Parody and subversion: notes on roles
Roles are the repetitive performance of a particular set of power relations. The incentive for playing a role is a shred of power; even when one plays a submissive role there must be some sort of incentive even if this is only a negative incentive, the avoidance of a worse fate. To say that roles are performances doesn’t make them unreal, roles are real acts, acts that are repeated until they harden into habit. Roles do not appear from nowhere, they are perpetuated by institutions such as the family, the workplace, businesses, bureaucracies, schools, and roles in turn perpetuate the power structures of these institutions. There are objective social structures and institutions that perpetuate roles, this does not mean that they are set in stone. There are subjective desires to subvert and destroy these roles, this doesn’t mean that this is easy or that subversion will succeed. In the tension between the structures of power and the desire to rebel, the game of subversion is played.
Ethnicity, gender and class existed before capitalism but in very different forms. Ethnicity has been changed drastically by the rise of the nation state, gender roles have been changed by the proletarianization of women, and it is quite obvious that the rise of capitalism changed class structure. Nevertheless roles based on gender, ethnicity and class were used to perpetuate power relations by the structures of power both before the rise of capitalism and after. Nationality is something that people often don’t historicize, people simply don’t realize how young the nation state is and that this has effected the very idea of cultural identity. Our present concept of ethnicity (this word comes from the Greek word for nation) is shaped by the nation state. Some imagine that nationality existed in its present form long before the rise of the nation-state and others imagine that patriarchy existed in a stronger form in the past, that it is now slowly fading away into nothingness. Patriarchy is one of the more obvious examples of a process that perpetuated roles of domination and submission long before capitalism. I would argue that some forms of patriarchy have indeed lessened but that overall patriarchy is not fading away, it has been merely reconfigured by capital into a different form, those aspects that limited the flow of capital and the proletarianization of women were changed. Patriarchy is not one global monolithic structure; it is cultural, and has varied forms. It starts in the family, spreads to other institutions and is thus reproduced throughout society. Capitalism reproduces new mutated forms of patriarchy, it uses gender difference just as it does class and ethnic/racial differences, to exploit the labor force to the greatest degree possible.
How do we use categories of identity to understand the society we live in without perpetuating the very roles that we wish to move beyond? This is tricky, if we simply throw away the categories that describe gender, race, and ethnicity we lose important tools that we need to understand how this society functions, how these categories effect and structure our relations. On the other hand, it is easy to fall into perpetuating the very roles that we wish to transcend. This is a problem that often surfaces within identity politics, which start with an identity category as a point of departure. Since such politics are based in identity categories which are fundamentally tied to roles, unless there’s a conscious attempt to subvert roles, one instead reinforces them. Recently the article “Stick it to the Manarchy” referred to women and people of color in the same lists of categories as the elderly and children as if being female or not white made a person less capable of dealing with demonstrations and riots. The argument is that people of color are prosecuted more harshly, this is true, yet I have never noticed this being a deterrent. In fact, in my experience it is those who come from more privileged backgrounds that are more scared in such situations. What their reason is for including women on this list I can’t figure out. In any case they fall into a patronizing tone in spite of any intentions to the contrary. There is a danger that discussion about gender can fall into patronizing tones that reinforce the role of the woman as victim. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that we should avoid discussion about sexism which is very real, or that women shouldn’t complain about getting fucked over because they want to avoid perpetuating an image of the woman as victim. We can only throw away the categories of gender, race, class and so on when we are dancing on the ruins of this society and have learned to relate to each other without these roles in a classless stateless society. Until then we can’t just pretend that we are all treated equally, simply proclaiming the death of these social divisions by refusing to refer to them does nothing except forfeit a means to confront the problems that they create.
Race (or at least racism), unlike ethnicity, is based on a person’s appearance and not necessarily their culture. I do not mean to imply that race is biological, it is a social construction, but that for example a black person raised by white people, who is culturally indistinguishable from whites, still experiences racism. Gender is generally structured around biological sex (a person has to drastically change their appearance to be treated as a different gender); the traits that are described by these categories are partially biological (or based on the assumption of the presence of a certain biology) and thus it is impossible to completely break with these categories as long as the present society remains since they will effect how people treat you no matter how you act. That is, race and gender consist of more than just roles.
Roles are social because they are relations, they are performances in which there is always an interaction with the audience. They cannot simply be broken with on an individual level; by changing or breaking with a role one is necessarily changing a relation. However, this does not mean that they can only be broken with collectively, or only by society as a whole. To change roles is to change relations, such change can occur on many scales, it is not only a question of collective change. There are innumerable intermediate scales to social change that lay between the individual and the collective or the individual and the societal. Therefore we do not need to wait until some “collective break” seems imminent to move beyond the roles that shape our relations. It is precisely by not waiting and starting to subvert these relations now at whatever scale possible that a break might eventually spread throughout society as a whole. I am not referring to a collective break in the sense of a homogenous simultaneous break with roles but a multifarious rupture that spreads throughout society; the concept of roleless relations necessarily implies multiplicity for to act without a role is to act without the very power relations that create homogeneity. Of course it is not that easy, it is not just a question of everybody trying to make change in their daily lives and this change adding up to a sum total of revolution. A large-scale break with roles implies a large scale break with the power relations that roles perpetuate, in other words capital and the state must be destroyed in all of their manifestations, the multiple micro ways in which they filter into our relations, and their macro institutional forms.
To break with a role is not something that can be achieved immediately or easily, often one must first go through a process of subverting and bending roles, playing with them, making the unnaturalness of roles obvious through parody. How do we expose the unnaturalness of gender, race or nationality? Parody can expose a role as unnatural. When someone misappropriates a gender role, when a man badly copies female behavior or vice versa we may be forced to think about whether there is a “genuine” female and male behavior. Is the transvestite copying true femaleness or maleness or is s/he copying a copy? Suddenly everything gets confusing. Is she a real woman? Is there such a thing?
How do we organize ourselves in a qualitatively different manner without the constraints of roles? How would we organize ourselves if the most powerful and repressive structures which reproduce our present social roles were absent? It is important to be able to imagine such a situation and attempt to organize ourselves differently, without the roles that constrain us and perpetuate the state-capital machine, to the degree possible, here and now.