March 2016

Dan Froid

nonfiction

The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary by Ann Snitow

Picking up The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary, one may wonder what, exactly, the title means. It seems that an ideology would necessarily have to commit itself to certainty, to clear principles and goals, a coherent credo, if just for the sake of common ground among its followers. All that, despite social and historical changes, the flux of thinkers and leaders and followers, new and competing voices and discourses... Okay, so maybe uncertainty is the right word. It is possibly the only sane position, particularly for someone, like Ann Snitow, who has worked within this ideology for decades. As she writes in the introduction, this book offers "a variety of descriptions of how one person has tried to locate feminism in her life -- in situations that keep changing."

The Feminism of Uncertainty is a sprawling book, collecting thirty-five years' worth of Snitow's writing. Its content, too, sprawls: Snitow discusses novels and psychoanalysis, reflects on her activist efforts and teaching. Her central concern, if one can be identified in such a diverse body of essays, is to propose uncertainty as a logical and valuable mode of thinking, or even of being. That is not to reduce the value or scope of this book. Indeed, Snitow carefully explicates what she means (and what she does not). Late in the book, she writes:

In this book, I've explored "uncertainty" as a temperament, a political aesthetic, a counterweight to various forms of rigidity, false closures, or too-perfect dreams of unity or order. But I want to guard here at the close against any mapping of "uncertainty" onto a blithe disregard for the responsibility to shape one's feminist projects. Uncertainty as I figure it here is very far from "anything goes." On the contrary, it puts extra stress on the need to define -- in each situation -- what one is doing.

For Snitow, uncertainty does not let one off the hook; it does not permit one to conceive of feminism as merely taste or consumerist choice, for example. She is not interested in sloppiness but in its opposite: rigor. Uncertainty is instead flexibility of thought and action. If something does not work, or fails, change it. Do not worship ideas or principles, but value them and the thought processes that formulate and alter ideas, and sometimes reject them. In this way uncertainty is, more than a mode of thinking, a way of encountering the world, which has informed Snitow's work, writing, and activism, a point from which Snitow has located herself in relation to feminism for her entire life.

Often referred to and occasionally quoted from, the "gender diary" repeatedly surfaces and resurfaces, functioning as a kind of shadow text. It's a document separate from this book, a record of Snitow's thoughts about what she sees as a central divide in feminism, the tension "between needing to act as women and needing an identity not overdetermined by our gender." This is a tension Snitow has registered within herself as well as within feminist discourse. It's a conflict between solidarity, which can offer both comfort and political power, and a monolith, which can result in the perpetuation of outdated, essentialist ideas about women. The gender diary is Snitow's private exploration of this conflict; in a sense, The Feminism of Uncertainty represents her public exploration of the same.

The book is divided into five parts. In "Continuing a Gender Diary," Snitow reflects on her lifelong ambivalence about the category of "woman." "Mothers/Lovers" features Snitow's criticism, reviews and interviews, writing on subjects from Dorothy Dinnerstein's psychoanalysis to the fiction of Angela Carter, as well as tracing the history of the sex wars and motherhood within feminist ideology. "The Feminist Picaresque" contains writings on Snitow's teaching and activism, including stints in Eastern Europe, her participation in the Greenham Common Peace Camp, and a semester spent teaching film in a prison. "Refugees from Utopia" is largely a series of reflections on loss and memory, including her discussion of the Feminist Memoir Project as well as pieces on the now-deceased Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone. "The Feminism of Uncertainty" closes the book, a series of pieces, miscellaneous at first glance, that more overtly revolve around the concept of uncertainty and its influence on her life's work.

This diverse collection demonstrates Snitow's flexibility as a thinker and writer, as well as the flexibility fundamental to her politics and, even, her being. As she writes, "Embracing uncertainty -- since I can never get far beyond it -- is both my temperament and the political aesthetic I can still sustain without tasting ashes." Uncertainty can seem, at times -- in the face of environmental, political, or social anxiety, among its other manifestations -- like the only reasonable position. As Snitow points out about Dorothy Dinnerstein, author of The Mermaid and the Minotaur:

At the end of her life, and in her most pained, apocalyptic mood [...] [she] saw uncertainty as our species' only hope. Human beings can't know if we can or will choose to save ourselves from ourselves. Uncertainty on this point is our best goad, both for acting, and for imagining a future.

Uncertainty, then, can be fear's most desperate impulse: we don't know if we will destroy everything, so we should do something. Then again, it is perhaps this book's central project to suggest instead that uncertainty is primarily an imaginative impulse, not necessarily an effect but a cause.

Take Snitow's interest in utopia as an example. For Snitow, utopia implies not foolish idealism but an ever-unsettled act of imagination, a way to think oneself into the kind of world one would like to inhabit -- and then to revise that image, continually. Snitow ends the book by linking her lifelong commitment to uncertainty to her predilection for reading and thinking about utopias. She writes, "[U]topia is as much a site of agonistic forces as any cluster of unsettled political ideas. One needs to improvise. Then one needs to confront the nightmare version of one's wishes. Then one imagines again." This seems to be, in essence, what feminism is for: a catalyst for imagining, and attempting to create, a better world.

Snitow's writing about literature was, for me, the most pleasurable part of the book. She writes about Angela Carter, David Garnett, and Doris Lessing, who imagine different -- not always better -- worlds themselves. She is a particularly enlightening reader of Angela Carter's final novel, Wise Children. Carter herself an exemplar of uncertainty or ambiguity, she proved her deep love for literary tradition at the same time she made fun of it; she was as interested in exploring what biology gives us -- a family, a body -- as in breaking its shackles. Snitow writes:

Angela Carter sought a language for pleasure, a quest she took on very self-consciously as a feminist project. Pleasure was also to be for girls. Feminist critics call for this kind of writing, but the texts that actually deliver it are few. Carter's desire -- ideological and literary, private and social -- led her across current theoretical boundaries. Neither her polyglot word choices nor her deconstruction of myths precluded an indulgence, too, in old-fashioned closure -- when she wanted that pleasure. She loved the old stories, partly because she could manipulate our nostalgia for them, but also because they delivered the goods -- fantasy, distance, satisfaction, resolution. Pleasure with her was not always just a little further on, forever out of reach. She wanted it now; her writing celebrated the pre-Oedipal, the polymorphous, and the perverse.

This is a shrewd summation of Carter's work. Snitow's essay on Wise Children and interview with Carter, not to mention her pieces on Garnett and Lessing, urge the reader to discover or return to those books, invigorated by Snitow's astute readings.

Snitow's confidence in the flexibility of the ideology to which she has committed herself -- that is, feminism -- is understandable, even if it is sometimes difficult for the reader to meet her on her level. Snitow believes that feminism can, or at least should, always adapt to new political urgencies, new voices, new demands for equality. Well, certainly it should, but does it? Snitow is aware of this tension. Preparing to teach a course on film in prison, which would cover representations of childhood, manhood, and womanhood on screen, she struggles to pin down her intentions. A friend accuses her of "self-serving adventurism." Snitow writes, "Traveling feminism is inevitably tangled in other forms of circulating power. But, I argued, willy-nilly, things come from outside, and people make use of what comes, even from tainted hands." In the end, her judgment remains much the same: the prison system is broken, and so would be any system of education installed within it. But that doesn't mean that her students didn't learn anything. The upshot of all this is the final line of the chapter: "My college, short of funds, has closed the program."

Feminism carries on, despite stumbling blocks or economic interference. Snitow claims, "Feminism is necessary but not sufficient; desire, pain, and lack break feminism's boundaries as they do all others. One can't ask feminism -- or any other political movement -- to firmly fix a better future." That is true, and yet it is clear that Snitow believes it to be our best bet. Her version of feminism, balanced by that ever-present counterweight, uncertainty, is, I think, eminently practical and useful.

As I read this book, I kept wondering what I would write about it, what I could write. I can admit that I am a lazy bourgeois feminist (and not a woman), which is to say that I have called myself a feminist and certainly agree with its ideals, and yet -- like many such, um, adherents -- have neglected to do much beyond read the occasional thinkpiece. I am guilty of largely limiting my feminism to cultural tastes. But as I hope this review has shown, what I have to say is ultimately, and emphatically, not the point; the point is what one can learn from this marvelous book. What is most delightful and important about The Feminism of Uncertainty is how much it teaches, about work one rarely hears about, work that has in many cases been forgotten. (To give another example: Despite the fact that the anti-nuclear weapons women's peace camp at Greenham Commons existed for nearly two decades, until 2000, who knows anything about it?) This book succeeds as a work of history, charting the relationship between a prominent activist and writer and the actions and discourses within feminism. It is even more successful and significant in its philosophical inquiry. Whether or not readers share Snitow's ideological commitments, this book offers many stories and ideas through wonderfully judicious, perceptive, and illuminative writing.

The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary by Ann Snitow
Duke University Press
ISBN: 978-0822358749
Pages: 378