- “Am I That Name?” A Reply to Deborah Knight
When New Literary History asked me to respond to Deborah Knight’s paper, my first impulse was to say no. First of all I am not a feminist film critic. And although my name turns up a few times in her essay, I do not feel that Deborah Knight’s sweeping generalizations about feminist anti-humanism accurately represent my own positions, be they in Sexual/Textual Politics or elsewhere. It seemed singularly pointless to engage in an argument with another critic about views that neither of us would want to defend. On second thoughts, however, I decided that I would like to draw attention to the fact that there is at least one important tradition of anti-humanist feminism that cannot be fitted into the simplistic oppositions that structure Deborah Knight’s paper. I am referring to the work of women who, like myself, originally came to feminism through Marxism or socialism, that is to say writers such as Jacqueline Rose, Julia Kristeva, Terry Lovell, Sabina Lovibond, Cora Kaplan, and Juliet Mitchell, just to mention some. 1
According to Deborah Knight, feminist theory is a battlefield where two opposing armies fight it out. On one side there are the humanist “mirror critics,” on the other the anti-humanist “vamps.” The former believe in politics, social change, agency, and the existence of women; the latter have no sense of history or tradition, and believe that female subjectivity does not exist. The socialist or (ex-)Marxist feminists I mentioned above cannot be squeezed into either of these camps. Whatever their differences, these critics have in common an allegiance to what I would call a “historical” or “materialist” interpretation of Freud’s and Lacan’s understanding of subjectivity. That is to say that they have, among other things, felt the influence of Althusser’s understanding of the relationship between ideology and subjectivity. 2 The feminism that emerges from this specific tradition is immensely critical of what has been called “bourgeois” or “liberal” humanism, and in that sense it certainly deserves the label “anti-humanist.” Yet, as far as I know, none of these critics (including myself) has ever fallen into the trap of believing—as Deborah Knight would have it—that the subject does not exist, that signs never have referents, that history and tradition are irrelevant [End Page 57] concepts, or that authors never leave traces of their subjectivity in their texts.
When Deborah Knight takes Sexual/Textual Politics to task for being a classic case of nihilistic anti-humanism, she doesn’t seem to realize that what concerns me in the passages she refers to is the ideological effects of the dominant representation of the bourgeois subject. 3 As far as I can see, this is an ideology that does in fact cast the subject as the unified origin and undisputed master of its own projects. If I oppose such an idea of the subject, it is not because it is “essentialist” (although it usually is), but because of its political implications. 4 Well suited to promote freedom and equality on terms dictated by the capitalist marketplace, this particular picture of subjectivity is at the center of patriarchal ideology in the twentieth century. Such notions of what a subject is tend to make the individual woman responsible for her own oppression. If she is oppressed, the liberal argument goes, it can only be because she has failed to liberate herself, that is to say, failed to demonstrate the rich individual sense of mastery prescribed by this kind of ideology. Or in other words: if the forces of the marketplace crush her aspirations, she has only herself to blame. It seemed to me back in 1985 (and it still does so today) that any feminism that wittingly or unwittingly ends up drawing on this particular ideology of the subject will be unable to pose a radical challenge to the logic of the capitalist marketplace. And I am afraid that I still cannot see how market forces alone will ever be able to produce a society where all women—not just the glamorously packaged and “marketable” ones—will be able to...