Feminist Research Alliance Workshop: Jim Holstun

Big Red Books: Simone de Beauvoir, Nawal el Saadawi, and Social Reproduction Theory

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Noon-1:30pm  - Virtual on Zoom

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Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Nawal el Saadawi’s The Naked Face of the Arab Woman (1974; translated as The Hidden Face of Eve) are two classics of socialist feminist theory. But they are almost never called that. Marxist theorists disinterested in gender and sexuality chronically neglect them, while liberal and post-structural feminists tend to overlook the historical materialist dimensions of their work, with an additional dollop of condescension in referring to Saadawi as “The Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world.”

But Beauvoir is the Beauvoir of the Arab world, as Saadawi is the Saadawi of the Rive Gauche, and beyond. And there are profound and illuminating affinities between their two big books, which use multiple analytical disciplines, including literary criticism, in a project of methodological totalization. The recent explosion of socialist feminism under the rubric of “social reproduction theory” should incorporate the crucial theoretical work of these precursors, who are also, not incidentally, socialist feminist novelists.

New Faculty Publication Highlight

Marla Segol, Associate Professor of Jewish Thought and Global Gender and Sexuality Studies recently published a new book, Kabbalah and Sex Magic: A Mythical-Ritual Genealogy  from Penn State University Press.

Book cover art of Kabbalah and Sex Magic.

In this provocative book, Marla Segol explores the development of the kabbalistic cosmology underlying Western sex magic. Drawing extensively on Jewish myth and ritual, Segol tells the powerful story of the relationship between the divine and the human body in late antique Jewish esotericism, in medieval kabbalah, and in New Age ritual practice.

Kabbalah and Sex Magic traces the evolution of a Hebrew microcosm that models the powerful interaction of human and divine bodies at the heart of both kabbalah and some forms of Western sex magic. Focusing on Jewish esoteric and medical sources from the fifth to the twelfth century from Byzantium, Persia, Iberia, and southern France, Segol argues that in its fully developed medieval form, kabbalah operated by ritualizing a mythos of divine creation by means of sexual reproduction. She situates in cultural and historical context the emergence of Jewish cosmological models for conceptualizing both human and divine bodies and the interactions between them, arguing that all these sources position the body and its senses as the locus of culture and the means of reproducing it. Segol explores the rituals acting on these models, attending especially to their inherent erotic power, and ties these to contemporary Western sex magic, showing that such rituals have a continuing life.