Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…

A colleague of mine once said that among white students, discussions of race tend toward silence, while discussions of gender tend toward anger. This sounds right to me, and certainly these reactions are not limited to white students. It seems to me that both phenomena share a common root: discomfort with any kind of generalization.

On the race front, they can’t be sure that generalizations about, for example, black people will not turn out to be hurtful racist stereotypes — and so they prefer not to talk about it at all, just to be safe.

On gender, by contrast, they tend to feel unfairly implicated in the generalizations — the men want to clarify that they’re not patriarchal, the women want to make sure no one views them as a radical lesbian male-genocide-advocating feminist, etc., etc. In this connection, many students tend to believe that there is a kind of “escape clause” in contemporary theories of the social construction of gender and the notion of sexuality and sexual orientation as a “spectrum” — in their mind, these ideas lead to the sense that gender is a radically individual thing not susceptible to generalizations. (In reality, of course, the fact that gender is a “social construction” means that it is radically more powerful than any individual’s free choice of identification.)

A related dynamic takes place when discussing “other cultures” or discussing what make Western culture distinct. On the one hand, we must be radically certain that we do not impose “Western standards” on the other culture, choosing instead a stance of radically neutral cultural relativism. Yet the outcome of this seemingly salutary concern is that we can never actually specify what the concrete differences are — because, as with the discussion of race, there is a sense that using our familiar standards as a point of reference will automatically lead to viewing the other culture as inferior or deprived. This tension is exposed in the dual use of the word “other” — we must respect “the other,” but at the same time “othering” is bad. We have to acknowledge that they are different but we can never give specific content or meaning to that difference.

They are rightly suspicious of universal claims, and yet they are still working in a binary such that the only alternative to universality is a radically atomistic individualism. If we can’t make a claim that applies equally to every black person or every woman or every non-Western culture — and surely we can’t! — then our only alternative is to treat each of them as completely unique and incomparable.

Yet is this not the imposition of the white perspective par excellence? No member of any group must be deprived of the radical individuality white people believe themselves to possess — they each feel themselves to be the exception on which every universal statement runs aground, and they generously grant that privilege to others as well. This is why the content of difference cannot be specified: it is completely contentless. It is what is left of the individual when you abstract away from any acknowledgment of the existence of social forces — nothing.

That’s what a generalization is, after all. It’s not fundamentally about individuals (such that it could be valid if we find that it holds for, say, 67% of individuals in the group in question), it’s about the social field in which individuals move. “Black experience” isn’t the agglomeration of each black person’s individual biography, but the social forces that operate on black people. Similarly with “women’s experience” or the experience of whatever group.

The fact that you don’t feel that way is no counterargument. Indeed, a really robust account of “experience” in this sense can explain why you don’t feel that way — for example, an account of white people’s experience would have to trace the dynamics of the social forces that tend to blind white people to the existence of social forces.

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2 Responses to “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…”

  1. danbarber Says:

    Yes — it’s not about generalization but about power. To make it about the former instead of that latter is part of that power. It’s the discourse of universalism. And the way to go against that discourse is not to affirm the exceptional particular. Such a move is part of universalism, its own development. Proper representation — and that’s what’s at issue in the discussions you’re mentioning — is already a concealing of and reproduction of power.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What’s so insidious is that I think the people involved in these dynamics faintly realize that power is what’s at stake — but they can only get as far as disowning or disavowing it.


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