I should have written something when she actually died, but seeing that I didn’t, I’ll just say a couple things here.
First of all, a story. I first became aware of Dworkin’s work as an undergrad. I don’t exactly know when, but I did. I wrote about paper about her (mostly her book Woman Hating, which has some awesome sections), an essay by Scott Tucker called “Gender, Fucking and Utopia” in _Social Text_, and Jeffrey Weeks’ Sexuality book. I came to the predictable (for a guy) conclusion that Tucker’s queer polymorphous sexuality and differentiated view of penetration (it’s not the problem), pornography (it’s not the problem), and patriarchy (okay, that still bites) was preferable to Dworkin’s well-known position on those matters.
The paper was for a course called “Sexualities: From Perversity to Diversity,” which was part of the new cultural studies-ish humanities curriculum at the University of Minnesota. In my undergrad education, it came late in a long sequence of courses on sexuality, representation, queer theory, and so forth. There were even more courses that I didn’t take. But it was a sad situation for poor Ellen Messer-Davidow, who was teaching the course for the first time. She’d set up something like the first half of the course as a critique of what we’d now call heteronormativity. She must have thought she was getting a whole gaggle of whitebread Minnesotans. What she got was a class full of out radical lesbians, gay AIDS activists, children of open marriages, S/M practitioners, and everything inbetween. Since this was over a decade ago, the details are foggy, but I do remember some kind of revolt and a change in the readings packet to reflect the fact that a core of activist students in the class were impatient with the deconstructing heteronormativity section of the course and were ready to move on to alternative sexualities right away. I wasn’t part of that particular revolt, since even at the time I identified with the professor — though I certainly benefitted from it since I too was coasting through the critique of heterosexuality part of the course.
I remember that Ellen was disappointed with my conclusions in the final paper. John Fiske was at Minnesota that quarter, and his conclusions about the possibilities for radical politics no doubt temporarily mellowed my otherwise utopian political bent. That Fiskean moment didn’t last long for me (though Fiske was one hell of a good teacher — more on that in another post sometime) but at the time, it must have had some impact on my conclusion. I remember Ellen said something in her comments about the cynicism of my generation. Now here I am now on the other side of that argument. I guess that’s the life of the mind for you.
Despite my disagreement with her, Dworkin capitivated my imagination because of the sheer force and quality of her writing, and she sent me on a long path through second-wave feminism, so-called “radical feminism,” to which I still have a strong affective attachment. Though today I pretty much only read that kind of work in used bookstores, or when I point someone to Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex which still intrigues me. And yet it holds a significant place in my imagination as I evaluate more contemporary feminist writing, especially academic feminist writing. Perhaps it’s a kind of mellowing that comes with institutionalization and a kind of co-optation that comes with professionalization. I don’t know. But when I read Judith Butler or Nancy Fraser now, I want to know where’s the rage? Where did patriarchy go as a concept? Doesn’t anyone want to get rid of it anymore? Of course I know they do, and they’re just looking for more sophisticated ways to talk about it. And yet, unfairly, I hold them up to the second-wave yardstick and find them wanting, even as I think much more with them than with Dworkin and her interlocutors. Of course, this is horribly unfair, as none of my own academic writing rages on against capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc., though I can occasionally work up some indignation.
Anyway, in thinking of Dworkin’s passing, I mainly wonder what will/has become of second-wave feminism’s radical critique of patriarchy and desire for a fundamental transformation of relations between men and women. Or did the second wave feminists make just enough progress for the system to buy everyone in the middle and upper classes off? One could ask the same question about radical queer politics, but I guess that’s for another post.