Thursday, August 20, 2009

An argument that bothers me: "There is no feminism, only feminisms"

In the feminist blogosphere, I sometimes run across the following argument.

"There isn't one, monolithic feminism. There's always already feminism(s) and there are as many diverse feminism(s) as there are people. Feminism(s) mean different things to different people"

I find this kind of patronizing, for one. This line is always laid down as though it said something profound, but the fact of the matter is that it is a half-baked platitude. It's one thing to take note of the political dynamics of the contestations from the margins, aimed at the (largely) white, liberal, middle-class, straight feminist projects that had come to present themselves as the only game in town. But its quite another thing entirely to propagate the facile conclusion that feminism really just means whatever individual people want it to mean.

In fact, you can't really understand what those very contestations (e.g. from black feminists like bell hooks, revolutionary lesbians like Monique Wittig, feminists writing the wake of colonialism, deconstructive feminists like Butler, etc.) were about unless you unequivocally reject the idea that feminism can mean whatever certain individuals want it to mean. For if it were true that feminism just is the plurality of existing views, norms, and relations of power regarding gender and sexuality, then there wouldn't be much point in contesting the way that mainstream feminists were paving over forms of oppression that didn't mark their lives in the way that it continued to mark those of others.

Moreover, according to those who sing the timeless praises of singularity as such, difference as such, and pluralism as such, etc. it would appear that bell hooks, Monique Wittig, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and many others did something seriously wrong. How dare they, you might think, contest or launch political interventions aimed at dismantling certain mainstream feminist theories and practices, when they ought to have left well enough alone and let those myopically white and middle class straight feminists "express their singularity and difference"? How dare they tell those white, middle class feminists what to do! Uh oh, its the 'feminist police'!

This is, of course, preposterous. There is a world of difference between making the totally valid sociological observation on the one hand that there is widespread disagreement about what feminism is and should be committed to doing, and on the other, claiming that there is an endless plurality of things feminism can mean for different people. The latter only obscures the actual concrete political dynamics of what gets to count as feminism by whitewashing important disagreements as simply 'different expressions of plurality'.

Notice also, that if the 'endless pluralism' story were right, there would be absolutely no way to identify cynical imposters who simply called themselves feminists disingenuously. In other words if Rush Limbaugh decided, without changing anything about himself whatsoever, to simply call himself a feminist can label his political commitments as 'solidly radical feminist', the 'many feminism(s)'-'endless diversity'-'plurality' story would have no way to contest his claim. For if they were right, they'd have have no reason to want to contest Rush's claims at all. Think about it. He'd simply be expressing what feminism meant to him and proving their point that there really are only feminisms and a wide plurality of views.

If feminism has to do with liberation from oppression, it cannot mean whatever individual people want it to mean. Meaning is never a matter of individual whim. Pretending that it is, however, is hardly a subversive move, but a thought-act wholly welcomed by contemporary consumer culture. This faux-individualist megalomania is encouraged by existing relations of power, it is a powerful narrative running through arguments about social mobility, debates about redistributive taxation, into the ways that people are encouraged to think of themselves in terms of the various consumer preferences they have. Buy, buy, buy! Consume! Give in to your consumerist fantasies and lust after immediately gratifying fixes. And shame on you if you stop to think about what this whole consumerist picture might amount to... that's to commit the sin of 'telling others how to live their lives'.

But in reality, even superficial critical engagement with our culture and society quickly reveals that we are constantly told how to live our lives, how to think about our bodies, how to think about gender norms, how to dress, how to behave, etc. Feminism is a project aiming to uncover and ruthlessly submit these features of contemporary culture to critique.

Banal also is this notion of 'if it feels good do it', 'live and let live', etc. These are not liberatory anthems, but hackneyed slogans wholly amenable to the status quo. Feminism is an unremittingly critical political project. At its best it leaves no cultural, social or political phenomenon uncriticized. But pulling this 'just let women do what they want' line is dishonest. Should feminists condone what Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the Anita Bryants of the world say? Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Of course not. And we have a name for people who say otherwise: post-feminists.

Feminists who say let people think what they already think are no feminists at all. Feminism is supposed to be about changing existing relations of power. Its supposed to be about shredding oppressive norms that have come to appear to many as 'natural'. Moreover, it is supposed to be about critically confronting societies and the individuals shaped by them.

On a tangentially related topic, I'd like to point out that I've noticed in some recent French theory that there is this agreed-upon, yet unscrutinised, consensus that 'singularity' (whatever that might mean) is a good thing. It's as though Hegel's critique of Romanticism never really sunk in for these people. We are back to hearing about the ahistorical individual as singular fountainhead (ever think about the sexist overtones in Rand's title?), as creator ex-nihilo, as emerging freely as a beautifully unique snowflake unencumbered by social, historical or political constraints. Of course, I'm exaggerating here. But I think the general point is correct.


Arvilla said...

Oh, this is something I agree with whole heartedly. I've tried to make the point in comment threads before, actually, and am swiftly shot down with a "how dare you tell other women what it takes to be a proper feminist?!"

The thing about the beautiful plurality of feminisms argument is that it's usually put out against oppressive feminists in the first place. Like, a white, able-bodied, privileged person will say, "Stop talking about race so much. This is a feminist blog." And then someone will rush to the rescue to tell said person that there is no one definition of feminism, and for many feminism inherently includes anti-racism efforts. So, I think it's an argument that gets made with good intentions, to fight regressive feminisms.

The problem, of course, as you point out, is that it's a bad argument to make because those progressive feminisms were built on the idea that there is a bad way and a good way to be a feminist. These liberal ways of fighting backwardness and prejudice are so pathetic and unconvincing. "Hey man, we're just trying to live out our own ideas of feminism here." Well, no, we're not. We're trying to transform social structures and culture to create justice and freedom for everyone. And I have no more loyalty to protecting or defending your individual ideas simply because you call them feminist than I do to any Democrat's ideas simply because they call themselves Democrats. Certain ideas have more value than others. That white, privileged, able-bodied person claiming that talking about how race detracts from femnism is wrong, not because she's cramping someone else's feminist style, but because she's wrong. That's all we need to say.

T said...

Word. The experience of being shot down on comment boards rings true for me too. (incidentally, I've got a small collection of academic experiences like this as well).

"and then someone will rush to the rescue to tell said person that there is no one definition of feminism"... right and how this is a defense of those bringing issues of race to the fore is beyond me. This sounds like a defense of the person claiming that race doesn't matter. If there is no 'definition of feminism' and simply an imprecise array of 'feminisms', then this seems pretty clearly to suggest to me that the "race isn't part of feminism" thought is totally legitimate and worthy of toleration.

Whereas we would hold that any self-proclaimed feminism that is indifferent to questions of race is bankrupt.

Crazy world.

Jenn said...

I think I first read this argument on a Radical Women of Colour blog, this is the first time I've seen it turned round to apply to white feminists, but you're right of course - and actually the way I first saw it used was less about what you believe as a feminist and more about different experience linked to different cultures, i.e. some things are going to be important to white middle-class feminists, but they're not going to count to many other women in the world - it seems more like a distancing from core mainstream feminism without wanting to give up the word 'feminism', which I can entirely see the point of.

Still, I think feminism is something quite specific, culturally and so on - I mean, I wouldn't consider the suffragist movement to be feminist, for instance, feminism is theoretically speaking something specific, it's about the effect of the dominant ideology (feminine mystique, etc.) on the majority of women.

So, I think it's too easy to dismiss, as a lot of feminists do out of liberal guilt, the work of certain feminist writers, because they're writing about white middle-class femininity. But similarly, I think no one has any business claiming a connection to feminism or any other left-wing political school of thought if they openly don't give a shit about the majority of women worldwide and the stuff that happens to them.

It's almost like, if it's not directly related to your experience you don't have to give a shit - and if you ask people to give a shit, they're all 'my experience, oh my precious experience, never mess with a woman's experience!' - and once you've messed with a woman's experience, of course, you're male-centric masculinocratic oppression personified.

Plus, liberal pluralism isn't doing anybody any favours. I mean, how often to you hear 'Well, I'm feminist, and I'm a republican, guess that blows your little theory right out the water, huh? huh?! you denying my existence? Double dare you! I'm here, proud and beautiful! See my feminist republicanism and crawl on your belly!' Well, if it's just blogs it's one thing, cause that's essentially what they're for, but if it's academia as well, that's kind of worrying.

EHR said...

I've always felt pretty ambivalent about this line of argument but could never quite put my finger on why. This explains it perfectly.

I do think different feminists have different aspects that they concentrate on, and that's okay because we all can't do everything and we all have different experiences that may make some oppressions stand out more than others. But there's a huge difference between recognizing that someone's focus is different than yours and redefining the concept completely to the point of meaninglessness.