Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Politics of identity - some fragments from Prof Paul Fry and link to a piece on transgenderism by Prof Kathleen Stock

Link to an article by Dr Kathleen Stock of Sussex University discussing female-sex-based protections and related objections to gender-self-identification in law.

Politics of identity - some fragments from Prof Paul Fry

I have revisited Prof. Paul Fry’s “Theory of Literature”

which accompanies his series of Yale University lectures, available to view free!

Against the ‘death of the author’ idea emerging from Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in the late 1960s, Paul Fry quotes Samuel Johnson (from his 1765 ‘Preface’ to the works of Shakespeare), to the effect that, we don’t have to regard the “author” as something to be afraid of. Instead we can do homage to the author:

[Quoting Johnson:] “There is always a silent reference in human works to human abilities”, in other words, we can esteem humanity by its works, we want (now quoting Paul Fry):

that a “work” (somebody’s work) is not just a set of functions – variables, as one might say, in the lab [or, merely a manifestation of impersonal patriarchal power]. It’s produced by genius. It’s something that allows us to rate human ability “high”.

But now returning to the theorising of post-structuralism, and quoting Foucault:

The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.

And later (also quoting Foucault:) “The author has no legal status” – out goes bourgeois thinking, out goes ownership, out goers the ‘author’ of ‘authority’.

And yet, as Paul Fry goes on to say, here is someone who is “proliferating meaning” – their meaning – by claiming authorship!:

I am a lesbian Latina!

I stand before you as an author articulating an identity for the purpose of achieving freedom, not to police you, not to deny you your freedom, but to define my own freedom; and I stand before you precisely, and in pride, as an author. I don’t want to be called an author function, I don’t wat to be called an instrument of something larger than myself, because frankly that is what I have always been and I want precisely as an authority through my authorship to remind you that I am not anybody’s instrument, but that I am autonomous and free.

Paul Fry again:

In other words the author, the traditional idea of the author - so much under suspicion in the work of Foucault and Barthes in the late sixties – can be turned on its ear. It can be understood as a source of new-found authority, of the freedom of one who has been characteristically not free, and can be received by a reading community in those terms. It’s very difficult to think how a Foucault might respond to that insistence, and it’s a problem that in a way dogs everything, or many of the things we’re going to be reading during the course of these lectures – even within the sorts of theorising that are characteristically called cultural studies and concern questions of the politics of identity – even within those disciplines there is a division of thought, between people who affirm the autonomous integrity and individuality of the identity in question and those who say any and all identities are only subject positions discernible and revealed through the matrix of social practices.

There is an intrinsic split even within those forms of theory – and not to mention the kinds of theory that don’t directly have to do with the politics of identity – between those for whom what’s at stake is the discovery of autonomous individuality and those for whom what’s at stake is the tendency to hold at arm’s length such discoveries over against the idea that the instability of any and all subject positions is what actually contains within it – as Foucault and Barthes thought, as they sat looking at the police standing over against them – those for whom this alternative notion of the undermining of any sense of that which is authoritative is in its turn a possible source, of freedom.

  • Paul Fry, ‘Theory of Literature’ (2012), Yale University Press

When it comes to assertions of gender identity, the division is no less present.
However, my impression is that certain strong voices claiming autonomous identity - self-identification - claim both positions at once, and overlook the contradiction.

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