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  • Spacing the Feminine
  • Bianca Theisen

Even though gender difference is widely perceived as fundamental, Lou Andreas Salomé argued in her essay "Eroticism" from 1910 that the male and the female are opposed only on a surface level, while at a deeper level these apparent oppositions in fact cross over into each other and meet. Salomé captures their coincidence with what she calls a "duality as unity and unity as duality."1 Such a paradox of a unity distinct in itself could indeed be seen as a viable alternative to those feminist approaches which circumscribed the place of women on the basis of the distinction between male and female. Relying on this distinction, feminist theory faced the aporia of having to define woman in an oppositional relation to man that was, moreover, hierarchized so as to privilege man. Within the parameters of this opposition, woman could then only be described negatively as non-male or as lack: she could, in other words, not be grasped as woman. In its differing concerns with equal rights, with female subjectivity, with a fundamentally different femininity, or with female writing, feminist theory nevertheless has often inadvertently reproduced the logical framework of hierarchized oppositions, falling back onto the male or phallic order it wanted to counteract. Julia Kristeva therefore suggested that feminist theory depart from the "dichotomy man/woman as an opposition […] belonging to metaphysics."2 The aporias of such a hierarchically organized opposition can be avoided, I shall argue, when the space of the feminine is delineated topologically as an [End Page 530] empty space that can be occupied by either male or female, proffering a distinction contingent on its observers and shifting with their respective frames of reference.


In an essay from 1911 entitled "The Relative and the Absolute of Gender Relations," Georg Simmel describes the logic that has governed most considerations of gender relations and, moreover, the aporia this logic poses for a delineation of the feminine. We can determine the value of any element, Simmel argues, only by means of its relation to any other element, just as this second element is in turn determined in reference to the first one. What Simmel here calls "relativity" can thus be seen as a differential principle according to which something is what it is only in relation to what differentiates it from its surrounding. Yet, grafted onto this differential relativity of the two elements, Simmel states, is a hierarchical relation: one of the two elements assumes the position of an absolute, which determines or "norms" the overall relation or distinction. As such an absolute, one side now encompasses both itself and its opposition. This normative relation also applies to the distinction male/female, which can then no longer be determined neutrally but only as governed by the dominant term which encompasses the overall distinction. Particularly gender relations have become a historical paradigm for such hierarchized oppositions, in which one of two terms functions both relative to its opposed term and is privileged to dominate the overall distinction as an absolute. The reasoning with which we evaluate the distinction between the sexes can then only be "male." The consequences of this oppositional hierarchy for the evaluation of women have been devastating, Simmel asserts: within its parameters they have been either mythicized or scorned, because there was either no criterion to evaluate them as women or because they were evaluated on the basis of the male dominant. From within this reasoning, the feminine cannot be defined independently of man, cannot be defined as feminine.3 From within this reasoning, Simmel suggests, nothing can be said about woman.

Referring to the double relationship between the relative and the absolute which Simmel analyzes as paradigmatic for gender relations as oppositional hierarchy, we have been drawing on a term introduced [End Page 531] by Louis Dumont. For Dumont, "opposition hierarchique" or "englobement du contraire" indicates the double relation at stake in hierarchically structured oppositions: one side of a distinction is here always valued over the other side because it is privileged to represent the overall distinction within the distinction.4 Or in Simmel's terms, one side functions as relative to its opposite and as the absolute encompassing...


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pp. 530-542
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