THE RANDIAN-FEMINISM MAILING LIST
SELECTED ARCHIVES FROM THE FOUR MONTH CONFERENCE
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.
July 5, 1999 (Thomas Gramstad)
Chris Matthew Sciabarra concluded the formal discussion of FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND (Date: Sat, 10 Jul 1999 14:04:04) with "A Few Concluding Thoughts":
This is the last weekend of the FORMAL discussion of Da Book, so I thought I'd say a few words, once again, in retrospect, on the overall concept of the volume - in light of several criticisms that have been leveled against it by Objectivists, especially those of the more orthodox persuasion, in print and in various public discussions.
One interesting criticism I've received from orthodox Objectivists is that this book will do nothing to sustain interest in the academy because it discusses Rand's thought within a very narrowly defined framework, namely, that of feminism. The book concentrates too "narrowly," they say, on questions of sex and gender. My answer to these critics is this: Go out, conceive, and produce your own books. Mao Zedong was a tyrant and a killer, but he did say one thing of value: Let a thousand flowers bloom. I hope that, over time, there will be THOUSANDS of other books relating Rand to many other frameworks - so that we might examine Rand's relevance to literary studies, philosophy of science, aesthetics, history, epistemology, metaphysics, social theory, politics, and so forth. If we are to keep waiting for the orthodoxy to publish its long-awaited, "sanctioned" books, Rand studies will forever be caught in a time warp circa 1968 or 1982. Not even Peikoff believes that his own books are part of Objectivism, since, for him, and other orthodox believers, Objectivism consists only of the carefully edited words of its founder.
Another criticism I've heard is that the volume UNDER-represents professional philosophers, as if being a professional philosopher (i.e., someone who has received a Ph.D. in philosophy itself) is a requirement for contributing to the volume. I am PROUD that our volume does not succumb to philosophic imperialism. Plenty of other volumes in the series, "Re-Reading the Canon," include contributions from those who do not hold Ph.D.'s in philosophy. For example, the volumes on Hanah Arendt and Mary Wollstonecraft are overwhelmingly dominated by contributors in political science and the humanities. Mimi and I went out of our way to provide an interdisciplinary forum for Da Book. Here, we have an individual with a Ph.D. in philosophy (Vacker), but we also have those with doctorates in anthropology, English, political science, linguistics, and psychology. And - considering that Ayn Rand herself held only a bachelor's degree - Mimi and I were unwilling to exclude writers simply because they had a B.A. or an M.A. Barbara Branden, Robert Sheaffer, Thomas Gramstad, Wendy McElroy, and Diana Mertz Brickell, for instance, contributed some of the most interesting essays in Da Book, and we are proud to have given them a forum within which to express their views.
(As an aside, one of my favorite criticisms came from a Rand sycophant who was aghast that Thomas Gramstad had the nerve to cite "Xena: Warrior Princess" in an essay on Ayn Rand, since such a "pop" reference would do nothing to increase Rand's prestige... this, coming from a critic who worships a woman whose favorite TV show was "Charlie's Angels.")
When Da Book was published, I attended a number of small group discussions to promote it. One individual asked the following question: "If you had been asked to edit or co-edit a volume entitled RACIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND, would you have done it?" The same subtle premise is uttered by another critic, Robert White, who says in the forthcoming issue of THE FREE RADICAL (New Zealand's libertarian magazine): "I do not consider the fact that the authors claim to be sympathetic to Ayn Rand a sufficient excuse to offer feminist interpretations of her work, anymore than I would consider it a sufficient excuse for Homosexualist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, Paraplegist Interpretations of Ayn Rand or Leatherclad-Biker-Babe-ist Interpretations of Ayn Rand." The first commentator implies that "feminism" and "racism" are cut from the same cloth. This is, essentially, the same criticism leveled against the volume by individuals like Michael Berliner and Leonard Peikoff, as Mimi Gladstein and I discuss in the Introduction to Da Book. Both of these individuals believe that feminism is identical to polylogism, the view that "the mind's logical structure varies among the members of different social groups, defined by class, race, sex, gender, or any other conceivable orientation." Those who argue, for instance, that women "think" differently than do men and that reason and logic are masculinist concepts, define the "strawman" view that gets a healthy battering by the orthodox Objectivists. Such arguments are not much different from those who have argued that there is a certain "Aryan" way of thinking or "proletarian" way of thinking, and that "non- Aryan" or "bourgeois" modes are invalid. We should reject such polylogism as a philosophical corruption.
For the record, then, I would NOT have consented to coedit a volume entitled RACIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND, precisely because I reject racism as the "crude collectivism" that Rand said it was. I do not reject feminism, certainly not an "individualist" feminism that seeks to apply the lessons of individualism and classical liberalism to the plight of women across cultures and continents even now, on the verge of the twenty-first century - when many women still live as second-class citizens. And Da Book goes a long distance in representing many voices within the individualist or libertarian feminist tradition. Are there non- libertarians in the book? Sure! Do I agree with every contributor in the book? Of course not! What a boring book it would have been if we'd developed a new conformity. We wanted to provide a forum within which a more extensive discussion could develop with regard to Rand's relevance to feminism, and feminism's relevance to Rand studies - which is why we find Brownmiller and Taylor, Harrison and Wilt, Sheaffer and Presley, to name but a few, all in the same volume.
To equate "feminism" with "racism" is to completely misapprehend the nature of feminism. Moreover, to state, as White does, that a "feminist" interpretation is on a par with a "homosexualist" or "paraplegist" or "leatherclad-biker-babist" interpretation is to compound the error. A "homosexualist" interpretation would require the interpreter to be gay or lesbian. A "paraplegist" interpretation would require the interpreter to be paraplegic. A "leatherclad-biker-babist" interpretation would require the interpreter to be a leatherclad biker babe. Feminism is not sex-specific. One does not have to be a woman to think feminist thoughts, or to believe in the ultimate social and political equality of the sexes. That Objectivism might have something to say about gay sexuality, or the plight of paraplegics, or even the lives of leatherclad biker babes is not the issue. What is at issue is the orthodoxy's constant need to degrade feminism as a polylogist distortion. Feminism is a fact of life in the academy. That we have made Rand a part of "Re-reading the Canon," a broader-based series in feminist interpretations, that we have had the foresight to give Rand a forum within feminism, and to bring together many theorists who challenge the feminist orthodoxy as much as they challenge the orthodoxy within Objectivism, is a testament to the courage of every individual connected to this project.
My congratulations to every contributor to our volume and to each and every one of the contributors to this formal discussion over the last four months. I am confident that we have just touched the surface of so many topics, and that the existence of this list may help to create an extraordinary array of answers to one of the more provocative questions of the volume: "Toward a Randian Feminism?"
Best wishes and warm regards to all, Chris
Barry Vacker added his final thoughts as well (Date: Sat, 10 Jul 1999 23:33:43)
Since this is the last week, and Chris and Thomas asked for some final thoughts and comments, here are my contributions to a final wrap-up. More importantly, I would like to suggest some questions about the future of "Objectivism."
This list has been a intriguing experience for me. The power of the Internet to permit persons (whom I have have never met nor will likely ever meet) to critique and comment on my essay was quite fascinating. Virtual real time, near-instant feedback, and heightened passions all makes for an interesting intellectual experience, far removed from the sterility of a book review in an academic journal.
Without doubt, technology is propelling us into a new style and era of global discourse. Those who understand the difference between a Newtonian media system (traditional network TV such as BBC, NBC, etc.) and a chaotic media system (the Internet) will grasp the fundamental shift underway in the media models by which the future societies will communicate on a global scale. This list ,and the excellent moderation provided by Bryan and Thomas, has hinted at the future power of the media. Also, Chris has archived the highlights and the entire content of the dialogue, making it available globally. Again, this list hints at a radically transformed future media landscape. We would do well NOT to underestimate the power of this technology. After all, Gutenberg could have never estimated the power unleashed by the printing press, without doubt one the most important inventions of the last 500 years, along with electricity and the computer.
For the most part, the dialogue seemed to be very good and there were some well-presented arguments. It enlightened my mind to perspectives about which I knew very very little. However, I must confess I do have some questions and reservations.
1. Has anybody changed their opinions significantly after reading the debates on the list? Does anyone see feminism or Rand in an entirely new light, requiring they modify, alter, or jettison their previous perspectives or conclusions? I sincerely hope so.
However, it seemed to be a perpetual word-war with few willing to budge from their version of the "truth." Let me make my point clear--without doubt, FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND has forever changed the nature of Randian and feminist discourse. Mimi and Chris, and Sandy Thatcher and all the people at Penn State Press deserve our admiration for having the courage to pursue and publish this book. Books can have enormous power.
However, after spending many years around universities, it has become apparent to me that "debates" rarely change opinions. In fact, they more often become forums for reinforcing received "truths" from which people refuse to budge, no matter what the counter-evidence presented.
Frankly, this kind of mentality has existed on this list as well. Certainly, not among everybody, but it has been present. Bryan's most recent post (about the morality of homosexuality) eloquently identifies this phenomenon. Bryan [Register] wrote
>>Interesting thing about arguments about the morality of homosexuality. Some people want the orientation to be chosen, while others want it not to be; each desire hopes to find a basis for a rhetorical defense of the orientation. However, if homosexuality is genetically grounded, then it is either 1) a genetic ailment in the sense that alcoholism is a genetic ailment, or 2) natural, while if homosexuality is chosen without genetic ground, it is either 3) an immoral choice, or 4) a free choice without ethical ramifications. So both the gay friendly and the anti-gay can find solace in the facts, whatever they may be.<<
In other words, to be blunt, persons looked for the evidence to support their own preconceived views about homosexuality. BUT, did anyone change their views about Rand, feminism, homosexuality, etc? And this leads to my next question ....
2. Given all the discussion about the growth of Randian scholarship, the sales of Rand's books, and the cultural spread of Randian ideas in cable movies and Academy Award documentary films, questions remain about the possible influence of Objectivism on the future. To most Objectivists, this would seem to be promising for the future. In contrast, I would suggest that the future is bright for Rand's books, but rather BLEAK for any so-called Objectivist cultural influence.
While Rand claimed to NOT be a utopian, I would beg to differ. THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED are both utopian novels, and this is why they have inpsired such an allegiance among followers, and such vitriolic criticisms from those with different utopian views. Of course, ATLAS SHRUGGED had an overwhelimingly dystopian element as well, which I believe continues to stunt the cultural influence of Rand. While I have never been an active member of any Objectivist group, I have met some of them and attended a few of their events... plus have read much of the Objectivist-Libertarian critique of culture and the future. I find very little of it having anything to do with the future, seeming mostly like a rant defending a glorious past against a future of cultural degeneration.
In a previous post about Dominique and postmodernism, I concluded by suggesting that:
>>Once one looks closely at the cultural ideals of THE FOUNTAINHEAD, as symbolized by Dominique and Roark's buildings, one actually sees very little of contemporary Objectivism in them.<<
Further, I would suggest that when one looks at the culture of Objectivism, one see very little of THE FOUNTAINHEAD, and a whole lot of the negativism of ATLAS SHRUGGED. While ATLAS claimed to be a book which could save the "motor of the world,"it often emotionally read as defense of a past climax rooted in the 19th century. And this leads to my point with regard to Objectivism and some of the "Objectivist" viewpoints presented on this list.
There is a strong underlying element of CULTURAL CONSERVATISM in the "official" Objectivist movements, even among those groups claiming to be more open than ARI. As I said in previous posts, this conservatism is fundamentally rooted in the 1st and 2nd Wave aesthos. This cultural conservatism was underlying much of one side of the debates here, while the other side seemed to be suggesting a more diverse future.
While Objectivism claims to be a defender of "individualism," there sure is a lot of antipathy [among Objectivists] to anything that smacks of an individualism they find distasteful or which does not conform to some kind of vague traditionalism. In my judgment, it is this sentimentalism and longing for an idealized past (which ignores many horrors of the past) which will stunt any Objectivist influence in culture, except among those who prefer to fight the future with their dreams of timeless pasts. Virtually all the scholarship on Rand is of a conservative nature, operating well within the constraints of her theories and how they have been interpreted by her followers. Most of the debate here has been well within the confines of Rand's basic theories.
My point is that while Rand and feminism have both addressed very real social issues and ideas, they would do well to abandon the old utopian models which hinder their efforts at truly liberating individuals. Objectivism, as it is, will have very little influence in culture, and it is a GOOD thing! Much of what claims to be "Objectivist"-inspired theory is mere idolatry, hair-splitting of minutiae, or banal rehashes of Rand. Much of so-called Objectivist culture is mere simulation--simulation of individualism, simulation of heroism, simulation of innovation, and simulation of love of great art. In fact, the flavor I got from such gatherings was not a feeling of authenticity, but rather one where simulation has replaced individuality, precisely because everyone was busy "imitating art" rather than becoming their "own work of art."
In my mind, Chris Sciabarra's RUSSIAN RADICAL and the FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF RAND books will have a significant influence long term, precisely because they have finally broken the stranglehold on Randian theory held by Objectivists. Plus, as it should be for Rand's books, they will continue to have their biggest influences in the private minds of those individuals who read the books and find some form of personal motivation for a better life and and a more unique world. And there's nothing more utopian that that, and it is the more chaotic and individualist notions of utopia that are likely to thrive in the future.
Thanks to all the volume contributers and on-line commentators, it has been a fascinating intellectual experience. Take care.
Thomas Gramstad presented the final statement on Sunday, July 11, 1999:
The structured discussion of FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND is now drawing to a close. I'd like to thank all the contributors to the discussion, as well as the audience, for their participation in this exciting and challenging project. Co-moderating this discussion has been an exhilarating and exasperating, inspiring and exhausting, invaluable and ungrateful experience -- and I wouldn't have missed it.
As of now, the Randian feminism list is open to any topic that is relevant to feminism and Randianism/Objectivism. (That includes Da Book as well, if/when anyone has more on their mind about it, or want to continue current or reopen past threads!) During our structured discussion, we received a few postings unrelated to Da Book, which were postponed. The time has now come to release these postings, see subsequent messages. They may serve as starting points for new discussion. I'd like to thank Bryan for his outstanding performance, diligent efforts, and seemingly endless patience as co-moderator of the list during the structured discussion.
The list may later switch back to unmoderated mode. If you have any comments, points of view, considerations or just a vote for or against regarding this issue, please feel free to send them to me.