One of the most useful contributions of poststructuralism, which is the site at which poststructuralist feminism improves on its forebears, is that agency is complicated.
This is to refute the frequent, oversimplified accusation that poststructuralism’s model of power—in which there is, as Foucault (1990) put it, no outside—eviscerates the possibility of agency and instead do justice to the ways in which poststructuralism provides a nuanced and useful way to think about how we act in the world.
The first major characteristic of the poststructuralist account of agency is that agency is not a matter of acting in a way that is unconstrained by power, but rather consists of working within power, understood as both enabling and constraining—as Butler (1993) puts it in Bodies that Matter, power both subjects us (constrains) and subjectivates us (makes us subjects, empowers).
Thus, Butler (2010, p. 425) says elsewhere, “gender is not a radical choice or project that reflects a merely individual choice, but neither is it imposed or inscribed upon the individual, as some post-structuralist displacements of the subject would contend.”
Though I’m not sure which poststructuralists Butler is reprimanding here as framing gender as “imposed or inscribed upon the individual”—Bartky? Sloppy readers of Foucault?—her siting of gender as occupying a space between “individual choice” and inscription is the key intervention here.
That is, “concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities. Hence, there is an agency which is understood as the process of rendering such possibilities determinate. These possibilities are necessarily constrained by available historical conventions,” but importantly this is not incompatible with agency—it is instead its condition of possibility (Butler, 2010, pp. 420-1).
It is this same complex view of agency that leads Mani (2010, p. 402) to reject the typical modes of making sense of sati (the Hindu practice of burning widows; for more information see Sati (practice) at Wikipedia), in which the options are either viewing women as “free agents” freely choosing or “producing a discourse which sets women up to be saved”; she points out that the latter “would situate women within feminist discourse in ways that are similar to their positioning within colonialist or nationalist discourse”—i.e. as not being capable of agency due to, respectively, racialized and gendered “insufficiencies.”
In place of these polarities of complete freedom and complete oppression, she contends, “structures of domination are best understood if we can grasp how we remain agents even in the moments in which we are being intimately, viciously oppressed” (Mani, 2010, p. 401).
In particular, she warns against falling into either a discourse in which “consent was sometimes conceived as impossible by definition: women were simply deemed incapable of it” or the contention that “one could hardly speak of consent when widowhood imposed its own regimes of misery” (Mani, 2010, p. 401).
Thus, though she recognizes that “the discourse of woman as victim has been invaluable to feminism in pointing to the systematic character of gender domination,” she nevertheless contends that “if it is not employed with care, or in conjunction with a dynamic conception of agency, it leaves us with reductive representations of women as primarily beings who are passive and acted upon” (Mani, 2010, pp. 401-2).
What we will do, then, is not decided in advance, but neither do we create it ex nihilo. As Butler (2010, p. 425) puts it, “surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and prescriptions, is clearly not an individual matter.”
Though the options may be (and often are) quite limited, then, agency consists in the fact that those constraints don’t mean that life is decided in advance, and our enactments of those norms, as Butler points out elsewhere, are the moments of possibility for doing them differently and opening up new options.
Another major component of the multifaceted poststructuralist view of agency is its account of why people choose things that are in some sense detrimental to them. Some put this relatively negatively, as in Mani’s (2010, p. 401) discussion of sati that describes the “meagre alternatives available” for widows, of which sati may seem the lesser evil.
Butler (2010, p. 421), too, frames compliance with the social as in some sense forced, arguing that “discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished”—which would seem to be in tension with her general understanding of power as productive.
Bartky (2010, p. 414), however, recognizes that people benefit from compliance with the norm:
Women, then, like any other skilled individuals, have a stake in the perpetuation of their skills, whatever it may have cost to acquire them and quite apart from the question whether, as a gender, they would have been better off had they never had to acquire them in the first place. Hence, feminism, especially a genuinely radical feminism that questions the patriarchal construction of the female body, threatens women with a certain de-skilling, something people normally resist: beyond this, it calls into question that aspect of personal identity that is tied to the development of a sense of competence. Resistance from this source may be joined by a reluctance to part with the rewards of compliance.
Though women “would have been better off if they had never had to acquire” the knowledge of how to do femininity properly, the fact is that at least some subset of them does know now and the world is structured such that this is a valuable knowledge.
This argument is reminiscent of Kandiyoti’s (2010, p. 85) argument about the “patriarchal bargain,” in which women hold on to patriarchy “because they see the old normative order slipping away from them without any empowering alternatives. [ . . . ] Their passive resistance takes the form of claiming their half of this particular patriarchal bargain—protection in exchange for submissiveness and propriety.”
In both cases, though the options are not great for the women choosing them, they are nevertheless making an agential decision to go along with the norms that give them a meaningful place in society. Constructions of agency solely as resistance to power cannot account for these kinds of decisions, and this additional explanatory power makes the poststructuralist contribution all the more valuable.
In the end, then, poststructuralism is an important intervention into feminism. As a proponent of the paradigm, I view this as a corrective to both overly constrained psychoanalytic accounts and overly free (neo)liberal rights-based accounts of how people choose to act in the world, but I suspect that even those who cannot accept the poststructuralist account of agency would agree that it gives us interesting things to think about.
Bartky, S. L. (2010). Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 404-418). New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2010). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 419-430). New York: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.
Kandiyoti, D. (2010). Bargaining with Patriarchy. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 80-88). New York: Routledge.
Mani, L. (2010). Mutliple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 390-403). New York: Routledge.