DON’T GET A GRIP
AN OPINION BY AMANDA SCHWARZ-NIELSEN
It is only good if feminism seems divided and in disagreement for it is in criticism (also the internal criticism) that feminism has potential for change. Feminism in agreement is dead feminism.
You may read feminist journals, websites and blogs, or go to feminist presentations and events. In that case, you’ll soon get the impression that feminism seems to be clouded in internal disagreement and essentially divided. Whether it’s Emma Watson, Beyoncé, prostitution or pornography – you can be assured that the feminist praise that Emma Watson’s speech gets on the internet will be matched by equal amounts of feminist criticism. You may have tried to find “safe” feminist issues – issues where you can find clarification, consensus and direction on which “all feminists agree”! But feminism is no ordinary dinner party. Even in your eyes, innocent phrases about the weather can be met with a violent storm from fellow feminists.
Is it because there are certain camps in feminism jostling for the same space? Seemingly not. You can’t easily identify two camps, three camps or eight camps in feminism. There is probably rather somewhere between one and infinitely in counting. And there is not always a comprehensible link between saying one thing and another.
It may look as if there is no system and direction in feminism. It might seem confusing. Are we even talking about the same thing here? It can take courage and frustration to identify as a feminist. Just as you feel comfortable in a feminist argument against prostitution or the like, you’ll get hit by a shit-storm of arguments against it by someone who similarly identifies themselves as feminist. And no matter what is argued, there is always a fierce feminist, non-Western criticism that puts everything to the wall!
In many other respects, internal disagreement and confusion seem like a weakness, and especially in political contexts. For example, if a political party seems divided, the party is slaughtered in the media. It seems frivolous and unprofessional to disagree. And when we generally participate in a discussion, is it not with the purpose of convincing others to agree with us? And if we see someone trying to convince others of something without succeeding, would we not consider the arguments as not being “good enough”? We expect that there must be something wrong with the inner mechanics of a system if it is characterized by controversy. We think we will have to fix it first before we can get along.
But feminism doesn’t need control, and feminism is not in a crisis, nor is it weak due to internal doubts and criticism. Doubt and criticism, even internally, is feminism muscle power to challenge the world, not its Achilles heel.
A constant flow
It is not foreign to most feminists to perceive feminism as a movement attempting to change gender power relations. The feminist approach is very often to question the existing gender order – questions about whether certain gender orders can be called natural, whom they benefit, how power relations work, how the gender order is developed, etc. And through questioning, we can reveal conditions we take for granted and thereby claim other sides of life.
But feminism is not an issue where one settles with simply one answer. It should be seen more as a procedural development where uncovering one power relation just reveals another. You close one door behind you just to find yourself in a new room with new power relations to understand, uncover or question. Feminism can never be satisfied. A content mode is simply to be satisfied with power relations that you may not have identified yet (or prefer, for some reason, not to question). It can quickly give the impression of paranoia whereby feminism actively searches for problems everywhere. But it’s not a bad thing to turn every stone. The problem arises when criticism only leads to constraining and disabling. It’s hard to imagine any such criticism since most criticism will more or less bear a progressive potential for either breaking something down, rearranging or moving ideas and concepts around and thereby, producing new meanings.
To give an example of what I would conceive as “negative” criticism would be one that targets language in pettiness. Language might be limiting and create simplifying and damaging categories for one’s identity, but criticism of that sort can quickly turn into an obstruction. Another example is criticizing men, white people or the like, in never really having the grounds for a true understanding of their own privileges and the conditions that women or black people have to face. These criticisms are not necessarily good or bad, true or false. The question is, however: where do they lead us? They might create a small ground for rearranging and constructing new ideas, but they also blow up huge negative spaces, which we cannot address or access, and that we constantly have to push around in front of us, obstructing and limiting other ideas. With these examples, you are already “wrong” as soon as you speak, and some people would already be “wrong” before they even formed a thought in the first place. It can also be called to stay within a “boundary of negativity”. Where this boundary lies, no one knows, and it is most likely flexible to all sorts of variable conditions.
Looking at feminism as a process of critical thought
Feminism’s recent development is a good example of internal procedural criticism driven by investigative, critical questions.Put very simply: in the beginning, when feminist criticism of society was aimed at gender equality and the contemporary power relations, it quickly raised several other feminist-critical questions about the underlying premises which define the conditions of equality. Should it be based on the current appearance of the genders,or should gender be thought of as departing from biology? It led to a flow of feminist thought that was committed to understanding sex thoroughly. For example, feminists started to circle around the concept of sex and gender categories as something separate, whereby sex was to beunderstood as the “biological sex” and gender as it is “cultural sex”. But again, these ideas were once again met with more feminist questions and critique. Best known is perhaps Judith Butler’s criticism of the constant search for a kind of “gender core”. It was problematized that if we continue imagining a natural or biological core of gender,we will continue to have a rigid and limiting expectation of how gender should be. And it is such expectations that we would consequently impose on others.
So feminism works by constantly tuning into new areas. Both by criticism and questions aimed at the outside world but also, perhaps even more importantly, internally.
This does not mean however, that each single part in this feminist process of ideas, opinions and so on are less feminist or necessarily bad, just because they can be met by some kind of criticism. This can be illustrated with another example, which is also debated heavily by feminists at the moment: whether Beyoncé is a feminist or not. Thinking in these terms, the question gets rather pointless, and can easily be answered with yes, she’s a feminist. She points to several gendered subjects. She stirs, in her own way, gendered power relations. One should rather ask: “How is she a feminist?” Or, if one were to discuss it very critically, how much her feminist approach is actually daring and contributing. As criticism can become negative and not very contributing when it surpasses the “boundary of negativity”, so too can criticism have only little to offer if it stays too safe and fears approaching the very same boundary. Or, in other words, you can also jump off the train of the feminist process of critical thoughts too early for it to get really exciting or reflective. I wouldn’t say that this is the case with Beyoncé. Far from it. But if I were to discuss the topic, it would be on those terms, and not whether she’s a feminist or not. The same goes for Emma Watson’s speech and many other feminist topics. And anyway, understanding feminism as a process or line of critical thoughts implies that there will never be a perfect feminist argument or a perfect feminist in the first place. Also it is difficult to realize the potential input feminism loses each time something or someone is labeled as “non-feminist”. Indeed, it can be a very costly exclusion.
But it is a fair discussion – how going beyond or staying too far away from a “boundary of negativity” both imply their own sets of problems: How going beyond the boundary end up obstructing and constraining, and how staying too far from the boundary doesn’t imply very much feminism! Is this suggesting that you cannot be a feminist if you do not think there is something “wrong”? Something, however tiny, which is not worth criticizing, questioning or being reflective about? I would say yes, because there is nothing inherent in being a feminist. It is not like being a person with brown eyes, which inherently means that your eye color is brown. You cannot be born a feminist. It is not an exclusion to insist, that you’ll have to come to the party, in order to have been at the party. If this was the case, “feminism” would be an indifferent term.
But each link along these extremes can in their own way be cool and feminist, like Beyoncé. And even going beyond can be considered as a feminist approach, even though it can easily get tangled up and problematic.
Underneath the mask there is a face with no features
A good illustration of this feminist process or line of thoughts is masks and unmasking – that is, feminism aims to unmask power relations through its criticism, in order to see otherwise naturalized elements and relationships more clearly. But the imagined picture of masks and unmasking also creates a notion that if a sufficient number of masks are removed, a face will appear underneath. Therefore, to reach this face, clearing it from all these dubious masks must seem like feminism’s ultimate goal. Free of masks, only the genuine gender will be left. If feminism reaches this point, it will be able relax and sit comfortably back.
But feminism will not find a face, or at least not a face, feminism would be able to read. It would be as incomprehensible as a face with no facial features. Why? Because there will never be at state without power relations, and therefore, what would seem as the final underlying face, would just at a closer glance be another mask. If feminism were nonetheless to achieve this ultimate objective, it would kill feminism. Feminism lives in its constant critical flow. A comfortable stage is a dead stage for feminism. But, just as hard to read the underlying face is for feminism, just as packed with information the masks are. There is a manner, or a way of feminism, a mask – but not a something, a particular, a face of feminism.
There is therefore no direction or coordinates to reach. There is no face to imitate. To put it more in daily terms: You will be no more or less feminist if you shave armpits or you don’t. The feminist part herein lies in asking why we respectively shave or whatever. When the feminist landscape seems almost schizophrenic and torn, it is because there is no comfortable island in feminism. There is a force of constant re-evaluation and reflection which means there is no easy way around it. There is no end in unmasking. Suddenly, it is not clarification which is sought, but the questions and criticism in itself. Disagreement becomes desirable, not consensus.
A bumpy ride, but the best ride nonetheless
So feminism seems split in internal disagreement, and it is easy to jump to the conclusion that there is a lack of direction or agreement, but with feminism, we must accept that there need not be a particular face or a particular point to reach. Unity is not something that is sought for the sake of unity.
It has its advantages. It fuels a feminism that is constantly evolving. It does not block itself by clarifying beforehand what is or is not its only rigid objective. It creates space and opportunity for more criticism – both internally of feminism and externally, of society. One can additionally not blame or accuse feminism to preach one particular social order and gender decor. It also means that it is hard to criticize feminism in itself, since this “itself” isn’t settled. What one can criticize is the questions feminism asks or fails to ask. And if you do, you contribute in just another way to the feminist dialogue.
In this sense, feminism, which probably seems overwhelming, divided, in disagreement – is in a larger perspective, a roaring river, which no one can truly control or direct, but with lots of potential for change. Feminism does not dry out through disagreements. Additionally, when we zoom out, it may be that we will actually find unifying elements of feminism in 2014. At some time perhaps we can better see common trends. But right now, when you wade out to feminist events, read feminist blogs, books or websites or participate in feminist conversations, the small feminist encounters in everyday life will tend to often involve elements of frustration. There is no sure footing in the current and no way to get a grip, but this is not something that feminism needs. So don’t get a grip.
This article is featured in HYSTERIA #5 ‘Nonsense’. Support us producing this issue and receive a copy! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/829143091/hysteria-5-nonsense
Artwork © Amanda Schwarz-Nielsen