Month: July 2018

Post-structuralism, Butler and Bodies


There’s a ton of discussion out there at the moment about post-structural/postmodern feminism and the way its responsible for undermining a) the material basis of the analysis of patriarchy and b) woman as a political category. And claims about this are being made on all sides.

This is a thorny thicket of thickety thorns. We have a whole lot of philosophy, starting roughly with early deconstruction (late 60s), and running up to queer theory (early 90s onwards). We have the dissemination of deconstruction in the 80s and 90s, and how that fed into popular ideas of ‘postmodernism.’ And then we have how that idea of ‘postmodernism’ is interacting with ideas coming from queer theory, and how all of that is informing popular discourse.

The rough sketch ends up looking something like this: Early post-structuralism/ deconstruction argued that everything was ‘discursive’ or ‘textual’ and didn’t believe in material reality. Postmodernism is all about the ‘play’ of signifiers and how everything is ‘constructed’ through discourse. Then Butler comes along and invents queer theory by arguing, in essence, that bodies are discursively constructed, and we end up where we are now, and it’s probably, in origin, all Jacques Derrida’s fault.

I have a bunch of dogs in this fight. I am a post-structuralist feminist. I am also, unreservedly, a second-waver, and a socialist feminist, and am committed to the material analysis of patriarchy, because without a material analysis of patriarchy we can’t, fundamentally, explain anything. I don’t think these two positions are inconsistent with each other, and so I get a little troubled when ‘post-structuralism’ is used to mean ‘discursively-constructed’ and then to mean ‘biology doesn’t exist’ and then to mean ‘women don’t exist’….because in the bit of post-structuralist thought where I hang-out (the bit that descends from Beauvoir and Derrida through second-wave deconstructive French feminism), the whole point is understanding that patriarchy works by erasing women, and by erasing and appropriating the material (and maternal) reality of women’s bodies.

So, I want to do a little parsing of the intellectual history, and try and think through what’s going on with it, and how it’s intersecting with where we are now. My reason for doing this is totally to do with my own intellectual and political interests. There is a load of important and useful stuff in post-structuralist feminism which is in danger of being lost by the way post-structuralism is being collapsed into queer theory. There’s no necessary reason why you should be interested in any of this, and it’s probably going to get a little academic/technical in places, but if you are interested in it, I hope this might be helpful.

Part 1: Postmodernism, deconstruction, and ‘discursive constitution’

One of the things that’s going on here (and here I’m going to come off like a philosophy-snob, and, um, *awkward shuffle*), is that deconstruction was largely disseminated in the Anglo-American university through English Literature – because Anglo-American ‘Analytic’ philosophy has historically thought that French philosophy isn’t really philosophy at all (when I was at uni the English Department decided to give Derrida an honorary degree, and the Philosophy Department more or less threatened to stand outside with placards reading ‘JACQUES DERRIDA IS A BOUNDER, A CHARLATAN AND A CAD’). In the late 60s Derrida published the three texts which made his name – Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena – all of which used an analysis of language and meaning to advance his philosophical position. Quite understandably, because of this focus, his work spoke particularly to people who were in the business of thinking about language and texts, and was taken up enthusiastically by people working in English – and then other humanities more broadly – from the late 70s and particularly through the 80s. How this work was received is its own complicated story, but, to do a little violence to the history, it can more-or-less be captured, I think, by one famous phrase – “there is nothing outside the text.”

This little string of words – which over time, has become something of an axiom – crops up on page 167 of the English translation of Of Grammatology, and has often been taken, by both advocates and critics, as an expression of what, in philosophy, we would call ‘linguistic idealism’ i.e. the idea that everything is language, and that hence, material reality is entirely ‘discursively constituted.’ This idea – accompanied by other Derridean ideas about the way meaning arises through the ‘play’ of signs – then coalesced with other parts of post-structural theory – Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault – and formed the philosophical underpinnings of the description of cultural postmodernism, which was principally an aesthetic phenomena arising from the proliferation and repetition of images and signs in a globalized, technological, advanced capitalist society. There is an interesting phenomena about signs – when they are repeated over and over they start losing their meaning (try saying your name 50 times and at some point it will cease to mean ‘you’ and it’s weird), and the cultural sensibility of the late 80s and 90s (hey there Gen Xers), was all about the alienation, ennui and general sense of inauthenticity that arises from being bombarded with images and signs, repeated ad infinitum, and broken up and bricolaged together in various more-or-less random sequences. We mostly dealt with it by being mad-ironic about everything and wearing lots of kitschy clothes (hey there hipsters), and watching Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch films on a never-ending loop. Good times.

Anyway, back to Derrida. The point I want to make, and it’s been made, but it needs to keep being made – is that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ doesn’t mean there is nothing outside the text. And what I mean by that is that when Derrida says ‘text’ he doesn’t, fundamentally, mean text-as-in-language. This is where the issue of the dissemination of philosophy through English literature becomes pertinent – because, from my perspective, deconstruction is not fundamentally a theory of language. Derrida was using language or signs to make an ontological point – a point about the structure of reality. And that point wasn’t ‘reality is entirely made of language,’ it was ‘everything that exists exists in networks of relation to other things.’ The point he was making by talking about signs – and he could just as well, and did later, have been talking about subjects, or political states, or works of art, or pretty much anything – is that meaning arises through its relational context, but that Western philosophy, and Western theories of subjectivity, are obsessed with ignoring and erasing that. We like to think that human subjects are self-sufficient, in-dependent, self-identical, invulnerable. That we are not affected by or dependent on the world around us, and we owe no particular ethical or political debt to anyone. Which is bullshit (and specifically, neoliberal-capitalist-patriarchal bullshit).

So, when I, or anyone I know who works in French feminism, reads ‘text’ in Derrida, we don’t read ‘language,’ we read ‘relation.’ Or, if we want to be technical about it, what I read is ‘spatial and temporal relation.’ So, ‘there is nothing outside the text’ (a better translation of the French is ‘there is no outside-text’), becomes ‘nothing exists which is completely separable from its spatial and temporal relations.’ Which is true. Unlike, ‘nothing exists which is not language.’ Which is manifestly untrue. (Here we might also note that this change in meaning when you read Derrida in the context of the philosophical tradition he’s working in is a pretty good demonstration of his point about the way that meaning is contextually determined). So, that’s the first point. The deconstructive strand of post-structuralism is not a form of linguistic idealism, and doesn’t support the claim that material reality is entirely ‘discursively constituted.’ It is rather, an ontological claim about the necessity of what I’d call ‘fundamental constitutive relation,’ specifically aimed at critiquing the way patriarchy and capitalism is invested in pretending we are not relational beings. Hence, post-structural socialist feminism. (Jordan Peterson is not completely off his head when he says postmodernism is a form of cultural Marxism, and if you quote me on that I will be cross).

Part 2 >

Part 2: French post-structuralism and the body

So, the second point that follows from all of this is that it is philosophically incoherent to think that deconstruction is anti-materialist. As is relatively well known, one of the other main deconstructive ideas is the critique of binary hierarchies. This argument goes like this. The construction of patriarchal Western subjectivity functions through a network of metaphysical oppositions. Masculine/Feminine, Father/Mother, Rational/Emotional, Mind/Body, Immaterial/ Material, Civilized/Primitive, Home/Foreign, Universal/Particular, One/Many, Eternal/Mutable, Immortal/Mortal, Sky/Earth etc. etc. etc. The construction of meaning, and subjectivity (we can think of this as the sign/subject-nexus), has traditionally focused on privileging one half of the binary – the masculine, and everything metaphysically associated with it – and devaluing/erasing the feminine half of the binary. And here the point about the necessity of relation becomes important. Because the argument is that all the binaries are interdependent, and hence, privileging one half is both a misrepresentation of reality, and has terrible political and social consequences, because it is implicated in the oppression and othering of those peoples – the female and people of colour – who are associated with it.

What I would take from this – and this is one of the main thoughts that underpins French post-structural feminism – is that the erasure of the feminine in its relation to the maternal, the material, and the body, is an axiomatic gesture of Western patriarchal thought. Luce Irigaray will, a few years after Derrida’s central texts were published, go on to call the separation of the mind from the body, and the elevation of the immaterial and rational over the material and embodied, “the foundational act of metaphysics.” (An Ethics of Sexual Difference) This all fits very well with the general tenets of second-wave feminism. Patriarchy is a system which functions by erasing, and simultaneously appropriating, the material and maternal labour of women. That is, at base, why it exists. Western philosophical thought – and the social structures it props up – is fundamentally motivated by the intent to withhold recognition from the central role of material/maternal labour, and by men’s desire to deny their dependencies on that labour even while it creates and supports their existence.[1] And the fact that on some more-or-less conscious level they know they’re doing this, and that they’re still going to be dependent on us (and our wombs and breasts and vaginas) no matter how much they deny it, is not incidentally related to why they’re often so frickin’ violent to us.

So, to recap. 1. Deconstruction is a theory which stipulates that any privileging of one pole of a binary hierarchy is a) metaphysically unsupportable and b) politically dodgy. It’s hence a) philosophically incoherent to think that deconstruction is anti-materialist or you can use it to support your anti-materialism, and b) given that ‘materiality’ is historically associated with the oppressed/erased/appropriated feminine pole of the binary, anti-materialism is politically sketchy af.


[1] The same is true of the labour and subjectivity of peoples of colour, and also of the relationship between ‘man’ and the natural world.

Part 3 >

Part 3: All that trouble with gender

General disclaimer – early Butler, as is widely acknowledged, is super unfun to read, plus I madly disagree with her, so it’s hard to get through it all without throwing the book against the wall. But I’m going to give you what I’ve got.

a) The first claim I’m going to make, just to set the cat right among the pigeons from the get-go, is that Butler is not a feminist, or rather, that what she’s doing in Gender Trouble is not feminist philosophy (it’s queer theory, and the reason why queer theory and feminist philosophy are different things is because they have a different set of political concerns (not, we might note, because they are defined by ‘excluding’ each other)). So, when I say she’s not a feminist I don’t mean, ‘she doesn’t identify as a feminist,’ or ‘she’s not concerned about women’s oppression in general terms.’ Whatever we might feel right now, Judith Butler is not a completely terrible person, and she cares about all people’s oppression in general terms. But, and it’s a great big BUT, what I am going to say is that women’s oppression is not what she is concerned with in Gender Trouble, that she makes a move that has created massive problems for the articulation and explanation of women’s oppression, and it’s less than evident how much she really cares about that (and I REALLY want lefty dudebro types to stop throwing her in my face every time I make a political claim about the oppression of women because Butler. Is not. A fucking. Feminist. *breathe*)

So, to try and back this up. The last time I re-read Gender Trouble I came across this passage at the start of the original preface that pretty much blew my mind.

“I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically assumed to be heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female ‘other’ who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the feminine ‘Other’ suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention.” (Routledge Classics Edition, p xxix-xxx, last emphasis, my own (!!!!!))

To break this down a little. What Butler is describing in this passage is one way of summarizing the essential insight of French feminist thought. Here it’s framed in terms of the way patriarchal masculinity denies its dependence on the feminine through denying the expression of women’s subjectivity in the gaze…but, as we just saw above, we can also frame it through the masculine dependence on the materiality of women’s bodies. The central point is this – the Western patriarchal subject is invested in denying its dependence on women, it is, therefore, invested in erasing and othering women, refusing to recognize both their personhood and their reproductive labour, and responds to all assertions of women’s psychic and material existence as a threat to its ‘illusory’ autonomy, invulnerability, sovereignty, or mastery. And what we have here, therefore, is Judith Butler – the great post-structural ‘feminist’ – summarizing post-structural feminism’s central thought about how the oppression of women works, and then telling us, basically, that she’s just not interested.

And she’s not interested – either intellectually, or politically. Philosophy, when it comes down to it, is an entirely motivated business (all that bullshit about rational disinterest is just another patriarchal ruse). What we work on is what matters to us, and what matters to us, more often than not, is what hurts us. We work on our wounds – on the places where we have bashed into the world or the world has bashed into us and we came away bleeding and tried to stem the flow of blood by imagining how things could be otherwise. When I say Judith Butler is not a feminist, what I mean is that her wound is not a wound of being oppressed as a member of the female sex class – or at least, that’s not how she experiences it. Her wound is a wound of being oppressed as a gender non-conforming lesbian, which she experiences not as a matter of being female, but rather, as arising through what she calls ‘the heterosexual matrix.’ As she goes on to say immediately subsequent to the passage above, what she is interested in is the way “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” or “that binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’ and the internal stability of those terms.” That is, Butler’s solution for dealing with her particular wound of homosexual gender-non-conformity, is to try and trouble the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘woman’ at a fundamental ontological level. (And for those of us who think we need the difference between men and women to describe how and why men oppress women, that is, seriously, trouble.)[1]

b) To understand how she does this we need more than just a flattened reading of deconstruction as an assertion of linguistic idealism – although deconstruction will play its part. What I want to point to here is that, while Butler had, of course, inherited her fair share of deconstruction, her fundamental method in Gender Trouble owes a lot more to Foucault than it does to Derrida. In basic terms, what this is about is anti-normativity (queer theory as an intellectual movement more or less hinges on the thought of anti-normativity, which makes the uniformity of much of the present performance of queerness kind of hilarious and also sad-making). Foucault, famously, outlined an analysis of the ‘micro-politics of power’ which was principally interested not in how power negatively oppresses or represses people, but the way in which power operates through social norms in order to positively ‘produce’ subjects. And there’s a lot of good and useful stuff in there, about how legal and medical and educational norms and practices mould us into certain kinds of subjects – and how certain kinds of identities – ‘the homosexual,’ ‘the criminal,’ ‘the mad-man’ – do not only describe, but produce people in line with those identities, in a way, following Butler, we can reasonably understand as ‘performativity.’

So far so good. Now the problems. The first main problem is that there is a tendency among Foucauldians to get completely carried away with the idea of normativity (BAD) and to decide that all norms (BAD) are simply socially constructed[2] algorithms designed to regulate and discipline human subjects (it’s never quite clear in whose interests, because power in Foucault is a diffuse kind of business that just goes about circulating and not necessarily for anyone’s particular benefit – HUGE problem). This is where the idea of ‘discursive constitution’ really ramps up. Because there is – at least in the early, most influential Foucauldian texts – no recognition that some of our social norms are there for good material reasons, or because actually, some things are just really harmful to people. There is a completely horrifying passage in the first volume of the History of Sexuality in which Foucault tells a story about a man with learning difficulties who sexually abuses a young girl, and all he cares about is how these terrible, puritan sexual norms about not abusing young girls are deployed to support the evil disciplinary treatment of this poor, hapless man who was just, he claims, engaging in “inconsequential bucolic pleasures.” (Fuck you Michel).

I could go on a long rant here about how this aspect of Foucault’s thinking has spawned a whole sub-industry of Foucauldian feminists spouting the most inane, rage-inducing, drivel about how the problem with feminists talking about rape is that it creates ‘rapists’ and ‘victims’ and how rape would all just be not-very-harmful-at-all if only we stopped thinking it was harmful but I once wrote thirty-odd pages on it and spent three weeks wanting to smash things and feeling like I was being gaslit by people who are supposed to be on my side and so I won’t. NAME THE FUCKING PROBLEM. That is all. The basic point is this – some things are norms because as well as culture, and language, and discourse, or whatever we want to put in the box marked ‘ideas’ or ‘immaterial’ there is also nature, and biology, and basic human needs (which are both biological and psychic) and whatever else we want to put in the box ‘material.’ And some of our norms – eat vegetables, try to exercise, don’t sexually abuse children – are norms because they have something to do with promoting well-being or avoiding harm, and might well promote well-being or cause harm (somewhat) irrespective of whatever we happen to think or say about them, and will continue promoting well-being or causing harm even if people stipulate that we should not talk about them because talking about them is actually making them happen. (Because yeah, that whole not-talking-about-rape-thing worked out fabulously).

c) This, basically, is where Butler’s – let’s just call it – ‘assault,’ on the normativity of the “binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’” is coming from. In crude terms the thought is that sex is just another bad disciplinary form of discursive normativity. (Which is about as credible as saying that the idea there’s a problem with oil slicks in the sea is just a bad disciplinary form of normativity – so, go tell that to the poor puffins). Now, of course, had she just said ‘gender,’ we’d have had no problem with it, but as we know, and has become multiply apparent in the way this has come down the pipes, Butler has some serious investment in troubling the sex/gender distinction. Here we do return to deconstruction, and it’s where things get pretty technical – but I think it’s worth following, because Butler deploys deconstructive logic to try and break down the sex/gender distinction, and her argument is subtle, but, importantly, wrong.

It goes something like this. The determination of any identity – be it ‘sex’ or ‘woman’ – is formed in opposition to its other – in this case ‘gender’ or ‘man.’ (True, or at least, that’s how it works inside a patriarchy – we’ll come back to this) ‘Sex/Gender’ is a binary pair that roughly corresponds to the pair ‘Nature/Culture,’ or ‘Material/Discursive,’ and it would be an axiom of deconstruction that we can’t neatly separate these from each other and there is something wrong with pretending we can, because such acts of separation are associated with acts of erasure and exclusion which, as we saw above, are politically sketchy. (Okay) Now we get to the place where she makes the move I would question. In the part of the tradition I work in, we tend to think of deconstructive and feminist thinking as ‘both/and’ thinking, which we contrast with patriarchal ‘either/or’ thinking. A useful way to think about this is as a difference between thinking of concepts (or conceptual poles) as bounded solids which ‘can’t occupy the same space at the same time’ and hence have to exclude each other (‘either/or’), or thinking in terms of fluids or gases[3] or something that can mix or interpenetrate with another thing while still being itself (‘both/and’). So, the way I would think about the relation of sex and gender, or nature and culture, is something like x (let’s say ‘woman’) is both and at the same time natural and cultural[4]…in which we understand that x arises through an infinitely complex interaction of nature and culture in a manner our stupid monkey brains aren’t nearly clever enough to grasp. We can’t draw a perfectly neat line between ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ just as we can’t neatly separate ‘bodies’ from ‘minds’, but that is not the same thing as saying they are the same thing. They would be, in a Derridean phrase I’m fond of, “heterogeneous but indissociable.”

But – (tahdah!) – this isn’t at all where Butler goes with it. Where Butler goes with it is to stay inside a way of thinking about the relationship between ‘two things that are different but inseparable’ that is much more in line with a patriarchal ‘either/or’ way of thinking. A way – as all the talk of ‘lines of demarcation’ will soon show us – that is still completely in thrall to thinking about the relation between things according to a ‘model of solids.’ (That’s Bergson’s phrase). For sex to have its own reality that is non-discursive, she suggests, it must be possible to draw a line between ‘sex/nature/unconstructed’ and ‘gender/culture/constructed.’ As she argues in Bodies That Matter, the “moderate critic might concede that some part of ‘sex’ is constructed, but some other is certainly not, and then, of course, find… herself…under some obligation to draw the line between what is and is not constructed.” (11) This is the bit I dispute. There is no obligation to draw a line, either precisely around ‘sex’ or precisely around ‘woman,’ in order for these to be meaningful terms that do work in the world. Thinking that we have to draw lines around concepts for them to be meaningful is exactly the same old essentialist, spatializing, phallic rubbish that we should be critiquing. As Wittgenstein once usefully noted, we do not have to be able to point at the line on the floor where ‘here’ becomes ‘there’ in order to use these words with sense. Because essences and clear delineations and phallic oppositions are not the only – or most important – way that concepts work (if they are actually how they work at all).[5]

What Butler is doing here, effectively, is taking the way metaphysical binaries have traditionally worked as systems of exclusionary opposition, either nature or culture, either discourse or materiality, and then naturalizing it (which is kind of ironic really). (And what is doubly ironic is that in doing this, her thinking of the relation between sex and gender is precisely the opposite of ‘fluidity’ or ‘flux’). We could only grant reality to ‘sex’ by drawing a “line of demarcation” between the ‘unconstructed’ and ‘constructed,’ and such a “delimitation… marks a boundary that includes and excludes…What will and will not be included within the boundaries of ‘sex’ will be set by a more or less tacit operation of exclusion.” (Bodies That Matter: 11) To my mind, this is only true if we think that the phallic system of binary hierarchy, and the way it constructs the poles in exclusionary opposition to each other, is actually the only way meaning or existence arises. And I think that is a really patriarchal assumption. What this comes down to is that Butler is collapsing the idea of ‘difference’ and the idea of ‘exclusion’ (and the current political resonance of that should be clear), and suggesting that the only way there can be differences is though mechanisms of exclusion. This amounts to a refusal to think the possibility of difference, and of relations between things that are different, in any way other than the way that is currently mandated by exclusionary patriarchal logic. And that is to miss the whole point of French post-structuralist feminism. ‘Difference’ is not phallic-opposition, and it is not exclusion. Woman is not not-man. Just as man is not not-woman. Women have their own existence outside the grid of patriarchal oppositions. And so does sex. And nature. And materiality.

What Butler does with the fact that we couldn’t define ‘sex’ without an ‘operation of exclusion’ (and it’s not a great leap from this rhetoric to ‘Die in a Fire’), is to use it to refuse sex its own reality – and analogously, to refuse ‘woman’ reality as well. (How anyone got away with convincing a ton of people that undermining woman as a political category was a totally rad feminist move will never cease to fry my brains, even though the answer as to why it’s been taken up so enthusiastically – patriarchy – seems pretty evident). If we can’t neatly define sex, but sex and gender are indissociable, what that then means for Butler is that gender subsumes sex – viz. “If gender consists of the social meanings that sex assumes, then sex does not accrue social meanings…but rather, is replaced by the social meanings it takes on; sex is relinquished… and gender emerges…as the term which absorbs and displaces ‘sex’” (Bodies That Matter: 5) If you’re going to make this move, you could equally well argue that sex ‘absorbs and displaces’ gender – but oh yeah, that really would be conservative. Either which way, denying reality to either pole of a binary, or claiming one pole ‘absorbs’ the other (how the hell can ‘exclusion’ be bad but absorbing’ things okay????), or that because you can’t neatly distinguish them they’re actually the same thing, is not any kind of deconstructive thinking worth its name.[6]

d) The last thing I want to point at is why Butler makes this eminently patriarchal move of thinking that the reality of things must be locked inside this grid of exclusionary binary opposition. To me this looks like a bit of a weird Foucauldian/Derridean mish-mash. She takes the Foucauldian account of the way power produces subjects (“juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent,” (Gender Trouble: 2)), and the Derridean idea that patriarchal subjectivity functions through a logic of hierarchization and exclusion of its other, and then fuses them together and totalizes them, so you get the claim that all “subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices” (3) that “constitute the contemporary field of power” such that “there is no position outside this field.” (7; my emphasis) This is, from a French feminist, well, from any feminist perspective, a catastrophe. It is, at base, a claim (and here I suspect Butler’s Hegelian/Lacanian roots are showing) that the being of all things – subjects, signs, political groups, political states, whatever – can only ever and exclusively be produced through hierarchical operations of exclusion, erasure and othering, Which is to say that all subjects are basically patriarchal (or conversely, no subjects are patriarchal), and that hence – and this is all where is all starts to feel sickeningly familiar – that ‘woman’ as a political category is produced by exactly the same exclusionary operation of power as is ‘man.’ To momentarily put this in the language of race – which I know has been decreed verboten but no one has yet given me an adequate explanation as to why[7] – this would be equivalent to a claim of reverse racism, or that white people have been constructed as the ‘other’ of Black people in exactly the same way as Black people have been constructed as the ‘other’ of white people. And as we know, that’s nonsense. Because power. Not just circulating indiscriminately after all.

What Butler has done by generalizing Foucault’s account of productive power to suggest that patriarchal mechanisms of hierarchical exclusion equally inform the creation of all subjects, is, effectively, destroy the analysis of patriarchy as a hierarchy of power. And that’s, y’know, not very feminist. In a 1998 interview she gave with some post-structuralist feminists who work in the same tradition as I do, she wondered aloud whether the “symbolic order” of our culture is actually “primarily or paradigmatically masculine?”

To which I’d say, yeah Judith, yeah it is.


[1] I want to say here, I care about Judith Butler’s wound, just as I care about everyone’s wounds. Everyone has the right to address their own wounds, and the political interests that they feel follow from that – and we need to be very careful about how we deploy the discourse of ‘exclusion’ when we are dealing with people who are just trying to deal with their own particular shit. It’s one thing to ask white men to be aware that there are people in the world who are not white men, and who experience the world differently, and another to walk up to everyone (it seems mostly to be women tbh) and tell them they are being ‘exclusionary’ when they are just dealing with their own particular damage. Anyway, the issue with Butler is not, fundamentally, that her interests are not feminist interests. That’s fine, in principle. The problem with Butler is that in articulating a solution to dealing with her wound she does something that makes it near impossible for women to articulate theirs. What that then leads to is a situation which feels like a zero-sum game in which two groups of people who both have very legitimate reasons for their hurting, end up playing their wounds off against each other – and it’s no surprise that in a situation like that, things would get extremely ugly extremely fast, and lots of people would wind up getting very very hurt. And seriously, can we please try and work out how to make it stop???? PLEASE.
[2] Here we also run into the issue that ‘constructed’ is generally taken to mean something like ‘not-real,’ ‘contingent,’ or ‘could-just-as-well-be-done-any-other-way-and-is-only-being-done-like-this-because-insert-some-dubiious-political-motive.’ And indeed, that is often what ‘constructed’ means – and we could take, say, the way women’s bodily comportment is policed so that women learn to not occupy space, as a kind of axiomatic example of how a Foucauldian micro-politics of power constructs bodies, and in a way that is certainly contingent and informed by dubious political motives. That said, not all things that are constructed are contingent and could just as well have been done any other way, and the reason for that is, basic human needs and materiality. The best example of this is something that is, literally, constructed – houses. Houses are, for one, definitely real things. For two, we can’t just make them any old way we want . They have to serve a certain function – providing shelter – and in order to do that, there are certain minimum requirements they have to meet – like, they need some kind of wall/roof arrangement (which yes, can be one circular thing like an igloo or a dome tent but it’s still performing a wall/roof function), and there has to be some way to get in and out of them. And there are certain things we can make houses out of – wood, metal, glass, mud, ice, concrete, fabric if its supported, and certain things we can’t make houses out of, candy floss, unfrozen water, mercury, anything that rots too quickly. There are lots and lots of possible cultural variations within those basic parameters, but there are parameters, a.k.a. norms. But there is absolutely nothing ‘contingent’ about those norms, and neither are they informed by dubious political motives.
[3] To take an example. Air consists of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide (plus some other stuff). The constituent parts are all mixed together, and we can’t separate them from each other and it still be air. But, at the same time, the constituent parts are all still what they are, and none of them are ‘excluding’ or ‘absorbing’ or otherwise ‘erasing’ each other. They’re all just being themselves mixed together and in the process, producing the phenomena we call air. Now, this is an analogy, so, I’m not saying the relationship between culture and nature is just like the relationship between nitrogen and oxygen in air, but I am saying it is much more like that than it is like the thing that happens when we think of the constituent parts of something as if they were impermeable solids which must either exclude each other, or otherwise be the same thing. Essentially, the move I’m interested in is that Butler argues that because we can’t neatly separate ‘sex’ from ‘gender’ or ‘material’ from ‘discursive’ (and separating them would be ‘exclusionary’) then they can be collapsed into each other. And that’s wrong.
[4] To clarify, when I say ‘woman’ is both natural and cultural, I’m saying that it’s a composite, and part of the composite is performing the social role of a woman, and most importantly, being subject to patriarchal power and being raised with the gendered expectations of a woman etc. I’m not intending to suggest by that that this ‘cultural’ element of being a woman is fixed or immutable or we shouldn’t try to more or less get rid of it (although who knows what would be left of it in another universe that was not as fucked as this one). What I do mean to suggest is that, under the present circumstances, the definition of woman as only ‘adult human female’ is partial, and indeed, one of the things at stake in this conversation is the extent to which those who were not socially educated as women can fully share the experience of those that were. At the same time, I do also mean to imply that people who were not raised as women who want, in all good faith, to perform the social role of women, and to expose themselves to the social consequences of what that means, are participating in some part of what it is to be a ‘woman.’ Trans-women are trans-women – and the fact that this debate is being framed by the exclusionary binary choice between either ‘trans-women are men’ or ‘trans women are women’ is pretty indicative of exactly how non-deconstructive the thinking is. Trans and natal women are both the same and different, and a whole lot of this mess could be sorted out if we could all just be honest about where we are the same and where we are different, and where, therefore, we have the same political interests and where we don’t.
[5] Okay, here it’s worth thinking about the moves that are being made against ‘woman’ and relatedly ‘female biology’ in popular discourse at the moment. The strategy basically comes down to claiming woman has no essence, or definition (because hahaha, that wouldn’t be anything like what patriarchy has been saying since year dot.) Anyway, this is either expressed by claiming that a) Essence – you cannot identify the determining characteristics that makes someone a woman, because there are always exceptions to every essential characteristic you pick e.g. there will be women who do not have XX chromosomes, or do not menstruate, or have a uterus, or are not capable of bearing children etc. and b) Definition – you cannot draw a neat boundary around the concept of woman, which is where the use of intersex people comes into play to support the claim that ‘sex is a spectrum.’ (And note, intersex people are not happy about this – because they are a vulnerable group with their own political interests and they’re being instrumentalized in somebody else’s political fight, which is fucking dehumanizing.)
There are two things to say about this: Firstly, this is out-and-out Platonism – by which I mean, this argument is wholly dependent on the idea that concepts function through essences i.e. that what makes something ‘what it is’ is that there is something essential that is universally the same in every particular instance – or instantiation – of that concept. It’s important to understand here that the idea of essence and the idea of definition are co-implicated – because essentialist theories of meaning are fundamentally spatialized. That is, we think of concepts like they are spatial areas that we can draw a boundary around (de-fine, or de-lineate), and that ‘inside’ the boundary of the concept, everything is the same, or is the same with respect the possessing the ‘essential’ thing which means it can be included inside the concept (so, there will be tall women, and short women, and white women and women of colour, but they will all possess the ‘essential’ characteristic that makes them ‘women.’)
The first thing to say about this is a) The whole point of post-structuralism is to critique this theory of meaning. Here things get a little complex, but the basic point is this. If you try and destabilize a concept by pointing to its lack of essence or definition, you are still depending on a Platonic/essentialist account of how meaning works. It’s just a form of reverse-Platonism. And I would argue that post-structuralism shouldn’t be about reversing Platonism, it should be about binning Platonism. This is actually where all the stuff about the post-structuralist destruction of meaning comes from. Because if you try and destroy Platonism while everyone still assumes that the Platonic account of meaning is the only way meaning could work, then what everyone hears is ‘there is no meaning.’ But weirdly, there is.
Which brings us to b) The conclusion I, and a lot of post-structuralist feminists, would draw from this (and we can maybe concede that Derrida himself was not always consistent about this), is not that there is no meaning, but that meaning doesn’t work like that. How it does work is of course mad-difficult – and let’s just be clear, we don’t have a fully comprehensive theory of how meaning arises – but I would go for some kind of Aristotelian/Wittgensteinian hybrid. Meaning arises in relation to functions, and functional processes, that happen in the world, or between ourselves and the world. So, for example, mugs are not principally ‘cylindrical ceramic vessels with handles’ (which would be an essentialist way of thinking about them, and then we could go ‘oh, they don’t all have handles, and some of them are made of glass, and mugs and glasses are actually a spectrum and you can’t draw a line between them and that means mugs don’t actually exist.’ Which is stupid, because they do). Rather, by a functional theory, mugs would be ‘drinking hot liquid things.’ (And because of the interaction of the materiality of the world, and human ergonomics, and the function they have to perform, some rough parameters follow from that – they have to be about the right size to be held in human hands, they have a hole in them to hold liquid, they need to be made from something that can hold hot liquid without dissolving or cracking, and they usually have handles so we can pick them up without burning ourselves, apart from when we solve that problem some other way, like by wrapping them in some kind of thermoplastic (and if we don’t solve that problem and still remove the handle, what we have is a shit mug.)) What that means is that all the things in the category of ‘mugs’ do not all have the same ‘essential’ characteristics, but are related in a way we could call ‘family resemblances.’ And this will be even more true when we include ‘inside’ particular concepts, words which have moved around from one functional space in the world to another. Because that’s what we do – we encounter (or often make, by inventing something) a new function in the world, and we take a word from somewhere else that is in some way related, and stick it onto the new thing in some modified form…so, for example, the idea of connections between nodes we see in a fishing net, will then get applied to the connections between other things we see in, say, a rail ‘network,’ and will then be applied to the connections between computer terminals in the ‘internet.’ All the things inside the category of ‘net-like things’ won’t all share the same essential characteristics, but there is a ‘family resemblance’ between them which makes them part of the great cluster of things we meaningfully describe using ‘net’-words.)
So the second general point is, this critique of the meaning of ‘woman’ is bunk, and most importantly, if you were going to insist on the importance of this critique, it could just as well be applied to every single concept in the world, and nothing would mean anything. And things do mean things, ergo, that’s not how meaning works. What this further means, given that people are not generally running around deploying this critique against every single concept in the world, nor, most notably, against the existence of any other political category of people – like, really, should we go and do this to, say, Native Americans? No, I rather think we shouldn’t – is that the instrumentalization of reverse Platonism against the category of ‘woman’ is metaphysical bullshit that is entirely politically motivated. And if I have to see one more conversation in which some twenty-something too-cool-for-school third-waver arrogates themselves a ton of purported theoretical sophistication when they try and destabilise the concept and comes over all superior about stupid old feminists and their retrograde ‘essentialist’ definitions I will seriously lose my shit.
[6] There is perhaps a question here about where this leaves gender abolitionism, as it could be argued that that is precisely an effort to erase the ‘cultural’ side of the binary. Here I’ll just say that the whole point about the ‘cultural’ as opposed to the ‘natural’ is that its changeable (within certain parameters). Even if our culture around sexed bodies was, ‘there should be no limitations imposed on sexed bodies,’ it would still be a culture. And given that the materiality of sexed bodies imposes all kinds of constraints, there will always be a more elaborate culture than that – such as, say, for the practice of sports.
[7] To be clear, the claim that white women’s experience of oppression isn’t the same as Black people’s experience of oppression, and that white women shouldn’t make analogies that suggest they understand Black people’s experience of oppression, or appropriate Black people’s experience of oppression in order the illustrate their own, seems evidently right to me. At the level of individual and class experience we are all situated in our specific ways. However, what is not clear to me, and what no one has given me an adequate account of, is why we cannot draw analogies between how gender functions and how race functions as metaphysical-political systems. The racist-capitalist-patriarchal mechanisms of binary hierarchy and exclusion which have constructed both ‘woman’ and ‘Black’ as the ‘other’ of the white, male subject, function according to the same (although differently inflected) logic, and the mechanisms of appropriation, colonization and sexual violence which follow from that logic have played themselves out in the history of both groups of peoples (although again, how that is experienced at the level of the individual will differ, and especially for women of colour, because intersectionality). If we can’t talk about the metaphysical-political co-implication of gender and race when we are analysing the logic of the system, we lose an incredibly important aspect of how we understand, and hence think about dismantling, structures of oppression. And that’s ground I don’t want to give unless someone can tell me why I should in a way that makes sense. Given the complete failure for anyone to give an adequate account of this with respect to the Dolezal-issue (and to be clear, as far as I’m concerned, if Black people say no then Black people say no), I’m sceptical that anyone has a good argument about why these things are different at the level of the metaphysical-political other than ‘because reasons or else.’