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The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World.

by Charlene Spretnak. Reading, MA: Perseus, 1997, 256 pp., $22.00 hardcover.

I remember the effect Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology had on me when I first read it some eighteen years ago. The truths she was naming were unbearably grim - yet the naming made me feel something akin to joy. I suspect this is because my body had already taken in the bad news; seeing it spelled out allowed me to know with my mind what I knew in my body, and made me whole. Reading Charlene Spretnak's The Resurgence of the Real recently brought the same confirmation of my body's instinctual knowing.

The global picture Spretnak paints of this end of the millennium is not a pretty one. Her brush is both broad and meticulous. On the world stage: growing signs of ecological collapse, a related rise in infectious disease, a refugee population that has swelled to 25 million, an increase in violent uprisings and ethnic tensions, a growing disparity between rich and poor. In the developed world: economic insecurity, homelessness, hate crimes, increasing alienation and disconnection, loneliness, a shrinking sense of being. And, last but not least: a love affair with technology that threatens to replace the biosphere with the technosphere, making no part of the globe immune to our own sickness.

Much of our suffering in Western societies, Spretnak claims, is the direct result of our having demoted"a rich, full sense of body, nature and place" to "the dumb matter on top of which modern culture is constructed." We may be able to surf the 'Net on our home computers, but we have lost our place in the great dynamic web of being in which we were once embedded. Postmodern rhetoric to the contrary, the deep disease that troubles us in this late twentieth century, says Spretnak, is modernity. Modernity is the "deep structure of our age"; we haven't been able to step far enough outside its framework to name the problem or find solutions to it.

Spretnak traces the emergence of modernity back through the movements that spawned it: Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Inherent in each of these movements was a severing from nature, from the body, and from female wisdom and divinity. In combination, these four "foundational" movements served to instill and cement the values of efficiency, technological innovation and economic growth.

At the core of the ideology of modernity is the notion that humans are fundamentally economic creatures. Today's globalized economy, propped up by modern technology, has taken this to its logical and nightmarish conclusion. The global market has centralized wealth and ownership as never before, spelling disaster to all but the powerful. Trade deregulation has resulted in lower incomes and literacy rates and the failure of traditional local economies.

Meanwhile the critique of modernity that's been mounted from within Western intellectual culture - "deconstructive post-modernism" - is itself steeped in the assumptions of the modern age. For post-modernists, nothing real exists outside human projection. Postmodernism shares modernity's groundlessness, assumes the same divisions between body and mind, humans and nature, country and nation; if anything, it is hypermodern. A genuine critique of modernity, Spretnak argues, would have to challenge these "core discontinuities"; a postmodernist movement true to its name would have to be grounded in the ecosocial matrix - to be "profoundly ecological."

In fact, as Spretnak notes, such an ecological postmodernism does exist. She cites a number of philosophers - David Abram, Theodore Roszak - whose work offers a challenge to modernity "by asserting the real." But by far the most powerful challenge, as she sees it, is coming not from philosophers or indeed any human thinkers but from "the real" itself - from body, nature and place, which are even now forcing their way through the abstractions of the modern world view, "poking large holes through the modern ideologies of denial."

For example, deep bonds to place are increasingly making themselves felt as a political force around the world. Independence wars on the part of ancient nations - Tibet, Chechnya, Bosnia - have been challenging the borders of the modern nation-state. (Recognition of these territorial claims, Spretnak warns, would need to include monitoring to insure that love of place extends to respect for all its inhabitants.) And even as free trade treaties like GATT and NAFTA deliver the earth into the hands of multinational corporations, grassroots movements around the world fight battles for environmental protection and democratic reform. Community organizations and community-based economics flourish, along with micro-loan programs to support them.

Spretnak finds further reason to hope in the history of Euro-American resistance to modernity, an ecospiritual lineage she traces from the English Romantics in 1775 through to the US counterculture of the sixties. In a fanciful piece of time-travel at the end of the book she meets up with William Morris, pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement in nineteenth-century England and a leading figure in this lineage. Both of them have journeyed forward to the year 2024, when the US has thrown off the yoke of modernity and been propelled along a course of ecological and spiritual renewal. Spretnak takes Morris on a tour of her small Midwestern town, which he is charmed to see has been rehabilitated completely along the lines of his own artistic and political vision. Brief and admittedly utopian as this fantasy is, it affords Spretnak the opportunity to demonstrate that practical and workable solutions to massive global problems do exist.

The Resurgence of the Real is a visionary book of formidable scholarship that ranges across disciplines with great ease and assurance. It is only disappointing not to find in this meticulously researched work more acknowledgment of female authors who have done foundational work at the intersection of feminism and ecology. Spretnak stresses at one point that a truly postmodern movement would have to be "ecological and feminist." Why then no mention of great ecofeminist writers like Mary Daly, Barbara Mor, Carolyn Merchant, Ursula LeGuin? (She does mention Susan Griffin and Marilyn Waring.) And why in her ecospiritual lineage is there scarcely a woman to be found?

Mary Daly's latest book, Quintessence...Realizing the Archaic Future, like Spretnak's, cuts through the fog of postmodern denial to name and confront the global disease that threatens all life on this planet. Daly's name for this disease, now as ever, is "patriarchy." Quintessence is a continuation of the radical feminist quest articulated in Gyn/Ecology and Pure Lust. It takes place both in the present, which Daly sees as a time of escalating terror against women and escalating threats against all elemental life, and in the year 2048, when the concerted efforts of Wild Women and elemental creatures have brought patriarchy to its knees.

Like Spretnak, Daly finds reason for hope in the very extremity of the conditions that define late twentieth-century existence. While she, like Spretnak, mourns the loss of our ecological embeddedness - she calls it "elemental connectedness" - she also shares Spretnak's belief that our cosmological and ecological selves are staging a comeback, even as the non-human world forces its way into human consciousness. The "our" in Daly's case, it should be said, refers mainly to the familiar company of "Clairvoyant Cronies" and "Shrewd Shrews" who choose to accompany her on her journey.

Daly's focus on women brings to light much that Spretnak leaves out, beginning with the fact of escalating gynocide worldwide. Citing the spread of pornography in the media and in cyberspace, the rise of religious fundamentalism in both the US and the Middle East, the omnipresence of rape and the use of mass rape as a weapon of war, most notably in Bosnia, Daly points out that women are increasingly the targets of hatred and destruction around the world.

Knowledge of these atrocities, conscious or repressed, keeps women in a state of subliminal terror. This state of terror, in turn, serves to keep us divided: both from each other, and from our most passionate, powerful, creative selves. In an act of naming that should resonate with any feminist who has lived through the last twenty years of backlash and backsliding, Daly claims that women in the nineties are living in a state of diaspora. The term as she uses it refers not only to the external dispersion of women and the resulting loss of companionship and solidarity, but also to the scattering of female energies and loyalties. The boldness and exuberance of feminism's early Second Wave, she notes, have been replaced by "tameness, timidity, and tiredness."

Contributing to this state of diaspora in the 1990s is the dismemberment of our information and communication networks as big publishers remainder essential feminist texts and giant chains drive women's bookstores out of business. Women are further scattered - prevented from participating in what Daly calls "ontological Depth/Presence" - by an intellectual and spiritual climate characterized by massive confusion. Spiritual reality is increasingly banalized: "barbie dolls and the Great Goddess are the same." Species are mixed up through gene-splicing and organ transplantation. "Feminists" proclaim that rape and sexual harassment don't exist. And in academia, feminists spouting "gender jargon" avoid the word "woman."

Like Spretnak, Daly finds postmodern theory's grip on academia emblematic of the confusion of our time. Indeed, the title of her book might be seen as a defiant rejoinder to the hold of anti-essentialism on Western intellectual thought. Here Daly's scope is narrower than Spretnak's; her focus is on postmodern theory's invasion of Women's Studies and the ways that it has functioned to "tame feminist genius" by reinstating male intellectual authority.

Daly and Spretnak are in fundamental agreement on the central role technology plays in premillennial atrocities. Here again Daly's focus is on its effects on women as well as the nonhuman world. A uniquely modern feature of the mass rapes in Bosnia, she points out, was the simultaneous use of camcorders to film them: modern technology has enabled "boundary violation" on a level never before possible. Even as the new reproductive technologies make increasing inroads into the female body, biotechnology (Daly calls it "necrotechnology") invades the vast wilderness of genetic structure, leading to "hideous reversals of cellular and genetic mixtures in plants, animals, and humans."

Her analysis of the "nectech Empire" is Daly at her trenchant, scathing best. In other chapters her commentary is often spotty and filtered through secondary sources; here she grapples head-on with her subject and emerges with the kind of radical, revelatory and occasionally hilarious analysis which is her trademark. A highlight is her reading of genetic engineering in terms of Christian myth. Citing the human genome project, whose holy grail is the creation of a composite human (dubbed "Adam II") assimilating both genders and all races, she wonders if the geneticists might be taking their cue from "god - the original cloner - [who] used a rib from the old Adam to fashion the old Eve."

Leaping out of patriarchy becomes more literal than ever before in Quintessence, which begins in the year 2048 BE (Biophilic Era) - a time when Big Brother has died "ignominiously of his own inherent rottenness" and the earth has "vomited out many of the poisons that had sickened her" - on an all-female continent called Lost and Found. There a student of twentieth-century philosophy named Annie (short for Anonyma) decides to conjure the author of Quintessence on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary edition. Annie's Cosmic Comments follow each chapter, along with Cosmic Conversations between the two women.

As contrived as these Cosmic Conversations often feel, and as monotonal (Annie's voice can barely be distinguished from Mary's), they also provide moments of infectious glee, and they are, as Daly herself might put it, perfectly "chronological." After all, Daly has been invoking her foresisters all along; why shouldn't a future feminist invoke her? The explicit mission of Quintessence - that of "realizing the Archaic Future" - depends on exactly this kind of feminist defiance of linear logic. We learn from Annie that patriarchy would never have been defeated were it not for the "morphogenetic field of Courage" created by Mary and her Cronies; Mary in turn feels herself buoyed and pulled ahead by her "foresister of the future." If female lineage is all but absent from Spretnak's book, here it is the sine qua non, the cause of causes.

There's another important difference between Daly's analysis and Spretnak's. For Daly there is one common thread that unites all the horrors of these premillennial times, from Bosnia to gene technology, only one way to account for the assaults on female bodies and on elemental reality - "the ideology and practice of patriarchy" which is "rapism." Rapism is "characterized by invasion, violation, degradation, objectification, and destruction of women and nature." Spretnak's bock, for all the violations and degradations it records, contains almost nothing in the way of finger-pointing. All of us, she seems to be saying, are to a greater or lesser extent victims of modernity and it's up to all of us to heal ourselves of its ravages.

If I wonder about the degree of malevolent intention Daly attributes to those responsible for the atrocities, I also have to wonder about Spretnak's non-naming of perpetrators. Her futuristic vision of a postmodern idyll leaves me wanting to know: What made men stop raping women and violating the earth? How were they persuaded to part with their power? Would divesting ourselves of the values of modernity truly assure women and nature a healthy long-term future? The larger question here is whether modernity is really sufficient as a framework to explain the atrocities of our age.

My own sense, and I imagine Daly would agree with me on this, is that modernity is only the latest and most deadly incarnation of patriarchy. To say this is in no way to negate Spretnak's vision; we need the pattern she allows us to see every bit as much as we do the pattern Daly reveals. "[I]t takes Ultimate Stamina," Daly writes at the end of her book, "to Name and Act in this time of ultimate horror and brain-dead denial and paralysis." In the end, I am comforted less by Spretnak's and Daly's cozy futuristic visions than I am by their brave and perceptive naming of what we're all facing on this planet, here at the end of the millennium.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Weil, Lise
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Previous Article:Mary Baker Eddy.
Next Article:Quintessence ... Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto.

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