Monday, September 27, 2010

The language of choice and the politics of justice

About a week ago, a friend of mine posted, without comment, a link to this interview on whether porn has 'hijacked' our sexuality on her Facebook page. Now, as when I first commented on the article, I'm not going to take up a position on the question in the title. Instead, I'd like to pull out a quote from the middle of the interview that gave me pause: 
"...we need to have feminism with politics. And what's happened, I think, is that politics have been bled out of feminism, so now you get this idea that we got what we wanted, or at least we can be empowered as individuals. I'm sorry, but you cannot be empowered as individuals when women as a group are systematically discriminated against."
The idea of a feminism with politics is one that I've been thinking about for a while now. I came to my feminism through two distinct routes: academia and pop culture. In academia, I read and wrestled with writers from Mary Wollstonecraft through Simone de Beauvoir, through Catherine MacKinnon and the second wave, through bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, third wave theorists of sexuality, and post-structuralists like Butler and Haraway. In pop culture, I read and enjoyed Bitch and Bust, watched Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, read novels about women knights and watched indie romantic comedies with quirky female leads.

My feminism during those years was essentially an applied version of a de Certeauian strategies/tactics model: if I was encountering oppressive ideology through the media and products I consumed, then I was going to resist that ideology through alternative readings of pop culture products, through parodic presentation of self, and through a general attempt (if poorly articulated) to be a feminist by consuming in what I felt was a feminist way. Watching sexist television was somehow a political act if I knew that it was sexist and enjoyed it ironically.

During my final year of undergraduate education, I read three books that changed my thinking. The first was Nancy Fraser's Justice Interruptus. The second was Steven Lukes' Power: A Radical View. And the third, and most important for me, was Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference. All three books have a uniting factor: they talk about women's rights in the context of justice, rather than the context of choice.

Choice is the cultural keyword in contemporary Western feminism. It's also a concept easily appropriated  for the purposes of frustrating feminist concerns. While free and open choice is an admirable goal, and one that I am deeply in favor of folding into a justice-centered feminism -- after all, what is justice without choice? -- I am also wary of making it the end goal of feminist politics. This wariness stems from, and is subsequently directed towards, two sources. First, I am concerned about the supposed authenticity of choice and it's relationship to non-domination. In this case, my critique is directed towards  intellectuals, feminist or not, public or not, who valorize choice without taking into account the notion that preferences are or can be (de)formed. Second, I am concerned about the relationship between choice and consumption. This is a critique levelled more directly at myself and other women of my generation, who have often found ourselves expressing our feminism through the things we buy and the media we consume, without much visible thought about the relationship of consumption to the oppression of women.

In her work on sex and social justice, Martha Nussbaum introduces the concept of 'preference deformation'. Using a definition of preference that encompasses desires, emotions, and appetites, Nussbaum argues that liberal thought has traditionally accepted the idea that preferences can be distorted, and that these distortions can affect choice. The question for feminism, is in how we relate choice to freedom. In Power: A Radical View, Lukes argues that there are some views of freedom in which being free is defined as a lack of interference in the realization of my preferences, whatever they happen to be. On this view, says Lukes, "then how my preferences are formed, how my judgements are made and what influences them -- none of this has any bearing on the extent of my freedom". If, on the other hand, my preferences are distorted by the operation of ideology, than my freedom cannot be found simply in the exercise of choice. In the introduction to Throwing Like a Girl, Iris Marion Young questions the non-ideological nature of 'authentic' experience:
Often people seem to assume that if we express our authentic experience, we will be free of ideology and the false impressions of society that lead to conflict and irrationality. But this is clearly not so: ideology operates, or interpolates, as Althusser says, at the most immediate level of naive experience. 
This is fundamentally a critique of a liberalism that argues feminist critiques have been addressed as long as women are the ones 'choosing' what their lives look like; either abstractly, through participation in democratic politics and capitalist markets, or concretely, through the choice to have children or not, to enter the job market or not, etc.

In her book The Aftermath of Feminism, feminist cultural theorist Angela McRobbie expresses a different problem with the language of choice. She writes the following in the introduction:
Elements of feminism have been taken into account, and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like 'empowerment' and 'choice', these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse, and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism...There is a kind of exchange, and also a process of displacement and substitution going on here. The young woman is offered a notional form of equality, concretised in education and employment, and through participation in consumer culture and civil society, in place of what a reinvented feminist politics might look like.
Here the critique is leveled at a hegemonic culture that appropriates the language of choice, and substitutes consumerism for justice. But McRobbie also takes a long, hard, look at herself in the mirror. For feminists invested in pop culture or ironic expressions of femininity, the question remains as to whether or not buying the right clothes, wearing (or not wearing) the right lipstick, and reading the right books and magazines are feminist acts. Moreover, in a culture where young women are reluctant to call themselves feminists, but readily embrace the notion that purchasing is activism, where can we locate a politics of justice for women who are on the margins of the capitalist system?

Whatever wave of feminism we're currently on needs to revisit its thinking on individual choice in the context of larger structures of domination and oppression. I don't know at what point the opposite of oppression became choice, rather than justice. The thing is, "but she/I chose it" just isn't good enough for me in a world where we manage to recognize structural constraints and active ideology everywhere but in our own personal lives.

More on in a similar vein on Feministe; the author explores the language of choice vs. the language of justice in the context of reproductive politics. Particularly salient and very much worth reading is amandaw's comment: "'Choice' never bothered to look beyond the in-group and see whether their problem was even the same problem other people faced."

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