Feminist Contentions, Ch 1-2

This will be the reading for our Saturday, December 2 meeting.  You can get the details at our meetup.com page.

At one time, there was a major debate within feminism over the value of Marxism for the feminist project.  By the early 1990s, when these essays were written, the debate had shifted to the feminist value of postmodernism.  Seyla Benhabib, influenced by the democratic discourse theorist Jurgen Habermas, argues that postmodernism strips feminism of the norms and values it requires to be an emancipatory force.  Judith Butler, influenced by Foucault and Lacan (and preferring the term poststructuralism over postmodernism) argues that postmodernism offers us the chance to re-examine the norms we take for granted in order to discover their hidden repressive elements.

Benhabib – Feminism and Postmodernism

1. Benhabib says that postmodernism can be best characterizing by saying it announces three “deaths”, that of Man, History, and Metaphysics.  The death of man involves leaving behind any transcendental or ahistorical idea of human nature in favour of “chains of signification,” which is roughly the claim that our ideas about ourselves and our behaviour is rooted in historical uses of language.  The death of history is the end of a strong belief in progress, which suggests there is a unified, homogenous path humanity is travelling (say, towards communism).  Finally, the death of metaphysics has two aspects.  First, it is a critique of the metaphysics of presence, which basically means an anti-foundationalism. Second, it refuses any claim that philosophy must play a foundational role in positive knowledge.

2. It is easy to see why feminists consider postmodernism an ideal ally, since it is easy to generate feminist versions of these positions.  The death of man can be redescribed as the critique of the male subject of reason; an apparently universal subject turns out to be the reflection of only some people, and is blinded to otherness.  The feminist counterpoint to the death of history is the “Engendering of Historical Narrative”; history has been white, male, and propertied, and philosophies of history have forced historical narrative into unity and homogeneity.  The death of metaphysics becomes the critique of transcendent reason.  The subject is not supra-historical; instead, all of its activities bear the marks of the context out of which they arise. (19)

3. The problem is that each of these theses can permit if not contradictory, than at least radically divergent theoretical strategies because there are weak and strong versions of all three deaths.  We will only look at the deaths of man and metaphysics here.

4. The weak version of the death of man places the subject in various historical and linguistic contexts; a subject unstructured by language is unthinkable.  However, it maintains the desirability and possibility of autonomy, rationality, and a less mystified subjectivity.  The strong version is that humans are caught in a web of fictive meaning; the subject disappears into the chain of significations it was supposed to initiate.  The problem is that if the subject is only a position in a chain of signifiers, it has no distance from them and cannot reflect on them.  This is why the strong version of the death of the subject is incompatible with feminism.  It undermines agency, autonomy, and selfhood, and it is unclear how any project of emancipation is possible without these.

5. For these reasons and others, Benhabib thinks feminist uses of postmodern thought can only end in incoherence.  Her example is Judith Butler’s attempt to move beyond the dualism of sex and gender; for Butler, there is no “prediscursively sexed body.”  Butler thinks that in order to get past dualisms like this, we must first get past the “doer beyond the deed”.  She says there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; identity is performatively constituted by the same expressions that are supposed to be its results.   However, Benhabib says, if we accept this, can we change the expressions which constitute us?  Do we ever get a say?  The problem is that getting a say is the entire point of gender struggle.  It must be possible to challenge heterosexism in all its avatars without totally debunking selfhood, agency, and autonomy.  Given how fragile many women’s sense of self and attempts at autonomy are, the reduction of agency “at best appears to be making a virtue out of necessity” (22).

6. As for the strong and weak versions of the death of metaphysics, the strong version is often itself a metaphysic. Postmodernism says philosophy has tried to privilege itself as the ultimate representation of the Real, or says things like the Real is the ground of truth.  However, this greatly flattens out the history of philosophy; Benhabib thinks Hobbes, Kant, and Hegel would disagree with some or all of these statements.

7. The weak version, which is basically Richard Rorty’s, argues that both rationalism and empiricism presuppose that philosophy can formulate norms for knowledge and action.  Philosophy is supposed to be a meta-discourse about legitimation.  However, once this status is lost, what becomes of philosophy?  It seems to become purely a form of cultural description.  Feminist emancipation requires a constructive philosophy, and so feminism cannot rely on postmodernism as an ally.

8. Sabin Lovibond thinks we should be wary of any Nietzschean vision of the end of rational legitimation, but also of any weaker claim that legitimation should be self-consciously local.  Postmodernism has a dilemma: it can either reopen the door to the Enlightenment and a society organized on more rational grounds, or it can argue against it, “licensing the cynical thought that, here as elsewhere, ‘who will do what to whom under the new pluralism is depressingly predictable'”.

9. The postmodernist who is commit to both social criticism and the death of philosophy has to argue that everyday practices contain within themselves critical capacities.  Criticism cannot be “the view from nowhere,” but always situated.  This idea of situated criticism has two problems.

10. First, cultures, societies, and traditions are not monolithic.  Whatever context one is appealing to, whether “the Anglo-American liberal tradition” or “western culture,” these are all ideal types: “They are constructed out of the tapestry of meaning and interpretation which constitutes the horizon of our social lifeworld. . . . There is never a single set of constitute criteria to appeal to in characterizing complex social practices” (27).  In short, one cannot simply point at a practice and contrast it with the significance it has within that lifeworld, because there is no single significance within that lifeworld.

11. The second problem with situated criticism is that one’s culture might be so brutal, the capacity for conversation so crushed, that the social critic becomes an exile, like Old Testament prophets or the Frankfurt School.  To the extent that social criticism implies a distance from one’s society is the extent to which a critic is an exile.  To leave the home is not to live nowhere, but to be outside the city walls in a different social reality.  The problem with situated criticism is that it appears to be a kind of nostalgia for home, the ability to criticize from within the city walls. To criticize from outside the city walls is not a view from nowhere.

12. Hence, there is a version of postmodernism that would ruin any possibility of feminism as the theoretical articulation of emancipatory aspirations.  The strong version of the three postmodern theses undermine the feminist commitment to women’s agency, to the reappropriation of women’s history in the name of an emancipated future, and the exercise of social criticism.

13. The end of rationalist visions of social engineering is not the end of utopian hope full-stop.  As long as we hope for the “wholly other,” utopian thinking remains a practical-moral imperative: “Without such a regulative principle of hope, not only morality but also radical transformation is unthinkable” (30).  Enemies of utopian thinking like Jean-Francois Lyotard do have a point: utopian thinking can flatten out all the complexities of the present moment, or be an excuse for crass instrumentalism or authoritarianism.  But we cannot deal with these problems by dismissing utopian concerns, but rather by articulating the normative principles of democratic action and organization in the present.

14. The feminist dismissal of utopia has taken the form of debunking an essentialist attempt to formulate feminist ethics, politics, or aesthetics.  It may be true that feminists like Sarah Ruddick or Julia Kristeva articulate white, middle class, heterosexual concerns, but what do we offer in their place?  How do we improve on autonomous individuality, a radically democratic polity, the values of ecology, nonmilitarism, and solidarity?  In conclusion, postmodernism can show us the pitfalls of utopian thought, but it should not cause us to drop it altogether.

Butler – Contingent Foundations

15. Butler begins by arguing that “postmodernism” is not really a thing, outside of aesthetics.  In terms of social and political theory, whenever the word appears, it is a preface to phrases like “if discourse is all there is. . .” and “if the subject is dead. . .”.  It is always a warning against an impending nihilism, and always couched in “fearful conditionals”.  The response to postmodern is an attempt to shore up primary premises like the necessity of the subject: “For politics is unthinkable without a foundation, without these premises” (36).  However, it is not the case that politics is unthinkable without these premises; rather, it is that a certain form of politics is more contingent than it thinks it is.

16. To say that politics requires a stable subject is to say that there can be no political criticism of the subject; the critique of the subject puts politics itself in jeopardy.  To insist on a stable subject, to make an analytical starting point, enforces the boundaries of the political in a way that is protected from political scrutiny.  It is an “authoritarian ruse” by which debate concerning the subject is “summarily silenced”.  Further, to refuse to assume a subject from the start is not to reject the idea of a subject, but to investigate how it is constructed and its political meaning and consequences.

17. The word “postmodernism” has many positions included under it, which are all conflated.  For example, Foucault and Derrida are included under this term, but they are opposed on many issues.  The real question is not feminism’s relation to postmodernism, but what postmodernism is even supposed to be.  The goal of some of the positions lumped under postmodernism is to criticize the ways in which examples erase what they are supposed to explain.  If we take Lyotard as an exemplar of postmodernism, we end up forcing the substitution of an example for an entire field.  That substitution is a kind of “conceptual mastery”, and is a sort of “self-congratulatory ruse of power”.  It is paradoxical at best that these dismissive groupings are performed by people who see themselves as warding off totalitarianism.

18. In order to say that an example stands for the whole, we first need to believe that theories offer themselves in complete bundles as symptoms of their age.  Supposedly, these bundled theories can be substituted for one another because they are symptoms of a common structural preoccupation.  However, this cannot be assumed, because it is precisely ideas like this that are criticized by some “postmodern” positions.

19. This unification of disparate terms under a single name might also be a way of domesticating one of postmodernism’s main positions: that philosophy is always bound up with power.  This is not a new position, but postmodernism is not a valorization of the new–that belongs to high modernism–rather, it doubts the possibility of a new not implicated in the old. The way that normative political philosophy tries to find a position which is beyond power, or to establish a metapolitical basis for power negotiations, “is perhaps the most insidious ruse of power. . . . What form of insidious cultural imperialism here legislates itself under the sign of the universal?” (39)

20. Power pervades every conceptual apparatus, even the one that seeks to reflect on itself and the position of the critic.  This claim is not incipient nihilism or relativism, but the precondition of any critique whatsoever.  To claim that there is a set of norms beyond power simply disguises power in the cloak of normative universality.  We cannot counter a simple anti-foundationalism to this, either; foundationalism and anti-foundationalism are two sides of the same coin.  Rather, we need to see exactly what the founding move accepts and what it excludes.  It does appear true that every theory at least implicitly involves a foundation, but all foundations are constituted through exclusions.  Once these exclusions are taken into account, the foundations appear contingent and contestable.

21. We can no longer ground theory in a simple universality, because it is universality itself that is in question.  Many cultural conflicts can be understood as clashes of competing universalities, and the attempt to resolve them by appealing to a single universality can only be done through violence.  For example, the first Gulf War: the US had to ignore the democratic principles of political sovereignty and free speech in order to bring the unruly Arab “other” back into the democratic fold.  The violence required to bring people under the one true universality often involves the abrogation of the very principles involved.

22. It might appear that Butler is calling for a more concrete and diverse universality, which looks a lot like the view she is trying to undermine.  The important issue is that since any concept of universality is founded on exclusions, then any new universality is only built at the cost of new exclusions.  The word ‘universality’ must be left permanently open and contingent.  She is not arguing against the use of the term, but to relieve it of its foundationalist weight in order to make it a site of permanent political contest.

23. The subjectivation process forms the I, and we attach positions to that I.   A position is mine, attached to “my” “I”, to the extent that I  work out and reword the positions that have constituted me.  It means looking at how the positions converge, and accounting for what they exclude.  [To me, this clearly looks like a process of reflection.  Does she mean something other than reflective analysis?]  This does look like basic rational reflection, but she insists that the ‘I’ does not preside over these positions, instrumentally shuffling through them.  The ‘I’ does not selected positions; it is constituted by them.  It is not a strong enough claim to just say that the “I” is situated within positions; rather it is constituted by them; “and these ‘positions’ are not merely theoretical products, but fully embedded organizing principles of material practices and institutional arrangements” (42).  

24. No subject grounds itself, and the fantasy that they do has to ignore the relations they are involved in from the start.  The relations have to be cast as something purely incidental and external, which is, incidentally, what Luce Irigaray says about the male disavowal of the dependence on maternity.  There is a sense in which the idea of the self-grounding subject is masculine from the start.

25. She says the media’s portrayal of the Gulf War was one great big shoring up of this sort of masculine subjectivity.  From the way the talking heads and Generals were framed as physically larger than maps of Iraq on CNN, to the way that the then-recently popular term for missile strikes “delivery of ordinance” has an etymological relation to ordinance as law, the war’s portrayal was full of masculine symbolic and fantasmic relations.

26. She reiterates the point that the subject is constituted through exclusion and differentiation which is then concealed through the sense of autonomy.  That sense of autonomy is the consequence of a disavowed dependency upon particular kinds of social relations–conventionally identified with the feminine, but not exclusively.

27. She continues, “There is no ontologically intact reflexivity to the subject which is then placed within a cultural context; that context, as it were, is already there as the disarticulated process of that subject’s production, one that is concealed by the frame that would situate a ready-made subject in an external web of cultural relations” (46).

28. We cannot simply assume we need the subject in order to preserve agency, because to say that the subject is constituted is not to say that it is determined.  Rather, that constitution is the condition of agency; only the knowledge that the subject is constituted gives us the possibility of reworking that constitution.  Agency is a political issue, not a metaphysical one.  Hence, instead of taking agency or the subject for granted, we have to look at what we can do to and within current configurations of power.  The subject is not a ground and not a process, but is the possibility of a resignifying process.  Finally, the subject is always created by an exclusion, so we need to know who qualifies as a “who”; what structures allow who to speak in, for example, a court?

29. It should be clear that none of this is about a rejection of the subject, but only about a subject considered first and foremost in epistemological terms.  Struggles of all kinds involve subjects, but we need to make sure we do not simply reproduce forms of hegemonic subjectivization.

30. We do need to speak, and there is a practical need to speak in the name of women.  Because the way representational politics work, lobbying is impossible without some form of identity politics; movements need to make claims in the name of women.  But this need is attached to another need: as soon as the word “women” is used to describe a category, we must discuss who exactly falls into that category.  For example, some claim that maternity is the mark of a woman.

31. However, every time the content of “women” is specified, it leads to factionalization and dispute.  In the 1980s, women of color criticized the feminist “we” for being invariably white, and others pointed out that maternity cannot be the rallying point because not all women are mothers. In response to this necessity, Butler says “I would argue that any effort to give universal or specific content to the category of women, presuming that the guarantee of solidarity is required in advance, will necessarily produce factionalization, and that ‘identity’ as a point of departure can never hold as the solidifying ground of a feminist political movement” (50).  Identity categories are not simply descriptive, but also normative and therefore exclusionary.

32. It is not that we should not use the term “women,” but rather that the content of the category must always be open to dispute.  Rifts among women over the term need to be safeguarded: they actually ought to be taken as the “ungrounded ground of feminist theory” (50).  It is only by separating the category of “women” from a fixed referent does something like agency become possible.  It opens up the field of what it means to be a woman, and hence enables a sense of agency.

33. Foundations exist to be questioned; this is the permanent risk of democratization, and to refuse this risk is to refuse feminist politics.  Instead of by worried about the loss of these categories, we should look at how they were used to subordinate us in the first place.


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