Saturday 9 May 2009

Feminist Theory and Identity Politics

As part of a series of papers on identity and sociology given on Wednesday I went along to a talk on feminist theory given by Lois McNay. Her paper was an intervention into debates around identity and post-identity politics. To briefly summarise the context of McNay's paper, academic feminism has been caught up with the problems of political subjectivity for the last couple of decades. Just as Marxism has had its post-Marxist critics who've argued for the dissolution of the working class as the "privileged" subject of socialist politics, a parallel movement inside feminism has contested and argued over the agent of women's liberation. Is it all women? Or is it the repository of women further disadvantaged by class, race and sexuality? Compounded by a widening gap between feminist theory and activity, this questioning has helped discredit the idea of 'woman' as a universalist subject capable of speaking for all women and a preoccupation with theorising women's multiple identities. The result has been a  celebration of differences and (an occasional) exploration of grounds where feminist activists from these constituencies can enter into temporary coalitions with one another. Politically this has meant the womens' movement of the 60s and 70s has fragmented and become supplanted by an identity politics over fixated on representational issues (see Judith Grant's Fundamental Feminism for a good (if dated) overview).

McNay argument was feminism is moving into an era of post-identity politics, which is stepping away from issues of difference and is grappling again with the problem of agency. For example feminists such as
Wendy Brown have attacked feminism's postmodern identity turn as a masochism that mawkishly revels in the oppressions specific to that group. The problem for Brown is the absence of political imagination - a preoccupation with theorising gender identity neglects Hannah Arendt's understanding of politics as autonomous, world creating, and concerned with the radically new. In short, while feminists have been obsessing about identity they forgot liberation and freedom.

But for McNay this journey beyond identity politics and embracing agency is being theorised at a very abstract level. The tendency among theorists is to treat the problem discursively - that is a matter of knowledge and cultural (sign) production independent of the lived material existence of women rather than a practical political issue. Or, to translate it into Marxist language, they are approaching the possibility of politics in an idealist as opposed to materialist fashion. However, other proponents of post-identity feminism have identified further problems.

Linda Zerilli in her Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom argues that not only are debates around agency overly discursive, they remain focused on issues of subjectivity, which is precisely the same ground gone over by identity politics. But also the discussion can become trapped within reinterpretations of the rules of gender and, in spite the aims of the argument, end up propping up the hegemonic terms of what constitutes gender. Instead feminists should work towards Arendt's understanding of politics of remaking the world and embrace its open-ended promise.

For McNay, this is a non-starter. By rejecting subjectivity all together all that's left is utopianism. Political agency is only possible if there are agents capable of acting politically! As such Zerilli's nod toward agency can only be a gesture. McNay however has her own way of addressing the question. She does not want to write these debates off - instead McNay suggests the way of bridging theory and practice is by turning to
Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus, which offers a sophisticated means of understanding how social relations and power are embodied without positioning subjectivity and agency as an effect of structure.

There were two things that struck me about McNay's talk. I couldn't help thinking that if this is an accurate snapshot of feminist theory, it's in a place similar to where it was before the women's movement fragmented and was partly absorbed by academia. What differs now is a more nuanced understanding of the problems of subjectivity and political agency. However, even though McNay's use of Bourdieu offers a way of reestablishing the connection between (academic) feminism and actually existing feminist politics the former remains esoteric and divorced from the day to day concerns of the latter. The women's movement in Britain isn't what it used to be, but there are plenty of women (and men!) who identify with the feminist label working in a variety of political arenas. Some may follow the academic debates but few would say their activity is guided by it. But ultimately a way has to be found of building and sustaining an enriching dialectic between the two, otherwise theory will remain an academic language game played by and only accessible to an elite of professorial feminists.


Ms Chief said...

What is meant by "feminist action" - I think many activists are taken action about all types of things and identify with feminist politics. The campaign to save our old town check out, the main activists in this campaign were women and see themselves as feminist, we had lots ofdiscussions of feminism and architecture and town planning but is it feminist activity. I think it is.

I was part of a discussion group - about a Woman's Right to Choose a couple of weeks ago, it was funny, there was a age split -every one post 35 identified as socialists and had been part of a socialist grouping either currently or previously and the women in their 20s ar very active in all types of things - environmental stuff, etc.

Can we only be feminist if we are doing things only for women? Why would that be the case? And what would it look like?

Phil said...

I don't know what "pure" feminist activity would look like either.

I cast my mind reading Nancy Whittier's 'Feminist Generations' and her discussion of the feminist activist community in Columbus, Ohio. As well as involved in activities against 'big sexism' - such as sexual objectification and for the Equal Rights Amendment - they built a parallel community of services for women, such as rape crisis, self-defence classes, book shop, a women's mechanics, etc. I can't see anyone except the opponents of progressive politics being opposed to this.

As I've said before many times on here, the liberation of women is integral to building a socialist society (this is why I really like the cartoon atop this post - it sums that position up perfectly). I support the right of women inside and outside the socialist movement to organise autonomously if they wish.

I don't know what I'm trying to say here - I guess I'm groping towards bell hooks' idea that feminism is for everyone.

I suspect however if there is a renewal of feminist theory and practice, whatever it looks like, it won't be coming from the ivory tower.