When I was 18 I picked up, on my lecturer’s recommendation, Michel Foucault’s Order of Things. It was in translation, but it might as well not have been, for although I could sense a dazzling brilliance, a joyous, playful engagement with complex ideas, I resented the challenge of reading it. I devoured the immediacy of the text’s opening, a vivid reconstruction of Velázquez at work, but then, after about page 35 or so, I felt unreservedly confused. I didn’t “get” it and it took years of reading after that to realise that it wasn’t just me – it was also him. Helen Hester is not Foucault, but Xenofeminism suggests that she is from the same “it’s not my prose, it’s your lack of understanding” school of academic writing.
Xenofeminism is the latest book in the “Theory Redux” series, launched by Polity Press in 2015, which aims to make “the most powerful and original interventions in contemporary philosophy and social theory accessible to all”. Polity has impressive credentials: its back catalogue (where male authors, it should be noted, outnumber female by almost four to one) houses works by some of theory’s heaviest of heavy hitters such as Freud and Walter Benjamin. While the “Theory Redux” volumes are indeed slim (the press describes them as “stylish and portable”), someone urgently needs to rethink the “accessible to all” USP.
Hester is a member of the “polymorphous xenofeminist collective”, Laboria Cuboniks (its name is an anagram of another collective, Nicolas Bourbaki, a mid-1930s group of mathematicians), whose manifesto, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”, is explored in her book. Her debt to philosophers such as Shulamith Firestone and Donna Haraway is clear: they first mapped out the interface of biological and social reproduction, and posited the possibility of, and need for, gender abolitionism.
The author also acknowledges the influence of more recent techno-feminist interventions, such as the work done by the DIY reproductive health collective GynePunk, but any potential for scalability and real-world application that xenofeminism might have remains frustratingly elusive. What Hester has to say about the oppressive strategies of the medical-industrial complex is crucially important, and at times first-rate, as when she traces the history of “communities of feminists carving out their own spaces of reproductive sovereignty”. However, her style is likely to seriously delimit her audience as we read, for example, how “Mutation” is “a phenomenon that might be encouraged…via the practices of xeno-hospitality – just as the replication of the same is cultivated via the elaborate memeplex of reproductive futurity”.
You don’t need a degree in gender studies to see that feminism is a political movement whose fault lines are currently far more visible than its areas of consensus, but you might need one to understand how Xenofeminism does much more than muddy the waters.
A few years after my first game-changing, bewildering encounter with Foucault, I’d learned how to tame and relish his work. At around the same time, my peers and I became hooked on a US television show that rapidly became iconic. Xena: Warrior Princess, with its lesbian protagonists, laughably improbable plotlines and kitsch, escapist heroics, became a must-see series for budding feminist scholars. Xenafeminism. Now there’s a book I’d gladly read.
Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.
By Helen Hester
Polity Press, 140pp, £40.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9781509520626 and 20633
Published 1 March 2018