The Family as Aesthetic State Apparatus


5-01-09, 10:00 am

Linda Nochlin, in her essay “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman” (Art, and Power and Other Essays), when theorizing the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his depiction of the 'fallen woman,' thinks that in the end his representations are a commentary of sorts upon his own similar position as an artist prostituting his art and his talent. When it comes to rational 'scientific discourse' art is a language that is often excluded from the mainstream logos in a similar way to the 'feminine,' it being instead also associated with madness ('hysteria').

There are, I think, reasons for this often invoked connection that go much further than just this descriptive affinity. Louis Althusser’s Marxist theory of ideology (in Lenin and Philosophy, 1971) touches fleetingly the point where the question of the family, the oppression of women, and the state becomes crucial to understanding social reproduction. Here I want to extend and modify Althusser’s theory, in relation to the family, with the help of some concepts derived from aesthetics that have been put forward recently in the journal 'Rethinking Marxism,' see Iona Singh (2004) and Gary Tedman (1999, 2004), and recently in 'Political Affairs.'

Let’s first recall that the classical Marxist model of the capitalist social formation has a repressive state standing above the people, which is for the primary purpose of maintaining the ruling class in power. It distinguishes between an economic base and a cultural and political superstructure. The base historically determines the superstructure in the manner of a 'keynote' (Engels). I think this theory is fine, but many arguments tend to begin here over this metaphor, its apparent simplicity, and the idea of material determination of the base in the 'last instance.' Althusser’s famous theory of ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses was intended to reply to some of these arguments. I think it is successful. But, I suggest, there is an important element that could help us get further which is missing for him, the 'aesthetic level' of human practice: the sensual, affective, emotional level of human life.

Althusser concentrated most of his attention on the role of ideology, in other words on the role of the mental/rational in social reproduction rather than feelings. To rebalance this overemphasis, I have said we need to partner a concept of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), such as for instance schools that take part in reproduction (of the already existing conditions and relations of production) by reproducing the correct kind of human subject in ideology, with the concept of Aesthetic State Apparatuses (ASAs) these being institutions, such as those for Art and Design education, that take part in the affective reproduction of the human subject.

The official presence (so to speak) of the aesthetic level of practice in the state reveals the existence of certain state institutions: art (in general), the hospital (medicine in general; I intend to write on this separately), and the family (bonding, caring, and child rearing in general). As such, this level represents a relatively autonomous region distinct from the economic, the ideological, and the political levels in the base/superstructure model. It is situated, I propose, above the economic level, on top of which is raised the ideological and then the political levels, forming the superstructure. In this sense (no pun…) the aesthetic level is nearer to the economic base than the ideological level, which reflects its more material character. Because, to a certain extent this level overlaps with the domain of the natural, in contrast to the conventional rules and relations that mainly govern the economic base. Because of this, like important aspects of the economic base, it represents the realms of human needs and bodily sensuality.

The aesthetic level is therefore something like an underground of feeling, which lays beneath the risen state in civil society. However, this has to include alienated feeling, in the sense that the exploitative alienation of labor is felt as alienation by the worker. And if here feelings are worked up by specialized state institutions (for example in art as fashion), this must include these feelings of alienation. Alienation, consequently, we are thinking of not (as even in some traditional Marxian analyses) as a spiritual thing, but as firstly an immediate, felt response, and one that can be manipulated (e.g. by state culture). We will come back to this point later.

For Alison Assiter in her book Althusser and Feminism (1990), the oppression of women in the family is, already, not simply an ideological phenomenon. She notes that Althusser misses nature as a source of wealth and use-value (as according to Marx in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme”). In her section “Another Attempt” (to explain why women are treated unfairly) she puts forward the thesis that women bear children, that they are biologically 'fitted' (she says) for rearing them, and that this provides an explanation for oppression in a particular social setting “that leads to inequality.” According to Assiter it is the reality of social classes that provides a major rationale for the position of women as child rearing agents: given that the workers must be reproduced, women are seen to be 'naturally' disposed towards this work. But she says that to understand this properly the classic Freudian family needs to be read as an Althusserian ISA.

Taking her cue from this, she seeks to prove that the family ISA is a part of the economy and also a part of the superstructure (presumably to show how this takes part in reproduction). She does this through a distinction between 'conscious existence' and 'consciousness' (see Freudian Families: Ideological Work Apparatuses), suggesting that connective relations between the family as economic infrastructural and as ideologically superstructural function ‘like’ the relation between 'conscious existence' and 'consciousness.' She thinks this through using the idea of different 'time slices,' so that a woman in a family can be both a part of the economy and in the superstructure if, for example, she looks after the children and at some later point reads e.g. Mills and Boon books.

In Marx though, the female family worker clearly remains an economic worker and only a worker even if she reads literature, a superstructural item of culture. It is not my proposal to reject this conception here: that, as Marx said, it is not the consciousness of the subject that determines their social being, but social being that determines consciousness. Instead it seems to me that Assiter’s 'duality of conscious existence and consciousness' has inherited some of the problems associated with Althusser’s theory of ideology: the concentration on ideology-consciousness at the expense of the aesthetic-sensual, and in the end materialism. Perhaps some of these problems can now be overcome by understanding the family as an Aesthetic State Apparatus rather than an ISA.

If the family is a state apparatus then it is, indeed, partly superstructural in its role in reproducing the correct subjective upbringing for the human subject. Ok. But its primary role is not ideological, if it is accepted that to reproduce actual physical bodies is also partly a natural institution, specifically in the sense of the physiological reproduction necessary.

In this case, the example of a woman in a family reading a book is an instance of the process of consumption. In other words, it is self-production as reproduction. This may be purely for purposes of escapism, necessary for her mental health/survival so that she may continue the struggle for a living, or it may not. But the fact that the reading of such literature may reproduce certain forms of consciousness matters little unless it actually changes her material practice.

One of the ways that such consumption of cultural forms might indeed change material practice is, I suggest, through the consolidating or overthrow of the affective practice of the subject, by which I here chiefly mean gendering, which is for us not mainly a matter of consciousness, i.e. of ideology but of her feelings. Practice is based on feelings, or rather, if we feel something we generally act out those feelings whatever we may think. But it seems unlikely that Mills and Boon can be the type of art to overthrow deep feelings, it is more consolidating of pre-existent affects.

(It is, let’s note in passing, precisely the impression that this kind of self-production is 'private,' 'civilian' and 'personal' because it is emotional that renders the activities of the state in the family ASA so invisible here, even though the state always interpellates the subject into her subjecthood in this place).

Reframed like this, Assiter’s concept of the 'Althusserian-Freudian' family is, I would argue, more useful. For, on its basis we should now be able to update the question about the subordination of the female sex. It becomes: Why does the capitalist reproduction of social relations through the family as an ASA entail the continued subordination of the female sex and a division into dominant and subservient gender roles?

If the function of the family as an ASA is the reproduction of the biological human subject as a body, and allied to this the enforcement of the correct affectivity for this body, to achieve the correct performance (to use Judith Butler’s term, see “Bodies that Matter” 1993 and Gender Trouble 1999), then we see that in the family the female as gendered mother is obliged to reproduce the oppression of her sex, and the gender of the father, in being empowered by this, is obliged to reproduce and re-enforce the advantage of his sex (which is not so difficult). It seems simple.

Yet, this still does not really answer why all this happens in the first place, and the why of it is, of course, always the crucial focus of the entire problem on which all other arguments ultimately stand or fall. However, we can now re-add to this thesis certain positions already advanced from classical Marxist theory, which now appear, I suggest, in a slightly different light:

If capitalism is a system that is antagonistic towards any producers owning the means of production, and the entire effort of the ruling class is predisposed towards the expropriation of surplus value from the labor of workers, who are, then, disenfranchised from the products of their labor and so, in the end, from creativity itself, in other words are alienated, we can derive an insight, directly relevant to our discussion, based upon these facts.

The female sex, through the simple fact of its existence, commits a sort of heresy against this kind of exploitative economy. The reproducing sexual body intrinsically owns the very means of production of human subjects, explicitly, visibly and sensually, as a function of the work of its body.

Class divided society is always/already inimical to this material-aesthetic capacity, because this activity is not immediately alienated, is not subject to external rule. There is a point, no matter what conventional restrictions are placed upon the body of the female (and of course there are many) where the material labor of the female sex is absolutely necessary and must be noted.

This is a heresy that the family attempts to constrain within its regulatory bounds. The biology of the reproducing sex (the female) therefore, because of this, becomes a crucial site of class struggle. Female labor is, as we all well know, pre-defined as worthless. This is because this working body has this tangible refutation. For those who are affectively in alienation this is alienation itself, i.e. a wholly bad thing.

The reader may notice I am here relying upon an underlying concept of the immediate material self-ownership of the body by the female who does the reproductive work, of ownership through sensual labor. This form of ownership is, as such, projected as existing beyond social-conventional or cultural legality, it is natural. I can see the warning flags go up, but this 'natural,' need not be understood as an essence.

My personal experience might help explain this concept better: working in a part-time job as a cleaner (traditionally 'female labor') when I was a student, In the early morning I would help clean the rooms and floor of the University chemistry labs, and would end up in the foyer, where the early arrivals to go to work/study would often apologize for walking on my nice clean floor. Somehow, through my work, I had become the nominal owner of the space. Obviously, this ownership bore none of the hallmarks of bourgeois legality, but even so I noticed it caused a certain amount of automatic affective deference. I felt a kind of sexy pleasure in the final smell of the polish and all that lustrous wood, although poorly paid there was this side to it.

Legal systems always come into play to regulate this immediate affective-sensual ownership of the products of labour. For instance, after birth the usual legal process assumes on behalf of the child that it is a subject that has to be registered by the state to legitimate it, a process that is similar to the capitalist legal expropriation of land from those who already live on it and 'own' it through their sensual labor, a process, in fact, of colonization.

Gendering is the fundamental continuation (and the original precursor) of exactly this colonization process, where the family enables the ownership of the female, which is regulated through gender, through the creation of 'woman.'

For a ruling class that relies for its survival upon exploitation and the maintenance of alienation, it becomes absolutely necessary to keep this refutation of alienation hidden, or at least to deprecate it, by glorifying the estranged, the contrary, state.

Thus even, for example, the biological sciences often incorporate a condemnation of the birth process into their narratives, as Evelyn Fox Keller (and Helen E. Longino, eds. Feminism & Science 1996) has shown in her research on the individualist-competitive language of much evolutionary biology. This uses the model of sex as a non-mutual individual process, implying that it is really an act of pure rational will instigated by the male gender. Being male becomes a kind of clean philosophical-spiritual category.

As uncovered by Butler in her work, this allotment of gender roles begins in earnest the instant it is realized that the child has either male or female sexual capacity: i.e. has the possibility of reproduction via a womb or not, and not a penis or its absence. This biological difference is usually presumed in empirical medical science by reference to the visible genitalia. When there is doubt as to the definition of the genitalia in sex terms, as with babies born as intersexuals, the internal organs, such as the reproductive capacity or lack of this, are referred to.

Butler says the result of this is sometimes genital interventions to make the physical child fit the cultural typecast. It is indicative for her that even though the presence or absence of the organs for reproduction are used to determine the sex of the child, what the superficial genitalia should be in such cases, so that the presence of a womb and the capacity for childbirth are in practice the deciding factor, this primary signifier is soon diminished and the genitalia take over. According to Butler it is soon the penis that inherits most of the signifying power while the vagina takes on a negative signification as lack of the penis. This emphasis, though, I think operates in antagonism to the presence of sensual reproductive capacity and does not originate in some mysterious way from language and power in the abstract, as Butler has it.

Aesthetic differentiation in the affective treatment of the newborn begins immediately this sex/gender difference is defined, i.e. the western traditional colors pink for the girl, blue for the boy. Such may seem trivial, but it is multiplied beyond all measure throughout that thing known as childhood, and it literally presses upon the body’s senses at every turn.

This fear of an innate resource of material-sensual production is the partly unconscious communication on the aesthetic level of womb-envy, become enforced in affective practices. Essentially this affectivity is what a taboo is. Taboos do not require being enshrined in written laws (the law can easily make sexism illegal, and has done so, of course, without ending sex discrimination) because they do not need to be.

Womb envy is as such an affective dread that has extended from the subjective experience of the entire capitalist process of production and the passing on, in history, of earlier exploitative social forms, occurring firstly on the aesthetic level as an inchoate, immediately felt alienation to the relations of production, and then widening with refinements added by various cultural institutions. In this historical process, the work of sensual reproduction has become associated with alienated affectivity, understood as closer to the brutalized image of animals, of the beasts, of the profane world, of a disgusting cornucopia, the veritable Pandora’s box, the world of the witch and the strange alchemy and potions surrounding childbirth and, yes, artistic creativity.

Patriarchy is therefore a default compulsion that works in the interests of the dominant class in society, the bourgeois-legal owners of the means of production and labor power, and it is the material relation to the sensual work of reproduction that the ruling class finds an anathema, and not, at least fundamentally, any particular abject designator beyond this, gay, lesbian, transvestite, transsexual, which may at certain times even be considered in capitalism fashionable and a useful market. The latter are all performances, as is heterosexuality, mirroring the central myth of essential gender difference, and can work to reinforce this imaginary essence. In this mirror array, the reproducing sex does not actually have to be a mother to be identified with the womb’s capacity (but it helps of course). Socialists, artists, and workers, by default, tend to challenge this dominant affectivity, and so have something in common with struggling women, but there can be no simple key to attributing radicalism to specific performances.