For Mute, Amy De'Ath writes about feminist poetry and Marxism, specifically their integration in Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue. Read De'Ath in partial below, in full via Mute.
The large and loose category of feminist poetry – work that might index, describe or otherwise relate a wide array of experiences, affects, representations, labours, economic processes and modalities of thought specific to the lives of feminised people – has for a long time explored ‘the hidden abode of reproduction’. It is possible to frame the work of a poet such as Denise Riley, for example, as a crossover point between socialist feminism, post-structuralism, and feminist poetry. From Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn (1978) and Alice Notley’s Songs for the Unborn Second Baby (1979), to Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T (1992) and Cathy Wagner and Rebecca Wolff’s anthology, Not for Mothers Only (2007), reproductive labour, especially child-rearing, has often been a subject – and perhaps more often an object – of critique for feminist poets writing in English in recent decades.
And yet, despite this correlation, feminist poetry has rarely aligned itself with Marxist-feminism. Nor has Marxist-feminism been all that interested in feminist poetry, even less the ‘poetic’. Perhaps this reciprocal aversion is beginning to lift, however, in the midst of a renewed interest in systematic, paradigmatic, or totalising critiques within feminist theory and artistic practice. Along with an expansion of the concept of reproductive labour to account for the ways many previously unwaged reproductive activities have become commodified and made profitable in themselves, Marxist-feminist theory has sought to understand the increasingly unspecific and affect-based character of work in de-industrialised economies in direct relation to the global restructuring of the labour market. Especially pertinent here is a renewed and more theoretically cohesive effort to link these analyses to the production of ‘race’ and its relation to the systematic reproduction of the class relation.
In light of these transformations in the capital-labour relation, and in feminist art and theory, we might look to Bhanu Kapil’s new work, Ban en Banlieue (2015) in order to ask how feminist poetry explores the foggier aspects of that gendered ‘remainder’ of reproduction – those activities produced and shaped by capital which must remain outside of market-relations – in ways that otherwise helpful Marxist-feminist categories of analysis such as the ‘abject’ or the ‘non-social’ do not seem to capture or account for fully. With this ostensibly pragmatic approach to poetry, I am not proposing that the work of feminised and racialised poets should service a gap in Marxist-feminist theory. Rather, my contention – put only briefly, perhaps even speculatively, in this essay – is that feminist poetries focusing on particular aspects of structural violence might provide an aesthetic critique of a dimension of feminised experience that cannot be adequately articulated in ‘theory’, but which, nonetheless, theory could do much better to articulate.
More than a question of what’s missing in a Marxist poetics and literary criticism so often obsessed with the relationship between labour and literature, or production and literature – social reproduction’s relationship to the aesthetic, and poetic language in particular, re-centres the tricky, opaque divide between aesthetic critiques and systematic critiques because it flings several key questions about this latter relation into orbit. What can be documented in feminist/feminised poetry that doesn’t get recorded elsewhere? What kinds of knowledge can be accessed through aesthetic experience? How do resulting aesthetic judgments translate to analysis? How should we conceive of feminist poetry’s bearing on ‘the matter of literary-theoretical “values” and economic “value”’,1 and could this tell us anything useful about the lives and struggles of reproductive workers?
By way of making a suggestion about feminist poetry’s special powers in the sanitised world of political-aesthetic representation and so-called rationality, the main theoretical nodes I’ll turn to include the Marxist-feminist theory of ‘the abject’ as a particular type of denaturalised, indirectly market-mediated activity necessary to capital’s pursuit of value-production; and Marina Vishmidt’s suggestion, drawing on Chris Arthur, of a counter-reproductive negativity. Before moving to those more abstract ideas however, I want first to turn to the poetry itself, which makes ‘negativity’ – understood here as a kind of recalcitrance – more immediately visceral and affectively comprehensible than any abstract theory about reproduction or value.
In Ban en Banlieue, Kapil describes the outskirts of London in the 1970s – ‘les banlieues’, as she calls them, in a pun both on her own name and on the 2005 Paris race riots – as the scene of her childhood, and her person solidifies as a kind of outskirt too: ‘she’s both dead and never living: the part, that is, of life that is never given: an existence’.2 ‘Ban’, for short, whose actions and feelings are often described in the third person, is the book’s protagonist. Ban, who is and is not Bhanu Kapil, is a British-Indian ‘immigrant’ whose daily life is recorded via shifts between verbal registers and associative logical leaps. Often, the speaker’s mode is omniscient and philosophical, observing, for example, that ‘(Ban.)’ is also ‘To be: “banned from the city” and thus: en banlieues: a part of the perimeter’; or making brief remarks on the suburban landscape, noting, ‘A puff of diesel fumes on an orbital road’, or ‘The country outside London, with its old parks and labyrinths of rhododendron or azalea’.3 But this speaker periodically loses their opacity, becoming a more clearly defined, first-person subject: ‘Perhaps I should say that I grew up partly in Ruislip’, ‘I analyze my glimpse on the asphalt’, ‘In April 1979, I was ten years old’,4 Ban tells us, and the appearance of a Lyric ‘I’ seems almost a surprise. Then come more explicit and complex desires and refusals: ‘I wanted to write a book about lying on the floor of England’, or ‘I hate white people. / That is another sentence.’5
For Ban, the Punjabi subject of Ban en Banlieue, never English despite being born in England,6 the life-shaping violence of white supremacy paradoxically resounds as a nebulous yet definitively historical tone, played out on a global and totalising scale; a lived notation of punctuated assaults and droning background noise. This is achieved, in part, through the pragmatic and observational mode Kapil frequently employs, bolstered by factual elements such as dates, childhood ages, and geographical locations; but also through her references to other subjects whose lives are touched (though the poetry doesn’t explicitly note it) by capital’s secular tendencies toward structural unemployment and the production of surplus populations, and by the ascriptive processes that produce race. The book is dedicated, for example, to Blair Peach, an anti-racism campaigner who in 1979 was knocked unconscious and killed by the Metropolitan Police while protesting the white supremacist National Front in Southall, an immigrant suburb of west London. Later, Kapil describes a girl in New Delhi who was raped and left to die one night in December 2012, ‘about 10 minutes from the Indira Ghandi airport—the girl lay dying on the ground’.