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Tina Chanter - Abjection and Ambiguity: Simone de Beauvoir's Legacy - Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14:2 The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000) 138-155

Abjection and Ambiguity: Simone de Beauvoir's Legacy

Tina Chanter
University of Memphis

A retrospective article published in Le Monde Diplomatique reminds us of how radical Beauvoir was for her time (Chaperon 1999). A "huge stir" was caused by The Second Sex "from the moment it was first published in 1949"--over 20,000 copies were sold within a week of its publication. Beauvoir, we are told, "took a stand against the sacred conventions of her time." We are reminded that Beauvoir "[i]n her chapter on 'The mother' argued for abortion on demand, denied the existence of the maternal instinct and strongly criticised motherhood as a source of women's alienation. The chapters on 'Sexual initiation' and 'The lesbian' incensed a puritan society which had not yet come to terms with the notion of sex education." While, from the point of view of her contemporaries, Beauvoir might well have seemed shocking and unconventional, a more contemporary point of view might fault her on many fronts. It is worth bearing in mind that, although Beauvoir has been criticized by feminist theorists in myriad ways for not being radical enough--and rightly so, in my view--The Second Sex must be credited with opening up the debate that has ensued, even as that debate has evolved beyond the perspective of existentialist ethics that Beauvoir embraced, in ways that have required many of us to challenge some of Beauvoir's fundamental assumptions (Beauvoir 1974, 1949). As the reassessment of Beauvoir's legacy continues, we should not forget that the territory mapped out by The Second Sex for feminist inquiry is formidable at a number of points. If the sheer breadth and scope of the book is impressive, its formative influence can also be felt in the uncanny knack that Beauvoir displays for identifying what have indeed become primary areas of investigation for feminist theory. Within the broad sweep of her inquiry, she includes history, anthropology, literature, psychology, and philosophy, thus reflecting the interdisciplinarity [End Page 138] that has become the hallmark of programs in women's studies and gender studies. The areas of investigation that served as her focus paved the way for the themes of feminist inquiry that have been dominant for some time now: the need to avoid essentialist definitions; the need to think through the category of gender in relation to, rather than in abstraction from, other axes of oppression, such as sexual preference, class, race, and ethnic background (even if she could have explored these other axes further than she did); and the importance, at least for some us, of assessing the validity, usefulness, and shortcomings of psychoanalytic theory for feminist inquiry. There is certainly room for a continued interrogation of the adequacy of her theoretical and political judgments in these areas.

My focus here, while not innocent of any of these concerns, will be formulated in terms that are not restricted to the particular terms of the debates indicated above. What interests me is the extreme ambivalence exhibited by responses to Beauvoir's work. Time and again, critics have been drawn to Beauvoir, fascinated and compelled by her, while at very same time often the very same critics have apparently felt the need to put her down in the most hyperbolic terms. Although the terms around which debates over Beauvoir's continuing relevance may have shifted, as feminist theory has developed an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary, inflected around attempts to explore the dynamics between race, ethnicity, ableism, ageism, class, sexuality, and gender, in ways that resist reductively conflating one of these axes to another, what remains constant, I shall suggest, is an apparent need to oscillate between denigration and idolatry when it comes to testifying to Beauvoir's contribution, role, and function.

Feminist theorists have become alert to the need to see race, class, and gender as "constitutive" of one another, resisting the additive model that Elizabeth Spelman (1988), Nancy Tuana (1990), and others have effectively criticized. Even if there is a genuine attempt to work out what it might mean for sexuality and gender to be constitutive of race and ethnicity, or for class to be constitutive of race, and so on, we are all too often confronted with the words "race, class, gender," as if the words were a self-evident adage. This triadic structure is trotted out like a mantra. Race, class, and gender sometimes seem to be a way of naming an impasse, beyond which feminist theory cannot go. This paper, then, has as one of its aims the task of asking what it means for race, or class, or gender to be "constitutive" of one another.

In a recent provocative interpretation, Penelope Deutscher (1997) suggests that we read Beauvoir's texts in terms of their constitutive instability, in a reading that refuses to give in to a series of reconciliatory gestures. Rather than mimic the tendency to highlight immanent paradoxes in Beauvoir's position, only to resolve them at an apparently higher level, either by attributing them to contradictions that in fact inhere in Sartre's philosophy--thereby exempting Beauvoir from ultimate responsibility for the coherence of her position--or by explaining away the inadequacies or inconsistencies of her position by distinguishing [End Page 139] between the spirit and the letter of her text, Deutscher calls for a reading that situates itself comfortably within the movement of the vacillating, contradictory nature of Beauvoir's claims. I want to develop a reading here that both builds upon some of Deutscher's insights and marks a departure from what I see as an apoliticism that is harbored in her interpretation. Deutscher's hermeneutic approach tends to flatten out the very different political implications that follow from the diverse approaches to Beauvoir she considers by classifying them all according to their tendency to highlight contradictions in Beauvoir's texts that need to be resolved in one way or another. She suggests that we need to read Beauvoir by attending to what the constitutive instability of her texts enables, rather than look for ways to make the contradictions of her texts cohere. I suggest that it is not so much the constitutive instability of Beauvoir's texts as the movement of abjection that facilitates them. My claim is not only that abjection can serve as an explanatory model for the dynamic operative in Beauvoir's own texts, but also that it provides a useful hermeneutical device for uncovering the mechanics at work in the reception of her texts, feminist and otherwise. In engaging such a hermeneutical device, I am interested in reflecting upon what it means to create a feminist history after Beauvoir, one that reveres its mothers, without idolizing them, one that is able to sustain a productively critical relation to them, without denigrating them. I am interested in how abjection can operate either to consolidate group identities that support the status quo or to disrupt their stability. I want to suggest here that Beauvoir's emphasis of the acute ambiguity that is characteristic of the representation of women anticipates in significant respects the movement that later theorists, following Julia Kristeva (1986), have uncovered as abjection. 1 This ambivalent abjection, a movement of both fascination and repulsion, is characteristic, not only of theoretical machinery central to Beauvoir's articulation of the second sex, but also of the reception that has greeted Beauvoir. I am particularly interested in the ways in which abjection can function as a means of separating and designating certain disenfranchised groups by delineating them from other disenfranchised groups, and in the slippage that can occur in abjection, when one marginalized group is substituted for another, or when one group raises itself up through the exclusion and denigration of the other.

Beauvoir has been identified as the symbolic mother of feminism even as she has borne the brunt of the most virulent attacks, by feminists as well as nonfeminists. I think that this reception is symptomatic of a deeper phenomenon that I engage here by considering the feminine, in its manifold guises, as a privileged site of the ambiguity of abjection. In order to do so, let me briefly return to the early reception that greeted The Second Sex, before turning to contemporary film in order to develop my suggestion.

On the publication in Les temps modernes of texts that would become chapters of The Second Sex, Mauriac questioned, on the front page of Le Figaro, whether a "serious literary and philosophical journal [is] really the place for [End Page 140] [discussing] the sexual initiation of women" while a former pupil of Sartre who went on to become editor of La Nouvelle Critique denounced The Second Sex as "filth" and as full of "cheap and salacious descriptions" (Chaperon 1999). 2 The Second Sex, Chaperon continues, "was described as a "manual of erotic egoism," a manifesto of "sexual egotism" containing "blatant pornography," and its author was described as a "suffragette of sexuality" and an "existentialist Amazon."

One could argue, with head held high, that such criticisms of Beauvoir need to be treated with the contempt they deserve, by ignoring them. However, in my view to ignore them is to fail to think through their status as symptomatic of what happens when a masculinist culture is confronted with its own internal contradictions. Rather than act as if Beauvoir herself and we as her readers are simply above responding to, interrogating, or interpreting the sometimes vitriolic reaction her work has provoked, as if it could be completely divorced from her intellectual legacy, I want to take it seriously as a cultural and political phenomenon. This early response to Beauvoir enacts a time-honored separation of the clean and acceptable from the dirty and unacceptable, a separation of the realm of public speech and serious affairs from the private domain into which eroticism and women are relegated as filthy, cheap, and salacious. We find a refusal to acknowledge that Beauvoir's investigations are worthy of a place in the pages of journals devoted to the pursuit of literary and philosophical ideas. Instead, they are banished, tainted, regarded as impure, branded as pornographic. The Second Sex was put on the Vatican's list of proscribed books. If the contents of The Second Sex were considered "shocking" at the time of the book's publication, the criticism evoked can be understood in terms that are consistent with the opposition between the clean and proper and the unclean and improper.

Mary McCarthy, in Carol Brightman's telling formulation, "loved to hate" Beauvoir (1992, 343). In a 1966 letter, McCarthy wrote, "Looking at my published works, I seem to find that the only person I truly hate is Simone de Beauvoir. . . . I would love to make her--them [Sartre, too]--appear grotesque and ridiculous, which, in my opinion, they are. Expose them. And this is doubtless the product of a sense of impotence toward them; I mean the violence of my feeling" (350). If she had had the talent as a writer for it--which, she regretted, she did not--McCarthy said she would have followed her desire to subject Beauvoir to "punitive satire, the satire of disgust and horror" (350).

McCarthy's comments run the gamut from the sacred to the profane. Beauvoir is figured as one who is "truly hate[d]," one who inspires a violent desire to bring her down from "the pedestal she never wanted to be on" by "expos[ing]" her as "grotesque and ridiculous" and by satirizing her, subjecting her to "disgust" and "horror" (350). The threat that Beauvoir posed to McCarthy is clear, as a rival woman literary intellect, as someone who had written about the condition of women in a way that angered McCarthy, even as she recognized herself in Beauvoir as someone who had brought into the realm of the public that which ought to remain hidden, enclosed, ensconced in the home. [End Page 141]

If McCarthy wanted to abject Beauvoir, expel her, make her disgusting, render her ridiculous, register her horror, this is in part because she found what Beauvoir stood for intolerable: McCarthy, according to Brightman, found feminism "loathsome." Feminism, McCarthy wrote, "is bad for women. . . . It induces a very emotional state" (Brightman 1992, 353). Emotions, the implication is, are to be avoided because they are bad for women. Playing into the hands of patriarchy, McCarthy assumed that women should be identified as rational, like men, and that emotions can be left to themselves. One of my motivations is to show that emotions are never left to themselves, but instead they are left to others. It is naïve to assume that we all can become reasonable without any of us taking on the role of caretakers of emotions, a role that has traditionally fallen to women, and that has enabled men to strive to be reasonable without worrying too much about the irrational, bodily, emotional side of life. Now that at least some women have succeeded in presenting themselves as capable of reason--at least to a limited extent--the question remains as to which others will take on the vacuum that has been created, who will become repositories of emotions? My suspicion is that reason can function only at the expense of multiple others becoming caretakers of the bodily needs, the emotions, and the feelings that subjects who construe themselves in terms of the narrow confines of reason typically fail to take on, and that these multiple others will disproportionately occupy the zones of the uninhabitable: underclasses, racial minorities, or those who are deemed by society to be in some way or other sexually deviant.

The opening lines of The Second Sex seem to confirm that Beauvoir herself was no more immune from criticism of feminism than her critics (indeed, it is well known that she did not declare herself a feminist until much later). Beauvoir hesitates to write a book about woman. She knows that women especially find the subject (themselves!) irritating, and that "voluminous nonsense" has been uttered about women, so that perhaps it is better to say nothing more about the topic, perhaps it is better to remain silent. "Enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism" (1974 xv; 1949, 1:11), says de Beauvoir, managing to evoke, with the image of ink spilling over its proper boundaries, the suggestion of excess, disruption, messiness, an infantile failure to contain what should be held back.

In pointing to the continuity between Beauvoir's project in The Second Sex and the notion of abjection, which Kristeva has done so much to elucidate in Powers of Horror, we should not fail to note that the work of anthropologists serves as an inspiration for both Beauvoir and Kristeva. In articulating the "category of the Other" (1974, xix; 1949, 1:16) that is so central to her interrogation of the situation of women, Beauvoir records her debt to Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969; see Beauvoir 1974, xx; 1949, 1:16-17). "In the most primitive societies," says Beauvoir, drawing on Lévi-Strauss's account of the development from nature to culture, "in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality--that of the self and the Other. . . . Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought" (1974, xix; 1949, 1:16). The idea that the human ability to organize nature in accordance with opposition and [End Page 142] duality is a mark of culture informs Beauvoir's central and organizing distinction between the subject who sets himself up as essential and the other who is set up as other, and thereby marked as inessential. If Beauvoir takes up one of Lévi-Strauss's insights by following through the conflict of self and other that is the hallmark of culture, and asking how it illuminates the sense in which women have become the "second sex," Kristeva takes up a second fundamental thread of his work, namely, the prohibition of incest, and recasts it in the light of Mary Douglas's analysis of the ritualistic ordering of filth and dirt that we formulate in terms of taboos and defilement (Douglas 1996): "[A]bjection, just like prohibition of incest, is a universal phenomenon; one encounters it as soon as the symbolic and/or social dimension of man is constituted, and this throughout the course of civilization" (Kristeva 1986, 68). One might say that Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship was to The Second Sex as Douglas's Purity and Danger was to Powers of Horror.

What, then, to make a start, is abjection? And already we find ourselves in trouble, led astray by the ambivalence of what is called a name, the abject, troubled by the object it becomes by naming it--as if it could be adequately stated, contained, and thematized by this name, as if it could be reduced to an object. For whatever is abject is only abject by means of a betrayal of its objectification, through a desertion of the language that represents it and calls it into being at the same time.

Whatever the abject is, it is not a what, not an object. Kristeva says, "'I' am not but do separate, reject, ab-ject" (1986, 13), suggesting that the verbalness of abjecting precedes the scission that it also enables, the splitting of subject and object, the separation of the child from the maternal body, a splitting that is also the birth of the subject, and, by the same token, the birth of the other as another subject that enables, reflects, and contests my subjectivity. Kristeva adds, "The abject has only one quality of the object--that of being opposed to I" (1). Through its quality of opposition, abjection "demarcates a space out of which signs and objects arise" (10). If abjection makes objects possible, it also makes it possible for me to become a subject. But the offered possibility of subjectivity is fraught with danger. Abjection both enables the subject to become I, by rejecting, repelling, or abjecting the (m)other, and threatens the subject from beyond. Thus, Kristeva can call abjection "a precondition of narcissism" (13) and "a kind of narcissistic crisis" (14). Abjection both facilitates narcissism and presents the narcissistic self that it heralds with a challenge that cannot be fully or effectively integrated by the subject. Abjection poses a threat, but it also saves the subject from itself. It both endangers the subject and forestalls the danger that called it into being. It is both a threat and a safeguard, both sublime and alienated (9), sublime and devastated (2). "The abject," says Kristeva, "is edged with the sublime" (11). "The various means of purifying the abject--the various catharses--make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion" (17).

If not an object, what can be said about abjection? Its status is that of frontier or border, or boundary: "[A]bjection is above all ambiguity" (9), says Kristeva. [End Page 143] Having flouted the rules already in place, abjection reestablishes borders, formulates its own rules. Abjection invests its subject with a tyrannical, despotic aspect (15), makes its subject king or queen for a moment, facilitates the aggrandizement of a subject, who becomes, in the space of the abject, a law unto herself or himself, unquestioning in her or his authority, beyond all logic, above all others, despite everything--totally in control. Nothing can stop the forces unleashed in the abject moment. Even if the rest of one's life--or death, as the case may be--will be spent atoning for the sin of abjection. For the abject cultivates an intimate relationship with evil and wrongdoing. "Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject," says Kristeva, "but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility" (4). Such criminals taunt the law, setting themselves and everything they represent above the law, provoking at all costs a reaction, causing those who act in the name of the law to come down hard on them, to punish them, to throw them in jail, to lock them up, to disgrace them, transforming them into what they have done, fusing their act with themselves, holding them up as an example, in short, making them an object of revulsion, forcing them to take on themselves what they have tried to expel by means of abjection, purifying them by making them pay for their attempt to cleanse themselves, to reestablish their bodies as "clean and proper," precisely by sullying themselves--through vomiting food that should be kept down, digested, and ejected through the designated organs, channeled away through the appropriate, sanctioned vessels, and thus disposed of properly, instead of disrupting the rules that govern and organize the production and management of excrement--or refusing to follow the laws dictating the disposal of corpses.

It is not so much the secretions of the body as such that revolt, but a failure to adhere to the social customs by which we manage them. Abjection alters the rules, challenges the system, puts a spanner in the works, interrupts or prevents the usual practices of burial, intervenes in the economy of the production and consumption of waste. "[F]ilth is not a quality in itself," (69), says Kristeva. A cultural taboo will designate what is safe and what is not, what is clean and proper and what is not, what is acceptable and what lies outside culture and cannot be incorporated or tolerated within it. In abjection, a subject attempts to introduce by the back door what a culture has excluded by designating it profane or wicked, disgusting or evil, contaminated and contaminating.

In abjection, we find ourselves facing "a hatred that smiles" or "a friend who stabs you" (4). Abjection does not ignore the rules; it mixes them up, conflating the orders of existence, turning the world upside down, putting below what should be kept above, failing to intern what should be buried, confusing categories that are normally kept apart, and challenging the normality that is thereby guaranteed.

The abject is not an object, but a boundary, a border, a frontier. As such, it presents a challenge to the facility with which we like to separate good from evil, purity from impurity. As such, it destabilizes, challenges, perverts, offends, and frightens. It terrifies, but it does not own its terror. Because it is not an [End Page 144] object and "does not respect borders, positions, rules" (4), but disrupts them in order to create its own perverse law, abjection will not fit under the rubric of neurosis or psychosis (6). Abjection is "at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion" (45), bordering on all of them but adhering to or coalescing with none. It is not hysteria, and it is not a simple transgression of the law (6), or simply repression, denial, or repudiation, all of which would be governed by the economy of negation, all of which bear a more direct relation to the object denied than abjection, which is far from being merely a refusal, a rejection, a No. The abject, after all, is both a revolt against being and an engagement with the horrific, a fascination with the obscene, a deployment of the abhorrent. The subject of abjection finds a certain perverse pleasure in the production of disgust. The deject, who is designated by the abject, in and through abjection, is a stray, who asks not who am I, but where am I. The deject experiences the abject as jouissance (9) and finds himself or herself situated by abjection. He or she joys in it, finds affirmation, confirmation, finds the self alive after all. Abjection confers an identity that the deject seeks but cannot find elsewhere. It "marks out a territory that I can call my own because the Other, having dwelt in me as alter ego, points it out to me through loathing" (10). In this sense, abjection, we could say, provides a proof of existence for the subject. I am abjected, therefore I exist, and I have a place in the world; I am allowed to desire.

Various aspects of Kristeva's notion of abjection have been taken up and elaborated. Butler has considered the abject as designating "'unlivable' and 'uninhabitable' zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the 'unlivable' is required to circumscribe the defining limit of the subject's domain" (1993, 3). Butler's task, then, is to "consider th[e] threat [of abjection] and disruption not as a permanent contestation of social norms condemned to the pathos of perpetual failure, but rather as a critical resource in the struggle to rearticulate the very terms of symbolic legitimacy and intelligibility" (3).

Bearing in mind the ways in which abjection does not adhere to discrete boundaries, but precisely confounds any attempt to pin it down once and for all, which does not mean that it is impossible to specify instances of abjection with precision; bearing in mind the applicability of abjection both to the highest of the high and to the lowest of the low, to the extent that it situates one with respect to the other, consolidating and assimilating identities by spewing out the intolerable or unacceptable; and bearing in mind the question of what happens when abjection is depicted, let me turn to Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (1996), which was nominated for five academy awards. The film tells the story of a black woman, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who tracks down her birth mother (played by Brenda Blethyn), a middle-aged, working-class white woman, and thus explores abjection in relation to racism.

Confronted with the suggestion that his work deals with class, Leigh distances himself from the category as such. In a 1994 interview with Graham [End Page 145] Fuller, Leigh describes his films as explorations of tensions, such as that between the emotional and the rational or that between the dreamer and the procrastinator (1995, xxvii, xxxi). He prefers to see these tensions not so much as a function of the British class system as emblematic of divisions that recur in different forms in many societies, whereby "two worlds [are] forever colliding" (xxi). "My films are actually about things like work, surviving, having an aged parent or whether it's a good idea to have kids, the problems that everybody cares about," says Leigh. "The class element is merely a function of the fact that these films are English. Irrespective of anything as idiosyncratic as the English class system, the whole world is divided into those who have and those who don't, and those who are honest and those who are dishonest" (xxi-xxii). Leigh resists the idea that his attitude is patronizing: "People are mad, people are sane; people are feelingless, people are passionately in love. That's the spectrum of human experience and I report the reality of that. I am making films about us, not 'them.' There is no 'them'" (xxiii). He emphasizes the realism of his work and talks about the organic and collaborative process by which he has actors improvise their dialogue, but only after he has created a character with an actor: "[W]e build their whole history" (xxiv). Leigh goes on, "The way we work, the actors have confidence in what they are doing and saying, because they really know who they are and how to play the character, because a history is built into their relationships" (xxv).

In Secrets and Lies, after the death of her adoptive parents, Hortense decides to locate her birth mother. Cynthia is a fiftyish, white, working-class single mother to Roxanne. She is lonely and prone to tears. Roxanne works for the local council, picking up rubbish (a job that could be seen as working symbolically within the film at more than one level). She flees the claustrophobia of living room armchairs in favor of meeting her boyfriend at the local pub as often as she can. The relationship between Cynthia and Roxanne is caught up in a cycle of mutual psychological abuse.

When Hortense initially contacts her birth mother, Cynthia is deeply distraught, and we only understand later and implicitly that Hortense was the product of a rape. When Cynthia gets over the initial shock, she agrees to meet Hortense, and the film gently explores the deep connection that develops between them, a connection that answers to Cynthia's loneliness and Hortense's loss of her adoptive parents, most recently her mother--the film opens at the graveside of her mother's funeral. The corpse of her adoptive mother having been laid to rest, in a necessary ritual that the purifying and cathartic norms of society that constitute us call for, Hortense can confront the ghost of her birth mother.

Cynthia and Hortense get to know each other over a series of meetings. They have dinner, they have drinks, they talk. On one occasion, Cynthia gives Hortense a bottle of bubble bath for her birthday.

Roxanne's uncle, and Cynthia's brother, Maurice, has done quite well for himself as a professional photographer, with a personal touch. He specializes in weddings, family portraits, and portraits of owners and their pets. We are treated [End Page 146] to a series of these tragicomic portraits in a sequence of stills. Maurice's wife, Monica, desperate to have children but frustrated in her desire to do so, has devoted herself instead to decorating the new house that Maurice's' successful business has enabled them to buy. On the occasion of Roxanne's twenty-first birthday, Maurice and Monica invite Cynthia; Roxanne; Roxanne's boyfriend, Paul; and Maurice's assistant at the photography studio to a party, now that Monica has finished decorating the house. Cynthia, who is afraid that Monica thinks she is not good enough to be invited to their new house, is pleased to be asked, and she has the idea of inviting Hortense to the party. Since no one else knows she exists, she phones Maurice and asks if she can bring a mate to the party, giving him to understand that Hortense works at the same factory as she does. Monica is worried because they only have four garden chairs, but Maurice agrees anyway. When Hortense arrives, Monica assumes at first that she must have the wrong address. But by the time they move inside and sit down to eat birthday cake, the general consensus about Hortense, in Roxanne's words, is that "she's alright." Maurice organizes the family into a family portrait, while Monica takes a photograph. The family portrait anticipates the truth that is about to be revealed--that Hortense is part of the family--and Monica's role as photographer usurps the usual role that is allotted to Maurice, prefiguring another unusual event: Maurice is about to lose control, not something to which he is prone. He is the one on whom everyone else depends, and usually he keeps all his boundaries intact. His assistant wishes she had a dad like him, and it becomes clear as the plot develops that he has been a substitute father for Roxanne.

Hortense goes to the bathroom and returns to discover that Cynthia has revealed her true identity to the rest of the family. The individual shots of the family display their disbelief, embarrassment, and horror. Cynthia has to assert her relation to Hortense no less than four times before the truth begins to sink in: "She's my daughter, she's my daughter," and to Roxanne, "she's your sister, she's your sister." When Cynthia reveals that Hortense is her daughter, she precipitates a family crisis, which results in Monica confessing her bitter disappointment at being childless, and her envy of Cynthia.

Roxanne rushes to the bathroom and locks herself in. Just as it did for Hortense a few moments previously, the bathroom offers a temporary sanctuary. As the room that is reserved for the production, expulsion, and treatment of waste, it provides an appropriate locus for Roxanne's attempt to process the news she has just heard. But all it can offer is a temporary respite from the horror of that which cannot be assimilated. Roxanne must find her own resources by which to situate herself in relation to the intolerable, incomprehensible news she is being asked to assimilate. When she emerges, the violence of her reaction to the news is unleashed on Cynthia, and the insult she hurls at her when she calls her a slag might overtly concern her sexual morals, but it is in fact just as much a racial slur. Roxanne displaces her own sense of betrayal onto Cynthia, pushing her to the ground, so that Cynthia enacts her alleged status as a fallen woman, but [End Page 147] quickly recovers her poise, adopting a coping, motherly posture and deflecting the trauma of the moment as she says to Hortense, "Eat your cake, sweet[h]eart." When Roxanne tells Cynthia that she has ruined her party, she belies her newly attained adult age of twenty-one.

It would be almost superfluous to point out that the social frame of racism informs Roxanne's displaced abjection of her mother, and of Hortense. In order to consolidate the boundaries of their family, Roxanne must establish the visibility of their whiteness and contrast it to Hortense's blackness. Cynthia's revelation of Hortense's identity is prompted most immediately by the birthday gift that Maurice and Monica give Roxanne, the generosity of which signifies Monica's displaced desire for her own child, but provokes Cynthia to feelings of inadequacy, as she recalls her own gift of bubble bath to Hortense. It also prompts her to claim as her own what she knows to be much more important--the close bond that she has developed with Hortense--and she cannot contain her desire to make this public, although she surely knows that to do so will upset the harmony of the gathering. The crisis she instigates, after initiating a series of family revelations, evolves into a better relationship between Roxanne and herself, and the film ends with the promise of friendship between Hortense and Roxanne.

Secrets and Lies confronts us with a world whose characters are hemmed in by the limited horizons of a white, working-class, English family, whose aspirations to occupy the ranks of the lower middle classes are most keenly exhibited by Maurice and Monica. Hortense, more affluent, urbane, and genteel than the family that defensively asserts its boundaries in the face of the prospect that she might be one of them, is, most definitively, in a different social class. Her black skin becomes a site of Cynthia's abjection, in the moment when Roxanne casts her mother to the ground like the fallen woman she is, calling her a whore, not only because Hortense was born out of wedlock, but also because the father must have been black. Ostensibly a way of designating Cynthia's alleged status as a fallen woman, the word slag is heavily burdened with racist overtones. Cynthia is thrown to the ground because she transgressed the racial boundaries between black and white, she did the unthinkable with a black man, and if she is a slag, it is most of all because she apparently sank so low that she did it with a black man, not merely because she did it at all.

In the moment that Cynthia is thrown to the ground by her white daughter, the whiteness of this working-class family becomes all too visible, and it takes the appearance of Hortense to render it visible. The racist attitudes of society have structured this family's idea of itself and no doubt served an unrecognized function in its history that has allowed its members to feel superior to the lowest of the low, those at the very bottom of the social totem pole. They may be poor, and they may be working-class, but at least they are white. The fact that the socio-economic status of Hortense flies in the face of the symbolically low status of blacks is not something that plays into the horror that registers on the faces of every person sitting at the dining-room table. In their expressions, [End Page 148] Hortense is reduced to her color, as everything else about her melts away. The expressions tell us, she cannot be one of us, because she is one of them. The social mandate that it is essential to the integrity of this family that it be white thereby comes to the fore. Its very idea of itself is constituted along racial lines, which may not have been evident to it, or consciously perceived heretofore, but have certainly played a powerful structural role in consolidating its identity.

If Cynthia is a whore, she is all the more so because Hortense is black. Race is precisely constitutive, here, of sexuality. If race functions to police the borders of sexuality, it also performs a constitutive function in the class identity of a white family forced to confront its own assumption that to be white is a necessary part of what it means to be working class. Only when whiteness is challenged, only when it is made explicit by being called into question, does the pervasive constitutive role that race plays in our identities become available for critical analysis. When Cynthia's family is asked to accept a black person as one of them, the limits of what is tolerable come to the fore.

Building on this analysis of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, I want to ask how abjection can be mobilized as an analytical tool to expose the various ways in which gender, race, and sexuality can constitute blind spots for one another in Beauvoir's own self-narrative and in the reception of her work. When asked about the influences on her work, Beauvoir responded, "No, I cannot say that I was influenced by anyone in particular in The Second Sex. . . . Or perhaps I was influenced by everyone" (Simons 1999, 12). This, despite the evidence that Nelson Algren had considerable influence on how Beauvoir organized The Second Sex, for which Beauvoir "had amassed a mountain of notes but was stumped by the problem of how to organize her material" (Grossman 1999). According to Grossman, Algren "suggested she examine women's condition by analogy with that of black Americans, who were then still subjugated by Jim Crow laws and segregation. The idea was an eye opener." According to Grossman, were it not for her association with Algren, "The Second Sex might have been a different book." Margaret Simons has also suggested that the question of race relations in America has considerable influence on Beauvoir's formulation of the problem of women in The Second Sex. "[Richard] Wright," argues Simons, "as the intellectual heir to W. E. B. Du Bois, introduces Beauvoir to the concept of the 'double consciousness' of blacks under racism, which serves as a model for Beauvoir's concept of woman as the Other in The Second Sex" (1999, 176). Simons goes on to demonstrate significant parallels between Wright's treatment of the other in Native Son and Black Boy and Beauvoir's elaboration of the other in The Second Sex (see Simons 1999, 177), suggesting that "Wright's theory of racist oppression provided Beauvoir with a theoretical model that she utilized in America Day by Day to support the struggle against racism and in The Second Sex to construct the theoretical foundations of radical feminism" (183).

The influence of race theorists such as Wright (and through Wright, Du Bois) on Beauvoir's theoretical construction of woman as other can be and is being mapped by contemporary feminist theorists, but Beauvoir herself repudiated [End Page 149] (forgot? repressed? misrecognized? minimized?), at any rate excluded, their influence when she told Simons and Benjamin in 1979, "I cannot say that I was influenced by anyone in particular in The Second Sex" (Simons 1999, 12). Simons (and others) deserve credit for insisting on the importance of Wright's influence on Beauvoir. In fact, however, the significance of race is already evident from a careful reading of The Second Sex. 3 A similar point could be made about Simons's exploration of lesbian connections, which, she shows, "extend throughout Beauvoir's life" (139). But in both cases, Simons's own interpretive strategy founders on blind spots orchestrated by strategic expulsions similar to those that inform the readings of feminists who have read over the presence of race and lesbian sexuality in Beauvoir's corpus, a presence that becomes all too evident once one begins to read for it. Simons criticizes Beauvoir's biographer Deirdre Bair on the grounds that, while "[e]vidence of Beauvoir's sexual intimacy with women . . . poses an interpretive challenge for Bair," it "is ultimately not allowed to disrupt her construction of a coherent heterosexual gender identity for Beauvoir" (115-16). According to Simons, Bair "charged Beauvoir . . . with evading 'the hard truths of her bisexuality'" (119). Apparently unaware of how her own interpretive framework disavows bisexuality as a viable lifestyle that disrupts both the homogeneity of the heterosexual imperative and that of the homosexual alternative, Simons comments, "But the rather clinical label 'bisexual' leaves Bair's heterosexual interpretive framework intact" (119). Moreover, affirming Butler's reading of Beauvoir, in which "[t]he body becomes a choice" (Butler 1986, 48; qtd. in Simons 1999, 141), and criticizing "biological determinist" (Simons 1999, 140) readings of Beauvoir, Simons overlooks the way in which the body in Beauvoir also becomes a site of abjection. In her discussion of Wright's influence on Beauvoir, Simons assumes that Wright cannot have both produced a model that proved useful (albeit unacknowledged by Beauvoir herself) for Beauvoir and at the same time been justifiably criticized as a misogynist. She therefore takes it upon herself to provide a limited defense of Wright against the criticism that he was "misogynist" in his "dismissive" review of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), against Walker's critique of "his negative fictional portrayals of female characters" (Simons 1999, 184). Simons argues that the "characterization of Wright as misogynist is . . . challenged by evidence of his role in launching the career of Gwendolyn Brooks" (184). She assumes that this necessarily undercuts his alleged misogyny. On the analysis I am suggesting, whereby the economy of abjection circulates among different sites, Wright's misogyny is not something to be explained away, but an unsurprising result of his racialized position in a racist society. For Wright to abject women, or to fail to see race and gender as analogous in some ways in their oppressive operation, is consistent with the mobility and fluidity of sites of abjection, even if femininity retains its status as a privileged signifier of the abject. When such abjection occurs, it should be recognized for what it is--not argued out of existence. The feminine or homosexuality [End Page 150] can be abjected by race theorists, just as race is repudiated as an influence by Beauvoir herself and by many of her feminist interpreters; lesbian sexuality can be excluded from interpretive frameworks of Beauvoir while even attempts to affirm a lesbian lifestyle that Beauvoir herself denied in some contexts can reenact exclusionary gestures by constructing bisexuality as an inadmissible alternative to exclusively heterosexual or homosexual lifestyles; class can be a site of abjection (Beauvoir acknowledges that she was "very, very privileged" and that things are "easier for certain women, the privileged women) (Simons 1999, 14, 18); the body can function as a casualty of a feminism that is construed as if the body was only a "choice," neglecting the materiality of the body, as if it fell outside the purview of a theoretical examination of women's situation.

One of the dynamics I am highlighting is the difficulty that feminist daughters continue to have in acknowledging their symbolic mothers--or fathers. The dynamic I am pointing to is not restricted to the reception of Beauvoir. There is plenty of evidence for the difficulty the so-called French feminists had in recognizing Beauvoir's legacy (Irigaray and Kristeva are cases in point). Beauvoir's ambiguous position has been explained in terms of the fact that she was "too close to home--either as "monstre sacré" or as "symbolic mother" (Chaperon 1999). Beauvoir is not the only example of a feminist working in France who has spawned ambiguous reactions. Well-known and influential feminist theorists initially repudiated Irigaray as essentialist with some vehemence in their initial reception of her only to take on the very terms to which her work had introduced them, not always with the acknowledgment that might have been appropriate, when they decided after all that bodies did matter and that they were volatile beyond the discourses of constructivism or voluntarism within which we tried so hard to contain them.


Women have long suffered from a tendency that is a central structuring problematic of Beauvoir's analysis in The Second Sex. Either we are put on a pedestal, mythically elevated above the world, made into poetic representations of all that is pure and good, considered goddesses to be revered and venerated, seen as mysterious projections of man's deepest fears, to be adored from afar but not touched by human hand, believed virginal and pristine or we are symbols of all that is base and carnal, incarnate Eves, akin to animality, driven by uncontrollable lust, needs, and wants. Whether women are represented as the aesthetico-religious Other, idealized figures, above the common fray, or as carnal, on a par with nature, wild and untamed, repositories of the symbolic law of the father, in need of man's civilizing and productive influence, ordered by civic institutions [End Page 151] to know our place; in neither case are we extended the honor of being included within the order of the human. The first gesture excludes us by romanticizing and idealizing us, holding us up to impossible ideals, making us more than human, while the second denigrates us by dehumanizing us, denying us the possibility of independently transcending our ostensibly bodily, reproductive, cyclical natures, making us less than human. I have offered a way of thinking through this dual impasse that denies women the right to be considered fully human, by following through the oscillating operation of abjection. I have suggested that feminism itself has not proved itself immune from the double gesture that Beauvoir herself articulated when she described the "possession and control" of woman that abases her to "the rank of a thing," on the one hand, and the aspiration of man "to clothe in his own dignity whatever he conquers and possesses" (1974, 91; 1949, 1:135-36), on the other. I have also suggested that the double gesture whereby women are either reified and debased or represented as the powerful castrating other needs to be thought in relation to, rather than in abstraction from, other dynamics that also serve to denigrate socially defined groups. The fact that Hortense is Cynthia's illegitimate child is seen not merely as a transgression of the norms dictated by decency and decorum, but, perhaps more significantly, as a threat to the racial order. This allows us to see that the confined roles that society condones for women when it designates them reproductive mothers are produced not only by the expectation that women marry decent men who can provide for them as they take on their wifely and motherly responsibilities and duties, but also by the expectation that white women marry white men and black women marry black men. The taboos that operate to ensure that society runs along well-oiled tracks are specified not only by a heterosexist and sexist imperative, but also by a racist agenda that prohibits miscegenation.

By attending not only to the textual aporias around which Beauvoir's thematic operates, but also to the dynamic at work in the reception she received both by the early literary intelligentsia and by her later feminist critics, I am suggesting that the discourse of abjection helps us uncover instabilities that structure her text. A movement of foreclosure often informs the shape of her discourse. The unnamable or the inadmissible might be conceptually excluded from her thought, but as sites that expose the limits of her coherent philosophical and self-representation, that which cannot be named is operable in her texts at the level of the saying. Projecting outside the scope of the tolerable and the decent that which cannot be included within its confines for reasons of decorum or philosophical convention, early critics of Beauvoir sought to discredit her work as salacious filth. I have observed here the multiple ways in which critics continue to abject Beauvoir and others through processes of exclusion whose operation are often implicit in their structuring of the acknowledged thematic concerns that drive their enquiries. In particular, I have suggested that different groups can come to occupy the "space" of abjection in a critical attempt to think through the exclusion of one socially or politically defined group by another. [End Page 152] Thus, bisexuality is a site of abjection in an argument that seeks to accommodate an area of Beauvoir studies that has been otherwise ignored by feminists who have foreclosed a reading of Beauvoir's lesbian desire by assuming a heterosexual framework. Or Wright's misogynist abjection of women can be sanctioned in an effort to preserve the significance of his work for feminism.

It should hardly surprise us that feminism, which is still a relatively young political movement (as historian Nancy Steppan Leys reminds us), should have succumbed to the tendency to continue the abjection of women. That a political movement inevitably bears the marks of the discourse of oppression that called it into being is not a new insight. Marx's notion of false-consciousness already taught us this. Taken up and reformulated not only in Louis Althusser's notion of ideology, but also, with a different emphasis, in Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony, it has found its way into many contemporary discourses about the operation of power and its relation to consent, including Foucault's and Butler's. In hegemonic relations, those in power have a vested interest to allow those they control some free play. If subordinated identities are constituted in part by the very oppositional forces that inform social and political subordination, if they reflect the shape of oppressive ideologies, the processes by which oppositional identities become capable of change will be halting and not always straightforward. There will be relapses, regressions, deviations, and hesitations. There will also be victories, small and large; there will be sea changes, often bringing new versions of old configurations. Progress will not be pure, change will not be untainted, reform will not be uncontaminated. The realization of freedom will bring its own chains. New forms of freedom will be hewn out of old and stagnating forms of oppression, new possibilities will be articulated, new dreams will be born, but none of them will easily or quickly shake off well-entrenched shackles. And even when such successes as are to be had eventuate, the operation of power, and the ways in which we humans are consistently seduced by the tendency to divide, exclude, and foreclose in order to be and to become who we are, will create new pockets of despair, will constitute new sites of abjection, and will find new ways of foreclosing certain possibilities for some subjects, even as we find a way of releasing ourselves from old bonds. If the analysis I am suggesting has purchase, it is not reducible to a nihilistic declaration of cynicism or an indulgent reveling in melancholia. It is a call for vigilance, an expression of hope, and a celebration of humanity in the best and, according to Emmanual Levinas, the most profound sense of that word. One of Beauvoir's legacies, as Debra Bergoffen (1997) reminds us, is to have taught us not to remain trapped in or stultified by the impasse of contradiction. To recognize our tendency to abject others is also to be able to reconfigure that tendency and, if not to go beyond it, at least to ameliorate its effects.

Although I cannot develop this point in the present context, the mobilization of abjection does not merely conform to the repressive, prohibitive model of power that Foucault, Gramsci, and others have taught us to question. 4 Abjection is, if nothing else, ambiguous. Its impact is not restricted to the negative. Abjection [End Page 153] can become a creative site of transgression, just as it can shore up and consolidate exclusionary and discriminatory forces.

While Beauvoir does not use the terminology of abjection, I have suggested that her analysis of the virgin/whore motif, in which the representation of female sexuality oscillates between an idealized mythical figure of divine proportions and an abased, carnal, object of desire can be read as consistent with the tendency that is also operative in abjection. The need to affirm and embrace the healthy, proper order is sanctioned by excluding as unclean and improper all that is defined as falling outside the acceptable, the tolerable, and the decent as dictated by societal order. Beauvoir suggests not only that women have been both idealized and abased, but also that typically women take on the ambivalence of embodiment that men project on to them, thereby becoming guardians of a contradiction between embodiment and transcendence that men are unable to tolerate in their ongoing attempt at self-transcendence. In my view, this remains one of the most persuasive aspects of Beauvoir's project, and I have attempted to revisit it here in order to see how it anticipates the discourse of abjection.

By casting in terms of abjection Beauvoir's lasting insights about the ambivalent representation of women, and the ways in which women take on and resolve the contradictions men project on to them, I hope to have shown the sense in which Beauvoir's work both prepared for and is supplemented by more recent developments in feminist theory. By relating her analysis to film and to abjection, I have pointed to Beauvoir's prescience and her continuing relevance for feminism, even if I am taking her, in the words of the article with which I began, "into places where she certainly would not have agreed to go" (Chaperon 1999).


1. Butler 1993; Mulvey 1996; Foster 1996; Krauss 1996; Creed 1986; Reinke 1997; Weiss 1999; Young 1990; and Oliver 1998.

2. Beauvoir also reports Mauriac's unfavorable reaction in Force of Circumstance (1985, 197). While Chaperon attributes these comments to François Mauriac (and Beauvoir simply says "Mauriac"), I am assuming she means Claude Mauriac, who was closely associated with Les Temps Modernes (see Davies 1987). If I am right, then no doubt the virulence of Claude Mauriac's scathing attack was informed by Beauvoir's criticism of his observation about women: "'We listen on a tone [sic!] of polite indifference . . . to the most brilliant among them, well knowing that her wit reflects more or less luminously ideas that come from us.' Evidently the speaker referred to is not reflecting the ideas of Mauriac himself, for no one knows of his having any. . . . What is really remarkable is that by using the questionable we he identifies himself with St. Paul, Hegel, Lenin, and Nietzsche, and from the lofty eminence of their grandeur looks down disdainfully upon the bevy of women who make bold to converse with him on a footing of equality" (1974, xxviii-xxix; 1949, 1:26).

3. See Beauvoir's comments on the Jim Crow laws, for example (1974, xxvii).

4. In the larger project of which this paper forms a part, I take up the way in which abjection can have positive and transformative effects, as in Margaret's Museum (1996), a film in which an individual's suffering is expressed in an aesthetico-political response with revolutionary potential. The outcome of this response--an aestheticization of corpses, which takes the form of the cutting up of body parts in order to display them in a museum that becomes the site of political protest--remains unclear. The revolutionary potential of abjection is indicated, but not assumed, and thus the ambiguity inherent in abjection is preserved.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1949. Le deuxième sexe. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard.

------. 1974. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books.

------. 1985. Force of Circumstance. Trans. Richard Howard. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Bergoffen, Debra. 1997. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Gendered Phenomenologies, Erotic Generosities. Albany, NY: State U of New York P.

Brightman, Carol. 1992. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: C. Potter.

Butler, Judith. 1986. "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex." In Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century, ed. Helene Vivienne Wenzel. Special issue of Yale French Studies 72: 35-49.

------. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge.

Chaperon, Sylvie. 1999. "The Second Sex 50 Years On: De Beauvoir in Retrospect." Trans. Ed Emery. Le Monde Diplomatique (January). <>

Creed, Barbara. 1986. "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection." Screen 27.1: 44-70.

Davies, Howard. 1987. Sartre and 'Les Temps Modernes'. Cambridge Studies in French. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP.

Deutscher, Penelope. 1997. Yielding Gender: Feminism, Deconstruction and the History of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

Douglas, Mary. 1996. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

Foster, Hal. 1996. "Obscene, Abject, Traumatic." October 78 (Fall): 107-24.

Grossman. 1999. Chicago Tribune (2 November). <>

Krauss, Rosalind. 1996. "Informe without Conclusion." October 78 (Fall): 89-105.

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP.

Leigh, Mike. 1995. "Mike Leigh's Original Features, an Interview with Graham Fuller." In Naked and Other Screenplays. London: Faber & Faber.

------. 1996. Secrets and Lies. Thin Man Films.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Elementary Stuctures of Kinship. Trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Ed. Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon P.

Mulvey, Laura. 1996. Fetishism and Curiosity. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana UP.

Oliver, Kelly. 1998. Subjectivity without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Reinke, Martha J. 1997. Sacrificed Lives: Kristeva on Women and Violence. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana UP.

Simons, Margaret A. 1999. "Beauvoir Interview." In Beauvoir and "The Second Sex": Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Spelman, V. Elizabeth. 1988. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon P.

Tuana, Nancy. 1990. "Re-fusing Nature/Nurture." In Hypatia Reborn: Essays in Feminist Philosophy, ed. A. Y. Al-Hibri and M. Simons, 70-89. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Weiss, Gail. 1999. Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality. New York: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

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