Feminism:feminism::bananas:the univocal predication of the exterior absolute

I posted a while ago about the incommensurability of feminism. Ballgame at feministcritics posted something based on this same idea, and his (her?) post exemplifies almost perfectly what I meant when I said that feminism’s incommensurability is “one of the biggest problems facing the movement today.”

Discussing what happens when men bring up male gender issues on feminist blog threads, Ballgame claims, correctly, that feminists often equivocate between feminism as a “humanist” egalitarian movement, and feminism as a “gynocentric” movement. They claim, in other words, that feminism is about equal rights for all, or that feminism is humanism by definition, but then when men try to interject with men’s gender issues, feminists revert to gynocentrism by claiming that men’s issues are irrelevant:

In short, feminists, as a group, equivocate between a gynocentric and an egalitarian interpretation of the word. They accept the universal support that comes from holding out universal ideals as the goal of their movement, but will then disparage or dismiss individuals like myself who take their universal goals at face value.

Ballgame’s complaint is based on a unified, monolithic feminist movement. Pragmatically speaking, though, you can’t talk about feminists as a group. As we know from the academic feminist tradition of typologizing feminisms (here‘s a good introduction), feminism is most certainly not a unified or monolithic movement; in fact, it’s more balkanized than the Balkans themselves. As I stated in my last post, even non-feminists are appropriating the term to refer to political views that are, for all intents and purposes, anti-feminist. How ironic.

The problem is two-fold. First, the balkanization of feminism has left us with tens or hundreds of different ideologies, some of which are vastly incompatible with others, but without any easy or universally agreed-upon strategy for referring to them in conversation so that they aren’t conflated. While all feminist typologizers have given names to each of the feminisms they observe, the names tend to differ from one typology to the next, so “cultural feminism” in one context might mean something totally different in another, or a terms like “separatist lesbianism” and “lesbian feminism” might be coreferential in one context and vastly disparate in another. This problem is exacerbated by the tendency observed by Sandoval for feminists to switch from one type of feminism to another as it suits their political goals (yes, Ballgame, equivocation is a recognized feminist strategy; see “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and The Method of Oppositional Consciousness in The Postmodern World”). Feminism after all is largely a political endeavour (although not always!), and as such it makes strategic choices in order to achieve its goals in the familiar tradition of counter-hegemony (read Antonio Gramsci for details).

Second, despite all the confusion over what the term “feminism” means, the actual term itself is still extremely useful, even if the meaning has to be derived from the context it’s used in. I used the term “anti-feminist” above, for instance, and it should have been clear from the context that I meant “anti-women’s rights.” After all, sometimes it’s nice to use one word where ten would be more accurate. Unfortunately, using the word “feminism” when you mean “Jaggar’s concept of socialist feminism,” or whatever, always introduces another level of interpretation that chronically teeters on the edge of misunderstanding.

Knowing what I know, I could easily argue that people who criticize feminism while demonstrating that they have no knowledge of how feminism is typologized are attacking a straw woman (note that using the term “straw woman” was a strategic decision on my part). But I won’t argue that, because it’s really not their fault–another problem with feminism is that everyone and their dog thinks they’re qualified to talk about it. This fact, I would suggest, is a direct result of this whole referential debacle; if people look in the dictionary and see

Feminism (noun)
The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

why wouldn’t they think they know what they’re talking about? And when they go online and they see people talking about feminism as if it were that simple, who can blame them? As long as there’s a popular conception that feminism is unified and monolithic, defending it against charges of equivocation will be next to impossible.

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8 responses to “Feminism:feminism::bananas:the univocal predication of the exterior absolute

  1. “Ballgame’s complaint is based on a unified, monolithic feminist movement.”

    Not really. It’s referring to a strong tendency which appears within his interactions with feminists.

  2. By the way, if it’s impossible to generalize about feminism as a group, does that mean generalized PRAISE for feminism is impossible by the same token? Or is it the case that ONLY generalized praise about feminism are okay?

  3. It doesn’t really matter how many “kinds” of feminism there are. What matters is outcomes, the actual results of feminist activism that affect people’s lives. Feminism is a movement who’s aim is to advance what its participants perceive to be the interests of women. Feminists have cleverly and successfully presented their interests as an exact equivalent to justice; their cleverness and success is to be admired.

    Often feminist gains are at the expense of others, predominantly men, thus it is appropriate for those at whose expense feminist gains are accomplished to oppose those gains.

    If a person is required to be part of some educated elite to talk about feminism, then most feminists don’t qualify.

  4. mackereleconomics

    The comments so far illustrate my point quite nicely!

    “If a person is required to be part of some educated elite to talk about feminism, then most feminists don’t qualify.”

    Just to clarify, I don’t think people need to be intellectually elite in order to talk about feminism. But those who think looking in the dictionary informs them enough about feminism to hold a conversation about it are committing the “Chuck Klosterman Fallacy” (you heard it here first!) which is the belief that you can have a conversation about anything without any prior knowledge of what you’re talking about. Maybe I’m part of a rapidly shrinking minority, but I do believe that learning a little bit about the things you talk about makes for a better conversation.

  5. Will, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful response to my post. But I agree with “Suggestion” here; my critique is not based on the assumption that feminism is a unified, monolithic movement. If it were, it really wouldn’t be necessary to say “feminists, as a group,” as simply referring to “feminists” would accurately identify the subject of analysis. It is precisely because of feminist ‘balkanization’ that it becomes important to reference its totality and the befuddling and often contradictory claims ‘it’ (feminism as a whole) makes to the world. Sometimes this contradiction is embodied in a specific subset of feminists who rhetorically ‘shift the goal posts’ as they find convenient, but that isn’t essential to my thesis.

    On the whole, I find that your response tends more to embody the problem at issue, rather than clarify it. A plain English interpretation of the claim that, “you can’t talk about feminists as a group,” is simply a fiction which you abandon two sentences later … my guess is you might have been trying to say something along the lines of ‘there are many different ideologies and perspectives encompassed by the term, “feminism.”‘ If you were, we’re in agreement. However, you undercut that sentiment both in this OP and in your related one when you implicitly delegitimize the feminist standing of those with whom you presumably have an ideological disagreement (i.e. “Paglia calls herself a feminist” but then you claim “I’m not trying to argue that Camille Paglia is not a feminist”).

    One might argue that this kind of rhetorical ‘double dealing’ is effective politics (equivocation as a “recognized feminist strategy”), but it is toxic to enlightened, good faith discussions.

  6. mackereleconomics

    You’re absolutely right, Ballgame. You’ll notice I wasn’t defending feminism, I was criticizing it. The problem, as I said, is that there is no way to talk about different types of feminism using any agreed-upon proxies that distinguish between different types. The only alternative, by default, is to use the term “feminism,” which necessarily conflates a slew of incompatible referents.

    If you can come up with a better system (and implement it), I would be a happy person. Until then, you and I and everyone else are going to use the term “feminism,” and feminists are going to be accused of equivocating.

  7. It’s interesting to see men’s perspectives on the “modern” issue of feminism, because it is indeed something that has continuously changed meaning over the years.
    I’d like to clarify something for Pat Kibbon though, if I may. When he says, “Feminists have cleverly and successfully presented their interests as an exact equivalent to justice; their cleverness and success is to be admired”, I wonder if he is suggesting sex equality is NOT equivalent to justice. Perhaps I do deserve to work the same job as a man does and earn less. Perhaps I should stop filling my head with silly ideas of justice and equality.
    What then, should I focus on? Or should I just be content making less money than men for the same amount of work?
    I realize I am overgeneralizing by suggesting most companies do not pay women the same amount as men. Allow me then to express my frustration towards laws and common corporation regulations regarding pregnant women and the time allowed for maternity leave. Is it fair that I risk sacrificing my job if I desire longer than 6 weeks to recover and get to know my child? Does it not seem like some sort of Catch-22 to have to choose between being a mother and keeping a job?

    I think my idea of feminism embodies a woman who is able to both tend to a family at home (thus, my desire for longer maternity leave) and a woman who is able to have a very successful career. I could never imagine not working. I love learning and I value my education and take it very seriously, so I pray that I qualify as an educated, elite feminist whose feelings and thoughts may be taken seriously. We’re not all raging crazies, some of us just want basic fairness. I still want you to open the door for me though…

    And one more thing…
    “Often feminist gains are at the expense of others, predominantly men, thus it is appropriate for those at whose expense feminist gains are accomplished to oppose those gains.”
    May I say that the feminists pre-Civil War era (YES, the injustices have been going on for that long!!) put their movement on hold because they made a conscious decision to support the cause of freeing the slaves? They feared launching a feminist movement would further divide people and they would risk losing both movements. And it seems silly to say that men are the ones who suffer at the hands of feminist ideals…feminists are the ones who suffer at the hands of men.
    Just food for thought…

  8. alexandd // December 6, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    “…I wonder if he {Pat Kibbon} is suggesting sex equality is NOT equivalent to justice.”

    I might be. It depends on what you mean by “sex equality”. If by “sex equality” you mean “women’s interests”, then yes, that is what I am suggesting.

    “Perhaps I do deserve to work the same job as a man does and earn less.”

    …and if you EARN less, then you will probably be PAID less. For example, if you…

    “…desire longer than 6 weeks to recover and get to know my child…”

    …then you may be earning less.

    Of course, if you are successful in obtaining an increase in salary by presenting your current salary as “unfair”, then you have very cleverly advanced your interests (along with your wealth); I congratulate you. But, if your advance comes at my expense, then I reserve the prerogative to oppose your gain.

    If you can persuade your employer that it would be “unfair” not to provide you with a five year leave of absence to raise your child, then I applaud you (I doubt that I could be so persuasive). But, if I have to do your job for you while you’re gone, then I object.

    The most effective alternative, however, would be for women to build their own industrial system, as men have done. Then, women could make all the rules. And if the women’s system were successful enough to supplant the existing one, them it would not be surprising if men were to come knocking at the door, demanding equal participation in the system that women built.

    “…if I DESIRE longer than 6 weeks…”

    “I think my idea of feminism embodies a woman who is able to both tend to a family at home (thus, MY DESIRE for longer maternity leave) and a woman who is able to have a very successful career. I could never imagine not working. I LOVE learning and I VALUE my education and take it very seriously, so I pray that I qualify as an educated, elite feminist whose feelings and thoughts may be taken seriously. We’re not all raging crazies, some of us just want basic fairness. I STILL WANT you to open the door for me though…” {EMPHASIS ADDED}

    As I have said, your aim appears to be to advance what you perceive to be your interests, or your desires, and you are presenting them as “basic fairness”.

    “…some of us just want basic fairness.”

    Who decides what is basically fair?

    “…it seems silly to say that men are the ones who suffer at the hands of feminist ideals…feminists are the ones who suffer at the hands of men.”

    It seems silly to say that feminists are the ones who suffer at the hands of men…men are the ones who suffer at the hands of feminist ideals.

    “Is it fair… ?” No, its not. It never will be.

    I don’t understand why women would want to relinquish their privileged position and reduce themselves to equality with men.

    “I still want you to open the door for me though…”

    OK. Now I see. You can have equality and keep your privileged position at the same time. We are all equal, but some are more equal than others…

    “May I say that the feminists pre-Civil War era (YES, the injustices have been going on for that long!!)… ”

    There have been organizations equating women’s interests with justice since before the civil war?

    Curious, none of the eight United States history books that I have say one word about pre-Civil War feminism. For instance the one that I am holding now was authored by Marcius Willson and published by Iverson & Phinney in New York City in 1858. Its author was right there observing what was happening before the Civil War. There is no mention of a feminist movement or of their putting their movement on hold. Where can I find this information?

    A movement, such as feminism, has no formal central leadership. There is no one with the authority to make a decision on behalf of the entire movement with the assurance that the decision will be carried out by the movement’s participants. How would a decision be made. on behalf of the entire feminist movement, to place it on hold?

    You must be referring to the ‘monolithic’ kind of feminism; not the ‘incommensurable’ kind to which mackereleconomics referred in his initial post.

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