Alienation, Estrangement, and the Politics of “Free Individuality” in Two Feminist Science Fictions: A Marxist Feminist Analysis


Rebecca Ore’s Outlaw School and Nicola Griffith’s Slow River both describe near-future worlds in which class stratification, sexual politics, and a globalized economy have become dystopically exaggerated. The novels highlight the ways in which class and sexual politics intersect to produce alienated and estranged subjects. “Alienation” and “estrangement,” familiar terms for Marxist theory, take on added significance for a feminist critique of Marxism. These terms are likewise significant for literary-critical and theoretical approaches to science fiction. I will begin by describing how these terms have been adapted for Marxist readings of science fiction, and will then offer a feminist reappraisal of some of Marx’s descriptions of them. Finally, I will describe how I see these concepts at work in their feminist, science-fictional, and Marxist connotations in the novels by Ore and Griffith.


Darko Suvin, an important pioneer in the field of SF studies, states in Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction that “History and society are not an external yardstick to be applied to the literary work: on the contrary they constitute its very structure and texture” (4). This position articulates a primary presupposition of Marxist cultural studies. It suggests the sense in which some works of feminist SF may illuminate the potentialities suggested by feminist theory. This presupposition is related to another of Suvin’s assertions: “Literature… can provide sets of manageable and explorable models of social existence” (50). Applying this principle to my present concerns, I suggest that the social models constructed by feminist SF can dramatize the ideologies of sexual politics that pervade our lived relations.

These two presuppositions reflect another of Suvin’s theoretical formulations on science fiction: that it is a literary mode, the mode of cognitive estrangement. The “cognitive” function occurs in the SF work’s delineation of the workings of its future space. The “cognitions” proposed by the science-fictional work also support what I call its potentially hermeneutic function; that is, its function as a contained interpretive and didactic device. The “estrangement” of science fiction is its capacity to use the future space in such a way as to stimulate fresh consideration of our current condition. Feminist SF authors use estrangement to shed new light on how our social relations are shaped by sexual politics.

The concept of alienation is important for SF criticism in a more general and overarching way than the concept of estrangement, although the two are interimplicated. Thus, SF critics might speak of the alienation the reader experiences as a function of the “novum,” or strange newness, evoked in a science fictional work. Feminist SF critics use the concept of alienation to describe the impact of patriarchal (not necessarily male) domination on women—in feminist science fiction, this alienation is often highlighted in the context of the future space. In a more obvious sense, “alienation” informs the meanings and machinations of the aliens described in science fictional texts.

Now I will turn to Marx’s own delineations and uses of these terms.1 In the Paris manuscripts, Marx describes capitalist commodification as a process of estrangements: primarily, the estrangement of the worker from the product of his [sic] labor, and the estrangement of the worker from himself that occurs when the worker’s labor power is sold, and the worker then manufactures the products that guarantee and sustain his own alienation. In this way, the worker is engaged in what Marx calls the “activity of alienation” (1964: 110). For Marx, one might say that the science-fictional reality is not contained in a vision of the future, but was brought to us by the industrial revolution: capitalism is a process of estrangements that render the worker alien to his own world. Look no further; capitalism is breeding aliens:When we ask… what is the essential relationship of labor we are asking about the relationship of the worker to production.

Till now we have been considering the estrangement, the alienation of the worker only in one of its aspects, i.e., the worker’s relationship to the products of his labor. But the estrangement is manifested not only in the result but in the act of production, within the producing activity, itself. How could the worker come to face the product of his activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production he was estranging himself from himself? The product is after all but the summary of the activity, of production. If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. In the estrangement of the object of labor is merely summarized the estrangement, the alienation, in the activity of labor itself. (110)

Within a critical framework that conceptualizes the wage laborer’s position within the capitalist economy as “feminized,” I argue that the male wage laborer is an alien native to capitalist production in the same profound sense that women are the alien race native to patriarchy. I use this comparison to underscore two points: first, that maleness does not by any means guarantee a position of dominance in a white-dominant capitalist patriarchy, and second, that both women under patriarchy and laborers under capitalism are engaged in the activity of their own alienation. In other words, the reproduction of one’s alienation under these conditions is a built-in element of both of these subject positions.2 Patriarchy and capitalism produce aliens, outsiders — and although these systems produce estranged subjects, they are uncritical (as opposed to cognitive) estrangements, because they uphold a regressive status quo rather than interrogating it.animal in his alien-ness:

Another element of this equation is the cognitive estrangement produced by these same positions, that is, the way in which the systems of capitalism and patriarchy provoke a consciousness which transcends their own logic. This is by no means an automatic outcome: the uncritical estrangements produced by these ideological apparatuses are part of their basic design elements, whereas the critical estrangements that they may produce are less frequent offshoots. However, these critical estrangements are related to the built-in structural obsolescence of capitalism, which we can glimpse through those Althusserian moments of “rupture” which occur sporadically as “a result of the intense overdetermination of the basic class contradiction” (Althusser 104).

Under certain conditions, the worker under capitalism or the woman under patriarchy can attain critical awareness of their oppression. Explaining this process is important for a Marxist feminist analysis of novels in which it occurs; otherwise, unless this issue is theorized in the text, the protagonist’s personal transformation may be seen in purely individualistic, ahistorical terms. But what exactly is the nature of the critically estranging factors? How does the machinery of certain ideologies create them, and why? These questions will be central to my readings of Griffith’s and Ore’s novels, both of which feature a heroine who, due to a conjunction of circumstances, attains a cognitively estranged comprehension of the terms of her oppression while others confronting the same problems do not.

This question relates to another point of inquiry for my readings of these texts, the conjunction of the science-fictional and Marxist resonances of the concept of “alienation.” A major question arising in connection with Marx’s idea of alienation is, who exactly is this “self” that the laborer is alienated from through the process of his labor? When Marx formulated his early views on alienation, he was still thoroughly immersed in Hegelian terminology.3 Thus, although Marx wished to critique the metaphysical self posited by Hegel, a metaphysics of self implicitly carries over into his materialist critique, which sees labor under capitalism as estranging people from themselves. This is because labor, enacted as labor power, is dehumanizing; therefore, the act of performing it is an activity of alienation. Material conditions are dehumanizing inasmuch as those conditions can overwhelm the subject’s capacity to affirm his or her humanity. We are not, however, made privy to what a non-dehumanized subject would look like: this would be scientifically impossible to posit, as the conditions for the production of such a subject do not exist -– this is one reason why Marx so deplored the genre of the Socialist Utopia, that is, its blueprint manifestations. Likewise, considering the situation of the female subject within patriarchal culture, it is not necessary (or even possible) for feminist theory to posit what she would look like in the absence of phallocentric oppression in order to theorize this culture’s devastating impact upon women. Thus, Marx’s conception of labor under capitalism as the activity of self-alienation provides a necessarily incomplete but useful framework for considering the particular—not to say individual—alienations and estrangements that the worker under capitalism suffers. It is in this conceptual vein that I pursue a literary analysis of the ways in which late capitalism and its instantiations of patriarchy produce alien subjects: animals (i.e., the animalized subjects)and automatons.

First I would like to briefly establish what I see as a meaningful relationship between Marx’s conception of the laborer as alienated animal in the Paris manuscripts, and the laborer as alienated automaton in his manuscript of the mid-1860s entitled “Results of the Immediate Process of Production.”4 In the early essay “Estranged Labor,” Marx describes the estranged laborer as resembling somethingspecifically

…so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of self. As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions — eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal. (111)

This passage describes the result of the alienations of labor as producing a lack of human spontaneity, which Marx characterizes as a loss of self, whereby time not devoted to labor is spent satisfying physical needs in a manner necessarily animalistic, the worker having neither the time nor the material resources necessary to satisfy these needs in accordance with the full scope of human desires. In other words, the only “off-the-clock” time that the worker has must be used to fulfill needs of the sort that we share with animals. Thus, all of the worker’s time, including that time spent off the clock, reflects the domination exercised by the employer, with the result that the worker takes on the attributes of animals. We will see, in the two science fictions that I examine here, how the alienations of labor produce the human/animal distinction that Marx describes.

However, this formulation describes an early period in the formation of capitalist subjectivity — as capitalist nations become more wealthy, they require less and less of the type of intensive labor that so utterly alienates the worker. This frees up the worker to develop a commodified relationship to her leisure time — the development of which relationship has become a significant source of wealth for first-world countries. Even so, Marx’s early critique of the “human become animal” is assuming new relevance as a fairly accurate description of emergent globalized divisions of labor. What I find interesting about this passage is the reversal that Marx asserts is being enacted through the alienations of the labor activity, one that renders the human being as alien to humanity, where humanity is defined as having more than purely material needs. Of course, the laborer’s relationship to the consumption and production of culture, which is related to the increase in leisure-time available to laborers in advanced capitalist countries, has since proven to be merely yet another way in which the worker in her leisure time elects to reinscribe her animalized condition. Marx describes this process — that by which workers become and produce aliens; and, in the second passage, the way in which the capitalist mode of production itself is an alien — here:

Money cannot become capital unless it is exchanged for labour-power, a commodity sold by the worker himself. Conversely, work can only be wage-labour when its own material conditions confront it as autonomous powers, alien property, value existing for itself and maintaining itself, in short as capital. If capital in its material aspect, i.e. in the use-values in which it has its being, must depend for its existence on the material conditions of labour, these material conditions must equally, on the formal side, confront labour as alien, autonomous powers, as value – objectified labour – which treats living labour as a mere means whereby to maintain and increase itself. (1990: 1006f)
By incorporating living labour-power into the material constituents of capital, the latter [capital
5] becomes an animated monster and it starts to act ‘as if consumed by love’ […] Capital utilizes the worker, the worker does not utilize capital, and only articles which utilize the worker and hence posses independence, a consciousness and a will of their own in the capitalist, are capital. (1990: 1007, 1008)

Here, several alienations are being described: in the first passage, Marx describes the process whereby the worker’s labor becomes something “alien,” that is to say, alienated through the commodification of wage-labor, said process of commodification thus rendering work under the capitalist mode of production alien per se. This is alienating for the worker, whose work is effectively removed from the realm of use-value, retaining no intrinsic value for the worker. But Marx is also describing capital itself as an alien being. Marx uses the figure of the alien to describe what we might call the physiology, if not the ontology, of capital itself: “an animated monster.” Here, capital is fabulated as that which takes on an alien, “monster” life of its own. Thus capital is only capital — that is to say, more than just money — if it is endowed with the animating consciousness of the capitalist. This explains why, for instance, capital occasionally comes to operate outside of the logic of capitalism itself; for example, the manufacture of a commodity that produces noxious chemicals as a by-product of its manufacture, chemicals which, years down the line, will have to be cleaned up at massive expense to the capitalist, and which will also not discriminate between the worker and the capitalist in its toxic effects upon the body and the environment. Capital becomes a classic science fiction figure, such as Frankenstein’s monster — “an animated monster” that is animated by one who is himself literally alienated from and by the product of his labor. Dr. Frankenstein is terrorized by his ungrateful monster and rendered alien to human society, ultimately fleeing it in self-horror and disgrace. Like Frankenstein’s monster, who acts “‘as if consumed by love’” (that is to say, blindly or illogically), and thus by turns both adores and tries to destroy humanity, capital itself in Marx’s formulation is possessed of agency, while capitalism’s workers, and even sometimes its capitalists, are dispossessed of agency. Dr. Frankenstein’s position would be analogous to that of the capitalist, one who flees or blinds himself to that which he cannot, in actuality, control. Capital is a monster that breeds aliens.

In the two SF novels that I will examine, historically specific instantiations of patriarchy and capitalism operate as critically estranging factors that inspire, and ironically facilitate, the heroine’s subversion¾partial, variously compromised, but nonetheless viable¾of the systems that control her. Both novels use images that suggest Marx’s concept of the “animalized” and the “mechanized” (animated and animating — the automatonized)worker, images complicated by issues of sexual identity. I wish to look specifically at how the “science-fictionalization” of the female protagonists enacted by the context of global patriarchy in these novels serves as both a limiting and an ironically empowering alienation-effect.


Nicola Griffith’s 1995 novel Slow River describes the transformation of one wealthy white woman’s point of view that occurs as the result of a life-changing event. Lore van de Oest is the youngest daughter of the van de Oest family, whose vast fortune derives from the invention and sale of the only existing foolproof water-cleaning treatment — a commodity more valuable than gold in a near-future world in which sources of untainted drinking water have all but disappeared. Lore is kidnapped on the eve of her eighteenth birthday and held in squalid conditions while her two male kidnappers attempt to collect ransom money from her family. Unable to collect their ransom, the kidnappers eventually remove Lore from her hiding place, at which point she succeeds in escaping, although she is badly wounded in the process. She ends up on the streets of an unidentified city, bleeding and disoriented. Although it turns out that Lore’s kidnapping was engineered by her jealous half-sister Greta as an elaborate foiled plot to eventually murder her, Lore does not learn this until much later in the novel. Meanwhile, she believes that her father has deliberately abandoned her by not paying her ransom, and she is left without recourse to help. Lore is found on the street and taken in by a young woman named Spanner, with whom she begins her first serious lesbian love affair, at which point her real troubles begin.

The novel is structured as a series of recollections that culminate in its time present. Alternating between accounts of Lore’s coming-of-age in the van de Oest household and the anonymous and marginal existence that she embarks on after escaping her kidnappers, Griffith conveys the alienations specific to two very different class positions. The result of this technique, when paired with the estranging factor of the future space, is that we get two entirely different versions of reality: the future of the rich, and the future of the working class. These two realities merge in our heroine, who must learn to “pass” for poor in a series of subterfuges that calls to mind narratives of racial “passing.” For instance, in the future world of the van de Oests, the entire family has gray hair from the time of their birth. This is because the van de Oest matriarch, Lore’s grandmother, learned of a then-recent medical discovery: people with pigmentless hair, such as albinos, were much more prone to develop cancers of the scalp. Once this discovery was made, albinos and people with gray hair began to dye their hair a darker color, to block the rays of the sun. But the van de Oest matriarch used this discovery as an opportunity to flaunt her wealth, and had the color-producing alleles in her and her family’s line deactivated. She was able to do this safely because she could also afford the very costly genetic treatment available to prevent cancer. The ugly twist to this form of conspicuous consumption is that the van de Oests’ hair becomes a visible reminder to those with cancer that their illnesses could have been prevented.

In the world that Lore comes to occupy with Spanner, however, her gray hair becomes a liability, a highly visible sign of Lore’s wealth that will attract predators whom she can no longer afford to keep at a distance with private security. In one scene, Spanner must explain to Lore that the evidence of her good health and constant medical attention must be masked by artificial means:

Spanner’s skin was big-pored over her nose and cheekbones. There was a tiny scar by her mouth. Her teeth were uneven, her neck thin. Her complexion had a grayish tinge, like meat left just a little too long. Lore thought she looked a lot better than Spanner.

Spanner was nodding at her in the mirror. “Exactly. You see the difference? You’re too damn… glossy. Like a racehorse. Look at your eyes, and your teeth. They’re perfect. And your skin: not a single pimple and no scars. Everything’s symmetrical. You’re bursting with health. Go out in this neighborhood, even in rags, and you’ll shine like a lighthouse.” (42f)

Although Spanner’s hard-earned knowledge about the mores of the poor and working classes helps Lore survive, Lore’s position of total dependence on Spanner leads her to make choices that she had never even considered having to make. Spanner and Lore’s sexual relationship and survival partnership set the stage for Lore’s first lesson in the abjections of poverty, one that Lore’s rarefied upbringing could not have allowed her to learn.

After Lore recovers from the injuries that she sustained at the hands of her kidnappers, Spanner introduces her to a highly addictive drug that, like ecstasy, inspires feelings of sexual desire and a relaxation of inhibitions. Although Lore had some experience with the drug through watching the progress of her older sister Stella’s addiction, she learns that the experience of drug addiction, like everything else, is quite a different matter when you’re poor. Scared and disoriented by her new position, Lore quickly becomes addicted to the drug. Soon, she and Spanner must engage in prostitution in order to support their habit. For Spanner, the act of prostitution is easily defensible because the trajectory of her life has placed her in a series of compromises that she feels she can only control through acts of total surrender. Within the logic of entrenched poverty and its legacies of violence and drug dependence, prostitution becomes a way for Spanner to take control of her body’s abjection as a sort of pre-emptive maneuver. Lore’s experience of this logic does not become an occasion for Griffith to moralize about the horrors of drug dependence and prostitution. On the contrary, Lore’s experience comes to function, in the context of her growing knowledge about herself and about survival, as a reminder that abjection is a circumstantially imposed condition of poverty that must be fought against, and not simply a “bad choice” that immoral people make.

Lore establishes two different relationships to disenfranchisement: first, the relationship to the underworld, the “survival mode” that she undergoes with Spanner; and second, the anonymous “subsistence mode” that she takes up as a factory worker when she tires of her life with Spanner. These two relationships express the estrangements of class in a manner quite similar to the way in which Marx describes them: first, in the Paris manuscripts, as an “animalizing” alienation of self; and second, in Capital vol. 1, as the “automatization” of self through the mass production of goods whose animating force, capital itself, takes on the character of the sensuous humanity (“’as if consumed by love’”) that is necessarily denied to the mechanized producer of those goods. The peculiarly animalizing function of the “survival mode” of the underworld is brought out in Slow River through scenes and images that underscore the dehumanizing aspects of Spanner’s furtive mode of subsistence. Marx describes this “animalizing” function thus:

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken away from him. Similarly, in degrading spontaneous, free, activity, to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species life a means to his physical existence. (1964: 114)

Marxhere establishesthe fact that the objective circumstance (although not perhaps the only one) that separates us from animals, our capacity for symbolic language and self-consciousness, expresses itself through our productive manipulations of nature. When these productive manipulations of nature are commodified, the worker/manipulator is removed, or estranged, from the product of her labor, as her labor is transformed from an end into a means through the machinations of the capitalist mode of production. In this way, the laborer whose activity must be sold as labor power is necessarily estranged from the products of the very activity that separates her from animals.

It is in this context that prostitution might be viewed as the degradation of an activity that has the capacity to be spontaneous and free into an estranged means of physical existence. However, the activity of prostitution can also be read as a laying bare of the conditions of the marriage-market, the knowing manipulation of the condition of women’s sexual subservience into an activity that can at least profit her financially. This is, in fact, part of Spanner’s justificatory “reading” of her relation to prostitution, one that Lore cannot bring herself to accept. The difference between Lore and Spanner’s relation to the activity of prostitution can be partially explained by their radically differing formative relationships to the means of production. But the overdeterminations of sexual politics must also be implicated here, for an upbringing free of material privation does not guarantee a certain type of relation to prostitution. This difference begs the question that I set out at the outset of this essay: what are the implications for feminist and Marxist critique of the fact that certain seemingly arbitrary factors can inspire, in a small number of individuals, cognitive estrangement from the conditions of their oppression? Christine Delphy’s observations regarding the nature of oppression are illuminating:

Oppression is one possible way of conceptualizing a given situation; and this particular conceptualization can originate only from one standpoint (that is, from one precise point in the situation): that of the oppressed. It is only from the point of view and life experience of women that their condition can be seen as oppression. This coming to consciousness takes place neither before nor after the struggle. In other words, it is a question of two aspects of the same phenomenon, not of two different phenomena. (1997: 64)Here we come to a critical impasse of Marxist/feminist analysis, for it is, paradoxically, only through women’s own active recognition of themselves as oppressed that they can gain the critical consciousness necessary to end their oppression. This means that one cannot usefully “inform” women of their oppression — although women might be given the respect and attention necessary for them to come to their own consciousness of it. Or, as in Slow River, a woman might come to consciousness through the repeated experience of oppression in her own life (the “school of hard knocks”), which she eventually begins to compare unfavorably with her fragmented experience of, or hope for, a life unfettered by such impositions. Consider Lore’s painful recognition of her and Spanner’s prostitution as a self-animalization achieved through the alienation of sexual activity into a means rather than as a mutually gratifying end. The dialogue begins with Spanner’s point of view:

“No. It’s a job, just like any other. You don’t begrudge […] Chileans a good chew of coca leaf to get them up the next mountain trail where the air’s too thin for anything except their goats. So why deny yourself?”

“Because I hate what we do.” / “You just said you enjoyed it.” / “I do, at the time.” / “Then you’d rather not enjoy it?” / “I’d rather not do it at all.” / “And you’d rather not eat, too?” / “There has to be another way! … I’m sick of being ashamed.” / “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You haven’t hurt anyone.” / “I’ve hurt myself. This is my body, my” / “Temple, right?” Spanner shook her head. “It’s not a temple, it’s a sack of meat.” She slapped herself on the thigh. “A tool made of muscle and skin and bone, to be used the same way we use any other tool.”

“No.” Lore was horrified. “Your body isn’t just a tool like a…a screwdriver. It is you. What it does and feels makes you who you are. Don’t you see that?”

“You are who you fuck?” Spanner’s eyes were challenging. “Then who does that make you?”

“Someone I’m ashamed of.” […]. To be used like a receptacle, a commodity, and to know it, to be helpless before it… (291f)

This is a moment of breakthrough for Lore, a breakthrough into seizing the nature of oppression. As Delphy notes, oppression is one way of conceptualizing a particular situation, and this way of seeing must be internalized by the oppressed party in order for it to register as oppression. The experience of oppression and the point of view that conceptualizes it as such cannot be mutually exclusive categories. Lore comes up against this critical impasse when she fails to “convince” Spanner that prostitution constitutes oppression. Since, in Spanner’s reality, prostitution is a viable means to an end, Lore can do nothing to convince Spanner that she is oppressed. As a means of survival, Spanner reads her oppression as “reality”: an inevitable, non-negotiable element of her lot in life. The overdeterminations of patriarchy and capitalism have, in Spanner’s case, produced a body and mind that efficiently regenerate into instantiations of those ideologies. Thus, Spanner sees her body as a “sack of meat,” a useful survival “tool.”

After this confrontation, Lore decides to move out of Spanner’s apartment and begin a new life for herself. She secures a fake I.D. and begins a blue-collar job as a worker in a water processing plant. From this position, Lore begins to experience the estrangements of capitalist patriarchy as a peculiarly “automatizing” force, as opposed to her earlier experience of these estrangements as “animalizing” forces. This automatization is illustrated most powerfully through Lore’s relationship with a young Venezuelan man, Paolo Cruz. From the moment that Lore is introduced to Paolo, she recognizes in him manifestations of an intense alienation that she cannot yet put her finger on: “[Paolo] was just a teenager, with jet black hair and brown eyes. Something about the way he held himself, a strange mix of ramrod back and careless limbs, bothered me” (77). Lore is assigned to train Paolo in his work duties, and she finds herself increasingly driven to scrutinize his body language: “When he finished with the readings, I held out my hand to help him climb out of the trough. He pretended not to see it, and climbed out unaided. I could tell by the hunch of his shoulders that he was embarrassed about deliberately avoiding my hand, and wondered why” (79). As she continues to work with him, Lore recognizes a great gulf between the jerky, automated, and distrustful attitudes of Paolo’s body, and the nature of his personality: “this time, when he waded out to the edge, I made sure that I held out the clipper handle for him to grab. He accepted without hesitation. His smile was warm and very young-looking, completely at odds with the message sent by his stiff, almost disdainful body” (79).

As Lore continues to work with Paolo, she recognizes that his standoffishness masks intellectual curiosity. Once she realizes that Paolo is eager to learn, Lore takes him on as a friend and protégé. However, their burgeoning friendship is often marred by Paolo’s internalized feelings of inferiority, feelings that are regularly reaffirmed by the prejudicial attitude of their shift boss towards a poor, young, minority worker. In the following scene, Lore tries to explain how the water treatment system works. Although Paolo is interested in learning, he often has difficulty overcoming his feelings of inferiority:

He turned away and I wanted to reach out to him, put an arm around his hunched shoulders. I remembered just in time that he didn’t like to be touched.

“I’m sorry. It’s my fault for starting in the middle instead of at the beginning.”

“You just didn’t expect me to be stupid,” he said bitterly.

“You’re not stupid…. You can learn. I can teach you.”

He looked at me over his shoulder for a moment, then turned all the way around. “Can you?”

He studied me. By his expression, he didn’t know whether to believe me or not. Hope could be dangerous. (166f)

Lore and Paolo’s relationship is shown to be constantly threatened by each party’s internalized feelings of inadequacy, despite their growing feelings of mutual regard and trust. These threats to their relationship come to a head when Lore attempts to defend Paolo against his boss, who exploits Paolo’s position of marginality as a minority teenager by forcing him to perform work tasks that are blatantly unsafe. As a result of her interventions, Paolo’s boss attempts to fire him. Paolo yells at Lore and runs away. At this moment, Lore realizes why Paolo has been inspiring strange recollections about the van de Oest family business. Lore recalls, at age 15, watching the outcome of a class-action suit that the citizens of Caracas pressed against van de Oest Enterprises. The lawsuit claimed that a van de Oest water treatment plant in Venezuela had malfunctioned, causing the dismemberment — and in some cases, death — of hundreds of people who drank the polluted water. The van de Oest family successfully defended itself against the lawsuit by claiming fault on the part of substandard government-contracted work. Nonetheless, as Lore recalls, the van de Oest family “generously” offered to pay for prostheses for the hundreds who were disfigured by the polluted water. Lore recognizes Paolo’s automaton-like movements as those of a prosthetized quadriplegic.

Lore follows Paolo to the water influent source at the plant, where her worst suspicions are confirmed:

And why, I wondered, were people who were about to kill themselves so compulsively neat?

Paolo’s [uniform] was beautifully folded, collar top-and-forward the way shirts are sold in their cellophane packages. I had never been able to fold clothes like that. His limbs were piled just as neatly next to the [uniform], all except one arm, which lay on its own to the side. I wondered idly how he had managed to take off that last arm, the right, I think. I supposed the designers had worked out a simple push-and-twist method.

Paolo was belly-down at the corner of the open trap, torso balanced over the chasm, lowering his throat toward the buzz razor jammed into the space between cover and floor. (186)

Lore talks her friend out of committing suicide, and then listens to his story. Paolo is indeed one of the victims of the Caracas incident, and he and his family have been trying to battle the court decision for many years, but to no avail. Finally, facing the loss of his job and his failure to attain justice, he tries to kill himself in a way that will destroy, or at least seriously damage, the water treatment plant’s works and its reputation. Paolo is a victim of the automatizing machinations of advanced globalism: his dismemberment is the direct result of corporate and political greed. In addition, Paolo’s clumsily prosthetized body presents a stark contrast with Lore’s genetically engineered, glowing health. In much the same way as in the scene in which Spanner compares her unhealthy body with Lore’s healthy one, the disenfranchised Other functions here as a mirror in which Lore can see the radical estrangements upon which her former existence depended.

Paolo’s body can be read as “science-fictionalized” inasmuch as it is animated by technologically advanced prostheses. However, it can also be read as a trope for the specific type of class estrangement produced by the intersections of capital and mechanizing technologies. Consider the following passage from Marx’s Grundrisse:

No special sagacity is required in order to understand that, beginning with free labour or wage-labour for example, which arose after the abolition of slavery, machines can only develop in opposition to living labour, as a hostile power and alien property, i.e. they must, as capital, oppose the worker. But it is equally easy to see that machines do not cease to be agents of social production, once they become, for example, the property of associated workers. But in the first case, their means of distribution (the fact that they do not belong to the workers) is itself a condition of the means of production that is founded on wage-labour. In the second case, an altered means of distribution will derive from a new, altered basis of production emerging from the historical process. (1971: 152)

The machine in the service of capital acts as an agent of social production, inasmuch as it depends more upon objectified than living labor-power. However, under the capitalist mode of production, machines can only “develop in opposition to living labour”: in the dismembered Paolo, we have a tropological figure for the brutal ontology of the worker under mechanized capital.

Paolo’s representation in the text as an alienated automaton also underscores the sense in which the male wage laborer is, from the capitalist vantage-point, a feminized alien native. In her description of the factors mitigating men’s relationship to socially normative conceptions of masculinity, Kaja Silverman notes that the threat of castration can function to throw this relation into crisis (Male Subjectivity at the Margins). Certainly the figure of the dismembered, “mulcted” body of Paolo suggests just such a crisis. Silverman also names the threat “constituted through the representational and sexual practices of feminism and gay liberation” (52) as another factor mitigating men’s relationship to masculine norms. As far as “gay liberation” goes, Paolo is not privy to the fact that Lore is a lesbian: this is not an aspect of her life that she goes out of her way to hide from him; it just never comes up in the context of their work relationship. After Lore breaks things off with Spanner, her automatonized existence and the preservation of her fake identity do not allow her the free time to develop romantic relationships, at least not until much later in the novel. However, Lore does spur Paolo’s anxiety over the feminist re-ordering of gendered divisions of labor. In one scene, Lore offers to ask their female shift-supervisor to defend Paolo against their (white, male) boss’s unreasonable demands. He replies, “‘I don’t need a woman to fight my battles!’ His voice was clotted and violent and I could not have been more surprised if he had hit me” (172). Paolo’s comment reveals that he associates the indignity of his “feminized” position with his subservience to women. This is an association that he later recognizes as misplaced, when it becomes clear to him that he and his fellow workers and his shift bosses, regardless of sex, are all being exploited by the company owners.6When social conditions are considered that generate an undeveloped system of exchange, exchange values and money, or to which an undeveloped stage of such a system corresponds, it is immediately evident that the individuals, although their relationships appear to be more personal, only relate to each other in determined roles, as a feudal lord and his vassal, a landlord and his serf, etc… Thus the individuals [under capital] appear to be independent… They appear so, however, only to someone who abstracts from the conditions of existence in which these individuals come into contact… The determining factor that appears in the first case to be a personal limitation of one individual by another, seems in the latter to be built up into a material limitation of the individual by circumstances that are independent of him and self-contained. (Since the single individual cannot shed his personal limitations, but can surmount external circumstances and master them, his freedom appears to be greater in the second case. Closer investigation of these external circumstances and conditions shows, however, how impossible it is for the individuals forming part of a class, etc., to surmount them en masse without abolishing them…) So far from constituting the removal of a ‘state of dependence’, these external relationships… are the elaboration of the general basis of personal states of dependence. (1971: 72f; emphasis in original)

For Paolo as well as for Lore, the estrangements of class can and sometimes do function as ironically liberating phenomena. That such estrangements are not liberating for Spanner begs a question that I referred to at the outset of this analysis: How do we account for Lore’s — and in a more limited fashion, Paolo’s — ability to overcome the limitations that the estrangements of class have imposed upon them? Why is it that while some of this novel’s characters experience a liberatory comprehension of their oppression, others do not? On “free individuality,” Marx notes that 

In the context of this observation, we can see how Lore’s “free individuality” is represented by Griffith as constitutive of “an elaboration of the general basis of personal states of dependence.” This is because Lore’s freedom is predicated on her recognition of her interdependence with the “masses” that once supported her opulent existence. Throughout Slow River, as the title suggests, the van de Oests’ relationship to water — their commodification of water fit for consumption, especially in a time of widespread shortage — is shown to be destructively dysfunctional. Lore begins her adult life with a theoretical comprehension of water’s importance in the functioning of society. This comprehension is deepened through her ground-floor level work at the bioremediation plant where she trains Paolo. Through the exposition of Paolo’s horrible experience with polluted water, as well as a dramatic scene at the end of the novel in which Lore leads a team of workers to head off a potentially deadly situation at the plant — caused, as in the Caracas case, by corporate greed and governmental complicity — commodification is shown to be ultimately hostile to the well-being of the feminized and female mass labor market.

By the end of the novel, Lore has recognized how her former life of privilege was dependent upon the abjection of the once faceless “masses,” the very people among whom she has found friends to love and respect. Thus, Lore’s disavowal of her alias and of her former life in the following scene is particularly significant: “‘My name,’ I said to the wind, to the river rolling to the sea, ‘is Frances Lorien van de Oest. I live here.’ I would spend the rest of my life by the river, being visible” (342). Lore’s vow to remain “visible” announces her intention to dispose of the alias that has functioned to hide her own highly visible public identity as an heir to the van de Oest empire. But it also announces her intention to disavow the obfuscating estrangements produced by class privilege, an obfuscation that would separate corporate economic interests from their impact on private lives.


Visibility is a major theme of Rebecca Ore’s Outlaw School, another feminist SF novel on the intersections of sex and class. In this near-future dystopia, institutionalized forms of class and sex discrimination are no longer obfuscated and denied by the media and governmental structures that implement them. Rather, these forms of discrimination have been transformed from implicit ideological structures to explicit and rigorously enforced laws. Thus the implicit connection that presently exists between class and educational opportunities is explicitly enforced through laws that dictate this relationship. The protagonist’s father came from the last generation in which one could move upwards in class status based on I.Q. testing. His daughter, Jayne, is less fortunate: her superior performance at school—specifically, the fact that she outperforms children of higher social class — guarantees that she will be a recipient of “school drugs” that dull her ability to perform scholastically. The only two ways available for her to escape taking school drugs are to become pregnant, or to become a “Judicious Girl.” The “Judas Girls,” as they are colloquially called, are future-tense realizations of the nineteenth century’s “angel in the house” ideology, complete with rigid bourgeois class stratification, as entry into their ranks requires middle-class social and economic standing. Judicious Girls relinquish their rights to privacy in return for the protection of their reputation, which is ensured by the installation of a surveillance eye through which everything they view is monitored on closed-circuit television screens by a middle-class male protectorate.

Like Griffith, Ore uses images of the alienated mechanized and animalized worker to illustrate the estrangements of capitalist patriarchy. Children who prove to be too smart for their class rating are animalized by the school drugs, a practice that removes them to an acceptable distance from their cognitive ability, the very thing that separates them from animals. Girls elect to mechanize their own bodies in order to be accepted by their male and female peers. Prostitutes undergo operations to get their voices altered so that they can continue on as “virtual girls” past the years when their bodies begin to age. Criminals are tracked by implants that electrocute them if they go beyond a certain range. Marx’s observation that under capitalism “machines can only develop in opposition to living labour, as a hostile power and alien property” (1971: 152) rings as true for this text as for Griffith’s. Both authors envision a radically dystopic future in which machines are used in ever more invasive ways to discipline the polity.

After a short time on “school drugs,” Jayne can no longer bear this option and she decides to get pregnant. She confesses her scheme to her parents before her pregnancy has been confirmed, and her mother convinces her to go to a meeting of the Judicious Girls with her conformist sister Carolyn. At the meeting, Jayne is confronted by Sidna, Carolyn’s best friend and the leader of her local group of Judas Girls:

Sidna said, “If you got yourself pregnant, you did a terrible thing to your sister.”

“I didn’t know I had any other options for getting off school drugs,” Jayne said.

“Perhaps the baby will prove at first amniocentesis to be defective,” Sidna said. “Then your initiation will be only $10,000 instead of the $25,000 plus surgical costs for tightening you up and inserting a hymen.”

Jayne said, “I don’t have that kind of money.”

Sidna said, “We don’t care. You’re not really one of us.”

“I don’t want to lose an eye.”

“My parents didn’t force me to trade an eye for this sisterhood. I traded an eye for a better version of who I could be.”

Just as Jayne understood why women joined the Judicious Girls, she realized she couldn’t. Acceptance, friends bound to you for life by dead eyes—wave it away, Jayne, they’ll destroy what’s unique about you.(30f)

The Judicious Girls are roving panopticons, literal cases of what Judith Fetterley (1978) calls “immasculated” consciousness, a term she uses to describe the point-of-view shift that the female student of “Literature” undergoes in order to establish readerly identification with male-authored, male-centered texts. Judas Girls’ “readings” of the male-authored reality that this version of the future provides are (supposedly) scrutinized by their suitably marriageable male counterparts, who offer punitive protection from the girls’ own wayward tendencies. Judas Girls, in other words, elect to be protected from themselves. In a society in which the ideological state apparatus has re-emerged as the primary means of social control, it is not surprising that so many young middle-class women elect to preemptively surrender their autonomy before they are forced into making other, potentially more dangerous choices.

Jayne, however, cannot bring herself to make this choice. As a dangerously intelligent pupil and a school drug recipient, Jayne’s trajectory is already radically alien to her society’s expectations of her. In addition, Jayne has begun to learn of a world outside the estrangements of middle-class respectability: “The world beyond Jayne’s focus group and guarded town had strange fringes and margins, people who didn’t agree with the system and helped each other evade the laws. Jayne wished she knew how to find them, the real ones, not the decoys the police set up to lure in people who needed behavior-mod summer camp and school drugs” (33).

After a half-hearted attempt at escape to a nearby city, where she finds that a marginal existence and a minimum-wage job await those without education or connections, she returns home to try and work things out with her family. Meanwhile, however, her family has arranged for Jayne to be admitted to a mental institution, which is still that last respectable recourse for the middle class’s wayward youth.

While Jayne bides her time in the mental institution, waiting out the birth and adoption of her “illegitimate” child, she meets Ocean, the woman who becomes her introduction into the “real” underworld that she always knew existed. Ocean works as an in-house tutor at the mental institution, which serves as a convenient clearinghouse for young adults who don’t “fit in” at their high schools, either because they are genuinely insane or, as is more frequently the case, because they are too smart. Ocean covertly culls likely candidates for “outlaw school,” an informal training and placement network for outlaw teachers. In order to pass tests that allow entry into a higher employment status rating, the lower classes require instruction of the type that has been strictly forbidden them. Outlaw teachers subvert the government’s attempts to dictate class stratification, thus becoming dangerous criminals in the eyes of the law. Jayne begins a four-year college program on a scholarship arranged by Ocean’s underground network. Her first outlaw teaching job begins the summer after her freshman year, at a whorehouse in Charleston, South Carolina.

Although most of the women at the House appreciate Jayne’s help, she also becomes an object of envy and disgust for some of them, who are torn between jealousy of the intellectual gifts that have allowed her to reinvent herself at the margins of society, and uncomprehending anger at her decision to reject the role of Judas Girl. The estrangements of class have prevented these women from attaining either a college degree or middle-class stability. And although estranging technologies of gender are not specific to either the middle or lower classes (the difference is merely between Judas girl and virtual “girl,” a sort of e-prostitution sideline to the old-fashioned option), class difference endures as a major source of strife between Jayne and the workers at the House. In the following scene, Jayne contemplates the vast gulf that class difference creates between herself and her present clientele:

Suddenly, Jayne felt total moral and intellectual vertigo. She didn’t know anything about this whoring business, about these people. She was just there to teach them some skills to make their lives go more smoothly. Just because she’d had a baby out of wedlock didn’t mean she understood these women at all. “I feel out of my depth suddenly. You’re really a madam. Suzanne beats men for a living.”

“Puts leashes on their dicks,” Brandy said. “You’re not a virgin, either. Are you attracted to Suzanne?” Brandy asked. She sat upright in her chair, her eyes on Jayne.

“I’m afraid of that,” Jayne said. “I haven’t even masturbated since I came here.”

“I’d advise a less complicated first girl.”

“I’m going to leave at the end of the summer, and you’ll still be here. This is just an adventure for me. It’s your whole life. And it’s just like everybody else’s, and it’s not… I didn’t mean to be critical.” The isolation intensified even when Jayne said that. Or because of it. (157)

What Jayne is facing here is a symptom of what Jane Thompson, in her study on Women, Class, and Education, characterizes as an under-explored contradiction of Marxist feminist analysis: the radical feminist teacher’s presumption that exposition of sex-class contradictions will miraculously result in raised student consciousness. As Jayne’s “moral and intellectual vertigo” suggests, her noble motives for educating “these people” do not, in the language of psychoanalysis, inspire either a transference of knowledge or a counter-transference of comprehension of the Other. Thompson does not reject the insights of Marxist feminist analysis, but she does recognize, in the tradition of post-structuralism, the contradictions involved in teaching and learning structures of oppression. She calls on Marxist feminists to acknowledge that consciousness-raising, political action, and education cannot be the last word on combating structures of oppression for women and feminized subjects under global capital (that is to say, a growing majority of all of us at this point). She emphasizes the overdeterminations produced by individual circumstance and by the conflict between knowledge and desire, thereby bringing the insights of post-structuralist and psychoanalytic theory to bear on the formation of a radical feminist praxis:

Meanings, articulated with the assistance of critical thinking and reason, or common sense, also find expression in the unconscious, in forms that can be contradictory and inconsistent. Understanding and identity are both complicated and dynamic, and operate as a continuous process of becoming. Not ‘better’ in a linear sense, but shifting, and subject to reconstitution and renegotiation, in a relational and social sense. Class, gender, and ethnic identities can also be described as ‘shifting,’ in ways that reductionist or heavily deterministic definitions about socio-economic status, ‘race’ and sexual difference do not adequately address. (97)
Ore addresses the contradictory, shifting nature of subjectivity in relation to political identity throughout Outlaw School. Ocean, Jayne’s mentor, has compromised her own mental health in order to continue her recruiting processes at the institution — she is an alcoholic and a depressive, conditions that her political actions serve to exacerbate. The people who are attracted to the outlaw’s marginal existence are not only there because they wish to do good: they’re also there because they can’t fit in where they came from, often because of serious emotional and psychological deficits. In the following conversation with her friend Heightfield, Jayne discovers how difficult it is to sort out political motivation from the contradictions of subjective desire. Heightfield asks Jayne, “‘Why are you a political?’ ‘I’m more a teacher than a political.’ ‘Well, why do it for politicals? Couldn’t you test out?’ ‘If we tested out, the law would expect us to get real teaching jobs and teach what’s prescribed.’ ‘People don’t need politicals to beat the system. I beat the system without any politics at all’” (211). Jayne’s uneasy relationship to what she tries to bracket off as “politics” is a symptom of the problem that Thompson describes above. Jayne eschews the label “political” because she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a predetermined set of assumptions and beliefs. 

As Jayne matures and takes on more clients, she comes to understand that her students have lives and motivations of their own, and that attempting either to deny their subjectivity or to knowingly “relate” to them are both highly problematic pedagogical strategies. She becomes more cognizant of the impacts that the estrangements of class and subsequent differences in education level have on her students’ lives, and on her own. Ore portrays a society in which outsiders of all kinds, from ex-rich kids to squatters to poor outlaw students, have been forced into truncated and secretive existences. This future society’s rigid class stratifications begin to create an ironic sense of solidarity among outlaws of various stripes who would never have interacted if not for the exigencies of their common struggle for survival. A new class stratification begins to develop, one that separates the outlaws from the law-abiding. However, as the following scene reveals, education level and social background remain fraught issues for teachers and students alike:

Her students couldn’t test out without a mastery of Standard [English]… The street called Standard English “proper.”

“You here to learn Proper?” Jayne asked the class. They all shrugged. No getting away from it.

“I don’t call it Proper,” Jayne said. “It’s just another way of speaking, no more or less. Just that people with some power speak it. They make the language proper. Not the other way around. You never want to be using Proper with your people, but if you speak with Proper-speaking people, it’s like matching manners to talk their talk at them.”

The faces looked, oh, shit, another social worker who thinks we’re just fine as we are but don’t know it. One, then three grins appeared. They’d heard her trying to talk like them.

Jayne said, “What you really want to do is pass, of course.”

The class laughed a little, and Jayne started in on possessives. (205)

Jayne is on solid pedagogical ground as long as she is only delivering her lecture on the politics of “Proper.” However, the moment that she attempts to show solidarity with the oppressed class by trying to co-opt their language, she loses her audience. Jayne’s “want to be using” jars on the ears of her students, who, in recognizing this failed attempt at “passing,” are displaying a more comprehensive understanding of the politics of language than their teacher. Jayne then recognizes her mistake and recovers by imputing their thoughts again, only this time on safer ground: “What you really want to do is pass, of course.” And of course this is correct, in more senses than one.

Jayne’s interventions into the lives of her society’s poor and disenfranchised are not, in and of themselves, particularly radical. Although she does learn some important lessons about pedagogical strategy, her curriculum serves the limited scope of her students’ needs: thus, she teaches computer literacy and “Proper.” Jayne’s students are aspirants to the ranks of the middle class, that same status that Jayne has spent a lifetime risking life and limb to escape and subvert. However, in a fictional future where the battle lines of class are so starkly drawn, the act of teaching “illegals” is itself radical. By the end of the novel, the political tides have turned, and Jayne is portrayed by the media as a folk heroine. She knows better than to be flattered by this portrayal, however — she understands that the political tides could change again at any minute. Jane Thompson’s observation that political praxis always takes place in the complicating context of subjective particularity is once again apropos for this novel, in which Ore describes the complex interimplications of “free individuality” and mass oppression.


According to Marx, an individual may, “by chance,” escape mass oppression. This observation would seem to leave us with a rather bleak outlook in terms of effecting radical change. In both Griffith and Ore’s novels, we have heroines who escape mass oppression, albeit by chance. Thus, critical consciousness of class, gender, and race oppression are dramatized in ways that suggest that we readers might critically evaluate our own relationships to these structures as well. As we have seen, however, critical consciousness of oppression does not necessarily translate into a tool for change – in these fabulated cases, it translates generally into a life at the margins, albeit a life freer than what our heroines would otherwise have been faced with.

Frederic Jameson, in his Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions,7 makes the fascinating proposition that “Perhaps we need to develop an anxiety about losing the future which is analogous to Orwell’s anxiety about the loss of the past and childhood… [I]t would be a fear that locates the loss of the future and futuricity, of historicity itself, within the existential dimension of time and indeed within ourselves” (233). This anxiety, argues Jameson, might be usefully focused on what he names disruption, as a political strategy:

Disruption is, then, the name for a new discursive strategy, and Utopia is the form such disruption necessarily takes. And this is now the temporal situation in which the Utopian form proper — the radical closure of a system of difference in time, the experience of the total formal break and discontinuity — has its own political role to play, and in fact becomes a new kind of content in its own right. For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible, and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break. (231f)

As the subtitle of Jameson’s book suggests, he has somewhat collapsed the distinction between science fiction and Utopian fiction — or rather, he has concentrated, for the purposes of extending his argument about Utopias into the realm of science fiction, on the common formal attributes of the two genres. “[T]hink[ing] the break itself” is one thing that Utopias and science fictional texts certainly do achieve, in more and less critical ways, depending on the quality of the fiction. Griffith and Ore both “think the break itself” through their imaginatively disruptive visions of the future, and provoke the very anxiety about losing the future that Jameson prescribes for our historical moment. Thus science fiction becomes the discursive mode par excellence for current praxis.


Althusser, Louis. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Penguin Press, 1969.

Brine, Jacky. Undereducating Women: Globalizing Inequality. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999.

Delphy, Christine. “For a Materialist Feminism.” In Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women’s Lives. Ed. Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham. New York: Routledge Press, 1997. 59-64.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Griffith, Nicola. Slow River. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Jameson, Frederic. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.

Marx, Karl. Capital vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

–. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Milligan. New York: International Publishers Co., 1964.

–. The Grundrisse. Trans. and Ed. David McLellan. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1971.

Ore, Rebecca. Outlaw School. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge Press, 1990.

Suvin, Darko. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1988.

Thompson, Jane. Women, Class, and Education. London and New York: Routledge Press, 2000.

Zitta, Victor. Georg Lukács’ Marxism: Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964.


1. My discussions of Marxist theory, both here and throughout this essay, will rely primarily on readings of the translated works of Marx himself — in this way, I hope to respond constructively to Gayatri Spivak’s suggestion that scholars, feminist and otherwise, would do well to “make time again to look at Marx” (1990: 162), not as a means of “getting beyond Marx,” but rather as a means of discovering anew Marx’s radical polyvocality.

2. In her study on masculinity and culture, Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Kaja Silverman points out that “The male subject’s aspirations to mastery and sufficiency are undermined from many directions—by the law of language, which founds subjectivity on a void; by the castration crisis; by sexual, economic, and racial oppression; and by the traumatically unassailable nature of certain historical events” (52). In the case that I describe here, that of the worker, the male subject is feminized by “economic oppression,” his position within the labor market. I will return to this observation when I discuss the character of Paolo, a teenaged minority male worker in Griffith’s Slow River.

3. Victor Zitta, in his 1964 study Georg Lukács’ Marxism: A Study in Utopia and Ideology, writes: “It was and still is customary to distinguish between two periods in the intellectual life of Karl Marx: the young and rather messianically oriented pre-manifesto Marx (1842-1848),… is distinguished from the mature and post-revolutionary Marx (1849-1883), the strictly ‘scientifically’ oriented economist, sociologist, and social historian of capitalism” (119). Other writers, such as Ollman, Mandel, Mészáros, and Oishi, have questioned the sharpness of this division, but this does not preclude an evolution of the kind I discuss here.

4. Published in English as an Appendix to Ben Fowkes’s translation of Capital, vol. I (Marx 1990).

5. I am indebted to Darko Suvin for his insights on reading this passage.

6. Paolo’s recognition that his anger towards women as usurpers of power in the labor market is misplaced bears a meaningful relationship to current trends in the gendered division of the global marketplace. For, although it may appear initially that women are usurping men’s place in the labor market, the reality of the situation is more complicated. Jacky Brine points out (1999: 39), citing a 1992 report on Women in Europe, that “the service sector, usually dependent on women’s part-time, low-skilled, ‘flexible’ labour, has increased, particularly in Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia… This trend in which the gap between the economic activity of men and women is, allegedly, narrowing, is often referred to as the ‘feminization’ of the labour market. However,… this process is far less a result of women taking men’s jobs than of increased job-creation in traditionally female sectors combined with the lower labour costs involved in employing women.” The resulting “apparent increase in women’s employment and decrease in male employment has nevertheless barely touched the occupational gendered segregation of the labour market or its more contentious hierarchical segregation” (39).

7. (which I review elsewhere in this issue)

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