Identity Politics and the Challenge of Representation

Identity Politics and the Challenge of Representation

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“My sociality precedes my agency.”—Judith Butler


This paper attempts to redirect, among feminists representing a variety of traditions, a discussion of feminist theology and theory as they relate to identity and subjectivity. I consider the implications of arguing that one’s social identity does not represent an essential nature of the self, but is largely a manifestation of social categories imposed by external disciplinary mechanisms which themselves lack locatable points of origin; constantly displaced and deferred, the category “woman” as a fixed point of reference for feminist theory and theology may not be conducive to desired ends, in certain respects. Past analysis of this question reveals a spectrum of assumptions that provide starting points and parameters to analyze identity. First, it seems self-evident to believe that generic categories exist, are conducive to social arrangements in a positive sense, and that individuals are neatly appropriated by essential and ahistorical marks or behavior into such categories. An argument against this is that “generic” asserts universal identity markers that pertain only to a privileged subgroup or originate according to select motivations of a hegemonic group. Such naming conceals normative and prescriptive utterances by trying to pass as descriptive. A second understanding asserts that identity categories are somewhat fluid and allow for difference through self-definition, lending to the practice of inter-subjective social discussions. A third approach collapses identity categories by exposing them as non-foundational and linguistically construed, such that the bearings of personal identity and political representation are seemingly lost. My task is to evaluate these past efforts at negotiating difference and deferment of “woman” as a discursive category and as a linguistic signifier, assess recent strategies to base identity and ground subjectivity, and then pose different starting points to base the relationship between identity and ontology. The position that I will argue in this paper is that a conception of personal identity and political representation that aims to positively affirm difference must conceive of subjects and the world from a material basis, which I will assert is difference as such, to construct a paradigm of reality formed internally and relationally by subjects in process that simultaneously transforms the paradigm through process.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests using discursive space where political action accepts self-definition “without needing to suppress patriarchal structural divisions.” In other words, to use strategies, dialogical methods, and debate that does not require one foundational basis of experience against multi-sided struggles. Susan Bordo asserts that it is important to analyze the material body, the site of political struggle, within specific historical and cultural practices, instead of abstracting the meaning of the body through ahistorical analysis. Judith Butler argues that oppositional discourses, such as feminist and liberationist movements, are never cut off from phallogocentric structures that posit a false givenness of individual and group identity. Her deconstructive project works beyond social practices to bring into question identity categories and the terms of discourse and knowledge. This challenge brings into question a monolithic and determined reality, preexistent representational categories, and a singular, rational, and unified subject. Elizabeth Grosz explains, “In other words, what is in question here is the adequacy of methods, axioms, and criteria of evaluation in knowledges relative to their objects of investigation, the presupposition of the transparent neutrality of ways of knowing to the objects known.” 1 What ensues is a thorough critique of knowledges that affirm masculinity and phallogocentrism; challenge neutrality and explore perspectivalism; and challenge the assumption of essential corporeality.2

I think it is important to prioritize questioning the conditions of identity and representation—as opposed to the attainment of visible identities—as a practice guiding the course of feminist theory, such that one’s methodology underscores difference of constituted subjects effected through becoming in discourse rather than expressions of essential beings configuring homogenous social categories. Throughout this essay I emphasize that there is no subject-identity to speak of prior to action and experience, but that identity and subjectivity are constituted through activity in a performative sense, a becoming. The scene of subject constitution is a complex of shared symbols, practices, and negotiations that simultaneously facilitate partial determination and partial novelty in the acquisition of public recognition—subjects practice performativity only according to resources and terms accorded by social structures. I will consider theories that understand the body as a “threshold” of subjects, a topography that bears the interior and exterior experience of human beings that is constituted by social inscription, which is creating in and of materiality. I conclude with a discussion of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, which provides insight on the difference between being and becoming that has enormous implications for negotiating and figuring the relationship between materialiality and sociality, the one and the many, and personal identity that is grounded yet radically open to creative possibilities.

The Ekklesia of Women:

Tracing historical turns in the struggle to recognize the leadership of women in church institutions and of women’s ordination, in particular, points to a need—sometimes an ambivalent desire—to establish solidarity and mutuality between women from various backgrounds. The World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians are rich social fields for such discussions and illustrate the quest for solidarity, both historically and in the contemporary scene. One undercurrent of the conversation is an assumption that women share comparable experiences of oppression and benefit by working as a unified movement against patriarchal attitudes and social structures. The voices of Third World women have emphasized for nearly three decades through the Women’s Commission of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians that solidarity based on common oppression must be approached critically so as not to overlook ways that women oppress each other. The point of departure, women oppressed by sexism, is both assumed and contested here.

“Woman” as a category is the starting point for feminist theory because it is considered the ground of gender oppression, just as “man” is identified as the oppressor. Some theorists find that these strict binaries do not reflect actual experience, especially when race, class, and historical context are factored in. In her book, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation3, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes problems in universalizing the category “women” and attempts to develop a strategic, or working, concept in the form of an ekklesia of women. Women are disqualified in many denominations from serving in ministerial and leadership roles based on particular interpretations of femaleness that identifies women with corporeality rather than intellectual skills; the primacy of reproductive and domestic responsibility; and not possessing the ability to lead, organize, and mediate between the Divine and human spheres. When women began discussing social concerns specific to their subordinate role to men and the connections to economic, political, and ecological problems it became difficult, if not impossible, for the particular experience of doubly and triply marginalized women to be articulated over against the voices of North American and European women. It became apparent that assuming a universal category such as “women” is problematic for those working towards gender justice in religious traditions such as Christianity.

As women continue to develop theological and philosophical underpinnings for ethical commitments and draw out juridical insights implicit in those commitments they will encounter alternative strategies that challenge the given-ness of general categories such as “man” and “woman.” Assumptions about epistemology and corporeality guide the outcome of such conversations when normative concepts such as male and female are universalized and taken for granted. The appearance of a positive and meaningful direction through the collusion of all women into a sisterhood founded on mutual oppression evades the complexity of each individual subject and conceals a violent construction of the category itself in the attempt to forge bonds.

Schüssler Fiorenza was impacted by the emergence of a new kind of feminist theory in the 1980s that focused on critiquing phallocentrism and aimed at moving beyond the male/female binary. The following premise guides her argument: “We must refuse to produce or disperse knowledges that legitimates intellectual and religious discourses that vilify, subordinate, and marginalize women. In order to enable such a practice of ‘disloyalty’ to patriarchal authority, feminist theory and theology must preserve its alien character by constituting itself as a second order reflection on women’s struggles for liberation, while remaining accountable to these struggles.”4 She asserts that feminists have mistakenly and unconsciously integrated the movement for equality within the standards of the androcentric academy and patriarchal church institutions in the past. Such collusion may be adopted as a strategic and subversive option only if one recognizes the potential for reproducing knowledges and methodologies of patriarchal standards and origins in the effort to be acknowledged as having the same value as men in terms of authority and the right for political visibility.

Schüssler Fiorenza incorporates the idea of situating oneself “between the center and the margins,” to recognize that the paradigm, the structure, cannot be exited or the center overcome. She distinguishes this from past feminist efforts to situate women in the center, to establish the presence of women in socially and politically advantageous positions. Though women critique dualisms, such binaries are reproduced when theories are limited by “insider/outsider” perspectives: “either reformist or radical, socialist or liberal, private or public, equal rights or liberationist, insider or outsider, psychoanalytic or socio-political, essentialist or constructivist, European or American, First or Third World feminists.”5 As women move away from such dualisms, they part company as theorists in the struggle to articulate descontructive socio-cultural analysis.

One vein of feminist theory moved away from primarily critiquing sexism to challenging phallogocentrism, defined by Judith Butler as “the epistemological, ontological, and logical structures of a masculinist signifying economy.”6 Challenging phallogocentrism, in contrast to challenging sexism, is an attempt to articulate the absence of women from language, that the feminine is an empty signifier, an Other in relation to a masculine universal.7 Butler and Schüssler Fiorenza agree that this theoretical move was a powerful step in the direction of defining women in alternative terms and not as objects in relation to a masculine point of reference. Man has historically functioned as the definitive and universal subject. In the past feminist theorists commonly recognized two natural categories, man and woman, and worked for gender justice by trying to elevate women to the same social, political, and professional status as men. However, Butler and Schüssler Fiorenza question these strategies because such theories attempt to articulate signifying economies that exclude the multiplicity of women as subjects, and even men in their diverse ways of existing. Butler contends that the move “risks a repetition of the self-aggrandizing gesture of phallogocentrism, colonizing under the sign of the same those differences that might otherwise call that totalizing concept into question.”8 Schüssler Fiorenza adds that this theoretical movement does not take into account the emergence of voices from Second and Third World countries that “deconstruct the unitary essentialist understanding of Woman,”9 and that this latter emergence is the most significant change in feminist critical theory in the last two and a half decades.

Schüssler Fiorenza argues for an approach that displaces the binary system of masculine and feminine in order to “reconceptualize patriarchy as a key analytic category of feminist theory in such a way that it can articulate the interstructuring of the conflicting oppressions of different groups of women.”10 She describes patriarchy as a shifting power structure that regulates hierarchical relationships in terms of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, politics, culture and other modes of human existence. These complexities are masked when binaries postulate a universal category of feminine oppression, while exposing some women as perpetrators of furthering power paradigms that work against other women. Social, economic, religious, and ideological differences pose problems for feminists trying to establish sisterhood or a unified political front. But these are sometimes overlooked and a common denominator is sought, such as simply “being a woman” and experiencing universal patriarchal oppression, to nullify such complications for the sake of political activity. This, however, emphasizes Butler’s point that oppositional discourses, such as feminist and liberationist movements, are never cut off from phallogocentric structures that posit a givenness of womanhood or femaleness in the first place.

Schüssler Fiorenza suggests using discursive space where political action accepts self-definition “without needing to suppress patriarchal structural divisions.” In other words, to use strategies, dialogical methods, and debate that does not require one foundational basis of experience against multi-sided struggles. She calls this discursive space the ekklesia of women and imagines radical democracy guiding political processes in this space, displacing the concept of “otherness” and replacing it as ekklesia. She qualifies the ekklesia as a theoretical space that denaturalizes inscriptions that define otherness along lines of race, ethnicity, age, class, and gender. Although these inscriptions are constructed, the resulting identities and socio-political experiences are foundational to individual self-definition within the theoretical space. This theory is a refusal to identify such inscriptions within hierarchical dualisms, ontology of substance, and universalizing that which time, history, and cultural contexts uniquely specify.

Reinforcing the notion that the ekklesia cannot be defined by commonalities of women as women, Schüssler Fiorenza cautions against the use of familial and privatized metaphors because they have negative associations and convey complications in simplistic terms. She writes:

Insofar as the feminist understanding of sisterhood is based on the shared victimization and collectivization of women’s power, it does not recognize the power-differentials among women. Nor does it acknowledge the power and talents of individual strong women. The rhetoric of noncompetitive structurelessness and group collectivity allows those women who lack self-affirmation and power to vent feelings of inadequacy on other women, to trash women who stand out, and to exercise traditionally feminine indirect manipulative power. It makes critical dialogue taboo and leads to “burnout,” which is caused by the repression of anger at the lack of recognition and respect.11

Schüssler Fiorenza argues that sisterhood can, however, be understood in terms of friendship and to create a depth of group spirit. But it cannot be the constitutive element of political and liberationist movements. She recognizes the usefulness of intersubjective theory, the practice of recognizing a tension of sameness and difference between the Self and the Other—a mutual recognition of the paradoxical balance and necessity of collectivity and separateness. It is a practice that stresses flexibility of identity in an “open rhetorical space,” versus a coherent and bounded space such as sisterhood.

She contrasts open rhetorical space with objectivist conceptions of feminist theory, historical narrative, and theology. In her book, In Memory of Her, Schüssler Fiorenza defines and explains why objective accounts of reality are problematic, using positivist science as an example:

Positivist science does not require that the historian’s narrative show how it is plotted and why it is plotted in a certain way, since it is supposedly a faithful narration of what has actually happened. By asserting that a given interpretation of a text represent the objective “true” sense of the text, scientific exegesis claims to comprehend the definitive meaning intended by the author or inscribed in the text. This scientific ethos of historical-literary critical interpretation shares in the pathology of modernity which, according to Jürgen Habermas, consists in the splitting off of expert cultures from everyday cultural practices and life.12

She emphasizes the importance of vacillating between feminist rhetorical strategies and excluding strictly oppositional stances: recommending strategies in the form of the “rhetoric of liberation, the rhetoric of differences, not just difference, the rhetoric of equality, and the rhetoric of wisdom.” Such movement guards the common good by practicing deliberation and persuasion in democratic forums. These practices counter dogmatic positivism by invoking a multiplicity of positions and discursive practices, which requires the development of an ethic of solidarity that makes explicit and evaluates patriarchal power relations inherent within discourse and strategic movements.

Judith Butler challenges totalizing categories pertaining to the constitution and identity of subjects seeking political representation and movement toward just social relationships. Butler analyzes the category “woman” within feminist theories and frames her argument upon the premise that this category is not generic or universal but constructed in phallogocentric terms. The category and the subjects it represents are ideologically constituted by dominant paradigms. She stresses that individual subjects are appropriated into social categories seemingly universal in nature, based on ontological or qualitative attributes of sameness. This is problematic for political activity intending to secure rights and visibility to women while, at the same time, failing to challenge the structures that construct and maintain normatives. Butler’s approach suspends essential ontologies of categories such as “human” and “woman” within discourses, leaving fundamental questions of identity politics and self-identification radically open. It follows for Butler that there is no given-ness of identity and ontological justification for assuming gendered roles and functions.

In this conception subjects are unable to reach back to pre-discursive and pre-social foundations of the self as a means to establish agency and equality in relation to other individuals because no such self ever existed. One may imagine primordial selves, but these are constructs founded on contemporary values specified by culture. Drawing heavily on the thought of Michel Foucault, Butler explains the process of being subjected:

Juridical notions of power appears to regulate political life in purely negative terms—that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, control, and even ‘protection’ of individuals related to that structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice. But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures. If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representational politics. And the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation. 13

There is a power, an act of policing, that attempts to define the boundaries of knowledge whereby “truth,” the objects of knowledge, and categories of discourse are maintained within a phallogocentric paradigm, masquerading neutrality in intention, production, and force. Butler is not trying to dissolve knowledge of subjects and self-knowledge altogether, but emphasizes the primacy of action and re-inscription of norms over against concepts that emphasize essential and substantive properties of subjects. She is interested in deconstructing general categories to affirm openness at the origin of subjectivity and a resulting, compulsive re-formation in becoming.

Examining methods of production are central to deconstructive investigations. Language and the act of naming others are methods of production that work in seemingly neutral and transparent ways. While language works to enforce norms, it is also a rich resource for subversive acts against dominating forces. Butler argues for affirmative deconstruction, which involves participation in political discourse using language to subvert. One is implicated within the linguistic system by naming men and women, by naming anything at all, even when such terms are qualified and norms constantly displaced. Signifiers are non-identity components of discourse that carry contingent and unsettled meaning, perpetually reformed and rearticulated. Signifiers cannot actually be spoken of in a positive sense, but are only indirectly cited. Butler asks, “Indeed, can there be a theory of ‘contingency’ that is not compelled to refuse or cover over that which it seeks to explain?”14 The only way, then, to speak of an individual signifier is to reify a concept, using the rules of a given knowledge structure by denying the signifier’s inessential existence for a momentary utterance.

Butler affirms a constant creation of norms and categories even as she challenges the primacy of identity as the end of politics altogether. Rather than understanding the end of the struggle as the attainment of a visible identity, Butler argues that it is more important to question the conditions of “sayability, of speakability, and of visibility.” The place that one “ends up” with the attainment of identity may not be a desirable paradigm to be situated after all. Then the paradigm itself and the process of power inherent in paradigms become the most significant aspects of identity politics. Butler writes, “In effect, the law produces and then conceals the notions of ‘a subject before the law’ in order to invoke that discursive formation as a naturalized foundational premise that subsequently legitimates that law’s own regulatory hegemony.”15 The critical point is that there is no subject “before the Law” that awaits representation. For her it is not enough to embark on a plan to empower women or seek theoretical sites of struggle if one is not explicit concerning what they mean by the term “woman.” Generic collectives are fractured by subjects refusing to retain the conditions of group identity long enough to effectively wield one coherent political movement. Working toward social visibility and making appeals to justice and human rights begins with epistemological questions that takes into account the grounds and justification of belief, unraveling ancient “truth statements” about the nature of humanity.

One point that I believe Schüssler Fiorenza failed to develop in her argument for being located between the center and the margins is that subjects cannot sequester themselves apart from hegemonic centers and they certainly cannot exit discourse entirely. Butler suggests, “To trace the political operations that produce and conceal what qualifies as the juridical subject of feminism is precisely the task of a feminist genealogy of the category of women.”16 The intention of further defining gender and what a woman exactly is, even if that intention is to radically open the category, is the primary means by which domination and exclusion are regularly reinforced.

This is not an attempt to simply foster abstract heterogeneity, as some critics of Butler contend, but a way to see the diverse situations of subjects within discourse specifically by articulating oneself as located and complicit within oppressive structures. Margaret D. Kamitsuka notes that “fracturing” has occurred within the feminist circle and, though criticized by many as a threat to diminish the power, viability, and political agency of movements toward justice, it is an appropriate and necessary element for consideration. The threat that many feminist scholars see in recognizing difference is, according to Kamitsuka, an enriching concept. She writes, “The extent to which this fracturing will be enriching depends ultimately not on the multicultural good intentions of those in dominant positions; rather, it depends on the extent to which feminist theologians make difference methodologically central to the way in which we approach our central subject (women).”17 Or else one re-inscribes, perpetuates, and enforces the very power paradigms that feminism opposes.

The notion of the ekklesia itself contains more creative usage and complications than Schüssler Fiorenza’s application proposes. The ekklesia constrains the notion of difference if it itself is unchanging and static. As a social structure with defined boundaries—the standpoint of women that includes their self-defined differences—the ekklesia necessarily operates from a predetermined vantage point. This negates Schussler Fiorenza’s intention to liberate women from the phallogocentric paradigm by relocating them into another structure, if indeed the ekklesia is absolutely defined. My contention is that Schussler Fiorenza’s ekklesia is limiting in this sense because she does not go far enough in deconstructing women and the male/female binary.

One possibility to advance the notion of the ekklesia is to found it from a material basis that is formed and reformed internally, according to the understanding one has of the material subjects within the paradigm. If subjects are by nature becoming and not essentially constituted, as essentially women for instance, the paradigm internally constituted by the subjects will also transform. This helps to solve one aspect of the problem, ontologically speaking. Pushing the question of difference further, however, requires doing away with the center and the corresponding periphery if one examines the issue from a single attribute of subjects, such as gender. If this attribute is always an effect of experience, and changing according to how one appropriates the social meaning of an attribute such as gender, the fact that this occurs on a subject by subject basis challenges the notion that the ekklesia can be founded on a single characteristic having lasting political use. Wouldn’t it also be the case that there exist as many paradigms as subjects, as many axes of knowledge as there are subjects? All of this shows that even if subjects choose to identify with a group for political purposes, this identification services a practical purpose, which is not to say that subjects are sometimes forced to identify. This connection with a group based on a single or a few attributes is not itself essential, but always re-inscribed and reconstructed to internally create a new paradigm.

In/Visibility and Docile Bodies:

Bodies are interrogated and understood in various ways: anatomically, physiologically, metaphysically, and socio-culturally. For thinkers such as Grosz and Butler, taking into account the relationship between identity and corporeality is inseparable from examining the place of the subject within knowledge structures that act in juridical and productive ways upon the body. A persistent element of knowledge in Western thought is the employment of binaries such as man/woman, mind/body, culture/nature, intellect/emotion, and so forth. According to Grosz, binaries naturalize dual perspectives where the second term is consistently defined according to the privileged first term: “Given the prevailing binarized or dichotomized categories governing Western reason and the privilege accorded to one term over the other in binary pairs (e.g., mind over body, culture over nature, self over other, reason over passions) it is necessary to examine the subordinated, negative, or excluded term body as the unacknowledged condition of the dominant term, reason.18 Certainly it is not problematic every time one defines something in terms of another, as when giving causal explanations through inference. Reasoning is basically contingent upon one’s ability to make comparisons and create relationships between terms. But a binary is more than a definition by comparison if one term is accorded archetypal or universal status and the other term is a deviation or variation of the privileged first term. These are not merely relationships between two or more subjects, but require subjection of particulars to universal Forms. It is worth questioning the existence of universals and rely solely on particular subjects or terms instead, as we shall examine later on.

As suggested in the above quote by Grosz, the body is held as inferior to reason even as it provides the physical conditions for intellectual activity. Susan Bordo analyzes the intellectual/physical dualism when she assesses the man/woman binary and the ways that women attempt to capture social visibility through the body. She argues that bodies are mediums, metaphors, and texts of culture. Drawing from Michel Foucault, she refers to “docile bodies” that succumb to cultural “practices of femininity,” homogenizing and unrealistic ideals of what being a woman represents. Bordo writes that hyper-obedience drives some individuals to pursue these ideals to the point of pathology: compulsive exercising, extreme dieting, attention to minute details of fashion, refusing to leave one’s home environment, and exaggerating feminine delicacy in the form of hysteria. She specifically refers these behaviors as feminine pathology. These practices correspond to temporal and historical ideals that are essentially forms of social control. Bordo writes, “In such an era we desperately need an effective political discourse about the female body, a discourse adequate to an analysis of the insidious, and often paradoxical, pathways of modern social control.”19 Bordo’s analysis of resistance and protest by means of pathology builds upon an understanding that such behavior is constraining and liberating at the same time, framed within an oppressor/oppressed binary.

Bordo’s analysis of political statements made through the body are gender-specific. Her research concentrates on the current burgeoning of eating disorders in Western society. Obsessive body practices, viewed from within a cultural context, are protests of ideal femininity and submission to cultural expectations at the same time. She explains, “Through embodied rather than discursive demonstration she exposes and indicts those ideals, precisely by pursuing them to the point where their destructive potential is revealed for all to see.”20 The body as a site of individual self-determination is one end of a dichotomy in Bordo’s analysis. The other end is her insistence that the body is a real material entity embedded within culture, readily constituted for social interaction and taking on cultural expectations.

Foucault distinguishes the “intelligible body” from the “real body.” The former refers to bodies negotiating power in the Symbolic world and the latter refers to bodies speaking and acting politically in the Real world. Bordo draws on this distinction and believes that too much emphasis has been placed on the Symbolic meaning of bodies and not enough attention has been given to the lived experiences of bodies. The bottom line for Bordo, and the point of relevance for this paper, is her belief that the philosophical community has neglected the physical experience of the body and that more emphasis should be placed on examining the “practical lives of bodies” as sites of struggle.

I see several elements of Bordo’s argument that are deficient, yet if reformulated, can potentially contribute in greater ways to conceiving personal identity and social representation. First, it is my contention that through Bordo’s efforts to describe ways that women use their bodies as voices of protest, she strengthens the identification of woman as body. She does not reconcile men and bodies or women and reason, or men and women, but further exacerbates the dichotomy through her explanation of the textual body and “normalizing” of feminine pathology: “But what remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of body as something apart from the true self (whether conceived as soul, mind, spirit, will, creativity, freedom . . .) and as undermining the best efforts of that self.”21 In her effort to trace the body materially situated in culture, to debunk the mind/body dualism, and to focus on constituted (“real”) bodies in opposition to constituting (purely “textual”) bodies, Bordo instrumentalizes subjectivity derived from metaphysics of substance that isolates pathological reaction as the primary dynamic force of identity. Her focus on materiality is interesting, but does not provide a description of subjectivity that takes into account the role of experience, even as she emphasizes the role of culture, in tandem with the self-constitution that she seemingly wants to affirm. Her concern for the visibility of the subject within culture is premised by the body of the subject, a constituted agent, reinforcing the male/female dichotomy and denying the possibility of difference.

Bordo’s central concern is to investigate resources available to women as agents within cultures grounded in dualistic underpinnings, and her project is not directly addressing the question of difference. At one point, she indicates that her goal is not to portray “feminine pathology” as bizarre or anomalous but, rather, she aims to highlight the “logical (if extreme) manifestations of anxieties and fantasies fostered by our culture”22 through analysis that isolates disciplinary practices that subjugate women. She argues that this emphasis on the everyday experiences of women strengthens her philosophical position in direct contrast to Judith Butler’s abstract and ahistorical cultural analysis that celebrates resistance to power relations instead of engaging in recuperative aspects of power relations.

Even as Butler and Bordo both address the question of identity-politics and the possibility of transformative resources available for marginalized subjects, they come to conclusions that appear similar but are actually very different given their separate understandings of how a subject comes to be in the world. Butler’s emphasis on parody and Bordo’s understanding of pathological practices are similar in that both assert that subjects use resources provided by their given cultures and transform or exaggerate the terms creatively. Clearly, however, the two thinkers approach these practices from different sets of assumptions and emphasize different metaphysical premises and parameters, such that their conceptions of subjects embedded within culture and the textual body inscribed by culture take on different meanings of representation. Butler refuses to separate the constitution of political identity from the process of constituting individual subjectivity. Bordo appears to assume that the latter piece (the subject) is coherent and fixed throughout the separate exercise of projecting the former (one’s identity); she assumes stability of corporeality that projects subjectivity within a defined and intelligible space.

Second, and building off of the first critique is Bordo’s lack of an adequate account of subject-formation grounding her understanding of beings embedded in culture as a textual body. Political practices and transformation of those practices is contingent upon one’s conception of subjectivity and the ongoing relationship between the subject and the discursive fabric that forms it. Butler’s understanding of parodic behavior is tied to her commitment to expand what is culturally intelligible in terms of multiplicity and explore that which contributes to, yet restrains, such creative possibilities: the power and influence of discourse. Parody is a corporeal practice that exposes the masculinist Law and psychological aspects of cultural regulations. While parody may not facilitate a mass overhaul of phallogocentric structures within culture, it does promote small steps toward exposing the paradigm and transforming it at the same time. But, for her, constitution of the subject and the world occur in tandem, such that one is not privileged as primary or primordial. The constituting world and the constituting subject influence and limit each other, which implies the impossibility of positing essential cores for either. Butler writes, “The displacement of a political and discursive origin of gender identity onto a psychological ‘core’ precludes an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject and its fabricated notions about the ineffable interiority of its sex or of its true identity.”23 Revealing the process of constituting subjects facilitates a displacement of identity and meaning, such that identity is perpetually open to change and multiplying the force of difference in political space. Bordo’s analysis lacks attention to the system as itself dynamic and changing, which parallels my contention that it is better to conceive of the subject as perpetually constituted.

In light of Butler’s perspective, it appears that subjects contribute to positing normative terms rather than just negotiating their location in relationship to a norm. Bordo argues that pathological behavior is a way for feminine subjects to situate themselves in their “proper” cultural space as material subjects and, even more significantly, as women. Butler refuses to hedge discourse itself within totalizing definitions relative to general categories that provide the terms of the discussion. Terms such as “woman” are linguistic signifiers that mask a process of displacement and inscription. Bordo takes this category for granted, even as she affirms a commitment to situating such terms within historical schemes. As long as Bordo affirms an absolute dichotomy of man/woman (dual signifiers) and does not recognize multiplicity on either end of the dichotomy she contributes to reifying such concepts.

I relate this analysis back to my re-worked conception of the ekklesia near the end of the discussion on Schussler Fiorenza. Paradigms are impacted internally by becoming subjects, in more ways than one by not limiting one’s location to a single attribute such as gender and to understand that gathering subjects into categories is a practical and intentional pursuit but not directed by essential natures. As I explained above, Bordo takes categories for granted by paying more attention to political expressions of bodies (e.g., through pathology) without taking into account materiality being difference. The connection to the ekklesia is her treatment of reality according to the epistemological framework she draws from. Bordo’s subject-centered epistemology takes for granted that the actions and behavior of subjects essentially constituted might reveal the discursive framework that writes on the textual body. In taking the paradigm for granted along with the material constitution of subjects, Bordo forecloses the opportunity to consider difference.

Plurality of Self-Constituting Subjects:

What is the impact of this analysis on subject-identity and political representation? In the opening of this paper I proposed the primacy of questioning the conditions of identity and representation, in opposition to the attainment of visible identities guiding the course of feminist theory, such that methodology underscores difference and constituting subjects effected through processes of becoming in discourse rather than expressions of essential beings configuring homogenous social categories. I also indicated my intention to evaluate past efforts at negotiating difference and deferment of “woman” as a discursive category, to assess recent strategies to promote difference and resistence, and then pose formulations for political representation and personal identity.

It is now evident that essentialism and metaphysics of substance pose significant problems as foundations for feminist theory. Yet the body is materially constituted in some sense and we must take account of it. Butler questioned in her earlier work “whether recourse to matter and to the materiality of sex is necessary in order to establish that irreducible specificity that is said to ground the feminist practice.”24 It is understandable that a number of postmodern metaphysicians and feminist theorists avoid discussing matter as substance because this it symbolizes “presence” through deterministic chains of evolution and the constraints of enclosed systems. Academic disciplines are divided on one hand into questions of biology, nature, bodies, and matter and, on the other hand, to questions of culture, subjectivity, the psyche, and desire. What possibilities arise if a person refuses to demarcate these sets of questions? Elizabeth Grosz, along with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, finds that directly granting process to materiality through time described as a gift introduces the possibility of novelty and change. Time is essential to “deconstructing” substance: materiality as the basis of difference through process is the unraveling of presence through spatialization and temporalization. Reality is then marked by changes constituted in the entire economy, limited by memory but unconstrained by essentialism or binaries.

In this sense, materiality—a site of sedimentation, difference, and erasure— can be the ground for feminist theory and to related questions of identity. The body is not so much a space consequently occupied by a psyche. Rather, the constituting subject is presupposed by and necessitates a psyche inseparable from the material body, as elements transforming and moving in process. If corporeal existence is not figured as creation out-of-nothing, in that performative statements are declarations, then the reduction of ontology to epistemology or simply the force of knowledges is inadequate for answering the question of identity and representation.

That materiality is constituted concurrently with subjectivity works if the difference between the interior and exterior of the subject collapses as distinct and separable elements. The temporal aspect of becoming a subject introduces the concept of novelty and creativity, which is friendly toward a performative conception of identity. Elizabeth Grosz writes:

We are dealing with a subject that is never what it is, a subject that is always in the process of becoming something else, perhaps even a subject becoming beyond subjectivity, which necessarily produces as its correlate and complement an object that is more than an inert, given passivity, and also becomes something else than it was. Time, even more than space, needs to be thought in terms which liberate it from the constraints of the present, for time is the force of differing, whatever stability and order spatialization enables or entails.25

Another way to formulate the question is to ask what the relationship is between individual human experience and the rest of reality, to bring into question the existence, continuation, and inter-relatedness of all things. Butler postulates, “The task is not, as a consequence, to multiply numerically subject-positions within the existing symbolic, the current domain of cultural viability, even as such positions are necessary in order to occupy available sites of empowerment within the liberal state—to become recipients of health care, to have partnerships honored legally, to mobilize and redirect the enormous power of public recognition.”26 If the task is not to “multiply numerically subject-positions within the existing symbolic”, it appears helpful to me to conceptualize a different symbolic order that affirms the existence of multiple subject-positions, sans postulations of essentialism, that takes into account affective mutability of and between the one and the many.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead affirms that consequent entities are related to a larger whole, which includes eternal objects beyond the self. Whitehead’s understanding of relationships is not linear but branches out to include other persons. He affirms that a person is partly the same tomorrow as they were yesterday, but only through the objectification of eternal objects and the role of memory. The self is instantiated in tiny moments of time over and over again. But these moments are so miniscule that they cannot be articulated as Being. Butler is only concerned with the consequent self and its relationship with the systems that provide the terms for becoming. She differs starkly from the idea that there is an essential or original self to refer personal identity. Butler is likely to say that a person will not be the same tomorrow as they were yesterday because a person is only said to exist through activity by which they are hailed into becoming. Personal identity is created through those moments of performance—where the body is the site of the performance and irreducible from mental and emotional events. Whitehead and Butler both argue that individuals are constituted through experience. “Whitehead… with his turn to the Subject conceived reality in terms of a plurality of momentary self-constituting subjects of experience which by their dynamic interrelation from moment to moment co-constitute the apparent substances or enduring things of this world,” explains Joseph Bracken.27 For Butler, in comparison, the focus on experience entails subject-identity in and through pre-conscious regulations that give rise to pre-conscious subjectivity. For Whitehead, subject-identity entails a process of pre-conscious physicalities and conceptualities. Consciousness occurs late in the process of becoming a subject and is even secondary to the experience of subjectivity. Whitehead does not anticipate consciousness prior to the formation of subjective entities but affirms consciousness as a correlative element of the process of becoming an actualized subject. This affirms the idea that an individual is not a dual entity whose real or meaningful experiences occur through mental consciousness alone, but that the whole bodily existence of the entity is perceptible.

The common understanding that consciousness, as a premise of self-reflection, enables one to articulate self-identity is not of primary importance for either Whitehead or Butler. Instead, the subject and identity are constituted by processes of becoming which ultimately depends on individual experience of the world. More than this, for both thinkers subject-formation is an event-process conditioned by a given context (being governed by datum) and open to creatively appropriating available datum into the becoming self or, as Butler might express the process, varying repetitions within performativity.

Subject-Identity and Becoming in Whiteheadian Thought:

Whitehead argued that substance is “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” and that such substance-entities are only abstractions that exist in the human mind.28 Whitehead’s modified subject is termed an actual entity—dependent on and constituted by a dynamic process of becoming in and through experience. The process of becoming necessitates two ways of describing actual entities: “one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other actual entities, and another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming.”29 In this sense, actual entities exist in subject and object form—individuals are objectified by being realized in the experience of other actual entities and objectify other entities by drawing them in as data for individual experiences. These instances of individual unity within the process is called concrescence.

Actual entities participate as subject and object through prehension and entails “feeling” past actual occasions (objects taken in by the subject) as an early form of consciousness, but this is not equal to intellectual consciousness or as a psyche set apart from the body. Prehension involves three factors: the prehending subject, the datum prehended, and the form by which the subject prehends the datum. It is feeling at a very deep level and not consciousness because it does not merely entertain datum, it means that subjects literally participate in the datum: “A feeling appropriates elements of the universe, which in themselves are other than the subject, and absorbs these elements into the real internal constitution of its subject by synthesizing them in the unity of an emotional pattern expressive of its own subjectivity.”30

Actual entities are comparable to events in time, which affirms the concept of difference related to identity. Influential streams of philosophy maintained and continue to assert that we only comprehend universals and that particulars are understood in terms of universals (e.g., variations on a theme). Whitehead, however, argues that we can only understand particulars because that is all that is available for analysis, which we will later see has implications for interpreting the experience and process of becoming subjects related to the rest of the world. Specifically, he develops a reformed subjectivist principle that challenges binaries in which one term is privileged over against a second term (e.g., man as a privileged and universal term, and woman defined in her relationship to man).

Overall, Whitehead tries to rework two past philosophical principles and their relationship to each other. First, the subjectivist principle says that analysis is achieved only through universals, that particulars are subjected to form and typologies. Secondly, the sensationalist principle says that all experience is passive entertainment of data. This presupposes a subject, analogous to a primary and passive substance. Whitehead’s reformed subjectivist principle is a reworked notion of the two principles anddemonstrates a commitment to empiricism, in that all things are disclosed through and constituted by experience. For Whitehead there is nothing that becomes or exists except in and out of experience. This means that experience and identity gained through experience do not tag onto a subject, but all are concurrent and become together. Whitehead’s Perceptual Law maintains that consciousness is not the empty mind or intellectual activity waiting to be entertained by data or passively flooded with experience, but “is provoked into existence” and “constructed by experience itself.”

That individuals utilize knowledge, language and handle materiality concurrently does not entail an ability to discern one’s constitution within reality or discourse and mete out objects acting upon subjects. These imperfect human abilities act as barriers for pure objectivity of phenomena and attempts to analyze exactly what or who influences subject-formation. In other words, one does not comprehend the fabric out of which one is an effect. Subjects are effects because they are subjected to pre-conscious regulations that maneuver and shape individuals into becoming. This is action and response to pre-established norms of what is means to be human, or to be a particular sexual identity as a human. This action does not simply mold individuals into templates, but creates unique individuals through the process.

One more thing that may be said of subject-formation is that it occurs through a process premised by individual mutability. This resonates with Whitehead’s ‘principle of process’: “That how an actual becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its becoming.”31 An actual entity, constituted through series and concrescence of prehensions, becomes by taking in sense datum in the form of past subjects, termed objects in the moment of being prehended by another subject. To say that something exists only through mutability is to similarly affirm Butler’s contention that a subject is an effect of discourse: “that the gendered body is performative suggests that is has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.”32 At this point, however, it becomes difficult to compare subjectification and objectification through performance because it is not clear to me what the necessary conditions are in Butler’s ontology that enable individuals to respond to pre-conscious regulations and pre-conscious physicalities in the first place. Butler’s argument situates the becoming of subjects within a theatre of language and stylization of the body through performance.

Butler’s performativity is deeply connected to Whitehead’s subjectivist principle. Butler is interested in pre-conscious regulations that give rise to pre-conscious subjections, which is similar to Whitehead’s subjectivist principle that is inseparable from the objectivist impulse. These processes are not self-creativity, causality, or discursivity alone. The processes that effect subject-identities are about experiencing pre-conscious physicalities and conceptualities. I have demonstrates two points to make a useful comparison—existence as object/subject and subject-formation/subject-identity.

Subject-identity is both product and producer. For Whitehead, the subject is always object in the interrelational process of the becoming of actual entities—the subject becomes an object for the constitution of another subject that becomes an object. Collapsing the traditional subject/object binary, but not releasing the terms altogether, allows Whitehead to affirm both creativity and parameters through the influence of past eternal objects taken into the experience of actual occasions. Dually participating as subject and object is expressed in Whitehead’s “ontological principle”: “It is the principle that everything is positively somewhere in actuality, and in potency everywhere.”33 Individuals are essentially open to possibility in their becoming, but only within the parameters of what past eternal objects offer as experiential datum. Comparatively, Butler argues, “In effect, to understand woman to exist on the metaphysical order of being is to understand her as that which is already accomplished, self-identical, static, but to conceive her on the metaphysical order of becoming is to invent possibility into her experience, including the possibility of never becoming a substantive, self-identical ‘woman’… substantives will remain empty descriptions, and other forms of active descriptions may well become desirable.”34 Not only do both challenge substance metaphysics, but they affirm particular existence through becoming that denies identity being swallowed into universal categories. As discussed in the section on Whitehead above, universals are enforced through reflection on events—by concretizing abstractions into preconceived intelligibility.

Using the question of sex/gender to demonstrate how an individual is objectified, Butler affirms that one essentially acquires social labels through retroactive thought that “hails” one into gender. Abstractions are assumed to be concrete realities. More so, particular individuals are forced into universal categories, which can be described as a loss of the particular self for the sake of social intelligibility as a universal type: “The naming is at once the setting of a boundary, and also the repeated inculcation of a norm.”35

The tendency to separate subject-formation from subject-identity does not obtain in Whiteheadian or Butlerian thought. Social intelligibility, or identity, is simultaneously subject-formation. The genesis of a subject is an infinite regress of difference, never a temporal point of origin, but always a becoming.

Recapitulation on the Ekklesia:

In Schüssler Fiorenza we saw that the ekklesia constrains the notion of difference if it itself is unchanging and static. I suggested that one possibility to advance the notion of the ekklesia is to found it on a material basis that is formed and reformed internally, according to a particular understanding one has of material subjects within the paradigm. If subjects are by nature becoming and not essentially constituted, as being essentially women for instance, the paradigm internally constituted by the subjects will also transform. In my assessment of Bordo, I suggested a faint connection to the notion of the ekklesia in her treatment of the epistemic situation of subjects. Bordo’s subject-centered epistemology takes for granted that the actions and behavior of subjects essentially constituted might reveal the discursive framework that writes on the textual body. In taking the paradigm for granted along with the material constitution of subjects, Bordo forecloses the opportunity to consider difference. Schüssler Fiorenza’s conception seems to stress variation from general categories in a given paradigm, while Bordo maintains the male/female dichotomy essentially as an element of a larger paradigm. It is my contention that Whitehead offers one of the most thorough philosophical schemes connecting with the idea of ekklesia that the other conceptions lack. Apart from the helpful insight that he has of becoming and process, he is also able to connect subjects with each other without reducing them to essential natures. His paradigm transforms in every instant of concrescence that accounts for the psychic, material, and relation aspects of the subjects and the universe, which I will elude to further below.


My intention in this paper is to deconstruct essentialism and relate the implications to personal identity and the self represented politically—showing how Butler’s notion of performativity is superior to Schüssler Fiorenza’s understanding of the ekklesia—as I interepret it, her conclusion of variation and not difference—and Bordo’s lack of understanding the body as a site of difference through her analysis of the body as a means of protest. Even though Bordo draws from Foucault’s notion that subject’s are not pre-given entities but a confluence of powers upon the body, she takes “pre-given” bodies for granted and fails to deconstruct the male/female binary even as she criticizes the dualism throughout her books. The givenness of the body that Bordo accepts draws from the sensationalist principle criticized by Whitehead, that all experience is passive entertainment of data that presupposes an entity of a particular kind—“accomplished, self-identical, status” according to Butler.

When I began this project my goal was to illustrate how Butler’s conception of identity constituted through performativity offers a superior kind of political representation, perhaps to even create new starting points for ethics that takes into account becoming and dynamic ontology. I think this initial hypothesis carried through to a certain degree, but I found that Butler takes me only so far in this new theoretical space that I anticipate. Something that doesn’t come up in this paper is that I wrestle with Althusser’s interpellated subject, a key concept for Butler that ties into her commitment that there is no doer behind the deed. I’ve tried to convince myself to believe Butler’s contention that a subject cannot be until it is “hailed” and answers the call. I’ve found it very difficult to understand how a subject can be non-existent materially yet conditioned and in readiness for the moment of the call. Butler addresses part of my skepticism in Bodies That Matter (1993) when she becomes more explicit about the there of materiality. Part of me still wonders whether the strength of Butler’s notion of performativity relies on the fact that she doesn’t provide an explanation of materiality in a metaphysical sense, as it remains unclear what necessary conditions are implied in her ontology that enable individuals to respond to pre-conscious regulations and pre-conscious physicalities in the first place. It’s easy for me to understand through Butler how subjectivity and identity lack points of origin that one can point to. But I want to harmonize a whole person, to be able to say that subjectivity and identity are mutable in a positive and empowering sense because our bodies and the universe body are mutable and interrelated. Butler strips away the baggage of essentialism that still creates an impasse for what I envision in the relationship between ethics and poststructuralism.

As we have seen in Whiteheadian thought, materiality is difference as such. Even though Butler affirms the same point, her becoming through performativity and resistance vis-à-vis parody appear accidental, even reactive, in contrast to creative appropriation of available terms. Whereas, in Whitehead the reformed subjectivist principle denies the possibility of identities being swallowed up into universal categories while still affirming creativity and being grounded through the influence of past eternal objects taken into experience of actual occasions.



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1 Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays On the Politics of Bodies, (New York & London: Routledge, 1995), 27.

2 Elizabeth Grosz suggests a helpful “crisis” is occurring in contemporary philosophy, an upheaval that is re-conceiving bodies and knowledges. Important elements of poststructuralist thought challenge the idea that theory mirrors reality. Academia and other social structures are brought into question and reconceived by thinkers such as Grosz as products of “historically and culturally specific relations of power,” and not transparent or neutral modes of investigation or interaction. The criteria by which knowledges and disciplines are judged as true or false—criteria judged to be atemporal and geographically universal—are value-filled perspectives. “A discipline whose object is man is necessarily incomplete unless it can include its own production as a discipline within the knowledges it produces,” argues Grosz (Space, Time, and Perversion, 29). In other words, it is necessary for knowledges to understand their self-development and implicit biases.

3 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipliship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation (New York: Crossroads, 1993).

4 Ibid., 335.

5 Ibid., 337.

6 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1999), 18.

7 Following Derrida, Butler explains that signifiers are never spoken of in a positive sense but are only indirectly cited and then displaced. She writes, “Indeed, can there be a theory of ‘contingency’ that is not compelled to refuse or cover over that which it seeks to explain?” ( Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, 195). Her critique of “covering over” difference in favor of unchanging categories parallels other critical conceptions such as the Lacanian “Real”, Zizek’s move from ideology to discourse, and Derrida’s logic of the supplément. Butler asserts that the only way to speak of an individual signifier is to reify a concept, using the rules of a given knowledge structure by denying the signifier’s ungrounded being for a momentary utterance.

8 Ibid.

9 Schüssler Fiorenza, 340.

10 Ibid., 341.

11 Ibid., 346.

12 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1994), xxiii.

13 Butler, 4.

14 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, (New York, Routledge, 1993), 195.

15 Butler, Gender Trouble, 5.

16 Ibid., 9.

17 Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Feminist Theology and the Challenge of Difference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 3-4.

18 Grosz, 31-2.

19 Susan R. Bordo, “The Body and Reproduction of Femininity,” in Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo (eds.), (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 14-15.

20 Ibid., 21.

21 Susan R. Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1993), 5.

22 Ibid., 15.

23 Butler, Gender Trouble, 174.

24 Butler, Bodies That Matter, 29.

25 Elizabeth Grosz, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 178.

26 Butler, Bodies That Matter, 114.

27 Joseph Bracken, “Subjectivity, System and Intersubjectivity,” in Michel Weber and Pierfrancesco Basile, Eds., Subjectivity, Process and Rationality (Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2007), 160.

28 A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1925), 52.

29 A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978), 23.

30 Donald W. Sherburne, A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966),8.

31 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22.

32 Butler, Gender Trouble, 136.

33 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 40.

34 Judith Butler, “Variations on Sex and Gender,” in Sara Salih, The Judith Butler Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 36-7.

35 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, 8.