Jack Halberstam had a problem. It wouldn’t seem like it looking at his life: Halberstam had just published his new book Gaga Feminism, which had been given front table status at nearly every feminist bookstore in the United States. Sure the bar for “success” in the realm of queer theory is not high in terms of money or power, but Halberstam was at the top of his field propelled by the success of other books he wrote like Female Masculinity. But Halberstam was about to become the ironic victim of the very aesthetic politics him and his contemporaries had built in queer theory. Seeing the problem but lacking even a basic political foundation from which to criticize, Halberstam wrote what proved to be his “Escaping Vampire Castle.” He was lampooned both by innumerable serious criticism and by a barrage of satire. The satire in particular was so brilliant and funny because it went right to the root of the problem: that Halberstam’s politics were as much a shallow aesthetic as the young people he had attempted to criticize.
That’s what this series is about — the transition from traditional politics of building and challenging power to aesthetic politics, which focus on the cultivation and curation of an identity and demographics. A politics focused on coming up with ways to group people and personally seeking to attain that group identity has been an enormous asset to the corporate world: after all, their marketing has been doing the same thing for several decades.
In the first part of this series, a brief history was sketched of the rise and fall of the second wave of feminism. The second chapter discussed the third wave’s noble origin and riot grrrl combining the focus on safety of Dworkin with the aesthetic politics of W.I.T.C.H. A small offshoot of a small counterculture seems an unlikely start for a shift in feminist politics — but a group of academics affiliated and familiar with this scene would take the aesthetic politics of riot grrrl to its extreme, going so far as to disavow traditional politics outright and to hold up only individualism as feminist.
Of course not all queer theory fits in this broad description. But regardless of whether it was intentional, it was theorists like Judith Butler who laid its foundation. In 1990, Butler published a book called Gender Trouble, which disavowed the sex class (per Shulamith Firestone) and sexuality (per Catharine MacKinnon) conceptions of gender as a social system. Butler drew from her linguistics background a way of analyzing society called poststructuralism.
In many ways this theoretical approach, particularly as used by Foucault, was ideal for conceptualizing gender outside the Christian binary: as Daniel Zamora stated, Foucault had “removed from the shadows a whole spectrum of oppressions that had been invisible before.” But Foucault’s political approach sought more than to include the previously unincluded. Foucault argued that “the problem of petits pouvoirs [little powers] and diffuse systems of domination ha[d] become fundamental problems.” While Foucault was all about power, to be specific biopower, it was the antithesis of traditional politics. The goal of the Left should not be to build power to challenge power, argued Foucault, it should be to always diffuse concentrations of power. That could only be done by identifying and deconstructing the “little powers.”
Applying this approach to gender, Butler argued that gender was created through performativity. Rather than gender being imposed by fundamental biological divisions (as argued by Firestone) or by patriarchy through systemic violence (as argued by Catharine MacKinnon), Butler held that gender was socially constructed through their conduct. In particular Butler used the example of drag queens, gay men whose performance of gender through affectation and dress also had them taking on a female name, using female pronouns, etc.
Butler, at least today, does not disavow the importance of traditional politics (one only need look at her work on Palestinian liberation or support for Asad Haider’s recent critique of identity politics to see this). Perhaps if Gender Trouble had stood alone, it would be seen as a complement rather than a renunciation of materialist feminism. But Butler’s work was followed by many theorists who used it to construct the aesthetic politics that came to dominate the third wave of feminism. While it was, ironically, a collective effort that deserves its own historical study to parse out the various contributions, this piece will look at two: Jack Halberstam and Dean Spade.
Jack Halberstam made waves in the world of queer theory first with a book called Female Masculinity (at the time published under a different first name). Halberstam took readers through various examples of masculinity in female characters, like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and parsed out the stigma against women acting or being masculine. For the most part the book seems to be a straightforward application of Butler’s idea of performativity: that there is a “masculinity without men” and it should be “part of the history of masculinity and its future.” However the book takes a rather startling turn at its conclusion from extolling the legitimacy of female masculinity to fear mongering about femininity:
Scholars have long pointed out that femininity tends to be associated with passivity and inactivity, with various forms of unhealthy body manipulations from anorexia to high-heeled shoes. It seems to me that at least early on in life, girls should avoid femininity. Perhaps femininity and its accessories should be chosen later on, like a sex toy or a hairstyle.
This passage, unlike the rest of the book’s rigorously supported assertions, is completely uncited so it’s not clear who these “scholars” are. Certainly violence in the name of femininity like anorexia and high-heeled shoes needs no cite, but to extend that to femininity as a whole seems a dangerous overreach.
But this passage marks an interesting development that began in the late 90’s queer theory: the assertion not only that gender and more broadly identity as a whole is a performed aesthetic, but that some aesthetics are good and others are bad. It seems from Halberstam’s identification of female masculinity as a better iteration of masculinity than male masculinity as well as better than female femininity that whether an aesthetic is good depends on if it breaks from the norm, particularly the gender binary.
The implication of these politics are obvious: cutting off gender nonconforming people from popular politics not only as a discrete group with its own particular needs but as a group that should be treated as necessarily more radical just for performing gender differently (and oh how this has been proven wrong, from Caitlyn Jenner to this insufferable imperialist). It was Lesbian Separatism 2.0, a political ideal that could only be realized by urban middle and upper class people like Halberstam while the oppression of most transgender people continued unabated. But at least Halberstam reserved his aesthetic politics to the realms of cultural analysis. It was Dean Spade who expanded it to be an aesthetic of full political abandonment.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time I have criticized Dean Spade. While the linked post focuses on the particular realm of law school and becoming a lawyer, many of my qualms are also applicable to Spade’s ideological thesis, a book aptly titled Normal Life. Spade and I do agree considerably on the diagnosis of the modern state of discrimination (though he is a bit dismissive of what the Black liberation struggle won in this country): anti-discrimination laws have not eliminated discrimination, and that in fact there have been growing divides for Black people, people with disabilities, and immigrants among many others. However, despite Spade relying almost entirely on economic factors to show these growing divides, he does not locate the remedy in reversing the deregulation and privatization of neoliberalism or even in the class war of Marx.
In fact, Spade is part of a “New Abolitionism” that seeks to one-up neoliberalism in its disdain for government or “the state.” In this framework, Spade groups together the various agencies and projects of the U.S. state (which really is thousands of governments of course) under one roof, linking together “welfare systems, punishment systems, health care systems, and immigration systems” despite these four all having different origins, different intentions, and different levels of popular support. While Spade is often noted for drawing from critical race theory, this conception of the state has one clear progenitor: Foucault. The “New Abolitionism” differs even from the original conceptions of anarchism. Even anarchism, while disdaining all government, focuses on a better alternative that can garner popular support to replace capitalism.
Spade and his followers instead are focused only on dismantling — an extreme iteration of Foucault’s diffusion of power. And their goal is survival rather than revolution. Some will even attempt to reframe survival itself as revolutionary in stark contrast to say Huey Newton’s idea of revolutionary suicide. It was a powerful redirection — everyone both wants to survive and knows that one day they will not.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with advocating to dismantle the prison system, ICE, and so on. But positing this dismantling as the only acceptable form of politics is as much ideological flim-flam as the “hate crime” laws that Spade detests. Especially because none of these systems will ever be dismantled by politics that refuse to actually build popular power. One may seem radical for saying “Their Laws Will Never Make Us Safe,” but when that is the response to how to hold people accountable for the murder of trans people it seems at bare minimum out-of-touch. The pithy response would be “Their laws will never make us safe? They sure seem to be making them safe.” The “New Abolitionism” resigns control over the state to those currently in power and yet somehow hopes to completely dismantle it.
However, that is very much the point. The aim is not actually to dismantle anything. It is to adopt a political aesthetic of only supporting the dismantling of oppressive systems. And such an innovation is frankly genius in the context of aesthetic politics: if the goal of aesthetic politics is to adopt a better, more righteous aesthetic than others, there is no safer way to do so than only advocating the dismantling of oppressive systems. Positive changes in society, including the aforementioned triumph over Jim Crow apartheid in the South, are fraught with flaws. Brown v. Board relied on an Equal Protection argument that focused on the benefit diversity would have for white students. The Voting Rights Act had poor drafting in its “coverage formula” which the far right seized upon to weaken it. But such flaws are accepted when your aim is to do your best to improve lives because it is better than the alternative: to do nothing. Such flaws become unacceptable when the value of politics is not efficacy but individual aesthetic. If change for the greater good makes one look anything less than purely radical, it cannot be supported under aesthetic politics.
It is no surprise then that the rise of Spade’s idea of queer politics has coincided with such trends as toxic social media “call outs” and attempts to ostracize actual organizers who will not play the game. Which in turn pushed people like Sarah Schulman to write books like “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” which in its own turn pushed people like Aviva Stahl to write responses like “Trust in Instinct.” Queer politics detached from popular struggle and a vision of a better world (rather than just the destruction of the present one) did exactly what anyone should have expected it to do.
Aesthetic politics, like capitalism, creates its own gravediggers. Jack Halberstam, perhaps emboldened by the success of Gaga Feminism, decided that it was up to him to take down the politics he was partially responsible for. He attempted this in a piece called “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.”
Halberstam certainly was not the first to attempt this take down. He was preceded by the infamous “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” An odd rant defending Russell Brand as a working class hero and using a clumsy metaphor to describe the problems with aesthetic politics, Mark Fisher is somewhat fairly treated as a Cassandra of Troy, decrying a problem long before others started taking it seriously. But while Fisher did correctly identify many of the problems with aesthetic politics, the piece is emblematic of how the aestheticization of politics had begun to infect and takeover the entirety of the Left, not just queer theory or third wave feminism. As one criticism noted: “I think it’s telling that Mark never talks about capitalism in terms of the processes of exploitation or surplus value.”
Fisher’s critics were right to call out that his argument in essence just argued the superiority of a “working class” aesthetic (after all, aesthetic was the only thing “working class” about Russell Brand at that point) over a feminist one. But they were wrong, and I was among this “wrong” camp, to think he was making mountains out of molehills. True, the kids on Tumblr and “toxic Twitter” were not themselves responsible for the sorry state of the modern Left, but they were very much symptomatic of its weak ideological foundation.
Jack Halberstam’s piece essentially repeated this same formula, correctly identifying the problem but mischaracterizing it as problematic for being the wrong aesthetic rather than aestheticization itself being the problem. Contrary to the title though (Halberstam is one of many sinners to play fast and loose with the word “neoliberal”), Halberstam’s preferred aesthetic was masculinity rather than working class. This was so glaringly obvious (and predictable given the denouncement of femininity at the end of “Female Masculinity”) that it was quickly seized upon to create one of my favorite satires: Jock Halberslam. Jock Halberslam was a parody of the theorist made on Twitter. It lampooned the hypocrisy of Halberstam by exaggerating his argument for the superiority of masculinity.
The sad state of affairs for the modern Left was thus a futile struggle between different iterations of aesthetic politics. For all their alleged disdain for Fisher and Halberstam, the unabashed advocates of aesthetic politics were in actuality enthralled with them. Their criticisms unwittingly affirmed the basic premise that politics was fundamentally a question of what aesthetic someone adopted and what subgroup that aesthetic put them in. Even those of us committed to organizing and other traditional politics of building power were trapped in the vampire castle, because engagement other than on the basis of aesthetics was unacceptable.
Criticisms like Obioma Nnaemeka’s went largely unheard despite the alleged centering of Black women by this new radical feminism. Which should not surprise anyone; in a politics where it only matters what aesthetic is adopted individually, one only needs to perform support for Black women through bland recitation. Politics by white men like Jack Halberstam and Dean Spade can be adopted wholecloth without any sense of irony because Black women’s liberation was subsumed by the individual’s proper performance of a pro-Black aesthetic. Liberation itself required real power, and it was both easier and more self-fulfilling to merely check one’s own privilege and recite the importance of Black women’s voices while doing nothing to end that power dynamic.
This stagnated, shallow, and pathetic Left was depressing for everyone. Despite what people like Fisher thought, the kids like me were just as if not more miserable with this state of affairs than anyone else. But it was about to get much worse. Because another group that had also abandoned traditional politics saw an opportunity to claim feminism and the Left itself. This group was the neoliberals, particularly Hillary Clinton and her supporters in her 2016 bid for president. Their attempt to gain control of the Left by advocating shamelessly for aesthetic politics was nearly successful. But despite this bold attempt at hostile takeover, they failed, and failed so badly as to reveal a way to refocus feminism on building power.
For Chapter 1 of this series, click here. For Chapter 2, click here. Thanks to all my supporters on Patreon: Brian Stegner, Sarah Jaffe, Winona Ruth, Michael Rosenbloom, Red_Rosa, John Michie, Jay Schiavone, Daniel Hafner, Aaron Marks, Eli, and my anonymous donors. For $1 a month you can join this list and support my work. Also my thoughts on this were influence by this piece, “The Queer Aesthetic of Poor,” but it is a bit too into the weeds of modern U.S. queer culture so I couldn’t find a way to work it in.