Beyond Identity Politics: Feminism, Power & Politics

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Moya Lloyd

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    Dedication

    In memory of my parents, Bert and Sylvia Lloyd

    Acknowledgements

    This book has taken far longer to finish than I hoped. In part, this was because life intervened all too often during its composition. In part, it was because of the detours, restarts and hesitations that marked its progress. It would not, however, have been completed without the support of several people along the way; not least my editor at Sage, Karen Phillips, whose patience alone deserves immense thanks. I would also like to thank Bob Eccleshall, my former head of school at Queen's, both for his unstinting encouragement and for providing such a conducive environment in which to work. Whilst at Queen's I benefited enormously from the presence of a group of excellent theorists (Alan Finlayson, James Martin and Iain Mackenzie) whose own work on post-structuralism (in its many guises) and whose zest for debate compelled me repeatedly to think again about what I'd written. Thanks are also due to those who read various parts of the book in draft form, in particular, to Iain Mackenzie, Margaret Whitford, Anna Cutler, Terrell Carver, and Véronique Mottier. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Kimberly Hutchings and to Andrew Thacker, both of whom read the entire manuscript in draft form. All my readers offered insightful comments and sound advice, not all of which I heeded. Any errors contained herein are entirely my own.

    I owe not only intellectual debts but also personal ones. I would thus like to thank those friends and family whom I haven't already mentioned, for providing distraction and support when I needed it most, especially Anne Strach, Debbie Lisle, Deborah Sugg Ryan, James Ryan (and Mark and Gwendaline, of course), as well as Caroline, Dale and Andrew Lloyd. I also owe a significant debt of gratitude to my late parents. My mother's embodiment of determination in the face of considerable adversity serves as a constant reminder to me that things can get done whilst my father's encouragement to me to question everything has helped shape not only my writing style but also my conception of what political theory is all about. Finally, my biggest thanks must be reserved for the two people who have lived with this book for almost as long as I have: my husband, Andrew Thacker, who, as always, not only debated ideas with me but provided love, affection and excellent cooking to sustain me; and, Daniel, my six year old son, whose passionate curiosity and spirit brighten every day and without whose artwork my study would have been a very dull place to work indeed.

    Some chapters are based on previously published work. Part of Chapter Four was originally published as ‘The (F)utility of the Feminist Turn to Foucault’, in Economy and Society, volume 22 (4), 1993, whilst an earlier version of Chapter Seven was published as ‘Performativity, Parody, Politics’, in Theory, Culture and Society, volume 16 (2), 1999.

  • Conclusion: Interrogating the Political

    If there is one feature that has defined contemporary feminist discussions on subjectivity, identity and politics over the past two decades, it has been contention. For every advocate of the idea that women share a common identity, there has been one who has argued for the radical insufficiency of identity categories; for every critic of the idea that identity is constructed, there has been one claiming that it is not constructed, or if it is, then not in the ways suggested. In a way, the intensity of the debate should surprise no one with a background in political theory. For what it demonstrates is akin, in some ways, to what W.B. Gallie referred to 50 years ago as the essential contestability of political concepts (1955–56), the fact that certain evaluative concepts are so complex and open that several plausible interpretations of them are possible at any one time. When political theorists took up the mantle thrown down by Gallie, they turned their attention to ideas such as power, authority, liberty, justice, and democracy, the staple components of political discourse. More recently, feminist theorists have not only contested the meanings attaching within mainstream political theory to these staple terms; they have also scrutinized notions such as public and private, and the body (Hirschmann and Di Stefano, 1996; Shanley and Narayan, 1997). Like the essentially contested concepts noted by Gallie, these later ones also are capable of sustaining both a potentially interminable dispute over their ‘proper uses’, and a range of ‘perfectly respectable arguments and evidence’ (1955–56: 169). While Gallie talked in terms of essential contestability, I prefer, however, to construe the disputes surrounding, for instance, power, subjectivity or politics as evidence of their political contestability.

    Essential contestability assumes a conceptual essence that necessarily becomes the subject of disputation. Political contestability not only queries the idea that any concept has an essential meaning, seeing both meaning and the exclusions that constitute it, instead, as determinate, historically specific effects, however, but it also sees conceptual contestation as contingent (not necessary). By this I mean that different concepts will become politicized – and thus subject to dispute – in specific contexts at particular times. It is this that has occurred with such categories as ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’, terms once ascribed a naturalness or normalcy that seemed to put them beyond dispute. They have become politically significant, as battles ensue over how they are defined, how they operate, what they exclude and include. Indeed, so far have things developed that even the notion of an essence has, as demonstrated in Chapter 3, itself become subject to political contestation. Far from regarding this contestability as a hindrance to theory, and to feminist political theory in particular, I view it as a resource, opening up new avenues. The open-textured nature of concepts, discourses and practices, is precisely what invigorates political theorizing as they are scrutinized, critiqued and resignified in ways that attempt to displace their hegemonic meanings. It is this that helps to reconfigure the terrain of politics. This is not to assume too permissive a reading of this openness, since critiquing certain hegemonic practices, ideas or theories is no guarantee of their displacement. Nor does this imply, however, that one need be too pessimistic. Understanding political theory as a form of critique, focused on eventalizing specific phenomena, compels forensic attention to how the present configuration of politics emerged and took hold, what it makes possible and what it forecloses, and how it might be reshaped.

    Throughout this book, I have addressed myself specifically to the ways in which the subject-politics relation has become a site of discord within feminism. Obviously my treatment of these topics has been selective. There are a number of themes that I could have considered that I chose not to; questions, for instance, relating to the politics of undecidability or to the decisionism found in some of the theories encountered here; the relation between the body and subjectivity; or the debate within feminism between discourse ethicists and poststructuralists about the normative dimensions of feminist theory. Some of these I will return to in later work, some I leave for others to explore. I want to end this book by thinking in general about some of the issues this debate about the subject and politics raises for politics. Specifically, two issues are pertinent: first, the problem of what is meant by politics; and, second, what this indicates about the role and nature of feminist political theory.

    As I noted in the Introduction, ‘what is politics?’ has been a topic of debate within and outside of feminism for many years. Throughout this book, evidence of this questioning of politics in the thinkers under review has been plentiful. One of the most common characteristics of this work – though not shared by all authors considered here – has been a distinction of sorts between politics apprehended as a daily activity and politics (or the political) understood in a generative sense. Sometimes this is explicitly formulated, as in Mouffe's contention that the political (understood as the site of contestation, or polemos) is an intrinsic dimension of human ontology, which can be demarcated from politics (conceived as the ordering of human existence through a domestication of hostilities, the polis) (1994: 108 and 2000). Sometimes it is not. Butler thus, for instance, repeatedly remarks that the activity of politics is contingent and contextual and that it cannot be predicted or prescribed but rather is dependent upon decisions taken at opportune political moments. She also talks of what might be termed political constitutivity – what the political institutes: thus, as my discussion in Chapter 1 indicated, defining the ‘domain of the political’ (Butler, 1992: 4), for Butler, is political in a productive sense, as is the argument that politics logically requires a subject as its guarantor. This kind of reasoning relates to my contention, in Chapter 3, that the relation between the subject and politics in the debate on essentialism may be thought of as circular: that is, the generation of political subjects relies upon their prior political subjection. It is, furthermore, evidence of the complexity, perhaps even the undecidability, of politics as it circulates simultaneously as activity, process, policy and productive force.

    Where mainstream political science often conceives of ‘political reality’ in terms of institutions (such as, for instance, elections and modes of representation), or activities (competition between ideologically differentiated parties or, say, citizenship [Stavrakakis, 1999: 71–2]), advocates of the subject-in-process – and here I include myself – tend to construe it differently. For me, politics it is a dense web of variable power relations: a circulating dynamic. Political reality is thus neither limited to a particular group of activities nor to a separate system – a discrete sphere with its own distinguishing characteristics (the political system as opposed to the economic system, juridical system or the realm of culture) – though it includes them. Politics, instead, exceeds this delimited realm and set of practices. This excess cannot, however, be dealt with just by extending existing definitions of politics to incorporate activities (say, the sexual division of labour), institutions (say, the family or marriage), or spheres (civil society) that a more restricted political science conception excludes, though it is important to do so. Political reality is never, however, simply commensurate with politics per se. What passes for political reality is always the effect of historically sedimented practices and discourses; these circumscribe what politics is and what it disavows. There are, thus, only ever specific political realities, operative in particular places at particular times. Determining what counts as politics (and disqualifying what doesn't) is, as I have argued throughout, an inherently political process. This applies just as much to the political discourses avowed by feminists as to the political practices formally recognized by national, sub-national and supranational bodies. Recognizing this is one of the defining features of the relation between subject and politics articulated in this book. This is why it is a mistake to construe accounts of the subject-in-process, as their detractors often do, as either anti-political or apolitical; they are engaged intensely with political questions. The difference between them and more traditional accounts (including feminist ones) is that they appreciate that an exclusively topographical or spatial account of politics occludes not only the constituted nature of the political realm, as such, but also hides the constitutive work the political does, in, for instance, generating society, conditioning the parameters of debate, and effecting forms of subjectivity. If politics is reformulated in this way, what does it portend about feminist political theory?

    Anyone who reads this book looking for a set of political prescriptions about what feminists ought to do will be disappointed. By and large, though there are exceptions, the theories covered here are not prescriptive. This is not to say, however, that the theories discussed here are not driven by particular normative political values, by a commitment to enhancing democracy and extending equality, for example, for they are. This is what makes them feminist. Pursuing these values, I propose, does not necessitate furnishing a detailed programmatic account of what needs to be done to achieve them, however, though it may sometimes generate certain pointers (as in Mouffe's contention that a new form of radical democratic citizenship is needed). Rather, it means giving up on the kind of fundamentalist fantasy of completion or resolution associated with some political theories (Brown, 2003) – the contention that democracy can be attained once and for all or that equality can be firmly and finally secured – in recognition of the fact that neither can ever be realized permanently. In fact, it is precisely the openness of democracy and equality to reformulation that generates their very capacity for perpetual political renewal. Moreover, and here I concur with Butler, it is the role of politics to keep the ‘universal’ (democracy or equality, in my examples) indeterminate (2000b), for it is precisely unsettling it – subjecting it to critique – that keeps it alive.

    Unlike earlier generations of feminists who followed the trajectory of, for instance, Marxism in believing that such theories not only offered radical political critique, but could also furnish guidance on the correct political action to bring about progressive social and political change and could identify the political agent of such change, the contemporary writers under discussion in this book eschew this mode of political reasoning. Accounts of history that assume a particular linear logic are read as totalizing; all-encompassing global and universal explanations of patriarchy are regarded as examples of meta-narrative authoritarianism, and so on. There is no feminist subject of history, no single direction for political action and no unitary set of political values that can be read off, or deduced from, any analysis of women's lives no matter how comprehensive it may claim to be. There is, consequently, a rejection of the types of political normativity that are present within other strands of feminist political theory, say, feminist discourse ethics.1

    Rethinking political theory as a form of critique, I suggest, means actively embracing the fact that political outcomes will not necessarily follow from a particular theory – though they may be made possible by it. It thus means yielding the idea that political theory ought necessarily to advise on political strategy or to command what needs to be done. Critique is important to politics in terms of revealing what is disavowed in a discourse, not in terms of furnishing blueprints for political action. If, as Nikolas Rose observes, many forms of political ‘engagement’ are minor, lacking ‘the arrogance of programmatic politics’, this does not make them apolitical (1999: 279–80; Lawler, 2002: 110).2 Quite the reverse, the absence of a programme to validate them does not depoliticize or delegitimize them; it serves as a reminder that one should be cautious about any account that endeavours to theorize appropriate forms of political activity, since that authorization is always at the expense of the proscription of other forms of activity. Political theory as critique asks what interests are served by this distinction between activities and what privileges they establish for those who act in certain ways.

    Since political activity, on my reading, is not governed (though it may be enabled) by theoretical practices such as deconstructive analysis or genealogical inquiry, what interests me is the way in which the thinkers I treat challenge the notion that politics is ‘about acquiring certainty … and acting on it’ (Elam, 1994: 67). What most of them share, in some measure, is a disposition towards questioning and a critical suspicion of attempts to foreclose what counts as political. Eve Sedgwick's remarks, contemplating her own project in Epistemology of the Closet, are apposite here: the point of such an approach is ‘not to know how far … insights and projects are generalizable, not to be able to say in advance where the semantic specificity of these issues gives over to (or: itself structures?) the syntax of the “broader” or more abstractable critical project’. It is to operate against such ‘deadening pretended knowingness’ (1990: 12). The same could be said of many of the positions debated in this book; that the issue is to query and to interrogate instances of ‘pretended knowingness’ in order to challenge their authority and their capacity to normalize and pathologize those subject(ed) to them. This pertains equally to feminism, with its own discourses that claim to ‘know’ women in their commonality or universality, as to other discourses and practices (such as democracy, medicine, psychoanalysis or the law) that structure and condition women's lives. Political theory as critique, on this count, is not concerned with positing alternatives to the present and charting how to arrive at these new utopias, though, as indicated earlier, it is driven by a desire to see political changes that bring about a more egalitarian or democratic society. It concentrates instead on the critical examination and denaturalization of current norms, practices and political subjectivities. In other words, feminist work is political not because of the recommendations it makes for the future, but because it is animated by specific concrete problems in the present, problems pertaining to women in their variety and multiplicity.

    Treating the enterprise of political theory as a mode of critique thus permits a distinction to be drawn between the question of what to do with the disruptions produced by, for instance, genealogical intervention and the interrogatory impulse that initially prompted that intervention, an impulse firmly located within the history of the present. The process of denaturalization immanent to genealogy and deconstruction, what Foucault termed the ‘desacrilization’ of the social and what Butler calls ‘decontextualization’, is politically effective and valuable in itself not for what it prescribes. Its effectiveness and value, in part at least, as noted in Chapter 6, are that it opens up the space for potential political transformation. What results from this critique politically is, of course, contingent and unpredictable, and sometimes even wholly unexpected. Critique, in this sense, has no predetermined shape or necessary outcome. It entails neither logical political consequences nor particular normative solutions; it is neither predictive nor prescriptive. Or, as Gayatri Spivak puts it in relation to deconstruction: ‘there is no absolute justification for any position’, ‘no politically correct deconstructive politics’, only a critical questioning and exploring of limits (1990: 104).

    Political theory in these modalities is non-programmatic but, crucially, it is not non-political. As Wendy Brown eloquently observes:

    Once the radical contingency of political views and judgments is avowed, it is possible to partially and productively depoliticize the theoretical enterprise without thereby rendering it apolitical. It becomes thinkable to distinguish between the political possibilities that a certain body of theory affords, the political uses to which it can be put, the political positions of the theorist, and a particular political deployment of the theory. Political truth then ceases to be sought within a particular theory but is, rather, that which makes an explicit bid for hegemony in the political realm. And theory may be allowed a return to its most fertile, creative, and useful place as, inter alia, an interlocutor of that domain. (2001: 120)

    The theories explored in this book are political, I contend, in some of the senses elucidated by Brown: not in terms of fostering a particular cause through the generation of a set of political protocols or platforms, or because they issue from the pen of someone with a particular political bent but in terms of the questions they ask. It is for how they contest received wisdom and the opportunities this contestation creates for concrete (though indeterminate) acts of political intervention, acts that contingently articulate together such factors as political desire and imagination, political connections, not to mention political judgement and values. Whether they succeed in convincing others or bringing about significant change is a matter of the struggle for political hegemony.

    The issue for feminist theory operating in this register is not primarily to oppose existing theories (feminist or otherwise) in terms of their political or moral assumptions, as when radical feminism criticizes Marxist feminism because the latter emphasizes class-based politics at the expense of sex-based politics. The purpose is to open up spaces – political, discursive – through which to probe the constituent elements of these (and other) theories (including, for example, the essentialist idea of a unitary subject or the possibility of a uniform account of patriarchy) and to denaturalize, and potentially delegitimize, our most cherished and unquestioned assumptions. In particular, in this book, I have traced manifold accounts of how the relation between the subject and politics has been problematized in just such ways: from the idea of cyborg subjectivity, through non-identity politics to ‘becoming out’, from the mestiza through agency as catachresis, to the interconnectivity of essentialism and inessentialism. Each of these moments of questioning and scrutiny is political because it exposes the generation and emergence of these varied phenomena and events as aleatory, arbitrary and haphazard and thus as contestable. Moreover, it helps to divulge, among other things, the radically contingent mechanisms through which norms are configured, sexual life organized, and bodies materialized. It reveals the historical conditions that make possible the performative invocation of specific political rationalities, centring determinate regimes of power and securing particular truth effects. In short, the political is revisioned as a field that is perpetually open to reconfiguration, amenable to unending revitalization and never immune from scrutiny and critical excavation. This is the site of political theory.

    Notes

    1 This is not to repudiate the motivations behind or the practice of such work. It has been a persistent characteristic of work from Aristotle onwards for political theory to posit a positivity; that is, to delineate shared goals, interests and ideal institutions. The effect of this is to impose meaning on politics and the political by fixing its boundaries and by attempting to arrest the flow and flux that mark them. My point is that much of the writing under consideration in this book has a different aim: to problematize and to denaturalize that which is supposedly beyond question. It is still, however, political theory even if it does not guarantee a politics. (For a recent discussion of questions of politics and negativity, see Coole, 2000.)

    2 In other words, these actions happen in specific contexts and it is in these contexts that particular judgements are made, specific values appealed to, political imaginations given rein, and so on (see Brown, 2001). Obviously this opens up questions about the relations between norms, judgement and context that I do not have space to pursue here. Suffice to say that, unlike political theories that have an investment in specifying what Nancy Fraser calls ‘a comprehensive moral-political vision’ (1995b: 163) that assists in determining where feminists ought to be heading and whether what they are doing will get them there, the alternative forms of political theory considered here do not make such a vision central to their concerns. Instead, they raise questions about what is foreclosed or disallowed by such attempts to generate universal, indeed, universalizable, criteria of judgement.

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