Identity Politics

Identity Politics

I made a trip to the bookstore tonight and discovered something odd. I was looking for more Hegel, and there were a couple of books sitting astride the top row, on top of the books by and about Foucault. They were turned were I couldn’t read the spines, so I picked them up. Somehow, I don’t think this book belongs in the philosophy section. But then again, there was something rather poetic about the placement.

I was going to try to say a little something about Steve’s observations regarding the angry feminist question flying about. Thankfully, Golby and Baldur have covered most of what I intended to say. There are major problems with any attempt to flatten complicated theories. I was once in the same position as Jonathon, regarding poststructuralist theory— detesting it “because it gutted art practice, subordinating artists to the whims of curators who hate art but love politics and power.” Feminist theory suffers from the same sort of collapse, in the perception of most people who haven’t actually read it. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t poststructuralist theory I detest, but rather the myopic misreading of it that caused the atmosphere that Jonathon is talking about. Most curators latched onto tiny bits regarding a proclaimed death of representative practice as license to avoid dealing with the problems of representation that these theories highlight and intensify. Most people view the political polemics of Marxist feminism in the same way— with distaste. In a similar fashion, feminist theory intensifies the problems of gender and power.

The arc of feminism— which is hardly dead— highlights the problems of politics and power. Reduced to a discourse about power, feminism became an incredibly conservative rather than radical theory. Many theorists like Cixous and Kristeva seemed to promote not a new order, but a feminine inversion of the old order. As feminism declared war on pornography, it found itself on the same side as the Christian right. Now that’s a scary place to be. In order to become respectable, some feminist organizations began to exclude “deviants” so that the cause of “normative” feminism might get further in its project of the creation of gender equity. As the “club” narrowed by exclusion, the real problems emerged and landed squarely in a far more vital (in my opinion) field of “gender studies”— queer theory. Rather than sorting people into categories like masculine and feminine perhaps it might be a good idea to figure out just what men and women are.

Baldur covered part of this. Most arguments for gender can indeed be sorted into “essentialist” and “nonessentialist” positions. There are problems on both sides. Simply stated, an essentialist argument claims that there is something inside (not genitalia) which determines which gender we are. This easily degenerates into metaphysics— it is because it is— rather than a useful theoretical framework. That’s why most writing tends to avoid this approach. However, the alternative isn’t very useful either. Some, like Kate Bornstein and Judith Butler argue that we are essentially not gendered— that gender is a social construction, and the ultimate liberation is to attain a state of androgyny.

Butler, in particular, is key because she argues that gender is purely performative— we are what we act like. Feminism reached its impasse, according to Butler, because it merely inverted the hierarchy rather than transcending it. However, this does not answer the fundamental empirical evidence out there that men and women are indeed different— we learn differently and speak differently (as demonstrated in the work of Deborah Tannen). Though I wonder at the ultimate end of this debate, I’m really far from completely understanding it. Feminist criticism has indeed brought a lot of new material to the table, as has queer theory. It explains and reinforces a lot of what I’ve already encountered in language philosophy. And the essentialist and nonessentialist positions are not really separated by a broad gulf— Monique Wittig blends Butler’s performativity with an essentialist position— the body is a venue where the essential nature of sexuality intersects with socially constructed gender performance.

Right now, I’m tackling Luce Irigaray on the subject. The problem, and discussion of it also revolves around the phallogocentric nature of language as highlighted by Derrida. These are deep issues that are not going away anytime soon. Obviously, not being a girl I’m not qualified to elaborate on “girlism” and what the heck it’s supposed to be all about. Recognition that a system of gender exists which can objectify and subjugate people need not be an “angry” affair at all.

We’re locked in this language, and forced to deal with it. It isn’t a battle to be won or lost— only a system of gender construction and enforcement of “normative” behaviors that can, and must, be brought to light in order to try to find some way out of the box of stereotypical behaviors. It strikes at the core of how we deal with identity, and the politics that surround it. I think difference is a good thing; I’m not turning androgynous any time soon. But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

4 thoughts on “Identity Politics”

  1. Do Boorstein and Butler really argue that we are “essentially not gendered,” or that we are “not essentially gendered”?
    I think there’s a difference, myself, the difference between “there is no difference between a man and a woman” and “there is no *reliable* difference between any given man and any given woman.”
    I suppose neither statement is true (I have two X chromosomes no matter what), but the second comes a lot closer, for me anyway.

  2. I remember Jonathon’s post on poststructuralist theory, agreeing with his views on something about which I know squat with absolute glee. And so it is with ‘feminism’. Perhaps speaking from outside any knowledge of models and theories enables me to speak more freely, although it holds the danger of sometimes not knowing what the hell others are going on about when obfuscation enters the ‘discussion’. That said, Jeff, I cannot but chuckle along with much of what you say in yet another humor-laden post reigniting my regret at not having read or studied more. I guess the final paragraph says it all for me :).

  3. First, I must apologize for spelling Kate Bornstein’s name wrong— a Freudian slip, I do consider her a bit boorish.
    Next, to answer Dorothea— the answer (upon consultation with others who have read the same texts) is both. Butler and Bornstein both call for radical gender performances to subvert the normative ideals. At the core, they think the essential state of people is genderless, and they argue that by playing with the socially constructed stereotypes of gender we can be free of gender oppression. Butler and Bornstein want to start from a zero, null state where we are liberated as human beings:
    Because from a point of nothing, really being nothing, we have the potential to be anything, including any gender.
    Kate Bornstein, My Gender Workbook
    Or, as Butler would have it in her own academic-eze way:
    If the notion of an abiding substance is a fictive construction produced through the compulsive ordering of attributes into coherent gender sequences [she believes it is] then it seems that gender as a substance, the viability of man and woman is called into question by the dissonant play of attributes which fail to conform to sequential or causal modes of intelligibility.
    Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.

  4. “Most curators latched onto tiny bits regarding a proclaimed death of representative practice as license to avoid dealing with the problems of representation that these theories highlight and intensify.”
    Thanks, Jeff, for a more accurate description of what actually happened (that leaves me still filled with hatred for the curators but far more sympathetic to the post-structuralist theorists).
    Holy shit, what did I just say? If I’m not careful I’ll abandon Japanese literature and the Pacific War and turn my attention to Judith Butler!

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