[Make sure to order Dr. Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human’: HERE.]
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
In the spring of 2020, Naomi Wolf, a feminist theorist and former Clinton campaign adviser, managed to fly home from London’s International Women’s Day to her New York City apartment before air travel was shut down in the wake of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic.
Up in the air, with the jetstream, was an epistemological derecho that, like all winds, both planted and uprooted, concealing and revealing, and destroying and transforming, and in its wake leaving behind the world that we have come to know only too well in the wake of 2020.
This world that we inhabit is a drastically changed place that has left little untouched. That is something that we see in a multiplicity of forms, overt and hidden, in even the everyday spaces. The markers are everywhere in the absence of the familiar and the presence of the unfamiliar. We are haunted not only by what is no longer there, but more insidiously by what was once not there, but is now everywhere. These social ghosts are the haunting specters of a new reality.
The ensuing mimetic crisis has torn apart our society and strained the tensile strengths of our relationships with a frantic search for solipsistic scapegoats and aerophagic fall guys.
The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human is one of the anemometers of the crisis, tilting between the convex and the concave of the eye of the low-pressure political storm even when the wind speed may appear to have died down and an appearance of normalcy may have been restored. Nevertheless, the shingles that were blown off the political and, even more importantly, cultural roofs can’t simply be picked up and put back up again. And that may be a difficult lesson for Americans, of all the world’s peoples, to learn.
As Americans, restoration is the optimistic optical lens through which we come to view how life works. What happens to that lens when it finds itself in the midst of a storm of the century? That question, collectively unanswered, but individually addressed, is at the center of everything.
Wolf’s journey proved to be not only across an ocean but in a larger mental orientation as she recounts in her latest book, “The Bodies of Others”. The book occupies a cultural distance from “The Beauty Myth”, the book that made Wolf’s reputation, or other feminist texts such as “Vagina: A Cultural History” and “Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love”. But as in “The Beauty Myth” and Vagina: A Cultural History”, in her newest book she is reacting to the engagement of the physical and the political. “The Bodies of Others” can be read as a kind of third book in a trilogy that includes “The Beauty Myth” and “Vagina: A Cultural History” in that it grapples with the impinging intersections of the political and the personal.
What does autonomy even look like in a world haunted by the impersonally personal epigrammatic slogans of an ongoing emergency crowdsourced through the cloud?
Unlike her previous feminist books, “The Bodies of Others” is unlikely to be praised by Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, and not only because the former is dead. The pandemic and the lockdowns divided people not just along political, but cultural lines, creating the new alignments that make a former Clinton and Gore adviser into a new author with a conservative press.
The Guardian, the British paper which had begun publishing her articles during the Bush years with titles like “Fascist America” and “How I Was Arrested at Occupy Wall Street”, now relentlessly attacks her. Her previous book, “Outrages”, was published by one of the ‘Big 5’ publishers owned by a multi-billion dollar private equity firm while “The Bodies of Others” is being put out by the conservative All Seasons Press co-founded by editor Kate Hartson, who was fired by Hachette and sneered at by the New York Times as “Trump’s last fan”.
There isn’t a lot of room for Trump fans or heterodox politics among the big publishers.
And thus the making of The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human is its own ouroboran loop struggling with the substance monism of pandemic logic and the body of its own experience. The cultural “entelechy” of a global borderless world state awkwardly fused together with technopolitical panopticons was being realized within the spaces that the elites had created for themselves.
And for all of us in a trickle-down technocracy through Hillary Clinton’s global “village”. But some of us were just more likely to intersect with its emerging orbital contours.
The anodyne discontents of the transatlantic lifestyle seemed harmless to many of those who partook of it. The perils of cancel culture, swiftly becoming all too real as intersectional activism displaced a fading institutional liberalism, was not enough to disturb those comforts for most.
And then the borderless world developed borders.
International travel, a staple of “NyLon”, the back and forth between London and New York that is both at the root of the cosmopolitan transatlantic liberalism and the beginning of Wolf’s journey from comfort to discomfort, was the first to be affected by the wave of pandemic regs.
The meretricious abstractions of a new global order that would resolve the contradictions of human nature and its ineffable boundaries were being tightened and unwound in the strains of the system. And so New York proves to be no more of a refuge for Wolf than London. In her book’s diary, she reports hearing with her husband that “as Brian and I were in his SUV running an errand, an announcement was broadcast on his car radio… Broadway was closing.”
“We have to get out of here,” she reports. And then she decamps with her husband, whom she had married in the Hamptons only two years earlier, to a “little cottage in the Hudson Valley.”
Fleeing from London to New York City to the Hudson Valley cottage, Wolf has plenty of time to contemplate the alteration in her lifestyle. “The Bodies of Others” is a response to yet another generational trauma for her cohort. “The Beauty Myth” was born out of her experiences as an Oxford university student, “Misconceptions”, a decade later, coping with the challenges of pregnancy and birth, and “The Bodies of Others” to the social trauma of the lockdowns.
“By November of 2020, we’d been locked in with one another in the woods for five months,” Wolf’s diary entry reads. “It was all starting to feel vertiginous. No worship, no dinners, no events. No other people except on screen.” Screens, an essential part of the mediated lifestyle, one that divided class, forms a crucial part of her discontent that for many manifested itself most clearly during the pandemic. The internet as a medium had become, as the Canadian communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who died before the internet came into its own, had said, the message. And the message was profoundly distancing and dehumanizing, as Wolf observes in the throes of lockdown.
In The Bodies of Others Wolf writes of the journey of leaving England for the Bronx and then the New York City neighborhood with its “Baptist churches, venerable synagogues, elegant mosques, mosques tucked into empty office spaces, mosques devoted to members of the Nation of Islam, mosques filled with families who had left Palestine two and three generations before” for a rural upstate cottage where families of bears wander in the woods and lockdowns leave scant company, left her isolated with Twitter and the rest of the narrowing internet.
Society reopens physically and geographically, but not truly socially as the reopenings only create new divisions and deepen the old ones that had come into being during the pandemic, layering them like a palimpsest over the ideological and cultural maps of the country and the world.
Uninvited from her family’s Thanksgiving dinner in 2021, Wolf is further detached from her family and old acquaintances.
“I asked my mom if we had not been invited because we were unvaccinated,” she recalls.
“Probably,” she was told.
“I am so disappointed in you,” she recalls “ two different, formerly nonjudgmental friends” saying.
Cut off from Broadway musicals, dinner parties, services, and the entire panoply of her social world, Wolf tried to make sense of the new world in the way that she always has.
As for so many who were locked down, Twitter came to encompass Wolf’s world and her struggles, her arguments on the social media platform form a significant part of her political transformation and the conviction in The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human that “machine-based” interactions were increasingly displacing “in-person” interactions and creating a very different society.
“Friends who would join you in the past for jaunts to the cafés or excursions to the little consignment stores became email voices and ghostly Zoom links,” Naomi Wolf mourns.
At a physical therapist’s office in Oregon, she hears that “an in-person class in which women in their various shapes and sizes could celebrate their beauty, enjoy communal dance whatever their weight” has been shut down, contributing to skyrocketing obesity rates.
Spectacle had attained its own significance. And we were all caught up in the show.
The long march of the metonymous linguistic warfare through our culture in its naming and unnaming tests our ability to hold on to the verities of memory. Without maintaining a firm hold, we are haunted by the uncertain déjà vu of the lives that were once lived in these cultural spaces. That is the ultimate test of the cultural descent from the pelagic to the aphotic.
The question is how far?
The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human asks whether the affective polymorphism, which so much of the world has taken on, when met with the experiential disequilibrium of the public reaction to the manufactured reality so many inhabit can lead to a paradigmatic shift away and out of that manufactured modality.
Wolf’s most successful books have been about her personal journeys and how they reflect those of her cohort at different stages of her life, expressing collective grievances and frustrations, and understanding them as elements of a larger conflict. Socially isolated, Wolf came to believe that “the very impressiveness of evil” that was “killing churches and synagogues and mosques” was “leading me to believe in a newly literal and immediate way in the presence, the possibility, the necessity of a countervailing force — that of God.”
The Bodies of Others is the story of the latest chapter in Wolf’s journey, one that has taken her from consulting for the Clinton campaign to appearing on Stephen K. Bannon’s War Room. The pandemic lockdowns untethered millions from their sense of security and stable lifestyles into a new world that forced them to reevaluate what they had always taken for granted in the instability of a changing world order that both promises stability and in its various permutations also abruptly takes it away.