Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bell Hooks and Post-Marxism

In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks proposes a very radical form of feminism--a brand of feminism that I read as the inevitable product of the belief that class, race, and gender are inextricably bound to one another. This brand is specifically Marxist, as it primarily consists of a critique of the current "racist, sexist, capitalist state"--one of hooks's favorite and frequently repeated phrases--and gestures toward the development of a new social order based not on artificial (gender, racial, economic, and political) dualism but on the respect for each individual as an individual, not a politically constructed identity. Hooks's prose is simple, straightforward, and accessible, so I will not spend much time on summarizing her argument here; I will rather briefly examine a couple of rhetorical effects produced by her prose, as well as compare her idea of political progress with that of another post-Marxist feminist, Wendy Brown, and that of a more conservative feminist, Susan Gubar.

Let's begin by examining hooks and Gubar's "What Ails Feminist Criticism?" together. In her article, Gubar laments the metacritical dissent of the feminist movement; she yearns for the golden days of the early contemporary feminist movement--the days when feminist discourse was dominated by bourgeois white women like herself--and cites hooks as one of the racially conscious theorists that is tearing her sisterhood apart. Hooks in a sense preempts this critique in the very type of work Gubar criticizes; hooks calls for solidarity among women rather than support, and she clearly distinguished them from one another. What Gubar misses is support: the type of blind assent to dominant feminist discourse that stifles discussion and solidifies the positions of power that those who dominate dominant discourse--white bourgeois women--hold. Hooks sees this as counterproductive; she calls for women to work in solidarity: rather than unconditionally agree with one another, she would have women constructively criticize one another and feminist ideology itself, as the solidification of feminism into an authoritative ideology simply works within the flawed system of oppression inherent to our existing political and social worldviews.

Gubar's complaint about what one might call the reverse-discrimination of feminists that "specialize" in particular brands of identity theory--racially-informed feminists, queer theorists, Marxist and socialist feminists--remains interesting, however, and perhaps provides a useful critical framework (or at least a very small part of one) with which to read hooks. Hooks attempts to augment her argument for the abolition of "sexist oppression"--which for her includes issues of race and class--with the particular type of language she uses. Her most apparent (explicitly explained, really,) rhetorical strategy consists of shifting away from the phrase "I am a feminist" in favor of the phrase "I advocate feminism." This strategy resists identity politics and thwarts the system of political subject formation that represents the root cause of dichotomous gender, race, and class oppression. Another strategy she deploys is her refusal to use articles before "feminist movement." This implies not an organized political party but a broader social agitation, a shift in our way of looking at the world that is not rooted in a specific social group or identity; one might compare it to Marx and Engel's description of Communism in the very first sentence of Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei: "Ein Gespenst geht  um in Europa--das Gespenst der Kommunismus" [trans.: "A ghost is going around in Europe--the ghost of Communism"]. Just as the ghost of Communism was for Marx everywhere and nowhere, the ghost of feminism is for hooks "movement," not "a movement."

This rhetoric of inclusivity is complicated by hooks's use of pronouns, however. Once she begins talking about women of color, she begins to use "we." Despite her insistence that individuals must overcome the political formation and subjugation of identity, she clearly develops a community of non-white feminists by appropriating a label for herself, a label which she assumes her audience shares. Throughout much of the first few chapters, hooks refers to women as "women," attempting to locate herself as an objective outsider (or at least as a sufficiently self-aware subjective insider.) Her sudden shift to "we" when she begins discussing women of color, however,--a we that directly addresses the reader and assumes the reader's complicity--suggests that despite the glaring problems with Gubar's article, there is perhaps a kernel of validity to her assertion that hooks, at least, develops her theory in the exclusionary, categorical way that she indites bourgeois white women for.

To conclude this post, I'd like to bring in Wendy Brown's essay "Rights and Identity in Late Modernity: Revisiting the 'Jewish Question'"--published in Identities, Politics, and Rights, ed. by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns--which, rather than directly contradict hooks's brand of post-Marxist, metacritical feminism, informs and perhaps modifies hooks's proposed path for the revolution by closely reading Marx's "Zur Judenfrage" and two feminist legal theorists. Although much of contemporary feminism focuses on gaining "rights" for women--this comes dangerously close to a quest for equality men within the existing legal system, a quest that hooks herself warns against--Brown complicates the status of rights as a step along the route to a revolutionarily new society that exists independent of oppression. Marx differentiates between "political emancipation" and "human emancipation" in his essay "Zur Judenfrage", and she suggests that political emancipation (theoretical freedom bestowed by the state) means nothing if it is not accompanied by the institution of this theoretical freedom in the real lives of real individuals. Brown combines this analysis with Foucaultian concepts of the socially constructed subject (in gender-theoretical terms, the socially constructed identity) and suggests that by conferring rights on oppressed groups, the state simply mystifies its discursive and political hegemony over these individuals and reinforces the political identities that are the source of alterity-based oppression. Brown does not resolve this paradox, but her analytical framework complicates hooks's view (primarily lifted, according to her, from Sandra Harding's "Feminism: Reform or Revolution") that the slow political and legal reform of society constitutes the feminist revolution.

Hooks provides a much needed perspective on a traditionally white bourgeois feminist discourse, but it is important to keep in mind that her perspective is not unproblematic. Despite her compelling focus on oppression in all of its forms and her claim to a certain type of objectivity, her perspective also has its limitations, and although her politically broad (though not especially analytically sophisticated) overview of feminism functions as a useful starting point for the reconceptualization of the movement in undichotomous terms (essentially post-Marxist terms), much more sophisticated and in-depth theory must supplement and contextualize her thoughts.

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