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Hypatia 20.2 (2005) 202-207

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The Subject of Love

Family Values: Subjects Between Nature and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1997) Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2001), by Kelly Oliver.

The titles of Kelly Oliver's latest books, Family Values: Subjects between Nature and Culture, and Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, give no hint of their shared central themes. Getting behind the covers into the texts; however, we find that the opening pages of Family Values and the closing pages of Witnessing bookend a common issue. Family Values opens with the observation that love in our times is all but impossible. Witnessing closes by directing us to the possibilities of ethically responsible and politically liberating love. Between the first lines of the one book and the last lines of the other we are led through what might be called a meditation on love. Like Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, these reflections address the truth of the subject and hold that it is only by adequately [End Page 202] grasping this truth that we can hope to discern the first truths of philosophy. For Descartes, first truths are arrived at through a properly disciplined reason addressing the questions of epistemology and metaphysics. For Oliver, and in this she reflects the philosophical landscape of our times, first truths are arrived at by attending to the powers and meanings of affect. They address questions of ethics and politics. Each of Oliver's books stands on its own as a significant piece of work. They are, however, most fruitfully read together; for Family Values' discerning diagnosis of subject formation lays the ground for Witnessing's astute analyses of the ethical subject.

In choosing the title Family Values, Oliver gives us an indication of the object of her critique, the sexed images and gendered roles given to us as valid subject positions by patriarchy. She also situates her work within the current antifeminist climate. Family values is the catch phrase of conservative movements in the United States intent on (re)establishing the male-female, public-private divide. As identifying the object of her critique, the title may be read as ironic. As pointing to the backlash against feminism it is more ominous. For Oliver sees the revived ideology of family values as symptomatic of an enduring and dangerous cultural pathology. This pathology, the object of Oliver's attention and critique, relies on a hierarchal and antagonistic distinction between the sexes that normalizes conflicts among men and legitimates the "war between the sexes." Calling these violences and antagonisms pathological, Oliver appeals to the medical model of psychoanalysis to establish that they are neither necessary nor inevitable. Going beyond the medical model of these discourses, however, Oliver argues that this pathology is immoral. It is not only an illness that we can cure, it is an evil that we are obliged to eradicate.

Family Values identifies the virile subject (a term Oliver borrows from Levinas) as the symptom and ground of our cultural disease. The virile subject relates to the world and himself (it is sexed as male) through images of "ownness," ownership, and control. It loves what is fixed and fixes what it loves (women, truths) in stable, reliable identities. The virile subject is the figure of Hegel's master-slave dialectic, of Lacan's economy of sacrifice and of Sartre's sociality of war. It provides the blueprint for a cultural imaginary that severs nature from culture, and that images desire as a lack that can only be satisfied by domination (either benignly imaged as romantic love or baldly figured as conquest). Oliver finds that mainstream psychoanalytic and phenomenological discourses insightfully describe the processes by which the virile subject comes into being and is sustained in its becoming. She also finds that these discourses normalize and legitimate the virile subject. As normalizing and prescriptive, these discourses must be challenged. They support the pathological status quo and ensnare us in an untenable future.

Oliver's critique of our pathological family values is empirical (in the material and phenomenological sense), psychoanalytic, and ethical. Empirically it is [End Page 203...


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pp. 202-207
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Archived 2009
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