary manifesto is a performative genre – one where being interesting is as important as being right, if not slightly more so. That is not to say they can get away with being wrong, at least not straightforwardly so, but it is to reiterate that the key problem with Moldbug, Yudkowsky, and Land is that they are in key regards uninteresting – that they offer dull and unsatisfying answers to their most compelling questions, of which “hang out with a bunch of racist nerdbros” is merely the worst.’

[5] This is the primary meaning of rationalism in the Hegelian tradition, which casts scepticism as both a necessary and defective developmental stage on the way to rational consciousness.

[6] Susan Blackmore, ‘Zen Into Science’, in R. Rhawn. (ed.). Neurotheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience (2002).

[8] It may be worth mentioning explicitly that Fraser is also the source of the most exuberant doubling down cited by Goh: the argument that yes, the master’s tools can dismantle his house. This approach seems strikingly at odds with the approach of Helen Hester, who has focused on developing the aspects of XF less often taken to be objectionable. This seems a suggestive episode in the cohesion of a six-person, single pseudonym collective inevitably disassembling across time.

[10] The Accelerationists describe as Folk Politics: ‘Occupy, Spain’s 15M, student occupations, left communist insurrectionists like Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee, most forms of horizontalism, the Zapatistas, and contemporary anarchist-tinged politics, as well as a variety of other trends like political localism, the slow-food movement, and ethical consumerism, among many others.’ Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015) p.11. Quoted in this critical evaluation: ‘Inventing the Future: Reinventing Social Democracy’.

[12] Helen Hester, Xenofeminism (2018).

[16] No hard feelings, it’s a fair cop.

[17] I explore the state of trans health care in Britain in much more detail in my forthcoming piece written with J.N. Hoad, ‘Gender Identity Communism’, Salvage Magazine #7 (November, 2019).

[20] My previous essays on the reproductive role of trans communities can be found here, here, and here. Mijke van der Drift’s Aristotelian perspective is expressed in ‘Nonnormative Ethics; the ensouled formation of trans’ (2019).

Health researcher Noah Zazanis has also presented his research into trans community action as a form of social reproduction at NYC’s Historical Materialism Conference this April, which is currently awaiting publication in a Pluto Press collection (2020).

[24] Said defended humanism throughout his writings, including his 2004 book Humanism and Democratic Criticism. On Fanon’s humanism see: Richard Pithouse, ‘“That the tool never possess the man”: taking Fanon’s humanism seriously’, Politikon South African Journal of Political Studies (2010), and Anthony C. Alessandrini, ‘The Humanism Effect: Fanon, Foucault, and Ethics without Subjects’, Foucault Studies no.7, 2009, and Jane Hiddleston, Fanon, ‘Nationalism and Humanism: The Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Intellectual’, Irish Journal of French Studies, no.10, 2010. Hiddleston’s arguments concerning the ‘emptying’ nature of Fanon’s humanism respond directly to astute and longstanding criticisms of his centering of black manhood as masculinist.

On CLR James see: Alyssa Adamson ‘C.L.R. James’s Decolonial Humanism in Theory and Practice’, The CLR James Journal 24 (2019).

[25] Lewis R. Gordon, ‘Du Bois’s Humanistic Philosophy of Human Sciences’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568 Special Issue: The Study of African-American Problems: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Agenda, Then and Now (2000). Or for a more general view of humanism in the Black Radical Tradition (including engagement with James Baldwin’s relevant writings), see: Gerald Early, ‘The Quest for a Black Humanism’ Daedalus 135.2 (2006).

[26] On Ambedkar’s humanistic Buddhism see M.T. Joseph, ‘Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Views on Religion: A Sociological Analysis’, Indian Anthropologist vol.43 no.2, 2013.

[27] Steve Biko, ‘Black Consciousness and the quest for a true humanity’ (1978), Biko’s sardonic rationalism is best displayed in the preamble: ‘we have to find out whether our position is a deliberate creation of God or an artificial fabrication of the truth by power-hungry people whose motive is authority, security, wealth and comfort.’

[28] Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Neither Victim Nor Survivor: Thinking Toward a New Humanity (2009), introduced by Lewis Gordon.

[29] As well as the many decolonial scholars cited by Goh, one of the more thoroughgoing attacks on Said’s humanism and self-identification as a historian is: B.W. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York Chichester, West Sussex 2018).

[30] This clearly mirrors a polemical account of how earlier anti-colonial thinking was stridently humanistic (if bitterly critical of existing colonial humanisms), but now has ‘matured’ into totalising dismissals of the Enlightenment itself.

[31] For a critical account from a former Althusserian insider, see Jacques Ranciere, Althusser’s Lesson (translator: Emiliano Battista, 2011). Althusserian readings of Marx as divided between a young and mature phase have been consistently rejected by Political Marxists. Political Marxists have been primarily in alignment with Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s defence of history. This perspective was articulated most recently at length by George Comninel’s ‘Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx’ (2019), which I reviewed here.

Another classic attack on Althusser’s reading of Marx, and the dominance it achieved relatively quickly within revolutionary theory, is Simon Clarke’s 1980 essay ‘Althusserian Marxism’. Clarke’s comments on Althusser’s dismissive style remain salient: ‘Althusserianism is based on a polemical technique which can only be described as intellectual terrorism. Three terms, “historicism”, “empiricism” and “humanism” are drafted in to sweep away all possible opposition. To be labelled by such a term is to be labelled a class enemy, an intellectual saboteur. The power of the terms, however, depends on the claim that marxism represents a radical break with all forms of “historicism”, “empiricism” and “humanism” in the name of science.’ While this dogmatic climate has clearly subsided, the same impulses seem to pertain in sublimated ways for today’s post-Marxists.

[32] Undermining further any simple distinction between the ‘young’ and ‘mature’ Marx, for decades scholars have observed commonalities between the structure of Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital. While famously argued for by Lenin (who with his typical flair for overstatement declared it near pointless to read Capital prior to the Logic), this perspective was renewed after the publication of Marx’s flagrantly Hegelian Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and Grundrisse (both published in the 1930s). Many have followed the basic 1994 observation of Felton Shortall’s The Incomplete Marx: ‘In order to understand the structure and method of Capital it is therefore necessary to understand the dialectical form it takes, and the relation of this form to the dialectical logic of Hegel from which it is derived.’ See for instance: Thomas J. Blakeley, ‘The Logic of “Capital”: Some Recent Analyses ‘ Studies in Soviet Thought 16.3/4 (1976), and Pichit Likitkijsomboon ‘The Hegelian dialectic and Marx’s “Capital” ‘, Cambridge Journal of Economics 16.4 (1992).

This consensus view has become a shared point of departure for contemporary research: for instance Vanessa Wills’ forthcoming book on Marx as a moral thinker explores the ethical implications of his view of alienation.

[33] Marxist Humanism is a tendency associated with several major schools: the Hungarian ‘Budapest School’ (György Márkus and György Lukács), the US’ Johnson-Forest tendency (Raya Dunayevskaya and C.L.R. James), USSR philosopher Evald Ilyenkov and his disciplines, much of the Frankfurt School, and Yugoslavia’s Praxis magazine (Danko Grlić, Mihailo Marković, Gajo Petrović and others). There has been a huge body of scholarship on each of these tendencies, and the strikingly divergent contexts they operated within. To cite just one example: Aaron Jaffe, ‘The critical value of György Márkus’s philosophical anthropology: Rereading Marxism and Anthropology: The Concept of ‘Human Essence’ in the Philosophy of Marx’, Thesis Eleven 126:1 (2015). More recently a collection defending these traditions was published, For Humanism Explorations in Theory and Politics, edited by David Alderson and Robert Spencer (2017).

Dismissals of this vein of thought as ‘western’, as many of humanism’s critics are prone to, seems insufficient when across various eras it flourished (albeit often in semi-clandestine contexts) everywhere from Moscow to Zagreb to Algiers to Port-of-Spain.

[34] We can see this most clearly in the work of so-called ‘post-humanisms’, also mentioned approvingly by Goh. Invariably, these efforts style themselves as attempting to overcome the perceived failings of humanism, then simply repeat humanism’s key insights carefully rephrased.

[35] Eve K. Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003).

[36] An example of this mode in action is an earlier section of this piece: ‘Xenofeminism Is A Humanism’.




Source: Metamute.org