Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand



The Randian-Feminism Mailing List is a forum for Objectivist and Randian Feminists -- people who share a common interest in Feminist philosophy, issues and perspectives, and in Ayn Rand's ideas and philosophy.  Thomas Gramstad created the list on January 14, 1998. 

March 29, 1999  (Bryan Register)

Skyscrapers, Supermodels, and Strange Attractors: Ayn Rand, Naomi Wolf, and the Third Wave Aesthos - Barry Vacker

     Chris Matthew Sciabarra introduced the discussion of Barry Vacker's essay (Date: 29-Mar-1999 17:46:37):
In keeping with a growing tradition, I would like to invite Barry Vacker to say a few words about
his most provocative essay in FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND.
I'd also like Barry and the rest of us to consider the following: 
Barry tells us that Rand's imagery in THE FOUNTAINHEAD and her theory of concepts are
consistent with the Third Wave aesthos and its emphasis on "dialectical" or nonlinear dynamics,
and he builds an interesting case for this throughout his essay.  (It would be interesting to consider
too, just how Naomi Wolf might actually deal with Vacker's points vis-a-vis the Wolf-Rand
comparison.)  Yet, for many, Rand is the epitome of linearity.  For instance, Judith Wilt writes (in
an essay that we have already considered): 
   "Essentially, Rand's novel (ATLAS SHRUGGED) portrays the victory of Aristotelian and
Euclidean thought over Platonic and Planckian relativism.  For them, as for John Galt, 'reality'
stays put and yields its truths to human observation.  Only the villains celebrate, only the psychotic
accept, the message of much twentieth-century physics and psychology, that matter is not solid or
perfectly predictable and that the mind is at some level simply 'a collection of switches without
Wilt also writes (in an essay that we will consider soon enough):  "The bodies of the protagonists
are taut, a centrifugal geometry of lines ... The body of the protagonist holds tensely to the line
that is its own movement .  . . The body of the antagonist slides from that line toward stasis," a
symbol of "the apocalypse of goo [that] is the product of twentieth century thought, Einsteinian,
Heisenbergian, Freudian."  For Wilt, Rand's thought is consistent with the "clean lines and stable
constructs of nineteenth-century science..." -- a clear sign of Second Wave thinking.
Obviously, there is something in Rand's texts that corresponds to the Vacker-ian view, and
something in Rand's texts that corresponds to the Wilt-ian view.  Is this a paradox in Rand?  Is
this a contradiction in Rand?  Is the Vacker-ian view more consistent with THE
FOUNTAINHEAD and Rand's contextualist epistemology?  Is the Wilt-ian view more consistent
with ATLAS SHRUGGED?  Is the Rand of THE FOUNTAINHEAD different from the Rand
of ATLAS SHRUGGED?  Are Third Wave feminists, then, more likely to respond favorably to
the former rather than the latter?
I'd be interested to hear not only from our authors... but from all of our participants as well.
     Barry Vacker responds (Thu, 1 Apr 1999 02:30:47): 
This response to the request from Chris went a bit longer than I originally anticipated. However, I
thought I should clarify a few ideas regarding the different aesthos--1st, 2nd, and 3rd Wave.
First, let me thank Chris for the very kind and generous introduction. Chris is the kind of
innovative and open-minded scholar that makes academic life so much fun.
Because of the questions posed by Chris, perhaps I should provide some clarifications of the term
"aesthos," which are much more developed in my book CHAOS AT THE EDGE OF UTOPIA
(currently under review). "Aesthos" was inspired by the concept of "ethos," which broadly refers
to an ethical worldview which is used to guide and evaluate individual and collective actions in a
personal or normative context.
Aesthos is an aesthetic worldview which interrelates science, ethics, and culture into a coherent
vision of how the world is, and how it ought to be. In my judgment, aesthetics runs far deeper in
human cognition than the modern interpretations, which see the aesthetic as superficial or trivial.
Aesthetics lies at the heart of how humans form concepts, and how we model and evaluate the
forms and functions of the surrounding empirical world. Aesthetic criteria have guided the
acceptance and rejection of scientific theories and empirical findings, giving rise to the notions that
aesthetic value plays a role in determining truth and falsehood.
Unfortunately, the beautiful has for too long been associated with the concept of "order," which is
usually ill-defined. Artists use order in a different way than thermodynamicists, both of which are
different than evolutionary biologists.
At the heart of the utopian project has been the passion for ordering what is alleged to be "chaos."
Artists and philosophers have long sought to discover the "order" of nature and then construct a
model which would unify humans in a society beheld as beautiful and sublime. Plato's philosophy
inspired one of the fundamental utopian visions. His poetic descriptions of past purity, cultural
degeneration, and impending chaos have inspired the myth of the "golden age" of a past paradise
that lies at the heart of most theological and agrarian utopian visions. This vision is essentially
conservative and aristocratic, forever yearning for an alleged timeless past, seeking to arrest
cultural degeneration by ordering the chaos of individual freedom and technological change. This
worldview is expressed through an aesthos of order and beauty which is believed to express
timelessness, stability, simplicity, uniformity, regularity, control, centralization, communalism,
unity, totalism. In my book, this aesthos is lableled as "Arcadia" (named after the utopian society
imagined by Virgil).  Maybe the readers can correct me: but this seems to be the kind of abstract
vision often embraced by feminists in contrast to the linearity and mechanism of the industrial
The Arcadian vision was born of the philosophy and science of the Agricultural Revolution--what
Alvin Toffler refers to as the First Wave.  It was this vision which was being challenged by the rise
of Newtonian science and the Industrial Revolution--the Second Wave. Utopia was now not a
mystical garden of the past, but a scientific plan for the future.
With the rise of the industrial Second Wave, the "machine" replaced the garden as the object of
sublime contemplation. The vision of a sublime machine of the future was extended to the totality
of society, requiring that harmonious centralization prevail over chaotic inefficiency and
individualism. Scientific functional harmony demanded the subsumption of private purpose and
individual judgment. The functioning of the sublime social machine required standardization and
uniformity among its "parts." Mechanistic causality among the parts of the production process
mirrored the gears of the clockwork universe. Uniformity in the units of mass production mirrored
the uniformity in the parts of production process.  The particulars of production and labor units
became universalized under the clockwork system, creating a social machine allegedly beautiful to
behold, sublime to conceive and experience. Masquerading as efficiency was the passionate pursuit
of an order expressing the inherent chaos of function without form. Because form and function
exist in a reciprocal relation, ultimately inseparable, form "followed" function on a social scale
toward what was believed to be a glorious future.
The concepts of uniformity, regularity, symmetry, unity and communalism still remained from the
agrarian First Wave, though recontextualized into Industrial forms. Newtonianism added a linear,
deterministic, predictable, synchronistic system of lawful causality and predictability. While still
seeking to order chaos, utopia now takes the form of a linear, mechanistic, and dynamic system,
instead of the static ideal typical of Arcadia. The vision is functional order beheld as aesthetic
beauty and utopian ideal--the functional machine utopia which would order the chaos of past
primitive agrarian society.
What claimed to be the unification of art and science, ended up as the unification of ideal form
and industrial function in a totalitarian machine of order. The Second Wave aesthos was expressed
as uniformity, regularity, symmetry, linearity, systemization, synchronization, maximization,
centralization, massification, unification, and eventually, totalitarian dehumanization. In my book,
this aesthos is labled "Metropolis" (after the film by Fritz Lang, which remains one of the single
most influential works of art of the 20th century).
As noted in my essay, Rand the rational philosopher often seemed sympathetic to some of the
forms of the industrialism and the Second Wave aesthos, especially linearity, mechanization, and
synchronization. We can find them throughout The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand also
loved the colors and materials of modern industrialism, especially gray and steel.  Roark's face can
be seen as an expression of such forms--steely eyes, gaunt cheeks, etc. Many of these kinds of
industrial and artistic forms were idealized by the Futurists of Italy and Germany, who also
happened to embrace fascism. This is the main reason why Rand's aesthetic is often labeled as
fascist, even though Rand was radically libertarian. Rand's writing style fits within a genre of the
technological sublime (see David Nye, American Technological Sublime, MIT Press).
When Rand the artist was at play, the aesthetic forms become more chaotic and nonlinear,
especially illustrated in some of the descriptions of Dominique, Roark, nature, and in Roark's
buildings. These forms are often quite similar to the aesthetics of strange attractors and chaos
theory, which is supplanting Newtonianism as a scientific worldview. Rand's aesthetic in such
contexts often expresses a "turbulent harmony." From the chaotic processes emerge strange and
beautiful new forms.
In my view, the emergence of the Third Wave does NOT signal the birth of an "Information
Society." The printing press created the information revolution which helped usher in modernity
and the industrial Second Wave. Computers, media, and the Internet signal the birth of an
information revolution which will serve as a transition to an entirely different kind of culture.
Terms such as postmodern and postindustrial merely reflect the passing of the reign of
industrialism. Certainly, nanotechnology and biotechnology signal a radically new era. It is likely
that genetics (biological information from within) and virtual reality (electronic information from
afar) will eventually collide in human consciousness to create an entirely new kind of human with a
new kind of worldview. Humans are likely to be more biological than ever, yet more "informed"
(literally!) than ever.
The rise of nonlinear sciences and media, which are being intergrated into another utopian aesthos,
signal a radical break with past cultures.  The aesthos of the Third Wave embraces the forms of
the strange attractor, whose turbulent functional processes are perpetually transforming uniformity
into variety, regularity into irregularity, linearity into nonlinearity, stability into instability,
centralization into emergent organization, unity into multiplicity, and order into chaos. The result is
the emergence of a new aesthos brimming with the formal attractors of contrast, variation,
multiplicity, complexity, asymmetry, irregularity, nonlinearity, asynchronicity, turbulence,
discontinuity, individuality, emergence, and organicity. This aesthos is being expressed throughout
the emerging media and production technologies, suggesting the emergence of a postindustrial
utopia whose kaleidic aesthos is bordering chaos (rather than ordering chaos).
It would seem that feminists might want to explore this new kind of aesthos, this new kind of
culture, because it represents a new era with many radically new possibilities. Over time,
industrialism will not go away, but it will become less important to the overall cultural systems,
much like the fading of purely agrarian living when transformed by industrialism. However, this
does not mean a retreat from nature. It may signal a new understanding of nature...and aesthetics!
     Bryan Register adds these comments (Date: Mon, 26 Apr 1999 19:37:39) 
Chris asks some interesting questions:
>1.  Unlike Vacker, Wilt sees lots of masculinism in Rand's imagery:  her
>heroes and heroines are "straight lines," while her antagonists are "sagging
>circles," part of the "apocalypse of goo."  Is this a conflict between
>Vacker and Wilt -- or a conflict WITHIN Rand?
I don't believe that this is a conflict between anyone. As I understood him, (Barry, correct me if
I'm wrong) Barry's message was not so much that Rand's imagery was not masculine, but rather
that (in TF) it tended toward the chaotic. Fractal images are interesting because they are
information packed very densely; they reach a level of articulation, order, and precision not
elsewhere available. Moreover, a world of strange attractors is a world of complexity, Aristotelian
form, very high levels of articulate structure. If TF shows a Third Wave aesthetic, that aesthetic is
the opposite of the apocalypse of goo.
There may be an interesting Aristotelian connection here. In Aristotle, organisms and artifacts are
to be understood as ontological combinations of matter and form. Form is structure and
functionality, and is shared identically in common by all the members of a natural kind. Matter is
pure potentiality; it is nothing on its own, but when actualized it is nevertheless the beingness of
entities. (Existence and identity are analytically but not ontologically distinct for Aristotle.) The
apocalypse of goo is the descent into prime matter, undifferentiated nothingness without articulate
structure or purpose.
According to Aristotle, things also have an efficient cause, which is typically that which infuses
form into matter. Thus the efficient cause of a marble statue is the sculptor, because the form of
the statue which he will produce exists in his mind prior to his sculpting, and his sculpting is just
the way that he infuses that form into the marble, which is relatively material or unformed.
Moreover, in reproduction, the semen contains the functional motions typical of the human being,
and those motions are transferred into the menstrual fluid, which had been relatively unformed. It
is in this way that the human form is infused into the matter. The idea is that the man provides all
the form (articulation) and none of the matter, while the woman provides all of the matter
(relatively unformed goo) and none of the form. Moreover, if reproduction doesn't work out - a
woman or mutant results - it is due to flaws in the material. The material doesn't fully take on the
human form because it was insufficiently worked up into the right kind of matter.
Now, on this account of the ontological contributions of the sexes, the man is the source of
articulation, order, and purpose, and the woman merely the site of the male reproductive power.
Thus, for Rand the Aristotelian, there is no conflict between a Third Wave aesthetic of highly
articulate order and a masculine aesthetic, because it is the masculine which is the source of order.
Besides, there is no rule against straight lines in chaos theory.
There is, incidentally, some reason to believe that Rand more-or-less accepted this view. In
Nathaniel Branden's memoir (both editions, this part isn't changed), Nathaniel and Rand have a
conversation about the relative goodness of the sexes. Rand says that man is 'metaphysically the
dominant sex', and Nathaniel finally gets her to explain that this means that he's tougher, better
able to function and live in the physical world. Moreover, the general view of
woman-as-worshipper makes sense if men are the source of order and purpose in the world; we
cannot worship the human best in a woman, because a woman is an ill-formed man, a mere
auxiliary as far as passing on the human species is concerned.
>2.  Wilt -- like Melissa Jane Hardie (whose essay we will examine later) --
>raises the intriguing possibility, thru the lens of Eve Sedgwick, that
>Rand's emphasis on romantic triangles contextualizes a "homosocial" charge
>between Rand's male characters (Roark-Wynand; Rearden-Galt; etc.)  This
>issue will be examined in much greater depth when we come to Hardie's
>contribution, but it is raised by Wilt nonetheless.  Some thoughts?
Just one or two. It seems to me that Wynand and Rearden become feminized in certain ways. Just
an example or two off the top of my head. After Rearden has been hanging out with Fransisco a
while, Dagny asks him "You've fallen for him, haven't you?" "Yes", he replies. Fransisco is wooing
Rearden into joining the strikers, but he is also wooing Rearden personally. (There's an interesting
parallel with Plato's *Phaedrus*: Socrates is trying to woo Phaedrus away from the sophists, who
dislike the lover and especially the lover of wisdom, and Phaedrus is clearly falling for Socrates
himself.) Also, when Rearden is trying to rescue Tony (the Wet Nurse, and there's a gender role
switch for you) he kisses Tony's forehead in an almost maternal gesture. And while we're noticing
Tony's nickname, a wet nurse is someone who comes in and takes over for the real mother; Tony,
then, is a pretend wet nurse who thinks that his own management will substitute in for the real
mother, Rearden. After his conversion to the forces of good, he tries to save the plant from the
bad guys, becoming a sincere if ineffective substitute for Rearden. Rearden is also, if I recall
rightly, the one and only Rand hero who ever asks permission for sex on a first time ("Do you
want it?"), which might also function to feminize him in Rand's mind.  Similar observations all
around for Wynand, who also suffers through his spiritual similarity with Dominique. In her
*Journals* discussion of the book, Rand says that Wynand and Roark are lovers in all but fact.
Now, if we can establish that Wynand and Rearden are feminized in relation to their closest
friends, then we can get the dominance/submission hierarchy necessary for a Randian sexual
relationship. (And I understand - someone tell me if I'm wrong - that homosexual relationships do
*typically* have someone take the 'male' and someone take the 'female' roles. So this hierarchy is
also appropriate for a real-world sexual relationship.) So there is good reason to accept this
homoerotic feature of the relationships.  (As far as the 'homosocial' - can someone tell me what
that means?) [Homosocial refers to strong same-sex relations that need not incorporate a sexual
>3.  Does Ayn Rand engage in the "gendering of evil" -- think of "Elsie"
>Toohey or Comrade Sonia as villains who are "inappropriate" to their sex -- ?
Yes. Wynand, for instance, is distinctly feminized relative to Roark, and Wynand also doesn't
infuse the world with articulate form in the way that Rearden does. Toohey is positively girlie, and
he is inarticulate goo at its worst. So men who are effeminate and can't pass on structure and
purpose are, inasmuch as they are effeminate, the villains. Something in reverse might be going on
for the women. Women aren't prime movers for Rand, they always look to their man for purpose.
So a woman who rejected this relationship and tried to be a man would be rejecting her
metaphysically appropriate role out of pretense.

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