Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll: Michael Bérubé on Ellen Willis

Michael Bérubé over at Crooked Timber:

Somewhere between the end of my spring semester at Penn State on April 29 and the beginning of my month-long guest-teaching gig at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa (founded over a decade before that Johnny-come-lately Cornell in upstate New York) on May 2, I found some time to speak at this totally awesome conference on the work of Ellen Willis. Just glad to be on the bill, you know. Anyway, here’s a slightly expanded version of what I said that morning. Why slightly expanded? Because I’m including 15 percent more of Ellen Willis’s prose, which makes my remarks 15 percent better. That is why.

Ellen Willis took freedom seriously: “I believe that the struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence, is not just an individual matter. The social system that organizes our lives, and as far as possible channels our desire, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort” (No More Nice Girls 266). And she was deadly serious about pleasure, too: “does it sound like a dirty word to you? No wonder, given how relentlessly it’s been attacked not only by puritanical conservatives but by liberals who uncritically accept the Reaganite equation of pleasure with greed and callousness…. Yet life without pleasure—without spontaneity and playfulness, sexuality and sensuality, esthetic experience, surprise, excitement, ecstasy—is a kind of death” (NMNG 272). It’s probably too much (or too cliché?) to say that her life was saved by rock and roll, but I do think she found in the music the rhythm of a social revolution she could dance to—and I think her willingness to think about freedom and pleasure rigorously served her well throughout her intellectual career.

That’s easy enough to see when you look at her writings on the drug wars of the 1980s, which Willis was right to see not just as an extension of state power and the carceral society in which we are all required to piss on demand, not only as a war on some classes of people who use drugs, but also as a frontal assault on the very idea that an illegal drug could have a beneficial effect on one’s being in the world. (By the mid-80s it was damn near impossible to say such a thing in public, so, of course, she went ahead and said it, more than once.) And it’s easy to see in Willis’s scathing critiques of antiporn feminism and so-called pro-life leftism, as well. But I see it suffusing every aspect of her work at every stage of her career, even in her writings on race, on The Satanic Verses, on “class first” leftism, and on the world after 9/11. It wasn’t just that she had one of the most accurate bullshit detectors known to modern science…