benhabib, butler, and fraser

Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance by Seyla Benhabib

Benhabib begins her piece by connecting feminism with postmodernism and framing feminism and postmodernism as two approaches seemingly united in their “struggle against the grand narratives of Western enlightenment and modernity.” The seeming connection stems from the movements’ commitment to the death of man, of history, and of metaphysics. Paraphrasing Benhabiib quoting Flax, the death of man comes with the destruction of essential conceptions of humanity or nature and instead situates man as a social, historical, or linguistic artifacts enslaved to their contexts. The death of history is related to the death of man insofar as history was the story of man; by demystifying man the importance of history is exposed for the arbitrary collection of facts about man it is. Finally, the death of metaphysics follows the exposure of Western thinkers’ attempt to “master the world” by describing it with a system of universal truths and beliefs, applicable in all histories and contexts.

The feminist overlap of the death of man, history, and metaphysics is as follows. Feminism’s death of man arose from the exposure of the inherent male subjectivity of reason, challenging the “objective” notions western thought posited as given. Feminism’s death of history arose from the admission that all official historical subjects have generally been white male Christian head of households and the legitimization of subaltern historical narratives white male history doesn’t cover. Finally, the death of metaphysics arose from challenges to notions of “transcendent reason” through the exposure and acknowledgment of power structures reinforced by gender relations in the social system.

Nevertheless, the seeming coherence between the two perspectives is challenged by how the postmodernism and feminism frame the practices they aim to evaluate and describe. Benhabib describes these contentions in terms of weak and strong postmodernist stances to the deaths of man, history, and metaphysics. The implications of the strong postmodernist stances, especially the metaphysical, severely limits what philosophy can achieve, especially in terms of epistemology or, that is (Benhabib paraphrasing Rorty) the practice of legitimizing knowledge. Benhabib follows the delegitimization of philosophy as an analytical tool with several questions:

Does not philosophy become a form of genealogical critique of regimes of discourse and power as they succeed each other in their endless historical monotony? Or maybe philosophy becomes a form of thick cultural narration of the sort that hitherto only poets had provided us with? Or maybe all that remains of philosophy is a form of sociology of knowledge, which instead of investigating the conditions of the validity of knowledge and action, investigates the empirical conditions under which communities of interpretation generate such validity claims?

The result within feminists in the decade preceding the article, Benhabib argues, is “a retreat from utopia,” or “the debunking as essentialist any attempt to formulate a feminist ethic, a feminist politics, a feminist concept of autonomy, and even a feminist aesthetic.” The social science stakes of this piece suggest that a postmodernist stance is not compatible with a feminist stance since postmodernism negates “the very emancipatory ideals of the women’s movements altogether.”

Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of “Postmodernism” by Judith Butler

Butler, in contrast, doesn’t damn a working relationship between postmodernism and feminism. Instead, Butler challenges the very meaning of postmodernism, and suggests the conflation of postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, French feminism, Lacan, Foucault, Rorty, cultural studies, high-modernism, and the avant garde. Postmodernism, to Butler, isn’t so much a problem as it is an undefined, inconsistent pastiche of thoughts that are conveniently described as a cohesive antiauthoritarian whole. The irony of postmodernism then is that through its resistance to all forms of power it exercises its own version of power.

Butler summarizes the point of postmodernism (or more accurately poststructuralism) thusly:

To establish a set of norms that are beyond power or force is itself a powerful and forceful conceptual practice that sublimates, disguises, and extends its own power play through recourse to tropes of normative universality. And the point is not to do away with foundations, or even to champion a position that goes under the name of antifoundationalism. Both of those positions belong together as different versions of foundationalism and the skeptical problematic it engenders. Rather, the task is to interrogate what the theoretical move that establishes foundations authorizes, and what precisely it excludes or forecloses.

Butler defends against the suggestion that she is simply seeking a broader, comprehensive universality. If anything, she is seeking a “permanently open, permanently contested, permanently contingent” notion of universality that serves as a “site of permanent political contest.”

Butler continues with a case study of the first Iraq war, interrogating a series of foundational “givens” assumed by the military masculine Western subject waging the war. She notes Foucault’s analysis of the displaced subject that erases the trajectory of his prior actions and instead identifies himself as an intentional actor. Absent of a genealogy, the subject engages in talking head television interviews that reify military strategy and provide a means for disembodied observation of their “pure” intentionality through live video from the battlefield. Of course, the effects of the subject’s actions “always have the power to proliferate beyond the subject’s control” and “challenge the rational transparency of that subject’s intentionality” thus “subvert[ing] the very definition of the subject itself.”

This analysis of the pregiven subject and his intentionality supports Butler’s claim that notions of agency are “always and only a political prerogative.” In other words, what is given about a subject requires ongoing production from all participants within the matrix of power. As such, the subject isn’t as much dead as it is “insidiously” political.

Perhaps Butler’s most damning indictment of “postmodernist” thinking is the suggestion that the death of the subject conveniently coincides with women finally assuming subjecthood. The stakes for social science are most clearly spelled out here, since the tools being used to uncover power dynamics form a power dynamic themselves, “through the regulation and production of subjects.” Rather than getting rid of subjecthood, Butler suggests we instead open the concept up to multiple definitions.

Butler ends with the polemic of what should be the constituency of feminism as an example of a subject struggling to accept its fluidity. A universalist perspective, Butler argues, normalizes and thus supports factionalization. Iterable, denaturalized subjects serving as sites of political debate are therefore the way forward for feminism and its constituents, whomever they may be.

False Antitheses: A Response to Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler by Nancy Fraser

Fraser situates Benhabib and Butler within the purviews of critical theory and postructuralism and argues that Benhabib and Butler are forcing us to choose between the two movements. This false antithesis is built on flawed premises both authors make; Fraser then uses her text to expose those flawed premises and integrate these two perspectives into the feminist theory toolkit.

Fraser starts with Benhabib’s discussion of the death of history. Fraser argues that Benhabib’s rejection of the stronger claim glosses over nuance, effectively making a strawman argument against the postmodernist position. Fraser cites her work with Nicholson as an example of a middle ground approach towards studying history that blends the best of critical theory, postmodernism, and feminism. This approach relies on the rejection of historical metanarratives, without rejecting large-scale empirical narratives or a commitment to emancipation.

Fraser then follows with the Benhabib’s treatment of the death of metaphysics. There are two positions Benhabib rejects in this analysis: the existence of universal metanarratives of discourse and the rejection of all normative claims resulting in a purely descriptive epistemology of discourse. Fraser then highlights a third position that Benhabib doesn’t develop: that of situated social criticism, which is a context-conscious form of social criticism. Benhabib states that situated criticism needs philosophy to describe its contexts and absent of this tool the task becomes impossible. Fraser contends this perspective by suggesting that the subject of criticism, the critic, and any claims that are made can and should be historically situated and that this process of situation does not rely on universalist philosophical tools.

Fraser then turns her attention to Butler, who provides the converse of Benhabib’s polemic by systematically picking apart at a cohesive vision of postmodernism and suggesting its feminism-undermining implications are instead reinforcing to feminism. Fraser focuses on Butler’s counter to the death of man, referencing Benhabib’s strong version of the postmodernist stance that describes the subject as nothing more than discourse. Butler’s stance is very Foucauldian in that that the subject, despite being the aggregate of historical signifying processes of power still can resignify itself through reworking that very power. Fraser is uncomfortable by the dehumanizing language Butler uses here. Though Butler could be describing emancipatory processes, the language is so abstract that “resignification” could simply be describing change. Further, Butler’s additional point that the creation of subjects is a form of subjugation that privileges those it defines and erases those it doesn’t is also problematic for Fraser in its zero-sum stance. Fraser states that Butler’s version of women’s liberation is liberation from identity since Butler views identity as inherently oppressive. However, in being free from an identity, feminism as a movement loses much of its directed emancipatory power.

Fraser concludes her article with a summary of the antitheses she documented in Benhabib and Butler and resolutions to each of these polarities:

Instead of clinging to a series of mutually reinforcing false antitheses, we might conceive subjectivity as endowed with critical capacities and as culturally constructed. Similarly, we might view critique as simultaneously situated and amenable to self-reflection, as potentially radical and subject to warrants. Likewise, we might posit a relation to history that is at once antifoundationalist and politically engaged, while promoting a field of multiple historiographies that is both contextualized and provisionally totalizing. Finally, we might develop a view of collective identities as at once discursively constructed and complex, enabling of collective action and amenable to mystification, in need of deconstruction and reconstruction.

The social science stakes in this piece frees the reader from the false dichotomy of critical theory and postmodernism that Benhabib and Butler suggest. Instead, Fraser suggests that a work can integrate both perspectives and still retain its feminist perspective.

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