A Lot Of Sex But Not Much Revolution

Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell-Katherine Angel 10.99 Paperback 368 Pages / Published: 03/07/2014

Daddy Issues-Katherine Angel £6.00 Paperback 128 Pages / Published: 13/06/2019

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again-Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel hardback £10.99-160 pages / March 2021 / 9781788739160-Verso publications

“Once in a while, a book appears that is so bad you want it to be a satire. If you set out to produce a parody of postfeminist mumbo jumbo, adolescent narcissism, excruciating erotic overshares, pseudo poetry, pretentious academic jargon, and shopworn and unshocking “dirty talk,” you could not do better than Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell”.

Cristina Nehring

“Monogamy was the first form of the family not founded on natural, but on economic conditions, viz.: the victory of private property over primitive and natural collectivism.”

― Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

“The first class antagonism appearing in history coincides with the development of the antagonism of man and wife in monogamy and the first class oppression with that of the female by the male sex.”

― Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

“Passion and expression are not really separable. Passion comes to birth in that powerful impetus of the mind, which also brings language into existence. So soon as passion goes beyond instinct and becomes truly itself, it tends to self-description, either in order to justify or intensify its being, or else simply in order to keep going”.

De Rougement, Denis. Love in the Western World.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, 173. Print.

“Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?”

Virginia Wolfe

It is hard to fathom why a gifted academic historian would write three largely substandard books that, from an intellectual level, hardly rise above the magazine Tit-Bits.

It is usually the case that a person who talks a lot about sex is not getting any, but this is evidently not the case for Angel, who appears to be getting more than her fair share. Given her significant number of sexual conquests, you would have thought she would change her name.

All three books were written amidst the rise of the #MeToo movement, and one would hate to believe that they were written purely to make the author and her publisher’s a lot of money. They do not seem to serve any other purpose than this.

Also, I fail to see how writing about your sex life can enlighten young women about the huge sexual, social, political and economic problems they confront within a capitalist society. None of the books situates women’s sexuality within the context of history, and this must be a deliberate act because Angel is not unfamiliar with the plight of women under capitalism. A single reading of Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,[1] would give young women a deeper insight into the problems they deal with on a daily basis than these three books put together.

These books are a product of the ‘MeToo# movement, and they reflect the domination of postmodernism inside academia. It is not a very healthy atmosphere. As Cristina Nehring writes, “In the groves of academe that Angel inhabits, sex is anything but a laughing matter. The relation of Anglo-American academics to sexuality remains a troubled one—at once obsessive and puritanical, criminalising and infantilising—even in our day and even (or especially) in disciplines specifically devoted to gender studies. This is a culture where a graduate student can cry sexual harassment if her academic adviser closes his door during office hours but turn around and solicit congratulations for personal tell-alls bearing titles with some variation on Vagina, which inflict far more violence on her intimate space than any indiscretion she has ever charged. (More or less, this is the career path of Naomi Wolf”.[2]

Unmastered is a very strangely structured book, with most of the book being blank pages, and some pages only have a few lines on them. Angel had a very tolerant editor, and the book stretches to 368 pages.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect has been the largely sycophantic reviews from reviewers who seem more interested in safeguarding their highly paid salaries than calling out a poorly written book. “It is hard to overestimate . . . [the] exquisite sensuality” of Angel’s book, its “artfulness” and “richness,” wrote Olivia Laing, or this one from Publishers Weekly which called the book “ghostly and poetic.”. It is hard to choose which comment makes you want to vomit the most.

One of the more perceptive reviewers, Cristina Nehring[3], poses the question. “Why is it that a book as bad as this garners reasonable reviews and makes it to America from the United Kingdom? The answer seems to lie in the ingredients’ combination—if not the quality or authenticity. Unmastered purports to combine philosophy with fellatio, intellect with erotica. It allows us to be voyeurs and lawyers at the same time. It gives us a good conscience reading porn But in truth? Unmastered does porn a disservice. Not to side with Angel’s maligned professor, but real porn is a lot more “democratic” than this: It includes flesh-and-blood people—not the two-dimensional “hypostasized” extras of this book. It also focuses on a few different body parts—not only on the author’s navel.”.[4]

Angel’s postmodernist language obscures rather than enlightens her readers. Like many academics of her generation, her reliance on pseudo-left philosophers like Foucault is problematical. Foucault emphasised the necessity of developing micro-politics and micro-struggles. Such a strategy appeals to advocates of single-issue type politics: separatists and nationalists of every shade, environmentalists, and utopian feminists, like Angel.

Michel Foucault (1926-84) was a philosopher from an early age. He studied with Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser at the Ecole Normale Superièure. For a brief time, Foucault was a member of the French Communist Party, leaving in 1951. Although breaking organisationally from the French CP, he never broke politically and philosophically and retained much of its anti-classical Marxism and anti-Trotskyist baggage. He later became a leading member of The Frankfurt School.

Angel’s musings on pornography are hardly groundbreaking. One does not have to be a Marxist to understand that sexual relationships under capitalism have largely been turned into a commodity or, as the Marxist writer Emanuele Saccarelli puts it in a comment on the movie Boogie Nights,[5] “The subject of pornography naturally leads toward these considerations. Pornography is the commodification of sexual relations, a more modern, sanitised, impersonal, and therefore more peculiarly bourgeois form of prostitution. Instead of accepting the moralistic posturing of the defenders of the status quo, one must consider the possibility that, far from being a perverse deviation from the dominant values of a capitalist society, pornography might be the most logical and limpid translation of bourgeois values into the sexual sphere. Boogie Nights decisively points in that direction. Acts and relations that are natural and spontaneous are turned into commodities to be purchased and sold.[6]

Angel seems to be more intent on titillation than a social and political comment. Asking a question in a lecture, she states, “given that orgasm during vaginal sex is elusive for many women, and clitoral stimulation is crucial, how then is clitoral pleasure represented in the swathes of pornography you have surveyed?” Politics are absent in her writings, and she writes nothing of the growing attempt to increase state censorship in the guise of a clampdown on pornography.

Angel’s use of Virginia Woolf, who wrote the groundbreaking book A Room of One’s Own, is legitimate. Her book unmastered was taken from a line in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, “Why do we like the frantic, the unmastered?”. Wolfe also wrote, “It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple.” Angel likes this quote so much she repeats it several times. Wolfe is worth reading, and the modern woman can learn a lot from her books. As the writer, David Walsh perceptively puts it, “In Woolf’s work, in my view, there is always a conflict between a rather anaemic and claustrophobic upper-middle-class self-involvement and a more penetrating, sharp-eyed and self-critical approach to reality. She referred once to her “terror of real-life” and, unhappily, there is something to the comment.

The attraction to social reformism had perhaps both class and psychological roots. In any event, the emphasis in her works on ordinariness, the incremental, the mundane seems in part the literary corollary of the Fabian’s “gradualism” and “socialism through attrition.” One can certainly argue whether Woolf grasped or was capable of grasping the depth of the social crisis in Britain in Mrs Dalloway, a book published on the eve of the bitterly fought General Strike of 1926. The novelist always draws back from the sharpest criticism. Nonetheless, there is in every one of Woolf’s works a genuine concern with the welfare of humanity and the state of society, and not simply, as we find in The Hours, a complacent celebration of the privileged Manhattanite’s daily routine. While Woolf had one foot in the camp of official society, she was able to bring to bear an honest and questioning intellect to her work.”[7]

Angel’s book Daddy Issues was published by Peninsula Press in 2019. It is largely a bland work devoid of controversy, serious political comment, or analysis, much like her previous books. Many of the book reviews have a similar modus operandi, and Mia Levitan’s review is the pick of the bunch, being largely uncritical and blindly complimentary.

The basic premise of Daddy Issues is that if only men could become better parents, or in her words, ‘We need to keep the modern, civilised father on the hook, the world would be a good and safe place for young women to grow up in. Angel’s book is a muddled mess. She writes, “Contemporary feminism has, however, re-embraced thinking about the big ideas – capitalism, work, care – and the concept of patriarchy is having a resurgence. In the waves of marches after Donald Trump’s inauguration, it has featured heavily on banners; it circulates widely in highly instagrammable commodities, on t-shirts, on mugs, on tote bags. It is rolling around the mouths of pundits, commentators, and politicians. It has made a public comeback.[8]

By “contemporary feminism”, she means the MeToo#movement, which is neither anti-capitalist, progressive or utopian in any way. Again according to Walsh, “The ostensible aim of this ongoing movement is to combat sexual harassment and assault, i.e., to bring about some measure of social progress. However, the repressive, regressive means resorted to—including unsubstantiated and often anonymous denunciations and sustained attacks on the presumption of innocence and due process—give the lie to the campaign’s “progressive” claims. Such methods are the hallmark of an anti-democratic, authoritarian movement, and one, moreover, that deliberately seeks to divert attention from social inequality, attacks on the working class, the threat of war and the other great social and political issues of the day”.[9]

Angel’s choice of Trump as a bad father is baffling. Trump is a monster and a terrible father by any stretch of the imagination. But that aside, he is an American fascist, which Angel seems to have left out of her book. Why is Trump’s fascism not written about in Angel’s book, which is far more dangerous than Trump being a sexist pig? or bad father. I mean, did Hitler plunge mankind into a murderous war and carry out the holocaust because he was a bad lover.

In 2021, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent were published by Verso. This book leans heavily on the French philosopher Michel Foucault book The History of Sexuality. Angel is a utopian without being a socialist, saying, “My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we would not have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our desires or very inflexible contracts or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, unfortunately, it also makes it very risky”.

As was said earlier, Angel’s choice of Focualt as her guide on sexuality is troubling. She writes of Foucault. “I think it was a very wry phrase (Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again) in this incredibly sardonic and playful book that he was writing, in kind of oblique opposition, I would say, to the countercultural movement of the ’60s and ’70s, where there was a real faith being placed partly in psychoanalysis and also in Marxism as the roots out of sexual repression. So it was a reading of this kind of possible future with the tools to un-repress ourselves and emancipate ourselves from social oppression. And that these tools would finally kind of reveal this ‘better tomorrow’ where we would be free from the shackles around sexuality”.

To clarify, the uninitiated Focualt was never an orthodox Marxist, and was part of a coterie of philosophers and writers that coalesced around the Frankfurt School[10]. Foucault’s writing on sexuality are largely worthless and reflect his general philosophy “that the objective world is not a world of facts that can be objectively probed and studied; instead, Foucault’s world consists of discourses, stories—interpretations lacking any secure means of determining which “discourse” is superior”.

To conclude, it is not difficult to sum up, the value of these three books. Like many books written under the auspices of the MeToo# movement, they are not worth the paper they are written upon, and they do not advance the struggle for female emancipation one iota.

The great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg once said, “Women’s suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat. The worst and most brutal advocates of the exploitation and enslavement of the proletariat are entrenched behind the throne and altar as well as behind the political enslavement of women. Monarchy and women’s lack of rights have become the most important tools of the ruling capitalist class”.[11] Angel should read some of her work. Maybe her next book on sex will be good.


[1] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm

[2] https://www.bookforum.com/print/2002/an-academic-s-sexual-memoir-puts-the-ire-in-desire-11683

[3] Cristina Nehring is the author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century (Harper, 2009) and Journey to the Edge of the Light (Kindle Singles, 2011). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Slate, New York magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler

[4] https://www.bookforum.com/contributor/cristina-nehring

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boogie_Nights

[6] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/07/boog-j04.html

[7] Virginia Woolf cannot be held responsible- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/01/hour-j23.html

[8] https://granta.com/daddy-issues/

[9] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/10/19/year-o19.html

[10] The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique-David North- Mehring Books-Incorporated, 2015

[11] Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle-(1912)- https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1912/05/12.htm

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