Towards a Viridian feminist future

This piece is part of the 5 year Viridian retrospective organised by Tim Maly, published in The State on 13 December 2013:

Viridian Design was an avant-garde bright green design movement engineered by Bruce Sterling and intended to address climate change. It ran from 1998-2008. Five years later, we reflect.

The vision of a Viridian home conjures up an image of the sophisticated man of the woods, living on bare essentials and in a state-of-the-art cabin that oozes Scandinavian elegance. He would rear chickens and goats, and grow hydroponic vegetables, if Bruce Sterling would go that far. He lives the life minimally, sustainably, and beautifully.In his last Viridian note, Sterling advocates ownership of the multi-tool in order to turn an ordinary individual into a more capable, observant, and empowered one. He probably advocates this to both women and men. Probably. If this is the case, Sterling’s exhortation is somewhat visionary: the woman who is adept with the multi-tool empowers herself. Contrary to expectations a feminised embrace of DIY does exist; it is a subculture and it is not pink. Here, the multi-tool becomes a proverbial fishing rod, a means to protean ends rather than a gratifying consumable.

Besides the multi-tool, however, is the Viridian lifestyle really proposed with women and/or feminists in mind?

Sterling reminds us that our unhealthy relationship with goods unnecessarily expends precious time, money, and energy:

The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

Sterling’s critique of materialism has much to offer the current wave of Western (White) middle-class feminism which has come of age thanks to a happy embrace of consumption and neoliberalism. Think Full Frontal Feminism and The Book of Jezebel. Today’s ‘empowered’ woman is heir to the past few decades’ commercialisation of empowerment: a woman who has it all and can buy it all.

Products marketed towards women, however, often erase the link between their (often female) producers, the conditions under which those products were created, and the process by which those products reach said female consumer. At the same time, the product becomes oversaturated with seductive meaning, and one label in particular: ‘empowerment.’ Marx has called this the ‘religious fog’ that obscures the real use value and (environmental) cost of products. It is only by demystifying this commodity fetishist fog that feminists can have a meaningful connection with products that we ostensibly cannot live without.

As an example, alternative menstrual products such as reusable, non-toxic cloth pads and diva cups raise a number of important questions relating to disposability, sustainability, and the environmental impact of gendered consumer products. The use of radical menstrual products replaces the blue liquid narratives of ‘happy’ and ‘bouncy’ but invisible periods, with a taboo-defying open embrace of menstrual realities and new definitions of ‘hygiene.’ Radical menstrual products allow us to reconnect with our bodies and reconceptualise how we understand feminine excreta

This strain of feminism and Sterling’s critique share similar caveats: yes, you are entitled to have stuff, but not too much. Find out where it comes from, who makes it, and if possible, make it yourself. Instead, Sterling advocates the ownership of only a few, but beautiful personal possessions:

Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

Feminists have a complicated relationship with beauty, which is highly valued above all else. The materialism of contemporary (femme) femininity dictates that she must surround herself with beautiful things; beautiful shoes, dresses, kitchen, home. The notion of beauty the Viridian woman should then seek is of a different kind, not facsimiled from lifestyle magazines but a critical aesthetic performance of the self.

To understand the feminist aesthetics of the self, it is first instructive to follow Butler and Foucault’s understanding of gender as both performative and an aesthetic discipline of the self. If gender is an aesthetic performance rather than biological fact, it can be transgressed and altered. If we knew how gender is ‘made,’ ie via various disciplines of femininity, then it can be remade by defying the disciplinary modes of femininity that plague our lives. This is how the reworking of aesthetic values can be emancipatory.

Informed by Viridian aesthetics, sustainability becomes central to a Viridian-feminist politics of living. But there is a danger that gendered sustainability reframes women’s freedom from domestic responsibility in favour of a blissful return to the traditionally feminine arts like knitting, sewing, pickling, and canning food. These are certainly life-enriching and sustaining skills, but they are not gender neutral. Men can be forgiven (and applauded) for taking up ‘feminine’ skills like baking and quilting. But women are rarely encouraged to handle the entropy of objects, fixing and building things. This needs to change.

The link between gender, race, and class-based inequality and environmental (in)justice has been an important, if slightly marginal, concern for feminists. Yet I feel that it is no longer fashionable to engage with these intersectional relationships. Ecofeminism today is essentialist and White-centric, while feminist vegetarianism has little to say about food miles and exploitation in healthful produce. Feminist environmental justice, meanwhile, must move away from defining femininity as intrinsically nurturing and towards ‘real’ socio-environmental conditions that affect the livelihood, health, and life opportunities of those whose lives exist at the intersections of multiple oppressions.

A sustainable feminist future that coheres with Viridian principles is fundamentally anti-consumerism and aware of the unequal local-global trade of goods. Sustainable feminism requires equality in the home and the sharing of quotidian chores. A Viridian woman rejects the manufactured innocence of retail therapy and clings to only a few, useful, (if possible) self-made things whose source and provenance are identifiable to a reasonable extent. The Viridian woman may wish to pursue useful life-skills such as plumbing, butchery, and car-tuning with geek-like enthusiasm if she wishes. It all sounds like a lot, but at the fundamental level, sustainable feminism is not about having and owning it all.

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