Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces

Shulamith-FirestoneSianne Ngai in Berfrois:

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.