Hypatia 16.3 (2001) 176-182
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Subjectivity Without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers
Subjectivity Without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers. By Kelly Oliver. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
Kelly Oliver's latest book, Subjectivity Without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers (1998), continues the project she began in Family Values (1997). In her previous text, Oliver analyzed the association of women with nature and of men with culture, and proposed and developed an ethics beyond the principle of sacrifice. In her new work, she persists in these endeavors, examining various philosophical conceptions of paternity and maternity, as well as aspects of their lived reality, social structure, and cinematic representation, in order to suggest an alternative to the alienation supposed by the nature/culture divide. The thesis of the book is encapsulated in the intriguing notion suggested by the title: that we can think subjectivity without assuming the enclosed, autonomous, alienated subject of Western rationality or the castrated subject of patriarchal psychoanalysis. Motivated by an ethics of the other, Oliver suggests that a new concept of subjectivity requires a rethinking of our relations to, and our tropes of, paternity and maternity, both in intimate family relations and as metaphors for law, origin, and love.
The book is organized into three sections (Abject Fathers, Desiring Mothers, [End Page 176] Subjectivity Without Subjects) each of which moves between theoretical elaboration and practical interpretation. Each section concludes with a commentary on a film that elucidates and extends the more dense philosophical material that precedes it. The overall effect of this negotiation is to maintain a balance between theory and practice by bringing apparently abstract philosophical concerns to bear upon the exigent realities of contemporary politics and the social representations of cultural texts and events. In her first chapter, for instance, Oliver analyzes The Million Man March and the Promise Keepers through the prism of accountability and responsibility. She concludes that participants in the Million Man March are demanding responsibility as black men, and are thereby engaged in an affirmative and transformative politics; the Promise Keepers, to the contrary, reduce politics to morality, idealize virility, and evade their own accountability, surrendering their autonomy to God. With these differing experiences of American manhood in mind, Oliver proceeds in the next chapter to advance a critique of philosophical conceptions of fatherhood. This methodology, by interspersing concrete analyses into more conceptual inquiries, renders the text more accessible to a non-philosophical audience, an important gesture toward broadening the appeal of feminist theory. Oliver reaches beyond the limits of professional philosophy without impairing her ability to be theoretically sophisticated. This approach is also consistent with her advocacy for "changing the practice of theory making" (1998, 121). Nonetheless, the book is quite dense in places and not all of it is equally accessible.
The problem that Oliver addresses is the paradox in the subject's relation to its parental origins, a paradox that results in the normalization of "the impossibility of love" (135). According to Oliver, "Western images of conception, birth, and parental relationships leave us with a father who is not embodied, who cannot love but only legislates from some abstract position, and a mother who is nothing but body, who can fulfill animal needs but cannot love as a social human being" (135). Maternity hence emerges as outside the law; that maternity might actually be the source of law is repressed in order to sustain a masculine lineage and identity guaranteed by paternal authority. This division between nature and culture also requires that fathers be disembodied. So subjects are born from fathers divested of body and mothers divested of law. Oliver claims that the effect of this schism is a kind of suffering and that "it is not a crisis in the law that has led to this suffering; rather it is a lack of love" (69). Through this fissure of parental functions, divided between love and law, the child experiences or inherits a pervasive uncertainty about its own relations to (and between) love and law, an uncertainty whose effect is...