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In libertarian and even conservative circles, the phrase “check your privilege” seems to have become the ultimate symbol of all things politically correct. Utter it, or even just the elided two syllables of “privilege,” without the requisite eye-rolling and cynical-realist scorn, and you may find yourself cast out of this vanguard of ever-vigilant secessionists and Cliven Bundy drag impersonators. Even left-sympathetic libertarian intellectuals have found privilege-talk otiose at best, and, at worst, indicative of a decay hiding just below the surface of the otherwise sunny smile of contemporary activist discourse. That decay is “identity politics” – just one more bugbear in the right-wing imaginary.
The fact of the matter is that libertarians writing about privilege and identity are often completely unaware of most of the literature on these topics. As such, they tend to be speaking within a vacuum. And maybe this is because libertarians fear arguments which may contradict their closely held beliefs. After all, postmodern philosophy appears to be all about demolishing liberal humanist notions of a rational individual capable of making choices within a free market. But an unfortunate result of this resistance to engaging with theorists “across the aisle” is that libertarians have entirely missed the boat on contemporary discourse about identity, the self, and freedom.
What libertarian and conservative activists, academics, intellectuals, and Kokesh/Borowski/Molyneux fanboys and girls all fail to comprehend is that identity politics on the left is passé if not outright archaic. When libertarians do write well about privilege, they appear to miss the fact that feminist and left-wing writing on the subject has already done much of the groundwork. This is how thinkers as different as, say, Sarah Skwire and Fox News anchors can arrive at much the same conclusions. Skwire, for instance, insightfully notes that the “privilege I have…as a well-educated, upper-middle-class, middle-aged white woman is quite an asset when I want to window shop in a pricey store or talk an airport gate agent into giving me an upgrade. But it is decidedly less useful—and is perhaps even a serious disadvantage—if I’m thinking about walking alone at night to a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. The set of characteristics that is privileged in each of these cases is different.” And Tucker Carlson said in his interview with Kurt Schlichter, “Some white people are privileged, some aren’t. Some black people are, some aren’t. It’s [sic] strikes me as, by definition, a racist attack in that it’s making a generalization — a negative one — based on skin color.”
But discourse on “privilege” is more nuanced than both Fox and Skwire seem to believe. (We’ll get back to Skwire’s FEE article on privilege and context, which I found eloquent but misguided. We will hopefully not be getting back to Fox’s breathless, hand-wringing coverage of “white privilege activism.”) To understand what left-wing rhetoric around “identity” actually says, it might be useful to read that rhetoric itself.
But, then again, libertarians have never been known for being able to read anything outside of their own intellectual circles – cue clip of Stefan Molyneux trashing Simone de Beauvoir without mentioning anything she ever actually wrote. But if libertarian theory is going to progress beyond the sacred tomes of Friedman, Hayek, Mises, et al, libertarian theoreticians are going to have to confront their prized nemesis, that monolith we call “the left,” and the ruins of its supposedly most enduring edifice, “identity politics” – to see if there is anything of use to plunder.
It’s unnecessary to refute right-wing and libertarian misunderstandings. It has been done already – in fact, long before Sarah Skwire pointed out that “context matters” in matters of privilege, or a Fox anchor deftly observed that white people can be underprivileged, too. Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” spoke more cogently on the nature of white privilege in 1988 than right-wingers seem capable of doing today. One of the central tenets of Third Wave feminism, “intersectionality,” holds that oppressions along different axes of human categorization – economic class, gender, race, etc. – intersect, and so a poor white person is not privileged in the same way as a rich white person. A laundry list of studies show that otherwise kind and tolerant people discriminate each and every day, largely because of prejudices they don’t even know they hold.
It’s exhausting, really, to argue with libertarians and conservatives who can’t do their own reading. To squabble over questions such as “Do leftists think white people should be punished for being white?” or “Do feminists believe that all men are rapists?” – whose answers – “No” and “No” – can be found by consulting Great Mother Google, the gentle nursemaid of all questions which can be resolved monosyllabically. None of these endeavors will productively pierce the heart of the issue: the neoliberal misapprehension of just what it is about politics that does – or doesn’t – have to do with that nebulous notion, “identity.”
Privilege and context
What is “privilege,” and what does it have to do with identity and identity politics? A common misunderstanding of the term “privilege” seems to be that it is primarily economic and material – an inheritance of wealth from previous generations. But in many instances, this may be a conflation of cause and effect. Studies have shown that oftentimes merely having a white- or masculine-sounding name can be enough to tip the scales when waiting for callbacks for resumes. Sexism and racism, in these cases, do not directly confer and are not directly based upon any sort of material wealth. But they do influence the ways in which we move through the world – often without our knowledge. As a result, we can conclude that privilege itself is intangible. It is difficult for an individual to be aware of the possibilities they have missed out on because of, say, their birth name, gender, education, or sexuality. If your name has always been Ted Walters, you will never have an immediate understanding of what it would have been like to be named Jamal.
If privilege is not entirely tangible or material, then what is it? It is a matrix of social relations which determines how we are free (or not) to move about in the world, hindered (or not) by unnecessary obstacles, like prejudice.
How do you quantify privilege? It is the air one breathes, the position from which she perceives the world around her. As such, it is not so much something one can have and wield, as it is something which forms and molds the “one” which is presumed to “wield” the material wealth or social capital we think of when we hear “privilege.” In other words, a “privilege” is a characteristic which helps a person move freely through the world. And these characteristics are not necessarily material, tangible, or even unitary. We might benefit from thinking about how systems of power impact the movements of individuals in a society, rather than thinking of privileges as things one “has” or “doesn’t have.”
But how does the notion of “identity politics” creep into the conversation? Identity, in this context, is not what libertarians seem to think it is. Your identity, in feminist parlance, usually has to do with your relation to power: how much you wield, over what bodies (your own? others’?), and in what contexts. Ultimately, it comes down to regulation of bodies: how regulated is your body by social and political norms and laws?
We have no widespread social identity category for people who drink light beer over dark beer – but we do for people who have lighter skin and people who have darker skin. Why? Because historically certain privileges have been granted to people with lighter skin, at least in this country. No such privilege has been extended to Bud Light drinkers, or to gardeners, or to avid stamp collectors. Those things may be integral parts of your self-perceived identity, but – and here’s the key – they aren’t important to the rest of society. (Or at least beyond your beer Pinterest.) You are not regularly interpellated as a beer-drinker, but as (if you’re gay or gender non-conforming) a “fag,” or as (if you’re a woman or a feminine man) a “bitch,” or etc. (Interpellation is a rather libertarian concept in 20th century Marxist philosophy, which holds that individuals are turned into proper subjects of the state, or other institutions, through the constant “hailing” – or interpellating – performed by the agents of those institutions.)
If you don’t “belong” in certain ways, and if your body or behavior signals that you are not a member of a class of people historically afforded close relationships with societal power, then you are constantly reminded of that fact in the most degrading ways possible. Systems of privilege give rise to social identity categories, which further help to mark certain populations as deserving fewer privileges.
Yes, as Skwire notes, context matters. Not all gay people are threatened with the term “fag” – that depends on your gender presentation, your region, your race, even your job and whom you associate with. But all those factors just further reinforce the existence of privilege – and its pervasive, complex forms. (I will note, however, that even if a gay man is never himself called “a fag,” he is well aware of the term and that it applies to “people like him.” You yourself do not need to be directly interpellated in order to recognize yourself within the abject social position to which you “belong.”)
The hyper-contextuality of privilege
If privilege is so pervasive and complex, then how do we chart its paths? How do we determine who is the “most privileged” in any given circumstance? This appears to be the common libertarian question, and one of the issues faced by theorists of identity in the 1990s. Yet one of the primary insights of these 90s theorists, which even someone as erudite as Skwire has missed, is that playing the “Oppression Olympics” helps nobody. Privilege is not quantifiable, at least not in all its forms. Most current feminist writers on the left have grasped this and incorporated it into their work.
Yet Skwire’s piece on privilege and context seems to be rather representative of the (decent) libertarian writing about the subject. As such, it remains limited in its engagement with postmodern, leftist thought on the nature of identity and its corollary, privilege, because it does not confront this intellectual legacy on its own terms. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that Skwire uses literary examples from within a white, Anglo-American canon to complicate (rather than merely refute) certain simplistic notions of privilege. And she’s right to do so. This is the great thing about her article, actually. Most libertarians seek to merely dismiss leftist insights about privilege. Skwire wants to complicate them and engage with them.
But it is difficult to consider and contest leftist theorizing on privilege when you are using texts from within a liberal humanist tradition to understand ideas which come from another tradition altogether. And she is perhaps guilty of collapsing and oversimplifying the very concept she attempts to critique, problematize, and expand. What does it mean for some people to be “privileged” in one context, but “not privileged” in another? One example Skwire gives is of a class-privileged woman who finds herself disadvantaged in her interactions with lower-class women who have more knowledge of their own conditions than she does. In this instance, the wealthier woman is contextually underprivileged compared to the other women, due to what we might call a knowledge differential.
Through some careful maneuvering, Skwire performs a peculiar elision here between two levels of privilege, and/or between two senses of the word itself. Privileged knowledge of a subculture is quickly conflated with political or economic privilege – i.e. the privilege of wealthier women who choose to interfere in working class women’s personal lives. Are these levels of privilege truly identical – or even comparable? The gay Latino writer Gil Cuadros writes in “My Aztlan: White Place” about the experience of dating a white man: “My lover never understood why I hated to be tickled, why I liked to be tied up. AIDS killed him before I could say a word…. When he was alive, he made it easy to leave my folks behind. I became white, too, uncolored by age in his over-forty crowd. For our sake, I kept Sleepy Lagoon, Indian massacres, and insecticides taboo subjects to avoid arguments and misunderstandings. My lover played no part in these atrocities. I believed that the color of our skin didn’t matter, there was only he and I in this affair.”
Who is the privileged interlocutor, here? We might speak of Cuadros’ privileged knowledge position: as a Latino man, he is likelier to be attuned to certain tragedies and atrocities in American history, like the Sleepy Lagoon murder. We could also talk of his lover’s privileged political position as a white man in a crowd of white men, none of whom want to hear anything from a lone Latino boy about his life or hardships. (This kind of social pressure actually serves to reinforce that knowledge differential. If the lover had expressed any kind of interest in Cuadros’s experiences, they might have leveled the knowledge differential.) In terms of his sex life, Cuadros holds a privileged knowledge position about his own sexual desires and dark secrets – which he chooses not to reveal to his lover. Or, considering the fact that Cuadros was, at the time of writing, alive, while his former lover was not, we could say that Cuadros is a “privileged speaker,” in that he wields the power to recall memories of conversations without being called into question. Might we even call AIDS a “privileged” figure in this story – considering it is the agent which prevents any revelation or reconciliation between the two from occurring?
But it is typically political privilege feminists and leftists care about. These other examples, though they may correctly involve some kind of “privilege,” are not what we mean when we are talking about systemic privilege – or that matrix of social relations I mentioned earlier. Skwire’s point (that some people may, contextually, be more knowledgeable about something and therefore more “privileged”) is well taken, but not entirely relevant. Cuadros may have some “privileged” access to information about Latino culture – but his political position as a Latino man in the United States remains more or less abject.
In a different example, a straight man may feel uncomfortable and even harassed in a gay bar, if he is objectified by other men – but as soon as he leaves the confines of that particular space, he will be safe and protected, back in the “straight world.” No gay person has that same privilege. In fact, the notion of a privileged space for politically underprivileged people is a bit misleading. Gay bars, for instance, are themselves still subject to all of the laws and norms of a dominant, heteronormative culture. They are not somehow separate from the “straight world.”
So, yes, privileges are contextual. But not necessarily in the way Skwire believes. Ditto identity, which whites and non-queers alike seem to willfully misunderstand as having entirely to do with self-identification, and not at all to do with a social matrix of privileged relations. When Skwire cites herself as an example (a white lady who is privileged in some circumstances and not others), she is, in fact, “discovering” a feminist concept at least 30 years old: intersectionality. White women may be privileged as white and underprivileged as women – and so the peculiar intersection of those axes of oppression creates this strange creature, “the white woman,” who may be treated as a delicate flower in some situations, and threatened with violence in others. This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s practically old hat in the intellectual circles from which the idea emerged.
The decentered self – a libertarian nightmare
Skwire further highlights the problems latent in libertarian conceptions of identity when she writes, “The set of characteristics that add up to ‘Sarah’ is always the same.” What are we to make of this? If context “matters” to Skwire, then why such an insistence on an unchanging, unitary self, with interlocking but nevertheless holistically assembled parts? Why is the self not also a contextual thing, depending as much on sociocultural situation as on, say, biology? And even if we grant “biology” more weight than “society” in the construction of the self, would we not have to recognize that the body is also not an enduring object, but instead a process of constant metamorphosis? Is Skwire the same woman as she was 10 years ago – 20 years ago – as a little girl – or in the womb?
Leftist theorists have long discounted any essential truth to that thing we call “identity.” Ever since (to select an arbitrary but nevertheless watershed moment in Western philosophy) the translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology into English in 1976, Anglophone thinkers have gleefully interrogated the delusion of the sovereign subject.
Derrida’s work was in direct response to the dominant French school of thought known as “structuralism.” Structuralism rests upon the claim that all human existence is mediated by interrelated and interdetermining signs. In other words, to think is to think in signs, whether visual, linguistic, or otherwise – and to think in signs is to think within the signs already provided for you by your social universe. Structuralists, to oversimplify, divided signs into signifiers and signifieds – or words and concepts, to speak in terms of linguistics. And most structuralists believed that we are in many ways formed unconsciously by these systems of signs. We associate the word “tree” with its respective concept, not because of some objective linkage between the two, or because at some point in our childhoods we all just decided “tree” was a good-sounding word for that thing-that-grows-in-the-yard, but because Anglophone cultures have arbitrarily made that link. And that link is up to no one’s individual choice – it is merely there.
Likewise, certain cultural value systems are arbitrarily developed and not consciously or rationally chosen. The fact that our culture associates certain substances in certain contexts with the adjective “unhygienic” is not necessarily due to an objective understanding of chemicals and their “cleanness” or “uncleanness.” What, after all, is the objective difference between drinking your partner’s spit out of a cup, and French kissing them? One action is coded as unhygienic (and, to be blunt, gross), while the other is coded as acceptable, even romantic and erotic. Impurity and purity are two lenses of perceiving substances and persons – but these lenses are themselves constituted by other lenses, other signs, other arbitrary linkages. There are certainly good reasons for not liking certain things, for having certain standards of purity and impurity. But many of those “good” reasons are not necessarily also “empirically verifiable” reasons. They are, in many instances, arbitrary, and entirely predicated on cultural norms, which are themselves always in flux, because abstract concepts like “purity” do not have distinct referents in reality, and so can be stretched to encompass referents they had not previously denoted.
Martha Nussbaum’s work on the affective force of disgust in ethical debates about cloning, abortion, and homosexuality indicates as much. The attribution of dirtiness to certain sexual practices (like “sodomy”) or medical procedures (abortion, cloning) is rarely predicated on any verifiable, empirical, distinctive filth inhering in the practices or procedures themselves. In fifty years, the notion of anal sex being intrinsically “dirtier” than penile-vaginal sex may be entirely voided – and another practice may take its place.
This last phenomenon – the flux of signs – is the central problem posed by so-called “identity politics.” Where some structuralists believed that it was possible to chart the sign system of a culture, finding the determinant and determinable “meanings” of each sign (e.g. a cross is a symbol of Christian faith), post-structuralist theorists pursued a different line of thinking. If a signifier refers to a signified – if a word refers to a concept – then to what does the concept refer? Is the concept itself the end-all-be-all of the word, or does the concept itself refer to other concepts as well? The concept “tree” does not make any sense on its own. It must be contextualized with reference to other concepts. So, of course, even the concept to which the word “tree” refers must itself refer to other concepts. There is no sign – no signifier/signified coupling – which is self-sufficient, which does not require other signs in order to be cogent. You must reach outside of the concept itself in order to explain it, making it, in fact, not entirely its (own) self. In Yeats’ words, “The center cannot hold” – or, perhaps, was never there to begin with.
Now apply this to “the self” – the McGuffin of all natural rights defenses of liberty. Since (once again, to select a useful but arbitrary historical moment) Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am,” Western philosophy has assumed the sovereignty of the cogito, the ego, the self, the “I.” The free agent who can make fully independent decisions, and be held responsible for those decisions. The rational, free-willed person fully equipped with pull-up-able bootstraps. Sure, you might come from a disadvantaged background, but “the system” is fair and will reward your hard work – if only you have the will to work hard. And, hey, didn’t we just go over “free will” – and how we all have it – and how we all have the same free willy capacity for bootstrap up-pulling?
But where do we find the center of that self? Is the self, its-self, self-evident? Or is the free-willed self always a problematic, contested site? Are all acts equally voluntary – or might there be degrees of voluntarity, and, therefore, degrees of sovereignty? Are there, as authoritarians have argued throughout the 20th century, certain types of people who just can’t help themselves? (Read: women, people of color, LGBT folks.)
On the rather modern conception of “addiction,” Eve Sedgwick writes, “Some of the current self-help literature is explicit by now in saying that every extant form of behavior, desire, relationship, and consumption in our culture can accurately be described as addictive. Such a formulation does not, however, seem to lead these analysts to the perception that ‘addiction’ names a counter-structure always internal to the ethicizing hypostatization of ‘voluntarity’; instead, it drives ever more blindly their compulsion to isolate some new space of the purely voluntary” (173).
In other words, discourse on addiction perpetuates certain notions of a Will which is “real” and without any history or dependence on factors external to the self. What is the space of the voluntary within human consciousness? Is it untouchable? Is it, as Sedgwick contends, more of a useful fiction than anything else – or is it like a muscle, one which could hypothetically be located within the body? (And if so, does it need exercise? What antagonistic muscle do you need in order to exercise the Will Muscle – and wouldn’t that prior muscle itself then be superior to the Will?)
Is “Will” capable of being infected, corrupted, decayed? And is that “infection” always something external to the core self, like a substance (opium, in the 19th century), or a practice (homosexuality, in the 20th century)? Do those external, addictive influences affect/infect all selves equally? Or are there some superior selves which are immune to those influences, or which can even use addictive substances and practices to their benefit – using narcotics to dull pain in military combat, for instance, or engaging in vaguely homoerotic bonding(/hazing) activities with your frat-mates? Again, per Sedgwick, “The ability to use a potentially addictive stimulus without surrendering to it is attributed to a laudable strength” (176). And to prove it, she provides us with a quotation from that great theorizer of the Will-with-a-capital-W, Nietzsche: “I think I know better than anyone what tremendous things Wagner was capable of…and as I am strong enough to turn even the most questionable and perilous things to my own advantage and thus to become stronger, I call Wagner the great benefactor of my life” (61). A liking for Wagner being representative, in late 19th century Germany, of a pathologically homosexual predisposition, Nietzsche’s statement here suggests that some bootstraps are perhaps bigger than others.
All of this, of course, poses some questions for libertarians, like: If free will is itself an historically contingent capacity – one which doesn’t inhere in all individuals equally, or at least one which governments have not historically recognized as inhering in all individuals equally (see: eugenics, drug laws, sodomy laws, coverture laws) – then what do we mean when we advocate “liberty”? This isn’t to say that all choices are determined in advance, but rather that the conscious self that chooses does not have an unmediated lens into the external world, and is not itself free of non-rational influences. As a result, libertarians have quite a long road ahead of them if they want to provide a conception of freedom for philosophers of the 21st century.
Identity, politics, and metaphor-phobia
Yet, as I’ve shown, libertarians haven’t done a very good job of responding to these critiques of liberal humanism. While they’ve been absent from the conversation, leftist theorists have largely moved on from questions of identity. As you might have guessed, identity politics carries a certain terminal impossibility: what does it “truly mean” to be a woman, black, gay, or any combination of all identity categories? As Judith Butler asked in her 1990 work Gender Trouble, who “counts” as a woman within a larger feminist discourse about women-as-victims? Feminism claims to speak for the interests of all women – but any claim to the universal applicability of an identity term is necessarily also grounded in the positions of the claimants. In other words, whoever acts as the representative of other people’s interests is likely to be only representing themselves, not necessarily out of malice, but instead due to the fact that we often generalize about the human condition from our own (limited) experiences.
In the 1950s, for example, the mainstream feminist movement saw white middle-class women as the true victims of a patriarchal power structure. Black women and working-class women had “jobs,” however menial – and therefore were not subjects of any feminist liberatory discourse. Then in the 1970s, black women and other women of color began to claim their places publicly, in the mainstream, as women-who-deserved-breathing-room. Audre Lorde could protest that she as a black lesbian had historically been denied any presence within humanist and feminist discourses. And in the 1990s, trans women could lay more claim to their place, not just within the queer rights movement, but as women worthy of recognition in women’s spaces; and trans men could speak more publicly about their experiences of marginalization by lesbians (for “betraying” lesbian sisterhood) and gay men (for trying to “deceive” other men).
And where was “identity politics” in all of this? The very women who claimed they were “taking back” the category of women, the quality of femininity, from the dominant patriarchy, were themselves becoming the gender and sexuality police, determining who counted as a “proper” feminist, a “proper” woman.
As Butler noted the use of “identity” to push for political change is fundamentally flawed as both a strategy and a principle. In fact, and quite ironically, the assumption that one can only proceed toward political change from some kind of solid, unchanging identity position resembles the libertarian reliance on natural law discourse: it’s the return of the Cartesian cogito, the self-present self that is fully aware of its identity and need only doubt the external world. I say “ironic,” both because libertarianism and feminism start to sound like they’ve got awfully similar theoretical problems – and because early notions of “identity politics” had always been about questioning one’s identity position, recognizing the limitations of individual experience, and trying to better understand others’ experiences through their own perspectives. (Indeed, Lorde famously criticized the cowardice of white feminists who expressed fear of teaching black women’s literature because they themselves were not black and could not understand “the black experience.” After all, to paraphrase Lorde’s point, teachers of literature still teach Shakespeare – and as far as we know, none of our teachers are themselves Shakespeare or his contemporaries.)
But regardless of its roots in seeking out and celebrating difference, an emphasis upon unbreachable differences can of course lead to sequestration and “ghettoization” of movements along identity lines. Why bother seeking out knowledge of the Other if that knowledge will never be definitive – and if our civilization is based upon the notion that values and knowledges should be enduring and not tentative or provisional?
Eventually, it must come out that identity is a pretty useless category in many circumstances. Even the feminist insight that oppressions (and, consequently, identities) are formed intersectionally fails to capture every potential human experience. For to be able to foreground the multifacetedness of your identity – e.g. “I’m black and a lesbian!” – society must give a good goddamn about your voice. But as the anthropologist Smadar Lavie noted in her recent study on Mizrahi (i.e. dark-skinned and Arab-descended) Jewish single mothers in Israel, the most abject members of society do not have the luxury of having any but the most superficial aspects of their identity recognized. When Lavie was trapped in Israel from 1999 to 2007 (due to a revoked passport), it did not matter that her father was Ashkenazi (i.e. light-skinned and European-descended) – no matter how much she protested, she was treated as she looked, i.e. Mizrahi, thanks to her mother’s genes. “Even though [the Mizrahi single mother] moves through time and space,” Lavie writes, “she can only move through the time and space allotted by the regime” (81). And so, for Lavie, the notion of “agency” proffered by identity politics is impotent unless one’s identity is already rooted in economic and political privilege – and is not already defined in advance and in its totality by the dominant regime.
As a result, context, per Skwire, does come to mean a great deal – though perhaps more so than she anticipates in her article on the subject. Just as the decontextualized and decontextualizing universalism of libertarian natural law discourse falls flat when confronted with the de-centered self, the (eerily similar) decontextualized and decontextualizing anti-universalism of an abused and theoretically deracinated identity politics dissolves in the face of (you guessed it) the self-un-same de-centered self.
Pursuing the other end of a faulty binary usually produces as many problems as ever before: reject universalizing propositions in favor of particularity, and, ironically, you end up assuming quite a bit on what constitutes the “particular.” Whose issues are “truly” gay issues, when literally anyone of any identity category could potentially be gay? Why isn’t immigration a gay issue? Why not drug laws? Prostitution? Estate taxes? None of these issues is particular to gay people – and yet all of them are, and in highly particular ways. An identitarian understanding of “gay issues” as opposed to “black issues” would fail to understand what Cathy Cohen pointed out in the early 90s: that people may have many of the same issues, and may need to work together on solving their problems…but none of their problems, however similar, are exactly identical.
We would do well to recall Eve Sedgwick’s first axiom of queer inquiry: “People are different from each other.” For, as Sedgwick notes:
It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact. A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions. They, with the associated demonstrations of the mechanisms by which they are constructed and reproduced, are indispensable, and they may indeed override all or some other forms of difference and similarity. But…even people who share all or most of our own positionings along these crude axes may still be different enough from us, and from each other, to seem like all but different species (22).
Or as Emily Dickinson wrote of her own sister, “If we had come up for the first time from two wells where we had hitherto been bred[,] her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say” (qtd. in Sewall 70). I am sure we have all felt this about people with whom we are supposed to share much in common. Even belonging to the same privileged intersection of an identitarian political map is not enough to ensure “sameness.” All individuals, however formed by the social worlds through which they walk, are never formed in the same way – and do not cease to form themselves in and through that very matrix which supposedly “determines” them. Once again, what irony in finding that radical left-wing queer theory – the love-child of poststructuralist and feminist theories – appears to be arriving at much the same problems and questions as libertarianism.
The rift between libertarians and left-wing intellectuals appears to arise out of libertarians’ almost visceral rejection of any kind structural analysis, which takes into consideration the accumulating and constraining conditions of a history which has always been a history of power relations. Many libertarians find it anathema to think of human beings as occupying positions within systems of power – power which extends beyond simple violations of the Non-Aggression Principle.
Yet the irony is that many postmodern or poststructuralist intellectuals have much in common with libertarian theorists. Isabel Paterson conceived of society as a machine which converts energy across certain power lines – i.e. chains of commerce. Likewise, the metaphor of society-as-machine figures into much of Herbert Marcuse’s work on the socialist machine of postwar Western Europe. But, as Stephen Cox points out in his “Merely Metaphorical?”, Paterson and many other libertarians have actively resisted the employment of metaphors in writing about liberty, even as they shame-facedly engage in it. Paterson herself insisted that the machine image she used throughout her God of the Machine was, in fact, a literal description of the functioning of society – and not a metaphor or figure of speech.
Why this resistance to figuration and metaphor? Perhaps because libertarians, in reaction against the “subjectivism” of a New Left which embraces the poetry (and hyperbole) of Marx and Freud, seek to return to (what they think is) a more classical, traditional model of mimesis, where concepts directly and perfectly represent referents in reality. After all, the danger (and fun) of metaphors is that they can be expanded upon, perverted, and shown to mean things which the original author of the metaphor did not at first intend. On the other hand, direct perceptions and technical precision (so the story goes) cannot lead to any confusion or leftist philosophizing.
Perhaps this is why there have been few great libertarian artists in the 20th century – or why the few who achieved any canonical success (e.g. Willa Cather) have yet to be claimed by young libertarians today. If we could get over this anxious resistance to metaphorizing, libertarians might find something useful in engaging with the free play of language, meaning, and signification. Leftists do it all the time, when they reappropriate liberal humanist thinkers in the service of anti-humanist critical projects. We might find some commonalities between Foucault’s conception of the unintentionally “productive” consequences of legal repression in History of Sexuality, vol. 1, and Frederic Bastiat’s injunction to pay attention to the invisible, unseen effects of laws. We could compare Voltairine de Cleyre’s argument that if you “[t]rain any animal, or any plant, as you train your girls…it won’t be able to rough it either,” and Simone de Beauvoir’s truism that “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
We could bring libertarian theory in productive conversation with current theorists of identity, the self, and agency – rather than maintaining that not only should the liberal humanist canons of literature and philosophy continue to be taught, but that they should always be taught in the same ways and with the same interpretations. Doing so would not mean that libertarians would magically become Marxists, or that they would have to give up non-aggression as a political principle. But they would need to be willing to engage with issues of privilege without resorting to juvenile and sophomoric rhetoric. They would have to be capable of approaching intellectual traditions whose terms exist apart from the language of Newtonian-inflected “individual rights.” But these continue to be my hopes for a postmodern libertarianism of the 21st century. We’ll see if it can be managed.
Brendan Moore is an undergrad studying English and French. He lives all over the place. He enjoys a good beer and subversive feminist stand-up. Both at the same time.
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