We live in a world where injustice is rampant. The injustice takes many forms, and is upheld in a variety of ways. For example, in the United States and across the world, legal and other institutional measures are defended as protecting liberal values, but in fact restrict religious and cultural freedom, sexuality and gender expression, bodily autonomy, and integrity. They undermine democracy, enable and reinforce plutocracy, oligarchy, and autocracy. Neo-liberal economic systems not only allow, but reward, exploitation, environmental degradation, and corruption. The list could go on. Such institutions are backed up by incarceration, torture, military blockades, police brutality, and war.

In addition, injustice is maintained by ideology. Ideology critique is essential to lessen the wrongs that are perpetrated not only on the battlefield and in government, but in practices of everyday life. In what follows, I will consider how the body, and our embodied agency, is shaped by culture, and will raise concerns about strategies that seek a ground for critique in the body. I will then suggest that the body cannot provide this and, more importantly, that critique cannot and should not seek a neutral “ground.” Epistemic and moral warrant, both of theories and of social and cultural practices, is only achieved historically and holistically. Moreover, perhaps surprisingly, this is a lesson we can draw from standpoint epistemology.

Ideology and Subjection1

My starting point for understanding ideology is Louis Althusser’s work. In his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,”2 Althusser distinguishes repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). RSAs include the “government, administration, army, courts, prisons,” that “function by violence” or “massively and predominantly by repression.” ISAs, including religion, education, the family, the legal system, the political system, trade unions, communications/media, and culture (“literature, the arts, sports, etc.”) “function massively and predominantly by ideology.” (No state apparatus is purely one or the other, and each depends crucially on the other, though in modern society, the ISAs are the dominant mode of social management.)

In Althusser’s view, the role of ISAs and RSAs, together, is to reproduce the productive forces within specific relations of production. Althusser highlights the educational system (or the “school-family”) as the primary contemporary ISA, for students learn in school the “know-how” required for participation in production. However, learning technical “know-how” is not enough:

Besides these techniques and knowledges, and in learning them, children at school also learn the ‘rules’ of good behaviour, i.e. the attitude that should be observed by every agent in the division of labour, according to the job he is ‘destined’ for: rules of morality, civic and professional conscience, which actually means rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of the order established by class domination. They also learn to ‘speak proper French’, to ‘handle’ the workers correctly, i.e. actually (for the future capitalists and their servants) to ‘order them about’ properly, i.e. (ideally) to ‘speak to them’ in the right way, etc.3

A crucial difference between an ISA and an RSA is that individuals are hailed into a subject position by an ISA, rather than violently forced into it; and it is characteristic of those “good subjects” who respond to the hailing that they take up the norms as binding on themselves. As a result, they do not need to be coercively managed; they work “all by themselves”!4

This interpretation of modern power is developed in Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: “The perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.”5 In this work, Foucault meticulously chronicles the ways in which modern power is exercised less by coercion and more by discipline—the crafting of subjects who monitor and manage themselves, their bodies, to conform to the demands of social position. Discipline, as Foucault explicates it, works primarily through surveillance, first the surveillance of others, and then self-surveillance. Surveillance is an epistemic activity: the agent is at risk of being exposed. Fear of exposure—being found out as noncompliant, incompetent, abnormal—is, then, a mechanism for shaping subjects.

The primary site of discipline, for Foucault, is the body:

The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when the art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful, and conversely… a ‘political anatomy,’ which is also a ‘mechanics of power,’ was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed, and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, docile bodies.6

This quotation suggests a disciplining agent—individual or institutional—who manages the form and exercise of discipline. However, Foucault claims that disciplinary powers “go right down into the depths of society.”7 Institutionally “unbounded” discipline occurs through social norms and is often more masked, so difficult to identify. As Sandra Bartky points out, this is characteristic of gender: “The absence of a formal institutional structure and of authorities invested with the power to carry out institutional directives creates the impression that the production of femininity is either entirely voluntary or natural.”8

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989. Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 112 x 112 in. The Broad, Los Angeles.

Women’s bodies are constrained by norms specifying shape, size, motility, appearance (“A woman’s skin must be soft, supple, hairless, and smooth; ideally, it should betray no sign of wear, experience, age, or deep thought.”).9 This is not usually achieved directly by coercion. Under surveillance, we do it to ourselves, voluntarily. Over time, femininity becomes us (pun intended).

[And] insofar as the disciplinary practices of femininity produce a “subjected and practiced,” an inferiorized, body, they must be understood as aspects of a far larger discipline, an oppressive and inegalitarian system of sexual subordination. This system aims at turning women into the docile and compliant companions of men just as surely as the army aims to turn its raw recruits into soldiers.10

At the same time, the micro-powers that create docile bodies also “define numerable points of confrontation, focuses of instability, each of which has its own risks of conflict, of struggles, and of an at least temporary inversion of the power relations.”11

Leaving aside many complexities of interpretation and details of Althusser, Foucault, and Bartky, two ideas from this tradition are relevant to a discussion of embodied knowledge. First, self-knowledge and self-mastery are not politically innocent. What I know about myself (what I attend to, what is true of me, what I make true of myself through self-management) is not necessarily an adequate starting point for critique or liberation. First-person experience, or even the shared experiences of a group, may only be evidence of the effects of ideology. Second, ideology is not simply a matter of beliefs, but acts on and trains our bodies, our perception, our desires, our emotions, through our engagement in practices. In order to consistently conform to social norms, it is much easier to identify with them than merely to go through the motions.

My conception of ideology is Althusserian. We participate in social practices guided by a set of public meanings, scripts, etc.—a complex cultural technē. Practices organize us around things taken to have more or less value; let us call these (assumed or constructed) sources12 of value and disvalue. Some sources are material (such as medicine, traffic, toxic waste), and others immaterial (such as time, knowledge, boredom). We are “hailed” into practices in a variety of ways, e.g., we are hailed into speaking English by having English spoken to us; we are hailed into the role of student by being sent to school and finding ourselves responding to the teacher as an authority (nudged by coercion); we are hailed into adulthood by having to pay the rent (with threat of coercion in the background). We then develop ways of being and thinking so that we are (more or less) fluent English speakers, fluent students, fluent rent-paying adults. Ideology is not a set of beliefs, though it may produce belief. As Althusser says, “Ideology always exists in an apparatus and its practice or practices. Its existence is material.”13

Our social practices and the corresponding cultural technēs are a mixed bag. Some are empowering and valuable; some are efficient and practical; others, however, function to sustain an unjust (capitalist, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) system. I use the term ‘ideology’ in the pejorative sense. An ideology is a cultural technē “gone wrong”—it guides practices and structures that organize us in unjust ways, or it prevents us from aptly recognizing what is of value and what is not.

Situated Knowledge and Standpoint Epistemology

Ideology is pernicious. We—both the dominant and the subordinate—are enlisted in unjust practices; at least many of us internalize the norms and perspective on the world they demand. (This is what allows for fluent agency; those who do not internalize the norms are burdened with huge cognitive and practical demands.) But if we are constituted as embodied social subjects through ideological practices, then where do we stand to critique them? We cannot trust our experience of meaning to be a reliable guide to justice.14 What source of knowledge is resilient even under conditions of subjection?

The problem is pressing in two ways. First, discipline that is bad overall may be valuable and empowering for the individual. As Bartky explains:

Whatever its ultimate effect, discipline can provide the individual upon whom it is imposed with a sense of mastery as well as a secure sense of identity. There is a certain contradiction here: While its imposition may promote a larger disempowerment, discipline may bring with it a certain development of a person’s powers. Women, then, like other skilled individuals, have a stake in the perpetuation of their skills… Hence, [a] feminism … that questions the patriarchal construction of the female body, threatens women with a certain de-skilling, something people normally resist: Beyond this, it calls into question that aspect of personal identity which is tied to the development of a sense of competence.15

Second, not all critiques of ideology are equally good. For example, contemporary neo-liberalism disciplines us to be either global consumers who pursue our individual ends through the accumulation of goods and capital, or global producers whose survival depends on producing globally appealing goods and services. Those traditionalist and nationalist movements that resist this by calling for a re-entrenchment of (so-called) traditional forms of life understand that something of value has been lost and they are suffering the effects of injustice, but the critique misfires, for emancipation is not achieved through regression to earlier forms of injustice. But on what basis do we reject such movements? They are right to be critical of the current social order, but where do they go wrong?

Standpoint epistemology has historically been proposed as a response to the problem of ideology. It offered hope for a privileged epistemic position from which ideology would be revealed as such, and emancipatory critique could be launched. Usually, those positioned as subordinate are assumed to be better qualified to occupy a privileged position; but given the problem of ideology, it cannot be assumed that the subordinate, simply by virtue of their social position, have a privileged epistemic position. Women do not always support feminism; members of the working class do not always condemn capitalism; many members of racial and ethnic minority groups assimilate, taking up the values and the practices of the dominant racial or ethnic groups. As Nancy Hartsock in her classic paper “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism” explicitly argues, a standpoint:

…is achieved rather than obvious, a mediated rather than immediate understanding. Because the ruling group controls the means of mental as well as physical production, the production of ideals as well as goods, the standpoint of the oppressed represents an achievement both of science (analysis) and of political struggle on the basis of which this analysis can be conducted.16

Critique begins not among the contented—those who identify with the norms structuring their social position, the true-believers—but among those who struggle, who experience discomfort or pain, who refuse to be shamed and humiliated when they fail to meet the standards expected of them.

This is not to deny that experiences of the subordinate, broadly speaking, are relevant to critique. Individuals bring to ‘the context of discovery’17 not only different cognitive, perceptual, and physical skills and talents, but also an interest in different kinds of questions and access to different kinds of information, due to their social position. Those who do the bulk of caregiving—namely, women—will know different things about caregiving than those who are not skilled in this work and are not interested in it. And the interpretation of a researcher’s social position affects how subjects respond to their inquiries. Good empirical science depends on attending to social position. But what transforms a social position into a critical standpoint?

Seeking a source “outside” of ideology to ground critique, some early feminist standpoint theorists took the female body to be a foundational site for critical insight.18 Assuming that dualisms between mind and body, reason and emotion, self and other, ideal and material are ideological tools in the maintenance of patriarchy, some postulated a shared source of critical insight:

… centered on the experience of living in a female rather than male body. There are a series of boundary challenges inherent in the female physiology—challenges which make it impossible to maintain rigid separation from the object world. Menstruation, coitus, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—all represent challenges to bodily boundaries.19

March for abortion rights, 1974, Bruxelles_DR. “It’s my belly Mr. judges”.

There are, of course, multiple problems with this approach. First, not all women, and of course, not all feminists, experience menstruation, coitus, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation; and considering the history of feminist activism, it is not plausible that the physical experience of such activities is the basis for, or causal genesis, of critique. Second, even if the physical conditions and acts mentioned (and others similar to them) can be described in ways that challenge the suspect dualisms, an invocation of the body as a “ground” of critique simply pushes the question back: how does one develop the alternative descriptions, recognize their critical potential (not all monisms are liberatory!), and deploy them to challenge patriarchal ideology, given that, by hypothesis, subjectivity—and so, experience—is disciplined to maintain patriarchy?20 More needs to be said. And third, critique is normative: this practice, structure, system, is unjust. What is the source of normative leverage? Suppose we come to recognize that the dualisms in question (or other conceptual tools) are descriptively inadequate, e.g., that mind and body, reason and emotion, are not thoroughly distinct, or that they each incorrectly presume a binary. How do we transform this into a political challenge?

Early materialist feminists were wrong, I think, to assume that anatomical sex differences are a privileged foundation for critique. However, this is not to reject their attention to reproductive labor. One need not find a source outside of culture, outside of ideology, to locate resources for critique. Ideology is not thoroughly hegemonic; subjection is, in the first instance, role and practice specific. Our lives involve participation in multiple practices that are open-ended and often in tension with each other; as a result, cultural technēs are not internally consistent. Moreover, discipline is not all-controlling; there is always an excess that surpasses the presumed “closure” of the dominant ideology.21 Some part of the excess may be material, bodily, but even if the body speaks, understanding it requires interpretation. And finally, as the quote above from Foucault makes clear, the workings of micro-power are unstable and contested.

Ideology critique emerges in a variety of ways. In the context of liberation movements, it often begins with everyday temptations to resist discipline, which may build into refusal to participate. Iris Young refers to this as a “desiring negation”:

Each social reality presents its own unrealized possibilities, experienced as lacks and desires. Norms and ideals arise from the yearning that is an expression of freedom: it does not have to be this way, it could be otherwise.22

One person’s resistance or refusal can be joined by others, motivating a collective reinterpretation of and calls to change the practice. Emotional labor is often invisible because it is taken for granted, naturalized as women’s role. But some laborers become fed up, and self-criticism (“I must be a bad mother/wife/partner/colleague”) is no longer plausible. In some cases this is experienced as a low point that must be overcome; in other cases therapy or medication helps; in still other cases, friends step in and provide support. And then the feeling passes. But because ideology is not hegemonic and in most contexts, resistance has a history, resources available in the culture can provide an “injustice frame” for the experience.

An existing oppositional culture provides ideas, rituals, and long-standing patterns of interaction that overt political struggle can refine and develop to create a more mature oppositional consciousness[,] … a history of segregation with some autonomy, providing “free spaces” for the elaboration and testing of ideas; borrowing from previous successful movements; the synthesis of more than one oppositional strand, creating more than the sum of its parts; mutually supportive interaction, bridging divides in emotional commitments; and consensus creativity by activists, drawing on the traditions and practices of everyday life.23

Oppositional consciousness transforms into a movement when those in the group “demand changes in the polity, economy or society to rectify those injustices.”24

Kurdish YPJ fighters, 2017. Wikimedia Commons

Knowledge and Normativity

In the previous section I suggested that there are two issues that arise for ideology critique: why should individuals who are successfully disciplined, and so successfully integrated into social life with a secure identity, be willing to sacrifice the skills, security, and even power that this affords? And what is the source of normativity? How do we distinguish legitimate from illegitimate calls to resist the dominant social order?

I will not be able to provide a fully developed answer to these questions here. However, the beginning of an answer lies in remembering that the source of a standpoint is pain, struggle, alienation, disaffection. Such responses to one’s circumstances are morally significant, even if one’s interpretation of them is misguided, and even if one lacks an adequate “injustice frame” to transform them into warranted moral claims against others. Suffering is a (defeasible) sign that something is going wrong. Not everyone who occupies a subordinate social position or, more generally, a social position in an unjust structure, suffers; as I have argued, ideology enjoins complicity. It may take a huge amount of work—personal and political—to convince those who are happily, though ideologically, disciplined to sacrifice their skills, their stability, even their identity, for justice. But it is not a mystery why those who suffer search for and achieve a critical standpoint.

The normative question is more difficult. On the conception of ideology I have sketched, ideology functions to sustain injustice by masking or distorting what is good, right, just. It fails us both morally and epistemically, and fails us morally by failing us epistemically. This failure is sustained, in part, by the injunction that our epistemic efforts must remain value-neutral. Once the social world is structured unjustly, and the task of inquiry is merely to describe it in neutral terms, how can we gain critical leverage? What is, is. To say it should be different requires normative, evaluative vocabulary.

The idea that we need a source or “ground” of social critique outside of ideology assumes a foundationalist model of justification. I reject foundationalist assumptions according to which all knowledge must be grounded in experience or a “pre-theoretical” anchor.25 Both epistemic and moral foundationalism are unsupportable. The epistemic task in addressing ideology is not to justify or critique particular claims, but to shift to a different paradigm. As W. V. O. Quine would say, beliefs “face the tribunal of sense experience not individually, but only as a corporate body.”26 We need not follow Quine in limiting ourselves to beliefs—or the tribunal of sense experience—and can expand the attitudes to include a full range of mental states and acts, including perception more generally, intuition, emotion, reasoning, and other cognitive, affective, and evaluative judgments.

For decades, feminists and other critical theorists have argued that values are not only unavoidable in inquiry, but are important tools that reveal features of the world that would otherwise be neglected.27 Medical research would be an utter failure if it were not guided by the value of human health. Values can also occlude facts: much of contemporary economic research goes badly wrong because it is driven by pernicious values. Ideology critique is guided by values that arise from the suffering of those embedded in unjust structures: both the subordinate and the dominant who resist complicity.28 It is no surprise, then, that Karl Marx himself took critical theory to be situated within a movement and guided by its values:

Nothing prevents us, therefore, from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, i.e., from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them.29

A standpoint is a position occupied by a group, not an individual. The initial impulse arises from being embedded in multiple—perhaps conflicting—practices, from adjusting to new practices, or from facing circumstances or conditions that render the existing practice questionable (perhaps through the development of new technologies or changes in the natural world such as global warming). Moral and cognitive estrangement is valuable here, for estrangement allows one to gain critical perspective.30 However, a standpoint is not achieved simply by having a recalcitrant experience or “outlaw” emotion. A critical standpoint is achieved collectively through reflection on and evaluation of the testimony and insights of others in spaces open to heterodox ideas and feelings, together with empirical investigation and experimentation with new tools.

Booka and Chris Durack sparring with a speed bag, Queensland, 1916. State Library of Queensland

An adequate standpoint will illuminate injustice in the current social order. The justification of critique goes along with the epistemic credentials of the standpoint from which it arises; however, the project is holistic rather than foundational, and not merely doxastic. So the standpoint of a regressive social movement can be tested and shown to be inadequate, e.g., if it fails to satisfy constitutive epistemic norms—including empirical adequacy; if it is closed to reflective review and critique; if it silences or undermines the credibility of stakeholders; and if its social meanings and other cultural tools fail to provide a basis for meaningful coordination.31

Our bodies constrain us, but are not static, uninterpreted, simply “given.” Embodiment is a site of discipline. Some forms of discipline are empowering and just. Some discipline that feels empowering is unjust, and some discipline that is just is disempowering. First-person experience of joy or pain, or anything else, provides bits of evidence that should be taken into account in a critical evaluation of our social practices and larger structures. But experience itself must be critically interrogated: we must ask why we respond as we do and situate our responses in a bigger picture that includes the responses of others, empirical and historical research, and broader values. The effort to “ground” critique in the body, or in anything else, is a mistake. Although some suggest that standpoint epistemology offers a “privileged” perspective, this is misleading, insofar as it suggests a foundationalist model of justification. Standpoint epistemology brings a substantive commitment to justice to our efforts to understand social reality, and in doing so, highlights phenomena that are eclipsed by ideology. But critique must be evaluated collectively and holistically. The adequacy of a critical standpoint is always contestable, and can only be evaluated, ultimately, in practice.32

The author wants to thank Ásta, Louise Antony, Susan Brison, Robin Celikates, Kristina Lepold, Jeffrey Stout, and Robin Zheng for helpful discussion.