Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jesse Bordwin reviews Object-Oriented Feminism

Katherine Behar, ed. Object-Oriented Feminism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 296 pp.

Review by Jesse Bordwin

Object-oriented criticism and feminist theory are not obviously compatible—their commitments and assumptions seldom overlap—but that tension is precisely what energizes the new collection Object-Oriented Feminism. Embracing the discomfiting acronym OOF with a wink and a nod, the assembled writers argue for bringing a feminist ethics to the study of objects while raising the possibility of revisiting the political and cultural forces that align women with the material world. This project is in many ways a reproach against object-oriented scholarship that subtly re-enforces antifeminist formations or seems detached from the human, evinced in Katherine Behar’s introduction, on the well-intentioned and ontically-destructive erasure of Playboy Bunnies from object-oriented ontology, and Maria Gržinić’s critique of “OOO’s objectification and commodification of humans” and “humanization of capital itself” (p. 219). A number of essays—those by Elizabeth A. Povinelli and Adam Zaretsky stand out—perform OOF as practice, often reshaping the tools of object analysis by estranging us from them. Timothy Morton ties object-oriented ontology (OOO) to the weird feminist essentialism of Luce Irigaray by way of Plato, Jacques Lacan, and Looney Tunes, confirming his place as one of the most persuasive and inimitable apostles of object-oriented criticism. Behar, who edited the volume, also delivers its most incisive intervention when she proposes a system of affinity through deathliness to counter the material turn’s latent vivophilia, which threatens simply to substitute the human subject with the networked individual. “Vivophilia,” she writes, “says that most things in the world are, in some significant way, as alive as I am. Necrophilia says that I am, in some significant way, as dead as are most things in the world” (p. 128). Here and in moments throughout the collection are insights that startle and excite and that bring into sharp focus the audacity of claiming an ethics, as Irina Aristarkhova puts it, for “the most inanimate, life-free things out there” (p. 60).

Yet for all its shining parts, the volume never quite coheres. From the title on, Object-Oriented Feminism seems to proffer theoretical comprehensiveness or a manifesto’s élan vital, but the essays offer no cohesive picture or vigorous articulation of an emergent practice. The absence of a clear intellectual genealogy and the diffuseness of attention, though likely intentional, pose certain problems for the audience. Most readers will leave Object-Oriented Feminism with an understanding of the movement as an unambivalent feminist critique of object-oriented thought’s implicit antifeminism. Yet as many will remember who attended the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conferences where OOF coalesced—and recordings of those panels are available online, for those who did not—the most vocal challenges to object-oriented feminism have come not from new materialists or speculative realists, but feminist scholars who see OOF as appropriating feminist intellectual history and energy, leaving in its wake an enervated politics. This collection is a much-needed beginning—and object-oriented feminism will continue to incite us to reimagine our current methodologies and theoretical attachments—but one that could benefit from more fully embracing its past.