About two 1990s feminist political theories in the United States of America. Books review

 

Wendy Brown, States of injury. Power and freedom in late modernity. Princenton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.

Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America goes to Washington city. Essays on sex and citizenship. Duke University Press, Durhan & London, 1997.

A Hilaria Loyo


1. Wendy Brown’s thought-provoking papers (the first three are excellent!1) aim at thinking “the viability of a radical democratic alternative to various political discourses of domination in the present”. Yet the obstacle for such an alternative “is not determined only by the organization of institutional forces opposing” it but by the fact that it needs to be shaped by “political subjects’ desire for such an alternative” (preface, p. XI). This is why in writing these critical “studies”, Brown seeks to shift “attention from the conditions framing and facing contemporary political opposition to the constitutive material of the opposition itself” (p. XI). More concretely, in an unconscious Freudian mood, she attempts to address the analysis of “what conservative impulses result from a lost sense of futurity attendant upon the breakdown of progresive narratives of history?” (p. XII) and also, by bringing back to the present Herbert Marcuse’s Nietzschean question, she looks for “what kind of attachments to unfreedom can be discerned in contemporary political formations ostensibly concerned with emancipation?” (p. XII)2.

Freedom is now a concept that “critical theorists and progressive political activists in established liberal regimes”3 are “disinclined to place […] on their own political agenda” because, after “the conservative political culture ascendant in the United States in the 1980s” (p. 9), “the Right’s programmatic attack on the welfare state since the mid-1970s”, “the discredited critique of liberalism contained in the communist ideal”, and the “stark abandonment of freedom as an element of the communist project long before its 1989 ‘fall’” (p. 10), they rather “endorse and extend the type of ‘freedom’ the regime itself offers” (p. 9), which consists of acting “according to one’s desires where the law does not limit or proscribe them” (p. 146). Because “Western leftist have largely forsaken analyses of the liberal state and capitalism as sites of domination and have focused instead on their implication in political and economical inequalities” embracing “a vision involving state-administered ‘economic justice’ combined with a panoply of private liberties” (pp. 10-11)4, Brown considers of crucial political concern to analyse “the place of capitalism as such in contemporary theoretical discourses” (p. 12):

  • Bowles, Gintis, Laclau, Mouffe, and the analytic Marxist school are not “concerned with capitalism as a political economy of domination, exploitation, or alienation, precisely those terms by which the problem of freedom is foregrounded as a problem of social and economic power and not only a matter of political or legal statutes” because it is as if these thinkers had been persuaded by ‘actually existing socialisms’ “that free entreprise really is freer than the alternatives, that alienation is inherent in all labor, and that freedom, finally, is a matter of consumption, choice, and expression: an individual good rather than a social and political practice” (p. 13). In this respect, the author claims “if Marxism had any analytical value for political theory, was it not in the insistence that the problem of freedom was contained in the social relations implicitly declared ‘unpolitical’ – that is, naturalized – in liberal discourse?” (p. 14).

  • the social theorist of gender Catherine MacKinnon “implies, and many feminists tacitly agree, that women are in greater need of social equality and political protection than of freedom” (p. 21)5. This is indeed the case of Lauren Berlant who argues for “reformulating citizenship as a vital space on which diverse political demands can be made” to the state (p. 21). Brown warns us against this kind of feminism that demands “externally provided protection” for (black/homosexual/working-class/etc women) insofar as it implies both “dependence and agreement to obide by the protector’s rules” (p. 169) and a conversion of “political identity into essentialized private interest” (‘woman’ = ‘victim of ill-treatment’) that enables “regulatory regimes” to manage ‘normativized social identities’ (p. 59) and that forecloses “a critique of capitalism” by sustaining “the invisibility and inarticulateness of class” (p. 61). She also stresses that the “tendency to moralize in the place of political argument” turns us away from freedom’s pursuit as exemplified in “the effort to ‘outlaw’ social injury powerfully”, which, by ceding to juridical ground, “legitimizes law and the state as appropriate protectors against injury and casts injured individuals as needing such protection by such protectors. Finally, in its economy of perpetrator and victim, this project seeks not power or emancipation for the injured or the subordinated, but the revenge of punishment” disguising the fact that social injury “symptomizes deep political distress in a culture” (p. 27).

Taking as a starting point “Foucault’s characterization of comtemporary state power as a ‘tricky combination in the same political structures of individualization techniques, and of totalization procedures’”, Brown “suggests that progressive efforts to pursue justice along lines of legal recognition of identity corroborate and abet rather than contest the ‘political shape’ of domination in our time” (p. 28) as well as urges us not only to reconsider “the state as a vehicle of domination” but also “to reflect on ‘protection’ as a technique of domination” (p. 15)6: “when does legal recognition become an instrument of regulation, and political recognition become an instrument of subordination?” (p. 99).

According to Wendy Brown, “the late modern effort to critically rework the individualist and universalist legacy of rights for a formulation that offers a potentially more fecund form of political recognition – namely, ‘group rights’, rights of ‘difference’, or rights of ‘cultural minorities’-” (p. 99) than bourgeois rights (which, as Marx’s critique exposed “encode rather than emancipate us from the social powers and social formations that are the conditions of our unfreedom” [p. 110]), “goes nowhere in particular”, “has no inherent attachments” and “hails no particular vision” (p. 49) “about the common (‘what I want for us’)” (p. 51)7. Brown qualifies the notion of “political identities”, which does not refer to “a moral or even political choice” but to “a complex historical production that calls for “historization” (p. 54) in terms of “the increasing individuation of social subjects through capitalist disinterments and disciplinary productions” who are “oriented by liberal discourse toward protest against exclusion from a discursive formation of universal justice” (p. 58) (“a bourgeois [masculine] ideal” [p. 59]), which is a symptomatic political reaction to the effects of postmodernity, “to a certain powerlesness”8 and to “cross-cultural meldings and appropiations, as well as its boundless commodification of cultural practices and icons” (p. 35):

What is implied for rights when we understand politicized identity as a regulatory production of disciplinary society and not only as political consciousness of one’s social positioning in orders stratified by hierarchical social power? […] Do rights affixed to identities partly function to imprison us within the subjects positions they are secured to affirm or protect?” (p. 120).

Taking as a starting point Hannah Arendt’s notion in her paper What is freedom? that “freedom is ‘the raison d’être of politics’”, Wendy Brown is concerned with the consequences of having “lost our way in pursuing this desire for political freedom” (a “sense of participating in the conditions and choices shaping life” or “a common world with others” [p. 169]) and “for collective self-legislation” (p. 4) in a historical period when “’freedom’ has shown itself to be easily appropiated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends” (p. 5) and focuses on “the problem” of thinking “how to formulate a discourse of freedom appropiate to contesting contemporary antidemocratic configurations of power” (p. 7) within ‘democracy’ (“a way of constituting and thus distributing political power” under the “dream” that “humans might govern themselves by governing together” [p. 5]).

In order to re-think a democratic discourse of freedom, Brown draws “attention to the historical relationship between economic and political formations” and calls for “a formulation of the political that is richer, more complicated, and also perhaps more fragile than that circumscribed by institutions, procedures, and political representation”. (p. 9), a formulation that:

  • following Michel Foucault understands “liberty as a practice rather than a state, as that which can ‘never [be] assured by … institutions and laws but ‘must be exercized’”: it is precisely the “recognition of the tension, if not the antinomy, between freedom and institutionalization” what “compounds the difficulties of formulating a politics of freedom in the late tweentieth century, the age of institutions” (p. 8).

  • recognizes that what “liberal equality guarantees” is nothing but the sinister fact “that the state will regard us all as equally abstracted from the social powers constituting our existence, equally descontextualized from the unequal conditions of our lives” (p. 110).

  • recognizes that “the pursuit of political freedom is necessarily ambivalent because it is at odds with security, stability, protection, and, irrresponsability; because it requires that we surrender the conservative pleasures of familiarity, insularity, and routine for investment in a more open horizon of possibility and sustained willingness to risk identity, both collective and individual” (p. 25).

  • recognizes that “freedom is a project suffused not just with ambivalence but with anxiety, because it is flanked by the problem of power on all sides: the powers against which it arrays itself as well as the power it must claim to enact itself” (p. 25).

  • insists that “freedom neither overcomes nor eludes power; rather, it requires for its sustenance that we take the full measure of power’s range and appearances – the powers that situate, constrain, and produce subjects as well as the will to power entailed in practicing freedom” (p. 25).

  • insists that “freedom emerges as that which is never achieved; instead, it is a permanent struggle against what will otherwise be done to and for us” (p. 25).


2. Lauren Berlant’s rather boring book, on the other hand, can be taken as an illustrative example of Wendy Brown’s initial consideration in the preface of her book: “now certain well-intentioned contemporary political projects and theoretical postures inadvertently redraw the very configurations and effects of power that they seek to vanquish” (p. IX).

Being “the purpose of The Queen of America”, praised by both Judith Butler and Homi K. Bhabha (see the back cover of the book), “to interfere with the intimate image of the national body that has, like a sunspot, both illuminated and blinded the world of mass politics and national fantasy in the contemporary United States”, not only does Lauren Berlant present as objective reality her perceptions/interpretations that the Reagan era was a revolutionary one (with her book, she aims at challenging both “the Reganite revolution and the ways it has been opposed”9) and that there is “an incessant public struggle over the meaning of being a citizen of the United States” (p. 10) but she also presents as natural (or non-political) both the conception of the United States of America as a “nation” (by depoliticizing her speech, she re-makes ‘the nation’ as a mythical icon10) and the conception of “fantasy in the contemporary United States” as a “national” issue. This nationalist analysis that focuses on sex and citizenship (understood as “becoming national” after “a release from sensuality” [p. 239]) not only falls into the trap of what she herself considers Reagan’s strategy (“to turn the nation into a privatized state of feeling” [p. 11])11 but it also reinforces the Republicans’ elitist/patronizing/moralistic/anti-democratic stance. In fact, Berlant’s work departs from a cool anti-social idea that it is ‘the Other citizen’ (U.S. “minorities”) the one who is opressed, the one who lives in a “painful context” and from a cynical question such as “how can U.S. ‘minorities’ abide, just one more day, the ease with which their bodies – their social labor and their sexuality – are exploited, violated, and saturated by normalizing law, capitalist prerogative, and official national culture?” (p. 222).

By recoursing “to a very non-Foucaultian moral evaluation of power as bad or that which is to be overcome”, which makes “possible to equate resistance with that which is good, progressive, or seeking an end to domination”, (Brown, p. 22) and by recoursing to an anti-Foucaultian idea that “personal mastery” is something that is offered/withheld by ‘the powerful’ to/from “the powerless” (Berlant, p. 233), Berlant’s main essay in the book focuses on the analysis of what she calls “acts of Diva Citizenship”, acts realized by a woman who “does not have privilege” despite the fact that they “emerge in moments of such extraordinary political paralysis that acts of language can feel like explosives that shake the ground of collective existence” (p. 223). Taking as illustrative examples of such acts Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative Incidents in the life of a slave girl (1861), Frances E. W. Harper’s postslavery novel Iola Leroy (1892), and the Senate testimony of Anita Hill (1991), Berlant (for whom words do “not change the world”) plays down the subversion of power that is involved in these speech acts by reading them as mere putting “the dominant story into suspended animation” and as mere moralistic callings on people “to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship to which they currently consent” (p. 223).

It is because Berlant develops “a mode of criticism and conceptualization that reads the waste materials of everyday communication in the national public sphere as pivotal documents in the construction, experience, and rhetoric of quotidian citizenship in the United States” (p. 12, emphasis added) – not the first capitalist country whose labour force comes mainly from ‘no-citizens’ who, as it is obvious, do not experience as a “political struggle” having or not having a “pure national affiliation” (p. 13) but as a country where violence is only “an ongoing possibility” (p. 11, emphasis added) - that she ends up “linking the politics of sex and the public sphere in America to the history of nationality itself” (p. 243) in the most typical puritannical tradition12 and military-imperialist fashion: “crossing police barricades and the civilizing standards of public life Diva Citizenship takes on as a national project the need to redefine the scale, the volume, and the erotics of ‘what you can do for your country’” (p. 224).

This book, therefore, far from tracking “the American Dream machine, for all its banality and parochialism” and far from offering a description of a “specificity of politics and subjectivity” (p. 14) it rather exemplifies the contemporary multinational theoretical current that, apart from holding heterofobia13, produces nationalist discourses heavily affected by repression (a mechanism of displacement and/or a work of condensation): to “register how intensively sexual white Americans’ relations have been to African American people, as well as to other people of color” [sic], Berlant displaces the global question of heterosexual relations between white people (according to her one ‘circuit of “erotic and political dominance that have permeated collective life”) towards ‘national’ inter-racial relations (p. 221).

Is it required that I note that Berlant de-sexualizes sexuality by equating it to ‘sexual identity’?


3. Considering that “`the postmodern turn’ in political/feminist theory is, at best, an attempt to articulate and engage the characteristic power of our age, according to Wendy Brown what frightens feminism about this age and about developing a politics appropiate to it” is “certain ‘material’ features of our age”:

  • the expanding hegemony of technical reason” (Marcuse), “means-end rationality” (Habermas) or “instrumental rationality” (Weber) as “the dominant and unchallengable discourse framing and ultimately suffusing all social practices” by erasing “both the standing and the significance of the subject” (p. 33).

  • the “decentering and diffusion of power” in postmodernity (p. 34).

  • a “cultural-spatial disorientation”: today we are “very susceptible to simply getting lost” insofar as, in Fredric Jameson’s reading, “being lost means being without (fixed) means of orientation” (p. 34).

  • a “reactionary foundationalism”: “a political tendency” produced by disorientation and “the knowledge industry”. “Foundationalism without a grand narrative” is “the strategy of political, religious, or epistemological fundamentalism” (p. 35) and “is not limited to the political and intellectual Right, but emerges accross the political spectrum from those hostile to what they take to be postmodern political decay and intellectual disarray” (p. 36). For instance, Nancy Hartsock’s concern with ‘preserving’ feminism from the “despoliticizing characteristics of postmodern intellectual maneuvers” leads her to formulate principles for a ‘revised and reconstructed [feminist] theory’ that exemplifies “the anxieties and strategies of reactionary foundationalism”, as is made apparent in her insistence that “if ‘we’ are to have ‘feminist politics’ at all”, ‘we need’ political principles such as “’constitute ourselves as subjects as well as objects of history’“ (pp. 36-7).

Being the case that feminist politics do not need that we constitute ourselves as subjects/objects of history, it is also certain that feminist politics is about the construction of ‘woman’ as a theoretical-political object/subject in/of history. Brown’s anxiety before reactionary feminist arguments (an anxiety which I share) prevents her from seeing the political relevance of producing ‘woman’ as a different sexual subject (from ‘man’) insofar as feminist discourses that hold equality (instead of freedom) as the key to politics are precisely based on the disavowal of ‘woman’ as a sexual/social being different from ‘man’ (ref. Claire Johnston’s work) and on the prejudice that difference equates subordination (ref. feminist work published in the journal m/f14), a prejudice that Brown uncritically assumes15. It is not only the case that “sex difference” is indeed relevant to attack “the terms of political sameness” (and that is why 1970s feminists, such as Juliet Mitchell, Griselda Pollock, Jacqueline Rose or Claire Johnston have worked on femininity as a political problem) but it is also the case that the question is not “which has greater political relevance, human sameness or sexual difference” (p. 153) but rather what role (and with what social effects) does sexual difference play in the constitution of subjects?. Is it not the latter question the one which indeed challenges “the gendered division between public and private that locates civic autonomy in opposition to the family, sexuality, and reproduction” (p. 158)?

According to Brown “postmodern decentering, disunifying, and denaturalizing of the subject (we are lo longer “able to speak of woman or of women in an unproblematic way”, which “does not mean ceasing to be able to speak about our experiences as women, only that our words cannot be legitimately deployed or construed as larger or longer than the moments of the lives they speak from; they cannot be anointed as ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ since the experience they announce is linguistically contained, socially constructed, discursively mediated, and never just individualy ‘had’” [pp. 40-1]) is far more threatening to the status of feminism’s well of truth (women’s experiences, feelings and voices “as a source of truth” [p. 42]) than to feminism raison d’être” (p. 40) because “surrendering epistemological foundations” only “means giving up the ground of specifically moral claims against domination – especially the avenging of strength through moral critique of it – and moving instead into the domain of the sheerly political” opening up new “alternative ethical possibilities” (p. 45).

Could we learn to contest domination with the strength of an alternative vision of collective life, rather than through moral reproach? In a word, could we develop a feminist politics without ressentiment16?” (p. 47), Wendy Brown asks. She also replies:

What postmodernity disperses and postmodern feminist politics requires are cultivated political spaces for posing and questioning feminist political norms, for discussing the nature of ‘the good’ for women” (p. 49).

But “in contrast with Aristotle’s formulation, feminist political spaces cannot define themselves against the private sphere, bodies, reproduction and production, mortality, and all the populations and issues implicated in these categories. Unlike Arendt’s, these spaces cannot be pristine, rarified, and policed at their boundaries but are necessarily cluttered, attuned to earthly concerns and visions, incessantly disrupted, invaded, and reconfigured. Unlike Habermas, we can harbor no dreams of nondistorted conmmunication unsullied by power, or even of a ‘common language’, but we recognize as a permanent political condition partiality of understanding and expression, cultural chasms whose nature may be vigilantly identifies but rarely ‘resolved’, and the powers of words and images that evoke, suggest, and connote rather than transmit meanings17. Our spaces, while requiring some definition and protection, cannot be clean, sharply bounded, disembodied, or permanent: to engage postmodern modes of power and honor specifically feminist knowledges, they must be heterogenous, roving, relatively noninstitutionalized, and democratic to the point of exhaustion” (p. 50).

I am suggesting that political conversation oriented toward diversity and the common, toward world rather than self, and involving conversion of one’s knowledge of the world from a situated (subject) position into a public idiom, offers us the greatest possibility of countering postmodern social fragmentations and political disintegrations […] we may need to learn public speaking and the pleasures of public argument, not to overcome our situadness, but in order to assume the responsability for our situations and to mobilize a collective discourse that will expand them. For the political making of a feminist future that does not reproach the history on which it is borne, we may need to loosen our attachments to subjectivity, identity, and morality and to redress our underdeveloped taste for political argument” (p. 51).

 

 

 

1 Unfortunately, Brown’s arguments become increasingly less critical and/or less politically groundbreaking. In chapter 7, for instance, “Finding the man in the state”, she conceives ‘the masculine’ not as equal to ‘man’ (essentialism) but nontheless as an anti-Nietzschean/anti-Freudian sociological-psychological content category (p. 184).

2 For Nietzsche “the modern subject does not simply cease to desire freedom as is the case with Foucault’s disciplinary subject but, much more problematically, loathes freedom” (p. 64). In his essay One-dimensional man (1965), Herbert Marcuse worries about our possiblilities of creating the conditions for freedom in our industrial-administrative-repressive society where ‘social controls’ have been introjected to such a point that they even deeply affect the individuals’ protest, where the intellectual and emotional negation to follow the crowd appears as a sign of neuroses and impotence, where the individual’s conscious and unconscious (a private space splitted from public opinion and behaviour) have been invaded by reality, and where the touchable sources of exploitation disappear behind a façade of objective rationality. See El hombre unidimensional. Ensayo sobre la ideología de la sociedad industrial avanzada, Ariel, Barcelona, 2001, pp. 36-40.

3 By relying on a Marxist theory of ideology [Louis Althusser’s] and on Foucault’s notion of discourse, Wendy Brown uses the term ‘liberalism’ “as both a set of stories and a set of practices, as ideology and as discourse [of male dominance, p. 152], as an obfuscating narrative about a particular social order as well as a narrative constitutive of this social order and its subjects” (p. 142).

4 “Liberal formulations of liberty as license” hold out “adolescent pleasures” (p. 25).

5 A detailed critical analysis of the rhetorical structure of MacKinnon’s work can be found in chapter 4, “The mirror of pornography”.

6 “Two of the most significant contemporary domains of disciplinary power” are “the bureaucratic state and the organization of the social order of capital” (p. 16). See also Louis Althusser, “Ideología y los Aparatos Ideológicos del Estado” (1969), en Salvoj Zizek (comp.), Ideología. Un mapa de la cuestión (1994). Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Chile, España, Estados Unidos de América, Guatemala, Perú y Venezuela, 2004, pp. 115-156.

7 Chapter 5, “Rights and losses”, deals with both Catherine MacKinnon’s and Patricia Williams’s antidemocratic and unemancipatory formulations of rights.

8 “In Nietzsche’s account, morality emerges from the powerless to avenge their incapacity for action” (p. 44).

9 Note the ambiguity of this sentence that refers to the political stance of the author. Does she really want to challenge the way Reagan’s politics have been opposed?

10 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), Vintage, London, 1993, p. 145.

11 “It is precisely under transnational conditions that the nation becomes a more intense object of concern and struggle. This is why this book focuses on the story the official national culture industry tells in the contemporary United States, a story that initiates an intimate public sphere as a site of mediation in which citizens can both feel their linkage to one another through the nation and negotiate their relation to the transnational” (pp. 13-14).

12 The author believes in a pre-Freudian? time “when sex practice seemed to flow naturally from the life-building hopes children are taught to have for the stable reproductible family and for wedding presents” (p. 221).

13 “Some” people [heterosexual people] “for whom the desire for heterosexuality [a “perverse play of attraction and aversion in the political life of the polis”, p. 221] to make a ‘comeback’ actually makes some sense” because “to them, a ‘comeback’ would mean that you would not have to think about sexual preference” (p. 16).

14 See Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie (eds.), The woman in question. Verso, London, 1990.

15 “An ontology of masculine sameness […] produces a formally masculinist standard insofar as it is premised upon its differentiation from women” (p. 153).

16 Ressentiment is a Nitzschean concept that refers to “the moralizing revenge of the powerless, ‘the triumph of the weak as weak’” (pp. 66-7), the triumph of the “slave morality” that “produces identity in reaction to power” and that “becomes deeply invested in its own impotence” (p. 70) because “it is more likely to punish and reproach” than “to find venues of self-affirming action” (p. 71).

17 “In ‘Situated knowledges’, Donna Haraway writes, “feminism loves another science: the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering and the partly understood’ (p. 589)”.

 



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