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Submit and Resist: Constructing the Feminist Subject

An edited extract from the introduction of Kathi Weeks's Constituting Feminist Subjects, which is republished as part of our Feminist Classics set this month

Kathi Weeks24 August 2018

Submit and Resist: Constructing the Feminist Subject

Until Tuesday, August 28, we have 50% off all our Feminist Classics, including Constituting Feminist Subjects, when you buy two or more books in the series. Click here to find out more.

In the wake of the postmodern critiques of the 1980s, feminists have been struggling to develop theories of the subject that are adequate to a feminist politics. Many of us want to move beyond models of the subject organized with reference to a natural core, authentic humanity, or enduring metaphysical essence and to trade the older focus on the unified subject of feminism for a multiplicity of feminist subjects. At the same time, we want a theory of feminist subjectivity that can acknowledge feminism’s antagonistic force and cultivate its subversive potential, one that does not simply attach to a theory of social determinacy a vague evocation of voluntarist refusal. For us, then, the puzzle has been to understand how it could be that subjects so systematically constructed and well prepared to submit to the existing order of things can also collectively defy it. In other words, we want to endorse the critiques of humanism, functionalism, determinism, and essentialism without denying the possibility of agency.

This project, however, has been hampered by certain stubborn remnants of the modernist-postmodernist paradigm debate, a debate that helped to set this agenda but that also placed certain limits on our ability to pursue it. Although many will argue that the modernist-postmodernist debate that animated political theory and feminist theory throughout most of the 1980s is finished, having exhausted its potential, it lingers on nonetheless in the way we recall arguments from the past and conceive alternatives for the future. Here I focus on one specific configuration of this debate, a form that should be familiar to those of us reading in political theory and feminist theory over the years, wherein modernism and postmodernism are conceived as mutually exclusive theoretical paradigms. According to this particular conception of the debate (and of course, it is not the only way that the debate was conceived), the modernist tradition (with its wealth of differences) was equated with a paradigm that perhaps most closely resembled certain themes within Enlightenment modernism, poststructuralism (in all its heterogeneity) was identified with something called postmodernism, and the rest of us were compelled by the relentlessly oppositional logic used to maintain this dualistic framework to choose either one side or the other. By means of this formula, modernism was all too often effectively reduced to a caricature opposed to another caricature called postmodernism. This reactive dynamic left us with two equally unsatisfactory choices: a reaffirmation of the humanist subject in some form or the death of the subject tout court, a voluntaristic theory of political agency or a thoroughgoing social determinism. What now remains in the wake of this particular formulation of the debate (a formulation I refer to as the modernist-postmodern paradigm debate) is a history of distortions and a continuing inability by many to recognize the potential of, and the nuances within, the rich traditions of thought that were subsumed into the category of modernism and the equally valuable theoretical frameworks confined by the category of postmodernism. The vestiges of this paradigm debate can also account for some of the defensiveness and dismissiveness that continues to characterize many of our exchanges. The modernist-postmodernist paradigm debate many be dead, but its legacy still haunts our analyses.

If we were to comply with the terms of this paradigm debate, the project of developing a nonessentialist theory of subjective agency would be a very difficult one indeed: too many potentially productive lines of inquiry would be closed to us. Thus my project is conceived in part as an effort to circumvent this propensity toward either/or formulas and to counter this inattention to the specificity of, and the potential affinities among, different theoretical undertakings. In Constituting Feminist Subjects I present a nonessentialist theory of feminist subjectivity that draws upon a variety of resources, including “postmodernists” like Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, as well as “modernists” from the Marxist and socialist feminist traditions. By staging their encounters on a different terrain, outside these paradigm categories, I believe that we can develop some potentially productive lines of dialogue among these diverse theoretical projects.

I cast this reconfiguration of a feminist subject in terms of a version of socialist feminism known as feminist standpoint theory. The tradition of standpoint theory includes the contributions of many theorists who propose very different arguments. This account is based on a selective appropriation and extension of a specific set of arguments from a limited group of texts. I do not, then, offer a detailed summary of the literature, one that explains my support for or quarrels with each of the different versions. Since my goal is not to present a faithful account of standpoint theories in all their difference and specificity, I make no claim to remain true to the methods, contents, or aims of any one author. Rather than present a critical overview of existing standpoint theories, an endeavor that has already been admirably completed elsewhere, I intend to concentrate my efforts on constructing an alternative feminist standpoint theory, one that builds selectively on some of the fundamental themes of these original theories in a way that can render the basic project as I conceive it more compatible with a contemporary theoretical agenda.

But why would I want to engage with standpoint theory? According to its critics, feminist standpoint theory is a relic of a bygone era in Anglo-American feminism: a throwback to an outmoded 1970s agenda, an archaic mode of theorizing anchored in the second rather than the third wave, a humorless operation in contrast to a playful gesture, in short, an obsolete approach situated within a modernist as opposed to a postmodernist horizon. If we accept the characterization presented by many of these reviewers, standpoint theory is so thoroughly mired in the pitfalls and conundrums of an older, irreparably foundationalist and essentialist brand of feminism that is can no longer speak to our concerns. There is, of course, some truth to this indictment: like the larger body of socialist feminist theory of which it is an instance, standpoint theory grew out of a particular historical conjecture with its own specific openings for, and obstacles to, theoretical reflection; some of these we cannot recreate, others we would not wish to. The problem with this assessment, however, is that while it may serve to help us identify some of standpoint theory’s failings (although, in this form, the critique is indebted to the modernist-postmodernist paradigm debate and, therefore, too often based on a caricature to provide many accurate critiques), it is blind to its distinctive strengths and potential contributions. While remaining alert to standpoint theory’s weaknesses, in Constituting Feminist Subjects I nonetheless argue for and expand upon its continuing promise and vitality. There are three fundamental reasons why I choose to enrol standpoint theory in this project of reconstituting a feminist subject, three sources of its enduring power and relevance. These can be encapsulated within three of its key concepts: totality, labor, and standpoint.

The concept of totality was one of the most frequently discussed under the auspices of the modernist-postmodernist paradigm debate and, unfortunately, one of the most often confused by its specifications. As I develop here, the term “totality” designates an important set of theoretical and practical commitments. A notion of gendered subjectivity necessarily presupposes some conception of the social formation within which it is constructed and maintained, just as a notion of feminist subjectivity necessarily presupposes some conception of the complex relationships among the social forces it seeks to challenge. In the absence of some sense of the whole, some conception of the complex social formations that constitute and constrain subjects, we end up with an impoverished model of the subject that overestimates its capacities for self-creation and self-transformation, as well as a very limited understanding of the forces we must subvert in order to make possible the construction of alternative subjects. The project totality–which I will try to distinguish from totalizing theory, or theories that reduce subjectivity to some functional effect of an abstract, determinable, and monolithic system of structures–refers to an attempt to locate some of the specific connections between our everyday lives and practices and the larger framework of social structures within which they are organized. The project of totality thus involves a methodological mandate to relate and connect, to situate and contextualize, to conceive the social systematically as a complex process of relationships. For example, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy are not isolated forces, but rather systems that traverse the entire social horizon and intersect at multiple points. Standpoint theory cuts into this system by trying to make specific connections between certain modes of gendered subjectivity, women’s laboring practices, the gender and racial divisions of labor, and global capitalism. How, standpoint theories ask, are our practices both constituted by and constitutive of the structures that organize our experience? This “aspiration to totality” that one can find in standpoint theory recalls some of the earliest and, I believe, strongest impulses of socialist feminism. Under the sign of totality, socialist feminism linked its interest in systematic analysis with a dedication to social transformation. Socialist feminists fashioned theories to help map the connections among the different social forces implicated in the construction of gender hierarchies; a feminist politics was conceived as a revolutionary politics, one that ultimately sought to transform the forces that maintain these systematic and institutional hierarchies. With this term, then, I want to preserve and develop two central commitments to understand the relationships between social structures and subjectivities and a political commitment to social transformation.

Labor, as one of many mutually constitutive links between social structures and subjectivities, is the second source of what I see as standpoint theory’s continuing appeal. I build selectively on those versions of standpoint theory that draw on, among other resources, the Marxist tradition to ground a feminist standpoint in some account of women’s laboring practices in late capitalist social formations. I focus most frequently on the work of Hilary Rose, Nancy Hartsock, and Dorothy Smith. These accounts begin with the assumption that what we do can have consequences for who we are and what and how we think, and that what we do is determined in part by a gender division of labor. Critical of Marxism’s narrow conception of production which fails to recognize the possibility of a standpoint grounded in women’s laboring activity, these theories begin with alternative analyses of “women’s work.” The accounts differ depending on which types of practices are featured and the potential consequences the author wants to highlight. Thus, for example, in some accounts the practices for which women are disproportionately responsible are described in terms of “caring labor” or emotional labor, a set of practices that involves personal service. Here we could include “maternal labor,” the work of raising children, and “kin work,” the work of maintaining relationships among friends and extended family. Women’s labor is similarly characterized as “reproductive labor,” a term designed to include many of the most common modes of women’s labor not only in the home but also in the household. Finally, aspects of women’s work have been conceived as “labor in the concrete bodily mode” to highlight those practices that give form to and provide support services for those engaged in more abstract conceptual practices or mental labor. Note that in all these accounts, labor is not just an activity that directly produces capital, but activity that produces society itself, including the networks of sociality and the subjects they sustain. These are constitutive practices that, whether waged or not, are socially necessary. Yet despite its importance, this labor is often invisible and many of the skills developed in and through these practices are naturalized and undervalued.

Regardless of whether particular women actually do this kind of work (and of course, many do not), women are generally (though differently) constructed to be the kinds of people who can perform these duties, and are usually (though variously) expected to be the ones who should. For this reason, theories of feminist subjectivities based on accounts of women’s labor carry the potential to speak to broad audiences of women, and particularly to women outside the academy. However, it should be noted that this focus on labor is also what marks most clearly the specificity of this version of standpoint theory. Obviously one cannot claim that every object of feminist inquiry can be explained by reference to the gender division of labor. I do not, then, profess to offer a new feminist metanarrative or a General Feminist Theory of Everything that identifies labor as the fundamental source of women’s oppression and the only site of feminist agitation. What I hope to present is a carefully delimited theoretical approach that aspires to help us think about and cultivate the possible consequences of a specific set of practices in a particular place and time.

Standpoint theories try to consider the ontological and epistemological consequences of these laboring practices. How might some of our laboring practices be suggestive of different ways of being in and knowing the world? How can they help us locate and develop alternatives to the existing configuration of social relations? What, in other words, is the subversive potential of women’s laboring practices? I argue that–to the extent that these practices exceed the scope of current standards of cultural and socioeconomic valorization, to the extent that, for example, the labor of creating and sustaining socially necessary forms of sociality cannot be contained, cannot be accounted for, and cannot be valued adequately within the existing mode of production–they carry the potential to enable and cultivate antagonistic subjects. Standpoint theories attempt to fashion from our everyday practices a chain of critical levers that can inspire our disloyalty and disobedience to the values of the larger social formation. By this interpretation, “women’s work” is not just an instance of women’s oppression and exploitation, it is also a site where alternatives can be constructed; women’s laboring practices are not only constraining, but also potentially enabling. This potential power, these alternatives, are located not in some natural or metaphysical essence, but in our practices; more specifically, these possibilities of feminist subjectivity, of feminist political agency, are grounded in an ontology of laboring practices.

A standpoint, a collective project designed to affirm and pursue some of these possibilities, is the final element of this theoretical tradition that I want to highlight and affirm. Standpoints are constructed around the potential ontological and epistemological consequences of these laboring practices. A standpoint is constitutive of and constituted by a collective subject, in this case a feminist subject grounded in women’s laboring practices and situated within the larger field of social relations that I call totality. In a time when some feminist theories are reacting to the valuable critiques of essentialism by retreating from every theory of subjectivity, when some would seem to be translating the critique of humanism into the death of the subject, when some are responding to the oppressive and homogenizing focus on unity that has informed so many accounts and practices of feminist collectivities by committing themselves just as exclusively to the valorization of difference in a way that often simply recapitulates the logic of liberal individualism, standpoint theory points us in the direction of one possible alternative, towards models of collective subjectivity.