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. 

June 28, 1999  (Bryan Register)

Fluff and Granite: Rereading Rand's Camp Feminist Aesthetics  - Melissa Jane Hardie

     Chris Matthew Sciabarra introduces discussion of Melissa Jane Hardie's essay on "Rand's
camp feminist aesthetic" (Date: Sun, 27 Jun 1999 17:56:43):
I am sitting here in my home, rather surprised that our formal discussion of FEMINIST
INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND is beginning to wind down.  It seems like only yesterday
when we started to discuss the Introduction.  Of course, I fully expect that the discussion will
continue informally on this list, and formally in other forums.  But, overall, I think the discussion
here has produced some very interesting theoretical engagement that shall have me thinking for a
long time to come.  I hope that, in spite of... or because of... some of the high emotions and
intensity that has sometimes been on display here, it will keep many of you thinking as well.
It is fitting that the discussion ends with Melissa Jane Hardie's essay on the very week that begins
today, June 27, 1999, the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that gave birth to the modern
gay liberation movement, a movement that challenged many of the traditional mores and meanings
of gender and sexuality, and that has had more than a little to say about such issues as "camp." 
(The relationship between the gay liberation and feminist movements is always an area for fruitful
discussion.)  The Stonewall Bar, the site of the original riot, has been named a national historic
monument, and the Gay Pride Parade is on today in NYC, in celebration of that reality.
The times they are a changin'.
For those who don't know much about it, the Stonewall Riots began when police tried to close
down a gay bar in New York City, one of the routine vice raids on gay and lesbian establishments. 
A group of burly drag-queens, grieving after the funeral of Judy Garland, stood their ground, and,
a la "Network" said:  "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore." The rioting is
legend now, but the courage shown by many during those police raids has been memoralized since
Garland's dramatic persona, ironically, served as a regular inspiration to many drag queens. 
Anyone who has ever been to a drag show or who has looked within the "celluloid closet" of
modern film can see many gay and lesbian entertainers, film-makers, and writers using camp to the
hilt in order to satirize the usual, the conventional, the typical.  (The recent biographical film,
"Gods and Monsters," about gay director James Whale of "Frankenstein" fame is interesting in this
regard.  I recommend to your attention an essay on Whale in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF
BOOKS, July 15, 1999 issue, by Joseph McBride, entitled:  "The Joys of Necrophilia.")
That Hardie rearticulates the debate over Rand, beginning with the Gladstein, Wilt, and
Brownmiller contributions of more than twenty years ago, that she uses the categories of camp to
examine Rand's work, especially its cinematic portrayal in "The Fountainhead," is quite challenging
in its own right.  That Hardie calls upon such thinkers as Deleuze and Eco and Sedgwick and
Gaitskill in her analysis is remarkable, in many ways.  (I received an email from someone who said
that they never thought they'd live to see the day when Deleuze and Rand were mentioned in the
same essay!)
Naturally, I would like to invite Melissa to say a few words as to why she wrote the essay and what
she hoped to accomplish.
In our discussion, we might want to turn our attention to a few issues:
1.  What is camp and why might it be relevant to a "feminist" interpretation of Ayn Rand?
2.  What is the nature of the "cult readership" and how does this readership affect our appreciation
of Rand?
3.  Finally, how might Rand's fiction be used as a means of illustrating the Sedgwick argument
that, in much literature, "the relations between men are mediated by the exchange of women."  (In
this context, we might wish to revisit the issue of "homosociality" in Rand's novels, especially as
depicted in the "romantic" relationship between Wynand and Roark.)
     Melissa Jane Hardie responded (Date: Wed, 30 Jun 1999 17:00:28):  
I'd like to thank Chris, and take a moment to make a few comments about the context of my essay. 
It's been an incredibly interesting experience for me to work on Rand, and to read the discussion
here, and elsewhere, about FIOAR.  I'd like to thank Chris and Mimi for being such wonderful
editors -- quite simply, I wish I always had Objectivists editing my work if their example is
anything to go by.  It's not surprising to me that this is such an invigorating and remarkable
collection, given the experience I had working with them.
I'd like to make a biographical detour, which seems to be the simplest way for me to explain how I
came to my topic.  I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, and found it intriguing but not insipiring
in the way many objectivists did.  I never really thought about Ayn Rand again until, during work
on a totally unassociated project, fifteen years later, I happened to watch the film of The
Fountainhead.  I found it totally mesmerising for its concatenation of a modernist aesthetic with
what was instantly recognisable (to me, anyway) as camp.  I understand that the category of camp
may seem to some as indicating something less than high seriousness, but to me, Ayn Rand's work
is camp rather as the writing of, for example, Oscar Wilde might be -- there are few more serious,
yet camp, authors than Wilde.  Rand, certainly, does not indulge in epigrammatic wit or the
absurd, but she does make strong and persistent use of melodramatic devices, improbable plot, a
fascination with the way in which the material might figure affect or "feeling" (i.e., the pathetic
fallacy), and other features that lend themselves to a camp reading.  Camp, to me, signals two
things:  the rediscovery of something forgotten by a culture, and the association of that with a
subculture (historically, but not necessarily, gay male subculture, as Susan Sontag notes in her
seminal "Notes on Camp").  It's certainly not meant as a term of disrespect or derogation though I
understand it has been seen as such -- rather, it is a strategy of reading, and recovery.  Finding
something of value from something forgotten by a dominant culture may seem an odd context in
which to place Rand unless we remember the neglect of her work in literature departments and
philosphy curricula alike.  In my intellectual world, quite simply, Ayn Rand does not exist (well,
did not!) and I would say that in that I occupy a dominant intellectual culture -- one many may not
like or respect, but nonetheless dominant.  So, the idea of rereading Ayn Rand itself moved me to
the notion of camp.  
My thoughts about camp follow two lines in re Ayn Rand.  Firstly, when I reread The
Fountainhead as an adult I was struck by what a perfectly wonderful novel it was, and how
fascinating it was that such a book could be so incredibly popular among a non-specialist audience. 
In effect, it is fascinating in and of itself that teenagers, and non-intellectuals -- "ordinary people"
-- would have an abiding fascination with a book that is so clearly a book of ideas.  My experience
of reading the Rand canon was of undiluted pleasure and intellectual stimulation, and that surprised
me because Rand, and Objectivism in general, has a poor reputation in my own field.  
Without wishing to stir any controversy (well....) I can assure everyone that the response I have
received from colleagues when I've mentioned that I was working on (and loving) the writing of
Ayn Rand has ranged from studied indifference to active revulsion, with a few notable exceptions. 
People said to me things like "Oh, that was the book all the fascists in college read," and that was
when they were trying to be polite. It is striking that there seems to me to be a comparable level of
misinformation about Rand and Objectivism amongst left-wing intellectuals as there is about
left-wing intellectuals amongst (some) Objectivists, and this odd symmetry intrigued me.  The
second intriguing factor came when I set The Fountainhead on a course I was teaching to an
advanced class on novels concerned with the city, or constructed environments, some time after
drafting the essay in FIOAR.  
Those students, who have cut their intellectual teeth on a post-structuralist "canon" of Barthes,
Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and post-Freudian psychoanalysis -- those students, without exception,
also loved The Foutainhead, and wrote engrossing essays about the novel.  One student, whose
work would exemplify the most recent trends in critical theory, became somewhat obsessed with
the book and its ideas.  I felt like there was empirical confirmation for my own experience, which
was that the rejection of Rand and Objectivism by my intellectual peers sprang more from
ignorance than well-informed critique.
Here, briefly then, are the urgent questions for me.  Rand's depiction of strong, independent
women are very interesting when read in the light of a feminism that moved beyond the language
of "equality" to a more complex understanding of what (cultural, intellectual) strength might mean. 
Rand writes popular novels that engage a wide and diverse audience with complex intellectual
issues.  Rand's plots are like diagrams of certain theories of cultural organisation -- in particular,
Eve Sedgwick's analysis of "homosociality," which argues, to put it very crudely, that relations
between men are negotiated by the interpolation of women, such as in the
Roark-Dominique-Wynand trio.  The cult-like readership of Rand, in its serious and devoted
aspects, reads the novels in ways congruent with camp reading practices.  I know that the term
"cult" may also be understood as a criticism but again it is not meant to be one.  A cult text, as
Umberto Eco writes, presents an encyclopedic worldview, which is precisely what Rand does, and
with such brilliance.  A theorist like Gilles Deleuze offers a useful way to understand some of the
ways in which sexual relations in Rand's novels are depicted, irrespective of the quite major
philosophical differences one might presume to exist between the two - in particular, in his analysis
of masochism after Sacher-Mashoch, whose novel, Venus in Furs, was the earliest codification of
masochism as a sexual preference.  We may disagree with the idea that either Howard or
Dominique are masochists, but I think Deleuze's work on that notion makes it less simple to do so,
since he ultimately comes to a conclusion about the reciprocity of pleasure and power in
masochistic relations that (to me, anyway) reads as virtually identical to Rand's own.  Finally, a
novel such as Mary Gaitskill's Two Girls, Fat and Thin exemplifies some of the ways in which
such a rereading of Ayn Rand can (I hope) do justice both to the work of the author and some
apparently contrary intellectual traditions.
Thanks, all, for bearing with me this far, and thanks for all your discussion.  

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand Back to Dialectics & Liberty Home Page