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  • Women, Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Humanism in Feminist Film Theory
  • Deborah Knight (bio)

Feminist film theory has a history, one that is intertwined with the history of what we might call non-feminist or a-feminist film theory (and literary theory, cultural theory, political theory, critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, to name a few). Feminist film theory, like other theories, has a history because it is a practice, undertaken for specifiable reasons by individuals and collectives in particular institutional as well as intellectual contexts, employing recognizable rhetorical strategies and routines. 1 The objectives that motivate feminist theory can be expressed quite directly, as Toril Moi has done in her Sexual/Textual Politics: “The principal objective of feminist criticism has always been political: it seeks to expose, not to perpetuate, patriarchal practices.” 2 I will leave aside this statement’s apparent ahistoricism (“has always been”). What I want to emphasize is the element of practice involved, the idea that there are particular goals that motivate feminist theory and criticism, and that in the main these are self-consciously acknowledged goals—goals shared by and recognized by those who engage in this sort of theoretical and critical activity, goals which are, as Moi remarks, political.

What feminist theory and feminist film theory have long recognized is their asymmetrical relationship to the sorts of theory and film theory that do not adopt the modifier feminist. The use of the modifier feminist signals the self-consciously political commitment to theory as practice. The problem, if it is a problem, is that there is theory, and then there is the work that is conducted by feminist critics and theorists. Conceived of in terms of asymmetry, theory (without the modifier) might be taken to be the privileged, central term, and feminist theory the disadvantaged, decentered term—the term which depends, for its definition, on the former. Indeed, feminist theory would in this sense be asymmetrically dependent upon theory, since the interventions of feminist theory are, in general, interventions in the language of, interventions within the broader critical frameworks of, theory. This asymmetry between theory and feminist theory might be seen to mimic or reproduce the sociological and political construction of the relationship between women and [End Page 39] patriarchy, women in but marginalized by patriarchy, since the presupposition from which feminist theory works—and which Moi makes perfectly clear—is that women are comparatively disadvantaged in and by a patriarchal culture. Women’s position in patriarchy is asymmetrical and dependent, on this view. But where the point of feminist intervention is to change the sexual, textual, and political structures that marginalize and disadvantage women as individuals and as groups, there is a potential paradox in our using, in our having to use, a theory that is so closely tied, so genealogically connected to, the very theory that seems to speak and authorize the marginalization that is being contested.

Some of feminist film theory’s longest-standing directive ideas have emerged from the effort to negotiate a position for women within theory, or at least to make a space for the theorizing of women—and this in two senses. There has been the need to make space for the theorizing of images or representations of women, as well as for the theorizing of women as subjects and spectators. There has also been the need to make space for the theorizing undertaken by and conducted by feminists for the sorts of reasons suggested above. The former involves theory “proper,” while the latter concerns the space of theoretical and critical praxis. The examination of the representation of women in cinema, the idea that “woman” is a sign, the question whether there is such a thing as women’s desire, or a feminine language, or a subject-position for women as cinema spectators—these and other topics in the history of feminist film theory have tended to emerge as responses to theory, or to conceptualizations of desire, language, spectatorship, subjectivity, and signification which are seen to be patriarchal, phallocentric, and/or phallocratic. The recognition of the need to address and to redress the asymmetry and the dependence on some prior unmodified version of theory has been a motivating factor...

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