Monday, February 9, 2009

Incorporating Althusser's theory of ideology with contemporary feminism

Inspired by T, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ISA’s (Ideological State Apparatuses), particularly about how well Althusser’s theory of ideology and its role in the creation of social subjects, which one can reasonably assume was built mostly around explaining economic phenomena, relates to contemporary feminist theory and explanations of the status quo when it comes to gender relations and hierarchy.

Just looking at the feminist blogosphere, it seems very common practice to assume culture, in particular, works like Althusser’s ISA in reaffirming gender inequalities and creating certain kinds of gendered subjects. Look no further than the large number of posts around the blogosphere on sexist advertisements during the Super Bowl. This sort of media or cultural criticism makes up a bulk of mainstream, non-academic feminist analysis (and I think one could quite easily make the argument that even most academic feminism is about culture). This criticism is done almost with the assumption that all readers understand the impact that culture has on promoting sexism (or negative experiences of gender even)—that the portrayals of gender relations and roles in commercials and on tv shows and in movies and in music contribute to the normalizing (or, reifying the status quo) of gendered hegemony.

In this sense, Althusser’s theory of ISAs seems to meld really well with mainstream feminism. But, here’s my question: why is there an inordinate amount of feminist focus on culture as an ISA, at the expense of some of the other ISAs T mentions in his post (education, the legal system, the political system)?*

Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with so far:

1-Talking about culture is easier than talking about popular economics or the education system and pedagogy or any of those other spheres.

Why is it easier? Late capitalism seems to require a certain level of consumer savvy for mere survival. People in general are trained to look at advertisements or really any representational mediums with a certain degree of scrutiny. We’re always asking, what are you trying to sell me and how are you doing it? This doesn’t only apply to actual products but to representations anywhere. We ask it even of the most inane sitcoms. What is the Debra character on Everybody Loves Raymond trying to tell me about being a wife and mother? We don’t need college degrees to feel adept to discuss culture.

2-It’s more fun to talk about culture than to talk about other ISAs. I don’t know that this requires an explanation or that I could even provide one, but on nine out of ten days I’d rather talk about sexism in the Millionaire Matchmaker than in pedagogy in our public education system.

3-It is easier to pinpoint and affect the bad guy behind advertisements than it is to address the “bad guy” behind these other ISAs. When NBC airs a series of sexist ads and runs a series of sexist shows, we know who is to blame and we know how to assign that blame. We write letters, we boycott products. It might not always be effective, but at least we have a line of attack.

Such it is amid liberal-capitalism. We have more control of products than we do of our own government. Maybe we could articulate what is going on with gender in these other ISAs, but even then, what would we do about them? Vote every couple years? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling more than a little powerless in our so-called democracy. Power is distributed throughout the state in such a way that it’s difficult to say where the abuse is originating, let alone to decide how to take it on.

I think the fact that it’s more difficult to attack other ISAs makes it more frustrating and, therefore, less pleasant to focus on.

I’m sure there are other possible explanations for focusing on culture, but, maybe more importantly, what is the effect of the dearth of analysis of other ISAs? Here’s my hypothesis:

1-We become more inclined to accept liberal state-ism, which causes problems like the acceptance of the sorts of unfreedom created by the state, which scholars like Wendy Brown have tried to take on. Instead of focusing on the underlying forces producing culture and reaffirming it as good (these other ISAs), we focus on more surface issues like Pepsi commercials and the waist sizes of the average super model. Those issues can be important to talk about too, but soon we start thinking the problems aren’t with the basic, unjust structure of our global society, but just problems with companies here and there and the way they talk about things. Not only is the state not part of the problem, but maybe it’s even part of the solution to these private instigators. Maybe we can regulate these representational problems to a certain extent? Maybe we can threaten corporations with economics and government? We start to side with the state and see it as our ally. We become pawns of the state, even if we don’t want to be. You know, the same state perpetrating violence all over the world, the same state thriving off of the prison-industrial complex, the same state that affords more rights and freedoms and support to corporations than it does to its people.

2-We attempt to analyze other ISAs with the same formulas we use for analyzing culture as an ISA. Even when we talk about sexism perpetuated by government, or say, the military, or by economists, we have a tendency to talk about representation instead of looking at the ways they institutionalize hegemony. We ask questions like, how many women senators are there? How gender neutral is the language here?

These questions might be important to ask, and they may yield productive answers. But, what aren’t we asking? It may be great that Hilary Clinton is Secretary of State, but why aren’t we talking about how little her policies have done to help young women in Palestine? What if the representation we gain with a woman heading State is actually a curse because it further embeds and normalizes violence we once associated with masculine leadership? The violence might still disproportionately affect women, but now, by praising a minor representational advancement in an institution we might otherwise consider criminal, we’ve signed up for it too. In a way, we’ve laid out our priorities.

3-We fail to realize how intricate the ties between culture and the other ISAs have become, how mutually reliant each ISA is on the other. And I don’t mean this in an abstract sense. I mean, literally, we fail to see that the executives behind NBC are pulling the strings of our legislators. We might not notice that NBC takes the cues of the State Department when it airs certain stories on its nightly news and even adds certain plots to its TV shows. We might see stories about battered Muslim women on Law and Order SVU who were liberated by noble American soldiers, only to be abused again by their families in the U.S., only to be later saved by the noble U.S. justice system. How did these storylines come to be and who stands to benefit when we accept them?

Now, I don’t think it’s that these questions are never asked in the feminist blogosphere or elsewhere, but I think it’s problematic that they seem to be rarely asked relative to the number of questions we ask about culture.

That's all I've got right now. This theory is in its baby stages. Please feel free to rip it to shreds or add to it in any way you can.

*Please feel free to argue this point with me if you don’t think there is an inordinate focus on culture in most feminist circles.


t said...

Interesting post, Arvilla. Its got me thinking... while the over-emphasis on culture that you're in some sense critiquing does seem to leave out other institutions from their scrutiny, doesn't this also speak to a sense in which these culture-over-emphasizers are actually working with an impoverished understanding of culture? Their critiques of the formal aspects of some cultural artifacts are in many cases very adept and critically powerful, but it seems that they are working with a reified understanding of those very artifacts (that is, one that is shorn of the structural, historical, and also economic forces at work in both their production and mode of presentation). In short, they seem to fail to see culture as part of a larger complex network in which multinational capitalism is tied up in this strange costellation of other social institutions and norms (e.g. gender).

I tend to agree with you about the liberal tendency to, in general, refuse the state as a means to change, but I suppose I wonder to what extent the State can be efficacious. I agree that it shouldn't be abjured as a vehicle to fight oppression, but it also seems that any serious mode of liberation would have to go far beyond the state as well (maybe this is where Wendy Brown comes into it, in that she seems to want to offer a really interesting critique of the state). Incidentally, I'd like to hear more about how Wendy Brown might fit into this critique of other ISAs.

This post has got me thinking...

Arvilla said...

A failure to fully understand what culture is. I like it. It's a different way of looking at what we both sense as a collective failure to fully make the sorts of critiques we need to be making if we want to reach something like Wendy Brown's idea of a critique of the state.

I like this approach especially because it, I think, takes us back to Althusser in a way. The state as the illusion of the private-public split, as you say. That's part of the ideology. Well, it seems to me, the misunderstanding about what culture is stems from a basic assumption that culture is in some ways a private production, unattached to public state apparatuses. If we think of it as a private production put about by some sexist execs somewhere, we don't HAVE to think of the material or historical origins of the artifact in the sense that Althusser wants us to. Rejecting liberal explanations of the status quo has to come before an adequate cultural critique or critiques that incorporate other ISAs.

I'm beginning to think my next read has to be Empire. My impression is that the deep layering (or net?) of power between public and private and government and business and culture and propaganda is one of the main themes there--the difficulty of distinguishing between each apparatus, and therefore, the difficulty of attacking any of them. How can you resist if you can't tell what you're resisting? Maybe that's why Wendy Brown's critique of the state seems so necessary and compelling, and yet vague and inadequate in terms of answering the question "so now what do we do?" It's so hard to identify what the state is, let alone how it manages to abuse us, let alone how we could possibly free ourselves from it.

Agh, discussions like this make me need a drink :)