Monday, November 24, 2008

States of Injury by Wendy Brown, Chapter 1 synopsis: Freedom and the Plastic Cage

I am attempting to summarize and analyze the book chapter by chapter here, as much for your sake as for mine (so I can make sure I actually comprehend and engage with what I've read). However, I do so knowing it will reveal to you how slowly I make it through academic books at this current stage of my life. Please don't judge.
Is it not precisely this form of power that "applies itself to immediate everyday life [to] categorize the individual, mark him by his own individuality, attach him to his own identity, impose a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him?"
Brown, quoting Foucault, p. 29
Brown let's us know in the preface that she's writing a critique and history of the contemporary academic left. So, opening in the first chapter, she gives us just that. In the first chapter Brown makes a point to point argument about the ways in which "freedom" has been conceptualized and sometimes ignored, and how or why this may have happened, by the contemporary left. 

She notes that the Left has pretty much conceded control of the word "freedom" to libertarians and conservatives (which for them means little more than consumer choice and free markets). She also notes that they have abandoned the critiques of the state which were so important among early Marxists. All of these movements away from freedom and critiques of the state have been driven by a simultaneous abandonment of critiques of capital as a source of oppression and increased belief that the state can litigate away inequalities caused primarily by identity category.
So what's the problem with these shifts? Brown looks at it like this: If injured parties look to the state to codify disciplinary actions and to explicitly ban discriminatory behaviors, or to explicitly validate their existence and importance, they have codified the injured party's status as a vulnerable person, and embedded that injured identity in the fabric of the State. She isn't unsympathetic to a desire for protection for injured parties. But she believes looking to the State to make this happen is a flawed strategy. The identity of injury is permanently attached to the injured party, if it is remedied in this way. If the state must be relied on to serve this function, what sort of permanent freedom or "empowerment" is actually achieved for the injured party, especially if, like Michael Hardt and me, you see identity formation as the primary problem-process of capitalism and sexism and racism and most discrimination. 
The state, Brown argues, cannot address identity and its consequences without reproducing its formation. Instead of "protecting" injured parties, or defining freedom in a solely negative way based on whatever is identified as "unfreedom" in a given society, Brown wants to stop legitimating the state.
Just how did the interests of progressives become so transformed in the past half century? Many academics contributed in this welfare statist shift, but Brown isn't shy to note Foucault's enormous influence. He explicitly refocused critiques of power from the State and capital to critiques and accounts of "domination." No, they aren't mutually exclusive, but because Foucault explicitly distinguishes between them, it's easy to assume that he at least thought they were mutually exclusive:
We must escape from the limited field of juridical sovereignty and State institutions, and instead base our analysis of power on the study of the techniques and tactics of domination.
Here's how she characterizes the liberal state and responds to Foucault, and I think it's one of the most spot-on things I've read in a long time:
(The state's) primary function has never been sovereignty--its own or that of the people. Rather, the state rises in importance with liberalism precisely through its provision of essential social repairs, economic problem solving, and the management of a mass population: in short, through those very functions that standard ideologies of liberalism and capitalism cast as self-generating in civil society and thus obscure as crucial state activities. As the social body is stressed and torn by the secularizing and atomizing effects of capitalism and its attendant political culture of inviduating rights and liberties, economic, administrative, and legislative forms of repair are required. Through a variety of agencies and regulations, the liberal state provides webbing for the social body dismembered by liberal individualism and also administers the increasing number of subjects disenfranchised and deracinated by capital's destruction of social and geographic bonds. If this kind of administration and regulation is not innocent of particular state interests, neither is it to one side of "techniques and tactics of domination."
The liberal state is made fatter and more legitimate by juridical protections against injury, and the liberal state is little more than a reproducer of capital and its destruction. That's a problem. But couple the Foucaultian view of the state as unimportant with a defensive reaction to libertarian attacks on welfare brought on by the rise of conservatism in the 1980s, and you have a lot of leftists not so interested critiques of the state any more. 
Foucault isn't the only academic she credits for creating this problematic shift in leftist focus. She also talks briefly about the feminist role in this, led by Catharine Mackinnon, who openly disregards freedom and opts for equality (as if one could exist without the other). I'd get into it now, but the second chapter seems to be much more dedicated to feminism's role, so I'll hold off on that until the next synopsis.
One last thing I felt was really important in this chapter, was Brown's critique of some of the stock language used by progressive academics now that they've decided freedom is for libertarians. Instead of talking about freedom, many academics have let the words "empowerment" and "resistance" take its place. Brown isn't so much afraid these are insufficient for revolution because of their dictionary definitions, but is concerned about the way they are used. First of all, she thinks resistance has the same problem liberalism's conception of freedom has. It's always a reaction. It makes the end goal about reacting to power, which sort of presupposes the power will always be there. It doesn't get to anything outside its own historical context, just like freedom (she notes that Marx attempted to come up with a definition of "true essential freedom" that could be universal, but points out that through the course of a century, it has proven to not be so universal after all). Sure, let's "resist" (what exactly?), but what's the light at the end of the tunnel?
And as for "empowerment" (I love this part):
Empowerment registers the possibility of generating one's capacities, one's "self-esteem," one's life course, but without capitulating to constraints by particular regimes of power. But in so doing, contemporary discourses of empowerment too often signal an oddly adaptive and harmonious relationship with domination insofar as they locate an individual's sense of worth and capacity in the register of individual feelings, a register implicitly located on something of an otherworldly plane vis-a-vis social and political power. In this regard, despite its apparent locution of resistance to subjection, contemporary discourses of empowerment partake strongly of liberal solipsism--the radical decontextualization of the subject characteristic of liberal discourse that iskey to the fictional sovereign individualism of liberalism. Moreover, in its almost exclusive focus on subjects' emotional bearing and self-regard, empowerment is a formulation that converges with a regime's own legitimacy needs in masking the power of the regime.
This is not to suggest that talk of empowerment is always only illusion or delusion. It is to argue, rather, that while the notion of empowerment articulates that feature of freedom concerned with action, with being more than the consumer subject figured in discourses of rights and economic democracy, contemporary deployments of this notion also draw so heavily on an undeconstructed subjectivity that they risk establishing a wide chasm between the (experience of) empowerment and an actual capacity to shape the terms of political, social, or economic life. 
Ah! Love it. That's exactly why those cries for Girl Power annoy me so much! Claiming to have girl power is one thing, but actually having it would have to include actually influencing and controlling something. 
In the next chapter: Brown takes on "Postmodern Exposures, Feminist Hesitations"


t said...

I am going to judge you for reading slowly. But favorably. I think reading painstakingly closely and slowly is the only way that I get anything out of what I read.

t said...

I found this really interesting. I'm excited about the next chapter synopsis. Sounds like she hits the nail right on the head with respect to 'empowerment'.

The call to retrieve freedom is also really intriguing. It's interesting that Adorno, who is so often criticized for leaving no space for the possibility of freedom, seems to talk more about freedom than just about every major Marxist thinker of the 20th century I can think of. (Marcuse, and maybe Sartre are exceptions).

Did she have a footnote or a citation for the bit about Marx and freedom? Sounds like something from his early writings, but I'd be curious to know where.

Her critique of the welfare state is probing. I don't see any contradiction, on the face of it, with fighting for the reinstatement of welfare state policies now, while simultaneously staking out a critical position which harbors no illusions about the role of the state. What do you think about this?

It certainly can't be that we must join the anti-welfarestatist chorus at the risk of being coopted or appropriated as allies of the Rightist reactionaries calling for the marketization of all aspects of life.

Great post.

Arvilla said...

Great questions. Here's the part on Marx and freedom. There isn't a citation, but maybe the specific reference will ring a bell:

"True human emancipation" was Marx's formula for escaping the innately contextual and historically specific, hence limited, forms of freedom. True human emancipation, achieved at the end of history, conjured for Marx not simply liberation from particular constraints but freedom that was both thoroughgoing and permanent, freedom that was neither partial nor evasive but temporally and spatially absolute. However, since true human emancipation eventually acquired for Marx a negative referent (capitalism) and positive content (abolition of capitalism), in time it too would reveal its profoundly historicied and thus limited character."

Thus, she calls it one of many concepts of freedom which "responds to a particular practice of domination whose terms are then often reinstalled in its practice. When institutionalized, freedom premised upon an already vanquished enemy keeps alive, in the manner of a melancholic logic, a threat that works as domination in the form of an absorbing ghostly battle with the past."

If you have a chance and know where to find it, it might be interesting to hear Adorno on freedom as well.

As for your last question, it's hard to say for certain what she wants our practical response to be to her critique at this point, since up until now she has just been defining the problem for us. But if I had to guess, I'd definitely say rejecting the welfare state is not what she wants us to do. I don't think her point here is that we shouldn't have defended the welfare state when it was attacked by the Right, but that we shouldn't have defended it while abandoning leftist critiques of the state itself, welfare or otherwise. Keep in mind (and this is a point she makes), that in the current discourse, one's impression might be that conservatives are anti-statist, but in fact, they aren't. They want it for protection and to regulate (or at least distribute) freedom. In other words, there are many ways to critique the state, and doing so in the context of liberalism already in place, does not include rejecting welfare. It just might include also pointing out that capitalism necessitates a welfare state in order to survive, for example.

In a similar vein, and this is something she says explicitly, Brown wouldn't suggest injured parties stop looking to the state to protect them, when they are in fact made vulnerable by capital and identity. She just wants us to simultaneously note that the state itself is in many ways making people vulnerable, and that even when it appears to hand out protections, it is reproducing that vulnerable identity.

So, that isn't exactly a road map of how she wants us to respond (I'm not saying she'll provide one later on), but as someone who has read the first chapter myself, I do think it's clear that Brown isn't expecting us to abandon the welfare part of the state and leave it to just be an oppressive state, as libertarians would desire. I think she's just asking that we not pretend the state is the solution we're waiting for, when it isn't.

Does any of that seem paradoxical? It didn't seem like it was when I read it and thought about it initially, but when I try to reproduce it here, I feel self conscious about it.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting!

I'm reading "AlterNatives: Black Feminism in the Postimperial Nation" by Ranu Samantrai right now, and she makes similar arguments about multiculturalism; basically, that it posits one group of people as "the norm" and all other people as "tolerated outsiders" and that differences end up being reified and "othered" identities reinforced. I'm not sure how much this applies to Canada, but I think because I grew up there I can't see it clearly. On the other hand, it definitely applies to the UK - even a lot of the left starts from the assumption that ALL muslims are conservatively religious and that the behaviour of ANY muslim can be attributed to their "culture." (Also, I think it says a lot about the state of British Feminism right now that the most intersting book about Black British Feminism that I've ever read was written by someone who is probably American [at least, she was educated in the US, but it's possible that she's British]).

T - I agree with you that there is no contradiction between fighting to reinstitute the Welfare State now while simultaneously taking a critical position. I think it's a matter of short term/long term approaches to radical change. Right now, without the Welfare State, a large segment of the population won't have basic necessities - health care, housing, etc. However, we also have to work on long-term solutions that either make the Welfare State unnecessary through voluntary collective action and/or democratise the state more so that people who need the Welfare State the most have more control over how it works.

Unknown said...

VERY helpful, thank you for taking the time to share your insights!