The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Postmodernism vs. Cuntalinagate

The line of recent posts at IBTP provide an opportunity to talk a little about the work of Judith Butler and how that work bears on discussions of power and resistance.  There’s this shout-out, of sorts, to Butler – I confess that I am unable to discern whether referring to Butler’s ideas as “entertainment” is meant to be complimentary, insulting, or some subtle combination of the two.  There is also, however, a series of posts that comprise “Cuntalinagate,” which started when Twisty called a woman a cuntalina and continues in the comments sections, subsequent posts, and a few pingbacks.

I refer to these posts, not to opine on the dropping of c-bombs, but because they illustrate an important part of the postmodernist critique of the political subject.  Specifically, every discourse creates, as a condition of that discourse, a certain set of signs and markers that identify and categorize the participants and include or exclude different participants based on their adherence to and/or deviation from the accepted categories.  Deconstructing this process means putting aside an emphasis on a “person” and their “position” and instead focusing on what persons and positions are made possible by this process.  Twisty, perhaps inadvertently, performs a postmodern critique by calling into question her own identity – is Twisty a real person or a fictional character? – and what it means to be a radical feminist who steps outside the accepted bounds of radical feminist discourse.

Twisty quotes a gloss of Butler’s work that says the following:

She follows postmodernist and poststructuralist practice in using the term “subject” (rather than “individual” or “person”) in order to underline the linguistic nature of our position within what Jacques Lacan terms the symbolic order, the system of signs and conventions that determines our perception of what we see as reality.

To make sense of this it will help to take apart the use of the term “subject.”  Loosely speaking, when we think of the role of the subject in language, we think of the doer – the active agent, the driving force of a sentence, the noun that takes action.  The “I” in “I went to the park.”  The subject of a sentence, then, is, in some sense, what the sentence is about.  “I went to the park” is a sentence about me; “The park is the place that I went” is a sentence about the park.  If you are the subject of a documentary, the documentary is about you.  Subject invokes primacy, and main-idea-ness.  On the other hand, a King also has subjects.  The King isn’t about his subjects – usually the subjects are described in relation to the King.  You can also be subject to something.  If you disobey the King you might be subject to penalties.  With this usage a subject is one who is subordinate to something else.

So the use of “subject” as a term to describe the part of the person that does things serves a dual purpose.  It does not allow us to view a person either as completely subject to her environment or as completely the subject of it.  It complicates the relationship between person and environment and calls into question the nature of that which takes action.

In this light, we can start to comprehend the claim that the subject is constituted by social relations – that it is produced by a discourse, upon which it is always contingent.  We just have to ask the question, what does it take to be a subject?  In other words, what does it take – within the confines of a specific discourse – to be considered someone who the discourse is about?  And the answer, appropriately, is that one must subject one’s self to the conventions of that discourse in order to be a subject within that discourse.

In the radical feminist discourse of IBTP, those conventions are pretty clear.  IBTP is a particularly good example because most of the conventions are explicitly laid out in the FAQ, guidelines for commenters, and the boilerplate “Blamer Terms of Use Agreement”:

New to I Blame the Patriarchy? Cast your jaundiced eye upon this before commenting.

Blamer Terms of Use Agreement

By clicking the “Blame” button, you affirm that you have read and agree to follow the Guidelines for Commenters. If English is your first language, you agree to use spelling, capitalization, and punctuation consistent with recognized conventions governing same. If you are a dude, you affirm that you have read the FAQ twice, and that, whether or not you are an authoritarian, supercilious asshole in life, you will be otherwise on this blog. All commenters are encouraged to begin their posts with a word other than “I.”

The conventions are not only enforced by moderation, but also by a consensus of Blamers.  As this post points out, the censure of Blamers in the comment section can constitute a significant barrier to entry for those who aren’t careful to use the markers of a Blamer and eschew any misogynist, anti-feminist, or otherwise patriarchal markers that they may have picked up in mainstream discourse.  IBTP has categories to describe those who cleave strictly to these rules, and those who deviate in some acceptable way, and those who deviate in an unacceptable way (for instance, to be a “funfem” or a “sex-positive feminist” or a “nice guy” is to take an acceptable non-radfem position from which to argue, and be argued with; to be an “MRA” is to take an unacceptable non-radfem position to argue from).  There are also certain positions that are not well-accounted for, such as the post-modernist feminist position.

This system is fairly robust – it can easily classify most positions and understand them accordingly.  But what happens when someone in the position of “radical feminist” uses a very anti-feminist term like “cuntalina?”  The frame of radical feminist discourse does not contain a position for a radical feminist who uses radically anti-feminist misogynist slurs; as a result, when that happens, the most widespread result is confusion.  The members of the discourse whose bounds were violated demand that the violator provide an account of herself.  How can this happen?  What do you mean?  What are you really saying?  What is the explanation for this event that can re-situate you in the discourse such that you will once again be intelligible to us?

This system of conventions that govern subject-hood – that determine which positions are accepted, and which forbidden, which are understood and which unintelligible – is socially constructed within each community of practice by its members through discourse.  In order to allow ourselves to be heard and understood within a particular social frame, we must take on a subject-position that is both permitted and intelligible.  Butler’s contention is that identity is a retroactive product of these positions – that identity is simply that which allows people to identify us (or us to identify ourselves), and that we are always identified by reference to one or more subject positions that we have taken on.

In the prevailing patriarchal order, oppression often takes the form of a limited choice of subject-positions.  For instance, for a woman to express the view that women are fully human and thus entitled to the same rights and privileges as men is considered a marker of “feminism,” which in the patriarchal frame is understood in a very specific way – “feminism” is associated with hairy, man-hating lesbians, etc etc, such that the term “feminist” itself can be an ad hominem dismissal of a woman’s position in many circles.  Such a frame is immensely powerful and oppressive, and so from the post-modernist perspective, it is not enough simply to fight from the subject-position of “feminist” – which, after all, is understood and accounted for by a patriarchal frame – but also to constantly problematize the meaning of the subject-position “feminist” itself, and in fact to contest all patriarchal assignments of subject-position so as to allow for new and different options for all humans to occupy.

This is the post-structuralist critique in a nutshell: that the potitical contest between two elements of a dichotomy (man vs. woman, black vs. white, bourgeois vs. proletariat, etc) should be secondary to the contesting of the dichotomy itself.  The oppression is not located in one side or the other, but in the structure of the contest.  Twisty implicity recognizes this by blaming not men, but the Patriarchy, a system in which men are dominant but with which women often collaborate.  And by transgressing the bounds of her own discourse, Twisty has demonstrated how jarring it can be when someone transgresses social boundaries that were previously thought inviolable.

It doesn’t take long for any given transgression to be processed, comprehended, and reintegrated into the prevailing social order.  Therefore the goal, from Butler’s point of view, is not to simply find a transgressive position and stay in it, but to constantly bring into view, through transgressions and other strategies, the contingent nature of the categories and subject-positions that we occupy, so that we can learn to recognize and accommodate, rather than ignore and oppress, new and unconventional positions as they arise.

This strategy makes sense from a historical point of view.  Historically, the women’s movement has always gained some synergy from other movements or events challenging the prevailing social order – from Wollstonecraft’s deployment of classical liberalism to argue in favor of education for women, to the increases in women’s rights that came about after WWII made “Rosie the Riveter” a valid subject-position.  If this is true, it also follows that an increase in the recognition of women who occupy non-patriarchal subject-positions would also synergistically make more subject-positions available to other oppressed classes of people.  This is why any study of the resistance to power and oppression is heavily staked in feminist movements, post-colonial movements, etc.

Speaking of post-colonial, I hope to follow up this post with a commentary on RaceFail ’09 from a post-colonial perspective, specifically using Fanon to deconstruct some of the assumptions floating around about race and culture.  RaceFail is also of interest because the subject-position of an author seems to be of critical importance to many participants.

May 31, 2009 - Posted by | Feminism, Power | , , , , , ,


  1. IBTP has categories to describe those who cleave strictly to these rules, and those who deviate in some acceptable way, and those who deviate in an unacceptable way (for instance, to be a “funfem” or a “sex-positive feminist” or a “nice guy” is to take an acceptable non-radfem position from which to argue, and be argued with; to be an “MRA” is to take an unacceptable non-radfem position to argue from).

    This is a very picky nit, but as far as I can tell “nice guy” –at least as traditionally used sarcastically to refer to dudes who complain that women don’t like them even though they are so “nice”–is not an acceptable non-radfem position from which to argue at IBTP.

    My evidence for this is that I have never seen any comments at IBTP in the last few years written from this position. I suppose it’s possible that none have been submitted in that time frame, but I consider it more likely that Twisty doesn’t allow them.

    Comment by Comrade PhysioProf | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  2. [...] can’t or won’t write good non-white characters.  Look at the issue of RaceFail from a Butlerian perspective: rather than asking why the authors in positions of power are insensitive to issues of race, we ask [...]

    Pingback by Post-RaceFail: A Post-Colonial, Post-Modern Take « The All-Seeing Eye | June 6, 2009 | Reply

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