Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy
Author: Zillah Eisenstein
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 1998
Review Published: September 2000
Zillah Eisenstein's Global Obscenities was published in 1998, the same year that the Southern Baptist Conference voted that women should submit graciously to their husbands, that Time magazine declared feminism dead, and that a spate of antifeminist books by conservative women like Danielle Crittenden and Carolyn Graglia appeared to general media hype.
Global Obscenities wants us to know that there is still a place for feminist politics in a public sphere defined by global capitalism and the ambivalent promise of cyberspace. Written in populist style à la bell hooks and taking an approach which bears refreshing resemblance to old-fashioned Marxism, Eisenstein vents moral outrage at the vastly and increasingly uneven distribution of wealth produced by globalization, explores the potential for cyberspace to create new publics, and keeps one eye closely trained on the risk that it will, rather, produce new and more oppressive forms of domination. Eisenstein cares deeply about the women (and men) throughout the globe who lack access to basic necessities of life and who are left behind not only in the "new economy" but also in the ecstatic discourses of cyber-utopia. Her book is a passionate appeal to examine the ways in which capitalism creates material disparities often defined by gender, race, nation, and class. But in it, she also seeks to imagine ways in which a progressive public sphere might be created out of the same technologies which now threaten to become purely oppressive.
It must be said that despite some stylistic affinities, Eisenstein does not (at least in this book) have the rhetorical control and focus or the energetic and evocative style of a writer like hooks. The book jerks the reader from one anecdote to another, with little continuity, sometimes leaving us suspicious of the author's use of sources. Published, as I mentioned, in 1998, the book is already dated in certain ways, thanks to the explosion of e-commerce in time since its publication. The dream of a virtual public sphere -- based on the Internet's potential to be an open decentralized medium of communication -- appears all the more distant.
Because Eisenstein believes that, in view of the ascendancy of multinational capital, the nation form is in decline, she does not capitalize the names of countries. This becomes something of an annoying tic, especially since her system of capitalization seems haphazard -- regions and continents are also lower-case (africa, south asia, the caribbean) as are federal government institutions (the pentagon) yet the United Nations is capitalized, as are any number of other names of people, institutions, and geographical entities (so that Chinatown is capitalized while china is not).
But there's a bigger philosophical problem with the book, one which might be indicated by a statement she makes early on: "So, Marx and Engels had it partially right and partially wrong in the Communist Manifesto" (3). (Incidentally, everyone I've shown the book to has intuitively flipped to this remark and laughed.) She says more or less the same thing of Baudrillard: we should pay attention to "spectacle," but the "real" is realer ("Baudrillard comes close to explaining the art of the spectacle today, but he also overstates it," 16). She's very invested in the significance of the real, but what is the real? Theorists like Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti have had a lot to say about the political "real" in the wake of postmodernism, in an attempt to reconcile the intellectual lessons of the past thirty years with the intuition of pressing political needs that can be described as "real." But Eisenstein doesn't address what might be called, in academic jargon, the problematic status of the real. In other words, she never provides a rigorous way of thinking about the distinction she wants to make between real people's real pain and ideological imaginary; she just asserts it.
Eisenstein consistently wants to have things both ways -- without ever charting a practical map for achieving her desiderata. I'm sure she wouldn't want to align herself explicitly with the much-vaunted "third way" of Western democracies, post-fall of communism, and their stylish, young-ish male leaders. Yet she has a vision, albeit under-articulated, in which everyone has both the freedom of liberal democracy and the social protections of socialism. "One freely chooses AND one gets what one really needs" (20). This is a fine fantasy, but Eisenstein provides neither a tangible way of achieving it nor what would also be nice, a truly compelling utopian vision around which political desires might crystallize. As another example, she asserts the desirability of more "oppositional media" (68-9) without giving us any sense of how they might come into existence and thrive. The unresolved contradictions of Eisenstein's position are not trivial ones; they are problems with which any reasonably self-aware leftish intellectual in the Western world has to wrestle. I can't claim to be able to resolve them; what's troubling is that Eisenstein doesn't seem always to notice that they are problems.
Should we take comfort in the fact that Ted Turner recently made one of Eisenstein's points in a forum on philanthropy for Silicon Valley executives? The "digital divide," the term which has been bandied about of late to indicate the disparities in Americans' access to the Internet, pales globally in comparison to the "food divide," the "shelter divide," the "clean water divide," and the "basic literacy divide." Obviously, people cannot be networked until they have education and reliable electricity and phone lines. One wonders whether people like Eisenstein and Donna Haraway have in some sense capitulated to the technology of the internet by accepting it as the standard for the creation of a workable public sphere. In the u[dys?]topian future in which everyone is networked, what will power all this access? Fossil fuels? And where will privacy be found?
Global Obscenities is ultimately a rant, and perhaps not an unappealing one, to those who share Eisenstein's sensibilities. But I find it rather dissatisfying as a political intervention, because it seems to work well neither on a "high theory" level nor really on a populist one. I can imagine it serving to galvanize a certain amount of political energy among an undergraduate population or a feminist reading group. It certainly demands discussion: in analyzing the book's problems, we might begin to articulate more effective strategies and visions for concretizing its critiques.
Rebecca Zorach received her PhD in Art History in 1999 and balances precariously at the intersection of Renaissance art, gender studies and contemporary culture. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on gender, utopia and the built environment and incubating a digital art and culture journal, and believes she's gotten less naive about the Internet since a 1994 article in Wired magazine. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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