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  • The Rhetoric of Theory: Responses to Toril Moi
  • Deborah Knight (bio)

In “Women, Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Humanism in Feminist Film Theory,” I investigate some of the ways in which feminist (film) theory relates itself to, and distinguishes itself from, theory in general. If one imagines that feminist theory is something that is distinct from theory due to a specifically political causal history, then feminist theory will be inclined to relate itself to theory confrontationally. If on the other hand feminist theory is understood as something which follows from, or responds to, work done in a prior or dominant theoretical domain, then it might be condemned in perpetuity to being asymmetrically dependent upon that prior domain. Both these possibilities—that feminist theory confronts another theoretical discourse, or that feminist theory is inevitably subordinated to a prior theoretical discourse—risk leaving feminist theory in just the sort of disadvantaged, marginalized position vis-à-vis that prior domain that women occupy within patriarchy. One of my objectives in this paper is to dissolve the exclusionary, dichotomized opposition between theory and feminist theory by indicating just the degree to which, by engaging in feminist theory, we also engage in, and modify, theory.

More specifically, I offer a symptomatic account of a critical strategy which one encounters generally, both in theory and in feminist theory. This strategy involves organizing a debate around two antithetical positions. Moreover, the privileged position—the anti-humanist position, in the particular case I consider—creates its antagonist through the use of oversimplifying and reductive caricaturizations of that position. Anti-humanism, under one description or another, is the positively valued term of a binary pair, and humanism, as the antagonist of anti-humanism, becomes the negatively valued term. Now, anti-humanism is a framework which organizes and directs much recent and contemporary theoretical work, including work by feminists. There are various anti-humanisms on the market these days, just as there are various modernisms, various postmodernisms, and so forth. Nevertheless, part of what distinguishes the construction of the debate around an apparently self-evident opposition between anti-humanists and humanists is a governing set of directive ideas about what marks the difference; that there are identifiable directive ideas shared by various anti-humanists [End Page 63] does not require that all anti-humanists be involved in exactly the same critical or theoretical project.

What interests me here is not how particular anti-humanisms differ—though that could be the topic of another paper. What I am interested in here is how, at a certain level, different anti-humanisms participate in the same, or at least very similar, styles of argument. Thus I draw attention to the critique of a certain conception of agency, subjectivity, and reasoning which anti-humanists portray as characteristically humanist. This conception of agency, subjectivity, and reasoning is described as masculine, or in Derrida’s vocabulary as phallogocentric; and nearly everyone points to Descartes—or at least to something rather more vaguely described as Cartesianism—as the source of and continuing support for this masculinist, phallic understanding of a centered, unified, self-originating, intentional subject, fully in control of his meanings.

This phallic subject is an immediate object of critique; it could not be otherwise, since the relationship between anti-humanism and humanism is not simply a descriptive carving up of a field but more fundamentally a normative, evaluative demarcation. From the perspective of feminist theory, it is hard to imagine what could be a more obvious and immediate signal of negative valuation than modifiers like “masculine” and “phallic.” The tendency to celebrate the phallic subject’s Other—conceived variously as a decentered, ex-centric, or fragmented subject, or as a discursive subject, or as a subject in process—is a consequence of this oppositional pattern of evaluation.

I draw attention to this because the very framework of the debate risks cutting off possibilities for theoretical and critical investigation. For instance, it is far from clear that the description of the subject attributed to humanists is actually generally held any longer (if indeed it was ever generally held). So to continue to characterize the humanist subject in these general terms, where the attributes of the humanist...

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