This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.
It has now been more than twenty years since Judith Butler wrote the first edition of Gender Trouble, and the observations that she highlighted in its first chapter still resonate with us today, even as we ponder their significance for contemporary political action. In reflecting on the conversation(s) that Butler started back in the 1990s, I would like to briefly focus on what I see as a crucial practical conundrum resulting from her problematization of the term “woman” as a stable signifier. Butler questioned whether “woman” was capable of standing for a uniform subject. Likewise, we might ask: is there any room for unity in the feminist front?
In the first chapter of Gender Trouble, Butler took issue with the homogenizing function that she believed was subliminally effected by the use of the term “woman.” The signifier derived its stability by rendering the subject of feminism recognizable and, in this way, controllable. It is with this in mind that Butler claimed:
The question of ‘the subject’ is crucial for politics, and for feminist politics in particular, because juridical subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices that do not ‘show’ once the juridical structure of politics has been established.
Subjects are discursively constituted within a political system that by means of such constitution aims at validating and reproducing itself. Public discourse sets the expectations for what characteristics, forms of behavior, etc., qualifies a person to be deemed a “woman” rather than a “man,” and by living in accordance with such stipulations, people invariably embrace the authority of such a discourse. Feminists critiques have tried to call attention to the “legitimating and exclusionary aims” at play in the formation of subjects, which are systematically concealed by the fiction that certain forms of being (identifying as a “man” or “woman”) are just natural, that is. The problematization of the term “woman” is linked to a rejection of the idea that it is possible (or desirable) to demarcate the contours of the category in an a priori manner.
Thanks to Butler’s insight, feminist theory came to reflect on the implicitly discriminatory nature of any language that tells us in very concrete terms what a woman is or should be. Unfortunately, present day news provides plenty of examples of the “exclusionary practices” Butler mentioned. The disgraceful North Carolina anti-trans bathroom law is a clear example of language being used to dictate what passes for a woman (or man) and what does not.
For feminists thinkers, this raises the question: is it possible to be a woman in a way that is not intelligible to the law? Or is it the case that, in order to be a woman (and demand recognition of the rights that one should be granted as such) one has to fit certain criteria that make one recognizable as a woman to begin with?
The problem with the latter possibility is that it presupposes that the category signified by the term “woman” has to point toward a stable reference. This move is utterly controversial for it obscures the fact that “gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts.” Butler argues that this difficulty to adequately provide a point of reference for the signifier “women” should be interpreted as evidence of the inadequacy of any form of analysis that thinks of gender in stable, binary terms.
This realization, however, does not in and of itself spell the end of problems for feminist thinkers. The idea that a stable notion of gender runs counter to feminist theory (insofar as it opens up issues of essentialism and reification) also requires looking for new ways to effectively organize. In order to avoid injecting the term “woman” with normative and exclusionary impulses, some feminists have attempted a form of “coalitional politics,” consisting in a set of dialogical encounters whose aim is not to assume in advance the meaning of the signifier “woman.”
In evaluating this strategy, I part ways with Butler. Our point of disagreement revolves around her attitude toward the relevance of “unity.” Despite admitting that “the value of coalitional politics is not to be underestimated” Butler goes on to question the insistence on the very form of a coalition, which she connects with the (according to her problematic) assumption that “solidarity, whatever the price, is a prerequisite for political action.” A better move would be to strive to act despite questions of divergence and splintering. After all, Butler goes on to tell us “[t]he very notion of ‘dialogue’ is culturally specific and historically bound, and while one speaker may feel secure that a conversation is happening, another may be sure it is not.”
While I wholeheartedly agree with Butler’s assertions that it is necessary to interrogate the power relations that condition and limit dialogical possibilities, I find Butler’s position discouraging and, to a certain extent, paralyzing. She seems to forget the way in which oppressive forms of power have traditionally benefitted from the maxim “divide and rule.” While it is true that striving for unity can be less than perfect in practice, it is also true that an obsessive focusing on the particularities that separate us is not an elixir either. I think a middle ground can be found.
To be fair, Butler certainly does not desire to inspire inaction. On the contrary, her whole point is that feminist political actions can be carried out without pre-existing unity. My point is to argue that solidarity is needed for political action, particularly for those of us who do not want to participate in political movements that simply effect symbolic changes here and there (like the legalization of same-sex-marriage) without actually injuring the superstructure sustaining the system. We need a certain solidarity to serve as the motor of political action because we need people to care about those who are different from themselves. In her engagement with the issues of unity and solidarity, Butler seems to assume that unity and solidarity can only apply to issues of identity. I like to think that we can feel and exercise solidarity not only because we are like others, but because we feel respect for their goals. In this sense, partaking in a political struggle does not necessarily require that I see myself in others, or vice versa. But it does require that I understand their causes and that I endorse them to the point of being able to fight for them. We have to feel some kind of hope in face of the transformations that our peers in struggle are longing for.
This is the kind of unity that I think is needed for political action, within and beyond the horizons of feminist struggles. Of course, it might be said that Butler would not be opposed to such a manifestation of unity and solidarity but this is not a conclusion that emerges from reading her intervention concerning what the subject of feminism should be.