In Defense of the Tramps

March 8th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Work  |  2 Comments

Today is International Women’s Day—an event that was inaugurated by socialists, even if actual socialist men aren’t always so good about embracing its spirit.

My IWD resolution is to work on infusing Jacobin with more feminism and more women writers—our score on the second count unfortunately ranks with some of the worse offenders on this list. As to the first, here’s something from Kathi Weeks’ The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. The entire book is excellent, and I’ll be writing more about it in a future issue of Jacobin. In this passage, Weeks cleverly uses the figure of the “tramp” to connect the linked oppressive disciplinary functions of the work ethic and the family ethic.

The partnership between the work ethic and the family ethic is sustained in and through a variety of cultural forms. One can see this interconnection operating behind the interesting coincidence of labels marking the male and female version of the tramp. The figure of the male tramp, seen as a threat to social order and values, figured prominently in public discourse from the late nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, when the word also came to designate a negative moral judgment on modes of female sexuality (Rodgers 1978, 226-27; J. Mills 1989, 239). What interests me here is how the tramp functions as a disavowed figure in both work and family discourse, how a similar controlling image marks in comparable terms the boundary between the normative and the abject.6 Contrary to the central tenets of both the work ethic and the family ethic, the tramp is in each usage a figure of indulgence and indiscipline. Both male and female tramps are wanderers who refuse to be securely housed within and contained by the dominant institutional sites of work and family (see Broder 2002). Both are promiscuous in their unwillingness to commit to a stable patriarch, as shown in their lack of loyalty to an employer or to an actual or potential husband. The tramp is thus situated against legible models of both productive masculinity and reproductive femininity. Given that the accumulation of property was supposed to be one of the central benefits of a disciplined life of wage labor, and respect for property a cornerstone of the sanctity of marriage, both male and female tramps violate yet another set of fundamental social values. Each is a potentially dangerous figure that could, unless successfully othered, call into question the supposedly indisputable benefits of work or family and challenge the assumed naturalness of their appeal (see Higbie 1997, 572, 562). Just as male tramps, these “villains on a stage of toilers and savers’ threatened to inspire otherwise compliant workers by their “shameless rebellion against all work,” the figure of the female tramp threatened the ideals of sexual propriety and women’s roles at the heart of the bourgeois family model (Rodgers 1978, 227). Though the language of the tramp may have fallen out of use, the basic offenses that the label identified continue to be registered under and regulated by means of more contemporary controlling images. The racialized figure of the welfare queen, in which the supposed violations of both work ethic and normative family form are distilled, is one of its most injurious reiterations.7

Something to think about as we endure this endless and infuriating “sluts on birth control” debate.

Responses

  1. Sandwichman says:

    March 8th, 2012 at 2:12 pm (#)

    I don’t know whether Weeks references it, but Susan Buck-Morss’s 1986 essay in New German Critique on “The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: the Politics of Loitering” is essential reading on this question.

  2. Peter Frase says:

    March 8th, 2012 at 3:36 pm (#)

    That is a good essay. Weeks doesn’t reference it–somewhat surprisingly, as the references are in general pretty thorough. Her Western Marxist touchstone is Bloch rather than Benjamin, however.

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