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  • Automating Feminism: The Case of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man
  • Heather J. Hicks

In his historical review of various American theories of “postindustrialism,” Howard Brick makes the point that “[t]he historical reconstruction of the concept... helps to place the idea of postindustrial society in a new relation with the idea of postmodern culture. Rather than being regarded as corresponding definitions of ‘society’ and ‘culture’... postindustrialism and postmodernism might be taken to imply two distinct and alternative interpretations of contemporary social change and its significance.” Turning to the political stakes of adopting a “postindustrial perspective,” Brick speculates that viewing America through this lens might make us more likely to achieve “the long-standing social and political aspirations of the Left” than would attempts to make sense of American life in terms of postmodernism (350).1

Brick’s suggestion strikes me as worth pursuing, for despite claims that the concept of postmodernism has “been able to welcome in the appropriate areas of daily life or the quotidian” (Jameson xiv) that other concepts, including postindustrialism, could not, the conceptual framework of postmodernism often functions as a surrender to abstraction rather than as an attempt to understand, much less change, daily life in America. It is more often in postmodern theories’ origins—as opposed to their current applications—that one finds specific insights about the “quotidian”; as Margaret Rose has demonstrated in her exploration of the relationship between theories of postmodernism and postindustrialism, most contemporary characterizations of American culture as “postmodern” begin from an understanding of Western nations as postindustrial.2 Returning to this initial set of insights as a fresh approach to thinking about contemporary American culture, then, would seem a particularly promising way of moving beyond the limitations of various postmodern models.

Nonetheless, for the contemporary literary critic, taking the “postindustrial perspective” at first seems improbable. Aren’t postmodern poetics, after all, the cultural expression of what Fredric Jameson has famously referred to as the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (38)? In the cultural arena of representation as opposed to the domain of intellectual history from which Brick’s own work emerges, aren’t we fated to ponder only the residues of postindustrialism, the shattered remnants of narrative left in the aftermath of this (tidal) wave of capitalism? While I do not disagree that the formal traces of postindustrialism may reside in depthless, fragmented contemporary narratives, I also believe that a significant number of contemporary writers have attempted to engage with postindustrialism directly. In particular, a number of writers have, since 1945, attempted to represent changes in Americans’ experience as workers. The process of recovering the concept of postindustrialism in contemporary literary and cultural studies should begin with them.

One of the most fascinating of these writers is Joanna Russ. In what follows I would like to offer a reading of her famous novel, The Female Man, understanding it not (or not only) as a classic instance of narrative postmodernism, but as a narrative obsessed with the meanings of postindustrial work for women. As I have discussed elsewhere, America’s economic shift from manufacturing to services has had particularly complex ramifications for American women, whose entry into the work force in massive numbers has happened in concert with this economic transformation.3 Specifically, I will argue here that Russ’s text is an attempt to rethink “women’s work” in a historical moment when liberal feminists were campaigning to put women to work while the New Left—increasingly wedded to the concept of “postindustrialism”—was claiming that cybernetic automation would soon make work obsolete. By illuminating these dynamics, The Female Man lays bare the ideological tangle from which a crucial present-day formulation of postindustrialism as the “feminization of work” was born; in these terms, I will suggest the ways that Russ’s text historicizes and complicates Donna Haraway’s conception of contemporary female workers as “cyborgs.”

In The Female Man, which was written in the late 1960s but not published until 1975,4 Joanna Russ explores the lives and feelings of four female characters—Joanna, Jeannine, Janet, and Jael—each of whom is from what Russ terms a different “probability/continuum” (22). They are, in other words...

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