TRIGGER WARNING: Fucking Pissed Off
So, as many of you are aware, the high-priestess of genderology decided to momentarily descend from her exalted academic plinth and relay her ‘thoughts’ on the ongoing internecine shitshow that she, probably more than anyone else, has helped to create. Except of course that, with her usual intellectual integrity, the thoughts she decided to relay about said shitshow totally ignored what is really going on, in favour of pretending that this is a conflict between the wibbly-wobbly-gender-and-sex-is-fluid-rah-rah-liberation crowd, and, basically, um, the Pope. Despite being entirely predictable, this level of disingenuous erasure, is, nonetheless, pretty staggering. As Judy is actually more than well aware, this is a conflict which turns, fundamentally, on the fault-line in feminism that she, in fact, inaugurated – a fault-line between those of us who think patriarchy is a system of sex-based male dominance enacted through cultural mechanisms which we could call – if we can still stomach the word – ‘gender,’ and those who think that patriarchy is…like, seriously, what the fuck do they even think it is….some kind of free-floating cultural system that has nothing to do with actual bodies or their appropriation and domination, a randomly generated set of signs and signifying practices that shape our subjectivity, a thought which leads, in practice, to staking feminism’s whole liberation project on the epic transcendent power of some spectacularly superficial idea of gender-fucking.
Look, I’m a feminist, and a Prince-fan. I like superficial gender-fucking as much as the next woman. (I actually think Prince’s gender-fucking wasn’t merely superficial, but that’s another story). BUT, and this in some sense points towards the heart of the problem here, superficial gender-fucking has fuck all effect on the fundamental patterns of male dominance. As someone said to me yesterday on Twitter, the wires are currently full of male people running around stanning for the absolute progressive power of gender fluidity, who seem to think they are the living breathing instantiation of ‘smash the patriarchy’ because they dare to pair some nail-varnish with their beards, all while acting like exactly the same entitled, narcissistic, dependency-denying, mind-over-matter, female-erasing assholes that they always were. If gender isn’t just a penchant for gold lamé pocketbooks and lace and is actually something to do with the psychic, material, ontological and economic structures which underpin male dominance, then, lo, it turns out you still need an analysis of male dominance if you’re going to actually do a bloody thing about it. And I’m sorry Judy, I know you were traumatized by Dworkin and MacKinnon trying to ban porn, but having an analysis of male dominance doesn’t actually make me, y’know, the fucking Pope.
Yesterday I spent the day studiously ignoring the misogynists over on Benjamin’s YouTube channel screaming all the things misogynists scream when women point – even calmly, while smiling – at male violence and say they really want it to stop. (If anyone wants to do a statistical analysis I’d be interested in the relative proportions of a) NAMALT b) You’re incapable of reason c) Stop emasculating us d) Unfuckable e) She was asking for it f) ‘We hunted the mammoth’). Meanwhile, Emily the Nazi Hunter was posing with semi-automatic machine guns and wheeling off a point-by-point plan for ‘God’s Own Avenging Angel’s TERF Apocalypse’ to a soundtrack of intersectionalibfems excitedly chanting ‘Big Dick Energy.’ (For ripping the thorough piss out of it, I salute you all). And, with the sound of men being emasculated by a razor ad still ringing in my ears, everywhere else I looked, that posturing smug Donkey Kong meme spilled like dick-waving poison out of that damn Twitch thread in which a bunch of glitter-spattered Gamergaters sat around screaming ‘FUCK YOU EAT SHIT’ at Graham in support of the great progressive cause of Suzie Green medicalising GNC kids with absolutely no oversight.
This week there’s a conference going on at Brighton University, in which a load of ‘critical thinkers’ will sit around and think very critically. Judith Butler is doing the star turn. I was supposed to go with a friend, and put on my polite academic face, and listen while she is lauded by room full of people, many of them male, who cannot get over how fucking psyched they are that ‘feminism’ no longer asks them to even acknowledge, let alone challenge, male dominance. I cannot and will not do it. At this moment the thought makes me rage. And so what I want to do, instead, is to sit here, and try and channel my rage into a (partial) excavation of how, and why, Judith Butler performed the magical and much-rewarded feat of making patriarchy – and the critique of patriarchy – vanish from feminism.
Step One: The Erasure of Sex
If Butler had a shred of honesty in her, she’d at least have the intellectual decency, while proclaiming that the current resistance to trans ideology must cease (we all know how much you abhor normative coercion Judy), to acknowledge that the root of this conflict is the effort by trans activism to ideologically mandate the political, social and legal erasure of sex. Trans ideology has thrown all manner of arguments at the task of making male and female people disappear, some of which stem directly from Butler, and most of which she alludes to in places.
- The instrumentalization of intersex conditions (that one turns up in Gender Trouble, and was trotted out again in the NS)
- The denial of the sex/gender distinction (also in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, and which I took apart here)…Which then leads to…
- The idea that because all concepts are human constructions (duh), then everything they name is likewise constructed. As we saw when I picked apart the NS piece, Butler is very fond of making some kind of claim that the determination of sex is historical or cultural, and then moving seamlessly to running sex and gender together as if they are exactly the same kind of cultural phenomenon, which they’re fucking not. ‘Mountains’ are not the same kind of thing as ‘justice,’ and not remotely the same kind of thing as ‘telling male people they mustn’t be a sissy.’ Sorry.
- ‘Colonialism invented the gender binary.’ Just fucking no. For all the reasons I rant about here and here.
- ‘Intersectionality means there’s not one experience of being a woman because different people’s experience of being a woman is differently affected by different axes of oppression, and feminism used to exclude Black women and that was bad and now it should include male people too because that’s just like including Black women.’ Where to fucking start?
- ‘Women can only exist if there is a magic essence of womanhood and women are all different so there is no magic essence of womanhood, and feminism has always been against essentialism so it’s feminist to think that women don’t exist even though you must also believe that trans women are women because they possess the magic essence of womanhood which is also what makes you a woman.’ FFS. Read some Heidegger. Existence precedes essence. Nothing exists because of essences, and the only thing that everyone wants to abolish because it doesn’t have an essence is fucking women.
I’ve written elsewhere, and will hopefully do so in more detail, about how a sexual difference reading of Western thought would posit, that, in fact, we live in a culture in which female people, as actually existing human beings, have, in representational terms, never existed. The whole cultural system is a hall of mirrors. An endless series of male projections onto women, in which women’s role is to reflect, to grant recognition, and to serve as an emotional, sexual and reproductive resource. I always used to read this claim of Irigaray’s as a metaphor of the structure of patriarchal male narcissism. Having now seen how easy it was to convince the whole world and his aunt that erasing female people is the path of true liberation, and the total inability of most people to even grasp what we’re screaming about – let alone consider whether we have a point – I think ‘metaphor’ is really underselling it. The point is this, gender, as a hierarchical system of male power, has always depended on refusing to recognise that there is class of human persons who have all the attributes of full human personhood and are female. To wit: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” WE ARE STILL NOT REMOTELY CLOSE TO GETTING THIS.
Anyway, for all you friendly neighbourhood male-dominance-deniers out there, this is all remarkably helpful. If you don’t recognise that female people exist, and that male people exist, then you can’t, necessarily, recognise that there is a cultural power structure in which male people are the default humans, and female people are defined, appropriated, and erased by the cultural projections – and the acts of domination those projections impel and license – which flow from male people towards female people. If you can’t recognise that male and female people exist, then you can’t recognise that all these cultural tropes flying about that we call gender, have anything to do with a power relation between male and female people, with the prioritization of the needs of male people, and with the positing of women as a resource in a way that seriously fucks with their humanity. That is, if you don’t recognise that male and female people exist, there can be no male dominance, there can be no female oppression, there can, in short, be no fucking patriarchy. And there can’t be any female resistance to patriarchy either. Stunning work Judith. Let’s make you the boss of feminism. Back-slaps all round.
Step Two: Power Just Goes About Circulating
As if pretending male and female people don’t exist wasn’t enough to bang this patriarchy thing on the head, Butler has another trick up her sleeve. This comes in the form of the Foucauldian account of power, as I’ve discussed in more detail here. The basis of the feminist analysis of patriarchy is that power functions as a hierarchy, and that it functions, in my French feminist frame, through a simultaneous narcissistic gesture of refusing recognition and appropriation (because you can’t be accused of appropriating something if it isn’t even there can you???). However, for Foucault, and Butler following him, power is not a hierarchy, it doesn’t work in anyone’s particular interests, and it doesn’t have any underlying pattern or stable structure. Rather, power is something which is diffused throughout society, and which, as we will see soon, works to sculpt and structure subjectivity. Foucault himself famously wrote three volumes of the History of Sexuality without ever stopping to consider whether there might be something resembling a stable pattern about the way in which male desire (or entitlement) impacted men’s relations to other people’s bodies. Butler has never considered it (although she has denied it plenty).
Step Three: Describing is Prescribing
The first two steps remove both the material basis for there being any particular relation between the sexes and denies that there could be any stable power hierarchy. Poof goes the patriarchy. Having cleaned up that irksome mess, the third step, which also stems from Foucault – and is repeated ad infinitum by Foucauldian and queer feminists – strikes at the very core of second wave feminist analysis. It follows from the half reasonable claim that social norms function to produce subjects, and morphs pretty seamlessly into the claim that descriptions of social phenomena become normative, and hence actually work to produce the things they describe. When coupled with the belief that there is no basis for an account of ‘the kind of things that are harmful to humans’ (and certainly not one that says anything as gauche as ‘domination is harmful to humans’), you basically end up with an alleged system of critique that has no moral calculus other than ‘norms are BAD.’ (Oh hai there Queer Theory, towering over the academy, not being normative in the slightest.)
What this leads to then, as I documented with respect to Butlerian accounts of rape, is that critiques of domination come to be seen as the sites which actually produce rather than critique harms. And then a funny thing happens to feminism. Instead of spending its time critiquing male power and the damage it does to women, it then spends almost all its time critiquing feminism for harming women by describing the structures that harm them. (Super handy guys, and I’m sure nothing to do with the irresistible rise of porn-bro feminists like Noah frickin Berlatsky). The Butlerian accounts of rape are all about how rape prosecutions are terrible because they ‘reinforce the gender binary,’ and consciousness-raising about rape is terrible because it ‘creates’ victims and describing acts of mass rape is terrible because it ‘undermines women’s agency.’ And this is also how we get to one of the greatest male-violence erasing ruses of them all – the idea that there is no inherent danger posed to prostitutes by men, that prostitution is in no way positioned within an matrix of male sexual entitlement and economic power, and that the entire effort of sex-work activism should be aimed squarely at calling feminists names for creating the ‘whorephobia’ which, allegedly, represents the sum total of what makes prostitution harmful.
This, as with all third wave feminism, is just so much male-pandering bullshit. For reasons I’ve yet to get to the bottom of, I spent a good deal of time trying to work out how the modern-day intersectional catechism was in any way coherent, until I realised that the only thing that held it all together was that it all benefited men. Pole dancing. Porn. Prostitution. Carceral feminism. Trans activism. Individual empowerfulment over class analysis. Denying the existence of female people. And so, what I want to think through here, by way of wending towards the ending of my venting, is what the fuck is going on here? Why are women so eager to buy this self-annihilating male-appeasing bullshit in liberation-drag, and what has any of that got to do with Judith Butler?
As trans activism is fond of reminding us, this is, to some extent, a ‘generational’ issue – the young people ‘get it’ and the old crones like us will be left, where we belong, languishing on the wrong side of history. (Irigaray was right as usual…female genealogy is crucial). If you say something like that to an old feminist hack like me, my response will be, ‘you just haven’t fallen off the patriarchy cliff yet, and when you do, we’ll be here to catch you.’ This, we get. The fall is terrifying, and had other women not been there to catch us, maybe none of us would ever make it. But for some women, it seems, the fear of the abyss is too great to ever face. They never find out that after the fall, you learn, remarkably, to float.
Last night, Sally Hines turned up on my Butler thread to snarkily ask why I was calling Judith Butler ‘Judy,’ (*flat stare* it’s irony, remember that?). By way of reply, I dug this out…the 1993 Judy!-fanzine, full of sub-dom eroticization, and a lovely riff on the ‘Lesbian Phallus’ detailing Butler’s awesome ability to make grad students cry (“Judy is the number one dominator…the Phallus masquerading as the Phallus”). I followed a quote about how alienating Butler found lesbian feminism – all that celebrating women’s music, UGH GROSS – to a 1992 ArtForum interview. Here, we get the usual verbiage justifying the necessity of subjection (Freud! Lacan! The Law of the Father says it must be so!) and distancing herself from “naïve” “liberationist forms of thinking.” (Reckon that must be us then). It’s a painful if predictable irony that someone who so doggedly removed the material planks of the analysis of male dominance, must also insist, through psychoanalysis (and her philosophical roots in Hegel), on the psychic necessity of dominance. (There’s a lot of stuff in there about the importance of cross-gender identification, for which read ‘It’s all good ladies! Everyone can have (or not have) the phallus now!’)
What we would say, what I would always say, is that this kind of phallic-identification, this explaining away the possibility of the otherwise, this refusal to imagine there could be anything other than these mechanisms – now unsexed! – of power and subjection and dominance and submission, is, in essence, Stockholm Syndrome. The fall is terrifying. Anyone who has experienced abuse or has worked with people who have experienced abuse knows this. The mind recoils. It is easier to erase and efface and reify and excuse and normalise and explain away than to look squarely at it and see what it is. There are signs of this recoiling throughout Butler’s work. They show up particularly around male violence and above all around rape. (She never directly acknowledges it, none of her work deals with it, her intellectual mentor – Foucault – was an apologist, her most significant contribution was editing an essay that said women need to ‘change the rape script’ (because if you just stop thinking of yourself as rapeable then you totally won’t get raped)).
In the Artform interview, she flat out admits that “feminism” as “a position which asserts the systematic domination of women by men” is “very scary to me.” Let that just sink in. Then, having entirely recoiled from the recognition of patriarchy as male dominance, she goes on to outline that her opposition to ‘fixed gender positions’ is because that would mean “women’s psyches are nothing but scenes of violation.” (So, we’d better just cover that shit over then, hadn’t we?) I was also reminded here of another of her interviews, in which she says she’s “probably too frightened” to “engage” Irigaray’s texts “that closely” because they strike her as the product of “a certain heterosexual trauma.” (They strike me as the product of a woman who has an unfathomable grasp of the structure of narcissistic male dominance and is fucking done with women being erased, but hey ho). Which is all to say that, basically, the woman who has been elevated as the future of feminism – and welcomed with open arms by a bunch of men who never so much as opened as second-wave text – is a woman who is too scared to even think about rape, and has a deep visceral aversion to women who are not.
How this all relates to the current clusterfuck should be obvious. So much of what is going on in this debate – both at the level of specific concerns, and more importantly, in its core psychic structure – is about boundaries and violation. One of the reasons it is so damn hard for us to get men to listen to us – and one reason they’re all so eagerly jumping on the boundary-smashing bandwagon – is because, when we get down to it, this is about rape, and most men neither want to think about rape, or about the way their narcissism and refusal to recognise our humanity is implicated in its mechanisms. This is not a question of whether trans women are more or less likely than any other group of males to pose a threat to women. It is simply that they are male, that male people pose a threat to women, and that male people posing a threat to women is not a symptom of our hysteria. (Our hysteria was only ever produced by what we could not name, which now, under the banner of feminism, we are being told, once again, we must not name.) But more than all this, more even than the spaces, and who does or does not enter them, more than the fact that women’s boundaries are being piously derided as ‘gate-keeping,’ is the importance of the boundary set by our right to name ourselves, and our refusal to fulfil our historic role as the passive dumping ground of male projections.
I’ve been meaning to write, and will write soon, something on how the left’s current obsession with ‘inclusion’ and ‘openness’ and ‘smashing boundaries’ and ‘deterritorialization’ makes sense only as a critique of the psychic structure of dominance (like, go and tell it to Donald Trump and leave us the fuck alone). It is entirely, gratuitously, inappropriate, when turned against the boundaries of the violated, of those who are raised in a society which leads them to understand – when they are grabbed or catcalled or made to feel like meat – that that is where they are positioned. It is no wonder that a woman who cannot even bear to think about this fact, who prefers to deny the power that frames it, who prefers to think it could all be rewritten by playing games with superficial scripts, would, when addressing the mess that she has made, avert her eyes so resolutely from what this is actually about. Women’s psyches are far far more than ‘scenes of violation,’ but there can be no feminism which refuses its reality, which recoils from recognising that ‘smashing boundaries,’ when used against women as a class, is the absolute axiom of male power, and, at its core, everything happening here is as it ever was.