Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Feminist Aspirations Degree Zero: A Seductive Encounter with/for Jean Baudrillard
Dr. Ingrid M. Hoofd
(Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore)
The problem is how to give up on a critical thought that is the very essence of our theoretical culture (Baudrillard, 2001:59).
It would not be surprising … that one day, in a program of Women’s Studies, there will be the question of truth, and that someone will spend three or four years researching ‘truth’ (Jacques Derrida, 2005b:139).
Authenticity always stems from the Father: the Father is the source of value here (Jean Baudrillard,  1996:77).
The present-day situation of feminist (and many other kinds of humanist politics) provide us with an ostensible paradox. While more and more spaces of feminist politics appear to be opening up – for instance, there exist now uncountable online forms of feminist activism, and feminism has even found its own global space of rights politics in the regular United Nations World Conferences on Women – there seems to be less and less proper feminist political efficacy and subversion going on in terms of the aimed-for dismantling of sexist and patriarchal practices. In short, feminism appears ever more vigorous and ‘alive,’ yet simultaneously ever more in a state of ostensible despair and deadlock. This article suggests that Baudrillard’s work, far from being ‘anti-feminist,’ may help us understand how this paradox, emerging from the apparent incommensurability between feminist aspirations and their current effects, is a result of the ways in which the conventional ideas and concepts of feminist political action and thought fail to address the raised stakes around a primarily masculinist, rationalistic, and neoliberal form of globalization. Worse even, his work may alert us to the fact that conventional feminist politics and thinking exacerbate the violence of contemporary globalization and its reliance on political activity, dissent, and debate as such – a humanist politics whose foundations, according to Baudrillard in ‘The Global and the Universal’ are therefore exceedingly ‘flimsy’ and ‘pitiful’ (Baudrillard in Grace et. al., 2003:26), even if feminist thought and activism itself has at times actually sought to expose the flimsiness and illegitimacy of this masculinist order.
This article begins by illuminating how the problem of politics as such, when one reads Baudrillard’s writings as truth-claims about contemporary society in the tradition of critical theory, appears to reside primarily in the production and consumption of the phantasm of stable identities and dualisms on the basis of or vis-à-vis which feminist and other kinds of ‘progress’ can be forged. Indeed, all of Baudrillard’s work ever since his groundbreaking For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign illustrates and further develops Guy Debord’s maxim in Society of the Spectacle that ‘separation is the alpha and omega’ of the social order that we call late-capitalism, both in terms of social division and conceptual differences (Baudrillard  1981:25). Baudrillard suggests, extending Debord’s allegation, that conceptual dualisms become productive in the economic and the political-activist-academic sense. Examples of such productive dualisms are manifold in much feminist (and other) theoretical work: gender versus sex, agency versus victimization, subject versus object, being versus becoming, theory versus practice, and also – last but not least – male versus female. For the purposes of illustrating a more recent entanglement of feminist conceptualization with the dominant order of accelerated capitalism, this article will in particular concern itself with one of the more prominent conceptual oppositions in feminism and its supposed synthesis, arising parallel to the English translation of Baudrillard’s For a Critique in the early 1980s, between what is conventionally called ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ thinking, plus their ‘deconstruction.’ This opposition basically arises from an ambiguity around the issue as to from which locus to ‘start’ feminism; while ‘equality’ feminism argues that women are men’s equals, ‘difference’ feminism seeks to validate specifically female qualities vis-à-vis male qualities. This representation of feminist thought and action in terms of ‘equality’ and ‘difference,’ as well as the relatively more recent emergence of a third term called ‘deconstructive feminism’ in the last couple of decades, is the staple of any scholar or student of the history and cartography of feminist ideas in the West. These feminist concepts are also often tied to certain historical periods; equality thinking to the first wave, and difference thinking to the second wave, while deconstruction is seen as a necessary reassessment and reorientation of these liberatory feminist waves. And yet, many feminist scholars would agree that this oppositional debate, as well as the narration of feminism as one of conceptual progress, does not do justice to the lived complexity of feminist politics or even to the experience of femininity and dualistic sexuality as such. Moreover, the question arises whether the emergence of ‘deconstructive feminism’ as a form of thought that effectively claims to move beyond the descriptive constrictions of either ‘equality’ or ‘difference,’ is not itself also somehow marred by the vicissitudes of productivist oppositionalities and its relation to the globalization of the masculinist technocratic form that Baudrillard’s work so lucidly addresses.
Following this train of thought in Baudrillard’s work regarding the possible feminist complicity in the reproduction and sustenance of this form, this article critically takes issue with the dualism of equality versus difference by arguing that its logic, as well as its grounding assumptions and aspirations, are not only just problematic or simplistic in terms of reducing the social to the supposed ‘reality’ of semiotic opposition, but have today become usurped and accelerated globally by way of an ongoing technological mediation of culture and politics in general. This acceleration has in turn engendered an implosion of the actual efficacy of feminism vis-à-vis global neoliberal conditions of gendered oppression, whereby it seems that the increasing online and offline debates and disputes between opposing groups themselves start to produce a form of humanist ‘emancipation’ that actually locks the feminist and female subject firmly into the ongoing neoliberal process of global acceleration. What is more, acceleration itself gives rise to the vertigo of meaning, and ‘deconstruction’ gets problematically re-imagined and re-purposed in much feminist thought as a compass so as to dispel the challenge this vertigo poses to feminist politics. In other words, if one were to follow Baudrillard’s accusation of contemporary feminism, in the latter’s aspiration of being the centre of action, change, and production, being in fact implicated in technocratic capitalism, then the feminist subject herself indeed re-appears as an object or product of the current masculinist-productivist social order rather than as an opposing agency. This article will proceed to argue that perhaps then, the very emanation of the dualistic representation of feminist thought itself – as if feminism’s main tenets can be near-neatly organized in such oppositional and mutually exclusive terms – became possible exactly at the historical moment where its apparent difference gradually started no longer to make a difference to global power, culminating in the illusion of the apparent possibility of its deconstruction as true emancipation. This will eventually highlight the ways in which the political difference between equality and difference thinking is just as much a false difference because at base, the right to or imagination of ‘real’ female difference was always already also an appeal to a certain form of equality marked by an economistic, rationalistic, and technocratic mis-interpretation and -representation of the world.
However, to stop at the ways in which economic globalization has an increasing technological stronghold through this usurpation of difference, while a more than valid Baudrillardian analysis in the sense of paralleling his truth-claims, would not (yet) attend to the equally increasing instability of the current global order due to the mounting tensile incommensurability between (feminist) progress and regress. It would also neglect the uncertainty of the validity or efficacy of Baudrillard’s way of mounting political and critical thinking contra political and critical thinking, as well as this article’s problematic use of Baudrillard’s analyses as a descriptive compass; a mutual changeability that Baudrillard’s work certainly seeks to address with that by several feminists much maligned term ‘seduction,’ about which more later on. This also means that as a modality of thought, feminist deconstruction, and therefore just as much Baudrillard’s attempt at coining ‘seduction’ as ‘feminine’ and hence as a general route to the deconstruction of current (patriarchal and neoliberal) power, arguably likewise becomes ‘doable’ or ‘thinkable’ when and where the neoliberal acceleration of mediated globalization begins to reach that state of implosion and disintegration. In other words, the economistic, rationalistic, and technocratic (mis)interpretation of the world exposes itself as not only a self-destructive game, but as a vital illusion in that it also allows for Baudrillard’s counter-move via the femininization and romanticization of some fabulous ‘seduction.’ This suggests also that whenever Baudrillard’s oeuvre takes issue with feminist politics of either identity or difference, it effectively takes issue with its own highly charged, certainly aspiring, and perhaps equally desperate form of thought, eventually exposing political thought and the very phantasm of conventional critical writing as in any way subversive at large as ‘impostors’ (Baudrillard, 2001:59). In the final analysis then, the article claims that Baudrillard himself has also been seduced by the unclear status of the image of feminism in spite of himself and his feminist critics, just as the new technologies of simulation exceedingly displace feminism’s intentions. In other words, his ostensible sparring with feminism exposes the discourse of critical academic and humanist politics as a game, thereby making Baudrillard’s truth-claims on another level simultaneously appear as mere superficial performances of an untenable and ultimately fake patriarchal authenticity. The question then eventually remains as to what is ultimately the political efficacy of this feminist article, especially when it appropriates the conception of Baudrillard’s ‘seduction’ as if it, once more, engenders some kind of actual critique or ‘deconstruction’ of the patriarchal and productivist social order in the same vein as deconstructive feminism.
II. The economic acceleration of the critical feminist project
As I suggested earlier, Baudrillard argues in much of his work that increasingly all kinds of politics find themselves wrapped up in a neoliberal logic that relies on the collapse of the semiotic (the realm of representation and imagery) into the axiomatic (the realm of capital relation and circulation). For the purposes of teasing out what exactly the complicity of feminism in masculinist productivism consists of, allow me to go more into the details of this argument in his work. According to for instance ‘Consumer Society,’ this collapse of the semiotic and axiomatic is possible because the capitalist axiomatic has come to rely on the incessant and accelerated mediation of signs through the production and consumption of differentiation between signs (Baudrillard in Poster, 1988:46-54). Signs themselves, in short, have become objects for consumption, and semiotic difference merely sustains the exploitation of the conceptual illusion of the supposed Saussurean verity of binary oppositions, like ‘difference’ versus ‘equality’ or even ‘male’ versus ‘female,’ for accelerated economic growth. Simulacra and Simulation narrates this increasing logic of the collapse of the semiotic into the axiomatic in terms of the four stages or ‘successive phases of the image,’ which last phase entails the image as ‘its own pure simulacrum’ (Baudrillard, 1984:6). This conflation of these realms also means that ‘consumption’ has become ‘the premise for “human liberation”’ and vice versa (Baudrillard in Poster, 1988:53), since our ‘freedom’ now only consists of the consumption of the image of the liberal utopia and its signs, which in turn is circulated purely for the purpose of capitalistic expansion. The liberal utopia hence becomes a capitalistic vehicle, and Baudrillard even suggests in The Mirror of Production that the very ‘concept of critique emerged in the West at the same time as political economy and … is perhaps only the subtle, long-term expression of the system’s expanded reproduction’ (ibid.:50). After all, the term ‘critique’ comes from the Greek κρινειν which means ‘to separate;’ and as such, critique itself is always engaged in the formulation of (new) distinctions. What Baudrillard’s analysis amounts to here provides indeed a compelling explanation of the question as to why feminism today on the one hand seems to have ‘won,’ yet on the other hand seems utterly deadlocked; indeed, it makes the uneasy proposition that the critical project of liberal and feminist emancipation, as well as all the oppositions it calls into existence, is not only related to the political economy, but has itself even quite possibly even become one of the basic ingredients of capitalism. This outrageous proposition has recently garnered some uptake in feminist circles; Nancy Fraser for instance points out in ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History’ that there is a ‘disturbing convergence of [feminism’s] ideals with the demands of an emerging new form of capitalism’ (Fraser, 2009:1). But while Fraser and many others still hold on to the idea of re-opposing feminism once more against capitalism – as if feminism ever existed outside the political economy at all – Baudrillard’s thesis instead suggests that any politics today that engenders such oppositions as true resistance or subversion effectively exist as simulations of politics. This is firstly, because politics was always already implicated in mis-representation through the splitting off of reality and representation; and secondly, because the semiotic has increasingly imploded into the realm of capital flows, hence rendering old ways of doing politics obsolete. I take this to mean not so much, as some have argued, that politics as such becomes impossible or phony – although one could certainly say that its utopia is then impossible – but that political thinking and action intensifies due to its incessant acceleration in the realm of circulation. Nonetheless, since politics is likewise increasingly displaced into the realm of capital circulation, its eventual effects are no longer the aimed-for political change on the ground – rather its main effect becomes quite simply more acceleration, with all its negative fallout, like the growing income gap and the femininization of poverty.
The latter reading of Baudrillard’s notion of simulation also takes into account that the conceptual distinction between reality and representation perhaps always already was a false distinction, even if representation initially functioned as ‘a reflection of a profound reality’ (Baudrillard, 1984:6). For Baudrillard therefore, but then also for feminist thought and activism, what needs to be uncovered is how ‘difference qua illusion’ (ibid.:131) in feminism perpetuates this current logic of neoliberal capitalism and its problematic reproduction of racism and sexism on its formal level. Understood in this way, Baudrillard is indeed not so much anti-feminist; rather, he appears to be deeply concerned with the exacerbated masculinism that marks the contemporary socio-economic situation due to the delegation of the performance of authority into new technologies of control, acceleration, and automation, which in turn calls upon the subject to ‘empower’ herself. Such incessant acceleration hence serves foremost what I in my recent work have come to call the ‘speed-elites’ – those in the upper echelons of the contemporary social which at first sight appears to have succeeded in doing away with issues and choices based on race and gender; indeed, now women and colored individuals can become presidents of states and companies, and feminism becomes an accepted form of liberal politics in the United Nations. But this supposed ‘liberation’ of women and colored folks is in many ways a sly and false impression, since under simulation new forms of exclusion and disenfranchisement are actually engendered by way of a discourse of gendered and raced techno-empowerment which posits patriarchal ideology now as its functional logic. This means that feminism needs to up its game today especially since, as Baudrillard discusses at length in The System of Objects, at issue is no longer simply patriarchal representation or sexist content, but an entire political economy built on a patriarchal modeling of the semio-economic sphere which paradoxically relies on the reproduction of the ideals of identity, representation, visibility, and voice. As he also argues in ‘The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,’ simulation therefore entails a ‘recycling in the negative of the traditional institution’, and the ‘lure’ (Baudrillard  1996:80-81) of such a system resides in its obligation of political engagement and dissent. This translates in a call to be vocal, be active, to speak, participate, vote, decide, and to generally ‘play the ... liberating claim of subjecthood’ (ibid.:85). So the old ways of social mobilization and politics are now caught in a phallic functionalism which has superseded or come on top of phallic symbolism – an abstraction of this symbolism which latter existence now merely appears as this form’s allegory (ibid.:60). What is more, this symbolism or realm of sexist representation is a simulacrum of power also due to the fact that it conceals or renders indecipherable the ‘true mechanism’ of power (ibid, because form functions as ‘camouflage’ by way of which ‘long-lost traditional values reappear as signs’ (ibid.:62) in order to ‘make up for the symbolic void of [contemporary] power’ (ibid.:54). Hence the ever more vigorous and paradoxical return of gender and its negative fallout.
In light of this, Baudrillard also suggests that ‘speed,’ tied as it is with masculinist ideas of rational transcendence and having become the function that signifies an imaginary social progress, is indeed ‘a single objectified phallic function’ (ibid.:68). This illustrates once more why feminism’s complicity with the vicissitudes and paradoxes of technological acceleration, which part of Baudrillard’s work is seeking to uncover, should become its central concern today. I would likewise suggest that the current situation of the vicious simulation of politics for what I termed the speed-elite today partly replaces Eurocentrism and patriarchy as the primary nexuses around which global and local disparities are organized, even though or perhaps because it largely builds on the formalisation of Eurocentric and masculinist differences in all realms of society. In other words, the techno-economic objectification via subjecthood may ‘emancipate’ a happy formerly marginalized few into a system of ‘mono-thought’ (Baudrillard, 2000: 26), but essentially marginalizes many others. Feminism in turn, through playing the game of subjecthood by incessantly staging and diffracting along the lines of progressively fake differences like for instance ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ – fake because they both assume the same productivist ideal of political choice and voice – is simply consuming and producing the sign-objects of emancipation. This simulation of emancipation provides mere ‘camouflage’ for an exceedingly oppressive global regime. Such a pursuit of a fake freedom by way of ‘dead differences’ (Baudrillard  1996:153), results in a ‘perpetual cycle of aspiration and disillusion, dynamically orchestrated at the level of production, [which] constitutes the [current] arena’ (ibid.:154). To aspire to democratic political ideals has become very much a new ethical obligation through which the subject nonetheless basically ‘manifests himself only as an object of economic demand’ (ibid:152) which eventually does not really change anything at all. As we already noticed today in relation to the state of contemporary feminism, this also ‘dooms the subjective project to self-negation and despair’ since in the end ‘all differences are integrated in advance’ (ibid.:153) or worse even, played out against one another for the sole purpose of economic acceleration.
I suggest that, as an outdated politics of emancipation, representation, and voice, feminism has been one of Baudrillard’s main concerns because feminism is precisely so stridently against, yet so utterly imbricated in, this new phallic functionality of which Baudrillard is just as critical. At base, this imbrication, as well as the possibility of Baudrillard thwarting feminism at all, is due to the fact that feminism, as Jacques Derrida also illustrates in for instance Paper Machine (2005:154), inhabits a fundamentally aporetic structure: in order to mount the critique of patriarchal power, feminism needs to naturalize patriarchy first as an actually existing social reality. Elizabeth Grosz puts it rather nicely in ‘Ontology and Equivocation’ when she says that the feminist fantasy of overcoming patriarchy is essentially derived from the patriarchal fantasy of overcoming or a ‘saying-yes to patriarchy’ (1995:61). This is why Baudrillard exclaims in ‘The Ecliptic of Sex’ that there ‘is a strange and tenacious complicity of the feminist movement with the order of truth’ (1990:131). I will later on draw out this tenacity in some exemplary feminist works on deconstruction. In any case, if we follow this line of thought in Baudrillard’s work, feminism, and indeed all conventional critical, humanist, and political forms of thought and action, in being wrought from a fundamental internal contradiction or aporia – which it incessantly needs to cover over to keep its utopian project alive – sees its aporia as well as the compulsion to cover it over today getting accelerated by technocratic capitalism. In other words, the aporetic structure that feminism already inhabits due to its assumption of the total truth of patriarchy has become formalized to the extent that feminism itself now in fact produces anti-feminism. Feminism therefore appears to have imploded or entered a stage of regress due to the basic reversibility of the illusory and staged opposition between patriarchy and feminism. The difference between ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ feminism is today ever more imbricated with the circulation and expansion of capital due to the implosion of the semiotic realm with capitalism’s formal structures, and this is therefore why ‘deconstruction’ appears as an apparent methodological possibility on its horizon. So the moment when deconstruction arrives as a method in feminist theory marks the transition of power from phallic symbolism to phallic functionality – the moment when power effectively vacates the premises of media representation and content. In fact, one could perhaps even claim that the dissemination of the ‘method’ or ‘theory’ of deconstruction becomes possible as the Derridean surfacing of ‘play’ and its ‘traces’ ever more clearly emerge as effects of the acceleration and multiplication of signs. This insight is wholly in line with for instance Martin Heidegger's ‘The End of Philosophy and the Task for Thinking’ which predicts that contemporary technology will mark the completion of philosophy into its logical culmination, the techno-sciences. This culmination is possible because philosophy has itself always, like the techno-sciences, assumed the ideal of transparent communication through the conceptualization of concepts as transcendental truths. The slippage that we can therefore expect many conceptions, whether celebratory or denunciatory, of ‘deconstructive feminism’ to make, is one from deconstruction as a socio-economic product or effect to a productivist and activist mobilization of deconstruction – effectively an illusion that covers over this fundamental aporia of feminism by reinstating the feminist subject as the illusory agent of feminist social change, just like the masculinist form or functionality of capitalism wants it to appear.
III. Deconstruction as method, or the degree zero of feminist tenacity
So following Baudrillard’s analysis around feminist complicity in masculinist productivism or speed-elitism as outlined above, it seems entirely possible that the basic aporia of feminism indeed reappears under late-capitalism as the non-difference between its politics of equality and difference, and that ‘deconstruction’ becomes its symptom. In light of this, we can speculate that ‘deconstructive’ feminism will serve two functions for feminism at large: firstly, as the scapegoat for a feared-for feminist political immobilization due to this non-difference; and secondly, as the ‘new’ and radically different theory that promises to break with the impasse around this non-difference. Of the first case, which displays this ‘tenacious’ relationship of feminism to authenticity by way of either an essentialization of femaleness or a projection of the feminist aporia, one can find numerous examples. I will mention here in particular Linda Alcoff’s ‘Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism,’ indeed written in the late 1980s during the rise of global neo-liberalism and its sudden spread of certain new media technologies of acceleration. Alcoff’s piece ingenuously plays off against one another what she calls ‘cultural feminism’ (a synonym in this case for the kind of difference feminism that seeks to revalidate ‘women’ vis-à-vis ‘men’) and post-structuralism. Against the supposed ‘inadequacies’ of both strands she in turn ventures to posit a new understanding of femininity which, she claims, will neither fall in the trap of ‘deconstructing all concepts of woman’ (Alcoff, 1986:331) nor make the mistake of making feminist demands that can ‘be grounded securely and unambiguously of the concept of the essential female’ (ibid.:332). Alcoff illustrates first how cultural feminism, which she identifies in the work of Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich, ‘reproduces cultural assumptions about women’ (ibid.:335). She next moves on to discredit the supposed post-structuralist ‘attack’ on ‘our concept of the subject’ by Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, by claiming that their method of deconstruction seems to ‘totally erase any room for maneuver by the individual within a social discourse or set of institutions’ (ibid.:337) and to ‘deny the subject’s ability to reflect on the social discourse and challenge its determinations.’ If feminism were to take such a strategy on board, this would according to Alcoff result in ‘a wholly negative feminism, deconstructing everything and refusing to construct anything’ (ibid.:338). As the flip-side of this supposed negativity, she claims that the attraction of deconstruction for feminists is that it ‘holds out the promise of an increased freedom for women, the “free play” of a plurality of differences,’ but that this is inadequate because ‘you must have a positive alternative’ (ibid.:339). She eventually suggests this alternative for ‘women’ can be conceptualized if ‘we combine the concept of identity politics with a conception of the subject as positionality, we can conceive of the subject as nonessentialized and emergent from a historical experience, and yet retain our political ability to take gender as an important point of departure’ (ibid.:349).
Alcoff’s article is a remarkable tour-de-force in its vigorous attempt at mobilizing cultural feminism and post-structuralist feminism as diametrical opposites, and then in turn arguing for a synthesis that supposedly transcends the problems of the former. Through the rather straw-man arguments of cultural feminism as downright essentialist, and post-structuralism as supposedly nihilist, she entirely ignores how both strands in fact rely on and work from exactly that positionality of the subject as constituted in historical experience that she in turn claims as her own conceptual invention – in fact, this ‘invention’ by Alcoff is and shows exactly what makes a limited ‘play’ at all possible. Her piece also faultily describes deconstruction as if it is something one does rather than something which always already happens in any political text or activity, which makes it seem as if deconstruction is something one can oppose or use at will. But I would argue in line with Derrida’s point in ‘Women in the Beehive,’ that deconstruction rather shows how politics and reflection are possible at all because one cannot eventually finalize feminism by way of any stable or ‘true’ opposition between ‘men’ and ‘women’ – the production and conception of these terms are always being ‘seduced’ by one another, to use Baudrillard’s terminology. The problematic validation of a subjective agency by Alcoff emerges especially in her argument, which in fact is simply the flip-side of the accusation of nihilism, that deconstruction leads to a ‘free play of a plurality of differences.’ This argument is its flip-side because it is indeed such a representation of deconstruction as method that is utterly implicated in speed-elitism by coining the incessant production and consumption of differences as ‘liberation’ for its illusory agent. Instead, I take it from Derrida that post-structuralism does not deny at all that ‘subjectivity can be reconstructed through a process of reflective practice’ (Alcoff, 1986: 343) but rather shows that this process is never innocent. And when she exclaims ‘how can we speak out against sexism as detrimental to the interests of women if the category is a fiction’ then she really shows very much in line with post-structuralist insights that apparently you can – the question is again what complicity makes this possible. So when Alcoff states as an alternative ‘the concept of woman [as] a relational term identifiable only within a constantly moving context, and the position that women find themselves in [as being able to] be actively utilized [for politics],’ she is simply re-stating the insights of post-structuralism and cultural feminism while now dissimulating their internal tensions. Alcoff therefore in turn implicates her supposedly novel conception of women in speed-elitism by once more mobilizing another fake difference between these ‘inadequate’ and her ‘adequate’ conceptions (which are actually in tune with cultural feminist and post-structuralist insights), hence covering over the aporetic ‘inadequacy’ of feminism by way of finally rendering female ‘experience’ as an empirical reality (ibid.:347). This performance of the real via a representation of ‘the’ female works in turn to ‘camouflage’ the actual mechanism of power, namely the technico-logical repetition of the masculinist form of agentic control and enunciative authority. This is precisely the functioning of simulation Baudrillard describes in Simulacra and Simulation, and finally showcases how the tenacious adherence to truth and authority in feminism produces anti-feminism.
Of the second case, namely the problematic celebration of deconstruction as a ‘new’ tool, I will especially mention Joan W. Scott’s ‘Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference,’ which also appeared in the late 1980s. Scott’s piece initially acknowledges in the same vein as Alcoff that it is important for feminism to see how the various aspects of patriarchy manifest themselves in feminist theoretical and political work. She suggests in light of this that post-structuralism in particular may offer valuable handgrips to feminists as it fosters a ‘self-conscious critical relationship to established philosophical and political traditions’ (ibid.:255). She then goes on to describe how linguistic or semiotic difference becomes one of post-structuralism’s main concerns, since it is by way of binary oppositions that cultural hegemony is maintained. In line with this, she claims that ‘deconstruction’ is a useful ‘method’ for feminism as it ‘involves analyzing the operations of difference in texts’ for the purposes of showing that these oppositions are ‘not natural but constructed’ (ibid.:258). The starting point of deconstruction is hence binary difference, and its ‘exercise … allows us to … exhibit patterns of meaning that may undercut the ends we seek to attain.’ One such self-defeatist feminist opposition is according to her indeed ‘equality’ versus ‘difference’ which was ‘created to offer a choice for feminists,’ but which conceptual opposition ‘hides the interdependence of the two terms’ (ibid.:258). The latter is up to a certain point much in line with my argument in this article; as I suggested earlier, the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ is a difference that does not really make a difference to the productivist order because both terms are mutually implicated in the resurrection of feminist choice and voice. However, this aspect of ‘choice’ equally lives on in Scott’s article now in the form of ‘the exercise of deconstruction’ as the supposed anti-thesis to ‘equality versus difference’ by way of the mobilized repetition of that difference. The ‘equality’ and ‘difference’ opposition hence returns or gets mirrored in the ‘real’ difference that deconstruction supposedly presents between that covert repetition and its explicit claim to being an anti-thesis. In other words, Scott’s description of deconstruction as method itself becomes an allegory for the ways in which the masculine productivist order in general harps on the conceptual and economic production of difference. This is because if deconstruction is ‘crucially dependent on difference’ then its straightforward mobilization – as if it is up to the feminist theorist – can only amount to more of the same that gets refracted across a plethora of differences. Telling in light of this, is that Scott finally holds that the promise of deconstruction is that it helps to ‘insist continually on differences – differences as the condition of individual and collective identities, difference as the constant challenge to the fixing of those identities, history as the repeated illustration of the play of differences…’ (ibid.:265). The way in which she makes all of existence appear as revolving around the play of differences – in paradoxical consonant with Alcoff’s sneering description of deconstruction as empty promise – as some kind of natural order showcases precisely the mechanics of phallic functionality; not only does this happy description of agentive ‘play’ become yet another piece of camouflage for an actually restrictive late-capitalist social order, but the activist ‘insistence’ of such ‘play’ is additionally that order’s main economic function. It is therefore that very masculinist order itself that forces Scott’s feminist argument into yet another truth-claim in which ‘deconstruction’ now serves as the exemplary method that is supposedly outside of that order rather than wholly symptomatic of it, making it appear as if Scott produces an ‘alternative’ method or toolbox for feminism and its illusory agent of emancipation. Due to the slippage of feminism into phallic functionality – the subject reappearing as object – Scott’s truth-claim is not only internally but also externally rife with a ‘seduction’ in that it eventually and primarily piles onto the increasing acceleration and instability of the speed-elitist order.
Some of the later feminist works in the 1990s that discuss deconstruction and feminism tend to exhibit similar problems to Scott’s seminal article on the ‘feminist potential’ of deconstruction, even if this later work tends to propagate an often more literary style more in line with the poetic complications that post-structuralism revolves around. Diane Elam’s Feminism and Deconstruction for instance, while being an otherwise remarkably perceptive narration regarding the final un-decidability of the locus of agency, nonetheless re-installs feminism and deconstruction as dialectical terms when starting from the assertion that ‘feminism can do as much for deconstruction as deconstruction can do for feminism’ (Elam, 1994:3), and subsequently structuring the entire book along that productive dialectic. And as a final example, Penelope Deutscher’s erudite Yielding Gender usefully pinpoints part of the contemporary problematic for feminism in the way its interpretations of gender incessantly seem to stabilize patriarchy by ‘produc[ing] unnecessarily consistent narratives about unstable texts’ (Deutscher, 1997:7). She likewise astutely argues that ‘deconstructive feminism’ is often erroneously represented as ‘anti-humanism’ and in turn wrongly associated with ‘feminism of difference’ (as we saw to some extent happening in Alcoff’s and Scott’s pieces) by virtue of the feminine connotations of instability and irrationality. For Deutscher then, ‘what deconstructive feminism might have to offer … is cluttered by the debate between feminisms of equality and feminisms of difference’ (ibid.:8). But I would counter that to call this debate ‘clutter’ is to not take seriously enough what problematic gives rise to this continuous re-emergence of this debate, and to simply write it off as a ‘lesser theory.’ Throughout all this, deconstruction is then still represented as the more ideal method for the performance of the feminist critique, making it appear that it can be separated out from either ‘equality’ or ‘difference’ thinking. Deutscher’s book also makes it apparent that this ‘new’ theoretical lens of deconstructive feminism has emerged out of, and can consecutively unsettle the entire history of phallogocentric philosophy as such, but never asks why at this historical moment this supposed possibility above all emerges. Likewise, the fact that Deutscher calls the production of stability and rationality ‘unnecessary’ equally fails to ask the question as to what force or responsibility brings about the continuous emergence of such ‘consistent narratives’ as well as the ‘fast turnover of … commentary written about deconstruction’ (ibid.:39) of which her own book is arguably just as much an example – as is, I may add, this very article itself. In line with Baudrillard’s claims, I once more suggest that this speedy turnover is a symptom of speed-elitism and its reliance on the phallic form that Deutscher’s authoritative performance mirrors so nicely.
All the above feminist engagements with post-structuralism in the 1980s and 1990s, in which deconstruction enters the feminist scene as ‘exercise’ or ‘method,’ mark the transition of power into the automation of patriarchal symbolism into phallic functionality. Feminism holds on to an image of female collectivity that is then finally a mirage as there is no such thing as women as one social group; rather all there is today are classes of speed. Worse even, the nostalgia for and insurrection of this collective female identity is a main mechanism for the increasing fragmentation and individualization of persons under late-capitalism. This is why Baudrillard holds in ‘The Ecliptic of Sex’ that gendered emancipation eventually ‘confines the feminine to … that strong, discriminating structure centered on the phallus’ (1990:130). The more tenacious feminism holds on to truth and liberation, the more it loses the radical edge that femininity always already had by constantly, and hence today even more so, being ‘elsewhere’ (ibid). This gap between the imaginary and the ‘real’ locus of femininity must lead to paradoxical results, because this confinement and its representation as liberation is after all only a mechanically-produced mirage that dissimulates the negative fallout that is actually happening on the ground with women. But does not this train of thought in Baudrillard itself display a critically fabricated gap between ‘hidden’ reality and ‘false’ representation, as well as reproduce eventually a bizarrely feminist-yet-patriarchal argument by positing that the actual reality of women, whose seductive powers are supposedly being denied, resides in the game of appearances? Does not his truth-claim that all the feminist arguments find themselves seduced by the mirage of liberation display itself an equally tenacious analysis? In fact, I suggest that the whole of ‘The Ecliptic of Sex’ itself really revolves around accelerating the very tenacity of feminism with the order of truth, and it does this to such extremes that the whole idea of patriarchy eventually spins out of masculinist-productivist control and unravels. ‘The Ecliptic of Sex’ works this undoing by doubling the feminist opposition between masculinity and femininity into a seemingly more radical opposition between production (as masculine) and seduction (as feminine), which at first glance seems to disentangle the feminine from the whole productivist system that sustains simulation. While this doubling on the surface appears to negate the reality of patriarchal oppression through questions like ‘through what aberrant complicity are we being asked that this [repression] is the history of the feminine, if not precisely a complicity with the masculine?’ upon closer inspection, Baudrillard actually re-performs the feminist staging of sexual opposition by a kind of peculiar one-upmanship; through positing that the whole project of unearthing ‘real’ female and feminist desire in diametrical opposition to the masculine results in unearthing ‘the psychic metaphor of capital’ (ibid.:154), the real state of affairs is supposedly finally that ‘the feminine is not what opposes the masculine, but what seduces the masculine’ (ibid.:131). The feminine then, we are told, ‘is elsewhere, it has always been elsewhere’ (130). What emerges from this text is again not only that Baudrillard seems very feminist, but also that feminism can be reborn by way of a negation on the level of its fundamental assumption – a form of ‘difference’ thinking – which is at the same time possible due to a revalidation of that same masculine performance – a form of ‘equality’ thinking. So parallel to his critique of feminism, one could claim that Baudrillard’s idea or image of ‘seduction’ likewise emerges as a symptom of the fake difference between his position and the feminist one; (radical) difference is indeed, always and once again, elsewhere. All this shows quite simply the form or function that Baudrillard’s as well as the feminist critique takes; its seduction is always part of production as much as it is its undoing, and no critical or political agency can either mobilize or ward that off – least of all the patriarch Baudrillard himself.
IV. Afterthought: the certainty of uncertainty
I have centered my feminist argument on feminism being thwarted around the critical assessment of our current technological condition as one of ‘speed-elitism’ and simulation, which as I suggested by way of for instance Baudrillard’s infamous Simulacra and Simulation is actually a certain stage or phase in capitalism (1984:6). In turn, this article has fruitfully set up a dialogue between Baudrillard’s work and some examples of ‘feminist deconstruction,’ arguing that the emancipatory rendition of oppositional mobilizations between feminism’s of ‘equality,’ ‘difference,’ and ‘deconstruction’ becomes possible because this stage transposes patriarchal symbolism into phallic functionality. But if one were to take Baudrillard’s point about simulation to its logical conclusion as I did above, would it not be fair to say that it seems as if feminists are co-producing the profound illusion that is this stage? Likewise, it seems as if everything is constantly accelerating and that this state of affairs favors the speed-elite, but perhaps Baudrillard’s fatal acceleration of feminism is really a product of a certain imagined stasis, which is indeed also Paul Virilio’s daring thesis in The Lost Dimension and Speed and Politics? It is at this point entirely possible to read all of Baudrillard’s truth-claims about technological society at large as caricaturizing the whole sociological endeavor of describing stages and categories. So the truth of Baudrillard’s framework in turn appears as a surface effect of a certain ‘flimsy’ critical tradition, just as the seduction of feminism by Baudrillard results from his argument finally reigning in that what neither seems to make sense in the feminist project nor in his work. The quote at the start of this article from The System of Objects regarding authenticity as patriarchal ( 1996:77) does therefore not only simply say that truth-claims are always implicated in patriarchal power, but also that this very statement itself relies on the sham that is patriarchy and (its) truth. Baudrillard’s seduction of feminism has then reached its final confusion: perhaps it is Baudrillard himself who, despite or rather because of his masculinist performance of reason, truth, and logic, has switched or slid towards ‘the feminine,’ whatever that finally is. And perhaps it is my own article that, in its complicit performance of the social truth of speed-elitism, has fatally slid even more. After all, the depth of appearances appears to win out over the superficiality of truth. This display of reversibility is in particular showcased in ‘The Ecliptic of Sex’ with the words, both serious and hilarious, both spot-on and nonsensical, that ‘woman is but appearance. And it is the feminine as appearance that defeats the masculine as depth … Besides, has there ever been phallic power’ (1990:133, 135)? It is the indiscernability in Baudrillard’s work between mere paradox and blatant contradiction around his performance of feminism as anti-feminism (and vice-versa), as well as the indiscernability between authenticity and imitation, that seduces my critical piece of feminist thought as well. But I would claim that the anti-feminism at the heart of feminism should not have us despair at all. Rather, all these indiscernabilities usefully mirror that of patriarchal capitalism in terms of all their mutual and fundamental instability; or, one could say that I can read such instability into his texts simply because our technocratic and masculinist social context is itself exponentially unstable and untenable.
This at least then becomes clear as a crystal: that at the structural limits of feminism, accelerated patriarchy itself dissolves into the abyss that meaningful politics always is. This would in fact then exactly be feminism’s longed-for completion despite itself. But what glorious seduction of my academic production forces the feminist utopia to reappear as a final possibility in an article that singled out feminism as principally patriarchal? It is, precisely, the end of critical analysis and the start of integral uncertainty; all that remains is the raising of stakes.
Ingrid M. Hoofd is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research interests involve issues of representation, feminist and critical theories, and philosophy of technology. Her work discusses the ways in which left-wing activists and academics mobilize what she calls 'speed-elitist' discourses and divisions in an attempt to overcome gendered, raced, and classed oppressions worldwide. This work explores in particular the intersections between various forms of contemporary political activism and the oeuvre of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Ingrid's monograph Ambiguities of Activism: Alter-Globalism and the Imperatives of Speed was published with the Routledge series Research in Cultural and Media Studies in June 2012.
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