the plurality of feminisms

On the Plurality of Feminisms

This week’s readings are a survey of the several permutations of contemporary feminist perspectives. The four readings are informed by the foundational polemic from last week’s assignment. However, they are not limited to taking sides on that polemic. Instead, these readings suggest a way to get past that foundational issue (Anderson), deconstruct long-standing assumptions about the feminist project and its political theories (McClure), understand the implications of framing politics around identity issues (Brown), or suggest an alternative goal for feminist emancipation, freedom rather than equality (Zerilli).

The social science stakes for these perspectives lie in the framing of political problems. By understanding the perspectives presented here, one can engage with a variety of feminisms theoretically without essentializing or ignoring what they stand for.

Debatable Performances by Amanda Anderson

Anderson restages last week’s contention between Benhabib and Butler. Like Fraser, Anderson attempts to reconcile both perspectives (Habermasian and Foucaldian) as not necessarily mutually exclusive. Anderson spends most of her article analyzing Benhabib and Butler’s arguments, working to reconcile Benhabib’s Habermasian position of communicative ethics with Butler’s subversions of identity. Benhabib describes communicative ethics thusly:

Instead of asking what I as a single rational moral agent can intend or will to be a universal moral maxim for all without contradiction, the communicative ethicist asks: what principles of action can we all recognize or agree to as being valid if we engage in practical discourse or a mutual search for justification?

In other words, rather than searching for a universal form of morality, the duty of a communicative ethicist is instead to engage in the creation of moral standards through recognition and consensus in discourse. Butler, of course, finds that discourse, recognition, and consensus are insidious forms of power that through their operation normalize the subject. Anderson criticizes Butler’s resistance to communicative ethics and further suggests that Butler’s critique itself serves a normative purpose (much like Butler did to postmodernists in last week’s piece). Anderson finishes:

By casting all attempts to characterize such practices as pernicious normalizing, Butler effectively disables her own project and leaves herself no recourse but to issue dogmatic condemnations and approvals.

Anderson has the pithiest summary for the foundational polemic so far encountered:

For Benhabib, politics involves consolidating autonomy for the greater collectivity; for Butler politics involves deconstructing autonomy as the basis of any individual or collective life.

Can a Marxist morality survive the poststructural death of the subject? The dead horse continues to be beaten:

My larger question is whether the theory of communicative ethics can encompass political practices that involve the subversive staging of identifications and disidentifications such as Butler elaborates and, if not, whether this is a serious drawback to that theory… …In its elaboration of a moral ideal and its reliance on the attainment of enabling intersubjective practices, communicative ethics is not fatally compromised by identity logic and hegemonic normalization. I would suggest that the best use we can make of the Butler-Benhabib dispute is to begin the difficult work of thinking beyond this impasse.

Anderson concludes that, sure, zombie Marxism works, can we start talking about something else now?

The Issue of Foundations by Kirstie McClure

What are feminist politics and is there a cohesive, universal practice to them? Absolutely not:

The problem here, since feminist political theory is motivated not by an abstract attachment to universal values but by a practical commitment to ending women’s oppression, is decidedly political; for these divisions within feminism are represented quite explicitly as mutually exclusive theoretical authorities competing for the privilege of guiding feminist practice.

McClure does not mince words; there is no universal feminism. Though decidedly political if feminism’s definition is attached unequivocally to “ending women’s oppression,” the methods for achieving this vary depending on the theoretical framework one is attached to (equality, difference, radical to name a handful). Further, McClure highlights a contradiction inherent to the feminist politics project; “despite the newness predicated of feminist politics, its political character appears to be equivocal; for it suggests both a departure from and a continuity with “the political” as it has come to be understood in the wake of the rise of “the social.” That is, feminism, regardless of the framework it follows, aims to fundamentally disrupt society while at the same time well maintaining it for its political use.

McClure explains this equivocation more generally, highlighting its circularity. In summary, to understand a social world, we must theorize about causality within that world. If our aim is political, like it is for feminism, then we are expected to intervene within that social world in order to change it. However, our intervention is informed “from the outset” by our theorizing and whatever action we take affects the measurements of the theory-informed framework we are utilizing to understand that social world. Therefore, by politically engaging in a social world we’re theorizing about we are serving as both the measuring tool and the measurement.

Regardless of the flavor of feminism one follows, McClure asserts that the “theories, social analyses, programmatic goals and specifiable agencies or methods for achieving them” of different feminisms have been categorized into “the political” in a similar vein to those of liberals, conservatives or Marxists. Thus, politicized feminisms, regardless of their variation and operationalization are “legitimate” political projects. McClure’s final suggestion is that rather than confronting this plurality with an eye for finding the “best” political explanation or political mobilization project, one should instead consider these differing foundations “a matter of breathing room for the articulation of new knowledges, new agencies, and new practices—a matter, in short, of working toward a new configuration of “the political.””

Wounded Attachments by Wendy Brown

Brown’s chapter confronts identity production in the United States, questioning the subordinating influence group identification has on the individual and suggesting how this subordination yields individual agency to the universalist state. Brown provides an excellent example of this process by describing how an anti-discrimination law codifies discrimination and its victims:

Indeed, through the definitional, procedural, and remedies sections of this ordinance (e.g., “sexual orientation shall mean known or assumed homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality”) persons are reduced to observable social attributes and practices defined empirically, positivistically as if their existence were intrinsic and factual, rather than effects of discursive and institutional power; and these positivist definitions of persons as their attributes and practices are written into law, ensuring that persons describable according to them will now become regulated through them… …Indeed, here is a perfect instance of how the language of recognition becomes the language of unfreedom, how articulation in language, in the context of liberal and disciplinary discourse, becomes a vehicle of subordination through individualization, normalization, and regulation, even as it strives to produce visibility and acceptance.

To Brown, the danger in identity politics arises from the framing process it depends on. If a politically defined identity is wholly contingent on the subordinated framing it’s presented in, then it becomes difficult to maintain that identity beyond the subordination. Perversely, identity politics can undermine the very emancipatory project they’re involved with because full emancipation would erase the agents working towards it. Brown’s challenge then is “to configure a radically democratic political culture that can sustain such a project in its midst without being overtaken by it.” Rather than relying on framing identity as a deficit to be overcome, Brown instead suggests that we treat engage with identity as an ongoing process of becoming.

Feminists Make Promises by Linda Zerilli

Of the four assigned readings, this was my favorite because it describes an applied feminism rather than a theoretical one. Zerilli begins by quoting the Milan Bookstore Collective’s translator/editor interpretation of this feminism as “a freedom that, paradoxically, demands no vindication of the rights of woman, no equal rights under the law, but only a full, political and personal accountability to women, is as startlingly radical a notion as any that has emerged in Western thought.”

Zerilli quickly identifies the false dichotomy that has plagued feminism throughout its history: is its goal to be equal to men or different to men? The Milanese Bookstore Collective suggests that neither matters; what matters is feminism for feminism’s sake. By removing the need for women to choose between the options given by this false dichotomy (or even the obligation to improve society), women are thus free to act.

For the Milanese Bookstore Collective, action is the key even if it comes with judgement and difference. To the Milanese group, solidarity (autocoscienza), was constraining in that it silenced internal oppositions and preferences. According to Zerilli’s retelling, the importance of disagreement was discovered as the collective engaged in a minimally political activity (anthologizing feminist writers). In their disagreements over whether to include Jane Austen in the anthology, the collective realized that their differences in opinion were hidden by solidarity. Only through the minimally political act of anthologizing writers were they able to discover these differences since they would have hidden them behind their autocoscienza had the stakes been higher. Despite the discomfort they felt disagreeing, the freedom to be their own women as opposed to the women they were supposed to be was what kickstarted their applied feminist project, since “without a space for strong conflicts or disagreements, there was no space for strong desires and no possibility of genuine politics.”

For the Milanese group action trumps framing and enabling other women to act is feminism’s purpose. Through this encouragement to act, women can show their solidarity to other women without framing themselves as inferior or different. Only through this freedom of action can a woman then “signify her belonging to the female sex, well knowing it is not an object of choice.” Zerilli continues:

Thus, when read not through the subject question but through the practice of freedom that was its original home and aspiration, a claim to rights is not-or not simply-a demand for recognition of what one is; it is a demand for acknowledgment of who one is, and, more important, of who one might become… …Rights are not things but relationships; they are not something we have, they are something we do, they don’t just constrain they enable relationships. Female freedom is guaranteed by women themselves.

In other words, it is through the practice of freedom that women get to assert who they are, not what they are; who they might become, not what they could be; and how to enact their rights, not receive them. The onus is thus entirely on women but rather than seeming overwhelming this project seems legitimately emancipatory.

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