Monday, February 12, 2007

critical complicity, or, "reclaim it, my ass."

the comment thread of my first Contrarian™ post of the year veered, as discussions of marriage within liberal-minded spheres often do, to the idea that marriage can be “what you make of it.” i responded there,

…this is one of the central questions as BoyCat and i consider marriage as a possibility. is it truly possible to do such a thing as "defining marriage for yourself," given the intrinsically societal nature of the arrangement?

check out the thread for a number of responses and directions the question took – interesting and thought-provoking all. what i want to open up and chew on here is why i have my doubts that marriage can actually be “what you make it,” and it has to do with those warm and cuddly twins, patriarchy and paradigm. the fun and frivolity never stop around here, do they?

ok, i promise that i’m not going to be all dour and finger-wagging about this. but i will probably get myself in hot water with a fair number of third-wavers out there, those for whom the phrase “reclaim it” is paramount to the feminist mission of the 21st century. i’m not going to delve into the broader discussion of whether reclaiming is of central importance to feminist progress – i’m just going to highlight what i think makes it problematic as an aim, and thus often susceptible as a tactic.

during the thread conversation, cinnamon said,

…I firmly believe, or else I wouldn't have finally agreed to it, that marriage can be what you make of it. But I will say that it is a lot harder to get the people around you to understand that you make of it differently than they do.

now, cinnamon knows i love her and completely respect her choices – she did what made sense for her. however, i noted in the thread that her observation was exactly what bothered me – the sense that technically, no matter what she and her husband were making of their marriage together, the way that it is perceived by outsiders is by and large beyond their control.

sure, a married couple can make an effort to communicate the fact that certain aspects of their marriage are “different” than accepted norms and/or stereotypes – in fact, i think it’s great when couples do that. however, you can’t explain it to everyone, all the time. you can’t even explain it to a small fraction of people a tiny percentage of the time. far more often than you are “reclaiming” some aspect of marriage from a stereotyped idea and “making” what you will of it, vast numbers of other people are viewing the baseline facts – your wedding ring, your same last name, your “this is my husband” introduction, and so on – and making their own assumptions, drawing their own conclusions. in other words, once it’s “public,” more often than not it’s up for grabs in terms of meaning.

i said that this post would involve Madonna. i hope that you weren’t starting to question the veracity of my claim, because i’m just getting there. Madonna is a great example of the problematic nature of intention versus perception. hers is not a black and white case either; much about Madonna’s public persona did great things for feminism and for cultural subversion in general. but if you dig deeper, the way that Madonna used mainstream ideas and stereotypes – feminine aesthetics in particular – ultimately doomed any possibility for her work to have long-lasting, really revolutionary effect.

long time readers of this blog will think, “this sounds familiar.” indeed, i posted a few rants about Madonna and this issue back in October of 2005. as i also mentioned back then, i wrote a whole paper about it in grad school. (for serious. and it was good, if i do say so myself.) in this paper, i used as one of my sources an article by art critic Abigail Solomon-Goudeau called “Living with contradictions: critical practices in the age of supply-side aesthetics.” snicker if you will at the woeful academic-ness of it all, but one of Solomon-Goudeau’s main points in that article has stuck with me for years as i’ve tried to make sense of the world around me, especially the vast, postmodern media dominion we’ve all come to inhabit. she says that, in this age of simulacra and mimicry and constant, co-opting pastiche, “we must ask what defines a critical practice and permits it to be recognized as such.”

so, what is truly critical? can something be truly critical that uses the mechanisms of that which it aims to critique? more colloquially – can we really use the master’s tools to dismantle his house?

in feminist terms, this is the big “reclaiming” debate that i said i’d stay the hell away from. as far as marriage, though, it still seems like a salient point. when you choose to fight something “from the inside,” as it were, you are always highly more susceptible to merely reinforcing the strength of that which you’re subtly critiquing. as Solomon-Goudeau puts it, there are the “problems of function, of critical complicity, and the extreme difficulty of maintaining a critical edge within the unstable spaces of internal critique.” the reason for the instability is that it’s so much easier for the dominant paradigm to re-consume you the more you resemble the paradigm.

and it’s not a conscious process; it’s not Patriarchy sitting up there, paring its fingernails, saying “today i think i will reclaim this marriage, and that protest.” it’s an ongoing, insidious, generational progression with an ultimate aim of recalibrating the balance that keeps the system in control. (a system doesn’t reform itself. remember this. repeat it to yourself silently, every day. it is crucial.) and the easier any type of subversion is to explain away, to belittle, or especially to co-opt, the easier it is for the system to strip any true revolutionary potential away and return the more harmless (and always more marketable) aspects of the effort back to us. in 1989, we had Madonna doing Express Yourself; in 2001, it was Britney doing I’m a Slave 4 U. i am serious when i say that this is not a coincidence. in between, we had Anita Hill, then the Year of the Woman, then Riot Grrrl, then the Spice Girls, then “girl power,” then bubble-gum pop and midriff shirts. suddenly, instead of singing “express yourself, respect yourself,” we were singing “hit me baby one more time.”

i realize that this probably all seems meandering and somewhat disjointed. i also realize that i need to stop talking, because this is rapidly approaching the blogpost word count when readers tend to tune out. so, to (attempt, poorly) a summary, i have serious misgivings about the idea that marriage can mean what you want it to mean, given: a) the impossibility of controlling the public perception of just about anything, and b) any attempt at the “reclamation” of marriage to revolutionize the institution from within is by definition fraught with complicity, and constantly under the threat of consumption by forces much, much larger than it.

see – not dour at all!

as always, nitpick away...


Lola Mason said...

Oh, I just can't resist.
Kate, you think too much. And I mean that in a nice way :) But seriously, why do you care what other people think? This seems to be your main point. I know it'a a bit simplified, but it resonates through your every discussion about this topic. If we get married, "other people will this, that, and the other thing about us." If we don't get married, "than people will think this and that about us." Who gives a shit what other people think about your relationship? Do what you feel gives adequate acknowledgement to the life you two have built together.
Ok that's it for now. Hooray for being the first comment!

DancingFish said...

Love the posts lately! I agree with Lola. Why does it matter how other people perceive you? Especially if you can't explain yourself to everyone else most of the time anyways.
I'm planning my wedding and am really realizing that it (just like our marraige) is not for anyone else but me and my partner. I made choices about some things based on what was expected and what other people wanted. Those choices made me feel uneasy and unhappy about getting married. I have since realized that we are the only two people involved, changed all of those things that made me uneasy and if other people disagree or don't like it- too bad for them. It isn't about them.

kate.d. said...

ah, lola :) i think you are painting me with too broad of a brush here! to say that all this questioning is because i "care what people think" makes it sound like i'm equating how people perceive my potential marriage with how people perceive my haircut.

not that i don't care about my haircut :) but it's a matter of degree.

in short, as far as these life decisions go, i'd say that i care because part of me believes in the feminist idea that at the end of the day, "the personal is political." and i give a shit because i want my personal stuff and my political stuff to line up as much as possible - to walk the walk, you know.

(and can i throw this out there, too? just to be diffcult? i think that sometimes the personal rallying cry of "who cares what people think!" can be used as a crutch and rationalization as much as "i did it for me!" can. not that it always is, but it certainly can be. thoughts?)

Toast said...

Kate, I agree with quite a bit of what you say here, especially:

1. Society's perceptions do matter.
2. We have very little control over how public-domain memes are interpreted.
3. The personal is political.

Thing is, as marriage goes, this is all very meta. I'm still more interested in what it is, substantively that bothers you about the institution of marriage.

Lately you've brought up the idea of marriage as a mechanism of social control several times. Control by whom? To what ends? And if it's not a form of personal, exploitative control where group A is trying to constrain group B, but rather an impersonal control mechanism that our societal organism has evolved (if you will), then can we even be sure it's something we want to subvert?

Cinnamon said...

Kate, I love you and completely understand your critique of my comment, so no worries there.

But, when I first decided to tell people I was a feminist I got lots of "but you shave your legs" kinds of comments and realized that I had the opportunity to engage with people about what feminism meant to me and, more importantly, how I wasn't a stereotype to be easily pegged.

And I'm taking the same tactic with marriage. I told people I was married and they said "So where is the ring?" I finally have one which I'll blog about as soon as I get a manicure so I can take pictures of my hand cause the designer would like it. But until a week ago, I didn't have one. Why, because a ring is just a symbol and I didn't need something to remind me that I was married. Other people asked "So, are you changing your name?" and I was able to say "Why? I didnt' become a different person?" People, in his family, welcomed me as part of the family. I was able to tell them "I've considered you part of my family for years. Nice to know you only thought of me as a hanger-on." The only people who attended our wedding were four close friends who we both consider our true family, since they are the people who love us unconditionally, support us no matter what we do, and are always there when we need them. Explaining why gave us the opportunity to explain why we consider these friends our family.

Yes, its exhausting to always be fighting against assumptions. Yes, its annoying to have to explain to people why their assumptions are wrong. But there have been a few people who have told us that they're glad that we've been so vocal about our decisions, because it makes it easier for them to consider doing something different.

Will getting married eliminate marriage as we know it? No, it probably won't, not quickly anyway. Is there a risk of our alteration of marriage be co-opted and marketed back at us? Possibly. But am I going to fight that on the personal level and the political level. Hell yes. But I would have done that with or without a ring on my finger. Whew!

kate.d. said...

...there have been a few people who have told us that they're glad that we've been so vocal about our decisions, because it makes it easier for them to consider doing something different.

and that's great! like i mentioned in the post, i honestly think it's fantastic when married people like you and andrew challenge assumptions. regardless of any of my other wonderings/doubts, please do know that i think that kind of personal activism does everyone a service!

and toast, fair question about "control by whom" - this is where we do get into some freaky-deaky, "patriarchy is the matrix" and whatnot :) and much of my discomfort with marriage ultimately has to do with it being (in our culture) a patriarchal institution. more later, if i can marshall that kind of brain energy this week.

and could you clarify for me what you mean by "substantively"? i feel like that's kind of a slippery term semantically, and i'm not quite sure what you mean by it! then i will certainly take on the query :)

Toast said...

this is where we do get into some freaky-deaky, "patriarchy is the matrix"

Uh oh. So you're saying those of us who got married took the blue pill? ;-)

kd'sm said...

Just to briefly jump in here, I guess my big question is... What really is " walking the walk" ? Is it doing, for example, as Cinnamon comments, creating thought provoking discussion that is understandable by many that you encounter in daily life... or is it not getting married as a statement of the inherent controversial issues that exist in the current state of the "venerable institution of marriage"? Begs the question to be answered...which of these will have the greatest impact on the greatest # of people to better understand the marriage alternatives and work toward creating a more equitable, non gender biased institution?

I understand your theoretical stance Kate, but wonder if the statement you want to make can be can be understood in the larger more theoretical terms that you present(which sometimes even I begin to lose the picture you are trying to paint:)...My "walking the walk " as you call it, do you lose the larger audience that you could impact and really just preach to the choir already assembled?

ok..not so brief...(and by the way, you do know, I love your commitment to the causes you believe in:)

Toast said...

and could you clarify for me what you mean by "substantively"?

I just meant whatever problems you have with the institution of marriage itself, as opposed to other people's interpretations of it, difficulties inherent in criticizing it, etc.

Cinnamon said...

Upon thinking about this last night, I came up with this conclusion. Being with someone for a long time, but not marrying them brings up lots of questions (most very personal) about why you're not married. These questions can be turned into a discussion pretty easily.

However, once you do marry, people have a lot of assumption about how you should feel and therefore how you do feel so you have to more actively negate their assumptions, after making them realize they've made assumptions. And it is much, much harder and requires a lot more forceful energy to accomplish.

No matter what you do, Kate. Just make the best decision that is for you. The people who love you will understand and be happy for you, simply because you're happy.