Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces


Shulamith Firestone

by Sianne Ngai

Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces (1998) has been sitting in one of my bookcases since 2000. I bought the postcard-sized Semiotext(e) book mostly out of surprise from seeing the name of its author in print: one I realized I hadn’t seen for a very long time and which I didn’t associate with fiction.  It has moved with me between various apartments and houses for the last 12 years, unread—not even cracked open until a few months ago (as I write this, it’s the fall of 2011).

My surprise encounter with her name on the spine of Airless Spaces made me acutely aware of my ignorance. What exactly happened, in the interval between 1970 and 1998, to Shulamith Firestone? Of the few American radical feminists I actually read (it was the socialist feminists who really appealed to me), Firestone had seemed the smartest and most interesting, the one with the keenest sense of feminism’s history and of how the problems it sought to rectify intersected with but could not be totally explained or dissolved by Marxism. I thought I should do some research, then got distracted by other projects and forgot about it. Years after this, on one of the many occasions when I took Airless Spaces down and thought about actually reading it—or at least progressing past the opening story, “Of Plastic Wrapping and Cauliflower,” about a recently released hospital patient trying to learn how to use nonplastic utensils again—I deferred that reading once again by desultorily googling, assuming there must have been a string of books between the collection of stories and the work of nonfiction that made Firestone nationally known at the age of 25, The Dialectic of Sex. A string of books that, naturally, I’d be obligated to read before tackling Airless Spaces. But the internet informed me that due to the mental illness and hospitalization of the author, between The Dialectic of Sex and Airless Spaces, there was nothing. A 28 year-long gap.

The paratexts of Airless Spaces are hardly inviting: unhappy title, hospital-blue cover with dull, barely-distinguishable beige print, and large, anxious, unhappy-looking close-up of Firestone on the back cover.  But in terms of size, genre, and format, Airless Spaces is by no means an intimidating work: it’s a tiny, 160-page collection of 50 extremely short stories (some just a paragraph or two long) in plain prose. The reason this tiny book nonetheless took me 12 years to read (by contrast, I made it through Infinite Jest’s thousands of pages in about two weeks) is because I was apprehensive about the book making me what Lauren Berlant calls politically depressed. With its stories sorted into five sections—Hospital, Post-Hospital, Losers, Obits, Suicides I Have Known—Airless Spaces is a book about sick, dying, and barely surviving people suffering from, among other things, depression. But not depression about feminism or politics. Indeed, one of the striking things about Airless Spaces is how few references to feminism/politics there are. There are no descriptions of how people feel about politics, in particular. Rather, the stories focus on we might think of as depression’s autonomy: its power to kill off all other affective attachments, its ultimate indifference to its object. They point to how the most deeply depressed persons are unable to say that they are depressed about any particular thing, political situation X or life event Y; rather, they view themselves as just depressed.

The stories of most of the “losers” in Airless Spaces are told in a clinical, sometimes deadpan but more usually just unfunny, even drained-of-affect way by a narrator who never explicitly identifies herself as Firestone, even in the case of first-person narratives in which the “loser” is herself.  Most of the people in Airless Spaces are medicated into anhedonic stupor, in a fictional world that seems to offer few occasions for hope or joy anyway. Yet for all its starkness, which seems designed explicitly to discourage sympathy or identification on the part of the reader, the aesthetic of Airless Spaces also invites mimesis. Here I mean what Adorno means by “mimesis”: not a type of representation based on the principle of correspondence between sign and referent, but a type of behavior on the part of aesthetic subjects. As Shierry Weber-Nicholsen explains, this understanding of mimesis refers to how a subject might “enter” or “perform” a literary text in the way a musician interprets or performs a score, partly extinguishing herself in its nondiscursive logic or syntax. For Adorno this way of relating to literary artifacts—the sensuous assimilation of the subject to the objectivity of the work—is meant to be contrasted with a rationalist/discursive approach to interpretation. In a discussion of the taboo placed on mimesis by Enlightenment rationality, Adorno likens it in a surprisingly positive fashion to the “infectious gestures of direct contact suppressed by civilization, for instance, touch, soothing, snuggling up, coaxing” (Aesthetic Theory 81). But how can a text as stark and pitiless as Airless Spaces be a text that encourages this kind of reading? This is hardly the kind of work that invites “infectious gestures of direct contact.” Yet for all its affectively drained and/or stifling quality, there’s something about Airless Spaces that compels the reader to assimilate herself to precisely this aspect of it. One could say it compels a strangely anti-empathetic empathy, an empathy with its explicitly anti-empathetic affect. It solicits an affective identification that on some level we already know it will refuse.

Though Airless Spaces is explicitly not an account of the 28-year gap between it and Dialectic of Sex, not a history of what happened to Firestone personally and definitely not a history of the rise and decline of radical feminism in the United States, holding Airless Spaces does feel like holding a representation of the lost history (and equally lost present and future) of a feminist activist and intellectual. At the same time, the book makes us feel wary of forcing these short, terse, anti-pitying vignettes of illness and hospitalization into political or personal symbolism. With its carefully maintained impersonality, Airless Spaces seems to consciously discourage us from reading it as the narrative of any individual, even as it also somewhat “unfairly” invites us to do so. Remaining noticeably silent about its author’s present or past relation to feminist politics, while refracting/dispersing her experience with mental illness and hospitalization across diegetically disconnected avatars, the book particularly discourages us from reading it as the story of Firestone, the Feminist. Indeed, the back cover description suggests that doing so would be to inflict a kind of damage, forcing its author back into a category she seems to have explicitly refused: “Refusing a career as a professional feminist, Shulamith Firestone found herself in an “airless space”—approximately since the publication of her first book The Dialectic of Sex.”

This ambiguous sentence, which may or may not have been written by the author, is worth lingering over.  Though it seems intuitive to think of Firestone’s breakdown and hospitalization—her descent into “airless space”—as putting an early end to her work as a feminist, the sentence lists these narrative events in reverse order, giving us the impression that the act of refusing to pursue a “career” as “professional feminist” somehow led, however indirectly or unintentionally, to the breakdown and hospitalization. Yet one knows the sentence must be trying to suggest the opposite: that Firestone’s refusal to turn feminism into a “career” was a deliberate, volitional, even polemical act, with no causal relation to her subsequent breakdown. In any case, it’s not at all clear what the relation is between these two situations—refusing to be a professional feminist; finding oneself in an airless space—even as the sentence aggressively insists on putting them in relation. And indeed, forces us to linger on that relation by explicitly invoking, against what seem to be the text’s own wishes, Firestone’s politically prominent past (“The Dialectic of Sex”). Thus, for all its silence about history and politics, Airless Spaces does at some level ask us to read it as a quasi-autobiographical account of the breakdown of a feminist intellectual. A few of the characters in Airless Spaces (often minor ones mentioned in stories about others) have experiences that mirror Firestone’s biography. Rozzie goes to art school in Chicago and then to New York to become an organizer of radical feminist groups which split up, re-form, and split up again. Naomi lives in New York and hangs out with “women friends from her consciousness raising groups” (121), “young and strong dykes new to the movement who were glad to accompany her” (122), before ending up, like all the characters do at one point or another, in a hospital. “Danny,” the last story in the collection, deals with the ambiguous suicide of the narrator’s brother, for which she at one point briefly wonders if the negative attention her political activity attracted was somehow to blame. The last sentence of Airless Spaces offers its most explicit (if still not entirely overt) reference to Shulamith Firestone as author: “In the end, theories about his death, whether murder or suicide, afterlife or no, contributed to my own growing madness—which led to my hospitalization, medication, and a shattering nervous breakdown” (160).

Featuring a series of barely differentiated women and also few barely differentiated men (“Bettina,” “Lucy,” “Corinne,” “Ana,” “Brian,” “Leon,” etc.), most of 50 stories in Airless Spaces are made up of similar elements. In “Hospital” the characters are all dosed with medication, can’t sleep, gain weight, lose hair (there’s a lot of despair about lost beauty and physical appearance), can’t make a friend or lose a friend, lose personal property and/or money. In “Post-Hospital” they struggle to find jobs, to pay rent (fend off homelessness), to find lovers, to keep friends, to feel interest or attachment to the world of the present, and to recognize some kind of continuity with their pre-hospital selves. Regardless of whether the character is in hospital or recently released, in every story the hospital erases everything that came before. There seems to be little difference between life inside and outside the institution: “Every time she went in, especially after the first, she felt submerged, as if someone were holding her under water for months. When she came out she was fat, helpless, unable to make the smallest decision, speechless, and thoroughly programmed by the rigid hospital routine, so that even her stomach grumbled on time, at precisely 5 p.m.” (71). Similarly: “She couldn’t read, she was too nervous, she couldn’t even watch TV. Instead she reverted to hospital behavior: long hours of blanking out, just watching the hand of the clock go round until the next mealtime or bedtime or wakeup time. Sometimes she panicked at the thought she had thirty more years to kill this way, with only more and more institutionalization ahead of her and suicide no longer an option” (58). Nothing—not gender, class, race, or sexuality; nor shared or common oppressions based on these categories of social difference—defines the people in Airless Spaces more than the hospital does. One might say that Airless Spaces is a dramatization of what Mark Seltzer calls “hyperidentification with place,” of how that identification arguably intensifies even when the place is what Marc Augé calls a “nonplace.”

Reflected structurally, in its repetition of more or less the same story over and over again, as well as thematically in individual stories, Airless Spaces is explicitly about loss: lost opportunities, lost energy, lost passion, lost youth, lost relationships, lost pasts, lost presents, lost futures. It is so in a stringently non-sentimental way. And what, indeed, happened in the “airless space” of 28 years between it and the Dialectic of Sex? “Women’s Liberation” lost coherence and momentum. Feminism became increasingly associated in the mass media with the sex-negative politics of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. Reagan and Thatcher were elected and re-elected, then Bush and Clinton and Clinton and Bush again. Capitalism went global, while the US economy become “post-Fordist” or “postindustrial” (a cultural as well as material shift in the organization of capitalist production whose implications for women and gender in particular are explored by Heather Hicks in The Culture of Soft Work).  AIDS exploded. Attacks on women’s ability to control their own reproductive systems would increase in vehemence every year, along with attacks on the welfare state.

To be sure, it could be argued that Airless Spaces shouldn’t be read as a tragic allegory of the stalling or historical foreclosure of the radical feminist project. We might rather think of it as an instance of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag,” a concept Freeman invokes in Time Binds (a book that also has an excellent chapter on Firestone) against the “temporal and structural norms I have called chrononormativity: causality, sequence, forward-moving agency, and so on.” Warning us against being overconfident about closure, Freeman asks, “How can we know for certain than something is securely done with?” For Freeman and other literary/cultural critics who have raised similar questions such as Jennifer Fleissner (Women, Compulsion, Modernity) and Heather Love (Feeling Backward), “temporal drag” can thus be thought of not just as stuckness or backwardness but as a “productive obstacle to progress, a usefully distorting pull backward, and a necessary pressure on the present tense” (64); one that in particular “complicates the idea,” so popular in feminism, “of horizontal political generations or waves succeeding each other in progressive time” (65).  This may recall what Invisible seems to discover about the residents of Harlem he tries (unsuccessfully) to organize in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Though at first he cannot understand why an influential political activist like Tod Clifton would choose to leave organized politics and thus “plunge outside history” (and indeed, this question is never satisfactorily answered within the novel), plunging outside history ends up being what Invisible does as well (comically or literally, as he falls into a open manhole into a sewer). Causing him to meditate on the question of whether history isn’t more like a boomerang than a Hegelian spiral of progress, that plunge ultimately raises the hope of a spring-like political reemergence or awakening, enabling the recognition that there may be other forms of political time than that of “causality, sequence, forward-moving agency.”

Freeman’s concept of temporal drag reminds us that Airless Spaces doesn’t have to be read as trauma or tragedy; in fact, there’s a deadpan sense of humor—albeit a very dark one—in many of the stories.  Yet I confess to not being able to shake feelings of depression about the feminist’s plunge out of history that Airless Spaces depicts—a plunge that Airless Spaces seems to record most poignantly when it is explicitly not recording it, when it is conspicuously silent about how the hospitalized characters in it might have had political futures not entirely disconnected from their political past. How the narrator or characters became hospitalized to begin with, is a question Airless Spaces never asks us to ask, but rather posits as besides the point, not relevant, not really worth asking.

For all these reasons, “I Remember Valerie” stands out as particularly interesting: one of the two out of the 50 stories in Airless Spaces that makes any explicit reference to 70s feminism and/or other radical feminists (the other, also appearing in the “Obits” section, is “Myrna Glickman,” though here all the names of the feminists are disguised), and the only one that refers directly and openly to a historical or publicly known figure. These figures, appearing only in the “Obits” or “Suicides I Have Known” sections, are otherwise masked (barely) under a similar-sounding pseudonyms: Ginsberg as Salzberg, Arbus as Tree. Yet for some reason, Valerie (Solanos) is allowed to be/remain Valerie Solanos in “I Remember Valerie” (and so is Ti-Grace Atkinson). Similarly, “I Remember Valerie” is one of the few stories in Airless Spaces in which its narrator is allowed to be, in a surprisingly straightforward fashion, Shulamith Firestone.  It is as if Valerie enables the narrator of Airless Spaces to finally be Firestone the feminist. For precisely this reason, what is most striking about “I Remember Valerie” is the way in which Firestone immediately and repeatedly distances herself from Solanos.

The story begins by immediately asserting this nonidentification, this lack of affinity or political alliance: “It was not that I admired her deed of shooting prominent pop artist Andy Warhol …. Nor did I particularly value her book, The Scum Manifesto: at the time I thought it had a dangerous leaning towards what would become matriarchalist theory in the women’s movement, a glorification of women as they are in their oppressed state” (130). As the narrator continues, “Frankly, I thought it was a big mistake to recognize Valerie as one of us, a women’s liberationist, let alone to embrace her book as serious feminist theory (I thought the initiative for this was coming from the media).” Indeed, Firestone immediately tries changing the subject when Solanos starts trying to debate feminist issues with her: “I did not see this a meeting with a fellow theorist.” Why, then, did Firestone seek out Solanos in the first place? “I went to visit Valerie anyway because I’d heard she had moved just a block away from me since her release from Mattawan, an institution for the criminally insane.” In short, Firestone visits Solanos not because she identifies with her as a feminist (she explicitly doesn’t) but because of her identification with her as a former mental patient. And there are other parallels with Solanos on explicitly non-feminist grounds as well. Though the narrator reports on how Solanos “waxed paranoid on the subject of the ‘media mafia’ that was out to get her,” she adds “I thought maybe it was true” (131). Indeed, as we noted above, Firestone indulges in similarly paranoid (if perhaps not untrue) thoughts about the media, including its plan to undermine feminism by promoting works like The Scum Manifesto as serious theory.  It is ultimately Solanos’s “plunge outside of history” that Firestone most seems to identify with, however; with Valerie’s loss of her apartment, welfare benefits, and mental health. “Not long after that, she disappeared from the street entirely” (35). The final sentence of “I Remember Valerie” makes a dark joke about Firestone’s (conspicuously nonfeminist) identification with Solanos: “Recently a movie came out titled I Shot Andy Warhol. Looks like the Media Mafia got Valerie after all. I didn’t go to see it” (132). A closing act or gesture of solidarity with Valerie, though once again not an act of feminist solidarity—and one explicitly negative in form.

Female homosociality, in and of itself, carries no particularly utopian promise in Airless Spaces. Nor does it in the Dialectic of Sex. Indeed, one of the striking things about the latter is how impatient Firestone seems with the rhetoric surrounding female homosociality, as if such social formation were in itself progressive or a magical solution to the problems feminism sought to overcome. Firestone is particularly scathing in her chapter “American Feminism” about the “the whole spectrum of Organized Ladyhood …founded in the era between 1890 and 1920”; and in particular the “non-feminist politicos, committee women for the various causes of their day” (19). Harsh and perhaps a little unfair as this may be, I feel like there’s something tonic or invigorating about this critique of (homo)sociality for the sake of sociality alone, at a moment when, from social networks to flash mobs to “relational aesthetics,” sociality for its own sake (what Hal Foster calls “remedial socialization”) seems increasingly fetishized.

It’s not just the content of the stories in Airless Spaces, or their sense of simultaneous pastlessness and futurelessness that I find depressing. Nor is just the book’s paratexts. It’s the form/structure of the book as well: a series of 50 short discrete narratives about individuals utterly disconnected from one another in the world of the book’s story. Disconnected, that is, outside of the common trait of having been in the mental hospital—a commonality known to the reader but significantly not to the characters who actually possess it. The “airlessness” of the series or collection thus refers to a lack of a communicating channel between individual stories, like the lack of a ventilation shaft between the chambers of a building. Debra Daughtery in “Debra Daughtery” is oblivious to the existence of Myrna Glickman in “Myrna Glickman,” who has no idea of the existence of Stanley Moss in “Stanley Moss”; it is almost as if one of the reasons their very similar stories have to be told over and over again is because of each character’s diegetic isolation from the others. As Kate Marshall might say, there’s a conspicuous lack of narratological “infrastructure” in Airless Spaces. In addition to not being aware of one another, few of the characters seem to have friends. Including, conspicuously, the narrator, whose utter isolation one feels on every page, and who explicitly mentions her jealousy at the few friendships that develop between other patients (“Barbara Hoagland, A Success Story”; “The Turkish Filmmaker”).  It is also difficult to tell what the “when” of Airless Spaces is. Knowing something about Firestone and her absence or disappearance from public life after the publication of The Dialectic of Sex, we might presume it must be sometime after 1970. But nearly all the stories here (with the exception of the few in the Obits and Suicides sections, which tend to reference barely-disguised celebrities like “Jeremy Salzburg,” the gay Buddhist/beat poet who lobotomized his Jewish mother) seem like they could be set in any decade thereafter. Only an occasional reference to “email” or “VCR” dates the stories, reinforcing our sense of years being lost or passed without one really realizing it. There are no political or world-historical events which can be used as temporalizing markers. And there seems to be a direct link between the disconnected nature of the individual stories and their lack of a sense of historical temporality. Most sadly, one of the things that most dates the stories (and “dates” them also in the sense of signifying the past) is the way they repeatedly reference, often as somewhat oppressive, institutionalized services for the mentally ill and poor which since the late 1970s have most likely been cut, in decades of escalating attacks on the welfare state.

Though grouped into sections named Hospital, Post-Hospital, Losers, Obits, and Suicides I Have Known, the form/structure of the book is clearly that of the series, both in the common sense of a succession of discrete units, one after the other after the other, but also in the more philosophical sense conveyed to the term by Sartre in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his study of the reality of social entities in which “seriality” refers to a relatively inert kind of collectivity, a passive interpenetration of individuals and their environments that blocks the common praxis associated with the “group in fusion.” By contrast, the series is what Joseph S. Catalano calls a “plurality of isolations,” in which “each person lives his isolation not as a single member within a class of those isolated for some common reason, but in such a way that his isolation is experienced as imposed from causes he cannot specify” (A Commentary, 144, 145).  For Sartre the group in series is thus a “detotalized totality,” unlike class in that its members are connected to one other “by the same relations that separate them” (Catalano, 150), and by “impotence” in particular (Catalano, 152). For there to be any sort of class being, seriality must be negated and overcome.

The serial organization of Airless Spaces thus formally echoes the problem at the center of The Dialectic of Sex and indeed at the center of every kind of feminism: “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible.” Unlike socialist feminists who have struggled more deeply with the tension or dissonance between gender and class (such as Heidi Hartmann, Linda Nicholson, and others), Firestone takes the idea of women as class for granted from the get go; indeed, one of the arguments in The Dialectic of Sex is that the biological division of the sexes (and the culturally reinforced division of labor sanctioned by the social organization based on that biological division, the nuclear family) makes the very idea of economic class possible. Because the division of the sexes springs directly from a biological reality (unlike economic class), Firestone argues, sex is the social category of difference at the bottom of all others.

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License