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Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory

Author(s): Linda Alcoff


Source: Signs, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring, 1988), pp. 405-436
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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CULTURAL FEMINISM VERSUS POSTSTRUCTURALISM: THE IDENTITYCRISIS


IN FEMINISTTHEORY

LINDA ALCOFF

feministtheorists,
the conceptof woman
For manycontemporary
is a problem.It is a problemof primarysignificancebecause the
theoryand yet
conceptofwomanis thecentralconceptforfeminist
itis a conceptthatis impossibletoformulate
preciselyforfeminists.
It is the centralconceptforfeminists
because the conceptand categoryofwomanis thenecessarypointofdepartureforanyfeminist
theoryand feministpolitics,predicatedas these are on the transformation
ofwomen'slivedexperiencein contemporary
cultureand
the reevaluationof social theoryand practicefromwomen'spoint
of view. But as a conceptit is radicallyproblematicpreciselyfor
feminists
because itis crowdedwiththeoverdeterminations
ofmale
in
formulation
the
supremacy,invoking every
limit,contrasting
ofa culturebuilton the control
Other,or mediatedself-reflection
offemales.In attempting
tospeakforwomen,feminism
oftenseems
to presupposethatit knowswhat women trulyare, but such an
assumptionis foolhardy
giventhateverysourceofknowledgeabout
In writingthis essay I have benefitedimmeasurablyas a participantofthe 198485 Pembroke Center Seminar on the Cultural Construction of Gender at Brown
University.I would also like to thankLynne Joyrich,Richard Schmitt,Denise Riley,
Sandra Bartky,Naomi Scheman, and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful
comments on an earlier draftof this paper.
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1988, vol. 13, no. 3]
?1988 by The Universityof Chicago. All rightsreserved. 0097-9740/88/1303-0009$01.00

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Alcoff / IDENTITYCRISIS

women has been contaminatedwith misogynyand sexism. No matterwhere we turn-to historicaldocuments,philosophical constructions, social scientificstatistics,introspection,or daily practicesthe mediation offemale bodies into constructionsof woman is dominated by misogynistdiscourse. For feminists,who must transcend
this discourse, it appears we have nowhere to turn.'
Thus the dilemma facingfeministtheoriststoday is thatour very
self-definitionis grounded in a concept that we must deconstruct
and de-essentialize in all of its aspects. Man has said that woman
can be defined, delineated, captured-understood, explained, and
diagnosed-to a level of determinationnever accorded to man himself, who is conceived as a rational animal with free will. Where
man's behavior is underdetermined,freeto constructits own future
along the course of its rational choice, woman's nature has overdetermined her behavior, the limits of her intellectual endeavors,
and the inevitabilitiesof her emotionaljourneythroughlife.Whether
she is construed as essentially immoral and irrational(a la Schopenhauer) or essentially kind and benevolent (a la Kant), she is
always construed as an essential something inevitably accessible
to direct intuited apprehension by males.2 Despite the variety of
ways in which man has construed her essential characteristics,she
is always the Object, a conglomerationof attributesto be predicted
and controlled along with other natural phenomena. The place of
the free-willed subject who can transcend nature's mandates is reserved exclusively formen.3
Feminist thinkershave articulated two major responses to this
situation over the last ten years. The firstresponse is to claim that
feministshave the exclusive rightto describe and evaluate woman.
Thus cultural feministsargue thatthe problem of male supremacist
It may seem thatwe can solve this dilemma easily enough by simply defining
woman as those with female anatomies, but the question remains, What is the significance,ifany,ofthose anatomies? What is the connection between female anatomy
and the concept of woman? It should be remembered that the dominant discourse
does not include in the categorywoman everyone with a female anatomy: it is often
said thataggressive, self-serving,or powerfulwomen are not "true" or "real" women.
Moreover,the problem cannotbe avoided by simplyrejectingthe concept of "woman"
while retainingthe categoryof "women." If there are women, then there must exist
a basis forthe category and a criterionforinclusion within it. This criterionneed
notposit a universal,homogeneous essence, but theremustbe a criterionnonetheless.
2For Schopenhauer's, Kant's, and nearlyeveryothermajorWesternphilosopher's
conception of woman, and foran insightintojust how contradictoryand incoherent
these are, see Linda Bell's excellent anthology,Visions of Women (Clifton, N.J.:
Humana Press, 1983).
3 For an
interestingdiscussion of whether feministsshould even seek such transcendence, see Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason (Minneapolis: Universityof
Minnesota Press, 1984), 86-102.

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Spring1988 / SIGNS

cultureis theproblemofa processin whichwomenare definedby


pointof view and
men,thatis, by a groupwho has a contrasting
set of interestsfromwomen,not to mentiona possible fearand
and dehatredof women.The resultofthishas been a distortion
whichnow can be corrected
valuationoffemininecharacteristics,
by a more accuratefeministdescriptionand appraisal.Thus the
culturalfeministreappraisalconstrueswoman's passivityas her
as her proclivityto nurture,her
peacefulness,her sentimentality
her
advanced
and so forth.Culas
self-awareness,
subjectiveness
turalfeminists
have notchallengedthedefiningofwomanbutonly
thatdefinition
givenby men.
The second majorresponsehas been to rejectthe possibilityof
definingwomanas such at all. Feministswho take this tacticgo
about the business of deconstructing
all conceptsof woman and
both
that
feminist
and
argue
misogynist
attemptsto definewoman
are politicallyreactionaryand ontologicallymistaken.Replacing
withwoman-as-supermom
woman-as-housewife
(orearthmotheror
is
no
advance.
French
superprofessional)
post-structuralist
Using
theorythesefeminists
arguethatsuch errorsoccurbecause we are
in fundamental
waysduplicatingmisogynist
strategieswhenwe try
to definewomen,characterizewomen,or speak forwomen,even
withinthe gender.The
thoughallowingfora rangeofdifferences
of
or
sexual
difference
must
be replaced with a
politics gender
of
difference
where
its
loses
plurality
gender
positionofsignificance.
the
cultural
feminist
Brieflyput,then,
responseto Simone de
Beauvoir'squestion,"Aretherewomen?" is to answeryes and to
definewomenby theiractivitiesand attributes
in the presentculture.The post-structuralist
is
to
answer
no and attackthe
response
and
the
of
woman
category
concept
throughproblematizingsuband it is becoming
jectivity.Each responsehas seriouslimitations,
these limitationswhile reincreasinglyobvious thattranscending
fromwhichtheyemergeis imtainingthe theoreticalframework
As
a
a
few
brave
souls are now rejectingthese
result,
possible.
choicesand attempting
to map outa new course,a coursethatwill
avoid the majorproblemsofthe earlierresponses.In thispaper I
will discusssomeofthepioneerworkbeingdone to develop a new
concept of woman and offermy own contributiontoward it.4 But

I mustspell outmoreclearlytheinadequacies ofthefirsttwo


first,

4Feminist works I would include in this group but which I won't be able to
discuss in thisessay are Elizabeth L. Berg, "The Third Woman,"Diacritics 12 (1982):
11-20; and Lynne Joyrich,"Theory and Practice: The Project ofFeminist Criticism,"
unpublished manuscript(Brown University,1984). Luce Irigaray's work may come
to mind forsome readers as another proponent of a thirdway, but forme Irigaray's
emphasis on female anatomy makes her work border too closely on essentialism.
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Akoff / IDENTITYCRISIS

responses to the problem ofwoman and explain why I believe these


inadequacies are inherent.

Cultural feminism
Cultural feminism is the ideology of a female nature or female
essence reappropriated by feministsthemselves in an effortto revalidate undervalued female attributes.For cultural feminists,the
enemy of women is not merely a social system or economic institution or set of backward beliefs but masculinityitselfand in some
cases male biology. Cultural feministpolitics revolve around creating and maintaining a healthy environment-free of masculinist
values and all their offshootssuch as pornography-for the female
principle. Feminist theory,the explanation of sexism, and the justificationof feministdemands can all be grounded securely and
unambiguously on the concept of the essential female.
Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich have been influentialproponents
of this position.5Breaking fromthe trendtoward androgynyand the
minimizingof gender differencesthatwas popular among feminists
in the early seventies, both Daly and Rich argue fora returnedfocus
on femaleness.
For Daly, male barrenness leads to parasitismon female energy,
which flows fromour life-affirming,
life-creatingbiological condition: "Since female energyis essentially biophilic, the female spirit/
body is the primarytargetin thisperpetual war ofaggression against
life. Gyn/Ecologyis the re-claimingof life-lovingfemale energy."6
Despite Daly's warnings against biological reductionism,7her own
analysis of sexism uses gender-specificbiological traitsto explain
male hatred forwomen. The childless state of "all males" leads to
a dependency on women, which in turnleads men to "deeply identifywith 'unwanted fetal tissue.' "8 Given their state of fear and
insecurityit becomes almost understandable, then,thatmen would
desire to dominate and controlthatwhich is so vitallynecessary to
them: the life-energyofwomen. Female energy,conceived by Daly
as a natural essence, needs to be freed from its male parasites,
released for creative expression and recharged through bonding
5Although Rich has recently departed fromthis position and in fact begun to
move in the direction of the concept of woman I will defend in this essay (Adrienne
Rich, "Notes toward a Politics of Location," in her Blood, Bread, and Poetry [New
York: Norton, 1986]).
6Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology(Boston: Beacon, 1978), 355.
7Ibid., 60.
8Ibid., 59.

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Spring1988 / SIGNS

withotherwomen.In thisfreespace women's"natural"attributes


and the abilityto nurturecan thrive.
oflove, creativity,
as femaleis theirdefiningessence for
Women'sidentification
their
anyotherway in whichtheymay
haecceity,overriding
Daly,
be definedor maydefinethemselves.Thus Daly states:"Women
who accept false inclusionamongthe fathersand sons are easily
polarizedagainstotherwomenon thebasis ofethnic,national,class,
applaudingthedefeat
religiousand othermale-defined
differences,
of 'enemy' women."9These differencesare apparentratherthan
the
real,inessentialratherthanessential.The onlyreal difference,
difference
that
can
a
change person'sontologicalplacement
only
Our essence is deon Daly's dichotomousmap,is sex difference.
finedhere,in our sex,fromwhichflowall the factsabout us: who
are our potentialallies, who is our enemy,whatare our objective
whatis ourtruenature.Thus, Daly defineswomenagain
interests,
is strongly
linkedto femalebiology.
and herdefinition
Rich's
have
exhibitedsurprisingsimilarities
of
Many
writings
toDaly's positiondescribedabove,surprising
giventheirdifference
in styleand temperament.
Richdefinesa "femaleconsciousness"10
thathas a greatdeal to do withthe femalebody.
I have come to believe ... thatfemalebiology-the diffuse,
intensesensualityradiatingoutfromclitoris,breasts,uterus,
the gestationand
vagina; the lunarcycles of menstruation;
fruition
oflifewhichcan takeplace in thefemalebody-has
farmoreradicalimplicationsthanwe have yetcome to appreciate.Patriarchal
thoughthas limitedfemalebiologytoits
own narrowspecifications.
The feministvisionhas recoiled
fromfemalebiologyforthesereasons;itwill,I believe,come
to view our physicality
as a resource,ratherthana destiny.
... Wemusttouchtheunityand resonanceofourphysicality,
ourbond withthe naturalorder,thecorporealgroundofour
intelligence.
Thus Richarguesthatwe shouldnotrejecttheimportance
offemale
has used itto subjugateus. Rich
biologysimplybecause patriarchy
believes that"our biologicalgrounding,the miracleand paradox
ofthe femalebodyand its spiritualand politicalmeanings"holds
the keyto ourrejuvenationand ourreconnectionwithour specific
female attributes,which she lists as "our great mental capacities...; our highlydeveloped tactilesense; our genius forclose
9Ibid., 365 (my emphasis).
I?Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New York: Norton, 1979), 18.
"Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: Bantam, 1977), 21.
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observation; our complicated, pain-enduring,multi-pleasured

physicality."12

Richfurther
echoes Daly in herexplanationofmisogyny:"The
ancient,continuingenvy,awe and dreadofthemale forthefemale
capacityto createlife has repeatedlytakenthe formof hatredfor
every other female aspect of creativity."'3 Thus Rich, like Daly,

as the subjugation
identifiesa femaleessence, definespatriarchy
and colonizationof this essence out of male envy and need, and
then promotesa solutionthatrevolvesaroundrediscoveringour
essence and bondingwith otherwomen. NeitherRich nor Daly
butthisis because theyrejectthe
espouse biologicalreductionism,
ofmindand bodythatsucha reductionism
oppositionaldichotomy
presupposes.The femaleessence forDaly and Rich is not simply
spiritualor simplybiological-it is both.Yetthekeypointremains
thatit is our specificallyfemaleanatomythatis the primaryconstituentofour identityand the sourceofour femaleessence. Rich
prophesiesthat"the repossessionby women of our bodies will
bringfarmoreessentialchangeto humansocietythanthe seizing
ofthe meansofproductionby workers.... In such a worldwomen
will trulycreatenew life,bringingforthnot onlychildren(ifand
as we choose)butthevisions,and thethinking,
necessaryto sustain,
console and alterhumanexistence-a new relationshipto the universe. Sexuality,politics,intelligence,power,motherhood,
work,
itself
new
will
thinking
meanings;
develop
community,
intimacy
will be transformed."14

The characterization
of Rich's and Daly's views as part of a
towardessentialismhas been dewithin
feminism
trend
growing
thename
Alice
Echols.15Echolsprefers
most
by
veloped
extensively
12Ibid.,290.
13Ibid., 21.
14Ibid., 292. Three pages earlier Rich castigates the view that we need only
release on the world women's ability to nurturein order to solve the world's problems, which may seem incongruous given the above passage. The two positions are
consistent however: Rich is tryingto correctthe patriarchalconception of women
as essentially nurturerswitha view ofwomen thatis more complex and multifaceted.
Thus, her essentialist conception ofwomen is more comprehensive and complicated
than the patriarchalone.
15 See Alice
Echols, "The New Feminism of Yin and Yang," in Powers of Desire:
The Politics of Sexuality,ed. Ann Snitow,Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 439-59, and "The Taming of the Id:
Feminist Sexual Politics, 1968-83," in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 50-72. Hester
Eisenstein paints a similar picture of cultural feminismin her Contemporary Feminist Thought (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), esp. xvii-xix and 105-45. Josephine Donovan has traced the more recentculturalfeminismanalyzed by Echols and Eisenstein
to the earlier matriarchalvision offeministslike CharlottePerkinsGilman (Josephine
Donovan, FeministTheory: The Intellectual Traditions ofAmerican Feminism [New
York: Ungar, 1985], esp. chap. 2).
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Spring1988 / SIGNS

"culturalfeminism"forthis trendbecause it equates "women's


and preservation
ofa femalecounter
liberation
withthedevelopment
culture."16
Echols identifiesculturalfeminist
writings
bytheirdenof
rather
male
roles
or
than
igration masculinity
practices,by their
to preserve
valorizationoffemaletraits,and by theircommitment
ratherthandiminishgenderdifferences.
Besides Daly and Rich,
Echols namesSusan Griffin,
KathleenBarry,
JaniceRaymond,Florence Rush, Susan Brownmiller,
and Robin Morganas important
culturalfeminist
and she documentsherclaimpersuasively
writers,
by highlighting
keypassages oftheirwork.AlthoughEchols finds
a prototype
ofthistrendin earlyradicalfeminist
byValerie
writings
Solanis and Joreen,she is carefulto distinguishculturalfeminism
fromradical feminismas a whole. The distinguishing
marksbetween the two include theirpositionon the mutability
of sexism
the
connection
between
drawn
and
amongmen,
biology
misogyny,
and the degree of focuson valorizedfemaleattributes.
As Hester
Eisenstein has argued,thereis a tendencywithinmanyradical
feminist
workstowardsettingup an ahistoricaland essentialistconof
ception femalenature,but thistendencyis developed and consolidated by cultural feminists,thus rendering their work
different
fromradicalfeminism.
significantly
However,althoughculturalfeministviews sharplyseparatefemale frommale traits,theycertainlydo notall give explicitlyessentialistformulations
ofwhatit means to be a woman.So it may
seem thatEchols's characterization
of culturalfeminismmakes it
too
and
that
the
appear
homogeneous
chargeofessentialismis on
On
the
issue
essentialism
of
Echols states:
shakyground.
This preoccupationwithdefiningthe femalesensibilitynot
only leads these feministsto indulge in dangerouslyerroneous generalizationsabout women,but to implythatthis
identityis innateratherthan sociallyconstructed.At best,
therehas been a curiouslycavalier disregardforwhether
these differences
are biologicalor culturalin origin.Thus
and some
JaniceRaymondargues:"Yetthereare differences,
feminists
have come to realize thatthosedifferences
are importantwhethertheyspringfromsocialization,frombiology,
orfromthetotalhistory
ofexistingas a womanin a patriarchal
society."'7

Echols pointsoutthatthe importanceofthe differences


variestremendouslyaccordingto theirsource. If thatsource is innate,the
culturalfeministfocuson buildingan alternativefeministculture
16Echols, "The New Feminism of Yin and Yang," 441.
440.

17Ibid.,

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is politicallycorrect.If the differences


are notinnate,the focusof
our activismshould shiftconsiderably.In the absence ofa clearly
statedpositionon theultimatesourceofgenderdifference,
Echols
infersfromtheiremphasison buildinga feministfree-spaceand
woman-centered
culturethatculturalfeministshold some version
ofessentialism.I shareEchols's suspicion.Certainly,
it is difficult
to rendertheviewsofRichand Daly intoa coherentwhole without
supplyinga missingpremisethatthereis an innatefemaleessence.
I have not included any feministwritingsfrom
Interestingly,
womenofoppressednationalitiesand races in the categoryofculturalfeminism,nor does Echols. I have heard it argued thatthe
emphasis placed on culturalidentityby such writersas Cherrie
Moraga and AudreLorde reveals a tendencytowardessentialism
also. However,in my view theirworkhas consistentlyrejected
essentialistconceptionsofgender.Considerthe followingpassage
fromMoraga:"When you startto talkabout sexism,the worldbecomes increasinglycomplex.The power no longerbreaksdown
intoneatlittlehierarchical
categories,butbecomesa seriesofstarts
and detours.Since thecategoriesarenoteasytoarriveat,theenemy
to unravel."18
is noteasy to name. It is all so difficult
Moragagoes
on to assertthat"some men oppressthe verywomentheylove,"
implyingthatwe need new categoriesand new conceptstodescribe
relationsof oppression.In this
such complex and contradictory
of
problematicunderstanding sexism,Moraga seems to me lightyearsahead of Daly's manicheanontologyor Rich's romanticized
ofoppressionsexpericonceptionofthe female.The simultaneity
enced by women such as Moraga resistsessentialistconclusions.
Universalist conceptions of female or male experiences and attributes are not plausible in the context of such a complex network
of relations, and without an ability to universalize, the essentialist
argumentis difficultifnot impossible to make. White women cannot
be all good or all bad; neither can men fromoppressed groups. I
have simplynot foundwritingsby feministswho are oppressed also
by race and/orclass thatplace or position maleness wholly as Other.
Reflected in their problematized understandingof masculinityis a
richer and likewise problematized concept of woman.19
'8Cherrie Moraga, "From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism,"
in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana
UniversityPress, 1986), 180.
19See also Moraga, "From a Long Line of Vendidas," 187, and Cherrie Moraga,
"La Guera," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writingsby Radical Women of Color,
ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (New York: Kitchen Table, 1983), 32-33;
Barbara Smith, "Introduction," in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed.
Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table, 1983), xix-lvi; "The Combahee River
Collective Statement,"in Smith, ed., 272-82; Audre Lorde, "Age, Race, Class, and
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Spring1988 / SIGNS

Even if culturalfeminismis the productof whitefeminists,


it
is not homogeneous,as Echols herselfpointsout. The biological
accountsof sexismgiven by Daly and Brownmiller,
forexample,
are notembracedby Rush or Dworkin.But the key linkbetween
these feministsis theirtendencytowardinvokinguniversalizing
conceptionsofwomanand motherin an essentialistway.Therefore,
despite the lack of completehomogeneitywithinthe category,it
seemsstilljustifiableand important
toidentify
(and criticize)within
these sometimesdisparateworkstheirtendencyto offeran essentialistresponse to misogynyand sexism throughadoptinga hoand ahistorical
mogeneous,unproblematized,
conceptionofwoman.
One does nothavetobe influencedbyFrenchpost-structuralism
to disagreewithessentialism.It is well documentedthatthe innatenessof genderdifferencesin personalityand characteris at
thispointfactuallyand philosophicallyindefensible.20
There are a
hostofdivergentwaysgenderdivisionsoccurin different
societies,
and the differences
thatappearto be universalcan be explainedin
nonessentialistways. However,belief in women's innate peacefulnessand abilityto nurturehas been commonamongfeminists
since the nineteenthcenturyand has enjoyeda resurgencein the
last decade, mostnotablyamongfeministpeace activists.I have
met scores of youngfeministsdrawnto actionslike the Women's
Peace Encampmentand to groupslike Womenfora Non-Nuclear
Futureby theirbeliefthatthematernallove womenhave fortheir
childrencan unlockthegatesofimperialist
oppression.I havegreat
for
the
of
these
respect
pride
women,butI also share
self-affirming
Echols's fearthattheireffectis to "reflectand reproducedominant
culturalassumptionsaboutwomen,"whichnotonlyfailtorepresent
the varietyin women'slives but promoteunrealisticexpectations

about "normal" female behavior thatmost of us cannot satisfy.21Our

and notmerehindsight
gendercategoriesarepositivelyconstitutive
of
activities.
There
is
a
cirdescriptions previous
self-perpetuating
between
woman
as
and
nurcularity
defining
essentiallypeaceful
Sex: Women Redefining Difference," in her Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, N.Y.:
Crossing, 1984), 114-23; and bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
(Boston: South End, 1984). All of these works resist the universalizing tendency of
cultural feminismand highlightthe differencesbetween women, and between men,
in a way that undercuts arguments for the existence of an overarching gendered
essence.
20There is a wealth of literatureon this, but two good places to
begin are Anne
Fausto-Sterling,Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men (New
York: Basic, 1986); and Sherrie Ortnerand Harriet Whitehead, eds., Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality (New York: Cambridge
UniversityPress, 1981).
21 Echols, "The New Feminism of Yin and
Yang," 440.
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Alcoff / IDENTITYCRISIS

turingand the observations and judgments we shall make of future


women and the practices we shall engage in as women in the future.
Do feministswant to buy anotherticketforwomen of the world on
the merry-go-round
of feminineconstructions?Don't we want rather
and run away?
to get offthe merry-go-round
This should not imply that the political effectsof cultural feminism have all been negative.22The insistence on viewing traditional femininecharacteristicsfroma differentpoint of view, to use
a "looking glass" perspective, as a means of engendering a gestalt
switch on the body of data we all currentlyshare about women, has
had positive effect.Aftera decade of hearing liberal feministsadvising us to wear business suits and enter the male world, it is a
helpful correctiveto have culturalfeministsargue instead thatwomen's world is full of superior virtues and values, to be credited and
learned fromratherthan despised. Herein lies the positive impact
of cultural feminism.And surely much of theirpoint is well taken,
thatit was our motherswho made our familiessurvive,thatwomen's
handiwork is truly artistic,that women's care-giving really is superior in value to male competitiveness.
however, the cultural feministchampioning of a
Unfortunately,
redefined "womanhood" cannot provide a useful long-range program fora feministmovement and, in fact,places obstacles in the
way of developing one. Under conditions of oppression and restrictions on freedomof movement,women, like otheroppressed groups,
have developed strengthsand attributesthat should be correctly
credited, valued, and promoted.What we should not promote,however, are the restrictiveconditions thatgave rise to those attributes:
forced parenting, lack of physical autonomy,dependency for survival on mediation skills, forinstance. What conditions forwomen
do we want to promote? A freedom of movement such that we can
compete in the capitalist world alongside men? A continued restrictionto child-centered activities? To the extent cultural feminism merely valorizes genuinely positive attributes developed
under oppression, it cannot map our futurelong-range course. To
the extent that it reinforcesessentialist explanations of these attributes, it is in danger of solidifyingan importantbulwark forsexist
oppression: the belief in an innate "womanhood" to which we must
all adhere lest we be deemed either inferioror not "true" women.
22 Hester Eisenstein's treatmentof cultural feminism,though critical,is certainly
more two-sided than Echols's. While Echols apparently sees only the reactionary
necresults of cultural feminism,Eisenstein sees in it a therapeutic self-affirmation
essary to offsetthe impact of a misogynistculture (see Eisenstein [n. 15 above]).

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Post-structuralism
For manyfeminists,the problem withthe culturalfeministresponse
to sexism is that it does not criticize the fundamental mechanism
ofoppressive power used to perpetuate sexism and in factreinvokes
thatmechanism in its supposed solution. The mechanism of power
referredto here is the constructionof the subject by a discourse
that weaves knowledge and power into a coercive structurethat
"forces the individual back on himself and ties him to his own
identityin a constrainingway."23On this view, essentialist formulations of womanhood, even when made by feminists,"tie" the
individual to her identityas a woman and thus cannot represent a
solution to sexism.
This articulationofthe problem has been borrowed by feminists
froma numberofrecentlyinfluentialFrench thinkerswho are sometimes called post-structuralistbut who also might be called posthumanist and post-essentialist. Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault are
the front-runners
in this group. Disparate as these writersare, their
common
theme
is that the self-contained,authentic subject
(one)
conceived by humanism to be discoverable below a veneer of cultural and ideological overlay is in reality a constructof that very
humanistdiscourse. The subject is not a locus ofauthorialintentions
or natural attributesor even a privileged, separate consciousness.
Lacan uses psychoanalysis, Derrida uses grammar,and Foucault
uses the historyof discourses all to attack and "deconstruct"24our
concept of the subject as having an essential identity and an authenticcore thathas been repressed by society.There is no essential
core "natural" to us, and so there is no repression in the humanist
sense.
There is an interestingsortof neodeterminismin this view. The
subject or self is never determined by biology in such a way that
2 Michel Foucault,
"Why Study Power: The Question ofthe Subject," in Beyond
Structuralismand Hermeneutics: Michel Foucault, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul
Rabinow, 2d ed. (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press, 1983), 212.
24Thistermis principallyassociated with Derrida forwhom it refersspecifically
to the process of unraveling metaphors in order to reveal their underlying logic,
which usually consists of a simple binary opposition such as between man/woman,
subject/object,culture/nature,etc. Derrida has demonstrated that within such oppositions one side is always superior to the other side, such thatthere is never any
pure differencewithout domination. The term "deconstruction" has also come to
mean more generally any exposure of a concept as ideological or culturally constructedratherthan natural or a simple reflectionof reality(see Derrida, Of Grammatology,trans. G. Spivak [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UniversityPress, 1976]; also
helpful is Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 1982]).

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humanhistoryis predictableor even explainable,and thereis no


unilineardirectionofa determinist
arrowpointingfromsomefairly
static,"natural"phenomenato humanexperience.On the other
is not groundedin
hand,this rejectionof biologicaldeterminism
in
the beliefthathumansubjectsare underdetermined
but,rather,
thebeliefthatwe are overdetermined
by a social
(i.e., constructed)
discourseand/orculturalpractice.The idea here is thatwe individuals reallyhave littlechoice in the matterofwho we are,foras
and
Derridaand Foucaultliketo remindus, individualmotivations
intentionscountfornil or almostnil in the schemeofsocial reality.
We are constructs-that
is, our experienceofour verysubjectivity
is a constructmediatedby and/orgroundedon a social discourse
beyond (way beyond) individualcontrol.As Foucault puts it, we
are bodies "totallyimprintedby history."25
Thus, subjectiveexperiencesare determinedin some sense by macroforces.However,
thesemacroforces,includingsocial discoursesand social practices,
are apparentlynotoverdetermined,
resultingas theydo fromsuch
a complex and unpredictablenetworkof overlappingand crissis perceivableand
crossingelementsthatno unilineardirectionality
cause exists.Theremaybe, and Foucault
in factno finalorefficient
perceivableprocessesofchange
hoped at one pointto findthem,26
withinthe social network,but beyond schematicrules of thumb
neitherthe formnorthe contentofdiscoursehas a fixedor unified
structureor can be predictedor mapped out via an objectified,
ultimaterealm.To someextent,thisview is similartocontemporary
methodologicalindividualism,whose advocateswill usually conresultsin a social reality
cede thatthecomplexofhumanintentions
summarized
the
to
no
resemblance
categoriesofintentions
bearing
thananyone partyorsumofparties
different
butlookingaltogether
ever envisagedand desired.The difference,
however,is thatwhile
intentionsare inhuman
that
admit
individualists
methodological
but also the
the
not
efficacy
only
deny
effective,
post-structuralists
of
the
existence
even
and
intentionality.
ontologicalautonomy
unite with Marx in assertingthe social diPost-structuralists
mensionofindividualtraitsand intentions.
Thus,theysaywe canofindividualintentions
notunderstandsocietyas theconglomerate
but, rather,mustunderstandindividualintentionsas constructed
withina social reality.To the extentpost-structuralists
emphasize
social explanationsof individualpracticesand experiencesI find
theirworkilluminatingand persuasive.My disagreementoccurs,
25Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,"in The Foucault Reader,
ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 83.
26This hope is evident in Michel Foucault's The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1973).
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however,when theyseem totallyto erase any roomformaneuver


by the individualwithina social discourseor set ofinstitutions.
It
is thattotalizationofhistory'simprintthatI reject.In theirdefense
of a totalconstruction
of the subject,post-structuralists
deny the
subject'sabilityto reflecton the social discourseand challengeits
determinations.
Applied to the conceptof womanthe post-structuralist's
view
resultsin whatI shall call nominalism:the idea thatthe category
"woman" is a fictionand thatfeministeffortsmustbe directed
towarddismantlingthisfiction."Perhaps . . 'woman' is nota determinableidentity.Perhapswoman is not some thingwhich announcesitselffroma distance,at a distancefromsome otherthing.
... Perhapswoman-a non-identity,
a simulacrum-is
non-figure,
distance'sverychasm,theout-distancing
ofdistance,theinterval's
Derrida'sinterest
in feminism
cadence,distanceitself."27
stemsfrom
his belief,expressedabove,thatwomanmayrepresenttherupture
in thefunctional
discourseofwhathe calls logocentrism,
an essentialistdiscoursethatentailshierarchiesofdifference
and a Kantian
ontology.Because womanhas in a sense been excluded fromthis
discourse,itis possibletohope thatshe mightprovidea real source
of resistance.But her resistancewill not be at all effectiveif she
continuestouse themechanismoflogocentrism
toredefinewoman:
she can be an effectiveresisteronly if she driftsand dodges all
attemptsto captureher.Then, Derridahopes,the followingfuturisticpicturewill come true:"Out of the depths,endless and unfathomable,she engulfsand distortsall vestigeof essentiality,
of
identity,of property.And the philosophicaldiscourse,blinded,
founderson these shoals and is hurleddown these depthsto its
ruin."28For Derrida,women have always been definedas a subwithina binaryopposition:man/woman,
jugateddifference
culture/
nature,positive/negative,
To assertan essential
analytical/intuitive.
genderdifferenceas culturalfeministsdo is to reinvokethis oppositionalstructure.The only way to break out of this structure,
and in factto subvertthestructure
itself,is toasserttotaldifference,
to be thatwhich cannotbe pinned down or subjugatedwithina
dichotomoushierarchy.
it is to be whatis not.Thus
Paradoxically,
feminists
cannotdemarcatea definitive
categoryof"woman"withouteliminatingall possibilityforthedefeatoflogocentrism
and its
oppressivepower.
Foucaultsimilarlyrejectsall constructions
ofoppositionalsubjects-whetherthe "proletariat,"
"woman,"or "the oppressed"-as
27JacquesDerrida, Spurs, trans.Barbara Harlow (Chicago: UniversityofChicago
Press, 1978), 49.
28Ibid., 51.

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mirrorimages that merely recreate and sustain the discourse of


power. As Biddy Martinpoints out, "The point fromwhich Foucault
deconstructs is off-center,out of line, apparently unaligned. It is
not the point of an imagined absolute otherness, but an 'alterity'
which understands itselfas an internal exclusion."29
Following Foucault and Derrida, an effectivefeminism could
only be a wholly negative feminism,deconstructingeverythingand
refusing to constructanything.This is the position Julia Kristeva
She says: "A
adopts, herselfan influentialFrench post-structuralist.
woman cannot be; it is something which does not even belong in

the orderofbeing. It follows thata feministpracticecan onlybe

negative, at odds with what already exists so thatwe may say 'that's
not it' and 'that's still not it.' "30 The problematic character of subjectivitydoes not mean, then,thatthere can be no political struggle,
as one might surmise fromthe fact that post-structuralismdeconstructsthe position of the revolutionaryin the same breath as it
deconstructsthe position of the reactionary.But the political struggle can have only a "negative function,"rejecting"everythingfinite,
definite, structured,loaded with meaning, in the existing state of

society."31

The attractionofthe post-structuralist


critique of subjectivityfor
feministsis two-fold.First,it seems to hold out the promise ofan increased freedom forwomen, the "free play" of a pluralityof differences unhampered by any predetermined gender identity as
formulatedby eitherpatriarchyor culturalfeminism.Second, it moves
decisively beyond culturalfeminismand liberal feminismin further
theorizingwhat theyleave untouched: the constructionofsubjectivity.We can learn a great deal here about the mechanisms of sexist
oppression and the constructionof specific gender categories by relating these to social discourse and by conceiving ofthe subject as a
culturalproduct.Certainly,too, thisanalysis can help us understand
right-wingwomen, the reproduction of ideology, and the mechanismsthatblock social progress.However, adopting nominalism creates significantproblems forfeminism.How can we seriously adopt
Kristeva's plan foronly negative struggle?As the Leftshould by now
have learned, you cannot mobilize a movement that is only and al29Biddy Martin,"Feminism, Criticism,and Foucault," New German Critique 27
(1982): 11.
30JuliaKristeva, "Woman Can Never Be Defined," in New French Feminisms,
ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron(New York: Schocken, 1981), 137 (my
italics).
31 Julia Kristeva, "Oscillation between Power and Denial," in Marks and Courtivron,eds., 166.
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a visionofa better
waysagainst:youmusthavea positivealternative,
futurethatcan motivatepeople to sacrificetheirtimeand energytowarditsrealization.
a feminist
will
Moreover,
adoptionofnominalism
withthesameproblemtheoriesofideologyhave,that
be confronted
is,Whyis a right-wing
woman'sconsciousnessconstructed
via social
discoursebut a feminist's
consciousnessnot?Post-structuralist
crito
the
construction
of
all
or
tiquesofsubjectivity
pertain
subjects they
How
pertaintonone.Andhereis preciselythedilemmaforfeminists:
can we grounda feminist
that
deconstructs
the
female
subpolitics
Nominalism
threatens
to
feminism
out
itself.
ject?
wipe
Some feminists
whowishto use post-structuralism
are well aware
ofthisdanger.BiddyMartin,forexample,pointsoutthat"we cannot
affordto refuseto takea politicalstance'whichpins us to our sex'
forthe sake ofan abstracttheoreticalcorrectness.... There is the
dangerthatFoucault'schallengesto traditional
categories,iftaken
to a 'logical' conclusion... could make the question of women's
oppressionobsolete."32Based on her articulationof the problem
withFoucaultwe are lefthopefulthatMartinwillprovidea solution
thattranscendsnominalism.Unfortunately,
in her readingof Lou
Andreas-Salome,Martinvalorizes undecidability,
ambiguity,and
elusiveness and intimatesthatby maintainingthe undecidability
of identitythe life of Andreas-Salomeprovidesa textfromwhich
feminists
can usefullylearn.33
However,the notionthatall textsare undecidable cannotbe
usefulforfeminists.
In supportofhis contentionthatthe meaning
oftextsis ultimately
undecidable,Derridaoffersus in Spursthree
butequallywarranted
ofhowNietzsche's
conflicting
interpretations
textsconstructand positionthe female.In one of these interpretationsDerrida argues we can findpurportedly
feministpropositions.34
Thus,Derridaseekstodemonstrate
thateven theseemingly
incontrovertible
of Nietzsche'sworksas misogynist
interpretation
can be challengedby an equallyconvincingargumentthattheyare
not. But how can this be helpfulto feminists,
who need to have
theiraccusationsofmisogynyvalidatedratherthanrendered"undecidable"? The pointis notthatDerridahimselfis antifeminist,
northatthereis nothingat all in Derrida'sworkthatcan be useful
forfeminists.
Butthethesisofundecidabilityas it is applied in the
case of Nietzschesoundstoo muchlike yetanotherversionofthe
antifeminist
argumentthatour perceptionof sexismis based on a
limited
skewed,
perspectiveand thatwhatwe taketo be misogyny
is in realityhelpfulratherthanhurtful
to the cause ofwomen.The
32Martin,16-17.
33Ibid., esp. 21, 24, and 29.
34See Derrida, Spurs, esp. 57 and 97.
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declarationofundecidability
mustinevitablyreturnus toKristeva's
position,thatwe can give onlynegativeanswersto the question,
unWhatis a woman?If the category"woman" is fundamentally
decidable, then we can offerno positiveconceptionof it thatis
immuneto deconstruction,
and we are leftwitha feminism
thatcan
be onlydeconstructive
and, thus,nominalistonce again.35
has the deleteriouseffect
A nominalistpositionon subjectivity
of de-genderingour analysis,of in effectmakinggenderinvisible
once again.Foucault'sontologyincludesonlybodies and pleasures,
and he is notoriousfornotincludinggenderas a categoryofanalysis.
the need and even the posIf genderis simplya social construct,
becomes
a
feminist
of
immediatelyproblematic.
politics
sibility
Whatcan we demand in the name of women if "women" do not
exist and demands in theirname simplyreinforcethe myththat
theydo? How can we speak out againstsexismas detrimentalto
the interestsof women if the categoryis a fiction?How can we
demand legal abortions,adequate child care, or wages based on
comparableworthwithoutinvokinga conceptof "woman"?
undercutsourabilityto oppose thedominant
Post-structuralism
trend(and, one mightargue,the dominantdanger)in mainstream
thatis, the insistenceon a universal,
Westernintellectualthought,
and ethics.Demetaphysics,
neutral,perspectivelessepistemology,
the
from
thoughtis still
Continent,
Anglo-American
spiterumblings
of
a
the
to
wedded
universalizable,apoliticalmethodology
idea(l)
unfettered
basic truths
and setoftranshistorical
byassociationswith
The
or
cultures.
rejectionofsubparticulargenders,races,classes,
withthis"gecolludes
but
jectivity,unintentionally nevertheless,
that
liberal
classical
nerichuman"thesisof
thought, particularities
and improperinfluenceson knowledge.
ofindividualsareirrelevant
such as subjectiveexpeBy designatingindividualparticularities
rienceas a social construct,
negationoftheaupost-structuralism's
classical liberal's
the
with
thorityof the subjectcoincides nicely
irrelevant.
are
view thathumanparticularities
(Fortheliberal,race,
to
irrelevant
are
questionsofjustice
ultimately
class, and gender
For the postthe
same."
all
we
are
"underneath
and truthbecause
35Martin's most recent work departs fromthis in a positive direction. In an essay
coauthored with Chandra Talpade Mohanty,Martin points out "the political limitations of an insistence on 'indeterminacy' which implicitly,when not explicitly,
denies the critic'sown situatedness in the social, and in effectrefusesto acknowledge
the critic's own institutionalhome." Martin and Mohanty seek to develop a more
positive, though still problematized, conception of the subject as having a "multiple
and shifting" perspective. In this, their work becomes a significantcontribution
toward the development of an alternative conception of subjectivity,a conception
not unlike the one that I will discuss in the rest of this essay ("Feminist Politics:
What's Home Got to Do with It?" in Lauretis, ed. [n. 18 above], 191-212, esp. 194).

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structuralist,
race, class, and genderare constructsand, therefore,
incapable ofdecisivelyvalidatingconceptionsofjustice and truth
because underneaththerelies no naturalcoretobuild on orliberate
or maximize.Hence, once again,underneathwe are all the same.)
It is, in fact,a desire to topple thiscommitment
to the possibility
ofa worldview-purported
in factas thebest ofall possible worldviews-grounded in a generichuman,thatmotivatesmuchof the
culturalfeministglorification
of femininity
as a valid specificity
feminist
legitimately
grounding
theory.36
The precedingcharacterizations
ofculturalfeminismand poststructuralist
feminismwill angermanyfeministsby assumingtoo
much homogeneityand by blithelypigeonholinglarge and complex theories.However,I believe the tendenciesI have outlined
towardessentialismand towardnominalismrepresentthe main,
currentresponsesby feministtheoryto the task of reconceptualizing "woman." Both responseshave significant
advantagesand
serious shortcomings.
Cultural feminismhas provided a useful
correctiveto the "generic human" thesis of classical liberalism
and has promotedcommunityand self-affirmation,
but it cannot
a
future
of
course
action
for
feminist
provide long-range
theoryor
it
is
and
founded
on
a
claim
of
essentialism
that
we are
practice,
farfromhavingthe evidence tojustify.The feministappropriation
ofpost-structuralism
has providedsuggestiveinsightson the constructionof femaleand male subjectivity
and has issued a crucial
warningagainst creatinga feminismthat reinvokesthe mechanismsof oppressivepower.Nonetheless,it limitsfeminismto the
and endangersthe
negativetacticsofreactionand deconstruction
attackagainstclassical liberalismby discreditingthe notionof an
What's a femepistemologicallysignificant,
specificsubjectivity.
inistto do?
We cannotsimplyembracethe paradox.In orderto avoid the
seriousdisadvantagesofculturalfeminismand post-structuralism,
feminismneeds to transcendthe dilemmaby developinga third
course,an alternativetheoryofthe subjectthatavoidsbothessentialismand nominalism.This new alternativemightsharethepoststructuralist
insightthatthe category"woman" needs to be theorized throughan explorationof the experienceof subjectivity,
as
but it need notconopposed to a descriptionofcurrentattributes,
cede thatsuchan exploration
will necessarilyresultin a nominalist
on
or
an
erasure
of it. Feministsneed to explore
position gender,
36Awonderful exchange on this between persuasive and articulate representatives of both sides was printed in Diacritics (Peggy Kamuf, "Replacing Feminist
Criticism,"Diacritics 12 [1982]: 42-47; and Nancy Miller, "The Text's Heroine: A
Feminist Critic and Her Fictions," Diacritics 12 [1982]: 48-53).
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the possibility of a theory of the gendered subject that does not


slide into essentialism. In the following two sections I will discuss
recent work that makes a contributionto the development of such
a theory,or so I shall argue, and in the final section I will develop
my own contributionin the formof a concept of gendered identity
as positionality.

Teresa de Lauretis
Lauretis's influentialbook, Alice Doesn't, is a series of essays organized around an exploration of the problem of conceptualizing
woman as subject. This problem is formulatedin her workas arising
out of the conflictbetween "woman" as a "fictionalconstruct"and
"women" as "real historical beings."37She says: "The relation between women as historical subjects and the notion of woman as it
is produced by hegemonic discourses is neither a direct relation of
identity,a one-to-one correspondence, nor a relation of simple implication. Like all other relations expressed in language, it is an
arbitraryand symbolic one, that is to say, culturally set up. The
manner and effects of that set-up are what the book intends to
explore."38The strengthof Lauretis's approach is that she never
loses sight of the political imperative of feministtheoryand, thus,
never forgetsthat we must seek not only to describe this relation
in which women's subjectivityis grounded but also to change it.
And yet, given her view that we are constructed via a semiotic
discourse, this political mandate becomes a crucial problem. As she
puts it, "Paradoxically, the only way to position oneself outside of
thatdiscourse is to displace oneself withinit-to refusethe question
as formulated,or to answer deviously (though in its words), even
to quote (but against the grain). The limit posed but not worked
through in this book is thus the contradiction of feminist theory
itself,at once excluded fromdiscourse and imprisoned within it."39
As with feministtheory,so, too, is the female subject "at once excluded fromdiscourse and imprisoned within it." Constructinga
theoryof the subject thatboth concedes these truthsand yet allows
for the possibility of feminism is the problem Lauretis tackles
throughoutAlice Doesn't. To concede the constructionof the subject via discourse entails thatthe feministproject cannot be simply
"how to make visible the invisible" as ifthe essence of gender were
37Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1984), 5.
38Ibid., 5-6.
39Ibid., 7.

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out therewaitingto be recognizedby the dominantdiscourse.Yet


Lauretisdoes notgive up on thepossibilityofproducing"the conditionsof visibilityfora different
social subject."40
In her view,a
can be avoided by linkingsubnominalistpositionon subjectivity
theorized
jectivityto a Peirceannotionof practicesand a further
notionof experience.4'I shall look brieflyat herdiscussionofthis
latterclaim.
Lauretis'smainthesisis thatsubjectivity,
thatis, whatone "perceives and comprehendsas subjective,"is constructedthrougha
continuousprocess,an ongoingconstantrenewalbased on an interactionwiththe world,which she definesas experience:"And
thus [subjectivity]is produced not by externalideas, values, or
materialcauses, but by one's personal,subjectiveengagementin
the practices,discourses,and institutions
thatlend significance
and
to
the
events
of
the world."42
This is
(value, meaning,
affect)
theprocessthrough
whichone's subjectivity
becomesen-gendered.
But describingthe subjectivity
thatemergesis stillbeset withdifthe
efforts
havebeen
ficulties,
principally following:"The feminist
moreoftenthannotcaughtin thelogicaltrapsetup by [a] paradox.
Eithertheyhave assumedthat'the subject,'like 'man,'is a generic
term,and as suchcan designateequallyand at once thefemaleand
male subjects,withthe resultof erasingsexualityand sexual differencefromsubjectivity.
Or else theyhave been obliged to resort
to an oppositionalnotionof 'feminine'subjectdefinedby silence,
a naturalsexuality,
or a closeness to naturenotcompronegativity,
mised by patriarchalculture."43
Here again is spelled out the dilemmabetweena post-structuralist
genderlesssubjectand a cultural
feministessentialized subject. As Lauretis points out, the latter
is constrainedin itsconceptualization
alternative
ofthefemalesubthe
femalefrommale subjectivity.
ject by
veryactofdistinguishing
This appearstoproducea dilemma,forifwe de-gendersubjectivity,
we are committed
to a genericsubjectand thusundercutfeminism,
while on theotherhandifwe definethesubjectin termsofgender,
femalesubjectivity
in a space clearlydistinctfrommale
articulating
thenwe become caughtup in an oppositionaldichotsubjectivity,
discourse.A gender-boundsubjecomycontrolledby a misogynist
tivityseemstoforceus torevert"womentothebodyand tosexuality
as an immediacyofthebiological,as nature."44
Forall herinsistence
on a subjectivityconstructedthroughpractices,Lauretis is clear
40Ibid., 8-9.
41Ibid., 11.
42Ibid., 159.
43Ibid., 161.
44Ibid.

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is notwhatshe wishes to prothatthatconceptionof subjectivity


thatis fundamentally
shapedbygenderappears
pose. A subjectivity
to lead irrevocablyto essentialism,the posing of a male/female
oppositionas universaland ahistorical.A subjectivitythatis not
fundamentally
shaped by genderappearsto lead to the conception
ofa generichumansubject,as ifwe could peel awayour"cultural"
layersand getto the real rootofhumannature,whichturnsout to
be genderless.Are these reallyour onlychoices?
In Alice Doesn't Lauretis develops the beginningsof a new
She arguesthatsubjectivityis neither
conceptionof subjectivity.
(over)determined
by biologynorby "free,rational,intentionality"
but,rather,
by experience,whichshe defines(via Lacan, Eco, and
Peirce) as "a complexof habitsresultingfromthe semioticinteractionof'outerworld'and 'innerworld,'thecontinuousengagement
Given this definition,the
of a self or subject in social reality."45
a "femaleexperiwe
ascertain
Can
becomes,
question obviously
ence"? This is the questionLauretispromptsus to consider,more
to analyze "thatcomplexof habits,dispositions,assospecifically,
Laurciationsand perceptions,whichen-gendersone as female."46
observationthatcan serveas
etis ends herbook withan insightful
a criticalstarting
point:
This is where the specificityof a feministtheorymay be
as a privilegednearnessto nature,
sought:notin femininity
the body,or the unconscious,an essence which inheresin
womenbuttowhichmalestoonowlaya claim;notin female
traditionsimplyunderstoodas private,marginal,and yetintact,outside of historybut fullythereto be discoveredor
in the chinksand cracksofmasculinrecovered;not,finally,
ity,the fissuresof male identityor the repressedof phallic
discourse; but rather in that political, theoretical,selfanalyzingpracticeby whichthe relationsof the subjectin
fromthe historicalexpesocial realitycan be rearticulated
rienceofwomen.Much,verymuch,is stillto be done.47
Thus Lauretisassertsthatthe way out ofthe totalizingimprintof
historyand discourse is throughour "political,theoreticalself45Ibid., 182. The principal texts Lauretis relies on in her exposition of Lacan,
Eco, and Peirce are Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966); Umberto Eco, A
Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana UniversityPress, 1976), and The Role
of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotic of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana UniversityPress, 1979); and Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, vols. 1-8 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UniversityPress, 1931-58).
4Lauretis, Alice Doesn't (n. 37 above), 182.
47Ibid., 186 (my italics).

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analyzingpractice."This should not be takento implythatonly


intellectualarticlesin academicjournalsrepresenta freespace or
thatall womencan (and do) think
groundformaneuverbut,rather,
can
about,criticize,and alterdiscourseand, thus,thatsubjectivity
be reconstructed
theprocessofreflective
through
practice.The key
is the dynamicshe poses at
componentof Lauretis'sformulation
the heartofsubjectivity:
a fluidinteraction
in constantmotionand
open to alterationby self-analyzing
practice.
Recently,Lauretishas takenofffromthispointand developed
further
herconceptionofsubjectivity.
In the introductory
essay for
her latestbook,FeministStudies/Critical
Studies,Lauretisclaims
thatan individual'sidentityis constituted
witha historicalprocess
of consciousness,a processin whichone's history"is interpreted
or reconstructed
by each ofus withinthe horizonofmeaningsand
available
in the cultureat givenhistoricalmoments,a
knowledges
horizonthatalso includesmodesofpoliticalcommitment
and strug...
is
never
never
attained
once
gle. Consciousness,therefore,
fixed,
and forall, because discursiveboundarieschange withhistorical
conditions."48
Here Lauretisguidesourwayoutofthedilemmashe
articulatedforus in Alice Doesn't. The agency of the subject is
made possible throughthisprocessofpoliticalinterpretation.
And
whatemergesis multipleand shifting,
neither"prefigured... in
an unchangeablesymbolicorder"normerely"fragmented,
or intermittent."49
Lauretisformulates
a subjectivitythatgives agency
to the individualwhile at the same timeplacingher within"particulardiscursiveconfigurations"
and, moreover,conceives of the
processofconsciousnessas a strategy.
Subjectivity
maythusbecome
imbuedwithrace,class, and genderwithoutbeing subjectedto an
overdetermination
thaterases agency.
Denise Riley
Denise Riley'sWarin theNursery:TheoriesoftheChildand Mother
is an attemptto conceptualizewomen in a way thatavoids what
she calls the biologism/culturalist
dilemma:thatwomen mustbe
eitherbiologicallydeterminedor entirelyculturalconstructs.
Both
oftheseapproachesto explainingsexual difference
have been theoreticallyand empiricallydeficient,
Rileyclaims.Biologicaldeterministicaccountsfail to problematizethe conceptstheyuse, for
example, "biology,""nature,"and "sex" and attemptto reduce
48Lauretis, ed. (n. 18 above), 8.
49Ibid., 9.

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"everythingto the workingsofa changeless biology."50On the other


hand, the "usual corrective to biologism"51-the feminist-invoked
cultural constructionthesis-"ignores the fact that there really is
biology,which mustbe conceived more clearly" and moreover"only
substitutes an unbounded sphere of social determination for that
of biological determination."52
In her attemptto avoid the inadequacies of these approaches,
Riley states: "The tactical problem is in naming and specifying
sexual differencewhere it has been ignored or misread; but without
doing so in a way which guarantees it an eternal life of its own, a
lonely trajectoryacross infinitywhich spreads out over the whole
of being and the whole of society-as if the chance of one's gendered conception mercilessly guaranteed every subsequent facet
of one's existence at all moments."53Here I take Riley's project to
be an attemptto conceptualize the subjectivityof woman as a gendered subject, without essentializing gender such that it takes on
"an eternal life of its own"; to avoid both the denial of sexual difference (nominalism) and an essentializing of sexual difference.
Despite this fundamental project, Riley's analysis in this book
is mainly centered on the perceivable relations between social policies, popularized psychologies, the state,and individual practices,
and she does not often ascend to the theoretical problem of conceptions of woman. What she does do is proceed with her historical

and sociologicalanalysiswithoutever losingsightof the need to

problematize her key concepts, for example, woman and mother.


In this she provides an example, the importance of which cannot
be overestimated. Moreover, Riley discusses in her last chapter a
useful approach to the political tension that can develop between
the necessity of problematizing concepts on the one hand and justifyingpolitical action on the other.
In analyzing the pros and cons of various social policies, Riley
tries to take a feministpoint of view. Yet any such discussion must
necessarily presuppose, even if it is not openly acknowledged, that
needs are identifiable and can thereforebe used as a yardstickin
evaluating social policies. The reality is, however, that needs are
terriblydifficultto identify,since most if not all theories of need
rely on some naturalistconception of the human agent, an agent
who either can consciously identifyand state all of her or his needs
or whose "real" needs can be ascertained by some externalprocess
0Denise Riley,War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother (London:
Virago, 1983), 2.
51Ibid., 6.
52

Ibid., 2, 3.
53Ibid., 4.

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ofanalysis.Eithermethodproducesproblems:it seems unrealistic


tosaythatonlyiftheagentcan identify
and articulatespecificneeds
do the needs exist,and yetthereare obviousdangersto relyingon
the needs ofan individual.Further,
"experts"or othersto identify
it is problematicto conceptualizethehumanagentas havingneeds
in the same waythata table has properties,since the humanagent
is an entityin fluxin a way thatthe table is not and is subjectto
forcesofsocial construction
thataffecthersubjectivity
and thusher
needs. Utilitarian
theorists,
especiallydesireand welfareutilitarian
are particularly
vulnerabletothisproblem,sincethestantheorists,
dardofmoralevaluationtheyadvocateusingis preciselyneeds (or
Feministevaluationsof
desires,whichare equally problematic).54
social policythatuse a conceptof"women'sneeds" mustruninto
the same difficulty.
Riley's approachto thispredicamentis as follows: "I've said thatpeople's needs obviouslycan'tbe revealedby
a simpleprocessofhistoricalunveiling,whileelsewhereI've talked
aboutthe'real needs' ofmothersmyself.I takeitthatit'snecessary
bothto stressthenon-self-evident
natureofneed and theintricacies
ofits determinants,
and also to act politicallyas ifneeds could be
Thus Riley assertsthe possibility
met,or at least methalf-way."55
and even thenecessityofcombiningdecisivelyformulated
political
demandswithan acknowledgment
oftheiressentialistdanger.How
can thisbe done withoutweakeningour politicalstruggle?
On theone hand,as Rileyargues,thelogicofconcretedemands
does not entail a commitment
to essentialism.She says: "Even
it
is
true
that
for
though
arguing adequate childcareas one obvious
of
the
needs of mothersdoes suppose an orthodox
way meeting
divisionoflabor,in whichresponsibility
forchildrenis theprovince
of women and not of men, neverthelessthis divisionis what,by
and large,actuallyobtains.Recognitionofthatin no way commits
you to supposingthatthe care of childrenis fixedeternallyas female."56We need notinvokea rhetoricofidealized motherhood
to
demandthatwomenhere and now need child care. On the other
hand,the entirecorpusof Riley's workon social policies is dedicated to demonstrating
the dangersthatsuch demandscan entail.
She explains these as follows:"Because the task of illuminating
'the needs of mothers'startsout withgenderat its mostdecisive
and inescapable point-the biologicalcapacityto bear children54For a lucid discussion ofjust how difficultthis problem is forutilitarians,see
Jon Elster, "Sour Grapes-Utilitarianism and the Genesis of Wants,"in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. AmartyaSen and Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge
UniversityPress, 1982), 219-38.
55Riley,193-94.
56Ibid., 194.

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there'sthedangerthatitmayfallback intoa conservativerestating


and confirming
ofsocial-sexual
difference
as timelesstoo.This would
entailmakingthe needs ofmothersintofixedpropertiesof 'motherhood' as a social function:I believe this is what happened in
Thus, invokingthe demands of women with
postwarBritain."57
childrenalso invokesthe companionbeliefin ourculturalconceptionofessentializedmotherhood.
As a way of avoidingthisparticularpitfall,Riley recommends
againstdeployingany versionof "motherhood"as such. I take it
thatwhatRileymeans here is thatwe can talkabout the needs of
womenwithchildrenand ofcourserefertothesewomenas mothers
butthatwe shouldeschew all referenceto theidealized institution
as women'sprivilegedvocationor the embodiment
ofmotherhood
ofan authenticor naturalfemalepractice.
The lightthatRiley sheds on our problemof woman'ssubjecFirst,and mostobviously,she articulatesthe
tivityis three-fold.
and
deals withit head on. Second,she showsus a
problemclearly
of
child-care
demandswithoutessentializingfemway approaching
that
it
is, by keeping clear thatthese demands represent
ininity,
current
and not universalor eternalneeds of womenand by
only
invocations
ofmotherhood
Third,she demands
altogether.
avoiding
thatour problematizing
ofconceptslike "women'sneeds" coexist
alongsidea politicalprogramof demandsin the name of women,
the other.This is not to embrace
withouteithercountermanding
of subjecthe paradoxbut,rather,to call fora new understanding
our
theoretical
and our
both
that
can
into
harmony
bring
tivity
politicalagendas.
Denise Rileypresentsa usefulapproachto thepoliticaldimension ofthe problemofconceptualizingwomanby discussingways
to avoid essentialistpolitical demands. She remindsus thatwe
shouldnotavoidpoliticalactionbecause ourtheoryhas uncovered
ofour keyconcepts.
chinksin the formulation
A concept of positionality

Let me stateinitiallythatmyapproachtotheproblemofsubjectivity
is to treatit as a metaphysicalproblemratherthan an empirical
thisstatetradition
one. Forreaderscomingfroma post-structuralist
Continentalphilosophers
mentwillrequireimmediateclarification.
fromNietzsche to Derrida have rejectedthe discipline of meta57Ibid., 194-95.

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physicsin toto because they say it assumes a naive ontological


connectionbetweenknowledgeand a realityconceivedas a thingin-itself,
totallyindependentofhumanpracticesand methodology.
haveclaimed
here,thesephilosophers
Echoingthelogicalpositivists
thatmetaphysicsis nothingbut an exercisein mystification,
presumingto makeknowledgeclaimsabout such thingsas souls and
"necessary"truthsthatwe have no way ofjustifying.
Perhapsthe
bottomline criticismhas been thatmetaphysicsdefinestruthin
such a way thatit is impossibleto attain,and thenclaimsto have
attainedit. I agree thatwe should rejectthe metaphysicsof transcendentthings-in-themselves
and thepresumption
tomakeclaims
about the noumena,but thisinvolvesa rejectionof a specificontradition
in thehistory
ofmetaphysics
tologyoftruthand particular
and nota rejectionofmetaphysics
itself.Ifmetaphysics
is conceived
notas anyparticularontologicalcommitment
but as the attemptto
reason throughontologicalissues thatcannotbe decided empirically,then metaphysicscontinuestoday in Derrida's analysis of
language, Foucault's conceptionof power, and all of the poststructuralist
critiquesofhumanisttheoriesofthe subject.Thus, on
thisview,the assertionthatsomeoneis "doingmetaphysics"does
not serve as a pejorative.There are questions of importanceto
humanbeings thatscience alone cannotanswer (includingwhat
science is and how it functions),
and yetthese are questionsthat
we can usefullyaddress by combiningscientificdata with other
logical,political,moral,pragmatic,and coherenceconsiderations.
The distinction
betweenwhatis normative
and whatis descriptive
breaksdown here. Metaphysicalproblemsare problemsthatconcernfactualclaimsabouttheworld(ratherthansimplyexpressive,
moral,or aestheticassertions,e.g.) butare problemsthatcannotbe
determinedthroughempiricalmeans alone.58
In myview theproblemofthesubjectand,withinthis,theproblem ofconceptualizing"woman,"is such a metaphysicalproblem.
and psychoanalysts
Thus, I disagreewithbothphenomenologists
whoassertthatthenatureofsubjectivity
can be discoveredvia a certainmethodology
and conceptualapparatus,eithertheepoch orthe
58In this conception of the proper dimension of and
approach to metaphysics
(as a conceptual enterprise to be decided partially by pragmatic methods), I am
followingthe traditionof the later Rudolf Carap and Ludwig Wittgenstein,among
others (Rudolf Carnap, "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology,"and "On the Character ofPhilosophical Problems," both in The Linguistic Turn,ed. R. Rorty[Chicago:
Universityof Chicago Press, 1967]; and Ludwig Wittgenstein,Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe [New York: Macmillan, 1958]).

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theoryof the unconscious.59Neurophysiological reductionistslikewise claim to be able to produce empirical explanations of subjectivity,but they will by and large admit that their physicalist
explanations can tell us little about the experiential reality of subMoreover,I would assertthatphysicalistexplanations can
jectivity.60
tell us little about how the concept of subjectivityshould be construed,since thisconcept necessarily entails considerations notonly
ofthe empirical data but also ofthe political and ethical implications
as well. Like the determination of when "human" life beginswhetherat conception, fullbrain development, or birth-we cannot
throughscience alone settle the issue since it turnson how we (to
some extent)choose to defineconcepts like "human" and "woman."
We cannot discover the "true meaning" of these concepts but must
decide how to define them using all the empirical data, ethical arguments,political implications,and coherence constraintsat hand.
Psychoanalysis should be mentioned separately here since it
was Freud's initial problematizing of the subject fromwhich developed post-structuralistrejection of the subject. It is the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious that "undermines the
subject fromany position of certainty"and in factclaims to reveal
that the subject is a fiction.61Feminists then use psychoanalysis to
problematize the gendered subject to reveal "the fictionalnature
of the sexual category to which every human subject is none the
less assigned."62Yet while a theorizing of the unconscious is used
as a primary means of theorizing the subject, certainly psychoanalysis alone cannot provide all ofthe answers we need fora theory
of the gendered subject.63
As I have already stated, it seems importantto use Teresa de
Lauretis's conception of experience as a way to begin to describe
the features of human subjectivity.Lauretis starts with no given
biological or psychological features and thus avoids assuming an
59I am thinking particularly of Husserl and Freud here. The reason for my
disagreement is that both approaches are in reality more metaphysical than their
proponents would admit and, further,that I have only limited sympathyfor the
metaphysical claims they make. I realize that to explain this fullywould require a
long argument,which I cannot give in this essay.
6?See, e.g., Donald Davidson, "Psychology as Philosophy," in his Essays on
Actions and Interpretations (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1980), 230.
61Jacqueline Rose, "Introduction II," in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and
the Ecole Freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton,
1982), 29, 30.
62Ibid., 29.
63Psychoanalysismust take credit formaking subjectivitya problematic issue,
and yet I thinka view thatgives psychoanalysis hegemony in this area is misguided,
ifonly because psychoanalysis is still extremelyhypothetical.Let a hundred flowers
bloom.
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essential characterization
of subjectivity,
but she also avoids the
idealismthatcan followfroma rejectionofmaterialist
analysesby
basingherconceptionon realpracticesand events.The importance
ofthisfocuson practicesis, in part,Lauretis'sshiftawayfromthe
belief in the totalizationof language or textuality
to which most
antiessentialist
analysesbecome wedded. Lauretiswantsto argue
thatlanguageis notthesole sourceand locus ofmeaning,thathabits
and practicesare crucialin the construction
of meaning,and that
femalesubjecthroughself-analyzing
practiceswe can rearticulate
tivity.Gender is not a pointto startfromin the sense of being a
formalizablein a
given thingbut is, instead,a posit or construct,
nonarbitrary
way througha matrixof habits,practices,and discourses.Further,
it is an interpretation
ofour historywithina particulardiscursiveconstellation,a historyin which we are both
subjectsofand subjectedto social construction.
The advantageof such an analysisis its abilityto articulatea
withoutpinningitdown one way
conceptofgenderedsubjectivity
or anotherforall time.Given thisand giventhe dangerthatessentialistconceptionsof the subject pose specificallyforwomen,it
seems bothpossible and desirableto construea genderedsubjectivityin relationto concretehabits,practices,and discourseswhile
at the same timerecognizingthe fluidity
ofthese.
As both Lacan and Riley remindus, we mustcontinuallyemphasize withinany account of subjectivitythe historicaldimension.4 This will waylaythetendencytoproducegeneral,universal,
or essentialaccountsby makingall ourconclusionscontingent
and
revisable.Thus, througha conceptionofhumansubjectivity
as an
emergentpropertyof a historicizedexperience,we can say "feminine subjectivityis construedhere and now in such and such a
way" withoutthiseverentailinga universalizablemaximaboutthe
"feminine."
It seems to me equally important
to add to this approachan
a
that
"identitypolitics," concept
developed fromthe Combahee
RiverCollective's "A Black FeministStatement."65
The idea here
is thatone's identityis taken(and defined)as a politicalpointof
foraction,and as a delineationofone's
departure,as a motivation
4See Juliet
Mitchell, "Introduction I," in Mitchell and Rose, eds., 4-5.
65This was suggested to me by Teresa de Lauretis in an informaltalk she gave
at the Pembroke Center, 1984-85. A useful discussion and application ofthis
concept
can be found in Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith, Yours in
Struggle: Three FeministPerspectiveson Anti-Semitismand Racism (Brooklyn,N.Y.:
Long Haul Press, 1984), 98-99. Martin and Mohanty's paper (n. 35 above) offersa
fruitfulreading of the essay in Yours in Struggle by Minnie Bruce Pratt entitled
"Identity: Skin Blood Heart" and brings into full relief the way in which she uses
identitypolitics. See also "The Combahee River Collective" (n. 19 above).
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politics. Lauretis and the authorsofYours in Struggleare clear about


the problematic nature of one's identity,one's subject-ness, and yet
argue thatthe concept of identitypolitics is useful because identity
is a posit that is politically paramount. Their suggestion is to recognize one's identityas always a constructionyet also a necessary
point of departure.
I think this point can be readily intuited by people of mixed
races and cultures who have had to choose in some sense their
identity.66For example, assimilated Jews who have chosen to be-

as a politicaltacticagainstanti-Semitism
come Jewish-identified
are practicingidentitypolitics.It mayseem thatmembersofmore
easily identifiableoppressedgroupsdo nothave thisluxury,but I
thinkthatjust as Jewishpeople can choose to asserttheirJewishness,so blackmen,womenofall races,and othermembersofmore
immediatelyrecognizableoppressedgroupscan practiceidentity
politicsby choosingtheiridentityas a memberof one or more
groupsas theirpoliticalpointofdeparture.This, in fact,is whatis
happeningwhen women who are not feministsdownplaytheir
then begin
identityas women and who, on becomingfeminists,
makingan issue of theirfemaleness.It is the claimingof their
identityas women as a politicalpointof departurethatmakes it
possible to see, forinstance,gender-biasedlanguage thatin the
absence of that departure point women oftendo not even notice.
It is true that antifeministwomen can and often do identify
themselves stronglyas women and with women as a group,but this
is usually explained by them within the context of an essentialist
theory of femininity.Claiming that one's politics are grounded in

bothidentityand the
one's essentialidentityavoidsproblematizing
andpoliticsand thusavoidstheagency
connectionbetweenidentity
betweenfemactions.The difference
involvedin underdetermined
strikesme as preciselythis:the affirmation
inistsand antifeminists
and takeresponor denial ofour rightand ourabilityto construct,
our choices.67
and
our
our
politics,
identity,
for,
gendered
sibility
to the generic
a
decisive
rejoinder
provides
Identitypolitics
ofWesternpolitical
humanthesisand themainstream
methodology
66This point has been the subject of long, personal reflectionforme, as I myself
am half Latina and half white. I have been motivated to consider it also since the
situation is even more complicated formy children, who are half mine and half a
Jewish father's.
671 certainlydo not believe that most women have the freedom to choose their
situations in life, but I do believe that of the multiple ways we are held in check,
internalized oppressive mechanisms play a significantrole, and we can achieve
control over these. On this point I must say I have learned fromand admired the
work of Mary Daly, particularlyGyn/Ecology(n. 6 above), which reveals and describes these internal mechanisms and challenges us to repudiate them.

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theapproachtopoliticaltheorymust
Accordingtothelatter,
theory.
be througha "veil ofignorance"wherethe theorist'spersonalinset aside. The goal is a theory
terestsand needs are hypothetically
ofuniversalscope to whichall ideallyrational,disinterested
agents
would acquiesce if given sufficient
information.
Strippedof their
theserationalagentsareconsideredtobe potentially
particularities,
equally persuadable. Identitypolitics provides a materialistresponse to thisand, in so doing,sides withMarxistclass analysis.
The bestpoliticaltheorywill notbe one ascertainedthrougha veil
ofignorance,a veil thatis impossibleto construct.
Rather,political
theorymustbase itselfon the initialpremisethatall persons,inhave a fleshy,
materialidentitythatwill influcludingthe theorist,
ence and pass judgmenton all politicalclaims. Indeed, the best
politicaltheoryforthe theoristherselfwill be one thatacknowledges thisfact.As I see it,theconceptofidentitypoliticsdoes not
presupposea prepackagedset of objectiveneeds or politicalimplicationsbutproblematizestheconnectionofidentityand politics
and introducesidentityas a factorin anypoliticalanalysis.
Ifwe combinetheconceptofidentitypoliticswitha conception
of the subjectas positionality,
we can conceive of the subjectas
nonessentializedand emergentfroma historicalexperienceand yet
retainour politicalabilityto take genderas an important
pointof
departure.Thus we can say at one and the same timethatgender
is notnatural,biological,universal,ahistorical,oressentialand yet
stillclaimthatgenderis relevantbecause we are takinggenderas
a positionfromwhichto act politically.Whatdoes positionmean
here?
When the concept"woman" is definednot by a particularset
ofattributes
butbya particular
position,theinternalcharacteristics
ofthepersonthusidentified
arenotdenotedso muchas theexternal
contextwithinwhichthatpersonis situated.The externalsituation
determinesthe person'srelativeposition,just as the positionof a
pawnon a chessboardis consideredsafeor dangerous,powerfulor
weak, accordingto its relationto the otherchess pieces. The essentialistdefinitionof womanmakes her identityindependentof
her externalsituation:since her nurturing
and peacefultraitsare
innatetheyare ontologicallyautonomousof her positionwithrespect to othersor to the externalhistoricaland social conditions
on the otherhand,makesher
generally.The positionaldefinition,
relative
to
a
identity
constantly
context,to a situationthat
shifting
includesa networkofelementsinvolvingothers,theobjectiveeconomicconditions,culturaland politicalinstitutions
and ideologies,
and so on. Ifitis possibletoidentify
womenbytheirpositionwithin
this networkof relations,then it becomes possible to grounda
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Alcoff / IDENTITYCRISIS

feministargument forwomen, not on a claim that their innate capacities are being stunted,but thattheirposition withinthe network
lacks power and mobilityand requires radical change. The position
of women is relative and not innate, and yet neither is it "undecidable." Throughsocial critiqueand analysiswe can identifywomen
via theirposition relative to an existingculturaland social network.
It may sound all too familiarto say thatthe oppression of women
involves their relative position within a society; but my claim goes
furtherthan this. I assert that the very subjectivity (or subjective
experience of being a woman) and the very identityof women is
constituted by women's position. However, this view should not
imply thatthe concept of "woman" is determined solely by external
elements and that the woman herself is merely a passive recipient
of an identitycreated by these forces. Rather,she herself is part of
the historicized, fluid movement, and she thereforeactively contributesto the contextwithinwhich her position can be delineated.
I would include Lauretis's point here, thatthe identityof a woman
is the product of her own interpretationand reconstructionof her
history,as mediated throughthe culturaldiscursive contextto which
she has access.68 Therefore, the concept of positionality includes
two points: first,as already stated, that the concept of woman is a
relational term identifiable only within a (constantlymoving) context; but, second, that the position that women findthemselves in
can be actively utilized (ratherthan transcended) as a location for
the constructionof meaning, a place fromwhere meaning is constructed, rather than simply the place where a meaning can be
discovered (the meaning of femaleness). The concept of woman as
positionalityshows how women use theirpositional perspective as
a place fromwhich values are interpretedand constructed rather
than as a locus ofan already determined set ofvalues. When women
become feministsthe crucial thingthathas occurred is not thatthey
have learned any new factsabout the world but that they come to
view those facts froma differentposition, fromtheir own position
as subjects. When colonial subjects begin to be critical of the formerlyimitativeattitudethey had toward the colonists, what is happening is thatthey begin to identifywith the colonized ratherthan
the colonizers.69This differencein positional perspective does not
necessitate a change in what are taken to be facts, although new
facts may come into view fromthe new position, but it does ne68See Teresa de Lauretis, "Feminist Studies/CriticalStudies: Issues, Terms,Contexts,"in Lauretis, ed. (n. 18 above), 8-9.
69This point is broughtout by Homi Bhabha in his "Of Mimicryand Man: The
Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse," October 28 (1984): 125-33; and by Abdur
Rahman in his Intellectual Colonisation (New Delhi: Vikas, 1983).
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cessitatea politicalchange in perspectivesince the point of departure,thepointfromwhichall thingsare measured,has changed.


In thisanalysis,then,the conceptof positionality
allows fora
determinatethoughfluididentityofwomanthatdoes notfallinto
essentialism:woman is a positionfromwhich a feministpolitics
can emergeratherthana setofattributes
thatare "objectivelyidentifiable."Seen in thisway,beinga "woman"is to takeup a position
withina movinghistoricalcontextand to be able to choose what
we make ofthispositionand how we alterthiscontext.Fromthe
perspectiveof thatfairlydeterminatethoughfluidand mutable
position,women can themselvesarticulatea set of interestsand
grounda feministpolitics.
The conceptand the positionof women is not ultimatelyundecidable or arbitrary.
It is simplynot possible to interpretour
in
such
a
that
womenhavemorepowerorequal power
society
way
relativetomen.The conceptionofwomanthatI haveoutlinedlimits
the constructions
of womanwe can offerby definingsubjectivity
as positionality
withina context.It thusavoidsnominalismbutalso
providesus withthemeansto argueagainstviews like "oppression
is all in yourhead" or the view thatantifeminist
women are not
oppressed.
Atthe same time,by highlighting
historicalmovementand the
to
alter
her
subject's ability
context,the concept of positionality
avoidsessentialism.It even avoidstyingourselvesto a structure
of
conceived
as
it
allows
genderedpolitics
infinite,
historically
though
forthe assertionof genderpoliticson the basis of positionality
at
time.
Can
we
of
conceive
a
in
future
which
any
oppositionalgender
to one's self-concept?
Even if we
categoriesare not fundamental
our
of
should
not
cannot,
theory subjectivity
preclude,and moreoverprevent,thateventualpossibility.Our conceptofwomanas a
category,then,needs to remainopen to futureradical alteration,
else we will preemptthe possible formseventual stages of the
feministtransformation
can take.
there
are
Obviously,
manytheoreticalquestionson positionality
thatthisdiscussionleaves open. However,I would like to emphasize thattheproblemofwomanas subjectis a realone forfeminism
and notjust on the plane ofhightheory.The demandsofmillions
ofwomenforchildcare,reproductive
and safetyfromsexual
control,
assault can reinvokethe culturalassumptionthatthese are exclutheright-wing's
reification
sivelyfeminineissues and can reinforce
ofgenderdifferences
unless and untilwe can formulate
a political
programthatcan articulatethesedemandsin a waythatchallenges
ratherthanutilizessexistdiscourse.
Recently,I heardan attackon the phrase"womanofcolor" by
a woman,dark-skinned
herself,who was arguingthattheuse ofthis
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Akoff / IDENTITYCRISIS

the significance
ofthatwhichshouldhave
phrasesimplyreinforces
no significance-skincolor.To a large extentI agreed with this
woman's argument:we must develop the means to address the
wrongsdone to us withoutreinvokingthe basis of those wrongs.
Likewise,womenwho have been eternallyconstruedmustseek a
thatdoes notcontinueconstruing
a feminism
meansofarticulating
us in anysetway.Atthesametime,I believe we mustavoidbuying
intothe neuter,universal"generichuman"thesisthatcoversthe
witha blindfold.We cannotreWest'sracismand androcentrism
solve thispredicamentby ignoringone halfof it or by attempting
in formulating
a new theory
to embraceit.The solutionlies, rather,
ourposition,and reconstructing
withintheprocessofreinterpreting
our politicalidentity,as women and feministsin relationto the
worldand to one another.
Departmentof Philosophy
Kalamazoo College

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