The Uses of Cultural Studies: A Textbook
Publication Year: 2005
'What McRobbie manages to do so skilfully is to show how each [author], regardless of his or her particular disciplinary location, makes a significant contribution to the project of cultural studies. It should be essential reading for students studying culture' - THES ' I'll be recommending that students buy this text and teaching from it extensively over the course of the module. This is an excellent text by a concise, clear and important British scholar which will help introduce students to the opportuntities they have to study contemporary life meaningfully.'- Dr Stuart Robertson, University of Central England'An inspirational take on cultural studies - past, present and future. It is both a student text and considerably more than that. It is written with admirable clarity, but ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Introduction: Privilege and Delight
- Chapter 1: Stuart Hall and the Inventiveness of Cultural Studies
- Chapter 2: Black and Not-Black: Gilroy's Critique of Racialised Modernity
- Chapter 3: No Woman, No Cry? Judith Butler and the Politics of Post-Feminist Cultural Studies
- Chapter 4: Look Back in Anger: Homi Bhabha's Resistant Subject of Colonial Agency
- Chapter 5: ‘Needs and Norms’: Bourdieu and Cultural Studies
- Chapter 6: Jameson's Postmodernity: The Politics of Cultural Capitalism
© Angela McRobbie 2005
First published 2005
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This is a textbook and it is fitting that I offer my deep thanks to some of my former students who have, over the years, become friends and colleagues. These include Isaac Julien (from our time at Central St Martins College of Art and Design), Alev Adil and James Barrett (on the MA course at Thames Valley University), Boris Ewenstein, Caspar Melville, Yeran Kim, Bakri Bahkit, Mira Levinson and Vrajesh Hanspal, among many others at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I would also like to thank my North London friends and neighbours, Paul Gilroy and Vron Ware, Denise Riley, Charlotte Brunsdon, Sarah Thornton, Mica Nava, Stuart Hall, Lucy Bland, the Winston family and Bill Schwarz. I am indebted to Paul Du Gay, Sean Nixon, Larry Grossberg and, of course, my daughter Hanna Chalmers. I have truly appreciated the input, support and extraordinary intellectual stimulation of all my Goldsmiths colleagues and specific assistance from Richard Smith and Zehra Arabadji. Special thanks to Yinka Shonibare for permission to use his work for the cover design and thanks also to Sage editor Julia Hall.
Further Materials I originally appeared in Theory, Culture & Society 19 (3), 2002.
Further Materials II originally appeared in Feminist Review no 75, 2003.
Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.[Page viii]
Further Materials I: A Mixed Bag of Misfortune? Bourdieu's Weight of the World[Page 175]
… diverse stories of suffering can be recognised as belonging to anyone who dares to possess them and in good faith employ them as interpretative devices through which we may clarify the limits of our selves, the basis of our solidarities, and perhaps pronounce upon the values of our values. (Gilroy, 2000: 230)
In the last few years, before his death in January 2002, Pierre Bourdieu had become increasingly prominent, not just as an intellectual but for his participation on the wider political stage. His interventions included a series of scathing critiques of French attempts to roll back the state (in fact a cautious dismantling process in contrast to the gung-ho UK privatisation of public services), he had become highly critical of the media (although his analysis of media and journalism was surprisingly one-dimensional), of the vogue for think-tanks, of the ubiquitousness of opinion polls, and he had also accused cultural studies of encouraging the success of global capitalism by describing the pleasures and creativity of multi-culturalism (Bourdieu, 1998; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1999; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001). In a recent piece in Theory Culture and Society Bourdieu and Wacquant departed from the norms of polite critique (‘Cultural Studies … a mongrel … discipline’) to denounce academic endeavours such as Italian Cultural Studies (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1999). The seeming absurdity of German-Turkish Cultural Studies also attracted special attention, and the authors blamed such efforts on, among other things, the commercial opportunism of publishers. To most social scientists as well as cultural studies academics the emergence of discussion on ‘German Turkish’ identity is entirely appropriate, indeed overdue, but to Bourdieu and Wacquant it was somehow scandalous, yet another sign of the diversionary and celebratory impulse of identity politics.1 Bourdieu [Page 176]and Wacquant also indicated their contempt for the Third Way politics embraced by the UK government, saying of sociologist and political advisor to New Labour, Anthony Giddens ‘The masters of the economy … can sleep in peace: they have found their Pangloss’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001: 5).
We might consider then the 650 page volume The Weight of the World (which appeared in France in 1993 as La Misère Du Monde) as a political as well as a sociological reflection on the part of Bourdieu and his team, on the social divisions and sufferings of contemporary France (Bourdieu et al., 1999). It's a departure for Bourdieu for its emphasis on the extensive recording and transcription of spoken voices. Each interview selected and edited for publication is introduced with a short essay written by the interviewer. Layer upon layer of voices, contextual commentary and a concluding section on ‘understanding’ contribute to an accumulative effect. This is a book which announces itself with a certain hauteur. The aim is clearly to pronounce upon the condition of France in a definitive manner. But it can also be seen as contributing to the recent revitalisation of sociology. Although they each occupy quite different positions in the political (left and centre left) spectrum, Beck in Germany, Sennett and Giddens in the UK, and Bourdieu in France have each reinvented sociology as a more critical instrument for the extension of democracy and the politics of social transformation in the post-industrial era. By this means sociology on occasion finds itself in a new proximity to government. Bourdieu makes enormous claims for this particular work, and the question is, are these justified? Are the skills of the team of interviewers and the ‘rapport’ (a term recently scrutinised by anthropologists including Clifford (1997) and Geertz (2000)) with their interviewees, many of whom they have known intermittently over a lifetime, such that they encourage such heights of self-analysis? Or is there over-statement in the whole project? Is there a sense that in having taken these steps to record ordinary voices of people who are rarely listened to, the team are more overwhelmed by what they have done, and project this sense of wonder (indeed self congratulation) onto the published extracts, many of which might be read as less unique and interesting, more banal, repetitious and aggrieved? Is the denuded (or de-culturalised) effect the outcome of carrying out interviews and relying on voice without the sociological trappings of temporal and spatial specificity, without the boundaries and limits of an urban or community study?[Page 177]Voice of Pain
Members of Bourdieu's team are, it seems, given a relatively free hand in deciding who to interview. They then embark on interviews with individuals, some of whom are or have been neighbours, others who have no prior contact: all they share is a willingness to testify on their suffering. One interviewer (Rosine Christin) says rather piously that she felt a moment of woman-to-woman communication as she talked over the kitchen table with a 45-year-old supermarket check-out clerk, somebody she had known for years and whose life trajectory was the source of her distress. ‘She showed me the life of the worker’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999b: 354). But to grant importance to such a moment, so many years after debates in feminist scholarship as well as in anthropology, on the ethics of the research, have well and truly complicated such encounters seems spurious, even gratuitous (McRobbie, 2000 ), see also Pratt (1992) on ‘contact zones’, Clifford's response to this (1997) and Geertz (2000)). What for the interviewer suggests a quasifeminist encounter, to the reader could just as easily be seen as a rather sentimental ruse to get the right kind of data. Bourdieu refers to this moment again in his summing up, but we might ask, who gains from gendered recognition of this type?
The proliferation of voices in the book do admittedly fill an absence in current sociological and also social policy writing.2 But the problem of interpretation without having recourse to historical and cultural context demonstrates that voice of pain is not enough. Without the wider web of social relations in which they are embedded, these testimonies exist merely as the stated truths of personal experience. The Bourdieu team attribute to the transcribed interviews, special, almost transcendental status, but set alongside each other, many readers might ask, is this so very different from the ‘clash of viewpoints’ which are the subject matter of journalism where ‘anti-social neighbours’ regularly put their case? Emotion and affect, suffering and trauma are currently the subject of attention in sociology and cultural studies (see for example Berlant, 2001 and Bauman, 2000 among others), more the pity then that Bourdieu and his team did not consider the enactment of grievances and suffering beyond, on the one hand, powerlessness as a result of the structural positions these individuals occupy in social and spatial hierarchies, and on the other hand seemingly irreconcilable conflicts and deep antagonisms.
This laying down of opposing viewpoints from people locked in conflict with each other, evades the issues of power and powerlessness within the [Page 178]poorest sections of the society. And more specifically with the power of racism as articulated by disadvantaged white people over those ‘others’ whom they perceive as illegitimate in their claims for recognition and already preferred in terms of benefits by a too-liberal state. The spirited and vocal young girl of Arab origin is angered by the barely disguised racism of her French neighbour who so vociferously objects to noises, smells and cats in the communal garden which she claims as her own. There are moments in the interview when the older French woman articulates with utter clarity her objections to others: ‘But they are in my home, they are in France, its not me who is in their home’. Might not the interviewer in his introductory preamble have paid more attention to the language of popular racism? Granted then, the substance of the interviews might be important to listen to, but often it is the interviewer's comments which betray a crude and common-sense sociological understanding. All that is said about this woman by her interviewer is that ‘this must therefore be understood as the last manifestation of resistance put up by this fraction of the population … to contest the process of decline, devaluation and disqualification in which it fears being caught’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999: 23). Yes indeed, but this is the kind of point made by sociologists over twenty years ago which Hall et al. (1978) and Gilroy (1987) refuted on the grounds that neither displaced resistance, nor ‘false consciousness’, nor the attribution of racism as somehow confined to the disenfranchised white working-class, provided sufficient explanation for the circulation throughout the entire social and cultural field (in particular the media) of racialising processes and their subsequent effects.3
Time and time again in the interviews we are presented with the confident assumption of knowledge of the other. ‘You know how they are’ … ‘they begin to live at ten at night’ … ‘you'd get your throat cut’ … they keep ‘sheep in the balconies’, when they first came ‘they lived in tents’. As Bhabha argues the racial stereotype works and is sustained by constant repetition like this, over time, of ‘knowledge value’ which tells ‘us’ what ‘they’ are really like. (Bhabha, 1994: 79). And as Said has demonstrated, the power of the West is inextricably linked with the pursuit of knowledge of its others (Said, 1978). In the interviews there is also, on the part of many of the white working-class respondents, a more recent refrain, which is their objection to equal opportunities which they see as inherently opposed to their own interests. They complain about non-whites having access to welfare and forms of social security and they are critical of a too-liberal state which administers such services. They also object to their own prejudices [Page 179]being typecast as racist. Thus they predicate comments with the phrase ‘I'm not a racist but’ … or ‘They scream that its racism’… ‘You would have called me a racist’ … These disadvantaged whites find some degree of common cause through imagining themselves also to be the victim of racism now practised by a state which positively favours ‘others’ at their expense.
The interviews do indeed provide an opportunity to consider the prevalence of popular racism in France. In the light of the electoral success in April 2002 of Le Pen and the Front National the book will no doubt find itself again in the spotlight, all the more disappointing then that there is no attempt to theorise these social antagonisms. A brief glance in the direction of cultural studies shows that there is no shortage of work which could have been useful to the Bourdieu team in this respect. For instance Back et al.'s research with white working-class parents and children in the East London Isle of Dogs estates, shows the importance of analysing the roots of racist language in white working-class traditions, in the protectionism of trade unionism, in the economic and social history of the specific location, and psycho-analytically in relation to the fear of and fascination for ‘the other’ (Back et al., 1999). Likewise Back and Ware have more recently provided ethnographic accounts of neo-fascist politics in the context of British white working-class culture (Back and Ware, 2002). This work emerges out of the critiques of anti-racist policies including those of Gilroy (1992), Rattansi (1992), Cohen (1992) and others who challenged the idea that racism could be eradicated by, for example, forbidding offensive language in the school environment. The opportunity to really engage with the various racisms found in The Weight of the World are, by such sophisticated sociologists as these, nonetheless refused. Instead the writers are compromised by their own methodologies of intimacy and empathy. We find on one occasion an interviewer, Patrick Champagne, prompting the respondent to follow up racist comments with regard to the appeal of Le Pen … he asks ‘The solutions posed by Le Pen … they must be tempting for some of the people, don't you think?’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999: 118). This raises ethical questions of interventionism and direction of the research topics nowhere discussed throughout the book despite the great attention given to the interview situation. Early on in the book, to a white French couple living in a rough housing estate, Bourdieu and Christin ask ‘And the neighbourhood, isn't it dangerous for the girls?’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999: 20). Such a question presupposes that it might be reasonable to assume that those troublesome people who have just been discussed (‘for an Arab he was great’) are also [Page 180]likely to be sexually criminal, in fact the woman replies ‘No no its fine … No its mostly the noise, things like that’.
Bourdieu argues that these individuals can be helped to understand their own structural position, and that what would otherwise be invisible or difficult for them to articulate without prior access to university education, can find expression under interview conditions such as these. The habitus (the terrain of dispositions and routine unthought-about gestures, actions, assumptions) can thus be rendered more malleable and open to change. Once again this attributes enormous weight to the research endeavours of the team, such that this single exercise becomes a kind of pedagogy or even social psychotherapy. But does better understanding necessarily lead to the kind of political or ethical outlook which Bourdieu would endorse? My answer would be that there can be no such guarantees. The direction in which the habitus is shifted by such interventions as these remains uncertain. And, on the impact of ‘the interview’, who is to know that young disadvantaged people like the two boys Ali and Francois are otherwise incapable of explaining their own circumstances? It would take a different kind of study, one that would entail lengthy periods of ‘deep hanging out’ (Clifford, 1997) and would involve getting to know not just the boys but the whole cultural environment including their engagement with non-verbal forms such as music, clothes, the objects of the consumer culture, the media they watched or listened to, to be able to develop a full understanding of how social structure including specific location corresponds with individual accounts. Paul Willis succeeded many years ago in producing a complex analysis of working-class lads and the counter-school culture (Willis, 1978). But the capacity of ‘the lads’ to generate a counter-culture was already there, it certainly did not rely on the ‘magical’ presence of Paul Willis. Nowadays this kind of research typically attempts to draw in more actively the participation of respondents, providing them with video cameras, bringing them together to report back on their activities, planning follow up events, ending the project with exhibitions, user-group activities and so on, in a bid to create more democratic ethnographic modalities and also to use the process to produce some collaborative outcome (see also Clifford, 1997). The trump card for Bourdieu is clearly the strategy to let the respondents speak out, where editing is done with a light touch. But the work is not to be judged on the truth of the voices, but ultimately on what is done with them. We might surmise that exactly what Bourdieu wanted to avoid was the kind of work associated with Hebdige, whose attention to the signs of the punk subculture produced a textual analysis without any reference to [Page 181]the subjects of punk and their testimony (Hebdige, 1978). Bourdieu in contrast sticks resolutely to the interview format. But surely the effectivity of the interview in provoking self-reflection for social understanding and potentially action for change, is even more problematic (and inflated) as a claim, than the ascription of resistance ever was to the iconography of youth culture?
Allowing the interviewers to find respondents through chains of friends, neighbours or acquaintances sometimes suggests sociological opportunism. Rosine Christin talks with a woman, the daughter of farmer friends of hers, now living in Paris. She persuades the woman to bring her to work on the night shift, once there the interviewer finds an opportunity to talk with a man which she duly reports on. ‘Michel B, a short dark man with a moustache, about 60, is the division inspector, a position above TM. He has spent his whole working life in the postal service on the night shift’. ‘(H)e remembers his arrival in Paris’ … and so on. It is almost as though the interviewer literally bumped into somebody she thought might have something interesting to say. Consequently the account she offers is sociologically banal, mere reportage of degrees of misfortune, prompting (I am sorry to say) almost the complete opposite effect which Bourdieu claims, a kind of ‘so what?’ The closing words are a commentary on the failing marriage of the respondent ‘things weren't going very well … everything had “looked bleak”’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999: 308). The emotive tone asks for the reader to respond with empathy, but the seemingly random way in which we are presented with these lives torn from context and lacking in ‘thick description’ disallows a more engaged response. This then is a mixed bag of misfortunes.
The material includes interviews carried out in the US as well as in France. Loic Wacquant, who has published accounts of boxing and ghetto life in Chicago, contributes sections on hustling in the neighbourhood called The Zone. Bourdieu argues in the preamble for a ‘rigorous analysis of the relations between the structures of social space and those of physical space … The lack of capital chains one to a place’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999: 127) … ‘Bringing together on a single site a population homogenous in its dispossession strengthens that dispossession, notably with respect to culture and cultural practices …’ (ibid.: 129). The rationale for including the American material (with sections by Philippe Bourgois taken from his excellent ethnography of crack users) is that the withdrawal of the State from areas of total impoverishment like those described by Bourgois and Wacquant ought to be a warning to the French government seemingly embarking on a similar programme. This is the most engaged section of the [Page 182]book because more time is spent connecting the research with existing debates in American sociology and political debates on race, while also revealing the frenetic ‘making do’ economy of the area. One respondent called Rickey yearns for a straight job in the Post Office, just as his female counterparts talk about their desire to go back to school. But it is clear that both of these are simply out of reach as possibilities. In an interview with Bourgois a drug dealer describes with some pride that he manages to hold down a day job as a courier, never missing a day. However this is such a low pay activity that he needs to combine this legitimate job with other illegal activities to survive. Thus multi-tasking is as endemic among the poor now forced to live without welfare, as it is for the more affluent middle-classes. The despairing words of Ramon ‘That's how life treated me. Life treated me this way so bad that I don't give a fuck no more’ (ibid.: 179), are evidently the outcome of the structural forces which lock him into ghetto life, so that death truly is the only escape that can be imagined. These two sections succeed because the writers are able to demonstrate their familiarity with existing scholarship on race and poverty and this makes their arguments more rounded and persuasive.
Other sections of the book where there is little reference to existing work and wider sociological debates, and where instead there is an almost sanctimonious relation to the voice of the speaker, are much less successful. On occasion the respondents appear to be exploited for their own grief. For example the feminist activist tells the life history of her refuge project. Her emotional involvement and her profound distress when the project is taken from the hands of the volunteers and activists and turned into a more professional organisation, is to the reader, less surprising than it is to the professional interviewer/sociologist. Many feminist projects ended in tears, but to print her story in this way where the only visible connection with other stories is that it describes changes in the workplace is of little value to either our understanding of voluntary work, political activism or feminism. The interviewer quotes ‘And there are women who claim to be feminists who aren't at all, because they're the ones who did me in’ (ibid.: 353). Again, this achieves the exact opposite effect Bourdieu strives for. It personalises, it reduces a serious feminist intervention to a seemingly bitter feud between individuals, it exposes somebody for no obvious purpose other than using her experience for spurious sociological ends. The writer Sandine Garcia quite patronisingly comments on how this feminist is able to ‘analyse with great perspicuity just how a bureaucratic world works … with its terminology and its abstract impersonal administrative categories’ [Page 183](ibid.: 341). Basically what she is saying is that this woman understands her own working conditions … ‘she has learnt that social and cultural domination also cuts across feminism, that power exists there too …’ (ibid.: 341). We might ask, is her learning dependent on the presence and questioning of Garcia, surely not?
In the closing section of the book titled Understanding, Bourdieu eulogises the interviews which are like ‘hearing ordinary conversations’. They are, he continues, a ‘more accessible equivalent of complex, abstract conceptual analyses’ (Bourdieu et al., 1999.: 623), which is to say that they represent a comparable discourse to his own sociology, i.e. the respondents seem to be saying the same thing but in their own words. He asks that we give these interviews the same attention as might be given to ‘great philosophical and literary texts’ (ibid.: 624). But the failings of the project are directly related to the de-spatialised, culturally anonymous face-to-face encounters with a tape recorder across the kitchen table. In such situations there is little opportunity for any signs of social or cultural vitality to emerge. All the things which co-exist with suffering and disadvantage, the ‘syncretic dynamism of contemporary metropolitan life’ (Gilroy, 2000.: 245), and which to a certain extent alleviate and also dramatise through collective expression these experiences, in music and art (see Gilroy, 1987, 1993), in language and humour (Willis, 1978), and even just in the ‘art of making do’ (de Certeau, 1988) are eliminated from Bourdieu's ‘world’, making it a stark, atrophied place without hope. But even the poor and the dispossessed partake in some forms of cultural enjoyment which are collective resources which make people what they are. This absence is the cost Bourdieu must pay for his antipathy to cultural studies. Indeed one could, without for a moment disputing the prevalence of poverty and hardship, nonetheless suggest that ‘misery’ is an effect of the utilisation of managed research techniques such as those employed in this project.
Let me conclude this review with a few brief points. First that the world of Bourdieu's sociology and its quite admirable aspiration towards political intervention, in this case, is in fact a self-encapsulated and singular, and thus inevitably a rather self-regarding endeavour. The idea that an interview can effect subjective change is highly questionable. The great efforts his team make to avoid exploiting the privilege of their own education in these exchanges can have the curious effect of gratifying the sociologists on the basis of the ‘intellectual love’ which emerges from the encounters, and encouraging the team to report that, were they in the same place as their respondents, they would surely have the same opinions. But here [Page 184]identification obscures more intractable political issues. Reading this book it seems as though this is the first time sociology has sought to present itself as political intervention, it also suggests that the aspiration that the academic discipline may have an impact on its subjects (here respondents) of a potentially transformative nature is also unproblematic. In Weight of the World Bourdieu is taking his sociology out into the world, transforming it into a form of social pedagogy. This is a brave move, but it stops short at confronting the limits, as well as the basis of our solidarities, and thus the protracted nature of social antagonisms.Notes
1 For a fuller account of the political context of Bourdieu and his work in France see Wieviorka, 2000.
2 In politics too the idea that ‘ordinary people’ have not been listened to, has been seen as a reason for the success of the Le Pen vote in April 2002.
3 My own references here are to largely UK studies of race and ethnicity, but as Wieviorka points out, Bourdieu, well aware of fellow sociologists in France and elsewhere working on similar issues, nonetheless studiously disregards these endeavours (see Wieviorka, 2000).
Further Materials 2: Mothers and Fathers, Who Needs Them? Butler's Antigone's Claim …[Page 185]Re-Regulating Kinship, Repudiating Feminism
What follows in this essay on Antigone's Claim by Judith Butler is a deliberately wide-ranging, even loose, reading of the text, for the very reason that this short book (three lectures given for the prestigious Wellek annual lectures at University of California, Irvine), points to the need for far-reaching feminist re-attention to questions of family and kinship in contemporary political culture (Butler, 2000c). Butler suggests there has been something of a retreat in feminism from fiercely disputing the neo-conservatism of current family policies. There has also been, even within feminism, retrospective self-critique of aspects of so-called 1960s sexual politics (e.g. non-monogamy) which have had the effect of warranting a return to more proprietorial partnerships. Butler's focus is the US, but similar trends exist elsewhere.1 What marks out the uniqueness of this moment then, is the coexistence of the emphatic endorsement of traditional family values at governmental level (we might add to this George Bush's recent support to the lobby encouraging celibacy among US teenagers), with, at the same time, what looks like a liberalisation, in that there is now great diversity in family life, including gay and lesbian households, reconstituted families, families of choice, and simply ad hoc families-of-sorts. But alongside both of these developments there is ‘feminist abeyance’, an unwillingness to be positioned back in the firing line by questioning the very existence of the family as was once the norm (Bagguley, quoted in Walby, 2002a). My reading of Butler's Antigone is that it encourages us to recognise that this particular entanglement produces new normativities, new fields of interdiction and constraint. In fact there is a double entanglement which Antigone encourages us to confront. The co-existence of neo-liberal with liberal values in relation to families and sexuality, and the co-existence of [Page 186]feminism as that which is reviled or, as I would put it, ‘almost hated’, and feminism as a political force which has achieved the status of Gramscian common sense, something which is now ‘taken into account’ (McRobbie, 1999).2 Moving on from Butler I would suggest that it is in the field of popular culture that some of the most indicative tensions in relation to this double entanglement are played out.
How does Antigone figure in this account? Or rather how does a young woman character from Greek drama precipitate such an analysis? In fact her presence in these lectures marks an absolute continuity in Butler's writing, in that she enables Butler to continue what she boldly set out to do in Gender Trouble (see Butler, 1990, Ch. 2) and has subsequently returned to, which is the dislodging of the Oedipus complex from its position of unquestioned authority, on the grounds of its instituting the social (and seemingly universal) mechanisms of patriarchal heterosexuality and reproduction. Antigone is an integral part of the Oedipal scenario, but her presence can be recast, her narrative can be used to produce an alternative threshold of authority. She allows the possibility of envisaging a different modality of kinship, but this requires that the state be challenged, even when it seems to embrace or take on broad feminist concerns. Butler puts Antigone, a girl who in defying the state is seen to act in a manly way, at the threshold of social organisation, at the point where it seems the laws of living a ‘culturally intelligible’ life are installed. This continues the political project of de-stabilising the seemingly irrevocable ‘foundations’ of the social and psychic order.
But still, how to move from Greek drama to the contemporary dramas (or soap operas and sit coms) of family life? Butler's route is, not surprisingly given her earlier writing, largely through Hegel and Lacan, with references to feminist philosophers like Irigaray who have also been drawn to Antigone. Let me briefly summarise. Antigone, the offspring of an incestuous liaison and thus symbol of the unimaginable and unintelligible in culture, insists on burying her brother against the instructions of her uncle. Through her defiance (which also emasculates the authority of patriarchy), her perceived gender as a woman is put in question. This de-stabilisation of the foundations of both gender and kinship, is further disturbed by the depth of love for a brother, which results in her death (or self entombment). She chooses death rather than the normativities that might have saved her and re-secured her identity i.e. marriage and motherhood. Butler reminds us that Hegel reads Antigone as making way for the state and patriarchy to replace and supplant matriarchy and kinship, while for Lacan her necessary [Page 187]demise figures the inauguration of the Symbolic which in turn poses certain strict forms of kinship as ‘a presupposition of cultural intelligibility’.
The paradox of Antigone is then that she is both kinship gone badly wrong, and kinship itself. She embodies that which the Symbolic casts out, when it asserts the appropriate rules which must prevail between parents and their children. Antigone's defiance stems from a protestation of love for her brother and insistence that he be properly buried. The anxious repetition among any number of writers that there is no incest in Antigone's love for her brother betrays their own fears, hence their anxious citing of the norm, ‘no, it isn't incest’. The horror which is unthinkable and repelled is predicated on its proximity, its easy possibility. Lacan drew on Levi Strauss’ account of the incest taboo, exogamy and the exchange of women to propose the Symbolic as that horizon of language and kinship which permits access to the cultural, a means for persons to live. It is Symbolic by virtue of being above the specific or particular social realities of family life, this universalism works on the basis that cultures may be very different from each other but they largely obey the requirements of this law. Kinship and language are ‘elevated to the status of elementary structures of the intelligible’ and for the Lacanians ‘language and kinship are not socially alterable institutions – at least not easily altered’ (Butler, 2000: 15). But if the Symbolic sanctions while also being unanswerable, is it not a God-like (or as Butler puts it, a theological) thing?
What if the Symbolic is thus nothing other than a threshold of jurisdiction in favour of reproduction and heterosexuality, which is able to evoke the horror of incest to instil fear and anxiety across a much wider field of activities as a way of sending out warnings to its subjects, and thus reining them in, alerting them to the dangers of other irregularities? This idea of wider remit is absolutely crucial to the argument here. The impact of the regulative dynamic is to conjure fear or horror in order to extend a field of jurisdiction in new directions. While able to countenance failure and also diversity and change in kinship, the Symbolic will invariably preside over these changes and insist, in the context of the family, on the need for a mother and a father. For Butler this poses the question of those others whose parental love for a child carries no recognition within the mother-father regime and thus has no ‘certainty or durability’. Why must gay families, for instance, with two mothers or two fathers find themselves compromised by the state to operate as if there was a mother and a father? What requires this specific organisation of persons? Does the idea of having two mothers or two fathers, manageable perhaps in the context of everyday [Page 188]life, and a source of comedy in recent popular culture, hold up in law?3 And what greater warning could there be to those who wish to move away from this norm that they might, in so doing, endanger the life of the child? The figure of Antigone allows Butler to imagine the psychic pain wrought upon the shadowy persons fulfilling ‘unauthorised’ or irregular kinship roles.
For these reasons Butler challenges psychoanalysis to critically interrogate its ‘structuralist presuppositions’, i.e. its normative assumptions which even though they troubled Juliet Mitchell many years ago nonetheless remain intact (Mitchell, 1984). She also chastises Lacanians for the authoritative defense of the Symbolic as above social critique, indeed for its function as warning against those who dare to pursue ‘utopian efforts’. In a gesture reminiscent of her taking up the position of the ‘phallic lesbian’ in order to attack the Lacanian Symbolic in Bodies That Matter (Butler, 1993), Butler again pushes the Symbolic off its pedestal, reducing it to the status of just another horizon of social norms, ‘a form of reification with stark consequences for gendered life’. To uphold the sanctity of the Symbolic as the basis for social and cultural organisation which psychoanalysis plainly does is to retain an inner ‘theological’ core. That Butler so perseveres (as she has done in earlier work) with this job of prising open the doors of the Symbolic (which she here likens to Antigone's tomb) is testimony to her political commitment to rearranging gender relations, and in this case to question the necessity of mothers and fathers. Of course there is a total logic to this current inquiry, in that having demonstrated in Gender Trouble (Butler, 1990) how gender is called into being, and for the sake of heterosexual reproduction is repetitively enacted so as to become the basis for recognition in terms of what it is to be human (i.e. ‘being a girl’), Butler now looks to the repeated enactments of kinship ideals when faced with the challenge to social organisation here proposed in the figure of Antigone.
As though aware of the intractable problems in loosening the grip of Oedipus and replacing his authority on how we live, with Antigone's more fluid and uncertain power, Butler's persistence takes on something of Antigone's gesture of defiance. She will not relinquish psychoanalysis in favour of a mere feminist sociology of family life because that would be to let go of understanding desire and its unruly proliferations, the unconscious, fear, trauma, dreams, obsessions, compulsive repetitions, and so on. As Campbell has argued ‘Butler's work requires a psychoanalytic account of the social production of the subject’ (Campbell, 2001). Psychoanalysis also allows exploration of the whole range of psychic resistances to change which is necessary for political understanding. Antigone [Page 189]stands at the interface between the psychic and the social and through her Butler imagines a revised or re-articulated (let us say a weaker) Symbolic. A ‘post-structuralist kinship’ of this sort, would allow more diverse ‘socially survivable’ arrangements, carrying fewer parental warnings about harm to children. Far from saying ‘let's relax our attitudes to incest’, Butler is showing how the horror and fear of interfering with this foundational stricture becomes a way of refusing to encounter proliferating and irregular relations of love and affiliation beyond those fully sanctioned by the state (see also Bell, 1997).
Antigone is the unimaginable in culture, by virtue of her incestuous parentage, her abject status produces a shudder across the social field, but she also resists this status by defying the state and asserting a human bond which she is not expected to dare to acknowledge. I think Butler asks us to read Antigone as a person who represents the unrepresentable, those various bodies in the body politic denied the status of the fully human and thus who confound and unsettle the principles upon which contemporary sociality is based. She is claimed as a ‘not-quite’ feminist figure, an ‘almost queer heroine’. My reading of Butler here is that Antigone brings to the surface the new, more subtle, exclusions from the status of the ‘fully human’ which come into being through the changes in gender norms in the postfeminist world. The feminist is always ‘old’ even ‘ugly’, she is that which younger women cannot be if they wish to be counted in the wider world.4 The feminist proposes a presence which is shunned, a feminism which in its repudiation is also, strangely, ‘taken into account’. We might ask, what is the political meaning of this spectral existence, to be, as a feminist, that which is granted a presence on the basis of being also reviled? Butler's Antigone also stands as a figure for whom the norms of family relations have been over-turned, she is too attached to her brother, and as a girl she refuses the possibility of regular affiliations. But, we might not ask, is there not something timely in this shadowy existence, are these irregular attachments and ‘singularities’ (or singledoms) not also played out at this very moment across the ‘unconscious’ of contemporary popular culture? To explore this more fully requires an intellectual leap from feminist theory to cultural studies, from Antigone to Bridget Jones.5
The double entanglement theorised in Butler's Antigone provides ample opportunity for exploring issues which are critical for feminism. While it is impossible in the space of this short piece to engage with these in depth, I will instead propose that we can extract from the abject state to which feminism has been expelled (perhaps a retirement home in an unfashionable [Page 190]rundown holiday resort) and from its status as that which is capable of instilling dread and horror in young women, for fear that they might be mistaken as a ‘feminist’ and thus robbed of a sexual identity that counts and that has value, a margin of hope through the ambivalence and forcefulness and repetition of these repudiations. At the same time it is the very success of the new right that it has made of feminism such a thing of contempt, and this accounts, I would suggest, for the strain of sadness that runs through Butler's Antigone.
In the light of this, I propose that Antigone provides us with the possibility of developing a socio-cultural analysis of current kinship anxieties influenced as they are by, but now also forced to do without, feminism and the political. While the social and the cultural are inevitably intertwined, for the sake of brevity and by way of a conclusion I will force them apart and rehearse how some of these tensions are manifest first in contemporary family life and second in popular culture. Butler argues that along with families of choice there also comes into being new and expansive forms of constraint, control and surveillance. In passing she also comments on irregular relations (for example fondnesses between ‘unrelated’ step siblings) which give rise to concern on the part of adults. But what we can surmise is that there has developed a climate where there is a tightening of the boundaries which mark out legitimate and proper relations in the field of attachment, affect, and affiliation.
Undesignated persons, those who can make no official claim in relation to the care or well-being of young persons find themselves, if not considered overtly dangerous, are at least possibly suspicious or with dubious motives. Thus while the appearance in a home of a new stepfather is by and large socially acceptable, the appearance of a caring adult in the guise of an enthusiastic teacher, a too-zealous social worker or youth worker, or simply an adult friend, is now subject to intense social disapprobation.6 To put it crudely we could say that there is no longer the possibility of being a Miss Jean Brodie.7 Thus those whose relations with children or teenagers are, as Butler puts it, of uncertain durability, or without the warmth and informality which only kinship now bestows, find themselves cast out in the cold, fearful of the law, and without any possibility of playing a role and of offering things of value in the life and upbringing of the young.
This is a far cry from the radical sexual politics of the family from the mid-1970s, which saw the development of communes, shared child care arrangements and the positive encouragement of involvement on the part of adults with children with whom they had no kinship relation, but for [Page 191]whom they had a social obligation in terms of shared domestic responsibility.8 The horror now conjured up by the very word ‘commune’ (though it too can be a source of gentle humour as the Swedish film Together (Tilsammans) directed by Lukas Moodysson (2000), demonstrated) is indicative of the end of experimentation in domestic relations, and in many respects this signals again a wider remit of familial conservatism, an impoverishment of community, a turning away from the possibilities of socialised child rearing, this also marks a new modality of social exclusion, a means of creating social outcasts and of further isolating the damaged, the unstable, the loners, the lonely and the childless. The disparaging of the irregular coincides with the pressure on gay families to be exemplary. The recognition of normative kinship within such units, including doting grandparents, loving aunts and kindly uncles, also must come at some cost.
If people and in particular younger people in the western world now live out their kinship relations within this particular regime of double entanglement of liberal choice and neo-liberal family values, feminist common sense and feminist displacement, we might ask how is it done? The field of popular entertainment offers a wide space for the endless and repeated playing out of these anxieties as social comedy. Let me conclude this review by suggesting that Antigone points us directly towards Bridget Jones (the book and the film), and the US television series Friends, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. Writing many years ago about the widely read girls’ magazine Jackie, I remember analysing how the teenage girl in the magazine was imagined week in week out as someone in search of a boy (McRobbie, 1976; 2000). She could never relax until she had trapped a ‘fella’ and had a ring on her finger, even then she had to be vigilant in case he found someone else more attractive. These stories were so much the subject of feminist critique that they came to sum up pre-feminist femininity, the desperate, ‘always on the look out’, search for Mr Right. This way of being a girl was, as many of us argued, a humiliating, subservient indeed unbearable, subject position. During the 1980s this kind of imagery all but disappeared. But this changed with the advent of self-consciously ‘politically incorrect’ postfeminist popular culture. Suddenly, as though relieved that all that angry feminism has gone, these same narratives reappear with a vengeance, but with an irony that suggested that ‘feminism has been taken into account’. Fear of not being married, fear of being left on the shelf, fear of being an old maid, or a spinster, fear of running out of time and of leaving it too late to have babies, indeed fear, dread and the horror of being a woman alone drives each of these girls now unashamedly in search of a man. From Sex and the[Page 192]City to Ally McBeal, and then most thoroughly in Bridget Jones, feminism has a spectral, shadowy, almost hated existence. They might find themselves having similar concerns on sexual technique as feminists once had (Sex and the City), they might find themselves opting for the value of female friendship over unreliable boyfriends, they might consider lesbianism, or have some good lesbian friends, goodness, they might even come close to endorsing sisterhood, but never is the word spoken, they must live out their sexual and emotional lives without recourse to sexual politics. This is the condition of existence of these popular narratives, they must cast the possibility of a new feminism aside, they must muddle through without it.
Despite this, new configurations of kinship do emerge which feminism, now relegated to history, nonetheless makes possible, for example Rachel in Friends becomes pregnant by former boyfriend Ross. She decides to have the baby but not to re-start the relationship. Into the pregnancy she continually feels ‘horny’, goes on dates and reflects on the ethics of having sex with somebody new with a baby by somebody else in her womb. This is a post-feminist dilemma in a culture of female independence and choice, where single motherhood is nothing to be ashamed of. And yet running alongside this narrative in Friends is also that of Monica and Chandler whose courtship, engagement, shower party and traditional white wedding offers opportunity for comedy over a period of several months (including the transexual father of Chandler turning up at the wedding in drag).
One of the running jokes in the film Bridget Jones's Diary (adapted from the book) is that when she casts her eyes on a suitable man, she finds herself fantasising wedding bells, a white dress and an entourage of bridesmaids. The humour lies in the way in which she indicates that she knows this to be a bad thought, she has the fantasy ‘in spite of feminism’, and the audience laughs with her because they too know that this is not how girls or women are nowadays meant to be. Feminism is thus the censor, feminism is a psychic policewoman, disallowing girls from the pleasure of imagining the pleasures of pre-feminist womanhood (she also imagines herself at home in the country as wife and mother happily servicing husband and children alike). The film opens with Bridget in her pyjamas facing up to the prospect of going home for Christmas, yet again, without a man, the soundtrack is ‘All By Myself’, (sung by Jamie McNeal) and the humour emerges from the grimness, the social discomfort, indeed shame, of being unpartnered. The wit and intelligence, the intertextual referencing to Pride and Prejudice, the self mocking awareness of the Bridget Jones persona, makes it an exemplary post-feminist text. Its enormous success at the box [Page 193]office, its immediate popularity in gay and lesbian circles,9 and the social landscape it portrays of confident girls spoilt for choice and enjoying the bright city lights but unable to find the right man and fantasising a life back in the countryside, has made Bridget Jones representative of contemporary femininity. Only the hard-hearted, the too-serious, the earnest, humourless and generationally specific ‘feminist’ could object, could point to the white Englishness of Bridget Jones, to the voice it gives to the desire for tradition, to its (ironic) celebration of marriage and the assumption of conventional kinship as the solution to the fears and anxieties of being a single girl. In this sense the original newspaper column (upon which the book was based) of Bridget Jones, can be seen as a response by a younger woman journalist (Helen Fielding) to her feminist forebearers. It seems to be written as a counter to feminism, Bridget is scatter-brained, rather than too clever, she is interested in calories rather than politics, her career is not her life and she craves the security of a well-qualified husband. Feminism has served its purpose by making various opportunities available, and for this some thanks are due, but now it can be dispensed with: its time is over. Butler's Antigone allows us to reflect on this shadow existence. For feminism to be taken into account it has to be understood as having passed away.Notes
1 The current New Labour government kindly provides ‘handbooks for living’ to couples embarking on marriage.
2 Feminism as common sense finds expression across the political spectrum. For New Labour in the UK it has no place in any political vocabulary yet informs many policies (see Walby, 2002a, 2000b), even the word woman is recently excised in favour of the need for ‘work-life balance’. The Bush administration justifies aggression with reference to the infringements of women's rights in Muslim states, in both cases the idea that women deserve to be treated as equal to men becomes part of the claim to civilisation and modernity. Outside politics and within the cultural realm this common sense takes a diversity of forms, driving a women's agenda on for example BBC Radio 3 and 4, whose listeners are of an age and social background for whom feminism remains important.
3 In an episode of Friends broadcast in the UK (Channel 4) in September, 2002, Phoebe poses as the ‘second mother’ of the child conceived as a result of Ross donating sperm to allow his ex wife and her girlfriend to have a child. Phoebe does this as a way of bumping [Page 194]into the popstar Sting whose child attends the same school as the boy. The narrative relies on the school teacher assuming her to be the ‘second mum’ and the humour of the episode stems partly from Phoebe's clumsy attempts to prove her lesbian status by flirting with the teacher.
4 The BBC Radio 4 programme Woman's Hour which carries an overtly feminist brief, ran an item 23rd September 2002 following the success of black UK singer Ms Dynamite winning the prestigious Mercury Prize. With lyrics which refuse the usual female stereotypes of much hip hop and r'n'b music, and by calling herself Ms Dynamite, it is not surprising that she has been labelled as a feminist. The interviewer spoke with groups of North London girls from the area in which Ms Dynamite grew up, asking them what they thought about feminism. The answers were overwhelmingly negative, they said they thought Germaine Greer was ‘ugly’, followed by all the usual man hating stereotypes (see also Walter, 1996).
5 ‘Bridget Jones's Diary’ was the title of a weekly column which ran in the Independent newspaper in the UK from 1996 written by journalist Helen Fielding. Its success led to publication as a book followed by the release of the ‘blockbuster’ feature film in 2001.
6 Social workers regularly report on how their pastoral roles are now seriously curtailed as a result of publicity about abuse, with the effect that the work of befriending at-risk youngsters, even offering them the occasional bed for the night, and being available at home for informal conversations, all of which have been so effective in the past, are no longer advisable, if not completely forbidden.
7 From deeply anti-feminist, well-nigh misogynist positions, a number of leading novelists (Philip Roth in The Human Stain, and also The Dying Animal, J.M.Coetzee in Disgrace, and Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections) explore this terrain in fiction, the extent to which intimate, intense, informal and irregular relationships between academics and their students are now impossible. The rightful highlighting of sexual abuse has nonetheless given rise to a wide climate of fear and suspicion, which in turn reduces the scope of human sociality.
8 I remember while living in Germany in the late 1970s visiting friends who lived in various communal arrangements which in this context developed out of a politics of violently opposing the parenting practices of the older fascistic generation. Children were discouraged to relate with special attachments to biological parents, all adults had a responsibility for care, affection and the more routine tasks of domestic labour. Far from being exceptional or outlandish activities communes were barely remarkable at that time in Germany among left and feminist influenced people.
9 In a feature in the Observer Magazine (Sunday 21st April 2002: 35) on gay marriage ceremonies, one young man named Saul Hazan [Page 195]described the event as follows: ‘I had a real Bridget Jones moment during the ceremony when I thought, “Oh my God, I've finally got my man!”’ In keeping with pre-feminist tradition this couple had adopted the same surname on marriage.[Page 196]
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