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The Vague and The Damned

In the course of a very long post at The Valve, John Holbo observes, "The thing Knapp and Michaels crucially miss, from the start, is that 'word' and 'sentence' and so forth are vague categories." Here's the thing. In my (admittedly limited) experience, whenever I read something in college by an English-professor-doing-philosophy (i.e., Theorist with a capital-T) that seemed badly wrong to me, this was almost always the key mistake. Not every Theory-type thing I read made the mistake, but every -- or almost every -- seemingly mistaken Theory-type thing seemed to make this particular error somewhere along the way.

Or, rather, the mistake seems to be assuming -- without argument -- that there's something scandalously wrong with a category being vague. As if a hairless man, when called bald, were to point out the sorites paradox as a defense. "Baldness is a social construct!" he exclaims. Well, in a sense perhaps it is. And yet he still has no hair. That some people occupy a fuzzy middle ground is neither here nor there.

July 25, 2005 | Permalink


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Shades of gray? What shades of gray? I see only black and white.

Didn't you mention something like this at that "bloggers: journalists?" panel? It was a nice illustration of how it's sometimes quite silly to rigidly classify things.

Posted by: Matt F | Jul 25, 2005 3:43:34 PM

Hah! Very amusing.

Posted by: TJ | Jul 25, 2005 4:52:27 PM

Or, rather, the mistake seems to be assuming -- without argument -- that there's something scandalously wrong with a category being vague.

Maybe we're talking about different things (I studies capital-T Theory, not philosophy), but I thought the assumption was that the thing scandalously wrong was that lots of people forget that certain vague categories are vague. That is, poststructuralist-derived work treated illusory coherence as the real false consciousness that could be mapped across whatever subject was at hand.

Um, do you have dibs on the Social Construction of Baldness idea? I'm picturing a cultural studies book, with chapters on Telly Savalas, Moby, rumors of Ben Affleck and Jeremy Piven rugs and plugs, etc.

Posted by: Chris | Jul 25, 2005 7:42:34 PM

good one.

Posted by: Joe O | Jul 25, 2005 7:51:19 PM

The baldness anecdote is far more amusing when you are sitting next to Jeff Gannon.

Posted by: Becks | Jul 25, 2005 8:07:51 PM

Chris: No doubt that is what some people are doing, and I don't see anything wrong with that. But the argument of, say, Gender Trouble seemed to me to be making the mistake I describe. Butler points out that, contrary to what one might think, even the man/woman distinction gets fuzzy in some cases. Fair enough. Interesting, even. Might change the way some people think about some things. But then she wants us to believe that this vagueness somehow impugnes the whole concept of a man/woman distinction and that it's all useless. As the baldness case shows, however, it's pretty ordinary for there to be fuzzy cases without that wrecking the utility of a basic idea.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 25, 2005 11:37:12 PM

I was once discussing computationalism in philosophy of mind with an English professor. He asked a question to the effect of "But isn't computer language a binary?" "Yes, it can be" I answered. He smiled triumphantly. I then realized he thought he'd just made an important point.

Posted by: brn | Jul 26, 2005 5:59:41 PM

"Or, rather, the mistake seems to be assuming -- without argument -- that there's something scandalously wrong with a category being vague."

You mean like race? The idea that race has to be a social construct because you can find people in between.

Posted by: Glaivester | Jul 26, 2005 7:23:41 PM

Matt writes: "Butler points out that . . . even the man/woman distinction gets fuzzy in some cases. Fair enough. Interesting, even. Might change the way some people think about some things. But then she wants us to believe that this vagueness somehow impugns the whole concept of a man/woman distinction and that it's all useless."

Actually, most theory types, trying to explicate Butler, would say just the opposite. It's not that the man-woman distinction is "useless" but that in fact it is all too useful, particularly if you happen to be a man and you can use the distinction to order an entire society in ways that benefit you (and then to boot you claim that the organization is rooted in nature rather than your own self-interest).

As for "the idea that race has to be a social construct because you can find people in between": I've never heard anyone make that claim. The claim is rather a bit more complicated than that, though it ain't exactly rocket science. The idea is that the historical record shows that skin color only came to "count" in significant legal and social ways when folks found it convenient to use skin color to distinguish between one group and another. In early colonial America, for example, the legal and social construction of race tracked quite nicely with the history of economic problems involving white indentured servants and black slaves, whose legal standing was originally pretty similar but diverged more and more in response to changing social and economic conditions.

Part of that race-construction was the claim that not just the skin color but all sorts of other attributes were rooted in nature--even though in fact all those differences were rooted in the differing histories of whites and blacks. The fact that whites became indentured servants and blacks became slaves was an accident of history, but the construction of "race" accounts for those differences in terms of the biology that produced the pigments. The skin colors are real and natural; the collapsing of history onto nature is fictional or ideological.

A thought experiment I sometimes use to talk about the idea of a "construction": Imagine yourself living among a people that place great emphasis on something they called "eyecolorality." In this imaginary society, everything from income to educational level to where you are allowed to ride on the bus is determined by whether your eyes are blue, brown, or green. The azurians are in the saddle and exploit the verdeans and especially the despised brownies.

Now imagine that you try to convince an azurian of the absurdity of this arrangement. Imagine that in the course of doing so you say that "eyecolorality is clearly a social construction," and that the azurian responds, "Don't be ridiculous. Look at those nasty brownies--their eyes are BROWN. It's a fact. Nature made 'em that way. End of story. Don't give me any of that postmodern crap."

To call something a social construct is not to deny the ultimate facticity of skin color or genitalia or whatever, but to critique the social practices by which such biology is elaborated into a full-fledged identity, a place in the social order, etc. To call race a social construct is not to deny the biological fact of differing skin colors, but to try to understand the historical process that gets us from a society where people say this...

"That guy's skin is dark."
"Oh, is it? I hadn't noticed."

...to one where people say this:

"Look at that lazy nigger."
"Prob'ly on welfare."

No one I know says "race has to be a social construct because you can find people in between." The argument, rather, goes like this: There are people who have black skin, white skin, and every shade in between. Oddly enough, we notice that people are legally and socially defined as "black" if either of their parents are black, even if in fact that person's skin color is indistinguishable from someone defined as white. Clearly "blackness" (and by extension "race") is not so much a function of skin color as of something else. What is going on here?

Well, let's see. Why is it that a single black parent makes a person black, when it could just as easily be that a single white parent makes a person white? A glance at the history of the construction of race in the West makes it clear: because, given that Massa just can't seem to keep it zipped up, the latter arrangement would eventually deplete his human capital, whereas the former arrangement would augment it. So the reason that today Vanessa Williams is black instead of white has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with history and culture. Race is a construct.

So it's not that race is a social construct because you can find people in between--it's that if you pay attention to the people in between and analyze the history of their racial status, you understand the constructedness of race. The "in-between" cases are often useful in that way.

Ditto for Gender Trouble. One of the things Butler tries to do is to demonstrate the deficiency of some familiar thinking about sex (thought to be natural or biological) and gender (thought to be what culture makes of the nature of sex). In this type of thinking, nature gives you a vagina or a penis, whereas culture puts you in a pink dress or a blue pair of pants. Sex is what is natural and gender is what is culturally constructed.

Not so simple, says Butler. Consider what happens with the significant percentage of babies who are born hermaphroditic. Sometimes their parents opt for surgery to enhance one organ and eliminate the other. In other cases, the child grows up with ambiguous or duplicate genitalia, but "performs" culturally as either a girl or a boy--by wearing pants or dresses and in myriad other, more subtle ways. In the first instance, it is not just gender but in fact sex that is being "socially constructed." In the second instance, we have children whose gender is (say) female but whose sex is not female. In the model Butler is critiquing, sex is supposed to be the biological ground of gender; in cases like this, it can't be. Butler goes through much more argument (some of which I don't find very convincing) and ultimately concludes that sex is just as constructed as gender.

Butler brings the "in-between" cases up not simply to say that the categories of male and female are vague but that the familiar sex-gender system is "troubled," that it doesn't work the way we assume it to. Culture seems to go deeper than we think it does--which I think is indisputable, even if sex is not, as Butler claims, cultural "all the way down."

Posted by: david mazel | Jul 26, 2005 9:49:38 PM

Well that makes a lot more sense to me.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 27, 2005 4:16:27 PM

Okay, a few points:

Race is not skin color. Race rather refers to a phenomenon caused by humans tending to breed within a group, producing a partially inbred extended family. Different races are roughly comparable to different breeds of dog.

Differing skin colors distinguish some races from others, but skin color is not race. Africans are not Australian Aborigines are not Indians, even if all are dark-skinned.

Granted, there are socially constructed aspects to race (as in the one-drop rule); but race has actualy biological consequences; the fact that people with significant AFrican heritage predominate in basketball and football, and in many other sports is not simply an accident of culture.

Posted by: Glaivester | Jul 27, 2005 8:26:51 PM

Mr. Mazel:

"...Butler...ultimately concludes that sex is just as constructed as gender."

I don't find Dr. Butler's reasoning about sex very convincing either. I find her examples quite unconvincing: They can be re-constructed to show that sex is not constitutively social.

After all, literally, it's not social construction doing the work but surgical construction in such cases. Whether the infant is reconstructed as male or female (social choice enters here, of course), the surgeon's model is male or female genitalia. And she's done nothing to show that such models are socially constructed. In this case, at least, she is indeed relying on the fallacy of assuming that vague concepts are illegitimate.

Mr. Yglesias is too generous, in my opinion.


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