This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

It’s no secret that feminism has undergone paradigmatic and (sometimes) unfortunate changes attributed to the gestures of the neoliberal turn. Nancy Fraser critiques the desaturated concern for social and gender justice that characterizes a new neoliberal feminism — one that is often associated with identity politics. In Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (Verso, 2013), she undertakes this needed critique, but she also examines and demonstrates a troubling alliance to which some feminists have ratified. Fraser argues that, while deliberating on which discourse theory to subsume and deploy for their purposes, some feminists have unwittingly undermined the emancipatory and reconstructive goals that are fundamental to their work. Nevertheless, Fraser’s solution of a bifold conception of gender justice seems open to the same formal limitation that she locates in Julia Kristeva’s additivism.

To understand fully how social and gender groups are gathered under forces of domination and oppression, Frazer argues, the feminist project needs to have a theory of discourse (p. 140). The latter should shed light on the fluidity of complex identities and social groups and thereby illuminate a path for the radical subversion of the very domination that constitutes these groups’ deprived statuses. Understanding discourse also entails a grasp on how hegemony is negotiated and social status is determined — tasks that are integral to the emancipatory success of the radical political intervention into the oppression of gendered bodies. A good theory of discourse will also offer the tools to make an account of complex identities; Fraser insists on this because one is never solely a gendered subject, but also a member of different groups such as class, race, region, etc. Fraser classifies two major discourse theories that feminists have used in the past: the structuralist model and the superior pragmatics model.

The pragmatics theory of discourse emphasizes historically and socially situated subjects who negotiate their identities discursively. To some extent, pragmatist tendencies are ostensible in the work of theorists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, but ultimately, their thought is still too much under the sway of what Fraser calls “symbolicism” and the structuralist model of discourse. Fraser argues that the structuralist model abstracts away from the material implications to social practice, i.e., it abstracts away from the logic and conditions for domination and oppression of gendered bodies (pp. 143-144).

According to Fraser, this consequence of structuralist discourse theory should provoke unease. How can one authentically address the oppression of gender groups, and articulate gender justice, when the emancipatory project resounds with tensions produced by its discourse theory? If social bodies and groups cannot be determined discursively, but instead are organized exhaustively by the imposition of the symbolic dimension of signification, then we are left unequipped to assuage those tensions. Lacanian appropriation for feminist projects entails a reification of language and signifying practices supplanted with a causal potency Fraser sees as untenable. Structuralism by definition overlooks the fluidity of social and gender identities, the practices from which they arise (discursively), and because of these limitations, structuralism is not a cogent and effective theory of discourse if one is concerned with the liberation of subjects from oppression. Fraser, in Fortunes of Feminism, is not necessarily fretful about whether Lacan is right or wrong. Her concern is that Lacanian discourse theory, commissioned by feminists for decades, fails to register a theoretical foundation for subverting domination and conceiving how social groups coalesce — or, other words, to emphasize again, how gender and other identity groups self-determine, collectivize, and negotiate the political-economic hegemony.

Kristeva navigates the interstice between the two poles of discourse theory, pragmatics and structural, by underscoring the symbolic structures and their role in the production of subjects without making it a focal point. Equally crucial is to take note of the social and historical situation in which subjects find themselves and regulate their identities. Nevertheless, Fraser’s concern is that Kristeva typifies an approach that privileges certain transgressive acts while decrying others. Rather, a theoretical foundation and discourse theory for feminist purposes must “[r]ecognize and assess the emancipatory potential of oppositional practice wherever it appears — in bedrooms, on shop floors, in caucuses of the American Philosophical Association” (pp. 150-152). Most troubling of all, Kristeva’s mélange of the two modalities to discourse never escapes the causal potency of the symbolic dimension; her mediation of the pragmatics of discursive relations buckles under the causal strength of the symbolic dimension. This effectively creates a truncated dialectic between two mutually incommensurable realms (the discursive and the symbolic) that emulates the fatalism inherent to the Lacanian application in feminist thought. Subjects, their sexuation, and the formation and movements of social groups are in the end germs of the intrusion of linguistic structures — the praxical capacity of discursive relations and their historicity is lost.

Fraser outlines a theory of gender justice, one of participatory parity, whereby subjects are recognized as peers, as equals, in a space where statuses and distribution can be negotiated, thereby laying the groundwork for social change and a reconstructive praxis. The interlocking, reinforcing forms of oppression that other contemporary feminist schools (namely, identity politics) fail to resolve condition her answer: synthesizing two opposing theories of gender. However, because participatory parity rests on a suture of what might be mutually incommensurable theories of gender, Fraser may be culpable of the same additivism of which she accuses Kristeva. Do the political-economic gender-like-class and the recogntive gender-like-status cancel each other out? “Simply putting the two together…does not overcome the limits of either” (p. 157).

The rationale behind Fraser’s critique of Kristeva is not context dependent — it should address the general issue of adding two unreliable conceptions together and how limitations are not assuaged by this gesture. In this case, do the persistent limitations doom the emancipatory, social reconstructive project of Fraser’s intervention to the neoliberal dovetail of feminism? Fraser claims she is not merely combining two incommensurable ideas together (p. 171) and that participatory parity can fully capture the intersectionality of oppression, but I argue she needs to show more explicitly how this is the case. Also, why does the feminist project need to be reconstructive? If that is hinge on which participatory parity revolves, can we not think of liberatory schemes that are disruptive, for instance, those of Paul Goodman’s “The Politics of Being Queer”?

If structuralist discourse theory reifies language and colonizes the speaking subject, are there other ways to deconolize discourse theory without renouncing Lacan and Kristeva? Or more poignantly, is Fraser’s account of structuralist theories of discourse and particularly Lacan too partial and cherry picked? The manifesto-style work she paints with very broad strokes has the upshot of clarity regarding the condemnation of incredibly violent, interlocking systems of domination and posits a (single) way of responding to them. In other words, a pragmatics discourse that narrates the historio-social situation of speaking subjects while also profiting from the vibrant illumination of domination constitutive to psychoanalysis is conceivable.

For example, such a framework may be more readily able to respond to questions on the contemporary appeal of BDSM and its ubiquity in the public imaginary, advertising, media, and art. For evidence of this, one need look no further than “shibaru,” the Japanese art of rope-bondage that has become intensely chic in art circles, and its presence on social media; the wildly popular but still ultimately timid Fifty Shades of Gray; or the 2011 Broadway hit Venus in Fur staring Nina Arianda. At the beginning of this year, Equinox, a luxury fitness club franchise, also unveiled a new advertising campaign entitled “Commit To Something.” It chiefly consists of self-congratulatory sensationalized dreamscapes that are punctuated by dominating figures displaying their exercises of power. With such examples, the question arises, are subjects who negotiate their identities under neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism somehow hunting for a rigidity of gender roles, the architypes of passive and active partners? There seems to be an emerging value economy, one of excitation and destruction, and its climax is reached with these inflexible BDSM rituals. To throw the proverbial baby out with the symbolicism bathwater would be to undercut a compelling address to the surge in this trend, its import, the implications for political domination, as well as its erotic dimension.

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