Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Judith Butler's Undoing Gender

Thanks to Sour Duck for pointing me towards a post about Judith Butler which touches on issues of consumerism and gender. SD thought the post would be relevant to a previous discussion on the Sexism of Father's Day. In the post quoted above, Butler gives an interview in which she is questioned about whether consumerism creates the desire, in essence creating the gender boundaries that it caters to.

KR: The philosopher Luce Irigaray has claimed that the new gender politics are a creature of consumerism. You have rightly insisted that the need to address the social violence experienced by people in this situation is not an issue of ‘new’ desires - these desires were already in existence. It may another issue entirely, but I did wonder whether you have any comment or reflection on the commercial manufacture of pleasure? JB: I think that sometimes the charge of consumerism is actually an attack on notions of autonomy, and that we have to be careful not to debase all reference to “choice” and to “freedom” as nothing other than consumer prerogatives. I think that transgendered people may opt for certain kinds of medical and surgical procedures and want to pay for them or to have them paid for. But this does not mean that the desires are themselves produced by the commodity. The commodity form vexes our desire, doubtlessly, but it does not always or necessarily determine it. If we believed that it did, we would have to debase all forms of personal agency, desire, and need, and understand capitalism as an all-determining structure. Capitalism poses conflicts and problems for all of us, and none of has a desire that is utterly purified of the commodity form. But this is a point of departure for a difficult negotiation. It’s not the end of freedom.
I agree with Butler that the question of commodity and capitalism complicates the situation (and forgive me for my layman's interpretation of her words -- I am by no means a feminist scholar. I'm just concentrating really hard on the words of her interview). In my Father's Day post, the question arose as to whether big businesses were catering towards existing "maleness" within a male parent, or if their sales were in some ways defining for us our notions of fatherhood. Nature vs. nurture: are men, by nature, more interested in golf and gadgetry and so choose to shop from such stores during Father's Day thus perpetuating the malehood that we know and love, or do big businesses take long-standing notions of manhood and cater their sales to that, thereby normalizing manhood, creating their own market? What Butler points to however is the question of autonomy or choice. She maintains (if I'm reading this correctly) that we still, as consumers maintain the choice to buy or not buy (both the products and the stereotypes). I guess this is where I differ from Butler -- her view is fundamentally optimistic, and mine is fundamentally cynical. Butler argues that the desire is inherent within the consumer, and that we have the choice to move away from it if we so desire, but I don't think meaningful choice can exist if we are not aware of our choice. Choice is a navigation between two alternatives, but it can only exist if we know not only what the alternatives are but even that there exists choice and alternatives within our decision. The problem with Father's Day is the normalization. The most effect pursuit of capital is all about removing choice from the equation: it creates a reliable, predictable market that never wavers. The question for feminists and other activists is not whether capitalism is an all-determining structure, because I think it is (at least in America). Our society has been built upon it since its inception, as one of our founding concepts. The question is how we can find a way to negotiate our interests within the system.