Q&A: TERF Wars & the 'Oppression' Question

on 2020-06-12

This is a question from Curious Cat, but I kind of got caught up in the reply, so it was too long to post here. So I'm posting it (even if it's hastily written and not nearly as put together as an actual blog post would be) here so the original asker + anyone else can read my full ramble.


What do you think of this?

The whole 'the oppression targeted specifically at you and your body is not targeted at you or your body but the body that is associated with the abstract concept of x which happens to include you' argument masquerading as materialist feminism is deeply fucking weird.

I’m not meeting patriarchal standards of womanhood by having a vagina, I’m subjected to patriarchal standards of womanhood because I have a vagina, and I’m punished whether or not I meet those standards.. because I have a vagina.

Seems close but no cigar.


Thinking of materialist feminism in terms of 'oppression' always leads to convoluted attempts to find steady/consistent/universally applicable criteria for who will experience said oppression--it essentially works backwards, puts the cart before the horse, taking a (usually) essentialist or 'common sense' concept of 'woman' (as radfems do) and trying to work out how women (this essentialist/deeply contingent group) are 'treated' or 'oppressed'--something both a) impossible given the wide spread of roles and experiences women have and b) easily threatened by any introduced and/or unaccounted for difference.

Certainly women's oppression is a central concern for most feminists. Equally, the plight of the working class was similarly central for Marx. But one of Marx's great maneuvers is his attempt to sublimate his political affiliations to such a category (the 'worker') in order to explain and elucidate the various cogs in this machinic process--'capital'. In other words, Marx attempts a truly descriptive account of capital--resulting in categories similar but distinct to vulgar/colloquial understanding. It's no longer "how does capital treat workers?" but "how does capital produce?" (whence a specific positionality of the 'worker' might be derived).

Similarly, materialist feminism does (or at least, should--though I think some forms are more successful than others) a similar maneuver. Irigaray, for example, is both interested and profoundly uninterested with a vulgar (or perhaps molar?) conception of woman--certainly this was an acute political concern in her writing, but there was also the sense that one should really work out what the gender process (as with Marx/capital, of exchange, reproduction, etc) is, what it does, and what constituent positionalities it creates (e.g. that of the commodity-sign-woman, that of the male laborer/proletarian, etc). In this respect, Irigaray avoids the problem of trying desperately to settle the impossible task of producing an uncontroverted and unbounded definition of what 'woman' is and what 'she' 'experiences'. Just as vulgar Marxists confuse the colloquial 'worker-in-society' with the description of the 'proletarian-in-process', vulgar materialist feminists (and most often radfems specifically, as well as liberals) confuse a general conception of woman as she exists everywhere ('woman-in-society') with the very specific woman-in-exchange/woman-in-production. Obviously, the latter is at some level a necessary abstraction for meaning-making. But materialist methods--following Marx--have always relied on such abstractions!

This distinction is key to what is white about white feminism and what is cis about cis feminism: the pseudo-essentialist conception they have of 'woman' is always coded and contingent upon other forms of difference...it becomes impossible to see the woman-in-process (who may indeed not be strictly a 'woman'!) for the common sense mythology of who women are/what women do (Wittig and Beauvoir take great pains to separate this idea of woman as a distinct social role/class from the mythology around her existence). It's an age-old question: are you oppressed because you're a woman or are you a woman because you're oppressed? Neither seems to line up with the multiple and divergent colloquial understandings of 'woman'.

So, in other words, I do not believe a materialist feminism need concern itself with articulating a certain generalizable and measurable notion of what woman 'is'--we only need to identify the constituents of patriarchal exchange (including and especially the exchange of images and signs) and (re)production. Because radfems (and more accurately TERFs) rely on preexisting categories (thus getting bogged down in...well, turf wars) instead of reasonable abstractions and workable models of this process, they have no working explanation for the traffic of trans women except paradoxically by mere analogy ("well trans women do have problems too, I guess....", "women and trans women can be allies, sure...") with woman. It's an untenable and frankly unproductive quibble that, at the end of the day, is not remotely 'material'--it is simply the same old buying-into the 'myth' of woman that Beauvoir, Wittig, and many others warned us about. It is not that there are no notable differences between cis women and trans women--but TERFs by their own haphazard concession (thinking of JK Rowling's recent blogpost....) point to this abstraction that makes trans women and cis women 'conmensurable', if not radically 'equal', in exchange (as commodities). That is to say, the unqualified/coded 'woman' and the commodity form are coextensive abstractions (compare Amy Ireland's claim--"Woman as she is constructed by Man...is continuous with the spectacle").

This was hastily written and quite jargon-y so it might not be clear or definitive but I got a teeny bit caught up in it, hope you find this interesting or helpful!