Words as Weapons. Again. by Aimee Brown

In this week’s readings about gender, the empty signifier strikes again and neoliberalism abides. Addressing the latter in their article on Poland, Zuk and Zuk explain how, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, socialism became anathema, the language of class was replaced by a language of identity politics, and everything became about nationalism. Once ‘class’ stopped being a valid category of analysis, societal frustration was directed against religiously, racially, and normatively defined ‘others’, a discursive shift towards religious ethno-nationalism which worked in the interests of the neoliberal elites who, otherwise, would have been (justly) blamed for societal ills.

Judith Butler contextualizes the current furore around gender within this campaign of other-ing, explaining that “the term ‘gender’ attracts, condenses, and electrifies a diverse set of social and economic anxieties produced by increasing economic precarity.” This anxiety caused by economic factors cannot be expressed as such (because class is no longer a valid category of analysis), so instead, it is expressed through a discourse of nationalism. Rather than the issue being economic exploitation, the issue becomes the loss of a national identity predicated upon heteronormative patriarchy and white supremacy, which redirects public antipathy towards very counterintuitive targets like gender studies, along with postcolonial studies and critical race theory. In this way, ‘gender’ has become an empty signifier that channels class-based rage away from neoliberal elites and towards already discriminated against individuals and previously obscure scholarly disciplines.  

Finally, Patternote and Kuhare demonstrate how the Catholic Church has used ‘gender’, first, as an empty signifier for everything that it dislikes, and second, to present itself as facing a credible, cohesive, and dangerous enemy. Thus, instead of opposing a disparate bunch of groups composed of predominantly vulnerable people, the Church can (through the magic of a chain of equivalence) oppose an army of gender ideologues engaged in an apocalyptic conspiracy to destroy Christian civilization. This strategy has proved very successful, and the Church specifically, and the far-right generally, is now the source of hegemonic discourse around ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ in countries like Poland and Hungary, having managed to resignify terms that took progressives decades to introduce into the public consciousness. As a result, women and LBGTQ individuals are made to bear the brunt of a rage which they did not cause as the empty signifier strikes again, and neoliberalism abides.

One Reply to “Words as Weapons. Again. by Aimee Brown”

  1. Thanks for bringing up the neoliberal aspect of Zuk(s), which I didn’t include in my post. You encapsulate it very well. One thing I will add is to link it to the following strange quote from the “Holocaust memory” article on Poland. “Only racism, promoted by the state, can persuade people to vote for ‘the dismantling of the few remaining elements of social services and social assistance”. (And we know why governments can’t afford those things.) In the end, the strategy is to give the people something big to fear, so they will forget about the precarity (my new favourite word) of their socio-economic state.

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