Nina Power, One-Dimensional Woman, London: Zero Books, 2009. 81 pages. ISBN: 9781846942419
Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman provocatively takes the cue for its title and premise from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man. Power invokes Marcuse’s concept of a system of production and consumption that creates ‘false needs,’ flattened social relations, and an illusory sense of individual autonomy. Power frames her own book as a retooling of this critique, intended to address a much more recent rhetoric of consumerism and contemporary feminism which – in similar and new ways – creates a barrier to productive critical thinking about work, sex and politics.
Power is based at Roehampton University, part of the University of London, where she teaches philosophy. In the past year, however, she has been just as likely to be seen taking part in student protests against the recent tripling of tuition fees at UK universities, or at the solidarity camp that sought to prevent the eviction of Irish Traveller families from their land at Dale Farm in Essex, or of course, around the Occupy London Stock Exchange encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. She can also frequently be found among the Guardian’s comment is free pages. One Dimensional Woman is published by the upstart Zero Books as part of a series of readable texts intended as ‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’ While this short book came out before the wave of protests surrounding the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement took hold, we might hope that its message will be more immediately understood as a result of these events. And indeed Vancouver, as the birthplace of Botox — and a city long-preoccupied with cosmopolitan surfaces and spectacle — seems its ideal target.
Power begins her discussion by noting the contradictions and confusion surrounding the term ‘feminism’ itself, sketching the ways in which it has been variously and uncritically reproduced in neoliberal discourse: as an advertising technique; as a card in both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ arguments over abortion; and as a mask (in the election of certain female politicians, for example) of representational respectability used to cover up the ‘structural sins’ of imperialist democracy, among other enlistings. Most pertinent here is Power’s reading of Sarah Palin in Lacanian terms. Palin is presented as a fear-inducing ‘terminator hockey-mom’ who understands that ‘the phallus is only a semblance’ (9) and is thereby able to undermine the symbolic register which has previously required woman to imitate man, or to find ways of addressing ‘the lack’, in order to assert her authority. Instead Palin uses her feminine qualities, her potential weaknesses – such as attractiveness, maternal instincts, and inexperience – to embody what Power wryly calls a ‘vast female plenitude’ (10); a type of authority that paradoxically, and through a populist agenda which exploits the contingent nature of the field of power, also succeeds in promoting a staunchly right-wing politics, endorses neoliberal economics and foreign policy, and perpetuates entrenched, repressive gender norms for the majority.
Power uses Palin’s putative feminism to illustrate a broad change in the rhetoric of female emancipation, a phenomenon that could be perceived in terms of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s notion of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’, which is able – somewhat vampirically – to absorb and manipulate cultural products and ideologies that were originally generated to quite different ends than legitimising capitalism. It is in this vein that Power highlights the assimilation of the language of feminism by Western geopolitical discourse. This discourse, she argues, has co-opted the term within a vague liberal idea of women’s rights and used it as a blatant technique of war. Power notes the appeal to the emancipation of women that pro-war arguments took up in support of the US-UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. She also highlights the inherent contradictions in France’s recent banning of the hijab (whereby Islamic women, viewed by Western secular logic to be oppressed, are punished), here adding to a critique made previously by Alain Badiou. Power situates these phenomena in economic terms and suggests – in a passage that chimes with the book’s many other reminders of neoliberalism’s demand that women’s bodies be circulated as currency – that a woman’s refusal to ‘hint at undressing’ is antithetical to the logic of the market, and so can neither be understood nor tolerated by capitalist society.
A critique of the feminization of labour is one important focal point of One-Dimensional Woman. Power uses the double-implication of the phrase itself – as both a (quantitative) descriptor of a specific type of labour and worker, and as an indicator of resentment towards the (qualitative) increasing presence of women in the post-Fordist workforce – as an axis on which to pivot two levels of analysis. Power’s first, empirical observation is that the predominance of women in flexible, low-paid, precarious types of work such as service industry or temp agency employment is a trend that grows in tandem with mass media imagery depicting the ‘successful’ career-woman who is also a voracious consumer. This combines with the career market’s pressure on both sexes to be adaptable, constantly networking, and enthusiastic – a ‘walking CV,’ to quote Power. Secondly, the indiscriminatory element of capitalist accumulation is balanced with the argument that capitalism selectively remembers what women are useful for: they comprise the larger component of the cheapest and most disposable sector of the workforce. Power then returns to that first implication of the term ‘feminization’ of labour to approach a more fundamental analysis, posing a question about the effect of variable capital on the persons and subjectivities through which it circulates. Here Power shows how the precarious and fragmented nature of ‘feminine’ types of employment has become a structural element of contemporary capitalism itself. In a twist which risks appearing to contradict her previous assertion, Power suggests that under neoliberalism, ‘all work has become women’s work, even that of men.’ (22)
The following chapters focus on the rise of ‘consumer feminism’, a development which has in part consisted of a language of objectification in which women are encouraged by commercial forces to regard their own bodies as economic assets. This, along with the blurring of personal and private spheres in both work and leisure time (which themselves increasingly overlap), propels a process of sexual self-objectification which, Power warns, could be capable of blocking the possibility of a return to any subjective or private realm of desires – a situation where ‘the image is the reality’. (33, my emphasis)
Power’s most extended case study provides an historical analysis of the porn industry, juxtaposing the presence of humor and affection in pre-1950s vintage porn with the grim violence of modern hardcore. The comparison serves to highlight the reductive ahistoricality of other critiques by figures such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Power underlines contemporary porn’s alienating drive to render sex as work in all its grinding monotony. And in noting the economic weight of the porn industry, her argument points to the need for a socio-economic, structural analysis of porn – one which avoids moralizing forms of discourse.
Her example is rather protracted given the density of ideas in the former part of the book. But as her final sections make clear, One-Dimensional Woman is an attempt to corral as many feminist issues as possible, and to present them via an engaging polemic based in the assertion that there is a material basis for ideology. As such, Power’s brief delineations of polygamous communes and of Shulamith Firestone’s notion of ‘cybernetic communism’ – which in 1969 proposed sexual emancipation by means of reproductive technology, the abolition of the couple, alternative work models, even the (obviously contentious) sexual participation of children in society – serve as reminders of other models of sexual, social and economic relations. While One-Dimensional Woman relies on its brevity and frequent use of colloquial idiom for a sense of urgency that might reach beyond the realm of academic readers, the depth of structural and economic analysis that clearly informs Power’s argument, and the inclusive aims of her project, bring to mind Nancy Fraser’s recent call for feminism to ‘think big’ to redress injustices ‘in every dimension, along every axis and on every scale.’
Amy De’Ath is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Simon Fraser University, and a poet. In September 2011 she moved to Vancouver from London, where she was most recently Poet-in-Residence at the University of Surrey. Her poetry publications include Caribou (Bad Press, 2011) and Erec & Enide (Salt Publishing, 2010).
 Power imports Badiou’s thought several times in this short book, and much of her other work explores the complexities of his political subject, particularly in relation to the ‘anti-humanist’ projects of Althusser, Foucault and Lacan. A list of her academic publications can be found here: http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/staff/NinaPower
 Nancy Fraser, ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,’ New Left Review 56 (2009) pp. 97-117