‘Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2014. 288pp., £12.99 pb
ISBN 9781408824740

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


Once upon a time, reason’s greatest architect put pay to the notion that emotion and passion were anathema to objective thought. In fact, observed Hegel in his philosophy of history, ‘nothing great in the world was accomplished without passion’. Hegel went on to make a more general point: that the subjective, nebulous, emotive aspect of human experience would often crave a richer and more concrete expression in a fully realised objective rationality. In modern times, however, such a dialectical postulate has often been allowed to collapse back into its mutually exclusive and antagonistic moments; in academia, especially, students are taught that emotion and feeling are the enemies of objectivity and truth; that the worst thing one can do, in fact, is write an essay which smacks of … shock, gasp … polemic!

Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things is precisely that – polemical – and what’s more, unashamedly so. It is a book which is written in a searingly personal idiom. Penny is a fearless writer and quite prepared to expose some of the raw and gaping wounds of her own psychic history in the service of illuminating the brutal tenor and modus operandi of patriarchal power. So, Chapter One hurls us into one of the darker chasms of Penny’s past: we find her as a teenager, huddling underneath a bed, her face pressed into the carpet, having landed in a mental-unit for people with life-threatening anorexia. The environment is strange and alien and impossibly scary – and the other girls in the ward are nothing like she, for while they ‘have starved themselves to the point of collapse simply because they want to look pretty’ Penny herself has ‘perfectly rational reasons for doing exactly the same’. (55) Of course, ‘this point of view lasts almost exactly eighteen hours, until the first scheduled late-night feeding time, when we all huddle together on cheap hospital sofas.’ (55)

In a tantalisingly brief, tentative description, Penny shows with real literary acumen, how she goes from regarding these girls from a string of different backgrounds as alien prospects to feeling the first burgeonings of solidarity for what they all have in common: they are all young women who have been damaged in one way or another by the lacerating expectations of patriarchal norms and a set of social relationships which have facilitated male privilege or abuse. But in the very same chapter Penny supplements such personal experience with a political account of the anorexia phenomenon more broadly; she compares it to the Italian labour tradition of the ‘sciopero bianco’ or ‘white strike’ which saw the rage of workers who had been denied the right to strike sublimated into a more insidious and indirect form; so, for example, ‘Transport workers make safety checks so rigid that trains run hours behind schedule.’ (32)

One of the startlingly perceptive insights which rattles through the pages in this book is just how we, all of us, are aculturalated at every social level – in terms of education, literature, film – to comprehend men as active, self-determined entities, and women as objects which throw into relief the travails and triumphs of that unfolding masculine agency. ‘Almost every story boys get to read casts them as the hero and women and girls as supporting characters, mothers, wives and girlfriends. Culture has not yet adjusted to stop promising men the beautiful side-kick, the lovely princess, the silent smiling companion as a reward for whatever trials life throws their way.’ (76-7) Men are encouraged to act upon the objective world, to transform and shape it in combination with their will and desire; but in and through the same cultural mechanisms, women are most often described in the passive tense, objects of beauty or sweetness whose inherent value lies in their ability to mould themselves into the social ‘commodity’ which best attracts a boyfriend or a husband.

For Penny the same underlying logic – the logic by which ‘good little boys are supposed to dream about changing the world, but good little girls are supposed to dream about changing ourselves’ – is manifest in the phenomenon of anorexia itself. Here a genuine anger – an anger which has a cogent political basis – is transformed and refracted back onto the individual; an energy which could be expended on riots and revolutions is instead turned inward, restructuring her body (and in some cases his) in a masochistic parody of patriarchal standards, to the point at which she becomes invisible, she ceases to want, or even to exist. In a perfect world the medical help the teenage Penny received would be about emphasising the aspects of individuality and self-determination to allow her to reclaim that substance and agency, but in actual fact she was to experience the opposite: the same rigid template of social control was imposed, the same straightjacket of gender conformity slapped on, masquerading as the one legitimate palliative to mental distress:

In that place, if you wanted to go out the front door and not in a box you had to play by their rules. You had to smile and eat your meals. You had to be a good girl. That meant no more trousers, no more going out with short hair and no make-up, finding a boyfriend as soon as possible, and learning to style your hair and do your eye-liner. It meant buying different dresses for different occasions, fitting yourself out to have men look at you with lust, learning manners, learning to dip your head and say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’, and ‘No cake for me, I’ve been naughty enough this week’…this was proper femininity (40)

Much of the book unveils the grim logistics of patriarchal power, but that is not to say this is a grim book. As dark a place as Penny finds herself in, she nevertheless manages to find her way out of it, very much under her own steam, and this is partly because of the salvation afforded to her by a love of politics and the pen. In as much as this book provides a grim and grotesque exposé of the corrosive effects of the distorted power relations which occur between men and women in this world, Unspeakable Things is at the same time a paean to a new one: the one which is beginning to take shape within the cracks which open up across the surface of normality and gender hierarchy; the sub-culture which has bloomed in the wake of the internet, which has seen young men and women tweaking and transmogrifying all aspects of their sexual and gender identities from within the limitless expanse of the e-ther, the students who have taken to the streets in defiance of legions of armed police and a future crippled by debt, the glorious slut walks which have heralded a new wave in feminism and self-determination, the Occupy movements which proliferated across the world – and which, in their confused, chaotic and creative ways have put on the agenda once more modes and forms of mass organisation which take place over and against the stark neo-liberal model. Many of these movements and trends have crystalized in Penny’s own political formation, and so we are treated to an ‘insider’s’ perspective. We receive an account of Penny journeying through Pennsylvania deep in the night, for instance, on a bus full of activists ‘snuggled together under coats, or wrapped in blankets’ (79) as they head to Chicago to join the thousands flocking for the NATO protests in 2012 – and one can almost scent the exhaustion and the hope.

Indeed, for someone like me, who is of a slightly earlier generation, and has had little direct contact with these burgeoning movements, reading Penny’s description of them provides a distinct frisson of exhilaration and hope. At the same time, though, the book is also the story of a backlash; an account of the sheer elemental ferocity which decaying power exudes. Once again, this is something Penny has experienced first-hand. She describes the way in which the internet has morphed from brave new world into a contested terrain, the way a virtual realm which afforded the possibility of a deeper reality – a place where ‘I could be my ‘real’ self, rather than the self imposed on me by the ravening maw of girl-world that wanted to swallow up’ (154) – was increasingly transfigured into a playground for angry young men, rife with misogyny and hate speech.

In recent times the same process has most notably infected Twitter. In 2013 when the feminist Caroline Criado-Perez had the audacity to cultivate a campaign which will now lead to a woman’s face being featured on British banknotes, she was inundated with threats promising rape, dismemberment and murder. Threats from men (and occasionally women) so desperately unnerved and incensed by the shifting ground of power relations that their private anxieties and prejudices are translated into a digital stream of sadism and bile channelled toward many of the prominent female voices in the public arena. But the truly frightening thing, observes Penny apropos of a nasty little murder threat issued to her from one of the more vocal on-line inadequates, is how ‘the people sending these messages are often perfectly ordinary men holding down perfectly ordinary jobs: the person who wrote the drooling little note to me … was an estate agent called Richard White, who lived in Sidcup’. (174) It seems something quite monstrous stirs in such ordinariness, when it is ruffled by the winds of change.

Unspeakable Things is a book of extremes, not only in terms of the oppositions it locates between oppression and emancipation, but also in terms of its own theoretical fundaments. For while Penny is able to articulate brilliantly the way in which the modern day power of patriarchy is transmitted via a myriad of cultural and political forms, when it comes to comprehending the genesis and historical formation of that power, her conceptions are weaker and considerably more thread-bare. We are told, for example, that ‘Patriarchy, throughout most of human history, is what has oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women’ (70), when in fact, for the vast majority of human history, patriarchy has not been in existence. Elsewhere Penny makes her time scale more specific when she writes, ‘For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles.’ (8) Penny provides no references for this statement, but it seems untenable by most contemporary anthropological accounts, and certainly by the standards of historical materialism.

Indeed, for the majority of human history the hunter-gatherer societies which predominated offered a mode of production which involved the sustained activity of both men and women as together they directly extracted from nature the labour product required for food, clothes and shelter. A hunter-gatherer could collect berries even when pregnant, or while breastfeeding a child. Even the early forms of agriculture tended to facilitate a shared division of labour among the direct producers: the men were more likely to plough and the women to hoe, for instance. In such a context a fundamental and engrained power division could not have developed between the sexes for there was no socio-historical basis for it in and through the mediation of labour with nature. However, argued the great anthropologist Gordon Childe (1967, 89), with the introduction of heavy ploughing, which ‘welded indissolubly cultivation and stock-breeding’, a process was set in motion which more and more saw women abstracted from the role of ‘direct’ producers who had an equal control over the means of production. As the larger surpluses generated the first divisions of class, the sphere of the labour activity of women in general was increasingly narrowed into a domestic focus.

All this might seem like somewhat of an unnecessary diversion – after all, Penny’s book neither is, nor claims to be, a work of anthropology. But at the same time, because she has, to some degree, shifted the terrain from an appreciation of the way in which the historical development of agriculture eventually comes to yield the possibility of irreconcilable social divisions based on both class and gender, and because her analysis displaces this with a more generic model in which the central emphasis falls on the ‘biology’ which divides men and women, when Penny comes to formulating the resistance to patriarchal power in the present day, she is sometimes in danger of recasting gender categories which are socio-historical in origin and intimately bound up with class, in terms of a more static and ahistorical paradigm.

I will give you an example. Penny often uses the category of ‘men’ or ‘man’ as an abstract and ahistorical one. For instance we are informed that ‘all men are implicated in a culture of sexism’ despite the fact that ‘you individual man, with your individual dreams and desires, did not ask to be born into a world where being a boy gave you social and sexual advantages over girls.’ (68-9). If we remain at the level of abstraction that the generic category of ‘individual man’ presupposes, Penny is quite correct. As an individual man, all things being equal, I am more likely to receive a higher wage for doing the same job as my female counterpart, I will have greater access to membership of the political elite, I am far more likely to have my views and feelings represented in the media, and less likely to be reduced by other people to the level of my appearance. All of this is true. But what about when it comes to the more concrete historical category of class?

A working class man will also ‘enjoy’ some cultural and economic privileges over his female counterpart, but considered through the prism of class universality, such privileges become thorny advantages indeed. If a worker comes home, and expects his wife – also a worker – to have the dinner on the table such patriarchal practise militates directly against the broader dimension of his class’s power. If he believes his wife, by the very fact of her femininity, is somehow inferior and more suited to servility, he will inevitably find it difficult to recognise in her any agency of self-determination; he will be less able to bond with her, or any other woman, in and through political activities – strikes, picket lines, occupations – which are in essence forms of self-determination en masse. In other words, the efficacy of class power itself will be undermined; the patriarchal standpoint, then, represents a most profound threat to a working class man, not at the level of his abstract individuality, but in terms of his concrete historical being.

Because Penny does not conceive the rise of patriarchal forms according to a historically materialist analysis, at a later moment she naturally comes to postulate the problem of patriarchy in its abstract and ahistorical guise. It appears to her in a reified aspect as ‘men as a group – men as structure’ (68) abstracted from the class dynamic, even though, elsewhere, she acknowledges that such a formulation is chimerical: ‘The … big secret about the Golden Age of masculinity of course, is that it never really existed. There have always been men who were too poor, too queer, too sensitive, too disabled, too compassionate … to fit in with whatever flavour of violent heterosexuality their society relied upon.’ (76) Such a methodological antagonism, lodged in the heart of a sometimes brilliant book, represents a significant flaw.

15 November 2014


  • Gordon Childe, V. 1967 What Happened in History? (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.