What is (a) feminist?

Suppose we began with the question “who is able to say what is or is not (a) feminist?”.

By “able to say” we could mean either “competent to say”, or “authorised to say”: it could be a question of knowing, or of standing. These are not mutually exclusive possibilities.

Compare the question “what is a biologist?”. Anyone, whether or not they are a biologist, can say “a biologist is someone who studies biology”, and can give at least an outline of what that study entails. Biologists and non-biologists can agree in outline on what biology is, and on what one must study in order to be a biologist.

But now suppose someone takes up the theories of Wilhelm Reich concerning orgone energy, and sets out to investigate them. Will biologists agree that these investigations are properly (“scientifically”) biological, that this person is a biologist? Most will not, because most biology nowadays is non-vitalist: it has no use for the hypothesis that there is some “life energy” that infuses all living things. Followers of Reich may nevertheless insist that they are true biologists, albeit of an unorthodox variety. Is the disagreement then a disagreement between biologists, or between biologists and non-biologists? How you characterise the disagreement itself will depend on which “side” you are on.

Jean-Francois Lyotard had a name for this type of disagreement. He called it a “differend”. A differend arises when there is disagreement among parties to a dispute concerning the very character of the dispute itself. The non-Reichian biologists will say that vitalist “biology” is excluded by definition: one cannot be a vitalist and a (“scientific”) biologist. The Reichian (non-)biologists will say that the word “scientific” is being used as a marker of arbitrary authority: the definition that excludes them isn’t neutral or universally accepted, but is the self-branding of an in-group that seeks to maintain ownership of the authority and prestige of “biology” as a legitimate science. For one side, it is a matter of knowledge (“our judgement is based on our knowing, as experts in the field, what biology is and is not”); for the other, a matter of standing (“you self-declared biologists assert that we are not biologists based purely on your institutional authority, which we are threatening with our unorthodox ideas”).

It’s a familiar scenario. Differends are often disputes over legitimation, or over the means of legitimation. What can legitimate a judgement? Who decides, and how?

If there existed a neutral, universal definition of what constituted feminism, then anybody, feminist or not, could answer the question “what is (a) feminist?” provided they had properly grasped the definition. There would be no scandal whatsoever in the present (male) author providing an answer. The only issue would be whether or not the answer was correct. That this is not the case is evident for two reasons:

  1. There is certainly some scandal in a male speaker proposing to give a definition of what feminism is. Some people would reject the definition even if it accorded with their own. Or, rather, they would reject the gesture of giving a definition, as performed by this (male) person. The speech-act, although ostensibly “constative”, would misfire, not because the facts did not stand as they were asserted to stand, but because the speaker had no standing to make such an assertion. This is unusual. We do not typically require a person making a constative utterance (“the door is ajar”) to have the correct standing in order for the utterance to be accepted as successful (“who are you to say that the door is ajar?”).
  2. There are ongoing disputes between feminists which concern, amongst other things, the legitimacy of each side’s claim to be speaking and acting as “good” or legitimate feminists. Every variety of feminism has its own image of the “false” feminist: the “fauxminist”, the man-pleasing dupe of patriarchy, the white feminist oblivious to intersectional complexity, the authoritarian who invalidates the choices of other women and so on. To describe such disputes as intra-feminist is to beg the question. They are just as much disputes over what counts as feminism, over where the boundaries of legitimate feminist thought and action lie.

One way of resolving the problem of legitimation is to take some particular community of speakers as the source of legitimacy. Thus: feminism is (say some feminists) the political discourse of women, speaking amongst themselves about that which concerns them. An utterance is legitimately feminist if it circulates in the proper manner, amongst women, as an instance of women’s political speech. The structure of address can be such that “woman” is speaker, hearer, referent (as subject of “lived experience”) and (as political Subject) “sense” of the statement (i.e. the milieu within which the statement resonates is that of “the women’s movement”). Given that an utterance serves the purposes of this community, articulating its experiences, binding speakers and hearers together, strengthening its capacity for decision and action, it may be nominated as feminist. It is then possible to identify disputes and “contradictions” in feminist speech as internal to the community of feminist speakers: not differends, but differences merely.

This solution seems promising. It has been tried before. It doesn’t work. (There is no doubt some scandal in a male author saying this, too; but don’t shoot the messenger). Fundamentally, it doesn’t work because the community of “women” is riven by real social antagonisms — class, race, sexuality — which generate differends which the identity “woman”, as legitimating instance, is unable to resolve. The strongest contemporary symptom of this malfunction is the community’s inability to decide the status of trans women: it is seemingly irreparably divided between those who “include” and those who “exclude” trans women from the community of feminist speakers, legitimate occupiers of “women’s space”, and participants in feminist political subjectivity. This is not an internal contradiction, but a genuine differend: one group of speakers effectively denies that it is possible to treat the speech of another group as legitimately feminist.

It is not surprising that questions of scientific legitimacy are involved in this question; that “biology” is called upon to legitimate true-born womanhood, to establish it as a matter of fact beyond dispute. Equally unsurprising that the crisis of legitimation spreads, so that before long the argument becomes about the status of scientific knowledge, the interpretation of biological data, the relationship of theory to observation and so on. Is “sexual dimorphism” the projection onto the fuzzy domain of empirical reality of our socially-constructed categories of “gender”? Do the embodied experiences of “intersex” people have a bearing on our understanding of gender identity? The questions multiply. But the problem of legitimation will not be resolved by answering them.

My friend Lucca Fraser has suggested an adaptation of a maxim of Alain Badiou’s: “we conceive feminism as the discourse with which woman sustains herself as subject. We must never let go of this idea”. (Originally of course it was “Marxism” and “the proletariat”). Am I then arguing that we must after all let go of that idea? (What “we” would that be, now?). No; but I think the problem I have been outlining forces a modification in our understanding of what a “subject” — a “political subject” in particular — can be. What it cannot be is a settled identity which is positioned as a legitimating instance, according to which statements and acts can be evaluated as “feminist” or “not feminist”. A political subject cannot seek legitimacy in its own accomplished identity, but must rather legitimate its actions by constructing and testing, as it goes along, the relevant criteria. (This does not rule out the possibility of decisive exclusions: sometimes it is perfectly necessary to assign a notion to the enemy, and cast it into the fire). There are more answers to the question “(how) does this act or utterance sustain the subject of women’s political liberation?” than there are inflections of gender identity. When it comes to the question “what is (a) feminist?”, no-one can claim to have all the answers in advance.

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