What's a Materialist to Say about Categorical Errors?

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In an email message to me a couple of days ago, Spike noted that comments on various threads had revealed certain categorical errors. He said he'd try to find time to respond to the comments himself, and I said, "Look, you write such interesting, insightful stuff; I don't want it buried deep at the end of a thread, especially since I have the feeling these issues might come up again. If you're going to write an analysis of this, why not write something I can post as an entry? I'm really busy right now and could really use a guest blogger, if you wouldn't mind...." And it turns out, he didn't mind at all, and very graciously agreed to write a post for me.

So here it is: my very first guest post, courtesy of Spike.

In the comments to From the Perspective of a Man and Carnival of Feminists XV, two criticisms of Holly's statements made the error of confusing physical properties with culture. Timothy was concerned that while the thread of the comments under "From the Perspective of a Man" emphasized the importance of not damning a whole category of people when insulting a particular individual, this concern ran against the grain of what he felt was Holly's critique of "straight white men." Holly's response has already made the point that criticizing the dominant perspective is not the same as criticizing a group of people. What interested me was the way Timothy collapses a cultural or ideological category (the dominant perspective of the straight white male) with a biological category (men).

In the discussion of the Carnival, a similar, but slightly more complicated error led Jay to question Holly’s use of a Chinese character in the design of her web page: he was concerned about the appropriation of Asian culture by non-Asians. It seems to me that Jay’s concern also rests on a conflation of a cultural or ideological category with, here, a geographical one. This mistake is a bit less obvious than Timothy’s so I should explain why I think Jay makes it. Jay suggested that it was ironic that Holly included a link to Jenn’s piece Unbound Feet in the Carnival, when Jenn had also posted a little rant (Jay’s term) about Western appropriation of Asian culture, since it would appear from the top right of Holly’s page that she’s a white woman but she includes a Chinese character. (Holly and Jay have already had an exchange about this over the issues of etiquette and the reason Holly has the character on her blog so I won’t belabour these points.)

Now it may be a bit unfair for me to discuss Jenn's writing here – it's not her blog, I don't even know if she's reading this – so I will stress this qualification: I am not attributing any intent to Jenn, I'm only commenting as a reader. I have read both of the posts that matter here. The first thing to be noted about the "rant" is that it is a rant. It is not a thoughtfully crafted argument about the point she wants to make – unlike the elegant piece she wrote on "unbound feet," which is a careful and powerful argument. Now ranting is quite important and I would encourage more of it. But I suspect that the tone of the rant is part of the reason Jay felt he had license to question Holly's use of the Chinese character: the rant reads like a defence of the integrity of Asian culture against Western power. It would be possible – but I believe it would be very ungenerous – to suggest that this goes against the argument made in "unbound feet," which is a powerful claim for feminist resistance to female identities imposed by Asian American men on Asian American women.

So the problem that lies under Jay's use of the rant from Reappropriate is this: what is "Asian culture," that has some kind of identity that needs to be defended? Asia is a big place, with lots of language groups, many different religions, different rates and forms of urbanization, different histories…one could go on. These forms of diversity even mark a single country like China.

And Asian nations and cultures have fairly fraught relations with each other due to the region's long historical experiences with conquests and empires. Consider the experiences of Chinese, Korean, or Filipino immigrants in Japan. Or consider the attempted colonization of Korea by Japan and by China. Or China's occupation of Tibet, or its invasion of Vietnam in the late 1970s. Asia does not look like a homogeneous entity from a cultural, political, social, or economic perspective. Asia is a geographical term, not a cultural entity. Indeed, to the extent that we can even refer to a notion like "Asian culture," it is the product of orientalism: a colonial project to construct an "other" to secure "Western" identities.

I said that I think a notion of "Asian culture" would stem from an ungenerous reading of Jenn's writings cited here because I think both pieces, in different ways to be sure, are demands to be allowed to make of herself the person she would be autonomously. So to the extent that Jay would have no problem with Jenn's autonomy before pressures from "deranged and cranky" Asian American males ("DACs"), he ought not have had any issue to raise with Holly's autonomy. The problem for Jay comes up because "Asian," as a subordinate identity within the West, and Asia, for a couple of hundred years a subordinated region internationally, come to feel like something to be asserted and defended as a way of redressing these injustices. I get that, but I also suspect that as a political project it is doomed to fail because "Asia" can be no less an artificial unity, imperially papering over important cultural and political differences, than "the West" is. These geographic entities only become cultural unities through acts of domination.

Why do these category errors matter? There are a lot of reasons I could give: for example, I'm very interested in philosophical materialism. I have been trying to work out a way to think about consciousness that situates it in relation to and as a part of the material world without the kinds of reductions that I see in Timothy's and Jay's assertions. But I think there is also a larger political stake here. Holly's student in "From the Perspective of a Man" asked Holly simply to invert her perspective – if he could see the world from the point of view of a woman, could she try to see it from a man's perspective? That would be equality, right? Well, no it wouldn't, as Holly points out, because she has to see the world from a man's perspective all the time: the dominant perspective contributes to domination by making itself appear natural and inevitable. The subordinate perspective is, please forgive me for saying so, the Freudian repressed: it cannot go away but it cannot easily be expressed.

When we reduce culture or consciousness to geography or biology, we make the cultural forms or ways of thinking appear to be natural. And by becoming "natural," dominant perspectives define nature and, in turn, justify themselves through category errors: biology or geography become destiny. So it's not just a matter of giving "equal time" to subordinate points of view. The dominant ideologies have to be denatured in order to be overthrown.

9 Comments

This ties a lot of things together that have been going around in my mind as a result of reading Holly's and Jenn's work. It's a good synthesis.Thanks.

So...I get it! :-)

Listen, I understand the distinction that both you and Holly make, but I yet think there is a point to be explored here. I don't have much time, but let me try to summarize.

I think you and I are thinking about this in similar ways if I understand your own perceived conflict with materialism. I don't deny that "culture" exists in some meaningful way, but I think our shorthand for culture often overly simplifies complex disparate things into single, unifying ideas.

While I won't try to argue that stating that the dominant cultural force in America can be identified as straight white male, I do think it would be erroneous to say that American culture is synonymous with straight white male culture. Culture is much more complex than that. Especially in an open society wherein culture is determined from myriad competing forces and ideas.

I'm confident that we'd struggle to find a single white straight man who would claim that society operates the way he thinks it should. And this is the difficulty with our shorthand. Holly has some definition, in her head, of what a so-called prototypical straight white male thinks about the world. But this man is a creation in her head, and is not perfectly manifest in a single, living, breathing being.

My sense is that we pay a price for overly simplifying complex cultural ideas. I think that price is paid by focusing in the wrong place when we attempt to find solutions to problems in our society. By doing so, we expend a lot of energy trying to knock down straw men of our own creations, trying to defeat conspiracies that don't exist in some unified way in any singular person or group of persons.

Now, I've muddied the water even more. :-)

Note: if we were to talk about authoritarian cultures, wherein the dominant cultural force is centrally defined and enforced, I'd have a different argument here.

Hattie: thanks for the compliment. I live for synthesis!

Timothy: thanks for taking the time to make this response. Since you feel you’ve muddied the waters, I’ll try at least to clarify a little bit about what I think.

First, you mention my perceived conflict with materialism. I think what I am trying to get at here would be clearer if I come right out and say that I am not in conflict with materialism; I’m struggling to come to terms with materialism as the best alternative to a philosophy of history and of consciousness. (Yeah, there are problems in materialism but it’s more convincing to me than arguments that suggest that reality or experience or history are consequences of non-material processes. I’d be going off the rails too much to elaborate here; let me just say, for example, that the theorists of culture and of history that I find compelling are people like Raymond Williams or Antonio Gramsci.)

One of the implications of materialism is that to give an account of (for example) a social formation, we have to treat it as a complex whole; we can’t separate forces like ideas out from the world into some prior, “non-material” realm from which they shape or determine reality or consciousness or whatever. One of the problems that sometimes comes out in materialist analysis is that rather than treating ideas as material forces in their own right, contributing to the complex determination of a social formation, analysts sometimes reduce them to reflections of a supposedly prior material factor. So ideology becomes a “mere” reflection of supposedly prior economic forces, as in some older strains of Marxism; or a gender identity is reduced to a biological fact, which is what I think you did when you accused Holly of lumping straight white men into a group when she criticized a cultural force; or a cultural identity is subsumed under geography, which is what I think Jay did when he expressed concern that Holly was making an uninformed appropriation of “Asian culture.” It was this kind of reductionism that I was arguing against in this post.

The best evidence that all of us have to hand of what is “in Holly’s head” is what she writes here in her blog. I honestly don’t see any “prototypical straight white men” lurking there. What I do see is a compelling defence of feminism as a tool for de-naturalizing dominant perspectives. This does not deny complexity at all. Nor does it suggest that any particular straight white man is a mere reflection of a supposedly prior idea of straight white maleness, nor that the ideology is merely the reflection of the relative cultural and political privileges enjoyed by heterosexuals over homosexuals, of white people over people of colour, and of men over women.

But feminist critique at its best does force us to confront domination. In liberal societies, complexity is often marshalled as a counterpoint to the critique of domination, as you suggest when you contrast “open” societies to “authoritarian” cultures. But all societies are complex, and in liberal societies domination is sometimes masked through hegemony. Hegemony makes the dominant perspective appear to be “common sense,” as happened with Holly’s student and his inability to grasp why referring to women in pejorative terms was not “just words.”

Holly: I’ve gone on far too long! Thanks for making this space in your blog. I’ll go back to neglecting my own blog now since I have so much trouble making these points in fewer than a thousand words…

Tim writes, I don't have much time

Well, Tim, you might try to save us all a little time by not insisting that we restate the obvious, as in Holly has some definition, in her head, of what a so-called prototypical straight white male thinks about the world. But this man is a creation in her head, and is not perfectly manifest in a single, living, breathing being.

I realize I'm being snarky here, but come on! I hadn't realized it was necessary to acknowledge that an abstract paradigm is an abstract paradigm (as opposed to a prototype--this "straight white man" I invoke is not the "original type serving as a basis or standard for later stages," but merely a "model or example,"), not a living breathing entity with a first and last name, a birth date, and a social security number. I would have thought that was a given in a context like this, where the conversation is conducted among educated adults. But since you're raising the issue, I readily readily acknowledge that there is not an individual straight white man who is and remains our culture's perfect embodiment of straight white manhood. I acknowledge as well the limits of subjectivity, and the fact that my concept of how the world works is shaped by my own consciousness, as is true for every other human being on this planet.

You could also refrain from making assertions like I'm confident that we'd struggle to find a single white straight man who would claim that society operates the way he thinks it should. No one with a brain ever feels the world is entirely perfect, but plenty of people feel the status quo is pretty much OK and should be defended: men should exercise authority, women should have babies and nurture children, the national anthem should be sung in English, etc.

we expend a lot of energy trying to knock down straw men of our own creations, trying to defeat conspiracies that don't exist in some unified way in any singular person or group of persons.

I don't think there's a conspiracy among straight white men. I don't think there NEEDS to be. There's too much power that's wielded openly--in churches, in governments, in business--for covert plans and operations about maintaining and supporting cultural hegemony to be necessary.

I would, however, say that there is a lot of UNCONSCIOUS support (which is NOT the same as a conspiracy, since we're restating the obvious here) for and buttressing of the normative nature of straight white maleness among those who are straight and/or white and/or male--and even, at times, among those who are not. (We might also add "middle class" to that list as well, though some people argue that option is going away.) In any event, everyone can examine their own subject position and see which normative categories, if any, they fall into, and can then examine their own ethical mindset to see if they want to support those normative categories, and can then examine their own behavior to see if there are ways in which they do.

My sense is that we pay a price for overly simplifying complex cultural ideas.

Yes, Timothy, we do. Again, that's something I thought would be obvious to the kind of people who read my blog regularly, and part of what I attempted to explain to my student.

Spike--thanks so very, very much for being my first guest blogger, and for developing these ideas in such detail! You are welcome to comment any time, on anything.

Cheers, mate!

Holly...might it not be more accurate, then, to simply state that the dominant cultural force in America is a belief in Patriarchy? Or conservatism? Or racism? By using the language you are using, I think you do, as you were arguing against previously, indict lots of innocent bystanders. The result, it seems to me, is the perpetuation of the idea that in order to fight patriarchy, we need to fight straight white men. Why not just say we need to fight patriarchy where ever it exists, in whomever it exists? This language seems much more efficient to me and would avoid all sorts of extraneous battles.

And, as you say, words matter. Accuracy matters.

Oh, jesus, Timothy, don't argue for complexity and then turn around and argue that it might "be more accurate, then, to simply state" this or that.

Hey...don't denigrate Christians just because you want to denigrate me! :-)

I've been turning this discussion in my head a bit. I've been wondering about your use of the qualifiers "straight" and "white" and "male." Clearly, you believe that rather than saying that society operates from the point of view of men (which, according to the arguments you've offered so far, would be accurate), you think it important to further narrow your target group in two important ways...by excusing gay men and all men who are not "white." So, it seems, you already agree with me that it is important to be as precise as possible, and also important not to inadvertently include extraneous populations.

But, it seems to me that this approach, by starting with a very large population (men) and then narrowing it with qualifiers (straight, white) will invariably cast a larger net than is needed.

I'm suggesting that if you start with the narrow descriptors (patriarchical, racist, sexist, etc.) then you will avoid, definitionally, ensnaring the innocent with the guilty. And, in my opinion, by focusing more tightly on the real culprits, you'll move the discussion further and do so faster.

I'm suggesting that if you start with the narrow descriptors (patriarchical, racist, sexist, etc.) then you will avoid, definitionally, ensnaring the innocent with the guilty. And, in my opinion, by focusing more tightly on the real culprits, you'll move the discussion further and do so faster.

Whose interests does patriarchy primarily protect and advance?

Whose interests does racism primarily protect and advance?

Whose interests does sexism primarily protect and advance?

Whose interests do homophobia and heteronormativity protect and advance?

Yes, it's all fine and good to discuss patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, and their adjectival forms, and individual straight white men are not (usually) the enemy, unless they wield inordinate power.

But it is also terribly facile to pretend like we don't have to discuss the profound privilege enjoyed by men as a class, white people as a class, straight people as a class, and by straight white men as a class--particularly since many of these privileges are so normalized that those who enjoy them find them almost invisible.

Whether you like it or not, whether you exploit it for all you can get or try to use it to help others, Timothy, you are in a position of privilege, and I don't see why it's so irksome for you to admit that.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 21, 2006 3:13 PM.

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