Few people would ever be as crude as to tell you, "you wouldn't know this cuz you're just a chick, but". Or, say, "I'm assuming you're not as educated as me cuz you're black, so". That's rarely the way it works, although it does work that way sometimes. Yet no one who has experienced mansplaining, whitesplaining, or other variations of splaining, seems to doubt that this is what is essentially being expressed. It's a power trip. It's a discourse of mastery. It's invidious. All the more so if it comes from a comrade or ally.
Part of the reason why it is difficult to pin it down analytically, is because it often seems to take the form of an implied 'attitude' rather than a specific form of words. For example, you might think someone is mansplaining by virtue of his being a fucking idiot who still lectures women confidently on things of which he knows little. Or you might think someone is mansplaining because, even though he isn't an idiot, and may even have a point, he is being incredibly condescending in expressing it. But I want to suggest that there's a way to think about splaining that could be useful in defining the problem, and that it is in fact in the form of words that it can be detected. I'm going to use a few rudiments of Lacanian discourse theory to make that point.
Structurally, according to Lacan, the four positions of a discourse are agency (someone has to be speaking), other (someone has to be spoken at), production (the discourse must have some effect) and truth (there is a truth of the situation concealed by the discourse). The fact that I listed four positions doesn't mean there couldn't be others, in manifold combinations - just that Lacan only identified these four.
So, to reiterate: in this view of a discourse, the agent addresses something to the other, as a result of which some sort of effect or 'surplus' is produced. The truth is that which in a way 'covertly' determines the agent's position. This is the schema:
Agent ________> Other
Truth ................... Production
Each of these positions are occupied by one of four terms (again, there could be others). First, there is S1, the master-signifier. The master-signifier is a pure signifier of power - be it God, Law, Nature, Whiteness, or something else. It doesn't matter what it is. The master offers no justification for his or her power. The master doesn't say "do as I say and you will have a better life". The master just says, "do as I say". This is why, ultimately, the master signifier is nonsensical. Second, there is S2, which is knowledge. The slave, toiling away for the master, typically comes by knowledge. The master doesn't really care about knowledge as long as everything works, but the slave has to know why things work, and why they don't. Third, there is $, the subject. The bar across the subject just refers to the fact that we are all split between conscious and unconscious, and all in some sense 'castrated' - we all lack something, especially as it pertains to knowledge. There is no such thing as total knowledge, after all. Often, the things we don't know have something to do with us being socialised, say, as 'white' or 'male'. Finally, there is 'a', a surplus object which in the context of capitalism might be profit.
This is what the Master's discourse looks like in the schema:
S1 ___M___> S2
$ ..................... a
As you can see, S1, the master-signifier, is in the position of agency. This would be the discourse of despotic power: whoever adopts the master’s discourse, puts himself in the place of the master who simply wants things to work, and is uninterested in knowing anything. His Highness wills it, and that is all that matters. The truth of this discourse, which the master works hard to conceal, is the subject barred - that is, the fact that the master is castrated and lacking like everyone else. One is almost tempted to say that splaining is the master's discourse, because ultimately it is an expression of power. But I tried saying that on Facebook, and it was completely demolished. Because, actually, what's happening with splaining is something more covert than open mastery.
This is where the University discourse comes in. This is the schema:
S2 ____U___> a
Here, knowledge, S2, is in the position of agency. Knowledge is in charge and is the criteria by which statements are evaluated, rather than sheer power. And in this discourse, knowledge interrogates this something, this surplus object, in order to produce a subject. And that, of course, is what universities do: they produce 'knowing' subjects. But, as you can see, S1 occupies the position of truth. This is a discourse of concealed mastery. In the context of the Sixties rebellion against university authorities, Lacan - for all his scepticism of the student protests - acknowledged that university discourse basically serves power. In interrogating the surplus something, the 'a' that is produced by capital, or governments, it tends to justify and rationalise them. You can see how this works in those forms of pedagogy wherein the students are encouraged to receive and regurgitate what you might call dead knowledge, rather than given the opportunity to analyse and bring this knowledge into question. But this is not just an aspect of higher education. University discourse, according to Lacan, is the prevalent discourse of power in modernity.
These are only formalised representations of tendencies. In real discourse, the master will usually at some point offer some sort of a justification for their power; just as the purveyor of technocratic knowledge will usually at some point blurt out "because I fucking well said so!" But broadly speaking, in these terms one would class splaining in most circumstances as a University discourse. That is, they offer what appears to be an 'innocent' or 'disinterested' explanation of a systematised form of knowledge, but it is in the service of rationalising some form of mastery. And this leads us to another essential element. A great deal hangs on the excluded truth of the situation, that which is only surreptitiously present, viz. the master-signifier. In most instances of splaining, the whole interaction is structured by their being white, or male, or both, and yet the splainer never once acknowledges or refers to this fact. There is no reflexivity to the common or garden splainer. Whiteness and masculinity - more particularly, the master-signifiers, Whiteness and Masculinity - operate as the unconscious of their discourse.
You will also notice that splainers tend to be a little hurt to be reminding of being, say, white or male: it is a discourtesy to even bring it up. In fact, being reminded of it produces what in Lacanian terms would be called a 'hysterization of discourse'. In the 'discourse of the hysteric', the subject appears to be in the position of agency, demanding that the master produce knowledge about itself the better to expose it as a fraud. In this context, there are opportunities for projection. An example of the latter would be David Brooks
whitesplaining to Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'I know you are saying this, but don't you actually want to silence me because I am white and male? Why do you hate America?' This fantasy - that Coates wants to silence white men and hates America - is a projection, of course, and a disguised form of a deeper fantasy, that Brooks will silence Coates and black men like him, that America's hatred for them can once more be openly expressed. Bear in mind that a fantasy always stages a desire. A more sophisticated variant might be where splainers in the knowledge-producing industries factor in their whiteness and maleness as part of their splaining, and even passive-aggressively wonder if their whiteness and maleness undermines what they are about to say.
So, this is splaining. In its initial phase, it is a 'discourse of the university', in which a systematised, 'disinterested' knowledge rationalises that which in its foundation is thoroughly irrational, viz. white or male power. In its subsequent phase, it is a 'discourse of the hysteric', in which the critic is bombarded with questions and accusations, the better to expose their treacherous intentions.
Okay, back to work. Before I go, I leave you with the novel concept of Lacan-splaining: "Look. I know you think you mean this; but your discourse says something else." And Freud-splaining: "Lol, your mum."