publisher colophon


The Ethics of Sexual Difference

Feminist criticism today comprehends a diverse field of ideas and interests, disabusing one of the thought that it might represent a unified or single theoretical camp. Indeed, the disunity of feminist criticism is itself a matter for varying opinions, and feminist thinkers have reacted to the problems of internal debate with both enthusiasm and dismay. Some women believe that their political cause is compromised by internal debate because dissent allows men to dismiss the importance of feminist literary theory, just as they have dismissed generations of women. Other women see dissent as the sign of a healthy pluralism not permitted to them in the male world and essential to a future of political openness and change. The future of sexual difference, they argue, depends on the recognition of all differences.

One tendency, however, does appear to mark much feminist literary criticism. Feminist critics tend to assume that literature is a social institution, although the nature of the institution is still open to debate. What is at stake in feminist writing is not simply literature or criticism as such but the ethical and social consequences of women's exclusion from the world of literature in particular and the world of men in general. The result is a powerful dialogue between life and literature. When feminist critics make statements about a literary text, they insist that their remarks carry immediate import for the social world. We are in the habit of speaking of the politics of literature in such cases, but feminist theory has revolutionized the notion. No one writing currently, whether from a Derridean or Marxist perspective, has produced anything that expresses the degree of political pertinence immediately recognizable in even the most naive piece of feminist criticism.

Despite the claim that all criticism is political, the perception is trivial in most instances, either giving a false sense of importance to literary theory or reducing the idea of politics to its most banal and detached expression. What makes feminist criticism different? And what is the source of the feminist's power? It has little to do with conventional political power, for rare is the woman who holds a major political office. Rather, feminism represents a minority or marginal form of politics. It taps the moral sentiments of its age by showing to what degree the rights and opportunities prized by male society have not been made available to women. By drawing attention to their marginality, women exercise a sense of contradiction that becomes a critical and moral force. Indeed, moral outrage is the underlying emotion of feminist literary criticism, especially in England and America, and its cry of outrage brings a coherence to all of its concerns. Feminist criticism relies on moral anger, but it would be an error to believe that its anger is unconscious. Feminist critics are aware of their moralism. “When I talk about feminist criticism,” Carolyn Heilbrun remarks, “I am amazed at how high a moral tone I take” (FC 129).1

Feminist criticism has trouble defining itself without exposing its ethical principles, and consequently those feminist critics who try to escape from moral feelings have experienced little success. In “Toward a Feminist Poetics” (FC 125–43), for example, Elaine Showaiter works to distinguish feminism's ethical and aesthetic concerns by dividing feminist criticism into two types: the feminist critique and gynocriticism. The feminist critique represents an ethical and defensive rereading of literature that exposes sexual biases, prejudices, and codes with a mind toward social reform and action. Its objective is to lead women out of the “Egypt of female servitude,” and its language resounds with emotion over the ethical injustice of female inequality.

Gynocriticism, by contrast, is not supposed to be either defensive or moralistic. Rather, it is aesthetic. Showalter defines it as a writing concerned with woman as the creator of meaning; its topics include the psychology of female creativity, the problem of female language, and the trajectories of the individual or collective female literary career. And yet when Showalter defines gynocriticism, she fails to distinguish it from the feminist critique. The gynocritical studies that she praises explore the paradox of “cultural bondage,” “disestablished groups,” and “sisterly solidarity.” This is the language of the feminist critique, not that of a politically disinterested exploration of woman as writer.

A true gynocriticism would require a different social environment, one in which the ethical agenda of feminism would already be a reality. There, working on the topic of “woman as writer” would be a critical pursuit like any other, and it would not require a special label like “gynocriticism.” No one can blame Showalter for aspiring to this kind of political neutrality, but the desire for that state remains the driving force behind the feminist critique as she defines it. Only when success has made the feminist critique obsolete will gynocriticism lose its revisionary and defensive character. At that time, moreover, there will be no reason to distinguish between either gynocriticism and the feminist critique or gynocriticism and literary criticism as such.

That a “pure” gynocriticism encounters difficulties in the present climate does not mean that feminist literary criticism is destined to fail. It merely serves to expose the greatest asset of feminist criticism. Feminist criticism cannot avoid the fact that it has become the most obvious arena for the ethics of criticism. Feminist theory has not yet made any substantial changes in the methodology of criticism; indeed, some feminists associate methodology as such with masculine authority. The contribution of feminism to literary study consists largely in its ability to reveal the importance of women in history and language as well as the injustice of their alienation from the basic rights given to men in Western society. The ethics of sexual difference has always been the implicit subject of feminist criticism, and critics from the most diverse camps are becoming more aware that women's studies may be used as a stage from which to issue ethical challenges. Luce Irigaray's L'Ethique de la différence sexuelle finally makes explicit the ethical orientation of her previous work; and Wayne Booth has recently tried to use feminist criticism to clarify his political and personal opinions. Booth's “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism” was written when he was president of the Modern Language Association. The essay is a political statement calling for the recognition of feminist concerns, but it also allows Booth to give special notice to his own brand of ethical criticism.2

That feminist criticism is timely and popular, however, may have already endangered its ethical project. Success for women has, in Betty Friedan's view, bred complacency. More significant is the ease with which men appropriate the issue of feminism. Feminist theory has become a stage for moral pronouncements in general, and its specific concerns risk dilution. One must be delicate in describing this problem because it has many sides. On the one hand, for example, the appearance in a man's book of the obligatory chapter on women's issues smacks of tokenism. It serves as a symbolic act to protect the male author against the accusation of sexism, and it may contribute nothing to the goals of feminist criticism. On the other hand, many would claim that even the most insincere cases of tokenism contribute to the profile of feminist criticism and help it gain strength. For example, the inclusion of a single woman author on a core syllabus may be tokenism, but it means that students will encounter at least one example of feminine writing. But the problem of tokenism runs much deeper. Feminist criticism depends on what I have called a marginal politics; it exercises the greatest force when its statements call attention to the injustice of women's marginality, and its ability to influence is substantially increased when those statements are made by women—in short, by the marginal group itself. Men have been excluded from women's discussion groups not only because their presence may potentially threaten women's ability to raise their special issues but because feminist politics has the greatest influence when it stays in the hands of women. Consequently, some feminist critics cling to their marginal status and oppose anything approaching pluralism. Gayatri Spivak has objected that “to embrace pluralism . . . is to espouse the politics of the masculinist establishment. Pluralism is the method employed by the central authorities to neutralize opposition by seeming to accept it. The gesture of pluralism on the part of the marginal can only mean capitulation to the center” (FC 13).

Here is a paradox that threatens feminist criticism in general. The uniqueness of its project depends on its marginality; therein lies its ethical justification and its hopes for the future of women. But the progress of this same project demands that marginality and difference must be increasingly broken down in order to bring women into an equal sphere with men. Annette Kolodny has compared the risks of taking on the masculine establishment to “dancing through the minefield” (FC 144–67). But feminist criticism is engaged in a double dance: it both pirouettes through the minefield of male resistance and balances on the taut line dividing the contradictory desires for marginality and equality.

Before beginning to describe this double dance, I need to make two statements. First, for the male critic entering the field of feminist theory, where moral outrage against men finds vigorous and justifiable expression and where his presence may not be welcome, the phrase “dancing through the minefield” takes on a wholly different meaning. There is no justification that will not be rejected by those who believe that men can have no share in feminist criticism. Nevertheless, joining the waltz of feminist theory is essential for the critic interested in the ethics of criticism precisely because of its privileged relation to ethics. Second, although it is an obvious perception by now that the central conflict of feminist criticism lies in the contradictory impulses toward difference and equality, the significance of this dispute for the ethics of criticism is not obvious. The same controversy animates a variety of critical problems, including Girard's theory of desire, Derrida's idea of differance, Foucault's late critique of Greek sexuality, and de Man's rhetoric of marginality. Feminist criticism, however, appears to possess the greatest awareness of the stakes at issue in this conflict, perhaps because it refuses to deny its political agenda, whereas other forms of literary criticism often distance themselves from life and society with their inaugural gesture. Carolyn Heilbrun and others claim that feminist criticism is capable of bringing spirit back to literary studies; perhaps it can also clarify some of the choices central to the ethics of criticism.

Sentimental Power

Oscar Wilde remarked that all bad art springs from genuine sentiments. Does it follow that bad criticism also springs from genuine feelings? If this statement were true, feminist criticism would be bad criticism, and indeed it fails to conform to the Arnoldian standard of disinterestedness so prevalent in this century. For feminist criticism is nothing but interested. The interested nature of women's writing, however, gives it an attentiveness and capacity of self-awareness as rare in literary theory as its commitment to social change.

The attention of feminist studies is largely directed toward the issue of the persecution and exclusion of women, although not entirely, since much of women's theory conserves the compassion toward suffering people traditionally associated with the feminine conscience. The interest in the maternal metaphor in modern feminism has the effect of preserving this ethical attitude. Some have argued that the idea of women's unique sensitivity to suffering is a cliche to be discarded, but we must be careful not to reject a valuable attribute merely because it has become familiar. Nancy Chodorow's work in The Reproduction of Mothering is invaluable in this regard.3 Chodorow explains that mothering evolves as an emotional attitude that can be taught to both sexes. The question of whether mothering is a female characteristic is less important than the possibility that its insistence as an attitude opens for family life and humanity in general. In family life, the idea of mothering contributes to the forms given to parenting. More generally, feminine sympathy enriches the notion of social character, and both men and women can appropriate the attitude when they exercise their own characters.

Indeed, much of the current writing on women's popular literature—that of Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins, for example—holds women's maternal instincts and hatred of violence in great esteem. Jane Tompkins's “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” analyzes Stowe's epic novel of feeling, attributing its unique place in literary history to its capacity to reorganize culture from the female point of view. Here again the importance of literature as a social institution asserts itself, for Tompkins demonstrates how women's popular literature strives to influence the course of history. The pivotal point of this reorganization is the recognition of persecution: the novel's sentimental power derives from the suffering and death of an innocent victim.

What is striking about Tompkins's analysis is her ability to account for the power of Stowe's work on an ethical plane, and the discovery of the ethics of the suffering and excluded is soon extended to Stowe's novel itself and eventually to the position of women in history. Paradoxically, Uncle Tom's Cabin becomes the innocent victim of literary history. Even though it teaches one to recognize the moral tragedy of racism and prejudice, it falls victim to men's prejudice against women writers and disappears from our literary canon. Tompkins's efforts to restore the novel to its rightful place repeat Stowe's ethics. More significant for feminist criticism, Tompkins extends Stowe's ethics to the exclusion and suffering of women, and her analysis of Stowe's Indiana kitchen offers a vision of what this ethics promises for women and men. Like the kitchen, the new society created by the insistence of women's point of view will be a center of harmonious activity controlled by women, and men will be “incidental,” like Simeon Halliday, standing in his “shirt-sleeves before a little looking-glass in the corner, engaged in the anti-patriarchal activity of shaving” (FC 100).

Stowe's novel was capable of bringing about enormous social change because it forcefully identified the victims of the institution of slavery. To change the situation of women, feminist criticism similarly begins by giving voice to women's suffering. The image of the suffering and excluded woman takes as many forms in feminist literary theory as it does in society. Feminist criticism has been so successful in its illustration that I need list only a few instances here. Christine Rochefort calls women's literature a “literature of the colonized.” Hélène Cixous, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” provides many descriptions of women's troubling situation.4 They are the “repressed of culture.” Women have been driven away from writing; “they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” (245). Nina Baym's “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” as its title indicates, traces the expulsion of women's writing from literary tradition (FC 63–80). Rare, indeed, is the work of feminist criticism that does not give illustration to woman's persecution.

Feminist criticism would justify its existence if it catalogued only the injustices against women. Violence against women is a reality and demands everyone's attention and care. Yet many women theorists have not been satisfied with merely illustrating female victimization; they explain that the process of identifying victims may lead to a general identification with the victimized that scandalizes feminism in its most valued pursuits. Feminist theory ventures beyond a catalogue of women's suffering by demonstrating an awareness of the psychological dangers created by the state of suffering. In “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” Showalter explains that suffering may become a “literary commodity” that both men and women consume. Those feminist writers whose purpose is to discover a new world often begin by reclaiming the suffering of the past. When feminist criticism becomes nothing but an ideological critique, Showalter argues, it “has a tendency to naturalize women's victimization by making it the inevitable and obsessive topic of discussion” (FC 130). Women risk making a career out of being betrayed by men, and Showalter finds that “this comes dangerously close to a celebration of the opportunities of victimization, the seduction of betrayal” (FC 131). Showalter ends the essay by analyzing her own struggle, as a “Minority Professor,” with the contradictory desires for marginality and equality: “There have been times when the Minority wishes to betray the Professor by isolating herself in a female ghetto; or when the Professor wishes to betray the Minority by denying the troubling voice of difference and dissent. What I hope is that neither will betray the other, because neither can exist by itself” (FC 141).

Showalter is wrong that neither the oppressing Professor nor the oppressed Minority might exist by itself within one individual, although she is right to hope that she does not lose the equilibrium between them. More often than not, oppressors have little sympathy for their victims, and genuine persecution sometimes causes victims to lose sight of everything but their own suffering. By and large, feminist theory has not fallen victim to such oppositional thinking. Indeed, it is startling to find such balance in the thought of a truly persecuted group, especially when modern criticism, which cannot be said to be persecuted in any manner, flees on nearly every front to a rhetoric of marginality to exonerate itself from its own violence. Being a victim has become fashionable in literary theory because the position is not easily attacked. Paul de Man prefers a theory of rhetoric that mourns for the critic's blindness instead of risking the aggression of insight. Michel Foucault's early work seeks identification with the madmen, deviants, and excluded of history instead of proposing a historical system. Jacques Lacan threatens to make the death drive the motor of the unconscious, making everyone its necessary victim. Rene Girard describes human beings as the victims of their own desires, promising them hope only if they identify with the figure of Christ, whose innocent self-sacrifice distinguishes him as the only victim worthy of emulation.

If modern literary theory truly values a victimary rhetoric, it remains a mystery why theory is so often associated with intellectual terrorism. Could it be that modern theorists identify with those who suffer in a desire to avoid violence, but forget that the victim and victimizer are related roles? Jean Bethke Elshtain's essay “Feminist Discourse and Its Discontents” exposes the dangers of an excessive identification with the victimized and explains some of the presuppositions underlying the almost universal preference for the identification.5 Elshtain finds it troubling that “some feminists who set out to describe in order to condemn may, in their descriptions, embrace the terms of their own degradation” (136). They are motivated, she claims, by the ease with which the voice of the victim is accepted: “The presumption is that the victim speaks in a pure voice: I suffer therefore I have moral purity and none can question what I say” (136). Elshtain's reading is not a nihilistic critique of the “slave morality” in the Nietzschean vein but a perceptive analysis of how modernity's valuable sensitivity to suffering may nevertheless be perverted.

Feminist critics are not alone in being led to embrace suffering to gain moral superiority. But they seem more aware than many of the temptation. Bonnie Zimmerman's description of lesbian literary criticism, “What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Criticism,” is firmly disposed toward a “radical politics of marginality.” She believes that the “otherness” of lesbian experience must be accented, arguing that heterosexism is primarily a form of exclusion that denies the lesbian difference. Moreover, she expresses little desire to bring lesbian critics into the mainstream, but grants that lesbianism has a “unique and critical place at the margins of patriarchal society” (FC 204). The worth of lesbian criticism for Zimmerman cannot be thought apart from its marginality, for the “value of separatism is precisely this marginality” (FC 214–15). Most significant, she does not define marginality as a position imposed by male oppressors; rather, it is necessary for the lesbian to marginalize herself: “Those critics who maintain a consciously chosen position on the boundaries (and not one imposed by a hostile society) help to keep lesbian and feminist criticism radical and provocative, preventing both from becoming another arm of the established truth” (FC 215).6 The radical politics of marginality sacrifices its proponents to be provocative; it is self-victimizing and therefore potentially victimizing, for the moment that the self-victim provides a radical critique of others’ tendencies to victimize her, she becomes their oppressor. Zimmerman nevertheless seems aware of the relation between the victim and victimizer. Despite her allegiance to marginal politics, she confesses that the lesbian essence, in which she believes, is dangerous, resembling a “curious revival” of the nineteenth-century belief in female moral superiority. As a remedy, she proposes that women remain sensitive to the “dynamic between oppression and oppressing,” although such sensitivity is ultimately incompatible with a truly radical politics of marginality (FC 216).

The difficulty with the politics of marginality remains that it may create a victimary mythology in order to reign over its victimizers. Men have a history of persecuting women; this history must end. But if this history is attributed to unchangeable differences between men and women, feminism risks creating a reverse mythology. The world that this mythology demands would be something like Stowe's Indiana kitchen, where men still hold weapons, but turn them benignly against themselves. We may all, men and women alike, desire such a world, but a real world it is not. It is nevertheless a fact of politics that minority groups must often risk essentialism to spark political events. The modern critique of ethics points to the fact that ethical systems often open with an unethical gesture. It condemns ethics as such for its tendency toward essentialism and false opposition. But the most successful ethics is one that strives to compensate for the violence in its past, and only a criticism that believes more in essentialism than it claims moral philosophy does will reject ethics out of hand for essentialism.

Whether the time has come to ask feminist criticism to call for this corrective action is not an easy question, and the call, when it arises, will have to come from within feminism itself. If feminism dismantles its own political rhetoric prematurely, it may lose its voice and its cause. Yet it will encourage attack, if it does not provide a place for the Simeon Hallidays of the world.

Some women have already called for the next stage in feminist rhetoric. Others have tried, either implicitly or explicitly, to provide models for a nonsexist personality. In almost every case, the models attempt solutions to the oppositions created by the contradictory impulses toward difference and equality. Heilbrun's early Toward a Recognition of Androgyny uses the literature of androgyny to break down conventional attitudes toward sexual identities.7 She searches through literary history for women who are strong and men who are gentle. Most important, she argues that the complete human being brings together a harmonious mixture of those traits often divided according to feminine and masculine ideals. Whether androgyny genuinely exists may not be as important as its message. The concept of androgyny supports a political and ethical agenda that would erase those oppositions standing in the way of sexual equality. It is in effect a hypothetical basis for social action.

The fight for sexual equality is first and foremost an ethical issue. The goal in fact exposes the ethical orientation of feminist theory as such. But equality defined from an ethical standpoint has nothing to do with natural differences; the ethically minded person may recognize that sexual distinctions exist, but understands that they should not be allowed to become the reason for prejudice. Yet sexual difference holds a fascination for human beings: their identities cannot be thought apart from their sex, and sexuality itself serves as a primary force in bringing differences in gender to consciousness. The struggle for sexual equality must therefore confront the “reality” of gender, but feminists have felt uncomfortable basing their fight for equality solely on ethical principles. Heilbrun's idea of androgyny is a case in point. Androgyny is a “theory” that represents the desire to find a motivation other than ethical upon which to found sexual equality, and yet it cannot escape its ethical content.

Feminism for and against Psychoanalysis

The argument between feminism and psychoanalysis presents the most dramatic illustration of the ethics of sexual difference. Modern feminism cannot divorce itself from Freud because psychoanalysis invented the twentieth-century myth of the self. More important, psychoanalysis encourages the belief that anatomy is destiny. The feminist critique opened by attacking Freud because women thinkers saw him as the greatest obstacle to their desire to explain that men and women are equal. Such early opponents of Freud as Kate Millett and Betty Friedan were usually content to develop an ethical argument against psychoanalysis. They demonstrated Freud's outmoded attitudes toward women and exposed the ideological content of psychoanalysis.

But Freud's biological theories appeared more concrete than the ethical claims of feminism. The science of sexuality claimed to have biology on its side, and the feminist's ethical critique seemed weak by comparison, especially in an age when ethical arguments seem hopelessly out of date. If biology was to be surmounted, the feminists seemed to think, they needed an argument with not only ethical validity but scientific power. Suddenly, feminists became more interested in psychoanalysis. Juliet Mitchell's role in this project has been to eliminate the opposition between feminism and psychoanalysis by attacking the biological basis of gender.8 Mitchell bases her work on the theories of Jacques Lacan, whose revision of Freud acts to destroy the humanistic basis of ego psychology and the importance of biology. For Mitchell and Lacan, sexuality is a language. The terms “masculine” and “feminine” await the child when s/he enters the symbolic order of culture, and s/he gains a sexual identity by taking a place within the symbolism of social relations. “Masculine” and “feminine” are terms whose relation is marked as differential by another term, “the phallus,” and as a linguistic marker of difference, the phallus bears no relation to the male penis. Differences in anatomy, according to Lacan and Mitchell, do not determine gender identity.

Mitchell's argument tries to free sexual identity from biology, breaking the hold of anatomy on women's destiny. Despite Nancy Chodorow's disagreements with Mitchell, her work on mothering has the same effect because it wishes to demonstrate that gender identity is an acquired characteristic. Analogously, Heilbrun's idea of androgyny—the notion that human beings are bisexual by nature, and only acquire fixed sexual identity within society—serves to justify the ethical claim that men and women are equal. Now human biology, as defined by psychoanalysis, appears to share the feminist's ethical principles, for it also refuses to fix identity. Paradoxically, then, revisionary psychoanalysis provides feminism with a scientific basis for its struggle toward sexual parity. To change human anatomy would seem an onerous task. But if social language establishes male and female identity, perhaps the possibility of social change does exist. Marxist feminists find the shift in emphasis from anatomy to language especially attractive, and one understands at once the importance of Marx in Mitchell's project. Might women not strip away the corrupting influence of the symbolic order and restore the primitive equality of the sexes?

Unfortunately, Lacanian psychoanalysis does not readily admit this solution. According to Lacan, no human being can become a subject if she or he remains beyond the division of the sexes. The revisionary position of Mitchell does not rely on biology, but sexual difference exists nevertheless. Sexual difference remains a fact of existence, for each individual is subject to its laws in language. Anatomy controls no one's fate, but fate remains. Now language is destiny. Thus, Jacqueline Rose, a Laca-nian, attempting to characterize woman's place in the symbolic order, offers only a minor consolation to feminism: “woman is not inferior, she is subjected” (44).9

Not satisfied with the dream of equality of the Anglo-American feminists, and not able to support woman's subjection by language, the French feminists take what appears to be another direction. They continue to rely on psychoanalysis, but return to the body as a means of staking out the difference of women. The body, for them, represents what cannot be categorized by language; it lies beyond the definitions of language and fails to align itself with the binary oppositions of linguistic and ethical systems. In this view, the languages of society have too long subjected women because of their difference; male society fears feminine difference, and its enslavement of women represents its attempts to control what it cannot understand.

Hélène Cixous's “The Laugh of the Medusa” returns with insistence to the idea that women and their writing defy conventional categories of description. The world of women stands beyond knowledge as such; it is a world of pleasure and sensation that cannot be limited: “A world of searching, the elaboration of knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of erotogeneity. This practice, extraordinarily rich and inventive, in particular as concerns masturbation, is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic activity, each stage of rapture inscribing a resonant vision, a composition, something beautiful” (246).

Women write literature in secret, just as they masturbate, and their writing captures their ecstasy. Cixous claims that “there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity,” and stakes as her project the task of putting woman into the text (248). Cixous's project is paradoxical, however, because she believes in feminine writing (écriture feminine), but refuses to offer a definition of it. Nor will she define feminism, but shies away, as do most French feminists, from any movement that would determine itself by opposition to another term. But her refusal of definition makes sense only in an ethical context, for she allies definition and male violence. For Cixous, sex equals politics, and masculine sexuality is responsible not only for violence but for the political systems that enslave women. Indeed, Cixous describes male anatomy as the model for political dictatorships: “Though masculine sexuality gravitates around the penis, engendering that centralized body (in political anatomy) under the dictatorship of its parts, woman does not bring about the same regionalization which serves the couple head/genitals and which is inscribed only within boundaries. Her libido is cosmic, just as her unconscious is worldwide” (259). Anatomy becomes destiny again, but not to subjugate women. Feminine sexuality is superior because it refuses tyranny; it keeps in touch with the unconscious, “that other limitless country,” where possibilities are open and equal. Feminine writing is true poetry because only poetry gains strength through the unconscious, the place where the “repressed manage to survive” (250). “Men say,” Cixous notes, “that there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex” (255); indeed, that woman is an “impossible subject” means that she cannot be subjected, for to fly beyond representation is to be free.

Consequently, the practice of feminine writing always refuses to neutralize woman's difference through language. Women's “vatic bisexuality,” in Cixous's mind, stirs up, pursues, and increases the number of differences, thereby throwing into confusion those who would try to systematize them. Most significant for the ethics of criticism, feminine writing prefers “love” to the exclusions and aggressiveness that it associates with male theory and politics. As Cixous wishes feminine writing to be practiced, it “will surpass the discourse that regulates the phallo-centric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination. It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate” (253). Cixous's manifesto gives privilege to marginality and otherness, for they alone provide an antidote to political repression and violence. Her ethics seeks the other in the other. Indeed, such is her definition of love. Love merges with literature in feminine writing: “When I write, it's everything that we don't know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love” (264).

The heart of ethics is the desire for community. Traditionally, ethics has struggled to represent the other as the same to break down the prejudices brought about by the thought of otherness and to make community possible. To accomplish the task, moral philosophy invented the concept of equality, which does not necessarily imply reducing the other to the same but rather posits a hypothetical sameness that allows us to conceive of different people as being equal to ourselves. French feminisms, however, seek an alternative to this view. Cixous, for example, bases her ideas on the concept of “other love.” Luce Irigaray rejects the notion of sexual equality altogether.10 She believes that the ideal of sexual equality causes women's otherness to be absorbed into masculine discourse. She designates as “feminine” an economy founded not on sameness but on otherness.

The “feminine,” however, does not seek to steal power through its otherness; only men, as Irigaray explains in This Sex Which Is Not One, struggle toward a phallic “seizure of power” (130). The French feminists, like their Anglo-American counterparts, define their project in opposition to aggression, and the concept of “other love” emerges as an extreme instance of the compassion traditionally associated with women. A danger lies in sentimental power, however, if we must mark women as other to arouse sympathetic attitudes. It is one thing to identify with another's difference; this is essential to sympathy itself. It is another thing to represent oneself as different. Although most individuals desire to be different from others, a threshold exists where difference begins to provoke anxiety in either individuals or their neighbors. Excessive difference excites anxiety because it marks the extremes of social life, where an individual threatens the community with violence or the community threatens to destroy the individual. It is perhaps an ironic indication of the importance of community that we tend to define the first as tyranny and the second as sacrifice.

To view Irigaray's rejection of sexual equality and adoration of otherness as unethical, however, would be to misunderstand her project. The ethics that she appears to reject still exists within her thought; she has merely shifted it to another location. Pluralism, although often misunderstood today, refers not to undecidability but to the Kantian ideal that accepts the diversity of human beings on ethical principle. When Irigaray dispenses with the idea of sexual equality, she would appear not to support pluralism, and yet the body of woman becomes nothing other than the terrain of diversity and multiplicity.

In This Sex Which Is Not One, Irigaray discovers a country where pluralism exists, and its borders are the female sex organs. The male sex organ is one; it is singular and hierarchical with respect to his body. Contrariwise, the female sex organs are not one; they are “plural": "woman has sex organs more or less everywhere” (28). Furthermore, woman's multiplicity means that she is in touch with herself. Women turn to themselves, Irigaray insists, murmuring to and caressing themselves. Their discourse may appear hysterical to men, but in reality their speech indicates their intimacy with themselves. Most important, for Irigaray, woman's plurality means that she can be fulfilled without the aid of men. The desire of women may be interpreted by men as an insatiable hunger, “a voracity that will swallow you whole,” but Irigaray attributes it to another sexual economy, one that upsets “linearity” and “diffuses the polarization toward a single pleasure, disconcerts fidelity to a single discourse ...” (30).

Irigaray's earliest work often verges on mysticism in its description of women's sexual economy and special consciousness. In L'Ethique de la difference sexuelle, Irigaray argues that an explicit relation exists between mysticism and sexual ethics. She describes the ethics of sexual difference as an ethics of female flesh that allows the possibility of bringing together spirit and body. Woman's pleasure is never an instance of power or separation, but an instance of dispersal, a liberation of being by affective emotions, in which sexuality and ethics merge in transcendence. Woman's otherness places her close to the alterity of God, and in the way of flesh Irigaray finds an ethics faithful to a new incarnation that refuses the sacrificial substitutions and violence of traditional religions. In short, women's hysteria and refusal to submit to a single discourse demonstrate their mystical nature.

The mystery of woman remains a source of terror for men because it escapes all rational logic. Irigaray argues that men fear women's heterogeneity. She explains that men have always interpreted women's multiplicity not as a mystical fullness but as incompleteness; their sex appears to men as fragmented or in shards, as if the female organs were merely remnants of the perfect organ. The point remains that male thought reduces women and does violence to them, and indeed, Irigaray sees male and female relationships as fundamentally violent. Once more, politics and anatomy come together to expose the violence of male desire. Men disrupt women's autoeroticism with a violent break-in: “the brutal separation of the two lips by a violating penis, an intrusion that distracts and deflects the woman from this ‘self-caressing’ she needs if she is not to incur the disappearance of her own pleasure in sexual relations” (24). The imperatives of male rivalry dominate heterosexual relations, Irigaray contends, “the ‘strongest’ being the one who has the best ‘hard-on,’ the longest, the biggest, the stiffest penis, or even the one who ‘pees the farthest'” (25). Male desire works to force entry, to penetrate, and to appropriate, whereas female desire has no violent aims. Men and women, for Irigaray, are strangers to one another's desires. Their only meeting place is reproduction, where man and woman may finally caress one another through the mediation of the child.

I hope that both Irigaray and Cixous are wrong in their claims about the respective natures of men and women. Perhaps we can do away with the perception that male desire is essentially violent without losing the idea that women are compassionate. Passion should in fact lay the foundation for compassion between men and women, and rare is the man, I think, who values passion for long when it is not accompanied by compassion. Feminism is responsible for changing the attitudes of men toward the sexual act, and the appearance of greater sensitivity in men to women's pleasure enriches their lives together. But the existence of greater masculine sensitivity may require a change in women's attitudes as well. For a man sensitive to the history of masculine persecution of women, the charge that his desire, by nature, vandalizes his partner or destroys her pleasure may itself be a subtle form of victimization. The solution is for men and women in relationships to be aware of their own rhythms and identities and not to confuse them with political generalities, if they are not to bruise one another with accusations.

In the meantime, feminist criticism does have the immediate value of introducing, through the issue of sexual difference, a means of developing an ethical critique of violence. Indeed, the issue of sexual inequality has no meaning outside of an ethical context, and consequently, the debate over the value of psychoanalysis for feminism robs women thinkers of their greatest asset. It leads feminists to abandon a strong ethical position for a weak and murky scientific argument. There is ultimately no point in debating whether language or anatomy is destiny, for both theories venture toward the same ethical vision, and in spite of themselves. Mitchell's revisionary reading of psychoanalysis gives privilege to the preverbal period of subjectivity because this time lays the hypothesis for her Marxist dream of social equality. Cixous and Irigaray stress female anatomy, but end by representing woman's body as the means of escaping from the male language of oppression. Julia Kristeva's notion of the “semiotic” also privileges bodily images, fluidity, and heterogeneous discourse in order to counter the “symbolic” distinctions upon which repressive systems are constructed.11 The ethics of the female body and its preverbal discourse provide feminism with a response to those forms of violence that are justified by the perception of sexual difference. It is not sexual difference, however, that needs to be either accepted or rejected; we need to reject the prejudices that rationalize aggression and exclusion on the basis of those differences.

Symbolic Wounds

The Romantic interest in suffering has ensured a diverse representation of the poet's agonies for our day, but the extent to which the image of the poète maudit constitutes a theory of personality has not been adequately studied.12 Freud, in particular, takes inspiration from the Romantic poetics of suffering and adopts its metaphors under the guise of science. The idea that the self emerges on a battleground pervades psychoanalysis, but it was in Moses and Monotheism that Freud found his ideal metaphor. Here Freud describes the self as a fortress whose walls are constructed of scar tissue, of the “scars of repression” that force instinctual drives to seek increasingly new paths in their assault on the ego.13 To each new assault, the apparatus of repression responds by closing the wound, only to await the next invasion and the next coagulation. How does one imagine the self? Is it a corpus of flesh plagued by open and festering sores and hardened by scabs, scars, and shards of skin?

That the female sex has been seen as a wound acquires new meaning if seen within the context of the Romantic view of personality. The Romantics created a dynamic relationship between selfhood and its wounds. In effect, they discovered that suffering could be a commodity, as Showalter would say, and they exhibited their wounds like old war horses for the purpose of poetically creating themselves. Feminist theorists, especially in America and England, have deployed their critical powers against the Romantic poetics of suffering. They openly detest the masculine perception that women are masochistic or that their sex is a wound. Feminists seem to recognize the risk of adopting the image of the suffering woman and contradict the idea that the voice of the victim is always pure. The image of the suffering woman loses its romance in the context of genuine suffering, and it is perhaps the experience of authentic persecution that allows some feminist thinkers to resist the temptation of the poetics of suffering.

And yet, if women have been hurt by men, and they have, what better way to demonstrate it than to display their wounds? If one subscribes to the metaphor that men penetrate women in the sexual act, it means that their sex may be wounded. Although French feminists have also reacted against the romanticization of persecution, some have described the sexual act as a “break-in.” Irigaray and others openly detest the idea that woman is wounded or that her sexual organs might be considered wounds, but they end by viewing heterosexuality as an action that wounds women by interrupting their “self-caressing.” A subtle translation begins to occur. If woman's sex reveals her pluralistic nature, it also exposes her status as a victim. Woman is open, but woman is wounded.

That some women theorists have adopted the masculine image of their sexual organs will astonish us only if we forget the crucial role played by marginality in feminist ethics. To direct attention to the margins, women need to conserve the image of their suffering. This tactic is not a sham in any manner of speaking, as long as it has a legitimate political basis. The tactic becomes suspect only when it increases the suffering of women and contributes to the prejudices responsible for their oppression. A fine line exists between these two positions, and the best feminist thinkers keep watch over it. But the advantages both in political and personal terms may sometimes be too great to resist. That the sexual act wounds women remains an extraordinarily provocative image. It provides an avenue to the conscience of men. Moreover, the traditional masculine fascination with the otherness of the female organs can be used to an advantage by presenting men with their own fears, fantasies, and prejudices. Ironically, anatomical description has become a major trope in feminist writing, whereas one rarely finds it in any literature or criticism other than that of pornography. These descriptions either present women's genitalia as a symbolic wound or as a mysterious and dangerous object. In the first case, the writer stresses woman's difference as victim; in the second case, her difference engenders an aura of power. In both cases, the distance between victim and victimizer grows dangerously close.

Sarah Kofman's The Enigma of Woman works to transform marginality into power, and consequently she strives to enhance the mystery of the female organs.14 She finds in Freud's “On Narcissism: An Introduction” an exception to his usual oppressive descriptions of women and an incentive for her own celebration of women's uniqueness and power. Whereas Freud most frequently emphasizes the natural inferiority of woman's sex, the text on narcissism assigns women a remarkable autonomy shared only by beasts and birds of prey. But Kofman argues that Freud cannot sustain the effort for long. By the conclusion of the essay, he begins to cover over the libidinal superiority of women by representing them not as “great animals” but as “hysterics,” thereby returning to his usual choice of images. Freud's essay presents not a case of penis envy, Kofman claims, but one of a momentary venus envy. Freud wishes that he could possess the superior energy and autonomy of the narcissistic woman.

Crucial to Kofman's interpretation is her image of the feminine sexual organs. She adopts the Freudian view of the castrated woman, but not to display her suffering. Rather, the presence of the castrated woman petrifies men by providing them with the image of their most dreadful nightmares. The castrated woman assaults men's narcissism, while her narcissism remains uninjured because she has nothing to fear. Indeed, Kofman's essay strives both to incorporate the image of the narcissistic woman and to present it to her readers. When part of the essay appeared in translation in Diacritics, it was accompanied by a line drawing of a female nude, conveniently placed next to Kofman's initial exhibition of the vagina: “that ‘pus-filled cavity’ which threatens to contaminate and infect man” (36). The rest of the essay merely gives representation in one form or another to men's apparent fear of this opening image. For example, Kofman explains that Freud, unlike Nietzsche, fears woman's voluptuous feelings of her own force. Freud's retreat from the unheimlich place of women, as illustrated in “The Uncanny” where he describes his flight from a group of prostitutes, stands for all men's terror. Freud's theories pretend to show women a redemptive path, but in reality he draws them with him into retreat. Similarly, Kofman criticizes Rene Girard's assault on Freud's theory of narcissism because it tries to expose Freud's momentary belief in women's narcissistic superiority as a myth. Like Freud, Kofman argues, Girard flees from the power of woman, and she points to Girard's use of Latin and German words for the vagina as the proof of his terror.

Kofman prefers Freud to Girard because psychoanalysis allows her to represent women as “great animals,” whereas Girard does not believe in the metaphor. But Kofman misreads Girard at a fundamental level when she argues that he attacks female narcissism to preserve male superiority. For Girard, narcissism does not exist for either men or women. The coquette uses a strategy to enflame men's desires: she fascinates men by desiring herself in the presence of her lovers, literally dividing herself into a desiring subject and a desired object. But “coquette” is only a word for Girard, and it refers to no specific gender. Girard argues that Proust's male dandies and snobs use the same strategy, and he works to expose the mythological nature of such narcissistic strategies by pointing to Freud's metaphors. In short, men and women are not birds or beasts of prey. If Girard's reading has a moral, it is not that women do not have enough power or sense to overcome selfishness, but that narcissism uses false accusations to create the differences that make prejudice and sexism possible. In this respect, Nina Auerbach's admirable Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth gives a feminist perspective that improves greatly on Kofman's essay.15 Auerbach exposes repeatedly how images of women's demonic or animal nature justify mistreating them.

Kofman's theories partake of a certain intellectual terrorism on many levels. While presenting herself as a deconstructive theorist, she in fact works to reverse the hierarchies of power and not to neutralize oppositions. Kofman, of course, draws on the theories of Derrida, but the alliance has been overemphasized because she clings to differences, refusing to defer them in a deconstructive gesture. Whereas Derrida wants women to be indifferent to men, Kofman wants women to frighten them. In Derrida's language, then, Kofman remains a “feminist.” In Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, Derrida sets down the lines of his attack against the feminist movement.16 He argues that only men believe in castration and that those women who believe that women are wounded by men subscribe to a male myth. Feminism becomes nothing but the operation of a woman who aspires to be a man. Feminists, Nietzsche said, lack style (spurs), and Derrida agrees. Kofman's narcissistic woman may seem indifferent to men. Indeed, she presents herself as truly autonomous. But her indifference does not preclude the desire to toy with men by presenting them with their own frightening myths. Woman's power, as Kofman defines it, consists in the ability to terrorize men with the spectacle of otherness. Kofman would reverse the years of male victimization of women by transforming the myth of sexual difference into a means of ensnaring men in their own violence. In effect, Kofman plays the “coquette” because she desires to possess the power that narcissism brings, but, paradoxically, she must remain an orthodox Freudian, believing in castration and narcissism, to accomplish her goal.

In short, Kofman fights in every instance to emphasize woman's difference. In place of Nietzsche's superman or overman, Kofman would substitute her “superwoman.” Women may have suffered at the hands of men, her reasoning asserts, but their persecution proves their superiority. And, in fact, men are really terrified of women because they secretly resent their inherent strength. One day the “slave morality” of men will collapse, and women will rise up to take their rightful place as masters. Given their interpretation of Nietzsche, it grows easy to understand why Derrida and Kofman play the coquette, but the benefits of coquetry to feminism remain perplexing.

Gayatri Spivak focuses on another aspect of woman's difference. For the last few years, Spivak has been constructing an extraordinary political allegory that plays out the relations between the violence of male literary critics and the suffering of Third World women, feminists, and herself. She employs many deconstructive tactics, but there is nothing coquettish about her theories. Indeed, she focuses in great detail on women's suffering as a means of establishing their difference. Her objective, however, is to demonstrate that suffering transforms women not into “superwomen,” as Kofman claims, but into “superobjects.” Two essays in particular draw the lines of her argument.17 The first, “'Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi,” concludes with an image of a woman naked and brutalized. The second, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” begins with a quotation from the work of a woman Sudanese sociologist who describes a clitoridectomy, as performed in the Sudan:

In Egypt it is only the clitoris which is amputated, and usually not completely. But in the Sudan, the operation consists in the complete removal of all the external genital organs. They cut off the clitoris, the two major outer lips (labia majora) and the two minor inner lips (labia minora). Then the wound is repaired. The outer opening of the vagina is the only portion left intact, not however without having ensured that, during the process of repairing, some narrowing of the opening is carried out with a few extra stitches. The result is that on the marriage night it is necessary to widen the external opening by slitting one or both ends with a sharp scalpel or razor so that the male organ can be introduced.


In this passage, Spivak confesses, “I found an allegory of my own ideological victimage” (155). Spivak's statement of her victimization, which she places immediately after the vivid description of the clitoridectomy, tells of being forced to choose English Honors and to become a professor of English in the United States. Apparently, such persecution entitles Spivak to speak on behalf of the feminists and Third World women who suffer oppression. Spivak's other essay, which is really a translation with preface of a short story by Mahasveta Devi, creates a similar allegory between the institution of literary criticism and the victimization of women, but it gives a clearer indication of how to interpret the relation between Spivak's argument and her portrayal of the female sexual organs. The story puts two characters in confrontation. Senanayak is an army officer who captures Draupadi (also called Dropdi) and orders her to be raped and brutalized. Draupadi is a member of the revolutionary forces, although Mahasveta Devi makes a point of saying that her name is not included in the list of insurrectionists. But Spivak insists in her preface that Senanayak represents the First World scholar in search of the Third World, here represented by Draupadi. Senanayak, it seems, is also a literary critic and a “pluralist aesthete.” He enjoys interpretation, makes literary allusions, and displays interest at least in theory in the otherness of those whom he is exploiting. But he destroys them nevertheless.

Moreover, as Spivak portrays the army officer, he appears to suffer from a split consciousness. One wonders whether Spivak intends to present Senanayak as some sort of alienated consciousness, as an ideological victim, caught between the First and Third World, just as Spivak claims to be. Repeatedly, her allegory groups herself, her readers, and Senanayak together in a collective “we.” Indeed, Spivak's allegory never dispels the confusion over Senanayak's character, for her objective remains to demonstrate how Senanayak's conscience allows Dropdi to destroy male authority in the story's final scenes. There Dropdi achieves the reversal of power by turning Senanayak against himself, after becoming, in Spivak's words, a “superobject."

What does it mean to be a “superobject"? A brief plot summary may explain. The morning after her brutalization, Dropdi tears her clothes with her teeth and strips herself naked. Fear and commotion spread through the camp as Dropdi approaches Senanayak. She walks “toward him in the bright sunlight with her head high. The nervous guards trail behind her” (282). Senanayak is stupified by her naked presence and cannot talk. “Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds” (282). Senanayak asks where her clothes are, and Dropdi shakes with “indomitable laughter,” her ravaged lips bleeding as she howls. Then, “in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation,” she cries, “You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man? . . . There isn't a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me—come on, counter me—?” (282). The final image of the story completes the reversal of power: “Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid” (282).

No doubt, “Draupadi” presents an extraordinarily powerful expression of a woman's moral anger. Whether the story supports Spivak's allegorical attack on literary criticism is another matter. Some may find offensive, even victimizing, her identification between Senanayak and the literary critic, and we may question whether the analogy between physical violence and literary interpretation is at all legitimate. Spivak's essay does not distinguish between forms of ideology and acts of brutality, betraying its debt to Rousseau's belief that writing makes violence possible. But if we adhere to such analogies every person becomes a victim of culture, and the idea of the victim, so important for both Spivak's argument and feminism, loses all meaning. It is not impossible to suspect the equivalence between social ideology and murder without condoning either one.

No reason exists, however, to suspect Spivak's feminist interpretation, for it is easy to see Mahasveta's tale as an allegory for women's outrage against male brutality. Dropdi's moral power, her only power, consists in the ease with which she can now be destroyed by Senanayak. Hers is a moral victory over tyranny, but her moral superiority depends on having turned Senanayak against himself. She accomplishes this effect by exhibiting her wounds to the officer, and the tale turns our attention to his reactions. Dropdi's final epithet, “unarmed target,” conveys the officer's subjectivity, not Dropdi's, for his hesitation comes from his realization that Dropdi is a pure target and that he has become an instrument of destruction.

Spivak nevertheless distorts this crucial fact by interpreting “unarmed target" as “superobject."18 The stress should lie on the word “unarmed,” but Spivak's desire to empower the victim by changing her into a “superobject” betrays Dropdi. The guards in the camp fear that Dropdi might be a “superobject.” Senanayak fears that she might be a “superobject.” In her rage, in fact, Dropdi demands to be the object of their violence, but she walks a fine line, for when her aggressivity surpasses a certain threshold, Senanayak will reciprocate in kind, that is, as soon as Senanayak can forget that Dropdi is an “unarmed target” and can justify thinking of her as a “superobject,” he will also justify killing her. The term “unarmed target” means that Senanayak is concerned that he will endanger himself by killing Dropdi. The term “superobject,” by contrast, conveys Senanayak's fear of Dropdi without the mediation of his conscience.

Some might argue, however, that Spivak does succeed in capturing the essence of Mahasveta's story, and there are reasons to agree, especially if we stress the final paragraph of the tale: “Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid” (282). At this point, Dropdi is clearly the aggressor, and one wonders whether Mahasveta's inclusion of the words “unarmed target” represents an attempt to compensate for Dropdi's aggression by reasserting her absolute passivity. The final lines in fact shift attention from Dropdi to Senanayak, marking him as her object. Most important, the scene satisfies a sense of “poetic justice,” for the reader sees Dropdi take her revenge on Senanayak, who now appears not as a brutal persecutor but as “terribly afraid.” The scene would have been more effective for a feminist reading if Mahasveta had dropped out the last lines and concluded with Dropdi's final words: “Come on, counter me—come on, counter me—?” (282).19 It would then be the reader's task to imagine Senanayak's response and the emphasis would have remained with Dropdi alone. The tale would be more Dropdi's story and less the narration of Senanayak's split consciousness. But poetic justice demands that the reader see Senanayak punished in some form so that his brutality may be forgotten. Dropdi must win her self-respect so that we can justify and forget her suffering.

Spivak's allegories also feed our sense of poetic justice. They are narrations telling how persecuted women win out in the end because their persecution makes them strong. But some situations of victimization simply cannot be overcome by self-assertion. Some situations create victims. In short, real victims exist. “Draupadi” translates victimization into power, reading like an Ovidian transformation of being. But how many human beings can be expected to rise phoenixlike from such brutal persecution? Spivak undercuts her position by making persecution necessary to female power. Indeed, her allegory creates a direct equation between the suffering of women and the power of revenge. This is why she relies on the exhibition of the female sex as a wound. Its image makes legitimate the protests that follow.

Both Spivak and Kofman desire the conventional shock of portraying the female organs. They use such exhibitions to offer a political challenge, in which women either take the image of their victimization and confront men with it, or contest the prejudicial image of women's weakness by showing that they too can be aggressive and vulgar. Both alternatives evolve by assuming the pure voice of the victim, and in both cases, exhibitionism is a show of power. But, for Spivak and Kofman, the tactic has more impact in terms of personal than political power. Spivak's confession of her ideological victimage allies itself with the image of the clitoridectomy, and the essay effectively transfers to her discourse the power of sentiment that this image invokes. Similarly, Kofman's “male” description of a vagina appears quite extraneous to her argument, until we realize that it prefigures her desire to ensnare both Freud and Girard in their own rhetoric. The positions of Spivak and Kofman are nevertheless distinct in an important respect. Spivak speaks out against the barbaric practices and oppressive ideologies that persecute First and Third World women. Kofman, however, refuses to contribute to the feminist critique. She prefers representing women as “great animals” to challenging the mythological and prejudicial content of Freud's metaphors.

Humanity and Feminism

Ethics concerns the habits, haunts, and character of human beings. We may enlarge the scope of ethics to include a greater variety of living creatures within our conception of the human being, but ethics cannot endure without the idea of humanity.

The concept of humanity has nevertheless presented enormous difficulties for feminists. It is easy to understand the reason. Humanism makes its claims in the name of man, and “man” has frequently excluded “woman.” The French feminists, in particular, have justified the rejection of the ideas of “truth,” “man,” and “self” because far too often they refer to “man's truth,” “the male sex,” and “masculine personality.” Humanism, as defined by men, has been responsible for the most inhumane treatment of women, and the rejection of feminism by Kofman, Cixous, and others remains a condition of their hatred of humanism. Like humanism, they contend, feminism clings to traditional philosophical oppositions, and oppositional thinking belongs to a male history of rivalry, violence, and exclusion.20

The response of French theorists to humanism nevertheless raises some contradictions. They are right to stand guard over the human tendency to justify aggression and prejudice on the basis of concepts such as “truth,” “self,” and “man.” But they do not strengthen their critique of violence by pretending to weakness and nihilism. Without the concept of humanity, their critique of mastery and aggression has no purpose, for the elimination of violence as such is disastrous unless we understand the relation between violence and humanity. Competition, striving, and pursuit define the human species, and a general fear of violence risks prohibiting the activities through which men and women guarantee their survival and propagation. Aggression is not always evil. But it is the responsibility of human beings to react against those forms of violence that endanger their ability to live together in their strange states of harmony and chaos. The preservation of humanity requires that we believe in the value of community and come to an understanding of those actions that endanger our existence together.

Refusing the idea of humanity too often conceals a detestation of life and human pursuits, rationalized by disillusionment and crushed idealism. But nihilism is only a stage in moral development. Ethical nihilists believe that every action has violent consequences, including the belief in good and evil, and they prefer passivity as a result. Unfortunately, they soon discover that passivity leads to crises of conscience as much as action. Decision cannot be avoided, but if one wishes to avoid as many decisions as possible, two unpleasant alternatives exist. One either chooses passivity with a vengeance or activity with a vengeance, and here the key word is “vengeance,” for both choices avenge themselves on the world of violence, not by adopting a critical attitude toward violence but by extending its grasp. In the case of the passive choice, the disillusioned determine to define their circumstances in the most unsystematic and unconscious manner. They hibernate to escape from life, and all choices made by them are attributed to the other within them, their unconscious self for example, toward whom they can take only the attitude of an unknowing and obedient child.21 In the second case, the believers in nihilism create a meaningful universe to fill the nothingness surrounding them, but it is a universe of violence and excessive willfulness. Such is the world of Nietzsche's Homeric contest, affirmed by Kofman, where the strong consume the weak to prove themselves the stronger. Both attitudes end by accepting inhumane notions of humanity, for human beings are neither passive nor active with a vengeance.

International feminism encompasses the extremes of modern theory's embrace and rejection of humanity, but it consistently approaches the issues from a humane perspective. Anglo-American feminists such as Heilbrun, Showalter, Elshtain, and Kolodny remain clearly within the tradition of liberal humanism, although expressing their dismay with how its ideals have been practiced. Irigaray, Cixous, and Spivak offer strong attacks on humanism, but they conserve a sense of humanity, if in the name of woman only. In this sense, feminism need not fear the accusation of disunity, for it has been elaborating, through diverse measures, an ethical project more harmonious than any on the current scene. It is a project in which the ethical questioning of violence and exclusionism finds a renewed vigor. Although the history of women's sentimental power has its troublesome aspects, it is reassuring that we continue today to find in the name of woman the strongest expressions of our humanity.

1. The anthology edited by Elaine Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1985), contains a great number of seminal essays on feminist theory. Hereafter, I will refer to the anthology parenthetically as FC. References in general to frequently cited texts will be given parenthetically.

2. Wayne C. Booth, “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 9 (1982): 45–76. While feminists have welcomed Booth's statements, his essay is awkward in many ways. He ignores the literature of feminism, as if women have made no contributions to issues of interpretation, and uses his spouse as a character in his morality play, in which she appears as the patient homemaker, doing the ironing, as he engages in intellectual pursuit.

3. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

4. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), pp. 245–64.

5. Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Feminist Discourse and Its Discontents: Language, Power, and Meaning,” in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology, ed. Nannerl O. Keohane, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, and Barbara C. Gelpi (Chicago: At the University Press, 1981, 1982), pp. 127–46.

6. Cf. Josette Féral's belief that women must choose marginality in “The Powers of Difference,” in The Future of Difference, ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), pp. 88–94.

7. Carolyn Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Knopf, 1973).

8. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Pantheon, 1974).

9. Jacqueline Rose, Introduction II, in Feminine Sexuality, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 27–57.

10. See Luce Irigaray's arguments against equality in This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 129–30. Other important works include Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian G. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), and L'Ethique de la difference sexuelle (Paris: Minuit, 1984).

11. Important works for feminist theory by Julia Kristeva include “Women's Time,” in Feminist Theory, trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, pp. 31–54, “The Ethics of Linguistics,” in her Desire in Language, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 23–35, and “Héréthique de l'amour,” Tel Quel 74 (1977): 30–49. For a discussion of Kristeva, see Chapter 2.

12. I explore this topic briefly in The Romantic Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

13. Sigmund Freud, “Moses and Monotheism,” The Standard Edition, ed. James Strachey, vol. 23 (London: Hogarth, 1953–74), p. 127.

14. Sarah Kofman, “The Narcissistic Woman: Freud and Girard,” Diacritics 10.3 (1980): 36–45. This essay is extracted from L'Enigme de la femme (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1980), translated by Catherine Porter as The Enigma of Woman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). I use the version printed in Diacritics because Kofman's exposure of woman's sex in the opening sequence is especially audacious. The book, however, displays the translation by which Kofman ascribes the image of a “cavity filled with pus” to the vagina. Freud uses the image in an analogy between psychoanalysis and surgical intervention, in which he compares psychoanalytic treatment to scraping out a cavity filled with pus. It is Kofman who applies the metaphor to the female sexual organs. See The Enigma of Woman, pp. 46–50.

15. Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).

16. Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: At the University Press, 1979).

17. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “'Draupadi’ by Mahasveta Devi,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: At the University Press, 1980, 1981, 1982), pp. 261–282, and “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 154–84.

18. Spivak also describes Dropdi as “a palimpsest and a contradiction” and these terms expose a desire to empower the victim (268). The notions of palimpsest and contradiction are consistent with the term “superobject” and also with the epic on which Mahasveta bases her story. Indeed, the figure of Draupadi in the original epic defines the idea of “superobject” better than her namesake in Mahasveta's tale. There when the enemy chief tries to strip Draupadi, she prays to the incarnate Krishna, and the chief finds that her sari is infinitely long. He pulls and pulls on the cloth, but Draupadi cannot be stripped. Here is an example of a “superobject,” and it clearly owes its superiority to divine intervention. A “superobject” is not an object at all, but something mysterious and supernatural. Spivak tries to transform Dropdi into such a “superobject,” and therefore insists that she is “a palimpsest and a contradiction.” The force of deconstruction depends on exposing layers of meaning and their contradictions. For deconstruction appropriates instances of textual ambiguity and presents them as an obstacle to understanding and literary interpretation. “Superobject” is an example of a self-contradictory term, but there is nothing undecidable about an “unarmed target."

19. A question on a question: what is the significance of the question mark in Dropdi's last words? Does it signify her desire to be “countered” and her disappointment over Senanayak's hesitation? In this case, her final gesture is a measure of her frustration, in which she takes Senanayak's place to accomplish the expected violence against the victim. Or does the question mark expose Dropdi's impending collapse? The question would be a sign of stress, of her inability to force Senanayak to use violence against her, and of her recognition of her self-defeating situation. In this case, her final gesture would contradict the sense of her final words. In both cases, the reader's interpretation must confront the issue of Dropdi's subjectivity.

20. Alice Jardine argues that definitions of feminism in terms of identities and differences are troubling because they “homogenize, colonialize, and neutralize the specificities of struggles . . .” (15). She defines “gynesis” as a “woman process” that is never stable and has no identity. Gynesis confronts the void left by women's rejection of those concepts and truths determined by male violence, vaguely aware that this void must “be spoken differently and strangely: as woman, through gynesis” (154). Women's departure from male concepts also engenders a different approach to ethics. According to Jardine, women are best served not by a humanistic ethics, but by an ethos unheimlich, an uncanny ethics, that “involves, first and foremost, a relinquishing of mastery, indeed a valorization of nonmastery. And, as we know, a lack of mastery has, historically, always connoted the feminine” (154). See Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). Cf. Judith Kegan Gardiner, “On Female Identity and Writing by Women,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel, pp. 177–92. Gardiner also argues that “female identity is a process” (183).

21. Such is the result of Alice Jardine's thesis, which, ironically, unravels its own hopes for success. Consider, for example, Jardine's description of how gynesis works: “gynesis must . . . operate differently. Indeed, can we say that it operates at all?” (Gynesis 236).

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.