Academic journal article Philosophy Today

“What’s Love Got to Do with It?”: Allison Weir’s Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory between Power and Connection

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

“What’s Love Got to Do with It?”: Allison Weir’s Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory between Power and Connection

Article excerpt

At some point in our lives we have all felt like insects, pinned, labeled and displayed by someone and defined in ways that we don't embrace, and for purposes that are not our own. But, Allison Weir asks in her recent book, Identities and Freedom: Feminist Theory between Power and Connection, are identities inevitably alien and constraining? Certainly, she points out, contemporary feminists have tended to conceive identities in this way, viewing them as oppressive "subject positions" sculpted by complex intersections of language, law, power, and hierarchical social interactions.1 The most famous example of this sort of reification is Althusser's policeman, who shouts, "Stop thief!" In an instant, "power" frames someone as an intelligible-if not upstanding-member of a social world. From this perspective, identities are created not by individuals, but individuals by their identities. When further analyzed we discover that identities conceived along these lines are shaped not only by power but as "founded on a binary logic of exclusion and a policing of boundaries."2 To be a woman is not to be a man, to be gay is not to be straight, and so on. In such accounts, Weir concludes, the self is "constituted through disciplinary regimes of power that name and classify, that enable individuation only as they imprison."3 This is why identity is equated with "subjectification," subjectification with subjection, and subjection with alienation and exploitation.

Judith Butler has claimed that despite the inscription of normative identities via the binary exclusions of power, subjects can resist power, though, she adds as a caveat, while we can possibly refuse to be what we are called, we cannot escape the operation of law, one of power's most potent effects. She writes, "Yet the call is always the call of the law, and agency consist in misrecognition that resists the law."4 Resistance is thus always already shaped by the law that it refuses, meaning that agency is "the dual possibility of being both constituted by the law and an effect of resistance to the law"5

Weir, pressing Butler, claims that because she makes identities the work of power and exclusion, it is difficult to explain how critique and change are possible. Her appeal to legal "misrecognition" through which an oppositional politics might slink, seems, Weir claims, inadequate to explain struggles for recognition and seems to suggest that the law, language, or some other discursive field, is identical with the self's agency.

It is because she collapses agency and misrecognition, Weir claims, that Butler fails to hit the feminist mark. Not only are our identities not sedimentations of power because they are not things, but, they are, in addition, not reducible solely to power. Despite their rejection of the metaphysics of substance, when Butler and Foucault describe the self as an internalized effect of power, they make it a kind of thing viewed as the site of power's activity via the operations of language, law, or psyche. One can see this metaphysical creep, for example, when Foucault claims that understanding who we are requires recognizing that the "self we discover is necessarily the sedimentation of normalizing and coercive regimes of power" Butler tends to use a language that figures subjectivity as an effect of something else, but describing something as an "effect" comes, Weir suggests, uncomfortably close to describing something as a thing. Whether such effects are actually conceived to be substantial or not, Weir argues, at the heart of such theories is, in any case, a paradoxical equation of a self's agency and its subjection.6 While Butler, like many other feminists, accepts this paradox and accepts the claim that the self is founded in the same moment as both subaltern and agent, as effect and origin, Weir does not.

"While," Weir writes, "there is no doubt that women's identities have been historically constituted through systematic oppression," trying to understand them solely in terms of these exclusions and domination ignores the complex intersections of the multiple identities that constitute any one person. …

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