What did Judith Butler mean by "differential axis of domination" in Gender Trouble?

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Can anyone explain the meaning of the following from Judith Butler's Gender Trouble:

Juridical notions of power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms—that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, control, and even “protection” of individuals related to that political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice. But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures. If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representational politics. And the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation. This becomes politically problematic if that system can be shown to produce gendered subjects along a differential axis of domination or to produce subjects who are presumed to be masculine. (bold added)

I understand the first part, but what on Earth does "This becomes politically problematic if that system can be shown to produce gendered subjects along a differential axis of domination or to produce subjects who are presumed to be masculine" mean? I assume by axis she is referring to intersectionality in some way, but what is a "differential axis" in this philosophical context?

Mischa

Posted 2020-10-29T01:26:04.417

Reputation: 33

Good question. Explain to me in more explicit terms what you believe the first part to mean, particularly "And the feminist subject turns out to be dis- cursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation," which strikes me a relevant to what a differential axis might mean in this context, and maybe we can come up with a reasonable interpretation of the problematic sentence. – gonzo – 2020-10-29T02:10:45.637

Well I think it means that systems of social power are determining who or what the subject of feminism is, and the language they're using to do that is meant to me allowing them to reclaim agency, but it's actually limiting their agency because its also defining who or what is allowed to be the subject of feminism. Or in other words, I think it means that "woman" is supposed to be the subject of feminism, but the language of placing "woman" as subject means that subject is now constrained to what the accepted definition of "woman" is. – Mischa – 2020-10-29T04:23:32.317

I do believe that @ Philip Klöcking pretty much nails what Butler intends to say. In other words, its a specific example of A. Lorde's now old saw that we cannot expect to dismantle the master's house with the master's tools, or that we cannot solve problems of oppression working with the tools of a system of oppression. https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools. Problem is, there are no other reliable tools to use.

– gonzo – 2020-10-29T16:29:05.473

Answers

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What follows is pure exegesis.

1. The notion of subject

In the first part of the quote, she basically shifts the notion of "subject". Subject in that context is not used as in "individual" or "subjective" here, but as in "being an individual subject to norms and structures of power":

First, a subject is a person subjected to juridical (political) structures. This is a relation of power, i.e. persons have to obey the laws.

Then, it is followed that if the discourse identifies women as "the subject" of feminism, this implies an embedding of feminism into the political structures and discourses that more generally subject persons to, i.e. influence, mandate, and form persons by, structures of (political) power - or systems.

It is a given (she cites Foucault just before) that subjects (individuals) are formed as subjected to given structures of power (systems).

2. Consequences for the subjects of feminism

Given that, let us take the last sentence, which I will paraphrase below:

This becomes politically problematic if that system can be shown to produce gendered subjects along a differential axis of domination or to produce subjects who are presumed to be masculine.

If we take feminism to be about dissolving structures of power as tied to gendered categories, it is, of course, problematic if the subjects of feminism (i.e. women) are systematically formed to be either

  • accepting/endorsing/reproducing structures of power in which on one side of the axis there are dominating subjects and on the other one there are dominated ones (this is a differential of power, hence differential axis), while it is gender that determines the placing of the subjects along the axis, or

  • they would have to become "masculine" subjects

Both forms of feminism would run against the premise of feminism as stated, since either they would have to cement gender as the differential property of power, just with empowered women, or they would (additionally) have to cement masculinity as the prerequisite of power.

3. Conclusion

Basically, she argues that as soon as the subjects of feminism do not emancipate themselves from gendered structures of power in the first place, "feminism" will only reinforce the structures it is supposed to break down by using them unwillingly via cultural reproduction.

Philip Klöcking

Posted 2020-10-29T01:26:04.417

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