The daughters of feminism took their assignment to heart: Occupy space, conquer territory. In the narrative, in the picture. In the frame. Within the frame. Was it enough?
Heave oneself up to the top of the artist Niki de Saint Phalles’ sculptures outside the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. Look out and down, direct the lighting, and discover the self-destructing machine created by de Saint Phalle’s husband Jean Tinguely. Yes, de Saint Phalle had an intelligent husband-artist-colleague. A culturally formed man endeavouring to reveal the movement that appears to be leading forward but in accelerating speed is moving towards perdition.
Even before Monsieur Hulot, the film director Jacques Tatis’ lost man in androcentric society’s metallic blue landscape, in Playtime from 1967, Tinguely’s meta machines made satire of termo dynamics’ immanent death wish. Like the steam engine of Astrid Lindgren’s Lillebror, when Karlsson-on-the-roof confidently poses as a machinist, Tinguely’s machines destroyed themselves: Puff puff, puff puff. Oups, it went off. ‘Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got a heap of steam engines,’ Karlsson assures, while Lillebror, not yet fully formed man, hesitates, rightfully. How many steam machines may go off until the game is ended?
How much of the world’s resources and fossil fuels may the termo-dynamic machine use before everything is wasted? The dominating feminisms started out fine but invested in a future that seemed to disregard the prerequisites of the world. Having come halfway on their journey, they appeared modest where they should have been grand, assuming where they should have been humble. They forgot the broad perspectives and pretentions of feminist alternative societies; critique of the very design, the material, the mechanics, the fuel, the cost calculations, the sources of revenue, the economic models.
Missing were thoughts about how the building may embrace everybody. Ideas about how society will make ends meet so that it may be handed over long-term colourfully and innovatively functioning. The feminism of Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that women were shaped by culture but overlooked that this is true also for other gender categories; the order-abiding first category (the male) alongside the forms in between. Thus the model for the ideal human being was left without further critique. Women, like other presumably deviating human beings, were exhorted to demand to be able to live as white commonly formed male well-to-do persons, fitting to the white well-to-do men’s kind of societal project. In their urge to be included, the dominating feminisms forgot to criticize society at its roots.
The desire was to get allowance to enter and take place in the white man-male-machine. The vehicle that is now, somewhat globally known, risking to permanently drive itself down the marshes. The glaciers of Himalaya are melting, and so are the ices of the Arctic. Climate scenes give the image of rupturing coasts; cities, villages falling under the sea surface; storms, draughts, algae blooming. Degrees of climate heat that cannot be stopped, parts of a machine that has already combusted; forget under two degrees heightened temperature. The fossil fuel depletion of the machine from the 1960’s and onward cannot be retracted.
People sinking first are among those without life insurances and home insurances, internet banks, or money in their pockets. Those whose share among the not so-well-to-do constantly must be appreciated, since banks and institutes miss out on gender coding the fact collecting. Those who make up around seventy percent of the people living on less than a dollar a day and whose share among those living on less than two dollars a day is even higher. Every day they are using their backs, legs and arms muscles to carry wood, water, children, building materials, fuels, goods. Chopping and collecting in forests, in sugar cane fields and cotton fields; sowing and harvesting the grain; labouring in industries and sweat shops for low wages during long working hours in dismal working conditions.
If they get paid at all, that is. Globally, the category of women and girls is an underclass, women and girls often being exacted unpaid services to surrounding men; as a wife slave in bed and in the kitchen, alternately as a sex slave lured by assurances of a job as a house maid in the North. Women make up the majority performing the world’s most physically heavy work, executing three fourth of all unpaid work. Given that women survive. The UN estimates that since a girl may be considered less valuable, and expensive, due to the dowry tradition, one hundred million girls are aborted or die from starvation or lack of basic medicine.
Yes, the gender marked social catastrophe was, as we know, already here, for every feminist to pay attention to long before the climate crisis caused Western sympathy and so clearly gave witness to dismal allocation politics internationally, nationally, and household wise. And dismal allocation environmentally and resource-wise. We ought never forget how Elin Wägner, Rosa Mayreder and many other feminists in the early 20th century analysed with pretensions for humanity but were wrongly dismissed by their subsequent feminist colleagues as simple binary feminists.
Thus, the critique of society’s goal, function, resilience, sustainability disappeared; humanity’s dominion, the relation to future generations, to nature, to nonhuman animals. A similar fate was accorded to the critique of the seamy side of production society in the form of stressed out kids and parents, in the so-called Nina Björk debate two years ago.
To the one inspecting the structure thoroughly – please, here is the exit. To the one presenting an alternative map – go ahead, here is the back door. However, the radical map does not only scrutinize the machine construction; it may also augur the new and the old; merging, tearing apart, rebuilding, letting the light in. Such a map may flicker in creative séance, seemingly mad, in fact genially, over suburbs, favelas, countrysides, continents, and urban citadels. The progressive invitation proposes a continuous happening in style of the 1960s, though in a sober state.
Tinguely’s kinetic machine may perhaps have constituted a reaction to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ idea about modern society as a machine, developing by differences in potential, expressed in varying forms of social hierarchies. The machinery was able to perform a lot of work, though, in the process, in the gap between the boiler and the condenser, energy was consumed and destroyed. Less modern societies instead functioned wholly mechanical, like a clock, and created no gaps, no exhausted energy, according to Lévi-Strauss. But their machines were cold, static, and lacked development.
Lévi-Strauss might be a Western scientific icon; nevertheless, even icons are marked by a position, and the perspective of the icon may reveal unsighted spots; less modern societies, the so-called primitive ones, were actually full of differences: division of labour, hierarchy, especially in relation to sex/gender. What generated the gender division of labour? In Female Power and Male Dominance, On the Origins of Sexual Equality from Cambridge University Press 2000, Peggy Sanday shows how the culture of food influenced the direction: plant- and or crustacean-based societies generated more equal social relations, while animal-based societies created less equal social relations.
And, the clock mechanics may be everything but static, like a bicycle in full swing. A non-destructive muscle-building energy creating mechanics may develop like a forward-rolling gearwheel building upon the movement by chain reaction. What genius of simplicity and usage of given prerequisites does not, for instance, the sail express? Like the hand- driven computer – the energy efficient that for some reason cannot be sighted in the shopping malls of the North. Why is no modern city using all, now wasted, energy generated by office people sweating in the mechanics of thousands of city gym palaces?
Look across de Saint Phalle’s artwork and sight the norm, the one not consisting of the many, but the few. A sad but life-threatening minority. The ten percent of humanity, formed by almost one hundred percent individuals from the self-appointed superordinate sex, which, counting property and financial assets, minus debts, own eighty five percent of the world’s resources. Alone in the machine’s powerhouse, indissolubly dependent upon the labour of the majority, this minority is ravaging ground water and oceans; eroding the soil by fodder cultivations for luxury meat consumption; deforesting the tropics to produce, for instance, toilet paper; wasting biological conditions for humans and nonhumans without being affected themselves, all for the production of goods for more and more people belonging to the middle-income segment.
More and more hot, the machine puffs on, in accordance with the calculation. Aready in ancient Greece the proto feminist Plato, in The Republic, described its architecture in the character of Socrates making conversation with his apprentice Glaucon: What do we want, a state in fever, driven by greed and cravings for meat from pigs and cattle, embarking on the pursuit of unlimited material possessions and therefore having to cut a slice of their neighbours territory? Or a simple and more equal society in which everyone may live well off ‘wheat-meal or barley-meal, splendid cakes and loaves on rushes and or fresh leaves; salt, olive oil, cheese, different kinds of vegetables, figs, and peas and beans, myrtle-berries and acorns to roast at the fire as they sip their wine’?
It is impossible to know just how an alternate socio economic and technological pathway might have differed in relation to the ones Plato described. Perhaps the choice was not between two differing societies, perhaps this was a patriarchal figure, a constructed either-or, concealing that in all times there are a thousand movements, a thousand kinds of cog wheels, leverages, bicycles, sails, hand driven computers, wind catchers, sun cells, means of subsistence. But Plato’s point remains important, and it disputes that which is ordinarily taught by society: There are other ways of development than the ones of violence and alienation shaped to fit those who have acquired the power to choose.
The feverish machine has roiled for centuries now, faster and faster, soon there will be no land areas left to ravage. For long it ignored the hunger of the world; the concrete hunger of those producing the goods for the charts of economic growth and the fodder for luxurious meat; the metaphorical hunger for the norms and values assigned the subordinate, and never applied by the power centres of the world. Values that the machine therefore is inherently lacking.
Tinguely’s pretence rational machines were planned to detonate during two exhibitions; in the US 1960, and in Denmark 1961. Study for and End of the World 1 obeyed his master’s command, and exploded. Machine number two refused. It crawled on, as if toiling in quicksand, indisposed to understand its own good. The machine refused to self-destruct; needed help to adjust its logic: from burnout to recreation.
So, time to claim new buildings. Machines in which pathological winning is exchanged for conditions of recycling; machines in which the top result is given to the construction that wastes the least and shares the most. Feminist machines that may be montaged and de-montaged. Machines that again and again recycle, resurrect and live, rather than consume, devastate, and fall apart.
Photo: Maple leaf, autumn 2019
Published in Swedish, in Bang Magazine 1 March 2008, and in English in AAM 1 December 2019
©Arimneste Anima Museum #9