Look at that political animal jumping out of the hat of “gender theory”

On the particularization of politicsVersion originale de art363, rub141


Despite the best efforts of feminists, gay communities and their sympathizers, words like ” gender ” and ” queer ” are still very often taken to refer to a very particular issue. This becomes clear, among others, during discussions and events organized around these subjects, during workshops, festivals, seminars, and conferences, which in many cases still involve mainly those that are directly involved in the issue, basically sex-aware women and sex-aware queer people. Gender in this way appears as a deeply specific concern, without broader relevance beyond these constituencies. Women doing feminism, queers doing things queer : it is easy to get the impression that feminism is only about a particular kind of women, the queer project only about queers. The particularity of the gender issue also becomes apparent in more day-to-day situations. When someone brings up the issue of ” gender ” in the midst of a conversation – about, let’s say, who shall do the cooking tonight, who is most likely to be chosen as president in the upcoming elections, or what is really the better PC operating system – it can often seem as if something deeply, yes, scandaluously specific is brought into the conversation. When it happens, others can easily reply : what does this have to do with the matter under discussion ? The deep particularity of the gender issue is then brought in so as to reduce its importance, and to disconnect it from whatever other issue is at hand (who will cook or who will become president).
One possible response to this situation is to stress the general importance of ” gender “, and to point out, for example, that heterosexual white males are just as much implicated in the sexual organisation of social realities, as are non-heterosexual, non-white, non-males, for example. But, however important it may be to continue making this rather obvious point, it is no less crucial, I want to argue, to affirm the particularity of the gender issue. The sensibility for particularity, as it is (inevitably) developed by those concerned with gender issues, must be regarded as a rich and worthwile resource, especially today. It is especially important, I want to argue, for grasping politics under current circumstances. Feminist and queer theory, and practice, may reveal to us the particularity of all things political. In doing so, they point the way in understanding politics in our actual situation, in which general definitions of political entitities, such as ” the citizen “, ” the public interest ” and ” the political community ” are loosing their credibility.

1. Feminist and queer theory and the particularization of politics

The issue of gender has important implications, well beyond the immediate concerns of queer and feminist communities. With the invigoration of feminist and queer movements from the nineteen-sixties onwards, and with the articulation of theories inspired by them, the particularity of all things political came into view. The second wave of feminism stressed the specificity of the subjects, arrangements and topics of politics, as conceived of in modern Western political thought, and as institutionalized in myriads of political practices. From the standpoint of gender, the political subjects, arrangements and topics that count as universal and general according to this tradition, turn out to be profoundly particular. Feminist and queer theorists found out that the ” citizen “, as it modeled by great modern political thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau, does not accomodate all people equally well – and this precisely to the degree that the citizen is defined as a ” general category “. It applies best to well-to-do, educated, self-assured, white males. This clearly comes out in mainstream democratic practices, which tend to be dominated by people fitting that profile. That is to say, it is a very particular type of person, that is capable of transcending his particular situation, so as to occupy a general position, in the service of the general interest, as is demanded of the citizen.
When it comes to political arrangements, that is, to the procedures, languages and architectures of politics, as thought and practiced in the modern Western tradition, feminist and queer theory equally exposed the particularity of these architectures that were supposed to be generally applicable. The concept and phenomenon of public debate, for example, with its emphasis on rational argument, not only favours participation by that very particular citizen mentioned above. It is also deeply particular to German, English, French, American traditions – or more precisely, Viennese, London, Parisian, and New England traditions. From the standpoint of ” gender “, political arrangements come to the fore as subject-specific, context-dependent, and historically contingent. Lastly, the topics of politics turn out to be no less particular, when approached from the side of ” gender “. Ever since Aristoteles, and especially since Rousseau, politics was supposed to be about topics of general importance, i.e. about issues that concerned the political community in its entirety. This premise was profoundly unsettled when feminism told us that the personal was also political. From the stanpoint of gender, the most personal and in that sense particular issues, for example bedroom and kitchen issues, involve fundamental questions about relations of power, and, for that reason, are deeply political. However, once feminism had thus posited the political nature of particular issues, the particularity of supposedly ” general ” political issues could also become apparent. Who says that ” the regulation of pesticide levels in Dutch waters “, ” the emergence of a de-nationalized European telecommunications market ” are general matters ? Are we here not dealing with very particular concerns, phrased in a very particular language ? In each of these three cases, second wave feminism stressed the peculiarity of the general. It therebye opened the way for a constructive conceptualization of politics as a matter of particularities.
Many feminists before the second wave of feminism had pointed at the particularity of political subjects, arrangements and topics, but only after the second wave of feminism did particularities come to be considered as constitutive of politics by them. As the queer theorist Micheal Warner points out, in the eighteenth century, feminists already exposed ” decent conversations ” among ” decent men ” as a rather exotic form of engagement, to which many alternatives are possible. However, even if the peculiarity of the conventional forms of politics was thus exposed by feminists, for a long time feminism continued to upheld general categories as an ideal. They argued that women should be included in the category of citizen, for this category to become truly universal, really generally applicable. Particularity was thus brought in by feminists to denounce existing arrangements, in favor of more general ones. Particularity served as a vector of negative critique. After the second wave of feminism, the rise of queer movements, and the theories inspired by them, however, particularities came to be recognized as constitutive of politics.[[Michael Warner, Publics and Counter-Publics, Zone Books, New York, 2002 Feminist and queer theorists came to recognize that modern Western definitions of the citizen, of democratic procedures, and of what counts as a political issue, in terms of the general – that is, as general applicable and as geared towards the general interest – were deeply specific in themselves. The requirement of ascendance to the general, as a demand to be satisfied before a person can be a citizen, before a given procedure counts as properly political, before an issue can be a political issue, was exposed as limiting politics to very particular people, places and issues. In the attempt to wrest politics from the grip of the general, feminist and queer theory came to valorize the particularity of political subjects, arrangements and issues. Thus, gender theorists argue for the mobilization of specific standpoints of women and queer people in the production of political claims (Donna Haraway). They stress the importance of the experimentation with context- and issue-specific forms of politics, as in gay pride demonstrations (Micheal Warner). They advocate that all issues, not just issues considered to be of ” general interest “, are legitimate candidates for politization. Whether issues come to be recognized as a concern of the broader political community is a question that can only be answered after the attempt has been made to make it do so, and no issues can be excluded beforehand from this process (Nancy Fraser). In this way, the second wave of feminism actively and constructively turned politics into a matter of particularities.

2. The importance of grasping the particularity of politics today

The particularization of politics that is brought about in second wave feminist and queer theory and practices, is of relevance well beyond these particular constituencies, and this especially today. In the light of current political events, the recognition of the particularity of politics may have become an important condition for the successful pursuit of democratic politics. Many events may have contributed to this, but one of them is what is often called ” globalization “. In the context of this event, the actors, issues and arrangements of politics must increasingly be recognized as particular in nature, especially if we are committed to democracy.

To begin with, over the last decades we have witnessed the rise of various actors of opinion- and decision-making, that are very unorthodox when approached from the standpoint of modern democratic theory. All sorts of transnational governmental organisations, business-inspired non-governmental organizations, and social initiatives, have presented themselves as political agents. The World Trade Organisation, the NGO ” Eye for Energy ” that was set up by Western oil companies to advocate the business-solution to the problem of Climate Change, namely emission trading markets, but also more leftists NGO’s such as Attac, are some examples. Such agents do not fit the picture of the citizen (they are too collective or too organised for that) and neither that of political representative (for it is unclear who exactly they represent). In this way they appear as very particular political subjects. It seems important to recognize the particularity of these actors, especially if we are to adress the problem of the democratic deficit, that may or may not exist now that these un-citizen-like, un-elected agents do politics. We may be tempted to call these actors by general names, and dub them ” captitalism “, ” the people “, or ” the state “, but in some cases this actually makes it impossible to grasp just what alliances are being put in place, and whether and why they should be considered democratic or not.
It is equally important to recognize the particularity of issues in the context of globalization. As we say hereabove, according to classic definitions of democratic politics, only issues of general importance count as properly political, that is, those issues that concern the entire political community. But in the context of globalization it is often no longer self-evident which political community exactly is implicated in an issue. Take for example the issue of the destruction of the Niger Delta as a consequence of oil exploitation by mainly Western enterprises. Which political community does this issue involve, and who should be involved in decision-making about it ? The Igdo, Yoruba, Ijaw and Delta-Cross people living in the Niger Delta? Shell ? The Nigerian government ? The international community ? At least it is clear that conventional notions of the political community, for example those that make it coincide with ” the nation ” won’t do for this kind of issue. The only way to find out which political community is and should be implicated in an issue, is to trace the history of the particular issue, as well as its possible futures. The recognition of the particularity of issues, is then a condition under which the question of the political community can be effectively opened up.

Lastly, when it comes to political arrangements it is no less crucial to recognize their specificity. As actors that don’t behave as citizens or democratic representatives may emerge as agents of the political, and as issues may surface that cannot be processed democratically in more conventional fora, ie in a national parliament, we must ask each time, which specific arrangement makes it possible for these actors to act democratically, for this issue to be processed democratically ? In some cases a parliament or a city council is indeed the appropriate forum, but in others, it may very well be necessary to resort to other arrangements, as when the Indian writer Arundhati Roy and others met at the gates of the Court of Justice in Kerala, India to make their arguments against the construction of a big dam in the Narmada Valley. In this dam project, the Indian government judged good relations with international business more important than good relations with regional people. Accordingly, the people of Narmada had to resort to other than governmental political fora to build their case. When dealing with issues of globalisation, we cannot forget that each particular political arrangment has its implicitations as to which issues may be processed here, with the involvement of which actors.


Taking the passage via feminism and queer theories and practices, politics comes out of it profoundly particularized. Out of the proverbial hat of gender theory, jumps a very special political animal : a particularized politics. This strange entity would have been a lot less likely to have come into view, if it wasn’t for feminism and queer thought and practice. They lead us to acknowledge that the actors, issues and arrangements of politics are always inevitably deeply specific. This insight must be regarded a rich and crucial resource for grasping politics today, under circumstances of, among others, globalization. Only be recognizing the particularity of political actors, issues, and arrangements can we begin to conceive of what counts as democracy (and the lack of it) in this context. Feminist and queer theory and practice thus have their revelance well beyond issues of ” gender “. It is a big mistake to interpret the particularity of the gender issue – the fact that it foregrounds the problems that sex-aware women and sex-aware queer people might have with things that by others are considered entirely normal – as a reason to leave the issue to those constituencies. eminism and queer theory have given the starting shot for a radical re-conceptualization of politics in general and democratic politics in particular, that should ring long and loudly in the ears of all those that try to think politics today.

Marres Noortje

Chercheuse en philosophie des sciences et de la technique à l'Université d'Amsterdam. aux Pays-Bas, elle travaille à une thèse portant sur " la question des réseaux sur le Web"et les formes politiques articulées aux nouveaux médias. Elle est membre du comité de rédaction trannational de Multitudes.