Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
Between Baudrillard, Braidotti and Butler: Rethinking Left-Wing Feminist Theory in Light of Neoliberal Acceleration
Dr. Ingrid M. Hoofd
(Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore)
In the face of the contemporary rise of right-wing discourses and their disenfranchising neoliberal arrangements, left-wing feminists in Europe find themselves in a state of disheartenment and despair. As we can see from several gender-related conferences over the last years, this disheartenment has left-wing feminists segue into two seemingly opposite directions. On the one hand, some of them become nostalgic for the lost energy and impact of the second wave and the nurturing arrangements of the old welfare states. This nostalgia was particularly present at the 6th European Gender Research Conference in Poland a few years back, where several European academics profusely lamented the lost era of spirited second wave feminist activism. On the other hand, calls from other feminists for a vigour even stronger than that of that second wave were raised in an effort to efface this nostalgia. At that same Gender Conference, these calls to action pressed for a more abundant use of the new technologies for feminism. The calls sought to overcome the sense of dejection and (the fear of) a certain vacillation in an admirable attempt to reground the feminist project of gendered justice.
At the time of the Polish Gender Conference, I found it significant that these two sentiments – the forlorn nostalgia and the call for vigorous mediated action – occurred at a time in a European Union marked by the expansion of its institutional and neoliberal borders eastward. Speaking a number of years later with more knowledge about the trajectory of the global credit crisis, I find it in turn remarkable that the state of disheartenment among left-wing feminists occurred at the very moment when global capitalism entered the initial stage of this crisis – as if these feminists had a sense of foreboding, or as if the dejected feelings and subsequent calls for vigorous media-politics in the feminist debates were an indication of the larger gulf of economic despair that was yet to come. Today, I am more than ever convinced that there is an intimate relationship between the sentiments of feminist despair and its call for mediated activism, and the contemporary aggravation of violence under neoliberal capitalist expansion and crisis. It seems especially interesting that this crisis presented itself initially through cultural and conceptual differences and oppositional politics – like the nostalgic versus techno-activist one – inside various areas of European and American feminism. In trying to understand the contemporary significance of such sites of difference, I suggest that one major site of contention in feminist theory over the last decades is exemplary for the way calls for nostalgia and techno-salvation fail to sufficiently raise the stakes vis-à-vis global financial crises. The superficial clash between nostalgia and techno-salvation is really a derivative of a more fundamental clash in feminist theory, namely that of the conceptual (non-)difference of the subject. Therefore, if feminist theories of the subject want to remain meaningful in the face of these formidable calamities of global capitalism, they will have to start with a thorough questioning of how its own adversarial debates may relate to such calamities.
To connect the issue of economic disheartenment of the last years to the problem of the subject in feminist theory may seem like somewhat of a leap. But I claim that the contemporary technological conditions tie the subject of feminist politics intimately to the neoliberal acceleration of capital. The Gender Conference in Poland provides a good starting point for a thorough investigation around the implications of oppositional debates in some sectors of feminist theory in neoliberal capital and its crisis. This is partly because the conference was suffused with the above sentiments, but also because two its keynote speakers, Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler, engaged in precisely an adversarial yet friendly discussion that touched upon all the above issues of techno-activism, nostalgia, and the subject. Braidotti’s and Butler’s quasi-oppositional politics – and they have been good friends and sparring partners for a few decades in the feminist arena – are therefore representative of how the subject in left-wing feminist theory has become tied in with neoliberal acceleration. I propose that Braidotti’s nomadic and Butler’s Lacanian-poststructuralist subjects are today actually two sides of the same coin. If two seemingly non-commensurable notions of the subject appear valid at the same historical point in time in the heterogeneous discipline that is feminist theory, then these may be symptomatic of the escalating reproduction of relative difference in service of the acceleration of capital. The ways in which Braidotti and Butler think through the problematic and possibilities of the subject together, may give us clues as to which direction left-wing feminist theory may take that neither retreats in nostalgic reminiscence, nor falls in the trap of reproducing techno-neo-liberalism.
I will use Jean Baudrillard’s ideas on media technologies and capitalism to make sense of the debates between Butler and Braidotti. I realise this is somewhat risky, as Baudrillard has been condemned as an anti-feminist philosopher [See Gallop (1987), Morris (1988), Kellner (1989), and Plant (1993). For an excellent reading of Kellner’s misinterpretation of and Morris’s more interesting engagement with Baudrillard, see Gane (1991, 2000)]. This criticism makes some sense: Baudrillard’s major mistake has in my opinion been his caricaturizing of feminism as mere emancipation. I do however suggest that the feminist critiques on Baudrillard have thrown out the metaphorical baby with the bathwater. His suggestions about politics, the media and seduction, could greatly help raising the versatility of feminist theory in light of techno-neo-liberalism. Of interest here is that Butler and Braidotti’s renditions of the subject and the possibilities of subversion share common ground with Baudrillard, even though he never talks about subjectivity as such – the reason being exactly that the concept has been too central to subversion and polluted with hegemony. Nonetheless, Braidotti’s nomadism coincides agreeably with Baudrillard’s point that the ‘game of seduction’ only occurs in the presence of radical alterity, and Butler’s Lacanian subject agrees with Baudrillard’s description of how a more endemic lack attaches itself to personhood under technocratic capitalism. Also, Butler incessantly expresses her weariness regarding Braidotti’s optimism – a weariness she again voiced at the aforementioned Gender Conference. Baudrillard is therefore helpful in teasing out how Butler’s theory of the subject and her critique of identity politics are increasingly valid due to the progression of capitalism, but that Butler’s politics of the subject was effective only under an older form of capitalism with its conventional system of representation, where politics resided in the battle over active visibility, and where the fate of social transformation resided in an iterability engendered through such a politics.
The problem of re-grounding feminist politics by use of any subject-centred politics can quite easily be unearthed through Baudrillard’s critique of liberation. The complicity of feminist left-wing nostalgia and techno-salvation in late-capitalism lies in the illusion of subjective emancipation and communication that communicative capitalism upholds – communication technologies which are the main exponents of the deferred promise or aporia of Western humanism. Baudrillard claims throughout his oeuvre that any contemporary politics that fancies grounding itself in the idea of ‘expressing and liberating oneself through mediated communication’ is today accelerating the neoliberal machine while living in the hallucination of facilitating a subversive event. In light of this, it becomes clear that feminist nostalgic reminiscence as well as mediated techno-happy action problematically repeat the Eurocentric myth of the humanist European project as a truly emancipatory affair. They therefore facilitate the emergence of what I in my work call the speed-elite. Speed-elitist discourses typically validate connection, instantaneity, liberation, multiplicity and border-crossing, and often promote highly mediated spaces for action and communication. Such discourses suppress the colonial and patriarchal history of those technological spaces and dialogues. Speed-elitism, as the contemporary high-tech exponent of Euro-centrism, fosters an oppressive sort of unity of struggles through the fantasy of allowing for radical difference. So speed-elitism builds on the formalisation of racism and sexism. The vigorous reinstallation of mediated feminist-subjective activity, and the compulsive quest for salvaging the “subversive” European feminist project by remediating alterity, precisely marks the moment where such alterity gets usurped in the myth of transparent communication that undergirds neoliberal acceleration and disenfranchisement. This remediation of alterity currently runs through romantic feminist recuperations of “Muslim women” and “female migrants” – as if these groups somehow intrinsically challenge neo-liberalism. In Braidotti, it works through a misidentification of radical alterity in those who are becoming nomadic through technological means. In Butler, it runs through a tension in her work, which concerns her affirmation of a subjective politics of re-signification based on the notion of iterability, despite her understanding of such re-signification being borne out of the subject’s lack. The state of left-wing feminist despair should therefore also be read as pointing towards the suppressed history of discursive and material violence that has been inflicted on various raced and classed others in the past and present as an intricate part of European feminism and the techno-scientific project tout court. Feminist nostalgia and techno-salvation therefore function as false oppositions in the service of speed-elitism. This opposition dissimulates the feminist subject of politics’ complicity in the perpetuation of the violence of Western humanism.
Let me make clear that my analyses of the feminist speed-elitist subject do not imply that this critique is itself above such a problematic. After all, this piece also performs, to use Butler’s apt yet often misused term, my stance as a left-wing feminist subject and as such accelerates academic production. This agrees with Baudrillard’s point that increasingly all forms of politics, insofar as they come to exist as mere simulations of politics, are wrapped up in a neoliberal logic that relies on the collapse of the semiotic into the axiomatic. This collapse is possible, argues Baudrillard, because the axiomatic has come to rely on the incessant mediation of signs through the consumption of differentiation between signs (2001a:105-106). Signs become objects for consumption, and difference merely sustains the exploitation of the fallacy of binary oppositions (“self” vis-à-vis “other”) for economic growth. The conceptual distinction between signifier and signified constitutes for Baudrillard not a universal truth about the generation of meaning, but marks a historical moment in the evolution of capitalism. The concept of the signified emerges alongside the capitalist model of exchange value as a supposed derivative of use value (Ibid.:103). Use value (in the form of needs and desires), says Baudrillard, just like the signified (or the referent), is simply conjured up as an ‘alibi’ (2001b:78) for a capitalism that justifies itself by positing those desires for emancipation of the (feminist) subject as natural.
The conclusion for Baudrillard is (1990a), that all contemporary forms of (or signs of) otherness, and our desire to engage with it, liberate it, ally with it, and understand it, are effects of this new stage of capitalism. It relies on the fallacy that such otherness is empirically real and outside the capitalist logic of the reproduction. Otherness in feminist politics of alliance and liberation is then relative otherness, a transparent mirror image of the speed-elitist subject. The media in particular facilitate this logic because they allow for the incessant circulation and differentiation of signs. The media provide the user with the illusion, due to the humanist fantasy of media as transparent communication, that this “other” authentically wants such subjective empowerment and alliance – that we ourselves as much as any “other” naturally want to be or are foremost subjects (under neo-liberalism). But such empowerment and connection become mere moments in the recirculation of signs, and hence of the acceleration of capital. Baudrillard concludes that in this new stage of capitalism marked by a “humanitarian ecumenism” (1990a:131), the other becomes something to “be understood, liberated, coddled, recognised” (Ibid.:125), leading to an “obsession with becoming ‘other’” (Ibid.:129). Baudrillard even asserts that the increase of information in our media-saturated society results in a loss of meaning because it “exhausts itself in the act of staging communication” (Baudrillard, 1994:80). New media technologies exacerbate the subject’s fantasy of true communication, while increasingly what are communicated are mere copies of the same, a ‘recycling in the negative of the traditional institution’ (Ibid.:80). The “lure” (Ibid.:81) of such a system resides in its requirement of active political dissent. This translates in a call to “subjectivize” oneself – to be vocal, be active, to speak, participate, disagree, and “play the ... liberating claim of subjecthood” (Ibid.:85). But radical alterity – that what or those who cannot be assimilated into this logic of humanism and capitalism – is in turn gradually exterminated. What therefore needs to be uncovered is how “difference qua illusion” (Ibid.:131) perpetuates the current logic of capitalism and its problematic reproduction of racism and sexism.
Like Grace (2000) I believe that Baudrillard’s insistence on this major moment in capitalism is of great importance to feminist politics, and not sexist or nihilist as many feminists have made his analysis out to be. In fact, Baudrillard’s critique on the feminist compulsion to see (the subject of) empowerment, alliance and liberation as univocally positive is imperative for understanding how Western feminism can better address its complicity in exploitation. In this sense, Baudrillard simply brings the feminist insistence on dissecting the relationship between patriarchy, racism, technologies and capitalism to its logical conclusion. This analysis has also been present in some feminist critiques of alliance and desire. For instance Spivak (1993) discusses how the fantasy of the subject-agent as the centre for evolution and action, relies on the reproduction of marginality. She implies that subjugation is exercised as a discursive and technological form of imperialist violence. Any claim to authentic marginality becomes a commitment to this imperialist subjugation. Feminisms that rely on the idea of the empirical reality that these margins provide, profess to the belief system – humanism and capitalism – that assigns this marginality. The ones who can empower themselves through this claim for marginality become agents of this logic, since they are a “group susceptible to upward mobility” that function as “authentic inhabitants of the margin” (Spivak, 1990:59). They seemingly prove the universal applicability of the humanist subject and its technologies. Spivak therefore exclaims that all this involves “the creation of a general will for post-industrial finance capitalism ... It’s a very different tactic than industrial capitalism” (2002:179).
It is exactly this “very different tactic” that Baudrillard’s work helps us to understand in much more detail. Nearly all feminist engagements with Baudrillard have stopped short of following through the implications of his thought for a politics based on the humanist idea of subjective empowerment. Many feminists have been suspicious of the emergence of a critique of the subject at the very moment when women finally start to succeed in claiming subjectivity and decentre masculinity from its conceptualisation. Braidotti for instance states that ‘the high priests of postmodernism [may] preach the deconstruction ... of the subject ... truth of the matter is: one cannot deconstruct a subjectivity one has never been fully granted’ (1994:140-141). While this makes sense in terms of its critique on male philosophers problematically hallucinating the feminine as a site of redemption, I would nonetheless like to turn Braidotti’s remark on its head by asking if her insistence on attaining subject-status is perhaps itself a corollary of an intensifying neoliberal demand. Subject-centred politics and difference – like perhaps especially the enactment in conferences and articles of the difference in opinion regarding the subject between Braidotti and Butler – have become exponents of capitalist consumption. Feminist politics of the subject possibly have themselves developed into a simulation of politics that reinforces the neoliberal status quo. In light of this, it is not surprising that the dominant version of ‘the’ history of feminism starts with the first wave of claims for individual rights and equality, at a moment when industrial capitalism and its mechanical logic of reproduction emerged. This feminist claim and its later development in the second wave was then arguably not one that proved the next stage of Western humanist ‘progress,’ but was instead the result of a sort of command which trickily assigned to ‘women’ the semiotic status of being the relative other of ‘men.’ Nostalgia for these feminist waves in turn hallucinates an authentically progressive feminism in Europe’s history where there was foremost a complicity in the oppression and extermination of incommensurable forms of radical (female) alterity, at ‘home’ as well as abroad. Such feminist nostalgia for an imaginary lost origin indeed grounds a racist and classist narrative of feminist liberation as uncomplicated. We can see this logic even at work in Nancy Fraser’s indictment of second wave feminism as implicated in a new form of capitalism. While I agree with Fraser that there is a “disturbing convergence of [feminism’s] ideals with the demands of an emerging new form of capitalism”, she nonetheless narrates the origins of feminism as residing outside any logic of domination (2009:1). For Fraser then, it becomes a question of “reactivating ... [and] recovering feminism’s emancipatory promise” (Ibid.:1-2) against the “new spirit of neo-liberalism” (Ibid.:7). I suggest instead that feminism’s current problem runs much deeper. Despite Fraser’s excellent analysis of the inefficacy of a cultural politics that “claims for recognition over claims for redistribution” (Ibid.:8), her attempt at feminism’s recuperation through “promising new form[s] of activism” and empowerment, like “utilizing communications technologies to establish transnational networks” (Ibid.) is precisely the kind of techno-salvation that the nostalgia for earlier feminism engenders. In fact, the element that Fraser ignores as a possible problematic moment in feminism is where it must “transform those positioned as passive objects of welfare ... into active subjects” (Ibid.: 5, my italics). This is not to say that empowerment is unimportant, but to claim that its politics has become increasingly entangled with neoliberal structures of oppression – hence the sense of desperation at the Gender Conference.
The intensification of the logic that Baudrillard describes shows itself foremost in urgent calls for techno-action. As I mentioned, Braidotti represents a particularly interesting exponent of left-wing feminist techno-salvation. This is because Braidotti pits her argument against aforementioned nostalgia, as if techno-action is diametrically opposed to such nostalgia. But Braidotti’s work also, especially her earlier Nomadic Subjects, contains a critique that agrees well with Baudrillard. Her nomadism is similar to Baudrillard’s idea of how a latent seduction of the subject is always present within any sign-object system, and how the boundary between the subject’s agency and thoughts, and their object, is in any final analysis un-decidable. And yet, Braidotti does not take her nomadism all the way to veritable seduction. Allow me explain the importance here of this Baudrillardian concept in his by feminists much vilified book Seduction. Baudrillard theorizes seduction as that what the speed-elitist order tries to destroy or efface (1990b:2). Our current order of accelerated production will never succeed in destroying seduction, because seduction is imminent in production. The more an order tries to systemically strengthen its power, the more the instability of this order becomes endemic: a reversibility that is always intrinsic to power. Power can therefore never finalise its authority, because of (its) seduction – its master-signifiers are always threatened by the fundamental abyss that underlies the play of signs. It is for this reason that Baudrillard holds that “every discourse is threatened with this sudden reversibility” (Ibid.). Baudrillard’s idea of “seduction” is, it should be noted, akin to Derrida’s “deconstruction” – that what always slips away from our comprehension. Indeed, Baudrillard explains that “in seduction they [identities] find the possibility of a radical otherness” (2003:22).
The ignominy of Baudrillard’s seduction for feminism lies in two problems – problems which are precisely part of that un-decidability between subject and object, and between femininity as an objective property of actual women, and femininity as simulation. Problematic to the extent of annoying is his suggestion that seduction is feminine – indeed, he claims that “seduction and femininity are confounded” (1990b:2). Baudrillard apparently equates femininity with absence and instability, and romanticizes the feminine as more powerful than masculinity. Jane Gallop’s reading of Seduction lifts out precisely those moments that (appear to) insult women (1987). One could counter that Gallop’s focus on appearances nicely mirrors Baudrillard’s own regarding feminism, but this misses the point that the aim of Baudrillard’s challenge is precisely to render gender, sexual identity and masculine superiority superficial or even ridiculous by doubling it – to show that gender exists only at the level of appearances, as if woman is a mere object and man a true subject. This immediately calls identity politics into question, and Baudrillard admits that from his “standpoint, what was at issue was no longer sexual liberation, which seemed to me in the end quite a naive project since it was based on value and sexual identity” (2003:22). This duplicity of identity politics, as well as the un-decidability of theory and object, is crucially also a main theme in Judith Butler’s critiques of representation, but Butler takes a different route with this analysis than Baudrillard. I will return to this shortly. Nonetheless, Baudrillard simultaneously claims that “historically, women had a privileged position in the field of seduction” (2003:23, my italics), which “truth” would lead one to celebrate femininity as if it was more powerful. But of course, such a claim is then as valid and as ridiculous as phallogocentric discourse. This confusion then is again (caused by) seduction.
Baudrillard’s notion of seduction is in many ways similar to Braidotti’s Deleuzian nomadism, but Baudrillard strikingly ridicules Deleuze’s attempt at mobilizing becoming in Seduction. In reference to Deleuze’s Logique du Sense, he writes that:
Becoming is not a matter of more or less. ... Either the world is engaged in a cycle of becoming, and is so engaged at all times, or it is not. At any rate, it makes no sense to “take the side” of becoming ... no more than that of chance, or desire. ... The idea that becoming can thereby [by acceleration] be extended exponentially, turns chance into an energizing function, and stems directly from a confusion with the notion of desire. But this is not chance. ... Chance, once perceived as obscene and insignificant, is to be revived in its insignificance and so become the motto of a nomadic economy of desire (1990b:145-146, italics mine).
The (feminist) subject cannot enact becoming, and becoming does not exist on the plane of the subject’s desire or politics; rather, it is radical alterity – being outside the logic of production, liberation, explanation and representation – that may seduce the subject into becoming. Braidotti’s argument that reversible agency resides in a feminist nomadic politics then reduces becoming to being. Rita Felski remarks that it is curious that Braidotti’s “wish to conceptualize difference as ‘positively other’ collides with the most basic premise of post-structuralist thought, the recognition that the sign ... exists only through its differential relationship to other signs” (1997a:5-6). This is certainly true, but while Felski criticizes difference feminisms as detrimental to the feminist cause, I would instead suggest that the very obsession with difference, so also Felski’s opposition between (sexual) difference-feminism and one based on commensurabilities, is a symptom echoing the collapse of the semiotic and the axiomatic under acceleration. Likewise, Butler’s idea of iterability in for instance which allows her to describe hegemonic versus alternative extensions of power (2005:740) is similar to Baudrillard’s production-seduction logic, but Butler also locates the origins of iterability in subjective agency when speaking of a politics that may effectuate this. But seduction does not stop there. We could read Baudrillard against himself and in turn argue that his politics of seduction, like in the enactment of the masculine-feminine and subject-object opposition, is equally flawed. And this is precisely where Baudrillard’s extraordinary text has us end up as readers: in the moment where we cannot decide whether his analyses and concepts are genuine or bogus – in the moment where indeed, truth (like the ‘truth’ of patriarchal domination and oppression, which assumption feminist politics requires) appears as a fake. A feminist politics of liberation in a capitalist society marked by the implosion of the semiotic in the axiomatic is therefore self-defeating, since it requires as its grounding moment exactly that what it seeks to overthrow. This contradiction within such feminism echoes, I claim, the aporia of humanism. Peggy Kamuf also identifies this aporia of the humanist subject as lying at the heart of a politics of the female or feminist subject. This is because this subject is conceptualized as having overcome the (penis) envy typical of patriarchal notions of the feminine, where instead (penis) envy is what drives that subject. Only an affirmation of the non-viability of total representation, and an awareness of the violence that a belief in total understanding evokes, may open it up to “the chance of difference” (Kamuf, 1997:122), which I agree remains by necessity unpredictable.
Let me now turn to how Braidotti politicizes this debate. I maintain again that Braidotti’s nomadism is on many levels analogous to Baudrillard’s seduction. But over the last years, her work has started to envision subjective politics as a “becoming-machine” (see for instance 2002: 212-263) into a “becoming-imperceptible” (2006d: 259-262). This becoming-imperceptible as a “merging with our environment” and our machines (Ibid.:260) could be read as an indictment of the current objectivization of the subject, but emphatically not as a politics. Read by way of indictment, it becomes apparent that Braidotti has an excellent feel for the intricacies of techno-neo-liberalism, but is mistaken about what politics entails. Furthermore, the mode of production of her argument – writing books, living in various countries, flying to conferences, her online exchanges with Butler – are part of the actual physical circulation of capital, of which her conceptual work is then in turn an echo. Some feminists, like Irene Gedalof have critiqued Braidotti’s notion of the nomad as “a fiction that can only emerge from a position of considerable privilege” (1996:193), and I wholeheartedly agree with this. What I would like to add to this critique is that the very possibility of its conceptualisation – that is, the oppositions like nostalgia and mediated activity that Braidotti mobilizes in her recent work, which hinge on her enactment of what she calls the “transatlantic disconnection” between European sexual difference and North-American (Butler’s) gender politics – are themselves complicit in neoliberal acceleration. So Braidotti is not only dissimulating her own position of Western privilege, as Gedalof rightly claims (Ibid.:192), but more seriously exhibits a form of speed-elitism that is directly actualizing and justifying the contemporary mode of production as if its subjective appropriation enacts seduction. In her keynote response to Butler’s critique of humanism at the Gender Conference in Poland, Braidotti argued for an “ethics of affirmation” that would overcome the melancholic “post-secular mood of the day” (2006a). Such a new feminist ethical position would conceptualise the “encounter with the other as one of possibility”. It would rely on the affirmation of “vital life forces” in humans, animals and technological machinery. Such a “magician’s trick” would turn contemporary suffering ‘into something positive’ (speech and action) and transform the world (and by extension the neoliberal status quo) (Ibid). Many feminists at the conference were greatly enamoured by Braidotti’s powerful rhetoric that instantaneously filled the auditorium with renewed feminist energy. Yet Butler replied that she had trouble with the compulsory optimism of Braidotti’s argument which assumes that one can and should turn suffering into action. No one took Butler’s concern further though.
The problem with Braidotti’s claim is her obscurity around what constitutes the “magician’s trick” and the “vital life force” outside techno-neoliberal structures. I would claim that this ‘force’ which can be used by some to “turn suffering into speech and action” is nothing less than the current repetition of the humanist call for speech and empowerment through the ‘machinery’ of neoliberal acceleration. The justification for such feminist activity depends on the hallucination of “the encounter with the radically other” who is nothing else than a binary opposite, or mirror image, of the self-same speed-elitist subject. In that sense, this relationship to that ‘other’ is indeed ‘one of possibility,’ but a possibility only insofar as this other becomes a figuration in the capitalist demand for transformation through locking her or him into relative difference, compliant with the overarching humanist logic. So when Gedalof mentions in her critique of Braidotti that ‘it is [nonetheless] admirable that Braidotti’s Women’s Studies Department in Utrecht is involved in an inter-European exchange network committed to analyzing specifically European issues of race’ (1996:197), I would instead claim that this well-meant attempt is just as much part of this locking of the other into relative difference. It is thus unsurprising that Braidotti’s argument at the Conference managed to electrify the audience by telling them, like a good management consultant, precisely how to comply and to still believe that such compliance is authentically desired and even genuinely subversive. Her call reinstalled in the audience the belief in the feminist project as inherently progressive. But I read Braidotti’s call for vigorous techno-action as the result of a contemporary capitalist form of crisis management which seeks to suppress the potentially revealing encounter of Western feminism with its own desperation. This is not to say that her idea is untrue, but to say that one cannot split of the positive from the negative so easily, and that to do so can only result in an apology for neo-liberalism and its repression of seduction and radical alterity.
Braidotti likewise argues for a “post-secular” feminist activism by taking a “stand against both nostalgia and melancholia” (2005:178). Here she seeks to address the conceptual tensions around forms of otherness. While she rightly argues that it is important to recognise how “advanced capitalism is a difference engine” that relies on a “vampiric consumption of ‘others’” indebted to humanism’s “constitutive others of the unitary subject,” she nonetheless moves on to say that “otherness remains also the site of production of counter-subjectivities” (Ibid.:170). Crucial is then of course for Braidotti how to “tell the difference” between relative and radical “modes of becoming other” (Ibid.:171). After critiquing the liberal individualist politics of the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali – and I agree with her here – as in many ways an exponent of the fantasy of a unitary West, Braidotti claims that a radical “becoming other” emerges from a “nomadic activism” that affirms what she calls a “post-nationalist European identity and multi-cultural citizenship” (Ibid.:174). Exemplary of this kind of activism are according to Braidotti the border-crossing practices of women in former Yugoslavia, and the “new mobile forms of [female] subjectivity” that emerge under globalisation (Ibid.:176).
Again, Braidotti’s romanticization of these border-crossing others consists of her hallucinating alterity into such migratory practices: instead, border-crossing today is for some a luxury, and for some a necessity, brought about by the disenfranchising imperatives of techno-capitalism. To hold that such practices are only subversive, and that such female agency creates ‘new subjectivities,’ is to misunderstand these activities as authentic displays of an ‘optimism of the will’ (Ibid: 178) when in actuality they are also an effect of new economic and technological conditions. This in turn constitutes an apology for the mobility and nomadism of the speed-elite, as much as for the current neoliberal reformulation and expansion (into Yugoslavia, for instance) of the European Union. Once again, such a hallucination dissimulates the suffering that undergirds such a reformulation. So while Braidotti helpfully seeks to counter the violence of “liberal individualism and techno-capitalism” with her feminist nomadic ethics (2006c, 2006d), this invigorating ethical call to “put the active back in activism" (2005:178) is in fact implicated in neoliberal capitalist expansion and acceleration. The supposedly authentic desires and needs (as use value) of these migrants in Braidotti’s account simply come to signify a concept of nomadism that eerily resembles the incessantly mediated flow of information, as if the true subversiveness of the concept is empirically proven through the existence of these migrants and nomads (as the conjured-up signified). As much as these migrants become the alibi of techno-capitalism and its fantasy of ‘real’ use value, one can only conclude that her feminist argument (2005) merely simulates politics.
Finally, Braidotti contrasts the “progressive project” of the European Union to the “aggressive neo-liberalism” of the United States. Europe today, she says, is a “set of contradictions” (2006b:79), celebrating trans-national spaces but at the same time seeing a surge of nationalism. It is for Braidotti the trans-nationalism and post-nationalism that are the truly progressive ways forward; those who oppose the emergent Union and its trans-national aspirations are either the xenophobic Right or a “largely nostalgic Left” (Ibid.:80). Braidotti again opposes nostalgia, and effectively pushes any left-wing feminist questioning of the ethical grounds for the possible insurrection of borders or identities other than xenophobic ones immediately out of the picture. As in (2005), she makes a convincing case of how the reproduction of difference and marginality has served to establish the superiority of whiteness and Christianity. She also concedes – and I emphatically agree with her here – that being “diasporic, nomadic, or hybrid” is not subversive per se, but “translate to different structural locations in respect to … access and participation to power” (2006b:83). But barely a few sentences later she claims that:
The task of the social critic is to make relevant [these] distinctions … in order to create a politically invested cartography, identifying a common ground that can be shared by multiply-located subjects committed to constructing new post-national subjectivities (Ibid.:83, my italics).
This is surely a most accurate description of the odd compulsion driving the social critic today on many levels. Braidotti’s cartography appears to be an effort to subsume distinctions under a supposedly becoming-minor but nonetheless ‘common’ post-nationalist European umbrella of transgressing borders. The subjects that participate in such a project would be those who ‘transcend the burden of the negative’ (Ibid.:84). Not only does her particular definition of commonality contradict the idea of becoming-minor [a contradiction that returns in the creation of oppositions of ‘the relation’ to the molar (Ibid.), and of “non-purity” to identity (Ibid.:85)], but again condescends “negative emotions” like “anxiety and nostalgia” with an “affirmative translation of this negative … turning it into the active production of multiple [and] complex allegiances” (Ibid.:89), as if these calls for technologically endowed alliance oppose nostalgia. She even argues that this becoming-minor is the “antithesis of the Kantian moral imperative to avoid pain” (Ibid.:90). I cannot help but read such a claim as a licence to not be bothered by (inflicting) pain or suffering, but to jump into techno-action and join the feminist bandwagon from Euro-centrism to speed-elitism without further ado.
Desire, conviction, creativity and vision are, according to Braidotti, the ethical ways to the becoming-minor of Europe – she even concludes that “liberatory potential is directly proportional to the desire … it mobilises” (Ibid.:92). Braidotti actually sounds here like a spokesperson for a multinational corporation. Her argument is indeed especially seductive for a new batch of globetrotting and web-surfing feminists of which I am one. But as much as she declares to want to “question the inner fibres of self-production” (Ibid.:85), such self-reflection of how her own argument is complicit in a romantic revival of the European humanist endeavour is largely absent. It is after all this humanist narrative of emancipation as the grounding motor of neoliberal capitalism that precisely has resulted in the European Union (and her own narrative) being a “set of contradictions” – its eternally deferred promise of liberation increasingly leading to a simulation of politics. I therefore argue that her suggested cartography (2006b) relies on the insurrection of a set of conceptually connected nomadic others, constituted primarily within the capitalist axiomatic. She once again hallucinates a ‘reality’ of common investments in diaspora and migration for a post-national European Union.
While Braidotti tends to fall in the trap of techno-salvation due to a well-meant but harmful confusion of subjective feminist agency with nomadism, Judith Butler’s work has generally been reluctant to carve out any straightforward feminist politics, exactly because of the ever-present intricacy of the positive (liberation) and the negative (oppression). Butler clarifies that her suspicion of Deleuze and of Braidotti’s nomadism stems from her fear that “[s]he was proposing a manic defence against negativity” (2004a:198). But despite the different strategies of Butler and Braidotti, I would urge left-wing feminists to start uncovering the interaction and parallels between them in terms of today’s speed-elitist context. I pointed out earlier that Butler’s understanding of expropriation comes close to Baudrillard’s notion of seduction, even if Baudrillard would narrate this in a way that objects appear to be the agents of expropriation, and not subjects. But more interestingly, Baudrillard can help us understand how Butler’s theoretical concepts echo a parallel movement on the level of simulation. Telling is in particular the way in which her concepts appear as an effect of simulation (2004b). Butler rightly notes that “the question of the relationship between theory and social transformation opens up onto a difficult terrain” (2004b:204). In the sentences that follow however, Butler seems compelled to continue the chapter by saying that she “will argue that theory is itself transformative”, even though theory may not be sufficient for social transformation. I do agree with her that any politics always presumes a theory or philosophy. But while her statement that theory is transformative should have us left-wing feminist academics rejoice in the face of accusations of nihilism and relativism of feminist theory, I instead argue that the fact that theory or indeed thought itself today has become politics should perhaps have us worry. So against the holier-than-thou allegations of (Nussbaum, 1999) that Butler indulges in lofty theory, we should instead ask the reverse question: what are the current technological and discursive conditions that render thought political? In this sense, we possibly do not suffer from a retreat of politics in the university and society, as Butler suggests, but from too much politics – that is, an ongoing echoing, restaging and simulation of politics, constantly refracting itself along the common lines of tension in feminist and other theory (2000:15). One of those refractions concerns ‘American’ gender- and ‘European’ sexual difference theories.
Let me explain the conditions of this simulation by first rereading one of Butler’s earlier texts. Butler argues that a politics of identity is never truly subversive, because it cancels out internal contradictions within identity (1990). The idea of coalition that takes as a starting point a certain “common goal” between participants is therefore, “despite its democratising impulse that motivates coalition politics” (Ibid:352), very thorny. This is because it always presupposes agreements and axioms about how dialogue is to be conducted, as well as some kind of unitary vision of what the outcome of the alliance will be. The premises of alliance thus exclude those who are not implicated in the alliance’s a priori structures and visions. Any space is never a value-free space, and any dialogue or alliance occurs never without the imposition of certain grounds. To pretend there is equality in alliance is to mask the historical and technological conditions of power that make dialogue possible. I would argue that, as this is a very accurate description of alliance, it must also be descriptive of how the fruitful academic dispute between her and Braidotti likewise formally echoes its own technological conditions that reproduce the same through conceptual difference. A telling moment – the moment where Butler’s critique turns into an affirmation of the subject similar to Braidotti’s nomadism – is when she states that ‘... the political task is not to refuse representational politics – as if we could’ (1990:5). This statement displays the extraordinary leap of faith by Butler from a subject of lack towards a transformative politics by virtue of the subject’s iterability. In fact, this leap of faith is scattered throughout pretty much all of Butler’s later writings. In light of this, it is unsurprising that many of Butler’s readers, as she herself mentions, do read her as a Deleuzian (2004a). She even adds jokingly that this must “be a terrible thought to [Braidotti]” (Ibid.:198) – a joke that displays nonetheless a cunning realization of how she and Braidotti share significant common ground. Butler is right then to question the validity of the “transatlantic disconnection” in Braidotti’s argument, which she reformulates more accurately as a “transatlantic exchange” (see 2004a:201-202), but she does not go into out of what (technological and economic) condition the productivity of this exchange and the enactment of its difference emerges.
This neglect to query after this condition of subjective possibility is curious, as Butler is precisely renowned for relentlessly unearthing any such conditions. Hers is an excellent exposition on the dangers if any assumption of the indispensability of the subject for feminist politics remains unquestioned. Butler argues that:
To claim that politics requires a stable subject is to claim that there can be no political opposition to that claim. Indeed, that claim implies that a critique of the subject cannot be a politically informed critique but rather, an act which puts into jeopardy politics as such. To require the subject means to foreclose the domain of the political (1992:4).
I wholeheartedly agree with this critique, and Baudrillard surely would have consented as well. But in light of this argument, it might be revealing to try and read Butler somewhat “against herself” as I did Baudrillard, meanwhile noting that she seems to feel obliged to assure her readers immediately that she does not seek to dispense with the subject altogether (Ibid.). Butler explains the influence of psychoanalysis on her work – in particular, how it helped her understand “the subject [as] produced on the condition of a foreclosure” (2005:737) which means that “I am also driven by something that is prior to and separate from this conscious and intentional ‘I’” (Ibid.:738). It is for this reason that she, like Baudrillard, is very wary of any identity politics which aims for speakability and visibility, because such a politics will only ever reproduce those categories that re-inscribe hegemony. She however does not leave it at this questioning of the idea of emancipation, but seems again compelled to offer a workable feminist strategy that curiously reroutes subversive agency to the feminist subject. The Lacanian foreclosure does not mean at all for Butler that the subject is a static entity; in fact, the subject is dynamic because “its action can very often take up the foreclosure itself” (Ibid.739). More even, Butler claims that “my agency can also thematize and alter those [the subject’s] limitations ... we can certainly extend power but ... we can extend it into an unknown future” (Ibid.:739-740). Butler calls this a politics of “radical re-signification” which works “within the hope and the practice of replaying power, of restaging it again and again in new and productive ways” (Ibid.:741). Butler’s compulsion to carve out a route, even if it is by way of a detour, of some sort of feminist liberation, is however not my main point of criticism; rather, Butler is here simply explicit about her hope for feminist subversion that also precisely resides at the performative level of her own work. But if this is the case, then we could claim that Butler’s academic and political role resides exactly in opening up spaces for questioning the subject – spaces that are nonetheless from the outset required and constructed by the contemporary usurpation of the subject and its politics in simulation. As Baudrillard says, seduction is today at all costs suppressed, and Butler becomes the excellent object against which to mobilize this energetic oppression because she questions yet performs the feminist subject of emancipation.
Psycho-analysis and post-structuralism have come to figure in this feminist dispute in self-affirming and self-defeating ways: while they are correct about the fantasmatics of a subject at the centre of politics, they also multiply the spaces and moments of relatively differential contestation required for techno-capitalism – spaces which Butler was already right to accuse of technological non-neutrality (1990). Butler’s radical re-signification indeed restages power “again and again in new and productive ways” – productive in the capitalist sense, that is. Her helpful theories about performativity, speech-acts and other kinds of symbolic violence (like in identity politics), should therefore be recast and extended as not only concerning and criticising representational violence, but immediate speed-elitist violence. The attempt at visibility and speakability (which she rightly critiques), is not only a matter of a reification of categories and falsely stable identities, but now also a matter of the reproduction and acceleration of techno-capitalism. Understood in this way, one can see how the problem and force of identity politics is actually a very contemporary one – a contemporaneity that ‘the’ history of feminism also confirms. I therefore maintain that Butler’s apt proposition that “what operates at the level of cultural fantasy is not finally dissociable from the ways in which material life is organised” (2004b:214) is not only accurate in terms of gender representation, but adds a new insidious layer of speed-elitist disenfranchisement.
This new layer to politics that insidiously connects the symbolic with negative speed-elitist material effects, and which shows how Butler’s analyses of the subject somehow prefigure or imply this new layer, is perhaps ultimately best illustrated through her remarkable analysis of the First Iraq War and her subsequent affirmation of ‘deconstructive’ political agency (1995). Butler speaks here of smart bombs and other target imagery, and the reproduction of authority of the American military officials, in the American media. The imagery according to her has the effect of creating a ‘seamless realization of intention through an instrumental action’ (Ibid.:9) which in turn champions “a masculinised Western subject whose will immediately translates into a deed ... the instrumental military subject appears at first to utter words that materialize directly into destructive deeds” (Ibid.:10). This then, says Butler, is a most striking allegory of the fantasy of the subject of (political) intention, because eventually the effectiveness of its intention is only a mirage brought on by prosthetic warfare technology and visual media. I would add here that the more complex and programmed such a prosthesis, the less the subject is the origin of ‘its’ action at all. What is more, Butler does not stop at unearthing these media images as allegories, but connects the representation with an action by arguing it is a “certain act of speech which not only delivers a message [to Saddam’s army] – get out of Kuwait – but effectively enforces that message through the threat of death and through death itself”. What we see on the television and computer screen is not merely a reflection of the war, but “the enactment of its phantasmatic structure” (Ibid.:11, my italics). The viewer is implicated in the enactment of its violence by becoming an extension of the military apparatus while remaining in a position of total invulnerability through the “guarantee of electronic distance” (Ibid.). What such mediated imagery and its technologies therefore accomplish, I claim following Butler (Ibid.:12), is precisely a dissimulation of the complicity of the subject of action and intention (like feminist emancipatory politics) in annihilation (like speed-elitism). I concur here that Butler’s reading of Iraq War imagery comes remarkably close to Baudrillard’s infamous The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, but does not yet make the jump from the analysis of how the war happened first and foremost in the media, and its implications for feminist claims for liberation under techno-neo-liberalism. And although Butler seeks once more to salvage emancipation by claiming that we can ‘deconstruct’ (1995:17) through safeguarding the conceptual differences among feminists over the term ‘subject,’ I have instead shown that this today is bound to repeat the same problematic – deconstruction, like nomadism, is simply not something one can ‘do’ as if guaranteeing subversive effect.
Feminist calls for nostalgia as well as for techno-inspired empowerment, like those of Braidotti, fail to understand how the European feminist project never was a secular project of pure reason and justice. Both nostalgia and techno-salvation fail to come to terms with European feminism’s own inherent imperialist tendencies. This conclusion once more shows the major import of Baudrillard’s argument in the ongoing critical feminist effort teasing out the highly mediated contemporary displacement of European feminism’s good intentions (which I am sure Braidotti has), and its complicity in neoliberal acceleration and disenfranchisement. In line with Baudrillard’s analysis, I hold that the violence emanating from such imperialist tendencies will be intensified in the near future if the subjective appropriation of the supposedly ‘neutral’ neoliberal technologies and their cultural arrangements continues. So unless left-wing feminist theory tries to let go of its obsession with the subject of politics, these feminist trajectories will continue the mirage of European feminism’s and left-wing (academic) activism’s own progressiveness, and intensify contemporary right-wing, xenophobic and neoliberal arrangements. In turn, Butler’s account of the subject and her debate with Braidotti shows that Braidotti’s nomadic subject and Butler’s lacking-yet-capable-of-resignification subject today enter into a speed-elitist point of convergence, such that the enactment of the relative conceptual difference between her and Braidotti functions as a formal echo of neoliberal acceleration. While Butler’s discussions of iterability through the subject are essentially accurate, they are nonetheless reflections of the points at which the subject’s dynamism is an effect of its speed-elitist form. This would mean that the gap between subjectivity and intentional agency has seriously widened under speed-elitism, and that lack has attached itself to subjectivity in a more fundamental and technological way.
Therefore, if our left-wing feminism wants to remain relevant, it should rethink the possibilities of subversion as being severely confounded by the more intimate relationship between gendered difference, new speed-elitist formations of class and techno-capitalism. The humanist aporia and its constant political re-enactments play into the acceleration of capital today. This state of affairs ceaselessly defers the promise of feminist liberation, and illustrates the increasing inefficacy of subjective politics. The tension between Butler and Braidotti becomes a productive tension under acceleration, where Butler and Braidotti’s conceptual attempt at re-signification and nomadism become mere echoes of the value-sign form of neoliberal capital. Dialectical modes of thought like these have become formally enlisted by capital, and its politics in turn becomes thought’s simulation. I myself also perform the subject of feminist politics by playing off the differences between Baudrillard, Butler and Braidotti – by responsibly carrying forward their politics and implicating my own argument in the very same economic desperation, good apprentice that I am of all three. Humanism is productively, in the feminist and capitalist sense, at work in the Butler-Braidotti contention around the subject – or in other words, the feminist subject in Braidotti and Butler, having become a relative female other of patriarchal speed-elitism, becomes the site of active reproduction of the latter. Baudrillard astutely likens this effacement of the conceptual difference between these versions of the subject to a move from Oedipus to Narcissus (Baudrillard, 1990b:166). Under this new Narcissistic logic there is no repression or alienation but simply a crossing (out) of the Lacanian bar; in turn, the becoming of the subject as sign-object reflects the relative movements engendered by speed.
Nonetheless, this shows that re-reading Butler and Braidotti through the lens of Baudrillard points not only towards the complicity of the contemporary feminist subject in acceleration, but also towards that what can never be caught as complicit, as seduction is always already at work within any theoretical-political simulation. Feminism now needs to theorise how a ‘female’ radical other as object may seduce the subject beyond mere accelerated reproduction. As the current economic disaster unfolds, it is more than ever clear that the world is in dire need of such a re-strategising of feminist theory. It is my hope that that what remains unsaid between Braidotti and Butler provides a beginning for such a strategy. It may do so by gesturing beyond neoliberal acceleration through ostensibly crossing over conceptual differences as if they were mere empty form – in short, by succumbing to the seduction of that what today resists acceleration. If all this seems baffling to the reader, this is because it is; after all, if even my left-wing feminist thinking of the limits of the subject by way of the object risks acceleration, then what is left?
Ingrid M. Hoofd is an Assistant Professor in the Communications and New Media Programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research interests are issues of representation, feminist and critical theories, philosophy of technology, and information ethics. Her book project Between Activism and Academia: The Complicities of Alter-Globalist Resistances in Speed discusses the ways in which alter-globalist activists, as well as left-wing academics, mobilize discourses and divisions in an attempt to overcome gendered, raced and classed oppressions worldwide. Ingrid’s recent publications include “Activism, Academia, and the Humanist Aporia: Indymedia intensified in the age of neo-liberal globalisation” in Cultural Politics, Vol.5, No.2 (2009), and “Complicit Subversions: Cultural new media activism and ‘high’ theory” in First Monday, Vol. 13, no.10 (2008).
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