Category Archives: Theory

John Locke on Gay Marriage

In 1988, Carole Pateman discussed the strange misalignment between modern contract theory, as conceived by John Locke and others, and the special case of the marriage contract: “unlike other contracts, the marriage contract cannot be entered into by any two (or more) sane adults, but is restricted to two parties, one of whom must be a man and the other a woman” (167).  One would think that in a true contract society, this restriction on marriage contracts would be a contradiction because the status of the two parties should not be a factor.  But for Pateman, there is no contradiction but instead a misunderstanding of contract: the “attack on sexual difference [by those advocating for individual equality] . . . suffers from an insuperable problem: the ‘individual’ is a patriarchal category” (168)

Her argument was that the sex-designation of the marriage contract has not resulted from the failure to overcome this last remnant of status difference (as others have argued), but rather has deeper roots.  While Locke “remarked that marital society established through the marriage contract, ‘consists chiefly in the spouses’ ‘Communion and Right in one another Bodies,’” Pateman argues that it is actually based on “male sex-right” rather than an agreement for mutual access.  Locke, she argues, did not advocate an egalitarian contractarianism over a Filmerian patriarchy, but rather located political authority in one sphere and domestic authority in another.  Thus, “Locke agrees with Filmer that there is a natural foundation for a wife’s subjection.”  The original husband in Locke “must have exercised conjugal right over his wife before he became a father” (93) and was able to exercise political authority.  So Locke, Pateman argues, assumes that the the non-political authority of the male in the natural (“non-political”) sphere comes first and is not negotiated (or negotiable—no matter what goes on between Mirabell and Millamant). 


 The husband’s dominance is instead founded on the assumption of male sex-right.  This is the hidden contract behind the contract; it is the reason why the marriage contract can, contradictorily and unlike in any other contract, designate in advance the sex of each party.  The sex-designation of marriage reveals for Pateman not so much the limits of contract theory, but the patriarchal assumption behind the very category of the individual.  The individual of “individualism” is a Lockean, political subject who has already exerted natural (non-political) rights over a woman to place him in the public sphere as the representative of a family.

Maybe it’s way too early to say “until now.”  But what does it mean for the sexual contract that a US President can defend marriage equality?  Many will say that this is not a feminist issue or a contract theory issue at all, but rather an issue of the relative authority of religion.  But the way religion makes its way into policy has always been highly selective.  Dante placed sodomites and usurers in the same circle of hell (number 7!). 


I have yet to meet a Christian who eschews usury out of conscience or fear of hell, nor can I think of a government policy designed to eradicate it.  On the contrary, it seems to be encouraged. 

At its most radical, Pateman’s Sexual Contract suggests that individualism and contractarianism do not represent progress; on the contrary, they are impediments to feminism because they are designed to assume a particular, hidden hierarchy.  The category of the “individual” will never include everyone, and the best evidence for this was the (contradictory) sex-designation of the marriage contract.

What does Obama’s declaration do to this argument?  Does it suggest that the category of the “individual” is expandable after all?  Was “male sex-right” actually a residual hold-over, as the theorists to whom Pateman objected had claimed, rather than an inherent aspect of contract?   

  Liberals argue that gay marriage does not change the definition of marriage.  But if Pateman offers any insight into Locke and early concepts of individualism, then gay marriage does redefine the marriage contract. And maybe that’s the best part.

Works Cited

Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.


“Stop Doing Cultural Studies!” – A Reply and a Challenge by Toni Bowers

I don’t see an inescapable or defining conflict between studying “literature” and studying “culture,” or any reason to be paralyzed by the difficulty of defining and controlling those terms. Any “flight from disciplinarity” that may be brought about by the “totalizing” method of “cultural studies” is not, I think, necessarily part-and-parcel of every version of that method current among literary scholars.[1] Nor does it seem to me necessary that bringing cultural studies into classrooms and published work must edge out close attention to language, as if interpretation were a zero-sum game. Sometimes, to be sure, close-reading – the currency in which literary scholars trade, our means of adducing evidence, and the most valuable critical-thinking tool we can offer to our students —  gets short shrift. But ineffective scholarship and teaching are not necessarily results of any single thing we can call “cultural studies,” and even if it were possible to “Stop cultural studies!,” ineffective scholarship and teaching would remain. The fact that it is possible to “do cultural studies” poorly is not an argument for the wholesale rejection of the method, which is really many methods and which cannot even be dismissed without imposing on “it” a reductive definition.

I express dissatisfaction with the declaration that “We must stop doing cultural studies” not because I feel compelled to defend cultural studies, nor because I think “it” needs defending. There are other aspects of the matter that I find more important. What most forcefully strikes me about Warner and Siskin’s “Stop Cultural Studies!” manifesto is the stance taken by the manifesto’s speakers toward their subject and, ultimately, their audience. It’s Siskin-and-Warner’s self-presentation as standard-bearers holding the fort against a dangerous menace that I find most interesting.  (At the conference, they became even more romantic figures than they had been in the Profession article: virtuous turn-coats who once unreflectively may have abetted the menace but who have now seen the error of their ways.) With that stance in mind, it matters that the clarion call repeatedly intoned at the ASECS conference — “We must stop doing cultural studies” — featured as hot-button words not only “cultural studies,” but also, more suggestively, “stop,” “we,” and the moral imperative of “must” and “should.”  “We” erroneously do this and that, the audience was repeatedly told; “we” really ought to “stop” behaving this way.

If it’s legitimate to speak about what “must” or “should” be the subject of scholarly research and writing – a pretty large “if,” I admit — I suggest that we might better ask a different question. Should two accomplished and privileged scholars devote themselves to shutting down the work of others – indeed, of casting a preemptive verdict on future scholarly work? “We must stop cultural studies” is not, after all, the same as a reasoned critique. It may be that Warner and Siskin will be able to demonstrate what they are claiming: that “culture” means too much, and therefore means very little, and that the term should be abandoned. That might be an interesting argument, with interesting (though by no means already obvious) implications for scholarship. But to declare in advance of that demonstration that “we must stop doing cultural studies” is, at best, a mystifying move; some might call it imperialistic.

When asked about this implicit imperialism at the ASECS conference, Warner and Siskin defended “Stop cultural studies!” by minimizing it as a merely rhetorical utterance. The call is overstated deliberately, they explained, for effect; it’s a moment of conscious showmanship designed to get attention, and ought not to be taken too seriously per se. But convincing scholarly arguments rarely reduce to sound-bites, or are well supported by rhetorical effects unable to withstand analysis. We can “do things with words,” as Austin taught us long ago;[2] but we cannot pretend that a sentence constructed primarily for its effect is thereby emptied of meaning. Warner and Siskin should own up to the real demand behind what they themselves swiftly recharacterized as a mere attention-grabbing declaration built to be sidestepped, and to the approach both to their subject and to their listeners/readers that “stop cultural studies!” enacts.

Warner and Siskin acknowledge, with winning forthrightness, that they have no alternative method to suggest; they are explicitly not offering any method that they find better. And, they went on to say at last March’s ASECS conference, that’s perfectly all right; after all, Newton didn’t have an alternative theory of the cosmos worked out when he mounted his critique of received notions. To which I respond, with all due respect and from a position not necessarily opposed in all features to Warner-and-Siskin’s, that none of us isNewton.  Hubris often has its own humorous side, furthermore, and hubristic language carries its own effect. It is not only inappropriate but perhaps slightly silly for any scholar categorically to pronounce on what others ought not to assume, think, or practice. “Stop!” is not an argument. And when it masquerades as one, I (for one) don’t want to be included in Warner and Siskin’s “we.”   

And about that “we.” “We must stop doing cultural studies,” Siskin and Warner declare. Okay, one might respond, taking literally their use of the first-person plural: feel free to stop. Both Warner and Siskin have already done some wonderful work in cultural studies; they should of course take new directions now, if they wish to do so. Despite their claims to the “totalization” of the method they deplore, in fact no one is forcing Warner and Siskin to “do cultural studies.”  I suggest that the “we” in “we must stop doing cultural studies,” while it might usefully point to an intellectual turn in Warner’s and Siskin’s careers, has no claim to extend farther than that. “We” — that is, they – can stop doing cultural studies. But they have not been granted the right to tell others what to do merely by virtue of assuming a commanding posture and speaking in the first-person plural. Once it is no longer mystified by a silently expansive “We,” the moralistic and imperial quality of the slogan — “Stop cultural studies!” — is plain. It’s not only that Warner and Siskin are saying “we must stop doing cultural studies;” they’re also saying, “you must stop doing cultural studies.”  I resist that unstated message, at least in its present form.

There is something oddly innocent, I think, a kind of magical thinking, in the procedure Siskin and Warner adopt. It is as if they believed it possible really to stop others thinking (and researching, and writing, and teaching) in certain ways merely because they say so, or because they believe it’s for the best. The gesture strikes me as reminiscent of other efforts to deny the constitutive past. Remember “after theory?” Remember the “new biography” and the “new historicism,” both, by some accounts, unprecedented, underived, and unattached? The fact is that new ways of thinking never come without debts to the old, and existent ways of thinking never fully disappear. It is possible to think in new ways, but the new never breaks entirely with its past, exceeding all resemblance. Likewise, the serious study of literature – the discipline in which both Siskin and Warner work, and in fact the same discipline in which every one of the speakers who debated their remarks at ASECS work[3] — has long had room for sets of assumptions and interpretive practice that don’t mesh comfortably with one another, yet do not cancel one another out, or remain mutually uninfiltrated. How, precisely, might the call to “Stop cultural studies!” take these facts on board?

Professors Warner and Siskin have challenged others to “Stop doing cultural studies!” I’d like to offer to Professors Warner and Siskin a challenge in return. Will Siskin and Warner now spell out in detail their specific arguments against “cultural studies” – arguments, not slogans?  And can they do so without the problematic stance I have aligned with “Stop” and “We,” and without the moralistic “Must”?  Warner and Siskin might object that without such terms their manifesto would no longer look like a manifesto. It wouldn’t summarize a platform, or issue a command, or decree a policy, or put anyone on notice, or demand attention. It wouldn’t be catchy. It wouldn’t be short. It wouldn’t come from a height, or dictate right and wrong, or clearly separate believers from nonbelievers, the righteous from the unrighteous. And by the time they got that far, I think Warner and Siskin might join me in wondering how much would really be lost were they to stake up my challenge.

[1] The quotations are from Cliff Siskin’s and Bill Warner’s presentations at the 2011 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, March, 2011. For “literary scholars,” see n. 2.

[2] J.L.  Austin,  How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1962).

[3] What about that disciplinary sameness, even considering the very different kinds of institutions represented here? Why is everyone participating in the present conversation affiliated with an English department?  I’m grateful to John Bender, who first drew my attention to that fact.

foucault “on literature”

One of the unexpected heroes of Cusset’s account of post-structuralism is Sylvere Lotringer, whose Semiotext(e) helped disseminate writers like Foucault and Baudrillard in inexpensive little editions that I remember being sold in book stores, museums, gift shops, and art galleries all over New York in the 1980s.  Apparently those traveled quite far, and helped introduce these writers to the art school kids and gallerygoers of that era.  One of the gems of this series was Foucault Live, which Cusset inspired me to return to, and there I found this interview from 1975, “On Literature.”  I find this interview interesting because MF claims not to have much to say about literature, which, whenever it does appear in his works, serves only as a “point of rest, a halt, a blazon, a flag” (113).

It’s curious that Foucault, whose work has been so important for the literary criticism of the past 30 or 40 years, should talk in this manner about his own uses of literature:

It seems that traditionally literary or philosophical discourse has been made to function as a substitute or as a general envelope for all other discourses.  Literature had to assume the value for all the rest.  People have written histories of what was said in the 18th century by passing through Fontenelle, Voltaire, Diderot or the New Heloise, etc.  Or else they have thought of these texts as the expression of something that in the end failed to be formulated on a more quotidien level.

In regard to this attitude, I passed from a state of uncertainty–citing literature where it was, without indicating its relationship with the rest–to a frankly negative position by trying to make all the non-literary or para-literary discourses that were actually constituted in a given period appear positively, and by excluding literature.  In Discipline and Punish it’s a matter only of bad literature (114).

Having read this, I’m struck by how easy it is to use literature as a “substitute” or “general envelope for all other discourses,” especially in literary criticism.  This seems the besetting sin, the reflexive blind spot for any literary scholar: the “historical contexts” we are so fond of referring to in our analyses turn out to consist of other works of literature.  Foucault’s only solution to this substitution-effect is to stop quoting literary works altogether, so that he can work without that kind of mystification.  But literary critics (including myself) have simply undone his exclusion, by restoring the literature to a book like Discipline and Punish.

So what is it about literary discourse that seems to invite this kind of easy substitution?  Why should we feel, for example, that a reading of Jane Austen’s novels should give us insight into the lives and experiences of women and men in a particular historical moment?  What encourages such an assumption?  And is it utterly misguided to feel this way about the literary authors we enjoy?


“french theory” and the joys of decontextualiztion: cusset’s french theory

For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of French structuralism, especially the way that structuralist literary theory has been transmitted and taught and anthologized ever since its successor, post-structuralism, suffered its own eclipse.  Writers like Saussure and Levi-Strauss now exist in a curious, leveling zone of indifference, though they were once deemed necessary for any “advanced” understanding of literature.  The moment that other, newer vanguard reading practices took structuralism’s place, the old sense of urgency or shock about its writings faded away.  But I’m unsure whether any new approach to reading literature could have the impact that Saussure had in the 70s.

My curiosity led me to Francois Cusset’s French Theory, which I picked up because its story of “French theory” in the 70s, 80s, and 90s seems to have coincided pretty well with my own exposure to these writers as an undergraduate and graduate student in New York City, and ultimately as a college teacher in a very different city (Houston) teaching this material to undergraduate English majors.  From Cusset’s perspective, though, theory does not amount to an academic field, much less a discipline, but is best understood as something learned out of school, in a series of vaguely academic social settings such as art galleries, poetry readings, little magazines, reading groups, and so forth.  (Cusset writes more as a sociologist of intellectual trends than as a theorist in his own right) And this certainly accords with my recollections of theory as I learned about it in the early 80s, both in and out of classrooms. This is first and foremost a generational story, one I recognized myself in right away, and one that would come as a surprise, I think, to the students who learn about Theory primarily through courses and lectures, as today’s students necessarily do.

Mercifully, Cusset’s book rejects the pedagogical narratives of the academic survey, the carefully planned sequences of famous names, passages, and selected concepts, and all the usual defenses of theory and its value.  (That’s my job, I suppose)  Nor, thankfully, do we have to hear about these works as “great books,” or as furnishings for the mind.  Those kinds of books, and courses, do exist, and I suppose they have their value, but I was hoping for something different, and in that I was not disappointed.

Instead, Cusset makes his account of French Theory more sociological, more culturally grounded, more an artifact of a particular historical moment, with its own absurd costumes and musical soundtrack, rather than a tale of Great Writers addressing famous Works to one another, with all the usual squabbles and jealousies of writers.  Instead, the story focuses upon Theory’s reception by a hundred million philosophically illiterate undergraduates, starting punk bands, making bad art, and filling their Foucault Readers with illegible lyrics and unseemly comments.  It is a story of misinterpretation compounded by large-scale mass reading, and rendered permanent by headlong popularization and institutionalization (Foucault, Derrida, and a handful of other writers remain in print and in syllabi, at least in English departments; how’s that for success?).  And in this fate we might find an interesting kind of success for French Theory, so long as we read it in de Certeau’s terms, and not their own.  (Interestingly enough, for both Cusset and myself, de Certeau seems the one figure of this group who remained underexposed enough to maintain his critical potential even at this point in time)

The story Cusset tells here is about how”theory” enjoyed the success it did in America because it was so completely removed from its original circumstances and then misread so egregiously that it became something else.  Cusset knows his de Certeau, and admits that this kind of creation-by-misuse has its own interest and legitimacy, especially when we see how surprised and intrigued and appalled the post-structuralists were by the transformation of their work at the hands of American undergraduates and their professors.   But Cusset sometimes seems more interested in reminding us of what was lost in translation, not what was gained.

So Cusset describes an American university system lacking its own intellectual class (strike one), and which is completely detached from the larger consumer society that apathetically supports it (strikes two and three).  This university system witlessly swallowed up a series of subtle and transgressive writings produced by French intellectuals in France’s own moments of upheaval (though admittedly to little political effect in France).  These writings were cut up, consumed, and recirculated by the largely apolitical youth culture of American universities and their literature, performance, and art departments.  Significantly, Cusset complains that such readers never worried about “mastering” the hugely varied and disparate materials they chopped up and consumed with such enthusiasm.

Now all this is fair enough, but one of the ironies of this reading is Cusset’s indignation about this reception’s neglect of context.  After all, this kind of blithe removal of context was the most distinctive aspect of structuralist readings in their heyday, the cause of both the shock and the appeal of their best-known readings.  If this kind of decontextualization is a problem, then Levi-Strauss should have written that letter of apology to the Nambikwara for the method of Tristes Tropiques.  Or perhaps Cusset would argue that it’s a matter of the French writers’ strategic decontextualizations, versus the boneheaded ignorance of American undergraduates?  Even so, it’s hard for me to see such decontextualizing strategies as reflective of the “mastery” of either Levi-Strauss or Foucault over their subject matter.  Instead, I see these as risky strategies, where writers gamble that such a gesture will produce a particular kind of insight, one that is impossible without forgetting existing contexts and meanings.

One of the surest signs that structuralism’s impact has faded is the fact that all the biographical, historical, and cultural methods of contextualization structuralism once attempted to stare down can be reimposed, without comment, to explain its rise and fall.  (when did Foucault ever regard theories of national difference as having any intellectual value?_ Or rather, we think about structuralist devices of sensemaking like “oppositions” as just one more potential “approach,” among others, that can be imposed upon a particular set of materials for particular purposes.

But I think that one of the most lasting contributions of structuralist-era writing and thought had to be its willingness to undo tick-tock chronologies and expositions, to ignore or subvert scholarly conventions like periodizations, and encourage interpreters in a wide variety of fields to impose their own logical patterns of opposition or negation upon their materials.  (this may seem like a trivial gesture, but it isn’t)  Structuralisms’s contribution to literary studies, however, is largely tacit at this point.  We no longer feel the need to cite these writers when we make these kinds of gestures, which in my view work against the notion of literary criticism as mastery or better yet, appropriation.  How can one become a specialist in a particular kind of rhetorical or interpretive gesture?

Perhaps it’s time to see literary studies not just as a way of viewing works within contexts, but also as a way of removing works from given contexts, in order to construct new ones.