Monday, February 9, 2009

Butler, Structure and Subject

Since I'm reading Gender Trouble right now (for the first time) and recent posts have been focusing on the interepellation of subjects and feminism, it seems timely to relay some recent insights I've gleamed from Butler on this topic.

Butler's project takes its point of departure from politics: the aim of the book is, at least in one concerted sense (i.e. this isn't an exhaustive aim), to critically evaluate the assumption among some feminists that a unified conception of 'woman' is a necessary condition of political action for feminists. The point of doing this, for Butler, is to locate ways in which the feminist project is in some ways complicit with oppression, thus enabling her to gesture at ways we might more effectively (and fully) resist or subvert the oppressive regime of sex/gender.

The opening sentence of the book is as follows:
"For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued."
Instead, Butler wants to complicate and criticize the idea that representation (which requires an antecedent conception of 'woman') should be the goal of feminist politics. Part of her reason for pursuing this goal is that she sees subjects as produced, as interpellated by oppressive structures. Her point of departure owes much to Foucault, who held that "juridical systems of power produce the very subjects they subsequently come to represent." Of course, Foucault was a student of Althusser's who is very much a part of the tradition of 20th century French philosophy which emerged from 'structuralism' and held 'anti-humanist' views about subjectivity.

She continues:
"The question of 'the subject' is crucial for politics, and for feminist politics in particular, because juridical subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices that do not 'show' once the juridical structure of politics has been established. In other words, the political construction of the subject proceeds with certain legitimating and exclusionary aims, and these political operations are effectively concealed and naturalized by a political analysis that takes juridical structures as their foundation."
This seems to jibe with a point Arvilla made in the previous post. The idea that representation of 'women' (uncritically accepted as an unproblematic category, unmarked by power) is all that is necessary to facilitate emancipation, overlooks the structures (legal, educational, cultural, economic, etc.) which actually produce the subjects in question. In other words, merely quibbling over the Senate's gender makeup is not going to cut it. Butler acknowledges, though, that such concerns are hardly reactionary, indeed by and large we inhabit a world where the pervasive social/cultural condition is such that women's lives are "misrepresented or not represented at all". Nonetheless, 'representation' must not go uncriticized as the goal of feminist politics. For Butler, feminist political practice requires a "radical rethinking of the ontological constructions of identity appears to be necessary in order to formulate a representational politics that might revive feminism on other grounds." What this means more specifically, is that "the identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation."

'Identity' is also regularly invoked as a concern within feminist politics. But for Butler, to return to this theme about the social/discursive-constitution of subjects, we must ask "to what extent do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person?" She answers: the "coherence and continuity of 'the person' are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility." Thus, she continues: "Intelligible genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire." Accordingly, "the very notion of 'the person' is called into question by the cultural emergence of those 'incoherent' or 'discontinuous' gendered beings who appear to be persons but fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined."

For Bulter,
"The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot 'exist' -that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not 'follow' from either sex or gender. 'Follow' in this context is a political relation of entailment instituted by the cultural laws that establish and regulate the shape and meaning of sexuality."
Later in the book, Butler undertakes an immanent critique of Monique Wittig's revolutionary 'lesbian materialism' (see Wittig's marvelous short book of essays titled The Straight Mind). Butler's main bone of contention with Wittig is the alleged humanism underlying her theoretical writings. Butler accuses Wittig of putting the project of feminist politics in the following way: either you accept the prescribed normative regime of heterosexuality (and by this she means the traditional marriage of 'man' and 'woman' with all of its patriarchal, violent and oppressive qualities) and you are complicit, or you radically reject this regime and refuse it. To refuse it means, concretely, to destabilize the regime of heterosexism and lesbianism seem to be, for Wittig, the only serious means of resistance. Because according to Butler's reading of Wittig, the goal of the latter's politics is to explode from within and eliminate the compulsory norms of heterosexuality and to thus recover some prior-existing "I" which had been oppressed and weighed down by dense layers of ideology (sexual dimorphism.) Unsurprisingly, Butler takes aim at this supposedly pre-discursive "I" which must be recovered and freed within Wittig's emancipatory project.

But I'm unsure of what to make of Butler's critique. I suppose this unsureness really speaks to my uneasiness with the whole 'anti-humanism' of the tradition of French thought from which Gender Trouble in some sense emerges. Are we really stuck choosing between the "humanism" of classical liberalism (the pre-social, unencumbered, 'homo-economicus' rational chooser) or the "anti-humanism" of post-Althusserian French philosophy in which there simply are no 'subjects' at all, where the notion of 'the subject' is always already an ideological category? My sense is no. But don't ask me for a third alternative yet. I dont think one necessarily has to have that figured out in order to find problems with the structuralist/poststructuralist animosity toward 'the subject' as such. Their critique of the bourgeois conception of agency is well taken, as is Butler's elaborate and very compelling deconstructurion of gender/sex. But are we really left with no subjects at all?

Here I'm tempted to think here of Adorno (paraphrased here by Gillian Rose) who held that "any theory which sought completely to deny the illusory power of the subject would tend to reinstate that illusion even more than one which overestimated the power of the subject".

I must also admit that my acquaintance with French theory (particularly Structuralism and Poststructuralism) is highly influenced by Perry Anderson's account in his short book (itself based on a series of lectures) called In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. (Incidentally, his other short book Considerations on Western Marxism is probably the best summary of 20th century Marxist theory there is). The chapter on "Structure and Subject" is particularly relevant to this discussion. There, Anderson situates French structuralism/poststructuralism historically and politically as a mode of engaging the 'structure versus subject' problematic, in other words, the "nature of the relationships between structure and subject in human history and society."

This has always been an insoluble problem within the Marxist tradition. As Anderson points out (and as I alluded to in my post on Althusser, when describing the controversies over the precise nature of the 'economic base' in the theory of ideology), "there is a permanent oscillation in Marx's own writings between his ascription of the primary motor of historical change to the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production, on the one hand (think Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)... and to the class struggle (think of the Communist Manifesto) on the other."

So, for Anderson, Marxism (in France, at least) was challenged on its own turf by structuralism/poststructuralism (that is, the turf of structure vs. subject) and the latter has obviously supplanted the former as the dominant intellectual force in France today. But what is to be said of the anti-humanist 'solution' to the structure/subject problematic offered by structuralism/postructuralism? Anderson identifies a few key aspects of the way it has been fleshed out among theorists associated within this intellectual milieu (e.g. Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, etc.). First, there is the 'exorbitation of language'. In poststructuralism, there is a huge emphasis on language, on the linguistic, on 'discursive practices', on the symbolic and the circulation of signifiers. Put succinctly, there is a "fundamental expansion in the jurisdiction of the linguistic" in structuralism, a "speculative aggrandizement of language". The result, for Anderson, is the "gradual megalomania of the signifier" in which we are left with "a system of floating signifiers pure and simple, with no determinable relation to any extra-linguistic referents at all".

As Anderson points out:
"High structuralism was never more strident than in its annunciation of the end of man. Foucault struck the characteristically prophetic note when he declared in 1966 that 'Man is the process of perishing as the being of language continues to shine ever more brightly upon our horizon.' But who is the 'we' to perceive or possess such a horizon? In the hollow of the pronoun lies the aporia of the program."
I am tempted to agree with Anderson who concludes that structure and subject are 'interdependent categories', that must be understood with a 'dialectical respect for their interdependence.' But where does this leave us? This post has meandered on long enough, from Butler's denunciation of 'identity politics' to her rejection of 'the Subject' and the alleged underlying humanism in Wittig, through Althusser and structuralism/poststructuralism and eventually to a sort of dialectical proposal to engage the subject/structure problematic.

I've spent a lot of time sorting through theory here, but what I'm really interested in is what it means for political practice. Perhaps a proper appraisment of this aspect of the above theoretical musings will have to wait for a later post. What I'm really interested in is what the tension between Butler/Wittig means for feminist political practice. More on this to come.


dnw said...

Interesting post. Regarding the post-structuralist "subject," its an imporant question, whether there is a "core" meaning to the self that lies behind the performative. To cite Foucault, much of our belief in a "core" meaning of self can be attributed to the geneological history of Christianity and through our need for interpretive authorities (first the Church, but similarly psychoanalysis) to interpolate and define our status as subjects. In talking about the "man/woman behind the curtain," as it were, there is a risk of overlooking the the site in which these ideological apparatuses manifest themselves materially: social performance. On a structural level, the subject is interpolated through language and practice, not through some sort of privileged, pre-performative ontological status. But even if one does not adopt such a radical structuralist perspective, it is important to consider the ways in which ideological state apparatuses, namely school/education, create interpolated subjects, eject them into society, and let them fulfill their role in the structure of bourgeois relations of production. What is the alternative is to simply disrupting these power structures, and what freedom can we mantain as subjects?
Nietzsche: "...there is no 'being' behind doing, effecting becoming; 'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed - the deed is everything."

Winter said...

Very interesting useful post, cheers.

Daniel. said...

I'm sorry for darting in with this and not following through, but I don't have time right now; I'd just like to point out that the thinkers grouped as structuralism or high structuralism are a bit too neatly bound together here. Deleuze in particular jumps out as someone who is important precisely for the alternative ways he finds of departing from structuralism as intellectual paradigm, and his line of thinking on the body and on embodied living are far removed from accounts of society and culture that reenforce the primacy of language and/or discourse as constitutive of the human. I'll try and come back to this post and comment more later; meanwhile, thank you for the interesting read.