Corporeal Feminism

During the 1990s, a group of Australian feminists (e.g., Grosz 1994; Grosz and Probyn 1995; Gatens 1996; Kirby 1997) developed a branch of sexual difference theory known as ‘corporeal feminism.’ Drawing on Irigaray, this group has argued that feminist researchers should, literally, turn the de/constructionist feminist subject discussion upside down. They argue that feminist theory of gender/sex should take as its starting point the specifi city of bodies and sexual difference rather than remaining stuck in the socioculturally constructed aspects of gender. We shall illustrate the approach of this group by taking a look at the work of the Australian, USA-based feminist philosopher Elisabeth Grosz and her book entitled Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (1994).

In this book, Grosz introduces a program for a corporeal feminism, developed in a critical dialogue with two separate parties. On the one hand, she discusses theories of the body and corporeality as they appear in certain strands of philosophy, psychoanalysis and cultural theory, focusing on theorists previously mentioned, such as Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, as well as the phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. On the other hand, she engages in dialogue with feminist gender de/constructionism. Grosz wants to shift the perspective of both discussions. Rather than theorizing a non-specifi c, but often implicitly male body, as do these male philosophers of the body and corporeality, she theorizes the sexually differentiated specificity of bodies and analyzes philosophically the corporeality of the female body. Such a starting point transgresses not only the previously mentioned male philosophers’ theorizing of the body, but also feminist gender de/constructionism. Where gender de/constructionism has focused on the sociocultural construction of gender, Grosz instead uses the corporeality of sex and sexual difference as a framework and starting point for a feminist discussion of subjectivity.

By shifting the theoretical horizon in these ways, Grosz challenges traditional dualistic thinking in binary oppositions such as mind/body and culture/nature, which is so deeply ingrained in Western philosophy. Like Irigaray, Grosz emphasizes how hierarchical, gender-dualist thought is rooted in the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes, among others. She shows how their stereotypical gender discourses have constructed masculinity, mind, rationality and culture as interchangeable and hierarchically opposed to femininity, body, irrationality and nature. Of course, to Grosz it is somewhat ironic and paradoxical to have to conclude that de/constructionist feminism, with its distinction between sociocultural gender and biological sex, draws on Western philosophy and its problematic binary oppositions of mind/body and culture/nature. However, Grosz argues, this is the case: Gender de/constructionism has, indeed, radically challenged the binary construction of femininity/masculinity but it has at the same time failed to critically analyze and deconstruct the two related binary oppositions and has instead become caught up in them.

According to Grosz, in order to transgress dualist philosophy, it is necessary to shift away from the starting point of de/constructionism. Instead of beginning from sociocultural gender, feminist analysis of subjectivity and identity should take corporeality, the body and its individual and multiple (sexed, sexualized, racialized etc.) specificities as its point of departure. Grosz argues that if we always remember to look at subjectivity as being corporeal and embodied in specific ways, we can avoid the traps of dualism. She emphasizes that, with this approach, it is possible to talk about sexual difference without reproducing this difference in dualistic, deterministic and essentialist stereotypical schemas in which masculinity, mind, culture and rationality are hierarchically opposed to femininity, body, nature and irrationality.

With an emphasis on the specifi cities of bodies—in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality and so on as well as sex—Grosz goes further than Irigaray, who only focuses on sexual difference and neglects the question of intersectionality. Grosz also engages much more explicitly in a dialogue with feminist de/constructionism, clearly articulating, for example, the crucial question that defi nes the dividing line between a constructionist and a postconstructionist feminist ontology of the body:

In other words, is sexual difference primary and sexual inscription a cultural overlay or rewriting of an ontologically prior differentiation? Or is sexual differentiation a product of the various forms of inscription of culturally specifi c bodies? (Grosz 1994, 189)

Grosz’s tentative response to this question is that the other, radically constructionist perspective (i.e., that the differentiation in biological sexes is a product of the sociocultural production of gender), leaves us with a representation of the body that is too passive. Within this framework, the body is reduced to passive raw material, which does not in any way resist sociocultural inscriptions. Grosz suggests that, as an alternative, the relationship between the sociocultural discursive and the biological material dimensions of gendered and sexed bodies can be compared to that of the writing tool and the writing material in an etching. In the etching, Grosz argues, it is important to take the specificities of the material into account and ‘their concrete effects in the kind of text produced’ (Grosz 1994, 191). According to Grosz, we must likewise take into account—in a non-deterministic way—the materiality of the sexed body and the effects of sexual difference.


Source: Feminist Studies A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing
by Nina Lykke  Routledge 2010

Categories: Gender Studies

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