Adam Ash

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Deep Thoughts: Talkin’ liberty, feminism and post-structuralism ‘bout battered women, welfare and the veil

Review by Gabriel Robinson (University of Chicago) of
The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom by Nancy J. Hirschmann

In this ambitious work, Hirschmann productively brings together three strands of theory which frequently avoid one another: political theories of liberty, feminism, and poststructuralism. She applies the insights she derives from analysis and critique of these approaches to three case studies selected for their capacity to illuminate crucial problems in theorizing feminism and freedom: battered women, welfare, and veiling. Her methodology brings into practice part of her argument: to achieve their goals, theories of liberty, feminism, and social construction must not only enter into conversation with one another, but also examine the contexts, discursive and concrete, within which men and women act and choose.

Hirschmann surveys liberty theorists from Isaiah Berlin to Richard Flathman, Charles Taylor and Philip Pettit. Though critical of Berlin's typology of positive and negative liberty, she views it as useful for framing central issues: "internal" and "external" barriers to freedom, the importance of agency and choice, the problem of "second-guessing" another's true desires. Berlin and other liberty theorists, however, are handicapped by methodological individualism. They fail to notice the degree to which natural law forerunners such as Locke and Mill implicitly recognized the importance of society in creating choosing individuals. Hirschmann's explicit theorization of social construction reveals the dichotomies of both classical and contemporary liberty theory to be contingent historical constructions which, purposively or not, maintain male privilege. This is her first step towards showing that social constructivism need not lead to moral neutrality or helpless relativism. Instead, it can help feminists recognize how power operates in a given context, and make political evaluations.

Hirschmann explains what she means by "social construction" of individuals and contexts by specifying three levels. The first is "ideological misrepresentation": women's natures are misrepresented (even to themselves) by men for men's purposes. The second is "materialization": constructed behaviors and rules (foot binding, eg., or lower pay, denial of education) create concrete limitations within and around women. The third, "discursive" level sets parameters for understanding and communicating reality. Hirschmann draws on Foucault and Derrida to argue that power circulates, and we are all discursively constructed and constructing. This level corrects and extends the first two; "it is not that men are the problem and feminism the solution...the problem is patriarchy and we all suffer from it." Yet Hirschmann is committed to attending to more than discourse; she argues (against Judith Butler) that an exclusive focus on language obliterates the material suffering that the first two levels retain. We must hold to all three and analyze their interplay.

What does this have to do with feminism and freedom? Hirschmann argues that desire, the most "internal" aspect of liberty, is also externally constructed-even a universal, biological urge like thirst is socially mediated. Our capacity to analyze the desire of a battered woman to remain with her abusive spouse depends on our ability to explicate the (objective and subjective) circumstances constructing it, and the ways these have been built up around (discursively constructed) social categories. Hirschmann wants us to recognize both the woman's agency and her constraint: she chooses, but under conditions of oppression. Under patriarchy, "men have more power to participate in affecting the terms of social construction" than women; power may be a Foucauldian grid, but certain positionalities have less power within it. A feminist politics of freedom would aim to critique and overturn gender-based systemic inequality of participation in the process of constructing the contexts (discursive and material) in which we live and choose.

Hirschmann points out the "paradox" of social constructivism: if we are completely discursively constructed, what is there that resists these construals of our selves? If patriarchy makes us who we are, how can we ever think we aren't what it says we are? Hirshmann thinks there are several possible answers. Perhaps reality is shaped but not totally subsumed by patriarchy. Perhaps various "macro" systems (race, class, sexuality) form a combined totality, but jostle against one another, letting us get different perspectives on where we are and the constructed nature of things.

These arguments and possibilities are brought to bear on domestic abuse, welfare, and veiling. The case studies form the densest and most rewarding section of the book bringing together a wealth of statistical and documentary detail with extremely nuanced, critical, and self-reflective theoretical application. Each of these case study chapters alone incisively contributes to the debates surrounding these topics.

Hirschmann begins the book with liberty theorists; she ends it with feminist theorists. She agrees with Wendy Brown that politics must replace reductive arguments about the essence of women, but insists that politics is not a random cacophony of voices; social categorizations form extra-individual sets of experiences. She advocates an issue-based politics, in which all who are "concerned with particular aspects of women's well-being and agency" (feminist-identified or not) can challenge contexts and others' conceptualizations of those contexts, using the distance among their positionings to jostle one another out of naturalized acceptance.

The Subject of Liberty will be useful to those interested in any of the three theoretical positions addressed. Hirschmann demonstrates her assertion that these approaches have crucial things to say to one another, and her critiques of each are targeted and insightful. The case studies show in gripping detail why all of this matters-a point sometimes missing from books concerned with theory. She may, however, attempt to cover too much ground. She simply doesn't have space to adequately deal with each of the theorists she wants to bring into the conversation. For example, she frequently draws parallels to Marxism. In one case, she compares her first two levels of social construction with a Marxist critique of ideology. Yet the way she describes those levels makes clear that this is strictly a critique of direct (though disguised) domination. It ignores Marx's concept of ideology as the necessary (and necessarily misleading) appearance of socially-constituted reality under capitalism, even though this is arguably more relevant to her interest in the ways material contexts structure subjectivity. It is not always clear how her concept of levels meshes with her analysis of contexts; perhaps she tries to synthesize too much under the rubric of "constructivism." Nevertheless, Hirshmann asks important questions, and this book challenges its readers to take them up.


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