Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Graduate School Redux - Or in Which Dr. Who Says Something Interesting About Feminism (kind of)

I've been filing papers from graduate school lately because I have vague notions of keeping track of all the information I gained. I came across a paper on which I received a bright, shiny A. At the time, an A was a big thing for me since I was a serious goody two-shoes. This was a response paper for a graduate-level introductory course to social thought and was about Feminist Contentions, a book I read at least 3 times for various courses in my time as a political theorist.

The assignment was to read everything and then find an article that critiqued what I read and discuss. I ended up using an article by Fiona Webster in Hypatia that did a nice compare and contrast. In preparing for this blog entry, I revisited some of Feminist Contentions (not all - I actually think I've only ever been required to read the first 3 essays.)

My paper made the following analysis:
  • Webster says that Benhabib likes to use a subject because it allows us to consider a program of freedom.
  • Butler doesn't like the idea of a subject because it is weighted down with serious cultural b.s. and it's far more useful to question it.
  • Webster thinks identity is useful for imagining freedom, but that critiquing identity is pretty damn important to. 
Since I've read this, a couple of things have happened to me: I'm no longer in academia and I've begun to incorporate feminism into my everyday practices more so than I ever did as a student. For example, I read feminist blogs, post to my Facebook page on important issues, and actually tell people I'm a feminist. These experiences have colored my reading of these essays. 

Postmodernism in Feminism is Like Doctor Who's Explanation of Time in Blink
Judith Butler, who doesn't really like using the term postmodernism but who will embrace it grudgingly if she has to, reminds us, "But perhaps more significantly, the actions instituted via that subject are part of a chain of actions that can no longer be understood as unilinear in direction or predictable in their outcomes (43)." 

Or as I read it, paraphrasing the Doctor: "People assume that the subject is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a wibbly-wobbly...subjectivey, performtivityish...stuff."

In Doctor Who, time travel is revelatory because it is never treated as anything set in stone. In feminism, we can't assume a subject because we might get caught up in a strict progression that doesn't get us anywhere useful. If you imagine a subject, then you start going in a straight line and you never explore the wibbly-wobbly bits that lead to something new. 

But Benhabib is Right Too
I have to be honest, her terrible writing style aside, I tend to side with Butler's interpretation of the subject, but I am also attracted to the idea of knowing who I am, what I am fighting, and what that strategy might be. 

Benhabib ends her essay with this, "But it [postmodernism] should not lead to a retreat from utopia all together. For we, as women, have much to lose by giving up the utopian hope in the wholly other (30)." We have to, she argues, imagine something else from our position as subject.

The best critique of this position I've seen comes from the feminist blogosphere and Miz Jenkins. Miz Jenkins, while I don't always agree with her methods, offers the strongest critique of this position of feminist utopia with her consistent pointing out of famous Lady Blog Jezebel's WASPy feminist aesthetic. She points out that the moment someone upsets the imagined subject of the blog, they are lambasted with criticism and literally banned from the tribe of feminist subjects.

Jezebel is  was the best place to find a strange and wonderful world where you could be a feminist with other feminists and still talk about boys and shoes. But it is a specific type of feminist subject. A white subject. That subject is also prone to the problems of a misogynist society (see any Jezebel post that features bodysnarking.) Notice the problem with embracing the idea of a subject? 

I Always Thought Liking Them Both Was Maybe a Cop-out
The essay on which I got an A is pure dross. Really, it's awful. I wouldn't have given myself much of anything because it doesn't say anything. One thing that was bothering me at the time of its writing, but that I couldn't say because I wanted an A, is that what these brilliant women are writing isn't a very democratic form of feminism. Before you get defensive, hear me out. 

Both Butler and Benhabib come from a decidedly privileged area. Academia, lets face it, is not at the bottom of the pile.  With that privilege allows a lot of room to think, something for which the body of theoretical work will be forever grateful, it is separate from how we as feminists act out our every day lives.

This is why I have always found Benhabib, even with her use of subject, almost more democratic than Butler simply because she wants to make her work something people can participate in on a practical level. But it is, as Butler rightly points out, a messy place because the subject you're talking about is (pretentious phrase alert) always already something you don't want it to be (probably male and white.) 

But Butler in her privilege doesn't really give us much of a chance to reevaluate our position. We have to abandon it and head for the hills, which isn't really all that useful. She finds greater democracy in this position, but it is, to my mind, not at all handy in the day-to-day when you have to put on your makeup and heels and head out the door to earn 75 cents on the dollar. 

That Said, I Want Us All To Think a Little Harder
A bunch of jokes went around tumblr yesterday in response to some comment on Lady Blog about how real feminists don't wear heels. Everyone immediately critiqued this perfect vision of feminism with fabulous jokes, including: "Real feminists only wear shoes made from the tears of the patriarchy. And lentils. But only if they're cute."

This to me puts it all right out there. As feminists, we can be whoever the hell we want to be, whether we choose a subject or not, as long as we take everything with a grain of salt. Which is why, just as I'm ending this, I'm thinking that Rorty might be the unifier here. Live your subject ironically, rethink it, and then turn it into a pair of shoes. 

Things I Read While Reading This
"The Politics of Sex and Gender: Benhabib and Butler Debate Subjectivity" in Hypatia 15(1) by Fiona Webster
Feminist Contentions
Miz Jenkins talks about the structural racism inherent in the system
Something I didn't cite but which popped up while I was writing and is totally worth reading is Latoya Peterson's piece about blogging and racism on Racialicious.

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate



  1. Hey there, I'm Ophelia, the EIC of Persephone Magazine. Thanks for the link! Have you ever considered submitting something to us?

  2. Of course I have! I love Persephone! Perhaps I should submit something. :)