I ran across a (decontextualised, and I’m running with that) quote of Yale political science and philosophy professor Seyla Benhabib’s a few weeks back:
[…] contemporary feminism has shifted its attention from social analysis to discourse analysis, from power itself to the politics of its representation
I’m wondering about the extent to which this is true, and what the truth of it can mean.
What does it mean when we take the focus off actual social power to talk about its representation? Well, it’s important to talk about representations of power. Inevitably we have to negotiate through representations; that’s a good bit of how power relations are delivered. But I’m thinking about how that can become the easy way out.
It’s important to talk about symbols and prominent representations. But when we talk about media representations of social problems as a substitute for talking about those social problems, that’s when we have a problem. When we take a TV show as absolutely representative of an issue it covers, we’re doing something important, but it needs to be conducted in conjunction with real life work. If analysis becomes all about representing those representations of power dynamics, we’re missing so much of how those dynamics can manifest. Media stories and such are absolutely vital to analyse – they form so much of how power dynamics are shaped – but they’re not power dynamics in and of themselves. Representations help us form pictures of power dynamics, but that’s just it, they’re representative: they aren’t the be all and end all of what there is to know about a particular site of analysis.
And I think that this is particularly a problem when we talk about representations of feminism itself at the expense of feminist issues. That is, ‘Why does feminism have such a bad image in ways that don’t match up with the realities of feminism?’ is the wrong question to be asking. By referencing this question, I don’t mean that feminism doesn’t deserve some of its bad image: it has been ineffective and actively harmful in so many ways for the most vulnerable women (co-opting the stories of women in developing countries, instigating violence against trans women…). I’m referring to feminists wondering why feminism is widely thought of as dead, or silly, or the domain of “shrieking harpies” wanting to take over the world. I think we should be focusing on the issues at hand; investing in the issues feminism is meant to solve, not the image of the movement itself. When we become concerned with feminism’s representation as something to be overcome, when feminism becomes about defending the identity rather than doing the work, that’s when we have a big problem. It’s good to know that “this is what a feminist looks like,” but looking like a feminist shouldn’t come at the expense of doing feminist work.
What happens when we simultaneously distance ourselves from power and tie up our personal power and identities in its representations? And what do we risk losing?