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Category Archives: poststructuralism

One of the most useful contributions of poststructuralism, which is the site at which poststructuralist feminism improves on its forebears, is that agency is complicated.

This is to refute the frequent, oversimplified accusation that poststructuralism’s model of power—in which there is, as Foucault (1990) put it, no outside—eviscerates the possibility of agency and instead do justice to the ways in which poststructuralism provides a nuanced and useful way to think about how we act in the world.

The first major characteristic of the poststructuralist account of agency is that agency is not a matter of acting in a way that is unconstrained by power, but rather consists of working within power, understood as both enabling and constraining—as Butler (1993) puts it in Bodies that Matter, power both subjects us (constrains) and subjectivates us (makes us subjects, empowers).

Thus, Butler (2010, p. 425) says elsewhere, “gender is not a radical choice or project that reflects a merely individual choice, but neither is it imposed or inscribed upon the individual, as some post-structuralist displacements of the subject would contend.”

Though I’m not sure which poststructuralists Butler is reprimanding here as framing gender as “imposed or inscribed upon the individual”—Bartky? Sloppy readers of Foucault?—her siting of gender as occupying a space between “individual choice” and inscription is the key intervention here.

That is, “concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities. Hence, there is an agency which is understood as the process of rendering such possibilities determinate. These possibilities are necessarily constrained by available historical conventions,” but importantly this is not incompatible with agency—it is instead its condition of possibility (Butler, 2010, pp. 420-1).

It is this same complex view of agency that leads Mani (2010, p. 402) to reject the typical modes of making sense of sati (the Hindu practice of burning widows; for more information see Sati (practice) at Wikipedia), in which the options are either viewing women as “free agents” freely choosing or “producing a discourse which sets women up to be saved”; she points out that the latter “would situate women within feminist discourse in ways that are similar to their positioning within colonialist or nationalist discourse”—i.e. as not being capable of agency due to, respectively, racialized and gendered “insufficiencies.”

In place of these polarities of complete freedom and complete oppression, she contends, “structures of domination are best understood if we can grasp how we remain agents even in the moments in which we are being intimately, viciously oppressed” (Mani, 2010, p. 401).

In particular, she warns against falling into either a discourse in which “consent was sometimes conceived as impossible by definition: women were simply deemed incapable of it” or the contention that “one could hardly speak of consent when widowhood imposed its own regimes of misery” (Mani, 2010, p. 401).

Thus, though she recognizes that “the discourse of woman as victim has been invaluable to feminism in pointing to the systematic character of gender domination,” she nevertheless contends that “if it is not employed with care, or in conjunction with a dynamic conception of agency, it leaves us with reductive representations of women as primarily beings who are passive and acted upon” (Mani, 2010, pp. 401-2).

What we will do, then, is not decided in advance, but neither do we create it ex nihilo. As Butler (2010, p. 425) puts it, “surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and prescriptions, is clearly not an individual matter.”

Though the options may be (and often are) quite limited, then, agency consists in the fact that those constraints don’t mean that life is decided in advance, and our enactments of those norms, as Butler points out elsewhere, are the moments of possibility for doing them differently and opening up new options.

Another major component of the multifaceted poststructuralist view of agency is its account of why people choose things that are in some sense detrimental to them. Some put this relatively negatively, as in Mani’s (2010, p. 401) discussion of sati that describes the “meagre alternatives available” for widows, of which sati may seem the lesser evil.

Butler (2010, p. 421), too, frames compliance with the social as in some sense forced, arguing that “discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished”—which would seem to be in tension with her general understanding of power as productive.

Bartky (2010, p. 414), however, recognizes that people benefit from compliance with the norm:

Women, then, like any other skilled individuals, have a stake in the perpetuation of their skills, whatever it may have cost to acquire them and quite apart from the question whether, as a gender, they would have been better off had they never had to acquire them in the first place. Hence, feminism, especially a genuinely radical feminism that questions the patriarchal construction of the female body, threatens women with a certain de-skilling, something people normally resist: beyond this, it calls into question that aspect of personal identity that is tied to the development of a sense of competence. Resistance from this source may be joined by a reluctance to part with the rewards of compliance.

Though women “would have been better off if they had never had to acquire” the knowledge of how to do femininity properly, the fact is that at least some subset of them does know now and the world is structured such that this is a valuable knowledge.

This argument is reminiscent of Kandiyoti’s (2010, p. 85) argument about the “patriarchal bargain,” in which women hold on to patriarchy “because they see the old normative order slipping away from them without any empowering alternatives. [ . . . ] Their passive resistance takes the form of claiming their half of this particular patriarchal bargain—protection in exchange for submissiveness and propriety.”

In both cases, though the options are not great for the women choosing them, they are nevertheless making an agential decision to go along with the norms that give them a meaningful place in society. Constructions of agency solely as resistance to power cannot account for these kinds of decisions, and this additional explanatory power makes the poststructuralist contribution all the more valuable.

In the end, then, poststructuralism is an important intervention into feminism. As a proponent of the paradigm, I view this as a corrective to both overly constrained psychoanalytic accounts and overly free (neo)liberal rights-based accounts of how people choose to act in the world, but I suspect that even those who cannot accept the poststructuralist account of agency would agree that it gives us interesting things to think about.

Bartky, S. L. (2010). Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 404-418). New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2010). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 419-430). New York: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.
Kandiyoti, D. (2010). Bargaining with Patriarchy. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 80-88). New York: Routledge.
Mani, L. (2010). Mutliple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception. In C. McCann & S. Kim (Eds.), Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 390-403). New York: Routledge.

Ann Laura Stoler, it turns out, proves the point I argued last week that Butler’s (2004) work is useful for thinking about race; Stoler, in her Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2002, reissued 2010), describes Dutch whiteness in the Indonesian context as something that had to be “done” (though, despite this major point of contact, the citations suggest that Butler was not a conscious interlocutor for Stoler).

This done-ness of whiteness is implicit in arguments like the one Stoler makes that “prescriptions for bathing, breastfeeding, cooking, and sleeping arrangements tied anxieties over personhood, race, and what it meant to be Dutch to the choreography of the everyday” (17). This is much like Butler’s argument that gender is the appearance of an interior essence produced by repeated quotidian enactments of social norms.

Indeed, this “doing” of whiteness trumped what might seem to be the incontrovertible “matter” of raced bodies just as Butler contends that the sexed body is constructed rather than given. Stoler argues that “the colonial measure of what it took to be classified as ‘European’ was based not on skin color alone but on tenuously balanced assessment of who was judged to act with reason, affective appropriateness, and a sense of morality” (2-6).

That is, you have to “act” white/European/Dutch to get to “be” white/European/Dutch, and indeed it is under this logic that being creole was enough to symbolically unwhiten someone despite the genetic heritage of Dutch parents (68-9).

Similarly, the need to continually “do” whiteness explains the horror the settlers had of “men who had ‘gone native’ or simply veered off cultural course, of European children too taken with local foods, too versed in local knowledge,” as this troubled the equation—which they wanted to be unproblematic—between white embodiment and “white” behavior (2).

This is to say that, if the Dutch sense of racial superiority was founded in their sense of being more “civilized” than the Indonesians they colonized, the ways that white people could in fact “veer off course” and begin to behave in the Indonesian way could potentially mean that this imagined superiority wasn’t inherent. (On whiteness as self-control and civilization see also Dyer, 1997; Ferguson, 2003; Floyd, 2009; Frankenberg, 1993; Hedges, 1997; Nagel, 2003; Roediger, 1991; Sandell, 1997; Savran, 1998)

Thus it becomes clear that, as Butler argues about gender, the necessity of repeated instantiation of norms opens up the possibility of doing them “wrong” or differently—and thus the potential to disrupt their hold on normativity.

However, as both Butler and Stoler note, the breaking of norms doesn’t automatically free us from them. Stoler’s book “treats racism as a central organizing principle of European communities in the colonies,” and rightly so; the ways in which racism had this fundamental status meant that “racial thinking was part of a critical, class-based logic that differentiated between native and European and that was part of the apparatus that kept potentially subversive white colonials in line” (13).

This is to say that the threat of becoming unwhitened (with all the loss of privilege this would entail) worked to discourage solidarity of lower-class whites with native interests. David Roediger has documented a similar process as happening in the United States in his 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, as the members of the working class of European origin “settled for being white” rather than experiencing themselves as having common class interests with black workers.

The necessity of this work to solidify common whiteness, then, calls attention to “the uncertain racialized regimes of truth that guided their actions” and the ways in which the “criteria by which European colonials defined themselves” were unstable and necessitated the sort of “doing” Butler describes to create solidity and effective reality (6).

Butler, J. (2004). The Judith Butler Reader. (S. Salih, Ed.). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Dyer, R. (1997). White. London: Routledge.
Ferguson, R. A. (2003). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Floyd, K. (2009). The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Frankenberg, R. (1993). White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hedges, W. (1997). If Uncle Tom is White, Should we Call him “Auntie”? Race and Sexuality in Postbellum U.S. Fiction. In M. Hill (Ed.), Whiteness: A Critical Reader (pp. 226-247). New York: NYU Press.
Nagel, J. (2003). Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Roediger, D. R. (1991). The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso.
Sandell, J. (1997). Telling Stories of “Queer White Trash”: Race, Class, and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison. In A. Newitz & M. Wray (Eds.), White Trash: Race and Class in America (pp. 211-230). New York: Routledge.
Savran, D. (1998). Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stoler, A. L. (2010). Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

In rereading some of Judith Butler’s work as published in 2004 in The Judith Butler Reader, I was startled to note how little she actually addresses race. This seeming silence on race is particularly odd when editor and introducer Sara Salih gives Butler a lot of credit for looking at race and in light of Butler’s fairly unambiguous antiracist credentials. (For example, in her refusal of an award from the Berlin Christopher Street Day (i.e. gay pride) people due to racism within their organization)

Indeed, it seems that Butler in some sense “discovered” race sometime between Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993); her 1990 objection to Mapplethorpe’s depiction of “naked Black men” as one which “engage[s] a certain racist romanticism of Black men’s excessive physicality and sexual readiness” (197) is not on par, theoretically, with the kinds of complex arguments she was making about gender at the same point in her career.

In the Reader, it was only in her 1999 introduction to the reissue of Gender Trouble that she pointed out that “racial presumptions invariably underwrite the discourse on gender” (95) or that “gender norms” are substantially “underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation” (101).

These brief mentions, and the recognition that “race and gender ought not to be treated as simple analogies” and “the sexualization of racial gender norms calls to be read through multiple lenses at once, and the analysis surely illuminates the limits of gender as an exclusive category of analysis” (95) are really all she gives us.

It thus becomes the reader’s job to discern how Butler’s ideas about gender illuminate (or don’t) aspects of the operation of race as a system of discrimination (in both the “differentiation” and “inequality” senses, a dual valence Butler points out with respect to Wittig on p. 29), and so I shall.

The idea of performativity tends to generate resistance because it violates cultural common sense: “What do you mean, race (or gender) is produced by doing? I can see with my own eyes that this person has a race (gender)!” (The fact that this obviousness only occurs with respect to marked categories of race or gender, and white people and men don’t “obviously” have a race or gender to most people, though important, is beyond what I can consider here.)

Accordingly, the social construction of the matter of bodies generally has to be established before performativity can make sense (which makes the fact that Butler explained gender first (1990) and then the body (1993) unfortunate for both her and her readers).

Butler argues that body parts (or bodily characteristics) only come to exist at the point that we notice them (145); accordingly, the physical features that say “race” to us are products of paying attention to them. This does not, however, mean that they are not “real,” either materially or socially, but only that we make sense of bodies through social categories (100) that tell us that this skin color or that eye shape indicates membership in a particular race category.

These are, like sex categories, arbitrary—people from some Pacific Islander groups have the same, objective, “hue”–as it is described by Richard Dyer in his 1997 book White–skin color as some Africans, for example, but we understand them to be different “races” through classifying what “matters” about the “matter” of these bodies, and in so doing materializing these bodies in particular ways (and not others).

Once the matter of bodies is understood as social, performativity becomes easier to accept. Though there’s nothing inherent in the body about the races or genders we inhabit, we experience them as the inner truth of a person because they “act like it.” The possibility of “doing” race out of line with the socially produced body is exemplified by the idea of the “Oreo” or “banana”—people of color who “act white” and are presumed then to be “white on the inside.”

Finally, as Butler notes about gender, performances of racialized selves are not volitional acts—we are hailed at birth into a race as much as a gender, and the social imperative to be raced and gendered is difficult and painful to refuse (What are you?).

In the end, then, I think it is clear that Butler’s work on gender can be useful for making sense of race, though clearly this does not relieve Butler of the obligation to make these articulations herself.

Diagram of Bentham’s panopticon

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons"

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault  traces a shift in how power works, arguing that in the late 18th and early 19th century punitive spectacle went out of fashion as the way of managing illegality.  It was, he describes “Bye-bye public execution, hello panopticon.”

Unfortunately, however, nobody bothered to tell the South.

Indeed, according to Joane Nagel’s 2003 telling of the history in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers, it was not until the 1890s that “lynchings moved beyond instances of local lawlessness to take on the proportions of large-scale spectacles”(p. 114).

These occasions of excessive visual penality, Nagel says, were “publicized in advance and attracted crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands,” and she argues that they “were part of the consolidation of the color line and the construction of whiteness in the postwar U.S. South” (p. 114).

Until well into the 20th century in the South, then, the idea that power had ceased to act upon bodies in destructive rather than productive ways is simply not applicable when it comes to white power acting on black bodies.

Similarly, Tony Bennett (who is damn hard to find on the Internet given that other Tony Bennett)  argues explicitly in his 1995 book The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics that having “witnesses of a symbolic display of power [ . . . ] remained important—and more so than Foucault’s formations often allow” (p. 24). He particularly notes that the museums his own work analyzes made particular use of the display of “other, ‘non-civilized’ peoples upon whose bodies the effects of power were unleashed with as much force and theatricality as had been manifest on the scaffold” ( p. 67).

In Foucault’s defense, there is a sense in which this lapse on his part is the product of looking at the history in one place or set of places and generalizing to all places, which it’s not entirely clear he meant for his work to do.

However, there is nevertheless a real racial absence in Foucault’s work, which is all the more perplexing when racialized difference had to have been relevant in the precise time and place he is intending to describe–France was a colonial power exercising repressive power over bodies that were somewhere in the process of being racialized as other.

Why is it that some bodies were still fair game for this kind of punishment at the same time that others were being subjected to discipline and made productive? Can we explain this simply as those people being seen as ineligible to become docile and productive due to some racialized imputation of unruliness? Is this a product of the production of some bodies as not-quite-human?

These are vital questions, as they can perhaps help us think through things like contemporary uses of torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and Foucault as written doesn’t help us answer them, so now it’s our job.

Looking at The Death of the Author and What is an Author? again side-by-side confirmed to me something that I have suspected for a while now—one needs Foucault to salvage Barthes, or perhaps more broadly poststructuralism to salvage structuralism. This is to say that identifying the structures at work (play?) in a phenomenon is incomplete without an understanding of the power relations that have produced them and, crucially, work to maintain them.

Thus, executing the author and the work by fiat, as Barthes seems to want to do, doesn’t quite work. He says that “we know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God),” and his characterization of this as something “we know now” positions it as the inevitable outcome of the march of progress: we also “know now” that the earth is round (146). Similarly, he contends that in the face of “the combined action of Marxism, Freudianism and structuralism,” the work must inevitably give way to the text (156).

Foucault, however, cautions that “we must not be taken in by his apparent interchange” in which “the history of thought, of knowledge, of philosophy, of literature, seems to be seeking, and discovering, more and more discontinuities,” arguing that we should “question teleologies and totalizations” of this sort (6, 16). Instead, his position is that we must ask “how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?” (27).

This is to ask after power, to recognize that believing in the “theological message of the Author-God” is not arbitrary, a mistaken impression that we must correct, but the product of a particular discursive formation—power relations—which we ignore at our peril.

Barthes figured his intervention as freeing; he believed he had pulled the keystone out of the arch, for “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile” (147). This is to say that, if we believe that “to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing,” such that “when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained,’” dislodging the author removes that “limit” and “final signified” and reopens the “writing” of the play of signification, destroying authority (147). He conceived of “the logic regulating the text” as “metonymic,” as an “activity of associating, continuities [and] carryings-over,” as a “liberation” (158).

However, in these characterizations he missed key workings of power—Barthes himself recognized that “the Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book”; his error was in believing that the author was no longer “believed in” (145).

By the same token, metonymy works through quite specific channels—a word has to have a (socially-produced) meaning in order to suggest related words, which themselves have to be fixed by the same process. Barthes’ famous “metonymic skid” (S/Z, 92) is, therefore, a sliding between necessarily fixed points.

It is this misrecognition that makes Foucault so vital to recuperating Barthes; the former recognizes that discursive formations constitute the objects about which they “speak,” such that merely doing away with one term (Author) or looking into the relations between terms (metonymy) does nothing to trouble the overall structure.

To be fair, Barthes was interested only in uncovering structures, which is the structuralist/poststructuralist divide in essence, yet Foucualt’s rejection of “writing a history of the referent” points out that uncovering what “really” happens is less important than dissecting how we talk about it (47).

Barthes is absolutely right that alongside the “work” there is an “irreducibly plural” text composed of a “network” of untraceable “quotations without inverted commas”—Foucault, too, discards the search for origins and points to the intertextual “network” of which a book is a “node” (Barthes 159, 161, 160; Foucault 25, 23). The trouble comes in thinking that by exposing these facts we are liberated from the system that produced them.

Indeed, Barthes, for all his insistence on displacing the author in favor of the reader and the consumption of works in favor of the production of texts, runs into the intractability of these structures. He argues that:

a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost,” such that, post-author, meaning comes from the meaning of “quotations” and “cultures,” which are “inscribed” onto the reader (148).

He means this to place the reader at the center, but characterizing the relationship in such a way positions the text itself, not the reader, as the agent; though Barthes references “relations of dialogue, parody, [and] contestation,” what is relating in these ways is the “writings.”

Additionally, that the “writings” are nominalized elides the question of origin and positions them as just existing—not the production of the reader after all. Moreover the reader is the object rather than subject of inscription. In this way, overall, agency is foreclosed for the reader.

Barthes tries to uncover how we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes, and in exposing it he seeks to liberate us to see the real relations between things, yet Foucault contends that “we must show why it could not be other than it was” (28).

That is, categories are “normative rules, institutionalized types,” not “intrinsic, autochthonous, and universally recognizable characteristics,” and it is precisely that normativity and institutionalization which are fundamental to how things have come to be how they are and the means by which they maintain themselves (22).

This is to say that these “themes whose function is to ensure the infinite continuity of discourse [ . . . ] do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known, and the justifications of which must be scrutinized” (Foucault, 25).

The construction itself is what matters, its processes of normalization, institutionalization, and foreclosing of other options; this is where our scrutiny must fall rather than declaring that these rules are constructed and stopping at that, as Barthes does.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1975). S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang.
—–. (1978). The Death of the Author. In S. Heath (Tran.), Image-Music-Text (pp. 142-148). New York: Hill and Wang.
Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon.