Mark Bauerlein
Literary Criticism

If essences do exist, they pre-exist any individual human experience or invention. The process of their recognition works by logical derivation, not by an essentializing finagling. Again, by definition, essences are discovered (un-empirically), not invented. So, on the issue of essentialization being an untenable process, both sides agree: those who believe in essences say you cannot essentials anything and those who disbelieve in essences say you cannot essentialize anything, if by 'essentialize' we mean 'to make into an essence.'

Herein lies one rhetorical virtue of the verb 'essentialize.' The word sounds like a decisive injunction, a summary reckoning that forbids any rejoinder. It discounts the essentialist's agreement and disagreement. That is, the essentialist's disagreement—'No, I am not essentializing x'—almost appears to be a concession, a wholesale acknowledgment that any affirmation of essence is invalid, not to mention repressive. And the essentialist's agreement with the implicit premise—'Yes, one cannot really essentialize anything'—also appears to be a resolute capitulation to the anti-essentialist position. That is, the verb aligns the debate subtly but inalterably in favor of constructionism. If another verb were used, 'impute,' for example, then a genuine argument could proceed. If the anti-essentialist said, 'You are imputing an essential nature to x,' then one could respond either with "No, I am imputing an accidental nature to x' or with 'No, I am deducing an essential nature from x.' But the verb 'essentialize' disallows any response from the start, and so the two sides do not, strictly speaking, even engage in logical dispute. Hence, the use of 'essentialize' does not logically disprove essentialist arguments, but rhetorically silences them.

This is not to say that essences actually exist. The analysis only purports to show that the phrase 'so-and-so is essentializing x' is a contradictory formulation if understood ontologically. To say that something is or can be essentialized is already to deny its essentiality. It is to transfer the ontological category of essence into a conceptual field—call it the 'politics of interpretation'—in which the concept 'essence' can have only a contradictory meaning. In such a framework where all ontological concepts are considered to owe their character to the political interests of their conceivers, 'essence' refers not to the inherent whatness of a thing but to the political effects of the concept's use. That is to say, essence becomes an act, not a nature. Hence the verb, the '-ize.'

However, given the traditional definition of 'essence' as the permanent, non-accidental, and ultimate nature of a thing, essentializing is an act that is logically impossible. One might put the contradiction this way: the phrase 'so-and-so is essentializing x' requires the ontological definition of 'essence' in order to reject the definition. That is, it invokes the meaning of 'essence' in order to deny that 'essence' denotes any actual entity. What does it denote, then? If 'essence' does not refer to any actual thing, quality, or attribute, what does it refer to? Well, again, when 'essence' becomes a verb, that indicates that its reference to some real thing matters less than do the political causes and effects of the act of essentializing. Hence the anti-essentialist's role simply is to highlight essentialization as a discursive strategy. For him or her, essence is just one more intellectual power play, one particularly insidious because it strives to hide its political maneuverings. Essentialist thinking conceals its interestedness behind a rhetoric of universals and truth, rationality and logic, concepts supposedly depersonalizing and depoliticizing essentialist inquiry. This is the camouflage the anti-essentialist purports to discover. And he or she does so not by engaging oppositionally in debates over, say, the essence of the Good or the rationality of God's essence. Rather, the anti-essentialist rejects outright such ontological determinations and all the forms of assessment that go with them.

Again, since the concept 'essence' entails such determinations, 'essence' must have a new definition, a reference to a practice and not to an entity. Anti-essentialists shift the question from 'What is essence?' to "How are essences produced and circulated?' Obviously, the latter essence is already understood to be a social formation, historically determined, while the former is a special category of being. So, while posing the second question, anti-essentialists cannot ask or answer the first question. The terms in each question have fundamentally different definitions; the one essence has little to do with the other. When anti-essentialists employ the phrase 'so-and-so is essentializing x,' they implicitly subordinate the ontological meaning to the discursive meaning—a logical confusion given the fact that ontology cannot be subordinated to discourse, but only redefined by it, displaced by it, ignored by it. In a universe of discourse and practice where a concept's meaning is inextricable from, if not identical to, the power relations the concept presupposes and sustains, particular inquiries always remain circumscribed by the institutional, ideological import of ontology as discourse, as a political practice. To take seriously any specific ontological conclusion, even the conclusion that 'There are no essences,' anti-essentialists would have to suspend the discursive, political context. But because of that context's foundational status in anti-essentialist criticism, such a withholding is impossible. Indeed, the very use of the verb form 'essentialize' forbids it. But this is precisely the advantage of the '-ize' tense. Though the accusation has no empirical or logical meaning, it does trap essentialists into accepting the discursive meaning of the term—a winning rhetorical play.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.