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Second Read, Alcoff

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 11 months ago

Alcoff, Round Two 

Hillary A. Jones

Alcoff, Round 2, On White Pride


Alcoff notes that “especially in a consumer society, the core of white privilege is the ability to consume anything, anyone, anywhere” (217).  Appropriation of others’ culture goes hand-in-hand with the felt “emptiness” of whiteness as a category.    Alcoff suggests a transformation of white self-understanding (219) as a way to challenge racism.  A turn to being “color-blind” is clearly not sufficient nor desirable – Ferber dubs this “new racism” and it simply denies the role racial oppression has in our society.  Instead, Alcoff suggests that if whites develop a positive sense of self, they are less likely to appropriate from other racial and cultural traditions.  She acknowledges that this transformation will take time and most likely occur in the future—she provides us a goal and admits that it might be idealistic (222). 


Developing pride in whiteness strikes me as dangerous within Alcoff’s identity politics frame, however.  Although I do not see the possibilities as binaristic, it seems the two most likely outcomes are white guilt and white supremacy. 


Alcoff acknowledges that one of the results of an increased awareness of one’s whiteness is often a psychological price comprised of guilt and disorientation.  Indeed, we see an example of this with McWhorter’s personal narrative about line dancing.  I do not see a problem with having white guilt exist and flourish.  To stop at feeling guilty and wallow in one’s own guilt is narcissistic and does not help us to advance politics, of course.  However, guilt can be enormously helpful in reminding those with privilege to reflect, think before acting, and to act to advance politics that mitigate their own privilege.  They remind us, as Lugones admonishes, to shut up, listen, and learn before we act or speak on someone else’s behalf.  I do not see this as entirely negative.  We should feel guilty and then we should do something with that guilt. 


However, this guilt can be tainted, of course, and turn into a sense of persecution, resulting in claims of reverse racism and victimage.  White supremacy espouses pride but with that rides insecurity.  Alcoff acknowledges the class dynamic attendant upon most white supremacy organizations.  This danger seems inherent in advocating greater pride for groups with privilege, though.  Pride can turn very ugly when it is wielded by a group that historically has held positions of power and has greater access to material and cultural capital. 


Alcoff advocates group identity, and this seems problematic for groups with historical privileges.  I appreciate that she indicates these identities are formed through iterative enactments and awareness of their banality is crucial.  She also seems to be seeking to avoid essentialized identities.  If we embrace increased pride in whiteness, however, how do we avoid or guard against having people wallowing in guilt, becoming militaristic supremacists, or essentializing those identities as part of their politics?  Does Alcoff provide us any tools to enact what she advocates?





Kate Derickson


An objective category of women?!




By putting Butler and Halsinger in tension with one another, Alcoff wants to argue in favor of a conception of “women” as an objective category.  I am not entirely sure whether this is a conception of sex and gender as linked, objective categories.  My suspicion is that it is, since she argues on page 175 that a conception of sex as a category with (natural) content does not necessarily lead prescription, and that new conceptions of nature allow us to understand it as mutable and not fixed.  What is clear is that Alcoff wants to be able to talk about an objective category of “women” who share common, non-arbitrary and non-random commonalities.  The non-arbitrary and non-random feature they share, she argues, is an association with, and relationship to, biological reproduction.


Drawing on Halsinger, she takes up two points that Butler makes to refute the objective nature of the category sex.  First, Alcoff argues, the fact that our knowledge of sex is mediated through discourse does necessarily have implications for the metaphysical content of categories.  In other words, just because we use discursively constructed concepts to know the world does not mean that all that exists is concepts.  By using a phenomenological approach, we can know something about the noumenal world.  It may be mediated by concepts and discourse, but that should not prevent us from making knowledge claims.  In other words: “Yes, we use concepts to know the world; no, that does not mean that we cannot say anything about the world but only about concepts” (170).


But that alone does not refute Butler, Alcoff argues, since she is also arguing that discourse creates categories, specifically gender, that did not previously exist.  Halsinger argues that realists and nonrealists part company when they begin to look for causally significant characteristics.  But Alcoff thinks that causally significant objective attributes could in fact be discursively produced.  Thus, she is able to argue that a relationship with childbirth and care, while potentially discursively constructed through social context, creates an objective category of women about which we can make claims.  Such claims making, she argues, does not have to lead to prescription and reification.


I find this a sophisticated argument for retaining the ability to make claims about women and their shared (if partial) position.  Coming from a community development background, I find it essential to be able to make claims about the socio-economic status of women, not only to argue for alternative approaches to addressing their needs, but to argue for epistemological alternatives for knowing about their lives that stem, in part, from their experiences.  And like Alcoff, I want to do better than simply pretend that there is a category of women that I don’t really believe exists, but will use for political purposes.  Further, in the settings I am accustomed to working – poor, urban settings – the relationship to childbirth and care as a causally significant, if socially constructed, grounds for an objective category of women rings particularly true.  It seems Alcoff is arguing that this ground is applicable beyond certain types of situations, but is stopping short of a global universal.  Is that the case?  What does Alcoff argue is the extent of the applicability of this universal category?


This argument is a fairly iconoclastic argument in today’s climate.  The ubiquity of post-structural theorizing has made it somewhat taboo in an academic setting to claim a partially coherent category “women” about which we can convincingly speak.  As such, I’d like to know what others in the class think about the argument in general, and her use of a biological relationship to childbirth and care as ground for constructing an objective category “women.”





Hagit barkai: Second read, visible identities.


Alcoff offers a concept of identity that is not dependent on visual marks on the body as their sign, using instead historical and cultural forms of recognizing and developing identities. In this process, Alcoff marks the visibility of identities as a problematic concept not only because visibility can be misleading, but more generally as an unsafe basis for identity.  

The problems that Alcoff sees with linking visuality and identity are the arbitrary character of the visual (194), that visual characteristics are random in relation to identity, that this is a view that entails naturalistic views of race, and that is it inherently dangerous (195). If identity is based on visibility, it is then arbitrary, unchosen and naturalized. I understand the claim of inherent danger to mean that if identity is based on visible markers on the body, delegitimizations are addresses directly to the body and therefore are more immediate and more powerful, especially in a culture that is based so heavily on the visual to determine what is true (7).

As a result of the concerns Alcoff presents regarding the dangers of visibility, the category of the visible characterizes the non privileged identities, while the category of invisibility becomes a privileged position with regard to identity. In this account of the visual, visibility and invisibility are not of individuals as personalities or subjectivities, but of the identity of individuals as a group-belonging.


In attempting to extract the concept of the visual for Alcoff from this book, it seems that in regard to identity, visibility is a negative concept of weakening the individual. But is there a place for Alcoff for a positive view of visibility in relation to the individual, as empowering or a sign of power? In particular I have in mind Young’s Problematization of the invisibility of non-privileged groups through visual markings on the body.  

For Alcoff, visual marking of the body, which is used to identify individuals through their group attributes, is a form of visibility of the bodies. Although Alcoff does not say that the individual’s subjective identity is made invisible through the marking of its body as a group representation, the visibility for her is of the individual’s identity as a part of a group and not as subjectivity, therefore I think that there is a room in her writing to ask whether she will allow a concept of positive visibility desirable for individuals. The answer though is not immediate. On the one hand she only refers to the visibility of the individual’s identity of group-belonging as a vulnerable position, and therefore allows speculations on an empowering visibility of a person not as part of a group but as an individual, but on the other hand, she reject a concept of identity that is separated from a group and a culture, because to Alcoff, the individual losses its freedom and weakened without its group identity (44), and she also rejects a clear distinction between identity and subjectivity, or the idea that there could be an interior identity separated from exterior identity, although she does say that such a distinction can be useful in order to illuminate some political problems, but only if not taken “too far or too literally” (78).


What is then the account that could be given to the oppressed position of being invisible, invisibility of the oppressed individual’s gaze, and unheard individual voice?  Looking at the way Alcoff uses ‘voice’ and ‘gaze’, I searched for individual expression that functions as a kind of “positive visibility” or of ‘being-noticeable’. But the voice is not the voice of the individual but of a group identity as Latina voice or (119) or voice of U.S. workers (46). The individual, or what Alcoff calls ‘the subjective account’, is given not a full voice but ‘a tone of voice’ (184).  The gaze as well in a gaze of a group identity such as the generalized male gaze (279), the gaze of black people (35) or the objectifying gaze from a detached agency (111).

As a basis for building an account of the political role of the visual, I see this as lacking in creating a one sided view of the visual, which constructs the visible as dangerous and the invisible as safe. I think it does not address what is perhaps a double role of visibility, by which the visibility of the marked body renders the marked body unnoticed, or invisible as a person.




Kristin Rawls


In her book, Linda Alcoff offers what seem to be disparate justifications for identity politics in combating both sexism and racism.  In her treatment of sexism, Alcoff is extremely suspicious of poststructuralist approaches that question the viability “women” as a unitary category of analysis.  In order to accomplish this task, she defends “a concept of identity as positionality” which she suggests can “give a content to women’s identity without solidifying that content for all time” and essentializing women in an oppressive way (151).  She justifies this approach by suggesting that it is important to “do better than say, ‘I will make demands in the name of women even though I don’t accept the category of ‘women’” (152).  She is explicitly critical of the attempts of Butler and other poststructuralists to disrupt gender categories and suggests that such critiques are indicative of a modern desire to attain mastery over nature (161). 

Ultimately, Alcoff  diminishes social construction as the whole story of women’s oppression.  Instead, she suggests that women—while sometimes oppressed on the basis of visual markers reminiscent of racism—actually “are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction” (172).   She argues that women need to be understood as a unity—despite their diversity—in order to sufficiently analyze and disrupt various forms of patriarchy.  Without a unifying metaphysics of gender, Alcoff seems to suggest that feminism descends into a paralysis that is marked by nihilism and melancholia.

With respect to race, Alcoff tells a markedly different story, in which she becomes much more comfortable with postructuralist and constructivist accounts of identity.  She suggests that “the origin of racialized differences and racial categories is less a metaphysical than a political story” and argues that women can claim a much more salient “physical foundation of sexual difference” (165).  With regard to race, Alcoff is now aligned with postructuralist accounts in which colonized regions “were given order and intelligibility in part through there association with racial types” (179).  Alcoff unapologetically theorizes race as a historical construction.  Despite this, she never falls into the nihilism and melancholia that she suspects are inevitable when it comes to denaturalizing women. 

In order to avoid what she views as the pitfalls of extreme relativism, Alcoff suggests that it is important to resist the view that race “is ultimately without anymore explanatory power or epistemological relevance than on the liberal view” (181).  Rather than looking for natural explanations for racial difference, however, Alcoff argues that racism has often been naturalized and defended on the basis of visual markers.  That is, she explains, “race works through the domain of the visible” such that “the experience of race is first and foremost on the perception of race” (187).  The major point that I want to communicate here is that Alcoff is able to explain a basis for group solidarity that is quite powerful—and real—but which has no basis in the natural.  Far from leading to nihilism and melancholia, Alcoff suggests that social construction is integral to an understanding of the current deployment of racism in the United States.  Ultimately, Alcoff’s treatment of racial identities suggests that historically constructed identities—lacking any metaphysical basis—can still be the basis for group solidarity and for identity politics that increase the self-esteem of marginalized groups. 

The question, then, is why Alcoff needs a metaphysics of gender—and whether her recommendations for a unitary category of women are helpful when it comes to analyzing and disrupting women’s disparate oppressions.  Her treatment of race suggests that a metaphysics based on the natural is not really necessary when it comes to analyzing and disrupting the oppression of people delineated by group identity.  Why, then, does Alcoff insist on the relation to reproduction as the key to understanding women as a unitary category of analysis?  Why is this better than “[making] demands in the name of women even though I don’t accept the category of ‘women’?”  Is the “relation to reproduction” really such a unitary and monolithic fact that it can be held up as what is universal about women?  In the end, is it a trope that obscures the differences between differently situated women that can be better shown through more intersectional constructivist approaches?   


 Evan Seehausen

Nature and Discourse


            In the second part of Visible Identities, Alcoff tackles the metaphysics of gender. Critiquing both positivistic and poststructuralist viewpoints, she supports a framework dependent on a dialectical relationship between discourse and nature. In the second chapter of that section, she carefully examines multiple antideterministic theories. Though she sides with much of those theories when it comes to the acting out of particular gender roles, she diverges from them when it comes to the question of gender itself. The basic problem that she wants to address is the possibility of prediscursive factors that separate the genders.

In order to do so, she draws a line between gender and gender identity. In her critique of Judith Butler, she explains that Butler’s argument works well when applied to “gender as a concept” (Alcoff’s emphasis) but not gender itself (169). Butler’s grounding in poststructuralism does not allow for her to make metaphysical claims about gender prior to discourse, which Alcoff finds problematic. Drawing on Sally Haslangar’s theories, she explains that it is possible to develop knowledge about things that are “independent” of human discourse without necessarily having direct access to those things. Alcoff does side with Butler’s claim that discourses can affect the material world, and she believes that claims about what may be inherently “natural” should be treated with suspicion. Nonetheless, she argues (along with Haslangar) that there are independent factors about which we can develop knowledge. Such factors are constitutive of gender itself rather than gender identities or the concept of gender.

I agree with Alcoff that we should not attempt to eliminate identity altogether as some of the critics of identity claim. I think that it’s possible to see identities as very real and very much determined by material conditions without trying to locate material conditions that are independent of discourse. I just don’t understand the distinction that she’s drawing between discourse and nature, even though I appreciate her exposition on post-positivistic understandings of the two. Many of the other thinkers who we have read have drawn on such distinctions as well, and I’d like to work through how that distinction works in Alcoff’s particular account. I’m particularly interested in her distinction between objective and nonobjective types. What does it mean that “the basis for some categories are independent of human beings”, if all of the entities involved are “linguistically conceptualized” (168)? In the case of carbon based things, isn’t the very causal framework upon which such a description rests dependent on theory? Also, what does it mean for something like reproduction to be significant without discursive meaning being attached to it (endnote 8 on page 296). Alcoff’s language leads me to believe that the split is fairly commonsensical, and I’m interested in trying to better understand it.

I’m also curious as to whether or not there might be political disadvantages involved in an understanding of gender as a more classically objective category. While such an approach may hold more weight within our current understanding, I’m not certain that such systems are inherently preferable. There may be cultures that define gender differently and do not prioritize reproduction, and if so, we run the risk of claiming that such cultures are misunderstanding gender. (Because I’m depending on some very shaky hearsay for that possibility, that may just be a specious thought experiment, and if so, I apologize.) Would Alcoff’s argument simply be that in such cultures what they are really referring to is something other than what gender really is? Also, though she says that she is simply trying to focus on present situations, I wonder if Alcoff underplays “technological” effects on gender. I suppose it may just be the case long as we have an objective category of gender, such effects simply move people from gender to gender rather than complicating the category itself.



Nathalie Nya


Real race and gender categories are always already imagined



Contrasting Mark Johnson’s analysis of imagination to Linda Alcoff, while Johnson claims that reason is an imagined description of both mental and embodied experiences, Alcoff specifies that the embodied experiences that allow us to imagine a better conception of reason are about our racial and gender differentiated experiences.  What is imaginary for Alcoff is the social-constructed categories that facilitate our ability to see others.  Alcoff identifies racial and gender concepts as metaphors that render the other visible to us.  While differences are real for Alcoff, they are also imagined.  Alcoff conception of the imaginary then, is in part what enables her to discuss identity. 



In Visible Identity, Alcoff argues, “social identities cannot be adequately analyzed without an attentiveness to the role of the body and the body’s visible identity (2006: 102).”  The process of identity formation depends on the various positions people socially occupy and on the ways people come to experience them.  The various positions “people take on identity depend heavily on the account one gives of identity’s relations to the self, that is, the relationship between ascribed social categories and the lived experience (2006:86).”  There is a difference between how one defines oneself in terms of social categories and how one is read in accord with social categories.  Alcoff seems to argue that there is difference between the race and gender categories that persons define themselves as and how those categories are read on these persons’ bodies. 



In view of this, what becomes real about race and gender categories are that they are socially shared markers that can be identified as the bodies of others.  What become imagined about race and gender categories is that the possible ways that they mark the bodies of others are indefinite and within the scope of the imagination.  By within the scope of the imagination, I mean within the various culturally available concepts, values and experiences that codifies our individual meaning for race and gender. 



More specifically, what is imagined about race and gender categories is how we come to make judgment about these categories on the bodies of others.  To attain “knowledge in most cases we must engage in a process of reasoning, and to engage in most kinds of reasoning—practical reasoning, moral reasoning—we must engage in a process of judgment (2006:  94).”  Thus what is imagined about race and gender categories is how we give reason to these categories.  This implies then that real race and gender categories are always already imagined.  Given the way race and gender categories are conceived, they show how reason is an embodies concept.  Our conceptual “system includes our fundamental metaphysical categories, the ways in which we experience and articulate our inner lives, even our understanding of morality, all of which are ‘crucially shaped by our bodies’ (2006: 104).” 



Alcoff’s critique of Johnson then is that, “Johnson has [not] ventured to hypothesize the effects of different cultural, racial, and gendered embodiments on conceptual structures.  To Alcoff, what is embodied within our concept of reason is its racial and gendered features.  With Alcoff’s account of imagination, we can begin to discuss the terms in which the other is imagined.  With Alcoff’s account of imagination, we can also begin to discuss what the imagination we have of the other does on the other. The judgment that we make about the others’ race and gender is what affects the other.



Lisa Beane

Discussion paper – Alcoff, Visible Identities


In Part II of this book, Alcoff is trying to construct an account of women’s identity that can avoid the pitfalls of the opposed positions she calls cultural feminism and poststructuralism.  That is, she wants to be able to say that the category ‘woman’ retains some substantive meaning (against the poststructuralists) without claiming that meaning as ahistorical or fixed across cultures (against the cultural feminists).


Alcoff’s suggestion, of course, is that men and women are different by virtue of our differing relationships to biological reproduction.  By this, she means that females are expected to have the ability to give birth, and males are not.  The physical differences within genders that make reproduction actually possible for some and not others are, according to Alcoff, less important and do not undermine this fundamental difference between men and women.


I also think we should look at the short paragraph where Alcoff writes, “It is implausible to suggest a one-way linear, causal story from the objective fact of a differential relationship to biological reproduction to the richness of cultural genders…” (172).  I am not sure if she means this as a recognition that gendered experiences differ tremendously within cultures (and within genders) or if she simply means that other aspects of culture affect gendered experiences across cultures.  It seems quite likely to me that she intends the latter, given her contention on page 176 that girls’ horizons for the future typically include things like pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing.


What I want Alcoff to mean by all this is that all women in a given culture are similarly affected by the cultural messages they receive concerning reproduction.  That is, all cultures have certain gendered expectations about how reproduction will structure the lives of its men and women, and those expectations affect how young people think about the possibilities for their futures with regard to things like work and family.  But unfortunately (for me, at least), I think she is arguing that there is something about the lived experiences of our bodies that situates men and women differently with regard to reproduction.


I am not convinced that this construction successfully avoids the pitfalls of the positions she criticizes.  My concern is that Alcoff has either offered an account of the essential experience of women in a given cultural situation or created a category that has no particular content or meaning, depending on which way you push her.  I think she wants to say that her construction is not essentialist because she is not arguing that biology is somehow deterministic or that gender is universal across cultures.  But her discussion of girls’ future horizons seems to suggest that all girls within a culture will experience their relationship to reproduction in roughly the same way.  Even if that is not an essentialist argument, it sounds a lot like she is claiming an authentic female experience.


On the other hand, if Alcoff intends to capture all of the variety of how women experience their relationships to reproduction, I wonder what, if anything, would be left that we could truly say all women share in common.  And if there is nothing left, then it seems even Alcoff’s seemingly objective characterization of gender difference lacks any particular content.


I wonder what the rest of you are thinking about the end of this chapter.  Does Alcoff’s account of gender differences seem plausible to you?  Are you convinced by her argument that description is not necessarily prescriptive?  And in light of her arguments, what should we make of people who do not fit her categorizations neatly? (And by that I mean, for example, is it possible to change genders in a framework like this one?)








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