Poststructuralist Feminisms

“The question of gender is a question of language.” This statement is Barbara Johnson’s (World 37), and her succinct formulation of the relationship between gender and language does much to characterize the approach of a group of feminists who draw upon the discourses of poststructuralism. This feminist work takes as its starting point the premise that gender difference dwells in language rather than in the referent, that there is nothing “natural” about gender itself. In placing their emphasis on language, however, these feminists are not suggesting a sort of linguistic or poetic retreat into a world made only of words. Rather, language intervenes so that “materiality” is not taken to be a self-evident category, and language itself is understood as radically marked by the materiality of gender. The poststructuralist focus on language thus raises fundamental questions that extend beyond matters of usage. The understanding of writing and the body as sites where the material and the linguistic intersect requires the interrogation of woman as a category of gender or sex.

Contesting patriarchal discourse. Questioning the political and ethical grounds of language, the poststructuralist feminists considered here share a common opponent in patriarchal discourse, a feature that emerges in their readings of literature, philosophy, history, and psychoanalysis. This is not to suggest that they all counter or even define patriarchal discourse in the same way. If, as Hélène Cixous suggests, “it has become rather urgent to question this solidarity between logocentrism and phallocentrism—bringing to light the fate dealt to woman,” how one might go about such questioning is a point of dispute (Newly 65).

According to Luce Irigaray, we cannot simply step outside of phallogocentrism so as suddenly to write and think in ways completely free of the rules of patriarchy, for language and discourse are themselves inscribed with those rules. Instead, we have to work like a virus from within patriarchal discourses to infect and radically change them, thus “leaving open the possibility of a different language” (This Sex 80). Not surprisingly, then, the discourses of philosophy and psychoanalysis have become prime “hosts” for Irigaray’s work. As she explains, “Unless we limit ourselves naively—or perhaps strategically—to some kind of limited or marginal issues, it is indeed precisely philosophical discourse that we have to challenge, and disrupt inasmuch as this discourse sets forth the law for all others, inasmuch as it constitutes the discourse on discourse” (74). In posing this challenge, Irigaray hopes to expose the ways in which patriarchal discourses are politically determined and disrupt altogether the power structures they hold in place. With this goal in mind, Irigaray has sought to disrupt the discourses of Sigmund Feud and Plato (Speculum of the Other Woman), Jacques Lacan and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (This Sex Which Is Not One), Martin Heidegger (L’Oubli), Friedrich Nietzsche (Amante marine), and Baruch Spinoza and Emmanuel Levinas (Éthique), to name only a few.

Similar political interventions have been made by Catherine Clément both in her study of opera (Opera, or the Undoing of Woman) and in her consideration of the sorceress and the hysteric (The Newly Born Woman); by Michèle Le Doeuff in her interrogation of the role of lack and the place of knowledge acquisition in Western philosophy (L’Imaginaire philosophique); by Barbara Johnson in her readings of literature and deconstruction (The Critical Difference and A World of Difference); by Julia Kristeva in her numerous works on linguistics, psychoanalysis, and literature (Revolution in Poetic Language, Desire in Language, Powers of Horror, Tales of Love, and Black Sun); and by Gayati Spivak in her analyses of the relationship between philosophy Marxism, deconstruction, and subaltern studies (In Other Worlds).

Some poststructuralist feminists, however, have preferred to develop an alternative to patriarchal discourse in place of the strategy of subversive rewriting. Monique Wittig attempts to create completely new, nonphallogocentric discourses in her fictional works Les Guérilléres (1969, trans. David LeVay, 1971), L’Opoponax (1969, The- Opoponax, trans. H. Weaver, 1976), and Le Corps lesbien (1973, The Lesbian Body, trans. David LeVay, 1975). As a counter to the heterosexual, patriarchal social contract, Wittig proposes a structural change in language that will destroy the categories of gender and sex. Frequently this change takes the form of experimentation with pronouns and nouns, which she calls the “lesbianization of language” because, as she explains, “lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex” (“One Is Not” 53).

Cixous’s work might seem similar to Wittig’s in that she also engages in a political project designed to create an alternative, nonphallogocentric discourse. Like Wittig, Cixous turns to fiction (Angst, Illa, Souffles) and is concerned with “getting rid of words like ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity,’ even ‘man’ and ‘woman'” (“Exchange” 129). Yet upon closer examination, Cixous’s work radically differs from Wittig’s. First, Cixous relies heavily upon psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction, which are anathema to Wittig. Second, Cixous goes on to develop what she calls “feminine writing” (écriture féminine), envisaged in terms of bisexuality rather than Wittig’s “lesbianization.” For Cixous, the space of feminine writing cannot be theorized or defined, enclosed or encoded (“Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, New French Feminisms, ed. Marks and de Courtivron, 253). It can, however, be understood as “the ideal harmony, reached by few, [which] would be genital, assembling everything and being capable of generosity, of spending” (“Exchange” 131). Feminine writing is also the province of metaphor, not limited to written words and possibly taking the form of “writing by the voice,” a harmonic écriture féminine metaphorized as writing in mother’s milk or the uterus (Illa 208, Newly). Although her metaphors here are maternal, are biologically the province of women, according to Cixous neither biological women nor men need be condemned to the space of phallogocentrism. Cixous understands feminine writing as a bisexual political act that holds open “the very possibility of change” (“Laugh” 249).

Julia Kristeva/The Times Literary Supplement

Cixous has engaged the literary texts of James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Clarice Lispector in these terms (L’Exil de James Joyce, ou, l’art du remplacement [translated into English as The Exile of James Joyce], Prénoms de personne, Vivre l’orange / To Live the Orange); deconstructed Greek, Latin, and Egyptian mythology (Illa, Le Livre de Promethea, La); and taken up specific instances of political struggle that place feminist concerns in larger cultural and historical perspectives (the plays L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk roi du Cambodge and L’Indiade ou l’Inde de leurs rêves). Her practice of écriture féminine is not, however, without its detractors. Wittig attacks it for what she believes is its complicity with heterosexual, bourgeois capitalism (the distinction between bisexuality and lesbianization is significant). Hélène Wenzel argues that it “perpetuates and recreates long-held stereotypes and myths about woman as natural, sexual, biological, and corporal by celebrating essences” (272).

Writing (and) the body. Whether the emphasis is on alternative writing or subversive rewriting, what is at stake in this feminist attention to language is the relationship between the twin materialities of writing and the body. This is perhaps most obvious in Cixous’s work, which specifically stresses the importance of the connection. Cixous exhorts women to write through their bodies in order to make “the huge resources of the unconscious” burst out (Newly 94-97). In a rather different move, Irigaray turns to the female body in order to develop an account of woman’s pleasure that does not privilege sight. Irigaray argues that all accounts of bodily pleasure have traditionally been dominated by the scopophilic drive of male pleasure described by psychoanalysis. Deemphasizing the role played by visual pleasure, which is by definition primarily patriarchal, Irigaray goes so far as to argue that “woman takes more pleasure from touching than from looking” (This Sex 26). Woman’s pleasure, for which the language of psychoanalysis is inadequate, is fluid, tactile, and, what is most important, plural: “Woman has sex organs more or less everywhere” (28). It must be noted that Irigaray’s use of anatomical analogies to describe feminine pleasure (and thus to reinterpret the phallogocentric discourse of philosophy and psychoanalysis) leaves her open to charges of essentialism. Yet it is also possible to think of her work as turning to biological metaphors and images of woman already prevalent in Western discourse in order to produce a new discourse that does not see sexual difference as a question of pure anatomical difference.

Irigaray’s political move away from vision is not, however, borne out in work by other psychoanalytically informed feminists. First, if Irigaray identifies masculine pleasure as primarily visual (as would film theorist Laura Mulvey), Teresa de Lauretis attempts to reclaim visual pleasure for the female spectator. Drawing on the work of Lacan and on the discourse of film theory, de Lauretis argues that “narrative and visual pleasure need and should not be thought of as the exclusive property of dominant codes, serving solely the purposes of ‘oppression’ ” (Alice 68). Second, if Irigaray calls for a return to the tactile, an emphasis that falls on touching the body, Kaja Silverman stresses the subversive quality of women’s voice. In her examination of film, Silverman argues that “the female voice has enormous conceptual and discursive range once it is freed from its claustral confinement within the female body” (Acoustic 186).

There are even harsher counters to Irigaray’s and Cixous’s approaches to the body. Wittig believes that Cixous and Irigaray fetishize the body and do not take into account that the body is only part of the total subject. Ann Rosalind Jones takes a different view of the problem when she points out that “it is possible to argue that the French feminists make of the female body too unproblematically pleasurable and totalized an entity” (254).

Leaving these objections aside, it would be impossible to discuss the poststructuralist feminists’ engagement with writing and the body without looking at how it has led to a revalorization of the mother, or more precisely, of the maternal body. Poststructuralist feminism recognizes that the figure of the mother has a particularly overdetermined relationship with writing and the body. This “valorization of the maternal,” as Domna Stanton points out, “marks a decisive break with the existentialism of The Second Sex, wherein Simone de Beauvoir stressed the oppressiveness of motherhood” (160). For both Cixous and Irigaray, the mother is an important affirmative figure. Cixous first metaphorizes the mother as a figural product of language, then both valorizes and defetishizes the mother so as to remove her from the patriarchal structures of the family (“Laugh,” Souffles). Similarly, Irigaray stresses the inextricability of women and mothers. “When we are women,” says Irigaray, “we are always mothers” (Éthique 27). Although Irigaray makes this statement in her work devoted to ethics, she has also devoted two short texts to the motherdaughter relationship (“And the One Does Not Stir without the Other” and Le Corps à corps avec la mère). An even stronger example of the valorization of the maternal is found in the work of Barbara Johnson, who stresses that it is important to recognize and valorize the fact that anyone, regardless of gender, can write from the maternal position (A World of Difference).

Julia Kristeva, unlike Cixous, Johnson, or Irigaray, worries about the absolute rejection or acceptance of motherhood. Along these lines, Kristeva urges us to focus on a complex question:

How can an enquiry into the nature of motherhood lead to a better understanding of the part played in love by the woman, a role no longer that of a virgin for ever promised to the third person, God, but that of a real woman whose essentially polymorphic sexuality will sooner or later have to deal with a man, a woman, or a child? (Moi, French 116)

This is a question that Kristeva herself has addressed in psychoanalytically informed works such as Tales of Love and “Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini” (Desire in Language). But Kristeva’s approach is not without its critics. Susan Suleiman, for instance, generally questions the psychoanalytic framework tout court as adequate for the analysis of mother’s writing. Sex and gender. The poststructuralist feminist attention to language and materiality, which has given rise to a renewed concern for the maternal, has also provoked an extended debate over the meanings of “gender” and “sexual difference.” Joan Scott usefully explains that gender denotes “a rejection of the biological determinism implicit in the use of such terms as ‘sex’ and ‘sexual difference'” (28). Teresa de Lauretis puts this even more strongly when she argues that “sexual difference constrains feminist critical thought within the conceptual frame of a universal sex opposition,” which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to articulate differences among and within women (Technologies 2). De Lauretis prefers to privilege the term “gender,” which for her is not only a “classificatory term” in grammar but also “a representation of a relation” that is an ongoing social “construction” (3-5). Trinh Minh-ha similarly argues that the “notion of gender is pertinent to feminism as far as it denounces certain fundamental attitudes of imperialism and as long as it remains unsettled and unsettling” (Woman 113). Trinh, however, notably registers more reservations about gender than does de Lauretis; she warns that “gender, reduced to a sex-determined behavior, serves to promote inequality” (14).

Wittig takes this reservation even further and calls for the destruction of gender and sex altogether. She understands gender to be “the linguistic index of the political opposition between the sexes and of the domination of women,” while sex is a political and philosophical category “that founds society as heterosexual” (“Mark” 64, “Category” 66). That is to say, within language women are marked by gender, and within society they are marked by sex. As a way of eluding this patriarchal economy of heterosexual exchange, Wittig appeals to a lesbianization of language.

Cixous takes a still different approach. Rather than focusing on the distinction between “gender” and “sexual difference” per se, she concentrates on the way sexual difference “becomes most clearly perceived at the level of jouissance, inasmuch as a woman’s instinctual economy cannot be identified by a man or referred to the masculine economy” (Newly 82). And in turn, according to Cixous, the best way to engage with these different economies is through recourse to a theory of bisexuality.

By privileging bisexuality, Cixous could be doing nothing more than returning us to the binary oppositions of phallogocentric sexual difference, of male and female. That is certainly what Julia Kristeva maintains when she argues that bisexuality, no matter what qualifications accompany the term, always privileges “the totality of one of the sexes and thus [effaces] difference” (Kristeva Reader 209). Despite such objections, Cixous insists that bisexuality is a notion meant to call attention to the multiplicity of possible sites for desire and pleasure (Newly “Laugh”). That is to say, bisexuality “doesn’t annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them, increases their number” (“Laugh” 254). In this respect, Cixous’s position lines up with Jacques Derrida s belief in the possibility of “the multiplicity of sexually marked voices” (“Choreographies” 76).

While these poststructuralist feminists have brought us a long way, the most complex analysis of the distinction between gender and sex belongs to Judith Butler. She contends that “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature” (7). Rather, gender as a discursive element gives rise to a belief in a prediscursive, natural sex. That is to say, sex is retrospectively produced through our understanding of gender, so that in a sense gender comes before sex (7). Butler argues that in light of this counterintuitive situation, we should deconstruct the “gender fables [that] establish and circulate the misnomer of natural facts” and recognize that “it becomes impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained” (xiii, 3). Gender thus “proves to be performative.” That is to say, “gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed” (25).

The question of woman. In the wake of this dispersal of gender positions and the disruption of the economy of phallogocentric discourse, poststructuralist feminists have formulated significantly different answers to the question, What is woman? Kristeva contends that the question simply cannot be answered; there is no such thing as “woman” (New French, ed. Marks and de Courtivron, 137). For Kristeva, the subject is always in process, a series of identities held accountable only to an arbitrary imposition of the law of the father; and as a way to keep open as many subject positions as possible, she favors “a concept of femininity which would take as many forms as there are women” (Moi, French 114).

Other poststructuralist feminists have echoed Kristeva’s words. Although she takes her distance from Kristeva on some counts, Drucilla Cornell argues as Kristeva does that there is no essential woman, no possibility of sharing experience based on a common female nature (26). According to Cornell, “woman ‘is’ only in language, which means that her ‘reality’ can never be separated from the metaphors and fictions in which she is presented” (18). Similarly, Denise Riley emphasizes both plurality and identity when she contends that” ‘women’ is indeed an unstable category,” while at the same time “to be named as a woman can be the precondition for some kinds of solidarity” (5, 99). Judith Butler takes Riley’s argument a step further when she reminds us that even the plural form “women” is always incomplete and permanently a contested site of meaning. “Women” exist in relation to a matrix of differences such that “it would be wrong to assume in advance that there is a category of ‘women’ that simply needs to be filled in with various components of race, class, age, ethnicity, and sexuality in order to become complete” (15).

By contrast, Wittig sees nothing positive in either “woman” or “women.” For her, “woman” is “the equivalent of slave” and only has meaning in heterosexual systems of thought and economics, in which women are defined in terms of their reproductive function (“Mark” 70). This leads Wittig to conclude that “lesbians are not women” but rather are the undivided “I” of the total subject (“Straight” no). Irigaray takes a similarly skeptical view, arguing that “woman” is man’s creation, a masquerade of femininity: “In our social order, women are ‘products’ used and exchanged by men. Their status is that of merchandise, ‘commodities'” (This Sex 84). For Irigaray, woman has always been merely the means by which male sexual identity is confirmed, really a nonsex represented in an economy of “hom(m)osexualit£,” of men (homme) and identity or sameness (homo). Thus, Irigaray goes so far as to conclude that the question itself is really the wrong one:

They should not put it, then, in the form “What is woman?” but rather, repeating / interpreting the way in which, within discourse, the feminine finds itself defined as lack, deficiency, or as imitation and negative image of the subject, they should signify that with respect to this logic a disruptive excess is possible on the feminine side. (78)

Instead of creating a theory of woman, Irigaray wants “to secure a place for the feminine within sexual difference” where “the feminine cannot signify itself in any proper meaning, proper name, or concept, not even that of woman” (156). Thus, her refusal to answer the question, What is woman? can be understood as a refusal to reproduce the phallogocentric system, which keeps in place the same oppressive language and systems of representation.

Politics and ethics. Given all the differences among the poststructuralist feminists that have been raised thus far, none has been more divisive than the division between the political argument about the oppression of women in society (e.g., Christine Delphy, Monique Wittig, and the journal Questions féministes) and the psychoanalytic argument about the role of gender difference in the psychic construction of the individual (e.g., Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Michèle Montrelay, and Antoinette Fouque). This split reached perhaps its most controversial moment in the French group Psychanalyse et Politique (Psych et Po), under the leadership of the psychoanalyst Antoinette Fouque. In their defense of psychoanalysis, the members of Psych et Po derided feminism for its interest in obtaining power for women within the terms of the patriarchy. Taking a more radical course, Psych et Po even went so far as to register the trademark “MLF” (Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes) for their publishing company, des femmes.

After the late 1970s, the Psych et Po group seems to have run its course, although a feminist concern for psychoanalysis and politics certainly remains. In fact, there is an increasing interest among poststructuralist feminists to bring together these two discourses. For some, such as Jacqueline Rose, the importance of deconstruction is that it serves as a hinge between the political and psychoanalytical positions in order to produce a feminist ethics.

Cixous puts the feminist concern for ethics most simply when she says, “For me, there is only ethics” (“Exchange” 138). Irigaray expands this position when she argues that to bring about the needed revolution in thought and ethics, “we must constitute a place that could be inhabited by each sex, body or flesh. This supposes a memory of the past and a hope for the future, bridging the present, and confounding the mirror-symmetry that annihilates the difference of identity” (Moi, French 128). For Kristeva as well, the question of femininity is above all else ethical. She makes the important clarification that when she speaks of ethics she is not advocating a return to moral philosophy. Far from it: “In the event, contrary to moral philosophy, this ethics displays its own degree of jouissance: it is concerned both with what it can and cannot demonstrate, with sense and non-sense, with what is and is not given by the thesis, with truth and whatever resists it” (Moi, French 115).

The importance of ethics for feminism is that it allows us to think the social and the psychic, the questions of the political and of the subject, beside each other. As Drucilla Cornell puts it, “It is only if we see the inevitable intertwinement of justice, politics, and utopian possibility in feminism, that we can understand the promise and the necessity for the affirmation of the feminine, even if as a transition, as a threshold” (20). The ethical intervenes for deconstructive feminism as the condition of thought outside the determinations of patriarchal discourse (for which ethics would only be moral philosophy). The ethical, then, is invoked, much as écriture feminine is, as the site of an exploratory thought for which neither the self nor the field of the political is a fixed entity—what happens once the personal is the political, and the political is personal.

Elizabeth Abel, ed., Writing and Sexual Difference (1982); Rosi Braidotti, Patterns of Dissonance (trans. Elizabeth Guild, 1991); Teresa Brennan, ed., Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1989); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990); Catherine Clément, L’Opéra, ou la défaite des femmes (1979, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing, 1988); Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law (1991); Teresa De Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1984), Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (1987); Christine Delphy, Close to Home (ed. and trans. Diana Leonard, 1984); Jacques Derrida and Christie V. McDonald, “Choreographies,” diacritics 12 (1982); Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987); Claire Duchen, Feminism in France: From May ’68 to Mitterrand (1986); Jane Gallop, The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1982); Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (1985); Alice A. Jardine and Hester Eisenstein, eds., The Future of Difference (1980); Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference (1980), A World of Difference (1987); Ann Rosalind Jones, “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L’Écriture féminine/’ Feminist Studies 7 (1981); Dorothy Kaufmann-McCall, “Politics of Difference: The Women’s Movement in France from May 1968 to Mitterrand,” Signs 9 (1983); Sarah Kofman, L’Énigme de la femme: La Femme dans les textes de Freud (1980, The Enigma of Woman, trans. Catherine Porter, 1985), Le Respect des femmes (1982); Michèle Le Doeuff, “Cheveux longs, idées courtes,” L’Imaginaire philosophique (1980, “Women and Philosophy,” trans. Debbie Pope, in Moi, French Feminist Thought); Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, Partage des femmes (1974, The Dividing of Women, or Women’s Lot, trans. Marie-Laure Davenport and Marie-Christine Réguir, 1987); Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds., New French Feminisms: An Anthology (1980); Nancy K. Miller, ed., The Poetics of Gender (1986); Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985); Toril Moi, ed., French Feminist Thought: A Reader (1987); Michèle Montrelay, L’Ombre et le nom: Sur la féminité (1977); Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975, Visual and Other Pleasures, 1989); Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism (1990); Denise Riley, Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History (1988); Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986); Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (1988); Susan Sellers, Language and Sexual Difference: Feminist Writing in France (1991); Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (1988); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman,” Displacement: Derrida and After (ed. Mark Krupnick, 1983), In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987); Domna Stanton, “Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva,” The Poetics of Gender (ed. Miller); Susan Rubin Suleiman, “On Maternal Splitting: A Propos of Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels,” Signs 14 (1988); Trinh T. Minhha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation and Cultural Politics (1991), Woman, Native, Other (1989); Hélène Vivienne Wenzel, “The Text as Body/Politics: An Appreciation of Monique Wittig’s Writings in Context,” Feminist Studies 7 (1981); Monique Wittig, “The Category of Sex,” Feminist Issues 2 (1982), “The Mark of Gender,” The Poetics of Gender (ed. Miller), “One Is Not Born a Woman,” Feminist Issues 1 (1981), “On the Social Contract,” Feministissues 9 (1989), “The Straight Mind,” Feminist Issues 1 (1980).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Gender Studies, Philosophy

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