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Diffracting "that's called privilege!"

Anne Dalke's picture

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 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.

So (still w/ me?) that's what I was talking about when I said there has to be some "play" there, in the "looking-glass" phenomenon. And that such play is NOT LIMITED TO PEOPLE WITH PRIVILEGE--in fact, what Butler's analysis suggests is that it is even more vital for people in marginalized positions. We can all learn to "occupy" conforming positions--and/while refusing them. That's the space of freedom.

What do you think?


Erin's picture

My input about this topic

Wow, I am absolutely overwhelmed by the information and depth of the discussion we had here. Just as Sarah and HSBurke, I am really not sure I got the long post’s most point. I will try to comment on some parts I do get and my understandings and opinions on this issue

Anne said “stories that trace such a trajectory--that say you have to be established before you can push back @ the establishment, that you can't "play" until your location is secure” troubles her. I think I actually agreed with this statement in the setting which article is referring to, prison or the correction facility.  I am not trying to refer to that the place with any discrimination.  However, the fact is that in that place, the rules in the outside don’t really apply.  No matter for what reasons, they ended up there, the way to get out and possibly get back to normal life. Ishin said that she can’t agree the ways of offices treated the offenders in the institution.  Personally, I don’t blame him. As he said himself, it’s really hard for him to believe that anyone has really changed because he had seen so many cases people just went back to the old track and some of them even picked the words he wanted to hear to just get approval. How can you remain patient and friendly after so many “betrayals?” Yes, I meant that these offenders betrayed their promise. 

What I am trying to say here is that, due to the nature of the prison and the temptation along the way to go back, it’s necessary to set the check points and as a monitor system.  Since offenders did make the mistakes, the efforts to be established is the price to pay to gain the reputation and normal life. Also, I think labeling is not necessarily totally a bad thing. The proper use of label can be strong positive psychological indication and support for some people. The courage received from the surrounding can be really helpful and powerful.  However, the self-determination still remains the most important thing if offender really wants to undergo transformation.

Let’s talk about outside. I really want to say things are different. Unfortunately, I can’t help but see the underlying similarities. Yes, strangely enough, I found the essence of such mechanism presence in my daily life. Competitions are common. It seems like the value of ourselves only appear when we have a reference. Our internal value seems to depend on the position, environment and even feedbacks.  I was stunned by Humming bird’s indication of her statement “I do worry about the precedence it may set for future participation in speaking up when considering it in conjunction with the phrasing of how much weight Anne's voice holds now that we're aware of her lack of tenure” Well, this it rather complicated when we talk about real life and it always go back the topic of privileges.

Who has the right to say whatever she wants and don’t have to think about the any potential consequences later on?  Probably very a few can say that. I think besides the personality and privileges, there are more to be considered.  I am not saying to speaking bravely have any problems. And of course, silence wouldn’t solve any problems. However, compromise might get someone to some place further and accomplish better ultimate results. If learning the social codes of the society is the stepping stone and learns to acquire popular culture is prerequisite to a high level, why not compromise for now? I don’t have authority to judge whose words are more important. But I do know that people who are in higher position will have more resources to carry out the words and make words reality. It’s about the influence.

I definitely agree Ishin’s comment about need to give people agency in some ways.  However, one might get more agencies in the future with strategic compromise, more flexibility will be acquired.  Also, the acknowledgement and agreement form peers and environment sound really important to me. Wouldn’t it be so hard to always fight along?

I am not sure did I make my point clear. In summary, I agree mostly about what was said in the article. While, it’s sad we have to settle the establishment in order to justify ourselves, we surely can use the rules to gain more agencies in long-term.

Anne Dalke's picture

"Beyond Delpit"

I want to try and re-tell this story, which Butler makes so theoretically complex, in a more personal form, and so maybe build a bridge from the experiential to a more abstract concept.

When I got my Ph.D. @ Penn in May 1982, I was pushed by my professors and advisors to go on the job market for a full-time tenure-track job. But I was in the midst of having my babies (I was pushing out the second one on the afternoon I was supposed to be walking across the stage to get my degree ;). Because I wanted to spend time with them, to breastfeed, and raise 'em up the way they should go (!), I chose to work part-time. When I was first hired @ BMC, that fall, I  taught only 1 course/semester, a freshman seminar.

I recognize the importance of the fact, in the terms of this conversation, that my decision to work part-time was enabled by my privilege: I was married to a man who had a good job, with a good salary, which gave me the freedom to choose a job which (in the campus hierarchy) had low status and pay.

Over the years, that part-time job grew into a (very satisfying!) slow-track career, but (for various institutional reasons) I was never shifted to the tenure track (trust me: this was not for lack of trying!). I still work here on a contract basis, with a review (and, so far, a renewal) every 5 years. On the scales by which faculty measure privilege, after 30 years, I'm way overage for rank. Again, my privilege outside campus--in a stable relationship, with other secure sources of income--has enabled me to stay in this less stable, less financially remunerative position. And/but…

one of the things that has driven me wild, while here, is the repeated refrain by faculty who are on the tenure track: "I can't take a stand on this issue, I can't speak up--because I don't have tenure yet. Once I get tenure, they'll hear me roar." But, mostly, we don't. After six years of being silent (not to mention 20+ years of schooling), many folks forget? never learn how? get too tired to bother? to speak out. And so once they get tenure, they settle into life-long (or @ least career-long) silence.

As I suspect you know, that has not been my own trajectory. I have spoken my mind since I first got here. Maybe that's because I came from a place (the rural south) where people don't think much of written authority (just because it's in a book means nothing to them); where they say what they think, never mind what the authorities say, or what the consequences might be. Maybe that's because I was raised by a man who (as Linda-Susan said when she first met him) "is a patriarch beyond all patriarchs," and I couldn't wait to get away from him/home to say what I thought. Maybe, not being tenured, I didn't have so much (that is, the security of a life-time job) to lose. Maybe I'm just a hot-head.

Of course a number of different dimensions of this story could be brought to the foreground. One would be my rural background, which enculturated me to say what I thought, whenever, wherever, w/ no awareness of, or accommodation to, what was politically savvy or contextually wise. Another dimension would be economic security, provided by other family members, which enables me to speak up when I think it's necessary, knowing that if I lose my job I won't be out on the street. And/but another would be to highlight the fact that my campus position--which is emphatically not one of privilege, in the hierarchies that operate around here--has not kept me from speaking out on the issues that matter to me (or from telling this story). I might even say that there are a number of ways in which my presence on campus (despite or even because of my marginal status) is central here.

That last dimension--the possibility of speaking out from a place of marginality--is the piece I'm trying to highlight now. If I had waited till I had tenure to speak, I would still be silent. Stories that trace such a trajectory--that say you have to be established before you can push back @ the establishment, that you can't "play" until your location is secure -- trouble me. And stories that offer an alternative--such as Butler's argument that we can all learn to "occupy" conforming positions, simultaneously accepting and refusing them -- hearten me. As I said in my last post, I think that's the space of freedom: to be "recruited" by the institution, while "occupying" that space, and figuring out how to revise what is expected of us. And I think it's possible for tenured folks to do that, as well as those of us who are not tenured, that this space of freedom is both desirable and possible for us all.

When I was talking w/ Jody about this, she suggested that we could think of this as the space "beyond Delpit" (or, at least, beyond Delpit's argument), because it complicates the binary she sets up between explicitly accessing the codes of power, vs. implicitly acting as if power doesn't exist (and so ensuring that the status quo remains). The story I am trying to tell complexifies this structure by insisting that 'privilege,' or lack of it, isn't so simply described by the shorthand we've been using to figure those positions….

What do you think? What are your stories and theories around these issues? How does my story intersect with, challenge, or complexify your own?

HSBurke's picture

Like Sarah, I can't stay

Like Sarah, I can't stay long, but part of your story reminded be about assumptions and the struggle I was having earlier in the year with people assuming things about me. I also assumed you were tenured. For one, I was told by an admissions officer that only tenured professors can teach ESems. I also remember you telling us one day in ESem how you stood up during a faculty meeting and called out your colleauges. Just like Chandrea assumed that my parents had gone to college because I'm white, I assumed that you were tenured because you're outspoken. I am surprised, but also really happy that I've been proved wrong because I realize now how much more weight every action/word of yours has and the risks that you take that others shy away from. I do hope we talk about this subject tomorrow, I understand yours/Butler's point much more clearly now. 

Hummingbird's picture

I also want to echo what you

I also want to echo what you (HSBurke) said and agree that I think Anne's new post really reminded me of the conversation we had about assumptions and how those affect our interactions with one another. I'm most curious, though, about your (HSBurke's) comment on "how much more weight every action/word of [Anne's] has and the risks that [Anne] take[s] that others shy away from." I wonder whether this means that push-back from a tenured faculty might hold less weight because their position is more secure? Does ones voice matter less if one has less to lose by speaking?

This reminds me – again – of the conversation we had in Jody's class earlier in the semester regarding direct action – and who can "afford" to speak up. Jo mentioned then, that if she got arrested for direct action (and please correct me if I misquote you, Jo) it wouldn't be so much of a set-back to her future because she wouldn't risk losing a job because of it. In addition, she mentioned that she might even feel proud to have "civil disobedience" on her record because it would prove she's taken action. It wouldn't be as difficult for her to explain it to potential employers. On the other hand, someone from a less privileged background might think more seriously about participating in direct action because of the risk of arrest. This has to do both with Jo's enhanced ability to get jobs through networking and not solely from more abstract job searches, and also with Jo's knowledge of the social codes in interviews, etc., which might make a note on her record less important to an employer. Finally, Jo's position as white is still really important to acknowledge because America is still nowhere near its claims to be a post-race society. (I'm so sorry if it sounds like I'm calling you out, Jo– I don't mean it like that at all! You just happen to be an convenient example– I'll also note that any of these reasons apply to me to, and my ability to participate in direct action).

I personally don't think the work Jo does in direct action is any more or less valuable than if it were to come from someone with a less privileged background. But I do worry about the precedence it may set for future participation in speaking up– especially (and I don't mean to call you out in any negative way, either, HSBurke!) when considering it in conjunction with the phrasing of how much weight Anne's voice holds now that we're aware of her lack of tenure.

Sarah's picture

ahhhh, way more on board with

ahhhh, way more on board with what you're saying now.  Also, totally thought you had tenure.  (assuming this will be brought up in class tomorrow? i have to do other homework now, but serendip keeps sucking me in...)

ishin's picture

DIfferent point

I had major problems with that reading also. And also want to spar a little with what some people have to say on here.  I'm going to do this by first trying to finally clearly articulate my issue with this reading (as I obviously had a hard time trying to do within the Cannery and also in my post for this week), and then going on to address people's discussion with codes, play, and the notion of diffracting.

I find this article problematic in the similar ways Anne does, but just want to frame it in a different way.  What I want to say is that sure, people need to learn the codes in order to function in society and labeling people "positively" is definitely one very important step in doing so--however, the issue is that this article still implies that these oppressed people/people who need assistance must only legitimize the codes of that they are trying to learn before moving forward in life.  I put it this way in a previous post:

"Maybe my problem with their analysis is that they rely heavily on the counselors' labels of the inmates while not even bothering with what the inmates may have to say about their counselors.  Isn't it a problem that we're solely concerned with the labels being imposed onto the offenders?  Sure, they're [the offenders] the ones who we are mainly concerned with assisting, and seeing how the counselors label them provides great insight into what they are going through and what needs to be done in order to assist them.  But to identify what titles the offenders place on the counselors would 1) reveal what issues they may have with the process of being "readied" and 2) in a way, give them a place to actually label others/give them a place to become more confident in their own abilities."

In other words, this article, the researchers writing it, and perhaps even the counselors/"the system" itself have yet to shine light and listen to the very voices of the people they are trying to assist.   As a result, they are not getting feedback on how they could possibly assist these offenders on their trek to trying to convince the world that they have "changed" (for so many reasons, I hate how that's the word we have to use, but that's another post).  What's more, I think they're being straight hypocritical: they are delegitimatizing/not listening to the offenders voices and identities while still trying to "bring them up" and "reinforce positive labels" into them.

I'm getting heated, and probably not making too much sense/may not even be giving enough credit to the people writing that article.  Here's what I think we all are agreeing on but has taken on different forms: we want to assist these offenders in a way that allows them to feel better about themselves and give them the confidence to do so.  That doesn't happen if you just tell people what to do--you gotta listen, let them know they're listening, and get it across that what they're saying is important.  

I'm trying to get back on course--Anne's discussion of "play" and people's ability to subvert while still in their assumed roles is something I stand behind.  I think this just goes back to a strong belief I have of the world: change never happens overnight and comes about a multitude of ways. Sometimes, it's remarkably subtle and will happen right underneath your nose.  Play, I believe, is perhaps one of the most beautiful examples of this. Just think about how middle school kids are actually becoming more adjusted to the notions of sex through their perverted jokes. I have a feeling I'm not going to really do justice to this notion of subtle change and the notion of defracting, so I'm going to move on.

People's ideas and I think people's talk about "play" not being accessible is well, wrong (Let's understand, I'm not in a mood right now where I can be most tactful with my diction choice at the moment).  EVERYONE makes jokes, pokes fun, and just plays--unless you're horribly depressed, and even then, being sardonic and snippy at the world is in a way, being playful.  People may not poke fun at certain things because they're not comfortable with it, or they may not even realize that their "play" can be important insight into what is going on around them.

I'm going to try again: I think what people may seem to be having a problem with is that they worry that oppressed people won't know how to play the "right way" (i.e., they're not pushing the bounds of the "right" issues, are not confident in the "right" places, are not given the space to play "the right amount" due to their lack of privilege) But to play "correctly" is in complete contradiction to the definition of play itself!  Let people "play" the way they want or can in the state they find themselves in their lives. Something will come out of it, and when the time is right, we should listen to what this play has to tell us.

Maybe another way of putting it is like this--I'm getting worried our revelation of assisting people to learn the right codes of life is starting to mask the fact that we still need to give people agency in other ways.  Sure, let's tell them they need to learn how to fill out their taxes, but let's also remind ourselves that these people are going to be the ones with the pens in their hands, and what's more, they're going to want to write other things with that pen.  Let's remember that people are multi-dimensional, resilient, and will always always always surprise us.

I werdvomited.  I'll clarify if need be.

Sarah's picture

I'm going to echo HSBurke:

I'm going to echo HSBurke: I'm not certain I understand everything you said, but will try to talk back/expand what I was saying as well.  I also agree with HSBurke about "play" being vital but not always accessible.

I want to say to that I wasn't trying to single you out in your privilege, it is something I to have as well.  I think I gained a lot of this knowledge to "play" through the posse program: a program, that, in my opinion, demonstrates middle class values and teaches the codes of academia.  I had to learn these rules/codes from an outside source in order to go along with or refute them, and I personally also feel like I needed to be encouraged to refute them when the time came (which took a little while after generally getting used to the codes in the first place).  I know what is appropriate to wear to a job interview, for instance.  If I choose to go against that, that is a decision I am making because I knew the codes.  This is much different from someone who dresses "innapropriately" because they didn't know any better.

I don't really know what to say, but I wanted you to know that it read this (three times) and I'm still stuck thinking about how you need to know the codes in the first place to assert them and to go against them I feel you must have recieved outside encouragment to take that leap.  I hope I didn't completely miss your point though.

Dan's picture

Anne! I like the analysis and

Anne! I like the analysis and comparison to your brief conversation with Sarah about conformity and feedback establishing one's selfhood. I am compelled and believe that play can and should exist in a space that is beyond interpellation... but how can that happen outside of privilege? (I'm not saying it can't -- I'm wondering how) -- and could it be taught in rehabilitation?

Does it require some kind of empowerment? In Paris is burning, I think they are empowered by their communities  (or fellow abjected others) to build their form of play and therefore they feel like they can play and subvert and form an alternative social selfhood.

Hm. I'm going to reflect on this a little more and then try to expand a little more.

HSBurke's picture

I'm still not certain that I

I'm still not certain that I understand deeply enough to talk back to the point you've made here, but I'm going to try anyways. I agree that the idea of "play" is even more vital, as you say, for people in marginalized positions, but that doesn't mean it's as accessible. For the groups of marginalized people (such as the drag queens in Paris is Burning) to be able to occupy these roles, I believe they must have a certain confidence and gutsiness that they use to counteract their distinct lack of privelege that colors their situation. I remember talking in Jody's class about hwo Jo's identity as a white women allows her to participate in direct action without the same anxiety that unihibited may feel as a Latina woman doing the same. It is her privelege that allows her to take these risks without fear of retribution. While, as Butler asserts, marginalized people are certainly capable of making choices that would be more risky for them due to their own social positioning, I think it's more complicated than just facing your fears and learning how to do it. Aside from the group whose confidence is strong enough to carry them through their refusual of these traditional positions, I fear there is a larger group who is forced not to play by their fear of falling (or rather "being pushed", as may be more appropriate in this metaphor). 

Now, I'm not sure if that was intellectual or sensical at all, but there you go.