Feminist Contentions, Ch. 5-6

This will be our reading for Saturday, December 16.  You can get all the details at our meetup.com page.

Benhabib – Subjectivity, Historiography, and Politics

1. Through the 1980s, the term “postmodernism” was used to mark a sense of time-consciousness in a variety of fields: a sense that modernity was exhausted, and that old paradigms were at an end.  Butler thinks this is a term of dismissal and homogenization, and Benhabib wants to explain why it is not a dismissal.  

2. In order to avoid the usual talking-past-one-another battles between poststructuralists, Benhabib offered a working definition of postmodernism from Jane Flax.  Butler misconstrued the reason Benhabib distinguished between strong and weak versions of the three theses; Benhabib wants to characterize postmodernism as “the Demise of the Episteme of Representation”.

3. The core of the disagreement with Butler revolves around issues of subjectivity, selfhood, and agency.  While Benhabib admits her reading of Gender Trouble was inadequate because it missed the centrality of the speech-act model, she still doubts whether performativity can actually account for all the complexities of the origins of gender, and whether it can actually point the way to a new configuration of subjectivity.

4. Butler says that to be constituted by language is to be produced in a discursive network which is open to resignification.  However, language is not the only thing that constitutes gender: there are practices like family structure, child-rearing, the experiences of childhood itself, and the actions of parents.  Fraser is right to say Butler privileges linguistic metaphor.  On one level, Benhabib is ok with this: she agrees that any assertion of an “I” depends on a linguistic structure, the rules that regulate the use of the pronoun, and the practices that make it intelligible.  The “I” depends on a set of cultural codes.

5. However, there is a difference between studying the discursive practices which constitute an “I” and the dynamics of socialization which generate a social individual in the first place.  The historical stuff of the way various cultures have constituted individuality does not answer the question of which processes and dynamics move an infant to being a distinct self, able to participate in complex social processes.

6. Butler says that attempts to maintain some sort of pre-discursive stable subject are made to preserve agency; discourse is said to mire the subject, not constitute it.  Butler says this falsely assumes that to be constituted by discourse is to be determined by discourse.  But Benhabib thinks a speech-act model of gender formation cannot account for a capacity for self-determination.  What exactly enables the self to carry out any sort of resignification, or to resist against cultural codes?

7. Performativity is still a very deterministic view of individuation and socializing processes which Benhabib thinks falls short of current social science research.  The viability of some sort of agency is necessary in order to make empirical sense of processes of psycho-sexual development and maturation.  The decoding of metaphors and tropes of the self will not help us explain the process of maturation; instead we need an interchange between philosophy and the social sciences.

8. So the dispute between Butler and Benhabib has two levels: how empirical social science fits in, and the question of normative agency.  Can performativity not only account for the constitution of the self, but also its development and capacity for resistance?

9. While we did not read Drucila Cornell’s essay, parts of Benhabib’s response to her are still interesting.  Benhabib says that in an earlier essay called “Gender, Sex, and Equivalent Rights,” Cornell criticized Benhabib’s claims that deconstructionist language is mystifying: it makes women’s struggles for autonomy, agency, and equality conceptually confused.

10. Cornell’s synthesis of deconstructionist feminist theory and critical legal theory is not entirely coherent, or at least not necessary.  In the above mentioned essay, she introduced distinctions between sex (bodies) gender (the socio-cultural types) and lived sexuality (e.g., whether a woman expresses herself as a Woman in relation to a man) and criticizes the majority decision in Bowers v Hardwick, which reduced homosexuality to acts of sodomy.

11. Cornell’s distinctions are useful and her criticism of the decision is on point, but these claims could basically have been made by any number of theoretical frameworks besides deconstruction.  “To accept as complex and opaque an edifice as Lacanian psychoanalysis or Derridean deconstruction on these grounds alone will not do” (115).

12. So the relationship between these complex conceptual frameworks and her critique of of legal theory is contingent; then what is the relation between normative political/legal claims and these postmodern philosophical positions?  It appears as if Cornell thinks an expansion of the female imaginary is enough for feminist theory and politics, which is basically an aesthetic move.  Benhabib is skeptical of the place of aesthetics in feminist theory because, along with Habermas, she thinks that modern society has introduced firm distinctions between the aesthetic, the ethical, the juridical, and the political, and there is no theoretical or political gain in blurring those boundaries.

13. As a legal theorist, Cornell constantly uses the vocabulary of liberal democracies in order to describe the institutional and discursive spaces in which the claims of minorities can be articulated.  For example, she says things like “The division between normal, heterosexual and abnormal, homosexual ‘sexual identity’—as long as that identity is based on consent between adults—is a cultural construction”, or she uses Amartya Sen’s definition of capability as reflecting “a person’s freedom to choose between different ways of living.”  All of this is bog standard humanistic liberal democratic language.  Why does Cornell think a Lacanian or Derridean project is necessary to enframe these claims, especially when, on the surface, either Lacan nor Derrida would support this sort of humanistic vocabulary?

14. Cornell and Benhabib share a commitment to a non-violent relation to the other, but unlike Cornell, Benhabib thinks this is inadequate and does not allow for a distinction between justice and the ethical.  Justice requires not only the non-violent relationship, but also respect for the other whom I find repugnant.  The judges in the Bowers v Hardwick case did not need to have any personal sympathy or an ethical commitment to the homosexual males whose lives they did not condone, but they did have an obligation to respect their rights as citizens to be different.

15. The difficult political and legal questions begin when we ask just how different someone is allowed to be.  The injunction of non-violence ought to permeate our institutions and everyday lives, but it is not enough; without an idea of universal justice, we run the risk of identifying the other based purely on their identity.

16. There are two alternatives to be avoided.  The first is the use of norms and ideals in the defense of the actually existing capitalist order, as if it were beyond critique.  The second is the illusion that one can fight for the rights of minorities on any grounds other than the universalistic struggles of modernity, which gave rise to the revolutions and anti-imperialist struggles of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  The process of modernity is a global one:

“In every culture which was in some ways touched by the process of modernity, we find those who have fought for freedom, equality, and human dignity and whose who have resisted such calls.  Feminist theory is inevitably caught in the dialectic of modernity in which universalistic ideas first emerged, and within which they are continuously contested, evoked, challenged, and changed.” (118)

Butler – For a Careful Reading

March, 1994

17. This essay is a postscript to “Contingent Foundations.” She would not write that essay in the same way today: “At the time I understood myself to be embattled: what I understood to be an unreasoned and anxious response to the entry of poststructuralist discourse into feminist theory was, I thought, to be countered through a reasoned set of rejoinders to the complaint.” (127)

18. But now, she understands what she should have known all along: the pursuit of the reasonable is the site of other kinds of investments, ones which are difficult to uncover, much less change.  Because this point is disavowed, this debate is at a deadlock.  What structures this debate, its disavowed investments, has remained unspeakable.  “For the question of whether or not a position is right, coherent, or interesting is, in this case, less informative than why it is we come to occupy and defend the territory that we do, what it promises us, from what it from promises to protect us.  Unfortunately this conversation is not one that takes place within the context of this volume.” (127-128)

19. Instead of discussing these unreasoned attachments, the debate has been focused on “position taking” in which claims are defended, but what is at stake in making the claim is ignored.

20. Butler thinks Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic suggests an alternative to Benhabib’s use of modernity: the de-contextualization of its emancipatory narrative, and appropriating it for a different use.  Butler is totally on board with this sort of appropriation as a “foundation.”

21. While it is true that political action always has presuppositions, we do not need to work them out in advance: “It may be that those presuppositions are articulated only in and through that action and become available only through a reflective posture made possible through that articulation in action” (129).  To set norms in advance is to set them outside of history.

22. That being said, we do need norms and an idea of the universal, it just needs to be articulated in action, rather than beforehand.  Helga Geyer-Ryan has two criticisms of this sort of contested universality: “[A] virulent critique of covertly limited universality can only ever possess a rhetorical character,” and “the partisan distortion and impoverishment of these concepts in the interests of patriarchal dominion should not be confused with the emancipatory power which these concepts articulated in the eighteenth century and which they continue to possess today.”  Butler likes this, except for the implication that the rhetorical is semantically empty.

23. Any of idea of a contested, situated universal always has to deal with a paradox: working it out in a particular situation will inevitably work against the supposedly trans-cultural claims being made.

24. There is a difference between claiming that there is an existing universal and claiming that universality has been decided once and for all.  It is only ever partially articulated, and only future experience will tell us what it looks like.  It might even be politically important to claim a certain set of rights are universal even if existing conventions disagree, because the claim might provoke a rearticulation of the universal.

25. When competing claims are made, it is important to see that cultures do not exemplify ready-made universals, but rather culturally articulated universals.  Understanding these articulations cannot erase differences in the name of universality, or simply list particulars with no commonality.  None of these terms are understandable outside of the conflicts, institutional settings, and historical conditions from which they emerge.  There is no transcendental guarantee, and philosophy will not supply the vision that “makes life worth living.”  The contingency of all foundations is the condition of our agency, the condition of being able to ask what we should do.

26. It would be just as much a mistake to take “poststructuralism” as a ground as it would be to take Benhabib’s “quasi-transcendental pragmatics”.  We need to live in a kind of political in media res, which is not the same thing as an endless flux.  That would be both impossible and undesirable.  This is where Cornell’s emphasis on transformation is important; how do we change our “place” or our “ground”?  “To be so grounded is nearly to be buried; it is to refuse alterity, to reject contestation, to decline that risk of self-transformation perpetually posed by democratic life: to give way to the very impulse of conservatism” (131-132).

27. Much of what comes next was written in 1993.  Butler thinks these disputes are not as important as other ones: “I’m struck in many ways by the parochialism of these debates, for the four of us certainly are not representative of ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist theory’ as it is currently articulated” (132).  She thinks there are issues of race, technology, the LGBT community and others missing from this debate.

February, 1993

28. Butler insists this is not a debate between postmodernism and critical theory, because no one involved is defending postmodernism.  Rather, this is a discussion about foundationalism and agency.  The attempt to paint Butler as an “anti-foundationalist” is “a defensive intellectual posture.”

For Benhabib, on “Agency”

29. Butler points out that Benhabib misquoted her; Benhabib quotes her as saying we must get rid of the “doer beyond the deed,” but the actual quote is “the doer behind the deed.”  Benhabib goes on to quote Butler correctly, “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”  Benhabib uses these quotations to attribute a theory of the self to Butler, though Butler says this is only a fragment of her theory of gender, not of the self as such, and if she gave one, it would not be reducible to gender.

30. Benhabib asks if we can change the expressions which constitute us.  In Gender Trouble, Butler explained that change is already a part of performativity. Benhabib is mistaken to say that Butler thinks “we are no more than the sum of the gendered expressions we perform.”

31. Butler takes the term performativity from J.L. Austin and passes through Derrida’s reading.  She says, “A performative act is one which brings into being or enacts that which it names, and so marks the constitutive or productive power of discourse.  To the extent that a performative appears to ‘express’ a prior intention, a doer behind the deed, that prior agency is only legible as the effect of that utterance” (134).  Because a performative act can only function within a context, specifically as a “citation” of a model, the intention of the agent behind the act is not the source of the act’s significance or power.

32. The subject is a linguistic category, not a quasi-transcendental agent like in Benhabib’s model: To be constituted within language is to be produced within a given network of power/discourse which is open to resignification, redeployment, subversive citation from within, and interruption and inadvertent convergences with other such networks” (135).  What we might want to call “agency” is found at those moments of change.  The fact that the “I” is constructed through repeated iterations is the condition of change.  There is still a doer, but it no longer exists behind the deed.

33. While we cannot stand outside of discursive convention, we can reworking these conventions.  Gender performativity is not about an instrumental use of a masquerade, because that would presuppose an intentional subject behind the deed.  Rather, gender performativity is about deriving agency from the power regimes which constitute us, and this is historical work.

34. While a strong idea of agency rooted in a transcendental self has had some good effects in the world, particularly for women, this does not mean it is beyond question. There is no opposition to power which is itself not a part of power, and agency is part of what it opposes, and emancipation is not a transcendence of power.

For Fraser, on “Critical Capacities”

35. Again, we did not read Nancy Fraser’s essays, but Butler’s response is in part relevant.  Fraser does seem to accept some sort of thinking of agency as resignification, but she brings up two other questions. The first is about anti-humanism and jargon, like “signifying process.”  Fraser says they are remote from “everyday ways of talking and thinking,” and doubts they can have political impact.  Butler thinks jargon is not the problem, since Fraser uses Habermasian jargon herself, and the Habermasian position is that everyday language cannot provide grounds for adjudicating itself.  Fraser asks why “resignification” is a good thing; but for Butler, is not good or bad, but the possibility of what we might call agency.

36. It appears as if Butler objects to exclusion, and then says it is neither good nor bad, but she accepts Fraser’s question as her own: can we challenge or change current modes of subjection?  Butler thinks there are better and worse forms of exclusion or differentiation.  She says,

“My call, then, is for the development of forms of differentiation which lead to fundamentally more capacious, generous, and ‘unthreatened’ bearings of the self in the midst of community.  That an ‘I’ is differentiated from another does not mean that the other becomes unthinkable in its difference, nor that the other must become structurally homologous to the ‘I’ in order to enter into community with that ‘I’.” (140)

37. Political work is about learning to honour difference without making a fetish of it.

38. Butler turns to the question of foundations: any explanation of foundation would be subject to the same sorts of cultural translation as what it is trying to ground.  Fraser claims that the Haitian slave use of Enlightenment ideas shows their universal value as a ground, but Butler thinks this makes her point for her: Toussaint de l’Ouverture took the French model and resignified it in a Haitian context.  It was a foundation that moved.

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