Philosophy: Chapter Two - Part Three: The Value of Autonomy in Relation to Personal Power - The Origins of Citizen X
Chapter Two -
The Value of Autonomy in Relation to Personal Power - The Origins of Citizen X
A summary of where we are in Chapter Two of this blog series
As I explained in the last part of this blog, an individual’s economic or educational opportunities and the accessibility one has to social and personal resources are not primarily one’s own choice, and by this light we can see that the basic self-ownership, -motivation, and –control valued so highly in our liberal political tradition is, at best, only under the contingent, local, authoritative control of most agents and this is understandably problematic.
Now, in Part Three of this chapter, I will begin delving into one particular example of what I am calling “Phenomenological Oppression” by presenting Sandra Lee Bartky’s arguments surrounding the identity and ontological status of The Feminine in modern society.
Bartky’s argument helps to clarify and spotlight the material consequences of Oshana’s theoretical claim that modern individuals within the liberal capital-based political system are faced with a systemically-based lack of personal autonomy. This discussion helps to pave the grounds for what I am calling the creation of “Citizen X”, the phenomenological political subject who is involved in deeply embedded oppressive social power relations that are dangerous, abusive, and grossly exploitive.
But first, we must turn to Bartky and her insightful work on the creation and destruction of social and personal identity in the liberal capital-based State.
An introduction to Bartky’s problem of identity
Philosophically, the “self,” a personal unity of subjective experience inherent in individual agents providing grounds for social and political covenant, remains controversial.
Politically, the self is problematized in the field of identity politics where political agents aim to secure liberties and to struggle against injustices as members of specific social groups within the larger social context.
For example, feminist activists and groups fighting for women’s rights are fighting for political recognition qua women and qua the global community of women. By emphasizing their identity as women, their shared experiences and distinctive history, as opposed to organizing around belief systems, manifestoes, or party affiliations, such groups are able to accomplish two goals.
First, they are able to organize and formalize group specific policies and bills. Second, they are able to organize and formalize complaints and protests against oppressive or domineering socio-political practices.
Sandra Lee Bartky, in her works, Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power and On Psychological Oppression, writes of contemporary women’s fight against “the regime of institutionalized heterosexuality” where women must make themselves “object and prey for… a panoptical male connoisseur.”
For Bartky, the struggle for women’s autonomy and equality is hindered, if not rendered impotent, by social conditions that normatively construct women as dependent objects to be servile and complacent towards standards created by the existent patriarchal political system. A woman, in this frame, is second, silent, restricted in movement and desires, and is pleasing to the eye.
Further, she should recognize these traits as necessary parts of herself for participation and success in the general society. Her identity, in other words, is produced by the normalizing processes of contemporary society where what is male, white, and wealthy sets the standards by which what is not male, white, and wealthy is to be evaluated, judged, and politically situated.
Identity, then, is at the least, partially constructed by social means for political ends.
Two questions arise from this idea of identity as a social construction. One, is there an individual identity, an actual “Self,” that exists apart from social constructs and categories such as “the feminine,” and two, what weight do “Selves,” regardless of the degree of social construction, carry in political matters?
The possibility of the “self”
Does an authentic, set and stable, identity exist for female political agents? More fundamental even than this would then be to ask do authentic, set and stable, identities exist at all?
For if one is able to identify themselves as “feminine,” “masculine,” “African American,” “lesbian,” “Republican,” and so forth, then it is apparent that there is a class of identity that is socially constructed; these are words and ideas developed and agreed upon socially.
An agent’s “social identity” may be defined as the collection of group memberships that an individual defines or is defined as belonging to. However, the question I am asking goes deeper than this. I am asking if there is something beneath this social identity, something perhaps prior to and distinct from the socio-political categories imposed upon agents by history, tradition and their implicit normative assumptions.
In the context of this blog, this question becomes: Is the category I understand as “the feminine” the final word on the possibility of female political agents, or is there an actual, stable, personal identity of which “the feminine” is but a highly influential and often time harmful component of its deeper totality?
I will argue that it is the later, and explain how this actual identity vitalizes the processes of resistance against socio-political systems that empower the obfuscation of and alienation away from self-recognition of that fundamental identity.
Bartky’s argument unpacked: Fragmentation and Mystification
Bartky, following Fanon’s study of post-colonial psychology, says that there are forms of oppression not inherently economic or political, and “need involve neither physical deprivation, legal inequality, nor economic exploitation.”
One can be oppressed psychologically, she writes, and “[t]o be psychologically oppressed is to be weighed down in your mind; it is to have a harsh dominion exercised over your self-esteem.” In the case of the feminine, Bartky exemplifies the disciplines of cosmetic and beauty regimes that encourage “internalization[s] of intimations of inferiority.”
The “feminine” lacks some basic quality, be it skin tone, body shape, or status, and must work to remedy this. The “feminine” necessarily fails to live up to idealistic, myriad, often conflicting standards of the “beautiful-feminine” and may become alienated, fragmented, from a fair, subjective image of herself and her qualities. Fragmentation is “the splitting of the whole person into parts.”
As the object-hood of the “feminine” builds upon and within a female agent, she experiences contradictory messages and impulses. Different social identities create different tensions within the individual in unison with external pressures surrounding and stemming from the material reality of the agent’s situation.
To be a woman is to be this, but to be Latin is this, as to be a Latin woman is this. Multiple identities and worlds, from culture and religion down to bowling leagues and carpools, socially shape and refine our self-identity and our identification in the world.
While many of these identities and worlds work in unison to create a sense of self and highlight the uniqueness of the individual, there are many aspects inherent within them that serve to create tensions or to pull apart the unity of the self. In her fragmentation, a woman may become mystified, systematically obscured to the “realities and agencies of psychological oppression so that its intended effect, the depreciated self, is lived out as destiny, guilt, neurosis.”
The feminine-body, like the feminine-mind, -posture, and –appetite fall under the normalized standards of a patriarchal system that functions from within and without to guide the realm of the socially acceptable and what possible appearances and behaviors a ‘lady’ may partake in. From this standard come degrees of deviance. Mystification expresses how this is experienced as natural, thus unalterable.
Bartky, like Foucault, stresses the diffuse and web-like nature of contemporary political power. Micro- and macro- disciplinary techniques combine with “membrane-like” networks of external and internalized surveillance mechanisms to cast individuals in the role of their own personal and inter-personal police, reinforcing and recreating social norms, assumptions, and gender relations. I will return to this is greater detail in upcoming installments of this blog series.
The Technologies of Femininity
For women, systemic abuses of political authority and the background effects of mass media, advertising, and information diffusion insure the reach and force of normative oppressive authority is, as Bartky claimed, well-nigh total.
Part of the identity conferred by the status “feminine” upon women is “a body on which an inferior status has been inscribed.”
The “technologies of femininity,” of which we may include eyebrow plucking, moustache waxing, make-up, nail painting, and various hair care procedures, “are taken up and practiced by women against the background of a pervasive sense of bodily deficiency.” Bartky reminds us, “[T]he properly made-up face is, if not a card of entrée, at least a badge of acceptability in most social and professional contexts.”
Women are encouraged towards and applauded for their expertise in skin, hair, and body presentation, yet pre-occupation with ones looks is considered childish and self-centered. The subordination of women, their cultural assignment to the domestic sphere, and the childlike, dependent, servile implications of their “femininity” are presented and experienced as natural and normal; the way it is, has been, and should be.
Bartky writes of women, “Our relative absence from the ‘higher’ culture is taken as proof that we are unable to participate in it.” Though men and women share a basic cultural paradigm, the fact of a male dominated social system creates fundamentally different global visions of that shared world. The “feminine” is not autonomous, independent, or strong, and to be so is to “ceas[e] to be women.”
The internalization of such culturally reinforced and assumed rhetoric leaves women “psychologically conditioned not to pursue autonomous development.” This lack of cultural autonomy is the basis for Bartky’s claim of cultural domination, of the colonization of women (an idea she borrows from Fanon).
She claims that women, like other colonized people, experience psychological oppression through three basic modes or categories: cultural domination, stereotyping, and sexual objectification. Stereotypes threaten agency with demeaning, limiting “prefabricated” natures. Sexual and racial stereotypes tend to regard women and minorities as childlike, unreasonable, and dependent upon the dominant white male culture to support and ‘guide’ them.
Unlike other situations of colonization, however, there exists no ‘time before’ when women were separate from the domineering presence of the patriarchy. Bartky writes, “[T]he culture of our men is still our culture.”
To understand the background conditions of the type of Princely (State, Political) power I am discussing in the blog, it is important to grasp the basics of Bartky’s appropriation of Foucault’s conception of power.
Foucault’s concept of Power: a first look
This short section will serve as only the briefest of introductions to Foucault's insightful view of modern political power. I will return to this specific topic in great detail in later blog entries, as it forms the base for my own original theoretical contributions, that of Relational Materialism and the frame it provides for uncovering the actual value of power and the potential for revolutionary action.
For now, I want to introduce Foucault and to ask a few pointed questions.
Michael Foucault’s definitive qualities for a relation of power are that it “does not act directly and immediately on others” and “exists… only when it is put into action.”
Foucault claims that modern politico-authoritative power (Princely Power, State Power) is fluid and indirect, no longer needing to rely on overt physical coercion or violence. Instead, it is an action upon actions, a creation of the borders of agential possibility and authority.
To be considered an exercise of modern socio-political power, there must be a relation between mutual subjects, “ …‘the other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) is recognized and maintained to the very end as a subject who acts.” Strictly speaking, for Foucault, a slave master does not exercise socio-political power over a slave; one does not govern chattel, property, or pure objects, one physically dominates, destroys or forces them.
I will quote at length from Foucault here so that I may quickly summarize the main ideas he presents and move on. As mentioned, I will dive into Foucault at length in upcoming blogs.
“[An understanding of power] must not be sought in a unique source of sovereignty from which secondary and descendent forms would emanate; it is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the later are always local and unstable….Power is everywhere not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. And “Power,” insofar as it is permanent, repetitious, inert, and self-reproducing, is simply the over-all effect that emerges from all these mobilities, the concatenation that rests on each of them and seeks in turn to arrest their movement …power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”
Foucault’s concept of power in 'History of Sexuality' (pp. 92-93)
The main thoughts from this passage are:
1. Power exists in relationships between agents, be they individual or institutional. It is no longer simply a Sovereign class (a Princely hierarchical top-down situation)
2. Power is everywhere in modern society, there is no escaping it, because it comes from everywhere (membrane-like)
3. Power is a 'complex strategical situation', meaning that there is no one factor granting some power over others. It comes from everywhere, it is so deeply embedded in the socio-political system that it is invisible, untraceable, and total in its influence. There is little room for resistance to its action as we are created by its whims.
Authoritative socio-political power holds over subjects, over men and women who behave, identify and decide. However, against the internal and external forces I have described, as expressed by Foucault and Bartky, resistance seems impossible.
Critics claim Bartky, like Foucault, threatens to “depriv(e) us of a vocabulary in which to conceptualize the nature and meaning of those periodic refusals of control which, just as much as the imposition of control, mark the course of human history.”
What can a true act of resistance look like when an agent is a construct of the stereotypical assumptions and degrading norms put forward by her own culture and people? How does one resist actively empowering her own disempowerment?
In Part Four of Chapter Two, I further my explanation of how resistance and revolutionary action is possible and necessary.
Bartky, Sandra Lee
Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, Routledge, 1990, New York
‘Reconsidering Relational Autonomy. Personal Autonomy for Socially Embedded and Temporally Extended Selves’, Analyse and Kritik, Lucius and Lucius, Germany, 2008
DeCew, Judith Wagner
‘Marina Oshana, Personal Autonomy in Society’, Social Theory and Practice, 2009
‘Discipline and Punish’, Vintage Press, USA, 1995
‘The History of Sexuality’, Vintage Press, USA, 1990
‘The Foucault Reader’, Pantheon Press, USA, 1984
‘Power’, Essential works of Foucault, Vol. 3, Edited by James Faubion, The New Press, New York, 2001
‘Power/Knowledge’, Pantheon Press, 1980
Meyers, Diana Tietjens,
Feminist Social Thought: A Reader, Routledge, 1997, New York
‘Autonomy and Free Agency’, Personal Autonomy: New essays on personal autonomy and its role in contemporary moral philosophy, Edited by James Stacey Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 2008
‘How Much Should We Value Autonomy?’, Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation, USA, 2003
‘Personal Autonomy in Society’, Ashgate Publishing, USA, 2006
‘Making the Social World’, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010
‘Spheres of Justice: A defense of pluralism and equality’, Basic Books, 1983
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP): “Foucault and Feminism” http://iep.utm.edu/foucfem/
 FST pp. 101
 psych opp- first page or so
 ibid. pg. 52
 see Lagunes
 ibid. pg. 52
 ibid. pp. 100
 ibid. pp. 100
 fst pp. 100
 psych opp pp. 54
 ibid. pg. 53
 Bartky, pg. 52
 ibid. pg. 53
 ibid. pg. 53
 Foucault, pg. 340
 Foucault, pg 340
 Meyers, pg. 108