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Feminism, Humanism and Postmodernism

Feminism, Humanism and
Postmodernism
Kate Soper
I shall not begin, as I probably should, by offering to define
my terms. Instead, I shall acknowledge that I have brought
together three concepts admitted on all sides to be well-nigh
indefinable. Or, if they are definable, they are so only by
reference to a particular thinker’s usage (Lyotard’s or Huyssens’ or Baudrillard’s of ‘postmodernism’, Heidegger’s or
Wolf’s or Foucault’s of ‘humanism’, De Beauvoir’s or Kristeva’s or Wittig’s of ‘feminism’, etc. – and this is to speak
only in the French or German of the last fifty years … ). Yet we
know, too, even as we recognise our reliance on this more
specific anchorage of terms, that the concepts of ‘postmodernism’, ‘humanism’ and ‘feminism’ also embrace the sum of
these more particular discourses – and that a large part of their
usefulness lies in this generality of reference. So I shall not
begin with further definitions, but with an appeal to intuition:

an appeal to that vague sense which I am assuming anyone at
all interested in reading a piece such as this will already have
of these terms.

For the point of their conjunction, really, is to signal a
problem, and a problem which I shall here attempt to make as
explicit as possible. Postmodernist argument (or the argument
of ‘modernity’ as others have wanted to call itl) has issued a
number of challenges: to the idea that we can continue to
think, write and speak of our culture as representing a continuous development and progress; to the idea that humanity
is proceeding towards a telos of ’emancipation’ and ‘selfrealisation’; to the idea that we can invoke any universal
subjectivity in speaking about the human condition. Lyotard
has argued, for example, that neither of the two major forms
of grands recits (‘grand narratives’) by which in the past we
have legitimated the quest for knowledge can any longer
perform that function. Neither the instrumental narrative of
emancipation which justifies science and technology by reference to the poverty and injustice they must eventually eliminate, nor the purist defence of knowledge accumulation as
something inherently beneficial, can any longer command the
belief essential to warding off scepticism about the purpose
and value of the techno-sciences. With this scepticism has
gone a loss of confidence in the whole idea of human ‘progress’ viewed as a process more or less contemporaneous with
Western-style ‘civilisation’, and a calling into question of the
emancipatory themes so central to the liberal, scientific and
Marxist/socialist discourses of the nineteenth century.

This loss of credulity is in turn associated with the
collapse of ‘humanism’. There are two aspects to this collapse, both ofthem registered in much ofthe writing, theoretical and literary, of recent times. Firstly (though this aspect of
the critique of humanism was launched by the humanist Karl

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

Marx, and continued within a tradition of socialist-humanist
thinking), there is an acknowledgement of the partial and
excluding quality of the supposedly universal ‘we’ of much
humanist discourse. Secondly, and partly as a consequence of
this exposure of liberal hypocrisies and the ethnocentricity of
Western humanism, there has been a refusal of the’ we’ which
lurks in the unifying discourse of the dialectic: a rejection of
all attempts to find a sameness in otherness. Instead, we have
been witness to a theoretical celebration of difference, a
resistance to all synthesising discourse, an assertion of an
indefinite and mUltiplying plurality of particulars and specificities.

Insistence on the specificity of ‘woman’ or the ‘feminine’ has by no means been confined to the latter wave of
criticism. An initial feminist’ deconstruction’ of the humanist
subject was made as long ago as 1792 by Mary W ollstonecraft
in her demand for women to be included within the entitlements claimed by the ‘rights of Man’. But It is only in
comparatively recent times that feminists have gone beyond
an exposure of the maleness of the supposedly universal
subject invoked by humanist rhetoric, to denounce the ‘masculinism’ of humanism as such. Whereas, in the past, the call
of feminist critiques of liberal humanism was for women to be
recognised as ‘equal’ subjects of that discourse, equally entitled to the ‘rights’ which were claimed for ‘all men? today
what is more at issue is the maleness of the subject place to
which these earlier feminists were staking their claim. Today,
there is a whole body of feminist writing which would shy
away from an ‘equality’ which welcomed women (at last) as
human subjects on a par with men. For this ‘human’ subject, it
is argued, must always bear the traces of the patriarchal
ordering which has been more or less coextensive with the
‘human’ condition as such: a patriarchal culture in the light of
whose biassed and supposedly ‘masculine’ values (of rationality, symbolic capacity, control over nature) the ‘human’ is
at the ‘beginning’ of ‘culture’ defined in opposition to the
‘animal’, and the discourse of ‘humanism’ itself first given
currency. And so conceived, ‘feminism’ and ‘humanism’

would appear to aspire to incompatible goals, for ‘feminism’

is the quest for the registration and realisation (though quite in
what language and cultural modes it is difficult to say … ) of
feminine ‘difference’: of that ineffable ‘otherness’ or negation of human culture and its symbolic order (and gender
system) which is not the human as this human is spoken to in
humanism. Humanism, inversely, according to this way of
thinking, is the discourse which believes or wishes or pretends that there is no such difference.

But humanism is also, we might note in passing, the

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discourse which likes to think it can take back into the fold of
the human all those who conceive of themselves as excluded.

Or perhaps it would be better to describe it as the discourse
which would say to all those who feel themselves excluded, or
who prefer to exempt themselves from its sentimentality, that
even in their exclusion or exemption they are within the fold;
for resistance or indignation, they too are human, and humanism can embrace all opposition, difference and disdain for it.

To say this is only to point out that there are many humanist
discourses contesting each other’s collectivities and claiming
that theirs alone is truly universal. Thus it is in the name of a
more universal humanism that Sartre delivers his ‘anti-humanist’ fulminations against bourgeois humanism. And thus
it is, more generally, that religious conflicts, political battles,
such as those between liberals and socialists, or even the
philosophical oppositions between dialectic and anti-dialectic, can be viewed as ‘humanist’ sparrings for the right to
represent the human race, its meaning and destiny.

I shall return to these points at a later stage, particularly as they affect the ultimate incompatibility of a feminist
and a humanist outlook. Here, for the time being, let us stay
with the arguments of the so-called ‘difference’ feminists:

with those who, in varying ways, have questioned any ultimate compatibility. Two of the more prominent voices here
are those of Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray. To these one
might very tentatively add the name of Julia Kristeva: very
tentatively, because she herself has forcefully criticized’ difference’ feminisms, and is opposed to all theoretical moves
which tend to an essentialism of ‘femininity’, and hence to a
‘denegation of the symbolic’ and removal of the ‘feminine’

from the order of language. 3 On the other hand, her own
position is very equivocal. For, insofar as she is concerned to
forestall any discourse on femininity which implies the ‘ineffability’ of the ‘feminine’ at the level of the symbolic, and to
remind us that if the ‘feminine’ exists it only does so within
the order of meaning and signification, she is herself implicitly invoking a feminine’ otherness’. The anxiety to check this
‘silencing’ of the ‘feminine’ is itself premised on a notion of
the latter as a transgression and disrupting element within the
prevailing code of the Symbolic. The ‘existential crisis’ of the
‘feminine’ as so conceived lies in the fact that it can only be
spoken to within the existing order of language but is also that
whose existence is denied or occluded by the very terms of
that language. In other words, insofar as Kristeva relies on a
Lacanian framework, her argument is constantly pulled towards acceptance of an equivalence between the ‘masculine’

and the Symbolic, whose effect, willy-nilly, is to cast the
‘feminine’ in the role of ‘otherness’ or ‘difference’ to the
cultural order.

The resulting tensions have if anything been made
more acute by recent developments in Kristeva’s arguments
wherein she has associated this feminine ‘negativity’ with a
more positively accented pre-linguistic sensuality which she
refers to as the ‘semiotic’, and that in turn with the ‘maternal’.

It is true that this ‘semiotic’ is not theorised literally as
‘outside language’ or inevitably deprived of cultural expression. For Kristeva finds it manifest not only in women’s
writing, but in the works of Joyce, Laurtemont, Mallarme and
a number of other male modernist writers. (Indeed, she has
suggested that modernism should be viewed as a cultural
movement of restitution or realisation of the feminine
semiotic, though this is certainly a controversial interpretation).4 But the association of the feminine semiotic with a preoedipal eroticism characteristic of the mother-infant relationship, and the suggestion that the maternal activities of gestation and nurturance break with conceptions of self and other,
12

subject and object, which are of the essence of masculine
logic, surely comes dangerously close to a differentiation of
the feminine in terms of maternal function – precisely the
essentialism which Kristeva has warned feminism against
espousing and professes herself to wish to avoid. 5
Irigaray and Cixous, on the other hand, have rejected
the Lacanian eternalisation of the cultural ‘negativity’ of
women; but their challenge, nonetheless, to the supposed
inevitability of masculine preeminence relies on an invocation of feminine difference which would seem to offer no
better outlet from a phallocentric universe. For the difference
in question refers us to the difference in the female body and
body experience in a manner which arguably reintroduces the
masculine Symbolic identification of sexuality with genitality,6 and essentializes the maternal function (particularly so in
the case of Cixous’ inflated celebrations of the plenitude,
richness and fecundity of the feminine body). As has been

pointed out in respect of Kristeva’ s appeal to the maternal,1
this tends to an elision of symbolic and empirical features
which is theoretically confusing: after all, if feminine difference is being defined in terms of maternal function, then
many actual, empiricial, women are going to find themselves
cast out from femininity insofar as they are not mothers nor
intending to become so. At the same time, the association of
the feminine with the maternal or with the feminine body is
deeply problematic for many feminists who see in this precisely the male cultural signification which they are attempting to contest, and which, they would argue, has been the
justification for a quite unreasonable and unfair domestication of women and a very damaging social and economic
division of labour from the point of view of female selffulfilment and self-expression.

In a more general way, we must surely also contest the
reductionism of the argument found in different forms in both
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

Irigaray’s and Cixous’ theories of the feminine (in Irigaray’ s
advocacy of ‘parler femme’ and Cixous’ notion of ecriture
feminine as speaking to a kind of feminine unconscious) that
language, whether spoken or written, directly mirrors physical morphology. It is a radical misunderstanding of the nature
of signs to suppose that the two lips of the vulva or breast milk
or menstrual blood are ‘represented’ in contiguous statements
or in the unencodable libidinal gushings of a feminine prose
in any but a purely metaphorical sense. But if we treat the
supposed representation as purely metaphorical, then ‘feminine writing’ is being defined in terms of a certain image or
metaphor of itself, and we end up with a purely tautological
argument.

Again, the whole association within the writings of
Cixous and Irigaray of feminine subjectivity with the prelinguistic and pre-conceptual, with that which has no meaning
and cannot be spoken in (male) culture, comes very close to

reproducing the male-female dichotomies of traditional epistemology and moral argument – for which woman is ‘intuitive’, ‘natural’, ‘immanent’ – and ‘silent’ – and man is ‘rational’, ‘cultural’, transcendent’ – and ‘vocal’. The only difference is that the supposedly feminine characteristics will
have been accorded a positive charge – and given the recurrent romanticisation and idolization of the feminine within
the masculine cultural order itself, even that may not prove a
very major shift.

At any rate, the important point would seem to be that
where the appeal to difference is made, it tends to an essentialism of the female physique and function which reproduces
rather than surpasses the traditional male-female divide and
leaves ‘woman’ once again reduced to her body – and to
silence – rather than figuring as a culturally shaped, culturally
complex, evolving, rational, engaged and noisy opposition.

The total disengagement of the feminine in the position of
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

Cixous and lrigaray,8 the complete severance of any masculine-feminine cultural intercourse, removes this opposition to
the point where one might say there was no longer any
feminist critique of patriarchy but only a self-absorption in
the feminine.

On the other hand, if difference is not given this kind of
anchorage in the feminine body and function, it is not clear
why there is any reason, once set on the path of difference, for
feminism to call a halt. In other words, if one disallows the
feminine universal of a common bodily essence, then the
commitment to difference ought to mvove into a deconstruction of feminine difference itself. Having exposed the ‘masculinism’ of humanism in the name of feminine difference,
one must surely go on, by the same logic, to expose the
generalising and abstract (and quasi-humanist) appeal to
feminine difference in the name of the plurality of concrete
differences between women (in their nationality, race, class,
age, occupation, sexuality, parenthood status, health, and so
on … ). For on this argument ‘woman’ can no more be allowed
to stand for all woman than can ‘man’ be allowed to stand for
all members of the human species. The way then, of course,
lies open to an extreme particularism in which all pretensions
to speak (quasi-humanistically) in general for this or that
grouping, or to offer an abstract and representative discourse
on behalf of such putative groups, must give way to a hyperindividualism. 9 From this standpoint, any appeal to a collectivity would appear to be illegitimate – yet another case of
‘logocentric imperialism’, to use the inflated rhetoric of poststructuralism.

But at this point, one is bound to feel that feminism as
theory has pulled the rug from under feminism as politics. For
politics is essentially a group affair, based on the idea of
making ‘common cause’, and feminism, like any other politics, has always implied a banding together, a movement
based on the solidarity and sisterhood of WOlpen, who are
linked by perhaps very little else than their sameness and
‘common cause’ as women. If this sameness itself is challenged on the grounds that there is no ‘presence’ of womanhood, nothing that the term ‘woman’ immediately expresses,
and nothing instantiated concretely except particular women
in particular situations, then the idea of a political community
build around women – the central aspiration of the early
feminist movement – collapses. I say the ‘idea’, for women do
still come together in all sorts of groups for feminist purposes,
and will doubtless continue to do so for a good while to come
even if their doing so transgresses some Derridean conceptual
rulings. But theoretically, the logic of difference tends to
subvert the concept of a feminine political community of
‘women’ as it does of the more traditional political communities of class, Party, Trade Union, etc. And theory does, of
course, in the end get into practice, and maybe has already
begun to do so; one already senses that feminism as a campaigning movement is yielding to feminism as discourse (and
to discourse of an increasingly heterogeneous kind).

In the face of this dispersion, with its return from
solidarity to individualism, it is difficult not to feel that
feminism itself has lost its hold, or at any rate that much
contemporary theory of the feminine is returning us full circle
to those many isolated, and ‘silent’, women from which it
started – and for whom it came to represent, precisely, a
‘common voice’. It is a renversement, moreover, which leaves
feminism exposed to the temptations of what are arguably
deeply nostalgic and conservative currents of post-modernist
thinking. It would seem quite complicit, for example, with the
distaste for anything smacking of a militant feminist politics
implicit in Baudrillard’ s suggestion that it is our very resis13

tance to reactivating traditional feminine charms which is
pre-empting cultural renewal. ‘Only by the power of seduction does woman master the symbolic universe’, he tells us,1o
in a piece of rhetorical blandishment redolent with nostalgia
for the good old days when men ruled and women cajoled. It
is true that it is not officially as an ideologue of patriarchal
culture that Baudrillard offers this Rousseauian advice. On
the contrary, he would seduce us back into seduction with the
altogether more respectable end, so he claims, of taking us
beyond all sociality, sentimentality and sexuality.11 But it is
interesting, all the same, that it remains out of place for
woman directly to contest the father’s authority, and that our
cultural duty requires us still to have recourse to the subtler
arts of cajolery: to beguile the phallus round. By such means,
so Baudrillard tempts us to think, women will readily contrive
to wrap the symbolic order around her charming little finger.12
This kind of sophistry, in truth, is not very tempting
and probably unimportant. But I think in a general way it is
fair to claim that the same logic of ‘difference’ which ends up
subverting the project of feminine emancipation by denying
the validity of any political community in whose name it
could be pursued also deprives feminist argument of recourse
against such retrograde post-structuralist idealism.

In introducing the term ’emancipation’, one opens the
way to consideration of another aspect of the problem of the
relations between feminism, humanism and postmodernism.

For if the building of political collectivities becomes problematic in the light of anti-humanist critique, this also reflects
a reluctance of these critiques ‘to speak on behalf of’ others:

to say, in short, what others – in this case women – want. In
other words, the observance of the logic of difference has also
made feminist theorists reluctant utopians. This caution in
speaking for others’ desires is understandable against a background of so much claimed know ledge of the ‘alienation’ and
‘true needs’ of others (especially of that notorious ‘universal
subject’ of humanity, the proletariat). It is a needed corrective
to the enforced collectivizations of interests and needs which
have been given theoretical legitimation in the past. But
again, the thinking which motivated this healthy resistance to
glib pronouncements of solidarity and struggle has also in
recent argument developed a momentum which begins to
undermine the possibility of speaking of any kind of political
14

collective and agreement at all. Foucault, for example, has
denounced any totalising attempt in theory (any attempt, that
is, to offer general diagnoses and general remedies for the ills
of society) as ‘totalitarian’. Even Habermas, who is hardly a
Stalinist in theory, and who argues no more than that people
should be allowed to discover the truth of their interests in the
free discussions of his ‘ideal communication situation’, has
been denounced by Lyotard for aspiring to a consensus. 13
In other words, the drift of such arguments would seem
to rule out any holistic analysis of societies (any analysis of
the kind that allows us to define them as ‘capitalist’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘totalitarian’), together with the radically transformative projects which such analyses tend to recommend.

Indeed, as ·Isaac Balbus has argued in his defence of objectrelations feminism against Foucauldian logic, if we accept the
claim that any continuous history or
longue duree accounting is posturing as ‘True’ (and therefore dominating) discourse, then feminism itself becomes a
form of totalitarianism. The very idea of a centuries-old
subordination of women explicable by reference to transhistorical patriarchal structures becomes deeply problematic
from the standpoint of the ‘postmodernist’ rejection of truth
and scientific knowledge and of the continuities they posit. If
all that we once called knowledge or theory is now
mythopoeic ‘narrative’, then the narrative of male oppression
is itself but one more myth of Knowledge generated in response to a ‘Will to Power’. And, by the same token, ‘progress’ out of oppression becomes a meaningless aspiration. 14
My primary aim in this survey has been to diagnose a
problem rather than prescribe its remedy. It is true, however,
that, insofar as I have presented both the ‘maternal’ feminism
of Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous, and the more radical deconstruction of the ‘feminine’ invited by the logic of difference,
as ‘problematic’ for the project of female emancipation, I
have implied the need for some alternative course. Indeed, at
times I have gone much further, suggesting that both positions
are inherently conservative: either difference is essentialized
in a way which simply celebrates the ‘feminine’ other of
dominant culture without disturbing the hold of the latter; or
the critique is taken to a point where the ‘feminine’ and its
political and cultural agents in the women’s movement and
feminist art and literature no longer exist in the sense of
having any recognisable common content and set of aspirations. These implications of my argument, however, stand in
need of more elaboration than I have given them and admit of
certain qualifications which I have not yet considered. In
conclusion, then, I would pursue the charge of political conservatism a little further, offering some arguments both in
defence but also in mitigation of it.

I have already indicated my main reason for thinking
that ‘maternal’ feminism and ecriture feminine are open to
this charge. But my objection is not only to the fact that the
emphasis on the distinctiveness of the female body and its
reproductive and erotic experience comes so close to reinforcing patriarchal conceptions of gender difference. I would also
argue that, despite its avant-gardist pretensions, the style in
which this feminism is couched is disquietingly confirming of
traditional assumptions about the ‘nature’ of feminine thought
and writing. The dearth of irony; the fulsome self-congratulation; the resistance to objectivity; the sentimentalisation of
love and friendship and the tendency always to reduce these
relations to their sexual aspect: to focus on the ‘erotic’ conceived as an amorphous, all-engulfing, tactile, radically unintellectual form of experience; the over-blown poetics and
arbitrary recourse to metaphor (which so often lack the hardness of crystalline meaning as if exactitude itself must be
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

avoided as inherently ‘male’ … ): all this, which is offered in
the name of allowing ‘woman’ to discover her ‘voice’, itself
voices those very conceptions of female self-hood and selfaffection which I believe are obstacles to cultural liberation.

And the reason I find them obstacles is not simply because
they so directly lend themselves to a patriarchically constructed ideology of femininity and its modes of self-expres.sion, but because the ideology is, like all ideologies, at best
partial in its representation and therefore illegitimately generalising of a certain specific form of understanding. Moreover,
when this understanding relates so directly to images of selfhood and subjectivity, it is peculiarly offensive and arrogantto the point, in fact, of operating a kind of theft of subjectivity
or betrayal of all those who fail to recognise themselves in the
mirror it offers. At the same time, because ideologies of their
nature are always fractured reflections of society, exploded in
the very moment which reveals their ideological status, those
who cling to them and reinforce their decaying hold are also
always marginalising their own discourse: ensuring that it
cannot be taken seriously in the world at large.

In response to this it will be said, perhaps, that the
neutrality of my own presentation of the issue is misleading
since ‘the world at large’ is essentially a ‘male’ world, and for
women to reject eUlogies of the ‘feminine’ on the grounds that
this guarantees a shrugging off of their importance, is itself to
be complicit with a culture which has consistently treated
reproduction and nurturing activities as of secondary importance to traditional ‘male’ pursuits. If to be ‘taken seriously’

women must speak and act’ like men’ , are not those who do so
lending themselves to these standard cultural norms and thus
equally open to the charge of quietism?

The premise of all such objections, however, is a simplistic acceptance of the equation between masculinity and
culture (or the ‘Symbolic’); and this premise is itself conservative because it rules out the identification of ‘masculine’

with ‘maternal’ activity which I would argue must be an
important part of the aspiration of all those wanting a revaluation of cultural norms. To put the point crudely, and more
empirically, it is only when men are enabled to identify
themselves as nurturers (among other things) and women as
other things (as well as nurturers) that nurturing will cease to
be signified as ‘feminine’. But it is precisely this transformability of cultural codings and norms which is ruled out by a
theory premised upon the permanence of their existing meanings. What is wrong with ‘maternal’ feminism is not that it
celebrates a hitherto derided femininity, but that it seems to
rule out aforehand as ‘masculinist recuperation’ any general
cultural revaluation of it.

Associated with this preempting of any confusion of
traditional cultural gender codings is an overly rigid and
stereotypic conception of what it is to act and speak ‘like a
man’. For, in the last analysis, it is only if we assume that
‘acting like a man’ is of its nature to act in a conservative and
self-defensive manner that the admonition not to do so retains
its critical force. But the self-defeating nature of this assumption is revealed rather clearly if we consider that the very
designation of the ‘cultural’ or ‘symbolic’ as patriarchal
implicitly admits that subversion, disruption, the continual
challenging of received wisdoms (for that is what culture is,
or at any rate includes) is the outcome of ‘male’ speech and
action. In other words, if everything that is ‘cultural’ is
‘masculine’ then ‘masculinity’ itself ceases to retain any
distinctive meaning, and we are deprived of any means of
discriminating between cultural modes which serve the maintenance of patriarchy and cultural modes which tend to subvert it.

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

These points bear on the lesser confidence I feel in
pressing the charge of ‘conservatism’ against the other direction of post-structuralist feminism: against the position which
would pursue the logic of difference to its ultimate conclusion
in the dispersion of any essential conception of the ‘feminine’. For it might seem to follow from this that we should
welcome this collapse of ‘femininity’ as a progressive rather
than a retrograde development. Ought we not to approve it as
a break from feminist theories and strategies which, in focussing always on feminine gender and the distinctive experiences of women, have helped to reconfirm the binary system?

Such a feminism, if it can be called such, would be directed
towards the realisation of the ‘in-difference’ advocated by
Derrida, who has been suggesting that feminists should give
up ‘feminine difference’ as the first strategic move in the
dissolution of the ‘phallologocentric’.

This definitely seems a more attractive and progressive
policy. But it, too, is not without its problems and particular
tendencies to conservatism. In the first place, Derrida’ s recommendation to give up describing the specifically female
subject in favour of ‘in-differentiation’ is inherently selfsubverting since it must invoke the gender difference it invites us to ignore. In this sense, as Linda Kintz has argued, it
is ‘posed from the very terrain of the binary oppositions he
warns against’ .15 The injunction, in other words, for women to
be ‘in-different’: neither to speak ‘as a woman’ nor to speak
‘like a man’ (for both in their differing ways reinforce phal-

locracy, or at any rate do not disturb it) can arguably only be
offered from a male subject place since it depends on presenting women as ‘other’: it depends on the assumption, for
example, that woman is ‘imitating’ even if she speaks ‘like a
man’. You have not to be a man in order to do it, just as in
nineteenth-century India you had not to be English in order to
be Anglicized. 16 The issues here are complex and I shall not
pursue them further here. Suffice it to say that there is indeed
a distinction to be drawn between gender-blind and gender indifferent positions, and that Derrida’s advice may be delivered from a position which has not sufficiently discriminated
between the two. (I acknowledge, however, that a ‘Derridean’

response to these kinds of objection might simply be to point
out that any ‘Derridean’ strategy will of its nature contain
these elements of self-subversion).

In any case, a more important difficulty with the strategy of ‘in-difference’ is that it recommends changes at the
level of discourse and consciousness rather than at the level of
material – economic and social – circumstance, and like all
such recommendations is open to the charge that it is politically conservative because it is too little dialectical. Because
it refuses to discriminate between ‘world’ and ‘text’, between
15

the ‘material’ and the ‘discursive’, it follows that it has no
theoretical purchase on the interdependence and mutual conditioning between the two. Of course, these arguments themselves can have no purchase on a position which eschews the
metaphysical vocabulary of materialism and idealism. There
is simply here no common discourse, and all that one can do is
to charge post-structuralist ‘idealism’ with lacking the conceptual apparatus for marking important distinctions between
different areas or modalities of social life. Adopting this
critical position, however, I would argue that there are many
material circumstances firmly in place which tend to the
disadvantaging of women and whose correction is not obviously going to be achieved simply by a revaluation of theory
on the part of a post-structuralising feminist elite. In fact there
are some concrete and universal dimensions of women’s lives
which seem relatively unaffected by the transformation of

16

consciousness already achieved by the women’s movement.

To give one example: despite the indisputable gains of feminist theory and action, the fact remains that women live in fear
of men and men do not live in fear of women. When I say ‘live
in fear’ of men, I do not mean that we live our lives in a
continual and conscious anxiety, or that we think an attack on
our persons is very likely (it isn’t statistically and we are
rational enough to accept it). I mean that women live in a kind
of alertness to the possibility of attack and must to some
degree organize their lives in order to minimize its threat. In
particular, I think, this has constraints from which men are
free on our capacity to enjoy solitude. As a woman, one’s
reaction to the sight of a male stranger approaching on a
lonely road or country walk is utterly different from one’s
reaction to the approach of a female stranger. In the former
case there is a frisson of anxiety quite absent in the latter. This
anxiety, of course, is almost always confounded by the man’s
perfectly friendly behaviour, but the damage to the relations
between the sexes has already been done – and done not by the
individual man and woman but by their culture. This female
fear and the constraints it places on what women can do particularly in the way of spending time on their own – has, of
course, its negative consequences for men too, most of whom
doubtless deplore its impact on their own capacities for spontaneous relations with women. (Thus, for example, the male
stranger has to think twice about smiling at the passing
woman, exchanging the time of day with her, etc., .for fear he
will either alarm her or be misinterpreted in his intentions … ).

But the situation all the same is not symmetrical: resentment
or regret is not as disabling as fear; and importantly it does not
affect the man’s capacity to go about on his own.

This, then, is one example of the kind of thing I have in
mind in speaking of ‘material circumstances’ which have
been relatively unaffected by changes at a discursive and
‘Symbolic’ level. They are circumstances which relate to
conditions which are experienced by both sexes, and in the
most general sense therefore culturally universal. But they are
conditions which are differently experienced simply in virtue
of which sex you happen to be, and in that sense they are
universally differentiated between the sexes: all men and all
women are subject to them differently. It is this sex-specific
but universal quality of certain conditions of general experience which justifies and gives meaning to collective gender
categories. To put the point in specifically feminist terms,
there are conditions of existence common to all women which
the policy of in-difference – with its recommendation not to
focus on female experience – is resistant to registering in
theory and therefore unlikely to correct in practice.

The implication of these rather open-ended remarks, I
think, is that feminism should proceed on two rather contrary
lines: it should be constantly moving towards ‘in-difference’

in its critique of essentialising and ghettoising modes of
feminist argument; but at the same time it should also insist on
retaining the gender-specific but universal categories of
‘woman’ or ‘female experience’ on the grounds that this is
essential to identifying and transforming all those circumstances of women’s lives which the pervasion of a more
feminist consciousness has left relatively unaffected. In short,
feminism should be both ‘humanist’ and ‘feminist’ – for the
paradox of post-structuralising collapse of the ‘feminine’ and
the move to ‘in-difference’ is that it reintroduces – though in
the disguised form of an aspiration to no-gender – something
not entirely dissimilar from the old humanistic goal of sexual
parity and reconciliation. And, while one can welcome the
reintroduction of the goal, it may still require some of the
scepticism which inspired its original deconstruction.

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

Notes

2

3

4

5

6

7
Thus Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Women and
Modernity, Ithaca and London, 1985, see especially pp.

22-24; cf. Barbara Creed, ‘From here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism’, Screen, no. 28, 2, Spring 1987.

Though there was a definite class bias in much of the early
liberal discussion of such rights: ‘all men’ being conceived
often ehough as having practical extension only to all males
in possession of a certain property and concomitant social
status.

See J. Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ (first published as ‘Le
Temps des Femmes’ in 33/44: Cahiers de recherche de
sciences des textes et documents, 5 (Winger 1979» in Toril
Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1986,
pp. 187-213; cf. ’11 n ‘y a pas de maitre alanguage’, Nouvelle
Revue de Psychanalyse, 1979, cit. Toril Moi (ed.), op. cit., p.

11.

See the discussion by Andreas Huyssen, After the Great
Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism,
London, 1986,pp.44-62.

For a sense of this development in Kristeva’s thinking, see
the excerpts from About Chinese Women (1974); Stabat
Mater’ (1977); ‘The True-Real’ (1979); and ‘Women’s
Time’ (1979) included in Toril Moi (ed.), op. cit. Cf. also the
discussions of Kristeva in Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, London, Methuen, 1985; and in Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, London, Verso, 1986. For a
critique of Kristeva’s ‘ethic’ of feminine negativity, see
Drucilla Cornell and Adam Thurschwell, ‘Feminism, Negativity, Subjectivity’ in Drucilla Cornell and Seyla Benhabib,
Feminism as Critique, Oxford, 1987, pp. 151-56.

Irigaray, for example, has treated parler femme as an analogue of female genitalia, in which the continuous, nonadversarial and elliptical quality of the statements of feminine writing is a reflection of the two lips of the vulva.

WRITING WITH A DIFFERENCE
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8

9

10
11
12

13
14
15

16

Drucilla Cornell and Adam Thurschwell, op. cit., pp.

150-51.

A disengagement reflected in Kristeva’s Lacanian presentation of the feminine as semiotic ‘other’ of the Symbolic even
as it is criticized by Kristeva herself.

Recent feminist self-criticism regarding the ‘white middleclass’ outlook of feminist politics reflects this anxiety about
conceptual conflations, even if it does not collapse into the
extreme particularism which would seem to be its ultimate
logic.

Jean Baudrillard, De la seduction, Paris, 1979, p. 208; cf.

Jardine, op. cit., p. 67.

Jean Baudrillard, interview in Marxism Today, January
1989, p. 54.

There will be some, no doubt, who will come to Baudrillard’s defence. They argue, perhaps that he is in fact repaying the debt of patriarchy with a clear and self-confessed
vagina envy. Or they may point out that Baudrillard is
simply saying that the means must match the end, and that
for women to use ‘male’ methods is to give themselves over
to the masculine forms of power they wish to contest. Very
well, then, let him for his part, show his good faith by
yielding up the language of ‘female sacrifice’ and ‘female
seduction’. And let him ask men, too, to put a hand in the
chum of cultural revolution. Or is the subversion of the
Symbolic to be wholly women’s work?

Fran~ois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, Manchester,
1986,p. 66; cf. pp. 10-16; 25; 57-59; 63-65.

Isaac Balbus, ‘Disciplining Women’ in Feminism as
Critique, op. cit., pp. 110-27.

Linda Kintz, ‘In-Different Criticism’ in Jeffner Allen, Iris
Marion Young, The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern
French Philosophy, Indiana, 1989, p. 113.

Ibid., pp. 130-33.

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Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

17

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