Monday, December 1, 2008

States of Injury by Wendy Brown, Chapter 2 Synopsis: Postmodern Exposures and Feminist Hesitations

See the Chapter 1 synopsis here, and a general overview of the book here.
In this chapter, Brown makes these three basic arguments:
  1. Postmodernity is a condition and postmodernism an attempt at describing the current conditions of our time, and it does not necessarily entail any particular political prescriptions with it.
  2. Feminists who claim postmodernism (the pointing out of the postmodern conditions we live in) will kill their feminist politics, reveal gaps and hesitations in their own feminism.
  3. Feminists do not need Truth (aka Reason, Morality), the Subject, or Identity to be feminists, and postmodernity merely forces us to open new political spaces.
I think it suffices to do two things in this summary: a) Summarize what Brown sees as the problems caused by postmodernity, and how feminists can forge a politics amid these problems, and b) Summarize and engage with some of the problems Brown sees feminism as having, some of which are exposed by postmodernism. 
First, Brown wants to redirect our attention from "the academically crumbled foundations of Truth, facticity, or the modernist subject," or from postmodernism, to the greatest impediments to oppositional politics which come from postmodernity:
The first condition she thinks is important is that of "technical reason." Now, she never defines what this means exactly, and google brings up nothing relevant and I must admit I don't have a Marcuse reader standing by, so I had to rely on researching something she says is a similar phenomenon, Weber's "instrumental rationality." (If you actually know something about technical reason, or Habermas' "means-end rationality," please let me know if I'm way off the mark here.) So here's my understanding. Technical reason is a false consciousness in which finding the most efficient way of achieving an ends is favored instinctively and focused on socially, at the expense of any justification or reasoning for the value of the ends itself.
You can see how this would apply to her arguments in the first chapter about identity politics and the failures of the state to empower injured parties (although Brown never spells it out for us this way). The most effective way of disciplining the people and systems that injure might be to go through the state, but nobody stops to ask why discipline for injury should be the end-goal of a politics, and what the consequences of such an ends might be.
The subject-disintegrating powers of technical reason, Brown argues,  are far more powerful than those of postmodernism, but technical reason's hegemony becomes even more noticeable and pervasive when "other legitimating discourses of a culture--political, religious, or scientific--are fractured or discredited, a process that is a defining feature of postmodernity." Technical reason in a context of postmodern power, which flows without the boundaries and rigidities of institutions or discrete spheres of power, makes critical articulations of domination, or oppositional politics, incredibly difficult.
Next, Brown looks at disorientation as a supposed threat to feminism, and she defines the problem of disorientation or "being lost," through Frederic Jameson:
This is bewildering, and I use existential bewilderment in this new postmodern space to make a final diagnosis of the loss of our ability to position ourselves within this space and cognitively map it. This is then projected back on the emergence of a global, multinational culture that is decentered and cannot be visualized, a culture in which one cannot position oneself.
In short, Brown goes on to argue that the postmodern loss of collective identity, has caused the clinging to individual identity, even by people who are generally quite critical of liberalism's individualism. 
Lastly, Brown details the problem of "reactionary foundationalism," or clinging to one representative feature of a modern movement to the extent that it is a fundamentalism. This too is a coping method for a loss of collective identity and disorientation general. Just like the Right clings to "the traditional family," and "the American flag," academics on the Left claim to "feminism" in its modern constructs, as if it is one of the "indispensible threads preserving indisputable good."
There is a hard-hitting section on feminist failures that I think is worth going into in more detail. Brown takes on feminists who say their endeavors are crushed by postmodernism's crumbling of "truth" of "morality" and of "the self." She thinks this is silly, first of all, since feminists themselves have argued that the self is constructed socially, that truth and reason have been used to masculine ends, and aren't really all that objective, and that discourse about morality operates as a power mechanism. Not only that, but she thinks the idea that feminism can't exist outside these modernist idioms is problematic and untrue. She looks at quotes like this one from Nancy Harstock's "Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?":
We need to constitute ourselves as subjects as well as objects of history...We need to be assured that some systematic knwoledge about our world and ourselves is possible...We need a theory of power that recognizes that our practical daily activity contains an understanding of the world.
To which Brown responds: "Harstock does not concern herself with the defensibility or persuasiveness of the narrative out of which these items are torn. She is concerned only with the dubious necessity of rescuing them from the discredited narratives, a rescue waged in order to "preserve" feminism from what she takes to be the disorienting, deblitating, and depoliticizing characteristics of post-modern intellectual maneuvers." Brown calls feminist arguments like that both foundationalist and reactionary. It's like Linda Hirshman's infamous WaPo article about how feminism has become so sidetracked by all these interesectional interests, that feminism (whatever the hell that might be in the absence of intersectional concerns) itself is being lost. If that isn't both foundationalist and reactionary I don't know what is...not to mention another instance of the hegemony of instrumental rationality. 
Here's Brown's best summary of her gripes with feminism in her own words, which sort of proceed out of this critique of Harstock:
I will suggest that feminist wariness about postmodernism may ultimately be coterminous with a wariness about politics, when politics is grasped as a terrain of struggle without fixed or metaphysical referents and a terrain of power's irreducible and pervasive presence in human affairs. Contrary to its insistence that it speaks in the name of the political, much feminist anti-postmodernism betrays a preference for extrapolitical terms and practices: for Truth (unchanging, incontestable) over politics (flux, constest, instability); for certainty and security (safety, immutability, privacy) over freedom (vulnerability, publicity); for discoveries (science) over decisions (judgments); for separable subjects armed with established rights and identities over unwieldy and shifting pluralities adjudicating for themselves and their future on the basis of nothing more than their own habits and arguments.
Among her more specific arguments in this section (there really are too many to summarize, but there are a lot, and I agree with most), Brown is critical of feminists' insistence on treating the production and recognition of individual women's narratives as purveyors of truth, as if discourse when it comes from injured parties has nothing to do with power, as if it isn't rhetoric, like it is when it comes from dominant social positions. It isn't that Brown doesn't think it's important that marginalized voices are heard and that narratives are used in politics, that is, that we actively demonstrate the personal is political. It's simply that she realizes this isn't enough to affect change in a postmodern context, as it clings to naive, modernist notions of truth and of the subject. Producing academia based on women's perspectives is important, but they can't be treated as individual's accounts of truth, any more than we would treat the narratives of wealthy white men as signs of what reality is. Instead they should be taken as collective accounts of the world used to make political arguments. And we need new political spaces to make our feminist arguments political.
Now, this postmodern political space for feminists is not something she focuses on defining too specifically in the chapter, but this is what she tells us she's getting at:
"Postmodernity's dismantling of metaphysical foundations for justice renders us quite vulnerable to domination by technical reason unless we seize the opportunity this erosion also creates to develop democratic processes for formulating collective postepistemological and postontological judgments. Such judgments require learning how to have public conversations with each other, arguing from a vision about the common ("what I want for us") rather than from identity ("who I am"), and from explicitly postulated norms and potential common values rather than from false essentialism or unreconstructed private interest...I am suggesting that political conversation oriented toward diversity and the common, toward world rather than self, and involving conversion of one's knowledge of the world from a situated (subject) position into a public idiom, offers us the greatest possibility of countering postmodern social fragmentations and political disintegrations.
My final point in this very long summary, is just that I like the idea, as a way of getting away from the trap of identity politics discussed in the first chapter, but I just don't know how it would work in such a cynical political society. Vision and ideas for the collective are openly mocked in our political culture. Remember how almost half of the United States thought it was ok to vote for a political party that openly mocked something as rudimentary as community organizers? I guess I just question how politically salient her approach could be. But then again, I guess we won't begin by reaching out to conservative republicans who don't think helping the collective is admirable...we'll have to start with parties who are a little more sympathetic. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would be really helpful if you cited your quotes with page numbers. Sometimes it is difficult to contextualize them