Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Review: Sexual Decoys

[Zillah Eisenstein. Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy. New York: Zed Books, 2007.]

I'm more than old enough to be familiar with the odd sense of dislocation that comes from being pulled back into the mood of a past historical moment that you actually lived through. This book, written towards the end of the Bush (junior) years, definitely managed to do that to me. So while I'm not sure its approach to weaving together theory produced in the academy with a critical take on recent events is as effective as it could be -- somewhat reminiscent of my reaction to a couple of more popularly oriented things I've read by critical pedagogy scholar Henry Giroux, actually, though the work itself is pretty different -- I really admire the commitment to bringing the two together. And in this case, I really appreciated the intensity, the anger, that Eisenstein brought to the writing, that evokes something real and important about the mood cast by the heavy hand of empire in that moment. Not a lot of academics allow that sort of passion to show in their work, and I wonder if we might be better off if more of them did.

The basic focus of this short book is examining the shifts in the social meanings of gender and race in the context of militarism and empire during the Bush years. The basic point is that there are a lot more meanings and possibilities open to people with a wider range of experiences of gender and racialization. However, the ways in which those spaces exist most often function to propagate meanings that disguise the fact that the actual workings of power are really not so different than when the mappings between identity and location within the matrix of social relations were much simpler and more direct. So, for example, the presence of white women and women and men of colour in relatively senior positions in the Bush administration served as a sort of decoy which distracted attention from the fact that the overall impacts of the ruling relations for which they were the public face continued to be misogynist, white supremacist, capitalist, and imperial. Or, for instance, she also talks extensively about the prominent role of women as perpetrators and/or enablers in the torture by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and argues that they served much the same function. Diversity, she argues, is not the same thing as justice, and the two should not be confused. That said, though, she argues that the greater range of ways of being that neoliberal diversity facilitates can be an entry point, a pathway, to justice, if struggle makes it so.

There are a number of things that she does that I find useful or interesting. Her take on the sex/gender distinction is interesting, for instance. Her analysis is that in contrast to the position that says that dominant notions of gender are binary because biological sex is binary, actually sex is much more variable than that when you actually look carefully at the (socially shaped) biology of it all, and it is the dominant binary organization of the social relations of gender that discipline our understanding of sex into a rigid binary.

I'm also intrigued by her response to the complexity of contemporary mappings between identity and power. I'm not entirely convinced that the actual lived reality is quite as different from a few decades ago as she seems to indicate, in terms of level of complexity -- I think at least part of what that analysis is registering is that critical politics were less willing or able to recognize such complexity back then. But certainly it is different, and she is pointing to a real, material change. And I think dealing with it by diving in, not renouncing the complexity, and following it where it leads by actually naming the various permutations and combinations of social experience and power, and considering their origins and meanings, is interesting. It certainly embodies in writing in a non-linear way the very complexity that is an important part of her object of study. However, it does also make it harder to read and harder to follow her argument than perhaps would be the case with a different approach. Regardless, I find what she does to be intriguing, as I said, and it is probably important to include in our repertoire something like this practice of seizing on reified notions of identity and tracing how they fragment, twist, and turn. Certainly it is preferable to just throwing up your hands and refusing to deal with the complexity, which all too many people do, including many activists and scholars with radical pretensions. But I wonder -- and I may be misunderstanding the situation in even hypothesizing this -- if perhaps plunging after the fragments of reified identity through the shifting currents of social meaning might be more manageable and more useful if it is done as part of a larger approach that self-consciously resists the reification as a baseline, and focuses more on the relations among people. Which isn't to discount the power that reified identity has in our lives and our social world, or to ignore that following their twists and turns can lead to important insights. But I think such a baseline might lead to better politics and to a way of responding to the complexity that is less likely to be overwhelming.

Or I could just be talking through a hole in my head, I don't know.

Another key idea that she presents is the contiguity between war and other sorts of politics, and by extension the contiguity between all of that and gender. It is a fairly standard objection by the left within anti-war movements that the more mainstream peace movement tends to be very concerned about the mode of domination (i.e. war and other militaristic stuff) but at least sometimes less concerned with the fact of domination (i.e. oppressive social relations that are not in this moment at least visibly a basis of violent conflict). Even granting that sometimes the anti-war left goes a bit far the other way and fails to recognize that mode matters too, I think that's an important point. And Eisenstein spends part of a chapter working through a way to talk about it all that recognizes the specificities of war but also focuses a good deal of attention on how the domination-that-is-war is very much integrated with the domination expressed in other modes as well. And, as I said, she argues that given that the social relational aspects of gender are tightly twined together with domination on a couple of axes (M > F, the binary), gender too is contiguous with war and militarism. I don't think I've thought through all of the implications of that, but it's an idea I want to hold onto.

Connected to this approach as well is her insistence that the increasing militarism since, say, Bush took office is not about an individual administration's bad policies but is a response to changes in global social relations. I'm not sure she quite says this explicitly, but I think that insight is important because it makes it very clear that it is insufficient for us to oppose this militarism simply by deploring the policies or politicians that enact it; we must also address the shifts in social relations that prompt it. Or, to adjust it to Canada in 2013, voting Liberal or NDP is not going to undo the militarist cultural offensive that has gripped our own country in the last decade.

For all the book's willingness to tackle complexity head-on, however, there were still moments where it felt insufficient. There were times where the complex experience and meanings of a particular phenomenon were spelled out in detail. But then there were other moments in which broad statements collected together moments from multiple contexts as belonging somehow together. And, really, it makes sense that you would have these, as a way to navigate the tension between recognizing complexity and specificity with the ways in which various fragments also have things in common. But I'm not convinced that each and every instance where this was done is sound. And some of the places where it happens are of definite political concern. For instance, even given that differences relative to the colonial axis were spelled out elsewhere in the book (or even on the same page), there were moments where the arrangement of examples of, say, patriarchy on either side of the colonizer/colonized divide really did seem to be eliding the profound difference in the implications of that divide and implying false equivalences. Or, for instance, even if it was not exactly intended, giving sequential lists of certainly related social phenomena in very different contexts without spelling out those differences or how they were socially related implies just by that sequential rhetorical arrangement a kind of sameness that doesn't hold up. This, again, adds weight to my conviction that while I'm happy to have read this particular approach to analyzing social complexity, I'm far from content with it. It again seems to be connected to following the meaning of reified fragments in a way that does not always account well for existing, socially organized relationships between the people encased in those fragments.(Sherene Razack's take, expressed in this book, that Eisenstein's notion of sexual and gender decoys in, for instance, the Abu Ghraib example tends to underestimate the active complicity of white women in embracing and reproducing white supremacy is also well taken -- not how I initially read the idea of decoys, but probably accurate, and I think related, via a couple of intermediate steps, to my own point in this paragraph.)

Anyway. There are certainly pieces of this book that I will hold onto and make use of, but I don't intend to take up the overall approach. It's probably of most interest to people thinking through some of the related topics in detail rather than as a general interest read, though if you're looking for a decent overview of some of the imperial and military nastiness of the Bush years that pays attention to gender and race, you might find it useful too.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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