I find certain utterances of appeals to anti-essentialism off-putting. More to the point, I find certain utterances of the charge of essentialism off-putting. In particular I dislike those which imply – or assert plainly but without argument (or argue speciously) – a political valence to anti-essentialism and to essentialism. Now, I don’t dispute that there can be such a political valence. There certainly can, and some are quite important. What I dispute is that there is such a valence in all contexts. I further dispute some implications that, if there is such a political valence, this valence trumps other political valences to whatever is criticized as essentialist. I do not dispute that the (anti-)essentialist political valence is sometimes the most important, but I dispute that it is always most important. These views are rarely articulated straight-forwardly. If they were I think they would be less widespread. I think they’re tied to a certain culture which involves presumptions or intutions which are less attractive if plainly stated.

I’m thinking here of two experiences I had. One was a conversation in which someone critized the Women’s Strike for Peace for implying (or perhaps explicitly stating) a strong connection betweem womanhood and motherhood – and for insufficiently problematizing both terms – in their invocation of motherhood against nuclear proliferation and in their conflict with the US government’s House Unamerican Affairs Committee. This charge against WSP is perhaps true and warranted. But it seems to me be of almost negligible importance. WSP pursued a tremendously worthwhile cause – with impressive success – in a novel way which stood in opposition to prevailing norms including but not limited to gender. In the court of feminist politics (or any other politics that are worthwhile, for that matter), WSP in my view committed at worst a ticketable offense, so to speak. The other was a talk I attended a few years ago where someone spoke about Agamben, immigration, and camps. (In my view they misread Agambem as well as making other mistakes, that’s neither here nor there, though.) In the talk they made some remark about people lacking freedom of movement and people in camps lacking agency. I pointed out that they were confusing formal/legal freedom with agency. People without the legal right to cross borders still exercise the power to cross borders. Likewise people in camps can exercise at least some agency – supporting each other, trying to break out, attacking abusive guards, whatever. This is not to minimize the horror of camps of any sort, but simply to say that there are actually existing phenomena which can’t be explained if people in camps are viewed as having – in all cases – literally no agency. In the course of making these points (which are more neatly made upon reconstruction here) I made some assertion like “I think it’s reasonable to assume that when put in conditions where their lives are threatened many people will try to get out of those situations.” In response I – or my assertion – was called an essentialist and the speaker added something to the effect that “It may sound conservative but it’s not essentialist,” with the implication that conservative anti-essentialism is still less conservative than an essentialist position.

Two things make this galling to me. First, just in terms of the argument, it doesn’t make sense. As I understand it, the criticism of something as essentialist is … umm… essentially an appeal to context. An essentialist has taken something which is context dependent and treated it as context-independent. In that sense, criticizing as essentialist is a good deflationist move. Still, it is not the case that an appeal to context has the same political valence in all contexts. The political importance of contextualizing is precisely a contextual matter. That is, anti-essentialism is not an essentially good thing, politically. Second, most of the time I’ve encountered this type of utterance it’s made with a sort of lefter-than-thou sentiment. I find that especially annoying when it functions to imply that someone’s academic work for which they are rewarded financially and otherwise is in some way a particularly important piece of political material. This sort of utterance is not always made in that way, of course. One other way it’s made is in a sort of politically naive but sincere way. In that type of instance I’m more sympathetic but I still find that it’s often accompanied by a sort of “I’m very smart” posture, an implied claim (or perlocutionary act!) to special knowledge. (I have the exact same reaction to talk about the problems with binary distinctions, another pet peeve. Binary distinction as opposed to what – nonbinary indistinction? binary indistinction? quaternary distinctions? why such a neat binarization of bad-binaries and good-nonbinaries? surely this too is an opposition in need of deconstruction…?)

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