[7 March 2008]
It’s an indicator of the degree to which women’s liberation was at the forefront of American culture in the early 1970s that a book like The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone (subtitle: “The case for feminist revolution”) was not only issued in a mass-market pocket-size paperback by Bantam Books but also sold enough copies to now routinely turn up in thrift stores from Arizona to South Dakota to Delaware, where I bought it for probably the fourth time. I’m trying to imagine this book on a Rexall’s rack in 1970, and what sort of consumer would have been drawn in by this cover line: “The HUMAN ALTERNATIVE to 1984—a slashing attack on male supremacy that charts the end of the sexual class system.” It’s hard to conceive of our culture being this interested in feminism, to the extent where a fairly radical version of it could be advertised as a selling point rather than be regarded as an awkward embarrassment. Women’s lib was a mainstream consideration that must have seemed omnipresent relative to our own “post-feminist” epoch.
But was that just because its novelty could be exploited commercially by the media industries? I wonder if transforming women’s lib into Bantam paperbacks wasn’t some way of attempting to neutralize the threat, turn feminism into another shoddy, sensationalized product that could be consumed as fantasy by some Stepford Wife who had the little book stashed away in a handbag and could secretly thrill to exhortations to abolish childhood and traditional sex roles, or could be dismissed as mass-produced crap, as pop psychology or specious self-help, or could be read as an alarming warning of the crazy things these women’s libbers had in mind. (It’s generally a good reactionary strategy to find the most extreme voices for the reform you oppose and try to popularize the idea that they are representative of the movement as a whole.)
In general, the mass-produced paperback format has the effect of bathing the work in the aura of disposable entertainment. Similarly, today’s ubiquitous trade paperback (for me anyway) has an effect of gentrifying ideas, making them into dainty knick-knacks on my intellectual mantelpiece. Because publishers are so complicit with capitalism, their material products end up embodying capitalist ideals, even if the ideas in the pages are undiluted Marxist propaganda. Maybe that means the Web will be a better source for the promulgation of radical ideas?