November 27, 2013
This is an article of mine published on The North Star.
There is a certain depressing circularity about certain arguments on the left. Those having to do with what is often termed ‘identity politics’, more particularly when expressed in the language of privilege (or lack thereof), tend to divide into two mutually hostile camps. For the one, privilege is the bread and butter of critical analysis, and what could be called traditional Marxism has been replaced, or at least complemented, by a perspective based in the body of critical theory on identity, discourse, and the concept of privilege. These arose out of a certain meeting between attempts to theorize the intersectionality of oppression – initially mainly race and gender, but later extended to many other subjects – on the one hand, and on the other the political critique of discourse and discourse analysis of French poststructuralism. Here, privilege often becomes the key concept binding together the experience of individuals and the discourses and structural forces that determine these experiences. Building on some feminist critiques of Marxism, this ‘privilegetalk’ could be read as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy between exploitation and oppression in the traditional Marxist approach and to integrate this with the tools and mentality of ‘critical theory’ and discourse analysis (including those of largely anti-Marxist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida).
In the other camp are those for whom the above is anathema, and who insist on the clear separation between class and all other identities, or even reject reading class as an identity at all. Here, exploitation and oppression are either systematically distinguished – as in more classic Marxist views – or are seen as varieties of working class experience. In the latter case, the class relationship is nonetheless still seen as central. What distinguishes this camp is its dislike of any talk of identity, privilege, or similar terms at all. Where the first decry the economism of the second, the latter fire back with equal vehemence against the idealism or liberal individualism of their opponents. For the former, identities; for the latter, the working class – this is how the distinction is often presented by the partisans of this view. And never the twain shall meet.
Of course, this is a crude caricature, and in reality there are a great number of diverse positions on both sides, making the camps as I have portrayed them more akin to a family resemblance or ideal type than a true description. Nonetheless, the crude arguments it produces are sadly all too frequent. One problem here is a sense of essentialism pervasive to both: either essentializing identity and experience into tokenism and purely psychological struggle, or essentializing the ‘true working class’ as an undifferentiated agent whose exploitation is more ‘real’ than any mere oppressions of the marginal could ever be. To my mind this is completely unnecessary, given that both views can perhaps be bypassed by creative application of the insights of the Marxist feminism associated with the ‘social reproduction perspective’. But perhaps at least as importantly it seems fruitless because the relevant insights both of the Marxist theory of exploitation and of its ‘critical critics’ should be carefully unpacked, not lumped together in these great opposing forces that they have increasingly become. As I have argued in other contexts, to distinguish analysis and strategy is essential here. Within what is crudely called ‘identity politics’, there are many different views and positions, and so there are within the actual social groups in question, whether within the working class or among certain genders or races or what have you. It is exactly the unwillingness to engage the arguments in their own right, rather than the mutual fight against straw opponents, that is so annoying about this whole discussion.
Entering the Vampires’ Castle
It is here that I want to focus on a critical reading of Mark Fisher’s article in The North Star entitled “Exiting the Vampire Castle“. Though written in a UK context – where those who criticized celebrity comedian Russell Brand for his sexism after he called for revolution in a political interview with Jeremy Paxman drew Fisher’s ire – it is clearly intended for more general consumption. The argument of the article is depressingly familiar: Fisher illustrates all the errors of the second camp, which is precisely why it is worth examining. Though it is too long for a complete close reading, some important elements stand out. Firstly, Fisher accuses the British left, especially on Twitter, of a certain miserablism: “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, in which the calling out of individuals is more important than establishing some popularity for left-wing ideas. Here, he calls on the frequent left criticisms of Owen Jones, as well as the tendency for the radical left (outside Counterfire c.s. at least) to dismiss the People’s Assemblies as yet another top-down adventure in entryism from a Trot sect. Then, Fisher goes on to defend Russell Brand, whom he insists is precisely so worth defending because he defended leftism on public television while being working class in background, and moreover did so with humor and verve, something the left profoundly lacks. This all forms the leadin: the main section of the article is to describe the two “libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about”. Those are, in order, the Vampires’ Castle (plural this time) and the anarchist tendencies of the UK left.
The latter is easily described: for Brand this is simply the rejection of united or popular fronts, those shibboleths of Trotskyist organizing, and the equal rejection of Labour Party support or attempts at ‘reclaiming Labour’ through one or another form of entryism (we can put Jones in this category). For Fisher, “there’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there.” This he decries as an anarchism that will render the left irrelevant. But more important is the analogy of the Vampires’ Castle. This occult phenomenon is his favored phrase for a series of sweeping generalizations about what is clearly identifiable as the first camp of the polarization of the left described above. The Vampires’ Castle, Fisher tells us, “individualize and privatize everything”. They make humour impossible, seek to create guilt everywhere, and most of all essentialize the enemy, which is to say their opponents on the left. And here’s the kicker: they do all this as a strategy to pass themselves of as left-wing, when they are in reality liberals, and of an “invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background” at that. Sounds terrible, no? Time someone went in with a stake!
Des Pudels Kern
Unfortunately, not a single one of these arguments is persuasive, and quite a few are downright unfair or absurd. Let us therefore enter Fisher’s Vampire Castle, stake and garlic in hand, and see what monsters we encounter there. Some may be oddly familiar to us – especially those who look at the castle from the viewpoint of the introduction above. In the entrance hall, things are still going well. It is certainly true that – both online and offline – the radical left has long been characterized by a venomous atmosphere, in particular a refusal of any charity of reading or interpretation to those deemed oppositional or those that have previously caused offense, and good faith efforts are not much rewarded and therefore rarely in evidence. Sometimes, this leads to incredibly vindictive, personalized, and emotional disputation that does little good to solving any problems or advancing any cause, but does cause much more hurt and isolation than was already present at the start.
Nonetheless, this observation is somewhat covered in cobwebs, like an old suit of mail opposite the central staircase. It must be treated with charity in its own right. The internet, which combines a very direct and personal means of communication with a very limited possibility of nuance, body language, and context, contributes much to this problem. But even offline, the often hostile atmosphere is at least in part caused by the very importance of the politics themselves to those involved in them. One of the classic arguments of the privilege-talkers is precisely that it is much harder to abstract or disengage from arguments when your wellbeing, your sense of dignity, or your very life may be at stake in the outcome of a particular political dispute. Under such conditions, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to not take it personally. Here, the personal is indeed political. If this attitude is to be criticized, it can’t be for stating this obvious reality – at most that it sometimes overlooks that if the personal is political, that is not necessarily a good thing, and making the political as personal as possible is not necessarily the right response.
When we press onward, however, we soon start running into the occult obstacles Fisher’s castle presents to us. The hagiographical treatment of the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand looms at us, like the remarkably large shadow cast over the balustrade by a remarkably small cat. Why should we think that Jones is “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”? I am not as hostile to him as some of the UK radical left perhaps is, but I doubt even Owen himself would recognize himself in this description. Class consciousness is, after all, by definition a collective and a political process of self-awareness and self-mobilization – not something brought about by a well-meaning individual with a column in the Independent. Indeed, Owen may have helped some to raise morale, by making the hegemony of neoliberal ideas seem less complete, but that is not the same thing as the political becoming of a class.
The same can be said for Russell Brand. Perhaps his interview with Paxman was an unusually left-wing discourse for the staid political television of Britain. But there is no reason why this should mean his gratuitous sexism should be accepted, nor does the working class of the UK really need Russell Brand to tell them that they exist, or to provide them with left-Labour banalities that inequality is too large or that revolution would be a nice idea, in the abstract. If Fisher thinks that this is both necessary and sufficient for class consciousness, so “fragile and fleeting” it needs comedians on Jeremy Paxman’s show to sustain it, he has a much lower idea of the working class’ intellectual capacities than do his vampiric opponents. (The People’s Assembly I won’t even bother dealing with – it is in our terms like the papier-mâché skeleton made by a primary schooler menacing in the wardrobe: irrelevant, incapable of frightening anyone, and easily disposed of.)
Let us ignore such small scares and proceed into the very inner chambers, where Fisher’s ‘laws of the Vampires’ Castle’ await us. Fisher’s first claim is that the politics of privilege, which is clearly the vampires’ life-blood (or unlife-blood?), is not a legitimate expression of the struggles of the oppressed, but a bourgeois-liberal perversion of them. Indeed, the theme of perversion can never be far off where vampires are present, and if this is so, then the Twitter left appears as a veritable Boris Karloff of repressed gothic sensuality. The argument nonetheless follows some lines as ancient as the castle itself: “rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Now here I think Fisher does have one point: I have long been skeptical of the assumption of some (not all) writers on privilege that it is impossible to relate to others unless one shares their same identity and experiences. If this were true, then indeed nobody would be able to ‘speak to’ the issues of anyone else at all, to use this jargon; the reality would be that, due to the irreducability of human diversity, all political solidarity and indeed all communication would be impossible. This is perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, but some of the stronger versions of this argument are not far off, and I share with Fisher a hostility both to the implicit misanthropy and the political implications of this argument.
Some of Fisher’s points are not uninteresting, and could lead to some more exciting directions: less explored wings of the building. One thing he points to is the conflation on the part of some privilege-talkers of the act of (say) homophobia and being a homophobe. Now this is a double-edged sword, to remain in the sphere of the gothic, as it is often used as an excuse by those who both are and do to avoid the consequences of their attitude. But among radical activists it has also been remarked that this conflation can be quite unhelpful, precisely because it is an example of a false essentialism that the politics of identity was – at least in some versions – intended to undermine. If you call someone a homophobe, they are in a sense forever branded, and yet no alternative is concretely offered. Whereas calling an act or a statement homophobic allows for correction and change, and it is therefore at the least more strategically constructive in those cases where there is no need to move from the one to the other. Indeed, some would abuse the charity and good faith offered to them in this case, and there are many who lack the self-reflection to merit it. But it is a good policy, in my opinion, to err towards giving someone you criticize a way to correct themselves. The cultural repertoire of shame, dignity, and standing can so effectively be mobilized positively, rather than – as is now often the case – being a one-way street in a direction against the oppressed. This is something that calls for a case-by-case examination, and people’s character and circumstances will differ sufficiently that attempting any general rule would be unwise. At most, here one could invoke once more the benefits as well as moral discipline of charity of interpretation, and to give people a certain leeway (but hardly an unlimited one) in phrasing things the way they see it.
But that is not to say that the argument as Fisher poses it is much better. It is simply not true that the ‘identitarians’ try to keep people in their identities. There is always a risk of essentializing, and indeed tokenism is not unusual, strongly reinforced by this notion that you can only talk on topic X if previously approved by the representatives of topic X, those who share a politically mobilized identity on that basis. But even in such cases the purpose is to overcome oppression, not to maintain it, and the voicing through identity and the policing of its boundaries comes from a need to protect the humans that are ‘carriers’ of these identities in the post-structuralist sense. However flawed in individual cases the strategy and assumptions about human communication may be (and more on those below), protect the humans from oppression is not at all the same intent as to protect the identities themselves from emancipation or change, and Fisher’s conflation of the two does a great injustice to – and is in fact very uncharitable towards – those he aims his barbs at.
The same thing is true when we encounter the first vampiric lackeys of the master vampire, the lord of the castle. This lord, it turns out halfway our adventure, is in reality academia and the bourgeoisie in general. Fisher suggests his privilege-talking opponents are either wilfully accumulating ‘academic capital’, or are simply deluded by those that are doing so. But here he reveals one major mistake in his thought, when he writes: “The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.” But this is precisely the fundamental insight that the first camp has and the second camp lacks – namely that however much one may wish it otherwise, these individualist categories imposed by power do really hold. If Fisher at all understood the subject he was talking about, he would realize that those identities are not like a cloak that one dons at will, but like the very skin branded black or white, male or female, gay or straight and so forth.
This is why, ad nauseam, so much of the writing of poststructural and feminist theory has been about the body, its sufferings, and its agencies: because the adscription of identity is as much something one undergoes as it is something one does to oneself. Fisher in fact has already implicitly acknowledged this when he points out he is prone to forgetting he is male and white as ‘identities’: it is precisely this forgetting that the oppressed identities can never do, and that is what makes these identities salient in a political sense. If indeed the discourse of identity is the lackey of the bourgeoisie, it is not because of its self-awareness, but rather because it is simply a consequence of the reality of capitalist society. Its self-awareness, even when wrongly expressed, is a potent weapon against the invisibility of some forms of the reproduction and rule of this society – and thereby a weapon, however blunt at times, against the true lord of the castle.
The Vampire Is In Another Castle
What remains so curious about Fisher’s whole gothic structure is nonetheless how inadequate it is to its subject. He accuses his opponents, without otherwise naming or identifying them, of being bourgeois, academic, posh, and privileged – yet he is by his own acknowledgement a white male academic and a commissioning editor at a left-wing vanity press. If he therefore does not recognize himself in this image, it must be because, like the vampire, he has no reflection… Similarly, his chatter about ‘witch-hunts’ maintains his sense of victimhood. But aside from being a rather inappropriate historical analogy, given the witch-hunts were systematic cases of the reassertion of patriarchy and religious order and mostly against women, it is difficult to sustain this reasoning when Fisher can’t give any real examples of the power of his opponents or of his own suffering at their hands. It seems he certainly has major disagreements with their interpretation of social structure and discourse, and also with the political strategies some on the left draw out of these. This is legitimate, and should remain legitimate: nothing is free from criticism, and that includes the language and politics of privilege.
But sadly, while an interesting argument could be had about these (and has been had many times before, not least among the ‘identitarians’), Fisher does not engage in this. Rather, he throws the whole of M.R. James at his opponents in an attempt to depict them as terrors of the night. The effect is akin to the puppeteer holding the bogeyman doll in front of us. It assumes we are children, both in thinking we cannot see that he is really moving the bogeyman about, and in assuming we would be scared of it. This is a shame, because it is perhaps overdue that the various camps of the left talk to each other seriously and productively about the problems of communication that must be overcome if solidarity is to work practically between its various sections.
Finally, before we exit the castle in despondence at the lack of action – the villagers so promised us we would find monsters! – something must be said about the gothic imagery itself. It is striking how badly Fisher’s vampiric metaphor fails. But what is interesting is not that it does so, but how it does so. Fisher’s image of the Vampires’ Castle fails in two ways. Firstly, because he wishes to ascribe laws to this castle. But laws of a castle are laws that hold within the castle, or insofar as the inhabitants of the castle can enforce them beyond the walls. Fisher has no desire to go into the castle, that much he makes clear, but he does not tell us what powers of enforcement it has, beyond criticizing celebrities and creating a bad atmosphere on Twitter. Now I say this not quite jokingly – I have personally witnessed various occasions in which both online and offline the use of privilege-talk played a major role in causing enormous personalized conflicts between participants and activists who had otherwise (and also afterwards) been able to communicate productively even where disagreement could be considerable. This question of atmosphere is a practical one, not just a matter of whining about how mean it is to say bad things to a university professor. But if the exact dynamics cannot be clarified, and if it cannot be explained what in talking about oppression in a particular way causes unnecessary strife – as opposed to justified oppositions to bigotry – then the problem is not addressed. Fisher’s blanket dismissals and empty workerism do not solve this problem at all, as a rudimentary knowledge of social reproduction theory or writing on intersectionality could have made obvious.
This is compounded by the second way Fisher’s metaphor fails: namely, in the vampiric. Vampires presuppose that vampirism is going on, in other words, that one feeds off another’s life-blood in some way. But Fisher’s vampires are posh, they accumulate academic capital, they are lackeys, they produce guilt, they do all sorts of things; but suck blood they do not. And this is not a simple flawed analogy. What it reveals is that underlying Fisher’s argument is a deeper sense in which he implies that there exists a kind of hidden establishment that leeches off the real or legitimate left by ‘perverting’ or perhaps diverting its processes of class activism and class consciousness. Precisely by ascribing to his opponents all sorts of bad identities, he engages in identity politics in his own right – such as calling them posh, or their views alternately bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. His workerism, too, is essentially identitarian. So the talk of identity itself cannot be the problem. Rather, it is this sense of a hidden parasitic establishment that pervades his writing, and gives it its creepy atmosphere. Fisher refuses to tell us who They are, rather producing his gothic imagery as a way of cloaking the They in a convenient manner. But this is both dishonest and sinister. If one were as inclined to guilt by association as Fisher, one need but look at the similarities between this style of caricature and those of the ‘neo-reactionaries’ and their Cathedral, or the mysterious all-swallowing dark Other in the racial/orientalist tropes of Conrad or Lovecraft – both of which in turn owe much to simple anti-semitism.
If one may use one gothic novel against another, where Fisher thinks he is writing Dracula, he is actually writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr. Jekyll of our story is Mark Fisher who wants to protect the left from the anarcho-bourgeois individualism, misanthropy, and strategic self-destruction. I have many disagreements with him, and some minor points of agreement. More generally, there is an argument there that is worth engaging with, although it needs serious reformulation on the basis of a more serious inquiry into the theory underlying the narratives of privilege and identity, something that far too many critics (again, rather uncharitably) neglect to do. However, there is also a Mr. Hyde in this story. This Fisher is a disturbing figure, one who inhabits a castle of his own and sallies forth against all who rebel by branding them vampires and traitors – indeed shades of witch-hunting, but with himself as the knight inquisitor. As in Stevenson’s story, this is probably not how Jekyll-Fisher intends it; it is rather that the Mr. Hydes both inside and outside the left find this more amenable – being able to depict all those who talk about identity, privilege and so forth as merely bourgeois saboteurs attempting to divide the left, when quite the opposite is the case. Here, Jekyll-Fisher should restrain the Hyde within him.
What I would recommend Fisher is to do some reading. Firstly, to read some of the writings on intersectionality, privilege, social reproduction Marxism, and so forth, much of which rightly or wrongly serves as the main inspirations for those people he so stridently dismisses, and of whose arguments he understands little. Secondly, he should read David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market. From that, he can learn how a gothic Marxism is properly employed, free from the crypto-fascist undertones of his current moral imagination. The vampire, he will learn from McNally, are not the ‘identitarians’, but it is capital itself, and if the working class has a gothic referent, it is in the figure of the zombie, labouring without will or direction at the behest of others. The zombie, which must be brought back to a state of real life or be destroyed, confronts us with the real choices involved in class consciousness: much as I dislike that phrase, the consciousness of a class always already constituted by race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Without this awareness, any cure for the problems Fisher poses will be worse than the disease.
And the same applies not just to Fisher, but to many who would criticize without the burden of due care to understand their opponents. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the two camps involved can grant the other understanding or charity in the least, while both are always ready to demand it for themselves. I suspect this is the result of both positing a false universality: either a negative universality, a rejection of the universal based on irreconcilable difference of lived discourse and identity, or a false positive universality based on the super-emergence of the subjectivity of the working class above all forms of life. I will not elaborate further on that here, as that requires its own treatment. But if we are to overcome the hostilities and the circular firing squads of the left, online or offline, a good starting point is in our common desire to acquire a real knowledge of the other – where this desire exists, misanthropy cannot. That is the first law of gothic politics. De te fabula narratur!
November 4, 2013
Maria Mies’ classic work Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor is an unduly neglected classic of radical feminist history-writing. Although written in 1986, and using materials mostly from the late 1970s and early 1980s, her lucid and polemical argumentation has lost neither its relevance nor its potency. As current debates in socialist politics and economics are reviving once more the question of feminism as a central concern of radical activism, it is encouraging to hear that Zed Books are intending to republish this work before long. (The edition used for this review was the reprint edition of 2001). Mies’ book came out of a particular strand of radical feminist writing, which although deeply influenced by Marxism sought to go beyond it and formulate a critique of patriarchal relations and of the use of technology within a patriarchal structure as a historical and political-economic foundation of exploitation deeper still than the class relations analyzed within (most) Marxist thought. This writing was especially prominent in the 1970s and 1980s in Germany, with the ‘Bielefeld school’ of Mies, Claudia von Werlhof, and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen, and in Italy, as in the work of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici.(1) In both cases, it was the product of the struggle of women’s autonomous organizations, who developed in their struggle both an autonomist style Marxism and a conception of capitalist exploitation as a subset, a special case, of a more general kind of exploitation inherently involved with patriarchal society.
What makes Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale such a powerful classic of this movement is not just the steely clarity and force with which its theses are expounded, but also Mies’ thoroughgoing materialism and her critical attitude to Marxism and its standard assumptions and historiography. The book is written in continuous critical dialogue with the Marxism of her day, especially the traditional Leninist approaches but not limited to those alone. This dialogue is more often implicit than explicit, certainly in terms of works referenced, but it is clear that the argument can be read as one of the most systematic radical critiques of the Marxist understanding of history and political economy ever to come out of the so-called ‘social movements’. For that reason alone, it should be read with seriousness and attention by Marxists, and not just those concerned with ‘women’s issues’ as a kind of cultural or political side project. Mies’ critical engagement with Marxism is not at the level of the fundamentals, at the level of the Marxist understanding of class, exploitation, agency, and power.
Of course, to do such a tightly argued series of essay-style arguments justice is not an easy task. But I shall attempt to sum up what I see as the main points of the book, the most fundamental theses of this particular school of radical feminism. The first and most important is the rejection of feminism, the significance and theory of women’s liberation, as a primarily cultural or political affair. That is to say, the oppression of women is for Mies not a question of purely ideological conservatism or political division of the working class. The roots of patriarchy are not superstructural, but foundational: in that unhappy metaphor, a part of the ‘base’. Mies systematically critiques the ‘cultural’ interpretations of feminism, the role of structuralism and functionalist theories of ‘roles’, and the traditional Marxist viewpoint of women’s oppression as arising out of the relegation of women to the ‘non-productive’ sphere.
In contrast to this, for Mies patriarchy is to be found in the social relations of production themselves, and is perhaps the single most important shaper of these relations. It is therefore not ‘just’ a form of oppression, but in the full sense a form of exploitation: exploitation of women’s labor and exploitation of women’s bodies. It is also, and this is the second thesis (in some sense a corollary of the first), not the product of capitalism nor a holdover fated to disappear under capitalism. Throughout the book, Mies mobilizes a fair amount of case studies in political economy – especially in India, in Andhra Pradesh, where she worked for a while – as well as in anthropology and economic history to support these theses. As she endeavours to show, women’s labor has always been a productive form of labor. To simplify her narrative of economic anthropology somewhat, the fundamental basis of patriarchal exploitation is the sexual division of labor, and this division of labor arises out of what she calls the ‘Man-the-Hunter’ model.
Human beings, from the outset, produce their lives. This is done in the earliest societies by means of gathering and hunting, before the origins of agriculture. For Mies, the gathering stage fundamentally precedes the hunting stage and agriculture. In this gathering stage, the center of society is the woman, who as mother is the precondition for the reproduction of the species. This involves a subject-relation to nature, in which the production of life is central, seen as a kind of relationship of give-and-take. Men are necessary for procreation, but do not have their whole bodies as sources for the production of life in the way women do; for them, the relationship to nature is an object-relation, one not fundamental to the reproduction of life itself. Where hunting coexisted with gathering, the hunting was generally the task of men, but as a supplement to the staple food procurement of women, not as the central economic metabolism reproducing society. Therefore, women’s reproductive labor has been the basis of society from the start.
However, with hunting men’s object-relation to nature developed and allowed them to turn their tools of violence onto other humans, including on the women providing the food and the new humans that allowed society to continue to exist. The hunting technology, purely parasitical on life and unable to produce new life, then became the basis of the ability of men to subjugate women, and thereby to exploit the productive labor of women to their own benefit. Both agriculture and pastoralism then sustained and systematized these relationships; in pastoralism, men could reproduce life via cattle, making women an accessory to their property in cattle, and in agriculture, the settled surplus could be appropriated by men and become the basis of their claims to property. This, in essence, is how exploitation entered the world from the man-the-hunter model, according to Mies.
While much of the work contains suggestive historical and political insights that I cannot explain here in any detail, in essence it extends this conception of exploitation of women’s labor in society to the economic history of capitalism and its origins. As with Federici’s work, feudalism, colonialism, and the witch hunts play a major role in the story, as examples of the further colonization of the life-world (a Frankfurter Schule conception implicitly prest in the work) by patriarchy. The witch hunts, on this reading, were a prerequisite of capitalism in destroying the knowledge and autonomy of women regarding their own bodies that ancient and feudal relations had to some extent maintained, and to destroy the ability of women of property, midwives, herb doctors and so forth to continue a public existence economically independent of men.
Colonialism simultaneously extended the patriarchal-exploitative model onto the non-European world, rendering the colonized subject in much the same way as women were rendered subject and dependent on men, and often using the same tropes to justify this exploitation. Borrowing from Carolyn Merchant’s pioneering work, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century appears as the ideological and practical systematization of patriarchal relations, as an instrumentalizing of technology to the ends of the complete subjugation of nature, which inherently means the subjugation of women as ‘natural’ by the men of ‘culture’ or ‘science’ – as seen in the notoriously misogynist formulations of the new scientific outlook in Francis Bacon.(2)
Capitalism is in a sense the fulfilment of these ‘promises’. Not only does it reinforce and strengthen the immediate forms of violent economic coercion, but, for Mies, it can only exist on the basis of these more fundamental exploitations. While the relentless drive to subjugate every life for the sake of accumulation is peculiar to capitalism, this does not destroy but rather modifies and strengthens the underlying foundation. The basis of the exploitation of wage labor, on this reading, is not just the one-off ‘primitive accumulation’ of the early modern period, but the persistence and indeed necessity of the exploitation of labor deemed not ‘productive’ for capitalism itself.
In other words, exploitation of ‘productive’ labor is only possible because of the exploitation of ‘unproductive’ labor, and this is precisely what Mies holds most against the Marxist interpretations of capitalism and patriarchy alike. Marxists, Mies argues, have always seen the integration of women into the working class as the prerequisite for the emancipation of women. While feminism has been a part of socialism from the start, independent feminist action has often been denounced as bourgeois and divisive because of its nonclass nature. Simultaneously, working class feminists were told that the oppression of women was either an ideological holdover from feudalism, to be eradicated by political and cultural struggle, or that it was the result of the exclusion of women from productive labor, which could be solved by unified class-based activism for employment, unionization, etc. (Often both arguments at once.) Maria Mies’ critique of this standpoint is as relevant now as ever, with leftwing organizations – especially self-proclaimed Leninist ones – still often using argumentation along these lines. For Mies, what this viewpoint ignores is a vast amount of the actual economic exploitation under capitalism, namely the exploitation of labor productive of life. Not just housework and care for children, but vast amounts of women’s labor even in the direct production or maintenance of commodities is ignored in this perspective.
It is absurd, she argues, to claim that women should be reintegrated into the workforce as a precondition of emancipation when women have always been the majority of the workforce – just not counted as such because work undertaken by women is systematically downgraded or ignored into ‘informal sector work’, ‘unproductive work’, or even seen as leisure time. Especially in the Third World, but not infrequently even in the First (and Second), women were and are systematically excluded from the ‘productive’ sectors of the economy (heavy industry and higher administrative work etc) and pushed out into less paid, higher-intensity and more irregular work in ‘informal’ sectors, in putting-out systems, handicraft production from home, and so forth. In agriculture in poor countries, it is overwhelmingly women who bear the burden of the heavy labor in addition to the housework, healthcare work, childcare and so forth that revolves on them.
Such systematic exploitation is only possible because of the violent imposition of such roles onto women by men. An illustrative example here is the various leftwing national liberation struggles, which supported women’s equality and sought to integrate them into factory work and even frontline fighting, out of the exigencies of the war – but as soon as the war in e.g. Vietnam was over, the women were relegated once more systematically to informal and housework, poorly recognized and remunerated, working longer hours, and generally excluded from political participation. And this is hard to deny: virtually no Leninist Politburo or National Liberation type government has ever had a woman in it, and none have been led by women. (In fact, one could add to this the similar pattern of expansion and retrenchment of women’s positions following their equally ‘emergency’ participation in the ‘productive’ workforce in the West during WWI and WWII.)(3)
The ‘wages for housework’ campaign of the Italian wing of this radical feminist school should probably be seen in this light. It involves a critique of the concepts of productive and unproductive labor of not just capital itself, but also of the Marxist interpretations of capital. It is in that sense both descriptive and normative, as is Mies’ theory. Although the latter does not specially emphasize this campaign, rather arguing in favor of women’s autonomous organizing and a rejection of the dismissal of ‘middle class feminism’ in favor of an encouragement of all women’s activism at the point of consumption.
What then is the upshot of all this? Here, the theory and the political conclusions must, as always, be analytically distinguished. The main point of the book is the powerfully argued case that rather than seeing women’s issues as one of many ‘side problems’, oppressions to be distinguished from and considered less fundamental than class exploitation under capitalism, in fact capitalism itself is merely a special case of patriarchal society. In this sense, Mies reverses the usual Marxist conception of the relationship between women’s oppression and capitalist relations. This also means that women’s oppression and violence against them should not be seen as a feudal holdover, something that will go away on the basis of a workerist politics, but are rather ongoing ‘primitive accumulation’ – something akin to what David Harvey has since theorized as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. It is the exploitation of women’s labor, the majority of all labor performed in the world in Mies’ broader definition of this concept, that is fundamental to all patriarchal societies since the dawn of pastoralism and agriculture. The Marxist politics of equality through integration are therefore totally inadequate to accommodating this fact, as is any Marxist political economy that fails to comprehend the really productive nature of the supposed ‘unproductive’ production of life.
In my judgement, there is much here that is instructive, interesting, and worth engaging with. Much of the argumentation with regard to the exploitation of women’s labor, past and present, can probably be sustained without too much difficulty. Indeed, that socialist politics and economic analysis have often not moved forward much on these points since the mid-1980s is a sign of the relative retrogression of the socialist movement generally since that period. Although indeed many feminist and socialist activists have worked with these ideas and continue to extend and apply them today, much of the ‘higher’ political economy and theory of Marxism has not really grappled with the fact of socially reproductive labor, the informal sector, and the centrality of women to both in an adequate way. (The foreword to the 2001 edition, written in 1998, barely registers any change.)
On the other hand, it is unclear how well Mies’ actual narrative of exploitation stands up to economic and historical scrutiny. Much rests on the anthropology of early societies and her sometimes rather philosophical claims about the respective relationships of men and women to them, and I am unable to judge to what extent those are confirmed by recent literature. While this perspective is a salient counterblast to the revival of patriarchal ‘realism’ in the form of Evo Psych, this does not mean it is any more correct, and the questions of nature and the natural in society (ancient and modern) remain hotly debated. (Mies does not, for what it’s worth, deny to men’s nature an ability to overcome patriarchy, nor does she regard them inherently oppressive or violent.) Similarly, the economic historical narrative is suggestive, but based on an extremely narrow set of sources largely within or allied to this particular school of theory, such as the work of Merchant, Von Werlhof, and others, plus some selective readings in the work of Claude Meillassoux and Immanuel Wallerstein.
It is imperative that an argument along these lines be developed or judged in light of a wider and more inclusive body of literature if it is to fully convince. Occasionally, after all, her interpretations lead her to some bizarre statements, such as the claim that rape does not occur in animals (p. 164), or her insistence that violence against women is constantly increasing in modern society, which she does not support with any evidence. This underlines the need to take the argument seriously, but not to take all the empirical claims for granted without further corroboration. Similarly, to what extent her views on productive and unproductive labor are or are not to be reconciled with Marxist value theory is a subject not explored in this book, but a potentially fruitful avenue of argument that could actually move Marxist political economy forward as well. That said, this criticism should not be overstated – for example that some of her empirical work has become outdated (such as the arguments based on the legality of rape within marriage in the West) is for an important part creditable to the activism of feminists thinkers and doers like herself.
What’s more worrying is the political section at the end of the book, in which she outlines a more or less programmatic view of anti-patriarchal politics. Just like with Von Werlhof’s intriguing works on capitalist technology, it is here that in my view she badly lets down the materialist and critical commitments that characterize most of the work. For Mies, the importance of the production of life as central to any radical politics opposed to capitalism and patriarchy leads her to oppose any view that involves the classic Marxist arguments for reducing necessary labor, freeing up the life-time of individuals, and applying technological capacities in the interests of all. These are for her just so many more attempts at technological utopias, dreamed up by working men to further free themselves from work at the expense of nature (ecology) and the colonized (women and the Third World).
Instead, her dream is essentially one of romantic reaction. In a rather remarkable piece of justification, she claims that it would be better for as many people as possible to return to agriculture, to work in the house and on the land, for the reproduction of life in an immediate way. Much of the argument is here indebted to the Frankfurter Schule critiques of Enlightenment instrumentalism, but she gives them a markedly backward-facing turn.(4) After all, she assures us, the poor Indian women of Andhra Pradesh she saw at work didn’t really mind working so much, they were happy and even sang songs, showing that this is the real relationship of the body to production. Autarkic production in all societies, with the burden of work as large as possible and shared among all as much as possible, is here the goal; to strive for an overcoming of work, or a use of modern technologies to free us from work, is merely “Man playing God”.
It is here that Mies falls both into romantic reaction and into theoretical inconsistency. She rebuts these claims in her later foreword by stating that a return to an old state isn’t so bad, and besides, she offered an alternative political economy, which is an important part of socialist theoretical work. But it is not so simple. Mies’ materialism abandons her when she thinks that previous forms of society, such as feudal or older agricultural labor, are more ‘natural’ than any other merely because they involve producing food as the precondition of life. While this may be the precondition of all other organic development of society, it does not mean that we can or should replace a base-superstructure model of class vs all other social relations with one along the lines of agriculture vs all other production.
Moreover, she is inconsistent in what she will and will not allow the future society to contain. It is possible that the future society deconstructs the ancient patriarchal exploitation based on the sexual division of labor; that it overcomes the need for accumulation; and that it achieves ecologically sustainable autarky. But it is not possible that the free time of the future would be more meaningful than the ‘leisure’ of today, which she solely conceives of as a false category invented to ignore women’s housework. It is not possible that technology which today is applied against humanity can tomorrow serve it. It is possible for her ideal society to contain all forms of work which are sensuous and pleasurable; but it is not possible for the Marxists to argue that free time could be the basis for human development, as free time is just filled with “male leisure activities such as video films and computer games” anyway.
Her romantic vision of agriculture and its deadening, back-breaking work is not supported by any sense of either the reality of this work or what it would really mean for humanity to be doomed forever to be restricted within this narrow perspective of life. It may be so that it was good enough for many of our ancestors, but why should we care? Indeed, in the history of humanity as a species, agriculture is a comparatively recent invention, and it is just as instrumental and technological as any other technology. In this, Marx’s critique of what he called ‘feudal socialism’, the hankering for the imaginary peace of the settled past with its narrow horizons and its stable order, is as valid as ever. The choice is not really between either capitalist accumulation and a turning back of the anthropological clock; even if the latter were possible, which it is not, it is not desirable. Her vision here, paradoxically, reveals on her part a failure of the imagination, one common to much of the writing of this school: a failure to imagine technology and life-time as constituted differently than in the societies of the past, where both served the surplus rather than the surplus serving them. While I sympathize with much of the radical feminist interpretation and critique of patriarchy offered here, as well as with the critique of accumulation for its own sake, this does not imply to me that we must substitute Marx’s utopianism of free time for Mies’ reactionary utopianism of peasant authenticity. Mies should not crucify humanity upon a cross of mud.
1) Not to be confused with the Bielefeld School of social history, associated with Reinhart Koselleck and his colleagues.
2) E.g. the metaphors in his Novum Organum of putting nature on the rack, making Her reveal Her secrets, and so forth. There is a whole interesting feminist reading of the origins of modern science that this review cannot go into. See: Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York, NY 1983: HarperCollins).
3) For more on the subjugation of women to nationalist ideas of nature and productivity, see a previous guest article on Notes & Commentaries here.
4) While she does not credit them, there seems an implicit debt to Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).
September 30, 2013
This is a guest article submitted by Morgan.
A Program for the Destruction of Meaning
A Taxonomy of Identities. Inscription and Violence.
What is an identity? The most basic definition I am aware of is that it is culture in microcosm: a relationship between an individual and their social context. Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferiusi. These relationships may be roughly taxonified: some are defined by personal characteristics, including – beyond the gender identities that are the topic of this essay – racial and ethnic identities, sexualities, variously abled identities such as that characterizing members of the Deaf community; others arise from material circumstance, such as national and class identities; and still more are products of choice, such as political identities, union identities, self-identifying movements or subcultures such as goths or hippies, various forms of esprit de corps. I am concerned principally with the first set of identities here, and unless specified otherwise any mention of “identity” may be taken in that sense.
The formation of an identity of this primary sort is a response to an enforced psychic territorialization, a confirmation of having been set apart. It is never a pre-emptive self-recognition; it is always a formalization of the violent inscription of Otherness on the subject. This is the great joke of classical psychoanalysis: “man”, rather than describing himself, instead describes, sets apart, and therefore identifies his Other, “woman”. “Man”, it is important to note, is not at all affected, at least directly: just as heterosexuals, cisii people, hearing people, and western whites are not usually thought of as identified, so too “man” is merely the default, the standard against which difference is measured and demarcated. And one might say it is an especial goal of feminist projects to make “man” feel as he has made “woman” feel. Not merely in the service of some Hammurabic vengeance, but in that making “man” consider himself as an identity is a necessary prerequisite to equality between women and men.
The setting-apart is not a purely metaphysical operation: the body is made to bear material significations of difference, to physically represent itself as Other. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the inscribing punishment-machine of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, describing this violence committed upon bodies as the mechanism by which macrocosmic culture maintains, refines, and propagates itself: “Cruelty has nothing to do with some ill-defined or natural violence that might be commissioned to explain the history of mankind; cruelty is the movement of culture that is realized in bodies and inscribed on them, belaboring them” (145). This violence is not an immediate, personal thing, with a perpetrator directly intending and enacting hurt; it is instead the accumulation of individual cruelties, the hurts and the torments and the “corrections” that are intended solely to make an Other of the target. Each such instance of violence comprises another singular iteration of the ever-repeating punishment-machine, which taken together serve to confirm and codify the differences of the body of the victim. These signs are heavy with meaning for the individual: they are identity-marks, they can signify commonality with others, they ground one’s self-conception in the material. But for the culture considered in aggregate, they are nothing more than respiration.
Identity and Individuation
So identification is born of violence. This is hardly the fault of the multifarious identities so begotten! And as Deleuze and Guattari put it, this violence is the movement of culture: not exactly something we are able to dispense with, and were we, our culture and indeed our bodies would not be recognizable to us – for it is our bodies that are targeted by this violence, and it is the same violence that has given us our understandings of our selves. Still, many theorists have a difficult time of reconciling themselves to things as they are. Witness Judith Butler: “we may seek recourse to matter in order to ground or verify a set of injuries or violations only to find that matter itself is founded through a set of violations, ones which are unwittingly repeated in the contemporary invocation” (BTM, 29). She does, to her credit, admit that she is critiquing “something we cannot do without”; rather less creditable is that she does her best to do without it anyway, as she “continue[s] to hope for a coalition of sexual minorities that will transcend the simple categories of identity … that will counter and dissipate the violence imposed by restrictive bodily norms” (GT, xxvii). She thereby discards the actual and potential value of identification in her haste to combat a violence which is part and parcel of culture itself. Many of her followers do not even bother with such minimal lip service to this problem, a squeamishness one suspects is at the root of queer theory’s decades-long siege against the solidity of identification itself.
Aversion to these fruits of violence, however inescapable that violence is and however useful its fruits may be, is also what informed Andrea Dworkin’s utopian program, predicated as it was on the supersession of gender and the mechanization of the sexed work of childbirth (Ch. 9); it is there behind Haraway when she calls her cyborgs creatures “in a post-gender world”; it inspires Butler to call for the active dismantling of gender identities through infinite fracturing and a paradoxical “parodic” repetition and resignification (GT, 200). Even Halberstam, hardly a voice for conservative readings of gender, seems more than a little shocked and alarmed at realizing that such campaigns have actually worked to a certain degree, noting in 2005 that “many young gays and lesbians [now] think of themselves as part of a ‘post-gender’ world and for them the idea of ‘labeling’ becomes a sign of an oppression they have happily cast off in order to move into a pluralistic world of infinite diversity” (19).
It is not precisely diversity, however, that Halberstam blanches at; for her aims, and for those of other queer theorists, mere diversity is entirely too concrete. Butler complains, writing about being associated with lesbianism in the opening to her article “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: “I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies”. How best to accomplish this obfuscation? Taking the simplest possible definition of the lesbian identity – a woman who has sex with women – there are two terms which may be attacked. One might attempt to deny sexuality, assert that what she is doing is not sex by any of several rhetorical tricks; but ask any embarrassed politician how well those tactics worked for them! That leaves “woman” herself; however, Butler is cautious enough to avoid explicitly taking this approach in “Imitation”. Instead she implies, hints, equivocates, claiming that “to install [herself] within the terms of an identity category would be to turn against the sexuality that the category purports to describe; and this might be true for any identity category which seeks to control the very eroticism that it claims to describe and authorize, much less ‘liberate’”. She professes ignorance of a scare-quoted “theory” even as she invokes Foucault and Spivak as talismans against the specter of “totalization” of her self – a slight overestimation of the consequences of identification along the one axis of sexuality, to say the least. Still, looking at her other work, especially at her advocacy of a strictly social-constructionist “performative” model of gender, it is not too difficult to work out her line of reasoning: render “woman” an ambiguous sign, and any composition involving that sign becomes equally if not more ambiguous.
But obfuscating “woman” is no easy task. Primary identities such as gender are impossible to break on their own terms: they are too deeply rooted in physicality, a physicality natal to cis people and whose lack is experienced as dysphoria by trans people. So gender must first be extracted from its material foundation by asserting that it is a secondary (circumstantial) or even tertiary (adopted) identity, an act of calculated misapprehension or misconstrual which then enables the introduction of a profusion of alternative “identities” as being of equal theoretical validity to the identities “woman” and “man”, and which cannibalize them, diluting and distributing their many-fold meanings among themselves. No longer is gender a unifying class of signs; “woman” and “man” have become merely two individuations among many, and cannot themselves mean much at all any more – nothing can. This is not the diversity Halberstam decries, for within diversity there still exist multiple skeins of unity framing the manifold whole. This product of the program of individuation is a shattered psychosocial landscape in which the unified nature of the self held above all inevitably leads to alienation: in other words, a libertarian paradise.
Poststructuralism abhors a static binary, and, generally speaking, its suspicion is well-placed. The current state of gender politics does not exactly give the lie to Muriel Dimen’s assertion that “a binary always conceals a hierarchy” (7). But at these deeper strata, where we see not identities and constructions but the bodies in and upon which they are inscribed and built, such framing assumptions are not always helpful. We know sex to be two, broadly speaking; researchers such as Anne Fausto-Sterling have made intersex conditions out to be sexes in their own right, but it is important to note both that she locates them on a continuum between “female” and “male” poles rather than outside them, and that intersexed people tend in any case to identify themselves as women and men, even to the point that some, trans as well as intersex, defy the surgical assignments of sex made in their infancyiii. For Deleuze and Guattari too, the binary of sex is fundamental: “everyone is bisexual, everyone has two sexes, but partitioned, noncommunicating; the man is merely the one in whom the male part, and the woman the one in whom the female part, dominates statistically” (69).
Gender being a relationship between an individual and their culture built up from this sexed binary, it follows that it is twoiv as well. This is effectively borne out, not just by the mass of cis people gendering themselves as expected, but even by the supposed exceptions. As Evan Towle and Lynn Morgan point out, the very concept of a “third gender” is a recent Western anthropological invention “produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability”, and is applied for Western reasons to non-Western cultures – particularly by postmodernist queer and gender theorists in order to appropriate cross-cultural understandings and expressions of gender to shore up their own political viewpoints. Worse, such appropriation both ignores the cultural contexts in which “third genders” exist and even works against its own ostensible goals. As Towle and Morgan put it, “By focusing on hijras, for example, American readers may be less inclined to inquire about or to investigate other Indian discourses around sex and gender. The ‘third gender’ concept encourages students to think that ‘the natives’ must have only one alternative to the dichotomous gender system available to them.”
Anuja Agrawal notes that these cultural understandings do “not, by implication, sever sex from gender. It is only when sex is understood in fixed binary terms that such a separation from gender becomes imperative in view of the presence of a third gender which seemingly negates the mimetic relation between sex and gender.” Further on, she adds that “it is even possible that the greater the number of genders the greater their oppressive potential as each may demand the conformity of the individual within increasingly narrower confines.” Her “third gender”, too, is not merely a gender in isolate: it reifies itself and modifies sex, such that “the hijra identity crystallises only with either the prior possession or the subsequent acquisition of a ‘correct body’, here a castrated one.” Gender is not freefloating, but is linked to and even reciprocal with sex; there are not two sexed embodiments, but three. This latter point, the culturally-bound understanding of sex itself, is incompatible with the Deleuzean approach I have taken; however, the proliferation of genders she cautions against is precisely what the individualizing program is intended to bring about. And in order for this program to begin its work, it is imperative that the stable binary, which precludes the usurpation of identities by individuations, be replaced by a more open model.
The Transgender, Quote-Unquote
The set of individuations which the social-constructionist program positions to replace gender are collectively invoked as the figure of ‘the transgender’, an amorphous Other-to-all. The only criterion for inclusion is whether an individuation may be said to ‘subvert’ the heavily-constrained genders considered valid by the hegemonic processes at work within the culture. So in the name of postmodernism, queer theorists throw butch dykes, drag performers, male-identified transvestic fetishists, and others together side-by-side without heed for how they see themselves. This all has little to do with trans people as we actually exist, and unsurprisingly, much of this work appears to have been done by people able to treat gender dissonance more as an academic exercise than as a potentially deadly lived reality.
There are trans people who assert that we are included under this ‘transgender umbrella’, but as Jay Prosser points out in a critique of Butlerian theory, “there are transsexuals who seek very pointedly to be nonperformative, to be constative, quite simply, to be. What gets dropped from transgender in its queer deployment to signify subversive gender performativity is the value of the matter that often most concerns the transsexual: the narrative of becoming a biological man or a biological woman (as opposed to the performative of effecting one) – in brief and simple the materiality of the sexed body” (32). While Prosser is gesturing specifically toward the various physical processes of transitioning, there is a broader point there as well: that trans narratives are predicated on physical sex and on the existence of a gender binary more or less continuous from it, a point A to start from and a point B to cross (trans) over to, a concreteness which the proliferation of individuations is intended to destroy. There is no shortage of construction built on top of gender, no limit to the subjectivities of living it; but denying the physicality from which it springs is to deny us ourselves.
Halberstam responds to Prosser’s critique of Butlerian theory by attempting to further extend the rupture queer theory places between physicality and identity. She opens by claiming to be “totally sympathetic” (50) to his argument that queer theory deploys trans significations in ways that are actively hostile to trans narratives, but this sympathy turns out to be nothing more than an insincere courtesy. She goes on to blithely ignore the subjectivity of embodied experience: ”after all, what actually constitutes the real for Prosser in relation to the transsexual body? The penis or the vagina? Facial hair or shaved legs? Everyday life as a man or a woman?” (51). Instead, she favors a subjectivity of “realness” – the eternal pursuit of an unattainable physicality, which she claims is “precisely the transsexual condition” (52) even as she identifies it equally with “transgendered” individuations; her example of choice is a drag contest. For Halberstam, gender identity at odds with sexed physicality is void, and we are instead all of us hapless Melmoths, doomed to chase after an ever-elusive embodiment – for all that, however undeniable it is that one never really finishes transitioning, we are still just as physical as cis people and must eventually come to terms with that, one way or another.
Matters of Vocabulary
Outside academia, the term ‘transgender’ has been recoded by those at whom it halfheartedly gestures, to the point that the academic use as an umbrella of individuations is now referred to as I have put it above, the ‘transgender umbrella’. The term ‘transgendered’ is now frequently preferred as a descriptor to ‘transsexual’. A few commonly given reasons for the adoption of the term are: that it signifies inclusion of those who experience gendered dysphoria but will not or cannot seek out genital surgery, for whatever reason; that the adjectival form must be used as a modifier (when necessary to highlight my status, I describe myself as a ‘transgendered woman’, or shorten it to ‘trans woman’) rather than the noun indicating totality of nature and connoting a third-sexednessv; and an aversion to anything that might link one’s dysphoria to sex-as-verb rather than sex-as-noun, a rhetorical timidity it is difficult to find fault with given the extent to which we are simultaneously fetishized and despised as the ‘ultimate fetishists’ ourselves.
Related to the recoding of ‘transgender’, the individuations to which queer theorists apply the term are frequently grouped as ‘genderqueer’, both to avoid confusion with the trans people the academic term occludes as well as to draw an association to the activist program of queering – which, it must be acknowledged, is quite a useful thing in itself. As a political program of gender activism, it serves to expand conceptions of what can constitute gender expression and to demonstrate that “valid” gender expressions are not necessarily restricted to being the antitheses of expressions associated with the Other gender – both of which help those of us who end up expressing an Other gender than what we were supposed to have been born with. It is not without its downsides: I remember once discussing being trans with someone, only for him to respond: “oh, I know what that’s like, I used to dress all weird, do the tranny thing for goth shows back in the day”; reading my process of signifying my identity as of a kind with his individualizing expression.
A further recent development of vocabulary has been the addition of an asterisk after the shortened form: trans*. Following the use of the asterisk as a wildcard character in computing, this term explicitly orients discussion of identity towards strict social constructionism. While it is still used to refer to the individuations grouped under the ‘transgender umbrella’, gender and sex are conspicuously absent from the form, making it a symbolic rather than an indexical rheme. It is hence vulnerable to overcoding for still other individuations, gendered and otherwise; perhaps this is intentional, since if being is entirely socially constructed, who can say what is not valid ground for reterritorialization by individuation?
Appropriation as Praxis
Queer theorists have already made mock identities out of particular ‘subversive’ expressions and other qualities by enshrining them as ‘transgender’. But these are insufficient in that they are still shared and held in common, and by groups of people who may not even think of them as identities at that. The individualizing machine will not stop until every person is made unique. So new gender individuations must be manufactured and still new ones from those: we now have people who claim to be ‘agendered’; ‘bigendered’, either in having qualities associated with a stereotype of either binary gender, or, even less defensibly, in switching identification apparently at random; ‘genderfluid’, as the latter definition of ‘bigendered’ except contextualized against the profusion of individuations instead of the binary of identity; ‘butch’, making a particular style of expression connected with lesbian sexual identities a gender unto itself; and others. Many such individuations ‘borrow’ the notion of traversing gender expressions from trans narratives and make of it – instead of a grueling and unpleasant but generally necessary part of living with gendered dysphoria – an ‘identity’ in and of itself, even a mark of pride.
Meanwhile, parallel dramas are playing out in other identity categories: people are inventing and reinventing individualizing sexualities, manufacturing “orientations” out of frequency of sexual activity, desire for romantic as well as sexual fulfilment, a dubious attraction to intelligence to the wholesale exclusion of physical characteristics, kink (again), etc. It is a long list, and, as might be expected from a recursive program of this kind, it is only getting longer. And beyond sexual identities, there are those, particularly in various online communities such as Tumblr and LiveJournal, claiming to identify – individuating themselves – as ‘transspecies’vi, ‘transfat’, ‘transabled’vii, ‘transethnic’viii. Such individuations co-opt the terminology, theoretical concepts, struggles, and narratives of trans people, in the latter cases in order to enable their further appropriation.
Of the people engaged in these patently ridiculous forms of appropriation, many if not most seem to be exactly the kind of person whom one would not expect to bother with them: heterosexual, cisgendered, white, abled. The extreme dysfunction of the communities which exhibit this behavior is beyond the scope of this essay, and in any case owes less in the end to any branch of critical theory than it does to a highly toxic interpersonal dynamic. But it is exacerbated by the piecemeal absorption of postmodernist, poststructuralist, and queer theory that characterizes these communities and enables them to justify their appropriative behavior with appeals to the individuatory program. Their appropriation is an extreme example, but extreme or not, appropriation is the practical counterpart to the theoretical work against concrete identification. It is the process of converting another’s (or an Other’s) identity into an individuation for the self, of severing it from its physical matrix, tearing it apart and refashioning it, an operation that must be repeated until all meaning deriving from materiality has been destroyed and myriad individuations float cloudlike above the body, unsullied by contact with base matter.
The adoption and promulgation of strict social constructionism by queer theorists is founded in a myopic unwillingness to consider products of the inherently violent movement of culture as useful and meaningful in their own right. Instead of working with identity as it exists and relates to physicality, or even making their project the mitigation of this violence as far as possible, they have determined that the whole system is rotten at its core – notwithstanding that the violence that they abhor is not merely patriarchy or heteronormativity or any of the other hegemonic processes, but instead is that which gave birth to these and to still other processes, including those that actively combat hegemonic oppression and erasure.
The social-constructionists propose that identity be severed from physicality, so as to circumvent this violence entirely. But not only is this a project with ramifications far more extensive than they may suspect, it is also doomed to failure: its only possible success condition is nothing less than the abandonment of extant understandings and physical realities of embodiment and the replacement of culture with an infinite – and infinitely alienating – uniqueness. The true danger lies in what it will do before it fails. The individualizing program is inherently and directly hostile to the narratives of trans people, predicated as they are on the normativity of continuity between physicality and identity, and the restoration of that continuity in the instances in which it has been ruptured.
Anuja Agrawal, “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the “Third Gender” in India”. Contributions to Indian Sociology 31:2 (1997), p. 273-297.
Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London 1993: Routledge)
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London 1990: Routledge)
Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in: Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out (London 1991: Routledge)
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis, MN 2000: University of Minnesota Press)
Muriel Dimen, Sexuality, Intimacy, Power (London 2003: The Analytic Press)
Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York, NY 1974: Plume)
Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”. The Sciences (1993), p. 20-25.
Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place (New York, NY 2005: New York University Press)
Donna Haraway, ”A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London 1990: Routledge)
Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York, NY 1998: Columbia University Press)
Evan B. Towle & Lynn M. Morgan, “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the use of the “Third Gender” Concept”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8:4 (2002), p. 469-497.
iFrom the Emerald Tablet of Hermes: “That which is below is like unto that which is above, and that which is above is like unto that which is below.”
iiThe inverse of the Latin trans, used as a shorthand for “not-transgendered”.
iiicf Reiner & Kropp “A 7-year Experience of Genetic Males with Severe Phallic Inadequacy Assigned Female” (2004); Minto et al “The effect of clitoral surgery on sexual outcome in individuals who have intersex conditions with ambiguous genitalia: a cross-sectional study”, Lancet 2003; as well as case studies such as those in Catherine Harper’s Intersex.
ivThe criticism that the binary genders as they operate today are unnaturally constrained by patriarchy and other hegemonic processes, and that gender expression can and should be far broader than is currently allowed by these processes, is entirely well-founded if somewhat beyond the scope of this essay. My defense of gender identity as binary should not be construed as a defense of these constraints on expression.
vIt bears reinforcing that “trans” is not an identity, but rather describes a process of amending as best possible a break or discontinuity between a normally-continuous identity and physicality.
viMore commonly referred to, by others and by themselves, as “otherkin” and/or “therian”, and always presenting with a specific “kintype” such as wolf, cat, or dragon. However, a significant and vocal minority continue to use “transspecies” and to claim a comparability of experience and embodiment with trans people in spite of repeated requests for them to stop by trans members of these communities.
viiThe opposite of what one might expect on hearing the term: “transabled” people are abled people who co-opt the signifiers of disability rather than the other way around.
viiiThis term is already used to describe children adopted by parents of other ethnicities; the sense here is of, say, a white person in no such circumstance claiming to truly be Japanese.