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Monthly Archives: October 2010

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.

I always disliked standpoint theories. They seemed naïve, as if their proponents thought that subjects who were marginalized in society were by some magical means not produced in and by the power mechanisms of that society.

I’m still not ready to accept standpoint completely, as I think there are a lot of things that operate in ways people aren’t aware of in their quotidian lives—and which cultural common sense works to maintain outside of awareness—but I have at long last found some things to like about standpoint.

For instance, I never knew—and it was interesting and useful to learn—about the concept’s roots in Marxist thought. Though I mistrust what seems like a simple (and indeed I’m tempted to say “simplistic”) flipping of the binary to privilege the downtrodden by arguing that the vision of the proletariat, in looking from “underneath,” can see social structure better than someone “on top,” and would instead like something like the more complex and subtle standpoint articulated by Narayan (2010) and Collins (2010) (see below), I do appreciate the part of this that is a de-centering of those who perceive themselves as the center.

Second, in having learned about standpoint previously in a generalized way without having deep engagement with specific texts (except Collins’ Black Feminist Thought [2000]), until this point I had not appreciated the subtlety of some iterations of standpoint, which I find much more palatable.

That is, if we can, on the model of what the Bad Subjects Collective of whiteness studies fame calls “vulgar multiculturalism” (Hill, 1997; Newitz & Wray, 1997), speak of “vulgar standpoint theory,” it’s that version that gives the whole enterprise a bad rap. Standpoint is often associated with essentialism in this vulgar instantiation—the idea that (insert oppressed group here) has a unique or superior understanding of the world simply due to their essence as members of that category.

Collins (2010) and Narayan (2010), on the other hand, articulate careful, specific descriptions of when and how standpoint works. They refute, first, the contention that the experience of oppression, in itself, is enough to generate critical thought. Narayan (2010, pp. 338-9) explains the idea of standpoint as one in which “the oppressed are seen as having an ‘epistemic advantage’ because they can operate with two sets of practices and in two different contexts. This advantage is thought to lead to critical insights because each framework provides a critical perspective on the other”—and this is a much-needed explanation of how it is that being marginalized can give critical insights on the “center”—but perhaps more importantly for my purposes here she argues that “mere access to two different and incompatible contexts is not a guarantee that a critical stance on the part of an individual will result.” Similarly, Collins (2010, p. 343) points out that being black and female doesn’t automatically produce black feminism.

Narayan, in particular, notes that standpoint has its problems. First, in addition to a critical view being only one possible outcome of experiencing inequality, she notes that it comes at a cost: “the decision to inhabit two contexts critically, although it may lead to an ‘epistemic advantage,’ is likely to exact a certain price. It may lead to a sense of totally lacking roots or any space where one is at home in a relaxed manner” (Narayan, 2010, p. 339).

Second, Narayan (2010, p. 338) recognizes the danger of essentialism in standpoint, arguing that “sympathetic members of a dominant group need not necessarily defer to our views on any particular issue because that may reduce itself to another subtle form of condescension”; in this way, it is clear that standpoint, when it is taken as an indication that only people who have an experience can know about it and having the experience results in automatically knowing about it, can reproduce a variety of the “wise person of color” or “noble savage” discourses which mean well but are just as essentializing and Othering as negative stereotyping.

Relatedly, Narayan (2010, p. 340) calls our attention to the danger of romanticism, arguing that “the thesis that oppression may bestow an epistemic advantage should not tempt us in the direction of idealizing or romanticizing oppression and blind us to its real material and psychic deprivations.
Finally, in addition to disputing these misperceptions about what standpoint is, Collins and Narayan improve upon other articulations of the theory by delineating a means by which quotidian experience can turn into a standpoint.

Collins (2010, p. 343) argues that “the legacy of struggle against racism and sexism is a common thread binding African-American women” such that the experience of encountering these structures on a daily basis provides the ground for being able to see and question them.

Similarly, Narayan (2010, pp. 337-8) explains that “those who actually live the oppressions of class, race, or gender have faced the issues that such oppressions generate in a variety of different situations. The insights and emotional responses generated by these situations are a legacy with which they confront any new issue or situation.”

What both are contending, then, is that if you run into invisible walls enough times you eventually figure out where they are and how to work with and around that constraint, and I do find this a compelling argument. It makes a certain amount of sense that one could learn to navigate the world through standpoint even without necessarily knowing the full extent of the walls and while still being guided by some of them you haven’t run into enough times to see.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Collins, P. H. (2010). Defining Black Feminist Thought. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 341-356). New York: Routledge.
Hill, M. (1997). Introduction: Vipers in Shangri-la Whiteness, Writing, and other Ordinary Terrors. In M. Hill (Ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (pp. 1-18). New York: NYU Press.
Narayan, U. (2010). The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectoves from a Nonwesterm Feminist. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 332-340). New York: Routledge.
Newitz, A., & Wray, M. (1997). Introduction. In A. Newitz & M. Wray (Eds.), White Trash: Race and Class in America (pp. 1-12). New York: Routledge.

Ann Laura Stoler, it turns out, proves the point I argued last week that Butler’s (2004) work is useful for thinking about race; Stoler, in her Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2002, reissued 2010), describes Dutch whiteness in the Indonesian context as something that had to be “done” (though, despite this major point of contact, the citations suggest that Butler was not a conscious interlocutor for Stoler).

This done-ness of whiteness is implicit in arguments like the one Stoler makes that “prescriptions for bathing, breastfeeding, cooking, and sleeping arrangements tied anxieties over personhood, race, and what it meant to be Dutch to the choreography of the everyday” (17). This is much like Butler’s argument that gender is the appearance of an interior essence produced by repeated quotidian enactments of social norms.

Indeed, this “doing” of whiteness trumped what might seem to be the incontrovertible “matter” of raced bodies just as Butler contends that the sexed body is constructed rather than given. Stoler argues that “the colonial measure of what it took to be classified as ‘European’ was based not on skin color alone but on tenuously balanced assessment of who was judged to act with reason, affective appropriateness, and a sense of morality” (2-6).

That is, you have to “act” white/European/Dutch to get to “be” white/European/Dutch, and indeed it is under this logic that being creole was enough to symbolically unwhiten someone despite the genetic heritage of Dutch parents (68-9).

Similarly, the need to continually “do” whiteness explains the horror the settlers had of “men who had ‘gone native’ or simply veered off cultural course, of European children too taken with local foods, too versed in local knowledge,” as this troubled the equation—which they wanted to be unproblematic—between white embodiment and “white” behavior (2).

This is to say that, if the Dutch sense of racial superiority was founded in their sense of being more “civilized” than the Indonesians they colonized, the ways that white people could in fact “veer off course” and begin to behave in the Indonesian way could potentially mean that this imagined superiority wasn’t inherent. (On whiteness as self-control and civilization see also Dyer, 1997; Ferguson, 2003; Floyd, 2009; Frankenberg, 1993; Hedges, 1997; Nagel, 2003; Roediger, 1991; Sandell, 1997; Savran, 1998)

Thus it becomes clear that, as Butler argues about gender, the necessity of repeated instantiation of norms opens up the possibility of doing them “wrong” or differently—and thus the potential to disrupt their hold on normativity.

However, as both Butler and Stoler note, the breaking of norms doesn’t automatically free us from them. Stoler’s book “treats racism as a central organizing principle of European communities in the colonies,” and rightly so; the ways in which racism had this fundamental status meant that “racial thinking was part of a critical, class-based logic that differentiated between native and European and that was part of the apparatus that kept potentially subversive white colonials in line” (13).

This is to say that the threat of becoming unwhitened (with all the loss of privilege this would entail) worked to discourage solidarity of lower-class whites with native interests. David Roediger has documented a similar process as happening in the United States in his 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, as the members of the working class of European origin “settled for being white” rather than experiencing themselves as having common class interests with black workers.

The necessity of this work to solidify common whiteness, then, calls attention to “the uncertain racialized regimes of truth that guided their actions” and the ways in which the “criteria by which European colonials defined themselves” were unstable and necessitated the sort of “doing” Butler describes to create solidity and effective reality (6).

Butler, J. (2004). The Judith Butler Reader. (S. Salih, Ed.). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Dyer, R. (1997). White. London: Routledge.
Ferguson, R. A. (2003). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Floyd, K. (2009). The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Frankenberg, R. (1993). White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hedges, W. (1997). If Uncle Tom is White, Should we Call him “Auntie”? Race and Sexuality in Postbellum U.S. Fiction. In M. Hill (Ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (pp. 226-247). New York: NYU Press.
Nagel, J. (2003). Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Roediger, D. R. (1991). The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso.
Sandell, J. (1997). Telling Stories of “Queer White Trash”: Race, Class, and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison. In A. Newitz & M. Wray (Eds.), White Trash: Race and Class in America (pp. 211-230). New York: Routledge.
Savran, D. (1998). Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stoler, A. L. (2010). Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.