Feminist Theory Week 6: Angela Mitropolous’s Contract & Contagion

I’m blogging my way through the texts for my Spring 2018 Feminist Theory seminar.

Angela Mitropolous’s Contract & Contagion takes up a lot of the themes we’ve discussed so far: contract (obviously), property in person, the public/private or production/reproduction split, the double movement of capital (contract as one side, contagion as the other), risk/chance, and neoliberalism. Early in the first chapter, she notes that contracts are central to the notion of performativity Butler takes from J.L. Austin (20-1). All of Austin’s examples of speech-acts are the assent to a contract, like a marriage vow. Patemal tells us that these contracts create relations of domination and subordination. When we put all these variables together, does this mean that gender performativity in Bulter’s sense is really the assent/consent to one’s role in a relation of domination and subordination?

Mitropolous focuses on a particular arrangement of the gendered public and private spheres, which she calls “oikonomia” and “oikopolitics” (11). She’s appealing to the ancient Greek concept of the oikos, which translates roughly to “household” or “home economics.” Oikopolitics governs the public as one ought to govern the household–political economy is home economics. Given our discussions of the neoliberal imperative to privatize everything, this makes sense: neoliberalism demands the public be governed by both the corporate private and the domestic private. Similarly, Cooper’s claim about neoliberals’ preemptive use of the patriarchal family in social policy suggests that the household a tool the US government actually uses to govern. So, if “oikonomics” is “the nexus of race, gender, class, sexuality and nation constituted through the premise of the properly productive household” (28), oikopolitics uses that nexus to govern society, i.e., to distribute risk and uncertainty.

AM repeatedly refers to oikonomics as a kind of self-management. For example, she offers this definition: “Oikonomics: the ways in which a politics of the household–domesticity and genealogy–are crucial to the organization of intimate forms of self-management” (38). Oikonomics thus refers to a kind of self-government premised on the patriarchal family. She further defines self-management as the place where “the probabilistic and the performative converge” (38). But what does this mean? How do you govern yourself probabilistically?

There are two clues. First, Mitropolous states that human capital is a type of oikonomia. The cost/benefit calculus neoliberal subjects use to make wise investments in themselves are basically probabilistic calculations. The second clue is in her references to Xenophon (38). Ancient Greeks understood self-management as a kind of moderation; the word for this was sophrosyne. According to Plato, the moderate individual organizes himself according to the same mathematical relationships expressed in the divided line (this argument appears throughout the Republic)–when the True manifests in the material world, it distributes itself in that way. Practicing sophrosyne means ordering yourself in that same distribution. That distribution is a hierarchical series of geometric ratios (it’s a line split into sections, that’s geometry!). Mitropolous argues that contracts use ratios to distribute status: “Contract does not relegate status to the past, but rather is engaged in a constant rationalisation–or better:ratiocination, in the sense of one may speak of ratio as calculation and of rationing as the apportionment–of its uncertain conditions” (26). So self-management under neocontractualism/neoliberalism still requires people to follow specific rations–it’s just a ratio calculated with a different kind of math: probabilistic statistics. Think C3PO here: he’s constantly fretting about the odds of X or Y happening. I have written more about this here.

Embodying those odds means both making successful cost:benefit calculations at the individual level, and accepting the distribution of individual risk (and reward) that society has decided is most beneficial to it that you have. So this means being able to successfully navigate police violence and criminalization if you’re black, or be a public schoolkid who doesn’t get shot at school, or a woman who doesn’t get raped or harassed…you get the idea. Think here of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Gilmore explicitly frames white supremacy as a distribution of risk, a differential in the odds social conditions will make you die sooner than is othewise likely to happen.

In her response to the book, Anne Boyer describes Socrates as a “flute-less flute player.” The tl;dr here is: this is all about the end of the Symposium. In the beginning of his speech, Socrates recounts something the foreign priestess Diotima told him–he literally appropriates her speech and says it in his voice (you know, the thing where a woman has an idea, it goes unacknowledged, and then a man says it and it gets rewarded). At the end of the speech, Alcibiades compares Socrates to the statue of a flute-playing god (technically it’s an aulos, which is more like an oboe than a flute, but it gets translated as flute). In Plato, the aulos is associated with women’s speech–both are bad sounds that come from disproportionate and badly-managed bodies. So to call Socrates a flute-less flute player is to name what he does to Diotima–he revoices the tune without the flute and all that’s wrong about it. In this sense, oikonomics is doing what women do, but in a man’s body, so it doesn’t come with all the status-lowering effects of feminization. Or, put differently, oikonomics is the appropriation and enclosure of women’s domestic work. As Boyer explains, “household to be managed is a woman; the woman to be managed is a household— but also, the woman must be “managed” into managing, and in this is exposed the power she holds over reproduction and reproductive labor, and also that she, herself, is embodied risk.” Here again we find gender as a disproportionate distribution of risk. Oikonomics is the management of risky femininity, and thus it is something that men do to women. This also sheds light on Murphy’s concept of The Girl–we in the West are in a structural relation of masculinity wrt The Girl’s femininity: she is risk that we must manage, and teach her the right way to manage; this will save the ‘household’ that is the global economy.

AM argues that contracts form a specific function in capitalism–they distribute risk and mitigate against future uncertainty. To do this, they have to “mobilise…the danger of wild variation (or ‘free love’ and ‘passionate attraction’) that makes the projection of capitalist futurity uncertain” (30). Contracts are appealing because they offer protection against unruly, and, indeed, wild and “uncivilized” occurrences. So, to make contract appealing, capitalism scares up fake threats. How do gender/sexuality/race get mobilized in this way? For example, can we think of Federici’s witch hunts as one such fake threat?

How does oikonoimics position some kinds of labor/laborers/”bare life” as impossible to moderate? In ancient Greece, women’s bodies and slaves bodies were thought to be too disproportionate to ever produce properly moderate ideas and/or speech. (This is why, as Anne discusses/will discuss in her post, ancient Greek household management (aka oiko-management) means tuning the women to follow the sounds of men’s speech.) What’s the acoustic/neoliberal equivalent? Is there one? (How) Do patriarchy and the legacy of slavery (e.g., the Prison Industrial Complex) produce populations as inherently noisy, unbalanced, etc.? How does big data work algorithmically to produce specific populations as immoderate?