Diffracting "that's called privilege!"
Paul Doherty, Water Waves Seen by Diffraction
I wanted to ask Sarah to talk w/ me some more about what she said in The Cannery today, but then I realized I really wanted to talk with all of you about this. So here's a start (yes, it's long, but it also feels to me pretty important, so I hope you'll read, ponder and respond to it!)
I found myself resisting the article that Barb asked us to read, "Looking-glass identity transformation: Golem and Pygmalion in the rehabilitation process." I understood the authors to be replacing the "Golem effect" (= low expectations lead to low performance) with the opposite label: the "Pygmalion effect," in which high expectations lead to higher self-esteem (and performance). Both "labeling effects" are described in this article as "looking-glass" phenomenon, in which the self sees herself "reflected back" by others.
It should come as no surprise to learn that I don't think it's nearly that simple. (You may have noticed, btw, that we are asking you all not to "reflect" on your semester's work, but rather to "diffract" it. This is because, as Donna Haraway says, "reflection only displaces the same elsewhere ....What we need is...to diffract...so that we get more promising interference patterns.")
The best explanation I have ever seen about how to generate these "more promising interference patterns" is a 1998 essay by Judith Butler called "Gender is Burning," which has long been a classic in feminist studies. Butler draws on the work of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who argued that there is no single dominant dialectical force propelling social development (as classic Marxism maintains), but rather that social formation is overdetermined by an intricate dynamic of heterogenous practices.
The word/idea most used from Althusser in contemporary cultural studies is that of interpellation: this is his term for the social formation of the subject that involves a process of being "hailed and recruited." This occurs, for example, in religion: we participate in religious practice (fulfill ritual obligations of Catholicism, for instance) because it enables us to believe that God has hailed and recruited each one of us as an individual. We participate "freely" in the system because it gives us a belief that we are concrete, individual, distinguishable subjects.
Althusser argues that in the early 20th century the school began replacing the church as the dominant ideological apparatus; we all--YOU ALL--submit to the system all by yourselves, as "free subjects" (pay $10,000s to come to the Bi-Co, perform educational exercises we give you), because doing do offers you recognition as individuals--at the expense of conforming to the law--and so are "formed" as subjects.
Butler argues that, when Althusser traces the “formation” of subjects, he acknowledges the possibility of MISrecognition between the law and the subject it compels (although we can HAIL you to a certain performance, you can RESPOND differently from what we expect/hope). But Althusser really doesn’t consider the RANGE OF DISOBEDIENCE that such a law might produce. The law can produce a set of consequences that exceed or confound its “disciplining intentions.” It can create more than it meant to, an excess of its intent--and it is this slippage which interests Butler (and me!), this ambivalence of being socially constituted: what happens if you enter social life on terms that both violate-and-enable you? How can you occupy the interpellation in order to resignify it?
That is the theoretical framework Butler uses in her essay to examine the cult film called Paris Is Burning, to ask how the kinship structures of drag houses open possibilities for resignifying, for reworking “queer” from abjection to politicalized affiliation. In doing so, she is working w/ a very complex understanding of how we get made/formed as subjects: drawing on Althusser, she describes the self as a crossroads, a nexus of forces, which construct but don’t determine it.
Her argument is that, on the one hand, the drag balls in Paris is Burning defy the norms of a homophobic culture, by parodying them: the drag balls show is that all gender is drag, a process of imitation; they show us that heterosexuality is not natural, but a constant performance, meant to perpetuate an ideal. In doing that, drag is subversive, destabilizing, insurrective, because it disputes naturalness of heterosexuality.
BUT, in Butler's analysis, this insurrection is also a defeat. She says if black gay men talk back to the culture that feminizes them, by "out-womaning women," performing womanhood so well that they compel belief as real, they are also reinscribing the hegemonic form: reconsolidating the binary of hyperbolic heterosexuality. In Butler’s analysis, Paris Is Burning demonstrates an unstable co-existence of insurrection/resubordination, w/ queer black men engaging in reverse-occupations of the norms, but the norms still wielding power.
What do you think?